The seven countries of Central America – Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize – fill an ancient land bridge joining the continents of North and South America. Volcanic, verdant and vibrant, they offer the traveller some of the best tourist experiences in Latin America. The difficulty is not in deciding to go, it’s working out what to leave out from your itinerary when there’s just so much to see and do. This guide is designed to get you started.
For many years, getting to Central America from the UK generally meant an indirect flight, and often the cheapest flights are still those which hub through the USA. Try looking for flights with United via Houston, American via Miami or Delta via Atlanta. Some tour operators also offer flights without the need to buy one of their packages as well. Thomson (Tui) for example fly direct to Liberia in Costa Rica and they often have deals available last minute for around £300. Schedules are less flexible, however and the once a week flight might not suit your needs.
If you’re looking for a European-based airline, British Airways can get you to Costa Rica non-stop and recently, Air Europa commenced the first ever direct trans-Atlantic flight to Honduras, departing from Madrid. Another alternative is to combine Central America with Mexico – you’ll find plenty of deals via Cancun which is easily combined with Belize and Guatemala. Similarly, you could combine Panama with delightful Colombian city of Cartagena. Shop around. You should be able to pick up return flights from Europe for under £400.
Depoending on your budget, you’re either going to be seeing a lot of airports or taking a long-distance bus. Try Avianca El Salvador, formerly branded as Taca, and Copa Airlines, both of which have extensive networks across the region. if your time is relatively short, this is a good way of freeing up time for sightseeing. Book well in advance to secure the best deals.
As with elsewhere in Latin America, many companies offer relatively comfortable “luxury” coach services but you’ll also find plenty of chicken buses knocking around on the shorter routes which make up for what they lack in comfort with bucketfuls of character. The big name in the bus world is Tica, kind of a Central American version of Greyhound. I’ve also had good experiences with Hedman Alas in Honduras and King Quality. At peak times you’re best to reserve your ticket a few days in advance.
Check out point to point transfers too. For instance, Gray Line offer hotel to hotel transfers at reasonable prices in Costa Rica and similar tourist shuttles are also easy to find between Guatemala’s main hubs.
One thing to note is safety. In some parts of Central America, buses can be held up by armed gangs. Opt for a better company who videos passengers on entry and screens luggage and pick a day bus rather than overnight travel on the most notorious routes. Keep up to date with safety by monitoring the FCO’s travel advice by country.
What to see
There’s way to much for me to cover here, so you should consider these itineraries just a start and delve into one of the many online resources or good guide books on the region to help you make your own detailed plans.
A week in Panama
Begin in Panama City and spend at least a day absorbing the atmosphere of the Casco Viejo, the city’s old town. Some compare it to Old Havana and whether you agree or not, if you like Cuba you’ll like this too.
The canal zone is a worthwhile day trip, easily accessed from the capital. You’ll pass through the Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River flows into the canal as well as several locks before returning to the city. I booked this through my accommodation La Estancia B&B, which has since closed, but the company they used is still very much in business and takes direct bookings.
Another excellent day trip is to Emberá Puru. Guide Anne de Barrigon will take you into the rainforest to meet the Emberá tribe and learn a little of their way of life. She knows her stuff – she married a villager! Part of the journey involves travelling upriver in a dugout canoe which is sure to prove a memorable experience as well.
Extend your trip either by spending more time in Panama City or by kicking back and relaxing on one of Panama’s beautiful islands, in the Bocas del Toro archipelago or in San Blas.
A week in Costa Rica
With so many national parks to choose from, it’s hard to whittle them down. If you only have a week, I’d recommend splitting it into two. Focus on Tortuguero for a two night stay. I based myself at Laguna Lodge which from July to November can offer turtle watching walks. The beach and surrounding canals offer a chance to see plenty of birdlife and just unwind.
Then move on to La Fortuna, a pleasant little town which is the jumping off point for Volcan Arenal. There are hot springs, nature walks, horseback rides and of course, the chance to watch for any activity coming from this active volcano. The Arenal Observatory Lodge makes a great base, especially if you choose one of the rooms directly facing the volcano. Nearby, they can also offer activities such as ziplining and whitewater rafting if the volcano isn’t making your adrenaline pump enough.
