the last leg in Central America
09.04.2006 - 19.04.2006 -17 °C
We woke fairly early on Sunday but just rested in bed till nearly 7, then got up & had freshly squeezed freshly picked orange juice on the Maya mound. We then had breakfast of eggs, beans, cheese & fruit. Then David sat with us pointing out the different birds for a while & we saw lots of beautifully coloured ones, some lorekeets, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and although we heard the tucans they didn’t actually show up. David also took us on a wee walking tour in the jungle to look around the Maya site & point out lots of interesting plants & birds. We collected some food along the way & then looked at his artefacts from the site. He doesn’t believe it should be excavated but preserved as it is & all the artefacts remain right here rather than in museums. I can see the point, however he also plants trees in the site, which will continue to destroy rather than preserve it & he has artefacts from other sites. There was another site across the river, within view of David’s site, which he saw stripped, the artefacts sold to museums, then the site covered over in dirt to allow farming. That seems worse doesn’t it? He has a couple of flint blades & arrowheads ( the flint here is pretty rough though), some jade beads, whorl spindles & a very very cool mould for a tiny mask.
We reorganised our packs – partly to get rid of a half a Belizean beach and partly to make sure we had no scorpions - & then sat in hammocks in the shade & relaxed. Fortunately it’s an overcast day & a bit more breeze so the heat is not nearly so terrible.
We spent most of the day in the hammocks with breaks for washing clothes, lunch, swimming & sitting on the mound watching birds. The laundry was an interesting experience as it involves only river water & not even any soap. It particularly amused me when I washed something with a label that said wash separately that a river in the jungle was perhaps not quite what they had in mind. However the clothes were a lot cleaner & better smelling than when we started & that’s what counts. Late in the afternoon as we were preparing to move location to watch sunset, big black clouds rolled in accompanied by thunder & lightening in the distance. The sunset never happened & instead we had a wild storm. The wind really came up & everything around the camp got put away & buttoned down. We then sat on the mound & watched it roll in until the rain started in those huge splushes you associate with tropical rainstorms & then in poured. The thunder & lightening was almost constant & crossed right over us & rolled away again. The rain stopped, wind dropped & all was calm again & the whole thing was over in 2 hours. We had dinner & watched the lightening carry on in the distance for an hour or so & then went to bed (after checking for scorpions, spraying, shaking & inspecting all bedding).
Monday morning was overcast again & we watched birds, had breakfast & lazed around reading & watching the world go by (it goes very slowly in the jungle) until 10:00 when there was a sudden & unBelizean scurry of activity & the car arrived with a canoe for us & to take our bags away. We got packed up & organised & into the canoe to paddle the 14km back to town. It was a pleasant paddle although we didn’t see much wildlife – a few toucans (who are quite entertaining to watch & very pretty) & other birds, iguans & butterflies. I’d seen a river otter the other day so the wildlife count wasn’t bad although we’d hoped to see monkeys & tapir. The river was quite populated & not as jungle like as I’d imagined. The sun came out so it got pretty hot & we stopped for a couple of swims to cool down. We also stopped for the rainforest medicine trail, which was something of a let down. It’s a self-guided trail with cards & the office was closed for siesta so we just walked it looking at plants which were labelled. Unfortunately there were no fruit or flowers & I didn’t think it was well set up. Still at least what we saw was free. We got back into San Ignacio at 3:30pm & collected our bags from David’s office & he phoned Elvira’s guesthouse to check for a room for us. The room was great. It had a flush toilet with a seat (although I still long for a toilet where the plumbing can handle toilet paper too), a shower (although no hot water – hot water is overrated in this climate), a ceiling fan & so a constant breeze, a clean floor with no sand & no fear of scorpions & no need for a mosquito net, & a comfy bed & a light.
