Sunday, April 26, 2009

Belize!

I recently got back from a spring break trip to Belize. Aside from the mild annoyance of a delayed bag on the return trip, the experience was everything I had anticipated!

I traveled with Diedra, one of those friends who I see rarely but would always like to see more of. Having extensive travel experience and a practical, quick mind, she was an ideal travel companion. Most of the smoothness and well-planned efficiency of our trip can be attributed to her.

We arrived in Belize on Friday afternoon. We walked off the plane, onto the tarmac, and into the airport. I have vague recollections of having done this at American airports as a child, but that would have to be more than 25 years ago. I assume the change is security-related in the U.S., but the simplicity of simply walking into the airport made me feel that our American "improvement" was not much of one at all.

The air was heavy and hot, the sun was bright, and the Belize City airport was surprisingly small and crowded. As we exited the airport we spotted Manny, a driver for our all-purpose tourist needs company, MayaWalk, bearing a sign with our names. Manny's task was to drive us from Belize City, a place widely panned by guide books and Manny himself as a "slum", to San Ignacio, a town in the hills near the Guatemala border and a perfect point of departure for the Mayan ruins we planned to see.

The car Manny was driving was a dusty 1980's mini-van, missing its stereo and without air-conditioning, but as we drove with the windows down, the heat was not as oppressive as I had expected. The 90 minute drive was a great way to get introduced to Belize. The countryside was flat and swampy with tropical-looking trees and shrubs in clusters at irregular intervals. The houses lining the two-lane highway were mostly on stilts (to protect from flood damage, according to Manny), and often brightly colored, although many had faded, peeling paint and looked in poor repair. Laundry hung from lines and most houses had outhouses and no visible pipes under their stilted floors, although many had a car or two parked in the dirt driveway. We saw children and women walking along the dusty road, but also crowded, ancient-looking buses (including converted American school buses) headed in the opposited direction.

San Ignacio itself is located just across the river from its "twin town", Santa Elena. The streets of Santa Elena were dusty, brightly painted, crowded with brightly painted, peeling signs and buildings. The river itself was full of children playing, women bathing babies, and even cars being washed. San Ignacio seemed a slightly cleaner and less crowded version of Santa Elena. Manny drove us up a steep hill to our hotel, Cahal Pech, named after a nearby site of Mayan ruins. We were thrilled to arrive and discover the spectacular views from our hill-top location, overlooking the city and farmland below and receiving a gentle breeze. The open-deck restaurant and bar faced a beautiful pool and tropical garden, including palms and banana trees. Best, we chose to stay in one of the one-room cabanas instead of a traditional hotel room. Our cabana had a fantastic view and included a screened in porch area with a hammock. Heaven! After unpacking, we had a delicious and relatively cheap dinner from the hotel restaurant, and then ordered virgin strawberry daiquiris in what became a daily routine. The hint of lime made them delicious!

On Saturday, we had an early breakfast (tropical fruit, locally produced granola, and delicious yogurt, yum!) and then were picked up by MayaWalk for a trip to Guatemala to see Tikal. We stopped at the MayaWalk office to pick up another traveler and switch drivers, then drove the 10 miles or so to the Guatemala border. To pass into Guatemala from Belize you must pay a $30 "exit fee", so our tour guides let us walk through customs to be met on the other side with a Guatemalan driver. Unlike Manny's mini-van, both cars this day were air-conditioned. This was especially nice during the Guatemalan portion of our trip, as the roads were sometimes paved, but often just dirt where we drove through clouds of dust. The vegetation on the western border of Belize and this part of Guatemala was much lusher and denser than on our journey from the airport, and the terrain was hilly rather than flat. I felt a little nauseated in the car as we bumped over the potholes and rough roads.

As we neared Tikal, we stopped in a town called El Remate to pick up Ismael, our guide. The town is on a large lake. I would love to explore it more someday! We stopped only to use the restrooms (more likely also to encourage us to buy souvenirs) at a shop filled with European and American tourists.

As we neared Tikal, we saw signs for various animal crossings, including jaguars and strange turkey shaped birds. We finally arrived at Tikal. There were a surprising number of Guatemalans there, as entry to the park is many times more expensive for foreigners. We could immediately feel the heat and humidity of the jungle. As we entered, Ismael pointed out an enormous ceiba tree, sacred to the ancient Maya, with large above-ground roots that a later guide described as "elephant ears." The trunk of the tree stretches to the sky, where the branches begin very high and are covered in a furry-looking vine.

As we neared the acropolis, Ismael led us up a steep path to the back so that we came upon the largest plaza of Tikal from above. The view was spectacular: ruins on all four sides! I often had wondered why such ruins had been re-discovered so late. Our guide pointed out to us certain unexcavated ruins--which looked like unusually steep hills, covered in dirt, vines, and jungle trees. Over the centuries, the rainforest had taken over and regrown. Without knowing what I was looking at, I would have had no idea that I was staring at a rainforest-covered ruin.

