El Caracol, snail and jewel in the Maya Mountains.
So what do you feel atop the jungle when the eyes search the horizon to spot the next rain front that moves on-by somewhere not far, Guatemala isn't far, somewhere west where sunlight filters through the monsoon laden clouds on a late August afternoon. Where are the rebels or bandits that attack tourists once every in a while, then disappear back under the cover of the jungle here at the Belize-Guatemalan border?
We are in Caracol (wiki, mesoweb), ancient Maya site, on top of Caana, called sky palace; 3 Maya temples sit on top of a pyramid structure and after some 1.400 years Canaa remains one of the largest and highest man built structures in Belize. Possibly as many as 180,000 people lived around here, then, late classic period, after the wars against other Maya cities like Tikal, when it out-shined culturally and politically until it suddenly was devastated, burnt, abandoned in 895 A.D.
On top of the sky palace we are level with the parrots and toucans and the parrots babble, presumably about us, certainly about my two boys Daniel and David who talk back. But what did the Maya elite and rulers feel more than a millennium ago looking out over the Ceiba canopy? High up where one sees the hurricanes coming, where one sees sunrise and sunset, where one might exchange fire signals with other temples as far away as 50 maybe 100kms? Could they make out enemy armies of Indian combatants or insurgents preparing to attack under the cover of the jungle? Probably not!
Up here on top of the pyramids one can see the light when down in the jungle the moist and dark and the mosquitos prevail. To rise above the canopy gives a sense of nearness to the gods, of godlike/elite privilege.
The splendor of Caracol's elite society that had increasingly separated itself from the rest came abruptly and violently to an end, possibly the result of an invasion or revolt. Outlying parts continued to be occupied for some 200 years, by 1100 A.D. Caracol was completely abandoned.
Caracol is a rock, a snail or shell in the jungle, Caracol is far, Caracol is a rock of a jewel and so much appreciated after a three hour approach on rugged roads, not knowing whether a military convoy will ground you for a day, to 'protect' from bandits that roam the border land, not knowing whether the big rains will come and wash away a bend of road making it un-passable as mudslides and inundations of the huge brown powerful jungle rivers that drain the Maya Mountains are common during the season. So while the heart stands still and thunder rolls a bit away, the wanderer wonders why the Maya over a thousand years ago build these magic lookout points?
So how is Belize, how did we get here?
Belize is small but feels larger than we thought, bad roads and cut-throat gasoline prices add to the feeling, before Caracol which is in land-locked Cayo State in central western Belize we did about 1000kms.
We did not venture to the Cayes, Belize's off-shore paradise of a barrier reef of small islands and coral atolls; in every country you leave something for a next visit or for when you're old.
We come to Belize on Sunday the 7th of August 2011 and the border crossing from Mexico is straight forward. So swiftly you are in a new country and we officially speak English now; in new countries you're a stranger and the traveller has adopted over the years a strategy: Go slowly and learn the rules!
This is Christina and me and my two four and a half year old twin boys Daniel and David entering Belize City with its distinct African/Caribbean feel where internet only works in a few places, if at all. We descend in Isabel's guest house, very comfortable, very family style; Isabel's of Salvadorian origin and we speak Spanish.
First shower, first bed after 5 nights on the road. The boys are hungry, it has been a long day, late we walk the darkness, a few blocks, most is shut on Sundays', but with help of those long haired Rastafarian that hang out in the streets, drunk or high on marihuana talking cool a Kriol-English wash and warning us of the dangers just around the next block, with their help we find the only open place: Some good luck Chinese; but restaurants and super-stores, we would learn quickly, are firmly in Chinese hands and so we would eat chicken or shrimp fried rice twice a day; the boys love it and almost eat now as much as I and certainly more than C. Many Chinese have lived here almost forever and still hardly speak a proper English, we are never sure whether they understand what we order.
