September 2014: And Thanks For All The Fish

After the storms of August, the blue sun-shiny September days were a blessed relief. This is low season here in Bocas, but I have no idea why: the weather is incredible, the prices are low, the chitras aren’t too crazy… it seems like the best time of the year to visit.

 

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The back garden, and not a cloud in the sky.

In a way I feel like I’m finally getting to grips with the place. For instance, here’s a coconut I split in half with a machete with just one blow. Felt like I was Bear Grylls or something, only better and not staying in a Travelodge.
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I took time out to visit Bocas, always on the look out for growlers…
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And terror…
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But it never stays sunny for long in Bocas. Here’s me on a wet Thursday afternoon totally soaked to the skin. I had gone to Bocas Town to pick up a couple of CSers but they changed their minds at the last minute.
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I drove my boat back from Bocas in the pouring rain, swearing and cursing the whole way. And it cost me $25 in fuel. Yeah, I changed my listing after that, making it super-difficult to request to surf my couch unless you actually bother to read up about the place before you arrive.

One of the ideas I had in my head was that I would write while I was on the island. Not only do I have to get the book about The Odyssey Expedition written, I have over 50 other writing projects on the go in one form or another – books, movie scripts, pitch documents etc.
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Unfortunately on the trip back from Bocas to pick up the bastard CouchSurfers who didn’t even turn up my external keyboard (the FGHJ keys don’t work on my laptop) got wet and refused to ever work again so I elected to relieve my frustration by going HULK SMASH WOOHAHAHAHAHA.

But yeah, no writing for a bit I guess.

Happily I did get some nice CSers in September, ones that actually bothered to turn up! Silvia from Madrid and her bf stayed for one night…
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Then I had the pleasure of hosting the lovely Heather from the UK (a friend of a friend).

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Towards the end of the month I hosted Marta and Leo from Argentina and Spain. They were not only great cooks…
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They also seemed to have the ability to attract dolphins… on our trip to Dolphin  Bay we saw more of our delphine buddies in a hour than I had seen since I got here in May.

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The Flipper Family.
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No zoom, he was really this close to the boat.
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Aww!! CUTE!
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Up…
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Up…
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…and away!!
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We were very excited, as you can see.
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Mind the jellyfish Marta!

It was a magical experience and a great way to round off the month, which, looking back, was all rather relaxing compared with what October, November and December had in store…

August 2014: (Couch) Surf’s Up!

August came around as it often does. Lots of thunderstorms but also some amazingly sunny days.

I started really getting to grips with the whole “responsible for an entire island” malarkey. Bill and Janis have been wonderful with their advice and wise council – there’s so much to do! Solar panels, plumbing, gardening, building, fettling the boat. With all that I’ve got going on I’ll be amazed if I get around to posting this blog before Christmas. 2015.

Being on my own is a bit weird, I’m defo not cut out to be a hairy hermit.

A week into August, my friends Dave and Victoria came over to stay on Jinja Island. Dave helped me with the chicken house that Ian had left a little worse for wear…

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I just blew on it!!

A little tap with a crowbar and it’ll be right as rain.

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Bugger.

 

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DIY Dave to the rescue!!

 

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That’s a nicer floor than in my house! Lucky chuckers.

 

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Tori working up a sweat posting pics on Facebook.

 

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Fantastic!! Now all we need is to put the old roof back on…..

 

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…and the siding…

 

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Hey Presto!

With the flush toilet installed and the chicken house sorted it was time to declare open Jinja Island OPEN FOR BUSINESS!!

Just a few days later I had a guy called Max come and take me up on my offer of staying on a private island for free – I had my first CouchSurfer!

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Max from Amsterdam: Jinja Island Surfer #1!

On my journey around the world I CouchSurfed with dozens of people – I quite simply would not have been able to complete my journey without their help, and now it was time for me to pay off my CouchSurf karma… pay it forward so to speak.

A few days later I found myself hosting Felix and Steffi from Germany.

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And then Conrad from the UK…

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Conrad goes ape for my Jinja Island coconuts.

Who was joined by Timothée from France…

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Timothée and Conrad pose for what rapidly became the classic Jinja Island photograph.

And finally, at the end of the month, Guillaume and Emeline, also from France.

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We stayed up late, drank Panama beer, played cards, talked bollocks and marvelled at the starry starry nights that only come from living on an island 9 degrees north of the equator.

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Yay Couchsurfing!

I do miss Casey though. It’s not the same without her.

July 2014: Adventures in Solitude

I returned from Glasto with only a few days to run around and see everyone. The next day, my brothers Alex and Mike accompanied me and regulars Brian and Soraya for the Fact film quiz.

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Which we won.

The next day I did the rounds, dropping in to Chester see a very heavily preggers Lucy, her husband Tim and baby Saul. Tim wants to call the new baby Saul II: Saul Harder.

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I do hope he gets his way.

Then it was one last night on the tiles with AB, Tom and Ste.

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When I say “flying visit!”…

 

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…I mean “flying visit”!!

 

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Saying goodbye to my lovely mum.

 

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Saying goodbye to my lovely hometown.

I came down to London a day early so I could grab lunch with another very pregnant friend of mine, Michelle.

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They’re popping like flies! Run away! Run away!!

That afternoon I took part in a photoshoot for the Australian magazine Frankie. We went to a workshop where they make bespoke hand-painted globes of the world. I was in HEAVEN. I also got some very cool pics of yours truly.

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Afterwards I met up with Casey for one last night together.

The next day she drove me to Heathrow Airport. So this was it, as always, at a bloody airport. I hate airports.

As a parting gift, I gave her my hat.

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“…doesn’t mean you have to like it.”

And so back to Panama.

The plane left and landed on the same day. I got to Panama City airport and jumped a taxi to the Albrook bus station. Then it was a FREEZING COLD (as always!) overnight bus to Almirante, the port for Bocas Del Toro. I got back to Bocas before 8am, paid a taxi guy to take me back to Jinja and there I was.

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Home Sweet Home

Thankfully, my super neighbours Kent n’ Marcy and Bill n’ Janis had been looking after the animals when I was away. They rock my world.

But here I was. Casey-less. On my own.

Okay, so I’ve travelled on my own a lot, but I’ve never lived on my own. I was living with my parents until I was 18, then I was in uni for a few years, living with friends, then Mandy then Casey… I never really had a place to myself. And now, I’m alone. On an island.

It was strange.

And so to work, I guess. But nobody told me just how much it rains in July. It was insane.

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Venice, Jinja-style
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When your 4″ gutters are overflowing, it’s time to invest in an umbrella.

And the thunderstorms. JESUS CHRIST THE THUNDERSTORMS!!! So there’s me up at 4am, crouched down in the kitchen, in just boxer shorts and wellies, torch in one hand, fire extinguisher in the other because the storm is DIRECTLY ABOVE THE ISLAND.

You know when you see the flash you start to count 1… 2… 3… waiting for the thunder? Have you ever had no delay whatsoever?

It doesn’t go KRACK-A-KRACK-A-RUMBLE it just goes BANG!!

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And splits trees in half, like this one, just 50 metres from my house.

I spent most of the month just existing, adjusting, getting my head around all the mad shit that happened in order for me to arrive at this point.

I did a lot of digging, for some reason becoming obsessed with removing the hundreds of tree stumps that litter the island.

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But all it did was make a nice big muddy puddle for bitey insects to breed. After this behemoth I decided to call it quits on the project – I’ll just leave them to the termites.

Three of the four new chicks were doing well, but the one we called Caska was having real trouble. She was a wee timid thing and the other chickens would bully her and steal all her food. So I let her hop up the stairs and come eat in the house.

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She would come up every day at lunchtime, regular as clockwork, the cute little thing.

Every Wednesday and Thursday I do the weather on the radio for the “Bocas Emergency Network” (or BEN). Us landlubbers (or ‘dirt people’ as we’re known) team up with the yachties to present a show every morning at 7.45am on the VHF radio network. It covers any news, gossip, coming and goings, what’s for sale and what events are happening across the archipelago.

Doing the weather is quite fun, and a good excuse for getting out of bed in the morning. I like to make up ridiculous Grand Poobar-style titles for myself such as “Second Trombonist In The Coconut Army Choir”. Although I dunno if the Americans who make up the majority of people on the network get the joke.

A couple of Americans that did actually find me amusing were Dave and Tori, a young couple who had met working in Texas and were now yachting around the world on their lovely little boat the Eva Marie. They summoned me on the radio (my callsign is “BEN 63”) and asked if I wanted to meet up for shit and giggles.

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Not long afterwards, the three of us found ourselves out in Bocas for a night of hilarity and destruction.

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It’ll end in Jenga.