It was pure heaven & I just lay in the bed & read a book while Steve went out to do a few chores. Then we both went for a stroll around the town, which was small & fairly uninteresting, used the internet cafe to deal with some more chores & let everyone know we survived the jungle, & got cornchips & beans & pineapple for our dinner. We had a relaxing evening eating dinner & enjoying our luxurious room & being able to read after dark (which is about 6.30 or 7pm!!).
We had a fairly slow start to Tuesday morning & was lovely to wake up not baking hot. We had pinwheels from the bakery & pineapple for breakfast. Once we were packed up we got a collectivo taxi to the border (26km which cost $B5). The last part of the ride was along the Mopan River which was gorgeous. Through the town of San Jose Carrera there were folk swimming & doing their washing & just generally congregating by the river – a really nice scene. We also passed the ruins of Xuantinnach which we could see up on the hill & is reached by a cute cable ferry across the river. The border crossing is lengthy & complex – 2 Belize checks & 2 Guatemala as well as exit charges & entry charges, but not at all problematic. We got ripped off on the Belize side by money changers but it was easier than worrying about trying to negotiate in Spanish across the border. We got 3.35 & should have got 3.45. We had a few issues with buses because we thought they were regular & the next one was 1pm (it was 10:30). We nearly paid $US10 for a minivan but at the last minute got rescued by a local minivan rather than the tourist one, which cost Q20 ($US3). It was going to Flores & dropped us at Ixlu, which is about 2km from El Remate, so we hiked. Fortunately it was not too too hot & we got escorted by a couple of kids to the place we wanted, which was a nice ‘hostal’. We had a bunk room to ourselves with a bathroom ( the slightly more primitive kind again). We spent the afternoon relaxing in hammocks & swinging chair on the deck, I had a siesta & Steve looked around the town a bit. We ventured out to Cahui restaurant (just across the road) for dinner. I had a big plate of vegetables which looked disappointing (it was called a vegetarian platter) but was great because I haven’t eaten vegetables in ages. Steve had big round corn chips, one each with beans, salsa & guacamole. Ordering food was quite difficult & most of the menu we didn’t have any idea about. It must be the first time we’ve been to a country without some prior research about local foods & specialities, & it’s apparently completely different to Mexico. Now we’ve turned into the sort of tourists that look for the English translation & I feel really bad for that. Guatemala is also not a place to come without speaking Spanish – its really embarrassing. Although the locals here are all extremely friendly & really want to help it seems a lot more difficult to get by without much Spanish.
El Remate is a wee town stretching along the road to Tikal & by the shore of lake Peten Itza (on which Flores city is further down). It is lined with traditional craft stalls, restaurants & accommodation, but in a very rustic low-key way. There is a recreation area beside the lake on which people, wild horses & all manner of domestic animals roam side by side. We met a nice Aussie guy at the restaurant who’s also in the hostal & swapped stories , persuaded him to go to Belize & gave him our book for the evening. We sat out on the deck in the hurricane lamplight & hoped it would cool down enough to sleep, then eventually went to bed anyway. It was pretty warm & the chickens here can’t tell time – they started crowing at 2am.
The shower turned out to have hot water after all but was one of the electrician’s nightmare variety we’d been hearing about. There’s a large collection of exposed wires wrapped around the showerhead & you have to reach up into them to adjust the temperature. A bit scary.
