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.
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…
Our next stop was Methoni. We visited there, briefly, in 2013. This time we went the pretty way, over Mount Taygetos which must be one of the best bike rides in the world. Scenery is spectacular but we were a bit concerned by the darkening skies. Which opened. Fortunately whilst we were fairly near to a village where we took a rain break for a Freddo Espresso. We managed to get to Methoni without getting seriously wet and checked into the hotel on the beach. This meant we could use the sun loungers and umbrellas without incurring extra costs but, sadly, it wasn’t really beach weather whilst we were there. The storm broke as we reached our room.
Methoni is a quiet, seaside village – which gains much (but not all) its income from tourism. It also has a spectacular Venetian castle which, this time, we managed to visit. In fact we spent an entire morning in there. Apart from the castle we spent our time making friends with the local wildlife in a pleasant bar and eating some excellent meals.
Our next stop was Mystra. We rode there the pretty way, via Leonido, stopping off in Cosmas for lunch with a spectacular view… Some Italian bikers had the same idea so there was quite a crowd enjoying mountain sausage, chips and village bread.
Mystra did not disappoint. It’s an almost intact Byzantine city with many churches containing frescoes, a palace, a working monastery and plenty of interesting wildlife. The village itself is small and friendly, containing a number of small hotels and a sprinkling of restaurants. I think a lot of people just visit for the day from larger tourist centres.
After we arrived we walked up to the entrance to the site (there are two entrances because, if you only use the lower entrance, there is quite a lot of walking involved) where we saw some lattice brown butterflies on a tree stump.
Next day we explored the site itself. It took all day. Like many sites in Greece, the information boards scattered around give you a very good idea of what life must have been like when Byzantine Mystra was a living city. We were lucky to avoid the rainstorm that happened in the evening as the surfaces inside the Byzantine city are very, very slippery when wet!
Apart from the lattice browns, I think I shall save the wildlife for a separate post as Mystra is very, very photogenic.
We took a trip to Greece for Ashley’s birthday. This time we went on the bike. Ferry from Çeşme to Chios (Sakız) where we enjoyed a few beers with friends and nearly missed the ferry to Piraeus. It is probably worth adding that we did not see many refugees on Chios and those we did see seemed well settled with small businesses. Our friend, however, told us that the tourist industry is not doing well. Bookings down by 80%. Tourists, it seems, are fickle beasts.
We did better in Piraeus this time – we only went the wrong way once and when we did we quickly realised we were going the wrong way. Our excuse is that it was very, very early in the morning. We were in Nafplio far too early and our hotel room was not ready. The management could not have been more apologetic (even though it was not their fault – it was barely ten in the morning) so we took ourselves off for an excellent breakfast.
We really did not do a great deal that day, other than wander around and eat delicious ice cream. It really is very much a tourist town (it gets cruise ships) and we did buy a hat.
The next day we indulged in some serious sight seeing. We didn’t manage to get to the museum on our previous visit and this omission needed to be corrected. The area has been inhabited since the iron age and there were the usual prehistoric pots plus some very fine Attic red figure ware. And the only entire suit of Mycenaean armour that has survived to the present day. In the afternoon we headed up the 1000 (actual number disputed but it’s an awful lot) steps to the fortress. This is huge. It was originally Venetian but was taken over by the Ottomans and then the Greeks. Once you get to the top the climbing is not over as there are a number of different bastions, linked by passageways. There are doors that seem to lead to nothing except thin air, but often there are steps leading down from them quite safely. And interesting though the history is, the major attraction here just has to be the wonderful views.
The evenings were spent in a large square in town where vendors found a ready market for various toys including giant bubble blowing machines and luminous twirly parachuting things. The square was full of children, and people generally strolling. After two lovely nights we headed off to Mystra, but that’s for another post…