Traveling Inland Belize
and Eastern Guatemala
After snorkeling in the barrier reef with our friends on Ambergris Caye (Part 1) the first week, Gerry and I and another couple headed to inland Belize and Guatemala for a second week. After seeing our friends off at the airport, we walked across the parking area to the car rental building. Crystal Auto Rental is the only car rental company that allows you to take a car across the border into Guatemala. Because of the secondary roads in Belize, they recommend renting an SUV for travel in Belize. There are only three major highways in Belize: the Northern Highway, the Western Highway, and the Southern Highway. These roads are well paved and do not require an SUV. However, if you are choosing to travel by car, chances are you are intending to visit some places off the major highways. For these adventures, I would definitely recommend a higher clearance vehicle as these roads are unpaved and full of pot holes. At the Crystal Rental desk, I handed over my driver’s license and my passport. The agent, as in all Belize, spoke English; therefore, the rental seemed very straightforward. They are even nice enough to give you a cell phone, to which you can add minutes at any gas station. It seemed that all the Belizians we met had such a cell plan. No contracts as in the states.
After getting our car, we headed out along the Northern Highway towards Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary about 30 minutes south of Orange Walk. The trip takes only an hour and a half or so and the Northern Highway was in fine shape. However, when we stopped for lunch at a grocery store we were informed that the road to Crooked Tree was flooded and we would not be able to drive to the village. Hmmm? What to do? Since we had reservations and no other plans for the next few days, we decided to proceed anyway and see what lay ahead.
Reaching the Crooked Tree turn off, we drove down a dirt road for two miles until we came across parked cars and buses lining the road and a flooded highway stretching in front of us.. Many locals were standing by wooden pallets waiting to get boat ride from the Belizian Coast Guard. I guess this wasn’t their first experience with flooding. As we unloaded our bags, we were informed that they had had one of the rainiest falls on record, but they figured they would be able to drive the road pretty soon. I asked when “pretty soon” was and one gentleman said, “Not too much longer. By Christmas it should be passable.” It was the first week in December (2013) and the road had been closed for a month. I guess another three weeks or so seemed soon. Americans I am sure would be outraged at this timeline. At any rate, we used our cell phone to call the lodge where we were to be staying and they said they would send a boat for us. To our chagrin, our boat arrived before the Coast Guard boat and we were boarding, as the locals, who had been there before us, were still left waiting. We felt awful and embarrassed by this and offered them our ride, but, in what we would come to see over and over again, in Belize, they generously declined and would hear none of it. On our whole trip, we found the Belizians easygoing and willing to engage with us. They did not seem to hold any resentment against us as foreigners, Americans, or women traveling alone.
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary and Tillet’s Village Lodge-
Arriving at Tillett’s Village lodge was somewhat of a shock and Karen laughed that she wished she had had a picture of my face when we pulled up to our lodgings. I had found Tillett’s Village lodge through a web search that had shown a quaint, but nice set of bungalows. The website forgot to include the surrounding horse manure, the dog poop, or the dead bird carcass we walked through to get to our lodging. But to be fair, after this initial impression, we did adjust. Crooked Tree and Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is considered a wetland of International Importance and, indeed, as a birder, I would love to return there in late February and March for the spring migration. Their most notable resident is the Jabiru Stork which would return and nest here after the rainy season and into May and June of the next spring.
Despite it not being the optimum time of year for birds, once I had settled in, I decided to take a walk through town, binoculars in tow. Even at this time of year, I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. There were Vermillion Flycatchers aplenty. Blue-gray Tanagers, Northern Jacanas, Plain Chacahalacas, White fronted Parrots, Social Flycatchers, Belted Kingfishers, Gray colored Robins and Great Kiskadees were easily seen during the walk. But some of the most endearing sights to me was seeing some of the birds I see here in the Northeast during spring and summer. Like visiting old friends that had flown south to escape the winter, were the American Redstarts and a Black and White Warbler. These were easily seen on a dusk walk in off-peak season.
