December 2007

We have a final action packed day to the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal, normally referred to by the acronym ATM.  Only discovered about twenty years ago, it contains some of the only intact Mayan artifacts (such as pottery, skulls and skeletons).  To get to the artifacts, you swim, wade, and climb with a head lamp and helmet on your head.   From the furthest point in to the cave that we go to the entrance is about an hour trek without stopping.  This is certainly one of the most adventurous things I've done. 

The entrance to the cave starts with a twenty foot swim.  The water is 73F according to our guide.  We're in water a few inches to chest high for much of the journey.  We press on and get to the dry part and stop for a bit.  Our guide is somewhat knowledgeable, but L' is starting to despise his condescension.  I didn't notice it at first, but he frequently would ask us if we knew something about the Maya that of course we didn't.  That got annoying, but I was able to ignore him easier than L'.  She thought about turning back to avoid pushing our guide off a stalagmite, but chose to continue on.  I was glad because if she's unhappy then I won't enjoy it as much.  

The cave is very neat with the usual interesting formations.  Since there is no natural or artificial illumination in the cave, we pause and turn off our headlamps.  It's completely dark.  You can't see your hand in front of your face.  Eyes open or closed looks the same.  Very eerie.

While we're stopped at the start of the dry part, we take off our shoes and get our cameras from the dry bag.  There are various artifacts along the path such as pottery and a skull.  Somewhat further in, we reach the last room of our trek which has a complete skeleton sticking out from the ground.  It's eerie and neat at the same time.  We then head back, stop to put our shoes back on before the wet part, and exit the cave about an hour later.  We change into dry clothes and get in the car only for it not to start.  When we're about to take another van back, the car finally starts and we head to the hotel getting back around 630.

We take much needed showers and since it's late, we eat at the hotel which is decent food and good Mai Tais.  We pick up some hot sauce as souvenirs and return home to pack up.  Tomorrow the vacation concludes, a new year starts, and many changes appear on the horizon. 

After three long days in a row, we set a slower pace today and awake for 9am.  Lonnie has his airport transport at 10 while L' and I plan on hiking around Chaa Creek.  We cab over after breakfast and hike around.  We see several birds- if only for a moment.  I'm unable to get any good photos of them.  No monkeys here.  It's very hot and sticky.  After a couple hours we're ready for naps.  The resort calls our cab driver who takes us back to the house.

I lie down and almost immediately fall asleep while L' reads.  The week's adventures finally catch up to me and I snooze for an hour and a half.  L' assures me that I was sound asleep.  We head into town for dinner at Hannah's again.  This time the lamb chops are a bit over done, but still not bad for $7US.  We cab back home and pack up for tomorrow's early start and trip to ATM. 

(Posted while in Belize) 

Internet is slow and hard to come by (hotel computers are usually busy), but we're waiting for a cab so I  have a few minutes.  We've seen three major Mayan sites in the last few days.  They have all been spectacular, particularly Tikal yesterday (as seen in the original Star Wars movie).  The days have been long and we've been conching out pretty early.  Food has been fine, except for yesterday's dinner which took forever and wasn't good (at least we got ice cream afterwards).  Only two days left and we've got a big day tomorrow.   Weather has held up although we got rained on yesterday (not surprising in the middle of the rain forest).  All the guides have been fantastic and the trip has gone by quickly.  I have daily full trip reports for posting upon my return along with lots of photos.

We have an early wakeup for our 730am Tikal departure.  Tikal is the biggest of the presently excavated Mayan sites and is over the border in Guatemala.  If you asked me any time in the last thirty years if I'd ever be in Guatemala, it would have been an emphatic "no, are you nuts?", yet here we were. 

The tour arranges for the border crossing which is supposedly a hassle on your own.  We drive to the border, go through, have our passports checked, and then board a different van in Guatemala.  All of this is pretty painless and takes only a few minutes.  It's about two hours to Tikal from here.

