Tuesday, December 31, 2013

(kind of) Slowing down in San Ignacio

San Ignacio was the destination where our trip started to slow down to a more reasonable pace; we knew we'd be there for three nights and then in Caye Caulker for four. After a hectic first week, we were ready, but we had one more major surprise in order. 

Finding a place to stay had been a bit more difficult than we expected, and although the hotel we eventually found space in had 'average' ratings, I knew it was right next to a nightclub and I knew it was likely a step down in comfort from our previous lodgings. When we arrived we were happy to note that our room was on the side opposite the nightclub, but when we entered the room we got quite a whiff of some kind of industrial strength cleaning chemical (or maybe bug spray?) coming from the bathroom, made all the more intense as the room had just a tiny little window for ventilation. The sad-looking bed was college style, just a boxpsring and mattress on the floor, with a single, thin, rayon sheet. Memories of the $2.50 room we shared with an army of ants in Thailand came flooding back, and after a short discussion Juli and I determined that in the ten years or so since, we've saved up enough to spring for a bit nicer place to stay when necessary.  So now the challenge became, at 8pm during high season, finding a place to stay and extricating ourselves from our current hotel. We tried a few web searches but almost everywhere was booked. We found one place that looked like it might be available and with the help of a local travel agent/excursions operator, were able to make contact and confirm they had a place for us, at triple what we were paying at our current place. We took it immediately.

I explained to our current hotel that we had to leave, we couldn't take the smell in the room, and they were gracious enough to let us take leave of our little urinal-cake smelling bedroom without any fuss. We grabbed a "taxi" (any driver in Belize seems to be taxi) for the new place, which was in a residential area a couple minutes' walk from the town center. It was a strange place, a home with a half-constructed second story and with a nice driveway/courtyard, so we held our breath and scoped out our room. It was a big but quirky room, almost like an office that had been converted (the bathroom had obviously been an add-on as the walls went up about 7 feet compared to 15 for the ceiling), and to our disappointment the room also had a light scent of urinal cake! At that point we thought it must be a Belize thing, and as this scent was at least bearable and we could deal. At least the bed looked more comfortable, and to our relief it was. With our accommodations sorted, we now had to scramble to get setup with the activities we wanted to do in San Ignacio (ATM Cave Tour), so we dropped our packs and headed back to town on foot.

Burns Avenue, central San Ignacio
Central San Ignacio is very small and has a nice pedestrian street where several restaurants and tour agencies are located. We stopped at the agency that had helped us get our accommodations, but unfortunately their ATM cave tour was sold out. So we stopped at Pacz Tours, who we had read about as recommended, and while they also had no space on their ATM tour for the next day, they could get us in on the subsequent day, so we locked it in. We also booked a cave tubing tour with them for the next day, so we had finally arrived and sorted all our logistical particulars. Down the slope from the pedestrian street was a newly constructed town plaza with a Christmas tree and a few restaurants arranged around the outside. We grabbed a seat and exhaled, able to relax after a hurried first couple hours in Belize. We spied a little tiki-looking bar near the plaza that looked interesting, and it did not disappoint - a sand floor, amazingly cold beers, and some funny (and drunk) local ex-pats made it one of our favorite places to grab drinks while we were in San Ignacio.

Enjoying the coldest Belikin's in Belize!
The next day we set off on the cave tubing excursion, which unfortunately was a bit too tame (and too much of a drive) for our tastes. We had a group of about 12 people of various ages, all from the USA except for a couple from the Netherlands. After a nearly two hour drive we made it to the cave tubing location, I think there are a couple of them in the area (there are certainly many operators who will rent you tubes). After kitting up headlamps and  tubes, it was a ~30 minute walk to the put-in. The water was a nice deep green color and the caves looked beautiful; due to recent rains the river was at "yellow" danger level but it was barely moving. The most fun parts of the float (about an hour) were turning off our headlamps deep inside the caves, and hoping you didn't hit anything in the pitch dark blackness.

Cave tubing near San Ignacio
After lunch everybody in the group went to do zip lining which was co-located at the facility…having done it once before long ago in Costa Rica, Juli and I watched them start off, then sat at the bar having some tasty frozen rum drinks. Then it was back in the van for the ride back to San Ignacio. All in all, a long day of driving to to a much shorter  activity easy enough for all ages, perhaps why it didn't move the needle for us.

The next day it was back in the van for a day trip to "ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave" which is one of the top sights in San Ignacio, and for good reason - it was used in Mayan times for various purposes including human sacrifice, and the artifacts have yet to be excavated from the cave - you walk right around and over human remains and original Mayan pottery! This trip required a bit more fitness than the cave tubing. To begin with, there is an initial 2 kilometer walk during which you have to traverse a river three times. Due to limits on the number of visitors allowed at one time into the cave, our guide encouraged us to keep a good pace and see if we could beat a few other groups to the entrance. As we came up on the first river crossing, two groups in front of us were standing there just staring at the river and getting ready…I was in the front of our group, so without stopping I took off my shirt and pack, put them on my head, and kept on walking right into and across the river. Suffice it to say, we beat a couple groups to the entrance!

