Belize and Guatemala - Triplogue

Prologue - Getting there

Andy’s mom facilitated the Belize, Mexico and Cuba trial trip by inviting us along for a winter vacation as she has done ever since I met Andrew. Joyce is generous and super to be around. This time she outdid herself, choosing International Expeditions’ trip to Belize. Andy and I are still more than curious as to why the travel and logistics folks at IE chose to put us on the red-eye to Houston because it included a five hour layover in the beautiful and elegant Houston Airport.

We managed drunkenly to get on the flight after a little going away party – no thanks to the dizzy clerk who began to check us in. It was only by chance (OK - a little flirting never hurt anyone…) that the manager intervened, rescuing us from a sentence of center seats for four hours. Upon arrival in Houston we used our imagination to find ways to amuse ourselves. First we rode the "ultra-modern" inter-terminal transportation system to the Airport Marriott for a little breakfast. Then struggling to find some way to pass the time we dressed-up the hotel’s XMAS display with our bicycle helmets, and finally sinking into the big wingback chairs in their lobby for a little shuteye.

Belize City

Arrived in Belize where our bicycles were (as usual) the center of attention. Just once, it would be nice to be more interesting than my ride. "How much do they weigh?" "How much did they cost?" seemed to be the greeting we heard most from worker types in the airport and elsewhere.

Belize City is not much to look at, just another underdeveloped Caribbean town, thankfully we were not to spend too much time there. Funny how much wildlife there was even in town. During our (to be daily) morning birdwalk we saw everything from macaws to parrots. Here, our fearless tour leader Martin demonstrated his extraordinary knowledge of animal and plant life for the first time. I thought it was a fluke at first, but consistently he was able to identify the common and latin names of everything living in Belize. Not only could he I.D them but he also often had an amusing story about his kids had captured, tortured, molested or donated one to a zoo or botanical garden.

The cast of characters on our tour of Belize was just a little bit older than us. All of our compatriots called us "the boys" (Andrew is 33 and I am 34). Near the end of our trip one of our fellow travelers celebrated his 88th birthday. Not that we are ageists, but we were a little worried. Our fears were quickly calmed. Nearly everyone was an intrepid traveler and easy to get along with. Bob and Diane were amazing, Diane had prepared months for this journey. She and Bob always had the right outfit, equipment, salve, medication and tool for every situation. Diane had a database of items they had packed cross-referencing it to which bag it was packed in.

There were a few exceptions; some of our fellow travelers were not quite as stalwart as the others. Our welcome dinner was held in the "best restaurant in Belize" conveniently located but a hundred yards from the hotel. One of our party actually took a cab from the dinner back to our domicile because she had heard that Belize City was too dangerous.

Around Belize City

Our first day of adventure began with a boat ride through the wetlands north of Belize City. We spent nearly 2.5 hours in the sun looking at every type of Heron you can imagine. The stars of the day were the Jicana and the Purple speckled "Idunnowhat" (I am not a birder, and Martin is probably very disappointed that his knowledge was lost on me). At lunch we ate and Andy did his best to feed the local fire ants who dined on his foot while we downed our delicious home-cooked picnic of chicken beans and rice. Luckily his allergy to fire ants did not kick in and we did not have to rush him to a hospital.

After birds, it was on to the monkeys. Howler monkeys remain true to their name especially when taunted by idiots on the ground. The British army was conducting training exercises in the monkey reserve, their cadets running a course through the jungle. When they reached us and saw us looking up into the canopy and started screaming up at them demonstrating that they were clearly more intelligent than their simian counterparts. The monkeys were very spirited and have become accustomed to humans since they live in a protected area. More rambunctious and larger than the monkeys were the mosquitoes whose bites we were quickly becoming accustomed to.

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Don't mess with our crew!

Is that a Burger King over there, or a speckled kingfisher?



The highlands

A wickedly rough bus ride was to take us to the Belizian Highlands, on the way up we saw palms and tropical vegetation give way to pines and brush. The ride lulled me to sleep as Martin bitched about how terrible the Ford busses that IE purchases. As if to reward his outward disdain both the bus's u-joints failed making a loud popping noise. Andy and I had rented bicycles for the day and put them on the bus, with the intent to ride back to our hotel near San Ignacio. As our fearless driver Herman ripped apart the bus (took about five minutes) finding the offending parts, we ate lunch and prepared to ride back into town to get help.

