Monday, February 23, 2009

The day after our day of wandering around the San Ignacio area, we packed up and took a cab to the Guatemalan border. We had arranged a driver to pick us up on the other side. We had to pay about $30 in various fees and taxes to leave, and got our passports stamped twice. Here's the scene on the Guatemalan side; lots of taxi drivers waiting, and money-changers wearing fanny packs (they ended up being legit), with a few cops wearing semi-automatic weapons.

The roads in Guatemala are way worse than the ones in Belize; tons of huge potholes and ruts, and cars slow to a creep in order to traverse them. The trip to Tikal from the border took about an hour and a half. About halfway through our driver stopped at a very nice and clean and way overpriced tourist shop which also had bathrooms and free coffee. Parked at the house next to the shop was this car:

(It refers to the end of the Mayan calendar, which some think means the end of the world, or the time the aliens will finally come to collect us, or something.)

The Tikal ruins are in the middle of a huge nature reserve, so they have a lot of animal crossing signs: turkeys, snakes, coati, and of course jaguar:

Our hotel was the Jaguar Inn, one of the three right at the entrance gate to the ruins themselves. It was kind of like Midas -- very jungly, but even moreso since we were in the middle of a reserve. In fact, the power is from a generator that they shut off every night at 9, and hot water is only available a few hours a day.

Here's a path to the dining patio:

We put our stuff in our room and got lunch and watched some toucans while we ate. There's one in the middle of this photo:

Then it was time to do the ruins. At the gate we decided to save the $50 a guide would have cost, and bought a guide map for a few bucks instead. It takes about 10 minutes to get to the beginning of the ruins, and then a half-hour to get to Temple IV (which is what our guidebook suggested). The paths are well maintained and travel through serious jungle. Before we reached Temple IV we passed a bunch of smaller structures -- Tikal is enormous -- and so we looked to the map to explain what we were looking at. That is when we discovered that we should have sprung for the guide. Here's what it says about the first ruins we passed, Complex Q:
"This complex of twin pyramids is the biggest constructed in Tikal. To the north of its square there is located an enclosure inside which one finds the complex alter - stela. To the side south, a structure is located with nine income and at the head of the placed pyramid eastwards, nine stelas and smooth altars. The monuments esculpidos dedicatory for this complex are the Estela 22 and the Altar 10 that date the end of the katun of 771 Classic Late and there were constructed by the leader 29, Yax Nuun Ayin II."

(The map also gave "recommendations to enjoy his visit" such as "To behave for qualified paths, not to take paths it does not know." And "It uses the accesses authorized to rise and to get off only the structures." And "leads 45 kph and avoids to knock down the wild fauna. It takes to himself record of his speed.")

So yeah, we pretty much gave up on trying to glean any information from the map besides where things were. We did eavesdrop on another group's guide a couple of times, which was nice.

Anyway, on to the photos:

Here's the aforementioned Complex Q:

And this is Temple IV peeking out of the canopy; it's in the process of being restored, thus the scaffolding. The six big temples had wooden stairways to use to get to the top, instead of letting you use the steep, railing-free stone steps (which they used to do, apparently). Those signs say stuff about how you have to walk around to the side of the temple to climb up:

And the view from Temple IV:

It is high. Those are some big-ass trees, and the temples just rise right up above them!

Near the base of Temple IV was a rest area with actual bathrooms and even a little soda-selling counter. You can see it in the background here, with a pretty wild turkey hanging around in the foreground:

There was also a coati, which is like a raccoon; it was searching for tidbits in the leaf litter near a trash can, and was totally ignoring all of the tourists taking photos of it:


(That's CJ on Mundo Perdido.)

The main attraction at Tikal is the grand plaza, which has two big temples and a ton of smaller buildings, full of little rooms to explore. The coolest-looking temple is Temple I, which you're no longer allowed to climb. This shot is taken from the top of Temple II, just across from it:

Temple I from the side, showing some of the Acropolis in the background. There are little people there, for scale:

I captioned this photo with Central Acropolis but I think it's the North Acropolis. But I really don't know for sure:

From, um, one of the Acropoli, we could see Temple V rising up in the distance, which reminded me of the shot of Endor they filmed here (from Return of the Jedi, OF COURSE):

We did a LOT of walking and climbing but I had heard Temple V was the most insane, so we went. We didn't see anybody there, or on the way there or back. Here's the approach to Temple V:

What's insane about Temple V is the way up: A rickety-looking staircase that's so steep it's really more of a ladder. A seven-story-tall ladder.