Tikal is enormous, and seeing it in its entirety supposedly takes a full three days. We did a sort of "best of" tour, seeing the main acropolis, the building first constructed as the Mayans were still developing construction techniques, and climbing several of the tallest towers. The magnificence of the structures was fantastic, but I also loved seeing the surrounding jungle vegetation and hearing the unfamiliar calls of exotic birds and insects. Walking the paths, we saw a huge shadow and heard a rustling in the leaves above, then looked up and saw what looked like an enormous turkey sitting in the branches just above our heads!

We got back late in the afternoon, hot, sweaty, dusty, and so satisified with what we had seen! We congratulated ourselves many times for our hotel location, at the top of the hill where we received a cool breeze and had such a nice pool and restaurant.

On Sunday, we decided to walk down the hill to what was the nearest church building of any sort to our hotel--and happened to be the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, complete with air-conditioning, flush toilets, and a satellite dish for watching conference! The members were dressed in their Sunday best and greeted each other and us warmly. We watched the English language channel, then headed down the hill for lunch at a restaurant called "Ko-Ox Hannah". The menu boasted of its locally-grown and raised produce and meat, but I wondered if what has become a feel-good/eco-friendly dining experience was the norm in some parts of the world. We had tasty quesadillas, then walked back up the hill to the church for the second session of conference. It was the hottest part of the day and a very steep walk, and though not long by any standard, by the time we arrived, I was absolutely dripping with sweat. Fortunately, the air conditioning was still going strong and I was feeling cool and comfortable again by the time we finished the afternoon session. We walked the rest of the way up the hill to the hotel, where we had strawberry daiquiris again, then swam to cool off and had dinner.

On Monday, we went to Caracol, another Mayan site that took a couple of hours to drive to, this time within Belize. Again we went with a Maya walk guide, this time named Alberto. Like Ismael, he was extremely knowledgeable in local history, botany, and archaeology. As we drove, he explained how one side of the river was drier and had pine vegetation, while the other was wetter and had jungle vegetation. Alberto drove the same beat-up, AC-less mini-van that Manny had picked us up in, with the result that the dirt roads got us very dusty this time around. Alberto did have an ingenious way of avoiding the worst of the dust; as we approached a passing vehicle, he would quickly roll up the windows on the left-hand side, thus avoiding the worst of the approaching dust.

The journey proved fascinating again. We had to stop at the military station to wait for a military escort. Apparently Guatemalan bandits bearing assault rifles had crossed the border and attacked groups traveling to Caracol. While waiting for the other tour groups to arrive, we took a detour to a fantastic cave within the jungle. I spent much of my trip in wonder at such unexpected detours. Isn't that so much of the joy of traveling--to see something so out of our ordinary experience that it fills the mind with new possibilities!

The ruins at Caracol were less extensive than Tikal, but the buildings themselves were equally stunning. There were much fewer tourists and the excavation seemed fresher and less complete. One highlight was peering into a tiny room where the remains of a royal woman were once thought to be found. It was dark and hard to see, so we avoided going in. Alberto later told us that it was a favorite den of a jaguar during the rainy season! Between clambering over many different structures and staring at the vast jungle beyond, we walked through shaded paths while Alberto pointed out trails made by large ants, various edible plants and spices, and even a tree known colloquially as the "tourist tree": the bark was deep red and peeling, much like the skin of European tourists! It was a reminder to me to reapply sunscreen . Diedra and I had an ongoing debate about whether we were "pale" (her word) or "pasty" (mine).

During the return trip, we stopped at a spring with a tiny waterfall to go swimming, though Diedra had a bad blister on her foot from Tikal, and decided to sit out. The water felt amazing on such a hot day!

On Tuesday, Manny drove us back to Belize City to take a water taxi to Ambergris Caye, San Pedro. The water taxi moved very quickly across the water. We were disheartened to see the overcast skies, yet as we headed northwest, the sky became gradually clearer and clearer and was nearly blue again by the time we arrived an hour and a half later. The water was breathtaking: an unspeakable shade of teal or turquoise and so clear! San Pedro itself was clearly a bit of a tourist trap: the town center is very small and filled with restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops. Like other towns in Belize, it was a bit crowded and dusty. The most popular mode of transport on the narrow streets seemed to be golf carts, which you could rent by the hour or day.

We took a cab the short distance to our hotel, the Tides. The hotel was painted pink with darker pink and white trim and situated right on the beach with a small but inviting pool. The "office" was on the pier, where we checked in and made arrangements to snorkel at Hol Chan the next day. The place is run by a family: the matriarch seems to be in charge, with the girls running the breakfast and housekeeping side of things, and the boys manning the bar and the dive shop. We walked down the beach to explore the town more, and rented bikes from Joe, a friendly, overweight sweaty guy with very cheap bikes. Both bikes had no gears and you braked by back-pedaling. They also had bells that sort of worked. We went north, crossed a bridge, and found ourselves on a path in a much more isolated part of the island that led right along the beach. It was spectactularly beautiful and a marvelous way to explore. Unlike in San Ignacio, the heat was tempered by an ocean breeze and never felt oppressive.

