Sunday, June 26, 2016

Chichen Itza

We debated whether or not to go to Chichen Itza.  Not because there was anything putting us off going, but because travel fatigue had hit in and we just weren’t sure that it would be more impressive than any of the other Mayan sites we’d already seen.  It seemed likely that the main difference would be the number of other tourists.  But, we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to not go to one of the seven wonders of the world, when we were staying only 45 minutes away.  

In an attempt to avoid the tour buses we set our alarm early, and hopped in the first collectivo of the day.  The other passengers were mostly the vendors who set themselves up within the park.  We arrived at the gate 5 minutes before opening time, and were the only people there.  We took great pleasure in being the first people into the site, and having it completely to ourselves.  The temple was impressive, but not as large as some at other sites.  The ball court, however, was by far the grandest we’ve seen and actually has the hoops in situ.  We played with the acoustics, standing on opposite sides of the court and whispering messages to each other.  There were hundreds of columns which is not something any of the other sites have seen.  But everything was roped off.  Not only could you not climb the steps of the temple, you couldn’t wander between the columns or explore inside some of the grander buildings.  Whole sections at times were roped off so you could only gaze at structures from 10, 20, or 50 meters away.  As we explored the different areas, the vendors were setting up stalls, trestle tables were brought out from the storage areas in the trees just off the path.  Each tacky souvenir was carefully unwrapped and placed, just so, to entice the passing tourists.  We were increasingly grateful to be there before they were fully set up. 

The tour buses were just starting to arrive as we left, the main square filled with groups of tourists.  Some tour guides quickly trying to whisk their group on to less crowded areas, whilst such places existed.  

Are we glad we went?  Yes, but also incredibly glad we made the effort to be there at opening time.  I can understand it being so impressive if it is the only Mayan site you visit.  But I truly believe it is only on the seven wonders of the world list because of it’s location, close to other heavily touristed areas (eg. Cancun).  For my money if I was only going to go to one of the sites we’ve been to it would be Tikal.  The temples were the largest, the paths wound themselves through jungle with monkeys swinging through the trees, and you could explore, get up close to the ruins. Climb them (oh, my legs!), touch them, sit at the top of the tallest temple and enjoy the view.   

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Tikal, Mayan ruins in the jungle

We were sitting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere waiting for a bus.  That morning we had been in Belize, and we hoped to get to Tikal at some point, but every bus that passed us wasn’t going there.   Each of them helpfully suggested a time that one might come, each time suggested was different.   Eventually a minibus stopped on it’s way to Tikal and we hopped in.  We quickly realised this was not a local minibus, this was a tour on it’s way from Flores to Tikal.  The guide was, however, relatively interesting pointing things out along the way.  He also offered to let us join the tour (there were two other people), for a price of course.  Having just come from Belize where an amazing guide educated us on caves and Mayans, we decided it would be worth it.  We were looking forward to learning more about the buildings and the people who built them.  

This guide, however, was not in the same league as the guide in Belize.  We quickly began to suspect he was making up half of what he was saying, and the bits that were true often related to his own life.  For example, the exact bedding that he has at home.  Fascinating stuff.  Not willing to suffer through the promised four hour tour, we left him with his original tour group and explored the site ourselves.  Tikal is special not just for the size and enormity of the temples and palaces, but because it is still enshrouded in jungle.  We seemed to be constantly pointing out monkeys to each other.  We also came across a massive group of coati, with many different litters as there seemed to be coati of every size.  We stayed near the site and watched monkeys play in the trees outside our room.  It feels more like it may have been when the Mayans inhabited the buildings, the jungle encroaching and a constant part of their lives.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

ATM - not about cash, more to do with human sacrifice

Our second caving adventure of the trip was to the ATM cave near San Ignacio, Belize.  We weren’t quite sure what to expect, other than a cave and some Mayan artifacts.  What we got, was so much more than that.  There are only 28 guides who are licensed to take you to the ATM cave, and they had to undergo intensive training which included archeologists and historians as well as the expected cave safety training.  What this meant is that for the first time in my life I genuinely found shattered pottery interesting.  

Our tour took us about 1km into the cave system, swimming up the underground river, squeezing through crevices and climbing through gaps into rooms larger than any cathedral. The formations were beautiful, from flowstone, to stalagmites, columns, and hollow stalactites that when tapped sang out beautifully.  There were holes in the ceiling and our guide explained how they were formed by whirlpools when the cave is full of water.  In the final room there were shards of pottery, evidence of worship, and skeletons held in place by priests as they were sacrificed, now immovable due to the limestone build up caused by 100s of years of mineralized water flowing gently by.

Some of the urns still held their shape, and the biggest were easily 80cm in diameter, and we wondered how they would have transported them through the narrow cave system.  Our guide had an answer for that too.  We learnt about the drought that struck towards the end of the Mayan era and how they discovered it as the stalactites form rings in the same way trees do.  It is thought that the Mayans explored deeper and spent more times in the caves at this time in a search for water, and in desperation gave offerings to the gods.  The sacrifices were not generally the disposed, but the successful.  The sacrificial skeletons are tall, in good health, at times with skull modifications that were popular with royalty.  Or they are children and infants. The sacrifice was real, an offering of the population’s best in return for much needed water.

