Oh, Chaakh! Unleashing the Rain God in Xunantunich

Published: March 8th 2017
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Weather, new friends, and a change of plans all coincided to make an unforgettable morning at my 2nd Maya site of the trip. I had purchased a tour of Xunantunich before I left the US, because I thought that would be the main reason to stay in San Ignacio - the ruins are a 10-15 minute taxi ride from the center of the city. But as you know, when I got to town on Saturday evening, my plans changed. I was under the impression that my tour had been switched to Caracol and that I wasn't doing Xunantunich with them anymore. Operating on that assumption, I arranged with TJ just to get a taxi in town and get us to Xunatunich the morning after my Caracol trip. Pretty simple. We both wanted to see it, and we had all morning to get there and check it out before both of us were leaving on buses going in opposite directions from San Ignacio. More on that later.

I packed my stuff up on Sunday night because I didn't trust myself to get it all together in time to leave in the morning. So when I got up (earlier than I wanted), there wasn't too much to do. I had a private room with private bathroom, so that made my morning easy. TJ, however, had a shared bedroom with 3 beds that he shared with no one except all of his stuff. It was impressive, how one person could take up that many beds! So he wasn't quite ready as early as I was. Our landlady was nice enough to let us store our luggage in an empty room so we wouldn't have to lug it around the ruins. But she was curious about our intentions, since it had been nearly monsooning most of the morning when we set out. We, however, were determined - when would we ever be back in this area?

We were sure that our soon-to-be favorite breakfast spot would be open this morning, but that was quite a disappointment to walk toward it and find the windows and doors all closed up. Damn. So we walked over to the pedestrian tourist street, hopeful that these people would take mercy on a couple of foreigners on what appeared to be a national holiday (there's some big canoe race that's shut the country down, apparently). We were in luck.. We found that Eva's was open, and I got to try them for the 2nd time, while TJ enjoyed his 3rd. The breakfast was alright, and it certainly didn't take as long to get as dinner had done last night. While we were waiting, the rain finally stopped and this fellow named Robert showed up. He had gone with TJ to the ATM caves yesterday, and he was wanting to do Xunantunich this morning. So we added a third to our group. All the while during breakfast, TJ was trying to find out if the Valencia bus to the north of Belize (without having to go through Belize City, which adds another 2 hours to the trip) existed, and then whether it would be running on today, a holiday. Well, people said that it did, but no one could give a time (or even a relative time, since it's Belize we're talking about). We heard 3PM, which is when I also needed to be at my bus place, so we operated on that assumption.

We found a taxi very easily to take us to Xunantunich. Of course, the speedometer in the taxi didn't work, so that made us all feel safe. It was "only" $4 US to the site, despite having heard $3. Whatever. We got to the ferry crossing, and that's an experience. But not really. I mean, everyone piles on this "boat" that's tethered to both sides by wire cables above and perhaps below. The "river" is maybe 50 feet across. There's room for about 4 vehicles, too. So some pedestrian traffic comes along, a few vehicles, and then the people in the vehicles get out for the crossing. It's turned by hand, so that's the novelty, and they advertise it as a special event in all the tour brochures for Xunantunich. We were lucky enough to make the acquaintance of a family who was riding in one of the pickup trucks to the site, because our taxi left us at the ferry crossing. Once we got over, this family signaled for us to hop into the back of the pickup truck! We were happy to oblige, since it was an uphill climb all the way from the ferry, and I was told it would take about 30 minutes on foot. So we got up to the top of the hill like native Belizeans.

Once we got our tickets to enter the site, the Rain God decided we needed to feel his presence. That would be Chakh, or Chac, or Cha'ak, or some spelling like that. So we sought refuge in the visitor center. It's an okay display, and once you get inside it, the first thing you see is a wooden cross. But it has nothing to do with Jesus, so don't make that mistake (like I did). They have a few artifacts, but it's mostly display panels about the history of the site and the excavations. They do have fragmented ball hoop, since it fell of the ball court centuries ago. I believe that's the only ball hoop (or what's left of it) in all of Belize. Since we didn't have an eternal amount of time here, we chose to go up the rest of the hill to the main attraction despite a little bit of Chaakh still coming down.

Let's just say that we had a good time exploring these ruins. TJ had a Go-Pro, so I look forward to seeing his videos immensely. I didn't get many videos because I think I was either laughing or terrified of falling over the edge of a Maya pyramid the whole time. This site is quite small, compared to other places I've visited in the Maya world. It's very compact. Basically there are three courtyards with buildings surrounding them all around. You enter the area in the central courtyard, with buildings that you can climb on either side of you, which both lead to another courtyard on either side. You can actually climb most of the ruins, but typically only on one side of the building or along modern steps. There are ubiquitous "Do Not Climb" signs, which are very confusing if you think that it means you cannot climb that particular pyramid or temple at all. You just have to go all the way around and find the place you're allowed to climb. Also, since Chaakh had given us his blessing all morning, the limestone steps (which they all are, unless you have wooden staircases from modern times) are slippery. Ask me how I know this.