We start at a small temple and take a jungle path on the way to Temple IV- the biggest one. Tikal is in the middle of the rain forest.  Our guide spots monkeys a couple times and we stop to observe.  I'm excited to finally see monkeys on the trip.   We see both howler and spider monkeys.  It's now raining a bit, but stops shortly.

We get to Temple IV which is awesome.  There are stairs to the top, so despite this structure being much taller than the ones we have already seen, it is an easier climb.  The view from the top is amazing.  You are above the canopy and can see several other large temples that poke through the trees.  This view is well known from the first Star Wars movie.  We get some photos in before the downpour begins.

We visit the other biggies at Tikal- the Jaguar temple and main plaza.  While hiking up and down Tikal, I nearly tripped and L' says "you can't kill yourself- that's my job!".  Nothing like the support of my friends.  Our guide pulls a red butted tarantula out of a hole.  The main plaza is breathtaking in scope and uniqueness.  I've never seen anything remotely like it.  With our tour of the site complete, we stop for lunch before our return back.  Lunch is pretty good and I hope it doesn't kill me.

I have lots of thoughts on the ride back.  Tikal is the most amazing thing I've seen that I had never heard of two months ago.  The sites of the last two days were great, but Tikal is really special.  The Mayans were really interesting.  They accomplished a lot without the wheel, cows, metal, or the arch.  They figured out much in astronomy.   Our European bias results in us learning little about these advanced, if savage, people.

On the ride through Guatemala back to Belize, it's clear this is a poor country.  People live in tiny shacks.  Tikal is a national treasure.  In the park, locals were dressed up because their visit could be the only one of their lifetime.  It costs $20US to get in, but $3US for locals- which I guess is a lot of money for them.  What can be done about this I don't know.   We learn later in trip, that Guatemalans are brought in to Belize to harvest some of the crops.  Even here, as in the U.S. and Costa Rica, the poorest of the  poor are brought in to do the hard manual labor.  

The ride back, border crossing, and drop off at the hotel is uneventful.  Lonnie takes care of his airport arrangements and we return to the  house.   A little while later we head to town for dinner at Martha's restaurant which is recommended in all of our guide books.  It's a major disappointment.  It takes well over an hour to get our food and it's not even good.  We are all pretty irritated.  We get ice cream to save the evening.  In the ice cream store I see they have some candy for sale.  Among the selection is "Nerds".  I ask L' if she wants some nerds and she replies "No, I already got two!".  Her quick wit is one of her endearing qualities and it's good that after a long day and irritating evening we can all still joke around.  We pick up groceries and taxi back to the house for showers and sleep.

After yesterday's guided tour of Caracol, we take the opposite approach today.  We have breakfast and head to the lobby to ask about the best way to get to Xunantunich (pronounced Zoo-nan-too-nich).  A guy in the lobby says he'll take us there for $15US or there's a bus that goes to the bottom of the hill for $1BZ ($1US = $2BZ).  We opt for the somewhat slimy driver.  While we may have been taken advantage of, we did skip the one mile uphill walk to the site.  The neat hand cranked ferry across the river was fun.

Xunantunich is about the size of Caracol in height.  We explore the site and climb the major pyramids.  The view at the top of the big one (El Castillo) is fantastic.  It's a panoramic of the hillside and you can see the border with Guatemala from here.  It's getting toasty out and all the Mayan pyramids have steep steps.  This is thought to be so that you were forced onto your knees when climbing up (the Mayans were an average 5'2").  Climbing up, my legs are getting soar and I'm pretty sweaty.  After viewing the museum and stellas, we walk down, take the ferry back across and wait a few minutes for the bus.  For 50 cents US, we get off in San Ignacio.  We have a leisurely lunch (meals are very slow in Belize).  We stop at Eva's to check on tours.  Since their cost is similar to the hotel's, we return to the hotel to book tomorrow's trip to Tikal.

