Friday, 30 January 2015

Belize Part One, Mayans, Cave Tubing and Termites

Craig Writes:
Saturday 10 January
Trust an airline to nearly fuck up a perfectly good stay.  Cubana Air were suppose to leave at 1.45pm leaving us a comfortable four hours to transit at Cancun Airport.  They kicked that back to 3pm, which was now going to be cutting it fine.  Three o'clock came and went. The departure board still said three o'clock and there was a plane parked at the end of our gangway but there were no staff anywhere to ask or explain exactly when said plane was leaving.  Our comfortable window was quickly evaporating.  The cheer that echoed through the departure lounge when an announcement was finally made said it all.  With no explanation, no apology, not even an offer of an extra packet of peanuts, a plane load of very unhappy campers finally started to taxi down the runway at 4.10pm.  Our buffer was now well and truly gone and thoughts were now heading towards an unscheduled night in Cancun.

Immigration at Cancun was a slow grind but thankfully there was no wait at the baggage carousel. Could we possibly make it? Terminal one was our destination and we were at terminal two.  T1, T2, you'd have to think they'd be side by side.  Not a chance.  We would have to go find a shuttle bus. But which one, our tickets had two different departure points. The blood pressure was starting to rise.  Thankfully a taxi driver knew exactly where we were supposed to be.  It was only five minutes away and he could get us there on time for only US15...each.  It took restraint to not grab his opportunistic throat.  He got US20 for the lot of us.  

As it turned out our airline, Tropic Air, wasn't going to go anywhere without us.  We were the only passengers on the flight. All that stress for nothing by the look of it. And, we got an automatic upgrade to first class which is not such a big deal when your plane is a twelve seater. 
When we arrived at Belize International Airport the entire airport staff, all eight of them, were all there to greet us on the tarmac.  We were literally the last customers for the day and they were keen to process us, push us out the door and get on home for dinner.  They actually let me take photos while we were being processed to enter the country.  I’d get tasered if I tried that anywhere else.
Our luggage was waiting for us by the exit door and so was our driver Daniella, a charming and friendly local Creole girl.  She would drive us the ninety minutes to our home for the next three nights, The Vanilla Hills Lodge.  The drive was uneventful apart from the tragic state of the roads and the police road blocks hunting for drug runners.

Sunday 11 January
Vanilla Hills Lodge lay at the end of Vanilla Hills road, just turn right on Iguana Belly drive and follow the signs.  There are only three cottages on the property and they are run by a lovely German couple, Claudia and Franklin.  The cabins are beautifully finished using a local timber called Santa Maria.  Its very similar to mahogany but softer, cheaper and more easily managed. It's beautiful.
One of Franklin's beautiful cottages.
Every lodge was built by the talented and versatile Franklin. His wife Claudia does the cooking and baking and she is incredible.  We arrived late last night and she had prepared a large basket of hot home baked rolls with platters of meats and cheeses and fruit. After a twelve hour journey with nothing to eat but Pringles and almonds it got totally demolished.

The day started slowly after a late breakfast of yogurt, fruit, home baked muesli, fresh coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. Claudia was telling us at breakfast of a local custom regarding the Chachalaka bird, it's best described as a large squawking flying Mexican chicken. Apparently if your young child is having trouble learning to talk you serve it a bowl of Chachalaka soup and you won't be able to shut it up.

Breakfast on Franklin and Claudia's balcony
The diversity of flora and fauna in Belize is astounding. Hiding amongst the lush canopies of the jungle you'll find Toucans, Hummingbirds, the Blue Crested Mott Mott, the Black Vulture and out by the lakes, Flamingos.  Closer to the jungle floor you need to be on the lookout for tarantulas, Tapirs, Iguana, Howler Monkeys and Jaguar.

Fuelled and ready to go we got Claudia to call a cab and we headed off to San Ignacio and the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech.  The ruins date back to 1200BC and were not abandoned until 1700 years later in 900AD.  The settlement began as a palatial hilltop top home for an elite Mayan family and grew to have over thirty four buildings, the tallest being a twenty five metre high temple.  Like many other Mayan mysteries it is unknown why after seventeen centuries the small settlement disbanded.
The Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech
Our timing was perfect. We practically had the ruins to ourselves, not seeing more than a handful of others until we were on our way out when we passed a large busload of tourist on their way in. Tomorrow we go to the big daddy of all the Mayan ruins, Tikal.

