Where in the world are we?

Where in the World are We?

21 August 2008

A Week of "Alohas"

The Hawaiian word aloha means many things and is often used as a greeting to say hello and to say goodbye. This past week we said goodbye to the remaining two second-year volunteers from the city and then hello to the group of 43 new trainees.

Our alohas began with a night on Caye Caulker when we celebrated with our friends and had our last night in Belize with Dorothy and Kim, two people who made our transition to life in the city so much easier and so much fun. We miss them tons already, but know they have some great things ahead of them back in the states.

Anthony, Alli, and Dorothy (Alli is staying as PCVL, yay!); Anthony, Kim, and Ginnie

This past Wednesday the alohas continued when a group of PCVs dropped by the airport to welcome the new trainees to Belize. There are 43 future volunteers in the '08 group. They are psyched to finally be in Belize and are looking forward to training and getting into their projects in a few months. It was a strange feeling to be welcoming a new group to Belize after just saying farewell to the previous group. Also because it means we are the second-years now and will be the ones looked to for advice and tips on success. Time really flies, and it just reminds us that in the big picture two years is really not that long.

PCTs arriving in Belize; Current PCVs ready to greet the trainees as they exit the baggage claim and customs

The Trainees: What a group!

We joined the trainees for lunch at Bird's Isle Restaurant in Belize City (a great place, I think we'll be returning there from time to time!) and had a great time getting to know some of them and talking about life in Belize. They are now right in the midst of training and we wish them well and look forward to more opportunities to connect and get to know each other.

18 August 2008

Tela, Honduras to San Pedro Sula

Tela, Honduras

Tela is a small beach community on the Caribbean in northern Honduras. We stayed at the Maya Vista Hotel, which is built on a hill (somehow we managed to have all of our stays include some sort of uphill walk or staircase, and were often just outside of town). The hotel does have several flights of stairs,but boasts the best views of the sea and the town according to Lonely Planet (we'd have to agree). It was worth the daily climb! We had the Azul room with a giant painting of a Maya warrior on one wall. Right outside was one of the many patios of the hotel with three hammocks where we often sat to look out over the sea as we read and relaxed – and sometimes ate ice cream, too.

Our sweet ride from Copan to Tela...Woohoo!!!

Our first night we ate at the hotel restaurant and had pasta dishes (one with a pesto and one with fresh veggies and cheese) and shared ice cream. It began to rain when we arrived, so we only walked a little around our immediate street below and of course popped into the nearby shop for some treats for breakfast and snacks for the next couple days. As we looked through the Honduras Tips magazine (a seasonal guide published to give information on sites and activities throughout the country, which also included a bus schedule for the entire country), we decided we would head out to the Lancetilla Jardin Botanico since it sounded like a nice place to see some birds, wildlife and many beautiful flowers.

A view of Tela town from the roof top balcony at Maya Vista Hotel

The beach at Tela stretched for many miles in both directions. The beach not only serves as a respite for locals and visitors, but is also home to many Garifuna village settlements

In the morning, we went into the central part of town and checked in at the Garifuna Tours office for information on the trips out to Punta Sol where you can do some hiking, snorkeling, and visit the national park. Turns out to be ridiculously expensive (even if not on a Peace Corps budget) so we left to think about it for the day. We were given directions to Lancetilla, which is listed as more than 5 km outside town (3.5 of them heading inland) so we decided to rent bicycles. The rented bikes are not meant for ladies, or people who are a lee shorter than average since they were all pretty tall and seemed built only for men. Despite the discomfort, we headed out of town and tried to work the worn gears and rusty chains. As we rode, we really didn’t know where we would find the entrance to Lancetilla since it is just described as on the road, which is a major highway. We heard some fruit vendors shouting as we rode and realized the women were yelling to say that they were at the entrance to Lancetilla. At the entrance, we traded bikes with one another, but I don’t think that really made a huge difference (says Ginnie), then headed for the 3.5 km to the park, in the blazing sun over a very rocky unpaved road, (editor's note: These are not just little rocks either, but big pointy ones that made bicycling that much worse). The distance had to be greater than 3.5 km, every time we came around a bend or down a hill, we were shocked to still not see the entrance. When the building finally came into view, we were elated. We hopped off the bikes and locked them up so we could go into the visitor’s center for a map. The map leaves off several of the paths, but we also got the guide which sort of walks you through what you are looking at, but there is a point where both veer off and we ended up losing our way among the trees. The gardens were founded by United Fruit Company for the purpose of experimenting with the cultivation of tropical plants in Central America. There are also many areas designated for experimental plants and endangered species that are not open to the public.

