The Maya - Xunantunich, Caracol
January 4, 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
I am sitting on the shaded breezy terrace of the Running W. Steakhouse & Restaurant at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, up the steep hill from the town of San Ignacio in western Belize. I enjoy the buffet breakfast of orange juice, freshly scrambled eggs, Johnny cakes (flour, yeast, salt, slightly hard), Creole buns (slightly sweet with cinnamon), watermelon, papaya and robust Belizean coffee. The staff is friendly and attentive.
Beyond the railing of the balcony are green treetops of the surrounding jungle. Indeed, the tag line of the hotel brochure reads, "The only jungle in town." A few birds flit about and on a ledge just below my table. Wish Will, the hotel´s mascot suns himself under the cloudless Centro American sky.
For his breakfast, Wish Will gulps a few large chunks of ripe papaya. Didn't his mother teach him to chew before swallowing? Wish Will of course is a three foot (1m) spiny iguana who along with his family and friends lives here comp at the hotel.
Below and to my right is an all-weather tennis court (in this heat?). To my left, a cool blue swimming pool and chaise lounges and the traditional Belizean Rest-stop - two, red, cloth hammocks that await my tired Belizean buns after five days of non-stop travel.
Stanley, my favorite taxi driver in Cayo takes me seven miles out of town to the ancient city of Xunantunich (soo-nahn-too-neech). First we must take a little ferry across the river. One car at a time. The ferryman hand cranks a steel cable that stretches from bank to bank. A long spiny orange iguana makes his way from a tree above to the river bank.
Xanantunich´s dominant structure, El Castillo, rises 130 feet (40m) above the jungle floor. I decide to climb just a little, and then just a little more, and then, I am at the top! The view of course is straight down to the smaller structures, and far, far away to the dark mountains and the blue horizon.
From Cayo the visit to Caracol is the least fun yet the most impressive so far.
Some 53 miles (86 kms) south of San Ignacio via Chiquibul Road lies Caracol, a vast Mayan city hidden in the jungle. The site encompasses some 35 sq miles (88 sq km) with 36,000 structures marked so far. Caracol was occupied in the post-Classic period from around 300BC until AD 1150. At its height, between AD 600 and 700, Caracol is thought to have had a population of 150,000 - not much less than the entire population of Belize today.
What the guidebook omits is that the road is a 53 mile long, rutted, pot-holed, washboard of a dirt mountain road that shakes and rattles the bravest traveler. Was I on one of those bucking bronco rides that they have in bars in Texas? Was this worth the trip?
Highlights of the site include Caana (Sky Palace), Caracol´s tallest structure - 138ft (42m), The Temple of the Wooden Lintel, the ball court, and the central acropolis containing a royal tomb.
Tall, handsome Alain and his girlfriend, cheerful, petite Isabel, young students from Montreal, scaled the Sky Palace stairs. I snapped Isabel from the plaza below using my new Canon Tele Converter Lens.
Today, at the resort I am resting from that jolting ride and the two hours in the jungle sun. The swimming pool, inviting; the hammocks, beguiling.
It is different here in Belize. A mixture of cultures and colors and scenery. Everyone speaks what sounds a lot like English so I am getting along OK.
Tomorrow I cross the border to Guatemala and head west to Tikal; according to the guidebook, The mother of all Mayan ruins.
I don't know a word of Mayan but I will get a chance to try my Spanish once again.