San Ignacio – Belize

Mayan Ruins, Monkeys, and a great many Iguanas

A temple in Tikal

One of the pyramid temples in Tikal.

Kim, Sara and I jumped off our bus in San Ignacio, and I quickly set about trying to find us some accommodation, eventually finding a decent, if basic, room in a hostel for the three of us. We dropped off our bag, had a nice lunch at a local cafe, then set off to explore the local ruins, Cahal Pech.

En route we were accosted by an inebriated local who was determined to tell us all about his colourful love life and walked with us most of the way, only leaving us when we had reached our destination.

Cahal Pech itself was rather impressive. We briefly looked round the education centre, which provided us with some context for the structures we were about to explore as well as a few details about day-to-day Mayan life, then left the exhibits behind, walking briefly along a footpath flanked by lush rainforest plants and trees, before turning a corner and emerging into a wide clearing, the imposing Mayan structures bookending the open space.

We wandered around and through the grey stone structures, in places remarkably well preserved, in others the tangled roots of trees penetrated the vast edifices, slowly but surely breaking them up. There were square courtyards surrounded by terraced buildings, narrow streets barely wide enough to stroll without turning sideways, and everywhere the lush jungle tried to reclaim the cleared land.

The following day we booked ourselves onto a trip to Tikal in Guatemala, one of the most important and most famous Mayan archeological sites. We rose early and piled into a car before being driven to the border. Once through the necessary checkpoints we piled into a minibus, and were surprised to find that we were the only people on the tour. We drove for an hour or so, collecting our guide en route, before entering the Tikal National Park.

A Spider Monkey

A Spider Monkey in the Jungle surrounding Tikal

We began walking along a wide footpath through ancient jungle, huge trees flanking the path trailing thick vines from there spreading branches far above our heads. In the bushes Coatis scampered and played. It wasn’t long before we heard the tell tale calls of monkeys high in the canopy, and after a few moments of searching saw a troop of Spider Monkeys feeding in the lofty branches of nearby trees.

A short time later we saw our first Mayan ruin if the day, a remarkably well preserved stone structure. It apparently served as housing for a middle class Mayan merchant family, rooms could still be explored and with the help of our guide it was easy to imagine how the building would have looked when inhabited. As impressive as this was however, it was nothing compared to what was to come next.

We turned a corner among the low stone structures and emerged into a vast clearing, two towering stone pyramids at each end and a vast terraced structure rising up in front of us. We looked one in awe for a time, then made our way down into the grass-covered clearing between the monolithic constructions. Up close, the buildings where no less impressive, while we were forbidden to climb the vertiginous steps leading up the pyramids, we were able to clamber up the terraced area, and, as we did we saw the details that were lost when viewing from a distance. Vast stone faces had been carved into the rock, their weatherworn features still possessing a quiet grandure, and original features such as steps, torch holders, and rooms still remained in place, if a little more open to the elements than when the Mayans were in residence.

Leaving the clearing and heading back into the jungle, we stopped briefly to watch some Howler monkeys crash through the branches high above our heads. We didn’t linger long though, having been told the monkeys have a panchant for throwing their dung at unsuspecting tourists. As we wandered along the winding jungle tracks we were treated to several ancient sites, including a huge stone disk depicting a religious ceremony, and a 6 foot high slab intricately carved with the image of a Mayan Warrior in full dress. The last part of our exploration of Tikal took us up one of the Pyramids, and from the top we had a magnificent view across the whole site, and the landscape beyond.

An Iguana

A young Iguana in the Iguana Sanctuary.

For our last morning in San Ignacio we visited an Iguana sanctuary. Here they raise the young lizards for release back into the wild, where, due to hunting by the local population, they are endangered. Indeed the meat of Iguanas is known locally as “reed chicken” due to the creatures being found among the reeds on riverbanks, and the flavour, which like most white meats, apparently tastes like chicken. While in the small enclosure that housed what must have been several hundred lizards, we got plenty of opportunity of handle them, in fact there were times when our guide actively covered us in the green scaly creatures.

It was then time to part ways with Sara, she headed back to Belize City to catch a plane home, and we continued north to Caye Caulker.

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Punta Gorda (2) – Belize

Kayaking, flying ants, and a Case of Mistaken Identity

Kayaking along Joe Taylor Creek

Kim and I Kayaking along Joe Taylor Creek.

