Mayans past and present

My journey to Belize City from San Francisco (via Houston) was long but uneventful, and soon after arriving I was on the hour-long ferry to Caye Caulker, a laid back island which I’d chosen as a base for some scuba diving. The island is quite small, with the town taking up most of the land area. It doesn’t have much in the way of beaches – instead there are several jetties attached to the small hotels and restaurants on the edge of the sea for their guests’ use. The biggest and most popular spot is the Lazy Lizard at the Spit, a channel at the north end of the main island between the main island and a small uninhabited island. There’s usually a reasonably sized crowd of people tanning on the large deck with a drink or swimming / snorkelling in the waters around the Spit. Even though Caye Caulker is fairly large and popular with the backpacker crowd, it never really felt too busy or overly touristy. The island motto, ‘Go Slow’, is embraced by everyone, which makes it really easy going, but there are still enough bars to mean that there is still a bit of a party atmosphere. It’s definitely one of the nicest island-type places I’ve been to, and I ended up staying there a bit longer than I was originally planning. Belize is quite a bit more expensive than other Central American countries, with beers around US$2.50, and food generally starting at US$5 at a very basic restaurant and for a very basic meal. I paid US$25 for a very basic double room with fan and shared bathrooms and no breakfast – in Guatemala I’ve been paying between US$13 and US$26 for a private room with private bathroom. That said there are a few local restaurants which are much better value, my favourite being Errolyns House of Fry Jacks, whose fry jacks (a thin bread pocket filled with beans, eggs, cheese, ham etc. and fried) make a delicious breakfast for between US$1 and US$2. My favourite was the ham and black beans – so good. Another good value favourite were the pitas at Aladdins, near Lazy Lizard. Most people who visit Caye Caulker do one of the snorkelling trips, which I’ve heard are pretty good, but because of the diving I gave it a skip.

Typical road in Caye Caulker
There are no cars, so people travel around on golf carts
People chilling at the Lazy Lizard

I did a total of 7 dives, using Belize Diving Services, a very professional and well run operation, and based on what I heard from other people, a much more comfortable and safer option, with good boats, good equipment and a responsible attitude to diving. You can definitely find cheaper dives on the island, but with some very disturbing compromises in safety – I met someone who was allowed to dive to 40m despite only having done 6 dives in total. The dive that everyone comes to Belize to do is the Blue Hole, a collapsed limestone cave 2 hours boat ride from Caye Caulker. From the air the Blue Hole is a dark circle of deep blue water surrounded by light blue shallow waters. I’d read a bit about the dive before and so knew what to expect – a descent down a bare limestone wall to 40m to some large stalactites hanging from the roof of an overhang, followed by a slow ascent along the side wall of the hole. Occasionally you might get to see a shark or two on the dive but generally there isn’t a lot of life. It is one of those dives which I think is quite overhyped, and is definitely not worth coming to Belize just to do the dive, but if you are in the area and are happy to pay the large of money it costs (US$265 for the Blue Hole plus two other dives on Lighthouse Atoll and lunch on an small island), then it is nice to tick it off the list. The other two dives we did after the Blue Hole were more standard coral wall dives, and were really nice, with good viz, calm conditions and nice soft corals. While at Caye Caulker I also did two dives on the local reefs (nowhere near a nice as the far off reefs and as my dive guide had said earlier, not really worth doing unless you are desperate to get in the water), and two dives on Turneffe Atoll (both nice dives but quite expensive due to a one hour boat ride to the reef, at USD140). You don’t get the abundance and variety of sea life that you get around Indonesia, the Philippines and Borneo, but I still got to see some really nice things: several turtles, Caribbean reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, a few lone barracuda, a very rare and difficult to find white spotted toadfish, arrow bennies, some cool spider crabs, a large unidentified crab, some nice shrimp, lots of lobsters, a few large free swimming and very curious green moray eels, southern stingray, lemon sharks, the smallest garden eels I’ve seen, a firework, a flamenco tongue, a few spotted drums (juvenile and adult), a mackerel, a hogfish in intermediate phase, bottle nose dolphins and lots of black durgon. Unfortunately I didn’t have an underwater camera so you’ll either have to use your imagination or Google. As always, dive trips are a great place to meet other people, especially since my hotel wasn’t very social.