Afterwards I retreated back to Jinja and spent the next few days wandering around the island jabbering to myself. I’m not into all this solitude malarkey… I need to find me some house guests… some – dare I say it?CouchSurfers.

Glastonbury 2014

The last blog entry was rather heavy, so let’s have some levity, eh?

As noted, Casey and I were now in Liverpool. So of course we had to give Cyrus, Ste and Graeme a call for a night on the tiles.

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It was as theatrical as you might imagine.

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We wound up on the roof of the old Far East restaurant waiting for the sunrise.

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AND SO TO GLASTONBURY…!!!

Glastonbury is the greatest music festival in the world and I will fight anyone who says otherwise (especially if they’ve never been). This year was no different, we had superb weather, I hung out with Scottish Anna and her mates, which came in handy as my flag this year was the flag of St Andrew with “GO ON THEN, PISS OFF ;)” written in large friendly letters.

The lovely Casey dropped me off at the nearest train station.

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Thanks Case!

I took the bus into the site for the first time in 17 years. Hell, I’m not complaining… it was free!!
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I met my buddies at Block 9 and of course hilarity ensued.

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Here are just some of the highlights of Glastonbury 2014:
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Right that’s it. See you again in 2015…!

June 2014: On The Beach

At the beginning of the second month on Jinja, Casey and I awoke to a wonderful sight: four baby chickens! We called them Caska, Grey, Les and Ninja.

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Baby Caska snuggles up with Gina.

 

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Big Mama and Grey.

 

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Caska goes for a stroll.

 

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Les makes her way through the long grass.

 

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Caska catches a lift.

Yay chickens!!

We also had some rather exciting visitors in June as globe trotters Alex Hennessey and Michael Graziano came to stay.10423626_10152526153639104_3106467190547216751_n

Mike and Alex are embarking on their “Global Degree” – a challenge to visit every country in the world before they hit 30. They filmed Case and I on the island and put together this lovely video of their time on Jinja:

You can learn more about Global Degree at https://www.globaldegree.tv/

You may have noticed in that video the quick shot of the composing toilet. It quite simply had to go. HAD. TO. GO. Seriously. Oh my God. Maybe they work well in a dry, arid environment, but here in the tropics it was the most disgusting thing I can imagine. So you lift the lid… and thousands of tiny flies emerge from… you know that bit you plonk your ass on? Yeah, that. Oh but that’s not all! Heaven forfend it might rain! Then you have these black leach-slug-woodlice THINGS sliming all over the outside of the loo, drinking the water, I dunno.

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And then there’s the process of emptying the damn thing. So, people turn up at your gaff, leave their shit behind. You then roll it in some sawdust (like that’s going to do ANYTHING) and pull a lever and some of it will drop into the tiny plastic shelf under the crap barrel. You then pull out said shelf – full of shit and piss and sawdust and bugs – smelling like a Glasto portaloo on the last day – and CARRY THE F@”%ING THING dripping brown urine through the kitchen, down the stairs out down the path to the far end of the island.

And then because the shit shelf was a fraction of the size of the shit barrel, you had to do that again. And again. Usually 6 or 7 times.

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Permaculture? Germaculture more like.

 

NOT WANTING TO DIE of dysentery or cholera or the bubonic plague, Case and I decided that enough was enough. Bill and his worker Edwardo were kind enough to run me to the mainland where I picked up a septic tank, a flush toilet and plenty of plastic piping.

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All we need to do now is work out how to drive that truck to the island.

 

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Job’s a good’un!

It was time to right a terrible wrong. First up, I had to dig out a massive hole.

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Which promptly filled with water.

 

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Then Case and I had to put the septic tank in the hole…

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…fill the tank with water so it wouldn’t float…

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…discover it wasn’t quite level so had to empty the damn thing before resetting and refilling it.

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Then, back in the house, we had to reinforce the floorboards before cutting a hole in the floor where the composting toilet used to be.

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Connect all the pipes, make sure the flush works and… eventually… voilà!

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You have no idea how happy this picture makes me.

Casey and I were due to fly back to the UK near the end of June. I would be going to the Glastonbury festival. I’d be back here in Panama at the beginning of July, but Case wouldn’t be coming back with me. We would still be together, but she had stuff she needed to do.

20140615_184031We resolved to make our last week together on Jinja as magical as possible. And so we made our final pilgrimage to Rana Azul…

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Rana Azul: Hidden away in The Dark Lands.

 

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Casey with Bill and Janis.

 

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Gringo disco!

 

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Bye everyone!

 

A few days later we took the boat over to Red Frog Marina on Basimentos Island.

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From there we walked through the jungle to Red Frog Beach.

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In this last of meeting places.

 

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I don’t think I ever heard you speaking.

 

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Gathered on this beach.

 

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I was too wrapped up in the dream I was dreaming.

 

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It felt like a story cut prematurely short – a great TV show cancelled in its prime.

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Although it should be noted that Twin Peaks is coming back in 2016…

 

My good friend Kendra (who I climbed the Great Pyramid with) had volunteered to look after the place while we were away. We had tried to get her friend Mohammed (who I also climbed the Great Pyramid with) into the country, but even though we got him a Letter of Invitation from my lawyer in Panama City, the Panamanian authorities would not let him into the country for love nor money (we tried both). So Kendra wound up looking after the place on her own. It was only for 10 days so we figured it wouldn’t be too bad – Kendra’s a hardy soul, originally from Boston, she’s been roughing it in Egypt for the last 5 years… she can totally handle herself. Mohammed would wait up in Guatemala (where he could fly) and meet with Kendra afterwards.

So Kendra arrived, four days later than expected. Bill and Janis took her under their wing and were even good enough to drop Casey and I off in town in the pouring rain.

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Casey and I said our goodbyes to Kendra and our wonderful neighbours and then travelled back up through Costa Rica to San Jose.

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Puerto Limon, Costa Rica

 

We flew home via Houston in the USA.

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Houston, Texas.

 

And before we knew it we were back in Liverpool.

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Sefton Park, Liverpool

 

However, all was not well in Bocas.

On the first night Kendra was alone on the island something really quite terrible happened. One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to post this blog entry was that I’m new here and I didn’t want to upset anyone by blabbing about something on the internet that isn’t public knowledge. But one of our neighbours – a guy called Stig, who I had met once at Rana Azul, was set upon in his own home by 3 masked intruders who proceeded to beat him half to death and then set him adrift on a boat in Tierra Oscura bay.

Since this event I’ve heard several accounts from people as to why this happened, and that it wasn’t a random attack… but still… Kendra was alone, on a strange island, and everything was playing out in real time on the VHF radio network, it was a Saturday night, speedboats were buzzing past the island… if it had been me I would have run a mile.

Thankfully, our wonderful neighbours Bill and Janis took Kendra in, and made sure she was okay. This all happened while Casey and I were travelling back the UK. On the Monday Kendra decided to head to Guatemala to meet up with Mohammed and my other wonderful neighbours Marcy and Kent said they’d feed Campesino the dog and our chickens.

Needless to say, once I get back I won’t be leaving the island again for a long time.

May 2014: Paradise Won!

Case and I were picked up by Ian in the morning on his little blue and white speedboat, the Sea Nile, a 1970s Luger – hilariously carpeted, as were all things in the 1970s.

Ian even let me drive!
Ian even let me drive!

Ian gave me a go on the run over to the his island… sorry, MY island… at least for a year… welcome welcome to Jinja Island.

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My first garage!
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My First House!!
My first garden!!!
My first garden!!!
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My first island!!!!

No sooner had we dropped off our bags than we were whisked over to Jean’s place in Dolphin Bay (around the back of Jinja) for lunch. Jean’s a local guy with a lovely palapa-style restaurant which sits out on the water… inspiration for Jinja, methinks!

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The burgers were bigger than Casey’s head.

Now THAT'S a burger.
Now THAT’S a burger.

That night we chilled in the warmth of our new home. Ian and Vanessa were good enough to give us the master bedroom while they slept on the couches downstairs.

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Night night Jinja Island 🙂

The next day, the initiation began in earnest. Ian showed Case and I around the island, explaining how to maintain everything – the solar set-up, the water system, the composting toilet (that’ll have to go).

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The wine can stay.

Sunday we went to Rana Azul – a little restaurant hidden away in nearby Terra Obscura bay – something of a weekly tradition for the ex-pats around these parts. On the way we met Ernie from the episode of New Lives in The Wild featuring Ian’s island. Once at Rana, Case and I learnt how to make cocktails as we would be replacing Vanessa and serving in the bar come next week. We met the regulars – Bill and Janis, Jane and Peter, Tony and Marilyn, Linda and Wayne, Cathy, Lyn, Axel, Captain Ron, Captain Ray… and of course Joseph, the Austrian guy who runs the place.

