Into the Mayan Jungle

Published: January 10th 2016
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R: After a short water taxi ride we arrived in Belize city. Belize City has a terrible reputation so we headed through it as soon as possible. The area near the water dock was ok, but the bus station area was pretty run down, lots of people passed out on the streets etc. We took a bus heading for the Guatamalan border which was an old US school bus, as all the buses are here. As it wound its was through 80 miles of countryside, we enjoyed watching people get on and off (except when it flooded with kids from a nearby Christian academy) and the world going by. Rural Belize is quite different to the Cayes, but overall, pretty clean if you compare it with equivalent countries in Asia. It's very green, and very rural, outside the capital Belmopan and Belize city. After 3 hours of bouncing around on a relatively hard seat, we arrived in San Ignacio, which is close to the Guatamalan border. The bus pulled in over a wooden raft type bridge before arriving in the main square - which has been regenerated for the tourism, but the rest of the town is nothing particularly special. There is a proper, British built, metal bridge, but it is too narrow so it is now one way traffic on both.

At 7am the next day, I joined a group heading for Tikal, in Guatamala. At the border, we had to change vans, so we had to get out, go through Belize immigration (pay the fee) walk to the van, drive 10 metres, park the van, get into a waiting Guatamalan van, drive 10 metres, then submit to Guatamalan passport control. Although it had many steps, we were through in not too long and soon driving through the Guatamalan countryside. There was noticeably more soldiers at checkpoints here, many seemed to be only about 16. As we stopped at a petrol station an Old lady approached the vehicle, much to our amusement, and made nose prints and licked the Windows. She then snuck up behind the driver and gave him a fright before wandering off. She waved enthusiastically as we left the forecourt.

We arrived in Tikal, an ancient Maya city, which is now a national park, after the obligatory stop at the drivers "favourite" shop, consisting of authentic maps, wood carvings and gum. (Guatamala's national tree used to produce the gum that started Mr Wrigley into business). Tikal was abandoned around 1100AD and rediscovered by the British in around 1800. Much of it remains uninvestigated today as, once it is investigated, they have to pay for the upkeep, so they have chosen not to. In fact, some of the areas uncovered in 1880 or so, have already succumbed once again to jungle growth. It was one of the most important cities in the Mayan culture, although they used to fight and trade with other groups of Maya in the area.

To take a break from the history lesson, while I have been writing this I have heard both Shaggy and Sean Paul loudly playing from a nearby party - such is the popular music of Belize!

Anyway, so we were led around the ruins of this Mayan city bit by bit. The main 5 temples that have been uncovered are very impressive in size, and were built so their shadows overlap at certain times of the day, the Mayan being very interested in the movements of the sun. We were quite aware that there was large disruption going on above us - howler monkeys swinging through the trees. Our guide helpfully told us that at this time of year, they eat a particular seed that is found in the area that gives them diarrhoea so don't stand directly underneath them....! There were also toucans and other colourful birds vying for our attention. The temples only got more impressive, and the views from one to another were stunning. There isn't as much carving as those in Angkor wat (I couldn't help but compare) and from that perspective they didnt tell so much a story, but our guide told us all about the rituals, the animal and human sacrifice that used to happen here, and explained that dwarfs had a very important part in Mayan society and in fact, some of the stone edifices were build with dwarfs size in mind. In fact, the animal sacrifices still happen, and there are "contemporary altars" present by the temples for the modern Mayan to use for this purpose.

You can climb to the top of several of the temples - some are shut since some careless tourists fell to their deaths from Temple 1 a few years back. From temple 5 you get a great view across the jungle canopy and can see the other temples sticking out of it, making it look truly like a lost city. On a clear day you can see the Belize barrier reef from temple 5, but it wasn't quite suitable on my day. Most of the temples now have wooden staircases, but some of the smaller ones you could just climb the stones and feel like a Maya King at the top of his pulpit.

Coming away from Tikal you realise that Guatamala is a little poorer than Belize - there are also more pigs, dogs and chickens "free range" in the road. It was interesting to see the villages and lakes that made up the area, before returning to the border post to begin the formalities in reverse.

Today we headed to Xunantunich, another Mayan ruin, which is on the border with Guatamala. We took a local bus there, as we are feeling a bit poor at the moment. From the bus, you take a hand pulled ferry across the Mopan river, which actually is pulled on a wire by a little old man with a hand crank (we almost felt bad making him do it!!). It's a very hot (33c today) uphill walk to the site, but it's well worth it. The road leading there is filled with butterflies and howler monkeys swinging through the trees. The complex is smaller than Tikal, but the centre pieces (called El Castillo) is climbable and affords 360 degree views of the valley below and the rest of the site - we just sat in the shade for 30 mins or so, listening to the howler monkeys across the valley. The site was owned and built by different groups of Maya than Tikal, and was again abandoned in around 1100AD due to political unrest and drought. The temples have some cool, original plaster carvings on them, but these have been covered over with replicas to save them being destroyed by the jungle climate. We had a good climb on everything (that we were allowed to) then lay in the shade for some time before taking the hand cranked ferry back to the other side of the river. We found several wild Iguanas who were basking in the sunshine around the site, but it was too hot for us...

A quick lunch (and a whole litre of strawberry fanta) awaited us at a little roadside place we had heard about in San Jose Succotz, the town nearest the Mayan site. I wimped out and didn't have the gimlet (Royal rodent - so called after the incident with the queen - see previous blog) and instead opted for Rice and Beans with stew, which seemed absurd to have when it was so hot out, but was delicious. Cate had a Beliziean BBQ pork.

Belize has a huge number of hot sauce varieties which I have been working my way through - much more powerful than anything I tried in New Orleans. I'm just sad that I can't bring any home, as I am pretty sure Aussie customs will have any suspicious looking hot sauce bottles off me in no time at all.

Our inn has a roof terrace here, which is great for evening time. I can see the whole town from where I am sitting, but it is great to sit and plan the next part of our journey. Tomorrow we move to Costa Rica where we shall pick up next...

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


Howler MonkeyHowler Monkey
Howler Monkey

(blink and you'll miss it!)
Pork Scratchings with a view! - XunantunichPork Scratchings with a view! - Xunantunich
Pork Scratchings with a view! - Xunantunich

Yes, they even have them here

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