Nothing can prepare you for the elaborate vibrancy of the Guatemalan Easter celebrations! I had read that Guatemala, Nicaragua and Columbia put on the most impressive processions in Latin America. With this in mind I had decided to stay at Lake Atitlan where I had been camping for the last 2 months. No need to be driving on congested roads during the holidays and run the chance of not finding a campsite when I was already in the best location possible. There were 3 villages and towns around the lake near me that had celebrations worth attending. And so on the advice of ex-pats and veteran visitors, four of us woke up early on Good Friday to catch the 9:00 am procession at the small village of T’sununa. When we arrived we were greeted with the main street covered with patterned designs in brightly colored saw dust, making a carpet to pave the way for the procession. This is called “alfombra”. We were wowed by the intricate designs and the sheer work it took to make it.

As the procession slowly made its way towards us we could make out one float preceded by young boys in religious gowns swinging incense holders. Villagers were walking alongside. At regular intervals, the procession would stop, they would lower the float and the crowd would kneel in prayers. It was beautiful to see an entire village commune together. We were so pleasantly surprised by the celebration’s richness of this isolated village in the hills of Sololà that we all decided to quickly go back to camp, pick up a few items and take the boat to San Pedro across the lake to see their noon procession. We knew it would be bigger and a bit more ostentatious than T’sununa, and were eager to see the difference. As we entered camp, everyone was a buzz and decided to join us.

Watch my YouTube video of the T’sununa procession here:

San Pedro is a small town, alive with hostels, restaurants, touristic shops and excursion agencies.  It is of a different size and feel than T’sununa.  Already we had noticed a new crowd of visitors from Guatemala City coming to spend Easter at the lake, as opposed to the usual crowd of international backpackers and overlanders.

As we climbed to the top of the hill we were greeted with the procession already under way. It was quite impressive by the sheer number of attendants lining the procession, the size of the floats and the number of people needed to carry them. They too would stop at interval for prayers but very few in the crowd would kneel and pray, even though it was a great majority of Guatemalans and Mayans, colorfully dressed in traditional wear or in their Sunday best.

We didn’t get to see the alfombras in their glory before they were destroyed by the procession, but it was quite fun to see the children running behind and collecting flowers and colored saw dust. We followed the festivities all the way to the church and watched each float slowly making its way up the steps and inside the church. There was a festive ambiance with street vendors selling ice-cream, sodas and such. Everyone was smiling and happy. It was beautiful in a completely different way than T’sununa.

Watch my YouTube video of the San Pedro procession here:

Our next stop was the highly recommended village of San Juan La Laguna where we could watch the villagers create the alfombras for their night’s procession. Even with all the descriptions in the world, nothing could have prepared us for the magic and the emotional intensity one feels in the presence of such a sight! The entire village was in the streets, working on decorating the walkway for the procession. Already many arches had been raised with a variety of fruit hanging from them.  When we arrived the preliminary carpet measurements and rough sketches with chalks were underway in some areas.

We noticed a variety of ways to make alfombras. Artists would reproduce a picture of their own original work, freehand – with dyed saw dust. Stencils were passed around and friends and families would gather to decorate one street section together. There were also sections carpeted with fresh pine needles and decorated with a variety of fresh blossoms, halved fruits and vegetables.  Some even used more modern supplies such as noodles, cotton, wrappers and plastic decorations. Regardless of the raw material used, the end product was absolutely stunning. We would walk around at regular intervals and watch works of art in various stages of completion. Even when we thought, by our standards, one piece was complete, more was added, such as bouquets of flowers, candles etc…

The young and the old worked together, Mayans and tourists kneeling side by side, laughing and celebrating together. One got a wonderful sense of accomplishment and of belonging upon seeing a completed work, knowing that you helped in its making.

Watch my YouTube video of the alfombras in progress here:

It was moving, awe inspiring and I couldn’t help think that if every town and village in the world were to do this, but once a year, there wouldn’t be any more wars!

As the night fell and the art was mostly completed by now, throngs of people came to walk the streets and admire the work. It was festive and respectful all at once, with none of the drinking, swearing or rough housing that can sometimes be seen on such occasions.