The Rana Azul Massive
The Rana Azul Massive

Then it was back to Jinja. Ian and Vanessa stayed at Bill and Janis’s for the night, giving Case and I our first night alone on the island. An island!!! This is mental.

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I’m grinning a bit much there, aren’t I?

The next day I started work – I had a crazy idea that it might be intelligent to remove the many tree stumps that littered the island. It would be a few months later that I would discover that the tree stumps kinda keep the soil together – it would be better to just dump soil all around them. But hey-ho, I was having fun with my pick-axe.

Okay, I'll admit to being a bit crazy.
Okay, I’ll admit to being a bit crazy.

Case meanwhile was busy befriending Campesino, the surprisingly well-trained island dog, and the nine chickens that would be our early morning alarm clocks for the next year.

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Aww…

Ian and Vanessa left the country on the Tuesday… and thus Jinja Island was born.

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Shall we hammock now or hammock later?

Case and I spent the next week getting to grips with our new environment – the chickens, the geckos, the exotic birds, the boat, the long trek to town, the VHF radio network (our secret codename is BEN 63), Dolphin Bay… it was a steep learning curve. Casey made a lot of smoothies.

Cos she's a barmaid now, for some reason.
Cos she’s a barmaid now, for some reason.

It would be less than a fortnight when we got our first proper deluge – the weather here is either sunny or monsoon, with little in between. I made a mental note to buy some willies.

Jinja doing its best impression of Venice.
Jinja doing its best impression of Venice.

We then scooted off to Rana Azul to serve some drinks.

Would you like ice with that?
Would you like ice with that?

That week we got to see just some of the spectacular sunsets that Bocas is famous for.

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We marvelled at the bananas growing out the back, and fell in love with the baby coconuts and the tiny geckos running all over the shop.

All our geckos are called Gordon.

All our geckos are called Gordon.

They're so CUTE!!
Baby coconuts! They’re so CUTE!!

I cracked on with my anti-tree stump campaign afterward we chilled on the hammocks.

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Stop! Hammock Time!!

It had only been a few weeks before we got our first visitors – Ed and his buddies. Ed was a friend of a friend who was travelling through Bocas. It was a bit of a panic to be honest, we had barely got to grips with the place, and here we had four people descending on us… six people in a house that’s about right for two.

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Our first CouchSurfers!!

But they were a good bunch, they introduced us to Cards Against Humanity (which will be a running theme throughout the year) and we drank a good amount of alcohol.

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We also took them to our “local”

At the end of the month we were invited to fellow Brit-Gringos Peter and Jane’s place at Split Hill, 10km south of Jinja.

"Neighbours... everybody needs good neighbours..."
“Neighbours… everybody needs good neighbours…”

We caught a lift there with Bill and Janis, our wonderful neighbours from the US who have kinda adopted us. They’re like the coolest neighbours EVER. We love them.

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It’s a great little community down here in Bocas Del Toro. I like it. I think I’ll stay.

Ruta Maya 15 – And So To Jinja

After waving goodbye to the ruins of Copan we jumped a taxi back to town, picked up our things from the backpackers, went to the shop, bought some water and nonchalantly wandered down to where the bus leaves at 2pm for Tegucigalpa, the unpronounceable capital of Honduras.

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Te-gussy? Te-gassy? Gal-pah? Gul-pah?? Fooked if I know!

We arrived at 1.55pm to find the bus had already gone. GAH!! This is no time to be getting ruthlessly efficient, Honduras!!

We had to wait another hour or so for the next bus, a minibus that got us into Tegucigalpa in the middle of the night. You know, the murder capital of the murder capital of the world. Sorry to hang this on Honduras, I think it’s quite a cool place, but the murder rate (90 per 100,000) is three times that of “really quite dangerous” South Africa, 19 times that of the “gun crazy” US and 90 times that of “it’s all going to the dogs” Great Britain.

In a word: EEK!!!

Lookin' cool....
Keep frosty people….

I’m no fool, I travel with both eyes open. Tegucigalpa is not a particularly groovy place to be right now, thanks to America’s genocidally moronic “War on Drugs” (43 years, trillions spent and no victory in sight). Luckily we made a friend on the bus over, a local Honduran who had lived in the UK for many years. He shared a taxi with us from the bus station and made sure we got safely into the (horrifically overpriced) backpackers (in which the security was like Fort Knox).

We booked the first bus out of Teggy City, which would leave at 6am. However, as the backpackers was so horrifically overpriced, we didn’t have to cash to pay for our tickets, so the hostel owner took me and another guest in their car to the cash machine at the all-night garage. It felt like we were doing a (albeit rather boring) mission on GTA. Everyone’s on edge! Or maybe I was projecting. I dunno.

Since I thought I would be on stuck on Jinja Island at the end of June this year I had (foolishly) allowed the reservation on my Glastonbury ticket to expire. But now I knew that my friend Kendra would be looking after the island for me, I could go… and the few remaining tickets would be going on resale that night at 3am (yeah, Glasto, just wreck everyone’s night sleep in the Western Hemisphere why dontcha?).

I had 4 tickets to try and get for me and three of my friends. I got through to the input screen – yes, even though I was sitting on a bunkbed in a dorm room at 3am in the hardest capital city name to remember next to Bandar Seri Begawan – I put in everyone’s details… hands shaking GOD THIS IS STRESSFUL… only to be told I “exceeded the quota” whatever that means.

Quick as a flash I pressed the back arrow back to the input screen and just punched my details in. I got it. For me at least. I pressed the back arrow again to get Anna’s… punched her details in quick as I could… and was directed to the SOLD OUT screen. It was 3.07am.

I was gutted for Anna, but also elated that I had managed to snag a ticket from the jaws of defeat here in the middle of Central America. I was also absolutely knackered. I fell fast asleep.

Two and a half hours later I was in the cold shower (how much did I pay for this room again??) getting ready to leave on the Tica bus for Nicaragua.

I always like going south, feels like going downhill.
I always like going south, feels like going downhill.

The air of familiarity about all this made it seem almost routine. Here I was, tearing through Central America on a bus and the air-con was set to 0° Kelvin.

How cold are the buses in Latin America?
With apologies to Stanley Kubrick.

Around lunchtime, we found ourselves crossing the border back into Nicaragua – a bit of a backpacker favourite, but exploration would have to save it for next year perhaps when we “do” Southern Central America properly.

It wouldn’t be Nicaragua without the obligatory volcano shot.

We arrived in Managua – the capital of Nicaragua – in the late afternoon. Casey and I tried about 13 different guest houses until we found one that was just right – Hostel Los Cisneros, well recommended. Managua is a sleepy old town, not much going on at all. I walked the two-hour round trip to the nearest shopping mall (I couldn’t find and shops or restaurants on the way) and bought us both food to eat. I found Casey chillaxing on the balcony.

Casey Turner in Managua.
Yes it is possible to chill without freezing to death.

We were planning on pressing on to Costa Rica the next day, but the tickets were sold out and Casey wasn’t feeling so good. Hats off to her – we had been in Central America now for over a month and she hadn’t got even slightly ill (vaccinations! YAY SCIENCE!!), so a day of pampering was well within my remit. Another bloody long walk to the shopping mall though.

The bus left at stupid o’clock the following morning (because OF COURSE IT DID – it was a Tica bus), too early to get breakfast, but the lovely people at the guest house got up and made us coffee anyway.

Managua
Mind the lake!!

Later that same day we were back in Costa Rica for the third and final time of this trip.

Costa Rica sign
Welcome welcome!

Having sworn never to step foot in the Lonely Planet-recommended Hostel Pangea for as long as I live (seriously guys, did you actually stay there or did you just go off their website??), Case and I stayed at the infinitely more pleasant Costa Rica Backpackers, near the screeching wheels of the railway station.

The next morning we were picked up from the hostel in a minibus and taken to the bus station for the bus to Sixaola – the border with Panama.

East is East
Through wonderful Bananaland!!

This time it wouldn’t cost us $100 in taxi fares.

Costa Rica Bus
Screw you taxi guys!!

So then, back through Liverpool, Costa Rica…

Liverpool, Costa Rica
IT EXISTS!!!

Over the rickety bridge at Sixaola, into Panama, and then the white-knuckle minibus ride to the boat dock at Almirante.

Weeeeeee!!

We arrived back in Bocas on the last ferryboat from the mainland just before dark on April 30 2014. The Bocas Turtles baseball team had just won the league and the party stretched on into the night, but we were exhausted. What a trip! Back not moment too soon… the next day we’d be taking over our very own private island… Jinja Island.