With tomorrow arranged, we go slightly down the hill to the adjacent Cahal Pech ruins.  Farly small, we explore the visitors center and ruins.  I learn that while it was previously thought that the Mayans did not have the wheel, new evidence indicates otherwise.  This site has the major benefit of being in the shade.  We run into a couple from yesterday's Caracol trip and learn that they are probably on our Tikal trip tomorrow.  

After two Mayan ruins today, Lonnie comments that he is "just ruined".   I ask him how long he's been waiting to say that.   We hit the pool at the hotel.  Disappointingly, the spa isn't heated and the pool is chilly so we go to the house and use the jacuzzi.  For dinner we eat down the road and turn in early for tomorrow's big day at Tikal. 

Today started off rough, but ended up fantastic.  The A/C gave out in the middle of the night and the beds were not too comfy so everyone was a bit grumpy this morning.  Yesterday's less than ideal food no doubt added to the unpleasantness. 

Our tour of Caracol departed shortly after 8am.  It's a two hour drive, but only about 50 miles.  The "road" in many places is very bumpy, but the last part is paved.  We make a short stop at a security check point and use the opportunity to grab a candy bar.  We arrive at Caracol a little after 10.

Caracol is the largest Mayan site in Belize and the highest man made structure in the country.  Having not taken many photos thus far, I go wild today.  The site is great to see.  We climb nearly all of the buildings and get a nice workout doing so.  We see some bats inside a small room and some very big spiders.  Still no monkeys so I keep asking, in full musical mode, "Hey, Hey, where are the monkeys?".  Our guide Bruce is excellent and we explore the parts of the site that are open to the public.  The entire site is enormous with about 30,000 structures.  Around 130pm, we break for lunch and depart at 2pm. 

We make three stops on the way back.  The first two are near each other- Rio Frio Cave and Rio on pools.  The first one is a big cave opening with water flowing through it.  The second is a bunch of rocks and an opportunity to swim.  I dangle my feet in the cold water and relax from the day's activities.  Our final stop is a local artisan place where they make traditional Mayan carvings.  Not normally a shopper, they have some neat carvings and all are reasonably priced.  One of the biggest ones is of the Mayan calendar.  Since my friends know that I've researched this a bit, they encourage me to splurge and get it- and I do.   I'm planning a party on December 21, 2012, so pencil that in your calendars. 

We get back to the hotel around 630pm and discuss our room situation.  While at dinner, they fix the A/C and we adjust the furniture for more comfort.  Tomorrow we're off to more ruins. 

Addendum (per L''s request):

L' reminded me of two things that I neglected to mention.  Near the end of our tour of Caracol, we had climbed up every temple we had seen.  There was one temple atop a hill that Lonnie and I decided to pass on since we had already gotten a good view of the plaza from atop another pyramid.  L', being the adventurous (i.e., insane) one, decides to race up the last one.  While she quickly goes to the top, our group stays and chats with our guide.  We wave to L' when she's at the top while our guide points out a carving to us.  We said that L' wanted to climb the last structure because it had a neat carving.  Our guide says "I guess she doesn't know that the copy is up there, and we're looking at the original."  When L' comes down, we ask her how the copy looked.

At Rio on Pools, I didn't have my sandals and the water was cold so I didn't explore much.  While I relaxed, she forced Lonnie under some waterfall against his initial judgment.  She's always raising the bar.     

Today I slept in.  The rest of the team was nearly ready to go when I rolled out of bed at nearly 9am.  This is important because it represented a glaring failure in the buddy system implemented before the trip.  Let me explain:  I've traveled with Lonnie previously, but not with L' so she was the wildcard.  I told Lonnie that if for some reason I'm not at breakfast, send in the search party after me.  So today, L' is up early and meets Lonnie for breakfast while I'm blissfully sleeping in.  L' says to Lonnie, "Shouldn't you be checking on Matt?".  Lonnie has a look of concern and fear and says "Oh yeah.".  The concern is touching except that Lonnie does not actually follow through.  Of course, nothing happened, but I need to have a talk with Lonnie about how the buddy system actually works.  