Arriving back to the, now familiar, surroundings of PG, Kim and I checked back into our seaside hotel. We idled away the day around town, reading, surfing the net, and generally trying to stay out of the torrential rain that had rolled into town. On returning to our hotel room that afternoon, we were shocked to find that our room had been invaded by a multitude of flying ants. The sheer number was impressive, the seething black carpet covering the far corner of the room and creeping ominously up the wall must have held tens of thousands. We were swiftly moved to another room, this time sans vermin. On our way out to meet the others we crossed paths with a rather large Cain Toad, who was presumably feasting on the insects which had driven us from our room.

Once we had met up with the others we got down to discussing plans. We only had a few days before Laurence’s return flight to the UK, and James suggested we fill them with a trip to the local Mayan ruins at Lubaantun , and perhaps some Kayaking. It all seemed like sound thinking, so we agreed the schedule over a few beers and dinner of ribs with the ubiquitous stew beans.

Cain Toad

The Cain toad we spotted while out and about in PG.

It should be noted we had agreed that, as the bus that would take us most of the way to the archaeological site ran past both the front of our hotel and then past James’ house, Kim and I would pick the bus up at the earlier stop and then the others would board outside James’ digs once they had seen we were onboard. The relevance of stating this plan will become clear.

Kim and I roused ourselves from bed early on the day of the trip and donning our waterproofs to stave off the unrelenting rain, walked to the bus-stop nearby. We took cover under the stops small wooden roof and waited as the rain fell. The bus came trundling down the road a few minutes behind schedule, and we vigorously waved our arms to flag it down. However, the bus did not stop. It didn’t even slow, whipping past us through the downpour. We watched it grow smaller as it sped down the long curving coastal road, and squinted as it got the stop nearest James’ house. It appeared to slow and stop.

The two of us, more than a little grumpy thanks to a combination of an early start, waiting in the rain, and a non-stopping bus, plodded slowly along the road toward James’ house, hoping to rendezvous with the others there and reformulate our plan for the day. On arrival there was no sign of them, the door was locked, the lights all off. They must have boarded the bus we presumed. We trudged back to our hotel through the rain, now with a sense of abandonment to add to our burgeoning grumps.

Rich in a bus shelter

Me taking refuge in a bus shelter as the rain falls.

James, Laurence, and Sara had roused themselves equally early, and like us, positioned themselves at the nearest bus-stop. Like us they saw the bus coming and tried to flag it down. Like us it had sped past them in the rain. However, when gazing glumly at the rear windows of the bus as it continued on it’s way, James (who may or may not have been wearing his glasses) spotted two figures peering back at him and waving. That’s Kim and Rich he concluded, asking if anyone else had seen us and could verify his story, Laurence agreed he may well have seen us on the bus. The three of them set off on foot in hot pursuit of the bus. After running through the rain for some time, they managed to hitch a ride in the back of a pickup truck.

Meanwhile, Kim and I were back at our hotel. We dried off a little, then used the hotel phone to call James’ mobile to let him know what had happened. No answer. We left a message explaining our situation, and that we would try and catch the next bus in a couple of hours time, but not to wait for us just in case. On the off-chance James had left his phone behind, we also popped to an internet cafe and sent him and email in the hope the might check to see if we had tried to contact them. After that, there was nothing to do but wait and watch the rain.

James, Laurence and Sara had made decent progress by hitching, but thanks to the ceaseless downpour were pretty much soaked through. Arriving at a small town en route to Lubaatun they stopped for a cup of tea, and found that one of the shops had an, albeit slow, dial-up connection. Sara suggested that they check their emails in case we had tried to contact them, but she was overruled; surely we wouldn’t have found an internet connection out here in rural Belize? They set off on the last part of the journey, which unfortunately was a less travelled road. There was to be no further rides for them, just a long walk through the rain.

Joe Taylor Creek

Looking back along Joe Taylor creek, James, Laurence, and Sara in the distance.

The same rain was also splattering against the windows of the bus Kim and I had boarded as it bumped it’s way through the Belizian countryside. After some twenty minutes of watching small shacks and rain-soaked jungle glide past us, we disembarked at a T-Junction. A sign for Lubaatun pointed off down the side road; we quickly sought cover in a small concrete bus shelter. Finding that the floor of the shelter was flooded we stood on the benches and looked out as the rain drenched the forest around us. We waited half and hour or so in the vain hope that the rain would ease, even a little, but when a bus bound for PG came trundling down the road we decided to give up and head home.

