The Dzilbilchaltun Ruins: We Come In Peace

It’s nearly impossible to avoid Maya culture in the Yucatan, particularly during the month of December in 2012, when conspiracy theories detailing the “predicted” Maya doomsday were running wild like a pack of wolves through the Internet, dirtying websites with their footprints. When you can’t beat them, you’re instructed to join them. And so I went to Mexico in December alongside the wolves and I followed their trails, which of course led, in some divergences, to Maya ruins. The Dzibilchaltun Ruins, small and unassuming, were the ruins I liked best from the trip.

Located just 10 miles north of Merida, where I stayed for a few days, the Dzibilchaltun Ruins aren’t as popular as other ruins in the Yucatan, but they were popular enough for me to have heard a Texan woman tell her guide, “We Texans are very familiar with rattlesnakes.” I lived in Texas for two years. I’m happy to report that I am still not, nor do I hope to ever be, familiar with rattlesnakes.

%Gallery-179972%Modern researchers speculate that this relatively small group of Maya ruins sits on a site that was probably chosen for its close proximity to the salt-producing region on the cost, which is around 30 minutes by car from the ruins. That coast, which welcomes the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico, hosts the beach town of Progreso. That coast is also the spot where the meteorite that possibly killed off the dinosaurs first made impact. You can’t see a crater at the modern day coast, but the effects are seen in the soil and rock beneath the surface – effects that just might have been apparent to the Maya community that once thrived within the walls of Dzibilchaltun.

Dzibilchaltun was occupied for thousands of years. The city expanded and became a mid-sized city as well as contracted down to a small town on more than one occasion throughout its extensive history. The Temple of the Seven Dolls, which was filled with stones and covered by another building around 800 A.D., is the most famous structure at the ruins. I climbed the wall leading up to the elevated structure that once encased seven small effigies, unearthed only when the site was discovered in the 1950s. The Maya stones at this site are sometimes sharper than you might expect; I sliced a part of my finger open while approaching the temple through what I assumed to be a shortcut. As I stood at the temple’s entrance and studied its interior, I couldn’t help but wish to have scheduled my visit during the spring equinox, when the sunrise shines directly through one window and out the other of the small building.

I descended the stairs and continued exploring the remaining ruins spread out across the open field. It was my husband’s birthday. I spotted him in the distance atop a tall and wide staircase formation, crouching down to snap a photo. As I made my way toward him, sparkling turquoise waters glistened through shading tree branches and the voices of fellow travelers became clearer as I approached the spot. A small path through the trees yielded a wonderland of a clearing; a lily-ornamented cenote holding crystal-clear, blue-green water. A couple donned their snorkeling gear and submerged themselves beneath the surface, emanating tranquility with each smooth stride. They call it Cenote Xlakah and, like many of the other cenotes in the Yucatan, it’s a vision to behold.

A 16th-century Spanish church was built in Dzibilchaltun after the conquest. I approached it in awe, stunned by its perfectly rounded ceiling and entranceways, wondering if, even with the tangential engineering and architecture knowledge I have solely from living in our modernity, I could ever carry what I know from this age back in time and apply it with any success. I doubt it.

The steep inclines and small windows of the structures at Dzibilchaltun mesmerized me. The open field, resembling that of the National Mall, allowed the sun to beat down on my bare shoulders as I made the trek from one end to another. There may have been as many as 40,000 inhabitants in this city at one time – an estimate that would have made Dzibilchaltun one of the largest cities of Mesoamerica. With each stone sculpture and engraved rock, I became entranced by the legacy of this site. Curious and sweating, I made my way into the Museum of the Mayan People, which is on the grounds and included in the entrance fee. Unearthed works of art stand erect in the museum’s garden and behind protective glass. In contrast to the quiet of the grounds that day, these collective images of a once-bustling Dzibilchaltun seemed out of place.

