I don’t want this to sound like a Lonely Planet or Wikipedia post, so I’ll just go over some of the more interesting things I learned. Like PIRATES! Yes, pirates of the Caribbean sounds cliché, but it was a big problem. Spaniards held most of the Caribbean territories and everyone else wanted what the Spanish had, especially the gold and silver from Central and South America. The slave trade was big, too. Here we look at a beautiful fort in the Rio Dulce, Mayan city ruins in Tikal, and a capital city that couldn’t stay put. The number one capital problem? EARTHQUAKES!
The Rio Dulce today is a quiet peaceful place. It feels surreal to take your sailboat up a river into fresh water. Meandering around twists and turns, the scenery keeps changing and one becomes awestruck passing through the canyon. But the river wasn’t always safe. Pirates traveled upriver to raid Spanish holdings for wealth and riverside villages for slaves and supplies. The slaves were sold in the British colony of Jamaica. Fear drove people inland away from the river and the Spaniards built a fort to protect the port of San Antonio de las Bodegas on the south shore of Lake Izabal.
The Castillo de San Felipe de Lara (San Felipe Castle) was built in 1652 and strategically located. To further protect the port from the dreaded English pirates, a chain was strung across the river at night. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I know if our sailboat hit the chain it would take out our rudder and possibly our props. Perhaps even damaging the hulls. We’d be helpless.
The Dutch pirate Jan Zaques terrorized the Rio Dulce constantly in the 1680s. In 1686 Zaques took the fort, destroyed it with fire, and stole munitions and artillery pieces. In 1688 the fort was rebuilt and expanded to resolve the previous deficiencies and peace returned to the Rio.
In 1955 the castle was restored in all its glory, but an earthquake cracked several walls in 1999. And in 2002 the castle was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List.
It is a beautiful fort with gorgeous park grounds around it and is well worth a visit while in Rio Dulce.
Sometimes, you just have to do the tourist thing. Thank you to Bruce on Vidorra for the aerial photos above.
Switching from pirates to Mayans, we visited the Mayan city of Tikal. WOW! This place is a photographer or historian’s dream come true. Only 22% of the city has been restored/uncovered, but that which has is simply amazing.
Here is an unexcavated pyramid. It is a sad story involving a true dilemma. Restorations in Tikal stopped because the restored buildings are suffering from exposure to the elements. The buildings have been compromised by the roots of trees and, once the roots are removed, they just crumble. It rains a lot in Guatemala and exposure to the sun and rain is wreaking havoc on these gorgeous temples. The dilemma is that the only way to truly preserve them is to leave them covered. But what are we preserving them for if not for people to see, enjoy, study, and learn from?
The Mayans built major roads, trails with stone steps, and aqueducts. They harnessed the rain as a fresh water source, using the roads to channel the water into the aqueducts.
The Mayans lived within a hierarchy and built the city accordingly. The inner square was for the royals and the outer rings progressively decreased in class and increased in labor. True to typical Mayan form, the temples are laid out in accordance with the solstice. On these days, then sun perfectly aligns on top of a temple, appearing to burst right out of it. Our guide, Miguel has several photos he took of it, but I didn’t see any online when I googled it.
Tikal became one of the most important Mayan cities, dating back to 400 BC. 682 AD began the last new construction phase. The last stelae was dated 869, but Tikal was already losing its population and importance. After 950, Tikal was all but deserted and nature started to reclaim it.
Excavation began in earnest in the 1960s. Temple II, the Temple of the Mask, may have been a monument to King Jasaw Chan K’awil’s wife. However, no tomb has been found. The carved details are amazing, though, especially if you consider the primitive tools they must have used (compared to today).
I was standing on Temple II, where you see the people in this picture, when I took the pictures of the Great Plaza, below. What an amazing view!
Temple I, or the Great Jaguar Temple, is a funerary pyramid for King Jasaw Chan K’awil, who was entombed in 734 AD.
Don’t judge! Haha! Just kidding. I recommend everyone take this tourist pose picture.
Simply stunning! I have no words that can capture this.
Temple 33 is another funerary temple with King Siyaj Chan K’awiil II entombed and sealed in 457 AD.
This stela still has an incredible amount of detail, most have deteriorated beyond recognition. Sad. Such beautiful work.
Temple V is another funerary temple, but the ruler has not yet been defined. Look at all those stairs! It is so steep and the steps are so tall and shallow, even Mayans would have had to turn their feet sideways on them.
This tourist pose was directed by Miguel, our guide. We should have had Lily from Delphinus in front. She looks so tiny up there and I look so huge. I didn’t do the Mayan city justice, but I’ll just say go if you ever get a chance. You won’t be sorry. … And watch for toucans and howlers monkeys!
The final stop on this history tour is Antigua. When we first arrived in our car, all I saw were narrow streets with lots of walls, making it seem claustrophobic. But the walls hide some true gems. A friend of Jayne’s that lives in the city told us to walk into any open door and just see what you see. We saw courtyards with gardens in full bloom, specialty shops and cafes, and random ruins. Not all the streets feel closed in, by the way.
Guatemala has had a tough time keeping a capital city. The first capital, Villa de Santiago de Guatemala (now known as Tecpan Guatemala), was founded in 1524 but was moved to Ciudad Vieja in 1527, as a result of an attack on Santiago de Guatemala. In 1541, the new capital was flooded when the lagoon in the crater of the Agua Volcano collapsed due to heavy rains and earthquakes. The capital was then moved 6 km (4 mi) to Antigua. However, Antigua was destroyed by several earthquakes in 1773–1774 and the capital was moved again! It has remained in Guatemala City ever since. Fortunately, the walls in Palacio del Ayuntamiento are a meter thick, so it was barely damaged in the earthquake that destroyed Antigua.
Central Park is stunning and surrounded by gorgeous buildings, like San Jose Cathedral. It was originally built in 1541, but badly damaged by earthquakes before being demolished in 1669. The cathedral was rebuilt and consecrated in 1680. By 1743 the cathedral was one of the largest in Central America. However, the devastating 1773 Guatemala earthquake seriously damaged much of the building, though the two towers at the front remained largely intact. These have undergone restoration work, and the cathedral has been partly rebuilt.
The San Francisco church was constructed in 1542, making it the oldest church in Antigua still functioning. It was partly destroyed in multiple earthquakes and undergone much restoration.
Constructed in 1654 by Dominican friars, the San Pedro church and hospital offered medical care to its members. It was rebuilt after the 1976 earthquake destroyed it and is now run by Franciscan friars.
When you walk inside and through the San Jose Cathedral located at Central Park (front pictured 4 photos up), you come to what looks like an open courtyard. It is actually the ruins of the cathedral that have not yet been rebuilt. The cathedral must have been immense. I meandered through the ruins and there was a lot to explore.
It still looks amazing, but I cannot even imagine how it looked in its glory days. There is so much of Antigua that I didn’t have a chance to explore, so I guess we will just have to return!