Thursday, June 2, 2011

9) There and back again...

I had nothing but good intentions to keep this blog updated as I traveled, but I have failed miserably. Considering that it is nearly the first of June, I am just under 4 months behind. So, you will now get the "Cliff's Notes" version of my adventures. Here is the first half of the past 4 months in a nutshell:

I had the pleasure of exploring Belize for 2 weeks with my Mom. She was very sick of the cold and she missed her favorite son deerly, so she came to visit me on my journey for a bit. I picked her up at the airport in Belize Shitty. I apologize for the Freudian slip, but it's so true. Belize City is a nasty, dirty, ugly city with it's fair share of murders and robberies. You want to get out of there as soon as possible. We took the first water taxi out to Caye Caulker and stayed at a nice little place called Barefoot Beach. For some reason, everybody says that you have to go to Caye Caulker, but I was not impressed. There are so many better places to visit in Belize, I don't think it's worth your time. However, it was a good place to kick back for a few days and start our journey.

One thing I was lacking on this journey was a good camera. I admit that I am impressed with the photos my pocket camera took on the beach, but I wanted more. I had Mom bring me down the new Canon Powershot s95. This little guy is takes incredible pictures. Not only is it small and easy to travel with, but you can adjust all the manual settings (iso, aperture, shutter speed, exposure...), which is one of the reasons I got it. I was hoping I could teach myself a little photography in my spare time. I have learned heaps. I don't know if it's beginner's luck (I think it's more the camera), but I have taken some really cool pictures that I am excited to share. The problem is that I take so many more photos now, so I have spent more time sorting through them. But the results are worth it.

As soon as we got back from Caye Caulker, we headed back out to sea to Turneffe Flats. Turneffe Atoll is approximately an hour and a half boat ride from Belize City. It is primarily know for its world class fly fishing, too bad I didn't fish. My birthday present was a few days of diving while Mom snorkeled and explored the island. The main reason we came out was for me to dive the Blue Hole, but that didn't happen as the weather didn't cooperate with us. However, we still had a great time together and little did we know that I would later get the chance to dive the infamous Blue Hole.

We returned to the mainland and rented a car. This was a huge luxury, for it gave us so much freedom to go places I couldn't while traveling by bus. We spent a night in St. Ignacio and visited the the ruins of Xunantunich and El Pillar. Both were interesting, but the ruins in Guatemala are much better. If you are able I would highly recommend walking around the rounds of Chaa Creek as well as the Belizean Botanical Gardens, which are both on the same road, way back in the jungle.

We then headed south down the Hummingbird Highway towards Placencia. I personally didn't think too much of Placencia. The best thing about it is a small Gelato shop that makes the best ice cream in Belize (which doensn't say much because the Belizian ice cream is utterly terrible, but the Gelato really is quite nice). Placencia is overrun by retired Americans and Canadian, so I didn't get the 'foreign, tropical feel' from the place. However, we did stay in style at the Chabil Mar for 3 nights. My Mom brought down a suitcase full of vet supplies to donate to the animal shelter. In return, they put us up at this fancy places ($300+/night). Mom did have to pay $75 to bring that stuff through customs, but in the end, it was a nice deal. We soon got bored with Placencia and headed north to Hopkins for a night. Hopkins is not much more exciting, although there are few tourists there. Hopkins is a small Garafuni village that doesn't have much more than a few resorts on each end of town. Little did I know that I would be returning to Hopkins to do my DiveMaster training at Hamanasi Dive Resort. More on this later.

Owr two weeks together was drawing to a close as we headed back to Belize City. Just outside of the capital of Belmopan (by the way, this is the smallest country capital in the world and there is absolutely nothing to see there), we made a brief stop at the Belize Zoo. This zoo is nothing compared to the San Diego zoo, but it is actually quite nice. All the animals have been rescued and are not able to be released for whatever reason. It's worth a stop if you're passing by.