The others by now had reached Lubaatun, somewhat surprised not to find us already there, and were exploring the ruins. Once their archaeological impulses were sated, or their tolerance for walking around in the rain was at an end, they began the walk back to the bus-stop. En route they collected a small kitten, utterly soaked, and mewing continuously at the injustice of it all. They eventually got back to PG around 6 o’clock, after leaving the now much warmer and dryer feline at a nearby village.

Meeting up again, all now significantly warmer and drier, James and Laurence where aghast to find out that we hadn’t been on the bus at all. To make up for the days chaotic excursion we ate at Ms Isoni’s and downed a few very welcome beers.

James, Laurence, and Sara Kayaking

James, Laurence, and Sara Kayaking through the jungle.

The following day, which was much, much, sunnier than the previous one, we hired Kayaks from TIDE and set off up Joe Taylor Creek, which runs through the outskirts of PG. At first the river was wide and fringed by bright green mangroves, but after the first few bends it narrowed, and we had to manoeuvre our Kayaks around low-hanging branches, and obstructive tree routes. A short time later we were paddling through jungle proper; vines and palms towering above us, dense foliage all but obscuring the bright tropical sun. The current of the river wasn’t particularly strong, so it was a gentle and relaxing paddle through the verdant surroundings. Every so often we reached an area where the overgrowth had spread right across the channel, and, having no machete to hand, had to make do with making narrow passages through the sticks and creepers with our oars, then slowly working our crafts through the gaps. Eventually, after ducking through several suck obstructions, and under a couple of fallen trees, we reached a barrier that was impassable. Turning back, we retraced our steps, and emerging back onto the wider part of the creek, engaged in an impromptu race. James won by several lengths, but that was only due to being in the single man Kayak, and had nothing to do with superior skill or fitness. Nothing. That evening we ate a goodbye meal at Gomier’s, which was again sensational, and played a little more pool.

The next morning Laurence set off early to Guatemala to catch his return flight, and Kim, Sara, and I were left to bid a fond farewell to James and board a bus, bound for San Ignacio.

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Placencia – Belize

Gelato, Diving, and an obscene night of twerking

A Sandy Caye

The Caye from where we undertook our first day of scubadiving.

The journey from Punta Gorda to Placencia was relatively straight-forward. The rather over-full bus from PG dropped us off at a small town called Mango Creek, and from the bus stop it was a pleasant, if rather sweaty, 10 minute wander down to the offices of the Hokey Pokey Water Taxi. Arriving as the speedboat that would whisk us across the narrow bay to Placencia was casting off, we broke out into a run (the next taxi wasn’t for over an hour). Our panicked sprint drew baffled looks from the locals, and we quicky realised this was an example of us misjudging local culture. No one was in a rush. The boat simply waited while we bought tickets, loaded our bags, and took our seats.

After 15 minutes of bouncing across the waves, and watching the mangrove covered coast in front of us approach, we slowed, sedately passing the waterfront houses of Plancencia, and eventually stopping at a small dock. After some confusion about he location of our rented apartment, we eventually found it at the extreme northern edge of town and were greeted by a very friendly American lady and her equally friendly, and utterly enormous, dog. The accommodation turned out to be really quite nice, and also came with the use of a set of bikes.

The main strip through Placencia.

The main strip through Placencia.

Placencia is essentially a big sandbar. A sandy road runs north-south through the centre of town, lined with palm trees and colourful buildings offering fruit and veg, Caribbean and Mexican food, and cold drinks. Perhaps more so then anywhere we had travelled thus far, this really felt like the Caribbean.

The next morning cycled into town and grabbed some breakfast burritos and coffee from a roadside stand, before being driven out to the dive centre to begin our Scuba training. We arrived full of enthusiasm for the task at hand, but unfortunately these had been severely sapped by the end of the first day. Rather than a break-up the instructional video and written tests with actual diving so we could put into practice what we had been taught. The first day was spent watching the entirety of the PADI video and completing all the exams. The instructor looked as bored as we felt. The high-point of the first day was probably our instructor getting in a muddle about one of the exam answers, directly contradicting both the video we had just watched and basic physic physics, and refusing to back-down.

