Monthly Archives: July 2013

Descending Earth’s deepest canyon

Welcome to the Colca canyon, the deepest canyon in the world. Its maximum depth reaches 4160 metres, which is about twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.

Yet again I have to get up at 2.30 am for a 3 am departure. In reality the minivan arrives only around 4, after a couple of calls to the company’s mobile number – although this by now appears a standard operating procedure in these parts ūüôā In the minivan a guide called Pepe greets me. Pepe will turn out quite a character. We are 14 in total in this group: France,¬†Germany, Spain, Switzerland, USA, Mexico, Peru and Estonia are represented. Pepe refers to us by country: “Hey, Germany!” “¬°Espa√Īa!” For obvious reasons I cannot remember the three hours it takes to reach Chivay. After breakfast in Chivay we start our way on the picturesque road along the canyon, which brings us to the Cruz del Condor viewpoint. During this time Pepe starts playing various extracts from the rock scene of the nineties, and more than that, sings along with full voice!

First impressions from the canyon:

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Flight over Lima

A TACA plane brings me from Guatemala City via Salvador (ahh the giant waves of the Pacific below!) to Lima, Peru.

Conquistadores founded Lima in January, when the sun is shining and the sky is clear. However most of the year Lima is covered with thick fog, called garua. This gives the city a rather melancholic character. I was lucky though – my first full day was sunny. Later the fog took over.

During colonial times Lima was the most important city in South America, the capital of the vice-kingdom. Mighty galleons full of cargo left from here to Spain. Today though Rio and Buenos Aires have a strong image in our consciousness, while Lima has no particular associations. To me it appeared rather similar to Buenos Aires, a huge Latin megapolis demonstrating a sharp social divide.

Some photos from a walk around Lima. Plaza de Armas, the main square:

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Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is truly a sight to behold. Three volcanos surround this very deep lake (480 metres), as well as 12 villages named by the Spanish after the twelve apostles. The villages are inhabited by the Maya, who of course speak their own languages. In every village there is a possibility to learn Spanish, living with a local family, and many people will remind you of this and offer you this as you walk along. Of course in truth Spanish is a second language for the locals, though I believe that might be a good thing for a beginner: after all they had to walk the same path of learning as you will. A minibus (another very early start, and it takes three hours from Antigua) took me to Panahachel, from where one can connect by boat to other villages on the lake.

First view of the lake, in Panahachel:

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Guatemala boasts an impressive number of volcanos, however only three of them are active. The closest active volcano to Antigua is Pacaya. It takes about 1,5 hours on breathtaking mountain roads to reach it. I went with an organised tour as this is way easier than to book your own transport. Pacaya is 2552 metres high. An old American school bus left us off about midway to the top. Visitors can only go to about 2300 metres, as the volcano is actually giving out smoke and stones. At that altitude though everything is covered with lava.

The view of the neighbouring volcanos from Pacaya:

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La muy noble y muy leal ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala

My next destination was Antigua. I took night bus from Flores and at 6 am we arrived in one of the many bus stations in Guatemala City. Estonian Foreign Ministry’s website comments that “no area in Guatemala City is safe”, so I felt a bit uneasy about looking for a shuttle to Antigua in a non-descript bus station. However I was not the only one in this situation, and demand gave rise to quick supply. At 7 am we were on our way, looking at the streets of Guatemala City, where men with serious guns guard one and two storey houses.

Antigua is the old colonial capital of Guatemala and one of the main tourist attractions. The grand old name of the capital was¬†La muy noble y muy leal ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala. In colonial times it was the capital of the Vice-Kingdom of Guatemala, which went all the way from South Mexico to Costa Rica, including 6 provinces which became independent states after the fall of the empire. The nobles of every province came here to elect the provincial government and to participate in social life. In 1773 a terrible earthquake struck, the city was destroyed, and the Spanish king decided to move the capital to another city, which became Guatemala City that we know today. The old capital came to be known Antigua, which literally means “old” in Spanish.

Antigua is located in the highland valley, surrounded by mountains and faced with three volcanos at its southern flank.

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Tikal is a majestic place. Chichen Itza and Uxmal impress by their style, elegance, sophistication of late Maya Renaissance. But Tikal is the peak of the Classic Maya civilisation, the imperial capital, majestic in its simplicity.

I got up at 3 am to come to Tikal early, when it is almost empty. I walked at times for half an hour without meeting a single person. During these meditative walks I was reflecting about what we see in Tikal today. As in most ancient cities, today’s Tikal is ersatz, mirage, it has a look that it never had before. In Maya times this was a huge city cleared of all jungle. Pyramids and other buildings were painted with bright colours. Many buildings that look restored to us would appear damaged to a Maya observer, as they lack important elements, arcs, roofs, passages. On the other hand, the way Tikal was first seen by European explorers also has nothing to do with its today’s image. Then it was completely swallowed by the jungle, almost without a trace of any building. Untrained eye would not have even recognised an ancient city, as the temples turn into low mounds and other edifices are swamped by the trees and the soil. In fact, new ancient Maya ruins are still found from time to time, because even from the air one cannot identify them in the middle of the jungle.

Tikal’s top temples:

Temple I
That’s the one we see on most of Tikal’s photos, Temple One, or the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. To me it looks like a phantasmagoric tunnel into the sky.

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El Gran Cenote

Cenotes are enormous sinkholes, resulting from the collapse of limestone due to the passing of water underneath. Yucat√°n is formed by limestone as far as 2 km deep. The water has created whole systems of caves inside the limestone. On the special maps one can see that many cenotes are interconnected by subterranean tunnels. The cenotes played an important role in the life of the Maya – as sources of water as well as ritual sites. Up until this days traces of ancient sacrifices come up in cenotes.

El Gran Cenote is found 3km to the West of Tulum. I biked there through an empty road through the jungle.

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The City of Dawn

Following a last minute change of plans, which I hope will be the norm during this trip, in keeping in line with the idea of freedom, instead of Peru I went to Mexico.

There is a hidden door between Brussels and Latin America. This door is provided by Jetairfly – this company has a flight from Brussels to Canc√ļn that at times is ridiculously discounted. I have already taken this door twice before, to go to Yucat√°n in 2009 and to Cuba in 2011, and I couldn’t resist taking it this time as well.

My first port of call was Tulum, a small town about 120 km to the South of Canc√ļn along the Riviera Maya. There was a good reason for me to go to Tulum. Four years ago on my last day before flying away I went to cenotes of Valladolid, then to the ancient site of Coba and planned to end the day by seeing the ruins in Tulum. However the door was closed right in front of me, about half an hour earlier than it was supposed to, leaving me fuming about the injustice. I promised myself to come back. And here I am!

Such moments happen from time to time as you travel. In 2005 we climbed for several hours the steep ridge of a mountain in Santorini, hoping to see the Ancient Thira, located on its top, which supposedly gave rise to the legend of Atlantis. Little did we know that the Greeks decided to give themselves a holiday, which we only discovered at the very door! A couple of days later we refused to give up, rented a scooter and climbed the other side of the mountain, on a winding mountain road, where the gravity seemed to barely hold us. The view of the Aegean from the top was ever so sweet.

Another time I pedalled for several hours from Stennes megaliths to Scara Brae on the Mainland of Orkney, all across the Western side of the island. Sweaty and excited, I entered the reception of the site, where it was cheerfully announced to me that the site is closed, 15 minutes before the official closing time. No argument could break the Northern respect to the rules. I did take a peek at the site anyway, from the side of the sea, where it is only guarded by a steep physical wall.

The Mayan guard tower oversees the turquoise Caribbean from the heights of Tulum:

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