Blissful Belize and Magical Mexico

Trip Start Mar 09, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Monday, October 29, 2007

So, if someone had asked me a few weeks ago what I knew about Belize my answer would have been necessarily very short. Unluckily for you, I've now been there and am about to tell you in great detail what I've found out...but it's mostly good.

Our colectivo ride from Guatemala into Belize was uneventful and very chatty and we picked up a few trips from fellow travellers. I love the fact that this flow of information (or one-up-manship!)can now work in both directions. We've got a few miles on the clock in more ways than one now. We were first off in San Ignacio as most of the others were heading for the coast and the cayes. We quickly found accommodation and a tour company and the following day Dave headed off for Caracol, a major Mayan site while I opted for the, much hyped by our friends in the bus, ATM tour.

There was a little bit of doubt as to whether or not his tour could go as we'd had a huge amount of rain and the rivers were swollen. Apparently the access road travelled over a low bridge and there were concerns this might be unsafe. However, a call was made to assess the water level and off he went with a very chatty American girl called Annie and a driver and guide to explore the site.

Dave enjoyed his tour. The highlight, apart from the site itself, was the armed guard given to his minivan and several other tour vans into the park. He was told it was to do with Guatemalan raiders who came in search of particular plants from which a certain dye is extracted. Guatemal and Belize are not best chums. He was also fascinated by a football match they passed by. The teams were both female but had drawn a sizeable crowd of around 100 spectators and many of the players were barefoot. (Look, he told me to tell you all this,OK?)

Now, my ATM tour. How many, hands up, thought I was doing the rounds of the Automated Teller Actually the initials stand for Actun Tunichil Muknal which translates as Cave of the Stone Sepulchre. The cave is a registered archaeological site and only accessible with specially trained guides. It was rediscovered in 1986 and contained the remains of 14 people. The Maya saw caves as the entrance to the underworld and therefore sacred places. No-one was buried but instead laid in or near shallow pools in natural travertine terraces. Also found were 150 ceramic vessels and various other Mayan artefacts.

Eight intrepid adventurers with said specially trained guide set off in the van to the drop-off point on the edge of the jungle. From there we hiked for around an hour, fording the river on no less than 3 separate occassions. Now, as I've indicated, this is the rainy season and well, it's been raining. The river, normally a gentle, swirly, crystal-clear, knee-high crossing had become a raging, chest-high torrent concealing slippery boulders in it's murky depths. The others (not a one over 30!) watched from the far bank as the specially trained guide, holding his machette aloft, recrossed the river to help the silly old bat stuck in the middle. That first crossing turned out to be the easiest but with a little help from my friends we all ended up at the mouth of the cave.

More excitement followed as we waded and swam through fast flowing water of various depths, clambered over and round rocks, and scrambled onto ledges. All with the aid of a hard hat with head torch attached. It was great fun but my heart was in my mouth a few times. The guidebook says the most breathtaking sight in the main chamber is the skeleton of a young woman lying below a rock wall with the axe used to kill her lying nearby. I have to quote the guidebook because about a third of the way in, well before we'd reached the chamber, our specially trained and sensible guide forged ahead a bit and found the way unsafe. After all that we had to turn round and clamber, swim, slide and trek back! We were offered a free return trip the next day and I did book to go on it but when I woke in the morning the thought of it was just too exhausting so I wimped out and we travelled to Placencia instead.

This was another recommendation and one I'd like to pass on to anyone likely to be visiting Belize. Go to Placencia and stay at Colibri House, the best value, best furnished and equipped little apartment there is. And the views!! We went for 2 nights and stayed for 5...just chillin'. We relished cooking some of our own food in the wee kitchen too. The fish here is fantastic. We both enjoyed Conch and Snook and I had wonderful Snapper.

Talking of fish, the most energetic I got was a 2 tank dive one day off Laughing Bird Caye. I enjoyed it mostly and it was wonderful to see a large Hawksbill Turtle, but I wasn't overly confident the Divemaster from "Splash", Prince, cared too much about safety checks and safety stops so it took some of the pleasure away. Maybe as a novice I'm just over-cautious but I think I'll stay that way!