Our dive boat
A lizard we saw at our lunch stop
A red-footed boobie at our lunch spot

After Caye Caulker I hopped on a bus to Guatemala to see the Mayan ruins at Tikal. The bus company gave a short talk warning us about the Belize departure tax of around US$18 (something which comes as an unwelcome surprise to most people) as well as possible scams at the Guatemalen border, such as demanding a US$3 entry fee or only pretending to stamp your passport, meaning you get fined US$100 when you try to leave. Everyone was understandably a bit nervous about what we were getting ourselves into, but in the end the border was extremely friendly and efficient, with no-one having any problems. For Tikal, there a two towns to stay at, El Remate and Flores. Flores is by far the more popular option, with lots of restaurants and hotel options on a fairly crowded island near the main town, and is about an hour from the ruins. El Remate is much closer to the ruins (only 30 mins) and is much quieter and smaller (and cheaper), and feels more like a sleepy Guatemalan village than a big tourist town. However, there is zero nightlife other than sitting at some tables on the pavement with a local or two outside a tienda (shop) sipping cheap beer until the shop closes at around 9pm. I chose El Remate (staying at the nice Hotel las Gardenias in a much appreciated aircon room) because it was also much closer to Yaxha, another Mayan ruin I wanted to see, but didn’t see more than about 7 other tourists in the two days I was there.

Sunset at El Remate
Guatemalan tacos! Yummy but messy

The Mayan ruins at Tikal were rediscovered in 1853 and are one of the largest Mayan sites found, covering over 16 square kilometres. It was inhabited from around 400BC until around 900AD, and sits in the middle of dense jungle. Many of the structure have not been excavated or restored, and you get a good idea of how everything would have looked when it was rediscovered.  You don’t get the same detailed carving found at some of the Mayan ruins in Mexico, as the soft limestone rocks have weathered a bit, but the jungle setting is more atmospheric and lower level of restoration makes it feel a bit more authentic. I decided to catch a 05:30 minibus to the ruins, in order to get there when the gates open at 6am and before the big tourist buses arrive at around 09:30. It is possible to get an earlier bus and to pay to get in earlier to catch the sunrise, but as the entire site was covered in mist until about 08:00 I’m glad I didn’t choose this option. Getting there early meant that the main sites where largely deserted when I visited them and I also got to see and hear quite a bit of jungle wildlife that is active in the early morning, including grey foxes, the scary sounding howler monkeys (from very close by), coati, ocellated Turkey, red-lored parrot, Montezuma oropendola, and crested guan (but unfortunately no toucans). By 10:00 I’d reached my ruin saturation point and it was getting very hot and starting to fill up, so I headed to the two small museums at the entrance which contained some of the intricately carved stones, pottery and other artefacts discovered at Tikal. Although these museums cost an extra US$4 they add quite a bit to the experience of seeing the ruins. If you don’t want to pay the extra fee there is a small free taster exhibit at the entrance to the pottery museum.

The Grand Plaza at Tikal
Another ruin in Tikal
If you look closely, in the middle you can see a young grey fox
Temples in the mist
An ocellated turkey
A carved wooden door found at Tikal
A stone stella from Tikal

I also visited Yaxha, a smaller set of ruins that aren’t as large and impressive as Tikal, but are worth a visit if you are interested in Mayan ruins. They are much more compact and so give a better impression of how the the whole site would have looked. They are also much less popular and for the first two hours I didn’t see another tourist, with a few appearing as it got closer to sunset. This lack of popularity means that it’s a bit more expensive to get Yaxha as you will probably need to book a private vehicle.

An unrenovated pyramid at Yaxha
A view over the jungle
The stairs at some of the pyramids are a little scary

From Tikal I headed to the next spot on the fairly standard gringo trail in Guatemala, Semuc Champey. Because most backpackers in Central America (and often South America) tend to visit similar places in a similar order, you often find yourself bumping in people again and again, which makes travelling on your own a lot easier. Southern Guatemala lies along the convergence zone for two tectonic plates and so there are steep mountains and volcanoes all over the place, which makes for beautiful drives. Semuc Champey is a series of tiered natural limestone rock pools fed by cave water situated in a steep valley. You can either in Lanquin, a  small predominantly Mayan town  or alternatively  near the pools themselves 30 to 45 mins drive  away on a bumpy dirt road. I chose to stay at El Retiro, a nice social hostel in Lanquin right on the river, with good food and a good variety of rooms available. They offered a really nice full day tour to Semuc Champey which included a short but steep walk to the viewpoint overlooking the pools, a 2 hour stop at the pools themselves, a walk and short swim to a waterfall where the braver souls could climb up and jump off next to the waterfall, a really fun and occasionally nerve wracking cave walk/swim through an underground river with only a candle for light, and finally a gentle float down a river on tubes accompanied by local kids selling you some beers. The highlight was definitely the cave swim, something I’ve never done before. Looking back as you swim in the dark holding your candle out the water and seeing a long line of bobbing flames behind you is an unforgettable experience. I also did the tubing on the river in front of El Retiro (a bit more adventurous than the Semuc Champey tubing, with some gentle rapids near the end offering a bit of excitement), and the Bat cave tour, a visit to a nice limestone cave with the highlight being sitting in the entrance to the cave in the dark at sunset when all the bats start to emerge.

