Article - Lynne Douglas - Nicaragua and Mayan Temples

Bob & Lynne Douglas's Great Americas Sojourn
Chapter 13 - Nicaragua and Mayan Temples
By Lynne Douglas

The Wanderer in Central AmericaSpanish invasion/colonisation, rebellion, civil war, guerrillas, major earthquakes, hurricane Mitch, filibusters, pirates and rum – that’s Nicaragua. Let’s do the rum first. It is to the rum world what Islay single malts are to the whisky world. It’s smooth with a multi-layer flavour. Nicos drink it, ceremoniously, with soda and lime juice. I prefer it straight.

Pirates, (yes, from the Caribbean), have been making forays into Nicaragua for time immemorial. There are still pirates today, but now they drive taxis. You need to get up very early in the morning to stay one step ahead of them. Some of them are drunk on cheap rum. In fact a lot of the people are drunk on cheap rum. Remember Robert Lewis Stevenson’s book "Treasure Island":


"Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum

Long John Silver with his peg leg and parrot wouldn’t stand a chance against these taxi drivers.

The Spanish also wreaked their havoc to raise booty to take home to Europe to provide their own country with funds to get down to the serious business of knocking seven bells out of their neighbours. Filibusters have also had a go, in particular William Walker, who declared himself, with the backing of his private army, President of the Republic of Nicaragua in 1856. He had a keen eye for business – a passage between the Caribbean and the Pacific oceans was considered through Nicaragua up river from the Caribbean, across the huge Lago Nicaragua and out to the Pacific the other side. Panama won that economic battle. William Walker was eventually executed for his troubles by Honduras.

Granada is a wonderful compact Spanish colonial city on the shores of Lago Nicaragua. Some of the buildings look like they have been hit by mortar shells, earthquakes and a hurricane or two, mainly because they have. The city is steadily being restored to original, sometimes with and often without due regard to the ever present danger of more earthquake damage. Sadly, liquid drainage from houses runs into street gutters, which in turn run into open sewers which run into Lago Nicaragua which people use for swimming.

Granada is where we found our very own Faulty Towers. The internet website told of agua calientes (hot water), wifi internet access in all rooms, swimming pool, air con. There was a pool. The wifi had gone down weeks ago and they expected the new service "soon". There was no air-con, we were told to just open the door for cross ventilation, which works if there is a corresponding opening the other side of the room. The water was tepid, when we could get it to crawl out of the taps. Breakfast was included, if you like warm watermelon prepared by not too clean hands.

All that was left was the tellie, which went off when the electricity went down. The expression "pitch black" just about described the situation we were in. We were sitting a couple of feet apart and couldn’t see each other. There was no point trying to get up and find out what was what – we would have been totally lost in seconds. The proprietor – we think Mussolini was his name – turned up with a candle and six matches, and an assurance that he was on the same circuit as the hospital so we would have electricity long before the rest of Granada. It was hysterical.

Nicaragua, like every country we have driven through, was not what we expected. We thought it would be verdant and green and it is in fact dust dry on the western side of the volcanic mountain range that runs up the spine of the country. The rains are yet to start so no doubt it will green up again. We have no idea what the eastern side looks like, most of it is impenetrable by motor car. Active volcanoes are still a running theme. It is poorer than we thought, and dirtier with a veneer of garbage wherever we go. The horse, donkey, mule and bicycle are the major means of transport. Firewood provides fuel for cooking.

It is not full of private enterprise policemen who consider getting into and out of your vehicle to be a traffic offence, as one pundit described them. We were never stopped by the police, they are honest – they can loose their job for accepting or asking for bribes. There are security officers, army personnel and police very much in view, all gun-toting. The Nicos are smiley and helpful. The roads are not a disaster but really good. There are road signs so there’s no danger of getting lost forever in the backblocks. Driving standards are acceptable if they weren’t drunk. Where is the crime ridden Nicaragua that our Foreign Office warns us of?

We did meet with demonstrations with road blocks that delayed us for a couple of hours. They were protesting about the rising cost of petrol, now selling for US$4 a gallon. We told one of the protestors that in Europe we pay US$10 a gallon. He didn’t believe us. Apparently, similar demonstrations were coordinated in Honduras and Guatemala. All they achieved was to delay their fellow complainers. No self respecting commodity futures trader on Wall Street is going to take one scrap of notice of poor people already struggling to make a living, griping about the price of petrol. Wall Street will get richer, people at the coal face will get poorer.

We also found our perfect hotel in Nicaragua, just outside Estreli on the Pan America heading north. It’s a typical colonial style hotel with central courtyard and resident pet toucan that answers to the name of Diego. It’s cool, beautifully furnished and well run by an ex-pat Welshman and his Latin American wife. He has lived and worked in Latin America and considers Nicaragua to be the safest Central American country to live in and to visit. We later found out that El Salvador (yes, the "surely you’re not thinking about going there are you") is safer still with a scrupulously honest police force.

Central America has had an unjustifiably bad press. This makes me very angry; we planned our route according to information we found in guide books, on the internet and what our Foreign Office posts on their website and yes, foolishly, to other people’s ideas of what Central America is all about. We are hearing time and again from travelling Americans that it is more dangerous in California than it is in Central America. We still haven’t made it through to California yet, so I suppose I should hold my tongue until we get there, but so far, it all seems "normal" to us. Normal being Latin American normal.

