Travels in Belize & Guatemala
Itching for adventure and needing background for my novel in the works, Place of Fear, I set off with my wife, Laura, and adult daughters, Amy and Jenny, for Belize and Guatemala in July, 2011. The verdict is in: I can readily recommend this trip or one similar. A few words of caution and another few of encouragement, though. These are developing countries. Poverty abounds, and with it, you can assume a level of crime. Services you take for granted in the U.S. are limited and frequently nonexistent. Deal with it. The people we encountered in both countries were unfailingly kind and helpful, more so than I have typically encountered in my own country.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.
--Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
Driving through Belize and Guatemala is an adventure in itself. One needs to beware before embarking on such a drive that the rules are different. Quite different. No, scratch that. Near as I can tell, there are no rules. Think Mad Max with worse vehicles.
Our taxi driver from Philip Goldson International Airport into Belize City was nice enough, sure. And I’m reasonably sure he didn’t screw us on the fee (although in hindsight I wish I’d asked a couple more of the cabbies what they charged). But I must have drawn the short straw; my wife and kids knock themselves out in a mad scramble for the back seat, leaving me to the front. Okay. I climb in. The car is a hundred and twelve years old and in worse shape than its age would imply. The seat smells, and cracks form a spider web across the windshield. I don’t know what condition the windows are in because they’re rolled down, because there’s no air conditioning. Okay. No big deal. It’s only July in Central America, and hell, I’m from Central Friggin’ Florida. The car seat makes a sucking sound and forms a molecular bond with my flesh. I reach for the shoulder belt. What? No shoulder belt? I glance at the driver. He doesn’t have one either. Buckling up or whining would be insulting, and far be it from me to insult the nice man. The very big nice man.
He floors it and we’re off in a flash. Must be late for the matinee at the opera or something.
As we near the city, more and more pedestrians are sharing the road. Yes, the road. Sidewalks are a bit of a fantasy in Belize. Every few seconds, we whiz past a pedestrian mom and her toddler, missing by inches. My fingernails by this time have dug an inch deep into the “upholstery.” I’m sweating and it’s not from the heat.
The driver switches on his radio, and I hear the tail end of a news report about a woman just murdered in Belize City. The killer is still on the loose. I hope my family can’t hear it. Mercifully, the broadcast then moves into a bouncy little Abba song. Okay, maybe not all that merciful.
* * *
Car rentals are easy enough. Doing research ahead of time, I find Crystal’s, the only rental company in all of Belize that will let you drive into Guatemala. If you plan on doing that, book several days in advance…the paperwork has to be notarized.
Crystal’s is owned by an expatriate Texan. It's small and occupies what can only be called a compound, the back part being filled with odds and ends and furniture and plants that have nothing to do with car rental. Quite funky and cool. The cars are in good shape and off we go in a recent vintage sport utility. Nicer than anything I’ve seen so far.
* * *
Belizean roads fall into three general classes; 1) Bad; 2) Really Bad; and 3) Holy Shit We’re Gonna Die! Road maps are accurate enough for position, but the road classes shown on them may not necessarily be accurate. Our map lists one as a “secondary” road, but it most definitely falls into Class 3, a steep hairpin snake of a road through mountains, a road that shakes your fillings and kidney stones out as you pound over limestone “gravel” the size of small boulders.
Outside the towns (Belize doesn’t really have cities), there are only a handful of paved roads, none more than two lanes wide. We take the Northern Highway from Belize City a short distance before cutting to Burrell Boom and south to connect to the Western Highway.
* * *
Street signs and traffic signs are almost nonexistent. You adjust (and do a lot of backtracking). Whereas policemen are scarce, “sleeping policemen” are everywhere. These are the murderous, bone-jarring speed bumps scattered about on the roads, even the major ones, in town and in the hinterlands, that take the place of stop signs. Some are well-marked, some almost invisible. If you hit one of these bastards at speed, you would seriously destroy your vehicle. They are cheaper, no doubt, than the salaries of real traffic cops, but…jeez. After a week of keeping an eye peeled for them, I was gun-shy back in the U.S., certain I was going to slam on the brakes to keep from smacking into one of these asphalt crocodiles.