We got up at 5am on Wednesday & got the bus to Tikal. By 6:30 we were wondering around the ruins. Tikal is huge. The archeological zone is huge & is contained within a national park that is all jungle. So the wild animals are free to wander everywhere. There are lots of native species wandering about including jaguar – although we never saw any. We did see a big troop of ring tailed lemurs, several toucans pretty close up, some other amazingly coloured birds & tonnes of lorekeets, a family of spider monkeys feeding in the treetops with a really cute baby playing around, wild turkeys which have amazing colours & some pretty huge insects, including a colourful ant about an inch long! The trails between groups of buildings are all jungle & it’s pretty thick off the trails. It’s very easy to see how the temples got lost here – even more so than Uxmal. In fact it seems impossible that they were ever found! We came around one corner & saw men in camouflage with machine guns, which I found rather nerve wracking given it was the middle of the Guatemalan jungle & we were the only tourists for a mile or so. The ruins themselves were absolutely stunning. The temples were hugely tall & steep & we could climb most of them. We climbed all we could except temple V & some were definitely a bit nerve wracking. Temples II, IV & V had wooden scaffold staircases up them because the stone was too eroded, so our real climbing experience was the Great Pyramid. This, & most other buildings where you were climbing rock, the steps were about the height of my knee, so it was pretty hard going. Coming down was worse of course. The views from temple IV & The Great Pyramid was truly stunning. We were looking over miles & miles of dense jungle with these spectacularly tall temples sticking out above the canopy. Early in the morning from temple IV the mist was rising off the jungle & the sun struggling to come out in patches & it was awesome. We were really fortunate with the day because it stayed overcast for much of the morning with the sun just breaking through to light up photos rather than shine on us. So it was not as hot as we’d expected, which was just as well because as it was we drank over 3 litres of water each by 2pm. There was also a good amount of shade, being in the jungle, & a nice breeze at times. As it was it must have been nearly 90 (or 35 °C). We walked everywhere the site had to offer so got plenty of exercise. Structures that in the Yucatan we would have got really excited about & taken lots of photos of, here were just nameless minor groups & in context were not worth the photos. That in itself was pretty impressive. Because it’s much older than Chichen Itza or Uxmal & in deeper jungle it’s not as well preserved & most of the detail is gone from the temples. However the size & shape well & truly makes up for it. We went into the museum afterwards & looked at the artefacts they had found which were gorgeous. Some of the glyphs on the stellae were beautiful & very well preserved & there were also tiny bones decorated with intricate drawings & glyphs in red & lots of beautiful pottery & ceramics & incense burners of fabulous carving, Chac figures in all sizes & forms.
We got the bus back at 2pm & spent the afternoon in hammocks trying to escape the heat until we had a craving for beans & tortilla which the people at the hostel kindly made for us (since we couldn’t buy them in town anywhere). They were great & then they also ran us a ‘jacuzzi Maya’ – a concrete tub filled with cold water – totally redefined luxury again! We sat in our Jacuzzi under the stars with an orange juice watching another lightening storm till bed time.
Thursday morning was a slow start. I hadn’t slept well – having nightmares about getting lost in Guatemala on chicken buses & all sorts of other dreadful things to do with buses. Fortunately our involvement with buses for the day was uneventful. We got a collectivo into Santa Elena at 9am & found our way to Flores across the causeway. Flores is tiny & quite pretty. It has lots of brightly coloured buildings & was a very happy town – I’m sure in part because it’s now Easter holidays for everyone – except the people in tourist shops, hotels & restaurants of course. It’s probably similar to how Mont St Michel was hundreds of years ago with a small church on a little hill on a causewayed island & a supporting village around it – before the 2nd & 3rd & 4th layers got added and the hill higher & higher & more touristy. It was a very pleasant place to do some shopping & some of the handcrafts were gorgeous. We got some souvenirs for ourselves & some gifts for friends & felt we did an ok job of getting a good price for us while still being fair to the people that made them (or at least sold them). We were very happy with our purchases although spent more than we planned. We had a good look around the town at the same time & had a good lunch although a bit expensive. I had some vegetarian enchiladas & Steve had Mexican pork.
We met some Americans who have travelled lots of places without ever speaking or understanding anything other than English. They rely on peoples goodwill & unfortunately didn’t make me feel any better about my lack of Spanish – although that improved quite a bit today. We saw quite a lot of people in traditional costume, which was lovely. The collectivo back at 3:30 was packed – 21 people in a wee minivan – but quick & we were back at the hostel soaking in the ‘jacuzzi’ by 4pm. The rest of the day was spent in hammocks just chilling out. However the evening became a bit stressful when we discovered that not only would there be very few buses the next day but also they’d be packed because half of Guatemala wants to go to Belize for their Easter holiday. The people from the hostel shone through yet again & got us booked on the early tourist bus from Flores to Belize City & although it cost $US20 each at least we’d get there. That all got sorted by 10:30 & then we had to get some sleep before another 5am start.
