Sunday, July 31, 2011

Exploring San Pedro Sula in Honduras

Photo by G. Valdez
San Pedro Sula is the second largest city in Honduras and it also serves as the commercial hub for the region’s coffee, tobacco, banana, and sugar industries. It is located in the northwestern corner of the country 165 miles from Tegucigalpa and approximately 35 miles south of Puerto Cortés on the Caribbean coast. With many of the country's popular tourist attractions located close to the city, many visitors choose to fly into San Pedro Sula's Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport instead of Tegucigalpa.
Founded by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in 1536, the city was originally known as San Pedro, which included a mint where gold was processed from the mines in the Naco, Sula and Quimistan Valleys. The city’s name was eventually changed to San Pedro Sula during the 18th century and by the early 1900s, the city prospered due to the region’s banana plantations. This overall success also increased the population to more than 100,000 people especially after rail lines were built to connect the city with the ports of Puerto Cortés and Tela.

Today, San Pedro Sula is a bustling city of more than one million people and it continues to prosper due to its overall focus on business. Since the majority of the highways in and out of the city are well maintained, it is a relatively easy drive to many of the regional tourist attractions. But before leaving San Pedro Sula, make sure to visit some of the following locations.

Much like many other former Spanish Colonial cities in Central America, San Pedro Sula is built in a grid-like layout around a Parque Central with a series of calles (that run from east to west) and avenidas (that run from north to south). The city as a whole is divided into four quadrants: Northeast (NE), Southeast (SE), Northwest (NO) and Southwest (SO), with most of the attractions in the SO quadrant.

What to See in San Pedro Sula

Parque Central: San Pedro’s Parque Central, located at Calle 1 and Avenida 3, seems to be busy both day and night. It serves as a convenient meeting point for residents and visitors and with the number of street vendors, they know it as well. Located in its center is the small gazebo that marks the spot where the city was founded and it is also the only structure that dates back to the turn of the 20th century. 

Photo by Jemito
Catedral de San Pedro Sula: Located on the eastern edge of the Parque Central, this neo-classical structure was built in 1949. It consists of high, pale-yellow walls and pillars accented with rusty-red colors on its bell towers and dome. The interior includes walls lined with paintings and hand-carved wooden statues of saints and other Catholic images. During the busier times of the Parque Central, the cathedral provides a relaxing retreat away from the crowds and overall noise of the city.

Museo de Antropología e Historia: This museum of anthropology and history is located between Avenida 3 and Calle 4, which is two blocks north of the Parque Central. Opened on January 25, 1994, it is the best one-stop location to learn about the history, culture, and geography of Honduras. It includes a wide array of pre-Columbian artifacts and ceramics as well as artwork and interactive exhibits that focus on everyday life during the colonial period. In addition, the two-floor museum also includes a gift shop and a cafeteria that serves lunch. The museum is open Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Mercado Guamilito: Known as The Guamilito Market, it is one of the best arts and crafts markets in Honduras. Located between Avenidas 8 and 9 and Calles 6 and 7, it is open daily from 10 a.m. to  5 p.m. and it includes almost an endless amount of booths and tables that sell everything from hammocks and pottery to cheap souvenirs and t-shirts. The handicraft section is larger and you will also find goods from Guatemala and El Salvador. You can also purchase high-quality coffee (and not-so-high-quality coffee) as well as delicious, hand-made tortillas. Many of the vendors sell the same items, so make sure to take time to search out the best deal and be ready to bargain, which is part of the overall experience.  

The Coca-Cola Sign: This is one of San Pedro Sula’s landmarks and it is often compared to the Hollywood sign in California. Located on the nearby Merendón Mountain Range, the trail head is only a 10-minute drive (or taxi ride) from downtown. After a relatively easy hike that crosses through a rainforest, it offers spectacular views of the Sula Valley and a great chance to see a variety of the region’s colorful birds. The hike takes between one to two hours to complete.