* * *
The Western Highway courses along smoothly for much of its length, with the foothills of the Maya Mountains to the south. In Cayo District, the route gets hillier. Traffic is light all the time, since few can afford cars and fewer still can afford the outrageous gas prices. The countryside is agrarian and green and tropical.
At one point, I hit the gas to get by a worn-out pickup truck heading the same direction. As we pull even, we notice the truck bed is full of something pinkish. It is meat. Raw meat, skinned carcasses piled high, festering in the boiling midday heat, on their way to market or one of the eateries we're bound to patronize. Amy is aghast: “Their faces are still attached!” She becomes a passionate vegetarian for forty-two minutes.
* * *
A Little Belizean Background...
There’s really no good reason to stick around in Belize City, other than being stranded there. A few buildings have a certain Colonial charm, but the general state of, well, everything, is one of disrepair. Dingy buildings sag and settle, and little is done for upkeep.
I shudder to think what could happen to this town if a major hurricane hits it head on. The city was built on mangrove swamp by the British, and sits a scant couple of feet higher than the ocean. The nearby barrier reef would do nothing to stop a storm surge from swamping it. I ask one man what they do if a hurricane threatens. He shrugs and says they just go inland. I would worry that there might not be anything left if the big one hit.
Anchored offshore in the distance is a cruise ship. There’s no deep-water port, so the big boats anchor and ferry tourists in on day trips. Eco-tourism is the buzz around here and the government and people seem to be embracing it.
* * *
Belize evolved from the former colony, British Honduras, and outside of the U.S. and Canada, it’s the only nation in the Western Hemisphere in which English is the official language (and Canada is a bit suspect). That makes things easy indeed. A look at the map will reveal a plethora of English place names. Orange Walk. Victoria Peak. Georgeville. Near the Guatemalan border, there’s Spanish Lookout, so named because the Brits had to maintain a watchful eye against their Spanish enemies. My favorite Belizean place names are Monkey River Town and Go to Hell. Yes. That is a real place.
Even better than the ease of communication, the primary units of Belizean currency are dollars. Not U.S. dollars, of course, but U.S. is accepted all across the country, at the rate of one U.S. dollar for each two Belizean dollars. That’s the practical rate everyone uses. Forget the official exchange rate, and don’t screw yourself by exchanging American dollars in advance at the desk at Miami International. We got about 1.6 to 1 on that deal. Thanks, guys!
* * *
To the Sea: Ambergris Caye...
Eager to get out of Belize City, we catch the first water taxi to Ambergris Caye, some two hours north across the water. We make a tactical error and sit in the front of the crowded boat. It’s hot and uncomfortable and loud inside the cabin, and bumpy over the waves, and we’re all feeling a touch queasy. Miraculously, sputum does not make an appearance.
After a couple of stops at smaller islands, we arrive in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. A cab ride—yet another scary one--carries us to Banyan Bay Resort, just south of town. Damned nice place, right on the ocean. Coconut palms, sea breezes, beer, girl drinks…what more could you ask?
The island is named for a digestive goo secreted by sperm whales, and which apparently used to wash ashore quite a bit here. The whales are still spotted on occasion off Belize.
* * *
The island is one of a string of barrier islands along the Belizean coast, just inside the barrier reef. The ancient Maya settled and worked these islands with ocean-going canoes, and a scrubby rise on the south end of Ambergris marks the site of an unexcavated ruin.
Belize has the lion’s share of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest on the planet (behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), and the engine that sparked tourism in Belize a couple decades back. San Pedro became a hotspot for scuba divers. With great vision, Belize parlayed that initial interest into a more rounded tourism industry based on environmental sustainability.
The barrier reef is close and the breakers can be seen from the beach. We book a dive trip to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and hit the water early the next day. A rain has blown past and the morning is calm and sunny, great for a dive. Our boat is a smaller one, just ourselves and four other divers, which makes for a better dive experience (the cattle boats will argue otherwise, but hell, I saw the flick Open Water, so I’m the damned expert here, not you). The reserve is protected from fishing and other plundering, making it a haven of undersea life. Anchoring over a grass and sand flat, we enter the water and approach the reef from the west against a weak current, dipping down to thirty feet. The reef teems with parrotfish, grouper, sunfish, needlefish, and angelfish and whopping big clouds of silvery fish I don’t recognize, with the occasional moray peeking from the dark hollows. We negotiate a series of coral walls and openings, at one point swimming through a natural tunnel in the reef.
