Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Connecting with the Past

When you have an office job, you immerse yourself in a daily routine between, family, commute, work, commute again, family and work again, well you get the idea. That's the story, that's the life of many out there!
It is necessary for us to take breaks from it all, and living in a small country where the mayor headlines are drug related violence, corruption and so on, you can easily get poisoned; so I decided to mix my family trip with a photographic journey through several of our country's rich, historical but not so well known places.
We have many of them, so I chose part of the "Lenca and Mayan Route" which covers the first capital of Central America (Gracias, lempira), historic adjacent mining towns, and the more famous town of Copan Ruins.
Through the following paragraphs, I'll share some of our family experiences and of course the photographic journey.

Day 1 Suitcases Finally Ready. Dramamine administered to Family, time to hit the road!
Not doing a publicity stunt here, but have proven that this pill works wonders! No nauseas or carsick people! So after having a quick and light lunch, pills in!
After discussing/negotiating with my 12 & 10 yr old children, we finally put the suitcases in the trunk of our car.
Ready to hit the road. You can find the Map of our 202 kms drive here:

After just a couple of "pit stops" we arrived as planned at Gracias, Lempira around 5:30 pm. And we hit the Hotel to drop off our baggage.
The Hotel "Posada de Don Juan" is a pretty well maintained hotel, clean, safe, cozy and most important right in the center of the little charming and historic town.
After stretching out a bit, selected the lenses I was going to use ( A sigma 10-20mm f/4 - 5.6 and a Nikor 60mm f2.8), my shutter release cord and my tripod, with the invaluable help of my charming 12 yr old assistant. Then we hit the street towards central park, where life usually converges in small towns.
Night fell and was able to capture the restored "San Marcos" catholic church and a glimpse of the park:
Gazebo located in Central Park of Gracias. 
San Marcos Cathedral in Gracias. It was reconstructed after a devastating earthquake took down the original structure.

Now it was time to head back to the hotel and get some dinner.
As we dined and shared the day in review with our family, we went over plans for next day which sounded almost like a marathon, but everyone was excited!
Trying to be organized, I spent some time checking my gear, charging the batteries once again, selecting lenses for next day which inlcuded the 2 above mentioned and a Tamron 70-300 f/4-5.6.
Bed was calling, sleep time!

Day 2.This is what we came for!
Nice and hefty breakfast in order to help us get the most of our day.
Plans were set out and the local guide arrived as convened. We spent a few minutes going over our main interests and itinerary.
The first part of the tour included a 3 km walk around the city, visiting historical sites of the first ever capital of Central America, one of the oldest churches still standing (built circa 1611) and a fort.
We started in the park with tales of the town's foundation, historical landmarks and a brief bio of its most important inhabitants.
Then slowly walking through cobblestone streets we made our way through historical churches, colonial houses a local TV channel interview (yes I was interviewed since apparently they were surprised to see tourists) a centennial tree and the fort.  3 hours, 3 kms under the sun but with such fascinating stories and sites, you don't feel it much (word!).
Below you'll find some pictures and a brief description:
Statue of "Lempira" an indigenous rebel who led the insurrection against Spaniards and consequently was killed by a "Peace Mission".
Colonial Style houses are everywhere.

Entrance to "La Merced" Catholic Church built in 1611.

A view from the inside of San cristobal Fort.

Now it was time to get the car and do the 2nd part of our trip. Our itinerary was to cover 32 more kms.
Dirt road, up the mountain we drove as the small town of Gracias started to look as a spot in our rear view mirrors. The first stage of our endeavour took us to a small, yet charming town called "La Campa" which sits at 800 meters above sea level, were we stopped for lunch in a diner called "La Bendición" (The Blessing). This small town has an 18th century church Baroque style that has been "restored", a little park with hammocks that just invites you to lay down and take a nap under the refreshing shadows of the trees and pottery shops crafted by indigenous people.
Just a few shots to help you make an idea of the place:

Cathoic Church fully restored in La Campa. Circa 18th century.
A view of the small park. Hammocks are set under the far end trees...inviting you to relax...

