Thursday, June 30, 2011

Exploring La Paz Waterfall Gardens in Costa Rica

For those interested in hiking through a rainforest, viewing a wide array of wildlife, and watching cascading waterfalls, La Paz Waterfall Gardens has it all. Located on the eastern edge of the Poás National Park, just 12 miles north of Alajuela, this 70-acre, privately owned ecological park is one of the top tourist destinations in the country. It includes two miles of beautifully maintained walking trails with conveniently placed viewing platforms that highlight the five different waterfalls of the Río La Paz. In addition, there are 10 fascinating animal exhibits, an orchid and a hummingbird garden, and the country's largest butterfly garden.                                                                                      
Although there are plenty of tour companies based in San José that offer half- and full-day trips with a stop at La Paz, the park can be easily explored with any of the self-guided tours that begin at the visitor center. The self-guided tours also allow you to go directly to an area of your interest instead of following a fixed itinerary led by a tour guide. But if you prefer more information along the way, guided tours led by informative and bilingual guides are also available. 

La Paz Waterfall Gardens is open all year from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you are not arriving with a tour company, then the best way to get there is by driving. The park is located approximately 3.75 miles from the town of Vara Blanca. Once you reach the town, you will begin seeing the well-marked signs.

What to See at La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Waterfalls - The trail from the visitor center includes a series of metal stairways that descend into a steep canyon with viewing platforms near each of the waterfalls. The five waterfalls include: Templo, the 130-foot Magia BlancaEncantadaEscondida, and La Paz. The lookout points allow you to get as close as possible to the falls, whether it is underneath or above them. The trails end at the La Paz waterfall, which is one of the most photographed waterfalls in Central America. To fully enjoy the hike, try to give about two hours. For those who prefer not to walk back from the trail exit, there are free shuttles with the last one departing at 5 p.m.

Photo by Edwin Dalorzo
Butterfly Garden - This exhibit is the largest of its kind in the country. Even if you don’t really care about butterflies, it is still fascinating. The trail from the visitor center leads directly to the Butterfly Garden, which includes a multi-level, screened observatory. 

Hummingbird Garden - With plenty of feeders, you are guaranteed views of at least 26 documented species of these fleeting birds as well as a number of other colorful, winged creatures. You can also watch the hand feedings that occur twice a day (usually in the morning and afternoon).

Photo by Marcus Obal
Jungle Cats - This is the newest addition to the park. It includes 35 felines that were once part of a previous wildlife center that lost its funding and closed. Highlights include a 200-pound Jaguar as well as five out of the six species of endangered Central American cats. There is a small additional admission fee but it goes toward supporting this important center. 
Serpentarium - This exhibit includes approximately 30 venomous and non-venomous snakes in the country. Highlights include the Golden Eyelash Viper, the Bushmaster, and the Green Vinesnake.

La Casita de La Paz - This cute little house is a reproduction of a typical farmhouse that once belonged to a farmer more than a century ago. With the right timing, you can sample typical food, take a ride on an oxcart, and visit the farm animals.

Aviary - Here you will see everything from toucans to macaws. Again, this refuge is for wild birds that were once illegally captured and confiscated by the government. The toucan exhibit allows visitors to hand-feed the birds after they land on your arm.

Monkeys - You will see a variety of local monkeys that include the Marmoset, Spider, and White-Faced monkeys. All of the monkeys, donated by the Costa Rica Ministry of Wildlife, were confiscated from people who once held them illegally. Many of them have been rehabilitated and are now thriving.

Trout Pond - This man-made trout pond allows both fishing and swimming. The lake is stocked once a month and both fly- and spin-cast rods are available. If you prefer to not get wet, there is the Big Trout Bar, which offers delicious meals and a variety of drinks. 

Although the price of admission to the gardens is a little high (approximately US$32 per person), it is worth it. Just take your time and appreciate the fact that the majority of the proceeds go back toward the rehabilitation of these endangered species.  