The next evening after we had taken a trip up river to the Lamanai Mayan Ruin, I hired our boatmen, Rubin,who was also a birder to take me out into the “Lagoon”. He told me not to expect much as so many birds were not around because of the high waters, but I figured I was here and had nothing to lose. On this hour long evening tour, we saw a Bare-throated Tiger Heron, a new siting for me. Along with the Tiger Herons, we saw Little Blue Herons, Tri-colored Herons, and a Green Heron along with Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets and a Snail Kite. It was well worth the trip, but sad to see all the flooded houses and lodges. One woman was outside of her flooded home in a boat fishing. I had to admire the Belizian resilience.
Lamanai Mayan Tour-
We drove in to the disheveled town of Orange Walk, to connect with our tour for Lamanai, where we then retraced our steps back down the Northern Highway to catch our boat. Any internet search will turn up several competent operators, though we went with Jungle River Tours. To get to Lamanai, which means “submerged crocodile”, you must take an hour and a half boat ride up the New River. We did see a parrot or two, but for the most part the wildlife was quiet or missing. We did pass a Mennonite settlement. The Mennonites came to Belize and also Costa Rica to avoid persecution for their pacifist beliefs and their unwillingness to serve in any armed forces.
The New River and Lamanai were part of a major Mayan trade route from as early as the 16th century BC and the city continued to thrive for 3500 years. The vast majority of the site has yet to be excavated and still remains covered by dense jungle growth. Though excavation began in the mid-1970s, further excavation, as we also found in Guatemala’s famous Tikal, depends on donations from other countries and is often not readily available. I am sure funding can be a daunting task as Belize has the highest concentration of Mayan Ruins in the world, with over 600 sites currently identified. Currently, they estimate that only about 5% of Lamanai has been excavated.
I found Lamanai interesting for all of the detailed carving and hieroglyphics present. It amazed me how sophisticated and large the carving were. So rich in detail. There is also a small museum on site that our guide lamented was not more well fortified against the tropical humidity and looters. Some of the prized possessions of the museum included copper artifacts, which signified broader trade relations and a thriving society well into the Post Classical Mayan time period. Copper was seen as one of the most highly valued luxury items in the region.
Despite the relative smallness of the site, Lamanai is rich in detail and, in fact, its smaller scale made it seem more accessible and manageable.
The Belize Zoo and San Ignacio-
Leaving Crooked Tree we headed back down the Northern Highway towards Belize city to catch the Western Highway, our destination, San Ignacio and a stay at Parrot’s Nest Lodge. The trip would take only 2-3 hours, so when we passed by the entrance to the Belize Zoo, we decided to venture in. The Belize Zoo takes in only rescue animals, so that eased any questions we might have had about viewing captured animals. The Belize Zoo is a small, kind of funky zoo, but we were all glad we made the visit because of the views we got of some of Belize’s more exotic and elusive animals. We saw all manner of cats-jaguars, margays, ocelots. There were Tapirs, coatimundis and gibnuts. We watched both Howler and Spider monkeys and got to see had a rare display of activity from their Harpy Eagle, one of the largest Eagles in the world. They also had a captive Jabiru, which nest up near Crooked Tree in the spring. The Jabiru is a very large and homely stork which is considered one of the largest birds in the New World, with a wingspan of 8 feet. Granted you are seeing all these birds in captivity, but it does give one pause at the variety of wildlife and habitat trying to be protected in Belize.
After leaving the Belize Zoo, we headed further down the Western Highway towards the town of San Ignacio. San Ignacio is a small bustling, lively town very near the Guatemalan Border. We stayed just outside of San Ignacio at Parrot’s Nest Lodge. Parrot’s Nest is run by an American woman whose parents settled in Belize when she was a youngster. Parrot’s Nest was a little more upscale that Tillet’s Village, with a group of nestled individual cottages scattered around a central meeting place. After settling in, we headed the few miles back to San Ignacio for dinner and to make sure our tour arrangements were all set for the following day. San Ignacio has a walkway thoroughfare that serves as the center of town. There we met a gentlemen who called himself “Rasta” who led us to one of his favorite restaurants in town “Ervas”, which in situated on a side street off of the main thoroughfare. The food was local and excellent, and as everywhere in Belize, the staff was friendly and engaging.
