The next day we went to visit Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. These sites are local to San Ignacio and easily reachable on public transport. Though I would like to point out that the reggae on the bus from San Ignacio to Xunantunich was…. extremely loud. From the place the bus dropped us off we caught a cable ferry across the river then a pleasant half hour or so walking to the site.
Xunantunich was not one of the major powers in Maya history, but it does have some wonderful friezes and wildlife. There were four or five troupes of howler monkeys in the vicinity and they constantly made their presence heard.
Inside some of the structures there were many bats and the wildlife in general was abundant.
Cahal Pech is a much smaller site but very charming. Lots of little plazas and courtyards.
The day after that, as we failed to find transport to El Pilar, we headed to Belize zoo. Belize zoo is rather special. Firstly they only have animals that are living in Belize. Secondly they do not buy in animals (or swap in). Every animal there was either born on the site or rescued from somewhere in Belize. They have a very good release programme but many of the animals do not want to be released! Furthermore, the feeding wagons attract a great deal of local wildlife. Here are two yellow winged tanagers and a hepatic tanager exploiting food destined for captive tapirs! I confess that this is one of my favourite photographs from the entire trip. The yellow winged tanagers are so, so pretty.
And that was not all!
There is a company which runs buses from Flores through to Cancun. The buses have toilets (which you are asked not to use any more than you have to) and English speaking guides. They are marginally more comfortable than the local second class buses. But their huge advantage is that they are allowed to cross the necessary borders. We caught one of those from Flores to San Ignacio (in Belize)
Belize is culturally fascinating. The people there speak English, Spanish and a local language known as Kriol which is a kind of Spanish/French/English patois spoken very, very fast. San Ignacio itself is quite touristy. There’s a certain amount of hustle – there’s an entire street full of tour operators offering to take you to various places (it’s pretty well price fixed and none of them were happy to take us to El Pilar). So we were able to fix ourselves a trip to Caracol, which was one of our definitely ‘must see’ sites and pretty well impossible to reach independently.
I don’t think we have many pictures of San Ignacio, but it is an attractive town (away from the tourist strip, which isn’t all that bad anyway) sitting on a river with a lovely vermillion flycatcher, right in the town centre.
The first afternoon we wandered down to branch mouth, a local beauty spot. We got lost several times on the way there which was not entire a bad thing as we saw this which we are pretty sure is a lesser yellow legs.
We ate mostly in Ko-Ox Han nah which means ‘Let’s go eat’ – fantastic Belizean food. Not just chicken rice and beans. This was where we first experienced fry jacks… But chicken rice and beans along with cole slaw is what you mostly get to eat in Belize.
So, the next day we headed off to Caracol. It’s a long and bumpy drive (we saw a crocodile in the river), so on the way we stopped to view some caves which were used by the Maya for ritual.
Onwards to Caracol. We had an excellent guide who pointed out a number of birds and other sorts of wildlife, as well as giving us his own take on what the Maya were all about (every guide seems to have their own theories). I have a list of the birds we saw but the one in the photo is an emerald toucanet. We were very lucky to see it – they are quite rare.
Caracol itself is an interesting site, the largest in Belize – allied at one time with Tikal and subsequently with Calakmul. The excavations are relatively recent. There is a wonderful story about a Princess from Caracol who was exiled, for a while to Xunantunich. Xunanatunich means stone woman.
But really, what we enjoyed most there, was the wildlife. Belize is excellent for wildlife and there are notices everywhere, exhorting the locals to look after it.
We organised a trip to Tikal via our hotel. It was just not possible for us to stay in Flores without visiting Tikal. We had been there before, in 2010 when Ashley had his arm in a cast. But Tikal is very, very special. Yes, it’s a popular site, never devoid of tourists, but it’s also huge with widely separated plazas and some excellent chances for wildlife spotting.
We were there all day and nearly managed to miss visiting the grand plaza with the temple of the Jaguar. Quite how that happened I am not quite sure – we left it till last then took a wrong turning. We ran most of the way there and got back in time for our collectivo back to Flores.
I don’t think anything I can say would do this site justice. There are a great many really lovely plazas. My personal favourite is the plaza of the seven temples.
I mentioned the wildlife. We did see monkeys but no monkey pictures here (we got better monkey pictures on other sites). We did not manage to get a photo of the dead monkey being eaten by a vulture. Those vultures do a great job of keeping the forests clean. What we did see was a trogon. This was the only sighting of a trogon we got the whole time we were in Central America. We also saw a motmot but it had lost half of its tail (and therefore could be described as a mot)… The tree in the picture is a Ceiba tree, sacred to the Maya people it represents the underworld, the real world and the heavens.