HELL. YEAH.

The Ruta Maya had given us both a fascinating insight into the world of the Mayan people. We had been to almost a dozen incredible sites spread out over 4 separate countries and seen hundreds of monumental works of ancient art, design and imagination. Not only that, but we had hung out with real Mayans, such as Luis from An Idiot Abroad, and watched real-life Mayan warriors play the ball games that were so integral to the lives of their ancestors.

Mayan Fire Hockey
It doesn’t get any cooler than this.

Still one thing I still haven’t figured out though…

Is it pronounced MAY-an or MY-an?

Ruta Maya 14 – Rack and Ruinas

In a fit of stupidity that seems rather impressive, even for me, we took the overnight bus all the way from Flores to Guatemala City. Why we didn’t disembark 150km earlier when we passed the junction at Rio Hondo (for Copan Ruinas) I’ll never know. I think I was tired. It was a bit like wanting to get to Bristol from London and going via Liverpool.

Yersh, but of a detour.
Hey look, somebody made a map of stupid.

So we found ourselves in the middle of the monumental traffic jam that is Guatemala City searching for the bus station for the bus that would take us 150km back the way we came… and then with any luck, swing southwards towards the border with Honduras.

Only remember I said my Lonely Planet was six years out of date? Yeah. That bus station ain’t there no more.

One of my (albeit few) bugbears about Central America (and the UK!) is this: every damn bus company has its own damn terminal and they’re all clustered around the city centre like mad people preaching from The Bibble. This makes things needlessly complicated when attempting the traverse the length and breadth of this mighty isthmus in a limited timeframe. Happily, GuatCit One (as I like to call it) has just built a brand new bus terminal/shopping mall on the edge of town in which all of the competing bus companies can live together in blissful harmony without having to fight through 10 miles of gridlock to get to the middle of a city you’re not even interested in visiting anyhoo. ARE YOU LISTENING LONDON?!!

I'll just put this here, LONDON.
SHOVE THIS IS YOUR SUGGESTION BOX, BORIS.

The only problem was that this semi-mythical bus station was (quite sensibly) situated on the edge of town, whereas we were currently situated slap bang in the middle.

We managed to get a bus for most of the journey, but at some point we did have to get off and get into a taxi. Which cost a small fortune. KICKING MYSELF.

Upon arrival at the squeaky clean bus terminal/shopping mall I quickly realised we stopped there on the way into town about two hours earlier, but kept it to myself lest Casey (she was asleep the first time) conclude I’m some kind of amateur at this travel lark.

Pretty soon we had purchased tickets to Chiquimula (or “Cheeky Mullah” as I like to call it) , the last Guatemalan town before the border with Honduras – just 35km from the turning I missed a several hours ago, which we will NEVER MENTION AGAIN.

The big bus was no problem, but the minibus ride from Chiquimula to the actual border… OH. MY. GOD. The guy driving must have been tripping balls, high on crack cocaine or something – he drove like Louis Hamilton only faster. It would have been terrifying enough in a F1 car on a racetrack, but this guy was weaving along winding mountain roads in the jungle DRIVING A BUS.

I just braced myself and hoped for the best (not for the first time).

Somehow we made it to the border in one piece. Immigration was very straight-forward and we waited on the Honduran side with some locals until the bus came to whisk us away to the town of Copán Ruinas – named for the Mayan ruins that lay nearby.

Like a lot of the small towns we visited on the Ruta Maya, Copán Ruinas was a delight. The backpackers we stayed at was seriously nice – colourful and rustic, so laid back it was silly. I had to pinch myself to remind myself that we were now in Honduras – the murder capital of the world.

Copan Ruinas, Honduras
How can a place be so charming and yet so murderous at the same time?

After our epic journey getting here, there would be no tomb raiding or Indiana-Jonesing today. We settled in for the night and just chilled.

Early the next morning we jumped a tuk-tuk to Copán, the last site on our Maya Ruta.

Copan World Heritage Plaque
A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE site, no less

Copán is an archaeological site of the Maya civilization located in the Copán Department of western Honduras, not far from the border with Guatemala. It was the capital city of a major Classic period kingdom from the 5th to 9th centuries AD. The city was located in the extreme southeast of the Mesoamerican cultural region, on the frontier with the Isthmo-Colombian cultural region, and was almost surrounded by non-Maya peoples.

Mayan Wall Carving, Copan, Honduras
Who they  liked to turn into walls.

Copán was occupied for more than two thousand years, from the Early Preclassic period to the Postclassic. It is likely the ancient name of Copán was Oxwitik, “Three Witik” (the meaning of witik remains obscure).

Copan, Honduras
Something to do with cricket, I’ll wager.

The fertile Copán River valley was long a site of agriculture before the first known stone architecture was built in the region about the 9th century BC. Mentions of the predynastic history of Copán are found in later texts, but none of these predates the refounding of the city in AD 426. That was the year that K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, established it as the capital of a new Maya kingdom. This coup was apparently organized and launched from Tikal.

Altar, Sculpture, Copan
Thundercats HOOOO!!

After this, Copán became one of the more powerful Maya city states and was a regional power in the southern Maya region. B’alam Nehn (often referred to as Waterlily Jaguar) was the first king to actually record his position in the dynastic succession, declaring that he was seventh in line from K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Stela 15 records that he was already ruling Copán by AD 504. B’alam Nehn is the only king of Copán to be mentioned in a hieroglyphic text from outside of the southeastern Maya region. His name appears in a text on Stela 16 from Caracol, a site in Belize.

Copan, Honduras
Oooh, back where we started… we’ve come full circle.

Copán suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of its former vassal state Quirigua in 738, when the long-ruling king Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil was captured and beheaded by Quirigua’s ruler K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (Cauac Sky). Although this was a major setback, Copán’s rulers began to build monumental structures again within a few decades.

Carving, Copan
Mayan cartoon.

The population declined in the 8th and 9th centuries from perhaps over 20,000 in the city to less than 5,000. This decrease in population took over four centuries to actually show signs of collapse, showing the stability of this site even after the fall of the ruling dynasties and royal families. The ceremonial centre was long abandoned and the surrounding valley home to only a few farming hamlets at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

Graham Hughes at Copan, Honduras
REMIND ME NEVER TO WEAR SHORTS AGAIN.

The Copán buildings suffered significantly from forces of nature in the centuries between the site’s abandonment and the rediscovery of the ruins. After the abandonment of the city the Copán River gradually changed course, with a meander destroying the eastern portion of the acropolis (revealing in the process its archaeological stratigraphy in a large vertical cut) and apparently washing away various subsidiary architectural groups, including at least one courtyard and 10 buildings.

Casey Turner at Copan
Casey at the Copan Cabinya.

Several buildings recorded in the 19th century were destroyed, plus an unknown amount of the acropolis that was eroded before it could be recorded. In order to avoid further destruction of the acropolis, the Carnegie Institution redirected the river to save the archaeological site, diverting it southwards in the 1930s; the dry former riverbed was finally filled in at the same time as consolidation of the cut in 1990s.

Animal head, Copan
Rsssssssssssssssssp!

The Copán site is known for a series of portrait stelae, most of which were placed along processional ways in the central plaza of the city and the adjoining acropolis, a large complex of overlapping step-pyramids, plazas, and palaces. The site has a large court for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. In two parallel buildings framing a carefully dimensioned rectangle lies the court. The site is divided into various groups, with the Main Group and the Cemetery Group in the site core linked by a sacbe to the Sepulturas Group to the northeast.

Sculpture, Copan, Honduras
Some of which is pretty scary stuff.

The Main Group represents the core of the ancient city, it includes the Acropolis, which is a raised royal complex on the south side, and a group of smaller structures and linked plazas to the north, including the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the ballcourt. The Monument Plaza contains the greatest concentration of sculpted monuments at the site.

Acropolis, Copan, Honduras
The Acropolis

The Acropolis was the royal complex at the heart of Copán. It consists of two plazas that have been named the West Court and the East Court. They are both enclosed by elevated structures. Archaeologists have excavated extensive tunnels under the Acropolis, revealing how the royal complex at the heart of Copán developed over the centuries and uncovering several hieroglyphic texts that date back to the Early Classic and verify details of the early dynastic rulers of the city who were recorded on Altar Q hundreds of years later. The deepest of these tunnels have revealed that the first monumental structures underlying the Acropolis date archaeologically to the early 5th century AD.

Small Pyramid, Copan
This is the snazzily titled Structure 10L-4, probably used as a stage for Maya’s Got Talent.

Structure 10L-4 is a platform with four stairways situated by the Monument Plaza.

Temple 11, Copan
Temple 11, Copan. Why they call it “10L-11” I’ll never know. It doesn’t even make it easier to find on Google.