Monday 12 January
We hit the road early today.  We had a two hour drive to cross the Guatemalan border into the Tikal National Park.
Tikal was the most powerful of all the Mayan Kingdoms and flourished from 1200BC to 900AD when, like Cahal Pech, it was suddenly abandoned.  It lay hidden in the rain forests of Guatemala for nearly 1100 years until 1853 when a gum-sapper by the name of Ambrosia Tut stumbled upon it.  At its peak the city covered sixteen square kilometres, had a population of over 150,000 people and more than three thousand buildings.
The Temple of the Jaguar.
We got to sit on the throne of the king, complete with serving boy.
They were an enigmatic race of peoples.  While they were richly endowed with a knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, were very successful farmers and competent warriors they seemed to find no use for the wheel and practically no use for metallurgy.  From plates and bowls to arrow heads and jewellery everything was stone, flint, black obsidian, or ceramic. They had no beasts of burden so that may explain the lack of the wheel but still, a few men pushing a cart full of stone would surely have been better than pushing or pulling a bloody big rock down the street.
We had no chance of seeing the whole city, it would have taken three days, but our guide Dean was very efficient and we saw enough in three hours to be suitably impressed.

Tuesday 13 January
Belize has many things going for it, the roads are not one of them.  They are so bad here that the police will pull you over if they see you driving in a straight line and small children can often be seen swimming in the potholes.
It is a small country, only 22,000 square miles and has a tiny population, 320,000.  The houses are all brightly coloured in canary yellows and ochres, sky blues and dark blues, jade greens and Kermit greens, purples, oranges and reds.  Skinny, blonde mongrel dogs wander the curbs of the roads and frequently lie down in the middle of the warm asphalt to sleep, some never wake up.  Horses and chickens constantly graze and peck along the roadside.
The people are friendly and the food is good. The countryside is what you would expect from a near equatorial country that gets over two metres of rain a year, lush, green, tropical and full of the most amazing flora and fauna.

Our guide for today was Edwin and he was to take us on a jungle path through No Hoch Che'en Archaeological Reserve on our way to cave tubing through the Caves Branch River system. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the local flora and fauna was impressive and very entertaining.
'Don't touch this palm here, the small spear like nettles will lodge under you skin and are impossible to get out, they will give you an instant painful rash, the antidote however can be found in the palm conveniently located next to it that yields a soothing salve'.  If you hit the side of the bamboo like Trumpet tree, hordes of angry Aztec ants will surface from the hollow core of the tree, swarm all over you and continue to sting you till you drop.  If you suffer a bad cut in the jungle you can use the nippers of the Leaf Cutter Soldier ants to stitch the wound.  You hold the one inch ant against the wound and when he bites you you squeeze its head off and you have an instant stitch. Its saliva is a natural disinfectant. Break the branch of this tree and it will bleed pure fresh water, crumble the leaf of this plant and you have instant Novocain, touch the small mint like leaves of the Sensitive Mamosa and they fold in upon themselves like they've been touched by the sun.

As we continued along the path we passed a large brown termite mount fixed to the side of a tree. Edwin convinced me that I should join him in a quick snack.  I followed his lead and stuck my finger into a hole in the side of the mound and pulled it out black with crawling bugs. ‘come on, eat up, they’re 80% protein’ he said.
Gee, why didn't you say that in the first place. I stuck my finger in my mouth and sucked those little buggers off in one clean go.  They're crunchy and leave an aftertaste like carrot. Quite tasty really.

We were thankfully in our own little group of four, unlike the hordes from the cruise ships who followed us into the caves.  While we were free to stop and swim in the crisp clear water and explore the hidden caves they were literally herded by us, their head lamps shining and blinking in the dark like swarms of passing fireflies.
The cave tubing and the trek through the jungle were certainly one of the highlights of our many travels.

Wednesday 14 January
Travel is such a great metaphor for life. New people come into your life, you share some moments, swap some stories, have a laugh and move on, hopefully mutually enriched by the experience. And so it was with Claudia and Franklin from the Vanilla Hills Lodge.  We truly hope that our paths will one day cross again.
We jammed our cases into the only taxi in town capable of holding us and headed to the Maya Flats airstrip.  Our next destination was the Tranquility Bay Resort just a short water taxi ride north of San Pedro. It was the same King Air B10 twelve seater that we caught down from Cancun except this time we had eight other passengers and made a couple of unscheduled stops.  
They're a little relaxed on the Occ Health and Safety here.
The airstrip was so tiny, no longer or wider than a rich persons driveway.  The planes wheels seemed to scrap the the tops of the trees as we lifted off.  It was hardly Indianna Jones stuff but it was fun to be a little unsure.

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