A Travellerspoint blog

November 2017

Underworld Adventure

Swimming with the ancient Mayans

rain 78 °F

It’s been a long year. Life hit me hard and I needed a break. Around July I started looking at flights just wanting to go somewhere - anywhere. Europe? Central America? South America? The list was endless. I finally found a good fare for Belize. I’d been thinking about traveling to Belize for a few years. They have some great Mayan sites and plenty of natural beauty.

Lots of folks stick to the coast but I’m not a ‘sit on the beach’ kind of person. I want to see exciting places and learn new things. San Ignacio looked to be the best place to base myself and then do day-trips from there.

My first day in San Ignacio was just an unwind and get settled kind of day. November is still the rainy season so it’s hit or miss whether it will rain or not. I want to see a few sites that require a guide so I visited several tour companies and settled on MayaWalk. They have good prices and great customer service. One of my must-see sites is the Mayan site of Caracol. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any tours there Sunday but they did have the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) cave tour. I was a little reluctant since it involved spending hours wading around in water. The owner of the company assured me it was better than it sounded so I signed up. Plus, the weather forecasted 100% rain. If I’m going to get wet, I might as well do it on purpose!

The tour starts with a swim across a river and then a hike through the jungle crossing that same river two more times. Once you reach the cave, the tour starts in earnest. We waded and swam upstream through various chambers looking at amazing rock formations. Some of these chambers are huge! However, the prize at the end of the trek is the ‘dry cave’. The Mayans used this cave for ceremonial purposes. There are over a thousand pottery artifacts as well as human skeletons. Our guide, Juan Carlos, did a great job explaining the reasons for the ceremonies and some of the Mayan history.

Unfortunately, due to previous tourists who dropped their cameras onto artifacts, cameras aren’t allowed in the caves. It’s difficult to explain the vastness of this cave. The cave keeps going on and on. Many of the artifacts are partially hidden in the calcite deposited over hundreds of years. Who knows how many more are completely hidden from us?

Once we had seen all the cave could show us, we had to traverse the caves back to the starting point. It was much easier going with the flow of the water! Our guide was nervous about the water level when we came in and he was watching carefully as we left. Luckily, we made it there and back without an incident.

Although I was originally hesitant to take this tour, I’m so very glad I did! It was an amazing experience and the sites were not something you could see anywhere else.

(I’ll add photos when I can get them from the tour company.)

Posted by Jengt 17:36 Archived in Belize Tagged #mayan #cavingadventure #mayawalk #allwet Comments (0)

Caracol

Seeing a glimpse of Mayan past

rain 80 °F

One of the sites I wanted to see most was Caracol. It’s a Mayan City in the hills south of San Ignacio, close to the Guatemala border. It’s estimated to be larger than Tikal, but it was discovered later and is only about 1% uncovered. Even so, it sounded interesting. I stopped back at MayaWalk after my ATM tour and they said they had enough people to go Monday morning. (One of the drawbacks of traveling alone is when tour companies have a 2 person minimum.)

We had a 7am scheduled start since it nearly a 3 hour drive to Caracol from San Ignacio. Once loaded into the van, we hit the road. A very bumpy, muddy road. Im extremely glad I don’t get car-sick. This could have been a really bad day.

About 2/3 of the way to Caracol, we stopped at Rio Frio cave to get out and stretch our legs and to see the massive cave. The entrance is one of the largest in Belize. We climbed around and checked out the rock formations before loading back into the van for the final stretch to Caracol. Along the way, the weather switched from clouds to sun to rain and back again. I was hoping to keep some sun but wasn’t holding my breath.

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Rio Frio Cave

Since Caracol is still “new”, there are few visitors which is my kind of historical site. No big crowds and you can get a chance to ‘feel’ the place. Our rather large group of 11 set out to see the site. It’s still under excavation and they think they’ve only uncovered around 1% of the ruins. Some say Caracol was larger than Tikal.

What has been uncovered and rebuilt is spectacular. We visited residential areas and then moved to plaza B. There are several buildings on this plaza including Caana ‘Sky Palace’ which is still the tallest building in Belize. Most of the group climbed the steep stairs to the top for a great view of the plaza. The acoustics are so good that you can hear the conversations across the plaza from the top! As we reached the bottom of the stairs, we saw a glimpse of sun. Everyone grabbed their cameras and ran around for their photos. This would be a theme throughout our visit.