Structure 10L-11 is on the west side of the Acropolis. It encloses the south side of the Court of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and is accessed from it by a wide monumental stairway. This structure appears to have been the royal palace of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, the 16th ruler in the dynastic succession and the last known king of Copán. Structure 10L-11 was built on top of several earlier structures, one of which probably contains the tomb of his predecessor K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil. A small tunnel descends into the interior of the structure, possibly to the tomb, but it has not yet been excavated by archaeologists.

Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat Tomb Sign Copan
Tomb raiding is so much easier when they put up helpful signage.

Structure 10L-16 (Temple 16) is a temple pyramid that is the highest part of the Acropolis. It is located between the East and West Courts at the heart of the ancient city. The temple faces the West Court within the Acropolis and is dedicated to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the dynastic founder. The temple was placed on top of the original palace and tomb of the king. It is the final version of a number of temples built on top of each other, as was common practice in Mesoamerica.

Temple 16, Copan
Because aliens, duh.

One of the best preserved phases of Temple 16 is the Rosalila, built over the remains of five previous versions of the temple. Archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia discovered the almost intact shrine while tunneling underneath the final version of the temple. Rosalila is notable for its excellent state of preservation, including the entire building from the base platform up to the roof comb, including its highly elaborate painted stucco decoration. Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil encased the Rosalila phase under a new version of the building in the early 8th century AD. An offering was made as part of the rites to terminate the old phase and included a collection of eccentric flints worked into the profiles of humans and gods, which were wrapped in blue-dyed textiles.

A life-sized reconstruction of the Rosalila temple.
A life-sized reconstruction of the Rosalila temple.

Structure 10L-18 is on the southeastern side of the Acropolis and has been damaged by the erosion caused by the Copán River, having lost its eastern side. Stairs on the south side of the structure lead down to a vaulted tomb that was looted in ancient times and was probably that of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. It was apparently plundered soon after the collapse of the Copán kingdom. Unusually for Copán, the summit shrine had four sculpted panels depicting the king performing war dances with spear and shield, emphasizing the rising tensions as the dynasty came to its end.

Temple 10L-18, Copan, Honduras
The snazzily titled Structure 10L-18

Structure 10L-22 is a large building on the north side of the East Court, in the Acropolis, and faces onto it. It dates to the reign of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil and is the best preserved of the buildings from his rule. The superstructure of the building has an interior doorway with an elaborate sculpted frame and decorated with masks of the mountain god Witz. The outer doorway is framed by the giant mask of a deity, and has stylistic similarities with the Chenes regional style of distant Yucatán. The temple was built to celebrate the completion of the king’s first K’atun in power, in AD 715, and has a hieroglyphic step with a first-person phrase “I completed my K’atun”. The building symbolically represents the mountain where maize was created.

Structure 10L-22 copan
“I completed my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh”

Structure 10L-25 is in the East Court of the Acropolis. It covers a rich royal tomb nicknamed Sub-Jaguar by archaeologists. It is presumed to be the tomb of either Ruler 7 (B’alam Nehn), Ruler 8 or Ruler 9, who all ruled in the first half of the 6th century AD.

East Court of the Acropolis, Copan
Eastenders.

Structure 10L-26 is a temple that projects northwards from the Acropolis and is immediately to the north of Structure 10L-22. The structure was built by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil and K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil, the 13th and 15th rulers in the dynastic succession.

Structure 10L-26 Copan
There’s a ridiculous amount of awesome archaeology under that there tent.

Copan’s famous Hieroglyphic Stairway ascends the building on the west side from the courtyard below. It measures 21 meters (69 ft) long, 10-meters (33 ft) wide and and has a total of 62 steps.

Hieroglyphic Staircase, Copan
Staircase to Heaven

Stela M and its associated altar are at its base and a large sculpted figure is located in the centre of every 12th step. These figures are believed to represent the most important rulers in the dynastic history of the site. The stairway takes its name from the 2200 glyphs that together form the longest known Maya hieroglyphic text.

Hieroglyphic Staircase Detail, Copan
Peter Parker? Peppa Pig? Who knows?

The text is still being reconstructed, having been scrambled by the collapse of the glyphic blocks when the façade of the temple collapsed. The staircase was first built by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil in AD 710, being reinstalled and expanded in the following phase of the temple by K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil in AD 755.

Staircase Detail, Copan
I flipped this pic to make it look like something out of Doom.

The Ballcourt is immediately north of the Court of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and is to the south of the Monument Plaza. It was remodeled by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, who then demolished it and built a third version, which was one of the largest from the Classic period. It was dedicated to the great macaw deity and the buildings flanking the playing area carried 16 mosaic sculptures of the birds. The completion date of the ballcourt is inscribed with a hieroglyphic text upon the sloping playing area and is given as 6 January 738.

Ballcourt, Copan
PLAY BALL!!

The Sepulturas Group is linked by a sacbe or causeway that runs southwest to the Monument Plaza in the Main Group. The Sepulturas Group consists of a number of restored structures, mostly elite residences that feature stone benches, some of which have carved decorations, and a number of tombs.

Sepulturas Group Copan
And you just thought they were a heavy metal band.

The group has a very long occupational history, with one house having been dated as far back as the Early Preclassic. By the Middle Preclassic, large platforms were being built from cobbles and several rich burials were made. By AD 800, the complex consisted of about 50 buildings arranged around 7 major courtyards. At this time, the most important building was the ‘House of the Bakabs, the palace of a powerful nobleman from the time of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. The building has a high-quality sculpted exterior and a carved hieroglyphic bench inside. A portion of the group was a subdistrict occupied by non-Maya inhabitants from Central Honduras who were involved in the trade network that brought in goods from that region.

Altar Q, Copan
Q-Division.

Altar Q depicts 16 kings in the dynastic succession of the city
Altar Q is the most famous monument at Copán. It was dedicated by king Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat in AD 776 and has each of the first 16 kings of the Copán dynasty carved around its side. Each figure is depicted seated on his name glyph. A hieroglyphic text is inscribed on the upper surface, relating the founding of the dynasty in AD 426–427. On one side, it shows the dynastic founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ transferring power to Yax Pasaj.

Mot Mot Stone, Copan
Death or Motmot

The Motmot Capstone is an inscribed stone that was placed over a tomb under Structure 10L-26. Its face was finely sculpted with portraits of the first two kings of the Copán dynasty, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and K’inich Popol Hol, facing towards each other with a double column of hieroglyphs between them, all contained within a quatrefoil frame. The frame and the hieroglyphic names of mythological locations underneath the feet of the two kings place them in a supernatural realm. The capstone bears two calendrical dates, in AD 435 and AD 441. The second of these is probably the date that the capstone was dedicated.

Copan, Honduras
Ta-ta Copan!

RIGHT THAT’S THE LAST OF ‘EM!!

You might think I’d be all Mayan’d out by now, but this trip has barely scratched the surface. Casey and I have been to 11 sites out of over 140 scattered across Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador.

List of Mayan Sites
And here they are!

So there’s plenty more to see and do, of course there is, there always is! I quite fancy the trek through the jungle to see El Mirador, still hidden away in the very north of Guatemala. Seriously, you could travel every day for the rest of your life and still not see everything this crazy wonderful little big planet has to offer.

Although Copan is our last stop, this isn’t quite the end of our Ruta Maya. We still have to get back to Bocas Del Toro… back back back to Jinja Island.

Ruta Maya 13 – Tikal Tikal Little Star

We were picked up from Ya’ajche’ campamento in the morning and driven the short distance to the border. Leaving the Mexican side was a mere formality, and it was a quick boat ride over the Usumacinta River to the small town of Bethel in Guatemala.

However, on the Guatemalan side we had a bit of a wait. It was something like two hours. All I could think of is how that could have been an extra two hours in bed. Lovely soft warm comfortable BED.

I spend most of the time trying to get a decent shot of the tiny humming bird that was flitting back and forth back and forth in the roof of the passport office.

Humming Bird, Guatemala
You would not…
Humming Bird, Guatemala
…believe how many…
Humming Bird, Guatemala
…photos it took to get these shots.

Eventually, the minibus that was taking us to Flores rucked up and after five minutes on the only road in or out of this one horse bordertown I saw why it was so late – yeah, we was bumpin’ and grindin’ down the old gravel n’ dust highway.

The crappiness of the road from Bethel to Guatemala’s north-west highway reminded me of the roads leading to most of the international borders in Africa – is this something that governments do on purpose to put people off emigrating?

Bethel-to-Flores
Oh shut up Graham, you can see how remote it is, stop being a dick.