The bamboo arch/tunnel at Lancetilla Botanical Gardens

The area we visitied consists of fruit trees from every continent, cacao, fine timber plantings, nuts and palms, and a long tunnel formed by an arch of bamboo. The tour begins in the bamboo arch tunnel, which is so cool in temperature due to the shade and very cool in appearance as well. After that, it was a lot of trees. Once we found our way out of the trees, we went back to the entrance. Not ready to get back on the torture bikes, we stopped in at the snack stand for ice cream, but they weren’t selling it since the power was out. A bag of chips and Gatorade would have to do. Finally, it was inevitable and we had to return to the bikes. We reached the town around 45 minutes later and couldn’t wait to return the bikes and be back on our feet. A walk around town and the beach brought us to Mama Mia! for pizza. We headed to the hammocks for some relaxation time and then went back for ice cream at Sarita since we would soon be back in Belize and not have good, affordable ice cream again until our next trip. The afternoon was nice and restful. We spent some time at the top of the hotel just enjoying the breeze and the views of the whole town, the sea, and the mountains. It was a perfectly relaxing afternoon, but the rain clouds rolled in and the evening was filled with another downpour. We headed out during a lull in rain and made our way to the central park then turned down a street too early for the restaurant we planned to try and instead stumbled upon Casa Azul, the best little place we’d found in Honduras. They had the best gringas (which was two flour tortillas with big pieces of grilled, white meat chicken, fresh chirmol – same thing as pico de gallo – and cheese, the tortillas are just put on top and bottom like a sandwich rather than folded like a quesadilla) and chicken fingers (which were cooked in tasty seasonings and baked rather than grilled) with fries. The prices were small and the portions were huge! It was one of our best meals of the trip. Of course, then it began to pour heavily when we were finishing, so it was a lee sprint back to the hilltop, but we made it without any slips.

This was a hand painted scene done by a local artist that was on our hotel room wall

We had decided not to take the tour the next day because we read about the Pelican Resort, where it said we could spend the day at the pool and enjoy the two restaurants down on the west side of the town in Tela Nueva. We pictured a nice relaxing day at the pool with the sea as a backdrop, since neither of us loves swimming in the salty, sandy water, but we like to be at the beach nonetheless. We got ready for the day and found a taxi to take us out to the resort, which is a ride out to the main road and then through a Garifuna village to the resort. When we arrived, it seemed pretty eerie and deserted. We made our way further in and a man finally came out to greet us and ask if we wanted to use the property. We let him know that we wanted to use the pool and asked for the price. It’s not too much, so we say we will stay. He went to get the bracelets and then brought us up to the pool, which looked pretty filmy and had a sign saying not to use it. He asked the pool cleaner when it would be ready, the reply was 1.5 hours, but we’re skeptical. We figure we’ll spend that time at the beach, so we go ahead with the bracelets both feely a bit uneasy. After a few minutes at the beach, we both decide we aren’t too keen on staying since it’s so deserted, the “restaurants” are not open and the pool could not possibly become clear in an hour and a half, especially since the cleaner disappeared. We went back in to let the man know we were going to leave – we could see the town from the beach and figured we’d just walk back. After a bit of an argument with the manager (albeit in lone Spanish), he only returned half of our money ($5). We cut our losses and made our way along the beach. It actually was a nice walk, but we hadn’t anticipated the river that divides the eastern and western parts of Tela! We had already walked under a pier and now pondered swimming around the river part, but it was looking deep and dingy. We doubled back a bit and made our way up a sloping grassy area which led to the busier main road and then were able to cross the river by bridge along the road. After returning to town, we had a nice lunch at Luces del Norte where Ginnie got a nice peanut butter and banana sandwich and Anthony had a big piece of baked chicken and more fries to share. It was back to the shop to pick up more ice cream (really, we had to have what we could before returning to Belize where it’s expensive) and then return to the hammocks and the roof of the Maya Vista. More rains came as we walked down to town, so we just hopped from shop to shop looking at the various items for sale and spending some time in town before returning for dinner at Pizza Roma, claiming to be the best pizza in Honduras. It was comical that Ginnie ordered one with mushrooms and the girl took the order, yet returned 30 minutes later with pepperoni and when we inquired they said they didn’t have mushrooms – so they just put meat on in that case. They made a new one with just cheese, but the original cheese pizza for Anthony was waiting. It didn’t take as long, so we had our pizzas and returned to the hotel to enjoy them and rest for the evening before we had to leave the following day for San Pedro Sula.

San Pedro Sula, Honduras

San Pedro Sula (aka San Pedro) is the second largest city in the country of Honduras. It was our last stop as we flew out of there bright an early on our last morning. We took a Tela Express bus in the morning and arrived a little over an hour and a half later. We quickly got in a taxi and arrived at our Hotel – Hotel Real – not long after. The Hotel is on a busy street in the middle of the town and we both wondered a little about the surroundings, but as soon as we entered it was a quaint little place with rooms surrounding an inside little courtyard type place. We had A/C which was nice for the hot, humid city. Being our last day on vacation, what better way to spend it than at the mall as we had done to start the trip? Really, there wasn’t much else we could do in San Pedro and we just had the afternoon, so we went to City Mall, a huge mall (not city blocks like MetroCentro, but tall and with lots of stores) that is clearly the upscale mall since it had Tommy Hilfiger and stores selling really expensive items from the Limited, Bebe, and other American stores. The food court was overwhelming to us since they had so many things we would not have again upon returning to Belize – they even had Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins – but we were quickly full from our new Chicken Philly sub from Quizno’s. We walked over to the nearby mall MegaPlaza, but it didn’t have much more to offer, so we just returned to the A/C of City Mall where we walked through department stores feeling envious of all the wonderful kitchen appliances, games, soft towels, and other things. They even had a bookstore, which was so nice to just browse through for a while, even with the majority of the books in Spanish, a bookstore is one of our favorite places. Time passed and we picked up dinner to take back to Hotel Real. With so many options, it was challenging to decide, but we went with Pizza Hut for Ant and Wendy’s for Ginnie, just one more frosty was needed before leaving! Our evening was filled with repacking since we needed to be up by 4:30 to get our 5am taxi and head to the airport.

