Northern Guatemala and Belize

Published: April 16th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

In this edition, we will evaluate a handful of destinations that I visited in six days. It was a fascinating and fantastic but busy week, with almost an equal amount of time spent getting to each destination than being in each. I spent a good bit of money, but most of it was spent on transportation costs. Thus, if I would have stayed longer in each place, the money spent per day ratio would have dropped significantly. I had originally planned to take this trip in the second week of May, right before my departure, but I was anxious to go before the rainy season rolled in. I am thankful that I went when I did because the weather could not have been more cooperative.

After appraising each destination, I will give a more general account of my trip and then conclude with miscellaneous ramblings. The places we will grade are Flores, Guatemala, Tikal, Guatemala, Belize City, Belize, Caye Caulker, Belize, and Laguna Lachuá, Guatemala. When I travel, I determine if a place is worth going based on its sheer beauty, uniqueness/enchantment, and facilities/cost. Using these three criteria allow for a holistic assessment, covering aesthetics, ambience, and logistics. For each one, I will attempt to answer the following questions:
Sheer Beauty: How pleasing is it to the eyes?
Uniqueness/Enchantment: What is special about it that sets it apart from other places? Does it leave you spellbound? What is the atmosphere like? In other words, how it feels to actually be there.
Facilities/Cost: Is it easily accessible and how are the accommodations? How much will I spend?

Without further ado…

Flores, Guatemala

Comprehensive Grade: 21/30

Sheer Beauty: The most important characteristic of Flores is that it is a small island in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá. It is the gateway town of northern Guatemala for backpackers; its location makes it the perfect distance away to explore the Mayan ruins of the area or as the last destination in Guatemala before proceeding to Belize or México. The city itself is largely unmemorable, other than the one street that runs along the circumference of the island where all the locals hang out at night. The water is clean and has an inviting blue-greenish tint to it along the shore, but the rest of the lake around the island is banal. Grade: 5

Uniqueness/Enchantment: There is a certain allure to the town, as it is quaint and relaxing and there are numerous docks to swim off of. I spent two days on the island, and the first one exhibited a paralyzing heat. I cannot previously remember being in such a heat wave, the kind where without moving sweat pours down your forehead. I did like the overall feel of the island, and if it were not for time constraints, I would have stayed for a complete day to do nothing but recreate and work on my tan. Grade: 6

Facilities/Cost: I stayed in the general dormitory at the Youth Hostel Los Amigos for 40 quetzals a night, or roughly $5 USD. It was clean, cheap and congenial. In addition, they offered all the tours and transportation right from their door, which was convenient. If hostels are not preferable, along with the plethora of restaurants, many hotels line the shore of the island. Grade: 10

Tikal, Guatemala

Comprehensive Grade: 28/30

Sheer Beauty: Set in lush jungle, Tikal´s imposing pyramids majestically rise above the canopy producing a truly prodigious sight. Tikal is the grandest archeological site left from the ancient Mayan civilization. Its pyramids are overly impressive; I had never seen anything remotely like it. Everything from the fauna to the flora to the ruins captivates its guests with a myriad of outrageous shapes and colors. Grade: 10

Uniqueness/Enchantment: Tikal does enchant. Its howler monkeys pierce the jungle with their deep, intimidating roars. Its pyramids leave the visitor conceiving how the Mayans might have presided in such a compelling place and make the visitor envisage its human-sacrificial rituals and mediation spectacles. It is magical. Grade: 10

Facilities/Cost: The transportation from Flores and the tour guide came in a shared package of 115 quetzals ($15 USD) and although the entrance price is even steeper, 150 quetzals ($20 USD), it is worth every quetzalito that is required. Grade: 8

Belize City, Belize

Comprehensive Grade: 16/30

Sheer Beauty: Belize City used to be the capital of Belize until a hurricane made the government relocate inland to Belmopan. I did not spend too much time in ¨The City, ¨ as locals call it. From what I perceived, it was merely a hub to take visitors to more exotic and enticing locations, such as the keys and national parks throughout the country. It was a more of a commercial city with great importance to the locals, rather than a place that caters to tourists with beautiful architecture and things of that nature. Grade: 3