Yoga seems to have gone by the wayside between lots of early starts and small rooms with no other space & biting insects. Another 5am start didn’t help. The bus finally arrived at 6:10 rather than 5:30 & was a Guatemalan style express bus. The word express does not give any indication as to the quality or standard of service, nor to the speed of the vehicle. It only refers to the fact that it doesn’t stop very often – except for military roadblocks, animals sitting in the middle of the road, speed bumps & its tyres falling off. The scenery as we left was beautiful in the early morning light & it had rained overnight so everything was looking quite clean and lush rather than dusty & bits of mist drifting in the vegetation – it looked very rainforesty. The border crossing was again long & complex but uneventful other than being charged the imaginary but customary undefined amount simply for being white & a tourist. That happened all the time in Guatemala especially on buses – there was the actual fare, the canny tourist fare & the gullible tourist fare. We got off the bus at Belize zoo & went in to try & get accommodation but they were not working. We ended up going down the road (3 miles) to Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. We tried to get a bus there but none came & we eventually got a lift for $B5 on the back of a pickup. The security guard at the zoo organised it for us & he & the girl at the zoo reception had been really helpful. Monkey Bay was very relaxing. There was a girl there (Nell) who we’d met briefly at Gales Point & we spent a lot of time chatting with her & Jacob the assistant manager. It was a pretty rustic place (back to long drops & scorpions – fortunately this time in someone else’s bed) but had a decent library so we spent the afternoon in hammocks in the shade relaxing & reading. We had arrived by midday & had lunch with them – which at $B12 was the most expensive rice & beans we’ve eaten. Apparently they usually have more but because the owners were away the staff were just having simple meals & unfortunately not able to charge us any less. We were glad we chose lunch because dinner was $B16 & just a bowl of lentil soup!! Jacob gave us a bowl each anyway because we’d been for a walk with him & Nell down to the river to look for wildlife at dusk & got back a bit late. There had been more gossiping than wildlife watching but we saw lots of birds & Jacob pointed out some interesting plants & there were frogs & some huge fireflies. We gossiped for ages over dinner, which was just beans & tostadas before it got supplemented. Then everyone else headed along the road to the pub & we went to bed.
Saturday morning was overcast & it rained a bit during breakfast. The night had been uneventful in terms of beasties aside from insect bites & again we’d slept in a bit. It’s a nice friendly atmosphere & a bit sad to leave but we aimed for the zoo again. This time we managed to phone & book but waited for ages for a bus. It became apparent why when the San Ignacio to Belize cycle race came by, which took up the whole road for a considerable distance with cycles & support vehicles. We were happily watching that when we noticed a bus in the middle of it & scrambled to catch it. It was cool following the race in the bus & we watched the stragglers go by when we got off 3 miles later. We spent a fair chunk of the day at the zoo (which was free for the day because we were doing a night tour). It’s a really good zoo with just species of animal found wild in Belize & all in really good habitats. We also got really close to the animals, which was great but a bit nerve wracking when I had my face 2 feet from a black jaguar’s face! All the animals were pretty active except the grey fox & a couple of nocturnal ones. The agouti we never saw in his cage either but there were several running round wild. We saw spider monkeys, 5 species of cats (jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi & marqay cat), toucans, macaws, river otters, harpy eagle, lots of pretty parrots, Jabairu stork & April the tapir, who is the national icon