We're guilty! We just had to have one last indulgence before heading back to the land of rice and beans.

The interior of our hotel. A mini indoor courtyard of sorts, complete with trees, plants, and fountains. Anthony was clearly caught off guard in this photo.

While it would be nice to have more time in many places we visited, we really enjoyed our trip and are now getting back into things here in Belize slowly, but surely. With still two more weeks until school begins, we have time to plan, prepare, and work on our other projects as well.

17 August 2008

Copan Ruinas, Honduras, A Long Day's Journey to an Ancient Mayan Civilization

An overhead shot of The Great Plaza of Copan Ruinas...WE MADE IT!!!

Our trip to Honduras began with quite a long journey on buses starting with a 20 minute ride on the chicken bus from La Palma to the border town of El Poy. After leaving the bus, it was a short walk across the border where we paid the $3 entry fee into Honduras, but did not receive a passport stamp. Not to mention it was not well-labeled at all for where to even pay the fee, so we had to search a little through the big building. Since we’d heard some horror stories of people having trouble leaving Honduras without a stamp, we found La Oficina de Migracion and promptly went into ask for our stamp. At this point we quickly learned that Honduran Spanish is spoken in such a way that it is tricky to comprehend (unlike our experience in El Salvador, despite reading that Salvadoran Spanish was tough to understand…) as it is spoken in almost one breath. We were able to decipher that the people inside were not much help. As we turned to go, two gentlemen entered, one in a uniform. We asked him about the stamp and he informed us it was not necessary as our El Salvador stamp gave us entry into the neighboring Central American countries for 90 days. To be on the safe side, we kept the receipts for the entry and it is good we did as the agent at the airport searched our passports for the stamp as we shared this story. She kept the receipt with our departure documentation as proof of coming in legally. We simply asked ourselves, why not just stamp the passport on entry, Honduras? Why?

How much money? $175Lempiras, or about $9.50USD, Lots 'o cash to carry

After this little conversation, we hopped in a colectivo taxi to the town of Nuevo Ocotepeque, just a few minutes away, where we were to catch our next bus to the town of La Entrada to again transfer to Copan Ruinas. Our guidebook provided times for this travel in multiple locations and each was different, so we were unsure of the correct travel time and seeing as how the book had been wrong on a few recent trips in El Salvador, we wanted to hear from a local. Our driver said it would be 2 hours, which sounded better than the 3.5 listed as the longest time in the book. We were dropped off at the terminal (only to realize later that it was one of many for the various bus companies traveling out to La Entrada, but we also weren’t likely to wander through the town since it didn’t look like a good place to do so) a little after 10am and learned the next bus out was at 11am. The “terminal” consists of one open room with a dark, creepy bathroom with no light and a pupusa lady at the front with a sandia (watermelon) lady, also the lady to pay to use the (no luz) unlit bathroom. Not very much space, so when the bus pulled up at 10:15, we just went ahead and waited there. The cupadora took our fare right away and left for change, only to return about 25 minutes later as we wondered if he would ever return. The bus was not the typical American school bus, but more like a really old Peter Pan with all the amenities removed, which in theory would be better but in reality is not due to the high seats, limited visibility out the front, and less air coming through the windows – a motion sickness-prone person’s nightmare. Fortunately, we travel with Dramamine, and lots of it since we would never check how much we had whenever we traveled and found we have quite the supply that would likely last us for a trip around the world. At any rate, we waited with a few other passengers and 11 finally came around. The driver started up the bus, then spoke to the cupadora and both went out to check on something that didn’t seem right. Now, why didn’t anyone check on the bus for the 45 minutes it sat there? As people tried to determine the source of trouble, we just waited another 25 minutes, then finally headed out, only to stop a few feet ahead at a gas station where more people checked out the bus… Meanwhile, we’d seen other buses leave and wished we had known about a different terminal, but it was too late now. Finally, by about 11:40 we made our way toward La Entrada. What a crazy ride – it was mountainous, which is nice for beautiful views, but not for the rocking and swaying of the bus. Not to mention it was also rainy, so the bus was stuffy as we took this crazy tour.

For those of you who have visited to Maui and driven the Road to Hana, you can get a sense of the trip, only it’s much longer and this time it’s in a bus, not a car or SUV. The same twists and turns, cliffs with no guardrails and motion sickness applies. The only difference is no Pacific Ocean is just out your side window! Anyway, hopefully that gives a little idea of what the trip was like.