Parque Nacional Cusuco: Located approximately 12 miles west of San Pedro Sula in the Merendón Mountain Range is an 86-square-mile national park that includes some of the tallest trees in Central America. Established in 1959, it is managed by the Hector Rodrigo Pastor Fasquelle Foundation. Although the park is named after the armadillo (cusuco), it is actually home to more than 300 different species of birds ranging from Toucans to Quetzals. It also includes a waterfall, swimming area, and a visitor center with a variety of exhibits. The visitor center also provides maps of all of the forest trails including a trek to the 7,355-foot Cerro Jilinco, the highest peak in the park.
For a great way to explore the park,  take one of the tours offered by the Jungle Expedition tour company ( The four different tours of the Cusuco National Park range from a half-day to three full days in length. Highlights of the tours include four-wheel-drive transportation in modified Land Rovers and Land Cruisers, bilingual guides, horseback riding, incredible valley views, and waterfall rappelling. Best of all, the company promotes sustainable eco-tourism that supports the development of the park's surrounding villages.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Exploring the City of Managua in Nicaragua

Managua, the largest city in Nicaragua, is home to more than a quarter of the entire country’s population. It sits precariously on top of 11 different fault lines that have formed it into what it is today. Whenever it seemed that the city had successfully rebuilt itself after one earthquake, it was only knocked back down again by another. But on December 23, 1972, a massive 6.2-magnitude earthquake devastated the city with more than 5,000 killed, 20,000 injured, and more than 250,000 left homeless. After the quake, much of its older portion was never fully rebuilt and portions still remain eerily abandoned. The overall result is a fascinating combination of crumbling ruins inhabited by the poor, quickly built concrete structures for a variety of small businesses, and some of the region’s best shopping malls and luxury hotels.  

Since its establishment as the country’s capital in 1855, Managua has seen its share of wealth, tragedy, and overall political turmoil. This bustling Nicaraguan commercial center was heavily involved in both the Revolution in the late 1970s and the Contra War of the 1980s. Names such as Sandino, Somoza, and the Sandinistas are still spoken in one way or another and many residents still recall the vivid memories of bombings, food rationing, and senseless violence. But despite the growing debate about the country’s current progress, you will still see support for the Sandinista government. This can be seen in everything from the black-and-red FSLN flags to the billboards with the smiling face of President Daniel Ortega who was elected in 2007.

Today, Managua is divided into the older (pre-1972) sections as well as the gleaming newer sections. Compared to other large Central America cities, Managua is more of a mixed bag of neighborhoods holding on to their sense of community and commercial districts that offer the latest trends in fashion and technology. With some older areas finally undergoing some redevelopment, it is safe to say that Managua does have some tourist attractions that are worth taking some time to see.

Things to See in Managua

For visitors, the Plaza de la Revolución is the best place to begin exploring the city. It includes a concentration of historic sites all located within walking distance of one another. This plaza, built around 1900, was originally the center of the older (pre-1972) city known as the Plaza de la República. But after the Sandinistas came to power in the 1979, the name was appropriately changed to Plaza de la Revolución. Later, when Daniel Ortega was taken out of office in 1990, the plaza was transformed back into a tranquil plaza complete with an illuminated fountain that played musical selections. When Ortega was elected President in 2007, the name of Plaza de la Revolución returned and the fountain was removed in order to provide space for the occasional motivational rally. Other historical attractions around this plaza include:

Catedral Vieja: Known as the Old Cathedral or more formally as the Catedral de Santiago, it is located on the eastern side of the plaza. Its ash-gray ruins stand as an important reminder to a once glorious past. It was the first cathedral in the western hemisphere to be built entirely of concrete over a metal frame. Miraculously, it survived the 1931 earthquake, but it could not stand up to the power from the 1972 quake. Visitors, prohibited from entering the sanctuary due to the structural damage, can still view the interior from the locked gate at the entrance. It is an eerie scene where birds now make the interior their home as the cracked murals and stone angels silently watch. Unfortunately, all restoration plans for the cathedral remain shelved.

