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VOLUNTEER VACATIONS | GUATEMALA

Bugs, mud, rain -- and Maya artifacts

Volunteers dig in to the jungle at Chocola for a chance to help uncover an ancient lost city.

October 16, 2005|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Guatemala City — COBRAS, scorpions, poisonous caterpillars, mosquitoes, soaring heat and humidity, incessant rainfall and mud. Chocola, an Indian village 80 miles west of the Guatemalan capital, is no one's idea of a garden spot.

Why would anyone vacation here? Because it provides a chance to uncover an ancient civilization.

Fifty-nine volunteers endured the inconveniences to search for buried Maya treasures last summer during an Earthwatch Institute program in the Guatemalan jungle. Their reward was the discovery of artifacts, a life-size statue, "a fantastic monument and what we thought was a royal palace," said expedition leader Jonathan Kaplan, a professor of archeology at the University of New Mexico.

"We had a fabulous time," said John Hill of Claremont, who participated with his wife, Brenda. "It's basically menial work, digging, sifting dirt. But we felt like we genuinely contributed. Every day, we found bags full of small pieces -- what they call potsherds. The group as a whole found some pretty significant artifacts."

Earthwatch differs from many volunteer travel organizations in its studious approach. It sponsors scientific field research programs; participants get a chance to do hands-on science in diverse locales with international teams.

Among the 145 choices offered by the nonprofit organization: studying crocodiles in Costa Rica, sea otters in Monterey, Calif., temple monkeys in Sri Lanka and orchids in Spain. Nearly half of the group's volunteers have postgraduate degrees; they pay from $495 to more than $3,500 for trips of one to three weeks.

Kaplan's project will enter its fourth season in 2006. It has been so successful that the Chocola site is being hailed as a great lost city of the Pre-Classic Maya period. Kaplan hopes a national archeological park and museum will one day mark the site.

Chocola, surrounded by volcanoes and rushing rivers, is a simple village where farmers scrape out a living growing coffee beans and cacao. The village did not suffer casualties last week when Hurricane Stan brought devastating rains and landslides to some parts of Mexico and Central America, although a bridge connecting Chocola to the outside world washed out and will have to be rebuilt.

Many volunteers are drawn to Kaplan's project by the thrill of the hunt.

Not the Hills, however, who were intrigued by the experience of living and working in a Central American community.

They weren't disappointed. "We were extremely enriched by meeting, living and working alongside the local people," John Hill said. "Warmth and friendship were clear in a very short period of time."

For more information about the Earthwatch Institute, call (800) 776-0188 or see www.earthwatch.org.

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