Sunday, 26 January 2014

Guatemala

I feel like I've been writing a lot lately, but I seem to have had a few days with time on my hands and the last week has been so full of adventures that I don't want to forget, that now I'm sitting on the Caribbean shore with a warm breeze blowing in from the sea, writing and contemplating life seems like the only thing to be doing.

This week I decided that crossing the border and seeing a little of Guatemala was something I would regret if I left this area without doing so, despite the many warnings that it was not a good idea. Being ten minutes drive away it seemed wrong not to though, so after an early start we arrived at the Belizean border checkpoint just before 8am. There was already a queue and after a short wait, we were through, another $20 lighter after paying our departure fees. Ahead of us was a bridge over the river patrolled by more soldiers than I was expecting, but still, they were friendly and wished us a good morning as we passed. On the other side of the bridge we asked for directions to the town and we were advised that we had actually walked straight past Guatemalan immigration and hadn't been stamped in! Incredulously we walked back, got our stamps and were on our way.

We'd decided to head to Tikal, a Mayan ruin site a few hours from the border. All the tour companies in San Ignacio were selling day tours for between $110 and $150, but we figured we could go there, spend a night at a lodge in the forest and get back to Belize again all for under $50 and it meant we could pick our own schedule. After a much longer than expected collectivo ride to El Remate that involved driving past several tanks and other vehicles full of military personnel, being stopped at a police checkpoint and almost running over a pig, we were able to flag down a passing tourist minibus and got a ride to Tikal. The site itself was impressive, one of the largest we've visited so far with much larger and more impressive pyramids still surrounded by jungle, so the walk between them without a map (because we were too cheapskate to buy one) was a bit hit or miss. By the end of the day though we'd found them all, and tired from a last minute dash to a pyramid we'd missed earlier, we caught the last tourist bus from the site back to Ixlu where we caught the crazy overflowing collectivo ride I talked about earlier.


Upon arrival at La Maquina, much to our surprise, a guy appeared who spoke no English at all, but managed to say 'El Sombrero' and 'Gabriella' so we figured he had been sent to collect us. We then set off at breakneck speed in a pickup truck down a small side road which turned out to consist of extremely deep, slippery mud. Questioning whether we'd been a little quick to accept his offer of a lift, we hung on for dear life for nearly half an hour as he picked his way through the worst bits and eventually delivered us to our lodge.

Given that it was dark by this time we arrived, we didn't really appreciate just how remote the place we were staying was until morning, so we had a quick dinner, showered (cold water only) and went to sleep. The following morning we realised that our room was actually made almost entirely of mesh and that save for a thatch roof, we were outside. The sounds of all the creatures around us in the forest was incredible to hear. Watching Collared Aracari's and Blue Crowned Motnest's fly around as you eat your breakfast isn't something you do every day and for that reason the visit was worth the effort of getting to the place. However, when we discovered that pretty much everything apart from our bed involved an extra charge, we realised that we couldn't afford to stay a second night. I guess that's the trouble when you're so far away from everything...you can't pop out to that little cafe down the road, you have to just accept what you can get. The food was good, but much more than we'd got used to paying. The real crunch came when we found that the ride from La Maquina the night before was going to cost us $20 USD, a crazy price given our 4 or so hours to Tikal from the border had cost us only about $8. I think sensing our dissatisfaction and realising we were heading to Yaxha, Gabriella offered to send someone by bike to buy us our tickets and then take us to the site by boat across the lake for free. Agreeing this was a fair compromise, we found ourselves the first and only people at the site with everything to ourselves. Even the park rangers looked confused as to where we'd come from!



Several hours of climbing steps later, we decided it was probably time to head back to the parking area to try and hitch a lift with a tour van. When we got there the lot was empty bar one little 4x4. Nothing. No-one. The driver of the vehicle, a guide on a private tour with an American couple, looked disinterested when we asked for a ride to the road, telling us it wasn't possible. A ranger then appeared, only to shrug and advise us that our only option was to walk back. He added that it was 11km and it would take us 'about 40 mins'. Doing the maths myself, given that average walking speed is about 5km and hour and that's not taking into account foot deep muddy hills, I realised we had a very long hike ahead of us.


