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Published: February 21st 2013
The next stop on our tour of beautiful Belize was Hopkins - a really great little beach town about an hour south of Dangriga. One thing you must know before you get an idea of the culture of Hopkins is who the Garifuna are. The Garifuna is a segment of the Belizean population that descends from shipwrecked Africans (intended to be slaves) who survived initially on the Caribbean island of St Vincent. The Garifuna have a strong African connection but with a unique Caribbean flavor. The product is Hopkins: a quiet, beautiful beach town on the Caribbean sea. The people are widely warm and friendly - saying hello and swapping greetings on the sandy streets, in no hurry. A good share of restaurants and small hotels exist but they are widely spread apart and in a 'healthy' ratio to local spots, small businesses and homes. We stayed at Lebehas - a drumming center quite similar to Emmets, except that this is also a guesthouse with nice, cheap rooms (along with some very nice, expensive rooms which we only saw from the outside). I opted out of another drum lesson but we enjoyed staying here very much. Jabbar (Lebeha, the owner) was
so laid back that we often had to track him down to pay for our room or ask a question 😊.
Within 30 minutes of checking into Lebeha's, another American couple stopped us to ask if we were interested in snorkeling the next day. Why yes, we said eyeing them suspiciously, this was exactly what we had hoped to do tomorrow. They explained that they and another couple were planning to rent a boat and driver/guide to go out snorkeling for the day and were hoping to get more people in to make it a little cheaper for everyone. To good to be true? Maybe in the real world but when you are traveling, things just happen like this. We walked with our new friends - Carl and Vicky, from Seattle - to meet the other couple - Hans and Analise from Belgium - to make the arrangements with the tour company - run by a transplant from upstate NY, who had actually heard of Millerton before. After making arrangements and paying, we all walked to the store to buy some ingredients for a quick breakfast in the morning and then went to dinner together and had a great
time with our new found friends.
The next day, after the requisite stop for coffee, we met the guy who would drive us over to the dock to meet our guide. We were fitted for masks and fins and boarded the boat. The trip out was nearly an hour and we got to see a small group of dolphins up close, which was absolutely amazing. We got to the spot our guide had picked out, which was past the first group of cayes (pronounced 'keys' and, as far as I can tell, is a fancy word for tropical island) and nearby to another caye that we would be stopping on for lunch later. The snorkeling took a few minutes for me to get used to but the reefs here are really amazing - exactly as our guide had predicted, I had a bit of trouble with water seeping into my mask because my mustache prevented a completely airtight seal which was annoying but I didn't have too much trouble enjoying the day anyway. I got plenty of sea water up my nose and lived to fight another day. Sara had a tougher time getting used to the snorkeling but
still managed to see some beautiful fish and enjoy the day. Since hearing about someone else's snorkeling trip isn't quite as fun as doing it AND I don't have many pictures of the snorkeling itself, I'll just say this: I saw lots of beautiful colored fish, a couple large barracudas and, oh yeah, I saw a shark.
Thats right -- a nurse shark. A baby, sure - but I was no more than five feet away from a free swimming nurse shark that was roughly 4 feet long. Luckily, earlier in the day someone else had seen one and when they reported it on the boat, our guide assured us that the only sharks in these waters were totally unaggressive nurse sharks, so when I had my own encounter I was reasonably sure I didn't have to fear for my life. The shark swam pretty much past me - right in front of me - and didn't seem to notice me. When the shark made a 90 degree turn and I thought it might be coming towards me, I pretty much freaked out and tried to swim backwards (difficult in fins). Soon the shark swam away
and out of sight - I quickly swam to the boat, feeling that in case my luck was nearing on empty, I should get out of the water and recount my brave shark attack survival story to the others on the boat.
The day was really fun - a few hours of snorkeling, a short lunch break on the island (sorry - "caye") and a few more hours of snorkeling in a nearby area. On the way back, we were all pretty beat and hardly got excited when we saw yet another group of dolphins, including a a baby dolphin. That was actually sort of a lie, we definitely got excited to see the baby dolphin - yours truly especially. By the time we were back at the dock, it was clear to all of us that we had had a great day AND were completely and thoroughly sun burned. Having put on in the morning AND reapplied mid-day, I didn't see how I could have fallen prey to the sun's evil rays but over the next 12 hours it would be come entirely clear to me the extend of the damage and it would only later occur to
me that perhaps I had brought this on myself when I made a joke at the behest of the mighty gumbolimbo tree (see the last post for that reference).