Our dodgy car ferry on the way to Semuc Champey
The beautiful mountain scenery in southern Guatemala
The river outside my hostel in Semuc Champey
Heading off to the pools on the back of a pickup
Looking down on the pools from the slightly scary viewpoint

 

 

The pools from ground level
The entrance to the bat cave
A scary spider creature our guide found in the caves
Some cool stalactites

A long but not-too-uncomfortable bus ride through the beautiful rugged mountain scenery left me in Antigua, probably the most popular tourist spot in Guatemala . The former colonial capital, it was largely abandoned following a devistating earthquake in 1773 which destroyed many of the large buildings and lead to the establishment of what is now Guatemala City. Many of the ruined churches are now open to the public and make a really nice change from the standard church visit. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site and is a great place to base yourself for a few days, with AMAZING coffee, lots of nice restaurants and a good choice of activities. Unfortnately I developed a dodgy tummy (probably from the burger I had at the service station on the way here) so I didn’t get to do much other than see a few of the ruined churches and monasteries. After a few days I decided to rather recover in San Pedro la Laguna, and to return to Antigua when I was feeling better.

Y Like pretty much every town in southern Guatemala, Antigua has a volcano looming over it
Open air church
Much of the fallen masonry was left where it fell

The ruined convent

San Pedro is a small predominantly Mayan town on Lake Atitlan about 3 hours drive (including a very windy and bumpy last hour). The setting is absolutely stunning, at the foot of a volcano on the edge of a huge lake surrounded by steep forest covered mountains. The best view of the volcanoes is actually from San Marcos, a short boat ride across the lake, but San Pedro seems to have the nicer backpacker scene. Lake Atitlan seems to be where a lot of spiritual people end up settling, so be prepared for lots of yoga, tarot, spiritual massage and gemstone amulets. Fortunately there’s also quite good party scene. Days are largely spent relaxing at various spots around the town, kayaking in the lake, recovering from hangovers , experiencing the occasional small earthquake etc. There are a few hikes you can do – I did the short sunrise hike up Indian Nose, a viewpoint above San Pedro, which was really good and not too strenuous. I organised to do mine using local transport to and from the starting point – first catching the 4am chicken bus to the start, and then catching a passing pickup followed by a shared Tuktuk on the way back. FYI chicken buses are US school buses that are used for most travel by locals in Guatemala (and many other Central American countries). They tend to be quite slow and crowded, but are an interesting experience, although I didn’t see any chickens. My hostel in San Pedro, Pinocchios, was really nice with a great rooftop to see the lake, and was a good place to meet other people.

The view from San Pedro
Another lake view
Inside a chicken bus
The amazing view from Indian Nose
San Pedro is the town on the left
My pickup truck for the ride down

 

A typical chicken bus

My final stop in Guatemala is Antigua, where I’m staying for 3 nights to do some of the things I didn’t get to do when I was here before. First was a hike up Pacaya volcano, a slightly active volcano about 15kms away.  It’s also an easy hike of just over 5km  with a bit of uphill (I’m still taking it easy on my back), and you can’t go all the way to the top for safety reasons, but it’s still a cool thing to do, with great views, a chance to see the  solidifiedi lava stream from the 2014 eruption, and to toast marshmallows in one of the many hot vents.

A view of three volcanoes on the hike up Pacaya

 

Pacaya volcano and the most recent lava field
Walking across the lava field
Everyone toasting their marshmallows
Yummy!!!

I also did a good tour to the neighbouring town of Ciudad Vieja to see a bit of typical Guatemalan life, including a visit to a chicken bus ‘factory’, a coffin manufacturer and a local run by an NGO, as well as a good street food (come hungry). I’ve loved travelling through Guatemala – there’s a large variety of things to do, beautiful scenery, easy to meet people and it’s relatively easy to get around. I’d have liked to do some of the longer hikes, but I guess that will have to wait for next time! Next stop – Honduras!!

Old school buses being converted into chicken buses

 

Fruit and veg at the local market in Antigua
A delicious tamale on our food tour

 

Links:

1. Belize Diving Services, Caye Caulker: http://www.belizedivingservices.com

2. Hotel las Gardenias, El Remate: http://www.hotelasgardenias.com

3. El Retiro Hostel, Lanquin (Semuc Champey): http://www.elretirolanquin.com

4. Casa Hosta Hacia del Sur, Antigua: info@haciaelsur-casahostal.com

5: Pinocchios, San Pedro la Laguna: http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g313833-d6425860-Reviews-Hotel_Pinocchio-San_Pedro_La_Laguna_Lake_Atitlan_Solola_Department_Western_Highlands.html

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2 thoughts on “Mayans past and present

  1. Apart from the spider creature, Guatemala looks great! As a fellow ‘geogger boy’ I appreciate the time you took to explain the geomorphology of the region too…

  2. Brillianti! Really incredibly interesting. I hope that when you finally get back to JHB you’ll print everything. Will you?
    Much love and bon voyage in Honduras! x Granny

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