Archive for the 'Belize' Category

Welcome to Guatemala!

Two weeks ago, after a short visit to the beachy town of Placencia and a very pretty ride down to Punta Gorda, we loaded our bikes into a water taxi and jetted our way toward Guatemala with eager hearts. We were ready to leave Belize, beautiful though it was, and Guatemala is a special place for Andrew already, because it was his introduction to Latin America six years ago when he studied Spanish in Xela. Aran as well as Andrew entered with an odd sense of familiarity partly because of Andrew’s stories and partly because of a fun set of coincidences: Back in Puerto Escondido, we’d spent a few days in a hostel (Osa Mariposa) run by Dave Paco, a fellow who had taken an extensive tour of Latin America in 2007. While we were there, he had a visitor from Guatemala, whom we didn’t really meet, but exchanged friendly hellos with while we were there. On our way out the door, Dave offered us a copy of a trip journal he’d published. We read it, greedily savoring details of places yet to come on our itinerary. One of those places was the Hotel Finca Tatin, (a magical place on the Rio Dulce reachable only by boat) which we decided would be our first stop in Guatemala. Dave wrote very fondly about his six month stay working for the hotel and becoming friends with the owner, Carlos. When we arrived in the port town of Livingston, who should arrive to whisk us away to the hotel, but the man who had been visiting Dave in the hostel, who introduced himself as Carlos, the very same. “I remember you of course! From Puerto Escondido!” was the first thing he said. He’s a terrific guy with a jungle-treehouse-like spot that is a perfect place to explore the beautiful river and surrounding jungle. We spent a few peaceful days there.

Then, we were off to bike across Guatemala. Well, no it wasn’t it quite that simple. The night we left the hotel, Andrew had some sharp pain in the left side of his face, which when we arrived in the town of Rio Dulce the next morning, a doctor helped us determine was a sinus infection. This discovery included a trip to the hospital in the next town where we got some very cheap x-rays from some very friendly folks. A day of rest and some antibiotics and we were off! We set out down our first seriously unpaved road toward Huehuetenango. While the road was very rough at times (one pass was completely destroyed by a landslide and the “new road” felt a lot like a goat path), we have been loving the gorgeous countryside and the folks we’ve met. So far, Guatemala has felt a bit similar to Chiapas, Mexico, but maybe with a more relaxed feel to it than Mexico, which seems to have a cultural undercurrent of struggling for better. Don’t get us wrong, that is one of the things we loved about Mexico – how hard people worked and the forward-looking-ness of so many people we met, but we’re enjoying the ability to walk through the Guatemalan markets and not have vendors push things on us quite so hard.

We have also loved being a bit farther off the beaten path than usual. Lots of cyclists enter the country from the Mexican border and make the trip through the Western Highlands, which we’ll hit soon enough, but the little towns, dirt roads, rivers, and markets we’ve seen on our trip from east to west have been some of the highlights of our trip so far. Though, it hasn’t been smooth sailing, exactly. In between some of the towns, we’ve needed to hitch some rides and take some days off altogether. A few mornings ago, just after our dirt road turned back to pavement, Andrew developed a bad stomach ache. After he yakked all over the road, Aran flagged down some guys driving an empty giant pick-up truck and asked for a ride to the next town, which was 800 meters up the road. Vertically, that is. First they had to make a stop at a quarry to fill the truck bed with stone dust to deliver to a construction site. They suggested we ride the rest of the way into town, but when Andrew got out and immediately vomited in the parking lot, they insisted we wait in the shade with the bikes, reload them, and ride with them the last few kilometers. Awesome dudes. They dropped us at a hotel, where poor Andrew was able to pass the rest of whatever was in his stomach. Of course, almost immediately upon recovering, we both ate some tasty but obnoxious little red fruit that put us both under again for another day in the next town over.

So here we sit, playing cards, a bit scared to ingest anything, eagerly awaiting the return of our good health. A few days behind, I guess, although we’re happy to report that schedules are rapidly losing all meaning for us. We will go when we go, and stop when we stop, and see many, many amazing things in between. We are thoroughly enjoying our trip even though it rains and we get sick and we miss our friends and family. The new landscapes and languages and cultures offer at least one jewel of a new experience each day.

You better Belize it

Two and a half weeks ago we flew back to Mexico, landing in Cancun international airport with all of the other tourists getting away from the cold white north for a few weeks. This means we exited the international terminal amid tens of English speaking Mexicans all hawking rides to somewhere for very un-Mexican prices. Maybe we could have maneuvered their scheming to a simple bus fare to Playa del Carmen, but instead we eventually found our way past the gate to the domestic arrivals and domestic bus terminal. Another (reasonably priced) bus to Tulum, and a taxi back to the Casa Amor del Sol, and we were reunited with our trusty steeds. After a little bike-grooming in the hotel room, we set off for Chetumal to meet Mark, who was flying in from Wisconsin a few days later. There aren’t a whole lot of pictures from our time biking in the Yucatan, because there isn’t much to see. Flat, straight road flanked by low jungle. Sun with occasional rain showers. We wild camped twice in some nice spots, and spent the third night in a mosquito filled room in Bacalar. One of the evenings in the bush, A picked up some brown stains on his hands that he couldn’t wash off. Little did we know that the stains were black poisonwood sap, and a few days later both of us broke out in a nasty itchy, burny rash which is just now clearing up. (This guy’s flickr gallery has info from wikipedia pasted in it) Won’t do that again.

