Friday, June 29, 2007

Belize Inland Travel - Day 1

We spent 4 days 'inland' waiting for the wind to quit blowing.

We left the boat at Cucumber Beach Marina (aka "Old Belize" oldbelize.com), about 5 miles south of Belize City. It is a secure marina with nice facilities (significantly better than the old Mojo Cay marina). We had no qualms about leaving the boat there for a few days under the watchful eye of Carlos. The 7-day rate was reasonable, about $25/nite US for our 44-foot boat. Dave's friend Cliff (www.catchartersbelize.com) was docked behind us so we knew he'd keep an eye on things as well. They have
diesel, gas, and water, too.

We hopped a westbound bus, marked either 'Belmopan' or 'Benque' and for $3.50 USD for each of us. We made the 75 miles to San Ignacio in about 2 hours. This was not an 'express' bus, so we stopped for anyone anywhere that was going our way (many stops as we were entering and leaving towns), s well as a 15 minute stop in Belmopan. The buses run about every half hour. They seemed to be on a schedule but we never saw anything published. You basically get out there and wait and flag one down.

We arrived in San Ignacio about 2pm. We had previously scoped out several hotels to check out near the center of town using a combination of the Lonely Planet Guide to Central America (2001), a local tourist magazine, and the internet. We got there and walked around and checked on rooms at each of the hotels. All the low end rooms were booked. Even though several people said it was 'low season', there were a lot of college students taking up the low end rooms. ($12/nite US for a double without
a private bath or A/C). After looking at a couple of rooms, and trudging around in the heat, we ended up back at the Venus hotel, in their nice room with private bath, king size bed, and A/C, for about $37/nite US. It's a little steep compared to Guatemala, but still pretty reasonable for what was probably the best room in town.

Once we got settled in at the hotel, we checked at Mayawalk Tours, and at Eva's, both just down the street from our hotel, about their excursions going the next day. Both had trips to "the most phenomenal trip you can go on" (Cliff's words), the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) trip. This is a 'strenuous' hike through a huge series of caves, with a number of Mayan artifacts (pottery and human remains) plainly visible. The other trip we were interested in was the "Caves Branch Tubing" trip--more caves,
but less strenuous as you float down through the caves in inner tubes. We settled on Mayawalk for the ATM trip, primarily because the guy manning the desk was a better BS-er, and their lunch sounded better (it wasn't). The cost was $80 US per person. This included transportation, entry to the park, lunch, and a guide for the day. A little on the high side, but we had to do it. There is no way to visit ATM without a guide, and there are only 2 companies authorized by the government to do this
trip (due to the unspoiled nature of the site and its religious and cultural sensitivity).

Once we had the next day's trip booked, we took a local bus out toward Xunantunich (soo-NAN-to-nich), one of the Mayan temple sites. When Dave had been here before, it had been a long hot walk uphill for about a mile, to get from where the bus leaves you, to the site itself. "Jimmy", the guy at Mayawalk had told us that we could probably pay someone with a car to take us up. We got off the bus at the free car ferry, and paid a local taxi $2.50 US to go across on the ferry with us and take us up
to the entry point of the site. We paid about $5 pp to get in (but received no pamphlet or anything, just a wave up the hill to the information building). There was a nice information center with pictures, maps, and explanations, and a set of bathrooms, but no concessions, vendors, glitzy tourist crap, or crowds of people. It was a nice quiet site. We spent about an hour exploring. We were kind of limited on time, because the site closes at 4pm. But an hour was pretty much enough time. We
climbed to the very top of the tallest structure, the temple, and sat for awhile in the cool breeze to cool off. We were fortunate that a group was there with a tour guide, and we got to hear her spiel about Xunantunich, surrounding sites (Tikal is only about 50 miles to the west), and general info about the Mayan culture. Xunantunich is a typical Mayan site with buildings at opposing ends of a plaza built in a pyramid. (see pictures posted in my photo album)

We met 2 different 'missionary' groups from South Carolina while at Xunantunich. Both were mostly teenagers. One group's focus was primarily singing and performing religious skits. They ended up at the other end of the site, at the observatory (about a quarter mile away directly across the courtyard from us), and sang a song. It was very nice. They were spending several weeks going from place to place, performing at local churches, and talking to people on street corners. The other group was
doing pretty much the same thing. We met a third group that was actually helping build a new room for a school house. I think Belize is a favored destination because they speak English, but are still as poor and primitive as Guatemala, once you get outside the 4-5 bigger cities.

On the way back, we managed to bum a ride with one of the missionary groups, in the back of a pickup truck. They wanted to go see the Guatemalan border, so we took the side trip with them (It was only about 5 miles further west). They let us off back in San Ignacio, where they stopped for dinner.

We had a nice nap and a shower before strolling out for dinner. We ended up next door at Serendib, a Sri Lankan restaurant. The typical meal price in San Ignacio was about $5 US for breakfast and lunch, and $5-$15 US for dinner. The cheapest, and on every menu (including breakfast) was 'stewed chicken' which is a few pieces of chicken on the bone and beans and rice. This normally cost about $4.

Photo album link: http://picasaweb.google.com/SoggyPaws

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