Costa Rica links:
A week in Nicaragua
My suggestion for a week in Nicaragua would be to base yourself in the charming city of Granada. It sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and has a wealth of delightful streets to lose yourself in, crammed with historic buildings including the egg yolk yellow cathedral. Tourist infrastructure is good and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants to choose from.
From the city, there are plenty of day trips to keep you absorbed. Head up Volcan Mombacho where a truck will drive you up into the cloud forest. Alternatively, stand on the crater rim of the active Volcan Masaya and sniff the sulphur. It’s currently more active than it was when I visited; take a guide for a night tour and you might be able to see the lava lake that’s filled the crater. Check conditions locally before you go.
Laguna del Apoyo is another option. This crater lake is now a nature reserve and there are plenty of activities that can be arranged here such as kayaking, swimming and boating. Extend your trip by visiting Ometepe Island with its twin volcanic peaks.
Volcan Masaya activity:
A week in Honduras
Getting around Honduras can be a little worrying as there are serious safety concerns within and between its two largest cities, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Persevere and base yourself in the safe and sleepy town of Copan Ruinas. The nearby ruins are free of the crowds that plague other Mayan sites in the region and you’ll see plenty of raucous scarlet macaws to boot.
It’s easy to arrange a trip to the nearby Finca el Cisne, which focuses on Criollo chocolate and coffee growing. Day trips give you the opportunity to explore the plantation and take a scenic horseback ride in the surrounding countryside; it’s also possible to extend your stay overnight.
If you can drag yourself away, extend your stay with a trip to Roatan. Honduras boasts a lengthy Caribbean coastline, but it’s the Bay Islands which draw the tourists. The usual water-based activities are available and the sunsets are a spectacle. If you’re looking for a guide to help you explore the island, then Cleve Bodden comes highly recommended. He’s warm, funny and above all, knowledgeable about his island home.
Finca el Cisne:
A week in El Salvador
Beginning from San Salvador, the country’s capital, take a drive to Lake Coatapeque, popular on weekends as a family hangout. Continue towards the picturesque Ruta de las Flores. This 36km road winds through village after village adorned with flowers, dotted with art galleries and sprinkled with more cafes than you could ask for. From Juayua to Ataco via Apaneca, there’s much to keep you busy.
Suchitoto should be your base for the rest of your week. Team up with El Gringo, who can provide accommodation as well as tour guiding services. Together, we visited Project Moje, a gang rehabilitation project, as well as the arts and crafts centres of Ilobasco and San Sebastian.
El Salvador links:
A week in Guatemala
The obvious base to begin your week in Guatemala is the pretty town of Antigua. There’s a wide choice of hotels, restaurants and cafes and a well-developed tourist infrastructure. The town has lots of attractions in its own right, including the chance to make your own chocolate, but also makes a convenient base for side trips to the atmospheric market at Chichicastenango and beautiful Lake Atitlan.
If you’re looking for the other must-see, then it has to be Tikal. Of all the Mayan sites in the country, this is the stand out attraction. Deep in the jungle, it was abandoned over a thousand years ago, but its iconic ruins make this a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t miss the Lost World Pyramid and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. There have been issues with tourist safety in and on the way to Tikal so as with Honduras, it’s especially important to keep abreast of government advice.
Tourist shuttle service:
A week in Belize
Belize was known as British Honduras until 1981 and English is its official language. I think this more Caribbean, less Latino feel is why it was my least favourite of the seven countries. That’s not to write it off though. Transferring at the airport onto a little plane to head out to Ambergris Caye was laid back and fun, but the views down to the water were spectacular. The diving’s great, with access to the famous Blue Hole a possibility.
It’s worth heading back to the mainland as Belize has some interesting Mayan sites to visit. I visited Lamanai on a day trip from Ambergris Caye, heading inland on an old American school us and then up the New River by boat. There’s a Mennonite community living in Shipyard, not far from the ruins, and you might get a glimpse of them going about their business as you pass by. There are other worthwhile Mayan ruins to see in Belize, among them Caracol and Altun-Ha.
