The markets in Antigua are a blaze of colours. Almost all women wear a colourful blouse, called huipil, consisting of several layers of cloth, which are sown together into intricate patterns. Every village in Guatemala has its own distinct huipil colours and patterns, and almost every woman weaves the cloth for her huipil herself.
These gorgeous blouses are not only worn at religious festivals or other important events, as one might judge from the beauty of them, but constitute a part of the daily dress. The men’s traditional garment is also very distinct, as they wear pyjama-like trousers, often with local patterns and colours.
In their temples, which were huge limestone pyramids, priests made numerous sacrifices, often human, to the Mayan gods. However, these people were also intellectuals, being excellent mathematicians and astronomers, whose calendar, it seems, was more accurate than the Gregorian.
Ruins of ancient Mayan cities are dotted all over southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. The most famous are Chichen Itza in Mexico, Tikal in northern Guatemala, Caracol in Belize, and Copàn in Honduras.
We keep a sharp lookout for an endemic bird, the Atitlán grebe (Podilympus gigas), but in vain. Formerly, this species was quite common in the lake, but it began to decline in 1958, when two species of bass (Micropterus) were introduced into the lake for the game fishing industry. These species of fish, which are highly invasive, ate many of the crabs and fish, which the grebes depended on for food, and the bass even killed grebe chicks.
The Atitlán grebe was also polluted genetically, as a near relative, the pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), immigrated to the lake around the 1960s, and the two species began to interbreed. The population of the Atitlán grebe declined from c. 200 in 1960 to 80 in 1965.
Conservation efforts of biologist and author Anne LaBastille (1933-2011) had the effect that the population increased to 210 individuals by 1973. Unfortunately, a powerful earthquake in 1976 drained the area, where the grebe had recovered, causing the species to become extinct around 1990.
Not far from the lake is the town of Solola, in which an interesting and colourful market takes place every Tuesday and Friday.
Unfortunately, our visit coincides with an unusually powerful hurricane, Mitch, which ravages Central America between October 29 and November 3, dumping extreme amounts of rain. (Unofficial reports later said about 1,900 mm.)
Throughout the horse race, rain is pouring, and it becomes a rather muddy affair. Nevertheless, it is carried out as planned, and numerous spectators are watching it, despite the rain.
He was wondering why these, often gigantic, structures were built at all, and why they were always erected on spots with high electromagnetic energies. His work has led him to believe that these structures, which were often built during periods of famine, were erected to increase the yield of crops.
He now wants to visit the Mayan ruins in Tikal National Park to carry out measurements of telluric ground currents and airborne electric charge at some of these ancient megalithic structures.
When the ruins of Tikal were re-discovered in the 1850s, they were overgrown by thick rainforest, but most ruins have now been cleared of vegetation. Today these ruins, and a large tract of jungle around them, have been declared a national park. This jungle is host to an incredible wealth of plants and animals, among them the jaguar (Panthera onca), which was a fertility symbol of the Mayans.
As electromagnetic energies are strongest just before dawn, John, Geoff and I set out with a local guide, Luiz, at 3:30 in the morning. In the dark tropical night, the dense rainforest is looming over us. Decaying vegetation emits a distinct smell, mixed with the fragrance from flowers and herbs. Insects call incessantly, and a coughing roar announces that a jaguar is on the prowl.
Even at this early hour, our clothing is drenched in sweat, sticking to our bodies. To catch our breath, we take a break on a wall between two of the Mayan ruins, brooding silently in a moonlit fog, The Temple of the Great Jaguar, popularly called ‘Queen’s Pyramid’, and Temple II, called ‘King’s Pyramid’.
Re-entering the pitch-dark rainforest, we follow the winding trail, emerging onto a small plateau, known as El Mundo Perdido (‘The Lost World’). At this moment, John’s readings of airborne electric charge, recorded by his electrostatic voltmeter, suddenly leaps way beyond anything he has ever measured before.
With the deep-throated roars of golden-mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata), surrounding us in the pre-dawn darkness, we watch the already striking readings growing even stronger, as we approach the Lost World Pyramid, then rising again as we ascend its oversize steps.