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Cabana

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On top of Caana

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Looking down on the plaza

From here, we walked through the archaeologists plaza where huts have been built for their work and testing. They keep several plaques and stilea here under cover for protection from the weather. The carvings are magnificent!

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The final plaza contains their observatory where they calculated the solstices. Two of these buildings are mostly reconstructed and two are only basic shapes. Of course, as you look around the area, each mound of foliage and trees is most likely another building waiting to be rediscovered.

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Observatory

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Although Caracol isn’t as complete as other sites in the area, I greatly enjoyed my visit. I love knowing that there is so much more the Mayans have left for us to discover!

Posted by Jengt 06:06 Archived in Belize Tagged #history #mayan #cave Comments (0)

Communing with the Maya

A howling visit to Xunantunich.

sunny 83 °F

The weather forecast for today was the most promising I’d seen for this week. I decided I’d check out a couple of Mayan sites near San Ignacio today since they’d be easy to do on my own and at my own pace.

The first site is Cahal Pech which is atop a hill above San Ignacio. The guidebooks started it was a relatively easy walk. I confirmed my directions with the hotel front desk staff who thought I was a little crazy wanting to walk there. He kept trying to get a cab for me but I persisted that I could do walk it on my own. I agree it was a steep climb in the hot sun, but it felt good to get out on my own without a guide and 8 other people.

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Cahal Pech

Cahal Pech was one of the oldest sites inhabited long before Tikal or Caracol. It’s a small group of buildings but it was nice to be able to just wander around and commune with the surroundings. I climbed atop the tallest temple and then wound my way through the residential buildings and the ball court. It’s interesting to contrast these smaller sites with the larger, more popular sites. Although there isn’t that ‘spectacular’ aspect, the history is just as impressive.

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I walked back down the hill to town to grab a bus to my next site for the day - Xunantunich (shoo-nan-ta-neech). Xunantunich was probably built after Cahal Pech and the excavated portion is definitely larger than Cahal Pech. Of course, getting there is half the fun. I took a “chicken bus” (no chickens) from San Ignacio which dropped me off at a ferry. The ferry is hand-cranked and crosses whenever someone needs across. It’s a short but interesting trip. Before crossing, I hired a guide to get some of the back story on Xunantunich. I made sure I could stay behind to spend extra time after we completed the tour. He seemed skeptical but agreed.

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Hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River

There are two main plazas that have been excavated and restored in Xunantunich. The first includes an extensive residential building and a ceremonial building bisecting the plaza from the main pyramid. The main plaza includes the Observatory and El Castillo, the large pyramid and, most likely, the ruler’s living quarters and burial site. El Castillo is the second tallest Mayan Temple in Belize after Caracol’s Caana.

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Residential area

As we climbed to the top of El Castillo, I was amazed at how beautiful the weather was holding. Of course, that was not going to last. As my guide and I looked to the north, we noticed a line of showers heading straight for us. The heavens opened up before we could start down. We were soaked to the bone before we made it to the first set of stairs. We made it to the ground and found shelter under a picnic area. He continued to explain how the archaeologists are continuing to find hidden burial chambers in the already excavated buildings. In fact, just over a year ago, they found a skeleton under the stairs of a building in the main plaza. They found obsidian, pottery, spear points, jade and mercury with the remains.

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Xunantunich from atop El Castillo with the rain approaching

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Mask along the side of the stairs on El Castillo

After the rain passed, we saw the remainder of the area. He made sure I really wanted to stay and we parted ways. I appreciated his knowledge and insight, but there’s just something about being able to move at my own pace taking photos wherever and whenever I want.

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A freeze uncovered on the western side of El Castillo

The rain had thinned the crowd immensely and it seemed I had the whole place to myself. I once again climbed atop El Castillo to soak up the ambiance and savor the peace. As I started to descend, I heard a howler monkey in the distance. The sound started to get louder and before I knew it, the forest was alive with the chorus of howler monkeys calling to each other. It was an amazing feeling, listening to this other-worldly chorus atop the pyramid all by myself.

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Excavation continues

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An iguana suns itself in one of the royal family residential rooms

As the monkeys quieted, I continued to descend the pyramid and made my way back down the hill to the river ferry.

I’m sure I’ll see more Mayan sites in the future, but this day will always hold a special place in my heart.