As I made my way out of the museum and toward my car, I remembered the three young Korean men I had briefly met while standing in line to purchase my ticket. One of them had asked if he could take a photo with my husband and me. His fingers formed a peace sign as the picture was taken and, unable to say much else in English, he said, “thank you.” He was studying us and we were all on our way to study them – the ghosts of the Maya who once inhabited Dzibilchaltun. It’s circular, it seems, our fascination with those from whom we differ. We take notes and learn from them, no matter where or when they are from and, if we do it well, we come in peace.

Visit Altun Ha in Belize

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

Adventure Vacation Guide 2012: Belize

Belize is the only country in Central America with English as the official language. The small country, measuring 180 miles long and 68 miles wide, is a popular vacation destination for tourists whose native language is English. But Belize is good for much more than just lounging in white sand while watching the shimmering teal waves roll in and out while drinks, ordered in English, are replenished. Behind the luxurious resorts and relaxing vacation packages, Belize is an adventure destination.

With the lowest population density in Central America and, simultaneously, the highest growth rate in the region, 2012 is the year to visit Belize–it’s still spacious and remote in most places, but it doesn’t appear as though this quality will serve Belize permanently. People everywhere are beginning to now catch onto what natives have always known–Belize is not only gorgeous, rich in history, and filled with Mayan cultural treasures, but the small country packs in a big punch with adventure and thrill-seekers. Inexpensive and lush, the untainted waters and landscapes await you.Explore Belizean caves littered with Mayan ruins. The ATM Cave, near the city of San Ignacio, boasts still-in-tact skeletons and pieces of once-blood-holding pottery from Mayan sacrifices; these were offerings to the gods during times of desperate drought. But there’s a catch to seeing something as rare as these remnants–you have to get to them first. Getting through ATM cave is no easy feat. You must first hike through thick rainforest terrain for an hour before facing the cave’s entrance, which is a waterway. The only way in, and out, is to swim through the chilly water in the pitch-black, damp cave with your headlamp serving as your only guiding light. After you’ve made it in and out of the water portions of the cave, relatively challenging climbs and tight squeezes await you as you journey through this spooky cavern.

Zip-line through the forests surrounding this cave and many others while you’re inland. Stop to observe wild jaguars if you can while in the Jaguar Paw area. While at Jaguar Paw, take the opportunity to go for a tubing trip through a cave. Hike through thick and challenging terrain and cool off via waterfall rappelling. Scuba dive down into the famous-for-a-reason Great Blue Hole, a submarine sinkhole that measures 984 feet across and 407 feet deep. Widely regarded as one of the best diving spots in the world, the aerial shots of this gaping Caribbean hole will make your heart skip a beat (just Google it). If diving is too much of a commitment for you, spend your time a bit more leisurely and follow a shining school of fish while snorkeling. Weave around the shoreline and throughout the inland rivers by kayak or go kayak sailing into the rising sun. Spend your time doing daily yoga at one of the country’s yoga retreats or yoga-friendly resorts, fully immersed in a tranquil environment, or test your boundaries with a sky diving, parasailing, base-jumping, or bungee jumping excursion.

Whether your on a shoestring budget or looking to spend your hard-earned money on all of the finest adventures Belize has to offer, you’ll find a sweat-inducing, adrenaline-spiking experience in Belize that suits your wallet and lifestyle. With a landscape like the Belize landscape, adventure waits outside your door with free admission to the mountains and beaches. And with organized companies like the ones you can find in Belize with minimal research, sky’s the limit for your guided adventure in this small, but incredibly rich, Caribbean country.

[flickr image via jayhem]

In the Heart of Central America: Planning a wedding or honeymoon in Honduras

Imagine walking down a lush green aisle to a small open-air wooden structure where billowy white curtains frame a view of a valley spread below and blueish mountains in the distance. An intimate group of family and friends has gathered to watch you say your vows on this hilltop and after the ceremony, they’ll join you to celebrate as the sun sets and the lights of the village beneath you and the stars above begin to twinkle in the dark.