I was not going to not climb this. DAMMIT, WE HAD COME TOO FAR. So we did. At the top, of course, there was no railing or anything to stop us from slipping and tumbling forward down the steep stone steps. Here's the view from the top:

The climb down was much scarier. We climbed down backwards like we were descending a ladder. Note the angle of the stairway railing, and how very acute it is:


After that we went back to the entrance and explored our dinner options at the other two hotels. Not great. While we were peering through the twilight underbrush at a gibnut (we had no idea what it was at the time, but it looked like a cat-sized capybara), a guy in his late 50s or so started talking to us. He said that he had heard the cheap place near the campsites was supposed to have authentic local food, which would be a huge step up from the weird American-diner-like mixture offered by the hotels. So we ended up meeting up with him and hearing about his interesting life as an ex-Earth Firster who had spent some time in the clink, but who now just travels most of the time (possibly financed by his wealthy son). He was a friendly and intriguing guy, and he generously bought us beers, but at the end we decided that one of the reasons he liked traveling around third-world countries so much is that it enabled him to be rude to the waitstaff without any consequence.

The power did in fact go off at 9, and I had a hard time falling asleep without my sound machine (such a delicate flower I am). And then we had to get up and catch our ride at 8 the next morning, so we could get dropped off at the Guatemalan border, take a cab back to Midas, meet a shuttle van there at 12:15, and then get driven an hour and a half or so to Belize City, where we would catch the water taxi for the 45-minute-ride to Caye Caulker. But that's for the next post.

Monday, February 16, 2009

On to Xunantunich! You pronounce it "zoo-nahn-too-niche." You're welcome, I am sure it'll come in handy. The day after the cave tubing and the zoo, we had wanted to spend the morning wandering around town and the afternoon horseback-riding through the countryside, maybe stopping at a gorgeous swimming hole along the way. That didn't happen; the horse person the resort owner liked was on vacation, and they had a hard time getting in touch with the other one they liked, and when they reached a third place, the price they quoted was ridiculous. So the owner gave us a good alternative plan: Take a cab to the top of Xunantunich (which is on top of a small mountain), walk around, then walk down the hill to the river crossing, and grab a cab. Instruct the cab to take you to the Cahal Pech ruin, and after touring that, walk up the hill to the Cahal Pech Resort, where you can pay $2.50 to use the pool for the day. Then it's an easy walk back to Midas.

Well, the first part of the plan worked great. After a relaxed breakfast in town, we took a cab up to the Xunantunich ruins — which involves crossing the river via hand-cranked ferry. Here's the ferryman:

And here's the ferry, from the other side, taken on the way back. A note here about my photos: Up until this point, actually when I was on top of the pyramid here, I hadn't realized that the light setting on my camera was set to "incandescent light" -- which is why everything beforehand is blue and washed out. I did a lot of work on adjusting the levels in Photoshop, but there's only so much I can do. My photos got a LOT better after I changed it to natural light.

Here's the approach to the main plaza:

The main pyramid, El Castilo. You can climb to the top and all around. Very exciting. No guard rails anywhere.

One of the stairways leading to the top:

A view from the top:

There are two carved friezes on the Castilo, here's one:

And here's a close-up of the other:

The archeologists found three carved slabs called stelae here, and they now live in a little house to protect them from the elements.

I liked the ceiling, which is like a wooden stave church from Norway (well, like the one in Epcot, at any rate. Heh).

Afterwards, we walked the mile down the hill to the bottom, caught a cab to the ruins of Cahal Pech. (Catching a cab = waving down a beat-up car that happens to have "TAXI" painted on the side, and that already has two passengers -- one of them was a guy going to his job at the Cahal Pech resort.) But by the time we got to the second set of ruins, the notion of paying another fee to walk around more ruins was not very appealing. We walked up to the hotel instead and paid our fee to lounge around the pool. The hotel is on top of a hill and it was windy up there; though we had been hot before, we were a bit too cold to swim. It was not too cold to lie around in our bathing suits, though. Eventually we decided to get a snack there, and our waiter was the guy from our taxi! CJ got a delicious mudslide, and I got a nauseating Mai Tai which seemed to be mostly cough syrup. We split some quesadillas too, which were tasty.

Here's a look at the pool. The round one in the foreground is not a hot tub; we were disappointed. I got in up to my waist:

And here's the view of San Ignacio from the pool patio:

Then we walked down into town. We had heard about an iguana sanctuary at a hotel on the way, but it was closed for the evening. So we kept walking. And walking. It was a very long way -- at least 2 miles -- back to Midas. But we can now say that we have seen most of San Ignacio.

Next time: Guatemala and Tikal!
Continuing in the same vein, I have a few shots of our hotel. It's actually called a "resort" but it's pretty much motel-level lodgings in a gorgeous natural setting. We stayed in one of the single-room cabanas.

