23 January, 2010
Belize trip...more for my own memory than anything else.
Belize - Jan 1 - Jan 9th 2010.
So much happened and we met so many people, and heard about so many other things to do that I want to keep some sort of record of what happened so that when I, or anyone else, goes back I can have some starting points. So here goes.
Day 1. Belize City and Dangriga
Landed in Belize City after sleeping in the uncomfortably bright and Xmas music blasting lobby of IAH. Landed at 11:30, took a $50 BZE cab to the Mopan Hotel to meet up with Jackie, who had flown in the day before. Walked to the swing bridge and ate at the cafe there, our first helping of rice and beans and introduction to Belikin beer. Walked from here to the Novelo bus station. Belize City is a little rough in spots, but the people we passed seemed friendly enough. Most tourists land and take a cab right to the bus station or water taxi. There weren't a lot of outsiders walking the back street route we took to the bus. Got to the bus station, passed on the opportunity to pay $.50 BZE to use the bathroom, and boarded a $4 non express bus to Belmopan, the capital city. Had another beer at the little bar near the bus stop, mostly filled with guy playing pool. Bought my first and certainly not last bag of "street" plantain chips. Then we caught another bus ($6) south to Dangriga. The Hummingbird highway was a much more scenic bus section than the Western Highway out of Belize City. In Dangriga we stayed at Pal's Guest House, which was $50 US, but I think we paid extra for a beach front, second floor room. Walked around Dangriga and found it much friendlier than Belize City. Ate dinner at the Riverside Cafe, bought some coconut water and Rum at one of the Chinese stores and returned to the hotel to sip cocktails on the porch and watch a huge storm role in.
Day 2. Dangriga to Glover's Atoll
Island Expeditions was 200 feet from our hotel, so we checked in with them, and then went looking for breakfast. Found Glenda's across from the bus station. Not much to look at, but the place was great. A mother and her 5 kids were watching headline news, and the owner and another local were discussing the problem in Belize City; youth not being held accountable and getting in trouble. It was great listening to them talk about the village mentality of disciplining their kids...Dangriga is small enough that if you are doing something your parents wouldn't approve of, your neighbor is going to see it and bust you...thus...you behave. Its all the same, world round. Met a guy there named Austin Gabriel who lives in Phoenix but was from Belize, and happens to be selling some land....
Met up with our captain and other folks making the crossing to the cayes that morning. Our boat was an ex Columbian drug boat the coast guard had seized and our captain purchased. We headed to Tobacco Caye and dropped most of the people off, and picked up another large group, The ultimate adventure trip, that would be spending 3 days on Glover's with us. Along with them was Manny, their guide, Karm, their Belizean guide, and Demascoe, a local fisherman turned guide. We got to the island, about 2 acres of sand 35 miles off the coast, and explored our basecamp. Karm took us out in the kayaks and we did a wet exit exercise to make sure no one would drown. Jackie and I did pretty well and we paddled back for some rest. Manny gave a lecture on corals and the various theories on how Atoll's form. There were a lot of these lectures because the near constant 40mph wind kept us out of the kayaks most of the weekend. That night we found, and closed, the tiny bar on the island. After everyone left we stayed with our guide Manny, a scuba guide from the other resort, Chad, and boat Captain named "King David" and his wife, and Caitlin our bartender. Spend $150 BZE on who knows what...drinks must be expensive in the middle of the ocean.
Day 3 Glover's Atoll
Wind calmed down a little bit, so in the morning we paddled out to the point, and snorkeled off the beach. This is when my camera broke. Currents were pretty strong so we stayed close to shore, but saw lots of smaller fish amongst all fan and other soft corals. Went back to the island and actually had some sun to enjoy and calm weather. Lots of eating and hammocking ensued. That afternoon, just in time for it to get cold and windy again, we took a small boat out, around the Atoll and outside the reef where it starts to drop off and "drift snorkeled." This entails doing the often seen backflip out of the boat and just floating around. The ocean floor was about 50 -100 feet deep along the section we were in and we saw many more large fish, canyon's in the reef, rays, barracuda's (which we had caught and eaten for dinner that evening), large snapper and a whole lot of other stuff I didn't recognize and can't remember. Well worth the cold trip out. That evening we laid low after Karm's Garufina drumming demonstration, sipped some rum in our tent house, and packed for the next day's departure, and hoped for good weather.
Day 4: Glover's Atoll, Dangriga, San Ignacio, Bullet Tree Falls.