Dave and I had talked the night before about how lovely it would be to own a plot of land on the coast here. He was particularly enthusiastic. I promise that locking Dave inside the house when I left for my day out was not a deliberate, conscious act... but I can't vouch for my subconscious. Stefano, the lovely Italian owner, let him out after a couple of hours so no harm done!

3 Chicken buses later (why always 3?)we arrived in Orange Walk, a weird kind of place but from where, the following day, we could visit Lamanai, a Mayan site built above the banks of the New River. On our boat ride to the site we passed a Mennonite settlement. We'd seen some of the families the previous evening in the Chinese restaurant we ate in. Maw, Paw and 5 or 6 look-alike blond kids stepped in regular 18 month age gaps. The women and girls were spookily reserved in their long cotton floral frocks (Exactly Little House on the Prairie)and the men and boys looked other-worldly in their denim dungarees and checked shirts (various sizes of shirt but same check and colour for siblings.

Lamanai was interesting but the tour was too short. We actually prefer visiting independently but sometimes its more economical to take a tour as in this case. Again our Dave climbed 111ft of pre-Classic temple while I watched and waved from the shade of an old tree. Perhaps the most interesting fact about Lamanai is that it was settled from as early as 1500BC with the first stone buildings appearing 800-600BC and only with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores did the city cease to function. Our guide told us that Mayan people lived in Lamanai right up until it was declared an archaeological site (in the 1960s I think) when they were relocated to Indian Village.

Quick turn-around after the tour and another chicken bus over the border to Mexico. Farewell fascinating, beautiful and challenging Belize, hello modern but still magical Mexico with a touch of spice. We loved Belize and it's one of the places we'd like to return to. It does have its problems of course and crack cocaine seems to be quite a large one...not to be sniffed at you might say. There's so much more we'd liked to have seen of the countryside, the wildlife, the ruins, the caves and the Garifuna culture not to mention Glover's Reef which is said to have some of the best diving in the world. Next time!

We didn't stop long in Chutamel, Mexico, just long enough to catch an overnight bus to Merida. An Executivo not another chicken bus! As we hadn't booked a hotel we took a chance on one on a flyer at the bus station. Mistake. We caught up on a few hours sleep (in our liners) before finding another cleaner place right in the historic centre. Loved Merida with it's wonderful architecture, friendly locals and balmy heat.

We visited the Mayan sites of Chichen Itza and Uxmal from Merida and enjoyed both hugely. We should have done our own thing in Chichen Itza but a wee lazy streak had us booking an organised tour with the same people who were taking us to the less accessible Uxmal. Again, the tour was too short as Chichen is a vast expanse but I think we saw most of the major structures and we're still finding the pyramids, temples and stone carvings jaw-dropping. In Uxmal we decided to ring the changes a bit and visited in the afternoon so that we could enjoy a "Sound and Light" show in the evening. The lighting was quite atmospheric but the whole thing fell well short of fabulous. We had english translations of the dialogue through our headphones, or should I say, U.S. translations that had me giggling a few times. The chanting for "Chaac", the rain god, had the whole crowd tittering.

We flew to Mexico City (too many chicken buses) and have a really great hotel here, the Posada Viena. We're spending 5 nights before heading off to Tokyo on Tuesday very early morning. So far we've taken the city tour; visited the Anthropological Museum (vast...but a must); Teotihuacan (an Aztec site); the museo Frida Kahlo which is in the house she shared with Diego Rivera (I saw the bed Trotski slept in when exiled in Mexico); and the Bella Artes Palacio which houses a fabulous Art Decco interior within a classic Baroque exterior. We also walked in the park in Coyoacan and climbed a few pyramids.

Tomorrow we meet up with Sergio our lovely Mexican friend who tried to teach us Spanish in Glasgow. We also need to find a laundry as we're down to our last pair of knickers!

"Adios" for the last time, Japanese next blog!

Love to you all
Dave and Joyce.
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