The Cigar Makers of Estelí

The highlands of north-west Nicaragua have the perfect climate for growing two plants that have become massively important to the country’s economy – coffee and tobacco. Whereas the mountainous departments of Jinotega and Matagalpa are in coffee country, Estelí department is famous for its tobacco fields and cigars. And having missed out on seeing a cigar factory in Honduras (due to it being closed for Easter), Estelí presents the perfect opportunity to see how these famous stogies are made. Continue reading

Scuba Diving in the Bay Islands

Along with the Maya ruins at Copán in western Honduras, the only other tourist site in the country that seems remotely popular with foreigners is the Bay Islands. Strung out at the south-eastern end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the islands are world-famous for diving, snorkelling, and relaxing on the beach. Roatán is the largest and most developed (and therefore the most expensive); while to the west, Utila is cheaper and more ‘rustic’. Continue reading

William Walker, King of the Filibusters

The history of US interventions in Central America is a long one, as the self-styled champion of freedom and democracy has conspired against, invaded, and occupied just about every country in the region, from declaring war with Mexico in 1846 to invading Panama in 1989. It’s also overthrown numerous democratically-elected governments (because apparently, foreign democracy looks a lot like Communism!). While many Americans might think that all the immigrants from places like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are a bunch of job-stealing illegal aliens, many of those people are fleeing problems in their own countries that have been caused (or exacerbated) by previous US governments. From arming paramilitary death squads to supporting some of history’s worst dictators, the USA’s blood-stained fingerprints are all over Central America. Continue reading

Semana Santa in Honduras

The pre-Columbian peoples of Honduras (the Maya and the Lenca of the mountainous western part of the country, near Guatemala and El Salvador) were polytheistic (i.e., they worshipped lots of gods), and animistic (i.e., they had gods in the sky, the ground, the sea, and so forth, and they believed in spirits in trees, rocks, rivers, etc.). But four centuries of Catholicism have had an effect on everyone, and now, like most of Latin America, almost the entire population is Christian (there’s one mosque and one synagogue in the whole country); and the majority of those Christians are Catholic (because it’s so much more obvious and sensible to have one big God rather than lots of little gods!). Like the rest of Latin America, various evangelical groups, from the Seventh Day Adventists to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, operate in Honduras; and every town and village seems to have a church of Everlasting Love, or Holy Spirit, or Living God, or some such thing. And of course, there are the Mormons, cycling around in twos, with their shirts, ties, and name tags, and their spectacularly-unbelievable religion (which is so obviously made-up that it makes Christianity look plausible). Continue reading

Volcano Bagging in Guatemala

Guatemala sits above the junction of three of the world’s tectonic plates. As a result, it’s a country of considerable seismic activity, with frequent earthquakes and regular volcanic eruptions. A chain of over 30 volcanoes extends in an arc across the southern half of the country, from Mexico to El Salvador, and includes the 4200-metre Volcán Tajumulco (the highest point in Central America). Three of these volcanoes (Santiaguito, Fuego, and Pacaya) are highly active, and regularly spew smoke, ash, and lava. Continue reading

The Belize-Guatemala Territorial Dispute – Part 2

One problem with treating Guatemala’s claim as irrelevant is that it does nothing to stop Guatemala’s unofficial ‘colonisation’ of western Belize. Now that Petén is so environmentally damaged, poor Guatemalans have been coming over the unpatrolled border in increasing numbers. Harvesting of xate (a palm leaf used in flower arrangements), illegal logging, poaching endangered animals (like rare Scarlet Macaws), looting Maya ruins, and now gold-mining, are all becoming daily problems in the Chiquibul (a protected area that contains 7% of Belize’s land). And Belize simply doesn’t have the manpower or resources to patrol the huge jungle. There have been several years of skirmishes between Guatemalans and the BDF (Belize Defence Force – the Belizean Army), at times necessitating an armed escort for tourists visiting the remote Maya site of Caracol. And things came to a bloody head last year, when Guatemalans shot and killed a BDF soldier at Caracol, in full view of tourists. The damage to Belize’s fragile environment and its economically-important tourist industry is far worse than any macho posturing and sabre-rattling from Guatemalan politicians. And while these problems won’t suddenly disappear if the claim is dropped, the prevailing Guatemalan view that ‘Belice es nuestro’ isn’t exactly discouraging these incursions – on the contrary, it’s giving them an air of undeserved legitimacy. Continue reading