Armchair explorers take heart, for we have come to the penultimate installment of the Weazel’s many adventures in the summer of 2017 AD (Anno Diaboli).
I offer this missive to you on my 70th birthday. I hope you will agree that this narrative serves as proof that I have accomplished my life’s primary goal, to grow up to be a tough old man!
As you may remember, I was sick as a dog and suffering from various injuries when I decided to undertake an arduous backpacking trip to Belize and Guatemala at the onset of the rainy season.
In Discoveries in 2017: Part 2, Back to Belize I chronicled my adventures in Five Blues Lake, Gales Point, the Bladen branch of the Monkey river, and the funky little town of Punta Gorda.
Thereafter, just to confuse you, I posted two chronological incongruities.
In Discoveries in 2017: Part 3, Why Guatemala? I reminisced about our extraordinary adventures in 1992 when Dr. Ann and I explored the Moho river of southern Belize. We then then continued on to Alta Verapaz, Guatemala where we visited a scalding hot waterfall, explored the lower reaches of the Rio Cahabon, then crossed the Sierra de Santa Cruz to visit the sublimely beautiful Semuc Champey.
In Discoveries in 2017: Part 4, The Origin of Mankind we returned to Belize in 1999 to explore the Swasey Branch of the Monkey river with three Maya Indians who spoke English. This journey enabled us to learn something of the weird Mayan belief systems, especially their belief in Xibalba, the “Place of Fear”.
In this post we return to late June of 2017, at which time the weary Weazel found himself back in the quaint little town of Punta Gorda, better known as PeeGee, in southern Belize. Alas, I was alone, for my sweet Ann could not join me on this adventure.
I had planned to spend only one night in PeeGee before continuing on to Guatemala; but, three days earlier I had taken a bad fall in a shower stall and had reinjured my already broken ribs and shoulder. To make bad matters worse, I was still ill from Lyme disease and what I had presumed to be Histoplasmosis. (Recent lab tests have revealed that what I actually had (have?) may be Coccidioidomycosis, a similar fungal illness also known as Valley fever.) I was not a happy camper, and so weak I needed assistance carrying my pack down the stairs of my filthy little flophouse.
PeeGee is quite literally at the end of the road. The only way to get to Livingston Guatemala is by boat. Livingston isn’t an island, just cut off from the rest of the country by mountains, rivers, and jungles.
There is regularly scheduled boat service between PeeGee and Livingston, but demand exceeds capacity so there are also unscheduled skiffs that make the twenty mile journey across the Bahía de Amatique. The skiff was leaky and dangerous but it only cost $20, not a bad deal for transportation across an international frontier.
The culture of Livingstone is radically different from the rest of Guatemala. It is a black Garifuna community just like those in Belize only better. Many people speak English (of a sort), dreadlocks are the tonsorial preference, and everyone lounges around smoking dope while panhandling and occasionally pretending to fish.
The real business of Livingston is partying, and the party never stops. On a previous trip Ann and I danced ourselves into a frenzy in the middle of the main street (No traffic!) while Rastas pounded on conga drums. Boogie central!
It is such a fun place that when I returned in 2017 all the hotels were full even though it was the height of the rainy season. After debarking from the skiff and getting my passport stamped I wandered the streets groaning under the weight of my pack. Most wandering Hippies stay at the Casa Iguana, but like I said, the party never stops and I needed rest, so I trudged on, being pestered continuously by Rastas, until I found a place directly across from the police station where dope smoking wasn’t permitted but at least there wasn’t any music.
I was too feeble to do much so I wandered up the lonely diaper strewn coast hoping to discover the fate of my old friend William the Snakeman.
I was disappointed to learn that William had died several years previously. He was an extraordinary man, a feral Frenchman who had been sent to Devil’s island in his youth, probably for murder. After his release he wandered the jungles of French Guiana searching for gold until his barefooted peregrinations took him all the way from South America to Quehueche just north of Livingston. There he settled down, took a Garifuna wife, and collected snakes. The locals regarded him as a powerful Brujo (Witch doctor).