The following day however, much to everyones relief, we did get in the water. We assembled our equipment, boarded a boat, and headed out to a small, idyllic, sandy island about 45 minutes off the coast. We were devided into two groups, Laurence and Sara, and Kim and I, each with our own instructor. The first few hours were spent doing basic exercises in the shallows, but about an hour before lunch we began swimming away from the small Island into deeper water. Before long we were surrounded by a truly surreal landscape; strange corals branched our from rocks, unusual fish swam languidly around us, and anemones waved their colourful tentacles in the sea currents. While there was plenty to see, I spent most of our 45 minutes underwater getting uses to the experience of breathing underwater. Once we had surfaced we ate lunch and relaxed for a time on the deserted island, watching the plethora of hermit crabs that scuttled along the shoreline, and did our best to stave off sunburn. In the afternoon we again descended into the depths, and this time had longer to explore. We swam along the edge of an underwater precipice, its base lost in the murky depths somewhere far below. Floating over the vertiginous void was an uncanny experience in itself, even without the strange sea-life which swum around us. There were trumpet fish and lobsters, parrot fish and large groupers.

Our final day of diving took us deeper than before. The first part of the day was spent completing some underwater exercises to ensure we knew how to navigate and adjust our equipment on the sea floor, but the rest of the day was spent exploring and marvelling at the underwater world. James arrived from Punta Gorda that evening, and Kim and I made fajitas which we washed these down with lashes of Moscow Mules and cold beer.

The Barefoot Bar

The view from the Barefoot Bar.

The next day Kim, James, and Laurence went for some more diving, while Sara and I mooched around town. We sampled the breakfast at a local cafe, and I got to try Huevos Rancheros for the first time. This delicious breakfast consists of eggs served on a tortilla and smothered in slightly spicy cooked salsa. In the afternoon we met up with the three divers and settled down in brightly painted beachside Barefoot Bar, and we were joined by Malory, who was visiting Placencia before flying home to the states. Unfortunately, as we sat enjoying the sun and the rum I began to notice a discomfort in one of my ears, and, after visiting the local doctor my fears were confirmed, I’d picked up a nasty ear infection; antibiotics were the order of the day. However, even with my auricular problems our afternoon mooching around the colourful open-plan bar drinking rum and playing pool was rather good… even when it became clear Laurence was suffering as I was. The remainder of the evening was spent in another bar

The following day we visited Tutti Frutti, again. A visit to the local ice-cream bar had become a daily routine since James tipped us off to it’s frozen delights, and each time we sampled a different flavour from the ever changing selection. All were good, but it was the Soursop (a tropical fruit) that will live longest in the memory.

Ice Cream!

The selection at Tutti Frutti

With our time in Placencia coming to an end, we went out for a rather good meal at one of the more salubrious local eateries, before decamping to a bar along the main strip though town. Many cocktails were consumed, before Laurence and I, still nursing tender ears, headed for home. The remainder of the group hit the clubs to take in the local nightlife. It turned out that the local nightlight was quite eye opening. When Kim arrived back early the next morning, somewhat inebriated, she regaled my half-sleeping form with tails of the borderline-pornographic twerking that was apparently de rigueur in Placencia’s nightspots.

Our time in Placencia done, we retraced our steps back to Punta Gorda.

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Punta Gorda – Belize

James, a bizarre sales pitch, and a very bad week for pigs

James diving

James diving from the Rio Blanco waterfall.

We disembarked from our small boat in Punta Gorda, Belize. Immigration was fairly straight forward, our passports receiving the requisite stamps in short order, but then we were faced with customs. The rather rotund customs officer who was manning the small desk possessed of a curious mix of officiousness and disinterest. At first as he went through our bags he pulled out all the prohibited items – tea, fresh fruit, chocolate – and gave us a stern lecture about each, piling the offending items beside our packs, however, once he had finished his search, and found nothing more than some prohibited groceries, his shoulders slumped and his strict demeanour fell away. With a world weary glance at the small pile he shrugged, then waved us through, morosely telling us to to take the supposed contraband with us as we went.

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Livingston – Guatemala

Hammock Time, Coco Loco, and a Taste of Home

An old fishing boat

An old fishing boat moored in the harbour at Livingston.

We stepped off of the boat into the stifling heat of Livingston, and it was clear immediately that we were on the Caribbean coast. People’s movements seemed more languid, bright colours adorned clothing, shopfronts and signs, and the offerings of the nearby cafes had a distinctly West Indian twist. No sooner had we lifted our packs onto the dock, than Laurence was chatting to a wiry looking Livingstonian, who wanted us to follow him to a local hostel he recommended. We carted our bags along the dusty roads of the city in the oppressive humidity, eventually selecting the Hotel Casa Rosada, which we had heard great things about, while Laurence chose the Casa de la Iguana a short walk away.

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Río Dulce – Guatemala

A river trip, hot-springs, and a very naff disco

Castillo de San Felipe

The Castillo de San Felipe.

