It was a long and interesting day today. We left the hotel at 5.45am to catch the bus to Chetumal, which is on the Mexican/Belize border. This was the last we would see of a comfortable air conditioned bus for a while. The journey took about 4 hours to do 300km and then we transferred to a ‘chicken’ bus to do the last 180km to Belize City. This also took about 4 hours plus the time spent getting though immigration. The Chicken bus is so called because every man and his chicken gets transported on them. Luckily, we started at the terminus, so got seats, but once we crossed the Belize border (a somewhat slow process), we got one or two more people aboard, so all seats were filled and there were people standing in the aisles (no chickens though!).
I am sure our backpacks and suitcases must have caused a logistical luggage problem for the locals as they were not only taking up space that could have been used for their bags, but also seats. We were the only non Belize people on board and the rest of the passengers were clearly descended from a variety of cultures.
The behaviour of the children aboard was very impressive for such a long trip. I was sitting with Erin, and we had a beautiful little girl in front of us who kept standing up and saying ‘hello’ to us, which was a little disconcerting when it was repeated many times over 4 hours with various sentences added. They were met with no comprehension on our part even though she was speaking English! Most appropriately, reggae music was blaring out from the bus speakers and it all added to the sense of being in a totally different world to the one we had left behind in Playa.
The landscape changed immediately once we crossed the border. There were sugar cane fields, which were obviously being cut, as there were a number of sugar cane trucks on the road, banana and palm trees and everything looked a lot more dilapidated than Mexico. The taxi driver who took us from the bus station to the water taxi informed us that Belize City has a population of about 70,000 and Belize itself is about 380,000 in total. The City was very quiet as it was Sunday and apparently a number of people have houses out of town and so go away for the weekend.
We had about a 45 minute water taxi ride to Caye Caulker by which time the rain was coming down in torrents. People were waiting on the jetty to go to San Pedro and it got a bit chaotic when we were off loaded, along with our luggage. The rain eased a little and we walked to the hotel whilst our luggage was transported in golf carts. There were huge very chalky looking puddles everywhere and the rain continued on and off for the rest of the evening.
There are 3 streets on Caye Caulker – Front Street, Middle Street and Back Street, the latter of which, we were told, we would not need to visit as there were some areas that were a bit dubious and otherwise there was only a rubbish dump. The rest of the streets seemed to have a number of cafes, laundries, the odd supermarket and the essentials of life.
We stopped for a rum punch at one cafe to shelter from the rain, and then moved onto another for dinner, which comprised a delicious fish (snapper) curry with coconut. We had also managed to buy dessert from the ‘Cake Man’, who wanders the street with his cart selling banana bread, coconut cake, chocolate cake etc. Apparently, once he has had a few drinks, he just gives the cake away! The day finished when a few of us adjourned to the roof for a night cap and a chat before going to bed.
The day started with a big decision as to whether we should do the snorkelling trip that we had booked. The weather did not look promising when we first got up. However, we went down to the Ragamuffin tours office and were talked into continuing doing the day trip out to the reef and, as it turned out, we were very glad we did.
Before we left, I took a short walk around town, via the laundry where they didn’t want my name or details so I was left wondering whether I would get the same clothes back again. (I did). The streets were still full of large puddles, from which, according to someone yesterday, we would get worms if we waded through them in bare feet (not sure how true that was). There were sandbags strategically placed along the way, which could be used as stepping stones when it got hard to negotiate around the water and the town is obviously used to mopping up. There seems to be little drainage and people were raking the streets.
About 5 of us from the group joined the snorkelling trip, which started with a 45 minute sail to the first stopping point, during which time I chatted to a young couple from the Netherlands. At the place where we first stopped, a fisherman was feeding the fish with the guts etc of his fish and this attracted sharks, a turtle and a lot of rays. With Steve Irwin in mind, it is somewhat disconcerting to know that there are sting rays beneath your feet and, I would have to say, I was a little reluctant to put my feet down on the coral. At one point, the turtle swam right next to me, which was probably the highlight of the day although, as we had been told not to get too close, I was more concerned with moving away from it than actually observing it!
After our first snorkel, we had a lunch of fish and rice and then moved on slightly to ‘Shark Alley’. Our Captain, Vito, fed bits of fish over the side and swarms of sharks appeared immediately. Most people on the boat got quite excited about jumping in the water with them but, I would have to say, I was somewhat more hesitant and waited until the feeding frenzy was over and only a few were left. The sharks were not of the ‘Jaws’ variety, however, and apparently these ones suck up their food like a hoover so unless you get too close and they mistake you for food and suck you up, you are not in much danger. I wasn’t about to take any chances though.
Our third and final stop was by a channel in the reef where we were divided into 2 groups, with the two crew members guiding a group each. This was where the Marine Conservation area is and we were able to observe green turtles feeding on the reef grass, as well as swarms of coloured fish, some of which blended in very well with the coral they swam around. The coral itself is not particularly brightly coloured, but there was some purple and a lot of beige. Once this snorkel was finished I could relax! I am not the world’s most confident snorkeller and seemed to spend quite a lot of time today trying not to drown, which rather deflected from the enjoyment.