And now back to the car for our next stop..."San Manuel Colohete"
Forgot the dramamine at the hotel..big mistake....
More dirt road lies ahead, in much better condition though, but up, up the mountains we go!
The views from this road are breathtaking! I had no altimeter with me, but when I observed my car's outside thermometer that started to drop from almost 30ºC to 20ºC and my ears popping, I knew we were going up. At one point before arriving to San Manuel, guide told us we were @ 1800 meters above sea level.
And then it happened, an unexpected pit stop. Yes, a 12 yr old can still get car sick and I don't need to be more descriptive. :-(
Water and candy helped regain her colors and we hit the road once again, surprisingly, 5 minutes later we arrived at the small, in fact tiny little town of San Manuel.
Way back in Spanish colony, it used to be a mining town, but now agriculture is the base of its economy.
According to our historian, Spaniards designed the churches basis on the indigenous resistance found. The more resistance, the more elaborated and majestic the church. Just from looking at the intricate sculptures and designs from the outside you get the idea that Spaniards wanted to send a message...
This town holds a church built circa 1715 inspired in part on Spain's "Santiago de Compostela" and has been looted in several occasions; therefore locals don't open it for others to see. This is where a wise and skillful wife comes in handy...
My wife wanders around and she suddenly starts talking with the caretaker, suddenly my wife approaches us with the caretaker's child and keys in hand! In 14 years of them caretaking the church, it has never been opened for outsiders...never! The only condition was..NO CAMERAS! (that's when my photographic ingenuity came into play)
After removing the locks, we walked into the church and went speechless, original paint and colors circa 1700's for a place that has been quite abandoned, wooden niches with gold plates hold the remaining figures (the ones that were not looted), the confessionary, atrium, everything, from its original state, time has worn them, but colors are still impressive. Only part that was replaced is the flooring, the rest still dates to the 1700's.
These are some pictures from the facade and its details. Inside pictures are not pro-grade, since an >ISO2500 with the lens pretty open (f /5.6) and hip shots won't give you artistic photos.

A view of the church and its side. Original and intact structure circa 1715.

Entrance to this magnificent church. The colors on the sculptures are still original circa 1700's...
ISO>2500 camera tucked against my waist, shutter clicks, no one noticed!

A view of the main dome from the Bell tower.

After spending an hour or so inside the church and almost every corner we could access we thanked the caretakers for such a gentle gesture toward an outsider.
A much needed cup of coffee in the local diner and time to hit the road back.
As we drove back to Gracias, an impacting landscape revealed itself and I had to frame it.
"Celaque" which is the mountains, stands at 2,849 meters above sea level. In the indigenous Lenca language, it means "box of water" because 11 rivers flow down this mountain...

The amazing and impressive Celaque Mountain Range.

We dropped off our guide in his local restaurant and bought some needed ice cream cones!
A big thanks to our historian and local guide a retired forest engineer named Mr. Marco Aurelio Rodriguez... Be sure to contact him if you ever visit this wonderful place!
Back to the hotel!
We changed ourselves, rested, batteries charging up for next day and had dinner at the hotel's restaurant "El Meson de Don Juan". Very good food with local taste! Try it!
As we usually do, we reviewed our day, talking how much history we learned and how our country holds incredible gems yet to be conveniently exploited. Then we set our itinerary for Day 3, our last day in Gracias and subsequent trip to the town of Copan Ruins.

Day 3. Fresh Produce marketplace, another church opens its doors and Time to Head towards Copan Ruins.
My wife and kids stayed at the hotel having breakfast and packing up for the second part of our trip, while I went back to the church of "La Merced" (The Mercy).
Church doors were open and a most friendly old lady greeted me at the entrance. She was informed by our guide that I wanted to photograph the interior and they accepted! (A big wow and thanks)
While Mrs. Rosa Rodriguez shared her stories of Gracias and the church I carefully planned my pictures and took them without flash in order to help preserve them. This church has been hit by several earthquakes, the last mayor one was in 1915, which leveled almost completely the town, but the church still stands. Roof and flooring were changed after that earthquake; the rest still remains as it was circa 1600's...
Yes, sadly this church has also been looted.
Here are some pictures of the church's inside:
Interior of "La Merced" Catholic Church.