That fantasy, and several others, can come true in Honduras. Honduras is overlooked as a destination wedding or honeymoon spot, but the country offers just as many opportunities for romance as its Caribbean and Central American counterparts.

Whether you fancy yourself as a barefoot bride or want to go eco-chic, Honduras has a wedding locale for you. And because all-inclusive “wedding factory” resorts don’t exist here, brides can take comfort in knowing that their special day will indeed be special and private.

Those looking for an adventurous honeymoon in Honduras will find plenty of activities, like zip-lining, diving, horseback riding and white-water rafting here as well. Here are three location options to get you started planning a wedding or honeymoon in Honduras.

Copan
Hacienda San Lucas is situated on a hill just outside of the town of Copan Ruin as. From the hotel’s deck chairs, you can see the ruins of Copan and the town below. It’s a long walk from the Hacienda into town, but owner Flavia will arrange for pick up and drop off for guests. You can also hop into a moto-taxi for the $1 ride home.

The Hacienda was a labor of love, and it shows. Flavia was born in Honduras, but moved to Kentucky and lived there for three decades. She eventually returned home and took over the property that had been in her family’s name for a hundred years. It was in a sad state of disrepair, so Flavia set about restoring it piece by piece. As she says, she would sell one cow and have enough money to restore one wall. Another cow sold equaled another wall.

It was a long process, and by the time the renovation was complete, nearly ten years had passed, over 4000 native trees, including cacao and fruit trees, had been planted on the property, solar lighting had been installed in the rooms, and 50% of the employees were local Maya Chorti people, descendants of the indigenous Maya people.

When the resort first opened, it was just two rooms. Now it’s grown to eight rooms spread amongst three buildings. Rates for rooms that are basic but comfortable start at $125 for low season. Rooms don’t have A/C, TV, radios or telephones, but they do have hammocks and there is wi-fi at the main house. There’s also a restaurant where Flavia serves a four-course dinner ($30 per person) made of grown-onsite or locally purchased ingredients. Because she only buys as much as she needs each day, reservations are required.

On the night I dined by candlelight at Hacienda San Lucas, were were served a salad of cantaloupe and fresh cheese, a velvety cream of corn soup with chipilin flower and macadamia nut powder, and a rich creamy dish of chicken in lorocco (a native flower) sauce, baked in a corn husk and served with avocado and rice. For dessert: Kentucky rum cake. After tasting her delicious food, I could see why Flavia’s cooking retreats at the Hacienda were popular.

Hacienda San Lucas also has one feature that makes it perfect for a destination wedding. Gaia, the Hacienda’s yoga center (where Flavia also runs yoga retreats) is one of the most picture-perfect wedding locales I have ever seen. Perched at the top of a hill overlooking the whole valley of Copan, it feels incredibly intimate, romantic, and natural. As soon as I saw it, I told my husband that I’d found the spot where I’d someday like to renew our vows.

For couples who get married here, the planning couldn’t be easier – Flavia does it all. She’ll decorate Gaia and bring in chairs for guests (unless you want them to sit on pillows on the floor), arrange for flowers, a band, an officiant and a photographer.

Dinner will, of course, be served at the Hacienda restaurant. Afterward, guests can dance under the stars, relax with a view of Copan Ruins, or sit by the fire at the Hacienda’s firepit.

Rent out the whole place for your wedding, or just book a room for the bride and groom and then encourage guests to stay down in town. Flavia will arrange for round trip transportation for your party.

Pre- or post-wedding, spend a few days exploring Copan, venture off to visit an eco-lodge in La Ceiba or relax on the beaches of Roatan.

Roatan
If getting married barefoot in the sand is more your style, head to Roatan, where resorts like eco-friendly Palmetto Bay Plantation allow you to get married on an empty beach on the shores of the Caribbean.