The viz is good, over forty feet. Viz. I like saying viz. Viz viz viz. Anyway, the sunlight shimmers on the sandy floor and lights up the colors in the coral and fans in the good viz.
We finish the scuba dive and pile back into the boat and head a short distance to another part of Hol Chan, Shark Ray Alley. We anchor and the divemaster starts chucking fish parts overboard, sending the critters into a frenzy. The channel is shallow here, maybe ten feet, so we don snorkels, mask, and fins only. As the name implies, the boat is quickly surrounded by nurse sharks and stingrays. We enter the water cautiously.
The viz is good, by the way.
The sharks are a beautiful reddish brown, almost glowing in the bright light. They dart in and out, muscling the swarming silver fish aside for the feast. Underneath, the stingrays glide in and out of the melee, skimming gracefully over the bottom. A couple are quite large, five feet wingtip to wingtip, and carry the scars of ancient battles. I think about touching one, but decide against it. Don’t want him going all Steve Irwin on me.
* * *
In the evening, we catch a sunset catamaran cruise. Under sail, the world is quiet and unrushed, and we watch the sun go down, toasting it the whole way with free-flowing rum punch. After dark, the sea begins to blink with the blue-white lights of bioluminescent jellyfish, drifting iridescent angels that complement the dazzling stars of the clear dark sky above.
* * *
The next morning, we catch the water taxi back to Belize City. We are trainable chimps and have learned from our mistakes, and hustle our way to the back of the boat. The ride back is so much better than the ride out, the air fresh and cool, and we disembark with a spring in our step.
* * *
We cross Belize on the Western Highway. West of San Ignacio, we approach the Guatemalan border, and things suddenly go from idyllic countryside to what appears to be a martial compound, a wide, dust-choked and chaotic expanse of pavement and ugly buildings and fences. The crossing is a morass of confusion. We park the car and are accosted by the money exchangers, freelancers with wads of cash, buying your Belizean and American dollars and exchanging them for Guatemalan quetzales. I feign ignorance (which is not hard for me, I’m told) and say I don’t need any. They look at me askance and shrug and try again. We go into the Belizean border control building. It’s hot and unappealing. We get in line and present our passports, get looked over, and my wife and daughters are allowed to walk across the border. I return to the car to drive it over.
But just a few feet over. Then I stop again and we go through a confusion of Guatemalan lines. Someone tries to explain the process, without much luck. To one side is a soldier with the scariest weapon I’ve ever seen, more cannon than rifle. He is pulling double-duty, watching us and guarding a walk-up window where a clerk collects fees and also cashes paychecks for Guatemalan locals. Very odd, a banker at the border crossing. But they don’t do money exchanges.
One of the freelancing money exchangers, a little man named Gustavo, sweeps in to help and takes us from one line to another, negotiating with the officials that want passports, fees, drivers licenses, notarized car rental papers, stool samples. He escorts us directly to front of the long line of folks waiting to cash paychecks. I feel awkward about that, but Gustavo assures us that border fees collection is the primary role of the clerk, and check-cashing is secondary. He’s right; no one seems to mind the gringos cutting in line. The soldier with the cannon-gun stands next to us, as if to make sure no one minds.
I gladly exchange money with Gustavo and give him a tip as well. It is worth it.
* * *
We pay the bug-spraying fee and drive through a bug-spraying machine. But we’re not done! There’s a narrow bridge over the Macal River to cross, and all kinds of commotion, it being under repairs, and no one seems to be in charge of directing the traffic, so a giant truck nearly pinches us into the guardrail. Gustavo has advised me that I have to pay a toll upon crossing. We get across the bridge and I see no toll collector, just an aimless mass of trucks and dust and pedestrians. As we move through, my daughter says, uh-oh. I notice in my rear-view mirror a woman in uniform looking at us and making a call on her radio. Uh-oh. So I back up as well as I can before we get arrested and we pay the toll.
An hour and a half after arriving at the border, we enter Guatemala.