Palacio Nacional de la Cultura: Located next to the Catedral Vieja, this neo-classical marble structure was built in 1931 and it is one of the oldest buildings to survive the 1972 earthquake. It was formerly the seat of government during Somoza’s rule but on August 22, 1978, Sandinista commandos disguised as National Guard soldiers stormed the building and held the legislative body for more than 45 hours. This act would become the beginning of the end for Somoza’s senseless dictatorship. Today, the building still functions as a government building and it also includes the national archive and library as well as an art museum with a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.

Teatro Nacional Rubén Darío: Situated north of the Plaza de la Revolución, this is Nicaragua’s most important theater and a regular venue for many foreign orchestras and dance troupes. Its interior includes massive chandeliers, marble floors and an incredible view of the lake from the second floor. In addition, it bears a striking resemblance to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., but it is less than one-third the size. Located in front of the theater is the ornate monument dedicated to Nicaragua’s favorite poet, Rubén Darío, which was beautifully restored in 1998 with funding from the Texaco Corporation.

Tumba de Carlos Fonseca: Located on the west side of the plaza is the tomb of Carlos Fonseca (1936-1976), one of the founders of the FSLN and its most revered leader. He was killed in an ambush by Somoza’s National Guard and is still honored every July 19 for his sacrifice. The white-marble tomb is surrounded by rows of black-and-red FSLN flags as well as blue-and-white Nicaraguan flags. An important feature that represents his overall importance is the eternal flame, which is the only one in Central America.

Catedral Nueva: Known formally as the Catedral Metropolitana de la Purísima Concepción, this cathedral is located a short walk away from the Metrocentro shopping mall. It is a peculiarly designed structure that goes against any preconceived image of a cathedral in Central America. Built with the majority of funds provided by the Domino Pizza Corporation, the roof consists of orbs of different sizes, which residents of Managua state they look like either a nuclear reactor or breasts. Compared to the exterior, the interior is surprisingly plain except for the figure of Christ encased in glass.

Monumento al Soldado: This statue is one of the city’s few remaining monuments to the first Sandinista era and it shows a muscular, shirtless soldier, with a Russian rifle in his raised arm and a pick ax in the other. The plaque at its base summarizes the inspiration for its design: "Only workers and campesinos will march to the end." It is located on Avenida Bolívar in the Barrio Santo Domingo.

Museo Huellas de Acahualinca: Located just a half-mile northwest of the Plaza de la Revolución is the small but informative museum that covers the region's history. The highlights include animal and human footprints that date back 10,000 years, which were preserved in volcanic ash from the nearby Volcán Momotombo. It is open from Monday through Saturday and admission is approximately US$2.

Parque Histórico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa: This hilltop park, located south of the Plaza de la Revolución, is a popular weekend retreat for residents of the city. But it was once the former site of the Somoza’s presidential palace and notorious prison, and where Augusto Sandino (one of Nicaragua’s national heroes) was assassinated. Today, the spot is marked by the silhouetted statue of Sandino that is visible both day and night.

For more information about Loma de Tiscapa, read my post: Exploring Loma de Tiscapa in Managua,Nicaragua.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Volunteering for ProNica in Managua, Nicaragua

Photo by Gonzalo Bauluz
Located on the southern banks of Lake Managua, in Managua, Nicaragua is the city and industrial waste-disposal site known as La Chureca. Roughly translated from Spanish slang as "city dump," it is the largest landfill in Central America. It covers an area of approximately 2.7 square miles. In normal situations, trucks would pull in to unload their garbage as awaiting bulldozers push and flatten out the trash in order to promote the process of natural decay. But in this case, approximately 200 families live and sift through the garbage in search of food or items to sell. To make matters worse, the most useful items such as bottles and furniture are already sold to entrepreneurs at the dump's entrance. What remains is tons of garbage with little or no value and food that is either rotten or simply too dangerous for human consumption.

Scattered throughout this unhealthy zone are makeshift homes that are built from discarded cardboard and scraps of wood that only stand by leaning the pieces against one another. Its residents wear filthy, torn clothing mostly found in the dump and shoes are only worn by the lucky few. Comments by humanitarian groups are similar about the conditions that state, "It is an enormous breeding ground for flies, microbes, rotting food, burnt trash, and thousands of plastic bags." Twice a week, there is usually a thick cloud of smoke that covers the area as some areas of the dump are burned. This only increases the incredible heat and stench of glue, lead, and excrement.