The beer here is called Belikin, a Maya temple decorates its label, it is with 4.8% stronger and hoppier than the Mexican claras and comes in a small 284ml fraudulently heavy bottle that gives the feel there is more in it. At our late Chinese restaurant we switch straight to very expensive imported Jamaican Red Stripe. The food that comes is astronomic, of great taste, a delight after all the cocina mexicana of the past month. This is of such good value and beyond what we can eat. 2 Belizean, Kriol, boys had sneaked in, beg open hands, we offer, almost 2 plates what is left and they finish it all, lots of ketchup over the rice. On leaving I exchange a few nice words in French with the Haitian door man Jaques, he is here for security but usually beggars, drunk or sober, men or women, old or children go in and out of any establishment.
My orientation skills allow me to take a short via the banks of Belize River, 2 strong white men come our way carrying heavy buckets and the boys know what to look for in there; huge crabs. Two very friendly Mestizos and my boys are holding them up for 5 minutes, they wish us well in English.
We go for walks not just to the Chinese but to discover Belize City, a small village. Channels criss cross along a rough street network, holes and open gutters give sight to stuck sewage underneath, small bridges cross with broken down railings, it is not what you would consider a children safe playground, "I don't want you to fall in here!" is all I can tell my boys.
Outside Isabel's every morning parks up the grumpy guy who owns the pharmacy next door and every afternoon when we leave we have to ask him to move his truck because he blocks our van, he does that deliberately every day, thinks this is his right, he is Mestizo, Belizian with indigenous blood, just a capitalist sucker, a bitter person who makes life miserable for himself and others, a nutcase.
It is usually late afternoon when we drive to Riverside Bar, an expat joint, that serves beer from the tap, also the slightly lighter Lighthouse, with bizarre happy hour regulations; you have to order a huge jug to get a slight rebate. We come because Riverside Bar seems to have the only working WiFi connection in town, but it comes and goes, becomes slightly more stable after 6 p.m. It has a garden where, to the delight of the boys, the huge crabs come out of holes at the late hour. We order fries and Fanta for them, the boys not the crabs, one Fanta at least regularly goes down.
After dark when the mosquitos bite it is back to Chinese for chicken fried rice, then to bed. Chinese have a menu with prices, most other food joints really try to take us for a ride. When I ask for the price, the lady dealing with us usually has to ask the boss-lady, the boss-lady then musters us and doubles the price, then I say thank you, friendly as always, and leave... Nothing gained!
Garifuna Dangriga, Hopkins and Placencia, Belize's Caribbean coast.
There is only so much we can do in Belize's deprecated capital, after 4 nights we leave for Dangriga in Stan Creek State on Manatee Road. Most of the 50kms stretch is gravel with many frail bridges, the jungle, savanna and swamps take alternations left and right, almost in-penetrable. It is the lack of traffic that makes us believe we are far out, alone and away. The orange plantations start 10kms before the southern highway junction, Dangriga then is 10kms further, a small town of Garinagu/Garifuna (wiki), the descendents of West African people, that landed through so many mishaps on this swampy coastal stretch of mangroves. Having traveled almost 4 years through many countries of West Africa I can almost tell from their looks which part their ancestors belonged to, what tribe and family. These are the familiar people I seem to have spent an eternity with.
Dangriga has some beaches and simple adjacent bars, Chinese restaurants and chicken fried rice for the boys. Once darkness falls the main square is the center of action for hundreds of children, all of African origin, apart from my boys: It is youth week, express yourself! A stage and speakers, a prayer then a dance contest, my boys join others on the stage, push each other to the frontline. Later they run ever bigger circles around and around with others, they happen to make friends so quickly, where I stand they come round every 3 minutes, in darkness I have a pretty hard time keeping track of them in the huge and ever more lively crowd while the speaker system blurts out African hip-hop rhythms and the youth tries their MC skills.
Past nine I catch one then the other and we part. A quiet ocean side spot, a strong breeze and some showers and thunderstorms make for a good night's sleep. No hurricane is expected, this part of coast is protected by the 2nd greatest barrier reef in the world, we are very close to the sea but there will never be high waves that could reach us.
