Diary 10 (or Ruins, Volcanos, Rafts, Tear Gas, Canoes and Banditos!)3/9/2001 The ruins at Copan are just 1km out of town, on a road that winds its way along a river valley. The early morning mist makes for some pleasant suprises as stelae mark the roads route on the way to the ruins themselves (they are actually dotted all over the surrounding area). The ruins themselves are very impressive, the quality of the lifelike and lifesize high relief stelae is otustanding considering the age of the artoifacts. Some are badly eroded but the majority continue to demonstrate the superlative skills of their ancient carvers. The heiroglyphic stairway is the first stop of note, a huge undertaking that chronicles the history of the city and its rulers - every one of the 63 steps (each 8m wide) is carved with Mayan calanderic runes. The Honduran government i sgetting its moneys worth at 10 dollars (US) entry but the extra 12 to visit two archaeological tunnels is well worth the extra pennies. The first gives a close up view of the Rosalila Temple beneath the current Structure 16. The stucco plaster is still reasonably well preserved though almost all the paint found on the plaster in glorious technicolour when it was uncovered is now faded. The second "Tunnel of Jaguars" leads under the main acropolis and winds its way for 300m between several evacuated temples and exposed drainage systems, a real good little explore. Below the acropolis complex, the Rio Copan still flows, though diverted from its original course that was cutting into the ruins: its erosion of the side of the complex was what exposed the layers of built and rebuilt temples, giving archealogists their first hint of what lay beneath the visible structures. Finally Altar Q, depiciting the succession of 16 kings (including one who lived to the ripe old age of 82) rounds off a truly outstanding set of ruins and carvings. From here its back on the bus, over the border to return to Guatemala and and my luggage. The scenery in Eastern Guatemala is beautiful, rolling hills with tiny farms and homesteads clinging to their sides After the monotonous flatness of the Yucatan its a sight for sore eyes. Back in Chiquimula I had a coke on the main plaza before heading into my hotel and had a long conversation with some twentysomething hombres about the guns they were carrying and the gun culture in Guatemala in general, the different perception of the role of firearms is quite frightening to a poor chicken like me, but I suppose it would be different if I had spent more time in the US or similar.It`s Friday and I don`t have too much time for this leg of the trip so today sees me covering nearly half the country to the ex-capital city of Antigua. I find (or am found) a room behind a shop off the main plaza and take stock of my options. Antigua is another "tourist centre" and the trips are varied and appealing. Unfortunately the rockclimbing isnt running  for 8 days and the mountain bikes seem to be grounded, but there`s still plenty of options... I met up with Emily and Fiona from Belize City this evening; they have had a hell of a time with rats, spiders and all manner of creepy crawlies in just about every bedroom they have slept in since I last saw them!After a late breakfast I`ve opted for a hike up Volcan Pacaya, a live volcano about 2 hours drive from Antigua. This area used to home to tourist-preying banditos but the introduction of armed guards has aparently made it a lot safer for us gringos. The climb upto the treeline is picturesque, qith intermittent vantage points giving panoramic views of the surrounding volcanoes and Guatemala City sprawled below. Then with the trees gone, we are confronted with the volcanic cone itself and a cast sweep of cooled lava, the swirls and eddies of its flow preserved on the surface. From now on its an hours scramble over loose volcanic ash and lumps of pumice rock to reach the summit: literally one step sliding backward for every two up. Never has a climb been more worth it! From the 2500m summit, or more accurately the edge of the crater, the views are outstanding, though enjoying them comes at a cost. Every few minutes clouds of sulphur blow over the lip of the crater, making it impossible to breathe or even open your eyes for several seconds - but I haven`t even mentioned the view inside! Occasionally the bilowing smoke clears and I can see the magma, a bright glowing orange in the crater - WOW! The rumblings that I had eralier taken for thunder are definitely not thunder - the rocks underfoot are warm to the touch! After loads of photos the only eway down is to "ski" down the loose ash, taking only 10 minutes to descend to the treeline. The sunset is amazing, and we trek back down the trail in darkness, with flashlights pointing out the tree roots waiting at every turn.It`s an early start to ctach the bus for Sunday`s adventure, though the miibus doesnt actually turn up for 2 hours! The tatto guy said to keep the tattoo dry for 5 days (apart from washing it 4-5 times a day) and its day 6, so I`m going white-water rafting. A hearty breakfast at a local hotel, followed by lifejackets, paddles and