of Belize. The surroundings were lovely too & almost a botanical garden with forest areas, savannah & lots of beautiful plants. After we finished looking around we got collected & taken over to the Tropical Education Centre where we were staying for the night. We were delighted with our cabin, which was fully mosquito screened including a balcony with a hammock & chairs. It also had a fridge & microwave & was on stilts over a pond! It was fantastic for bird watching, and during the afternoon we saw lots of birds, lots of turtles, fish & a baby crocodile. The only thing on the chart that we hadn’t seen was the boa constrictor – uh oh! Unfortunately we had no food to cook (actually no food or money) so had to have dinner at the centre (which we could pay for later by credit card) but it was a good & filling dinner. We met Christine (a nurse from Seattle) & Bob (her dad) & they took us over to the zoo in their car after dinner. The night tour was cool but I think we’d been really lucky during the day that all the animals were active as they weren’t more active at night. The spider monkey & cats were all in cages in case there was a power cut & they got through their electric fences in the night. Necessary, but a shame. We got to stroke a spider monkey’s tail & also saw a few of the nocturnal species like anteaters & night walkers, who walk around the wire of their cages upside down! There was another big group with us who were a bit loud so we didn’t see as much as we could have, but it was still cool. I’m very glad we didn’t do it before we were camping in the jungle because the tour made it really apparent how little you could see the animals unless they were facing you & your torch was on them – or in many cases they came to the keepers call! The black jaguar at night was very very impressive. We had decided to stay another night because our cabin was so cool so we could unpack & settle a bit – although still slightly nervous of scorpions, so we kept our bags closed & shook our clothes & the sheets before getting into bed. This time the bed was empty.
We slept in a bit on Sunday morning, then walked the native trail, which was rather nice. It was a bit hot for wildlife spotting though, although it was only nearly 8am. Its also a shame that these places that are supposedly education centres don’t tell you that you need a guide card to follow their trails & otherwise it just says the name of a tree or “stop 12”. We’d even asked about the trails & got told it goes from there & it’s marked. Christine & Bob came by while we were having breakfast & offered us a lift to Belmopan as we needed to do a cash machine & grocery run. We waited for them to pack up & then went to the zoo for the saga of them trying to pay & decided ourselves to get enough cash so we didn’t have to walk to the zoo in the morning to pay by credit card. They dropped us at the bus station in Belmopan & we got some cash & groceries although almost everything was closed, so we were lucky there was a Chinese supermarket (which are always open). Belmopan itself was open & spacious & pleasant to walk around although deathly quiet other than the churches. The town was a bit of a mistake – they moved the Government there in 1990 after hurricane Hattie destroyed Belize city & assumed it would grow to 30,000, but no-one other than Government workers wanted to live there 7 so far it has only reached 7000 – which is why its open & spacious. We got a bus back again & settled in for an afternoon of heavy duty wildlife watching from our balcony. The turtles are so cute & easy to watch & we saw a tiny baby. We also discovered that the baby crocodile also meant a mother crocodile – who was about 6 foot long. There was another baby later who was only about 6 inches long & very cute. Also lots of birds including a beautiful bright and very tiny kingfisher & a couple of nests of flycatchers – they have nests like weaverbirds hanging down from a branch like a fruit. We had pasta & veges for our dinner & rather a lot of it, then checked on wildlife in the pond which had all gone to sleep, so we did likewise.