The signs at the entrance:

CJ and a dog (there were three) at the Midas office. Behind the little gate is the office where we spent a bunch of time arranging our day trips with Marie, one of the co-owners.

Cement pathways out back lead to the various cabanas and cabins. There's a patch of ground for campers, too.

Midas had three dogs (I think) living there. Like all of the dogs we saw, they lived entirely outdoors and were not spayed or neutered. This one got a nasty gash on an ear one night, which was not treated in any way I could see. Other than that, they seemed to be in dog heaven.

This is one of the three dogs at our hotel. She has oddly-splayed-out front legs, kind of like a dachshunds', though she is labrador-sized. Like the other dogs, she was friendly and well-behaved.

After cave tubing and the zoo, and the long drive back, we napped then walked into town for dinner and then came back, watched TV and fell asleep. Our little cabana had TV, yes! Half of the channels were in English, and we got Comedy Central and Cartoon Network and everything.

I really liked just walking around the town and looking at everything. Here are a bunch of San Ignacio photos. Travelogue to continue next post.

Nescafe! And note the hand-painted stop sign.

Al's Diner, where we did not eat. I bet it would be tasty, though.

Here's a typical meal that we had: white or black beans over white rice, in a kind of mildly-spiced gravy, with a fried fish fillet (though usually we got a piece of chicken), garnished with a fried plantain. Usually there's a scoop of coleslaw on the plate too. The dish in the middle has hot sauce, and CJ has a skinny burrito. And I always got a Belikin (made by Germans in Belize).

A street downtown. We wanted to go horseback riding, but the good affordable people were on vacation or booked, and so we didn't go. Anyway, Easy Rider seemed like a nice company.

This isn't a grocery store, but, relatedly: Pretty much all of the supermarkets in Belize are owned and run by Chinese people. So you find weird Chinglish stuff along with native Belize/Mexican stuff.

We passed this lot for sale every day. I like that they kept the cement staircase up, because, hey, you can use that for the next house, right? This is along a row of shacks like the one you can sort of see past the metal wall. Even shanty-dwellers can realize the dream of owning property.

The house below is atypical because:
It has actual windows, not just wood shutters.
The top part is larger than the bottom part.
There are no dogs in the photograph.
It's also not a one-story house on stilts, with laundry drying on lines underneath the house.

The house on stilts thing was very common. One of our guides said that they use the space like a deck -- it's shady and cool, after all. And if the kid grows up and needs a place to live with their spouse, you can enclose the space and make it the first story of a now-two-story house. None of these placed have running water, by the way, or if they do, they don't have plumbing for toilets/baths. Outhouses don't seem quite so terrible in a climate where it never really gets cold.

And finally, a wall topped with decorative tires.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

P.S. My blog looks differentL I just changed my template quickly so my photos wouldn't get cropped. Don't know if I'll keep it or not yet...
The day after our ATM cave tour, we hired a guide named Harry to take us cave tubing at Jaguar Paw (JP is the name of the fancy, way-out-in-the-jungle hotel near the cave). I didn't rent a dry bag, so I don't have photos of it, but it was way cool, though we were a bit cold. It looked like this and this and this. Like the ATM, there's a short hike through the jungle before you reach the cave mouth. Harry demonstrated to us that you can eat termites (and they taste like mint and carrot).

Afterwards we went up to the Jaguar Paw Resort for lunch (rice, beans, chicken, delicious). There was a howler monkey that was kind of the pet of the hotel. As soon as we stopped the car, he hopped on the grill and started picking bugs off and eating them:

Then he climbed onto the hood and rapturously stretched himself above the still-hot engine.

It was pretty cute. Lunch was fine; we ate with our guide and learned more about him. He got into guiding by his father, who was a cab driver. The guides here have to do a lot of safety training and take a ton of history tests. Harry is now going to school to be an architect.

After lunch, Harry drove us to the Belize Zoo. The zoo only has native Belize animals who can't survive in the wild -- mostly they're ex-pets, or nuisance animals. From their website: "The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center was started [by Sharon Matola] in 1983, as a last ditch effort to provide a home for a collection of wild animals which had been used in making documentary films about tropical forests."

We saw a sleepy puma:

A very cool harpy eagle:

April the tapir, who is a celebrity in Belize; schools celebrate her birthday and everything. This is her butt:

All of the signs at the zoo are hand-painted and charming. They are both informative:

And inspirational:

But. The best part of our zoo visit was when we happened to walk past the founder of the zoo showing a new trainer how to work with one of the jaguars (sentenced to the zoo after getting addicted to killing cattle). She saw us watching and asked if anyone wanted to try it. I said, "um, YEAH!" and then this happened. That's a chicken foot she's feeding him at the end there. Here's a photo of the guy still munching on the foot:

It was pretty awesome.

To be continued...