30 June 2015


Iain & I cooling ourselves off with handmade palm fans at
Marcos Gonzalez Maya Site on Ambergris Caye
How did it take me so long to explore mainland Belize? Oh I know…I got sucked into the “laid back, island time” atmosphere & had a hard time extricating myself from the island of Ambergris Caye during my 3 month stay in San Pedro, Belize last fall. It is indeed tough to leave; I returned to the island this year in early May to pet sit for a month, and almost, *almost*, extended my stay there again. 

The relaxation all starts when you arrive on the island via a Belizean domestic airline puddle jumper flight from the 70s: there is zero, ZERO, luggage screening. Just drop your bag here & get on board, keep your shoes…um flip flops…on & bring all the liquids you want. No body zapper to walk through either, just help yourself to the complimentary coffee & tea. YAY!! 

My “month on the island” highlights: 

*Caught up with island friends as well as friend Iain who came in from the US for a couple of weeks, also to pet sit!

*Did lots of cat cuddling & dog walking (both for my "charges" as well as volunteering again at the shelter)

*Helped out at a new (for me) school in San Pedro, which is now also a Pack for a Purpose partner with the condos I work with on the island (more info here; definitely check out Pack for a Purpose  next time you’re traveling to a developing country!)
The Great Blue Hole

*Took a gorgeous aerial tour out over the Belize Barrier Reef to see the Great Blue Hole, which is basically a cenote (limestone sinkhole) such as the ones we’d seen in the Yucatan mentioned in my previous post, but this one is in the sea. It’s 980 feet (300 m) across & 400 feet (120 m) deep, in the middle of a shallow section of the Belizean Great Barrier Reef system, so you really see the color contrast of the deep hole with the shallow reef; it’s a popular scuba destination made famous by Jacques Cousteau in the 70s.

FINALLY, I boated over to Terra Firma in early June to explore more of the country. I’m so glad I did — it’s unBelizeable :) !! Belize is ~185 miles (300 km) long & ~75 miles (120 km) wide, about the size of the US state of Massachusetts. But it’s much less densely populated, with a population of only about 311,000 (vs ~6.7 million in Massachusetts). Think of all that leaves room for: jungle, caves, nature reserves, mountains, Maya ruins, WILDLIFE (jaguars people, jaguars!)....!! However, while the country is relatively small, there are really only four main paved highways & the going is not necessarily speedy. But it’s always interesting!

Hanging with a jaguar at the Cockscomb sanctuary
(Click here for a map noting the four main highways as well as locations mentioned in this post.)

I’ve done most of my travel on the long distance buses, which are retired US school buses painted a variety of colors. Under-bus & overhead luggage racks have been added, although my backpack normally gets shoved behind the last seat of the bus (you know, where the kids who smoked sat). Remember also doing emergency escape drills out the back door of the school bus? That’s now an unofficial passenger rear entry/exit. And those seats that are made with two kids in mind? If the bus is crowded, and we’re near a police checkpoint, sometimes three adults need to squeeze on to those seats or you need to crouch in the aisle so the police don’t see that the bus is overcrowded. Yep, fools them every time.

Another great aspect of local travel is discovering new (to me) transport methods, such as the hand-cranked ferry! I’ve been on three so far as a means to cross a river, twice in a bus & once on foot. Men literally turn a crank all day long to get the ferry moving along a cable which is strung from riverbank to riverbank. (These go along with the hand-cranked Swing Bridge in Belize City, which is manually opened & closed, now only for special occasions. Very few left in the world!) 

Which tortilla was made by the gringa?
Mainland highlights have been:

*Learning more about the Maya, both past & present. In southern Belize especially there are a lot of Maya communities. In one I visited a “Living Maya” home with displays of how the Maya lived, many until just a few decades ago, such as sleeping on beds made of bark, using gourds as water bottles, speaking only their native language (Kek’chi or Mopan in Belize), etc. As part of the visit you help make the lunch that is to be served; needless to say my tortillas did not come out looking anything like the round, flat pancake-like bread it was supposed to be!! (And a couple of local 6 year olds out right laughed at my final products!! :)

*Realizing all the wildlife that’s roaming the country! I visited the Belize Zoo, “the best little zoo in the world”, which houses only native rescue animals. It has toucans, deer, monkeys, crocs, tapir, gibnuts, macaws, jaguars, and more. I spent a day in the world’s first jaguar sanctuary (but of course saw no jaguars, nor expected to—they’re nocturnal & normally steer clear of humans when they can), hiking, “river sliding”, & learning about jungle plants & creatures. (Did you see Mel Gibson’s “Apacolypto” movie? The scene where the woman uses an ant’s jaws as sutures for a cut? Real, & we saw those mighty pincers in action!) Heard the roar of the howler monkeys & saw them literally hanging around as I wandered places.
About to kayak through caves!!!

*There is an amazing number of caves here! These caves are all pretty much now archeological sites as there are numerous Maya artifacts (bones, stone tools, pottery) found in them. For the Maya, the caves were Xibalba: entrances to the underworld & home of some gods. They were used a lot for ceremonial purposes. I did three different guided day trips through caves and would love to do more. 

—First was a kayaking trip through the Nohoch Chen Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve through the dark, with rapids, stalactites, etc. 

One of the waterfalls I rock climbed up
(& then on the return, jumped off!)
—Next was hiking up a river, in a cave, with 6 waterfalls. I had always been a bit wary of rock climbing & had never tried it, but it was baptism by fire here in this adventure! At least we would only be rock climbing on the way up; on the way back down we JUMPED from the top of the falls in to the pools below. (This would never fly in the States—are we too coddled?)

—And finally I toured Actun Tunichil Muknal, popularly known as the ATM cave. This involves swimming, walking through water, squeezing through narrow spaces, a bit of rock climbing, and the like. At the end you are in a huge cavern used by the Maya for human sacrifice, blood letting, & other ceremonies. It was truly awe-inspiring to think what had happened in that cave—especially as you actually see the bones of sacrifice victims, including a complete skeleton. (If interested, there’s a great detailed write up here with photos of one person’s experience on this tour.) 

And lest you think I'm not working -- of course I am! As a result of this trip I'm also able to advise & book folks for accommodations & tours in the jungle in addition to island accommodations. Let me know when you want to come to Belize!

Tomorrow — on to Guatemala!

A farewell view of Belize from the top of El Castillo, Xunantunich 
Maya site near the border with Guatemala

1 comment:

Unknown said...

So glad you are seeing all these places. You and San Pedro Scoop are such a great source for the entire country.
Keep posting pics!