We woke up to the worst weather of the 3 day trip, felt pretty cold and damp, and no one wanted to do much of anything in or near the water, so Karm got to give another talk. This time was about all the different peoples living in Belize, its political and cultural history, and a lot of talk about food. Very interesting, Karm's a genuinely great human being, and happy to share his culture with absurd question asking tourists with no regret. We loaded the boat, a much smaller and primitive boat than our Columbian cruiser on the way out, and got beat to hell for 2 hours on the way back to the mainland. This little dingy sat 2.5 to 3 feet out of the water, and we went soaring through 12 foot waves, getting airborne and slamming back down, unrestrained onto our foam padded bench. It was fun losing our stomachs for like 10 minutes, but it got a little rough after a while. Back problems galore over the next two days, and a few seconds of genuine fear as our boat would start to roll in the air and sometime hit broadside into another 10 feet of water. Highly recommended. Walked around our favorite little Dangriga after bidding the other folks goodbye. They were really surprised we didn't want to take a crowded van back into town. Picked up some snacks at the chinese superstore and got to the bus station. Deciphered the bus schedule, and got on a very crowded and non express bus to Belmopan. It took every bit of 2 hours and was 3 adults per school bus seat. I lucked out and had 2 kids, 5 and 9, and Jackie had their 3 and 13 year old sisters. The 4 and 6 year olds were behind us with mom. We shared some cookies with them, and Jackie gave the oldest her number. Mom's gonna be surprised when she starts making 3.49/min phone calls to some girl in Phoenix. In Belmopan we immediately switched over to an express bus heading west towards San Ignacio. In San Ignacio we had a great dinner at Erva's which was highly recommended, but off the main drag, so it was nice and empty and local feeling until some college students from Vermont showed up and asked the poor waiter for 7 different kinds of frozen drinks like it Cozumel. After diner took a $20 BZE taxi out to Parrot's Nest in Bullet Tree Falls. Apparently its cheaper to just go to BTF, but more to Parrot's Nest because the road was bad. In an old Toyota Tercel with no shocks, it was a touch road to negotiate for our old, and politically correct driver. It was late when we got to Parrot's Nest, we found our cabin, #3, and went to bed.
Day 5 Bullet Tree Falls and El Pilar
I woke up kind of early, mainly because it was freezing and the mexican blankets weren't cutting it. Found my first shower of the trip, and helped myself to coffee in the communal dining area while Jackie slept. Over coffee I met Klaas and Peter, a presumed couple from the dutch side of St. Maarten. They had rented a truck and were heading to El Pilar that day as well, so I negotiated a ride, and rushed Jackie a bit so we could go with them and save a lot of money in either paying a cab driver to wait, or renting a car. El Pilar is 7 adventurous miles from Bullet Tree Falls, and the diesel Mazda 4x4 got its workout for the day. El Pilar is an unexcavated mayan temple site, and doesn't see many visitors. The ranger person was pretty surprised to see us. We walked around the sight, which, as an unexcavated site, was a lot of large flat plaza's created by the mayans, and oddly pyramid shaped hills, obviously towers and temples the jungle had reclaimed over the past 2000 years. People must walk around the jungle and say...hmm...that hill oddly pyramid shaped, and then discover these sites. It was good to see a site in this condition before we went to an excavated one later in the week. We mostly just walked around in the jungle, saw some howler monkeys, a huge colony of leaf cutter ants, and took pictures of all the different tree species we saw. That afternoon we had Peter and Klaas drop us off in Bullet Tree Falls, we walked around the village taking pictures, started walking toward San Ignacio and got picked up by two presumably government workers who offered us a ride the rest of the way into San Ignacio. We did some shopping in town, bellied up to Han Nah's, had huge burrito's and quesadillas, and then tried to walk back to BTF. This time Kim and Dan, who were staying with us, picked us up and took us back to the Parrot's Nest. We ate dinner at Parrot's Nest that night, and retired to our treehouse porch (we moved rooms between nights) and talked with Kim and Dan for a while before going to bed.