Divers looking for an intimate ceremony can say “I do” to their scuba sweetheart at Anthony’s Key. The resort will handle all details and offers several ceremony locations to choose from. The honeymoon package includes 7 nights accommodations, all meals, 3 dives per day, 2 night dives, all equipment, dolphin snorkel and open water dolphin dive, wine and flowers on arrival, horseback riding, kayaking, canoeing and other excursions for $1789 per person.

La Ceiba
If you prefer a more traditional wedding reception but want a natural setting, try the Lodge at Pico Bonito, named for the mountain that rises over it. Rooms start at around $200 and there are 22 rooms onsite. Set on 400 acres of tropical rain forest, the resort is home to hundreds of species of birds, which you can see on guided hikes around the property. There are two nearby waterfalls for swimming and the resort features a restaurant, pool, butterfly house and serpentarium.

Rooms are wooden huts built on stilts. Clean, with soft beds and ceiling fans, each cabin has its own hammock for lazy afternoons.

The reception space is air conditioned, seats up to 200 guests, and serves dishes like coffee crusted beef medallions from the restaurant.

Spend your honeymoon days zip-lining through the jungle, white-water rafting, and wildlife viewing, or explore the rest of Honduras.

Requirements for getting married in Honduras
Most resorts will help you with the paperwork and provide an officiant for the ceremony. Generally the paperwork is due 14 days before the wedding will take place. You’ll need to provide a certified copy of your birth certificate, a certified copy of your police record and an affidavit of single status, as well as a valid passport.

If you’ve been married before, you’ll need a certified copy of either the divorce decree or your previous spouse’s death certificate. You’ll also need two non-related witnesses, who must have valid passports.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views expressed are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.

In the Heart of Central America: Why now is the time to go to Honduras

After a week in Honduras, ziplining through the canopy, drinking $1.50 beers on a deserted white sand beach, slaughtering my Spanish pronunciation as I bought a grilled pork skewer from a street vendor, horseback riding through coffee fields, and eating a few too many corn tortillas, I couldn’t help feeling like I could just as easily be in Belize, Guatemala, or Costa Rica…..but with fewer crowds and lower prices. Suddenly, the country’s new slogan “The Central America you know, the country you’ll love” made perfect sense.

Just last year Honduras was on the fast track to becoming the next Costa Rica, the next hot destination for eco-tourism in Central America. While it was still mostly undiscovered by mass tourism (in a poll done by the Institute of Tourism, only 4% of Americans said they consider Central America for a vacation and only 1% said they even knew of Honduras), adventurous travelers, backpackers, dive-enthusiasts and lovers of Central America were coming in numbers close to half a million people per year.

From 2006 to 2007 arrivals from North America increased by 25%. The next year they grew by 19%. The tourism industry became the largest employer in the nation and brought in $630 million of revenue in 2008.

Then President Zelaya was ousted. There were protests in the capital and curfews were instated. When Zelaya tried to return, the Tegucigalpa airport was closed for a few days. Eventually the situation calmed and life returned to normal. Normal, except that the tourists who supported a large section of the country’s economy were gone. Some hotels saw nearly their entire year’s worth of bookings cancel within a week of June 28th. 35 Habitat for Humanity groups scheduled to come to Honduras decided to go elsewhere. Tour companies looking forward to a full schedule began to wonder how many employees they’d have to let go.

While all of this is bad news for Honduras, it’s one reason why now is the perfect time to visit. With fewer crowds the country truly feels undiscovered, and with all the discounts being offered to lure in tourists, the already low cost of visiting is even lower. Flights from Chicago on Spirit Airlines are just $250 through April. Taca, Delta, American and Continental also operate regular flights to the country and the trip from Miami or Fort Lauderdale to San Pedro Sula is just over two hours.

Where to go and what to see
I’ll be covering a few of these destinations more in depth in coming posts, but the three main areas that most tourists will explore (as Grant mentioned in a previous post about his own trip to the country) are the Northern Coast around La Ceiba, the Bay Islands including Roatan, and Copan Ruinas, near the border with Guatemala.

