Friday, April 8, 2011

From Indiana Jones to Jacques Cousteau: Part 2

After a swift busito ride from Flores, we were at the border, ready to enter a new country. At customs entering Belize, the customs officer woman asked where we were going. Nicki went off in Spanish, “Pues, vivimos en Honduras y estamos viajando por Belize ahorita pero vamos a regresar a Honduras…. “ “Do you speak English?” she cut Nicki off with an annoyed look. “Oh, yes, sorry,” Nicki replied, not even noticing that the woman had asked the question in English in the first place. When you turn your Spanish brain on, it’s hard to turn it off again.

It wasn’t just the change of language that we noticed suddenly, the whole landscape was different. The houses were wooden, built up on tall poles like something you’d see in the Louisiana Bayou (not that we’ve been to the bayou, but it seems like what it would be like). There was still the jungly landscape carried over from Guatemala, but as we travelled in further, everything more or less flattened out and the vegetation de-densified into coastal lowlands. Oh, and it was hot, a sweltering somewhere-in-the-upper 90’s temperature with almost 100% humidity, enough to make us question our reasons for entering Belize in the first place.

Typical Belizean house

The other thing we noticed was that Belize is not exactly a “Latin American” country. To be sure, there are plenty of Latinos who speak Spanish, but a third of the population is of African descent and they speak sort of a Caribbean/Creole/English which to the untrained ear sounds like the most foreign language you have ever heard. It seemed like everyone also spoke “normal” English too, which they switch on when they talk to travelers. Belize is also not much of a country. With just 330,000 people, it’s smaller than many U.S. metropolitan areas, and driving along, most of the country seems appropriately deserted. The capital city, Belmopan, has a bus station with spots for 3 buses, smaller than ours here in La Esperanza.

Anyway, so back to the narrative… We hopped out of customs and into a cab, which ended up costing $15 for about a 15 minute ride into the small town of San Ignacio. Yet another change, things were expensive! We arrived in town and set out looking for a hotel, settling on a nice guesthouse downtown (the Hi-Et Guesthouse, haha) run by an adorable old couple. After a quick walking tour of town lasting about 10 minutes and some lunch, we set out to hike to a nearby Maya ruin, Cahal Pech. It was a long and sweaty 30 minute all uphill hike to the site which offered a nice view of San Ignacio and its environs. While not nearly as grand and polished as Tikal, Cahal Pech still had a lot to offer. For one, it had a great museum (which Tikal was lacking) explaining Mayan history, art, politics and architecture. We learned, for example, that Mayan temple steps are so steep probably because they were not meant to be walked up by any old civilian, but rather climbed up on ones hands and knees by only the highest priests in order to commune with the gods. Secondly, Cahal Pech had some more interesting maze-like multi-storied palaces that we amused ourselves in, noting the very distinct differences in temple construction and carved designs between it and Tikal just a few hours apart. There weren’t many dining or nightlife options in San Ignacio, and it seemed like most of the places in our travel book had shut down, so we had pizza for dinner and called it an early night.

Nicki on the main temple at Cahal Pech

Palace at Cahal Pech

Nolan practicing his Mayan ball game skills on the court

Enjoying a local Beliken stout beer after a hard day

We slept in, had a good breakfast, then showed up at the Mayawalk tour company at 11 am for our cave tubing adventure. We were bused in a nice air-conditioned van with a couple from the Netherlands to the Caves Branch river about an hour away, a popular spot for cave tubing. After a short hike in the jungle where we spotted a jaguar(!), we strapped on life jackets, helmets and headlamps, plunked our tubes into the river, and began our amazing trip. If you can imagine, it was like a lazy river, but through a giant cave! We floated gingerly along for over 2 hours, using our headlamps to illuminate the cave formations and our path through them, finally cooling ourselves down after too many days in the heat. At one point, a hole opened up to the surface and we disembarked from our tubes to take a quick swim in the blue pool formed just below the hole. At several points, the water was so shallow out butts would scrape along the bottom. We finally popped out of the caves into the sun and floated back to our starting point, minnows nipping at our submerged backs and legs. It was a really pleasant and relaxing day with good company and our guide had planned the trip so we missed the swarms of hundreds of cruise ship passengers who arrive daily.


