Solitude. Tranquility. Utter peacefulness. That’s what it’s like underwater; you become a part of a world outside of human society – we can go down there for a visit, but it’s not ours.
I learned scuba diving the summer before leaving on my travels; my first stop was Australia and I was bound and determined to be comfortable underwater before hitting what I considered the mac-daddy of all sites, the Great Barrier Reef.
As I was jumping, wiggling, tugging and contorting my body into a ballet of ridiculous postures to pull the wetsuit over my damp skin my instructor and I went over our plan for the day’s dives as he also explained some of the fish I was about to see.
Trumpet fish and crabs, eel, barracuda, and a toad fish—they were the guaranteed sightings in the warm waters off the coast of Honduras that I hadn’t yet seen. But Ethan didn’t mention the lionfish until after the first two dives and two separate lionfish sightings.
Or should I say the “evil-lionfish” as the divemasters on Utila so fondly refer to these non-native fish.
As is so often the case on my travels what I think is the story or the adventure is just never the case. Although I was pursuing my Advanced Divers certification what struck me hard about the week of diving was the concern that grew every day among the locals as lionfish sightings increased on every dive trip.
The Lionfish Invades Caribbean Waters
The lionfish is a non-native fish from the Indian Pacific waters that was brought to the Atlantic and Caribbean waters through the aquarium and exotic pet trade in the early 90’s. For years now the general held belief attributes the sudden spread of this fish to Hurricane Andrew busting open a huge seawall aquarium in Southern Florida back in 1992 (a hurricane I actually vividly remember sitting through, cloistered around the radio with my sibblings, grandparents, and parents in our boarded-up house as the house rattled and shook from the storm). Newer reports indicate the aquarium trade may have brought the fish over even earlier.
Regardless of how the fish got to the Atlantic and Caribbean waters, the outcome is devastating to the region because these fish have no known natural predators and are breeding incredibly fast – an invasive disruption to the ecosystem in the region.
So in addition to all of the skills I had to learn as a part of my dive course I watched the divemasters signal each other and converge with their dive knives out whenever a lionfish was spotted. By now (it’s been a few months) the divemasters are all equipped with spear guns—they had just completed their training so that they could specifically kill all lionfish spotted on dives.
Global warming is one of those controversial topics that can be poo-pooed and debated away by some (the cyclical nature of climate and all of that which I will not get into here) but there is no denying that we have done this. In all three cases humans have created the issues and it’s a result of the exotic and illegal pet trades – our desire for that which is so very foreign and different than what we have.
It’s actually a bit like travel, I travel to experience other cultures and bring them closer to my understanding…perhaps for some these exotic animals are a way to bring what’s foreign right into their homes?
So what do we do?
All I could come up with is education; spread the word and hope it clicks because transporting these exotic species to other parts of the world is just not working out too well for us.
“The American South” is one of those phrases that carries with it all sorts of implications depending on who you ask; Hollywood has sculpted the image of a region dotted with slow-talking hicks settled alongside gun-toting cowboys and the good-ole Southern hospitality thrown in there to serve up some sweet tea, fried chicken, and a dollop of mayonnaise.
I actually grew up in the South, although saying that and being from Florida can cause all sorts of eye rolls from “true southerners;” but I do consider myself a southerner. Florida actually gave a bit of the best of both worlds – I grew up with all of the homey (read: unhealthy) foods of the South without the drawl (well, mostly without the drawl ;-).
The heat (and the elderly) makes the pace of life lazy and slow and the attitude is just different down there.
Which was precisely the thought moseying through my mind as I backpacked through Honduras.
Honduras is “the South” of Central America.
Stepping out of the bus into Honduras was like entering another world even though the border town of Copan was a mere 15 minute bumpy drive out of Guatemala. The sticky heat hit like a relentless wave attempting to drown an unsuspecting swimmer—Guatemala is hot, but the sun in Honduras is altogether different. Less elevation in the country translates into no cool air and pure undiluted sunshine baking the roads and anyone on them.
Then there’s the subject of cowboy hats. They’re everywhere. I may have spied maybe a cowboy hat or two during my months in Guatemala. Not the case in Honduras where all of the local men perching themselves within the Copan parque central avidly watched the new arrival of backpackers with a low and critical gaze skimming just under the brim of their downward tipped cowboy hats.
The entire vibe and culture took a major shift in Honduras…one that was not as immediately evident in the crossings between Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala and it immediately brought me back to feelings of traveling through the American South.