The most popular spot for tourists on the Northern Coast is La Ceiba, home to dozens of luxurious eco-lodges. For a little more action you’ll want to stay in the city though. There’s a saying in Honduras that “Tegucigalpa thinks, San Pedro works, La Ceiba parties” so if you’re looking for some nightlife, this is the place to be. If you want to get further off the beaten path or explore the culture of the Garifuna people (descendants of black slaves who shipwrecked in the area), head up the coast to Tela or take a short boat ride to the archipelago of Cayos Cochinos

From La Ceiba, the Bay Islands are just a 20 minute flight or a cheap ferry ride away. On the islands of Guanaja, Utila, and Roatan, you’ll hardly feel like you’re in Central America at all. With miles of sandy white beaches, crystal clear water, and some of the cheapest scuba diving around, these islands rival any in the Caribbean, but at a much lower price. While the large Infinity Bay Beach Resort wasn’t quite my style (I prefer small B&Bs and hostels), it was beautiful and I could find no fault with it except for spotty wi-fi service. Situated on the deserted end of a long white beach, it featured a gorgeous infinity pool, beachfront bar and restaurant, and spacious rooms with full kitchens, with rates starting at $200 per night. In West End, more moderate beachfront accommodations can easily be found for $40-$80 per night.

Other than lounging on the beach, snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, jet skiing, or just relaxing with a few beers at a beachfront bar in West End, you can also go horseback riding or spend a day at Gumbalimba Park, an adventure park with Roatan’s best zipline – ten lines that crisscross through the canopy, offering views all the way to the sea, and depositing you along the water’s edge on the beach. After the ziplining you can meet free-roaming monkeys who will descend from the trees to perch on your shoulder.

To get to Copan Ruinas, a small village of cobble-stone streets, you’ll need to take a 3-hour bus (about $10) from San Pedro. Take Dramamine as the road is quite twisty. The town is less than a mile away from the area’s main attraction, the beautifully-restored Mayan ruins at Copan. You can join an organized tour, make the 20-minute walk down a paved path from town, or pay 20 lempiras ($1) to catch a ride to the ruins on a mototaxi, a tiny motorized rickshaw.

The area around the town is known for its coffee production and several plantations welcome visitors for tours and tastings. There is also a nearby hot spring called Luna Jaguar where for $10, you can soak in the healing waters or splurge on a $30 massage in a hut perched above the mouth of the steaming spring.

In town, you can score a hostel dorm bed for $5 or a private room for $8. Rooms at one of the nicest and oldest hotels, the Hotel Marina Copan (where Richard Gere once stayed), start at $90 per night and feature plush beds, free wi-fi, room service, bottled water, mini-fridges and microwaves. The hotel has an on-site restaurant, a large pool in the courtyard, colonial architecture, tile floors and marble bathrooms, and some of the friendliest staff I encountered in the country.

To be honest, before this trip I’d never considered a visit to Honduras and didn’t think I cared much for Central America. All that changed when I saw Copan Ruinas. As I wandered the narrow, cobbled streets, shopped for handmade crafts, ordered up a steaming plate of grilled pork served with beans and corn tortillas (for just $1) from a street vendor, browsed the eclectic farmer’s market, and sat in the town’s central square, watching children play and the occaisional horse clip-clop through town, I fell in love with Copan Ruins and with the people of Honduras.

Everywhere I went in Honduras, I was struck by how beautiful it was, and how empty of other tourists. While the main square in Copan was full of activity, I saw only two other tourists during my time in the town. At a beach bar in Roatan, it seemed we were the only people who didn’t know everyone else there. And at the ruins in Copan, it felt like we had a centuries-old playground all to ourselves.

Costs and cuisine
The cuisine in Honduras is typically Central American. Beans and corn tortillas (which you can buy at 10 for $1 at most markets) figure prominently, especially in the signature baleada – a meal of beans and fresh cheese (and sometimes egg or other ingredients) in a corn tortilla, which sells for about $1. Fried plantains, fresh juice and fruit, avocado, and, along the coast and on the islands, incredibly fresh seafood ,are also inexpensive staples of the cuisine.