If you want to extend your time in Belize, Placencia gets a good write up as a place to chill out and recharge the batteries.
Ambergris Caye information:
You’ll need several months to do justice to all seven countries in the same trip, but it’s easy to combine a couple of neighbouring nations and concentrate on one part of the region. For me, the countries that are least developed are the ones I’m drawn to revisit – El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. But each one rewards the traveller, so whichever you choose, I’m sure you’ll have a great trip!
I love food. I love travel. And I love nothing better than combining the two.
The more I’ve travelled, the more adventurous I’ve become with the foods I’ll try. Some I’ve enjoyed, others not so much. There’s not much I’ve regretted eating, apart from the vile black chuño potatoes that popped up from the bottom of my soup bowl in Peru together with a wrinkled chicken’s foot. Dried in the Andean sunshine, chuño potatoes are bitter and a staple of altiplano cooking. And I hope I never have to eat one again as long as I live.
But here’s what I would recommend.
It took a while for me to pluck up the courage to try cuy, for cuy is guinea pig and where I come from, guinea pigs are for cuddling. But in Peru, they’re for eating and have been for at least 5000 years. It’s such an iconic dish they even have a national holiday for the fluffy creatures – it’s the second Friday in October. Roasted cuy, particularly if you ask for it to be served with the head removed, isn’t likely to induce a gag reflex. It’s tasty, albeit rather fiddly to pick off the many small bones. It tastes not dissimilar to the dark meat of a chicken – though doesn’t everything? You won’t find it very filling, but it’s often served with a huge potato, so that should fill you up.
I’m not going to try to con you that hákarl is going to be the holiday taste sensation you try to recreate back home in your own kitchen. Like chuño potatoes, once was enough for this fermented shark meat which is an Icelandic delicacy. But unlike chuño potatoes, I’m glad I tried hákarl, and unlike Gordon Ramsey, I didn’t spit mine halfway across the room either. It had the texture of a piece of Parmesan that’s gone hard in the back of the fridge and a pungent ammonia-like aroma which didn’t endear it to my nostrils. Try it and see how bad it is. But don’t expect to see the locals doing the same. Sense has prevailed and they no longer eat the stuff.
Guavate, a short drive from the easternmost point of the Ruta Panorámica, is home to the tastiest suckling pig that I’ve eaten anywhere. On Sundays, half the island’s population winds its way up the steep switchbacks to eat at one of the village’s many lechoneras. Whole pigs rotate on spits, drawing in the punters, while chefs armed with machetes hack the glistening animals into bite sized pieces. This isn’t fancy dining: you’re just as likely to get a lump of bone as you are a hunk of melt in the mouth pork, but the crackling is first rate.
Yemas de Pizarro
Don’t think for one minute that because this is a photo taken through a shop window, these yummy yemas didn’t make it into my sticky hands. They did, and I enjoyed them so much I went back for seconds, much to the bakery assistant’s amusement. Central Spain is good for pastries and these were an improvement on the already delicious yemas I’d tried a few years before in Ávila, a couple of hours to the north-east of Trujillo. Eat them on an empty stomach as they are filling and sickly sweet.
My final choice – and what a tough job it’s been whittling the list down to five – comes from New Orleans. No visit to the Big Easy can be complete without sampling the beignets at Café du Monde in the heart of the French Quarter. Brought to New Orleans by the French in the 18th century, these fried sweet balls of dough are served hot and buried in icing sugar. Take them as I did with a cup of chicory coffee, another local speciality.
There are as many must-try foods that I’ve left off the list as included on it: lemony yassa poulet in Senegal, freshly caught lobster in Maine or snow crab in Seattle, Salzburger Brez with cherry filling, real Italian gelato, Swiss fondue… What would your top five be?
It’s the people that make a place special. How often have you read that? It’s been written so often it’s a travel cliché. But sometimes it’s also true.