Before entering the caves (behind us)

Nolan swimming in a cool blue pool

From San Ignacio the next day we caught a bus (or rather two buses and a water taxi) to the small peninsula of Placencia, our last stop and the jumping off point for trips to the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef in the world. Placencia is a small, beach-goers haven with plenty of sun, sand, bars and overtanned ex-pats. It is home to some world-renowned resorts and to plenty of beachside shacks. We spent most of our first afternoon exploring the area and taking advantage of the cooling ocean breezes. We enjoyed some daiquiris and beer at a seaside bar with a live Garifuna (coastal ethnic group) drum and dance show.

MaraƱon, the fruit of the cashew - the cashew is growing out the bottom

Fun beach sign

The next day, we made plans for an all-day snorkel trip to Laughing Bird Caye, about 30 minutes by boat from Placencia. The day got off to a ‘Honduran’ start, i.e. about an hour late. We showed up at the dive shop and the owner wasn’t there. The guy he had left “in-charge” could barely manage his coffee, cigarette and bad jokes, let along 10 people in need of flipper fittings. No one knew what was going on and new people just kept showing up that wanted to come along, so the owner (who finally arrived) ended up having to get out his “bigger boat.” It hardly looked big, but more disconcerting lacked any type of shaded canopy as he had promised. Nicki was a little perturbed since she’s quick to burn, and ended up wrapping herself completely in a towel for the trip out to the caye.

The caye was more pleasant than expected, a very small, sandy and palm-tree laden island like something from a screensaver with BBQ grills, bathrooms, picnic tables and wide open ocean on all sides. We were quick to shake off the morning delays and hopped in the warm (almost hot really) water for our morning snorkel. It was some of the best snorkeling we’ve done. We saw your usual colorful parrotfish, angelfish and butterfly fish, along with some big barracudas, a very large crab, and a giant lobster, probably about 10 pounds! Belize is also famous for its conch, and we were able to watch dozens of the creatures drag their huge shells slowly along the ocean floor. After about an hour, we came out and had some BBQ chicken and cheese-whizzed scalloped potatoes for lunch as we relaxed on the caye. We headed out a second time after lunch and saw even more awesome marine life including more giant lobsters, spiky sea urchins and a sting ray with a 3-4 foot wingspan, not to mention the huge pelicans diving for their fish lunch all around us! We left the caye in the late afternoon, but had one more stop to make. The owner wanted to do a little spearfishing for his dinner, so we anchored ourselves in the middle of nowhere as he and some other passengers headed out with spears. I don’t think they caught much, but it was amusing at least to hear their garbled yells through their snorkels, “I just missed that one!”

Laughing Bird Caye from afar

Lunch-hunting pelican

Beautiful beach, just jump right in and snorkel

By the time we got back to the mainland, the sun was nearly setting and we were exhausted and salty. Following in the footsteps of Jacques Cousteau who explored parts of the reef system in the 1970’s, we had been amazed and intrigued by the delightful underwater life. Until of course we realized we were both horribly sunburned despite numerous sunscreen reapplications and wished we had only made one snorkeling swim for the day. Nevertheless, we lathered up with aloe and treated ourselves to a very fancy dinner to celebrate the end of our vacation. We enjoyed olive tapenade, grilled shrimp flatbread pizza and crispy fish and chips, spending more than we would in several days back in Honduras, but it was worth it.

To get back to Honduras, we took the once-weekly ‘ferry’ from Placencia to Puerto Cortes on the north coast. The two-hour ride crossing the Gulf of Honduras was smooth and uneventful, mostly. Leaving Belize, we stopped at immigration to get our passports stamped and pay exit fees and such. While there, we overheard the customs official saying the boat was waiting for someone to arrive with the police, a man from Namibia whose passport she held in an envelope. We were able to glance at the envelope which said, “Forbidden to Land in Belize.” Imagining all kinds of hardened, drug-toting criminals that might be joining us on the boat to be deported back to Honduras we were relieved to see an older, gentle-looking man, not in handcuffs, arrive and hop on. Of course we didn’t know what happened with the guy, but as soon as we stepped off the boat in Puerto Cortes, he was escorted away by police.

We actually felt quite relieved and happy to be back “home” on Honduran soil, a place where we have residency cards that speed up the immigration process, and where we can tell when people are trying to scam us. We made it back home safe and sound, our adventures leaving us exhausted and yearning for a real vacation once in awhile.

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