Watch my YouTube video of the finished alfombras here:

The San Juan La Laguna procession, by tradition, is a nocturnal event and starts at 10:00 pm. We gathered at the Church plaza where the floats were getting ready to start. It was wonderful to be able to walk up close and see the details of each float and feel the anticipation in the air heavy with incense. And then they lifted the floats up, one after the other and seeing this was quite impressive. The chanting started and the swaying march allowing the carriers to move forward in an orderly and safe fashion begun.  Seeing the start of the procession allowed me to really understand the sheer work that goes into the walking part. Because of the length and size of the floats, guys would be at the front either pushing back to slow them down, or sideways to help make a turn. For the women’s floats someone would be in charge of timing the lifting periods and men would relieve the women at regular intervals. In San Pedro in particular I noticed than when the floats were waiting their turn to enter the church, men would carry the women’s floats and watching their bent backs and facial expressions, I knew that they were each shouldering a great load.

Watch my video of the San Juan La Laguna procession here:

After the procession left the church plaza, Dub, Sheila and I were ready for our tuk-tuk ride back home, but fate would have it that on its way out of town we were unable to cross the road because the procession was just coming around the corner. So it was a great pleasure for me to see it again, this time in the streets with the entire congregation, the lights and night’s atmosphere. This procession was very sweet with the women singing the most beautiful songs, one of which has been in my head ever since.

This was a most enchanting and magical full day, and looking back the enfoldment of it couldn’t have been more perfect. Had we seen San Juan first, T’sununa’s celebration would have paled in comparison and we might not have appreciated it to its full measure. Each procession was unique and special and I am so glad I got to see all three as they each represented a different demographic, a different tradition may be and occurred at a different time of day. I have to say though that the highlight of the day was definitively the making of the alfombras in San Juan La Laguna.

20170414_173857Until next time my new road amigos!

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This catchy little phrase is actually Belize’s national slogan.

Belize was a total surprise to me. Admittedly I knew nothing about it, other than the fact that it was a former British colony and that English remains the official language of this small country bordering Mexico to the North and Guatemala to the West.  And so it was quite a shock that upon crossing the border with Mexico, despite it being just a line in the sand, a completely new culture was awaiting. I came to quickly realize that I was now in the Caribbean, with its unique culture, its music and its cuisine! Even the landscape had transformed into brightly colored homes lining the streets, vast expanse of cane sugar crops and luxuriant jungle.20170211_163945

The principal reason for my visiting Belize was to pick up my daughter Tiffany at the international airport and drive to Tikal in Guatemala, barely stopping along the way. However, an overlander I had met in Oaxaca had mentioned that I should go to the ATM caves when in Belize. Upon Ingrid’s instructions I googled “ATM caves, Belize” and was astounded to discover what made the Actun Tunichil Munkal caves so special! I decided then and there that they were a must see, especially since Tiffany is doing her Master’s practicum in caving! I wanted it to be a surprise for her birthday, I only gave her a list of shoes and clothing that she needed to bring. She was hardly off the plane that she was jumping up and down like a kid at Christmas saying: “can I guess what’s your surprise? Is it the ATM caves?” My jaw just dropped. How did you guess? I asked. I only learned about them a few weeks ago. Well, she said, you forget that I now work with caving guides, these caves are famous in this small and specialized community. My  boss told me that the best cave in the world is in Belize and I figured you knew me well enough to have learned about it!” Well, that blew the surprise away but her enthusiasm was the best reward ever!

I had decided that we were going to spend the night at the “Baboon Sanctuary” in the hope to see howler monkeys, locally named baboons. We were rewarded by arriving just before dusk and being greeted by local guides. Russell asked us if we wanted to hear the monkeys and took us for a short walk into the jungle bordering the property. He started making noises, imitating them and all of a sudden the forest came to life! Way up in the trees we saw them. They were much bigger than I thought, all black. Only the males howler. It was quite the vocal display! There even was a mom and her baby! We thanked Russell for this and decided to hire him for a jungle walk first thing in the morning in the hope of seeing more monkeys, other jungle animals, such as Belize’s national animal the tapir, may be a jaguar or two, parrots – but definitively not snakes! At 7:00 am we met up with Russell, a tall black man with the most unusual eye color hard to describe: a pale milky, golden green. It is quite unique and on a dark person absolutely stunning!  We later found out that it is common in these parts.  He greeted us with a fly swatter made from the beaten fiber of the coconut tree, the part from which the fruits hang most particularly. It will last you 10 years, he said. Later on he showed us how to make a temporary swatter from  a bundle of long veiny leaves of a palm-looking bush. The leaves are shredded against the long spines of the “Bastard” tree, aptly named after the expletives of British soldiers upon putting their hands on its trunk for support!