Greater Anglia have a range of offers on rail journeys across the network this summer. To find out more, look at the #lettheadventurebegin video on their website; the address is at the bottom of this blog. They invited me to pick somewhere in the network and in return for a rail ticket, they asked me to blog about my trip. I chose Harwich. I’ll admit that having consulted the timetable, I was a little concerned. To reach Harwich from my starting point necessitated two changes of train and with just a few minutes between each, I anticipated spending half the morning in Manningtree. After all, this wasn’t Switzerland, was it? I needn’t have worried. The trains were punctual, the connections made without even having to power walk and the carriages clean and comfortable. The views as we made our way on the Mayflower Line along the River Stour were the icing on the cake, and I thought what a refreshing change it was not to have to focus on the road and be able to enjoy them.
A ten minute stroll from Harwich Town station and I was already beginning to appreciate the town’s long maritime history. Using a walking trail map I’d found online, I ticked off both the High and Low Lighthouses, the second of three pairs of lighthouses that had been built around here to aid ships’ navigation along the North Sea coast. To ensure they maintained the correct course, the two lights needed to line up, one above the other.
The Treadwell Crane was fascinating too, operated by men walking on the inside of the wheels. I was grateful for the Harwich Society’s comprehensive website, for though an informative sign had been placed near the crane, it had been positioned at the foot of a steep grassy bank. To read it, I’d probably have been best off lying flat on the turf.
Heading along the estuary, I walked past the impressive murals on Wellington Road and doubled back to take a look at the Electric Palace. Built in 1911, there were two entrances, one to access seats costing a shilling, the other a more affordable sixpence. The cinema still holds regular screenings today, though the reminder to patrons to turn off mobile phones is a more recent addition to the signage.
It was time to pop in to The Pier Hotel, right on the quayside. Looking like a little piece of Shoreditch, the hotel was slick, contemporary and on-trend, its staff welcoming. Manager Chris told me that I could find 113 different gins on the NAVYÄRD bar’s drinks menu, and I wondered how long you’d have to stay to work your way through them at what the government would deem an acceptable rate. With the view over the confluence of the Stour and Orwell right in front of the hotel’s terrace, it would be an absolute pleasure, though one which would have to wait for another time. I had a boat to catch, and it wasn’t going to wait.
A foot ferry had connected Harwich to Felixstowe for over a century, but it was under threat of closing for good when Austrian Christian Zemann spotted it was up for sale. Seeing the potential – it’s easily an hour’s drive from Harwich to Felixstowe – he bought the business. Though he’d always dreamed of making his living on the water, he didn’t know Harwich, nor the area which surrounded it. It was a gamble, but one that paid off.
With hard work and a nose for opportunity, Christian has expanded the business, running not only the foot ferry but evening cruises, bicycle rental and seal boat trips as well. In fact, he’s already bought a larger boat, increasing the capacity of the ferry from 12 passengers to 58. The level of commitment Christian has shown is extraordinary. Troubled by the drenching some of his passengers were getting out on deck, he invested £15000 in stabilisers to stop the new boat from tossing and pitching. I’m pleased to report it worked.
Christian’s latest venture, the boat trips to the grey and harbour seals that make their home at nearby Hamford Water, have already proved to be a gold mine. Once down to only a handful in number, there’s now a small but thriving colony of around 70 seals at the reserve. I asked Christian how close he got. “Well, the channel’s pretty narrow, so if I kill the engine, then you can hear them breathe,” he said. That sounded close enough to me.
Back on shore, there was one vessel on the quayside that just couldn’t be ignored, not least because of its scarlet livery. Built in 1958, LV18 was Trinity House’s last manned light vessel before it was retired from service in 1994. But as with the Harbour Ferry, this was a boat that wasn’t going to go quietly, thanks to one man – the ebullient and utterly charming Tony O’Neil. He bought the vessel for a nominal £1 and the Pharos Trust was set up to oversee its restoration. It opened in 2011 as Harwich’s quirkiest visitor attraction.
A musician by trade, Tony has a passion for radio. Visitors to the ship can see some of his extensive collection of antique and vintage radios on board, but with an estimated 1600 in his collection, some remain in storage in the hold. That passion for radio also manifests itself in broadcasting. Tony once worked for Radio Caroline and his enthusiasm for pirate radio is undimmed. The likes of John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko and Johnnie Walker all broadcast from radio ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters and the tenders that facilitated their commute came from Harwich.