Two hours finally passed when the driver stopped in the middle of nowhere – just mountains all around and a small little stand. We stayed for 20 minutes, not sure why or what for, finally Anthony found the driver to inquire as to how much longer we had to go (since clearly we are not in La Entrada and we hadn’t passed through the one town noted on our map that is along the way). The driver saids “dos, dos y treinta?” which means 2 or 2.5 hours! What! Between the taxi driver and our book we expected somewhere between and 2 and 3.5, not 4.5! Things were not looking good for this trip. After just a little while longer, we came to Santa Rosa do Copan (not near Copan Ruinas, but the town on the map that claims to be 1.25 hours from La Entrada) so we were hopeful we would arrive in La Entrada sooner than the driver claimed, though with his miscellaneous long stops, e also wondered if we’d ever arrive. We did finally reach another crazy terminal in La Entrada at 2:45. This one had a much larger bathroom area, with light, though it was pretty dingy and stinky, so not much better, but after that ride, we had to just brave it and pay the man our 3 Lempiras ($0.15). There really was nowhere to wait, so we got onto the school bus that would take us on to Copan at 3:30. As usual, several women and children came on the bus to sell things – pepino (cucumber) was a big one, pork meals, and chicken meals were also common. The most interesting, though, was the man who came on with a briefcase full of designer knock-off watches. It was just like waiting in line for the Statue of Liberty in NYC! He tried to convince Anthony to buy an army watch despite repeatedly telling him “no necessito, Tengo un reloj” and showing him his fully functional watch. The vendors are certainly much more persistent in Honduras, not believing you the first time you say “no” and putting the item closer to you so that you may be convinced of its importance to your life.

When 3:30 came, we headed off… across the street to a market where we stopped, and waited for more passengers. Why they couldn’t just catch the bus from the terminal, we really don’t know. After another 15 minutes, we left and began the next twisty, rocking ride through more mountains to Copan. The rain fell harder now and all of the windows were closed, but at least we could see all around. To our disappointment, Honduras also does not decorate their buses in fun colors and such like Belize. We enjoyed the liveliness of the buses in El Salvador and thought only Belize was lacking creativity; even ours are painted with the colors of the bus line on the outside. The Honduran bus was still school bus yellow with black paint covering the school district, so we are ahead of them! Anyway, the ride was expected to be 2-2.5 hours and we seemed to hear that from more than one place, so felt it was accurate. With the rain, not too many people were out waiting for the bus, so we didn’t stop too frequently. The bus itself was fairly empty, which was nice. We seemed to be making great progress when suddenly we had to pull over to change a flat tire. All the men helped, even Anthony participated as they attempted to repack tools and move the old tire into the bus. About 15 minutes later we headed out again…we have to give these guys credit, they changed the tire in no time. A bit further ahead we stopped at a little shop and our driver got out and a man who seemed to be a passenger, but was in fact a back-up driver, took the wheel and off we went. Never saw such a switch before, and when we were just a few towns outside of Copan we came to a gas station where a man who looked a lot like our previous driver was working on the engine of another school bus. The cupadora and back-up driver got out to chat with the man, who definitely was our original driver, and a few minutes later he was back at the wheel for the remaining portion of the trip. Still not sure how he got
ahead of us

If you look closely at the gas prices you can see that Hondurnas were definitely paying a premium at the pump, about $5 a gallon...Yikes!!! This station was down the road from the entrance to the town

Not long after, we reached Copan at about 5:30pm where we were immediately greeted by a man trying to push his hostel on us (one we read about in the guidebook that did not seem remotely pleasant) even though we let him know we had a reservation. He asked where and then proceeded to inform us they were charging $1 more than he charged, which we didn’t care. The man just called to us about how much better his place is and got his taxi driver friends to join in and yell to us as we navigated the slippery cobblestone streets traveling uphill in the pouring rain. Our place, Hostal Iguana Azul was really nice. We weren’t looking forward to another shared bathroom, but this place is set up in the European hostel style so it is done well with separate toilet stalls, shower stalls, and sinks – so there’s privacy and no forced waiting for the shower or toilet. It was a really nice place and at a great price of $6.50 per person, we couldn’t complain at all! It is set a few blocks outside of the center of town, but nothing is really too far of a walk.

After a full day of buses and eating lone Nature Valley and Special K bars, we were starving! Copan has so many restaurants we just walked to the center of town and found ourselves at Vamos a Ver Café where we had vegetarian lasagna and a chicken and French fries dinner. It was so good to get some food into our systems and then we stopped in the nearby shop for some treats for the next day when we would be touring the ruins.

Ginnie striking a pose in front of temple #4

Copan Archaeological Site
The next morning, we first made our way to the Transportes Hedman Alas bus terminal to book ourselves on the luxury bus for our next trip out to Tela; no more school buses for these long journeys because we have to take them all the time. This was vacation! Afterward was a quick breakfast of ginormous cinnamon rolls and tasty pineapple pastries at Espresso Americano. While there, we met a very friendly woman who was excited to have us visiting her home of Copan and the ruins. We made our way out of town for the 10 minute walk to the site where we encountered some stelae along the way (showing how far out this site must really span) and passing a large group of European tourists. When we reached the visitor’s center, the ambiguous line situation caused us to end up behind the large tour group, so we had a bit of a wait until we could get to the front to pay. When we got our passes, we headed into the site to take a look back into the past at what is called the artistic center of the Maya civilization (it has been written that Copan would be like Paris of today). The site is full of intricate, detailed carvings and hieroglyphs that tell the tales of different rulers and events occurring during the time Copan was thriving. We picked up History Carved in Stone to give us more information on the carvings and the site as well.

Ginnie thought she saw a resemblence in the carving, I just didn't see any...oh well.