ATM (Actun Tunchil Muknal) Tour-
At 7:30 A.M. the next morning we were picked up at Parrot’s Nest by our tour operator. We chose to go with Mayawalk Tours and had a wonderful experience with them. On our tour there were just the four of us and one other gentlemen that was a guide writer for “Rough Guides”, a competitor to the “Lonely Planet” guide books. We headed about an hour back down the Western Highway towards Belize City and took a turn on a dirt road, heading towards the Maya Mountains, arriving around 9:00 A.M.
If you know nothing about ATM, I believe you are in for a magical treat. As the tour info tells you, you need to bring water clothes and shoes as you will be wading, and, sometimes, swimming through different parts of the cave. In fact, when walking to the entrance, you fiord the same river three times, often waist deep. This should get you primed for the adventure ahead. Once reaching the cave entrance, you immediately swim twenty or so yards to get inside the cave. The tour company provides you with a helmet and miner’s lamps and these will light your way for the hour trip up river through the cave to the sacrificial site. The adventure of swimming and squirming through rock faces would be one adventure in itself. The cave itself offers up the second magical part of this trip. With sixty foot ceilings, the shapes, folds and forms of the cave, for me, rivaled any church that Europe could offer. I thought the cave architecture would have made Antoni Gaudi proud. Once you wind your way through the cave, you scramble up into the sacrificial chambers of which there are three levels. Cameras are no longer allowed in ATM as one unfortunate Canadian dropped his camera on a thousand year old skull, putting a large size hole in the ancient skull. As a point of fact, we talked about how privileged we felt to be having this experience, as we felt that in the future they would either restrict visitors or perhaps have to close down the cave all together. The only thing that separated us from thousand year old artifacts and skulls was an orange flagging tape path. We felt certain that this tour would not happen in the United States, at least, not in the manner in which we were experiencing these ruins.
ATM or Actun Tunchil Muknal stands for Rock-Cave-Tomb and remained as the Maya left it some thousand years ago until it was rediscovered in the early 1990s. Tours only began in 1997. Archeologist believe that this was a Post-Classical cave and that the Maya used it as a sacrificial cave during a hundred year period of unprecedented drought. The sacrifices they made were to the rain gods and the sacrifices they chose over time signified their desperation. Up in the sacrificial chambers, we would see the skulls of the royal elite, which was a sure sign of their desperation. The royal families, to separate themselves from the commoners, at birth would bind their foreheads with a flat piece of wood. They would wear this binding until their foreheads exhibited a flat shape unlike the more rounded foreheads of the commoners. Though, obviously, not seen in the skulls, archaeologist also discovered that the royalty intentionally made themselves cross-eyed, which to me would seem like more of a handicap than an advantage. Also up in the sacrificial chambers, there were many varied sacrificial bowls, some quite large, some whole, some intentionally broken, some with blood remains in them. The bowls were broken to release the spirits within as a measure to placate the gods. The archaeologist surmised the desperation of the Maya by the escalating value of their sacrifices. In the third chamber, which was really the first chamber we visited, there were bowls and skulls of young men. In the fourth chamber were the skulls of small children, which we did not see as they were placed in small antechamber sections of the cave that we did not have access to. In the fifth, and highest chamber, there lay the complete skeleton of a teenage girl. This epitomized the Mayas absolute desperation as the young girl would also signify fertility and, therefore, future generations.
As sad and poignant, as the experience of visiting ATM was, it was also a privileged on so many levels. The adventure of swimming through a cave. The magical qualities of the cave itself. The sad privileged of revisiting a period in time some thousand years ago that had lain hidden until recent history. My only regret is that our friends from the first week did not get a chance to experience this cave. Hopefully, if you are anywhere in that area, you will make this trip one of your priorities. If I were to ever visit this cave again, I would ask the tour operator if I could take a camera in to the caves, but not up in to the sacrificial chambers, as images of just the cave would trigger so many special memories.