Even the beautiful garden that you see on deck has a musical connection. The scented plants that form part of it are there in homage to John Peel. His 1967 show for pirate station Radio London was named “The Perfumed Garden.” Johnnie Walker is still involved. He’s a patron of the Pharos Trust and will broadcast from LV18 this August.
For anyone keen on maritime history, Tony has preserved some of the cabins on board just as they would have been when the vessel was in use as a lightship. There’s also a chance to see what a pirate radio station would have been like. There’s so much in the way of nautical and radio memorabilia that some have dubbed it a “floating prop shop”. Unsurprisingly, it caught the eye of the production team working on the 2008 movie “The Boat that Rocked” and with a splash of yellow paint for the occasion, doubled as Radio Sunshine.
It is individuals like Christian and Tony that are breathing life into a town that once lay forgotten at the end of the line. Their energy and commitment to this corner of Essex is helping to make Harwich the town that rocks.
Greater Anglia trains:
Harwich Harbour Ferry:
Seal boat trips:
The Pier Hotel:
Eighteen months ago, I moved to a village close to Britain’s oldest recorded town. Colchester was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD; it was then known as the Roman settlement of Camulodunum. After much time spent doing DIY and decorating the house, I decided it was time to get out and explore the town on my doorstep. Today that took me to the delightful Bourne Mill, a National Trust property just outside Colchester town centre.
If you live in East Anglia, you might be interested to know that Greater Anglia are running a promotion this summer called Let the Adventure Begin. There’s also a competition running until mid-August in which you could win first-class train tickets to any station on their network:
Win that, and you too could be exploring Colchester. Visitors today can see plenty of evidence of the town’s long history, from the Roman Berryfield mosaic at Firstsite to surviving groundworks of the Roman theatre which can be seen in Maidenburgh Street in the town’s Dutch Quarter. The Tourist Information Centre run a superb bi-weekly walking tour which I highly recommend.
Now, look closely at the photo above and in particular, the materials used to build the castle. The structure that you see is Norman. Construction began in 1076, similar to the Tower of London, but all is not what it seems. The foundations stand on what was the Temple of Claudius dating from about 55-60 AD and many of the building materials were recycled from Roman Colchester. In particular, look at the red stones that form the cornerstones – they look almost like roof tiles. These crop up elsewhere too, for example, in the remains of the fortifications that once encircled the town (you can make them out about halfway up the original wall to the left of the picture below):
I shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, to see the same materials plundered to build Bourne Mill, located about a 20 minute walk away. This National Trust property was originally a fishing lodge used by the monks of St John’s Abbey. A stream, the Bourne, emerges a short distance north of the site and spills out to form a large pond, thought to have been created artificially as there appears to be no geological reason for the water to widen.
After the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, St John’s Abbey passed to the Lucas family and later, they began to demolish it. Seeking to improve on the monks’ fishing hut, they constructed what’s now Bourne Mill. The stones were cannibalised and together with those Roman bricks, pieces of flint and some Walton-on-the-Naze septaria to hold it all together, this wonderful building was the result.
Well actually, not quite.
What Sir Thomas Lucas built was a single story dwelling, thought to be a place where he could go with his well-heeled mates to fish and then hang out over dinner. On the ground floor, there are two fireplaces which lend credence to this theory. Carp, pike and wildfowl would have been plentiful so it seems likely that this story is true. This beautiful banner, stitched by the Colne and Colchester Embroiderers Guild, tells the story.
But that story doesn’t end there, of course. Now that Britain was Protestant, it became a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in Catholic Europe. Granted refuge by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1565, they boosted the town’s population, congregating in what would later become known as Colchester’s Dutch Quarter. Though they kept themselves separate when it came to socialising and marriage, they did have a profound effect on the north Essex landscape and economy, bringing their weaving industry skills and breathing new life into a flagging industry.
The Dutch introduced new worsted draperies, known as bays and says. They were lighter and cheaper, and not surprisingly proved very popular. A method of quality control was introduced in 1631, immediately raising the status of Colchester cloth. That Dutch seal automatically meant that your cloth fetched a higher price; faulty workmanship, on the other hand, would lead to fines (called rawboots) being levied.