Oso de Paz chilling out en La Plaza de Estelas

Copan was initially discovered in 1576, but no one took interest in pursuing it until another discovery in 1839 when a Spaniard named Colonel Juan Galindo visited it and mapped the ruins, sparking others to explore the site. Archaeologists have found the remains of 3450 structures in the 24 square kilometers surrounding the Principal Group (most of those being within half a kilometer of the Principal Group) and 4509 structures have been detected in 1420 sites within 135 sq km of the ruins. The peak of Maya civilization here was around the end of the 8th century and these discoveries indicate that over 20,000 people inhabited the valley. Scientists continue to explore the site and have found several ruins buried underneath the visible ruins. They have dug out tunnels underneath the visible structures to explore further and have found whole temples.

Finally...a picture together. It happens, but all too seldom. This was taken among the stelae of the great plaza.

Stelae of the Great Plaza
When we came into the entrance to the site, we were greeted by a large group of wild scarlet macaws hanging out on the fence and the grass. It was quite a site. A short walk into the Great Plaza leads us right to huge, intricately carved stelae which portray the rulers of Copan. We walked from stelae to stelae admiring the carvings and the fact that they are so detailed and in such good shape after so many thousands of years.
A couple of Scarlet Macaws living it up at the entrance. There were about 20-25 others just hanging out and being quite photogenic. The scarlet macaw was a highly revered bird by the people of ancient Copan.

Hieroglyphic Stairway and Ball Court area
The famous stairway to the Temple of the Inscriptions

As we leave the area of the stelae, we walk through the second largest ball court (Juego de Pelota) in Central America on the way to the Hieroglyphic Stairway, the most famous monument at the site and the work of King Smoke Shell. It is a flight of 63 steps which bears a history of the royal house of Copan in several thousand glyphs. The steps are also bordered by ramps inscribed with more reliefs and glyphs and at the base is another stela of a ruler of Copan. Scientists are still working to decipher the glyphs to better understand the story they tell, though the stairway has been partially ruined. There are glyphs that tell the story of the solar eclipse that happened during a year in the valley, as well. The stairway is very impressive and many people stop to admire the carvings and glyphs.

Hanging out in the main plaza

Looking down from the Acropolis in the West Plaza

Beyond the stairway are more structures. We passed the Temple of Inscriptions, another flight of steps with more hieroglyphs on the walls at the top. Further along are the East and West Plazas, where one of the most famous sculptures, Altar Q, was found, which is carved with the 16 great kings of Copan and behind which are the bones of 15 jaguars and several macaws in a sacrificial vault. We wandered throughout the site looking at the various temples, inscriptions, and other ruins, thinking again about how it must have been when these civilizations flourished.

The Acropolis in the West Plaza. I think Ginnie's in this one, but she kind of blends into the background

Back in Town
After our visit at the site, we returned to the town of Copan and spent the afternoon walking throughout the cobblestone streets enjoying the shops and some more good food. We found Jim’s Pizza for lunch and then spent the day around town. For dinner, we headed to Café ViaVia, which received a lot of positive reviews (but was a bit overrated and too touristy) for a dinner of chicken burgers – what strange looking burgers, but not bad at all. Here we befriended a very adorable dog who simply begged for food from Ginnie despite Anthony offering fries. The dog ignored the fries and just looked at Ginnie wondering when she would pass food. It was noticed later in the meal that the fried mysteriously disappeared, so clearly they were not that unappealing! We also heard a loud explosion and realized fireworks were being shot during a concert for Copan happening at the futbol field. We made our way to Café Welchez for what our hostel said has the best dessert and got the Pan de Banano, which translates as Banana Bread, but was actually banana cake and was quite fabulous!

The main church at the center of town and a bustling street market on Saturday afternoon

Vendors selling everything from jewelry to replica Maya statues; The infamous dog that attempted to thief some of our dinner at Via Via Cafe

The following morning we picked up another cinnamon roll and walked down to the Hedman Alas terminal to wait for our luxury ride to Tela for the beach portion of the vacation. The bus was a nice big air conditioned bus with comfy seats, a bathroom, and free drinks and snacks. It was really nice, though still rocky through the mountains, but not so stuffy. We rode about 3 hours to San Pedro Sula, then had a layover for the next ride onto Tela. We were supposed to have just an hour and ten minute wait, but the bus was not at the terminal, so we didn’t get out until nearly 3:30pm, another hour later. We just watched the movie playing in the waiting area and then when our bus was called, made our way to the next comfortable ride for the remaining hour and a half of our journey. It was another travel day, but much better than the previous one! And now, we were to spend some time in a beach town to relax for the last few days of the vacation.

12 August 2008

La Palma to The Top of The World

La Palma is a small town nestled amongst the mountains in Northern El Salvador. It lies about 3 hours north of the capitol and is home to about 12,000 people.

A special guest appearance by the Oso de Paz enroute to La Palma

In 1972 artist Fernando Llort moved to La Palma from San Salvador and soon thereafter developed an artistic style that continues to represent El Salvador around the world today. Images of animals, mountains, Christ, trees, and villages are painted in bright vivid colors on everything from seeds to rocks to doors. While a resident, Llort taught many locals about his methods and styles which eventually led to a cooperative that functions today as the main source of income for many artisans in the community.