Everything I see and do is filtered through my past experiences, my culture. Extensive travel lessens that cultural bias in some ways, but it still lives on strong in others. So although Honduras is actually not one of my favorite countries (it has to happen at some point, I guess), the flavor of the interactions in Honduras created a déjà vu moment. Here I am surrounded by a heat so intense that it flows upward from the baking cement in visible ripples, surrounded by small glass stands selling greasy pollo frito while the locals take a slow and careful pace down the streets to avoid heatstroke and the one key difference is actually just the language…and even then, not so much.
For me, Honduras was a case of “anywhere you go, there you are.”
Reluctantly paging through my Lonely Planet guidebook in the quite cool of the incredibly westernized Bagel Barn in Antigua, Guatemala (one of my favorite places for a western breakfast in the city) I was seeking out inspiration. Divine travel guidance. Something of interest to break up the 16 hour commute between western Guatemala and eastern Honduras. I’m not a big planner but I was down to a mere 12 hours before I boarded my 4am bus to the Honduran border so I had run out of time.
I should probably stop in Copan Ruinas, Honduras.
A good traveler would be eating up the chance to easily pass through a town with a full set of Mayan ruins and soaked in a rich cultural history.
It didn’t take long for the travel guilt to seep into my brain…while I was systematically downing my morning coffee the guilt came right on in, sat down, and invited itself over for a seven course meal.
I’d be a bad traveler if I skipped the Mayan ruins, right? No matter that I had already done both Chichén Itzá in Mexico and the mac daddy of Mayan sites, Tikal in Guatemala, I booked a place to stay in Copan with a firm decision to poke around the Mayan ruins for a couple of days on my way to the Honduran coast.
I so rarely force myself to do the prescribed tourist activities in a certain region, but sometimes, particularly if I’ve had a stint of “lazy-traveler-syndrome” I suck it up and join the other travelers in one of the top guidebook recommendations.
The fact that there were actually very few tourists was actually a welcomed change from my first assumption about Copan that was based on the guidebook’s description. I lucked out with the season, the timing, something, because the town was deserted and the morning hours at the ruins were also noticeably lacking in huge tourist groups.
Which means I had a lot of personal time with some of the carvings and various sections of the ruins as my backpacker friend Angela and I used the guidebook’s written tour of Copan ruins to putter around the sites without an actual guide.
This is the point where I should wax poetic about the ruins and highlight all of the positive aspects of the town and ruins.
So book your plane ticket now and create a stampede on the way to Copan Ruins?
I visited three Mayan ruins in Central America and am actually perfectly pleased with how that worked out – each one offered up a very different experience and they complimented each other better than my advanced planning could arranged.
The Acoustics at Chichén Itzá, Mexico
Although the Chichén Itzá ruins are very small compared to the other sites around Central America I actually registered a level of shock when our guide demonstrated the absolute perfect acoustic alignment of the temples and structures.
The Undiscovered Size and Scope of Tikal, Guatemala
Hiking through the ruins at Tikal rates as one of my favorite temple experiences. Most of Tikal is still hidden in the hundreds of miles of dense green forest around the main site, Jaguar Temple so the animals are alive and roaming. The views from the top of the temple stretch forever and the sounds of the howler monkeys echo up from below the forest canopy.
The Intricately Carved Ruins at Copan Ruinas, Honduras
Copan’s climate has preserved a huge number of amazingly detailed carvings on the temples. Tikal and Chichén Itzá were noticeably light on the actual Mayan designs so Copan provided the missing link through it all. The carvings themselves tell a story that you have to simply imagine when the guides at the other ruins attempt to describe the Mayan ceremonial faces, figures, and gods.
Succumbing to Travel Guilt
Copan Ruins was a really pleasant surprise. I wont say that it’s a must-stop place, or even one of the favorite ruins that I visited, but I loved how the ruins showed me a different piece of the ancient Mayan culture – a bonus I just wasn’t expecting as I hit my third set of ruins.
I feel like the travel guilt was likely a result of that pesky travel fatigue that plagued me for a couple of months – it’s a lot more fun on the road when I’m hitting cities and towns that have me eager to explore and experience rather than that nagging obligation that I “should” visit, but travel isn’t all puppies and butterflies (or rather lollipops and rainbows as Brooke mentions) so I think the guilt worked well in prompting me to get out of a funk and back into travel mode.