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Exploring Antigua in Guatemala

The colonial city of Antigua was once one of the most magnificent locations in Central America. Located about 30 miles west of Guatemala City, it was established as the capital in 1541. After the second of two devastating earthquakes in the 1700s, the government ordered that the capital be moved to the relatively "safer" location of Guatemala City. But as history shows, the move would prove to be unwise since the eventual earthquakes in Guatemala City would actually outnumber the ones in Antigua. In fact, the 20th century alone included large-magnitude earthquakes in 1902, 1917, 1918, as well as a 7.5-magnitude quake in 1976 that killed an estimated 25,000 people. Today, visitors can view many of the incredible ruins that have been preserved, which makes it a type of open-air museum that offers a glimpse into the past. In addition to its historical significance, its spectacular surroundings include three volcanoes on its horizon: the 13,044–foot Acatenango, the 12,345–foot Fuego, and the almost surreal 12,356–foot Agua. Overall, it can be a busy city, but its relaxed atmosphere is what makes it special and the reason why so many expats now call it home. 

The city itself is incredibly accessible and most of the major sites are located within an eight-block area. Your only difficulty is to watch the traffic and your step, especially on the  narrow sidewalks that can be in disrepair. Otherwise, use common sense and do not travel alone down unknown streets during the evening. If you do catch yourself out past dark, then make sure to take either a taxi or a tuk-tuk (moto-taxi), which can quickly take you from point A to point B. But make sure to negotiate your fare ahead of time because they can charge up to 100-percent more than they usually do just by looking at you or hearing a foreign accent.   

The Major Attractions in Antigua, Guatemala

There are approximately a dozen historical sites within an eight-block area and all of them can be easily explored on foot.

Parque Central: Like the majority of Spanish colonial cities in Central America, the tree-lined Parque Central is the focal point. This is where visitors and residents come to either meet people or relax on any of its benches near the Fuente de Las Sirenas, which was built in 1738. It is also the best starting point for exploring this historical section of the city. On weekends, you will also hear many mariachi bands serenading anyone willing to pay them.
Photo by Gustavo Bando
Catedral de Santiago: Again, like any Parque Central, you will always find one of the largest and most magnificent churches just steps away. Located on the eastern side of the Parque Central, this cathedral is more correctly known as the Parroquia de San José. It has been demolished and rebuilt so many times that there are conflicting dates of when it was first built. Some say 1542 while other say 1670. But what is agreed upon is the fact that there was once a large dome with at least 18 chapels and five aisles in its sanctuary. It even included a highly decorative altar lined with ivory and silver. Unfortunately, the 1773 earthquake destroyed most of the cathedral and only portions were rebuilt in the 19th century. For some perspective of its original size, stop by the ruins behind the church. When it gets dark, make sure to stop by to see the church because its facade is lit up with lights.

Photo by Hermann Luyken
Palacio de los Capitanes: Taking up the whole southern side of the Parque Central, this structure was built in 1543, which makes it one of the oldest in the city. Most of its two-level facade is original, but the remainder of the building was re-constructed in early 1900s. Also known as the Palace of the Captains-Generals, it has served in a wide array of roles that include the Latin American mint, government residences, the government’s courts and local offices as well as military barracks. Today, it serves as the local government office but visitors can stroll through the grounds during business hours.  

Church of San Francisco: Located at the corner of 7 Calle Oriente and 1 Avenida Sur, this is also one of the oldest churches in the city. Dating back to 1579, it once served as a religious and cultural center that included everything from a school and a hospital to a monastery. But it too was devastated by the 1773 earthquake. Very little of its original structure remains but the monastery’s ruins can still be seen. The church includes the tomb of Central America’s first saint:  Hermano Pedro de Betancourt. He was a Franciscan monk who founded the Hospital of Belén that once offered miraculous healing powers on more than one occasion.

Las Capuchinas: These remains are one of the best preserved ruins in the city. Located on the corner of 2 Calle Oriente and 2 Avenida Norte, it was once the largest convent in the region that dates back to 1726. It includes everything from fountains and courtyards to interesting towers. After the earthquakes in 1751 and 1773, the sisters abandoned the building and it remained empty until 1813, when it was sold. It now serves as the home for the city’s council on historical preservation with a museum that features exhibits about the religious history of the city.  

Arch of Santa Catalina: As seen in the photo at the top of this post, no visit to the city is complete without viewing this magnificent arch that crosses 5 Avenida Norte. It is one of the most photographed locations in the city, mostly due to the Volcán Agua in its background. Built in 1609, the arch is all that remains of the original convent and nuns once used it to cross the busy street without being exposed to the outside world.