Some of the many pieces of art painted around La Palma by various artists inspired by Llort. These two pieces were on the ceiling and outside walls of the Hotel La Palma

La Palma is a popular place for people to stop on their way to Honduras due to its close proximity to the border the town of El Poy. While in La Palma we spent time viewing art in some of the galleries and shopping through local markets for some things to bring home with us.

(l) One of the many walls around town that are painted with different figures, birds, insects and other animals. (r) Even the dragonflies in La Palma were colorful

We finally found a sorpresa - a tiny, detailed scene/figure in an oval shell about the size of a walnut, which may be found in the shape of a walnut, egg, apple, orange, or anything round with a little scene of daily life set around a village inside.

La Palma also serves as the gateway to El Pital, the highest peak in all of El Salvador (over 2700M). On our second day in town we decided to head to the nearby town of San Ignacio and attempt to catch a next bus up the mountain to the village of Rio Chiquito to commence our long and grueling hike to the summit of El Pital. Well, after a bit of confusion on all of our parts, various conversations with men, women, and children, we were eventually pointed in the direction of the bus stop. We traveled through portable video arcades, concession stands selling cotton candy and other sweets, peanut stands, slushy stands, and just about everything else you could possibly think of that may be present at a carnival...oh, did I mention there was a carnival going on? It was 9:00 in the morning on a Thursday and school was in full session...Ahhhh, life in Central America. So, we boarded the bus, paid a dollar, and headed up a long and winding road for about 45 minutes. The views were breathtaking and passengers scrambled and climbed on top of one another to catch a glimpse through each dip, twist, and turn. When we arrived at Rio Chiquito, we were pointed in the direction of an old and faded wooden sign that said "El Pital -->" and after failing to wake the young girl at the little shop, we opted to head up the mountain with granola bars, water, a camera, and some hope of success. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed...and climbed. The guide book says its roughly a 90 minute hike...true, but it's pretty much straight up on an uneven, rocky road. Throughout the walk we passed many cows, a number of breathtaking overlooks, and a few Salvadoran farmers tending their corn and tomatoes.

Some quick shots we took on our way to the top of El Pital. As you can see there is a lot of lush farmland, much of which is covered with corn crops

As we approached the top, the clouds began shifting from the left to the right, and before we knew it, we were literally walking through them as we were just shy of El Pital not too far off in the distance. We finally reached the top and to our great dismay, there were a lot of clouds sitting themselves all around. This was kind of a bummer because the view would have probably been even more spectacular, but on the bright side, we didn't have to pay the $3.00 entry fee :)

The view from the top. Not too bad, but could have done without the clouds

Another view as the clouds were drifting in and out

Each of us expressed our excitement as we reached the top. The hike was only 90 minutes, but after the first 30, these old folks talked about throwing in the towel. Not people to quit anything, we kept on going and finally felt the thrill of victory

We snapped some pictures, took a food and water break, and then headed back to the bottom. As we trekked back to base camp the clouds began enveloping the trees and road around us to the point that it became difficult to see more than a few feet in front of us (check out the picture).

As we headed back to the village the clouds completely covered the surrounding trails

So needless to say, all said and done, we had hiked to the highest point in El Salvador and lived to talk about it. We reached back to Rio Chiquito village around 12:40 and proceeded to wait for the 2:00 bus which oddly enough turned into a supposed 2:30 bus, which after waiting and freezing our butts off for two hours, fwe inally gave in and headed to the tourist police station...well, turns out there was no bus coming, at least not until the next morning or maybe 4:30pm, still lots of discrepancies. Thankfully Anthony's quick wit and impeccable Spanish earned us a private escort back to town (well, private if you don't count the five other police officers who each were carrying shotguns and other automatic weapons...I assume these were to be used in the case of a rougue snake or jaguar attempting to overcome tourists, not sure though). We arrived back to town in 15 minutes, mind you it took 45 to get to the top. I think the officer driving was going for some new land speed record, or perhaps he was trying to impress a few out-of-towners, either way, it wasn't the safest way down through winding roads that hugged the cliffs edge which happened to be completely bare of any guardrail. We made it back alive, and spent the rest of the day in town eating and shopping for some art to bring back to Belize. The next day we were off to Copan Ruinas in Honduras via the border town of El Poy.

09 August 2008

Suchitoto, El Salvador

We left San Salvador on a bus headed to Suchitoto in the morning. We traveled by regular (aka "chicken") bus, an old American school bus, just like the buses here, but with a lot more personality. In El Salvador, the buses are given names (which we also noticed in Guatemala) and they are decorated with all sorts of stickers, airbrush paintings, images, stuffed animals, mirrors, flags, and pretty much all sorts of other random tchotchkes. The cupadora (conductor) collects the money and calls out the stops like an auction announcer. They also hang out the bus doors and in general are much more animated than their counterparts here in Belize. Our cupadoras and drivers were awesome on every one of our bus trips as they always made sure we got off where we needed to. They'd give us directions to our hotels, too, when they could, it was definitely helpful. The bus experience included some really interesting vendors. We are pretty accustomed to people and children coming on to buses selling food, but here in El Salvador in addition to watermelon and copious amounts of candy, we had peddlers offering face creams, special vitamins, and crazy big nose plastic glasses. The face cream man even had before and after pictures to show how well caracol (conch) cream clears your complexion and it was all for just $1! He even went ahead and would just put a little bit onto people's arms, quite a different manner of selecting your face cream!