Our long bus journey from Guatemala city to Río Dulce went reasonably smoothly, especially so considering for a time torrential rain fell all around us, and the driver seemed perfectly happy to take risks with on coming traffic. From our window we watched miles and miles of Guatemalan jungle slide by, stoping only to pick up passengers in rural areas, or once at a service station where we could buy food. We eschewed eating there in favor of waiting until we arrived at our lodgings for the night but Laurence tucked into a hearty meal, and once we had seen his delicious looking plate of food began to regret our decision. A little later than planned, the clock had just ticket passed 10:30, we were deposited by the side of the road near the bank of the Río Dulce, and, after a short walk in the still oppressive evening heat, found a hotel on the waters edge. It was fairly basic, but it served its purpose. Kim and I, now ravenous, headed straight for the restaurant as soon as we had dropped our bags. Perched just above the river, the ramshackle, open-sided, structure that housed the dining area also played host to what passed for local entertainment; a very loud, very amateur disco. We strained to hear each other talk over the ear-splitting 90s pop hits as Kim and I ate and Laurence sipped a cold beer.

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Antigua – Guatemala

Un Amigo de Inglaterra, a Whole Lot of Jade, and Life Behind the Curtain

View down Avenida Norte

View down Avenida Norte showing the Santa Catalina.

Bidding a fond farewell to South America we boarded our flight our of Ecuador, sad to be leaving such an amazing and diverse continent, but looking forward to exploring Central America, and especially meeting up with some friends from home. We had arranged to visit James in Belize, but before this were meeting Laurence in Antigua.

Rather than flying direct to Guatemala, which was our next destination, we had found that the cheapest option was to change planes, and airlines, at Panama City. Unfortunately this meant a brush with Panamanian immigration, who for some bizarre reason gave us a long and sour-faced grilling about our travel intentions. This despite presenting our onward ticket showing we would be on a flight out of the country in a matter of hours, a print out showing our booking for a hostel in the Guatemalan city of Antigua, and passports that showed our progression northward through a number of Latin American countries. Fortunately we were eventually allowed in, and then proceeded to make good use of the benefits bestowed upon us by our onward flight tickets, which, due to a promotion by COPA Airlines were of the business class variety and were purchased for the same price as a standard ticket. We joyously availed ourselves of the free cheese and biscuits in the first class lounge, then stuffed our pockets with the free cereal bars to serve as breakfast in the coming days.

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Baños – Ecuador

Three-Four, Four out of Seven, and Six-Hundred and Seventy-Five

A view of Baños

The view of Baños from high on the valley side.

After a bus journey delayed slightly both by the Quito traffic and one of our fellow passengers who was using the bus to transport two double mattresses, we arrived in Baños late in the evening. Fortunately we already had a room booked in a local hostel, so all we needed to do was jump in a taxi with Joel, a fellow traveller we had chatted to on the bus, and garble directions to the driver in broken Spanish.

The next morning we were able to properly see our surroundings, and they proved breathtaking. Baños sits in a steep sided, green valley overlooked by towering mountains and flanked by a deep canyon through which a river crashes over rocks. Our first day we hired some bikes and set out on the Siete Cascadas (seven waterfalls) ride, which, we had been told was both fairly straight forward and remarkably beautiful.

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Quito – Ecuador

Disturbed Sleep, Rules that aren’t Rules, and a Monopoly on Winning

Kim buying fruit

Kim buys fruit from a stall in a Quito park.

Back on dry land in Ecuador’s capital city we pulled up outside at our hostel after a short taxi ride from the airport, and were greeted by our elderly landlady who explained that as we were the only guests we had the entirety of the large, two-floor, modern house to ourselves. We quickly made ourselves at home and decided to spend our first evening in, chowing down homemade fajitas and playing Monopoly. Despite the poor strategic choice I made in winning both games, we had a nice relaxing evening and retired to bed, looking forward to a good nights sleep on solid ground.

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The Galapagos Islands – Ecuador

Unforgettable Islands, Wonderful Wildlife, and a Close Encounter with a Turtle.

Las Bachas Beach

Sally Lightfoot Crabs on the rocks, Las Bachas Beach

After our flight from the jungle we spent an uneventful night in Lima before boarding a bus to Guayaquil from where we would fly out to the Galapagos Islands to begin the next stage of our adventures.

We were initially pleased to have been seated in the front seats on the upstairs floor, our high vantage point affording us with a great view out of the large front window. However, as the bus wove through the dense traffic on the highway leading out of Lima we began to change our minds.

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