The closer to the Honduran border we travelled the more mountainous the terrain and the more tobacco we saw growing. Where previously we saw irrigated rice fields and rice processing, we now drove past tobacco processing plants and cigar factories. One other phenomenon – the further away we got from the equator the more people wore Panama hats so that nearly every man wore one, all pristine creamy-white despite the rest of their clothes being scruffy. We must ask them how they do it because our Tilly hats are scruffy and nearly able to walk off on their own. The sweat bands are permanently filthy despite constant washing.

The heat is quite overwhelming and we wear the lightest of our specialist travel clothing, yet we see some Nicos in shirts, with vests underneath, and sometimes even people in sweaters, a most appropriate name. When on the move it’s not too bad but stand in a queue of traffic, or at a border post where there is no shade for two hours, like at the Nicaragua/Honduras border, and things get mighty prickly. This was the second of the four difficult borders. I had to sit in the car the whole time fending off amateur photographers who couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t get out of the car so that they could have their photos taken sitting inside it. One grossly overweight border official did no more than sit on the driver door for his picture taking. One prolonged blast of the horn (dual windtones) plus a big helping of tongue pie made him blush and find a quiet corner to recover. Sometimes you just have to be assertive. He was so big we could have lost the door.

Honduras is prettier than Nicaragua with the same mountainous landscape but this time covered in pine forest. It is also the world’s fourth largest exporter of bananas. We didn’t see many plantations so maybe they are over on the Caribbean side of the central mountains. Poverty still prevails but with much less litter, except around the capital city Tegucigalpa. Americanisation was more in evidence with MacDonalds, Wendys and even shopping malls in the more prosperous areas.

We have come to realise that there are two economies in Honduras. One is the official economy generated by those who employ and those who work in paid jobs. There is a second roadside economy that supplements and often is the sole source of income for the rural poor. Wherever the roadside verge is wide enough you find rough timber and plastic roofed stalls selling everything and anything – building stone, roof tiles, bags of slaked lime ("oh, and on your way back from work, just pick up a bag of lime will you"), bananas by the ton, pineapples, mangoes, moonshine, hammocks, ceramics, textiles, garden plants, religious artefacts, armadillos on sticks (to eat), parrots, fish (freshly caught one hopes or cooked, depending on how long they had been exposed to full sun) and fast food that we would never consider putting in our mouths.

Honduras is a small country and you can easily transit in one day. However we were heading specifically for the Mayan ruins of Copan. Finding secure parking for the TC was a hot and sweaty episode we are trying to forget. Eventually we settled on a pricier hotel just on the strength of a guarded car park. It was a lovely hotel, we must admit, but a budget buster.

We chose such a hot day to visit the ruins, even the locals were bitching. It’s a one kilometre walk from the town of Copan Ruinas to the Mayan city but not too bad in the morning. The site has a museum where many of the most vulnerable stone artefacts are housed, with a reconstruction of the Rosalila temple. We picked up an English speaking guide, a fine specimen of a young man who learned his English in the USA. He was visibly melting. There is around another 100 years of excavation work to be done here - at least. There were sixteen Mayan rulers at Copan, each ruler built a new temple, not adjacent to the previous, but on top of and surrounding the previous one. They just kept going up. Having temple 16 built over and round the Rosalila proved to be the best thing that could have happened in terms of preserving Rosalila for ever.

Mayan society was run, like most, on the feudal system with a ruler plus a minority elite class who dominated the poor majority. It was the ruler’s responsibility, along with his priests, to ensure good crops and food in bellies. Human sacrifice performed the function of third party insurance. Copan’s ruins relate to occupation between 700AD to 1200AD. Then it all stopped, along with the Mayan culture throughout Central America. Mayan cities were all abandoned at roughly the same time. Archaeologists now think that a prolonged drought led to the dispersion of the Mayan people to find better conditions to support themselves. Despite the last rulers best efforts at appeasing the Gods, Mayans couldn’t get their heads around the notion of natural events and disasters. Spanish colonisers in the sixteenth century found a leaderless, scattered population and abandoned cities. They were easy pickings.

We also did a tour of the tunnels, an underground system of walkways left by archeologists as they dug their way to reveal the Russian Dolls of temples, so you can see parts of the actual Rosalila temple through viewing windows. New temples weren’t built on top of existing temples to preserve them for posterity. The new ruler just didn’t want to destroy the good vibes of previous rulers, and anyway, why throw away a perfectly good mound so that you can build yours that bit closer to your Gods.

Copan is built with features that you find in all Mayan ruins, the most interesting being a ball park, set out in a T shape and with rules that suggest a mix of football, that’s football, not soccer, and volleyball. Instead of goal mouths the heavy rubber ball had to hit a series of stone parrots heads; the ball could be propelled via the foot, elbow, arm, shoulder or any other body part but not picked up in the hands. To be sacrificed to the Gods was the highest accolade, an honour. The poor sod who was declared Man of the Match was sacrificed by having his heart cut out while still alive. You won’t see that on Match of the Day.

Lynne Douglas 2008

Back to Chapter 12 - Costa Rican volcanos Forward to Chapter 14 - Guatemala and Fun Guys