[As it later turned out, John’s results from this pyramid were so convincing that he felt he had enough material to publish a book about his ground-breaking theories concerning natural earth energies. This book, which I assisted him in producing, is titled Seed of Knowledge, Stone of Plenty. You may read the entire book elsewhere on this website, see Books. Other of John’s theories are dealt with on the page People: John Burke.]
The rainforest is teeming with birds, including the splendid ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata), a rare gamebird of Central America, which has been hunted almost to extinction. In Tikal, however, it is very confiding, as no hunting takes place here.
We also observe two species of fruit-eating toucans, the large keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and the smaller collared araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus), groove-billed ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris), brown jay (Psilorhinus morio), and the large crested guan (Penelope purpurascens), which belongs to the family Cracidae.
Various birds are feeding in ponds and swampy areas, including green heron (Butorides virescens), grey-necked woodrail (Aramides cajanea), and northern jacana (Jacana spinosa), the latter having a spur on its wing.
Another confiding species is the grey fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), which we also often observe among the ruins. A fairly large rodent, the Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata), is rather common on the forest floor, whereas bands of Central American spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) jump about like acrobats in the trees, using their long tail as a fifth limb.
Morning and evening, the forest reverberates from the incredibly powerful call of the howler monkeys, and one evening we observe a relative of the coati, a kinkajou, or honey bear (Potos flavus), feeding in a tree near our lodge.
Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are often perched on poles along the shore, looking for food scraps, dead fish, or other animals, which have been washed up on the beach. They are not exactly beauties! This species is widely distributed in America, from the south-eastern United States southwards to central Chile and Uruguay.
We rent a boat with a local man to steer it through a bewildering array of water channels in the mangrove, where the most conspicuous species is red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), whose aerial roots arch gracefully into the sticky mud along the waterways. In areas of stagnant water, we encounter hundreds of bladderworts (Utricularia). These fascinating plants are described in depth on the page Plants: Carnivorous plants.
In the mangrove, we observe birds like osprey (Pandion haliaetus), great white egret (Ardea alba), tricoloured heron (Egretta tricolor), yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea), and the large, black Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata), which, in its domesticated form, has been introduced to most parts of the world. This duck is dealt with in depth on the page Animals – Animals as servants of Man: Poultry.
In the scrubland, we observe three members of the tyrant-flycatcher family (Tyrannidae), the great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) and two species of kingbird, scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) and tropical kingbird (T. melancholicus). In the evening, lesser nighthawks (Chordeiles acutipennis) fly about over the vegetation, hunting for insects.
We pay a visit to a breeding centre, where threatened animals like green iguana (Iguana iguana), spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus), and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) are reared, later to be released into nature.
Whereas Lotte travels to Honduras to visit the Copàn Mayan ruins, I board a bus, bound for a cloud forest named Biotopo del Quetzal. The word quetzal refers to a gorgeous species of trogon, the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). This gorgeous bird is the national bird of Guatemala, whose image is found on the country’s flag and coat of arms, and which also lends its name to the Guatemalan currency.
During the following days, I roam the cloud forest, hoping to observe this legendary bird. The vegetation here is indeed lush, the huge trees festooned with epiphytes: mosses, lichens, ferns, and various seed plants, mostly bromeliads, of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae), and orchids.
I observe very few birds in the forest, and no quetzal. On my last day in the area, I return to the small lodge at the road side, rather disappointed that I didn’t succeed in observing this enigmatic bird. I take my seat at one of the outdoor tables to enjoy a cup of coffee, when the lodge owner, who is fiddling with something in his car engine, points to a group of trees, uttering only one word: “Quetzal!”
There, high up in a tree, sits a gorgeous male resplendent quetzal, and, what is more important, it is not moving. Here is my chance to get photographs! I sneak closer to the tree, but from this angle a photograph of the bird is not possible. I shall have to do with pictures from the road, far away or not.
Now, however, another problem occurs: The wife of the lodge owner is cooking lunch, and the smoke from the cooking is drifting past the tree, where the bird is sitting, making my pictures hazy. I must wait for breaks in the puffs of smoke to take my pictures, but luckily the quetzal is still not moving. (Trogons are rather lethargic birds.)
Finally, I manage to get a few photographs, but definitely nothing to brag about!