After an hour and fifteen minute ride that incuded a stop in a village filled with vendors that the bus barely fit as it passed, we arrived in Suchitoto. The municipality expands through a long village and then comes to the town center, where we stayed. We disembarked at the bus stop and walked to the Parque Centenario to get directions to La Villa Balanza. We were connected to a PCV couple who serves in Suchitoto through our PTO (who previously worked in PC El Salvador) and they got us the reservation here because of the view of the mountains, valley and Embalse Cerron Grande (aka Lago Suchitlan), a reservoir for hydroelectric power. This is also the town where some of the earliest fighting of the civil war took place and we took a horseback tour in a nearby village to see some of the remnants of the war, which ended with a cease fire between the government and the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, now a political party in the country) on February 1, 1992.

An oversized scale outside La Villa Bellanza Restaurant weighing a bomb and some flour tortillas

The view of Lake Suchitlan from the balcony of the hostel Villa Bellanza

Ginnie hard at work recording her observations in yet another journal entry

It is said by some that Suchitoto is what Antigua, Guatemala was before the tourists arrived. It is a quaint colonial town with cobblestone streets, art galleries, and cafes. We spent our first afternoon enjoying the beautiful view of Lago Suchitlan from La Villa Balanza, exploring the cobblestone streets, and relaxing in the park. We had delicious tacos at La Piedra Cafe.

Tacos with some fresh avocado and a thick slice of quesillo cheese to go with the beans

Artifacts collected from different civil war sites in and around the Suchitoto area. I took the fisrt picture avoiding the cell phone to the right, thinking someone inadvertently left it, but it became clear no one was coming for it and it was rather old looking, so maybe it is part of the display?

A funny sign posted down the road from the center of town. It reads "Don't throw trash here. Respect, Please"

Some of the many T-shirts depicting Latin American hero Che Guevera, a famous revolutionary, politician, author, physician, military theorist, and guerrilla leader

Three old caballeros taking a rest in the park on a quiet Sunday afternoon

Ginnie consulting the city map to find the closest art gallery among the four streets :)

Later that evening we met Amber and John (the local PCVs who work at the tourism office and gave us lots of great suggestions on things to see and do) for a dinner of pupusas - our first of the trip. Pupusas are a staple food in El Salvador which were reportedly first created by the Pipil tribes. They are a thick, hand-made corn tortilla (made with masa de maiz) stuffed with cheese (a soft Salvadoran cheese called Quesillo, which was also in our tacos earlier and is just fabulous), fried pork rind (chicharron), squash (ayote), refried beans (frijoles refritos), or queso con loroco (a vine flower bud). You can have them revueltos, which is a mix of queso, frijoles, and chicharron. Some pupuserias also make them using rice flour rather than the masa. Pupusas are typically eaten by hand accompanied by curtido (a pickled cabbage relish) and tomato sauce. We first tried ours made with rice flour and filled with beans and cheese because Karla had mentioned she loved the rice flour ones. It was delicious and at 40 cents a piece, quite a bargain dinner. We didn't get the chocolate drink with it, but Amber informed us that most Salvadorans have their pupusas with chocolate (a hot drink made using water or milk and a mixture of local cocoa and sugar that smelled wonderful, but it was just too hot for us to have that night). Needless to say, we fell in love with pupusas very quickly.

Our pupusa dinners with a side of limonada con soda

Yummy homemade bread with yogurt, fruit, and granola at Centro Artex Cafe

We headed out in the morning after the best breakfast at Centro Artex Cafe (fresh granola, strawberry yogurt, apple, and whole wheat toast with homemade strawberry marmalade) for Cascada Los Tercios, a small waterfall that flows over hexagonal stone spires caused by volcanic activity. We had an interesting walk out to the falls. Between information in our shoestring guidebook and the tourism office map and directions, we had a bit of a difference in the expected amount of time it would take to reach the property we should enter to then walk toward the falls. We were to look for a random sidewalk and fence and then head into the next property on the left. Well, after the amount of time we thought we needed to travel we saw what looked more like an intended drainage line, but could be considered a sidewalk and it had a fence, but it didn't seem like we could really enter where we were. We headed up the road some and came to a gate and a house, so we went on in and stumbled upon an old caballero snoozing on a hammock. He pointed behind him, but I did hear the word calle (street) and thought "are we to walk through the fields toward the street we see across the way or return to the street?" We continued on through a next gate and found ourselves in a cow pasture, which surely could not be right - all we could see were cows and a huge hill that just didn't seem like falls were near. We turned back and another farmer came to work and again he pointed us toward the pasture, but this time I clearly heard calle and asked if we needed to go back to the street. He showed Anthony where along the calle we needed to head, so it was back to the street.
Further along we come to what can be described as a sidewalk of stone and it is next to a fence. Right past it is a big gate and an apparently abandoned property - all the landmarks we are looking for - but the gate is locked and we think maybe they have decided they no longer want strangers walking through their land to the falls. We heard what sounded like flowing water, but something still wasn't quite right. Two young schoolboys came along and Anthony asked about the falls and they said we had about half a kilometer to go, maybe 10-15 more minutes. We walked along and came to what is clearly a random sidewalk in the road with a large steel fence, just along the hillside - if we'd just kept walking this would have obviously been what was described. The young boy showed us where to enter and we made our way into the field and had to navigate some slippery big boulders. The property is at the top of the falls, so we had to walk down to get a good view. When we came to the falls, it was worth the crazy walk because the rocks are so striking and there are so many beautiful, vibrant mariposas (butterflies) everywhere. That is something we noticed all over El Salvador, mariposas flying all over and with some of the most brilliant colors and patterns. We have no pictures because they don't sit still and when they do land, they close their wings. It was so peaceful to sit on the boulders overlooking the falls and have these butterflies surrounding us, it was sort of like something out of a movie.

