Day #4: Tikal National Park… and then back to Belize, across the country, and out to the ocean!

Sunrise Tour.

10:30 depart for San Ignacio.

11:30 actual depart. Van driver and vehicle used switch at the border. Pay for toilet.

As we approached San Ignacio we had our driver (Manuel) call his company to see if they could take us, along with the two from India, all the way to the water taxi in Belize City. Yes was the reply, for US$120. Well, we’d paid $35 each ($70) just to get to San Ignacio, so we opted to go all the way with This van.

Stopped for lunch at Amigo’s – a bar along the road just shy of Belize City. Harrison Ford at there during the filming of “The Mosquito Coast,” and evidently George Bush Sr. has also eaten there at some time. Touristy? Sure, but we are tourists after all!

When dropped off, we had to run find an ATM and get some cash. Then went to a ferry terminal. Next boat: 4:30. So, we called places for rooms out on the N. Ambergris. Found one option (Xanadu), but decided to hop the boat and see what we could discover in person.

We wound up in an Internet cafe after the 1.5 hour boat ride – talking to the kid working about our options. I the end, we gave his $6 (Belize) for the info, and got a 1 bedroom apartment on the ocean at the Banana Beach Resort!

We’ll be here for two nights until we move to an ocean-view room next door at the Mata Rocks Resort for our final night!

It was a long day, but we got a TON done!

Belize/Guatemala Day #3: Santa Elana/Flores to Tikal

After the ATM Cave, our focus turned to crossing the border into Guatemala and traveling to the Mayan Ruins of Tikal. We would only make it part way – a town on a beautiful lake in northern Guatemala called Flores.

So, after our group photo, we all returned to San Ignacio in a van. Rudy had arranged a car to drive Rob and I to the border – about 12 miles out of town. The van stopped at our hotel – we got out with everyone else, went in, and grabbed our backpacks. I also took just a second to jot down a couple of our cave group’s Emails to be sure I could send the “ATM Gang” a copy of the group photo we just took!

Rudy came into the 2nd floor lobby of our hotel and announced that the car was was waiting. I finished up as quick as I could and trotted out to the waiting four-dour sedan. Rob and I got in and we were off to the Guatemalan border! The car was an experience. It was missing a shock or something – every bump we hit, the car made a loud, rough pounding sound – like a hammer hitting a nail – it sure couldn’t have been good on the car to be driving it like that! A few minutes later, we were at the border. Two other people were in the car with us, so all four of us piled out and walked about 50 feet to the Emigration hall. Our passports got stamped and all went without hassle. From that hall, we had to leave the building and walk about 100 yards to the Guatemala Immigration desk. As we walked, a number of men came up trying to get our services – “Taxi?” “You want taxi?” “Sir, Sir…” my primary concern was getting my passport stamped first, so we just said “No… No Gracias…” and kept walking. The check-in went smoothly too, and just like that we were coming back out into the throng of people trying to ‘assist’ us. Mr. Elder usually avoids these folks, but we had a couple hours to go and dark was approaching. We also weren’t sure where we’d be staying once we got there… So… One man got lucky and snagged my attention. He offered us a cab ride the 30 miles or so into the town of Flores. We’re not sure the price we paid, but I think it was to be US$75. There was a bus about 100 yards across a bridge that would have been FAR cheaper, but we knew it was going to be dark when we got to Flores, and so we decided it was better to be safe than sorry! So, just like that, we began a couple hour journey to the towns of Santa Elaina and Flores, on the lake.

Our driver was a nice man – he had worked construction in California for 7 years. It was really awesome to get to speak Spanish for a couple hours in the car. I’ve lost a lot of my language ability, for sure, but I think I was able to keep up with about 80% of what was said!

When we got to Santa Elaina, we decided to stay at a nice hotel (the one we had in San Ignacio hadn’t had hot water, and we were ready for a serious shower! So we went to the nicest place in the neighborhood. They weren’t full, and given how late it was, they weren’t going to sell our room to anyone but us, so they offered us a room with two beds for only about US$60 – we took it! The trick was paying for the taxi. The currency exchange desk at the hotel was closed. I had only US$70, but we owed 75. I had a Belizean $20 ((US$10), so I told the cab driver I would give him a tip! With the US$70 and Bz$20, he got US$80!