Mayan curse or not, we were all pretty badly scalded. That night we moisturized freely and then slept soundly (albeit without turning much) - the next day, our friends were off on their next adventure and Sara and I decided to take the day off from our vacation to recover (being on vacation is hard work, folks). We spent the entire day reading, eating, hiding in the shade from the evil sun, moisturizing and complaining about the evil sun. It was actually quite wonderful other than being burned - I read nearly an entire book in one day, which I haven't done in years.
The next day we had to be on the move - partially because our schedule dictated it and partially because there was no ATM in Hopkins and we were running out of cash. As best we could, we muted the screams that would come out of our mouths as we put our huge backpacks on our poor poor backs and boarded the early bus out
of Hopkins. This book took us to Dangriga - where we paid the station attention a few bucks to hold our bags while we went in search of breakfast. After a satisfying breakfast of waffles at 1BZ each and some pleasant conversation with an Irish guy, we boarded another bus to Belmopan. I hardly remember much about Belmopan as we quickly grabbed the next bus to San Ignacio - each time we muffled our screams as we put on or off our backpacks. But San Ignacio was our final destination and we couldn't have been happier for it.
If you thought that bit about the curse was over, you'd be wrong. For reasons unbeknownst to me - the sun that had scalded my skin had set in motion a chemical reaction that took two full days to manifest but after a few hours of being in San Ignacio, I began showing symptoms of a severe allergic reaction to the sun burn (I think sometimes called sun poisoning, but Im not sure if that refers to someone else specifically). This is actually not the first time I've experienced this in my life but the last time was nearly ten years
ago so I hadn't seen it coming. I won't go into deals other than to so I wouldn't wish the symptoms of this reaction on my enemies - well maybe only on my most arch nemeses. It was really awful - luckily medical help is a bit easier to come by here and Sara was able to get an off-the-cuff diagnosis from a doctor without me leaving the room and get the necessary treatment (Benedryl, in case you are curious or you found this blog by googling 'allergic to sun'😉 and a fairly strong painkiller. But this would keep me/us out of commission for another full day in San Ignacio. Luckily, the town/small city is pretty nice, with plenty of easy food options, several pharmacies and even a place where we could buy cheap bootleg DVDs to take the mind off of the allergic reaction (we bought and watched Ted, in case you found this blog by googling 'movies to rent to take mind off of sun allergy symptoms', although that seems unlikely).
By the end of our second day in San Ignacio, the allergic reaction had mostly subsided and I was feel frustrated at the wasted days so
we decided to make plans to continue our adventures. We signed up for a tour of the Barton Creek Caves with Davids Tours. If you a future visitor to San Ignacio and wish to take a tour to the caves or anywhere in the area, I highly recommend Davids Tours. He is highly knowledgeable but also very laid back and fun. The next morning we packed our bags and left them at David's office for the day. We met the two Americans who would be joining us for the day and we set out with David for Barton Creek Caves. On the way he told us much about the history of the caves: his friend's grandfather had told him about many years ago - he was the first to fully explore the caves, then when someone 'bought' the land containing the mouth of the caves, he worked with the government to take the land back and keep the caves open and available to all. We also stopped in one of Belize's largest orange orchards to help a few oranges off their branches. He didn't use the word 'steal' until the ride back - his original explanation was that 'everyone knows
in Belize that when you plant a crop, you plant for yourself and for the birds and for your neighbors and for the hungry tourists'. If any Belize law enforcement officers read this - Im completely joking and this never happened, Im making this story up and it is completely fiction. I've never even been to Belize.
At the park, we loaded into a canoe with - get this - two car batteries hooked up to very large spot lights. One of the car batteries was recently removed from the truck we had taken to get here! The lamps, David explained, were necessary to really see the cave - he said other people go in there with flashlights and hardly get to see the caves at all. Despite the seemingly obvious risk of electrocution, I have to admit - he was right about the lamps. And we saw other groups go by with their tiny flashlights, he was right about that too. As we drifts on the calm river, David told us much about the Mayas spiritual practice and about how the cave had been used both to hold ceremonies and as a burial place. The tour of cave
was really fun - with David's unique brand of woven information and story telling, it was a great trip. Apologies for a lack of pictures here but other than a half decent shot of the bats, a dark cave is just not a great scene for photography.
At the close of the tour, we got some helpful tips on the next leg of our journey from David. I had planned only to go Benque, the Belizean town closest to the border with Guatemala, and stay the night but David said we could get much further. He helped us get a fairly priced cab all the way to the border, we crossed the border and hopped on a minibus heading towards Flores, but asked to get off at El Ramate (at the suggesting of a few different people). El Ramate is a real small 'town' (if you can call it that) that exists along the main road that eventually leads to Flores. El Ramate is also directly on the lake, which is really nice. We found a really nice room at the Sun Breeze hotel and booked a shuttle for the next morning to Tikal, to leave at 5:30am.
