Tuesday, August 2, 2005
While in the San Ignacio area, you simply must experience spelunking, or cave exploration. There are several tours of local limestone caves but we decided to take the canoe tour of the cave at Barton Creek so we could visit Jim, one of the people we met when we first arrived in town a few days earlier, and his restaurant, The Outpost, at the site. Eva’s restaurant is the place to inquire about tours and we were immediately hooked up with Louis, our tour guide. On the way, we picked up his son and nephews, a little younger than Peter and Paul, and headed out to Barton Creek. It’s about an hour ride on a dirt, gravel road, and in a couple of places it doesn’t even look like a road, but our driver’s old trusty Toyota truck steadily chugged along. We passed spectacular verdant scenery, farm land and miles of orange groves (we found out that the orange plantation and its grand hacienda on the hill overlooking the vast expanse of land, encompassing 2,000 acres, were for sale! any takers??) but mostly untamed jungle. We crossed a shallow creek and finally arrived at the oasis of The Outpost at the mouth of the cave.
Once settled in our canoes (Steve maneuvered one canoe with Paul while Peter and I were in the front canoe with Louis), we headed down the creek to the mouth of the cave. At the mouth of the cave was a sleeping boa constrictor, apparently taking a couple of day nap after feasting on a satisfying catch. I had a momentary moment of anticipated claustrophobic panic as our guide kept reiterating that there would be no natural light as we explored the cave and contemplated bailing out of the tour but Peter’s disappointment spurred me on and I actually found the experience very relaxing and awe-inspiring, even spiritual. You are surrounded by these massive, glorious, often glittering formations of stalagcytes (growing from the ground) and stalaccytes (growing from the ceiling) in these cathedral-like chambers rising 1,000 feet above you. It looks as though the walls are imbedded with diamonds (created by sulfur) and gold (created by iron dioxide), and we are pirates having discovered the mother-lode! (This analogy is not so far-fetched as British pirates are part of
Throughout the cave are pockets where blind fruit bats reside. We peered into one of these close-up to see its inhabitants. The poor bat was very agitated to have this searing light pouring into its home (though blind, they are very sensitive to the heat from the lamp). We moved on and left our brief acquantaince to regather his composure from this unexpected intrusion.
There were a couple of places on our ride where we had to duck through jagged teeth of limestone to make it into the next chamber. During our first squeeze, the guide suggested I close my eyes to avoid a panic attack but when we turned around and went back through these passages, I was so acclimated I kept my eyes open to experience the full effect without a trace of panic. Overcoming this fear was gratifying for all, including our guide, my family and me! I’m so glad I got to experience this magical place with them.
At The Outpost is a cool swimming hole with a rope swing and Peter and Paul swung with delight into the pool. It looked like so much fun Steve and I joined them for several refreshing plunges into the cool creek water. Jim’s little girl was a regular jungle girl and performed jungle stunts for us, swinging back and forth on the rope several times, pushing off from the rocky ledge and finally jumping with a dramatic splash! She brought out her kitten and rabbit pets to show us, delighted to have company in this remote setting.
We had to catch the early bus out of Placencia on Friday to ensure that we made all our bus connections through Dangriga and Belmopan, the capital of Belize, enroute to our next destination, San Ignacio in western Belize close to the border of Guatemala. Though we arrived in San Ignacio by , we were all exhausted and famished. We ordered quesadillas at a restaurant near the center of town and were very disappointed that they were Americanized with a dousing of mustard of all condiments! Yuck! But, we were in luck; there was an authentic French bakery nearby, run by a French man and his family, and we buried the taste of our mustard-smothered quesadillas with apple turnovers, oatmeal raisin cookies and a walnut brownie! Yum! In just our short time in and around the marketplace, we met Marco, an American who retired from the military to Belize, the French bakery owner, and Jim, who had moved with his family to Belize just 8 months ago from southeast Florida and now owns and operates a restaurant at Barton Creek called The Outpost. Marco gave us suggestions on lodging, and Jim gave us the scoop on hooking up with a local guide to see the caves of Barton Creek.