Visions of rescuing our fellow travelers danced in our heads. We imagined that we would be the valiant saviors of our stranded party riding off into the sunset on our trusty steeds fetching help for the crew of our expedition. All of this faded quickly when Herman pulled out his radio and had ordered the parts for the bus and alternative transportation to pick up the others while he fixed the bus. Still, we got on our bikes and rode down the hill. I anticipated that the ride would be at least a little less bumpy on bike, especially since our fancy rentals had suspension, but I was wrong. In fact after 10 miles on the road, it was Andrew who needed rescuing.

He had forgotten his gloves and began complaining bitterly about the blisters that were torturing his hands. I loaned him my gloves and then discovered how really rough the road was. Within a few miles I couldn’t feel my hands for the vibration. To add to the fun, the beautiful day gave way to storm clouds and the sky opened up on us. The road quickly transformed from a bumpy dirt road to one big mud puddle. Now it was not only bumpy but treacherous. As we made our way down the road we saw the Chevy Suburbans going to pick up our fellow tourers. We still beat the rest of the group back to our jungly hotel, but we were a little worse for wear.

Joyce had a funny "encounter" that night at our hotel (actually a collection of bungalows in the middle of the jungle). The water heater in her unit was not functioning so she came to the bar to find us to help her. We were all a little surprised that the barman volunteered to help her with it instead of calling the front desk. He left the bar unattended and went to her room. At the room he helped her light the water heater. Afterwards he asked "where is your husband?" After hearing she had none, "where is your boyfriend?" Again, none so – "ever tried younger guys?" Finally the ‘closer’ - "I could scrub your back…?" Joyce politely declined, not fancying the rasta youngster.

The Road to Guatemala and Tikal

On the way to ruins of the Mayan civilization, Tikal, we learned the depths of the stupidity of a few of our fellow travelers. At least I did. First a little about the voyage there. We buzzed down to the border, stopping first at a little but impressive ruin at Xunantanich. To get there we had to cross a river on a ferry that was hand powered by a guy turning a wench. Once at the border Joyce and Andy did a little shopping. Joyce bought the rum and Andy the coke. Joyce needed to drown out the droning voice of one of our fellow travelers who could not stand a moment of silence.

Once in Guatemala IE hired armed escorts for the bus because there had been robberies perpetrated against tour busses recently despite the cessation of aggression in the ongoing war there. As soon as we left Belize the road deteriorated rapidly. It became a massively potholed dirt affair that threatened to break another u-joint. So bumpy was the road, it was necessary for us to trade seats halfway through the journey to give the jostled bones of those riding over the wheels a break. We finally reached paved road after two-and-one-half hours. We stopped at a tourist trap and here is where I learned of the idiocy of one of our to-be-un-named travelers. She asked me to help her negotiate a ‘good’ price for her on an exceedingly ugly mask though the shopkeeper spoke perfect English. Then after the guy quoted her a price in Quetzales she assumed it was dollars and immediately agreed to it (I think there were eight or so Quetzales to the Belizian Dollar which is exactly equal to an American Dollar). I still don’t understand why she asked me to bear witness to this escapade.

Tikal is extraordinary. It's no wonder the Mayans chose this as a population center. Sitting by the pool watching the clouds blanket the sky and our laundry dry, I could hardly hear myself think over the screeching of all of the birds. This is the jungle with a capital "j". Our first full day in Tikal was spent exploring the park with Martin and our stinky but well-informed guide, Foster. We wandered through the ruins observing the juicy jungle, trying to dominate the temples and other structures the way the Tikalese dominated all the local mayan outposts. The folks in Tikal were a fickle lot, building two-temple complexes that were used for but twenty years and then abandoned. About 15% of the local civilization lived within the area of the archeological zone (about 6 sq. miles) with the remainder of the 150K (in its heyday) living outside the splendor of the central city. This was a big civilization, Foster stated that within a 20 mile radius of Tikal there are the ruins of twenty cities of equal size.