Thought my feet were sore I continued trudging up the beach to Siete Altares (Seven Altars), a travertine stream where I once found a beautiful naked french woman bathing alone in one of the pools. She never missed a stroke, nor did I later when privately reminiscing about the encounter.
After a few days in Livingston I headed inland up the magnificent canyon of the Rio Dulce (Sweet river). When the conquistadors first found the blue waters pouring from between gigantic cliffs they were certain that it was the gate to paradise, or at the very least that it would lead them to El Dorado. Even today the waters are still blue, though not as blue as they should be.
I told the Captain to drop me at Casa Perico (Home of the Little Parrot), and I was not disappointed.
Casa Perico is located at the end of a small creek in the middle of a swamp. There is no dry land and it is only accessible by boat. It is a bit pricey at $US15/night, but the rooms are comfortable and the food superb. The owner is a grumpy Swiss German who serves the best schnitzel in the jungle! The surrounding swamp forest is adorned with magnificent orchids and bromeliads.
The photo above makes the place look wild and remote, but when I reached terra firma I was dismayed to discover that the entire area had been converted to either oil palm or rubber plantations. The jungle had been completely destroyed and the inhabitants had been reduced from independent peasant farmers to plantation slaves. Not even fruit trees had been spared. Most tragically, all the cohune palms have been cut down so a poor man can no longer build a thatch roof to keep his family dry. Now everything, including food and roofing material, must be purchased from the company store.
I wandered back to the water’s edge and was astounded to discover ostentatious wealth. Every place where dry land met deep water some millionaire had built a second home complete with a yacht. I later learned that Guatemala has the world’s highest rate of private helicopter ownership. In Guatemala the rich are super rich compared to everyone else. This extreme disparity of wealth is no doubt what drives the many revolutions, none of which have ever accomplished anything other than to increase the suffering of the people.
Not even a belly full of schnitzel could cure my ills. I was still sick as a dog and in great pain from my recent injuries. Sleep was nearly impossible because of my newly rebroken ribs and shoulder; furthermore, I was getting fat at the Little Parrot so I decided to press on to the town of Rio Dulce, and from there take buses into the interior.
After a most unpleasant ride in a dangerously overstuffed mini bus my next stop was at the Oasis Chiyu, an obscure little homestay for Hippies run by a Japanese American couple. It is located in the middle of nowhere near the little village of Las Conchas along the Rio Chiyu. The owner picked me up at the turnoff on the main road or I would never have gotten there.
Felipe is a strange and interesting fellow who looks Hispanic, or perhaps east Indian, but is actually a Gringo from Philadelphia. He was desperate for anyone to talk to, and pines for a Philly cheese steak. His wife is a beautiful demure Japanese woman and they have an adorable eleven year old daughter who is fluent in four languages.
No one can find the place so the family is very poor; despite that they have created a little paradise with friendly farm animals, flowers, and a profusion of tropical fruits. They would gladly have offered me a room in their home but I’m a cheapskate so I set up camp in the pasture dangerously close to the river.
The attraction is the beautiful Rio Chiyu which features an endless series of travertine waterfalls and pools. The river is blue in the dry season, but I was there at the beginning of the rainy season so the river was brown and ripping!
I had grown increasingly dismayed by the lack of primary rainforest in this part of Guatemala, all due to overpopulation, so Felipe told me there was a small patch of real jungle on the other side of the river but it was difficult to get to. Had I the cojones I could have crossed the river like this fisherman.
I was feeling way too feeble for all that, so I decided to explore a delightful small tributary instead. Like all the streams in this area the water was naturally blue and so saturated with calcium that it forms a series of level travertine dams. The same thing happens along the Rio Chiyu but on a much larger scale.
Thus far I had found very few snakes, but just upstream along the creek I got a glimpse of an enormous serpent that was much too fast for me to catch. It was a beautiful animal more than eight feet long.
From the Oasis Chiyu I continued my journey west along the base of the mountains until I reached Raxruha which had grown from a village into a grubby little town. It had been more than forty years since I last visited this magical place during the Guatemalan civil war.