 The wooden niches are gold plated, hence the continuous loots in past years, but still the statues are original 8the ones left).

Entrance to the Church. Still locked by a +400 year old key...

Amazing details in this church!

A big thank you to Mrs. Rosa and back to the hotel.
Wifey was ready and packed, and since we had enough time, we decided to visit the local marketplace located 1 block from the hotel.
Wifey bought some oregano and other herbs (can't wait to taste her artwork!) while my loyal Nikon D7000 with a Nikor 60mm f/2.8 VR captured Market's activity:

Merchant ladies selling fresh produce and candies in the colorful Gracias marketplace.

Back to the hotel, a big thanks to the friendly staff, check out and Copan Ruins, here we come!!! (Dramamines for family first)
After traveling around 200 more kms, through some worn out pavement we arrived to the town of Copan Ruins 2.5 hours later, just in time for lunch.
This is the route we followed:

Euro Semis were on and Italy was taking Germany, so most places were packed, but still it was Pizza time!!! Jim's Pizza (or Pizza Copán) has a great tasting Pizza, se we ordered a pepperoni pizza and a beer for dad! I really enjoy this Pizza each time we visit Copan. You must try it, trust me!

Taken with my cell phone, I was too hungry to take out my camera, and the pizza smelled damn good!! :-D

After Pizza time we visited "La Casa de Todo" a bar-restaurant-cafe and souvenir shop that is cozy and has great food. We got a much needed cup of coffee and desserts.
Spent some time in the town's park and captured some amazing shots of our culture and this charming colonial town:

Time passes by with no avail to some locals who just sit in the park and let the day wind down.

Playful children spark up any place, with their innocent smiles and spirits!

Then it was time to get to our favorite hotel "Hacienda San Lucas"
As always, the playful dogs Kuk, Mo, Luna & Poli await visitors to this mystical place nested in the mountains just above Copan Valley. And my children love playing with this wonderful labs.
A 120 yr old Hacienda turned into a nice hotel. this hotel is a MUST in your visit to Copan even if only for dining, but you need to make reservations first.
We've stayed here several times in the past, and never disappointed. Disconnect yourself from everything (no TV, only web access is in the lobby).
Nice to greet such wonderful people once more.
Kudos to Flavia (Hacienda's owner) and all her staff that make each visit a wonderful experience.

The entrance to Hacienda San Lucas...

A relaxing afternoon in a hammock then comes dinner time with family and a discussion of next day's activity....A visit to a magical natural SPA.

Day 4. Luna Jaguar Spa.
45 minutes from the town of Copan lies an amazing place, full of mysticism and magic. A natural Spa named "Luna Jaguar".
It feeds from a hot water born current that sprouts from rocks at 92ºC and then mixes with a cold running stream to make some awesome baths!
Mud therapy, foot massage, hydro massage for back, shoulders and neck, natural Jacuzzi, a plunge into cold water and a natural Sauna leave you brand new! If you would like, massages are also available.
Some pictures of this place:

Entrance to the SPA, called "Inframundo" or underworld....
Massage station at the far end, and natural sauna fueled by 92ºc water emanating from the rocks...

After a couple of hours rejuvenating ourselves, we head back to the hotel and call it quits for the day!

Day 5. Our Last Day.
 Vacations are almost over, I rise up and witness this sunrise:
A magical sunrise over the Copan Valley as seen from the Hacienda...

Breakfast and then time to say goodbye to our good friends from San Lucas. This is a special goodbye, since the hostess Argi is leaving San Lucas and returning to her homeland Spain after 7 years. She will be missed. A very studied archeologist, a great hostess and a magnificent person!

202 kms later, our home awaits, tired, camera memories full, but most important of it all, a load of memories and a great Family vacation  time that will last a lifetime!.

Hope you enjoyed my story!