Update from Guatemala— On EcoTourism

8 04 2010

Hi everybody! Since we last spoke I’ve had the pleasure of snorkeling with sharks and sea turtles along the second largest barrier reef in the world, touring one of the Maya’s most famous ruins, and bussing over 50 hours back and forth through three countries as I left my bicycle in a hostel… and now I am pleased to report I am bicycling northward for the final stretch after a visit from my brother and sister-in-law.

A Scarlet Macaw in Copán, Honduras

So, you ask, why did I bus to Belize, which isn´t even on my route, instead of Riding for the Trees? Half of it was planned. The other half, not so much…

First, my left knee started clicking painfully with every pedal stroke. I winced my way through two half-day rides in El Salvador before admitting I should rest, and then I left my bicycle with some firefighters and jumped on a bus to Antigua, Guatemala for a little vacation. You probably saw some of the photos in the last post. Here’s the story.

Stretching my IT band, drinking a whale’s share of water, eating a vegetarian’s share of veggies, and taking multi-vitamins became my priorities. Below them, I wrote in my mini-notebook, “hike volcano and roast marshmallows above flowing lava, visit Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras and climb some pyramids, and stay in the hostel in San Salvador that doubles as a haven for Peace Corps Volunteers.” 

And every morning when I woke up I visualized this diagram…

as I stretched like this… 

IT band stretch

Somewhere along the way I neglected the vegetable part of my plan, and instead of an avocado salad I embarrassingly ate an unsatisfying cheeseburger and fries at a fast-food joint. Then I spent a few days vomiting on myself in a hostel.

Soon I was better, and after two weeks I managed to do everything on my list. But the left knee still wasn’t feeling like the kind of knee one would need to bicycle from El Salvador to the U.S. As Luck would have it, my brother and sister in law, Josh and Laura, had been planning a trip to Belize and Guatemala and I would soon join them by bus.

I had just enough time to go back to El Salvador, get a couple of short rides in, and then bus to Belize to welcome them to Central America.

These Mayan ruins were a highlight for all of us.

Our New York/Guatemalan guide took pride in quoting Jared Diamond’s accounts of the Mayan collapse. As we hiked through the jungle he continuously reminded the group to imagine the jungle city without trees, because it was mostly deforested at the time Mayans inhabited the once-metropolis.

He explained it is now understood that deforestation was a huge contributing factor in the fall of the Mayan civilization.

I found these relevant quotes from NASA’s science news article:  “´They had to burn 20 trees to heat the limestone for making just 1 square meter of the lime plaster they used to build their tremendous temples, reservoirs, and monuments,´ explains Sever… ´We modeled the worst and best case scenarios: 100 percent deforestation in the Maya area and no deforestation,´ says Sever. ´The results were eye opening. Loss of all the trees caused a 3-5 degree rise in temperature and a 20-30 percent decrease in rainfall.´” The article also mentions, “A major drought occurred about the time the Maya began to disappear. And at the time of their collapse, the Maya had cut down most of the trees across large swaths of the land to clear fields for growing corn to feed their burgeoning population. They also cut trees for firewood and for making building materials.” Sounds familiar.


Stretching my legs was still a priority as we continued travelling, and Laura unknowingly contributed to my knee therapy by inviting Josh and me to a beginner yoga class she discovered when we were staying on Caye Caulker, a Caribbean island off the coast of Belize.

We also got to spend a day at the world’s second largest coral reef, snorkeling with sea turtles, sharks, stingrays, and fish of every color amid a circus of neon coral, and even a sunken barge. An incredible experience!!

Getting ready to go snorkeling!

I asked our guide why there was so much sea life in these few famous spots where tour boats were stopped. He replied, “Because this is a reserve. Fisherman kill the fish everywhere else. The animals know they are safe here.”

As I mentioned in a journal entry a while back, overfishing and fishing endangered animals is a bigger problem than most people realize. (From Oct. 31st, 2009: “Being a new hotel with few guests, it gives me the opportunity to update the website while I watch a program in Spanish with a title that translates to something like ´Desert Oceans and Empty Nets.´ The quote of the day comes from a man with glasses and a mustache: ´If you went into a store and saw rhinocerous steaks and tiger chops you might ask a few questions.´ Due to the current overfishing all over the world, he says ´we should ask the same questions when shopping for fish.´” Come to think of it, I remember getting an email from Green Peace about their TRAITOR Joe’s campaign. Let’s see if I can track down the link… Green Peace put together this sarcastic website to challenge TRADER Joe’s, a “green” grocery store chain accused of greenwashing due to the high amounts of red-list-seafood it buys and sells (15 of 22!!!). Thar she blows: http://www.TraitorJoe.com”)

I’m no fish expert, but I’m guessing I saw some of that red-listed sea food swimming around happily in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Belize, and it was an inspirational sight. But I can’t be overly romantic about the experience; you and I know it’s unreasonable to simply insist that hungry families living on the coast refrain from eating a certain fish because it is endangered. Fortunately, instead of hungry families I saw comfortable families in communities supported by relatively sustainable tourism. It is one of countless environmentally-friendly alternatives I am seeing on this tour.

Like Madidi National Park in Bolivia’s Amazon Rainforest, which acts as a sustainable eco-tourism market for locals (rather than the proposed dam that would have flooded indigenous communities and made a few rich families richer) Belize’s coral reef reserve provides sustainable opportunities for locals that might otherwise collectively overfish themselves into hunger. To be sure, CNN reports, “A new global study concludes that 90 percent of all large fishes have disappeared from the world’s oceans in the past half century.”


Upon seeing hairy travellers watching an environmental documentary at a hostel, a fellow traveller asked half-jokingly, “I wonder if hippies travel more than most people or if travelling for long periods of time turns people into hippies.” And our group laughed. I’m not sure what the answer is, or what a hippy is, but I can certainly attest to the fact that travelling, at least through Latin America, opens your eyes to environmental issues. 

Now I hope you’ll excuse me while I shave the stubble on my chin.