Monday (Easter Monday – apparently not such a big deal here) was really just a long travelling day – 13 1/2 hours. We left a 7am & hiked out to the main road to get a chicken bus, which pass every half hour. Just over an hour later one came by so we were a little behind schedule. However we got into Belize City, got a taxi to the Marine Terminal & still had to wait till 10:30 for the bus north. It was the same run as we got from Flores a couple of days ago but a much better & faster bus, & after a very easy border crossing got into Chetumal at 1:45 (although it was actually 2:45 because the time had changed in Mexico). Then we got on a first class bus to Playa del Carmen at 3:30 & decided that was going to be the wrong decision because we’d arrive in the dark in a strange town with no-where to stay in the high season, having already been told the hostel was full. We met a nice Dutch American on the bus called Robert & made a plan together with him. However we arrived & decided it was perfectly safe to walk & headed for the hostel anyway. We checked out a few places on the way just in case & there were plenty of vacancies. The hostel had a room for $US35 but only for 1 night & with a shared bath, so we took our chances elsewhere & got a nice room in a great location with private bath for $40 (a very good price for Playa). Its actually a very comfortable town – very touristy & lots of English spoken. The streets were bustling with restaurants & tourist shops & it was all brightly lit & with tourist police around it was a place I’d feel safe on my own at night. So it turned out to be the right decision after all because it meant we’d get to relax on the beach tomorrow rather than travel for 6 hours on a chicken bus. We had dinner in a nice wee restaurant with Robert, which was run by a Dutch guy who moved here in hurricane season & delayed the purchase of the restaurant by several days waiting to see if it was hit by the oncoming hurricane. Steve had calamari & I had tofu fajitas 7 both were good. Then we went back to the hotel & slept - I think we should have been out on the town instead but that’s not my scene at the best of times never mind after 13 hours travelling. The room was nice & cool & quiet.
We had a good sleep & slept in Tuesday morning, then had a glorious day doing nothing with no stress except where to eat dinner. We started with a walk along the beach, which is lovely but very built up. It got nicer the further north we went & after all the really posh resorts the beach got quiet & calm. We went back to the hotel & got our swimming things & went back to the far end of the beach. We sunbathed for a while, then had a swim & sunbathed again. The water was lovely – a little too warm to be refreshing but very pleasant and at least cooler than the sun. Although we’d got back from our initial walk by 9:30 (unadjusted time) which should have been fine, we’d both got a bit burnt. The sunbathing time, with lots of sunblock on, added about the right amount of colour to tan the bits of us that hadn’t been exposed during our first walk, but my shoulders, chest and upper back developed an internal heating system. We had a siesta between 12 & 4:30 to stay out of the heat then looked around the shops. We saw some of the things we’d bought in Guatemala for 3-4 times the price & lots of other overpriced stuff. We just strolled around looking at restaurants until a reasonable time to eat. We did make one great discovery, which was a Maya chocolate shop. They had drinking chocolate powder, chocolate bars, hot chocolate & cacao beans. They let us try the cacao beans & their (hot) chocolate Maya, which is made with chilli powder, vanilla & orange essence & was the most amazing chocolate we’ve ever tasted. We bought powder, beans & a small bar for our dessert. For dinner we had stuff from a specials menu, which was cheap & had a free drink (I had a mango daiquiri & Steve had a caipirinha, which is crushed fresh limes with sugar & Bacardi & soda). I had fish fillets with mashed potato & veges & Steve had spinach & cheese quesadillas with guacemole & beans. Every component of both was great & we were very pleased. When we got back to the hotel & had our chocolate for dessert we decided to go back for more in the morning. We’d already decided to have a chocolate Maya to drink after breakfast anyway because it was so great bit it looked like becoming an expensive stop. However the guy had been great about giving us tastes & telling us about how to use the stuff. It was a bit warmer overnight (especially with internal heating).
Wednesday morning was another slow start. We didn’t have to leave for the bus till 11:30 so went for a walk on the beach & a wee rest in the sun & a swim in lovely warm water again, but much more waves. Then we went for hot chocolate Maya, which was still fabulous. Back at the hotel we got packed up & walked the short distance to the airport bus stop, but we were dripping by the time we got there. Fortunately the rest of the day was (at least partially) air-conditioned. The bus to the airport took an hour, then we thought there was a problem with our flight, but fortunately it was just a trainee on his first day & had to keep going off to check things out. The flight from Cancun to Mexico City was 2 hours, then Mexico City to LA 3 1/2 hours. Mexico City is the biggest city on earth & certainly looked it from above & consequently I have no desire to go there.