We were able to enter the park at 3:30 p.m. (to avoid paying the park entrance fee twice), but that meant we had to jog through the ruins to get to the Grand Plaza by sunset!

 

Day #2 Adventure – The ATM Cave!

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A pic of the ATM Gang – Jason (Ottawa), Jake (Victoria), Shea (Victoria), Megan (Toronto), Tim (upstate New York), Rob and me (Helena, Montana).

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Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave, Cayo District, Belize

As mentioned in my last post, yesterday’s adventure to the ATM Cave was a very memorable experience. We got lucky, as the rain had brought the level of the river up so much there was a rope to help us wade in a river up to our necks on the way back across to the parking lot! The cave had been closed due to the level of the river and our guide Danny thought it would be closed again by tomorrow, as the van driver told him the river had risen substantially in the few hours while we were gone. Lucky for us indeed! For the trip, we needed to plan on clothes and shoes that could get wet (we brought a dry set for afterwards).

I wrote about our breakfast in yesterday’s post, so I’m skipping right to the cave. We first hiked about 45 minutes through the jungle to the mouth of the cave. There are four entrances, but all tours use the same main one. We packed in lunches provided by the tour, and left them under a thatched lean-to near the entrance. No cameras allowed – due to tourists dropping cameras on invaluable artifacts and ruining them – made this a tough tour for Mr. Elder to do. Indeed, some of the coolest photo ops I’ve ever seen, and I was unable to try my hand at capturing their beauty!

The trek began with a swim! Yup, shoes on, clothes on, helmets on, headlamps affixed… the works! We had to climb over some large rocks with water cascading over the top of them to get to a large pool. It was about a 15 yard swim into the cave! The water was deep enough to dive, although we didn’t do that on account of our headlamps! We climbed up on a large rock inside the initial cavern. Dripping wet, we couldn’t believe this was a tour!

But, it was, and the next few minutes got even more exhilarating! We crawled off the rock into an underground stream – varying in depths – but mainly about calf-high. As we went, we’d trudge through the water, up and around rocks. At one point, there was a keyhole. The only way a person can get through is by putting their chin just at water level and sliding through. Well, I was the ONLY one in the tour group that took a few tries to figure it out. I wanted my chest to go through where my head should – and I didn’t fit! Everyone laughed, and our guide Danny helped me out a bit, so that on the third time, I made it!

The ATM Cave was discovered in the mid-1980s. There are 16 skeletal remains that have been found in the 4.3 km of underground caverns in the cave. We saw the remains of 6 people on our tour. All male. Short people. It is theorized that the Mayan Shaman (religious leaders) and there helpers were the only ones allowed into the caves. They went in them and performed rituals to bring good to the Mayan people. They would offer blood to the gods, pricking fingers or ear lobes. This blood letting was done in hopes that such offerings would bring good fortune to the Mayan people. Ultimately, when times got tough (drought, disease, whatever), they tried offering more blood – leading to the human sacrifices performed between 500 and 900 AD.

Danny talked of many theories as to what happened to the Maya. Mr. Elder thinks it was a variety of things. The Shaman leaders had many wives and many children. As these elite children grew, they may have fought with one another for who would ‘rule’ next. Further, they deforested lots of land so they could see there enemies approach. Without the forestation, rains came and washed the soil away. Nobody knows for sure, but these are a couple thoughts, and it may be a combination of many of them.

The human skeleton laying on his back at the top of the cave tour is called “The Crystal Maiden.” The skull is actually male – and the crystal comes from the calcification of the skeleton over time. It was pretty incredible.

As we crawled out of the current and around the last corner, what may have been the most spectacular scene of the entire trip lay before us. Looking out the entrance of the cave, the jungle beckoned – lush and green. The daylight glistened off the smooth pond before our feet. The sounds of the rainforest and the rushing of the water pouring over the rocks at the far end creating a scene of tranquil paradise. But, no cameras! Darn.

We took off our headlamps, gave them to Danny, and dove in for our final swim out! Then it was ham and cheese sandwiches, some water, and a very muddy hike out in the rain back to the changing area to dry off.

It was a blast. As we went to load in the van, Danny took a picture of the four Canadians and three Americans (photo at top)!

Belize – Day #2… and on to a New Country!

(January 20 – this was typed on the 20th, but the Internet connection times out and I didn’t get it published until this morning – 1/21)….

