Thursday, May 18, 2006

Belize: Part II
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Actun Tunichil Muknal. The Cave of the Stone Sepulcher. We traveled by van to a remote valley that was cultivated by the ancient Maya over 1000 years ago. From the parking lot, we hiked 45 minutes alongside a river (crossing it 3 times) to arrive at the entrance to the cave. A leap of faith was required, as it were - a pool of deep water guarded the entrance. We had to swim into the gateway in order to proceed further. (Real Indiana Jones type stuff here). Once inside, we traveled in an underground river whose depths varied from ankle deep, to knee deep, to waist deep and even chest deep waterlines. Through wide tunnels and narrow channels were crept deeper into the cave and darkness (the wall illuminated by our headlamps). At a point, our guide told us to climb up a large stone - it was from here that we would leave the river and instead scale upwards into the chambers where the Maya offered their sacrifices to Chak - God of Water.

Actun Tunichil Muknal served as a gateway to Xibalba - the underworld. It was here in caves that the Maya got closer to their gods - they traveled into their realm. A drought plagued the Maya. They ventured into the cave in order to make offerings of food to appease Chak and beseech him to bring on the rains. As the drought progressed, the Maya ventured ever deeper into the cave - and indulged in stronger sacrifices - this time performing ritual bloodletting. Indeed, Chak was not so forgiving; the drought continued. It was after this that the Maya ventured deeper into Xibalba and performed the ultimate sacrifice - human. The deep recesses of the cave chamber revealed numerous pottery vessels and human bones. Skulls showed signs of blunt force trauma - the participants (willing for the most part) were struck with a stone in the sacrificial ceremony. Our guide illuminated the cave with his flashlight. Huge stalactites and flowstone formations adorned the cave ceiling and walls. Pottery, skulls and bones remained frozen in place within the flowstone. Some low ceilings were stained with soot - a remnant from the fires that the Maya used to illuminate their rituals. I cannot describe with full justice what we saw and how we felt as we progressed through Actun Tunichil Muknal. It is a place like no other.

We had some interesting talks with our various guides and drivers. Freddy, our driver to the ATM cave (he from Guatemala and now a Belize citizen - with a Belizean wife) told us the ins and outs of the Belize lotto game. We also compared prices for groceries (they win on price for fish and seafood). Sevino, an outspoken critic of Belize politics and our driver to the international airport told us about Belizean's love of the NBA, Shaq, and Michael Jordan. Then there is Hugh, our guide at the Mayan ruins of Caracol. He pointed out virtually every bit of flora and fauna along the road, discussed the positive contributions of the US military (help build roads, schools, medical clinics in rural Belize), and mentioned that his age is 22 if measured by the relationship of the US/Belize exchange rate (US$1 = BZE$2)

Our Inn had some interesting guests stay the first night we arrived. They were the Travel Society of Orlando. We learned from Elmer, our host at the inn, that their bar tab on the 1st night was BZE $400. 2nd night it climbed to BZE $800. 3rd night they elevated their drinking to the tune of BZE $1200 and the night we saw them in action they racked up a BZE $1600 bar tab. They hiked to a waterfall earlier that day and radioed to the management to have 2 cases of beer delivered to them at the waterfall by the inn staff. About 10 members made up the society. Man, I can think of easier to get to and cheaper places to get hammered at. I have no idea what the Society gains by their yearly trips. I suppose its a world tour for their livers...

An example of how Belize is different from its neighbors: I went on an early morning birding expedition with Rick, the Inn's in-house birding expert. As we walked amongst the coffee groves another birder asked Rick if he was Mayan. His answer: Yes, my ancestors came from Mexico. Here's what the Spanish did to us. They'd go to the mestizos and say "Hey, the Maya don't like you". Then they'd go to the Maya and say to them "Hey, the mestizos don't like you". So when the shooting started between the Maya and the mestizos the Spanish would jump in and shoot both. My ancestors fled to Belize. There, the British said to them "Here, take guns. Go kill as many Spanish as you like". So you see, we like the British

I couldn't help but get the sense that whatever the problems Belize had, they were nowhere near as grave as those in Guatemala and Mexico. You don't know how many times we heard from guides and drivers how different Guatemala was - and not for the better. Being in the western part of the country, many of our guides and drivers were Mayan in heritage. They all seemed to give the impression that they were glad to be on this side of the border. Perhaps it is easier to be Mayan in Belize than elsewhere.

The last 4 days of our week was spent at the ocean. We flew by small prop plane to the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. This is where most tourists who come to Belize go. We stayed at a comfortable condo type accommodation. Quiet. No bar and no restaurant. The place was perhaps half full. We had our own private beach ringed with palms and hammocks. We befriended a newlywed couple from North Carolina. The guy had spiky hair and seemed comfortably southern. She was classy and expertly groomed. We could not imagine how these two met. But it was clear that they got along real well. He caught her a fish supper from the hotel's fishing pier. I'm not sure how much she liked the barracuda. We ended up eating fish with them for lunch the next day. The barracuda had a lot of tiny bones in it. I'll pass the next time barracuda is offered.