Bourne Mill grew an upper storey, recognisable by the gable ends that are also commonly found in the Netherlands and Belgium. It became a fulling mill, a place where cloth was softened to make it more wearable. A waterwheel would have made the process of hammering the fabric much less labour-intensive. Initially urine, collected from the poorhouse, would have been used in the process; the ammonia it contained helped to clean and whiten the cloth. Later, Fuller’s earth would have been used instead. Afterwards, the cloth was stretched on frames known as tenters to dry – attached by tenterhooks.
After a while, the Essex cloth industry fell into decline once more. The cloth industry, bay especially, was vulnerable in the 18th century to disruption by wars, competition from rival manufacturers, and the import of cotton. As the cloth industry declined, the fulling mills were converted to grind corn or grain, competing with the many windmills that dotted the landscape. By around 1840, Bourne Mill was no longer in use as a fulling mill. It was converted to a corn mill by 1860 and it’s for this purpose that the uppermost floor and sack hoist would have been installed. Later, it was steam driven, but the last miller hung up his apron in 1935.
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much there was to see and learn at Bourne Mill, expecting only to see a waterwheel and not a lot more. The team of volunteers work hard to bring the Mill’s history to life and succeed in communicating their enthusiasm. I’d especially like to thank Liz Mullen and Joan Orme for their insights and for not burdening me with more historical detail than I could cope with.
Acknowledgements and practical information
I’d like to say thanks to the National Trust who provided me with a free pass to visit Bourne Mill. If you’d like to do the same, entrance costs £3.75 for adults and £1.90 for children. The place is open from Wednesday to Sunday inclusive, from 10am to 5pm. Dogs are welcome on a lead, though there’s a steep ladder-like staircase to the upper storey which they won’t be able to access. There’s a small cafe too and plenty of picnic tables perfect for sitting and watching the ducks, including Joan’s favourite with the quiff.
There are plenty of things to do with the kids, including free use of the Mill’s pond dipping equipment, making this a good choice now that the school summer holidays are upon us:
The National Trust website also has a guided walk which you can follow to get a better grasp of your surroundings. I shall be back soon to try it out.
If you’d like to begin with the Camulodunum to Colchester walking tour, then this takes place at 11am on Saturdays year-round, with additional walks on Wednesdays at the same time throughout the summer. Walks need to be pre-booked as they do fill up; adults cost £4.30 and children £3.10. Find out more here:
At Bourne Mill, parking is limited on site – Sir Thomas Lucas didn’t plan ahead – but you should be able to find roadside parking nearby. Better still, take the train. Greater Anglia’s nearest station is Colchester Town. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the town centre to the Mill, but you can catch a bus to Mersea Road from outside the station if your feet have had enough.
The fastest connections from London Liverpool Street to Colchester’s main station take just 46 minutes and just over an hour to the Colchester Town station right in the centre of town. More details can be found on the Greater Anglia website:
Visitors to San Antonio might be surprised to learn that it’s the seventh largest city in the USA, larger than San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Boston. This fast-growing city has a population of around 1.5 million. In Texas, only Houston beats it. But the best thing about San Antonio is that with such a compact and walkable downtown, it doesn’t feel big – and that’s why I like it. I’m not alone. An estimated 32 million visitors flock to San Antonio every year.
The Spanish first set foot in San Antonio in 1691, founding a settlement in the early 18th century. Some of the earliest settlers came from the Canary Islands. San Antonio became the capital of the Spanish province of Tejas; today it’s still possible to visit the Spanish Governor’s Palace. Years ago, during my first visit to Argentina, I met a woman from San Antonio and was a little irritated by her insistence on pronouncing Texas as Tay-hass. Now, I realise that perhaps it was just a pride in her city’s heritage. You can read the story here:
The single storey adobe building that forms the Spanish Governor’s Palace was the original comandancia, the place where the military garrison’s officers lived and worked. Its whitewashed walls and simple furnishings allow the building to speak for itself; the tranquil courtyard garden is a serene oasis from the modern city which surrounds it.
