In Guatemala, while we were visiting the cathedral at Antigua, the walls of the sanctuary began to tremble and we were encouraged to move briskly into the park outside of the building. This sudden seizure of fear and uncertainty seemed to sum up the experience of Central America

This place, consisting of seven small countries, is less of a center than it is a conduit between two continents. It is true that the Maya Empire once had the great ceremonial centers of Tikal and Copan, and other even larger sites in this area.  But seismic activity, a ferocious line of volcanoes, climate change, and political unrest have contributed to an atmosphere of dangerous  instability.


Many of the massive ruins of the Maya culture were found buried in the rainforests in the 19th century. Few movies exist to demonstrate the magnificence of these ceremonial centers (see Kings of the Sun and Apocalypto), and more certainly, there are no movies to explain their demise. There are theories about subversive invasions from Teotihuacan (say Tay-oh-tay-wha-cahn), north of Mexico City, but the real villain appears to be the force of nature, earthquakes and volcanoes. Apocalypto ends with a brief glimpse of the white sails approaching the eastern shore of the New World. It is shot from the point of view of the doomed aborigines standing on the beach.

The first of the white sails belonging to the ships of Christopher Columbus, arrived in the Bahamas in 1492. It was only on his fourth and final voyage to the New World that Columbus set foot on the mainland. This happened at Honduras in 1502. He died in 1506, impoverished and demoralized, and still believing he had made it to the threshold of Asia.

Sadly, the story of ruination has reached well into our own times.  In 2010, it felt unsafe to visit these seven nations because most of them were in recovery from the effects of brutal regimes. Some of these troubles got more world attention than others. The regime in Guatemala was accused of genocide against the Maya people in the early 1980s. In the movies, it was El Salvador and Nicaragua that received most coverage for their violent revolutions.  In Panama, we were able to spend time appreciating the remarkable canal that fulfilled the Balboan dream. At the same time, we paid a visit to the ruined headquarters of Manuel Noriega who suffered a devastating attack from the United States in 1989.  It happened two decades after the 1968 political upheaval in Panama, fully documented in the controversial, Oscar–winning film, The Panama Deception. Things had gone badly for both the U.S. and the Panamanians, and the aftereffects were seismic.

NOTE: Central America is geographically part of North America, but I have placed it under the Southern Americas as a way of establishing the unique position of the seven countries between Mexico and South America. I hope you will agree.

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