That night, I slept a bit fitfully, terrified at the prospect of sharks. On setting up our snorkeling expedition for the next day, we were informed that we would go to Hol Chan and "Shark Ray Alley." Diedra and I are both terrified of sharks; I grew up having nightmares, refusing to watch "Jaws", and always making sure someone else was further out at the beach than me. But I also felt that I would feel foolish, and worse, miss a great opportunity, if I did not go. We both decided we would go out and see how we felt, and then just not go in if we were feeling too wimpy.

We woke up, had our hotel breakfast on the pier (admittedly more picturesque than delicious), and spent the morning walking through town and sitting on the beach relaxing. We had lunch at a local seafood place. The food was a delicious mixture of Latin American and Caribbean elements: fresh seafood, tropical fruit, beans and salsa.

After lunch we prepared to snorkel. We left with two local guides, who appeared to be Latino in ethnicity but who spoke to each other in the indecipherable Kriol of Belize. We were joined by what seemed to be an extended family of a middle-aged man and his wife, her sister, and their combined children, three young women that seemed to range in age from early to late twenties. Unlike the two of us, everyone had a healthy tan! In some ways, this was encouraging, as both the hotel owner and our guides kept reassuring us that "sharks don't like white meat."

We arrived first at the so-called "Shark-Ray Alley." Our guides threw meat into the water in a bid to attract sharks (and in a practice that my guide book condemned). A nurse shark almost immediately appeared, but then went away. As the guide jumped in, followed by the others in the group, I decided I had to do it. I did not want to live ruled by fear, and I jumped in. While we had traveled out quite a way from the island to the reef, the water was quite shallow--maybe ten feet deep--and clear all the way through. We were surrounded by enormous and beautiful rays, but no sharks, to my relief.

We headed back to Hol Chan, the main part of the reef. As we anchored our boat and prepared to jump out, it was immediately clear in the crystal water that there were several large nurse sharks surrounding our boat. I made sure I was not the first to jump in, but I made myself do it, feeling that, while I knew nurse sharks to be virtually harmless, I had made an incredibly brave move.

We swam over to the reef for what may have been the most extraordinary part of the trip. Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world, and the marine life did not disappoint. The reef was teeming with fish of the most exotic shades and sizes. In addition to schools of bright green, blue, and yellow fish, we saw barracuda, eagle rays, moray eels, a sea turtle, an enormous black grouper, and of course the varied and beautiful coral reef itself. It was fantastic, but unfortunately became a little overcast and chilly toward the end. The guide was hilarious: he would swim down, point at something, then stick his head above the water and mutter a one-word description: "Angel fish", or "black grouper" or "barracuda" to tell us what we were seeing. He also proceeded to do everything my guide book warned against, by harassing every fish he could. At the end of our swim, as he tried to wrestle a nurse shark, I could understand how these sharks "are not dangerous to humans unless provoked." I made sure to stay far away! When we got back to our hotel, Diedra showered first. Somehow, between her shower and when I went to take mine, the hotel lost all water. It was the first inconvenience of our trip! I figured that's what the pool was for, took a dip, and changed and got dressed. By the time we got back later that night, the water was fine again.

While proud of ourselves for our encounter with sharks, Diedra and I both admitted to ourselves that we felt a little drained from the stress of it, particulary when right before jumping in our guides had mentioned that they often saw "tiger sharks and bull sharks" at the reef. We decided to swim, but not snorkel on Thursday, justifying our cowardice by saying, "well, we really shouldn't support someone who feeds the sharks and touches all the fish." To fill our last day instead, we biked all over the island, stopped to read under shady huts at the end of piers, and walked through shops and along the beach. We lay in the sunshine and read books while watching locals peddle to tourists. To finish the gluttony portion of our trip, we at at the "Blue Water Grill", a great, open-air place right on the beach. We ate a dinner consisting of coconut shrimp, pesto pizza, and flourless chocolate cake as dessert. We also indulged ourselves with strawberry daiquiris. It was delicious, and of course I was totally stuffed and could barely walk back to the hotel. We watched the full moon rise and then sat on our balcony, facing the water, while we read for a while. Then, to complete what Diedra had dubbed our "old person's vacation" we went to bed early. We laughed as we saw the old ladies staying at our hotel leaving to go out for the evening just as we returned!

Friday, we awoke early to watch the sunrise, or rather, I awoke early and Diedra cheered me on from the comfort of her bed. It seemed like a good idea until I realized it was too overcast to see anything and finally went back to bed. We woke again at 6:15 to pack everything up and be at breakfast by 7:00 a.m. so we could catch the water taxi back to Belize City at 8:00. In Belize City, we grabbed a taxi to the airport and headed home. The only hitch in our plans happened when we arrived at Dulles and were greeted by a baggage delay. Not bad for a week-long trip abroad!

1 comment:

Nicole Lake said...

Your trip sounds really amazing! I would not have had the courage to swim with sharks. I tried swimming with dolphins and started hyperventilating.