Nevertheless, we set off and half an hour later the little blue 4x4 passed us, ignoring our renewed request for a lift with a shrug and a shake of the head. Annoyed, we continued on, only up find the car stuck fast half way up a very muddy hill a couple of kilometres ahead. Walking past smugly, commenting that maybe we'd be back before them after all, the woman who was on the tour spoke to us sympathetically and said she didn't know why they couldn't help us out and that if they got out of the mud she'd ask again for them to help us out. A short while later, having been freed with some local help, they drew up beside us and offered us a ride...Sharen got a seat, I got the trunk wedged in beside the cool box. I didn't care though, the sun was beating down and it meant we could get back to the border before dark.

The moral of the story I guess is that sometimes a bit of planning makes life a hell of a lot easier. We've been winging it for a week or two now, not booking accommodation and just seeing what we find when we get there, but if guess every now and then some research in advance helps.

Guatemala was beautiful though and I'm glad we went. I wish in a way we had spent longer there, but the draw of heading back to Belize was too much and we decided we wanted to make the most of our time there instead.


Which brings me to Belize...easily one of the best countries I've ever visited. Some places you arrive in just feel instantly right and Belize is one of those places. When I arrived in San Ignacio I was only planning on staying a couple of nights at most. In actual fact we left today after 6 nights there in total and even then we had a serious debate this morning about whether we should stay a further night. Why? A combination of lots of things really. The people there are super friendly. No one passes you in the street or sits next to you on a bus without at least saying hello and asking how you are. On buses or if you find yourself sharing a table with locals over breakfast or dinner then you've pretty much got a friend great life an hour later.

Quite by chance we ended up staying at Hi Et guesthouse, a wonderful little family establishment that charges per room rather than per person. This meant that Sharen and I could stay in a double room with a shared bathroom for only 25BZD a night (about £3.75 each!). It was clean, comfortable and we even had a little balcony which came in very handy for drying our laundry.

It was also about half a block in any direction to a great breakfast place, Topp's and really nice Belizean restaurant, Cenaida's, both serving food way above the quality we'd have expected for the low prices. The bank was a block away. There was a corner store next door for drinks. When we went to Guatemala the family who ran the guest house kindly offered to hold on to our backpacks for us until we came back free of charge. Everything about the place was right and both of us said more than once that we could happily stay there for the rest of the month. It was also a street away from the bus and when we decided to go riding in the jungle on one of the last days we were there, it was a minutes walk away from the place where we had to arrange that.

Speaking of which, during a last minute 'what shall we do tomorrow' conversation one evening, we decided that horseriding would make a nice chance to visiting Mayan ruins and although Sharen was reluctant, we arranged a mornings riding with a local guy, Andy, who had a number of horses on his families ranch. When we set off the sun was shining brightly, but just as we reached higher open ground the heavens opened and it poured. I guess we shouldn't have been surprised given that our horses names were Thunder and a Rain. Still, it was an exhilarating experience and I'm glad we went. It was back in Iceland last year that I realised how much I miss riding. It's something I'll make a conscious effort to do more when I can. I had forgotten how much it hurts though to ride for several hours after not riding for a while!


So we finally left San Ignacio and headed to the east coast, Dangriga to be exact. As we were getting ready to leave we happened to bump into Narciso in the town, who sadly bade us farewell and told us he'd miss us and that we were always welcome to visit again one day.

Right now I'm sitting in a hammock about a hundred feet from the shore with a warm breeze blowing in from the Caribbean Sea, watching local kids taking advantage of the last of the daylight for a final game of football. I don't know what my plans are even for the next few days, but life is good.

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