Guatemala 1998: Country of the Mayans
Beautiful blue Lago Atitlán is surrounded by dormant volcanoes. The one to the left is San Pedro (3020 m). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
At sunset, small clouds gather around the peak of San Pedro Volcano, resembling puffs of smoke, which create an illusion that the volcano is active. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In October 1998, my American friend John Burke and I fly from New York to Guatemala City, where we meet with two friends from Denmark, Søren Lauridsen and Geoff Groom. Guatemala City is not a particularly interesting place, so we hurry on to the former capital of the country, the gorgeous old Spanish colonial town of Antigua, with cobbled streets, pastel-colored houses, arches across the streets, and a huge number of spectacular churches.
The markets in Antigua are a blaze of colours, the women wearing a blouse, called huipil, consisting of several layers of cloth, 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 constitute a part of the daily dress – not only worn at religious festivals or other important events, as one might judge from the beauty of them. The men’s traditional garment is also very distinct, as they wear pyjama-like trousers, often with local patterns and colours.
As with most places in Guatemala, a majority of the inhabitants in this city are direct descendants of the Mayans, who, between c. 600 B.C. and 1500 A.D., created an advanced civilization in large parts of Central America. They built huge cities, some of which had more than 100,000 inhabitants, ruled by despotic kings, whose palace was situated in the centre of the city, together with temples, which were huge limestone pyramids. In these temples, priests made numerous sacrifices – often human – to the Mayan gods. The Mayans, however, 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 being Chichen Itza in Mexico, Tikal in northern Guatemala, Caracol in Belize, and Copàn in Honduras.
Antigua, former capital of Guatemala, is a well-preserved town. This picture shows Arco de Santa Catarina (built 1694), with Volcan Agua (3766 m) in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Houses in Antigua are often pastel-coloured. Note the policeman, armed with an automatic gun. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A market scene in Antigua is a blaze of colours, every woman wearing a huipil with a distinct pattern. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Most rural women in Guatemala weave their own huipil. This one was seen in Antigua. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Perfect sense of balance. – A small hawker in the central square of Antigua. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the Guatemalan highlands, between looming volcanoes, lies a beautiful lake, Lago Atitlán. Numerous villages dot its shores, and in the fertile volcanic soil many different crops are cultivated.
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.
The area around Lago Atitlán is densely populated, fields stretching far up the slopes of dormant volcanoes. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The rays of the setting sun endow the seed-heads of this grass with an orange hue. In the background Volcan San Pedro (3020 m). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This woman in the village of Santa Catarina Palomo, on the shore of Lago Atitlán, is busy weaving a huipil from blue cloth, typical of this village. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Scenes from the colourful market in the highland town of Solola. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Muddy horse race in Todos Santos
November 1, the Catholic Day of the Dead, is approaching, and we intend to spend it in the town of Todos Santos (’All Saints’), where a colourful horse race takes place every year at this time. The inhabitants of this town are also very colourful. The women, of course, wear their huipil, while the men wear characteristic red-and-white-striped trousers.
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.) This means that the horse race becomes a rather muddy affair, but numerous spectators are watching it anyway.
During the horse race in Todos Santos, Guatemala was ravaged by a powerful hurricane, Mitch, and throughout the day rain was pouring. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
During the Catholic Festival of the Dead, the men drink huge amounts of a local alcohol, Quetzalteca, made from sugar cane. Despite the rain, this dead drunk man has fallen asleep in the street. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Drenched dog in Todos Santos, smeared in mud. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rainforest and electromagnetic ruins
John’s main purpose of going to Guatemala is a rather special one. For a number of years, he has been working with electromagnetic energies at old megalithic structures in England and the United States. 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 the ruins, and a large tract of jungle around them, have been declared a national park. The jungle here 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.*
Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), festooned with epiphytes, Tikal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Mayan ruins of Tikal, surrounded by rainforest: The Temple of the Great Jaguar, or ‘Queen’s Pyramid’ (left), and Temple II, or ‘King’s Pyramid’, seen from Temple IV. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Temple of the Great Jaguar. In former times, the jaguar was a fertility symbol in several civilizations of the Americas. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
At sunset, the oldest ruin in Tikal, called El Mundo Perdido (‘The Lost World’), is a popular vantage point for tourists. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
John, measuring airborne electric charge atop El Mundo Perdido. On this old pyramid he got amazing results, supporting his theory that many ancient structures were built to increase crop yields. The pink, blue, and yellow piles are corn seed, placed by us on the pyramid. Our guide Luiz (left) was bored stiff during our activities. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
*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 (1951-2010).