On to Guatemala, but you have to get across the border first-
To get to the border from San Ignacio is only a fifteen minute drive, but getting across the border proved to be quite the ordeal for us. Fortunately, before I left on the trip, I found a two-part article on the web that a gentleman who had traveled in Belize in 2011 posted. The article was so helpful and explanatory that I took a hard copy with me and we all reread it the night before the crossing. It seems that Belize and Guatemala hold some resentment towards one another, though I am not sure if this is why the border crossing has so many steps and procedures to follow. It also seems that crossing into Guatemala is much more expensive than crossing other borders. There seems to be fees for everything on both sides and as the article suggested, in this case, it is wise to get the aide of one of the money changers to help you navigate the system, especially if you are not a fluent Spanish speaker.
Our troubles crossing the border arose from something completely different, however. As I said, when I rented the car from Crystal Rental, I had given them my driver’s license and passport and the gentleman spoke fluent English. Because of this, my mistake, I had not checked the paper work he had given me before crossing the border. So after presenting my papers to the Guatemalan official, he would not let us enter, as the rental car company had badly misspelled my name and, therefore, it did not match my driver’s license or passport. With the help of the money handler translating, he assured us he could “fix” it for us. He walked out to our rental car, looked at the VIN number and at our paperwork for a second time. Then, through our translator explained that all this could be fixed for a fee of US$60.00, but, please, do not pay in front of the security cameras. I was incensed and was determined to take the moral high ground. I used our cell phone and called Crystal Car Rental and they assured me they could fax over the correct information. I also let them talk extensively with the customs officer. He then explained, through our translator, that they did not have fax or email at this station. Really? He had been looking at and working from a computer screen when we entered the first time, and he was a customs officer at a major border crossing!
This further tightened my resolve, so I called Crystal Car Rental back and they said they would fax it over to a person on the Belizian side. This involved me walking back across the bridge in to Belize and finding the right department where the fax would arrive. The rest of my party sat in the shade, out of the hot sun, and waited. When I received the fax from the Belizian side, I noted that on the second sheet of the document, I had signed the paper, “Cindy Smith y companeros”, not with my full name, Cynthia. I asked the Belizian secretary if this would present a problem and she assured me it would not.
So back across the bridge into Guatemala and to my favorite official, with Mike, our money handler close, in tow. I presented the revised documents to the official who took his own sweet time reviewing them, as if he had never seen them before. He got to the second page. Problemo. Not acceptable. So I recalled Crystal rental again and they said they would fax the second page, but it would have to be in color because of a gold medallion stamp on the page.
Back across the border to Belize I went, received the document and headed back to the customs station. My guy was busy so I gladly headed down to a second man in charge, hoping he would see the papers from a fresh, unsullied start. He, however, had seen us working with the first agent and said we must continue working with him. With dread, I headed to him, fearing full well that he would find something else wrong, if nothing more than to pay us back for not paying him off with his bribe. He, once again, slowly went through the paper work as if it was the first, and not the fourth time, he had witnessed it. With great reluctance and a grimace, he stamped our paper work and we were free. It took two hours to complete this procedure, but I can only hope this gentleman will be less reluctant to take on a bunch of American gringas next time. I can only hope.
Guatemala and Tikal-
After getting through our border adventure, we were on our way to Tikal, a UNESCO world heritage site. Some folks in our party had wondered if was safe to travel in Guatemala, so I did some research on the issue. It seems that if you are traveling in full daylight and in a rental car, as we were, then you most likely would not have trouble with bandits. A couple we had ridden up the river with to Lamanai spoke of a friend whose tourist bus had been robbed. So as we traveled, we were apprehensive enough to be on alert, and we did come across a military convoy running training on the road, but otherwise our trip to Tikal, about two hours, was uneventful. One piece of advice, that proved wrong was that it was not necessary to exchange money into Guatemalan quetzals. This proved terrible advice. Even though we were staying in Tikal, a major tourist attraction, exchanging US dollars was problematic. We had exchange a hundred dollars US into quetzals from our adventure at the border which had been given to us in 100.00 quetzal notes. Even this proved problematic to break in to smaller denominations. A 100 quetzal note is the equivalent to $15.00 US dollars. The Tikal Inn had a very hard time exchanging these notes and they see tourists all the time. So be advised and plan accordingly.