As the civilization matured it became more and more violent. Their ritual ball games changed from rewarding the winning team with a one-way ticket to the afterlife to murdering the losing team. Occasional ritual slaughter of captives from the enemies armies was supplanted by ritual offerings of children and virgins. Andrew wanted to make captive of the cute hotel employee that was acting as a porter for one of the older folks in our group. It took the best part of two days to see the most significant ruins of Tikal. To see all of them it would take a few days longer. This is the most extensive ruin we saw on the trip, and well worth a trip back.

A night in the Jungle and the Zoo

On the way back to Belize City and on to the Keys for a few days of sunning and snorkling, we stopped at Pook's Hill Jungle Resort. It was a magical and mysterious place from the start. First, it was very far off the main highway tucked back in the jungle with no other structures or civilization close to it. It was the first time IE had booked the resort and neither the guide nor driver had been there or knew what to expect. This became obvious as the road to the hotel became narrower and narrower, with the jungle encroaching on all sides and above. There were more than a few places where the bus nearly was pinned in by the jungle.

Earlier in the trip we had initiated a practice of declaring the "word of the day", whoever says the word would receive a sharp pinch. The first and most memorable word du jour was "agouti" (which is a furry oversized gerbil and takes on meaning of its own in later chapters). Each of the bungalows had a name as well as a number and coincidentally as we were helping Joyce with her bags to her room we jokingly asked our host where the "agouti" room was, not knowing if there was one. She pointed in the direction we were walking and we just assumed she had misheard us. When we reached Joyce’s room it was the Agouti Room.

We arrived just before nightfall with just enough daylight to have a tour of the iguana farm that our host’s daughter had founded as a science project. Seems that the locals have taken a liking to the eggs of iguanas and this practice is threatening the population. She breeds them and releases them into the wild to balance things out. The ambiance at Pook's Hill was amazing; the owners cleared only enough jungle for the cabins and the main house, which are perched above a steep ravine hiding a roaring river. As night fell, lightning bugs illuminated the grass and jungle, creating the effect of natural Christmas lights. After dinner, as the bugs' iridescent glow faded, the stars took over. If there were stars and lights outside there were fireworks inside. One of our group consumed an entire year’s worth of alcohol before dinner and was a little looped. Before she stopped making sense entirely, she nicknamed the two really stupid members of our party "Dumb and Dumber".

The next day we spent the morning at the zoo. By this time Andrew and I had had enough of the tour and walked around on our own, apparently missing Martin petting half the animals and explaining how his son had contributed half of them to the park. The cats were amazing. Most striking was the ocelot, who purred and rubbed his plush coat against the fence, seemingly begging to be pet. Maybe next time.

Hamburger Key

Ambergris Key was a great place to hang out and rest after our rigorous tour of Belize and Guatemala, except at night when the largest and most vicious skeeters that ever sucked blood came to haunt. One of the folks on the tour held a lottery to guess how many bites she had on her legs (165). We swam, snorkeled, ran, rode bikes around the island and enjoyed being free of busses and planned activity.

I committed the biggest faux-pas of the trip one night, losing one of the dice from Joyce’s backgammon set. For this I’ll likely never again be invited on a vacation with Joyce (wah!).

On our last night I almost cried. We had had a such great time; even the most ridiculous situations had been really fun and wonderful. Martin gave his departure speech at the dinner table in our hotel’s restaurant and explained the logistics of the next day’s flights off the island. His parting remarks were most incongruous, unusual and hilarious. In the presence of the full dining room where other parties were sharing tender romantic moments over wine in this tropical paradise Martin chose to warn us about botflies in a booming voice. Botflies attach themselves to mosquitoes and as the skeeter bites, the little critter lays an egg in the wound, Martin explained, "You will know it is not just a mosquito bite, because it won’t heal and it will continue to itch every three hours or so when the botfly feeds." If this wasn’t enough, he began to tell us in great detail how to suffocate the little passenger and then squeeze him out. By this time, everyone in the dining room had stopped eating and was imagining how many botflies were inhabiting their 165 mosquito bites.

The next morning we made our way to Belize City and began our bike trip.

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Andrew pets a pussy (his first in a while)

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