Posted by Jengt 19:09 Archived in Belize Tagged #mayan #howler_monkeys #ferry #chicken_bus #belize #solo_travel Comments (0)

Jungle Caving

sunny 85 °F

Remember the saying about best laid plans? That was my day today. I had planned on a relaxing day water tubing through caves. However, Mother Nature had other plans. Due to all the rain we’ve been having, all of the water tours were cancelled. The rivers are just too high and moving too swiftly. The tour company offered an alternative, hiking in a dry cave to see Mayan pottery. It was just a 1/2 day, so I decided to join the couple that had also gotten cancelled. We were told to bring water and a change of clothes, just in case. I didn’t think much of that ‘just in case’. In hindsight, I should have.

We took an hour drive into the Belize mountains to meet our guide, William. William is the person who found this cave in the 90’s. We grabbed our water and a walking stick and headed into the jungle. William stopped every little while to show us various plants, insects and trees. We slipped, slid and hiked our way to the bottom of the valley and back up the other side.

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A carnivorous mushroom

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A termite nest

Finally, the entrance to the cave! It’s a small hole in the wall but it opened up to a good sized room with pottery shards along the sides. We continued into the cave, trying not to slip on the mud. The cave extends nearly 300 meters. William described the archaeologists findings as we continued on.

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pieces of pottery

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detail on one of the pots

As we descended a very gentle slope, there were 6 to 20 foot ladders made of rebar to allow us to see on top of ledges where pots had been left as offerings to the gods. The archaeologists had found remnants of food in several of the pots. There were painted pots, “mushroom” pots (they look like a mushroom with their lid) and standard storage pots. Some were whole but many were broken.

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pottery atop a rock ledge

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an assortment of pots

As we reached the end of the cave, a stone altar sat in the final chamber surrounded by a circle of stones. It’s assumed the main ceremonial activities happened here. We stood there soaking in the ambiance as William asked us to turn off out lights. The darkness is blinding. He lit his lighter to show how just a small light source can allow one to see just enough. Even so, it’s understandable how the Mayans may have thought supernatural beings resided in these caves. Just a wave of the hand can create odd shadows and dripping water creates eerie sounds.

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the stone altar

We made our slippery way back to the entrance to start the trek back to our starting point. We grabbed our walking sticks again and headed back down and up, trying desperately to not lose our footing as we went.

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As we emerged from the jungle, I saw why the tour company requested we bring a change of clothes. I had mud nearly everywhere - especially all over my feet. It looked like I had brought half the mountain out on my shoes! Luckily, we had a water tap to walk off the worst of the mess.

As we drove back to San Ignacio, we reflected on how different this day ended up from what we expected. I may not have gotten my full day of relaxation, but I did get an amazing new experience!

Posted by Jengt 15:21 Archived in Belize Tagged #mayan #belize #jungle #caves Comments (0)

Two Days in Tikal

Sunrise, sunset and everything in between

sunny 90 °F

Tikal has been on my bucket list for a long time. Who can resist one of the largest and most well known Mayan sites? When I decided on Belize for my vacation this year, I made sure to leave time to see Tikal. Tikal isn’t in Belize, but it is close - just over the border in Guatemala. When researching transportation and tours, I found overnight tours, but they left San Ignacio at noon and returned the following day at noon. With three hours travel time each way, that didn’t leave much time to see the site. I decided to book a room at the Jungle Inn which is one of only three hotels actually on the grounds and hoped my transportation would work itself out.

As soon as I got to San Ignacio, I put my name in with several of the tour companies hoping I could join a tour one day and grab transportation back the next. The problem is, they only go if there are 2 or more people interested. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to get to Tikal, even if I had to chicken bus it the whole way there and back!

Finally, at 8:30 the night before I was to go, Maximum Adventure Tours let me know they were a go. I was relieved beyond measure! We set out early for the 3 hour trip across the border to Tikal.

We picked up our local guide a little into Guatemala. Louis was extremely informative regarding the history of the Maya as well as many of the other ancient cultures. The couple that rounded out our group were Molly & Richard from London, England. They have also traveled extensively so Louis was happy to have knowledgeable companions.

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Mercado

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Temple 1 (back)

Tikal is a massive site. It can take up to 20 minutes to walk between temples or plazas. Louis made good use of that time by discussing how our current civilization compares to the ancient civilizations. He had an interesting spin on many of the recent world events.

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Our first stop was the Grand Plaza which houses the most widely known temples in Tikal -Temple 1 & Temple 2. The temples sit across the plaza from each other with administrative buildings and the royal residences flanking them. Climbing the steps of the temples is no longer allowed. However, they have built a wooden staircase along on one side of Temple 2 as well as a platform at the top to allow visitors the royal view of the plaza. Even with the school groups and other tours there, if you are still and close your eyes, you can feel a sense of the place.