Okay, fair enough, when Google Maps refuses to plot a journey down that particular highway, I guess it’s not really meant for regular traffic.

After a few hours of being bounced around like your mum last Saturday night, we hit good solid asphalt HUZZAH!! We arrived in the wonderful little town of Flores around mid-afternoon.

Flores, Guatemala
You had me at “hola!”

The town of Flores is situated on an island on lake Petén Itzá, the second largest lake in Guatemala… and it couldn’t be more pleasant if it tried.

Flores-Lake
I could stay here for a loooooong time
Flores, Guatemala
You know what I like, don’t you Flores?

That afternoon we chilled on hammocks on the roof of our backpackers and in the evening we enjoyed a delicious meal in a homely little place that overlooked the lake.

Burritos by the lake, Guatemala
Food Glorious Food!

With our receipt, we were given these teeny-tiny Guatemalan “worry dolls” – apparently, if you’re having trouble sleeping, you tell them what’s keeping you awake and then place them under your pillow. They’ll take your worries away and allow you to sleep. Aww… I love this place!

Guatemalan Worry Dolls
Pack up your troubles in this tiny rag doll…

After all of the previous day’s excitement, we decided that we wouldn’t rush to Tikal the next day, but would instead spend the day hanging out in this awesome little town. I could stay here for a long, long time.

Hammocks, Flores, Guatemala
Hammocks!! I’M IN HEAVEN!

So it was the morning of Thursday April 24 2014 before we headed to the crown jewel of the Mayan empire… TIKAL.

Tikal-Temple-IV
Hold on, it’s coming…!

We left at 4am in order to see the sunrise from the top of Temple IV, something of a rite of passage for touristy tourists such as ourselves. It takes about an hour to get to the site from Flores, and when we arrived it was still dark.

Model of Tikal
Tikal: futuristic city on the moon.

After checking out the 3-D model of the city that is located at the site entrance, we trekked to the Temple in the dark – it seemed like our minibus gang were the only people there.

Tikal at Night.
Aside from the moon.

Casey is afraid of heights and had problems scrambling up some of the pyramids along on the Ruta Maya, but she plucked up the courage to climb Temple IV – the tallest temple in the entire Mayan world. She did herself proud. A few months later she would do her first skydive.

Tourists waiting for the sunrise, Tikal
Just don’t look down!

All night the sky was as clear as an unmuddied lake, however, as dawn broke over the jungle a heavy mist rose from the canopy, obscuring what would otherwise have been a spectacular sunrise.

Disappointing Sunrise, Tikal
Oh well, it’s still more sun than the good people of Manchester have seen since 1847.

Tikal is located in the archaeological region of the Petén Basin in what is now northern Guatemala. Because of the site’s remoteness from modern towns, however, no explorers visited Tikal until Modesto Méndez and Ambrosio Tut, respectively the commissioner and the governor of Petén, visited it in 1848. Tut reported a set of mysterious ruins to a La Gaceta, a Guatemalan newspaper, which named the site Tikal (Tik’al in modern Mayan orthography). In 1853, the report was published in the Berlin Academy of Sciences’ Magazine and archaeologists and treasure hunters flooded in.

Graham and Casey at Tikal
And gingers! Don’t forget the gingers!

Tikal was one of the largest of the Classic period Maya cities and was one of the largest cities in the Americas. The architecture of the ancient city is built from limestone and includes the remains of temples that tower over 70 metres (230 ft) high, large royal palaces, in addition to a number of smaller pyramids, palaces, residences, administrative buildings, platforms and inscribed stone monuments. There is even a building which seemed to have been a jail, originally with wooden bars across the windows and doors. There are also seven courts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame, including a set of 3 in the Seven Temples Plaza, a unique feature in Mesoamerica.

The site is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park and in 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tikal, Guatemala
Can’t imagine why…

Tikal was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Though monumental architecture at the site dates back as far as the 4th century BC, Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca. 200 to 900 AD. During this time, the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily, while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica such as the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the distant Valley of Mexico.

Temple I, Tikal
Things are about to get real epic real fast…

Tikal is the best understood of any of the large lowland Maya cities, with a long dynastic ruler list, the discovery of the tombs of many of the rulers on this list and the investigation of their monuments, temples and palaces.

Graham Hughes at Tikal
And the odd cafe-restaurante…

The name Tikal may be derived from ti ak’al in the Yucatec Maya language; it is said to be a relatively modern name meaning “at the waterhole”. The name was apparently applied to one of the site’s ancient reservoirs by hunters and travellers in the region. It has alternatively been interpreted as meaning “the place of the voices” in the Itza Maya language. Tikal, however, is not the ancient name for the site but rather the name adopted shortly after its discovery in the 1840s. Hieroglyphic inscriptions at the ruins refer to the ancient city as Yax Mutal or Yax Mutul, meaning “First Mutal”. Tikal may have come to have been called this because Dos Pilas also came to use the same emblem glyph; the rulers of the city presumably wanted to distinguish themselves as the first city to bear the name.

Temple III, Tikal
First of his name…

Tikal is located 19 kilometres (12 mi) south of the contemporary Maya city of Uaxactun and 30 kilometres (19 mi) northwest of Yaxha. The city was located 100 kilometres (62 mi) southeast of its great Classic Period rival, Calakmul, and 85 kilometres (53 mi) northwest of Calakmul’s ally Caracol, now in Belize.

Tikal: In the middle of everything.
Tikal: In the middle of everything.

The city once covered an area greater than 16 square kilometres (6.2 sq mi) and included about 3,000 structures. The area around Tikal has been declared as the Tikal National Park and the preserved area covers 570 square kilometres (220 sq mi).

Tikal Temples in the Jungle
Also, Yavin IV.

The ruins lie among the tropical rainforests of northern Guatemala that formed the cradle of lowland Maya civilization. The city itself was located among abundant fertile upland soils, and may have dominated a natural east—west trade route across the Yucatan Peninsula. For centuries the city was completely covered under jungle.

Old photo, Tikal being uncovered
And then the temples fought back!

There are traces of early agriculture at the site dating as far back as 1000 BC, in the Middle Preclassic. A cache of Mamon ceramics dating from about 700-400 BC were found in a sealed chultun, a subterranean bottle-shaped chamber.

Carved disk, Tikal
Also, sundisks.

Major construction at Tikal was already taking place in the Late Preclassic period, first appearing around 400–300 BC, including the building of major pyramids and platforms, although the city was still dwarfed by sites further north such as El Mirador and Nakbe. At this time, Tikal participated in the widespread Chikanel culture that dominated the Central and Northern Maya areas at this time – a region that included the entire Yucatan Peninsula including northern and eastern Guatemala and all of Belize.

Unrestored temple, Tikal
A temple disguised as a hill. Or is it a hill disguised as a temple?

In the 1st century AD rich burials first appeared and Tikal underwent a political and cultural florescence as its giant northern neighbours declined. After being conquered by Teotihuacan in 378 AD, Tikal rapidly rose to dominate the northern and eastern Peten. Uaxactun, together with smaller towns in the region, were absorbed into Tikal’s kingdom. Other sites, such as Bejucal and Motul de San José near Lake Petén Itzá became vassals of their more powerful neighbor to the north. By the middle of the 5th century Tikal had a core territory of at least 25 kilometres (16 mi) in every direction.

Casey Turner at Tikal
So long as those directions involved steps in some way.

In the 5th century the power of the city reached as far south as Copán (where we’re heading next), whose founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ was clearly connected with Tikal. Copán itself was not in an ethnically Maya region and the founding of the Copán dynasty probably involved the direct intervention of Tikal.

Temple, Tikal
Tikal franchised out… like Starbucks, only with a little more human sacrifice.

A long-running rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul began in the 6th century, with each of the two cities forming its own network of mutually hostile alliances arrayed against each other in what has been likened to a long-running war between two Maya superpowers. The kings of these two capitals adopted the title kaloomte’, a term that has not been precisely translated but that implies something akin to “high king”.

Temple at Tikal, Guatemala
I can see why…

In the mid 6th century, Caracol seems to have allied with Calakmul and defeated Tikal, closing the Early Classic, a defeat that seems to have resulted in the capture and sacrifice of the king of Tikal. The badly eroded Altar 21 at Caracol described how Tikal suffered this disastrous defeat in a major war in April 562. Tikal was not sacked but its power and influence were broken. Thus began the Tikal hiatus, which has served as a marker by which archaeologists commonly subdivide the Classic period of Mesoamerican chronology into the Early and Late Classic.

Temple detail, Tikal Guatemala
So no middle classic then?