Photo by Chen Si Yuan
La Merced: About one block north of the Santa Catalina arch, this church includes one of the most detailed facades in the country. Formally known as the Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de La Merced, it was built in 1694 but reconstructed in the 19th century. The church is still being used today and its grounds include beautiful cloisters, a grand fountain and gardens. If you can, try to go to the upper level, since there are some beautiful views from that vantage point.

El Mercado:This large central market is located approximately three blocks west of the Parque Central. You will find a large maze of stalls with vendors offering everything from artwork and handcrafted furniture to fresh meat and flowers. To fully explore the site, you will need about a full day but it is always an experience to just walk through the market even for just a brief moment. Just be careful and hold on to your valuables because pickpockets are watching. The official market days are generally Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

Photo by Chen Si Yuan
Cerro de la Cruz: Located northeast of the city is a hill that offers one of the best views of the area. It takes approximately 30 minutes on foot to get there from the Parque Central. Unfortunately, there have been so many cases of robberies on the trail, the Tourist Police now lead the hikes up to the park twice a day for free. Going at any other time is at your own risk. Reserve your spot on the tour at the Tourist Police Office, which is located on the northeastern corner of the Parque Central.
For more information on how to get to Antigua, check out my post Traveling to the City of Antigua, Guatemala.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Visiting León in Nicaragua

León is the second largest city in Nicaragua, behind the capital of Managua. Located in the northwestern department of the same name, it is home to the top universities in the country, several impressive museums and the largest cathedral in Central America. With so much education and culture, it is no surprise why it has produced so many progressive thinkers and liberal activists.

Despite its relatively peaceful atmosphere today, León includes a pretty violent history. In 1956, the first President Somoza was gunned down by poet (and martyr) Rigoberto López Pérez. During the Sandinista Revolution and the Contra struggles of the 1970s and 80s, the city suffered considerably due to the fact that the government suspected that plans against them were being formulated there. It was bombed on a number of occasions and many bloody and violent street battles occurred between the Sandinistas and Somoza’s National Guard. Proof of this violent past can still be seen in the bullet-marked buildings and the remaining murals displayed on the walls throughout the city still express the political sentiment.

Today, León consists of a combination of progressive attitudes with older traditions rooted in its Spanish colonial past. Dominating the main square is the gigantic Catedral de la Asunción, or more simply known as the León Cathedral. Inside its beautiful sanctuary is the marble tomb of the country’s most revered poet, Rubén Darío. The monument is guarded by a weeping lion with the inscription that states: "Nicaragua is created of vigor and glory, Nicaragua is made of freedom." Although these words were written in the past, they are still appropriate to today’s political climate.

Attractions in León
When exploring León, it is important to remember that city's layout consists of avenidas that run from north to south and calles, which run from west to east. Within this structure there is a numerical street system (and even street signs!) but no one seems to follow it. Instead, directions are provided in relation to major landmarks and in this case, the Parque Central is the top choice. The primary attractions in the city include:
Parque Central: It is located at the intersection of Calle Central Rubén Darío and the Avenida Central, but all you need to do to get there is to find the cathedral. Situated in the park’s center is the statue of General Máximo Jeréz who is guarded by four lions. The area is becoming more and more crowded with vendors selling everything from souvenirs to arts and crafts (which is good for local economy), but it can get pretty noisy at times.

Catedral de la Asunción: One of the main reasons to visit the city, this beautiful cathedral (seen in the photo at the top of this post) took more than 100 years to complete. To put it into perspective, eight different bishops had to oversee its construction by the time the first mass was held in 1747. It is a fascinating combination of colonial, neoclassical and baroque design, and it contains a collection of Spanish colonial art as well as a lineup of the country's most famous individuals including Rubén Darío, Miguel Larreynaga, and Salomón de la Selva. For a small fee, you can climb to the cathedral's domed roof for spectacular views of the city, its brightly colored rooftops, and the nearby volcanoes that loom on the horizon.

Mercado Central: This main market of the city is loud, noisy, and hot with a constant stream of activity by both residents as well as visitors. But the vendors sell everything from fruits and vegetables to every type of souvenir imaginable. You will also find some of the best prices for a Che Guevara t-shirt and other revolutionary-influenced items.