helmets, onward to the Rio Coyolate. Not so much "white" as chocolate-brown from the recent rains but the rapids are great fun and our little inflatable bounces around and off rocks surrounded on all sides by deep jungle - no signs of human habitation, just white herons, swimming snakes and jumping fish. I even got to drive for a bit, but I shouted and got us grounded in short order! The guide Manol was great, a really professional organisation and loads of hours on the river. A really tired Steve hits the sack tonight.Today is the 27th - my halfway point - 2 months down, 2 to go! Managed to finally rouse myself by noon and spent the afternoon dodging heavy rain showers and taking photos - Antigua is another of those picturesque colonial cites. The ex-convent is beatifully carved with yellow walls and decoration picked out in white and the whole town seems quite vibrant in the intemittent sunshine. A particularly heavy downpour drives me indoors so I do what every Englishman does in such a situation: retire to the nearest cafe for a cup o` tea and some banana cake. Scrummy! Bumped into Monika and her friend from Poptun so we went out for one or three beers. Hmmmmmmm ... strange taste in my mouth, is that the beer? My eyes are watering and ... yes ... there are clouds of tear gas pouring into the bar`s doorway. As far as we can tell, the police next door had decided to hold a tear gas drill that evening in their courtyard, and not realised that the courtyard doesnt have a roof. DOH! After one too many beers to take the taste away I saw the girls back to their hotel and then turned in myself. It`s time to go hunting for some more volcanoes tomorrow, this time around Lago de Atitlan tomorrow. Little did I realise that was not the only hunting that would be done!Yet more glorious views as the buses menader their way up and down steep hillsides to the lake, a collapsed volcanic cone now flooded with 129 sq kms of placid water high in the Guatemalan hills, ringed by passive volcanoes on all sides. Took a boat across the lake to Santiago Atitlan and installed myself in a hotel with my own hotwater shower. The volcanoes dominate the views around town and I`m here to hike around some of them. There`s a real community atmosphere here, and most of the locals still wear traditional Mayan costumes, all very colourful and highly embroidered. There`s also a real religious atmosphere, with loads of less traditional evangelical churches - it seems to be every 4th building! The amplified music, Hallejuhahs and sustained applause can begin to grate on your nerves after a while though. Bought a volcano painting and an handwoven cap - gonna need it hiking in the sun tomorrow.Hiking, hiking, hiking. Who was it that put that idea into my head? I´d asked the police, the local guides and my hotel about hiking. So... picture the scene, yours truly happily ambling along the lake shore, ducking in and out of sugar cane and corn fields that border the lake, meeting and greeting the farmers starting their days labours and senoras washing clothes in the water (I started at 6.30am). My goal is to walk the 25 or so kms over the saddle of the extinct volcano San Pedro to San Pedro La Laguna, the next town on the shores of Lago de Atitlan. After meandering along the shoreline, a steep climb beckons up the volcano so I pause on a convenient jetty to drink in the views, eat some chocolate and have my first cigarette of the day. It is seriously gorgeous, with fishermen on the lake pulling in their first catches of the day, a slight breeze in the bullrushes and the sound of wavelets lapping against the pontoons. Almost perfect. Well it would be, apart from the 3 gentlemen who come out of the fields as I set out again. People, especially countryfolk, are very friendly in Guatemala, but something about these 3 struck a different chord. It may have been the way they were standing, the machetes they were carrying or the fact they were wearing balaclavas. My options were pretty limited to say the least so as I walked out to meet them I emptied my pockets of the money I was carrying. "Quetzals! Rapido!" was what they wanted and my money and cigarettes quickly changed hands. A quick frisk of my pockets also relinquished chocolate and my rain coat also caught their interest. All very civil, apart from the lack of formal introductions. Needless to say I hadnt taken my hosts protestations that the countryside was "tranquilo" at face value so I was only carrying the equivalent of 5 quid, and no real valuables like cards or my passport. Anyway, after they left and I had a little sit-down, I picked myself up and set off again. Most of the next 4 hours were spent composing a little speech in my halting spanish for any subsequent bandittos to explain their compatriots had beaten them to the chase, admiring the spendid views over the lake, and wishing I still had cigarettes and chocolate!. Some kindly gringos in San Pedro lent me the money for the boat home, and I got back on time and in one piece after one hell of a day. I decided on anearly bed and to cancel my plans for a second hike tomorrow.I´ve decided to stay in town today :-). First I went to see Maximon, a wooden figure with a cigar clamped between his teeth and wished evil thoughts on my bandittos from yesterday. The mayor of the town cares for him (a different mayor every year) and was happy to pose for a photo too, he´s a regular tourist attraction around here! Reckoning that I can spot bandittos from farther off on open water I convinced one of the fishermen to hire me his canoe for a couple of hours whilst I paddled around for a bit: he might make an indeustry out of this! The views from my new vantage point were as good as I had hoped and I spent as long taking photos as I did paddling!It´s time for another epic day of travelling. 