Another disturbing fact is that out of the roughly 200 families that live there, 50 percent are children under the age of 18. For these children, life is brutal. There are many reports of physical abuse by other children fighting for prized scraps of rotting meat as well as young girls prostituting themselves for "first pick" from the incoming garbage truck drivers for as low as C$2.  

Fortunately, news coverage about La Chureca has helped to create some level of change at the site and several major humanitarian groups have taken notice. One of these groups is the Quaker organization known as ProNica. With offices in Florida as well as Managua, they lead and organize volunteers for programs that can help the young people of La Chureca. One program in particular is Los Quinchos 

Located in a walled compound with a small building and covered porch, the dedicated volunteers of Los Quinchos offer a temporary oasis from the madness just outside. The personnel come from many regions of the world and arrive by 10 a.m. to wash clothes, cook meals, and even teach reading and math to children who have never gone to school. For some of these children, this is the only schooling that they will receive because their families prefer that they help them sift through the dump instead. In addition, the simple meal of mostly rice and beans is usually their only one of the day. As stated by ProNica, "For these who live in huts of garbage, eat garbage, and wear garbage in La Chureca, Los Quinchos is a beacon of hope."

Los Quinchos, also known as Asociación Los Quinchos, is a program that helps and guides former glue-sniffing street children toward better lives. Founded in 1991 by Zelinda Roccia, it currently serves more than 200 children in its three major projects: The Street Outreach Program, Yahoskas, and the aid at La Chureca. 

The Street Outreach Program is one the program’s most successful and important projects. The workers comb the streets for homeless children and encourage them to give up street life by joining a residency program that provide a good home with a host family, food, and education. 

The Yahoskas program was established in 1999 as an extension of the charitable boys program. Its goal is to prevent young girls from resorting to prostitution by receiving a good home, love, and food. Currently, 25 girls ranging in age from 5 through 15 attend the program, go to public school, and also learn vocational skills such as sewing and computer applications.

General requirements for all volunteers at ProNica include: the ability to speak Spanish fluently, a six-month commitment that begins in either February or September, three references, a medical evaluation and proof of international insurance. Afterwards, potential applicants are encouraged to convene a support group (known as a Quaker Clearness Committee) that can help guide the applicant for everything from preparation before the trip to the healthy transition back home. All volunteers fund their expenses during their service except for lodging, which is provided free at Casa Cuáquera, a Quaker House in Managua.
For those who would like to volunteer as a ProNica member, more information about the application process is available through their website at:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Exploring the City of Tegucigalpa in Honduras

Tegucigalpa, the largest city in Honduras, also serves as the country's capital. Located at an elevation of approximately 3,250 feet, the bustling city of more than a million people is not usually the most inviting city due to its first impression. At first glance, you will see narrow, winding streets congested with traffic and sidewalks filled with crowds. But it still has an overall Spanish colonial layout with historic structures, a cool climate, and other special attractions that makes it the perfect starting point before exploring the rest of the country.
Founded by Spanish explorers in 1578, it rapidly expanded due to the silver and gold produced by the mines located just to the east. As the city's population spread down from the mountains and across the Río Choluteca into its sister city, Comayagüela, it also became a strong political center for Honduras. From the mid-1800s, the capital of the country switched between Comayagua (51 miles northwest) and Tegucigalpa several times until "Tegu" (as it is affectionately called) was officially chosen as the political center in 1880.

What to See in Tegucigalpa

Plaza Morazán: Located at the Calle Bolívar and the Avenida Miguel de Cervantes, this tree-lined Parque Central is the heart of the Tegucigalpa’s old city. It is generally crowded during the day with residents sitting and chatting with friends, and street vendors selling every type of souvenir or service imaginable. But it is a great area for visitors to begin exploring the city. Its notable attraction is the statue of Francisco Morazán, who was a soldier and liberal reformer elected president of the Central American Republic in 1830.