Morning and hot sun is up quickly, the boys back in the water too with new friends for more crab hunting.
We leave for Hopkins find a nice palmed beach spot to park near Driftwood Beach Bar. I swing in a hammock, read and drink beer, while the boys go several blocks far. Later I search them, a boy points me away from the beach, a big Garifuna lady waves to me from her balcony on wooden poles, they're eating, drinking with new found friends.
We stay two days in Hopkins, while many short rains pass through and we spend long evenings talking to Ras, who tells us he has travelled to Jamaica, China, India, Europe, Senegal, been married in Canada, works for the state and drives a bike in 30 minutes from Belize City via Belmopan to Dangriga.
"I took the flame from the fire" is what Ras Focus had to say, as we sipped the beers overlooking the Belizean sea, while full moon rises. His father died when he was young, and he found a father figure in the kind Chinese man who lived in his village. Being a child he was curios and learned Chinese martial arts from him, and worked his way up to a black belt and till this day it is what has kept him alive. His interest in martial arts led him to travel to China, and from there to Canada, where he met his wife and had two lovely daughters. "I had to come back to Belize, it was too cold there" he said as he picked out the pictures of his daughters from his wallet. He misses them, but cannot afford to go back to see them. They must come to visit him instead. To survive he gives private lessons to the Irish man who owns the local pizza bar. They wake at about 5 am and practice on the beach. He cannot open his own studio or martial arts center, the military wont let him. They are afraid of any Belizeans acquiring fighting techniques, his art is censored.
And a lot more, and we talked to Jim, a Canadian farmer who has been trying his luck here for years and Oliver the guy who runs Driftwood and many others,... and Hopkins is certainly the nicest, most relaxed spot on the coast we would find. On the 3rd day late afternoon after another pizza, maybe one of the reasons we stayed, we leave for Placencia.
Placencia has a clean crystal white palm beach and a turquoise blue ocean. In a wooden beach bar in hallucinatory Greatful Dead design we meet the owner, Jim a recently retired fashion designer from the UK and Greg his barman from NY. Yes this is a nice plot of land I agree with Jim as we look out on the ocean, maybe even nicer now that it is off-season... Out on the 'strip' though we run onto the pizza/burger/tourist joints, a bar with a line of 40-50 year old single ladies and the young looks, the holiday looks in pink and magenta. Their boobs are made of plastic, so are our pricey burgers just these make me fart all night.
Nim Li Punit, Lubaantun, Maya Archaeological Sites in Belize's south.
Food-wise I am already longing back for Mexico's ceviche, beer-wise too but we are serious about Belize, push into Toledo State further south and see Nim Li Punit (wiki) and Lubaantun (wiki), moist Maya sites in the jungle. It was in Lubaantun where the world-infamous crystal skull was allegedly found but really it was a great big hoax. The more you go around archeological sites from Crete to Egypt to Central America the more you become aware of those lying for fame archeologists from the early 20th century.
The boys are always in search for insects and I am always furious when they look in rock and stone gaps for spiders and grasshoppers and centipedes. When we find the empty freshly shed skin of a Black Tail Snake (this is the name given by the guardian of Lubaantun) I am the more assured of my fears, snakes are all around us. I ever only get to see them alive when I drive and they cross a road and quickly disappear, this skin is the nearest I have ever come to touching a snake.
Searching wikipedia for Black Tail Snake I find (what might not be exactly my snake) Blacktail cribo: Non poisonous, though, has a fairly strong and unpleasant bite and may mistake your hand for food. Hmm... I am certainly not a snake phobic, just try to instruct my boys on the dangers of investigating all and everything. But how really do you instruct 4.5 year olds?
