Orange Walk and Laminai were last on our ‘must do’ list. We had an extra three days due to Virgin Atlantic having changed our outbound flight to three days earlier than expected and we had allowed a couple of days in case we had any delays or issues. So we debated what to do with the last week or so…
Well, there is so much to do in Central America that this was actually quite difficult. In the end we decided to head back to Mexico. The border crossing was interesting as, apparently, something had not been done or not been charged previously, also the bus which told us it was going right through to Chetumal decided not to go through to Chetumal. This left us somewhat stranded. We were encouraged to take a taxi but, in the end, another bus turned up and took us through to Chetumal.
From Chetumal we caught another bus which took us to Campeche. Campeche is a lovely City. We had a lot of fun walking up and down the sea front and generally exploring. We bought a hammock. It was strange to be in a proper city again. And we got to visit Ednza. Occupied from 500-1500 AD it has a particularly wonderful plaza
and more than it’s fair share of iguanas.
Campeche has several museums. One is in the walls and another is in an old fort complete with canons. That one has some wonderful artifacts, including a jade mask from Calakmul.
Apart from that, Campeche was where we started to experiment with Margaritas. These are no longer a simple concoction of tequilla, lime, ice and bitters (with salt around the rim) but have come to resemble alcopops. Unless you are very careful to ask for a classic Margarita. But we did our experiments in some very spectacular places!
With some regrets we left Hotelito Perdido and caught the lancha to Livingstone. We’d booked ourselves onto a ferry the day before (as our hike ended in Livingstone) but we still had a while to wait around before the ferry arrived. The ferry was quite exciting. We were in the front row of seats and the weather was quite unsettled. We could hear thunder and see lightening in the distance. The sea was rough and the ferry was leaping across the waves, landing with a massive thump. Cushions? Who needs Cushions? This ferry was a boat with room for a dozen or so people. We were sore for days or, in Ashley’s case, weeks. I thought all the luggage was going to bounce overboard. It was… exciting.
We arrived in Punta Gorda in the middle of a serious rainstorm. We were soaked to the skin within a block but found refuge in a friendly hotel – Grace’s Hotel and Restaurant. Our room was around the back and, whilst not luxurious it was adequate, quiet and secure.
Punta Gorda is a small town and there is not a lot to do there. A couple of bars and we ended up eating in the hotel both nights. Excellent home cooking.
The main reason we stayed there was to visit Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit. Lubaantun is famous for the finding of the crystal skull, serendipitously on her seventeenth birthday, by the daughter of the archaeologist from the British Museum. In her lifetime she would not allow it to be examined but, after her death it was found, by the Smithsonian institute, to bear marks of high speed machine carving. Almost certainly a fake but a damned good story lies behind it. It is a lovely, tranquil place to spend a few hours.
Public transport between Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit is a bit difficult to work out but a local family helped us get on the right bus, and shared their lunch with us.
Nim Li Punit is thought to have been a largely ceremonial site and it has some amazing stellae, most of which reside in its museum. Again, we had the place pretty much to ourselves and were able to wander around undisturbed by other tourists. It seems that we didn’t get a great many good photographs of either of those sites but one of the things that interests me about the photos we do have are the trees. So different from anything we are used to seeing in the Old World.
and a lovely ball court from Nimli Puit. We do like ball courts. There are several on this site.
After Copan we took a series of buses to Rio Dulce. It is, I think, impossible to describe the beauty of Rio Dulce. It was hard enough to get good photographs. We spent the first night in a lodge called ‘Kangaroo’. This failed to impress. It was set up for tourists, expelled sewage straight into the river and was generally tacky. We got the lancha up to Hotelito Perdido the next morning. We’ve been to Hotelito Perdido before. I would love to go there again. It is incredibly tranquil. The situation is sensational and it’s run mostly by volunteers who work for the privilege of staying there. The meals are all vegetarian and it is, I guess, a bit newagey for some tastes, but I love it there.
What did we do? Well we took out a kayak on the first day and managed not to sink it. We had no particular destination, we just paddled up and down the river, enjoying the views and the birdwatching. The river is full of fish and herons of many sorts. There are also pelicans, Montezuma’s Oropendola, some frigate birds, flycatchers of many sorts, banded kingfishers…. it’s quite a long list.
We booked a jungle hike for the second day but it was cancelled due to a great deal of rain. Proving that it’s called rainforest for a reason. We took the kayak out again when the rain cleared. The third day we hiked to Livingstone. A sort of medium difficulty hike but very interesting. A boat bought us back to the hotel.
Mostly, though, we just lay around the jungle lodge, enjoying the view, lazing in a hammock and reading. The dog is called Rasta and he likes canoes.
Given the problems of getting a bus from San Ignacio back into Guatemala, we decided to take the ferry instead. This involved most of a day on a couple of buses. First up to Belize City then down to Punto Gorda. I may have mentioned this before but Belize buses are not comfortable. They are old USA school buses which are retired. They have very little by way of upholstery or legroom. But they get where they are going and, from time to time, people come on board to sell you plantain crisps, fruit, other good stuff and to entertain you (or to sell you snake oil which is entertaining in its own way).
We didn’t explore Punto Gorda. We rushed off to get the ferry to Porto Barrios. Porto Barrios is a thriving port town but not very tourist-friendly. It’s Guatemala’s only Caribbean port and all the pineapples go through there. Most tourists go straight through to Livingstone but we had been on buses the whole day and the last ferry to Livingstone had already gone. The passport office was closed when we got there. People told us we could get our passports stamped in the morning but it turned out the lady had just taken a cigarette break and we were able to do the formalities (such as they were). There is not much choice of hotel or restaurants in Porto Barrios but we found adequate places. The meal was, actually, quite good and the hotel felt secure, though we were kept awake much of the night by the sound of heavy rain on a corrugated iron roof.
The next day was spent on buses again. This time we got caught in traffic (we think there must have been an accident) on a narrow road but, eventually we got through to the border with Honduras. The Honduran border was very high tech – we had our fingerprints and iris pictures taken. We checked into our very pleasant hotel in good time to shower and go out for dinner.
Copan was, of course, the reason we went to Honduras. We walked to the site – it’s an interesting walk with a certain amount of wildlife to see along the way. The site is, of course, incredibly impressive.
As you walk into the site, you are immediately aware of the Macaws. There are many of them. The result of a very successful breeding programme. The intention is to release but… I think that part of the work is going more slowly. Whatever, you have to run the gauntlet of these beautiful but very noisy creatures before you can relax in the wonderful architecture and art of Copan.
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.
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.