Las Cascadas Los Tercios

A nice view of the surrounding area on our walk back from the waterfall

White corn drying out in a yard in the village. These will later be grinded down and turned into Masa which will then be turned into corn tortillas and pupusas.

After our trek to the falls, we rewarded ourselves with ice cream at Sarita (a chain in Central America, but sadly not in Belize) where they made a delicious banana sundae with fresa (strawberry) and vainilla (vanilla, obviously) ice cream. The remainder of the day was spent checking out art at some of the different galleries and cafes and ended with a dinner of gourmet pupusas at Tipicos del Portal. Anthony went with the rice flour and stuffed with beans and cheese, while Ginnie tried the masa flour and had one with spinach and cheese and one with mushrooms and garlic. They were all so good! If they weren't so filling, we probably would have had more! We also found our favorite beverage in El Salvador - limonada con soda (lime juice with sparkling water). After such a long day, we headed back early since we had an early morning ahead of us for the horseback tour in La Mora.

La Mora is a community about 30 minutes outside of Suchitoto on the road to Aguilares (where we were headed to transfer to a bus heading to our next stop in La Palma). We caught a 7:30am bus and reached La Mora just before 8:00am where we were greeted by a young boy who led us to the house where our tour would begin. The tour is operated by former guerilla fighters from the civil war (guerilleros) and passes through an area where heavy fighting took place, displacing over 200 families and leaving behind craters, underground bunkers (whose Spanish name we cannot recall), and destruction. Prior to heading out on the tour we spent about 15 minutes at the home of one of the former fighters, an older man who generously offered us breakfast, water, and interesting stories about the site. The home was a traditional Salvadoreno setting with an open fire pit/cooking area, no running water, and sparse furnishings, similar to many village homes in Belize (though we did notice most village homes were made of concrete and had red tile roofs rather then being wood and thatch as is common here).
During the tour we learned of the ways in which whole families would seek shelter in these small holes dug out under their properties whenever they heard the planes flying overhead; at one point they spent three days inside these holes that were just big enough to crawl in and lay down. We also saw craters left by the bombs dropped from the planes and the remains of a church and a school. The school became a guerrilla camp and is surrounded by the trenches dug for the fighters and holds a cemetary for them as well. Our guide, Marcelo, shared a lot of the history of the war and while he started off slowly with us (keep in mind this was all in Spanish) as we started to ask questions, he became more animated and spoke more quickly, which meant we caught about 50-75% of the story, but it was interesting nonetheless and we read some more about it later. The tour then ended at a beautiful vista that overlooks communities in the surrounding area.

A crater left by a bomb dropped from a military plane, you can't tell how huge it is from this picture, but it is really large

The photo on the left shows a family's hiding "hole;" on the right is the guerilla camp, the artillery shed/latrine is in the center background

At the Punta Vista, overlooking several other communities and mountains

A view seen as we rode back to town (all we heard was Anthony say "espera" so he could stop and take the picture)

Not sure why we are stopped here, maybe it was when we were heading out from the guerilla camp and moving to punta vista

The bathroom at the house, Ant took a picture because he knows Ginnie would not have been going in there

The tour operator (I wish we remembered his name!) again invited us to sit and chat when we returned from our three hours on the horses. We spoke about where we'd visited, what we do in Belize, the states we come from and then spoke more about the war. Probably the funniest moment of this day occurred when we got off the bus in this unknown village and then were walking to this house with a teenage boy speaking lone Spanish and each of us in our own minds starting to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into since we are not fluent yet. Neither of us expressed that concern to the other, but both shared it afterward when we were back on a bus heading out to La Palma. We both had been excited for the tour and to see a living museum but neither had really considered being on a horse and having a guide who spoke only Spanish. It turned out to be such a great experience and we are both so glad we decided to do it.

After our chat with our host and a short wait for a bus, we were back on the road. We quickly found our bus to La Palma after being dropped off in Aguilares. This one was a packed one reminiscent of Belize, but we were still able to get a seat in the very back when two thoughtful men helped move the ginormous packages of styrofoam bowls in front of the seats. Although this was our busiest bus ride, it still was not as packed as the stories we'd heard of chicken buses in Central America with 3 to a seat and 2-3 deep standing in the aisles. Our seatmate to the right was a really friendly, chatty gentleman who was very interested in our travels and in learning about Belize. He was very good about correcting our Spanish and very patient when we would answer a question not quite as he was asking. He spoke a little English, and we learned he was from Mexico. Since he was getting off the bus in La Palma with his boxes of avocados, he generously pointed us in the direction of our next stopover at Hotel La Palma.

So far our travels in El Salvador have been amazing and we looked forward to our stay in La Palma.