Tikal is probably Guatemala's most well known attraction and Mayan ruin - we had honestly planned on skipping it because Sara isn't big on ruins and we both have the inclination to skip those spots that show up as #1 on every single list of top ten tourist destinations. Call us rebels. But many backpackers that we met stressed that we really should not miss Tikal and it really happened to be that when I started planning our route - it did make sense to go through Flores and see Tikal. So we acquiesced the masses and put it on our itinerary 😊. We had lost a couple days due to the Curse of the Gumbolimbo but actually had made up an entire day (or more) do to some surprisingly quick bus transfers and our perseverance through a couple long bus days.
So at 5:30am we boarded a bus full of gringos to Tikal - the majestic Mayan temples set in the jungle. Tikal is not 'a temple', it is a massive complex consisting of many many different temples varying in sizes and, probably, purposes. I say 'probably' because we opted not to go on a guided tour and
instead to roam the temple complexes/jungle on our own. Call us rebels. Our natural repulsion to these types of guided tours was reinforced when we watched a group go by and overheard a 6 foot tall white man ask the 4 foot tall guide "Overall, would you say that the Mayans were tall people?". The temples were beautiful and obviously well built, as so much of the original architecture was still standing very tall and even able to withstand the climbing of a few more gringos each day - despite the ancient strange wooden boards with mysterious markings that looked surprisingly like the modern english and spanish words 'No subir - Do not climb'. How mystical the Mayans were, perhaps with a guide we could have learned what was meant by these markings.
We spent many hours wandering the temples, going in and out of structures thousands of years old and getting a great hike through the jungle at the same time. We did get to see a pretty large monkey swinging around from branch to branch, as well as a few toucans and parrots. We also this unique animal whose name we didn't learn that looks like a
combination between a dog and a fox. If it so happens that this animal has not yet been discovered, I hereby name it the 'dox'. Strangely enough while waiting in the parking lot for our shuttle, we saw an ant-eater walking around - which was awesome, albeit skittish. We returned to our room and spent the rest of the day relaxing after a packed couple of days.
We booked through our hotel a shuttle to leave the next morning at 7am for Semuc Champey - another of the few spots that nearly every traveller in Guatemala said we could not miss, so we did not miss it. Semuc Champey was not, however, just the next spot along the road. It was very, very far away. When we considered not booking a tourist shuttle, the itinerary looked like this: El Ramate > Flores > Sayaxche > Coban > Lanquin > Semuc Champey. The shuttle would save us quite a few stops and help us avoid the waiting time in between, but cost us a pretty penny more. Even with the time saved, the shuttle would be 9 hours.
I don't have too much to report from the shuttle and
I'm getting tired of writing so I'll just say it was long, the last half was VERY bumpy and I regretted the big lunch I had on our short stopover in Coban. From the road, our driver made a reservation for us at Las Marias, which was within walking distance of Semuc Champey national park. And 9 long hours later we arrived there. We found a very basic room acceptable and were happy to be stationary for a few hours.
The next day we got an early breakfast and headed out to the park. The walk was maybe 30 minutes or so, over a sweet bridge and with many views of the beautiful river. The park is in the middle of a strange local scandal which I'll avoid explaining now and just say the admission is free currently! We decided to take the moderately difficult (not technically difficult at all - for future visitors - mostly just steep steps, but very tiring and maybe a little slippery) to the overlook. From there we finally saw the beautiful of Semuc Champey - which is a large river spilling out into seven naturally formed shallow pools which overflow into each other
step by step. See the pictures, words just can't do it. We then hiked down and enjoyed on a nice swim in the barely-chilly pools. We headed back to the hotel for a not-so-great lunch and to relax for the rest of the day. I got up the courage to try out the massive swing into the freezing cold river - [url=
see the video here.
And the next day - you guessed it - we were back on the shuttle for a whopping 7-8 hour ride to Antiqua for our final day. We opted to avoid Guatemala City and spend our last night in Antiqua, which is much nicer and safer and has frequent shuttles to the airport anyway. Not much to report from Antiqua other than really really great pizza from Il Leone right int he central part - highly recommended by us.
And here we are - its 11:56pm of our final night of Guatemala and I pushed through to get this blog finished before I get home because I already know that I have 127 work emails waiting for me (which I HAVE NOT looked at, a point of pride for a recovering workaholic like me). Apologies if
this last blog post seems rushed, lacking in detail or a bit blah - its not because Tikal or Semuc were blah at all, its just because Im tired as I write about them.
As always thanks so much for reading,
Mark & Sara
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