One of three river crossings to the ATM entrance
We waited just a few minutes near the entrance for our group's turn to come, and once we got the signal we geared up (helmets and headlamps) and left all our bags behind (no cameras allowed in the cave). Entering the cave mouth was the only time during that day that we had to do a full on swim, for about 10 yards until you could get pulled onto firm ground.

Swimming into ATM cave
From the entrance we started scrambling over rocks, wading through the river that was flowing out of the cave, and looking at the various caverns, stalactites, and stalagmites - a lot of fun and reminiscent of our time hiking Wadi Mujib in Jordan. After about a kilometer of that, we had to take off our shoes and put on socks so we could walk around the artifacts without too much oil from our skins left behind. In the artifact areas there ware lengths of fluorescent tape on the mud floor which served as boundaries for the path. The guide took us more slowly through these sections and spent time telling us what is known (or currently speculated) about the cave. There were artifacts almost everywhere around the floor and on natural shelves in the cave - fully intact pottery from 700-900 AD, and of course the human skeletons scattered about…it was like an adventure right out of the Goonies! There was one skeleton with a hole in his head - not original, we learned - the hole was put there by a visitor who had dropped his camera, which is part of what led to the subsequent ban on such items in the cave. Fortunately for you, our tour company provided us with a series of photos taken prior to the camera ban, so you can see what we saw:

Tour group entering "the cathedral" inside ATM cave

ATM cave tour guide showing pottery
A Mayan sacrifice?
More Mayan leftovers - watch your step!
That evening we went in search of dinner at a recommended place in town called Ko-Ox Han nah, and it definitely lived up to its billing. Great flavors & portions - we had a spicy rum shrimp and a lamb curry dish (we got the last of the lamb that night!). The place filled up fast, fortunately we were able to share a table with some other diners we knew from our tubing trip. It was so good, we wished we had found it the before so we could have more of our meals there (oh well!).

Great eats in San Ignacio!
Our final day in San Ignacio we visited some Mayan ruins near town called Xunantunich (supposedly, "SHOE-naan-too-niche"). Apparently they had been closed the past few days due to high waters, but today it sounded like they were accessible again. Getting there involved a 15 minute taxi ride, then going across a river on a hand-cranked ferry, and then a one mile walk to the ruins. The ferry is a barge that is hooked onto a metal rope, and a hand crank moves the barge along the rope to either side (about 100 feet across).

We were the ferry's only passengers, and I hoped on the way back the guy running it would let me turn the crank I couldn't tell if it was really tough or he was just making it look easy. Unfortunately, by the time we went back across the ferry, hordes of minibuses from a cruise ship had come in, and the ferry was packed with people and about 6 cars, so I'll never know whether or not I could have a future as a hand cranked ferry operator.

 Xunantunich ruins
Fortunately we heard the rumor about the cruise ship crowds as we were entering the ruins, so we skipped the museum and went straight there, being able to enjoy them when they were a bit less crowded than they would become. Compared to Tikal they were tiny, but they were on a little hill that made for a nice lookout at the surrounding countryside. More specific to the ruins, the main building has some very impressive stucco carvings (apparently one side is a plaster mold on top of the real thing). 

Impressive Mayan carvings at Xunantunich
When we got around to checking out the museum, we were nicely surprised to find all the signage in English…it was easy for us to forget that Belize's primary language is English and not Spanish. Reading more about the history of the site and its excavation activities was very helpful to put a bit more in perspective the ruins we had just climbed all over. On our way out, we bought a souvenir - a carved slate Mayan calendar - from a vendor near the ferry. Sure, its no longer valid but we thought it would make a nice add to our apartment.

Our Mayan calendar - don't ask us to read it!
We grabbed a public bus back towards San Ignacio (these school buses ply the highway between the Guatemala/Belize border and the capital Belize City - about a two hour ride for $7 US, $1 for us due to the short distance we were going), and stopped off at the nicest resort in town which is also the site of an iguana conservation project. We enviously lingered in the lobby on the nice chairs, overlooking the beautiful pool, as we waited for our "Iguana Experience" tour to begin. Considering our hotel adventure the night we arrived, you can't really blame us for wondering "what if?"  Visiting the iguanas was interesting - there were tons of them in the enclosure and a few wild ones just on the outside. It was mating season so some of the males were in aggressive moods towards one another…apparently there is an established pecking order though, and "Gomez" is the most tenured (and largest) iguana of the pack, so he was quite chill and let us hold him.

With Gomez and friends at the Iguana Conservation Project
After one last good Belizean meal in San Ignacio, we found our taxi driver from earlier in the day and had him drive us down to Mayan Flats airport, just south of the city, where we caught a flight to Belize City (we had a connection to get to Caye Caulker). We flew in a little 8 seater, just us and one other couple - and strangely, one pilot. I couldn't think of another time I had took a commercial flight, even on a small plane, that had just one pilot…but I guess that is how they roll there, and thankfully we made it without any of us having to take the controls!

We landed on that real thin runway right along the water in the distance
(this is the Belize City domestic airports' only runway)

1 comment:

grace c tullis said...

The things you do on vacation are better told after your return! Thank you for doing so.....I would be freaking out, thinking about all the dangers you put yourselves in....! That being said, I truly enjoyed reading all about it..:)