I was still sick and despaired of finding a place to stay until I discovered a nice hotel on the edge of town. The Hotel Cancuen was very comfortable, and I was delighted to learn that it was owned by a well respected doctor and managed by his son Cesar who spoke perfect English. Best of all, the Bojorquez family also owned one of the many entrances to the magnificent Candelaria cave system, the exploration of which was the ostensible purpose of my entire trip!
Doctor Bojorquez proved to be a fine gentleman of the old school, a broadly educated aristocrat of ancient blood who owns extensive holdings throughout the area. He is kind and generous to those who work his lands and has earned the respect of all.
No sooner had I collapsed into my much needed bed when Doctor Bojorquez announced that an archaeologist friend of his had arrived from Spain to continue the excavation of Cancuen, (Not to be confused with Cancun!) the extensive Mayan ruins after which the hotel was named. The ruins are difficult of access and not open to the public so it was a golden opportunity to see archaeology in action.
The following morning I joined a group of men in a heavy truck filled with supplies and we drove to a landing on the Rio de la Pasion, the same river I had traveled up more than forty long years ago. At that time I had no knowledge of the ruins of Cancuen.
The little man seen above doesn’t look very strong, but I watched in amazement as he carried three bags of cement at a time on his shoulders from the truck down the steep riverbank to the boat. Then he carried impossibly heavy barrels of diesel fuel using nothing but his hands behind his back and tumpline around his forehead. It is by such means that his distant ancestors built gigantic pyramids.
We traveled several miles downstream until we reached primary forest on the right bank and were greeted by a chorus of howler monkeys. The landing was a steep set of stairs cut into the mud but the men had no more problem carrying the heavy loads up the bank than they had going down.
I set up camp under a thatched hut high above the river. It had been raining incessantly for days and the entire site was a muddy mess. Worst of all there were clouds of disease carrying Anopheles mosquitoes. A better place to catch malaria could not be imagined.
Most Mayan cities were built for quasi-religious purposes, or to demonstrate the wealth and power of a great ruler, so why had the ancient Maya built a city in such a wretched place?
The Maya were the most culturally advanced people in the new world. They were masters of astronomy and mathematics and built vast cities adorned with elaborate sculptures. They even had a written language. Yet for all that they were poor builders and didn’t even understand the utility of the wheel.
The locations of many Mayan ruins seem senseless. It was difficult for me to understand why the city had not been not built in the foothills where solid rock could provide a foundation. It apparently never occurred to them not to erect enormous stone buildings on a footing of mud. Many such ruins are located in places without a reliable water supply, so I can only conclude that there were superstitious rather than pragmatic reasons for their locations.
Even more inexplicable than the lack of the wheel is the fact that the Maya never discovered the principle of the compressive arch. Instead, they built corbelled arches which never work. Here is an example.
As a result of mud foundations and corbelled arches almost all of the buildings have collapsed.
The ruins were scattered over a large area. Some were merely mounds of rubble covered in jungle, but others had been excavated by Vanderbilt University. Some years earlier they had tried to turn the site into a tourist attraction but the jungle swallowed their best efforts and now only moldy trilingual signs remain.
I had to laugh when I came to a sign next to a gigantic Ceiba tree that explained that Ceibas were sacred to the Maya, a link between the heavens and Xibalba, and that the tree was over 200 years old. 2000 years is more like it!
There were many buildings in addition to the ruler’s residence, a reconstruction of which is shown below along with the location of the reservoir.
The reservoir was well constructed. When excavated it revealed the secret of the fall of Cancuen.
Cancuen grew wealthy due to trade between the lowlands of the Peten and the highlands of Alta Verapaz. Jade, obsidian, gold, quetzal feathers, jaguar pelts, corn and slaves were transported by dugout canoes up and down the river, thus making the ruling family of Cancuen fabulously rich.
Around the year 800 AD the current ruler Kan Maax was behaving like a stone age Donald Trump so the people rose up and slaughtered him and his entire family.
The unhappy peasants had labored for many generations to build the city, but the city and it’s riches meant nothing to them, all they wanted was a little rest, corn enough to eat, and not to have their daughters be sacrificed as virgins. They had no use for gold and jade so when the revolution came the royal family was dressed in their finest before being chucked into the reservoir. Thus clad in feathers and pearls they no doubt entered Xibalba in high style!
