After saying goodbye to Lou, we drove south back to the coast, in a rented Suzuki Sidekick that seemed about to fall to pieces. There was a crack in the windshield that started at two inches long, that spanned the car by the time we were done. I thought I would die at any moment in a hail of glass. Stopped in Dangriga, and had an excellent meal at King Burger. Tried to see the Garifuna museum, to learn more about the unique freed slave culture, but it was closed. Hours here are seemingly at the whim of the proprietor. Spent the night in Hopkins at a place on the beach, and tried to hear local drumming, but it was preempted by a speech by Bush. Everyone at the local bar enjoyed jeering our President, and we surprised them by being reasonable Americans.
Left Hopkins and drove to Placencia on 30 miles of unpaved mud, ruts and potholes. Still, that doesn’t stop the developers from building monstrosities for rich Americans. The town itself is smaller than Caye Caulker, but has a similar feel. Spent three days lounging in our hammocks at Saks Beach House, churning through book after book. Went to the Purple Space Monkey (silly name, decent food) to trade in my trashy scifi for John Le Carré spy novels. Nothing like reading about the Cold War on the beach, sipping Belikin beer.
After Placencia, drove inland again to Jaguar Paw, for one last dose of jungle. Did a cave tubing trip, which was less adventurous than ATM, but still lots of fun. Got to see a wonderful butterfly farm, and learned more about lepidopteran breeding than I ever needed to. Also took a zipline in the canopy, which seemed sort of hokey, but was actually a blast. Not an educational experience persay, but lots of fun to fly through the trees.
After seeing ruins at Caracol and Xunantunich, I thought I was ruined out. How wrong I was… Tikal surpasses both for sheer scale, and the sense of an ancient city lost in the jungle. The site was used as a standin for Yavin 4 in Star Wars: A New Hope. Looking off the top of one temple, you could just imagine spacecraft landing for a rebel award ceremony. Saw Howler and Spider monkeys playing in the trees, and nearly tame coatimundis.
After lunch, bought a hammock. It will be perfect for lounging around in my future Cambridge digs. Got to Flores in the afternoon, and settled into a whole new rythym. Guatemala is much more Central American, not just because of the Spanish, but more hectic, less efficient, and clearly poorer. Catholicism and Spanish colonialism can do that to a country. Despite men with guns on seemingly every street corner, the people are very lively. Saw parades and vibraphone practices, with firecrackers bursting late into the night, with no discernable reason why. Surely it was some Saint’s Day.
At sunset, watched a community basketball game. For small men, they were impressive players, and certainly quick enough to make it a fun game. Had dinner at La Luna, apparently an expat hangout, with a classy bar scene.
Today we explored Actun Tunichil Muknal, the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher, a slightly more adventurous cave than Che Chem Ha.
An easy hike in, with several mellow stream crossings. The initial swim was easy, but it was over a mile in to the remains. Swimming and walking through chest deep pools of cool water, it was easy to imagine Maya priests carrying flickering torches, high on hallucinogens, going to meet the gods. Hard enough to get there with a headlamp, helmet and sneakers, let alone 1500 years ago. Saw huge limestone caverns, pottery shards, and the remains of human sacrifice. I was humming the Indiana Jones theme all day. The actual spelunking was not easy, we were wet all day, and often clinging to the side of the river. It might have been easier to just swim, until I hit my leg on a submerged rock, and resolved to be more careful. In one particularly tight spot, Janet tried to stand a little too early, and hit her head on the ceiling hard enough to crack the helmet. Better the plastic than her skull.
Returned to the lodge as tired as I’ve ever been, set to wake up at 5 for Tikal. I love vacation.
Our guide, Luis Godoy, is the best I’ve ever seen. With no formal education, but a life spent on archaeological digs, he is a wealth of information and stories, and is able to spin a yarn to make the ancient sites come alive.
Che Chem Ha is the greatest collection of original Maya pottery in the world, and we toured it with the discoverer, William Pleytez Morales. Actually, his dog should recieve some credit; he found it by chasing a rodent into what appeared to be a solid rock wall. Uncovering the mouth of the cave, he explored it on his own, to the disapproval of his father. However, he did not disturb the offerings of his ancestors, and today pays them tribute by spreading the knowledge of their achievements.
We had an exceptional lunch at the Morales farm, the traditional rice, beans and the tenderest stewed chicken of the trip. Their house overlooks a tall waterfall, towering several hundred feet over the jungle floor. Because their land abuts a nature preserve, there have been jaguar sightings in the area. We asked Luis what would happen if we saw this majestic cat on the trail, and he told us we would “die with honor.”
Later, stopped at Xunantunich for more ruins. Amazing what these people were creating out of stone when Europeans were living in sod huts. Their temples survived the ravages of two millenia, and stand today submerged in the jungle. It’s like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, only without the dinosaurs.
Edit July 20, 2009:
An article in the New York Times travel section covered the caves of Belize, saying that “Unless you’re an archaeologist, you’re never going to see sites like this.” Glad I saw it before it hit the big time.
Last day on the island, but what a day it was… Woke at 5:30, having slept terribly; checking every hour to make sure my alarm was still set properly. Got to dive shop at 6, on the water by 6:15. A little queasy on the ride out, but that was probably an artifact of my hurried breakfast as much as the choppy water. Saw several flying fish, popping out of the waves and skimming for as much as forty feet. Some even managed to turn in midair, aided only by their flippers. For future reference, Dana does a great flyish fish impression.
Got to the Blue Hole at 8, and the dive master reassured everyone that it would be an easy dive.
Although the depth was greater than any I’d ever experienced before, he was right. Quick descent to 80 feet, to the drop off, and then down to 130. There was a significant thermocline at 100, and I was glad to have a full length wetsuit. Saw clear down to bottom at 400 feet, Caribbean Reef sharks circling in the center of the caldera, and Dr. Seussian stalagtites. Had to ascend after only 8 minutes at depth, which was kind of disappointing, but necessary to avoid too much nitrogen. I didn’t feel any narcosis, much to my dismay. While the total time was short, the sheer magnitude of the thing made up for it.
Lunch at Half Moon Caye, which alone was worth the price of the trip. This small island bird reserve felt like a tropical paradise. Saw the rare red-footed booby, iguana, coconut groves, and hermit crabs. Felt like Gilligan and the crew could have been just behind any palm tree.
The last dive, dubbed the Aquarium, was the best. Crystal clear water, filled with fish swarming around, but never allowing themselves to be touched. Saw a pair of turtles, an eel out of his crevice, parrot fish, and grouper. Eric was snorkeling above, and he free-dove down 20 feet to meet me during my decompression stop. I offered him some air, but he demurred. Smart, for a man who owns Scuba Diving for Dummies.