Galería de Héroes y Mártires: Located on the northeastern corner of the Parque Central, this star-shaped monument is surrounded by a photographic collection that honors the city's revolutionary figures. It is an emotional look at the city's violent past and it reminds everyone that freedom comes from the sacrifice of others. Some sarcastically call it the "Museo de las Traiciones" (Museum of the Treasons) as a reference to how the Sandinista rank and file has been cheated by Daniel Ortega and the rest of the Sandinista elite. Again the bullet-marked buildings are a remainder of former violent times.

Image by UNESCO
Associación de Combatientes Históricos Héroes de Veracruz: For those who want even more Sandinista history, this building is located on the southwestern corner of the Parque Central in a former Sandinista stronghold. It includes collections of photos, articles, and just about everything surrounding the revolution. Best of all, it is led by an actual Sandinista combat veteran.

Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián: Located three blocks west of the cathedral on the Calle Central Rubén Darío, it includes one of the best contemporary art collections in the country. Located in two buildings, it even includes works by Picasso and Rembrandt.

Museo Rubén Darío: Located four blocks west of the Parque Central, it was the home of the Darío’s aunt  and the childhood home of the famous poet. It includes a substantial collection of letters, magazines and original copies of books that he published during his lifetime. The rooms are maintained to resemble what it was like to live there in the past.

Finally, with so many beautiful and historic churches, it would be unfair to cram them into the end of this post. So, I will cover the main churches in an upcoming post (The Churches of Leon Nicaragua). 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Exploring Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua

Photo by David Ansley
Isla de Ometepe, also known as Ometepe Island, is a 107-square-mile island located within  massive Lake Nicaragua. Ometepe actually consists of two circular islands connected by an isthmus, which gives it the unique dumb-bell shape. Dominating the skyline are not one but two gigantic volcanoes: the 5,577-foot (and growing) active Volcán Concepción and the 4,573-foot ragged and dormant Volcán Maderas.

Image by GMT
The origin of the name "Ometepe" comes from the indigenous Náhuatl language meaning two (ome) peaks (tepetl) or "the place of two hills." Its original Náhuatl-speaking inhabitants arrived on the island after an earlier prediction told them to search out an "island paradise that consisted of two peaks." They certainly found it. But even before their arrival, the island served as a fertile and safe haven inhabited by a number of tribes and cultures. Traces of this past can be seen in the more than 2,000 petroglyphs (and counting) scattered throughout the island. The stone carvings range in age from 800 to 2,000 years old with some relics dating back to around 300 B.C.

Today, this island oasis seems virtually untouched by the modern world, which makes it incredibly special. Its two main towns include the busy Moyogalpa (where the ferries arrive from the mainland) and the sleepy Altagracia. In both of these towns, there are hotels and plenty of activities but the tourist infrastructure is still in its early stage so plan accordingly. But with its tropical forests, ancient stone carvings, organic farms, and rustic amenities, Isla de Ometepe offers visitors plenty to see and do.

The Volcanoes of Isla de Ometepe
As I tell anyone planning a hike on a volcano in Nicaragua, always hire a guide. Not only are they affordable but their knowledge of the area is completely worth the price. Experienced guides know the landscape, the shortcuts, and all of the dangers. This can be the difference between life and death especially when considering a climb on the dangerously active volcano like Volcán Concepción. In addition, paying a local guide is a simple way to give back and support the local community. Here is an overview of the two volcanoes:
Volcán Concepción – The majority of guided tours and hikes to this spectacular volcano begins in either Moyogalpa or Altagracia. But Moyogalpa serves as the best base camp for the 8- to 10-hour climb. Be prepared because the hike has a high degree of difficulty and it becomes dangerously steep especially toward the summit. It is important to leave early in the morning and have high-quality hiking shoes, plenty of water and snacks. The need for water cannot be stressed enough. There are three main hiking trails to the top: La Concha, the popular La Flor, and La Sabana (based in Altagracia). The Sabana trail in particular can be incredibly difficult due to the lack of tree cover. There have been many cases of heat exhaustion on this trail alone. The ascent for all three trails travels through several banana and coffee plantations with many breathtaking (both physical and visual) stops along the way. At the summit, the high-altitude cold air combines with the volcanic hot air to create an incredible sensation of quickly shifting temperatures. For the lucky few (since there is usually a halo of cloud cover), the summit offers a 360-degree view that is unforgettable.