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Temple 1

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Temple 2

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Central Acropolis

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Stilae on the Grand Plaza

From the plaza, we set off for Temple 4 which is the furthest point from the entrance. Along the way, we stopped at other temples and buildings, learning about the various kings, alliances and trade amongst the various Mayan cities. Louis turned our questions around to quiz us on what we already knew about the Maya. Finally at Temple 4, Louis sent us to climb up. As at Temple 2, you are no longer allowed to climb the Temple steps. Apparently, a couple of people slipped and died a couple of years ago so they built wooden stairs here as well. Temple 4 is the tallest temple in Tikal and is still mostly surrounded by jungle. The view from the top is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You look out with just the tops of the other temples poking above the jungle canopy. I can’t imagine how anyone can witness that without being moved. Richard, Molly and I just sat there quietly taking our photos and soaking up the ambiance.

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View from Temple 4

When we had our fill, we descended to meet back with Louis. As we continued around the park, Louis showed us native plants and explained how many were used as natural medicines as well as the gum tree (the sap is what chewing gum is made from). We stopped at Temple 5 and the Plaza of Seven Temples. Louis has been a guide here for many years and has seen how the site has evolved as additional buildings were excavated and rebuilt. It was extremely interesting to hear his stories. I tried to soak up all of his tales and information.

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Plaza of 7 Temples

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Temple 5

Too soon, we headed back to the entrance. I had hardly noticed we had been there over four hours! Molly & Richard had to head back to San Ignacio so we parted ways at the entrance and I walked up to the Jungle Lodge Inn. The hotel’s proximity is due to it was originally the camp for the archaeologists in the 50s. I checked in, unpacked a little and headed back to the park. I hadn’t booked a sunset tour, but I did want to see the Grand Plaza lit up by the evening sun. There’s a special warmth the evening sun gives to buildings.

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Temple 1 at Sunset

As an added bonus, most of the visitors are only there until 2-3pm so you have the chance to really absorb the vibe once the throngs are gone. I was happy when I made my way back to the Grand Plaza without getting lost. (Even though the paths have signs, it’s easy to lose your way.) I was not disappointed when I got there. The top half of Temple 1 was aglow with a warm hue.

After taking my photos, I sat along the side steps. Alone with my thoughts, I tried to imagine the city at its height with the people going about their daily lives. I appreciate the knowledge of tour guides, but I also like time to live and breathe the experience of a place. As the sun started to disappear, I wandered back to the hotel once again. I had booked a sunrise tour and had an early wake-up call so an early evening was essential.

At 4am, we met our guide, Abel, a Mayan native of the area. The park is officially open at 6am but they do allow guided tours to see the sunrise from atop Temple 4. Since the sun rises around 5:40am, the tours head into the park shortly after 4 for the long hike back with flashlights. Everyone speaks with hushed voices to not disturb the wildlife. Abel stopped us at the Grand Plaza. He shined his flashlight on the top of the temples and gave a brief description of the plaza and then we all turned our lights off. The stars were an amazing carpet of light above us.

We continued on to Temple 4 and I climbed the stairs once again. Our small group was the first so we took the best seats and waited for Mother Nature’s show. Slowly, we watched as other groups approached through the jungle and quietly reached the top. The couple next to me used their laser pointers to point out constellations and planets in the night sky. As the red and orange colors of sunrise glowed, the sounds of the jungle wildlife waking spread below us. Birds started to fly above the canopy as howler monkeys called to each other, saying their good mornings. I can’t explain my emotions as I witnessed this sunrise. To say it was moving would be a gross understatement.

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As the other groups left, we hung back to soak in as much of the experience as we could. Abel led us down and then back through the park. We had an extended tour that went all of the places I had seen yesterday as well as Temple 6 and group G which are not widely visited. The nice thing about having different guides is that each one tells the story a little differently. There’s truth in both, but each one interprets the facts in their own way.

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Temple 6

I had a more enriching visit to Tikal than most since I had the chance to hear two different viewpoints. It’s a lot like the rest of life. We can go along our single path listening to only one group or we can open our eyes and hearts and grow.

I’m glad I saved Tikal for the end of my trip. Although I thoroughly enjoyed each of the amazing experiences and places in Belize, Tikal will always hold a special place in my heart.

Posted by Jengt 06:04 Archived in Guatemala Tagged #sunset #sunrise #guatemala #mayan #tikal #maximumadventuretours #bucket_list Comments (0)

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