The most expensive meal I had, a huge pile of creamy, tender Lobster thermidor, cost about $30. Lobster pasta and fresh shrimp dishes were $10 each, and chicken fajitas or a heaping plate of beans, cheese, avocado and chorizo were $5 and large enough to feed two. Mixed drinks and fruity frozen concoctions ranged from $2.50 to $5, and cold bottles of the local, light Salva Vida beer were $1.50.

While those looking for luxury in Honduras can certainly find it, budget travelers could do very well here on $20-$30 per person per day for food, drinks and accommodations. More middle-of-the-road travelers, those who like to save money but enjoy a certain level of comfort, could easily spend less than $150 for hotel, food and drinks for two people.

Safety and the current situation
While in Honduras, I visited La Ceiba, Roatan and Copan. During that time, I took every opportunity to talk with tourism operators and with people on the street. When asked they all replied the same way. Not only was there currently no danger from the political situation, but in that area, there never had been. In Roatan, one man corrected me: “This isn’t Honduras,” he said, “this is the Bay Islands.” There were no curfews here, no protests, just the same beautiful beaches and pristine diving conditions as always. In Copan I walked around for an afternoon alone and felt as safe or safer than I have in any other country.

When the political situation became unstable nearly all of the unrest happened near the capital of Tegucigalpa, hours inland from the more touristy areas. Even though the US State Department Travel Alert acknowledged that the protests were mainly peaceful and that they were concentrated in the capital, it still warned Americans to steer clear of the entire country, which is kind of like telling someone not to visit Chicago because of the high crime rate in certain areas of the city’s South Side. During my visit in early November, I saw no signs of trouble, save for some political graffiti around San Pedro, but again if graffiti made a place unsafe I’d never venture outside my apartment. Walking around the city and shopping at the large market, I saw no other evidence of unrest and never felt as though I were in danger.

Just a few days ago the Supreme Court of Honduras voted overwhelmingly against allowing Zelaya to return to finish out the final two months of his term (which was cut short when he was escorted out of the country after attempting to interfere with a vote that would allow him to change the constitution and remain President indefinitely). I’m betting the people I met couldn’t be happier with the outcome. In fact every single person I spoke with supported the removal of Zelaya, who they said was “Chavez’s puppet” and had acted illegally. Not only were they disappointed that the US State Department had issued a blanket warning against travel to Honduras, they were also eager were to dispel the myths they felt the media had been spreading about the country’s situation.

A source I spoke with in the country now said since the vote there have been no issues and that, as with any election, while Zelaya’s supporters are no doubt disappointed, the elections were peaceful and protests and disruptions are not expected. That’s good news for the people of Honduras, especially those in the tourist industry who are waiting with bated breath to see how long it will take for the tourists to come back.

In the mean time, they’re doing their best to encourage visitors. Many resorts are posting 2010 rates that are lower than 2009’s. Others are offering two-for-one deals or extending their low season rates throughout high season. The country is safe, beautiful and diverse, the people are warm and welcoming, the prices are low and the tourists are few. So if you are thinking about a trip to Central America, I suggest you consider Honduras – now is the perfect time to go.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views expressed are entirely my own.

Go Green in El Salvador

Latin America is becoming a hot spot for green travel, but most adventure-seekers look to Honduras and Nicaragua … rather than El Salvador, with which they share a border. With the country’s civil war in the past, a destination marketing campaign has been launched, and a new web portal can give prospective travelers a place to start.

Art and anthropology museums and other cultural venues dot the country’s capital, San Salvador. If you want to get off the map, check out Izalco, which has the largest indigenous community in the area. Also stop by the ruins of Joya de Ceren, considered to be the Pompeii of the Maya world, where village remains include a fully preserved Shaman’s hut.

This is your chance to truly get off the tourist grid. Scrap your conventional plans this year and try El Salvador. Different is definitely better.