Volcán Maderas - This volcano is located on the southern portion of the island and it offers less of a "summit" compared to its counterpart but more in the way of lush tropical landscapes and rainforests filled with wildlife. The climb takes up to eight hours but it can take much longer in the rainy season due to the damp and muddy conditions. But the reward is a spectacular jade-green lagoon located near the top that you can actually take a refreshing (but frigid) swim in. There are three main trails to the lagoon: Finca Magdelena and two longer trails that begin at the Hacienda Mérida and Finca El Porvenir. Again, do not be mislead by the volcano’s accessible appearance, make sure to hire a guide.

For those interested in history, there are more than 2,000 petroglyphs that have been discovered with the majority of these ancient treasures located on the southern half of the island. Due to the number of carvings, there are a variety of ways to view them.

Ometepe Petroglyph Project – Other than looking for the carvings yourself, visiting this organization is one of the best ways to view them. Established in 1995, this project has successfully excavated more than 100 different sites with 2,000 carvings and counting. It is simply supported by interested volunteers who stay for two or three weeks to search for these relics. If you are interested, their website includes detailed information:
Museo de Ometepe – Located near the parque central in the town of Altagracia, there are several carvings along with other pre-Columbian sculptures and pottery.
Finca El Porvenir – On one of the longer hiking trails to the Volcán Maderas, there is an area that includes approximately 20 petroglyphs.

Playa Santo Domingo
Although there are plenty of secluded beach areas, one of the best swimming beaches is the Playa Santo Domingo. Located on the eastern side of the narrow isthmus that connects the two islands, you will find many locals as well as exhausted climbers ready to share their stories with you. It offers a fitting end to a wonderful and special location.
For information about getting to Isla de Ometepe, check out my post: Ferry Travel to Isla de Ometepe.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Exploring Granada in Nicaragua

Photo by Carlos Adampol
Located on the northwestern shore of massive Lake Nicaragua, about 30 miles southeast of Managua, is the city of Granada. After Francisco Hernández de Córdoba arrived on its shores in 1524 and named it after his hometown back in Spain, it prospered due to the relatively easy trade route to the Caribbean Sea through the Río San Juan (San Juan River) and the Pacific Ocean, which was only a 12-mile journey over land. Due to this easy access to both oceans, Granada became one of the richest and most powerful cities in Central America.
Ironically, this same wealth and power is what also brought major problems into the city. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, pirates pillaged Granada only to leave portions of it burned as they used the same trade route for an easy escape. In 1855, the American adventurer William Walker gained control of the city and not only elected himself President, but instituted slavery and declared English as the official language. Fortunately, his plan to rule all of Central America failed, but during his retreat, he ordered that Granada again be burned to the ground.
Photo by Jose Cuadra
Today, Granada is a city steeped in its Spanish colonial history. Due to its popularity with foreign visitors and investors, it now serves as one of the top tourist destinations in the country. Despite some debate from its residents who say that the foreign investors are slowly driving them out, the city continues to focus on providing tourists a city rich in colonial heritage. This has led to large-scale restoration of many historic buildings into their original and colorful splendor. After visiting the city only once, you will not only agree that it is beautiful and charming but you will quickly see why so many Europeans and Americans are now moving there. 

What to See and Do in Granada
Parque Central – The centerpiece and social center of the city, it is a great place to just sit and relax or take a short stroll. The square offers musical performances during the busier times and you will always find street vendors selling everything from souvenirs to ice cream sandwiches. You will also find many young "Bohemians" selling handcrafted art and bracelets, with many that are impressive. Bordering this area are some of the most beautifully restored buildings in the city.
Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Asunción - As seen in the above photo, it is located on the eastern side of the Parque Central. The city's major attraction and landmark, it includes a blend of neoclassical and Gothic design on its exterior with a spacious interior that is surprisingly simple. The original church dates back to 1700s but it was destroyed many times during the constant pirate attacks. The current structure was completed in 1915 and consists of a yellow-orange exterior with a rust-red dome and two bell towers. Its most recent restoration was completed in 2006. For me, the churches in any busy city are always a welcome retreat from the hectic atmosphere just outside its doors. So, make sure you do the same.
Antiguo Convento San Francisco - Located two blocks northeast of the Parque Central, this church includes a pastel-blue exterior that is similar to a festive birthday cake. It was originally constructed of straw and wood but destroyed by pirates in 1679. After it was rebuilt, William Walker and his troops burned it down in 1856. Its final restoration occurred in 1939. The cultural center next to the convent includes one of the country's best pre-Columbian museums, which includes petroglyphs, galleries, peaceful courtyards, and the city library. 

