Friday, January 27, 2012

January 25, 2012

Today, Diane and I went off into different directions because I wanted to do a cave tour and she wanted to attend a conference that was being held at our hotel on Mayan medicines and healing. Later she’ll post a briefing on her experience at the conference, which sounded really interesting.

Meanwhile, my excursion with John and Linda, was to Actun Tunichil Muknal, (more commonly know as ATM). We were picked up at the hotel by Carlos, our tour guide. It was a long hour and a half bumpy drive to where we left the vehicle. We then hiked through the jungle for about forty-five minutes, traversing the same river three times.

We got to a picnic/staging area where we had lunch and left most of our belongings. The entrance to the cave was just a few steps from where we had lunch. To enter the cave, we slid off a big rock into the cool water and began to swim. Really!!!

The hour glass entrance to the cave - get ready to swim!

It’s only a short swim, though. Then it mostly consists of walking on rocks or wading in knee-deep water. We wore helmets with headlights attached to them. At one point we were in a spot where one needs to be in the water neck deep. You then squeeze your head through a narrow set of rocks. You accomplish the feat by turning your head forward, then downward and then out all the while moving forward. It was an odd maneuver, but when followed correctly, it got you past the narrow spot and deeper into the cave.

After a relatively easy forty minute trek into the cave we arrived at the main chamber where most of the pottery and human remains were found (there were also beautiful stalactites and stalagmites in the area). There is evidence that the cave was used by the Mayans to host ceremonies and rituals. Some skeletal remains appear to be sacrificial in nature. All these offerings were likely done to appease the underworld gods which were supposed to help the Mayans in times of droughts, famines and wars.

Some of the pottery in the cave

A skull

Stalactites and stalagmites

Heading out of the cave seemed quicker. The experience was unique and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to do it.

January 26, 2012

On Diane’s birthday, we took a trip to Tikal, the biggest Mayan site. It is in Guatemala, about two hours west of San Ignacio. We were picked up early in the morning by Anna, who essentially coordinated the trip for us, taking us through the Guatemalan border and hooking us up with our tour guide for Tikal. We also negotiated for a quick side trip to the small island town of Flores.

Tikal lies in a dense jungle and consists of over 3000 structures (most of which are still buried). In the three hours we were there, we only saw a fraction of it. When you walk up to these ruins from a jungle path, it has the feel of a George Lucas movie. In fact, our tour guide told us that the first Star Wars was partly filmed in Tikal.

There are several different types of structures in Tikal - alters, pyramids, temples and residences. In front of the temples they have stelas, a kind of a billboard that would commemorate a king. Other stelas that were elsewhere essentially reported events and other newsworthy items.

The inspected several of the structures. The main ones we saw were the second set of temples with an acropolis where the rulers were buried in tombs. The interesting part of the architecture of many of these buildings is that each ruler would build, rebuild or add on to an existing building, often making them higher and higher each time. The tallest of the temples (#4) in Tikal is 73 meters. We climbed to the highest part that’s open to the public and were rewarded with a panoramic view of the entire area.

It’s amazing all the excavation that needs to be done at each site. Every mound or hill that’s visible has a structure underneath it. And the more they dig, the more they need to maintain. So archeologists try to only unearth the structures that are deemed to have a special value.

One bit of interesting information that was imparted on us by one of the tour guides was that the Mayan culture was the first to develop the notion of zero. I did a little more research on that and it is believed by many to actually be the Olmec civilization that came with the concept first. The Olmecs preceded the Mayans in the area of Mexico that is now Chiapas - just southwest of Tikal.

After our visit to Tikal, we stopped for lunch and then took the detour to Flores. The small town is actually an island on Lake Peten Itza. There’s a small causeway that connects Flores to the mainland. Flores is a cute little town with colorful buildings, restaurants, gift shops and cobblestone streets. Lots of tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorcycles with a bench seat in the rear) to move people around the area.

Cobblestone streets of Flores, Guatemala

This is the tuk-tuk

Sittin' at the dock of the bay....

The ride home was long, but the van was pretty comfortable and we got back to San Ignacio just after 6pm just in for a beer and Chinese food at Maxim’s.

January 27, 2012

They taste like chicken!

Today was our last full day in San Ignacio and we pretty much took it easy. We had lunch in town and on the way back Diane and I stopped by for a visit to the Iguana Project and Exhibit. It was an interesting tour, with lots of hands-on experience with fully mature iguanas and baby iguanas.

These are the fully grown ones. I've got Gomez and Diane has the lady.

One of the curious babies.

Too much of a good thing?

Instead of a hair piece, I think I could make this work!

My take away from it was that male iguanas live quite a sumptuous lifestyle. Males have two penises and are very busy during breeding season (Dec-Mar). They’ll mate with as many as six females per day. The bigger and stronger males get all the chicks. They get all spruced up during mating season,  which includes getting a new colorful coat and dropping several pounds. It’s as if they go to the gym and the spa to get ready for the mating season. We got to hold fully grown males and females as well as baby iguanas. Needless to say, the tour was informative and fun.  