* * *
We're determined to reach Flores by nightfall, as the guidebooks strongly advise against driving the backroads of Guatemala after dark. Highway robbery is not just an expression here.
Maybe ten miles in, we’re on a winding road in unpopulated countryside. The road is all but empty, but right behind me is a vehicle marked ambulancia. That’s good, a travel companion of sorts.
We round a turn and spot five or six soldiers in black uniforms ahead of us on the side of the road, each with automatic rifles ready in their arms. At least I think they’re soldiers. One is watching our approach and steps closer to the edge of the pavement and waves his arm in a high sweeping motion. I slow down a bit. What the hell? Do I stop? Do they want me to stop? Are they really soldiers or are they guerillas? Or banditos? Or ninjas with assault rifles?
The ambulancia driver switches on his flashers and guns his engine and flies past me. There’s my answer. I hit the accelerator and stay with him. I’m going with the assumption that the soldiers are waving to the ambulancia out of familiarity, and have no interest in me. That’s the story I’m going with.
As you may have guessed, we don’t die in a hail of bullets.
As it turns out (we later learn), those were legit soldiers and that’s a damned good thing. Guatemala has been battling mightily with ruthless Mexican drug armies along their eastern border, and have inserted soldiers into the west to ensure the safety of visitors from Belize.
The road west varies between stretches of asphalt pavement, where you make good time, and stretches of cratered limestone roads, where you’re lucky to do more than five miles an hour. Señor ambulancia driver is now my BFF in the whole world, and I’ll be damned if I’m letting him out of my sight.
* * *
Flores on the Fly...
Funny thing about roads in Belize and Guatemala. Farmers tie up horses and cows inside the road right-of-way, with just enough rope so that they can graze up to the pavement and no more. You expect to see roadkill of the large animal variety, but don’t. Although we do see a horse or two with bad limps.
We hit Flores as night falls, and make our way (going the wrong way down a one-way street) to Hotel Casona de la Isla. Happy hour finds us on the deck overlooking Lago Peten Itza, hungry and thirsty and hot, and we eat and drink until we’ve recuperated and gotten our fill, and then we drink some more.
The sun sets brilliantly over the lake, lighting it like fire.
The owner of the hotel is Dutch, and seems to cater heavily to Dutch travelers. Abba songs play on a tape loop. On the verandah, a pod of skinny Dutch girls is involved in some kind of drinking game, shouting and singing along.
What is it with Abba down here?
* * *
Flores occupies a tiny island on Lago Petén Itza, the biggest lake in northern Guatemala. The lake is a sliver that runs east and west, and home to many a crocodile.
The town is colorful and old and retains its Spanish colonial character, with narrow, curving streets and shoulder-to-shoulder buildings. Our hotel overlooks the lake. Guatemala recognized the importance of Flores to its economy and made the conscious effort to make it the gateway to Petén and Tikal. The shops are enticing and inexpensive, and the food is good. The town begs to be walked, and its circumnavigation by foot takes less than a half-hour.
From our hotel verandah, you can see a forested peninsula jutting into the lake. This was Tayasal, the last Mayan city to fall to the Spanish conquistadors.
* * *
Tikal, Lost City of the Rainforest...
After breakfast, we catch our tour to Tikal, one of the greatest Mayan cities, and a designated World Heritage Site. We head back east, round the tip of the lake, and turn north and enter the vast wilderness of El Petén, the largest remaining rainforest north of the Amazon. The jungle is close in on the narrow road.
We enter the ruined city. Our guide, Erdo, leads us on foot on unpaved paths, and at one point through a thick, muddy track through the jungle, Erdo’s “shortcut.” Giant ceibas tower over the landscape like Saturn rockets. The Tree of Life in the ancient Mayan religion, the ceiba’s massive size makes it vulnerable in the tropics, where trees are shallowly rooted in the poor soils. To compensate, ceibas have evolved buttresses, spreading like fins at the base, lending again to its trunk’s resemblance to a rocket. Its canopy, on the other hand, looks like nothing so much as a gargantuan hairy tarantula, its limbs covered with epiphytes.
* * *
At its peak, Tikal was home to between 40,000 and 140,000 citizens, more populous at that time than Paris or London, and encompassed over fifty square miles. Different temple groups were erected at different times by different rulers. When the city was mysteriously abandoned, the forest reclaimed it.
