Monday, July 1, 2013

Ruins and caves

Hey, so, now that I'm in Guatemala it probably wouldn't be such a bad idea to tell about my last few days in Belize, huh?

When I last left off, I had crossed the country to San Ignacio where I had a couchsurfing host lined up, courtesy of my last host in San Pedro. I didn't know it at the time, but my new host Marcus actually runs a little place called Parrot Nest Lodge. It's about three miles outside of town and guests there have their choice of a treehouse or a cabana. Since I was surfing, I stayed in the main house. But here, take a look at Parrot Nest:
(Common area near the outdoor dining area. You can't see it too well, but there's a treehouse just beyond.)
(One of the cute cabins)
Pretty great, right? Breakfast was made to order in the morning and there was a group meal in the evening. A lot of the guests were doing "activities" every day - riving tubing, horseback riding, ruins exploration. All of these were guided tours and you probably know I'm not much of a guided tour kind of gal. Plus, they were pretty pricey which is fine when you're going all out for a week long vacation, a bit harder to swallow when you're budgeting for three months. In any case, I had some things I wanted to do on my own anyway.

On Friday I took a colectivo (shared taxi) into town to the visitor's center to find out how to get to Cahal Pech, a Maya site discovered in the 1950s, but formerly in use as far back as 1200 BCE. I'd heard that it was only a 20 minute walk from town, so once I got directions I set out. It was only 20 minutes, but damn - that was an UPHILL walk in hot, humid temps!

There was a small, but informative museum as you entered that helped you get acquainted with the grounds and background history. But then it was on to the main event - my first (I believe) Mayan ruins!
(Pretty much the first thing you see from the main plaza)
Probably the most interesting thing about Cahal Pech is that excavation is still happening today, some 60+ years after it began. At one point I just sat and listened to the grad students doing their excavation thang. Seeing the ruins was pretty exciting, although it wasn't nearly on the same scale as the Great Pyramids or Angkor Wat. When I see Tikal tomorrow, I think that will change.

(You get a whole other view from up above)
On Saturday I went into town with Marcus and his friend Carl for the weekly Saturday market. I'd heard that everything was sold at the market, from clothing to wine, pupusas to produce, jewelry to puppies (not so happy about that last one, actually, considering that all of Belize has a major problem with stray dogs). I didn't buy anything, but I sampled some of the local fruit wines (grapefruit, raspberry, blueberry, papaya) and some of the Mennonite made cheeses, and had a really yummy pork, cheese, and bean pupusa (sort of like a stuffed tortilla).
(Don't let the shade fool you - it was a HOT day!)
Later on, Marcus's neighbor invited us to a bbq to celebrate one of their kids graduating. (Side note: Marcus and his family employee a staff to help around the lodge. Over the course of working with these people for the last 10+ years, they've all become really close. In fact, Marcus even puts all the staff's kids through school because it costs money to attend even the public schools.) I ended up talking to a Belizean who is also in HR and it was pretty interesting to find out more about differences in employment laws and how wages are paid (hourly now, but up until very recently it was a day rate). Maybe it sounds boring to non-HR peeps, but I didn't think so.

Yesterday was my "activity" day. I hadn't even planned to go to San Ignacio, but before I left San Diego a friend told me that I absolutely had to go there so I could go to Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM). ATM is a nearby cave filled with archaeological artifacts ranging from ceramics, stoneware, even human remains, and it was in use as far back as 250 AD. This was a guided tour and a guide was very much needed. Our guide, Luis, took five of us through the cave in about four hours. This was quite long compared to the time some of the other groups were taking, but it just meant that we got LOTS of information. 
(Since pictures weren't allowed *at* ATM, here's what the road looked like on the way there.)
As you make your way through the cave, you occasionally have to swim or climb, being sure the whole time not to step or touch where you shouldn't. The cave has only been open to the public since 1998 and already you can see signs of wear - waxy areas of oil build up from hands and feet, fungus growing, human remains broken because of a dropped camera. (That last example is actually why cameras are now banned. There's some pretty good info and pics here, although the site is a bit outdated now.) Luis did a really good job of explaining some of the rituals that took place at ATM and pointing out some specifics that I noticed not all of the other guides shared. For example, there were a number of silhouettes that were either natural or modified formations. One in particular looked like a talking head which had to be rather terrifying to ancient Maya who were there to appease the gods or cleanse themselves of sin. The other crazy thing that Luis did was have us turn off our headlamps. A few times he did this while we were sitting or standing still, to give us an idea of just how dark the caves really were (and maybe also to force us to listen to him instead of looking around, haha). But then. He lined us up, single-file, had us put our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us, and then we turned off our lamps and walked like that through the darkness for about five minutes. Holy moly, was that some scary stuff! Water and darkness don't really work for me, but damn if I didn't hang in there - go me! Funny thing is that after we left the cave and hiked out of the jungle, one of the guys in our group said that at any time any one of us could've turned our lamps back on. I swear, that never even occurred to me!

That brings me to today and my first border crossing of this trip. From Parrot Nest Lodge, I took a colectivo into town where I got on a bus to Benque Viejo. From Benque I got a taxi to the border, from the border I got a micro bus to Flores, and from Flores I took a tuk-tuk to my hostel. It sounds a lot more complicated than it actually was (aside from the tuk-tuk drivers who tried to gouge me by charging double).
(Sneak peek of Flores)
Flores is adorable, but there's really not much to do here. I'm here as a jumping off point for Tikal and will be leaving again the day after tomorrow. 

**Btw, after the first few pictures loaded for this post, my internet connection refused to do any more. I'll try to add them later if I can, but they're on Flickr in the meantime. Problem solved!


  1. Wow, so much to absorb. I'll revisit later. But for now.., did you say Mennonite???

    1. Kathy, yes! Belize it or not (see what I did there?), Belize has quite the Mennonite population. I don't really know the history of how that came about, though.

  2. What a nice shift in scenery. Such a different way of life there..

  3. Go you! It is a good way to get an idea of what people went through to appease their gods, thought they probably had torches at least!

    I wish I could be there when you haggle over the price of a ride. :)

    1. There's really not much to the haggling, V. Since I don't know how to say "I know the going rate is 5Q, so why are you charging double?" in Spanish, I just walk away, lol. Sometimes walking away is enough to get them to change their mind, but in this case it was not.