The Maya: Lamanai, 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.
Just south of Mexico, and only slightly larger than Wales or Massachusetts, Belize, the former British Honduras pop. 275,000, lies at the western end of the Caribbean Sea.
I suppose that when one thinks of Belize one thinks of pristine white sand astride a clear blue warm sea, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, and strolling the beach on one of the many islands or Cayes that form the largest reef in the Americas.
I read that half of all tourists to Belize go directly to San Pedro, the seaside town on Ambergris Caye. So, did I make for the beach? Nope. I headed for the hills.
I did spend my very first day and evening in Belize City with my friend Ayumi and her friend Kiyo, teachers here in Belize. I met Ayumi in Bangkok and I promised to visit her here. Ayumi is a music teacher. Kiyo teaches sports.
The very next day I bussed north to a small town called Orange Walk and checked in to the Victoria Hotel - nice swimming pool. I arrived in time for a tour to Lamanai - an ancient area inhabited for more than 3000 years.
The tour to Lamanai, my first visit to Mayan ruins, was certainly the most fun. Along with a half dozen other visitors, I hopped aboard a long, speedy, speed boat for the 1.5 hour full throttle, hot and curvy, white wake cruise up the New River to the dock on the New River Lagoon. One of the teenage boys suggested water skiing.
We paused for iguanas and birds and orchids. Only logodiles today resting on the riverbanks. Finally a small bird called Lily-Walker. They do walk gracefully and daintily across the floating lily pads. They are also known as Jesus Christ birds because . . . . . . .
Now I can try to imagine the surprise of a deep sea diver as he encounters a huge tortoise or ray or shark or a school of ingeniously decorated tropical fish swimming along a coral reef. Perhaps his reaction is similar to my own shock as I stroll down the green arcade jungle path, a clearing ahead, and suddenly through the tree trunks and branches and leaves, a colossal pyramid of brick and stone.
Structure N 10-43, a huge late pre - Classic building rises more than 111 feet (34 m) above the jungle floor. Prudence prevails. I sit and watch my shipmates climb to the top.
It is New Year's Eve so naturally I dine at the Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant; I shed a tear at the end of Shakespeare In Love; I watch the fireworks from the balcony of my hotel. And on New Year´s Day I bus back to Belize City for a splurge at The Princess Hotel - huge swimming pool (it is raining), Casino (no way), movie theater (Rocky Balboa!?), and a delicious buffet lunch including fish fillet in a spicy caper sauce and my waitress´ favorites - milk cake and lemon pie.
Speaking of spicy, here in Belize they bottle Habanero Chile Sauce - totally volcanic! A few drops of this stuff would even make my Thai friends sweat.
The next morning, a three hour bus ride west to the mountains and San Ignacio, also known as Cayo. By the way, most of the buses here bear the marque of Blue Bird. Ring a bell? Old, retired school buses? But they are long and not uncomfortable and the windows open and close in case there's a change in the weather.
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.