* * *
Spider monkeys put on acrobatic displays, and don’t much care for humans trying to get too chummy. We watch a small group of monkeys cavorting in a tree atop one of structures. Of course one tourist (you know the guy…there’s always one) decides he’s going to get close and commune with the monkeys and impress his friends. He climbs the structure and eases close. A couple of monkeys climb away. The biggest stays put, watching warily, ready to defend his peeps. Jackass Tourist grins stupidly and eases closer still. Big Monkey has had enough and screams and shakes the branches furiously at Jackass. Jackass flinches and decides he’ll be the higher primate and leave the monkeys alone.
* * *
The tallest of the pyramids at 212 feet, Temple IV juts high above the trees. We count the terrace levels; there are nine, representing the nine levels of the Mayan underworld. We swig water and begin the ascent up a wooden staircase and finally gain the highest pyramid terrace, upon which the roof comb sits. The forest canopy stretches out below, and the temples of the Great Plaza rise above it in the east. A breeze fans us and we rest, drinking in the stunning view.
* * *
The Great Plaza is the heart of Tikal. Bounded by two pyramids and two acropolis complexes, it stirs the imagination. These limestone monuments are white, streaked with gray, but when the city flourished, they were painted a bright coral red.
Several heavily armed soldiers are milling about. I think about taking their picture but decide that that’s maybe not the smartest idea I've ever had (the smartest would of course be my idea to have jockeys ride gorillas instead of horses in the Kentucky Derby, but The Man crushes all truly revolutionary ideas, don't he?).
We explore the North Acropolis (also known as the Necropolis), ducking in and out of the ancient walls. A small fox is checking us out as it also explores the ruin.
Across the plaza is the Central Acropolis, which is believed to have served as royal palace. Several bastards have carved their initials in the limestone wall of one interior. Seriously, you visit one of the world’s great treasures and feel the need to vandalize it?
* * *
I decide to climb Temple II. The visitors’ staircase that zigzags up the side of this pyramid is old and rotten and rickety, a wet dream for an ambulance-chasing attorney if it were located in the U.S.A. However, it is in Guatemala, and if it cracks up and you fall to your death, you have done so because you are an idiot. That’s my strong suit, and up I go. From the third level (its highest, representing the world of the living), I see Tikal as the high priests saw it. To my left is the North Acropolis. To my right, the Central Acropolis. Directly before me, Temple I, the Temple of the Great Jaguar. I try to envision these massive structures, bright red in the sunlight of long ago, with throngs of citizens gathering in the plaza to attend a great ceremony.
Tikal is many things. It is a regal city, a lost city, a ruined city, a great mystery deep in the rainforest. It flourished and grew for more than a thousand years, and was suddenly abandoned, the work of milennia left on its own, its citizens vanishing, never to return. The great Mayan city-states throughout the region were undergoing similar occurrences. Did they succumb to warfare? Overpopulation? Environmental destruction? A combination of all? No one is certain, but our guide, Erdo, explains his belief that it was simply part of the Mayan grand scheme of things. Every twenty years, a new cycle of building was begun. Ultimately, the religion dictated that when the greater cycle was completed, there was nothing more to be built, and the city was abandoned to please the gods.
Whatever the reasons, a thousand years after its abandonment, mighty Tikal still inspires awe in those who see it, just as its builders intended.
* * *
Out of Guatemala...
The next morning, we return to the Belizean border. The crossing this time is much easier, but not without headaches. After creeping through the first gate, my passengers have to exit and enter the customs building, while I’m instructed to drive through the vehicular gate. Not so fast. The guard stops me, tells me to back it up, way back, take all the luggage out, and haul it in for inspection. Grrr…my family is out of sight in a building a hundred yards away and I’m supposed to lug all this stuff by myself? And what about the baggage inspection? What if Jenny has stuffed a live monkey into her suitcase? Would I know? She’s a crafty one.
Fortunately, our erstwhile friend, the money exchanger Gustavo, spots me and hurries to my aid. We drag the luggage inside, where I’m told every piece will be opened and searched. Gustavo, however, intervenes and convinces the officials that we’re cool, we’re with him, and so they let us load the car back up without the search. I heartily thank and tip Señor Gustavo once again, and we’re back inside Belize. Jenny gets to keep any contraband monkeys she may be smuggling.
