The rented and sparkly white Toyota SUV was the small version but large enough for our needs: two in front, the half-deaf guys in the rear seat and places for overnight bags in the rear cargo area. After a few stop and go experiences with a stiff new 5-speed transmission, while navigating through unfamiliar roads, the gritty little city known as Chimaltenango put us on the Pan American Highway.
Otherwise known as CA-1, the road is one of Guatemala’s’ best. The four lane concrete road winds up and over meadows, through pine forests and offers distant views of cloud-shrouded volcanoes to the west. Unlike the Pacific coast and CA-2 with its’ endless stream of tractor-trailers, dented recycled Greyhounds and gaudy smoke-spewing ‘chicken buses’, the CA-1 is a pleasure to ride on. One forgets what it’s like to travel on good highways in a car without problems. Guatemala doesn’t have any vehicle inspection programs; there are neither speed controls nor any limits other than those self-imposed: ‘open containers’ are somewhat derigeur and the seatbelt law is only for the faint-hearted.
The road climbed over hill and dale and ever higher: through Tecpan and then past Lake Atitlan to the west, with Quetzaltenango off in the distance, flanked by 10000 feet of a perfectly shaped volcano they call Maria.
Where the roadway cut through embankments, the multi-banded layers of volcanic ash and sand were like slices of chocolate cake, with vanilla, mocha, fudge and semi-sweet sections. The geologists in front talked about sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic stuff: Bob and I muttered and looked at maps: two hours in the backseat was like being in Coach Class for six hours, until our mutual whining got us a stop by the road every so often.
We were on the outskirts of Hue Hue when the now two-lane road took a large dip where a section had washed out during last winter’s rains: clouds of dust and a line of 50 gallon blue plastic drums showed what Norm thought was the detour. A line of trucks and buses obscured the agricultural inspection station to the right and oncoming traffic in the single left lane began to wave at us. A black-clad PNC cop with the inevitable Beretta 9mm waved us to a stop and pointed to the station. The reverse gear hadn’t been used at that point but eventually we pulled under the metal roofed station and did our smiling dumb gringo acts (it wasn’t a stretch). They let us go with a minimal inspection of the interior: I didn’t have to explain the metal detector wrapped in a green canvas bag or the unlicensed little Beretta of my own in the suitcase.
We found the older and pleasant colonial style hotel known as La Casa Blanca fairly easy: downtown Hue Hue’s streets are narrow and mostly one way but the crude map from my well-thumbed guidebook worked. It was mid-afternoon by then, the check-in and room assignments done and none of us had ever seen the nearby Mayan ruins of Zacaleu. Why not now? A taxi of Japanese make was barely large enough for us plus the driver but the ruins were only two miles plus west of town.
Zacaleu is said to mean “white earth” in one of the dialects used by either the Mam or the K’iche brand of Mayans. It was a Mam capital first, dating back to the Early Classic period of Mayan history, or from 250-600 A.D, until the K’iche showed up as Spanish allies in 1525 or so.
At 6200 feet in altitude, the central plaza and assorted seven structures found so far exuded a mystery in the winter light. The grassy open spaces between the stepped pyramidal multi-story remnants are brown and sere, while the buildings are a tired shade of white, almost gray. Unlike any other ruins in Guatemala, these were ‘preserved’ in white plaster and stucco in the late 1940’s by the United Fruit Co, who had a hand in the excavations. After you’ve seen a few other Mayan sites, such as Tikal, Palenque or Copan, there’s a touch of cognitive dissonance here. What was once a powerful city that controlled a wide-spread trading empire now looks like a recreated 50’s version of “Maya-Land.” At least the wiser heads of United Fruit didn’t leave large logos of Chiquita Banana painted here and there. The original colors, perhaps like the red and green facade of the Red Temple in Copan, faded a long time ago.
The K’iche and the Spanish had a falling out later and the de Alvarado brothers kept going south. Perhaps if they’d known that there was silver in the mountains nearby and that Zacaleu contained such things like the metal butterfly later found, made of ‘tumbray’ or gold and copper, they would’ve considered opening a branch office here. Tomorrow: up into the mountains, looking for silver mines and finding Todos Santos on market day.