Sunday, September 29, 2013

You Better Belize It

Belize is an odd country. In pretty much every way imaginable it is different from its Central American neighbours. Geographically firmly ensconced in the Central American region, but culturally much more Caribbean. Surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries yet anglophone. It remained a colony until 1981 whilst the rest of the region gained their independence 160 years earlier. Though partly thanks to that it has been a haven of stability whilst all around there has been turmoil and strife. It's a midget in terms of population, with fewer inhabitants than the Bahamas and fully an order of magnitude less than its neighbours. But what's it really like?

Although I missed Belize's independence celebrations by a day the bunting was still up during the length of my stay (do they ever take it down?). Here you can see that there is still fondness and attachment towards its ex colonial master.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Pirates Of The Caribbean

When the Spaniards first colonised the Americas their primary interest was gold and silver. Initially taken directly from the local civilisations, such as the Aztec and the Inca, and then extracted from the rich mines of Potosi, Guanajuato and Taxco. Once every year two great convoys of ships would sail from Cadiz to Havana before splitting up, one heading for Portobelo in Panama, and the other to Veracruz on the central Gulf coast of Mexico. For centuries these were the only Spanish ports in the Americas allowed to trade with Europe.

Even for Latin American standards the pace of life on the Caribbean coast is slow. It may seem idyllic, but the heat, humidity, sand flies and mosquitoes

Friday, September 20, 2013

Guat's Up?

Of all the countries of Central America Guatemala is hands down the richest in terms of cultural heritage. Not only was its territory was the cradle of the classic Mayan civilisation but, what is less known, it was also the seat of the Spanish viceroyalty that consisted of the entire region, from southern Mexico all the way to Panama. This is where the rich and powerful of colonial Central America lorded it over their indigenous subjects. Even post-independence Guatemala was the dominant country amongst the small statelets of the region. It wasn't until the inevitable civil war of the second half of the last century that pitted left wing intellectuals, reformists and guerrillas against US-backed right wing genocidal military dictatorships and death squads that the country became a byword for violence, danger and rural misery. Things have quietened down a bit over the past 10 years (a lot less violence but still plenty of rural misery as the right wing military elite are still in power) and the tourists have returned to see what they had been missing out on.

Quiche Maya lady in traditional costume selling embroidery to tourists.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Same Same But Different

Same same but different. It's a phrase many people who've travelled through southeast Asia will be instantly familiar with, where the pidgin English of the local touts isn't nuanced enough to incorporate the word "similar". The phrase is equally applicable for travels in Hispanophone America. The common language and shared colonial history unites the 18 countries and almost 400 million people. Yet despite the very obvious similarities, there are many differences, both profound and frivolous. The profound are the subject of many a book (I'm guessing) and scholarly essays. I, instead, would like to take a closer look at the frivolous and arbitrary.

Although maize is the basis of much Latin American cuisine from Bolivia all the way up through to Mexico the way it is prepared varies significantly. As you get closer to Mexico the slap slapping sound of tortillas being moulded becomes ever more ubiquitous.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Meeting The Maya

Ever since leaving Peru and its rich archaeological heritage the historical remains on offer have been somewhat underwhelming. All that has changed now that I've reached Honduras and El Salvador, whose western edges mark the easternmost limits of the Mayan empire. Of the "Big 3" indigenous American civilisations (from north to south the Aztec, Maya and Inca) the Maya are undoubtedly preeminent both in terms of longevity and cultural achievements. The Maya first appeared around 2000 B.C., were still around when the Spanish conquered the Americas, and are still here today (although not doing human sacrifices anymore). The Aztecs and Incas by comparison were mere flashes in the pan, existing for no more than a couple of centuries, and whose culture has almost completely disappeared today.

Spotting the main temple complex of Copan through the trees.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Danger Zone

Central America does not get a good press. Apart from Costa Rica there is a pervading stereotype of violent crime and gangs. some of that is justified. Honduras's economic capital San Pedro Sula has the unenviable distinction of being the most violent city in the world with a murder rate of almost 170 per hundred thousand inhabitants (to put that into perspective there are more murders in San Pedro Sula, a city of some 720,000 inhabitants, than in Germany and Italy together, with a combined population of 160 million i.e. a 220 times greater murder rate). Most of this violence is perpetrated by gangs on other gangs and so does not generally affect normal people. Nevertheless there is a level of violent crime that is of an order of magnitude more than in most other parts of the world. Why is that?

The ubiquitous razorwire gives Central America a war zone feel.