Uniqueness/Enchantment: Belizeans speak English and this sets it apart from the rest of Central America. It was an intriguing place, a mixture between being in 1960s America and Africa. The style of many of the cafes and signs seemed to be from decades before, and since the official language of Belize is English, everything was in English. Furthermore, Belize is a former colony embittered by slavery, which is easily reflected by the demographics of the Caribbean nation. Most of the Belizeans along the coast are African, and not mestizos, or mixed, but rather extremely black. While walking down the street, I saw many disgruntled Belizeans screaming and hollering at one another, on the brink of fighting. They seemed to be disenfranchised, causalities of slavery and twenty-first century globalization that have them discontented on the periphery of Belizean society. In the ferry terminal, the news kept reporting on the murders in the city. It is the one place in Belize where extreme caution is required, especially at night, where there is prostitution and rampant delinquency. Nonetheless, it was a very unique experience and I would jump at the opportunity to see it again. Grade: 7

Facilities/Cost: The currency is the Belize dollar, which is pegged at two Belize dollars to one American. Due to the international aspect of the country that attracts foreigners from all over the world to see the second largest coral reef in the world, prices are high but still resemble the third world in some instances. Grade: 6

Caye Caulker, Belize

Comprehensive Grade: 23.5/30

Sheer Beauty: Its turquois-colored waters are what international travelers pay top dollar for. Caye Caulker, one of the
more popular destinations due to its proximity to the Blue Hole, does not disappoint. Interestingly enough, the island was severed into two from a hurricane. The prettiest part of the island is exactly where it was divided, called The Split. The town is clean and small and mostly consists of restaurants and hotels. The sunset is spectacular. Grade: 8.5

Uniqueness/Enchantment: Caulker itself is not too unique. Its beaches, while beautiful, are replicated in many other Caribbean locations. However, its crystalline water and blazing sunsets are inspiring. Though, the uniqueness is found off the coast in the coral reef that lay just beyond Caye Caulker. There was a strong Rastafarian element, a care-free, hammock-swinging Bob Marley attitude that was prevalent on the island, which I imagine is similar in Jamaica. I was offered marijuana by many Belizeans riding bicycles. And for the small population of the island, there was a fair share of Chinese immigrants, who seemed to own the convenience stores. Grade: 7

Facilities/Cost: Caye Caulker has the reputation of being more for the backpackers and budget-minded travelers. I shared an air-conditioned room with a Canadian guy I met, which cost us $50 BZd, or $25 USD. Travelers can expect to pay international destination rates for the food. Grade: 8

Laguna Lachuá, Guatemala

Comprehensive Grade: 27/30

Sheer Beauty: Laguna Lachuá is in the middle of the nowhere in state of Alta Verapaz, approximately four hours from Cobán. It is a protected area as it is a national park and the waters, both the sources of the lake in the mountains and the lake itself, are unspoiled by civilization and subsequent pollution. It is pristine. Visitors must hike approximately 5 km through the jungle to arrive to the small visitor’s center. The shore all around the lake appears more Caribbean than that of a lake. Its turquois water is exquisite and will make the visitor revel in its beauty. The jungle and the mountains make for the perfect backdrop. Grade: 8.5

Uniqueness/Enchantment: The feeling of being in Parque Nacional Laguna Lachuá transcends its natural beauty. It is prohibited to fish and hunt in the park, so its fauna thrives. I saw fish that looked like small sharks, which were outrageously enormous. The fish also are as unafraid of people as fish could be. They only move out of the way with swift movements and then will return to inspect the entrant and take a nibble at his or her skin. The mist in the morning coupled with the virginity of the national park makes for an intoxicating experience. Grade: 9.5

Facilities/Cost: The facilities are excellent and in good condition. Travelers can stay at the cute hostel with mosquito nets for 70 quetzals a night, or $9 USD. There is potable water on the premises in the kitchen, which is available where guests can cook the food that they bring. There are hammocks to contemplate in while listening to the howler monkeys and taking in the dusk. Grade: 9