We met up with Mark at the Water Taxi dock in Chetumal and hopped on a boat to the popular island of Caye Caulker (pronounced Key Caulker) where we hung around and ate Caribbean food and went SCUBA diving. Caye Caulker is a supposedly chill place, but there are so many people trying to make a dollar off of the tourists that it’s really difficult to feel relaxed there. Also, the prices are the same as the US, so we’ve spent a lot more money than usual in a week. The diving was amazing – we did 5 dives, including the great Blue Hole. Other divers we’d met in Mexico told us it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but it is really quite incredible to go from a reef into a shear sinkhole in the ocean floor. 100 feet underwater, we saw enormous stalactites in the wall of the hole, as well as some reef sharks lurking earily beneath us. On another dive that day our divemaster speared an invasive lionfish which was then snatched up by a hungry barracuda. Lots of neat critters floating around out there. We stuck around on the island an extra day so that we could go snorkeling with “the fish whisperer,” and it was well worth it. Juni took us out on his hand built (without power tools) wooden sailboat to the Hol Chan marine reserve, and then we followed him and his school of fish around a very shallow coral reef. He’s figured out how to make squeaking sounds with his hands that the fish hear and come racing over to him and follow him around. A ray he knows lets him pick it up off the bottom and swims over tourists, repeatedly. A giant grouper (3ish feet long) swims around him and lets him hug it and stroke it’s underbelly — he’s got pictures of him playing with the same fish 25 years ago. He calls it spiritual snorkeling and really loves those fish. Lots of people offer snorkeling tours, but no one gets to pet the rays except the lucky few who go with Juni.

We bundled our bikes into a water taxi once again and headed for Belize City, where we only hung out long enough to find some groceries and a map. We biked away from the ocean and headed for the town of San Ignacio, where we knew we could find a guide to take us into the Achtun Tunichil Muknal cave, which is a site of ancient Mayan sacrifice. We reached the entrance to the cave after a 45 minute hike through the jungle. A river runs into and through the cave’s lower chambers, so we needed to swim into it and then hike a mile in ankle- to chest- deep water through beautiful rock formations before we climbed up into the dry chamber. There, we were required to wear socks so that the formations and the 1300-year-old pottery and human remains would not be damaged by shoes or oily feet. The experience of seeing the full skeleton of a young woman sacrifice, calcified and preserved at the back of the cave was one we will not forget.

From San Ignacio, we turned back toward the coast and rode the Hummingbird Highway, which was a spectacular road through hills, small Mayan villages, miles of citrus groves, and a national park surrounding the other Belizian Blue Hole, which is a cenote in the jungle. Our plan was to camp at a “lodge” some tourists had told us about nearby, but when we arrived, the snooty proprietor offered us nothing more than a couple of single beds in a dormitory for $34US per person. When we explained that was more than we could afford, he turned us and our biking, tenting selves away. Thinking we would need to quick set up a campsite in between some orange trees up the road, which would also have to provide us with dinner since we hadn’t bought groceries, we headed back toward the main road. As luck would have it, there we met Carlos, who had just finished guiding a backpacker through the jungle for the day, and invited us to stay at his house with his wife. The catch was we had to bike 8km back the way we’d come to his village. When we arrived, exhausted, it was dark, and we had to follow Carlos, with his borrowed bike up a very dark dirt road and then an even darker cow path to his thatched house on the hill. His wife, Melissa, offered us delicious chicken stew and handmade tortillas by candlelight (no electricity), and then Carlos took a wooden bed frame down from the rafters of his living room, where we were able to spread out our sleeping bag for the night. We drifted off, grateful for and amazed by Carlos and Melissa, who live in a dirt-floor thatched wood hut, harvest jungle trees for a living, cook delicious subsistence farmed food, and speak four languages (English, Spanish, Maya and Kek Chi (another Maya tongue)). The experience was a little disconcerting because it felt so different from the experiences we had in Mexico. Carlos was generous, but it was clear that he was expecting something from us. And while he is a trustworthy guy, the stories he told about the northern Hummingbird Highway were not ones to make us feel comfortable there.

The next morning we did finally visit and swim in the deliciously cool inland Blue Hole, and spotted some birds we wished we could identify before ending the day in the orange processing town of Pomona where we ate delicious beans and rice with beef and chicken from a friendly in-home eatery near our very nice hotel. Today we headed over to the coast, where we sit on the beach once again in the small Garifuna fishing village of Hopkins. We have been amazed by how many cultures call Belize home. There are the Mayans and the Garifuna, as well as sizable communities of Mennonites (called money-nites by our ATM guide due to their enterprising approach to farming the land), Chinese, Taiwanese, and refugees from Guatemala and Honduras. Sometimes this seems to result in bitterness or frustration between groups, but it also means that our five days in this tiny country, we’ve ridden through an incredible patchwork quilt of communities, customs, and languages. A couple more days and we’ll be off to Guatemala. We are looking forward to heading up into some more mountains, since the jungle inflicts all manner of itching. We’ve come into contact with everything from spiky and poisonous plants to midges, mosquitoes, bees, ticks, you name it. Our whole bodies itch. We know the hills in Guatemala will kill our legs, but at least our skin will get a break.

On a side note, you may have noticed that the right sidebar now has a little more detailed information on where we’ve been. I hope that I can get that linked to maps and stats, but progress on the internet is slow when bike touring.