At one point, Chaakh blessed us again while we were at the site, so we took shelter underneath a picnic area. Once it stopped, we walked around and probably saw into Guatemala and maybe even saw/smelled some cocaine production. I won't swear in a court of law, but something smelled funny. The site did have armed Belizean soldiers, after all. Our first real ascent of the day was in the central pyramid, which was probably the most important despite not being the tallest. We didn't have a professional guide, so I can't say for sure. But the top of this pyramid gave us some great views of both sides of the complex, as well as some great views of (and selfies with) the Castillo - the largest structure in the site. By this point, Chaakh had left us for good (at least for our time in the site itself), and sun was well high in the sky. It was getting hot and humid.

Our final stop in Xunantunich was the Castillo itself. We ascended the front of the temple pretty easily. I've got some choice comments on video that I half-hope are preserved for posterity. I won't repeat them here. Once we got to the first "level," we moved to the left side of the pyramid to see the frieze on the side. It's a reproduction in plaster, much like those I saw at Caracol yesterday. They're covering up the real ones to protect them from the elements (or vandals). But a nice couple offered to take our group picture with the frieze in the background after I offered to do the same for them. Fun how this works for tourists everywhere. Next, we made it to the level equal up with the frieze, and it was the first time I got a little acrophobic. It didn't help that Robert just pranced to the edge of the level, plopped down, and hung his feet over the edge like no big deal. I think I audible gasped. But he showed us that there was a "ledge" just over the side, and that people could probably stand on that. He didn't demonstrate. But we all managed to get pictures where we appear to be hanging off the edge of the 2nd level.

Then we ascended to the 3rd and highest level. You have to go around the back of the temple and up an internal staircase. It has a nice picture window on one side which you don't realize how dangerous will be until you're coming back down that way. Anyway, we got to the top, and I think I truly did let out a groan when Robert pulled his edge-sitting antics again. For the love. I'll admit any day to being afraid of heights. But I try stuff like this to try and overcome it, or at least not let it defeat me. It's never totally worked, but I keep trying, and that's what counts, right? Anyway, we got some more pictures at the apex - of ourselves and of the panoramic views - before heading down again.

On the way out, we saw our first iguanas and then it was the gift shop! We were excited mainly for the drinks, because it was sweltering. I know I soaked through my shirt all over, especially the back, where my rucksack was pressed all morning. It was at least 12:30 by this point. So TJ and I got some cool refreshments while Robert asked another family if we could ride down the hill to the ferry in their pickup truck. I don't know why, but they agreed! And it was a good thing, too, because Chaakh opened up about halfway down the hill. We were thoroughly soaked from rain by the time we got to the bottom. The truck driver said we could use an umbrella, about halfway through the storm. I guess it saved us from getting even more soaked?

We got back across the "river" and then Robert flagged down a taxi - he was good for something, after all, so I was glad we brought him along. The taxi driver dropped us all off at mine and TJ's guest house, where we parted ways with Robert and collected our bags. TJ wanted to make sure again about his bus, and I needed money, so we split up to tackle those things and save some time for food before we really had to part ways. Once what was settled, I walked and TJ dragged his suitcase to a restaurant called Hode's Place, where my bus would be picking me up and which was on the same road as TJ's bus station. Hode's Place has good food, and their portions are massive and reasonably priced, so I recommend if you ever get to San Ignacio. Their service time, though, appears to be a standard Belizean thing. We got there around 1:45, and TJ was concerned he wouldn't even get his food before he needed to get to the bus station around 2:35. But it came in plenty of time. He got hot wings, and there were so many of them and they were hotter than expected, so he couldn't even finish them. At the appointed time, he collected his belongings and started the drag/walk to the bus station. I was a little sad, for sure; it's always best when unexpectedly good things happen, and I'd say finding someone to enjoy western Belize for 3 days with was an exceptional piece of good luck.

After he departed, I finished my own food around 2:55 and then went out front of the restaurant to await my bus. I had been told in my email correspondence with the shuttle company that it would be between 2-3PM before I began my trip. Then yesterday, I got an email that said 3-4PM. Whatever. That's Belize. The bus pulled up at 3:59PM, so I was impressed. It was air conditioned, with a toilet, and not many people left on it. It had started in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, sometime in the morning; so a lot of people were probably ready to be done with the trip when I got on.

The border crossing was, well, what I've come to expect from Belize. One agent to take your money and give you a receipt, then another agent further down to stamp your passport out. It probably took 30 minutes for our bus to get all through that. Then we had to walk to the Guatemala office, where they just scan your passport and put a stamp in it, before writing some numbers over it. No questions. Pretty easy. I did have an urchin named Dennis, who spoke good English, guide me to the office and then say he hoped I'd give him a little money for escuela. So when I got done, I gave him $10 Belizean for his troubles. I didn't need it anymore.

The rest of the ride to Flores, Guatemala, was uneventful. The sun set as we went, which made me a little nervous. But the road was impeccable. Belize could take a lesson from that. Tomorrow is Tikal - my 3rd Maya city in 3 days!

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