La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes – This church is considered by many residents as the city’s most beautiful church. Located two blocks west of the Parque Central on Calle 14 de Septiembre, it was originally built in 1534 but like the other churches, it was also destroyed a number of times. Its exterior consists of a baroque design with a single bell tower that is one of the best places to view the city, Lake Nicaragua, and the Volcán Mombacho looming on the horizon.

 Mi Museo – Situated in a colonial house about one block northwest of the Parque Central on the Calle Atravesada, it includes a collection of 5,000 artifacts with some that date back to 500 B.C. It also includes a charming little courtyard and admission is surprisingly free.
Photo Courtesy of Casa de Los Tres Mundos
Casa de Los Tres Mundos- Located just a short walk north of the cathedral on the Parque Central, this is an exciting cultural center that offers everything from art exhibitions and classes to music workshops and concerts. It is situated in a restored building that dates back to 1724. This thriving location is a wonderful cultural addition to the city that was badly needed. It is well worth a visit! 
Horse-Drawn Carriage Rides – If you ask anyone about Granada, they will always mention the horse-drawn carriage rides. They are lined up like taxis at a busy airport along the western side of the Parque Central and the drivers are ready to take you away on a slow tour of the city. Some drivers offer a set fee but many are ready to negotiate. The ride itself includes views of the city's major attractions with the added bonus of traveling down some of the smaller side streets that also include a charm of their own. But be prepared, many of the drivers only speak Spanish.

Finally, if all of this exploration makes you hungry, check out my post Dining in Granada Nicaragua for some excellent locations.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Exploring the Lost World at Tikal, Guatemala

To continue from my earlier post, Exploring Tikal in Guatemala, there is another magical section worth visiting that includes its own unique architecture and atmosphere. Known as Mundo Perdido, or the Lost World, it is an expansive complex of 38 structures that covers an area of approximately 646,000 square feet with a layout that is in harmony with the cycles of Venus, the Sun, the solstices and the equinoxes. It is also one of the oldest ensembles of Mayan structures solely dedicated to the observation of the stars.

The top attraction within the complex is structure 5C-54, which is also known as the Great Pyramid of the Lost World (seen in above photo). This pyramid dates back to 500 B.C., and with a height of 105 feet, it was once one of the tallest pyramids in the Mayan region. It still consists of incredibly steep stairways on all four sides with a flat summit that once held a structure decorated masks of the Sun God. You can just imagine groups of Mayans observing the stars and praying to the Sun God for thankfulness of their good fortune.
Photo by Douglas Reynolds
But over time, the need for astronomical observations changed and the complex lost its overall importance. Not one to ignore former structures, the pyramid (like many other structures at Tikal) was remodeled and transformed at least three more times with the latest structures built in the 4th century. The former royal palaces within the complex were also replaced by structures that were more administrative in function. Unfortunately the pyramid is currently off limits to the public due to the instability of the steep stone staircase, which has recently caused several deaths. It is too bad, because it was known by many visitors as one of the best locations to view the sunset in Tikal.

Located just toward the east is a long terrace that includes three temples that were formerly used to observe the stars and mark the time for visual observations throughout the year. Inside the three temples were six tombs for the royal members of Jaguar Paw, who ruled in the 4th century but lost their power after an internal (and violent) dispute in A.D. 378.
Talud-Tablero Style (photo by David Germain)
Another remarkable attraction is the structure 5C-49 built in A.D. 250. It was constructed in talud-tablero style, which is an architectural style often used in pre-Columbian pyramid construction. It consists of a platform structure (the tablero) on top of an inward-sloping surface (the talud). Since this site was considered sacred to the Mayan people, it was fortunately preserved in its original form and remained unchanged even though the majority of other structures were being repurposed.