Tomorrow morning we pick up our rental car and head south to Placencia. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

View from our hotel in Belize City

January 19 - Belize Arrival

After a very early morning flight from LAX to Houston, we boarded a direct flight to Belize. Another two hours in the air and we were touching down on the wet tarmac of Belize City International airport.

Stepping out of the plane into Belize air, the humidity didn’t feel too harsh. After winding our way through customs, we hailed a taxi, who took us downtown to our somewhat ramshackle yet comfortable hotel overlooking the Belize River. The rest of what we saw of the town had the same shanty-town character.

After getting settled into our rooms, we sat on Adirondack chairs on the hotel porch. There wasn’t much river boat traffic to see, but the Belize beer, Belikin, tasted mighty good in the warm weather. Dinner was next door at the Marlin Restaurant, where we had grouper, rice and beans and another Belikin to help down it all.  

Little girl in front of us in bus

Jan 20 - Bus Trip to San Ignacio

We got up reasonably early and had breakfast next door at the Marlin (eggs and white bread toasted - my cholesterol will be going through the roof this trip. How effective is rum as a statin anyway?). We checked out and got a taxi to the bus station.

Maybe it was because it was Saturday, but when we arrived at the bus station things seemed orderly, low keyed and not very busy. We walked right up to our bus (an old converted U.S. school bus) and found some seats. As soon as the bus got moving, the driver kicked up the volume of the reggae music, making it virtually impossible to communicate. We were grooving’ mahn!

About two and a half hours later, after making dozens of stops and driving through a number of villages, we pulled into San Ignacio. The bus driver dropped us off near our hotel, but it was still a tough last few hundred yards because Cahal Pech Resort is at the top of the hill!

of San Ignacio from our hotel - Cahal Pech

After settling into to our room, we took a walk back into town and checked out the local Saturday market. It was a very typical Central American/Caribbean style open market with booths selling houseware items, clothes, fruits and vegetables. We bought papayas, bananas and a fake pair of Crocks.

Jan 21, 2012 - San Ignacio

We had a short excursion into town and its vicinity today, but our main attraction was a visit to the Cahal Pech ruins. Located just a few steps away from our hotel, we were pleasantly surprised with the experience in spite of it not being a major Mayan site.

Cahal Pech dates back to when Mayans began to occupy the site sometime between 1200 to 1000 B.C. In its peak, it probably had upwards of 20,000 people living in the surrounding area with as many as 34 structures. Although we were able to see a number of them, it was pretty obvious that many still remain to be dug out from the surrounding mounds of dirt.

January 22 - Caracol Mayan Site

We were picked up early in the morning by our driver, Eddie. We were soon headed out of town as Eddie explained to us what we would be doing and seeing during the day. The road started out paved, but after some driving gave way to dirt roads, lined with enormous  holes, keeping our speed limit down to about 30mph. Eddie tried to avoid pot holes, but their sheer volume made the attempt a futile one. About two hours of relentless bumps through jungle terrain, we arrived at Caracol.   

Mayans lived in this area as far back as 1200 B.C., a time known as the Early Classic Mayan period (the others being Classic and Late Classic). Eddie took us through the back area first, and was very knowledgeable of the vegetation surrounding the ruins. He showed us a local tree, the Ceiba, that grows very high. It’s like our Cottonwood tree. He showed us a palm that had leaves that looked like a fish tail, often used in roofing. 

Eventually, we made it to a secondary set of structures that were pretty impressive. There were four structures built around a rectangular field, the tallest being around 50-70 feet. Built of limestone blocks, each had lots of different chambers, rooms and tombs. When you stop and think about how much work went into these buildings, it’s quite amazing how it was all accomplished without the aid of mechanization and computers. 

Perhaps as amazing and labor intensive, however, is how these ruins were discovered and meticulously excavated. Most of the structures were underneath  mounds of dirt and jungle vegetation when they were found. They required lots of careful digging, and often, reconstruction.    

The main structures we eventually came to were even more impressive. Taller and bigger than the first ones we saw, we climbed to the very top and had a grand view of the surrounding area. Only the elites and priests were allowed up here. There were residential rooms, altars, terraces and tombs.

While we walked, Eddie also imparted on us the history of the Mayans who lived here and how they traded, communicated and battled with other settlements such as Tikal, the large Mayan settlement in what is now Guatemala.

The day ended with the return tour taking us to a large cave with a river running through it and then a swim in the Macal River. The road back seemed a little quicker but was at least as bumpy as on the way in. It was a long but interesting day. 

Today we're off to visit a cave site known as ATM (Actun Tuniichil Muknai). It's a jungle hike to get there, crossing rivers and then going into the cave, which is waist water high. Should be fun!