Friday, June 3, 2016


They approached silently, but it was clear we were their target.  I tried to get Jason's attention, but he was trying to direct my gaze to the 2.5m reef shark that was his focus.  I continue to gesture wildly, and he finally turned his head to see the two manatees cover the last few meters and stop less than 2 meters from us.  We stayed there for awhile as they contemplated us, and we contemplated them.  I gave Jason the camera and dove downwards hoping he would manage to capture me upside down with the manatees in the background.  As I headed back towards the service one of the manatees dove down in imitation of my previous movement.  Deciding we were of little further interest they moved on, and we broke the surface - speechless, amazed, glowing with the beauty of the encounter.  

We continued on, ten more minutes of amazing coral structures and colourful fish.  It was deeper here and I headed to the edge of the reef where a school of massive fish, each one over a meter in length, were resting near the ocean floor.  Glancing up I saw the manatees off in the distance, and they saw me.  They turned approaching once again, curious about these two strange creatures in their ocean.  It was one of those experiences that lodges itself in your memory.  Something you can bring out when you need reminding about the beauty of the world.

It eclipses the rest of our time in Tobacco Caye and that was magnificent by itself.  Our room jutted over the ocean and sting rays routinely swam beneath us as we swung in our hammock.  Pelicans dove into the ocean, startling us as they tried to catch a fish.  We were woken in the night as a turtle dragged itself out of the water to dig a nest underneath the steps into our cabin.  The water ranged from light green to aqua, turquoise and a deep ultramarine blue in the depths.  The actual reef was like swimming through a tropical fish tank.  It was so densely packed with fish, they weren't able to move out the way when we swam towards them.  The water was the clearest I've ever been in, so visibility was excellent.  There were sharks, rays of every size and shape, flounder, lizardfish having their teeth cleaned, lobster and a hermit crab bigger than Jason's hand, and we were always the only snorkelers out there.  Then there was the food.  We were fed three meals a day of delicious food and both put on about 5kg in the 3 days we were there!   Unfortunately such things cannot last (if they did this trip would be one month, not five!), so it was back to cheap hostels, street food and long bumpy bus journeys.

Pools and caves

We broke up the trip to Semuc Champey in Coban. This hadn’t actually been the plan, but we made such good time on buses that we just kept going.  Strangely our local bus (actually, 7 buses) took the same amount of time as the direct shuttle, which costs 4 times the price.  This was the first time that our ‘don’t plan in advance’ approach caused us problems.  When we arrived in Coban at 5:30pm the streets were packed with people.  There was street food, clowns and a general party atmosphere.  Instantly liking the feel we walked the 2km to a hostel listed in the Lonely Planet.  It was full, however, and when we asked for another recommendation they just shook their heads and said everywhere was full.  I left Jason at the hostel, and went out in search of a room.  Having checked four hotels I managed to find one very overpriced room.  The bathroom smelt, there wasn’t even a fan, and none of the hostel basics like wifi or free water.  It should have cost half what we were charged, but it was somewhere to sleep.  Meanwhile the hostel where Jason was waiting were making calls to try and find us a room elsewhere, but were unsuccessful.  The reason for this room shortage was a marathon the next day.  In the morning we explored the packed town and watched the runners, both the leaders (who seemed to be mainly African) and those bringing up the rear.  

Then it was onto Semuc Champey.  Semuc is famous for being the most beautiful spot in the country, a series of clear limestone pools which are perfect for swimming.  It didn’t disappoint.  We walked from out lodge to the entrance, by which time we were dripping with sweat and wanted nothing more than to dive into the pools.  However, knowing it would be hard to get moving again, we choose to head up the viewpoint.  45 minutes of steps later we had a birds eye view of the river, waterfalls, pools and the valley it is situated in.  Stunning!  The rest of the day was spent swimming, clambouring up and down the pools, testing out natural waterslides and jumping into the water.

Following our day of relaxation we headed into the nearby caves.  We handed over our money for the tour, and in return we were given two candles.  Unlike other caves we’ve been in there are no torches and no electric lighting.  Exploring the cave by candlelight was surreal.  Even more so as this is a wet cave and we were frequently swimming with our precious candle held above our heads.  At one point there was a small waterfall (just over 2m) that we had to climb using a knotted rope.  It was a delicate balancing act of managing to grip the rope without burning ourselves or the rope, whilst trying to find some purchase on the slippery rock face.  The highlight though was at the end of the cave where we reached a small pool.  We were given the option of turning back, or climbing to around 3m and jumping into the pool.  The climb up was rather precarious, and once we had managed to turn around at the top (the guide stepped on my shoe to stop me falling as I made my turn), we were shown the very small target area.  The pool was quite shallow, but there was about a 1m area that was deep enough to be safe, however it wasn’t below you, you had to jump forward - just not too far!