In the Belizean Highlands: the Cayo District...
Our lodgings the next four nights are in Crystal Paradise Resort, some miles south of San Ignacio, past the hilly Cristo Rey Village. The resort is the handiwork of Victor Tut and his family. The rooms are thatch-roofed and there is no air-conditioning, but that’s okay. The dining room is also thatched, and open-sided, with a gravel floor. Sounds rustic, but it’s comfortable and quite lush and beautiful. We spend our days on the go and our evenings dozing in hammocks.
* * *
We head off the next morning to Caves Branch, with Victor’s son, Eric, guiding us. This site has become popular with cruise ship tourists in from Belize City, but it’s off-season and there’s nary a cruise shipper to be darted and tagged in the name of science.
We’re in rugged terrain, the foothills of the Maya Mountains. A zipline course winds through the steamy slopes and crevices. The white limestone cliffs are sheer, and draped in jungle growth, thick hanging vines, and trees stubbornly clinging to the vertical surfaces. The ziplines are high and fast, and we careen through the canopy like hawks. Okay, hawks that are wearing gloves and helmets and harnesses with pulleys, and grinning like idiots, but hawks nonetheless.
* * *
A hike through the forest brings us to the first of two caves on the shallow cool river. We don headlamps and settle into inner tubes and drift into the pitch-black Mayan underworld. It’s not an exaggeration to call it that. The Maya revered caves as the doorways to the underworld. The cave here is broad, the ceiling overhead arching. Water drips from the ceiling onto us, little cold showers in the dark. We hit small rapids in a few places, skimming swiftly over rocks, the beams of our headlamps glittering across stalactites and rippled water like diamonds.
Weather dictates the behavior of rivers. The rains have been calm so Caves Branch is behaving itself. But it doesn’t always. The previous year, a woman died because heavy rain sent the river rushing through the cave and an inexperienced guide couldn’t handle it. Their raft was pinned by the surging water into the cave wall and the woman was forced under.
In the second cave, Eric has us beach our tubes on the rocks and climb a short distance. He points to a horizontal slit, maybe two feet high. We get low and slither on our bellies like reptiles over the rock face, trying hard not to think about the million tons of rock perched inches over our heads, just waiting for an earthquake to offer the chance to pancake us into molecule-thin sheets of slime. We crawl maybe ten feet, and the cavern opens up to crouching height. Shattered Mayan offering pots are set here and there. We climb to a high reach and peer through an opening down to the black river sixty feet below. We scramble back down the way we ascended, doing the belly-crawl a second time.
With great foresight and wisdom, I had brought only my underwater camera on the tube run. So of course I lose it somewhere in the river, in the dark. Someone, I hope, is putting it to good use.
The river exits the cave and we drift through the primeval rainforest, soaking up sun, until we find the exit point.
We eat and drink and sleep well that night.
* * *
The next morning, we head south from Cristo Rey with Eric, higher into the hills. Unbelievably, the road worsens. Then it worsens some more. The villages get smaller and poorer, and are without electricity. A little boy, no more than six or seven years old, is walking along the road. Eric asks if we mind giving him a lift. Of course we don’t mind…it’s hot as blazes and he’s carrying his pack uphill to the next village. The boy climbs in and turns to look at us. His eyes get big as saucers; he’s not used to hitching rides with gringos way up here. Especially not gringos as pretty as the ones I’m with.
We drop the boy off, and Eric tells us about growing up in these remote, off-the-power-grid villages. Cristo Rey is a few miles south of San Ignacio, up in the hills on a mostly unpaved road. It has electricity now, but not when Eric was little. The cosmopolitan kids of San Ignacio thought it funny to pick on kids from the outlying villages, calling them “bush children”. Go figure. San Ignacio is a dinky little town you can almost spit across. The bush children always had better grades than the “city” kids, and the villages are far more attractive. Everything is relative, I guess. Unfair and cruel, but relative.