6am: Boat across the lake to Panajachel 8am: Bus to Quartos Caminós 10am: Bus to Huehuetenango Noon: Bus to La Mesilla on the Guatemalan border Hitched the 4 kms between the border posts 3pm: Bus to San Christobel de Casas in Mexico 7pm: Arrive in San Christobel - phew! Food, internet, bed!San Christobel looks like a lovely colonial town, full of charm and quite cosmopolitan if the variety of restaurants is anything to go by, however I am anxious to return to ruins, my final set of Mayan ruins at Palenque so once again its all aboard the bus for a 6 hour trip north. The views around here just keep getting better as the bus winds its way through the Chiapas highlands. The descent into Palenque marks a definite climate change, from cool and breezy to hot and humid. Southern Guatemala has been pleasantly cool out of the midday sun and coming back into the muggy heat is a bit of a shock to the system. I´ve hung my hammock at a campsite just 2km from the ruins, time for a beer.Sunday morning, and a quick hike up to the site. Palenque is set into the first hills that rise from the Gulf Coast, the ruined temples and their plazas embedded in the same deciduous jungle that embraces Tikal in Northern Guatemala. The ruins are well worth it, with Pakal´s Temple of Inscriptions and his son´s Grupo de Cruz dominating the hillside above the former metropolis. The vaulted roofs of the buildings contain curious keyhole shaped viods to lessen their weight, and the roofcombs are heavily perforated, again to reduce their weight and wind resistance. There´s lots of stucco still surviving, even some excellent fragments of carved/moulded plaster still adhering to the walls. The detail and evident skill of the artisans bever fails to suprise and amaze, and Palenque has them in abundance. Arroyo Otulum, a narrow stream with brivcked up sides, formerly vaulted along its length winds through the site, and opens out after the main plazas into a series of waterfalls and pools. The water is too tempting to resist and its coolness a pleasant antidote to the steamy jungle air. Finally the site museum has some exquisite examples of the clay and stucco mouldings, with grotesque were-figures, delicate heiroglyphics and some near-perfect anthropomorphic statuettes. Mayan culture definitely stands side by side with its Hellenic and Roman contemporaries.Rolled up my hammock and made my down into the twon to cathc the bus to Villahermosa. This prosperous oil town is bustling, but I´m not here for the city life. The first pre-hispanic culture has its roots here, at the ancient capital of La Venta, 60km west of town. When the oil boom and development threatened the archaeology, its artifacts were moved to Parque de la Venta. The Olmec carvings are mainly in basalt, and while not as delicate as later Mayan works have a rugged beauty of their own. Were-jaguars and men emerging from caves are the dominant themes and the size of some of the carved heads (2m x 2m x 2m) is very impressive, especially when you consider that they were moved 100kms from their quarry site to La Venta without draught animals or the wheel. The Olmecs were the grand-daddies of Mexican civillisation and the legacy of their stone carvings, the rudiments of a written language and trade with outlying areas as far south as Guatemala City laid the foundations for future cultures. After a welcome shower (it´s damn hot here too!) I headed to a local bar for a beer or three and ended up chatting to a couple of locals. I even managed to make a joke or two! in Spanish! and they laughed! I got by without resorting to English at all, not that my grammar isnt shot to hell, or that I steered the conversation towards things I can talk about, or that they were quite pissed, but I enjoyed myself :-) Tomorrow: destination Mexico City! or climbing.  One old guy with no teeth and a machete.  Hi Mum!.  She hurt her ankle doing just this in Costa Rica a couple of weeks ago. Big hugs!  Like you wouldn`t guess that!  apart from the mnibus that was shedding bits on the way there.  A first since China - its been cold showers, rivers lakes and cenotes so far.  Don´t think so.  No, every 2nd hombre has a machete in Guatemala, even in the cities.  Yep, that was the clincher.  Guatemalan currency.  Which they were mighty pleased with.  A real cheapo from Millets.  As you do!  They kindly left my water.  A local pagan/mayan/christian god.  Think 3 planks of wood with a pointed front and a little plank for the stern.