I had some breakfast and then L' and I rented bikes while Lonnie got in his hammock time.  It was a nice ride to the northern end of the island- we even had to pay a toll which reminded me of the scene in Blazing Saddles with the toll booth.  We saw a couple iguanas, some new beach front properties and the ice cream shop we had kayaked to yesterday.

With a noon checkout, we headed back to the hotel so we could shower, pack up, and checkout.  We went across the street at 12:30 for our 1pm flight to the Belize Municipal Airport.  I went in to the airline office, gave them my last name and she gave me three boarding cards.  No ID check, metal detector, or luggage screen.  It turned out we were the only ones on the flight.  The pilot wouldn't let me take the copilot seat, but I sat right behind him for good views and a look at the instrument panel.  Hey, it is just like Microsoft Flight Simulator!

We landed after the approximately 15 minute flight, grabbed our bags and a few minutes later Luis from the resort picked us up for the two hour drive to San Ignacio.  He pointed out the changing scenery.  The oranges, mangroves, and palm trees reminded me of Florida without the inept voters.

We've booked a four bedroom house- "the mansion" at the Cahal Pech Resort.  It's a bit musty and the upstairs bedrooms lack A/C as promised.  We get groceries, settle in, and head to town for dinner.  Our choices are limited on "Boxing Day", but we find something and taxi back to the house.  With a 730am pickup for our tour of Caracol tomorrow, we hit the sack early to be prepared for tomorrow's big day. 

We didn't set alarms today, but were up lounging by around 8.  Meeting Lonnie halfway through breakfast they then were cleaning the room so we sat by the pool.  Having juice and cereal we then headed to Ramon's to rent kayaks.  This was fun and gave me a good upper body workout.  We went North and stopped for some ice cream.  Some kids ran over and at first were friendly, but then asked for money.  Then they scampered off when it was clear they weren't getting anything from us.  The return kayak trip was much shorter since we didn't go as far away from shore.  We dropped off the kayaks and returned to the hotel.

Back at the hotel, taking a water out of the fridge, a beer rolled out, hit the ground and started fizzing.  Taking this as a sign, we sat on the porch and had a beer.   It's good to be on vacation.   Wandering around town looking for lunch a lot was closed for Christmas or because of the off time (around 2pm).  We got lunch at the hotel.  L' took a nap while I showered and then met Lonnie at the pool. 

A little before sunset L' returned and we went on a walk.  I wanted to try for some sunset photos over the water so we walked the few blocks to the other side of the island.  No good water views, but we were among the locals now.  Houses are small and many would be called shacks in the U.S.  Upstairs balconies sometimes lack railings.  I doubt many or even any have air conditioning.  What a contrast to our hotel.  I wonder how the country can get tourist money to actually improve the lives of the locals and not just enrich the hotel owners.   As the sun sets, the bugs are returning and we head back to the hotel.

After a short stop, we head for dinner and find Fido's.  No dog, but good food even if the bruschetta was mispronounced and delivered after the entrees.  We wander back to the hotel for a drink and go to sleep.  Tomorrow we depart for the Cayo. 

We used L''s Lonely Planet to find a place to eat for our Christmas dinner, Elvi's kitchen.  Last night's recommendation was good and so was tonight's.  I ordered fried chicken and our waitress, Anna, told us it took about twenty minutes.  No problem, I replied, since we have nothing planned later and I like leisurely dinners.  After more than 20 minutes, the team is blaming me for the delay in our food.  They even jokingly tell Anna this who confirms it.  Some time later a different person comes by and L' tells him to tell me that it's my fault -which he does.

We finally get our dinners and Anna apologizes and again says it's my fault.  Dinner is good fried chicken and plenty of it.  We order the amaretto cheese cake for dessert which is the highlight of the meal.  After dessert, the waitress asks if we ant anything else and L' orders hot tea.  It takes a little while and again the team and Anna blame me.  After the tea, we get the check along with a comment card.  Since we've been rotating who pays for dinner, it's L''s turn.