Tikal is a National park and as such there is an entrance fee into the park and then a twenty minute drive into the hotel/park area proper. They time the drive according to a ticket you are given at the entrance, so make sure you drive according to the speed limits posted. Tikal Inn was $188.00 per person for two nights, which seemed extravagant, until you factored in two nice breakfasts, two nice dinners and one lunch. The cost also includes a three hour morning tour of the site. I, however, had hired a private birding guide, Miguel, for an early morning birding adventure. The only drawback it seemed for this tour was that I would have to get up at 4:00 A.M. Oh my god! Only one other in our party, Karen, thought she might get up with me, everyone else planned to sleep in. However, come 4:00 A.M., all four of us joined Miguel for the forty-five minute walk into the park. Only our flashlights lit the way. At one point, we watched a very large tarantula cross under our beams, but other than that the walk was peaceful. At 5:00 A.M., we climbed Temple IV, the tallest temple in the park, and sat in the dark and waited. Several more groups filed in and took their seats on the stone steps and the atmosphere was quiet and meditative, almost like being in church. And we waited. Then, around 5:15 A.M., the magic started to happen. First right in front of us in this group of trees, then over to the left in that group of trees, and then further down the valley the calls started to come. It was the Howler monkeys waking up and establishing their territories and asserting their dominance for the day. If you have never heard Howler monkeys before, all I can say is that the sound is primal, guttural, loud and all-encompassing. They cried out for perhaps twenty minutes and then when the sun started to rise, they quieted and the birds started to wake. I likened the experience to being at a symphony with the bass drums starting, followed by the wind section. Any pain from getting up at 4:00 A.M. all seemed a distant memory now, replaced with this primal jungle experience.
After this morning symphony we continued to bird with Miguel, who was an amazing birder and mimic of bird sounds. He could call in birds by whistling their exact songs and intonations. Miguel was probably in his mid-50’s and had been working at the park since he was a young boy. He had first started working with a group of archaeologist in his early teens. Recognizing his potential, on their departure, they had gifted him with the pair of binoculars that he was carrying that day. To our delight, Miguel pointed out Blue-Crowned Motmots, Collared Aracaris, Collared Trogons, a Keel-billed Toucan and several species of parrots, just to name a few. On that same note, Gerry and I went birding the next morning on our own around the hotels grounds before departing and saw many Ocellated Turkeys, which are common here in Tikal, because they are protected from hunting, but rarer in the rest of Guatemala. Another surprise we had, when walking down a side path, was that we came across a group of wild boar foraging. When telling the hotel attendant about this siting, he said that he had been there three years and had yet to see the boars.
The morning tour was more about birding that archaeology, so we headed back to the hotel for breakfast, naps and some time by the pool, before we headed out for a sunset archaeological tour, which was an additional fee. I can’t say, but this tour seemed more intimate than morning tour might have been, as this tour took us through back entrances and stone hallways and into small courtyards. We sat on stone steps around the central plaza and watched the sunset, then headed back to our hotel for our last dinner before departing and returning to Belize.
With planning, it is amazing what you can experience within a two week period, especially in a small country like Belize. I do all of our planning and arrangements, and even with the internet, it can take weeks of reading and sorting through places to visit, times to visit, and which adventures to choose, but the planning and reading are part of the journey. For me, it is a huge part of learning about the culture, the customs, and sometime the restrictions that each place presents. I am sure it is much easier to go with a package tour if your budget allows, but if you have the time and where-with-all, you will learn so much, dare I say, so, so much more. And save money to boot. If you haven’t yet traveled to Belize, I would highly recommend it. The language is English, the currency easy to exchange, the people open and friendly, the wildlife superb, the archaeological sites amazing.