Yes, it’s been a while since our last post. We were in Berlin….
We were warned not to take an organised tour from Palenque to Bonampak. You may recall that part of the purpose of this trip was to break ‘the curse of Bonampak’. We tried to get there on three occasions. On the first it was deemed too difficult due to terrorist activities. On the second the murals were closed and on the third attempt we ran out of cash in Frontera de Corazol.
We ignored the warning and purchased an organised tour. This was incredibly good value. We were picked up at our hotel in Palenque, taken for a good Mexican breakfast, driven up to where you get on the launch to Yaxchilan boated up the river to Yaxchilan, taken back for a decent Mexican lunch, on to Bonampak. Overnight in a really good jungle lodge on the river then picked up and driven to Flores in Guatemala. We were the only English speakers on the bus, though there was another bus with some Canadians in it. We met a lot of Canadians on this trip. Central America is a lot warmer than Canada in January and February.
On the way to Yaxchilan I saw a pair of toucans flying. They look….. improbable. How can they fly so elegantly with those great, heavy beaks?
Yaxchilan is one of our very favourite sites in Central America. The lintels are just amazingly delicate. Some of them are in the British Museum so if you are ever in London you can see them there. Some of them, however, remain in situ. The wildlife is also rich. When we were there in 2010 a Fer de Lance was spotted less than an inch from Ashley’s foot. This time the wildlife seen was less poisonous (and mostly monkeys)!
And we finally got to Bonampak! It’s a lovely little site but…. They are quite rightly highly protective of the famous frescoes. Only three people are allowed into the frescoes at once and there was a sizeable queue. This meant that we felt we couldn’t really stay staring at the frescoes for the several hours we would have needed to take in all the detail. Ashley managed to get some pretty decent shots. The rest of the site is very restful. Nicely laid out and presented. And the crowds, of course, are queuing up to see the frescoes. What struck me was the contrast between these amazing frescoes and the carvings…. After what we had seen just a few hours earlier at Yaxchilan, the carving seemed…. interesting but blockier… less delicate, less sophisticated. It made me wonder what the frescoes at Yaxchilan or Calakmul or Tikal must have been like….
So, we broke the curse.
After Bonampak we stayed for one night at Ya Toch Barum, a jungle lodge run by local Lacandon people. Not just a lodge but an entire complex with a recycling centre and a shop which doubles as an internet cafe along with a restaurant. We were shown to a very pleasant bungalow… in which the light did not work. We found someone to come and fix it – it turned out not to be fixable so we were upgraded to a bungalow on the river.
After breakfast we were shepherded across the border into Guatemala and on to Flores. Flores is pretty but very, very touristy. Our hotel was lovely (great roof terrace overlooking the lake) but the discos and bars along the shore of the lake were a bit too noisy for our liking. Not crowded – just noisy.
But noise or not, Flores is very beautiful and a great jumping off point for a visit to Tikal.
The next morning one of the staff from the hotel escorted us to the bus stop to make certain we would get onto the bus. We got to the bus stop about twenty minutes early and waited. And waited. Until it became obvious that no bus was going to come. At which point someone was flagged down and gave us a lift to Escarcega. He was dropping bundles of newspapers off at various stores along the way. We got dropped off at the wrong bus garage (we didn’t know which one we needed) but soon made our way to the right (ADO) one. We had time to grab a quick lunch before getting on the bus to Palenque.
This must have been a first class bus because it had movies. Bad ones. In Spanish. However, as we went along the scenery changed as we drew closer and closer to the rainforest.
We’ve been to Palenque before. Each time we have visited it has become more and more developed. There is now a luxury hotel where we first stayed (along with iguanas and howler monkeys) and, though you can sometimes hear them, we didn’t see any howler monkeys in town. We stayed at the same hotel we stayed at in 2003 and there was still noisy building work going on. Some of the restaurants are very touristy in terms of price and menu but there is a good choice of places to eat, drink and sleep.
In the morning we took ourselves to the Maya site – it’s easy enough on the collectivo. It remains one of the best presented of all the sites in Central America. The monumental structures rise up out of the forest as they must always have done. There are one or two big trees left in the plazas (which would not have been the case in Mayan times) and these house a large colony of very noisy parrots (of the small, green varieties). These days there are a large number of stalls selling tourist tat (some of it quite nice, some of it those nasty noise makers). There are also a large number of tourists and, as it was a Saturday, quite a few children. It’s no longer possible to get away from the crowds in the main parts of Palenque though, if you walk through the forest towards the museum, it’s fairly quiet.