Aerial Photo by Tikal Park
Since the main pyramid is closed to climbing, some guides tend to condense their tour of this area and focus on the more interesting temples near the main plaza. But make sure to set some time aside to explore the area on your own because it offers another side of Mayan culture that was formerly devoted to the study of the stars. This fact alone adds to the magical quality of this spectacular Mayan site and it comes as no surprise why Tikal was even included in scenes from the Star Wars films.  

For more information about Tikal, read my post: Exploring Tikal in Guatemala.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Interview with Director Anayansi Prado for the Film "Paraiso for Sale"

Anayansi Prado is a documentary filmmaker currently based in Los Angeles. Born in Panama, she moved to the United States as a teenager and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Film from Boston University. Her debut documentary "Maid in America" focused on the issues faced by Latina domestic workers in Los Angeles and it was screened nationally on the PBS series, Independent Lens. Her second production, "Children in No Man’s Land" was screened in more than 30 countries. It focused on the issue of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S./Mexico border. She is the recipient of the prestigious Rockefeller Media Fellowship and has received funding from other major foundations such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Latino Public Broadcasting, and the Pacific Pioneer Fund. 
"Paraiso for Sale" is her third documentary, which is slated for a world premiere at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival in June. Prado's film focuses on the beautiful archipelago of Bocas del Toro in Panama, which has attracted retirees and developers from the U.S. due to its crystal-clear waters, relaxed island culture, and the feeling of "getting away from it all."
Unfortunately, the population growth rate has skyrocketed to 150 percent more than normal without any regard to the rights of the indigenous people who have lived on the land for centuries. The film covers the issues from three different points of view: From an American couple who invested their life savings into a dream home, a local businessman who strives to create "change" by running for mayor despite his overwhelming odds, and the indigenous families who are being aggressively pushed out of their own properties.
Recently, I had the fortune of viewing a screener provided by Impacto Films. The film, to say the least, is powerful. It makes you contemplate the film’s slogan: "What price would you pay for paradise? And who would you be willing to take it from?" You will always question what your impact will be on a so-called "vacation destination" whether you visit for just a few days or indefinitely. As I learned more about Prado, I was impressed by her early success and her attitude toward controversial issues. She responded warmly to this blog interview, which follows.

JHN: When did you first decide that you wanted to be a documentary filmmaker?
AP: Well, as you know from my bio, I received my degree in film from Boston University. After graduation, my original plan was to get into screenwriting with the eventual goal of producing and directing fiction films. After I moved to Los Angeles, my primary mode of transportation was by bus and during those rides I saw many Latina women going to work as maids in various locations. After doing some research and talking to them, each hard-working woman had a very interesting story, which made me think ‘I should document this!’ The film, which was my first documentary, was called “Maid in America” and it was screened nationally on PBS. That was the beginning of this part of my career.

JHN: So you didn’t necessarily choose the genre, you simply stumbled upon it on your commute!

AP: Exactly!

JHN: In your film, “Paraiso for Sale”, you provided an excellent combination of viewpoints, which really intensified the whole point of the film. The story of the American couple in the film was so heartfelt and genuine. How did you meet the American couple?
AP: Actually, during my visits prior to filming, I got to network with a number of expats on Boca. The couple in the film was not my first choice. My original couple was from Utah and they had also invested their life savings into land with the plan of building a house in Boca. But as their house was being built, a developer told them that he had the title to the land and they spent the remainder of their money fighting him in court. Then, they simply ran out of money. So the house wasn’t finished and they moved back to the U.S. Their story was extremely complex and heartbreaking. That is when I met the couple you see in the film, whose story is similar in the land and title issues, but their house was already completed. It was a pleasure getting to know them and they honestly wanted to help the community. They were very sad to leave Boca.

JHN: Yes, I felt for them. The situation must have been pretty bad on the island since they chose to relocate to another part of the country instead of leave the country entirely.

AP: Yes, their troubles were only on the island. They actually moved to another beautiful area on the Pacific Coast up in the mountains. They are very happy there.