Day 6 Actun Tunichil Muknal and San Ignacio
We had to get up early, the bane of Jackie's existence, to catch a shuttle into San Ignacio. Once again we rushed her a bit, and I hurriedly "checked out" of Parrot's Nest..which was around $60 BZE per night for the two of us, plus dinner and some beers. The tour was being done by Pacz tours, one of only two companies allowed in the cave...it was $80 US per person. Its an all day affair, bussing out along the western highway, stopping at a little street stand to get some meatpies, hiking in for about 45mins, crossing 3 rivers, eating lunch, and then entering the cave. The first section of the cave is wet caving, involving some swimming and chest deep wading around various caverns. Our guide Orlando was great, and he really wanted my Black Diamond headlamp because the ones available to them weren't great. My head was often used as the spot light for the tour. I'm sending Orlando a BD Icon so he can be the envy of all the cave guides. After all the wet caving, you climb up a few boulder and enter the "dry" part of the cave. Time for shoes off, and walking around in your socks. We saw a LOT of mayan ceramic work, some complete, some broken by the Mayan's as they abandoned the cave in 900 AD. There were large pots up in chambers in the walls, and some on the ground. We also saw the skeletal remains of 5 individuals, including the 'Crystal Maiden' in the very highest chamber in the cave. It's the only woman in the cave and it isn't really known why she's in there, or how she died. All the other skull had holes in the side, and sharp rocks nearby. Priests would sacrifice people by punching a whole in the side of their skull. The crystal maiden is laid out perfectly, and doesn't have a hole in her temple. The cave itself, all the artifacts withstanding, was amazing. Lots of calcium carbonate formations, stalactites and stalagmites, and we were crawling all among all of it, something you certainly can't do in the US. There was only some orange flagging tape on the ground where you "weren't supposed to step." One of the highlights of the trip for sure, and even though it was a guided tour, it didn't attract cruise boat types, and was very educational having a local guide. Orlando was Mestizo, a people formed by the mixing of Mayan and Mexican people, and he had been guiding for a long time. After the tour we ate dinner at Han Nah's again, and waited for Orlando to give us a ride home. He lived just outside of Benque del Carmen, and our new home in San Jose Succotz was on his way home. Very nice of him to do this for us, and typical of the kindness of the people we met in the Cayo District. Arriving in the dark was our M.O. for the trip, and we got to The Trek Stop in similiar fashion, tracked down Tino, who thought he had a room for us, and eventually led us to cabin 8. Time for a few drinks out in the communal kitchen area with the L.A. students from UMASS, and the canadian motorcycle touring guy, some darts, and then we slept.
Day 7: Xunatunich and San Jose Succotz
We actually slept in, finally, like a vacation should be. We had no agenda for the day other than visiting the temples at Xunantunich, which was just a few miles away. While Jackie slept i checked out the butterfly garden, all the labled plants and flowers on the site, did some interneting (a nice included perk to this place), and checked out Tino's nature museum. I ordered a Belizean breakfast from the little restaurant, and joined the canadian in looking at maps of his trip from Toronto to Vancouver, and then down the western US, Baja, the ferry to mainland Mexico, and all the way through the Yucatan and Belize. He was heading to Guatemala today and was worried about the "typical" crap he had to deal with at the border; exit fees, vehicle permits, bike debugging, bribes, passport fees, and more bribes. Sounds like fun. Jackie woke up and joined me for a walk into San Jose Succotz, lunch at Benny's, which is the only, but a very good, restaurant in San Jose Succotz. Then we took the hand cranked ferry across the river and walked uphill forever to get to the Xunantunich site. We spent a good few hours hanging out, almost completely alone, at this amazing site. Again, no constraints other than a few ropes blocking off certain stairs. We got to run around like kids on giant mayan temples from thousands of years ago. Words can't do justice to that feeling. From the highest structure you could see over the canopy for miles, into Guatemala, to Benque, back to San Ignacio. There were howler and spider monkeys in the trees, and it was dead silent. We spent a lot of time just sitting up on different temples and looking around. On the way out we over patronized the local mayan craft sellers, buying hammocks, slate carvings, jewelery, wooden bowls, boxes and cutting boards etc etc. This little roadside area was probably the best place to get whatever kind of local craft you where in search of. Later in the afternoon, Jackie got attacked by army ants, and her foot swelled up like Oprah's. That night, or last, back at The Trek Stop was spent talking to Tino, and his down to earth business practices, and his apartment in San Jose for 500 BZE a month, fully furnished. Hmm.... That's 250 US a month for a base of operations...full kitchen bed, couches, tv, microwave..whatever you'd need. Good info to have. One more night of rum and brandy mixed with lime squash and off to bed for our early departure.
Day 8 San Jose Succotz to Belize City
Early early start to our day...i think 5:30 or so. We needed to catch an early express bus headed to Belize City in order to catch our 1:30 flights. As we ran down the stairs, Jackie nearly breaking her army ant swollen ankle, and we missed what I think was the express. So we waited 15 minutes and got on what must have been a local. Got to Belmopan, smartly switched busses even though ours was continuing on, and grabbed an express to Belize City. Slept most of the way, the Belmopan to Belize City stretch is pretty boring to look at. It was raining in Belize City and we never really found anything to do. Most craft sellers were closed because of the rain, and because i don't think a cruise was in that day. Jackie got taken off into someones house, which was a little scary for a minute, but she met an old man who hand tied, very slowly, one hammock a month, and since that was what she was looking for, it all worked out. I mostly just ate plantain chips and waited for her in the rain. We found a very loud colorful little bar that was the equivalent of the scariest ghetto bar you could be in in the states, but we felt welcomed and protected by the owner, and it was great food. We killed time there, and then caught a cab to the airport. Jackie had to leave behind her Marie Sharp's hot sauce because she forgot to adhere to the 3:1:1 rule. Flew to charlotte, ate at the Tacquerillaria and was very disappointed.