Those 2 weeks went by so quickly, but we had a great time together. It was very relaxing for her and it was a good experience for me to get a taste of Belize. Overall, Belize is not what I expected. It truly is a beautiful country with it's rich jungle and spectacular tropical beaches. However, it is in no way set up for budget travel. The bus system is mediocre and everything is expensive. Belize is a resort destination. If you want to enjoy Belize, especially for the first time, I would recommend booking a week or two at a resort. I can offer a few suggestions if you're interested.

After putting Mom on the plane back home, I went back to St. Ignacio to do the ATM cave expedition. The cave was not physically challenging, but the cultural/Mayan experience was incredible. You are basically walking thorough a museum exhibit. The artifacts should be placed in protective cases. Instead, you are only inches from stepping on skeletons and clay pots that are over 1,000 years old. The only 'barriers' present are a few pieces of plastic ribbon placed on the cave floor. It was a spendy expedition, yet culturally rich. I would put it on the 'must see in Belize' list.

I just couldn't get enough Guatemala, so I went back for more. I was not content with my level of Spanish, so did a one week refresher course at the Eco Escuela of San Andres. San Andres is a small pueblo on the north side of Lake Atitlan, on the opposite shore as Flores. It's a quite town with kind people. The few gringos there are usually taking Spanish classes or helping with NGO work. Fortunately, there was a really cool group of foreigners and we spent a lot of time hanging out together. When I think back, I have great memories of San Andres, not because of the place but because of the people. However, there is one special place I must mention. There is an old wooden dock on the lake at the edge of town. Almost every afternoon, I would escape the heat of the day by going for a swim. Not only is this lake beautiful, but it is one of the few lakes in Guatemala not polluted by garbage. And the sunsets from El Remate on the western shore were utterly spectacular.

It was then time to explore some of the Mayan ruins of Peten. I based myself out of El Remate for a few days. The town itself is OK, but I later found out there are a number of nice little places to stay if you head west of town, on the northwest shore of the lake. Like I said, I can highly recommend the sunsets there. I have become quite the connoisseur of sunsets, and these were some of the better ones I've seen on this trip.

Tikal. Yes, it is a bit touristy, but it is a must see. I know many people come great distances at great costs to see Tikal, and they have good reason. Tikal is epic. It is a very special place. I was fortunate becuase there was almost no one there, virtually no workers and few tour groups. I took the tour in Spanish. Not only was the group smaller, but there was a certain cultural richness to it. Tikal has many huge temples you can climb and get above the jungle canopy for great panoramas. However, the jewel of Tikal is the Grand Plaza and the Temple of the Jaguar. This is what you see on every travel brochure or poster, but it is different in person. The grandeur is mind blowing. I spent a long time just sitting there, trying to imagine what the place looked like at the height of its prosperity. It definitely left an impression on me.

After Tikal, I explored the ruins of Yaxha and Nakum. These are much less visited by tourists as they are off the beaten path, and therefore I knew I would like them. A guide is not necessary as both can be accessed by road (a 4X4 is necessary to get back to Nakum), but I didn't have a 4X4 and I thought that trekking through the jungle would be an interesting experience. These 2 cities are very different from each other even though they are fairly close together. Yaxha is a sprawling city with just a few large temples. Much of the site is unexcavated, but it has acquired quite a bit of funding since Survivor Guatemala was filmed there a few years back. The stairways leading up the temples were made with quality craftsmanship. Also, you see numerous workers sweeping the paths and raking the leaves throughout the ruins. Definitely unexpected. Yaxha also seems to have a lot more wildlife around than Tikal, howler monkeys can be heard all day long. The highlight of Yaxha is the main temple which has a spectacular view of the sunset.

Nakum is much different than most of the other Mayan cities. It was the city of nobles, so there is a number of plazas, temples, housing, ball courts, and even a temascal crammed into a relatively small area (since nobles don't like to walk very far). Not to mention that I had the place all to myself, not a single tourist around, and those are my favorite places. Much of Nakum is unexcavated as well, but the strucutures are so steep that they aren't covered in dirt, so you can still see great detail. I'll let the pictures do the talking on this one. Basically, Tikal is epic, Yaxha is well kept and has nice sunsets, but Nakum stands out as my favorite for some reason.