JHN: As I watched the film, I was hoping that Dario would win his bid to become mayor. The anxiety around counting the ballots came across in your film. He seemed so deflated by the end. Do you know if either he or someone else has pushed for any political change on the island?

AP: Well, by the time we see Dario at the end of the film, six months had passed. So, it is too early to know. Any type of election will be held approximately three years from now.

JHN: I was especially affected by the still photos in the film when Feliciano’s neighbor’s home was destroyed by the American who seemed thrilled to do it. Has there been any retaliation by anyone against the developers?

AP: Nothing. You have to understand that the people on Boca are generally peaceful. It is a beautiful island community that is small enough to walk from one end to another in about 20 minutes. There is no crime, except for an occasional burglary, but since the island is so small, they are caught pretty quickly. There is no drug problem and everyone deals with things peacefully. I am not saying that the rest of the country is like that. But as you saw in the film, the developers and Americans were pretty much the aggressors and the indigenous families were the unfortunate recipients.

 JHN: What happened after the indigenous families blocked the road on the island and how did the protests end so peacefully? If you did that in the U.S., you would be put on a bus with a one-way ticket to jail.
AP: True! First of all, I want to mention that each of the road-block protests lasted between five and six hours. There was a lot of tension and the police and military would show up only near the end. Normally they would have arrested them, but they knew that we were there. They also knew that I was from Panama, but most importantly, I was from the U.S. So I told my cameraman to keep filming and they simply didn’t want to appear ugly because it would all be caught on film. The island councilman that Feliciano spoke with in the film did show up on those occasions and after a productive dialogue had begun, the road was re-opened. The dialogue was usually something like ‘Let’s go to my office and talk about your issues.’ This usually stopped the protests and temporarily satisfied everyone. But the police were taking pictures of our crew and they were very aware that we were constantly filming the situation.
JHN: According to the credits, Ruben Blades provided the music for the film. In the film, it appeared as if he was somehow caught in the system as “Tourism Minister” when he provided answers to a hostile crowd. Do you know if he was upset by these disturbing rates of growth in the area?

AP: Well, I only met Ruben during the time that I was filming. He was happy that I was covering the issues on the island and was more than glad to provide some of his music in the film. He is a very warm person, open-minded and he was thrilled to part of the film. As far as his feeling toward the issue, I think you should ask him instead because I would rather not comment. I believe his involvement in the film was the most that he could do, but again, you need to speak to him. 
JHN: From your experience and knowledge, has anything changed since the film was made?

AP: It is pretty simple. Nothing. Well, it is too soon to say because the film has not been screened publically yet and elections for any type of change will not be held for another three years. I do know that the land-title issues are still occurring and the developers are still eyeing the area. 
JHN: According to your bio, you will be teaching filmmaking in Burma and Paraguay, any plans to make another film in the meantime?

AP:  Well, I just finished teaching in Burma. I spent one month teaching a documentary workshop through the U.S. Embassy there. It was the first of its kind in Burma and I had 16 students in the workshop that produced four very good documentaries and shorts. I will be departing soon for Paraguay and again, it is through the U.S. Embassy for about a month. I look forward to it and it has been a great experience for me. 
JHN: Any quick advice for other aspiring documentary filmmakers out there?
AP: My advice is to be incredibly passionate about every project from beginning to end. Yes, there will always be issues that range from everyday financial needs to other ups and downs that make you feel like giving up. But be determined and always be committed to the very end! Be flexible in your goals and never give up. 
JHN: Other than the premiere at the L.A. Film Festival this weekend and your trip to Paraguay, what is your next project?

AP: Well, I am currently in the early stages of my next documentary. I am working with an amazing Panamanian director, Abner Benaim, on a documentary that focuses on the collective memory of people in Panama who remember the U.S. invasion in 1989. If you read the history about the invasion, the U.S. offers a different story compared to the Panamanian government. But what is most interesting is that the people in the film also have their own stories that are very different from both the U.S. and Panama! The film is called “Where Were You?” and we have received funding from some Latin American countries but not surprisingly, none from the U.S. So if you know of a generous U.S. foundation, please let me know!

JHN: Well, I look forward to viewing that film as well! Thank you so much for taking time for this interview and have fun at the L.A. Film Festival this weekend!

AP: Thank you very much and take care.