By the 9th century, the crisis of the Classic Maya collapse was sweeping across the region, with populations plummeting and city after city falling into silence. Increasingly endemic warfare in the Maya region caused Tikal’s supporting population to heavily concentrate close to the city itself, accelerating the use of intensive agriculture and corresponding environmental decline.

Tikal Temple I before restoration
Maybe the jungle just wanted its damn stones back.

In the latter half of the 9th century there was an attempt to revive royal power at the much diminished city of Tikal, as evidenced by a stela erected in the Great Plaza by Jasaw Chan K’awiil II in 869. This was the last monument erected at Tikal before the city finally fell into silence. The former satellites of Tikal, such as Jimbal and Uaxactun, did not last much longer, erecting their final monuments in 889. By the end of the 9th century the vast majority of Tikal’s population had deserted the city, its royal palaces were occupied by squatters and simple thatched dwellings were being erected in the city’s ceremonial plazas.

Graham Hughes at Tikal
Where’d everyone go??

Before its final abandonment all respect for the old rulers had disappeared, with the tombs of the North Acropolis being explored for jade and the easier to find tombs being looted. After 950, Tikal was all but deserted and the rainforest claimed the ruins for the next thousand years.

Temple III, Tikal
Tikal go nigh-nigh.

In 1525, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés passed within a few kilometres of the ruins of Tikal but did not mention them in his letters. After Spanish friar Andrés de Avendaño became lost in the Petén forests in early 1696 he described a ruin that may well have been Tikal, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that Mr. Tut and would reintroduce Tikal to the world.

Tikal, Guatemala
SURPRISE M*****F***ERS!!

Pioneering archaeologists started to clear, map and record the ruins in the 1880s. In 1951, a small airstrip was built at the ruins, which previously could only be reached by several days’ travel through the jungle on foot or mule. In 1956 the Tikal project began to map the city on a scale not previously seen in the Maya area. From 1956 through 1970, major archaeological excavations were carried out by the University of Pennsylvania Tikal Project. They mapped much of the site and excavated and restored many of the structures.

Casey Turner at Tikal
But did they look this cool doing it? DON’T THINK SO.

There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated, after decades of archaeological work. The most prominent surviving buildings include six very large pyramids, labelled Temples I – VI, each of which support a temple structure on their summits. Some of these pyramids are over 60 metres high (200 feet). They were numbered sequentially during the early survey of the site. It is estimated that each of these major temples could have been built in as little as two years.

Temple I, Tikal
Temple I: The Phantom Menace

Temple I (also known as the Temple of Ah Cacao or Temple of the Great Jaguar) is a funerary pyramid dedicated to Jasaw Chan K’awil, who was entombed in the structure in AD 734, the pyramid was completed around 740–750. The temple rises 47 metres (154 ft) high. The massive roofcomb that topped the temple was originally decorated with a giant sculpture of the enthroned king, although little of this decoration survives. The tomb of the king was discovered by Aubrey Trik of the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. Among items recovered from the Late Classic tomb were a large collection of inscribed human and animal bone tubes and strips with sophisticated scenes depicting deities and people, finely carved and rubbed with vermilion, as well as jade and shell ornaments and ceramic vessels filled with offerings of food and drink. The shrine at the summit of the pyramid has three chambers, each behind the next, with the doorways spanned by wooden lintels fashioned from multiple beams. The outermost lintel is plain but the two inner lintels were carved, some of the beams were removed in the 19th century and their location is unknown, while others were taken to museums in Europe.

Temple II, Tikal
Temple II: Temple Harder

Temple II (also known as the Temple of the Mask) in was built around AD 700 and stands 38 metres (125 ft) high. Like other major temples at Tikal, the summit shrine had three consecutive chambers with the doorways spanned by wooden lintels, only the middle of which was carved. The temple was dedicated to the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awil, although no tomb was found. The queen’s portrait was carved into the lintel spanning the doorway of the summit shrine. One of the beams from this lintel is now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Temple III Tikal
Temple III: The Final Conflict

Temple III (also known as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest) was the last of the great pyramids to be built at Tikal. It stood 55 metres (180 ft) tall and contained an elaborately sculpted but damaged roof lintel, possibly showing Dark Sun engaged in a ritual dance around AD 810. The temple shrine possesses two chambers.

Temple IV, Tikal
Temple IV: The Revenge

Temple IV marks the reign of Yik’in Chan Kawil (Ruler B, the son of Ruler A or Jasaw Chan K’awiil I) and two carved wooden lintels over the doorway that leads into the temple on the pyramid’s summit record a long count date (9.15.10.0.0) that corresponds to 741AD. Temple IV is the largest pyramid built anywhere in the Maya region in the 8th century and as it currently stands is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas although the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan may originally have been taller, as may have been one of the structures at El Mirador.

Temple V, Tikal
Temple V: A New Beginning

Temple V stands south of the Central Acropolis and is the mortuary pyramid of an as yet unidentified ruler. The temple stands 57 metres (187 ft) high, making it the second tallest structure at Tikal – only Temple IV is taller. The temple has been dated to about AD 700, in the Late Classic period, via radiocarbon analysis and the dating of ceramics associated with the structure places its construction during the reign of Nun Bak Chak in the second half of the 7th century.

Temple VI, Tikal
Temple VI: The Undiscovered Country

Temple VI is also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions and was dedicated in AD 766. It is notable for its 12-metre (39 ft) high roof-comb. Panels of hieroglyphs cover the back and sides of the roof-comb. The temple faces onto a plaza to the west and its front is unrestored.

Temple 33, Tikal
Temple 33⅓: The Final Insult

Temple 33 was a funerary pyramid erected over the tomb of Siyaj Chan K’awiil I (known as Burial 48) in the North Acropolis. It started life in the Early Classic as a wide basal platform decorated with large stucco masks that flanked the stairway. Later in the Early Classic a new superstructure was added, with its own masks and decorated panels. During the Hiatus a third stage was built over the earlier constructions, the stairway was demolished and another royal burial, of an unidentified ruler, was set into the structure (Burial 23). While the new pyramid was being built another high ranking tomb (Burial 24) was inserted into the rubble core of the building. The pyramid was then completed, standing 33 metres (108 ft) tall. The final version of Temple 33 was completely dismantled by archaeologists in 1965 in order to arrive at the earlier stages of construction. WHAT??? Really?!!

Temple 34, Tikal
Miracle on Temple 34th Street.

Temple 34 is a pyramid in the North Acropolis that was built by Siyaj Chan K’awiil II over the tomb of his father, Yax Nuun Ayiin I. The pyramid was topped by a three chambered shrine, the rooms situated one behind the other.

Structure 5D-43 Detail, Tikal
Structure 5D-Movie 43

Structure 5D-43 is an unusual radial temple in the East Plaza, built over a pre-existing twin pyramid complex. It is built into the end of the East Plaza Ballcourt and possessed four entry doorways and three stairways, the fourth (south) side was too close to the Central Acropolis for a stairway on that side. The building has a talud-tablero platform profile, modified from the original style found at Teotihuacan. The vertical tablero panels are set between sloping talud panels and are decorated with paired disc symbols. Large flower symbols are set into the sloping talud panels, related to the Venus and star symbols used at Teotihuacan.

Structure 5C-49, Tikal
Structure 5C-49th Parallel

Structure 5C-49 possesses a clear Teotihuacan-linked architectural style; it has balustrades, an architectural feature that is very rare in the Maya region, and a talud-tablero façade; it dates to the 4th century AD. It is located near to the Lost World pyramid.

The Lost World Pyramid, Tikal
Jurassic Park: The Lost World Pyramid

The Lost World Pyramid (Structure 5C-54) is the largest structure in the Mundo Perdido complex. It was decorated with stucco masks of the sun god and dates to the Late Preclassic; this pyramid is part of an enclosed complex of structures that remained intact and un-impacted by later building activity at Tikal. By the end of the Late Preclassic this pyramid was one of the largest structures in the Maya region. It attained its final form during the reign of Chak Tok Ich’aak in the 4th century AD, in the Early Classic, standing more than 30 metres (98 ft) high with stairways on all four sides and a flat top that possibly supported a superstructure built from perishable materials.

Graham Hughes and Casey Turner at Tikal, April 2014
RIGHT THAT’S IT. History lesson over!

Phew!!! Of course there’s loads more to explore, but I think that’ll do for now. Just a couple things left to tell you about Tikal. First up, the place was used in the original Star Wars movie as Yavin IV…

Tikal Star Wars
I *knew* it looked familiar…

And the gigantic kapok (Ceiba pentandra) that grows here inspired James Cameron’s “Tree of Life” concept in Avatar.

Casey Turner meditating at a gigantic kapok (Ceiba pentandra) in Tikal
Casey doesn’t need to plug her hair into the tree, she’s ginger. She has wifi.

