We like it already! Just 10 miles across the border from Guatemala is the quiet little town of San Ignacio and at about 50 miles from the coast it has a remarkable laid-back Caribbean feel. Better than that – they all speak English! As we quite liked this town and its pedestrianised main street (yes, a little place with only a few dozen streets has the sense to pedestrianise one of them), we ended up staying longer than planned. Oh, and the food is really good here.
First job was to write up the Guatemala episode and sort out what tours we’d do. And, after two weeks on an organised tour, figure out where we were going to go in Belize. Belize is sparsely populated and the attractions are spread out, so we decided to use this as a base to see several of the sites in the area.
Our first outing is to the remote Mayan ruins of Caracol (Spanish for snail). The journey takes two and a half hours along a bumpy dirt road so we broke up the drives with stops to see the Rio Frio Cave on the way there and for a swim at the Rio On Pools on the way back.
Photos at: https://pbase.com/mr2c280/belize_rio_frio
Caracol was once the largest and most important city in the Mayan world. However, the remoteness of this site ensures there are no big crowds, like in Tikal. At its peak, Caracol may have stretched over 70 square miles with 40 miles of internal causeways. The tallest structure is Canna (Sky Place) and at 141 feet is still the tallest building in Belize! With an estimated population of 150,000 it was more than twice that of Belize City today.
Somehow all these monuments beg to be climbed and we can’t resist. Near the top of Canna we find another small plaza with temples and royal accommodation. At the top we’re above the forest canopy looking out over the jungle at Guatemala in the distance. Back on the ground, like all the Mayan sites we’ve visited, there’s a ball court (or three) and a variety of temples and residential buildings. Unlike other sites, the Temple of the Wooden Lintel still has an original wooden lintel over a doorway – the wood is more than 1000 years old.
Photos at: https://pbase.com/mr2c280/belize_caracol
Actun Tunichil Muknal
This, alone, is reason enough to come to Belize! This fabulous tour took us half a mile into the 3 mile long cave, across rivers, over boulders, through narrow squeezes and up to an ancient Mayan ceremonial and burial site.
Our adventure begins with the requisite bumpy drive on a dirt road. From the entrance there’s a 45 minute hike through the lush jungle, which immediately begins with a river crossing (walk for Peter, swim for Jackie) follow by two more (shallower) river crossings. At the cave entrance we gear up with helmets and lights but no cameras! Some clumsy tourists managed to smash ancient artefacts and human skulls so everything is now banned from the cave.
We begin with a short swim (Peter too) then follow the river upstream, sometimes ankle deep, sometimes chest deep. There are narrow squeezes, one called ‘the decapitation’, where there’s just room for your head in a gap above and your body below and a narrow bit for your neck. Along the way there are lots of pretty cave formations like the crystals that sparkle in the torchlight and massive caverns with stalactites and stalagmites. There are even plants that grow here in the darkness. Bat’s drop the seeds which germinate, then the tiny plants grow, stretching upwards, searching for sunlight that they’ll never find. They last about 3 weeks.
After about two hours of climbing up and down and walking through water we climb a big boulder to reach the ‘dry’ area and the cave’s main chamber. From here we have to remove our shoes and walk in our socks. This is to protect the delicate surface. We’re also instructed to only walk on the high ridges around the dried ‘pools’. This is because there are skeletons and artefacts buried under the thin crust of limestone. Archaeologists may uncover these at some point but, for the time being, we need to be careful not to disturb them.
The Mayans used this area, that is normally dry (but occasionally flooded), to practice ceremonies and sacrifices. There’s lots of very well made pottery here, all broken, because after the ritual they were smashed so the bad spirits couldn’t use them to undo the spells. There are also human remains from sacrifices -- generally believed to be willing sacrifices, as many show the skull deformations of the high born classes.
We had a fabulous guide, Hugh, who gave us far more information than we could possibly write here. Great trip!!!
Stock photos at: https://pbase.com/mr2c280/belize_atm
We catch a local bus heading towards the Guatemalan border and get off a few miles short to take the hand cranked ferry across the Rio Mopan and walk a mile or so to the Mayan site (spotting howler monkeys along the way). This site is renowned for its friezes. Of course, there’s the requisite climb up El Castillo for the fabulous views over the jungle.
Photos at: https://pbase.com/mr2c280/belize_xunantunich
Back in San Ignacio we spend some time at the Green Iguana Conservation Project, learning about the life cycle of iguanas (and letting them climb on us). This program collects and hatches iguanas’ eggs, raising them until they are old enough to be released into the wild.