By the time we lugged our packs and all our gear around to several hotels and finally selected one, we were exhausted. It seems that we are always looking for accommodations in the heat of the afternoon! We re-emerged in the cool of the early evening to check out Martha’s restaurant, recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. After waiting over an hour for our food and seeing other tables that had arrived later get served, I finally asked about the status of our food. The waiter politely said, “right now.” We still waited another half hour and found out later that Belizeans, though very friendly and easy-going, are also fiercely independent and do NOT like to be rushed. If you put any pressure on them at all, they will simply not serve you and “right now” means “when I get around to it.” This would have been useful to know in this circumstance, but oh well, sometimes you learn the hard way, and well, we were getting desperate for our food!
Steve awoke to a bizarre and seemingly contagious infection on his hand. Once again we were seeking a medical consultation. Apparently, he brushed up against some coral while snorkeling that caused blistering and swelling in his hand and is now on prednisone! Fortunately, we were able to resolve this medical emergency fairly expeditiously and were soon off to Trek Stop, a hostel just west of San Ignacio. The hostel is run by John and Judy, formerly of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The place consists of cabins, a communal shelter with a kitchen, dartboard, and computer terminal, solar-heated showers, a set of composting toilets, a restaurant, interactive museum about Belizean natural history, butterfly and medicinal gardens, and a 9-hole disc golf course, all carved out of the jungle! It was great fun to try the 9-hole course as we often golf the disc golf course at Westmoreland Park in Eugene near our home. Peter set a new record for his age group and I’m 3 strokes away from unseating the champion in my age group for the women. After hearing about the poisonous snakes in the area from John, however, I wasn’t too keen about traipsing through the jungle in search of my stray discs but fortunately, we weren’t too far off course and didn’t lose a single disc!
I was feeling a little run-down from a cold so found myself a cool hammock and took a nap. When I still wasn’t feeling too great later in the afternoon, I bought myself a jungle remedy with jackass bitter, a native plant that helps bolster the immune system. After a few doses and a decent sleep, through the night, I felt remarkably better! That’s jackass bitter, folks, and my kids think it’s funny that I take every opportunity to talk about it. Paul says I’m developing a “loose tongue.” Well we have faced just a few stressful situations so I say I’m entitled to my mutterings, plus people around here call it like it is—I mean, shit is “sheeeeet!”
We saw our first Mayan ruins of the trip today. What an impressive complex! We took a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River and hiked the 1.5 miles to the ruins. The site was inhabited in 100 BC and fully developed by 600 AD. Its heyday was between 600 and 900 AD and was abandoned by 1000 AD, when the Mayan civilization in general began to decline due to over-population, an inability to sustain these burgeoning communities, and warring factions. These edifices stand astoundingly intact for their age and are immensely impressive, towering over the canopy of the surrounding jungle in majestic grandeur. All the buildings were built according to precise geometric principles; the stairs that lead to the upper chambers on opposing faces are remarkably symmetrical. Peter and Paul ascended all the remaining smaller buildings while Steve and I stole some shade under a tree and admired their youthful vigor despite the extreme tropical heat! We met another American family who had just moved to Belize a month ago to teach at a Christian school in Punta Gorda, further south from Placencia.
Seeking refreshment in the heat of the afternoon, we decided to take an inner tube float down the Mopan River. John drove us to our put-in site and came and picked us up three or so hours later after traversing Clarissa Falls (no, we’re not talking “Fear Factor” here; it’s just a harmless short 3-foot falls!). Ironically, the afternoon clouded over and we got some rain during our expedition and were actually chilly on the river in the middle of the tropics! Now that was a dramatic switch from the sweltering conditions of the morning!