Photo by Chris Requeno
Catedral San Miguel: Also known as the Catedral del Arcángel San Miguel (Tegucigalpa's patron saint), this beautiful cathedral is located on the eastern edge of the plaza. Built from 1765 to 1782, it is one of the best preserved cathedrals in the country.  It consists of a large domed structure with two bell towers complete with a spectacular altar created by the well-known Guatemalan artist Vicente Galvéz . In addition, the baptismal font was created in 1643 from a single block of stone. The cathedral should be seen by any visitor to the city.

Photo by Chamo Estudio
Iglesia Los Dolores: This beautiful white church is located approximately two blocks northwest of the Plaza Morazán. Completed in 1732, it includes a Baroque facade decorated with a representation of the last days of Christ complete with the crowing cock that signaled when he was betrayed. Inside, there is an elaborate golden altar, a beautiful dome, and paintings of the crucifixion. The church is dedicated to human sorrow, and it is revered by many less-fortunate Hondurans.  

Galería Nacional de Arte: Founded in 1996, the National Gallery of Art is located in a former convent just south of the Plaza Morazán. It includes a large collection of Central American art that ranges from pre-Columbian ceramics and decorative Mayan sculptures to the latest religious art and paintings by well-known 20th-century artists. One of the highlights includes the works of Pablo Zelaya Sierra, who is one the country’s best contemporary artists. The gallery is open seven-days-a-week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with limited hours on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Photo by Chris Requeno
Museo Nacional de Historica de la República: The National Museum of History is located in a former presidential mansion (the Villa Roy) on a steep hillside two blocks northwest of the Iglesia Los Dolores. It includes historical exhibits about the country’s politics and the struggle for independence as well as its aftermath. An interesting exhibit is located right in the parking lot, where you can see five of the presidential limousines from former administrations, each more luxurious than the other. The museum is open Mondays through Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.  

Photo by N. Gerda
Cerro El Picacho: This "hill" is one of the most well-known attractions in the city. Located north of the Plaza Morazán, it includes a park of the same name that overlooks the city. The main attraction is the Cristo del Picacho, a large open-armed statue of Jesus Christ that can be seen from many points throughout Tegucigalpa. At night, the statue is illuminated in colored lights, which looks incredible. You can get there in 20 minutes by taking the El Hatillo bus from the corner of Calle Finlay and Calle Cristobal or hiring a taxi for a fare of approximately L$120. 

Teatro Nacional Manuel Bonilla: Named after a president who led the country between 1903 and 1915, this theater was completed in 1915 after 10 years of construction. The exterior is built with pink stone in a Renaissance style with an impressive interior that was based on the Athenée in Paris. Its main hall includes a decorated tin ceiling with five beautiful chandeliers, decorative lamps, and Venetian glass accents. It offers a wide variety of performances that range from theatrical plays to classical performances and rock concerts. It is located at Avenida Paz Barahona and Calle La Concordia in the Barrio El Centro.

Photo by Chris Requeno
Museo para la Identidad Nacional: Located on the Calle Peatonal, the National Identity Museum ncludes an impressive exhibition that focuses on the overall history of Honduras. It begins with the geographical beginning of Central America followed by a chronological survey through the Mayan and Spanish colonial eras. It culminates with an exhibit about influential presidents who greatly affected the country as a whole. One of the museum’s highlights includes a reproduction of a Mayan civilization during its peak of domination. The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Visitor Attractions in San José, Costa Rica

Many visitors to Costa Rica seem to skip the bustling city of San José entirely or use it primarily as a jumping point on their way toward other scenic destinations. But for those who choose to quickly leave, they are missing opportunities within the city to explore tree-lined parks, vibrant markets, charming neighborhoods with brick-lined streets, and some of the country’s best museums.

San José, much like many other large Central American cities, is a mix of both wealthy and poor with luxury stores and hotels sharing the same sidewalk as vendors and musicians in search of small change. Although the city is relatively safe for visitors, the usual problem spots are located near the Terminal Coca-Cola and areas north of the Mercado Central. As always, avoid traveling alone and do not explore unknown neighborhoods after dark. If you have to go out, then take a taxi. 