Of course, the most famous historic building in San Antonio is the Alamo and no visit to the city can be complete without a visit to this historic mission. From 1821 to 1836, the city was the capital of Mexican Tejas, after Mexico had won its independence from Spain in 1821. But when Antonio López de Santa Anna, later to become the country’s 8th president, abolished the Mexican Constitution of 1824, violence ensued. The Texian Army, a group of volunteers and regulars, managed to force the Mexicans back, capturing San Antonio in 1835 during the Battle of Bexar. But in 1836, Santa Anna hit back, marching on San Antonio to defeat the Texian forces who were trying to defend the Alamo. A memorial stands outside the building, inscribed thus:
Erected in memory of the heroes who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo, March 6, 1836, in the defense of Texas. They chose never to surrender nor retreat; these brave hearts, with flag still proudly waving, perished in the flames of immortality that their high sacrifice might lead to the founding of this Texas.
“Remember the Alamo!” became the rallying cry of the Texian Army. Later that year, Santa Anna was defeated and Texas won its independence. It remained that way until 1845 when it was annexed by the USA with popular approval from the Texians. Texas was formally incorporated as a state of the USA on February 19, 1846.
A stroll along the city’s River Walk is the most scenic way to reach the cathedral. This urban waterway, lined with trees and restaurants, is the social heart of San Antonio. Catastrophic flooding occurred on the San Antonio River in 1921, leading to calls to manage the river as it wound its way through the heart of the city. Casa Rio was the first restaurant to open in 1946, but I’d recommend you pay a visit to Cafe Ole where you should ask if their server Richard is rostered on – he’s excellent.
The cathedral is well worth a visit. Also known as the church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe, it was originally built from 1738 to 1750 and some of those original walls still stand. The current structure largely dates from the 19th century. Each evening, a sound and light show tells the history of the city, the captivating graphics projected onto the cathedral’s façade and twin towers.
Though it can feel like it at times, the city’s not just the sum of its Mexican heritage. There’s actually a historic German district known as King William, located within an easy walk of downtown. In the 1790s, Mission San Antonio de Valero, one of the city’s five missions, sold off land to settlers. It wasn’t until the 1860s, however, that the district was sectioned off into plots and took on its present day layout. At that time, it attracted a sizeable population of German immigrants. The main street was named King Wilhelm 1, after the King of Prussia, though it garnered the derogatory nickname Sauerkraut Bend for a while too. Its wealthy residents competed to construct the most impressive mansions and a stroll along the street today is as much an exercise in real estate envy as it is regular sightseeing. A visit to the Edward Steves Homestead Museum affords the opportunity to see how such families might have lived.
There’s plenty more: a rich cultural heritage manifested in a number of excellent art museums and a plethora of shopping plazas including El Mercado, the largest Mexican market in the USA and La Villita, a concentration of arts and crafts stores showcasing some of the area’s finest artisan talent. And if you wish to get kitted out with your own stetson before continuing your Texan journey, then I’d recommend a visit to this place:
Paris Hatters celebrates a century of trading this year. It’s not much to look at, but the tiny store is packed with boxes stacked almost to the ceiling ensuring that whatever your style choice or your size, there’s something to fit. Its clientele boast a number of the rich and famous, among them former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, George Bush, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, Pope John Paul II, Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jnr., Dean Martin, Luciano Pavarotti, B.B. King and Bob Dylan. You never know, as you look in the mirror, someone you recognise might be right behind you!
One of the most fascinating and also morally challenging of the Inca rites is surely the sacrificing of children. Scattered across the high Andean peaks are a number of sacrificial sites that have only been discovered relatively recently. One such site can be found on Mount Llullaillaco, a 6700m high volcano straddling the Argentina-Chile border. Drugged with coca and fermented maize beer called chicha, three children had been led up to a shrine near the volcano’s summit and entombed, a practice known as capacocha. The freezing temperatures inside their mountain dens had not only killed them, it had perfectly preserved their small bodies. There they’d remained, undisturbed, for five centuries. An archaeological team led by Johan Reinhard found what’s now known as the Children of Llullaillaco less than twenty years ago.