* * *
The road winds higher into the hills before dropping on hairpin turns down into a valley. There’s a Mennonite community here, which, like the tiny villages we’ve passed, has no electricity. Only here it’s by choice. The people are largely blonde-haired Caucasians, the men bearded, and dressed in full-length clothing in spite of the tropical climate. Horse-and-buggy is the mode of transport. The Mennonites, Eric tells us, migrated here from Mexico after the government there pressured them to conform.
We reach our destination. Barton Creek emerges from a thin dark slit in the cliff. Vines hang from the cliff face. We collect handheld floodlights, clip them to car batteries, and climb into two canoes, paddle across a pool, its water cool and milky from the dissolving limestone, and squeeze through a gap between a great boulder and the cliff. We enter Barton Creek Cave and darkness envelopes us. The beams of our lamps flit about, causing shadows to dance on the walls. Bats cringe and squint in the light, their body language squeaking, “hey, you wanna turn that friggin’ light off, pal?”
This cave is narrow, but its ceiling towers a hundred feet above. Mayan offering pots are set high in the rocks. All around are weird formations of rock, some like calliope organ pipes, some like frozen waterfalls, some like fins of gigantic fish, all the product of eons of water and limestone working in concert.
A natural bridge spans the creek a few feet over the water. The Maya had cut handholds into it, and used it to reach the ledge above. Eric shines his light; a few feet from one of the offering pots on the ledge rests a human skull, the remains of a sacrifice, keeping watch across the centuries over all who pass.
The lives and souls of the ancient Maya are palpable in this dark place. Just as this cave lives and breathes, so does their memory.
This is their underworld and you feel its power.
We paddle back to the cavern mouth and switch off the lamps as we drift nearer, letting the light of the outside slowly change pitch black to charcoal, charcoal to gray, and gray to day. We exit the cave. Jenny and I climb the rock face above the pool, gripping vines and branches, and inspect and judge the drop to the milky water below. I clinch up a bit to lessen the likelihood of an unwanted enema, and take the plunge.
Taking a different route out of the Lost Valley of the Mennonites yields one more surprise; Barton Creek has no bridge, so we plow the van right through the creek. In times of higher water, it is impassable.
* * *
Digital technology. The Internet. They’re ubiquitous, they’re everywhere. We see shacks labeled “internet café” in remote villages. Satellite dishes on homes with no apparent power. In San Ignacio, we stop at a tiny one-room building five feet from the edge of the street and pay a couple of bucks for an hour’s time to check e-mails. Outside Cristo Rey, we stop at a little restaurant out back of someone’s house. The place is thatched, open-air, and has a dirt floor, but the food is tasty and the girls serving us have the latest smart phones. The simple explanation is, people love gadgets, no matter where they live. The truer explanation is, people desire inclusion in a greater, wider world, and seek out those technologies that grant that inclusion.
San Ignacio has two bridges--the steel bridge and the wooden bridge--crossing the Mopan, each on opposite ends of town, and each only one lane wide and therefore one-way in traffic. This helpful nugget of information eludes you until you’re actually on the bridges, and as I wrote earlier, there’s not a street identification sign in the whole country. I of course head across the steel bridge going the wrong way and am halfway across until I encounter another car coming the opposite direction. I back the car all the way off the bridge, thankful that no one has come up behind to box me in. The family in the other car is understanding and cheerful, realizing that I am just a silly American that doesn't understand one-way bridges.
Xunantunich, Master of Mopan Valley...
The road to the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, near the Guatemalan border, requires a crossing of the Mopan River by human-powered ferry. This is a bit unnerving. The grade down to the ferry is steep, and the ferry itself is a rickety wood raft hooked onto a cable. Any passengers in your car have to exit and walk onto the ferry (so that only the driver will drown when the thing capsizes). I ease the car onto the ferry, listening to it creak and settle. I check out the river-bottom, looking for submerged vehicles with skeletons at the wheel. All good. The ferryman starts cranking and pulls the contraption across the river. He deposits us alive on the opposite bank and earns his tip.
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In its own way, Xunantunich is as gorgeous as Tikal, albeit much smaller. The ruins command the high ground, and the centerpiece, the Castillo pyramid, towers above all, with sweeping views of the Mopan valley. It lacks the architectural precision of the Tikal pyramids, but has a rugged, broad-shouldered grandeur that speaks of power and confidence. Two sides are adorned with restorations of great masks of Chac Mool, the Rain God, grinning maniacally and appraising his domain.