Animal life of Tikal
John and Geoff leave for the U.S. and Europe, but the rainforest of Tikal is so enticing that I choose to stay. Instead, I am accompanied by another friend from Denmark, Lotte Møller Pedersen. We roam the jungle, which is teeming with birds. Among many others, we observe ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata), which is common and very confiding, 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. In ponds and swampy areas, birds like green heron (Butorides virescens), grey-necked woodrail (Aramides cajanea), and northern jacana (Jacana spinosa), which has a spur on its wing, are feeding.
Among the mammals of Tikal, the white-nosed coati (Nasua narica) is the most conspicuous. It is often seen among the ruins, begging food from tourists – or stealing it out of their bags. (Read more about coatis on this website, see Animals: Long-nosed coatis – charming bandits). 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 in the jungle, where 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.
The ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) is 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. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Collared araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus), one of two common toucans in Tikal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The large crested guan (Penelope purpurascens), which belongs to the family Cracidae, is quite common in Tikal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Northern jacana (Jacana spinosa), stretching its wings. Note the spur on the wing. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Tikal, white-nosed coatis (Nasua narica) have become very tame, often begging food from tourists – or stealing it out of their bags. Thirty seconds after the upper picture was taken, the coati was sprinting down the slope, carrying a bag in its mouth. In the bottom picture, a coati is paying a visit to my companion, Lotte, on one of the ruins. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This grey fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) is resting on a Mayan ruin, oblivious of my presence. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) is a fairly large rodent, which is common in Tikal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Central American spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) jump about like acrobats in the trees, using their long tail as a fifth limb. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
We found several tarantulas in Tikal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ugly vultures and black sand
Lotte and I travel to the Pacific coast of Guatemala, at Monterrico, to experience the wildlife of an entirely different habitat: mangrove. Between the mangrove and the sea is a huge sand bar with a popular beach resort. The sand is black, of volcanic origin, worn smooth by the thundering surf of the Pacific Ocean. Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are often perched on poles along the beach, looking for food scraps and dead fish or other animals, which have been washed up on the beach. These vultures are not exactly beauties!
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, hundreds of bladderworts (Utricularia) are growing. (Read more about these fascinating plants on this website, see 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. (Read about the Muscovy duck elsewhere on this website, see Animals: Animals as servants of Man – Poultry).
The sand bar has a surprisingly rich vegetation, which is often enveloped by various climbers, especially tievine (Ipomoea cordatotriloba), a species of morning-glory. In this 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.
Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are not exactly beauties! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Swamp with red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), Monterrico. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is perched on a mangrove tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tievine (Ipomoea cordatotriloba) is a proliferous plant, native to south-eastern United States, Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. In this picture, it is hanging down from a tree near Monterrico. – Read about other members of the morning-glory family on this website, see Plants: The morning-glory family. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Three members of the tyrant-flycatcher family (Tyrannidae), two of which are bright yellow, the great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) (lower part of the picture) and tropical kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) (upper part, right). The greyish birds with long tails are scissor-tailed flycatchers (T. forficatus). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lesser nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis) and the Moon. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Green iguanas (Iguana iguana) in a breeding centre for threatened animals, Monterrico. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An elusive national bird
The term ‘cloud forest’ is applied to a type of montane forest in Central and South America, which, for a greater part of the year, is enveloped in clouds and fog. While 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) – 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. In this forest, I hope to observe this legendary bird.
During the following days, I roam the cloud forest in search of the quetzal. 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, and orchids. I observe very few birds in the forest, and no quetzal. On my last day in the forest, I return to the small lodge at the road side, rather disappointed that I didn’t succeed in observing this enigmatic bird.
I am enjoying a cup of coffee at an outdoor table, 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 where I first saw it, far away or not. But now another problem occurs: The wife of the lodge owner is cooking lunch, the smoke from the cooking 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!
Cloud forest, Biotopo del Quetzal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The trees were festooned with epiphytes, mostly ferns, orchids, and bromeliads, of the pineapple family. This picture shows a species of Werauhia, a bromeliad. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
I also found ground-living orchids in Biotopo del Quetzal, among others this gorgeous crucifix orchid (Epidendrum radicans). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Finally, I managed to get photographs of the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), but, as this picture shows, definitely nothing to brag about! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
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