General Summary

My trip to northern Guatemala and Belize was phenomenal. While the Western Highlands of Guatemala is an excellent place to be based out of to live and work, northern Guatemala is much more tropical and exotic. After being in a colder climate for two months, I love the weather there and I am thinking it is a sample of what is to come in Arizona. I left on Saturday, April 9, and bused it directly to Flores (Xela to Guatemala City to Flores). The bus from Guatemala City left at 6:30 and arrived to Santa Elena (the city on the other side of the bridge of Flores) at 3:30. At 4:30 I left for Tikal and my tour group arrived just a few minutes before the park opened at 6. The following day I went to Belize, took a ferry to the keys, and then the next day stayed in Flores for the second time. I left for Cobán at around 9am the following day and got to the National Park Laguna Lachuá at 4:30. After staying in the hostel there, I spent my final night in Guatemala City, before going back to Quetzaltenango on Friday, April 15. It was a lot of traveling and I wish I could have spent a day or two more in each place.

End Notes

•On my bus ride from Xela to Guatemala City, a gay Italian-Guatemalan ballet instructor sat next to me. I am not homophobic, and consider myself an ally of the LGBT community. However, this guy was overtly interested in me; he immediately touted his Italian heritage and talked to me about his job. I limited my responses to short fragments hoping he would realize that I was disinterested. At the end of the trip, he offered to bring me to the other bus terminal where I could get a bus to Santa Elena. Since I had no idea how to get there and was hesitant to pay for an overpriced taxi, I accepted. He did not want to say goodbye to me; he invited me to get coffee and reiterated that he would pay. Then he requested my phone number and facebook information. Finally, as I thanked him for showing me the way to the bus terminal, he looked me in the eyes and said ¨Espero verte un día, ¨ or ¨I hope to see you someday.¨

•I am always delighted when I uncover that I like something that I thought I did not. My most recent finding is coconut. I remember when I was younger, my dad bought me a coconut and prepared it for me in the kitchen in Centereach. I did not like it and in Puerto Rico, when I was 14, I reinforced my conviction. Perhaps it was the lack of other alternatives, but when I saw a coconut in a little hut-store outside of Lachuá, I paid the 4 quetzals and bought it. I discovered that there are few things more refreshing in the middle of the jungle than a coconut. I loved it. I then treated myself again after trekking out of the national park and waiting for the microbus to pass. Long live the coconut.

•Belize was brilliant. I am interested by Creole culture and the nation, as a whole. Since I can remember, I have had a personal connection to it, given than my nephew´s mother is of Belizean descent. I was anticipating something completely different. I thought I would uncover a tropical jungle, much like northern Guatemala. However, the parts of it I saw on the mainland driving through it were lowlands. It is a very diverse country; southern Belize showcases rainforest, western Belize a mountain range and eastern Belize has the astounding beaches and coral reefs. Throughout the whole country are waterfalls, cenotes and various other natural splendors. Demographically, it is even more interesting. On the Guatemalan and Mexican borders, most people are trilingual and will speak Spanish with gusto. However, in eastern Belize, with more Creole influence, the mentality is no-Spanish. I tried speaking with a black Belizeans in Spanish and they immediately scolded me and reminded me that it is an English speaking country. The mixed Belizean women were gorgeous, just as beautiful as any other woman from a mixed-race nation, such as Colombia or Venezuela. There is also a German population in Belize, which primarily cultivates all the dairy products that the nation consumes. I highly desire to go back to Belize to see everything that I missed.

•One of my friends that I met in Colombia, an American named Jen, was going to visit me here in Guatemala for Semana Santa, or Holy Week, which is a week filled of celebrations throughout Latin America. Unfortunately, she had to have an emergency operation to fix a cosmetic issue. I wish her a speedy recovery.

•I now have no plans for Semana Santa. All the Guatemalans tend to flock to the biggest tourist destinations, and, accordingly, rates go up for everything. I am thinking of having a low key week, perhaps with a few day trips to see a few towns I have been wanting to see close to Quetzaltenango. I only will be in the project for two days, Monday and Tuesday. Then, I will have the rest of the week to relax.

•I have seen everything major that I have wanted to see here in Guatemala, besides Antigua. Maybe I will go for my birthday.

•My latest travel idea is go to lusophone Africa to learn Portuguese. This would be in the summer of 2012. Is this a crazy idea? Would you like to go with me? Do you have any suggestions or thoughts? If so, leave a comment.


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