We get to Punta Gorda, find a Chinese to feed my monsters; Chinese restaurants simply offer the best deal. For the second time today I put 150B$ (75USD) in my tank, in Belize I am a poor man again, it's like tokens going in a slot machine with no yield! Driving away I feel a suffocating drowsiness and deaf ears, Chinese food syndrome? I never had that before, food is more and more a problem here I think, I remember Las Vegas and remember that I ate more cheaply there and it was delicious Asian cuisine then of grand variety. We have decided to head back north, we need to move on, so much lies ahead! Yes, ceviche and 'good' beer in Mexico in a relaxed seaside restaurant, a fata morgana... Beer apart from food in Belize, and one has to say it, is a drag. Belikin in its 284ml extra heavy small bottles is the only size avail. The other, Lighthouse comes in 237ml bottles. That's it! No competition! It sucks after a while!
So we drive north on empty roads, a bicycle here, a huge truck there, every 5 minutes, not so much moves in Belize. Green bush and wilderness change with banana and orange plantations, orange juice should be cheap I thinks but comes at 4USD in the Chinese good luck stores. So food prices are high and the farmers, and we have spoken to a few here, barely make a living. As with Belize beer something is just not right.
We get to Armenia, the name of a village, past nightfall. Friendly, welcoming, "All secure here, sleep where you want!" something is damn right here!
Xunantunich, El Pilar, Maya Sites near San Ignacio.
We fly by for the first time at Belmopan, Belize's capital, and get to San Ignacio. Sensationally nice street burritos for 2USD, and we all dig as much as we can, make clear we changed to Cayo State close to the Guatemalan border. All is more Latin than Caribbean here.
After crossing Mopan River on a hand pulled ferry, we visit Xunantunich (wiki), another great Maya site and Guatemala is just a stone throw away. Its El Castillo Pyramid is the second tallest structure in Belize after Caracol. Some amazing frieze can be seen on both sides.
While we sit atop El Castillo, the skies already darken and I think of retreat some Black Howler monkeys appear right in front at eyes' level in the canopy of the jungle and play their noisy games.
Later down and the two, Daniel and David trail behind, when I go and find out what attracts their all fascination it is a beautiful almost the size of hand tarantula spider. The first one I get to see in my life is shown to me by my boys.
The same day we drive on bad roads to El Pilar (wiki), archeological site a bit north. El Pilar gives an altogether different impression as it remains largely un-excavated, not reconstructed. In the midst of the jungle, a pyramid or temple or ball court is a hill with thick vegetation, huge tree trunks that grow out of hardly to make out ancient ruins rubble.
It is needless to say that we are the only visitors here, the site is on the border with Guatemala and my boys have intuitively armed themselves with sticks rather to try and catch huge partly red grasshoppers, also we are able to spot a shy fox.
Next day we make the journey to Caracol (top) and are so happy. Now we can go home, back to Mexico, now we know this can't get any better. Heavy rains that engulfed us while visiting the site have softened the dirt road, but through the puddles we make it back down safely the 60-70kms. We reach San Antonio, near-by is the junction, bar and shop. A nightly talk about jungle boys; my boys, Belize farming; better to bury the bananas in the ground, sophisticated pickled fruits and hot sauces that cannot be bottled because the government doesn't allow for the importation of bottles by foreigners, but then how do the Chinese import all their stuff? And finally - the Belize beer that is fraudulent by the bottle; the heavy glass feels like it is still half full when it is already empty.
I wonder still is it the Caracol Caana temple on the Belikin beer bottle?
Belmopan (wiki), this project like similar capital projects elsewhere in the world is doomed. Just with Belmopan Belizeans had the chance if they had payed a little bit attention to crossroads and urban development theory.
Why didn't you build it right on the junction of Western and Hummingbird Highway? Oh, you say you did; no you didn't, you hid your capital some 2 km in the back of the junction and everybody just passes by. If you had built the 3 branches of government, legislative and courthouse on each of the 3 corners of the T-junction, with parks and cafes this would have established an interesting public space, then people would have stopped, the place would have eventually attracted businesses and visitors.
But the way you built it everybody just keeps going, on the highway; flies by, just like we did twice.
Oh, you still have a chance; just tear down the old road and make everybody cross city center.