Lamanai

P1230789

Belize Waterfront, the nicer part of town

On entering Belize City via the East-West highway divides with part of a cemetery in the median and along one side of the road . . . poor planning or an omen?

P1230776

Cemetery in the median and along one side of the highway entering Belize City . . . ominous.

This morning, we explore the ruins of Lamanai, a Maya word meaning “submerged crocodile”.   The site is nestled amid thick jungle home to exotic birds and howler monkeys and accessible by a very long and unfriendly road or by boat.  We have added a Belizean guide to our group for this visit and during the hour ride north to Orange Walk he tells us about his country. From Orange Walk we travel leisurely by boat along the beautiful New River, stopping along the way to view any birds of interest and there are many that live along the river.

P1230899

P1230841

P1230900

Lamanai is definitely off the beaten track and we felt like we were the only ones on the river, lucky to be here on a quiet day.  The river is magnificent as it twists and divides its way through forest and lowlands en route to the New River Lagoon and Lamanai.

_1010963

P1230892

P1230904

The city of Lamanai, named for the thriving crocodile population, was one of the preeminent sites around 1500 B.C. with a population exceeding 35,000 at its peak.  It flourished, supported by a vast community of farmers, merchants, and traders with trading influence extending into Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Belize.

Some ruins at Lamanai are among the oldest in Belize dating back to 700 B.C.; only about 5% of the 700 structures have been excavated.

At the highest of temples some chose to climb the very steep steps, with the aid of a rope, for the magnificent view while others were content to sit in the shade and take photos.

_1020014

P1230955

_1010996

_1010999

_1020021
P1230939

Our boat trip back to Orange Walk was much faster, and we marveled at how the driver effortlessly navigated the twists and turns in the river.

Leaving our guide in Orange Walk we returned to Belize City to pack and say our farewells at a final dinner together.  Hector made a little stop at a small nearby grocery.  He disappeared inside for a minute, emerging with a cold beer for everyone, delightful!

IMG_7493

In our two days in Belize we became quite enamored of the bar tender at our hotel, Diane, a delightful woman, welcoming, warm and friendly sharing stories and laughs with everyone; we meet one last time in the bar to begin our goodbyes.

This has been an extraordinary trip for so many reasons.  First the group itself came together quickly, a fun-loving group from diverse backgrounds we shared views on world travel, politics, adventure and good humor, oh so important when traveling.  The trip was filled with surprises thanks to our guide who was simply outstanding; he was a warm and caring individual with a good sense of humor and he very soon became part of our family.

The Mayan sights each offered something unique and their jungle locations were amazing adding a sense of timelessness to the visits.  I loved all of the exotic flowers and birds with the background roar of the howler monkeys in the jungle and along the two rivers. Cruising among the islands in Lake Nicaragua late in the day was so peaceful and a delightful break from the heat and humidity of the city.

I love the small owner-run business we visited and seeing the handmade crafts, the colors of the Maya and the idea that they have been able to keep traditions alive and well in the small towns and villages, especially in Guatemala.  I have rekindled my love affair with Guatemala on this trip, the stunning beauty of the country, the hills laced with terraced fields and foot paths connecting settlements, the volcanoes, the uncertainty of life with the looming threats of eruptions or devastating earthquakes, the warmth, resilience and endurance of the people.  There is so much need here and such horrible poverty but there are also many, many volunteers in country who are doing what they can to help these people develop ways that will sustain them, it is inspiring.

Yaxha

On a limestone ridge overlooking Laguna Yaxhá (green-blue water) Yaxhá is a compelling and rewarding Maya site to visit. Of all Guatemala’s ruins, only Tikal and El Mirador surpass the sheer scale and impact of this site that includes forty stelae, numerous altars, soaring temple pyramids and two ball courts. The dense jungle, howler monkeys, toucans and lack of crowds add to the special atmosphere of the place. _1010913 Relatively little is known about the history of Yaxhá, partly due to a relative lack of inscriptions and the fact archeological excavations have only recently begun to free Yaxhá from the grip of the jungle. Most of structures date from the Classic era but there are also Preclassic structures. The sheer size of the city indicates that Yaxhá was undoubtedly an important force in the central Maya region and shares several archeological similarities and close ties with Tikal about 20 miles away.

Ball Court

George and Bill climbed to the top of this temple and were rewarded with a 360 degree view of the surrounding jungle and the Laguna Yaxhá.  Climbing up was not easy but it was much easier than coming down the steep uneven steps.  The rest of us were happy to watch from below.

  _1010942

 Laguna Yaxhá

_1010938   _1010934

 Trogon

Yaxhá

P1230662

Ceiba Tree

As we drive out of the park we stop at a dwelling and immediately kids coming running out. The two-room dwelling has thatched roof, dirt floor, sides are partially open to the elements and there are no doors. Hammocks swing from the support posts, there is a scrawny dog running about, a chicken and green parrot. The family lives a real hand-to-mouth existence eating mostly what the father is able to hunt. In the yard sits a cage with dinner perhaps, a large constrictor and when I say large I mean long, it did not look like it had eaten recently. The father also earns a little money from his woodcarving; the son goes to show us some carved pieces and as he opens the cloth covering them a scorpion darts out.   I bought a set of salad tongs.

P1230741

Green Parrot

Boa and Scorpion

P1230739

Tummy Time

One member of our group, a biologist notices a skull that peaks his interest; it is a jaguar skull, again probably providing food for the family or perhaps the father sold it, it is hard to tell. At any rate he wanted to purchase it and the son sold it to him. How will he get it back into the states is what most of us wonder but he doesn’t seem concerned.   P1230738 We thanked the kids and returned to the van; Hector reached into his pack and pulled out a bag of what looked like what we know as Chex mix with pretzels, nuts and chex. As he went to the door and held up the bag the youngest girl’s face lit up with a smile and she jumped with excitement. He motioned for one of them to come down to get the bag of treats and told them to be sure and share. About that time someone noticed a police car parked behind the van, had we done something wrong or were they also stopping to see this family? As we pulled away so did the police car. There was a little buzzing amongst us about why they were following us and then finally we asked Hector about it and he said not to worry. By the time we reached the paved road again they were still following us, of course there was no other road so maybe they were just going the same way. I held that thought until we stopped at a nearby restaurant for lunch and they also pulled in. Finally Hector confessed that OAT had hired them to get us safely to the Belize border. Apparently there are problems in this area on occasion with highway bandits so we all settled down to enjoy lunch as did they, at another table. We sent them some extra desserts in hopes of garnering goodwill. They remained our shadows until we neared the border at which point they turned around and returned to their normal duty. The border crossing was pretty easy, the only oddity was that the van had to be completely emptied of all luggage and we each had to pay $1 to the porters who unloaded it. It was then inspected as we walked through immigration and customs and were all reunited on the other side . . . welcome to Belize.

Border crossing looking more like a car wash than a checkpoint.

There is definitely more of a Caribbean feel once we cross the border. Belize City and the Caribbean is still a 2 hour drive. I actually begin to recognize a couple of places along the way that I visited in the past; a hand crank car ferry across the river near Xuantunich is still one car and hand cranked. The little town of San Ignacio where I saw an exhibit of Mayan artifacts laid out on plywood and sawhorses in an open sided arena, one guard. I have been to Belize City twice before and could not wait to leave both times; it has not changed. Belize City is not particularly attractive even though it is on the Caribbean and is not a very pleasant place due to problems with drug trafficking. Most visitors come to Belize for the diving and snorkeling so fly in and out of the city to the cays in the same day. We will be here just two nights in order to visit our last Mayan site, Lamanai.