Today, the three mummies are rotated, one on display at a time, in MAAM, a museum on the main plaza in the northern Argentinian city of Salta. Three years ago, I’d visited Juanita, a similar mummy found in Peru and displayed in a darkened room a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa. As a consequence, I figured I knew what to expect when I stepped inside MAAM. During my visit, Lightning Girl was the mummy being displayed, possibly the most haunting museum exhibit I’ve ever seen. No photography is permitted; the image above is of a postcard I purchased in the museum shop.
The first thing that struck me was how well preserved this small child was, much more so than Juanita had been. Found entombed with a slightly older girl, her half-sister, and a boy, she looked straight ahead. Her face stared bleakly, as if tensed against intense cold. A dark stain marked her face, thought to have been caused by a lightning strike after she was sacrificed. But it was her teeth that caught my attention, tiny white milk teeth that emphasised just how young this girl would have been when she met her fate. Text beside her indicated that she had been just five years old when she died. There was no escaping that here in front of me, in this darkened room, was a real person.
During Inca times, it was the custom to choose sacrificial children from peasant families, deemed an honour for the family, though surely a heartbreaking one too. Girls such as these were selected as toddlers to be acclas or Sun Virgins, destined later to be royal wives, priestesses or to be sacrificed. It is thought that the elder girl was such a person, the two younger children her attendants. The children were then fed a rich diet of maize and llama meat to fatten them up, nutritionally far better than their previous diet of vegetables would have been. The higher their standing in society, the better the value of this offering to the gods, essential to protecting future good harvests and political stability. The children would not die, it was believed, they joined their ancestors and watched over mortals like angels.
Despite the drugged state induced by the coca and chicha, which in theory led to a painless end, the boy had been tied. Perhaps he’d struggled and had needed to be restrained. The older girl had her head buried between her knees, but Lightning Girl looked straight ahead. Had she been too young to comprehend what was happening to her?
Visiting Hacienda San Pedro in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, last month I came across this machine in the hacienda’s museum. I presume it was some kind of machine used to grind the coffee, but there was no information on it. What caught my eye was the place name on the machine: Maldon. That’s a fifteen minute drive from my house.
Since getting back, I’ve been finding out a bit about E. H. Bentall and it makes for interesting reading. Not least, the E. H. stands for Edward Hammond, which is my father’s name. Edward’s father (the Heybridge Edward, not mine) was a farmer named William. He designed a plough to use on his land near Goldhanger and got a local smithy to make it up. Word got around and by 1795, he’d gone into business making them. Business boomed but raw materials at the time had to be brought in by barge up the Blackwater. William Bentall upped sticks and moved down the road to Goldhanger where he built a place by the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation. Bentall diversified, producing amongst other things the first steam powered threshing machine.
Meanwhile, with his wife Mary Hammond, he’d produced a son. Edward Hammond Bentall had the same aptitude for engineering as his father. This particularly makes me smile as my Dad was an engineer throughout his working life. He took over the business in 1836 aged 22 and three years later, registered as E.H. Bentall & Co, it was thriving. In 1841, mindful of competition, he took out a patent on an improved Goldhanger plough protecting it from imitators. Under Edward’s leadership, the company began to export machinery overseas and one of those machines found its way to a coffee hacienda just outside the village of Jayuya.
Back at home, Edward Hammond Bentall had been elected as Member of Parliament for Maldon, a post which he held from 1868 to 1874. In 1873 Edward had an imposing home built, known as The Towers, which was located near Heybridge Cemetery. It was so well built that when the time came to pull it down in the 1950s, dynamite had to be used to blow it up. By the time Edward passed the business on to his son Edmund in 1889, he was a wealthy man. He died in 1898.
Mechanisation of the coffee plantations further increased profits, particularly after World War Two while the company operated under the leadership of Edward’s grandson, Charles. He died in 1955, and just six years later, the company was taken over by Acrow, which eventually went bust in 1984. That was it for Bentall & Co, but their warehouse still proudly overlooks the canal in Heybridge.
And if you remember Bentall’s department store (now Kingston Fenwicks), the founders of that store are related to William too.