However, included in the cost of the trip was unlimited rum punch and there were one or two people who got very merry on the way back to Caye Caulker. Some lively (and sometimes degenerated) conversation ensued amongst our group, another Canadian girl and a Spaniard, who lives in Ireland, spoke with an Irish accent, talked and drank a lot. His Lithuanian girlfriend was a lot more subdued!
Back at the dock, my first stop was at the coffee shop, having imbibed of a reasonable amount of rum punch myself, and then we all walked to the Split to watch the sunset, which we ended up not really watching at all because everyone was too busy talking. There was a bar at the end, naturally, and quite a number of young people drinking so it was a very relaxed atmosphere.
The day finished with dinner at Wish Willy’s where we got a buffet of fish, chicken and pork and, yet again, as much rum punch as we could drink. By this time, though, I was feeling extremely tired so couldn’t really do justice to the meal or the rum. It’s amazing how tiring it can be enjoying yourself!
Today was another travelling day, although not an early start, thank goodness. I caught up with my diary in bed and then went for a last walk around Caye Caulker and a search for some breakfast. This was found in the form of a takeaway coffee and something from the bakery (got no idea what it was meant to be but some sort of bun thing). Bread pudding seems to be a speciality here so I got that for the journey to add to my other unhealthy supplies.
We had to be out of the rooms by 11am and the ferry back to Belize City was at 11.45am so our luggage was piled onto a truck and taken down to the dock where we waited for the boat.
Once in Belize, it was into taxis and onto the bus terminal for the next chicken bus. Here, we had a bit of a farce, when we were told by one chap to put the bags on the bus with one person to stay with them, out of sight, whilst it was outside the terminal. The rest of us had to wait in the terminal and get on when the bus arrived. The whole point of this exercise was to ensure that we all got on the bus as it was likely to be crowded. However, it backfired when an ‘official’ from the Terminal Management Team told us we couldn’t do that and we had to all troop outside again, retrieve our bags from the bus, which was about 200 m away, carry them into the terminal and then put them back on the bus when it came into the station.
Jacob, who had left the tour in Cancun, reappeared and seems to be joining us unofficially for a few days. He is a young Australian teacher with an excellent, laid back attitude so is a welcome addition to the party.
The chicken bus turned out to be almost empty apart from us, which was a bit disappointing as it is far more interesting if there other people to watch.
The journey to St. Ignacio took about 3 hours and initially passed through some flat countryside, which was all very green. Around Belmopan, which was the only real stop, it seemed to become more horticultural and hills could be seen in the distance. A lot of the houses looked very ramshackle though and somewhat ‘interesting’!
Once in St Ignacio, we had to stop at a tour office to sort out the tours for tomorrow and then we were taken to the hotel which was on the outskirts of town. We all had dinner together in the evening, after which it was an early night, as I hadn’t slept last night.
If I had read the small print on what I was signing up for today, I probably wouldn’t have gone but thank goodness I didn’t and I did!
We drove from St Ignacio, with our guide, Patrick, firstly on the main highway and then on a fairly rutted, gravel road, which passed teak and mahogany plantations, orange orchards and fields of kidney beans and corn. Next, it was a 45 minute hike through jungle, wading through 3 rivers, one of which was waist deep, and experiencing the scent of jaguar (the animal, not the car). So far, so good. What followed was something I had never experienced before and it is highly unlikely that I ever will again.
Armed with head torches and not much else, we swam and waded about a mile into a cave system, clambered up and over rocks, ascending into some deep caverns, passed many, many crystal rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites until we reached the remains of a Mayan sacrificial site. It is called Achtun Tunchi Munkal (ATM) and is, so far, the only place in the world where archaeologists have been able to confirm that the Mayans actually undertook human sacrifices. There was much speculation as to whether this occurred until this cave was discovered in 1986 and explored in 1988-89. Everything has been left exactly as it was found so the broken pots and bones are where they were more or less left by the Mayans. They have been preserved by the amount of water and calcium in it and, as the level has lowered, some of the bones have shifted. However, in the top cavern, there is the full skeleton of an 18 year old Mayan girl who would have been sacrificed by having her wrists slit and who would then have been left to die alone as an offering to the god, probably of fertility, in approximately 850 AD. The sacrifices were made as an appeasement to the gods as there was inadequate water to support the people and the crops. This occurred as the Mayans had cleared a lot of the rain forest, which had affected the ecosystem and consequently the amount of rainfall that fell. The peak of the Mayan civilisation in the central area was about 750 AD but gradually declined over the next 100 years primarily because of lack of water.
We were unable to take cameras into the caves as one of the skulls and some of the bones have been damaged by tourists dropping their cameras on them (hard to believe, I know). This is the tour we did that has some photos:
It is a very strictly controlled area and only people with qualified guides, of which there are only 25 in operation, are able to enter the park and the caves. At the moment, the groups are limited to 8 but the archaeologists and the Government are intending to restrict this to 4 to minimise any further damage to the findings.
We hiked back to the van and stopped for lunch (very welcome by this stage) before proceeding on. It poured with rain! The hike back had seemed much quicker but no sooner had we started drying out than we were wading through water again. It was very nice to get back to the van and some dry clothes!
Once back at the hotel, it didn’t seem very long before we were off to dinner at a Sri Lankan restaurant in town. This seemed to take forever, although it was very tasty when it was eventually served. We then headed back to the hotel to pack for another early start tomorrow. All in all, an excellent, if exhausting, day!