Main Attractions in San José 

Photo by Oso Polar
Catedral Metropolitana: Also known as the Metropolitan Cathedral, it is San José’s main cathedral located at Avenida 2 and Calle Central. I always enjoy visiting these architectural treasures because they seem to tell a story about their long histories. This cathedral is no exception and it was built in 1871 after the original structure was mostly destroyed by an earthquake. It was then rebuilt in an interesting combination of Greek Orthodox, Neoclassical and Baroque styles. Make sure to step inside for a short respite from the hectic world just outside. There is a warmth and glow of the interior that makes its extra special. It is not surprising to see numbers of people who come in for a brief moment of reflection.

Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica: Located at Calle 3 and Avenida 2 in the Plaza de la Cultura, this structure first opened in 1897 after six full years of construction. It is one of the finest historical buildings in the city and its ornate lobby is well worth a visit. It includes sculpted banisters, marble floors and the country’s most famous mural depicting crops that helped define Costa Rica: coffee and bananas. If you have time, step inside and view the grand staircase, which was inspired by the one in the Paris Opera House. It is also your chance to purchase a ticket for a variety of performances, which are held throughout the year. More information about theater and concert schedule can be found at

Museo de Arte Costarricense: This museum ( is one of the best in the country. Located at the end of the Paseo Colón in the Parque La Sabana, it is a great example of a city re-using a former structure instead of destroying it. In this case, this building was the former terminal and control tower of the international airport. It includes the best collection of art by Costa Rican artists, a beautiful sculpture garden, and the Salón Dorado, which includes walls carved and painted to look like gold that depicts the history of the country.

Museo Nacional: This museum ( is located at Calle 17 and Avenida 2. It was originally a fort known as the Fuerte Bellevista that was used during the civil war in 1948. It is also the site where Costa Rican President José Figueres first announced that he was abolishing the country's military in 1949. As a reminder of more hostile times, you can still see the bullet holes on its walls. It has been transformed into the country’s best historical museum where you will learn about Costa Rican history and early Costa Rican life. There is a large permanent collection of pre-Columbian art and jewelry, ancient grinding stones, a butterfly garden, and strange stone spheres, which are located on the rooftop courtyard. The fort’s highest point also provides great views of the city, so make sure to stop there before you leave.

Museo de Oro: Known as the Museo del Banco Central de Costa Rica (,  it is actually located underneath the Plaza de la Cultura. It was founded in 1950 by the Central Bank of Costa Rica, and it includes an exploration of Costa Rican culture. Its primary exhibit consists of a huge amount of pre-Columbian gold that dates back to 500 A.D. (thus the museum’s name) as well as currency. If you are interested in the history of money and gold, this is the place to go.

Centro Nacional de Arte y Cultura: This special attraction is located at Calle 13 and Avenida 3 in some of the oldest buildings of the city. It is the home of the Cultural Ministry as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, and it includes two active theaters that present contemporary art in addition to live, modern dance performances and theater productions. Performance and exhibit schedules are posted everywhere, even at the airport.

Parque Nacional de Diversiones: Located about one mile west downtown San José in Uruca is this unique amusement park ( I say unique because it is the only amusement park in the world that gives 100 percent of the profits to charity! It was originally built in 1964 in order to raise fund for a Children’s Hospital when a polio epidemic struck the country. The current hospital still runs on funds provided from this park. It includes roller coasters, water slides, and even a flight simulator and it is good to know that your money is going toward a great cause.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Murder of Facundo Cabral

Armed conflicts and violence in Central America has shown that it has no boundaries, and civilians are usually the ones most affected. In this latest case of senseless brutality, the victim was famed singer and songwriter Facundo Cabral, a designated United Nations Messenger of Peace. He was shot and killed on Saturday, July 9, 2011 during an early-morning ride back to La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. He was 74 years of age.