Photos at: https://pbase.com/mr2c280/belize_san_ignacio
There are expensive shuttle buses available but, as it’s only 70 miles, we opt for the local chicken bus to Belize City ($3 vs. $50). The guidebook warns of the dangers around the bus station, so we take a taxi the short distance to the ferry port, arriving just in time to join the end of the queue boarding (and squeeze into) the water taxi. It’s a challenge, reading reviews online, to figure out which is the best hotel in our budget so we had booked just one night and used the afternoon of our arrival to check out some hotels (and bargain for discounts). We did find a nice suite with a kitchenette and settle in for a few days of beach relaxing.
But we can’t just relax – one day we spent a whole day on a snorkelling trip that included eight sites. First was feeding the baby tarpons. You hold a sardine a foot above the water and these huge fish leap out and snatch them from your hand. This area, near the mangroves, is a natural breeding place where, for decades, fishermen have cleaned their fish and the tarpon have thrived. Next was a hotel’s dock where they’ve set out some rope netting that acts as a sea horse sanctuary.
From there it’s a half an hour boat ride to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. We regret we didn’t bring a waterproof camera on this trip, so only have photos at the ‘dry’ sites. The first snorkelling stop is the conch graveyard. For decades, a conch fisherman has been using this area of calm water to pull conchs from their shells and have been dropping the shells here. In fact, one fisherman has been doing it since before this was declared a marine reserve (1987), so he is still allowed to use it. The result is an artificial reef made entirely of thousands of conch shells, which is a nursery for tiny fish.
Next stop, the channel. Wow, five eagle rays ‘flying’ in formation, loggerhead turtles, a shark, stingrays, a moray eel, schools of fish and lots of different hard and soft corals. Our guide points out an underwater arch about twenty feet down that makes for a challenging snorkelling swim-through (that, other than the guide, only Peter can manage – showing up the young bucks, ha! :-) ).
From there, it was on to Shark Ray Alley, where the guide feed the sharks. Swimming surrounded by dozens of sharks in a feeding frenzy is a bit unnerving but these are harmless nurse sharks and only eat the fish thrown to them. As the name suggests, there were also southern stingrays swimming along the bottom, hoping some bits of food would make it down to them.
Next was the shipwreck, well actually just an old barge that sank here a few years back. There are some fish and coral but it’ll take another couple of decades to become a real living reef. Finally it was the Coral Gardens, not particularly interesting compared to the previous stops but, just as we were about to get back into the boat a massive stingray swims up to say hi.
It was a tiring day for us OAPs, so we’ll need a few days of hanging out by the beach and drinking beer to recover and that’s mostly what we did.
We’re tempted to stay on this pretty little island but we’re suppose to be travelling, so it’s back to the ferry and on to another local bus to take us to Orange Walk Town, on the way towards the Mexican border. But, before we do, one last adventure – a flight over the Great Blue Hole. The Blue Hole is undoubtedly Belize’s most famous landmark (or is that ‘watermark’). A 1000 foot diameter, perfectly round, 430 foot deep sinkhole in the barrier reef has to be seen to be believed. On the way, flying over the second largest barrier reef in the world, we see tiny mangrove islands, air strips, a wrecked freighter and the incredible azure blues and greens of the Caribbean Sea. Just four of us in a light aircraft is definitely the way to see this – the photos don’t do it justice.
Photos at: https://pbase.com/mr2c280/belize_caye_caulker
Lamanai and New River
You are probably Maya ruined out by now (sorry, but there’ll be more in Mexico) but there’s one more in Belize that we travel to. Rather than the usual bumpy dirt road, from the town of Orange Walk we take a boat ride up New River (don’t know what makes it ‘new’) to Lamanai. The river journey is half the fun, as we’re introduced to snake cactus living on tree branches, snail kite and the egg clutches of the apple snail that the kite feeds on, and lots of birds who names (sorry) we don’t remember. We also pass Shipyard, a Mennonite community. Despite eschewing technology, the industrious Mennonites produce most of the country’s dairy, eggs and poultry.
After a couple of hours we arrive at Lamanai (in Maya this means submerged crocodile). This site was still in use when the rest of the Central Lowland Maya civilisation disintegrated. In fact, there was still a Mayan community living here when the Spanish arrived in 1544. It’s probably the reliable water supply that New River Lagoon provided that made it possible for them to hang on here, where elsewhere the Maya declined (due to drought, deforestation, etc.). The highlights here include the Jaguar Temple, the Mask Temple, Stela 9 and the High Temple which, of course, we climb.
Photos at: https://pbase.com/mr2c280/belize_lamanai
As we leave Orange Walk Town we pass the cane fields and trucks carrying huge loads of sugar cane to the processing factory. Much of the local sugar is used by the local rum distillery.
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