After a long day we took a bus back to Flores just in time to swim in the lake before it got dark. After our last lovely meal in Flores, we crossed the causeway back to the “mainland” and began our long journey south to Honduras and Copan Ruinas – the last stop on our Ruta Maya.

Ruta Maya 12 – At War With The Mystics

So the boat had left without us. No big deal – we’ll just hop on the next one. Err… yeah… easier said than done.

We waited an hour in the sweltering midday sun before another boat was ready to leave. We spoke with the driver, agreed to pay to get back to Frontera Corozal. We took our seats and got ready to go.

Departing Yaxchilan
All good, right?

And then some heartless Mexican cow who spoke a bit of English told us to get off the boat. Why? Because it was their boat and they didn’t want to take any passengers. I explained the situation – Case was clearly distressed, our bags were on the damn minibus and we were supposed to be leaving for Guatemala in the morning. I offered money, but she was having none of it. If the boat was full I would understand, but there were two empty f—ing seats right there!

And they remained empty as we watched the boat pull away.

It would be another half and hour before the next boat left. Most of the people on it were German and welcomed us on board – they didn’t even want money (although we still had to pay the driver). Thank God for the Germans eh? Fat Mexican ladies, not so much.

When we arrived back at Frontera Corozal, Case and I ran up the riverbank only to find the minibus – and our bags – had gone.

I asked around, nobody could help us.

The area around the dock had a carpark and a restaurant. I could see a white minibus by the exit gate, about 300 metres away. I ran over to it – hoping against hope that it was our bus.

It was.

The other people in the bus had been eating lunch. Then they had waited for us – we arrived not a moment too soon – they were just about to leave for Bonampak.

PHEW!!

The driver, still probably irate from this morning, was done with us troublesome gringos. He wouldn’t even look me in the eye.

Bonampak sign
Aaaaaanyways…. BONAMPAK!!

Bonampak is an ancient Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The site is approximately 30 km (19 mi) south of the larger site of Yaxchilan, under which Bonampak was a dependency, and the border with Guatemala. While the site is not overly impressive in terms of spatial or architectural size, it is well known for a number of murals, most especially those located within Structure 1 (The Temple of the Murals).

Temple of the Murals, Bonampak
More steps!! I think I’m detecting a theme…

The construction of the site’s structures dates to the Late Classic period (c. AD 580 to 800). In addition to being amongst the most well-preserved Maya murals, the Bonampak murals are noteworthy for debunking early assumptions that the Maya were a peaceful culture of mystics, as the murals clearly depict war and human sacrifice. IN YOUR FACE HIPPIES!!

Bloodletting Mural Bonampak
Here’s Chaan Muan and his family engaged in ritual bloodletting. Boomshanka mofos!

The site, lying close to a tributary of the Usumacinta River, was first seen by non-Mayans in 1946. Precisely who was first is a matter of speculation, but it was either by two American travellers, Herman Charles (Carlos) Frey and John Bourne, or photographer/explorer Giles Healey. The Americans were led to the ruins by the local Lacandon Maya who still visited the site to pray in the ancient temples. Giles Healey was the first to be shown the huge paintings covering the walls of one of the structure’s three rooms. The paintings show the story of a single battle and its victorious outcome.

Battle mural, Bonampak
Get some!!

Bird Jaguar in the early 5th century fought against K’inich Tatb’u Skull I in Yaxchilan, and lost his freedom. Knot-eye Jaguar I was himself taken captive (by Ruler C of Piedras Negras), giving Bonampak some respite; but after 526, his successor K’inich Tatb’u Skull II attacked Bonampak again and captured more lords.

Waiting in line mural, Bonampak
I love the guy who has turned around there, as if to ask “is this the queue for the bogs?”

Bonampak by 600 CE had become a satellite of Yaxchilan. In that time, the ajaw of Yaxchilan installed Yajaw Chan Muwaan I as lord in Bonampak. Subsequent ajawob reconstructed the site to orient toward the metropolis. C. 790 CE, Yaxchilan’s king Shield Jaguar III oversaw the installation of Chan Muwaan II, and hired Yaxchilano artisans to commemorate it in “Structure I”‘s murals. Bonampak collapsed with Yaxchilan in the 9th century.

Temple I Mural Buildings
The murals live in these little stone buildings, halfway up Temple I.

What is often referred to as The Temple of the Murals (Structure 1) is a long narrow building with 3 rooms atop a low-stepped pyramid base. The interior walls preserve the finest examples of classic Maya painting, otherwise known only from pottery and occasional small faded fragments. Through a fortunate accident, rainwater seeped into the plaster of the roof in such a way as to cover the interior walls with a layer of slightly transparent calcium carbonate. Shortly after Healy’s discovery the Carnegie Institution sent an expedition to Bonampak. The walls were painted with kerosene which made the layer over the paintings temporarily transparent, then the murals were extensively and completely photographed and duplicate paintings were made by two different artists. In 1996 a team from Yale University began The Bonampak Documentation Project, which included making an even more detailed study, photographic record, and reproductions of the murals.

Mural Detail, Bonampak
Hell yeah slightly transparent calcium carbonate!!

The paintings date from 790 and were made as frescos, with no seams in the plaster indicating that each room was painted in a single session during the short time that the plaster was moist. They show the hand of a master artist with a couple of competent assistants. The three rooms show a series of actual events with great realism. The first shows robing of priests and nobles, a ceremony to mark a child as a noble heir, an orchestra playing wooden trumpets, drums, and other instruments, and nobles conferring in discussion.

Nobles discussing stuff, fresco, Bonampak
Discussing the weather, probs.

The second room shows a war scene, with prisoners taken, and then the prisoners, with ritually bleeding fingers, seated before a richly-attired Chaan Muwaan II, the Yaxchilano “governor” of Bonampak. It is usually presumed that the prisoners are being prepared for human sacrifice, though this is not actually shown in the murals.

Prisoners sit with bleeding fingers, Bonampak
Arrgh, me fingers!

The third room shows a ceremony with dancers in fine costumes wearing masks of gods, and the ruler and his family stick needles into their tongues in ritual bloodletting. The accompanying hieroglyphic text dates the scene and gives the names of the principal participants.

Blood letting fresco, Bonampak
OWTH MTH THONGUE!

The fresco painting technique used in Bonampak is a three step process. An outline was made in red over a coat of stucco and then the flat spaces were filled with paints from mineral origins. These paints took on the colors of blue, red, sepia, yellow, mauve, purple and green. The last step was to outline the figures in black. The finished product was beautiful and well proportioned. Stylized figures representing gods, dragons and other mythological creatures were accompanied by planetary hieroglyphs and chronological inscriptions.

Mayan writing, fresco, Bonampak
Writing!

Professor Mary Miller of Yale, who conducted an extensive study of the murals, wrote “Perhaps no single artifact from the ancient New World offers as complex a view of Prehispanic society as do the Bonampak paintings. No other work features so many Maya engaged in the life of the court and rendered in such great detail, making the Bonampak murals an unparalleled resource for understanding ancient society.”

Engraving detail, Bonampak
There are exquisite carvings as well.

The frescos are situated about halfway up Temple I, so after taking our snaps (all without flash, by the way) we thought we’d climb to the top.

Temple 1, Bonampak
Up the apples and pears!

But before we do that, check out the detail on this door lintel.

Lintel carving detail, Bonampak
Mayan art ROCKS. End of.

Okay, up to the TOP!!

Graham Hughes and Casey Turner at Bonampak
Casey has a phobia of heights but climbed up away . You go girl!

Where we checked out the old acropolis of Bonampak.

The Acropolis, Bonampak
Not much left now, can you believe those frescos survived?

Not wishing to infuriate our driver any more (we were convinced he’d burst a blood vessel if we were late again), we decided to head back to the park entrance in good time.

Graham Hughes at Bonampak Acropolis
Graham go bye bye now.

Along the way we stopped to take a picture of this magnificent stela, which is situated at the foot of the temple.

Stela, Bonampak
Look closer…
Stela detail, Bonampak
Man, it was like it was carved yesterday.

Soon enough we were bundled back into the minibus and were taken to the charming little Mayan village of Lacanja Chansayab, close to the border with Guatemala. Casey and I were the only two from the minibus party to be staying here the night.

Ya'ajche' Campamento
Imagine that on a triple word score.

After a pleasant walk around the village (we went searching for a waterfall, but never found it), we stayed the night in one of these delightful little huts of the Ya’ajche’ campamento, something of an inspiration for what we could do with Jinja Island someday.

Ya'ajche' Campamento
Whoosh! It had been a long day. Tomorrow: GUATEMALA!

Bocas Del Toro