In a planned series of concerts of Central America that began just the week before, Cabral performed in Guatemala City on Tuesday and in the nearby city of Quetzaltenango on Thursday. In what would be one of the last concerts of his life, he humbly told his capacity audience, “I have given you my thanks. I will thank them in Quetzaltenango. And after that, whatever God wishes, because he knows what he does.”
Just four days later, the white Range Rover that carried Cabral was ambushed in what authorities suspect was a planned attack intended for Nicaraguan promoter Henry Fariña. In what would become a fatal mistake, Cabral turned down the hotel’s airport shuttle and accepted a ride with his agent David Llanos and Fariña. As the attack occurred, the accompanying SUV with bodyguards could not protect the singer’s vehicle from the hail of gunfire. Llanos and Fariña were wounded but Cabral was not so lucky.

Cabral was the eighth child born into a poor family in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1937. After moving to the province of Tierra del Fuego near the southern tip of Argentina, he left home with the sole intent of finding work to support his mother and six siblings. Before he departed, his mother's last words to him were, "This is the second and last gift I can give you. The first was to give you life, and the second one, the liberty to live it." Sad but inspired, he was away from home for four months.

In 1970 at the age of 33, his singing career took off with the song, No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá, (“I am Not from Here, and Not from There”). It would become his greatest hit, which was recorded more than 700 times in 27 different languages. From 1976 to 1983, Cabral went into exile in Mexico during Argentina’s military dictatorship. During that time of uncertainty, his wife and one-year-old daughter were unfortunately killed in a plane crash in 1978. Afterwards, his song-writing had become much more spiritual in overall tone and message. In 1996, he was designated by the United Nations as a Worldwide Messenger of Peace and he continued to inspire millions by performing in more than 160 countries and by publishing 66 books of poems and other writings.

Photo by the Telegraph
On July 12, 2011, police in Guatemala arrested two men in connection with the attack. Security cameras had recorded the two men at Cabral’s hotel and on the highway toward the airport. At the time of the arrest, Cabral’s body arrived on a Mexican Air Force jet in Argentina accompanied with just two items: his guitar and a small bag, which he was known for traveling with throughout his career. As stated in an article in the “Los Angeles Times” on July 12, 2011, “Mourning and a sense of national shame have taken hold among many in the troubled Central American nation where the beloved folk singer died. His killing was seen as yet another senseless death in a country with one of the worst crises of violence and impunity in the region.” 
The closed coffin was draped in an Argentine flag with flowers from devoted fans scattered all around it. It was displayed to the public in the Ateneo Theater, which was the venue where he last performed in Buenos Aires. Based on the wishes of Cabral, no wake was scheduled and his body was cremated on July 12 in Buenos Aires. He is survived by his long-time partner (and wife of only seven months) Silvia Pousa.

Photo by the Herald Sun
Cabral’s fans (dressed in black) gathered in droves at the Palacio Nacional in Guatemala City on Saturday, expressing everything from shock and sadness to anger. One sign in particular seemed to state the overall feeling perfectly, “Sorry to the World for the Assassination of Facundo!” Even other international performers such as Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona stated: “As a Guatemalan, I deeply regret the impact this news will generate among international opinion. As a friend and colleague, I will lament the absence of Facundo forever.”

The Singer at the Hotel Barceló in Managua
on July, 2, 2011 (photo by Luis Moreno)
Perhaps it was best said in the statement released by the United Nations: 

The United Nations System in Guatemala strongly condemns the assassination of Argentine singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral and adds to the feeling of dismay and frustration of a Guatemalan society that looks beset by intolerable acts of violence. It is painfully ironic that the one who toured Latin America with a message of justice, peace, and fraternity lost his life in the hands of a group of assassins. The UN expresses its solidarity with the families and loved ones of the troubadour, as well as the people of Argentina and Latin American that had Facundo as a reference for inspiration.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Exploring the Lamanai Ruins in Belize

Located approximately 24 miles south of Orange Walk Town in northern Belize, is the longest occupied Mayan site in the country. Known as Lamanai, which is Mayan for "submerged crocodile," it was inhabited for an impressive amount of time from 1500 B.C. to as late as A.D. 1700. In addition, what makes the site so interesting is its location on the western bank of a spectacular 28-mile long lagoon, one of just two waterside Mayan ruins in the country. 