We were up at the crack of dawn to the sound of an amazing rain. The Cathedral, across the street – actually did part of the waking up, as the bells rang at six for morning mass!

We had breakfast with our travel-mates for the day; three of us from the states (Rob and I from Helena and a guy named Tim who lives in upstate New York but works for an engineering company in Billings, MT) and four from Canada (Jason from Ottawa (National Capital), Megan from Toronto (Ontario), Shea and Jake from Victoria (British Columbia)! Breakfast was eggs and ham, tortillas, salted cheese, and beans. Then we got into a van and headed for the ATM Cave… I’ll write about the cave and where we are now in the morning!  Hasta Mañana!

Belize: Day #1

Today we plan to fly into Belize City and, based upon the weather, head west into the rainforest. Our goal is to try to hit the western part of the country while it is sunny. This is the time of year that Belize transitions from the wet to the dry season – so it can pour all day long or be sunny, depending upon your luck!

If we do head west today, we may stop at the Belize Zoo. Mr. Elder would love to capture photos of the wildlife on his own in the wild, but the zoo is often the best place to see the native species. The question of the day is whether it will be cheaper to take a taxi into Belize City and catch a bus from there or if we can simply go directly from the airport to the zoo… and then, we’ll have to figure out how to continue a couple hours west toward the Guatemalan border – hopefully staying in San Ignacio this evening!  Will update you later today.

END OF DAY UPDATE: We got to Belize without a hitch. This is my friend Rob’s first trip outside of the USA, so many of my memories of the day involved how Rob reacted to his first international experience.

Customs went smoothly – both of us got our passports stamped as we came into the country! This was, of course, Rob’s first stamp, and the first one I got in my new passport (a passport only lasts 10 years, so I had just had to renew myself). Outside the airport, we had two options: 1) take a taxi to Belize City for Bz$25 (US$12.50); or, 2) take a taxi directly to the Belize Zoo for US$75. We knew it was far more money, but we also wanted to get to San Ignacio for the night, and we knew the best way to do that was to get directly to the zoo – so we did. The cab ride was interesting – Rob wanted to know if there was a speed limit (yes, said the driver, but you drive how you’d like) and if everyone could just pass wherever – and he was most surprised when we flew past a couple policemen on a little motorcycle and the driver just honked and waved!

I’ll have photos to post of Jaguars, or boars, and of incredible birds. Indeed, the zoo was an awesome stop. Afterward, we waited on the side of the highway in the middle of a very rural part of the country for the next bus. When it came, we got on – to find every seat was taken and there were people standing in the aisles! After a few miles, a family got off and Rob and I were able to both sit down – Rob next to a lady that let him know our bus would go to San Ignacio, and me next to two little boys who promptly fell asleep on my shoulder! Rob’s favorite part of the bus ride was when the bus came to an abrupt stop at the side of the road. The driver and his helper began shouting to ‘get down!’ Up ahead (I was in the 2nd seat back) I could see the flashing lights of a police car. Everyone shuffled and reshuffled – some kneeling/crouching in the aisle) so that all were ‘down’ as if seated. I scooted over, the two boys sat on top of one another, and a woman sat on the 3″ or so at the edge of the bus seat. We drove by the police, and then the lady stood back up and everyone re-shuffled to their previous positions! It was classic! The bus was an interesting mix of Spanish and English. I believe everyone could speak English on the bus, but a number of folks were conversing in either Spanish or a funky mix of Spanish, English, and Creole.

Our thought now is to go the the famous ATM Caves tomorrow, but I can’t get my cash card to work and I need to go figure that out (although it just started POURING rain as I sit here on our hotel’s 2nd story covered balcony).  I’ll post an entry as soon as I figure out what our plan is tomorrow and I get back to a spot with Wi-Fi!  So long for now!  – Mr. Elder

Belize 2014

I will depart today for Belize – a small English-speaking country in Central America. I hope to post periodic updates of the adventure. And, to my students at C. R. Anderson – I look forward to seeing you again next Monday! Read the posts here, as I may offer some extra credit during the week!

My friend Rob and I will be heading to the airport in a couple hours… stay tuned, and have an awesome week with our guest teacher!

– Mr. Elder

—– update 12 midnight, eastern time

We made it to Atlanta. Resting in hotel now. Will need to head back to the airport at 7:30 tomorrow morning!