San Pedro is an interesting place. Its a real town - not just a tourist bubble. The school basketball court is right in the center of things and turns out a lot of the locals. Kids went by during the day wearing their school uniforms. The preferred method of locomotion among the town's streets was by golf cart. It was chaos, yet it was nice to see the locals not yet jaded or turned off to foreign tourism. I didn't see signs of the parasitic relationship you see in the more built up tourist hot spots of the Caribbean. Go to places like Punta Cana, Cancun, Jamaica, and you're trapped in some cocoon. Venture outside the gates and you're preyed upon by vultures. You don't care (and learn nothing) about the country you're visiting and the locals see you as nothing more than a dollar sign. Not a good thing I'd say. Those places have little appeal to me.

We had a great time snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Preserve. Our guide, Alphonse was a wealth of knowledge. Mrs. Rants especially liked how he snorkeled along with us and did not hesitate to point out the various fish and marine life we spied upon. Oftentimes you go snorkeling and you name fish by "pretty colors blue" or "crazy shaped fins fish". Alphonse gave names to the flippers. We then cruised over to Shark Ray Alley - basically a place to swim with the stingrays and grab on to the nurse sharks. All of this takes place at the barrier reef, which sits about 3/4 of a mile off the coast from Ambergris Caye. Its the 2nd longest in the world. The snorkeling we did was some of the best we've ever encountered (we've snorkeled Hawaii and St. John USVI). The boat ride back was priceless - one of those sun-going-down, out-on-the-Caribbean-waters moments that you don't forget. You hold on to it and cherish it. It helps you deal with those days when sitting at the office is a drag.

I think it's impossible to keep a Caribbean kitchen free of ants - no matter how well sealed the doors are.

They love Fanta in Belize. I like it too. The Orange and Red Fantas were tasty. Lots of the soda is served in glass bottles. Man, how cool is that? Keeps the stuff cold and the fizziness lasts longer. Do you wanna Fanta?

We ended up overindulging in the national hot sauce - Marie Sharp's. We had it on our eggs in the morning, tortillas, evening meals, etc. Everyone ate this stuff.

I'll relate our last excursion. We traveled by boat from San Pedro back to Belize City (an hour). Two different groups were heading out for daytrips - one to go tubing through caves, the other group (us included) to go travel upriver to the Mayan city of Lamanai. We lucked out though. There was some aging hippie loudmouth going on the cave tubing trip. He spent the boat ride taunting the guides - asking them which neighborhoods in Belize did you go to needing to carry a machete. Once wharfside, we took advantage of a hotel's bathroom accommodations before boarding respective vans to head out to our daytrips. I happened to hear the hippie guy release some gas and say "Muchos Grande". You could see everyone on that trip rolling their eyes just waiting to find out what was in store for them.

Anyways, we went by van up the Northern Highway for an hour and then parked at the shores of the New River. Here we boarded a speedboat for a fast paced (and quick turning) boat ride upriver (35 miles) to reach the ruins of Lamanai. Along the way we spotted silver monkeys in a tree. Further on we boated past a large Mennonite farm. Very Germanic looking kids huddled at the banks of the river wearing denim overalls and colorful button-up shirts. The Mennonites have been in Belize for about 100+ years. Apparently they grow something like 60% of the total agricultural output of the country. Anyways, further past them we arrived at Lamanai and enjoyed a local lunch of beans&rice, stewed chicken, and some habanero/onion dressing. Good stuff. I ate pretty well that lunch and then proceeded to walk around the ruins and climb the stone temples. We spent about an hour or so there and then reversed our trip - boatride back past the Amish to the vans. Van ride back to Belize City. Pick up the others from their trip and board the boat ride for San Pedro. Funny thing was, we ended up passing by a stranded water taxi that was loaded to the gills with schoolkids. We pulled up alongside the marooned boat and the aged hippie shouted, "Where's your father??. I swear, the guy was good for a laugh at the very least. We ended up doing the right thing and roping the boat to ours. We pulled them back to the harbor in Belize City and then turned around and fired the engines to make up for lost time. Good thing the captain brought plenty of coolers full of beer and rum punch. The boat ride back was pretty enjoyable. Again, one of those moments out on the aquamarine Caribbean with the breezes blowing and the setting sun in your face

By any measure, we had a great time. We saw a lot, did a lot, and the accommodation choices we made were excellent. I would go back to Belize - if for no other reason but to pick up some Fanta and hot sauce....


At 8:32 AM, Anonymous Mrs. Rants said...

Great post. You forgot to mention though, that on the 45 minute hike to the cave, our guide made us snack on termites. They tasted like carrots.

The best thing about Belize by far is the people. They genuinely like Americans, and every single one of them greets you with a big smile. And the food...mmmmm....


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