Despite the fact that no land animals were to be seen that morning, we were rewarded with the sight of mealy parrots and the wealth of knowledge that Russell had on the local flora and shared with us upon hearing of our interest in this field. We ate termites, we were shown how the soldier fire ant can be used to stitch a wound and Russell even delighted us with sharing a trick to enhance one’s vision in the jungle.” I never walk in the jungle without it” he said, ‘it helps me see the animals and the plants better”. Well no wonder! He used the dew collected in a flower as eye drops and all of a sudden the jungle, usually a sea of green on green, became vivid with brilliant colors! Flowers would stand out, shades of green revealed themselves in subtle contrasts allowing us to see shapes and depth better. The effect was spectacular and without any side effects, just enhanced vision and at night too. We were still under its effect when we visited Tikal a few days later!

After our magical jungle tour we headed for San Ignacio, a pretty touristic town, close to the border with Guatemala, and departure point for the ATM explorations.

We were lucky to find a beautiful camping spot at the Mana Kai campground. The owner was extremely helpful in recommending a guide for the ATM caves, and later on his own veterinarian came to the campsite to treat Marley who had developed a skin rash. Now that’s service!20170215_074102

Our guide showed up in his personal vehicle at 8:00 am the next morning, with 2 passengers already onboard. Marjan and Wim, an elderly couple from the Netherlands were to be our adventure companions for the day.

The Actun Tunichil Munkal (ATM for short) caves were as impressive and memorable as described in the guide books. It was quite the physical challenge, but that was the fun of it. We had to swim cross 3 rivers even before arriving at the mouth of the caves! We then waded in the subterranean river for 3 hours, at times walking or swimming in the water, at other times climbing over rocks. Near the end of the tour we removed our shoes and climbed a ladder to an upper terrace where remnants of ceremonies could still be found. Pottery and even human remains were still intact, preserved in the floor of the cave! To me it is unbelievable to think that this archeological site is open to the public. I would not be surprised if it closes its doors with the next 10 years. Already damages incurred by tourists could be seen.  No one is allowed to take photos, not for secrecy or exclusivity, but to preserve the sight. We were shown pottery and a human skull that were crushed under the foot of a person stepping back to take a picture. The archeological site was simply delineated by a red ribbon on the ground! Easy to miss and offering not much protection to the articles it encircled. Another form of deterioration was the surface of the walls where many hands had touched, had lost its delicate micro-organic composition. One could definitively distinguish between the “live” and the “dead” surfaces.

Our guide was a wealth of knowledge, stories and historical facts and made our exploration all the more interesting. While we were taking our time, we could see the busloads of tourists come and go, doing the caves in one hour. I am grateful that we had a private tour, but by the end of 3 hours, we were exhausted and ready to go back to the parking lot for a well-deserved lunch and the compulsory commemorative pictures of course. What a blessing to have shared this experience with Tiffany. Being a caving guide in training she was also very helpful to Marjan and me. We were in good hands indeed. Wim decided to go back shortly after entering the caves. He had made a brave effort to try, but as Marjan explained, he suffers from claustrophobia. He was escorted back and was waiting for us when we came out, happy to have had the time the explore the area and see the throngs of tourists come out of the cave’s mouth.

The next day, after the veterinarian’s visit to treat Marley, we headed to Guatemala and were pleasantly surprised to find out that the border was a mere 45 minutes’ drive. The crossing was easy and without complications. I think it was an interesting experience for my daughter to cross a border by vehicle, it is completely different from crossing at an airport.

We had spent 3 days in Belize crossing it widthwise. Apparently, the further south one drives, the more Caribbean the culture becomes. We didn’t explore any of the beautiful cayes (pronounced “keys” = islands) famous for their marine reserves and scuba diving opportunities. I was told that Belize was THE place to learn scuba diving. The people were very warm and for the first time in months of traveling I noticed a strong immigrant population. Other than for the tourists in Mexico, there are virtually no other ethnic groups. In Belize, the Chinese population is very visible and it seems that they own all of the local supermarkets, big and small. The vegetation in Belize is absolutely stunning and the ocean, a light turquoise that clued me in that yes, I was indeed in the Caribbean!

I would definitively return to Belize, given the chance, and take the time to discover more of this wonderful country.

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!