If that wasn't enough Mayan ruins, I went on a 5 day trek back into El Mirador. El Mirador is famous because it is the largest Mayan Temple in the world. It was a long, hot walk. We walked 4.5 hours the first day, 7 the second, spent a day at the site, then returned the way we came. All in all, we walked over 130 km, a few of us walked it in flip flops. This city is incomprehensibly huge, as is the main temple. There is a sign at the base of the temple, which you soon forget about because 15 minutes later you still haven't reached the peak of the great temple. From the top the view is incredible, I felt like I was standing on a mountain. I was unaware of this, but the site houses the biggest and best preserved mural carved into a huge rock face. It tells their of the creation story found in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan's holy book.

The adventure part of this trek was cool, but it's the people that made it such a great trip. There was a kind couple from Denmark, a fun brother and sister from Guatemala City, a chill British guy, a few Americans, and an amazing man from Argentina. I could say so many things about so many of these people, but Mr. Argentina really made an impression on me. When he was younger, he traveled throughout South and Central America for 9 year! 9 years! Oh, the stories he told! They were simply inspiring to me. He was a very wise man who I came to hold in high regard. He was kind of like the Pablo in my Nebaj trip. We would walk together and talk in Spanish because my Spanish was better than his English, which was great for me. We talked about almost everything: life, love, travels, mysteries, searching for lost treasures... He was the one that asked the questions in my last blog, "Are you searching or are you running away." He said a number of things that made an impression on me, here are just a few of them:
-Try to see life through their eyes. When you go to a new place and meet the people, try to imagine life through their eyes rather than just looking in on them as a tourist.
-Don't judge a place by the cost. For example, many people say Costa Rica is 'expensive'. Try to see the full picture: the people, the place, the experience as a whole.
-Hold onto your family with all your strength, the will always be with you.
-Most only have 2 or 3 people that are truly friends in their entire lifetime, friends that will do everything in their power to help you out in a time of need, no matter the circumstances.
-The bad and difficult times will pass.
-Never make a rash decision, always take your time.
-Don't talk about finances with other travelers.
-You can survive on bread, but bread with jelly is better.
-"Somos náufragos en un mundo nuevo." We are castaways/shipwrecked in a new world (his life's theme in reference to the life of a professional traveler). I, too, have adopted this philosophy.
-We are viajeros (travelers), not tourists. There is a huge difference between the two.
-"Chicas no se quedan, las ruinas se quedan." Basically, the ladies come and go, but the ruins will always be there.
-Argentines often pronounce their “j” sound like an “sh”. For example, he was talking about exploring the mountains in a “4 wheel drive sheep.” He would often say something like “I hope we see a shaguar!” The best though, was when I was away from the camp and someone asked about me, he said “He was probably attacked by a team of showers.” I think he meant to say jaguars, but everyone was rolling.

He had a certain energy about him that was contageous to others. When we walked the streets of Flores, he would smile say "Buenas noches!" to almost everyone, even those that were trying to ignore him and look away. The funny thing is that over 90% would smile and greet him back. I tried it myself, being the introvert that I am, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it actually works! I'm amazed to observe how much people respond to the energy that you give them. That's a life lesson to hold onto.

It was hard to part from such a cool dude, but we had to go our separate ways. The Mirador trek was an excellent final stamp on my Guatemala experience, it was time for me to head back to Belize. I was hoping to talk about Belize in this post, but that will have to wait until later as I must catch a plane very shortly. I am off to the Forbidden Island for the next month. Don´t exactly know what to expect, but I am excited. Wish me luck!

Sorry I didn´t post pictures this time, I simply ran out of time. However, there are hundreds waiting for your viewing pleasure at 

Soy náufrago en un mundo nuevo...

1 comment:

  1. It was a pleasure encountering you Shawn. Have a nice trip, traveler.