Photo by L. Bulm
Lamanai served as a prominent Mayan center from approximately the 4th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., but the city thrived even after the Spanish arrived on the Yucatán Peninsula. In fact, Spanish missionaries actually established two Roman Catholic churches near the site. But after a Mayan revolt drove them out, the churches were burned to the ground. Although the first detailed description of Lamanai was made in 1917 by Thomas Gann (an amateur archaeologist known for his exploration of Mayan Ruins), extensive excavation of the site began in 1974 by David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum, which continued until 1988. Since 2006, most of the site’s research was re-directed toward artifact analysis.

Photo by L. Bulm
Today, the ruins are situated within a 950-acre archaeological reserve and it consists of more than 700 structures that includes one of the largest Mayan temples in the country. Since funding for excavations were spread throughout the site, many of the structures have only been superficially excavated. So what you will see are temples overgrown with trees, vines, and vegetation. But this rough appearance is what makes the site special. You can actually imagine discovering the site yourself long ago as you first emerge from the surrounding tropical forest. You have a choice of exploring the site on your own or taking a guided tour offered by the Lamanai Outpost Lodge and other nearby hotels.

Getting to the Lamanai Ruins
To get to the site independently, you can travel by car or by boat. By car, you can drive on the mostly unpaved road from Orange Walk Town. Just drive west from the Orange Walk fire station and head southwest for 24 miles until you reach the village of San Felipe. In San Felipe, follow the road to Chan Chich for another 11 miles until you reach Lamanai. 

The most interesting and practical way to reach Lamanai is by taking an organized boat tour. The trip takes a little less than an hour and the boats depart from the Tower Hill Bridge on the New River, which is approximately six miles south of Orange Walk Town. For those looking for an excursion from the cruise-ship port in Belize City, Belize Cruise Excursions offers roundtrip transportation to Orange Walk Town as well as the boat trip, guide, and ample time to explore the site. Tours can be arranged by going to their website at

What to See at Lamanai
Visitor Center and Museum: Before exploring the site, make sure to stop by this informative museum to learn more about Lamanai. It includes educational displays that cover the site's history and daily life of its residents as well as pottery and statues that date back more than 2,500 years. With some of the shelves cluttered by fragments of pottery and statues, it gives you perspective about how this site once thrived with more than 35,000 residents.

View from the Top
High Temple: The best structure at the site, it is formally known as Structure N10-43. Seen in the second photo from the top of this post, this 108-foot high temple is the largest from the period in the entire Mayan region. It can be climbed (as long as there is a certified guide nearby), and the view from the top is spectacular. You will see a large portion of the New River lagoon as well as the surrounding tropical forest.

Mask Temple: Located north of the High Temple, this temple (formally known as Structure N9-56) is often called the Mask Temple for its spectacular and well-preserved stucco mask representing the Sun God, Kinich Ahau. Facing the front of the temple, the 13-foot mask is located on right side and you can just imagine this amazing feature either causing fear or praise for anyone who stepped in front of it. The temple is the smallest of the three excavated temples at the site and it was first built in A.D. 100 with the final phase of construction occurring between A.D. 550 to 650. In the spring of 2011, an identical mask was uncovered on the left side, which marks the tradition of symmetry in Mayan design.

Photo by Ekem
Temple of the Jaguar Masks: Located at the southern end of the site, this 65-foot temple (formally known as Structure N10-9), was originally built in the 6th century A.D. It is also known as the Jaguar Temple for its two large jaguar heads located at its lower level. A good portion of this nine-tiered temple remains covered by jungle growth and a significant amount of the temple is still underground. As stated by my guide, "If fully excavated, it would be much taller than the High Temple."

Ball Court: Located just south of the High Temple, is the ball court. It is such a simple name for an area that usually meant death for the losing team. On the other hand, the winners were treated as heroes and usually given an elaborate feast. These "games" were directly connected to the Mayan belief that human sacrifice was an important factor in the civilization’s future success. These ball courts can be seen in just about every Mayan ruin throughout Central America.