We ascend the Castillo. Farmlands and rainforest stretch into the distance, and the Maya Mountains rise far to the south in the mist. San Ignacio is to the east, and the border crossing into Guatemala is visible to the west, looking not at all chaotic from this kingly perspective.
The day is deep-fat-fryer hot, yet our erstwhile guide, the elderly Señor Panti never breaks a sweat, and indeed seems not to notice that our flesh is sloughing off our bodies in slabs.
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We follow a path through a wooded area along the west edge of the central plaza when an unholy commotion, loud and otherworldly, erupts. I’m thinking tyrannosaurus, a big nasty one, and I’ve seen enough movies to know what one sounds like. We’re relieved to learn that it’s a troupe of howler monkeys. They like to argue, quite vociferously it seems, and do not easily walk (or swing) away from a good argument.
* * *
Central American wildlife doesn’t disappoint. The howler monkeys and spider monkeys are the natural entertainers, the rock stars of the rainforest. The spider monkeys toss twigs and brush in our direction, telling us we’re overstaying our welcome. We oblige them; to stay and annoy them is to invite them to fling shit at us. A bit of advice to fellow travelers: don’t stand there watching with your mouths agape.
We spot leaf-cutter ants parading like tiny ships-of-the-line, their green sails hoisted high. We see coatimundi (kind of like a bigger, prettier raccoon), agouti (a bigger, prettier rat), foxes, two species of iguana, bats, a toucan, and more hummingbirds than you can shake a stick at. Jaguars frequent the forest, and would be the crown jewel of wildlife spotting, but alas, they avoid us. If the monkeys are the in-your-face rock stars, the jaguar is the reclusive Greta Garbo (“I vant to be alone”).
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Unexcavated large structures line Xunantunich’s central plaza. It’s easy to imagine the lively downtown square, alive with people, come to market or to ceremony. One wishes all the buildings were excavated, but Belize lacks the money to do so, and relies on excavations by American universities to get it done. That’s a shame. This city would be a huge tourism draw if its full glory were revealed.
To one side of the central plaza is the ballcourt. The ancient Maya used sport for fun and ritual. Athletes and fans would come from near and far for the games, which involved a sort of combination of basketball and soccer. Contestants would try to get a solid rubber ball into the goal without using their hands. Sounds difficult? Now imagine the heavy sphere of rubber smacking into you like a cannonball, hard enough to break your ribs, and imagine playing the game with the knowledge that losing captains are sometimes beheaded. Like American footballers, the players wore heavy pads but that’s where the similarity ends. NFL football is a frolic in the daisies compared to this.
Xunantunich, like Tikal, is stunning and, like Tikal, it was not given its current name by its creators and citizens. No one knows what these cities were called by their inhabitants. Nor are the deaths of these great cities fully understood. Yet these places live on, looming over the landscape, treasures for all generations and all the world’s citizens to admire.
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All journeys must end. Homecoming is always a happy moment, but Belize and Guatemala are tattooed on our brains, in indelible images of rolling green hills and gleaming white towers, images comprised of neural electrical sparks. If those blur with time (and they will), we've got nine-thousand photos to fall back on.
The traveler can only report on the journey experienced, at best a mere fragment of a land and its people. The experience is all too brief. I can’t pretend to describe an entire nation and its people, much less two, with any real depth. Only the person that has lived there for years can do that, and even then perception becomes colored by familiarity and conditioning.
What I can report with confidence is this: Belize and Guatemala are blessed with good, hardworking people and spectacular natural and historical wonders. The people respect and embrace the land and its past without overwhelming them and ruining their intrinsic value. Everywhere we went—diving on the reef, sailing the coast, climbing majestic pyramids, scrambling through caves—our guides were passionate about sharing these things, but only in the spirit of stewardship of things wonderful. Because of that, and despite myriad problems—poverty, broken infrastructure, high costs, political tensions, social inequities--these two small nations will ultimately prosper. Their past is awe-inspiring, but their best days are still ahead.
Travelers and aspiring travelers, check out Amy Pelham's www.puzzlepiecetravels.com for tips on off-the-beaten-path destinations, just launched in June, 2016.