It’s a big site and we were quite tired by the time we got to the museum. Which was, however, extremely worth the time and energy taken to visit. They have reconstructed Pakal’s tomb extremely well and it is exhibited with plenty of explanatory text. Sadly photos taken (without the forbidden flash) in the museum did not come out very well.
The next day Diane from the lodge drove us into the little town of Xpujil. There are ruins of some mostly domestic Maya buildings opposite the school and we started out there. We then walked up to the main site at Xpujil which we had almost to ourselves. We spent some time exploring the ruins and watching the wildlife. The area is a bit low on wildlife as, however, we did see the very impressive bat falcon at the main site at Xpujil which was probably why the plaza was devoid of other birds, and we had frequent sightings of small green parrots flitting in and out of the bushes beside the road.
We then walked back to the town and caught a taxi to Becan. That saved us about 10 km walk. Becan is a wonderful site with many structures and a moat. It was certainly Hilary’s favourite site to date (and one of the best overall). Again, we had it almost to ourselves – there were two other people there and they were not obtrusive.
We walked along to Chicanná which is on the way back to the lodge. Another wonderful site including some monstrous doorways where you step into the maw of the house of the serpent mouth. Regrettably we didn’t get a really good picture showing the teeth!
That was a very full day with lots of walking between and within the sites. We got back to Rio Bec Dreams very ready for a shower, a sit by the bamboo to watch the jays and a few cold beers.
Next day we made our way to Palenque – a big favourite of ours…
We spent the next day (we are now up to 17th January) traveling. Early morning bus (we watched the sun come up through the bus window) to Chetumal. Grabbed a quick lunch in Subway (which is a big thing in Mexico) at the ADO bus station then onto the second class bus headed for Escarcega. This bus had no movies but it did have Village People. Quite loudly. All the way. We asked to be dropped off at Rio Bec Dreams. Apparently there is usually no problem with that but… We got some very helpful passengers and a driver who dropped us off at Becan. Which is about six km from Rio Bec Dreams. We walked it.
Rio Bec Dreams is a jungle lodge just off the main road in the Calakmul bio reserve. It’s run by a very knowledgeable and interesting couple – he’s from Canada, she’s originally from the UK but has lived all over the world. It is a lovely place, a little spot of paradise with hummingbirds and more. They have about five bungalows, a bar and a restaurant serving international cuisine. At that point in our stay, I was not in the mood for international cuisine (with vegetables) because I was not yet sick of Central American food. The goats cheese salad was, however, amazing.
The main point of our staying at the lodge (apart from enjoying the garden and the wonderful wildlife inhabiting the garden) was to visit Calakmul – a somewhat remote site which is supposed to be totally wonderful. Calakmul is not the easiest site to access, we’d been led to believe that the owners of Rio Bec Dreams would be able to help us get there, even if only help with organising a taxi to get there are perhaps a guide. It got better than expected, they helped us hire a car so we drove ourselves.
The drive was epic. First an easy half hour down a modern highway. Then you turn off to the left and drive about 60 Km. The first bit is on an almost intact road. Not a modern highway, but easily negotiable. Then you drive 30 Km down a rough track full of very deep potholes. We mostly managed to dodge them. We hit one on the way in and one on the way out. And the car was returned to the hire place undamaged so clearly it had withstood the trials of the road.
Calakmul itself is a very large site and, I thought, presented in a highly confusing manner. First of all we saw a very large and easy to understand residential complex. That was lovely though all the frescoes had been removed to somewhere we didn’t go. There are some very high (for Mexico) temples and, of course, a lot of the visitors think that the whole point of the site is to get exercise by climbing them. I found it a bit disappointing, to be honest. I think I might have expected too much. I’m not sure why but the lack of Stellae and relief work on the walls might be a partial explanation. On reflection, even though the well thought out route and notes provided from Rio Bec Dreams helped , perhaps we should have taken a guide or visited later on our trip when our eyes were more in. So, the ruins were somewhat disappointing but the wildlife was sensational. We saw spider monkeys, ocellated turkeys (some of whom like to walk in front of your car for considerable distances), red throat ant tanager, black cowled orioles, I’m pretty sure I saw a peccary and I definitely got my first sight of Montezoma’s oropendolas. These birds were to feature frequently in our future.