Archaeologists try hard to distance themselves from “treasure hunters”, and thus downplay the value of the artifacts, but imagine the impact on contemporary Guatemalan peasants when archaeologists unearthed the corpses of thirty one members of the royal family all dressed to the gills in gold and jade! It is for this reason that any unguarded ruin is certain to be looted.
One might suppose that the Maya people would have respect for the accomplishments of their ancestors, but past glory means nothing to a man whose family is hungry today. So it will be in the post apocalyptic future when the starving peasants of tomorrow ignore the broken remnants of our technological toys to exhume an ancient bomb shelter and discover a can of beans. What treasure!
The ruins were extensive, and many were still lost in the jungle, so I planned to spend several days at the site despite the pouring rain and hordes of mosquitoes.
The staff consisted of poor but very hardworking and intelligent peasants whose living conditions were not much improved over those of their ancestors. Whenever they weren’t slaving away in the jungle they reclined in hammocks. While sleeping they were protected by mosquito nets, but spending every spare moment in a cocoon quickly grows old, so during the day they lay in a pall of toxic smoke created by oily burning palm nuts. The smell of this carcinogenic cloud was insufferable, but to them it beat being eaten alive.
Despite the rigors of their meager existence they were friendly, welcoming, and invited me to lunch. So it was that I was served the first and only bowl of guacamole that I have ever had in Guacamolia. It was delicious!
As you may remember, I was already sick as a dog with a lingering illness, so when a new gastrointestinal illness struck after having lunch I had no choice but to head back to Raxruha. That would otherwise have been impossible, but I was in luck, the Spanish site administrator had just returned with a new boatload of supplies.
Nobody wants to deal with a dead Gringo, too many forms to fill out, so he hastened to arrange an evacuation while I continued evacuating my guts. By the time I had taken down my tent the boat was ready to take me back to “civilization”. The problem was that the boat landing was in a village nowhere near Raxruha so I had to wait for a taxista who had been summoned from town.
As I lay there on a broken concrete slab by the riverbank puking and writhing I was reminded of the immortal words of Zippy the Pinhead who, like me, often had trouble distinguishing good from bad and pleasure from pain; so, to no one in particular, I gurgled out, “Are we having fun yet”? From this the villagers correctly concluded that I was delirious.
The affliction proved to be short lived, so after a few days at the Hotel Cancuen my guts were somewhat better even if the rest of me was not. This setback afforded me an opportunity to explore the wretched little town of Raxruha.
Despite the never ending rain people had come from miles around to attend a festival at the local Catholic church. All were dressed in their finest attire. The women all wore traditional huipiles (embroidered blouses) and long skirts. Many of the men sported pointy cowboy boots and ten gallon hats; whereas, those with pretensions had gone button down Yuppie.
I have no idea what the festival was about since all the signs were in Kekchi. Many of the Kekchi people have recently converted to Protestantism, but that does not prevent them from going to a Catholic church to practice idolatry by worshiping the Saints. A previously discussed, they also worship various pagan deities. They are careful not to offend the genius loci that inhabit the mountains, trees, rivers, and fields, and pay due homage to the tutelary spirits who protect their humble homes. Belief in Xibalba is an unspoken given. What the hell is the difference between Hell and Xibalba anyway? The sentiment is the same, so it is better just to cover all your bases.
Perhaps the real reason is that it is fun to dress up and go to town to meet your friends!
After the fiesta people headed home to the hills. For many it was a long walk, both in distance and in time. Where the road ends they will continue walking on tiny paths back into the timeless ways of their ancestors. It is hardly surprising that Latin America has a literary tradition of “magical realism”, for such is their world.
As you can see, the mountains of Alta Verapaz crowd close to Raxruha. Tropical karst hills of this sort are among the most complex landscapes on earth. There are azure streams, towering cliffs, vast caverns, verdant jungle, and lost villages. It is a land of myth and mystery. I had come all this way to explore these mountains, so prepare to get magically real when we Return to Xibalba in the final installment of our thrilling adventure!