While they check her card, I fill out the comment card and have a little fun and revenge on our waitress.  I check all the "excellent" boxes since it was a good meal, but when I get to the comment section,  I write in "Great dinner, but it's not my fault.  Merry Christmas".  Anna returns with L''s card which she places in front of me (I'm on the end).  She sees the comment card, reads it, and laughs.  I said it may be my fault, but watch this…and I pass the bill to L'.  We all get another laugh.  As we head out, we get a picture of me with Anna and she also takes our first group photo.  As we wave goodbye the waitress says to another employee that I'm the funny one, which is one of my favorite compliments to receive.  We then walk back to the hotel and have a beer to end the night.

 The locals are very friendly and chatty.  When working on our plans today, we stopped at a tour organizer and were talking about our options for today and tomorrow (Christmas Day).  They ask us what were doing for Christmas and we tell them that we're Jewish.  They're interested in this and we wonder later if this is the first time they've knowingly talked with Jews.  One of them has seen the movie "Borat" and recalled one of the antisemitic satire scenes of the moive.  She asks us how come so many people hate Jews. We look at each other and say "Do you have all day to go over it?"  The conversation is interesting and L' explains about the impact of the Church, deicide, and Pope John Paul II attempting to fix that mess.   The locals made another comment that they would never want to visit the U.S.  Watching CNN, she sees terrorism, serial killers, and mall shootings ("If I go to the mall- if we had a mall- I don't want to get shot").  We comment later how the U.S. used to be a beacon to the world and now people don't want to even visit.  What a shame.  Travel is enlightening and humbling to others' views. 

Today is our first full day in Ambergris Caye.  We awoke to be ready for breakfast at 7:30 because we wanted to book the glass bottom boat and snorkel tour for 9am.  The front desk said the glass bottom boat was full and when we tried calling it, one number was disconnected and the other just went to voicemail.  I wanted the glass bottom boat because I'm not a snorkeler, but wanted to see things and go for a swim.  I'm not into snorkeling because I don't do well with the snorkel in my mouth and can't see without my glasses assuming the mask even fits.   Giving up on the glass bottom boat, we booked snorkeling for 2pm, had breakfast, inquired about tomorrow's plans and options (since it is Christmas), and got some groceries.  I was a bit stressed this morning when it was looking like we might have 2 days with nothing to do, but was much calmer now that plans were forming.

After lunch at the hotel, we changed into bathing suits, lotionized for the strong tropical sun, and grabbed our stuff for the snorkel trip.  We get to the meeting point for the boat, and of course they have no mask to fit over my glasses (at least they had fins for my small feet).  While waiting for the snorkel boat, I chatted with the snorkel saleswoman.  I asked about our trip- how long we'd be on the water, how far out we go, and what we would see.  Always the comedian, I asked her if we could use Lonnie to chum up the water for the sharks.  She said "Of course, yeah of course you can do that".  Wow, we did pick the right tour operator!  Lonnie seemed a little concerned, however.

We headed out to Hol Chan shortly after 2pm.  It's a fifteen minute boat ride and when we arrive there, there are already sharks swimming thanks to all the boats tossing bread and food into the water.  The water is a beautiful turquoise blue, probably in the upper 70s and about 4 feet deep.  The guide will lead a group further out, but I opt to stay near the boat where I can walk around and at least see things in focus.  A bunch of other people do the same thing.  For 10 minutes, there's nothing to see, but then a nurse shark buzzes by and I'm glad I made the trip.  There was another one a bit later along with some coral.  The water was a bit cold so I headed back to the boat about 30 feet away to warm up.  About 10 minutes later my travel team returned to also warm up.  

The boat's next stop was Shark Ray Alley.  It is so named because fishermen used to gut their fish here so sharks and rays congregate there.  This is still true today as we were about to witness.  One of our guides was holding a ray that  swam by the boat.  There were plenty of fish around also.  I didn't bother going in the water and only a few folks did- and not for very long.  We then took the boat back to shore and made the short walk to the hotel for a hot shower.  

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