Along the riparian zone, we saw many different species of iguanas, other lizards, egrets, heron, a river otter, and these strange nests that had infested a large tree (we were later told that these are termite nests). Not knowing exactly what Clarissa Falls looked like, there were a few times that we wondered if we had missed it and were on our way to Belmopan! In addition, as we approached the falls but couldn’t yet see the drop-off, our imaginations envisioned a treacherous descent despite John’s description of the falls being very navigable! Peter kept us in stitches reciting various lines and scenes from the movie, “Without a Paddle.” On our drive back, John pointed out the strangling fig trees that are overtaking many of the native trees in the area and we enjoyed the verdant pastoral terrain, silhouetted against clearing storm clouds. We were ready for our solar-heated showers when we returned to Trek Stop.
Thursday, July 28, 2005
We made it to Laughing Bird Caye today! What a Shangri-La! The caye is a small island in the middle of sea that is also a national park. Palm trees, hibiscus, and a small palapa shelter and bathroom decorate the island but the lure of this national park is the stark white sands leading to the pristine
Snorkeling is a spiritual experience; you feel like you become a part of this underwater world. I kept finding Paul heading out to sea in playful pursuit of a school of fish or while exploring the endless reef and had to reel him in a couple of times. We finally enacted the buddy system and held hands and developed our own communication about the amazing sights we were seeing. As we were heading to shore, we passed through a warm belt of water filled with small silver fish. It was as if we were swimming through some sort of crystalline structure; the patterns that these tiny fish form reminded me of water as it freezes into ice and billions of shimmering atomic bonds.
The waters outside the protected harbor near Placencia were still quite rough but it made for a very exciting ride to Laughing Bird Caye and back. We crashed through 10 foot swells and were completely drenched by the resultant splashes. It was totally exhilarating; I was yee-hawing through it all. While waiting in line for lunch, a woman who had been on our boat commented on my “hearty laugh” that reminded her of a friend of hers. I thought those of you who know me would find this amusing. O.K., so I’m Portuguese and loud!
The children don’t want to leave Placencia. This little village slipped us all into an easy
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
We’re in Placencia now, a little beach village in southern
Monday, July 25, 2005
We met Danna right outside Emmett and Jill’s place the next morning at 8 a.m. and waded in to meet him at his boat. You can practically walk across the lagoon it’s so shallow! It was a great day for sailing and we immediately launched out into the lagoon. Danna’s grandson came along for the ride. Dexterously, Danna assembled our fishing lines, steered the boat and kept us entertained with stories about the area. Peter was the fisherman of the day with 2 jacks and 1 barracuda, and I caught a jack and helped Danna reel in another barracuda. (Danna, who guarantees fish, was disappointed with our catch but his wife fried up the fish for us so we could sample the catch of the day.) Danna took us to the manatee hole. We saw evidence of manatees all around us as they stirred up the silt from the bottom of the lagoon and occasionally saw manatee heads break the surface but though we were very quiet, did not get a glimpse of their full expanse. A shy creature, this endangered species is a cross between a seal and a whale and
Sunday, July 24, 2005
We finally made it to
The next morning, we set out to see the Manatee Lodge at the tip of the spit. As it turned out it was two doors down from Jill and Emmett’s place. We stopped by the restaurant, a quaint palapa, and inquired about breakfast and were told it would be ready in 15 minutes or so. We went out to the gazebo at the end of the dock and looked out over the expanse of lagoon on both sides of the spit with a stunning Belizean scape covered in jungle as a backdrop. Before we knew it, we were called to breakfast. We arrived to four beautiful breakfast platters of eggs, bacon, fruit, and fried bread and biscuits. We were to discover that at all the restaurants at
With our bellies full, we set out in search of Bibbs’ friends, Irvin Vernon, one of the elders of the village, Louise, and Moses. Along the way we picked up a few friends, Paulina, age 8, and her sister, Danika, maybe 2, and visited with folks sitting on their porch. We found Danna and arranged to go fishing with him the next day and met more villagers and more musician friends of Bibbs hanging out at Danna’s boat shop.
That evening Moses and Danna came by to visit and showed Peter and Paul how to husk a coconut and we drank coconut milk and chewed on ripe coconut. Danna says he eats a young coconut every day and says it is his elixir of youth!