So up early, we had to be at the water taxi by 7am. There we were shuttled off to Belize City where a driver was waiting for us to take us to the put-in point for the boat tour near Orange Walk Town, about 70 miles away from Belize City. The river was called The New River (I'm not certain why). There we were joined by another tour group coming from Ambergris Caye/San Padro for the rest of the day. The Ambergris Caye/San Pedro group (there were 8 of them) was already in "tour mode", as they met their guide hours earlier and had been getting a tour already to this point. We basically were 'added' to their tour. I kinda felt like we were outsiders, though the tour guide (Dan) did do a good job at including Lisa in the group. His assistant (Christian) made sure I was also seeing the things Dan was pointing out to everyone else.
Dan is a renown birder (and one of the top guides in Belize, due to his knowledge base), so pointed out a number of birds that we normally would never have seen. But there weren't as many birds as there usually is, because it was the start of the rainy season, and the river was up 3-4', and without a good shoreline, the birds went elsewhere. This would also mean seeing other things, such as crocodiles, would be less likely than usual. In any event, we saw a number of birds I'd never heard of, and a few I was somewhat familiar with. We also saw white-striped bats (which have a hyper-sensitive sonar, can pick up large motions from 5' away even while sleeping), termite balls (huge mud-looking balls on tree limbs/trunks built from the saliva of termites), a few iquana, and a number of plants, including a rather over-sized christmas cactus.
This portion of the tour ended at a large reservoir-sized area in the river, where we found ourselves at the edge of the Lamanai Mayan ruins. The jungle was thick onshore, but you could catch a glimpse of one temple (the High Temple) poking up a wee bit from the jungle canopy. Then we tied up to the dock and the temple was lost behind the foliage.
We immediately saw several groups of howler monkeys hanging out napping or snacking in the trees. We carried to a pavilion the lunch that was being provided for us (coconut bbq chicken, coconut sticky rice, a potato salad made by the mother of one of the tour operator guides, and a salad - all quite good). After eating and socializing with some of the San Pedro group, Dan gathered us up and started The Tour. This turned out to be possibly one of the coolest learning adventures I've had in a long time.
We got to an overview map sign of the ruins and Dan launched into a very detailed and rich history of the Lamanai citystate as well as the Mayan civilization as a whole. He had so much he spoke about I wasn't able to absorb it all in one go. But summary of the highlights of Lamanai I did get are:
Due to how the Mayans built things, subsequent construction on temples occurred over the pre-existing temple, rather than tear it down and start afresh. This actually helped archaeologists understand and date different periods of activity in the Mayan culture. So, for example, a temple might be built one year. Several hundred (or more) years later, the new ruler would instruct a change to the temple, and the change would be built atop of the original temple. Some hundreds of years later the new ruler would direct another construction overlay on the same temple.
This overlaying construction is evident in Mayan in that if you take off one wall, you'll find something underneath, such as a giant carving of a face (also known as a "mask"). And if you take the mask off, you'll find another wall, constructed at an earlier time. So on and so forth.
Also, we learned that Mayans were a very symmetrical people, and if they put a mask on one side of the main stairs leading up a temple, there would be a mask on the other side of the stairs at the same level.
Lamanai is believed to have flourished for so long due to the presence of the New River.When there was a drought, the New was so large that there still was fresh water flowing through it, and the river banks became fertile farmlands. When the New was up, farmlands were moved inland and the river was fished for more food. The New was also a major water course, putting Lamanai at the hub of a vast trade network. Other citystates were apparently jealous of Lamanai's status, but none were able to successfully brought Lamanai down.
I could go on and on and on about Lamanai, there was just so much to see and learn. But I won't. I will say that Dan also pointed out a large number of different trees, indicating how the Mayans used them for a variety of purposes (one tree, whose name I forget, has a natural penicillin in its sap, and the Mayans used it to combat the diseases the Spaniards brought; another tree has a sweet nut, but if you eat or suck on more than just a little of it, any Montezoma's Revenge you might be feeling will be quickly stopped - for a quite long time (ow)). We found several nests of leaf-cutter ants, and found a highway (quite long) of Black Army Ants (I happened to be standing on the "highway" when Dan pointed it out; glad I had thick socks and shoes on, as my foot was crawling with ants who had taken a bit of a dislike to the traffic flow interruption; I would end up stepping in the traffic flow several more times while heading out to the one temple, but quickly get out of it again). Dan also pointed out to us a number of "exotic" non-river birds as we made our way from one ruin to another. He also gave us in-depth stories of each temple and ruin we visited.
You can read a good deal more about Lamanai here:
But back to our story...
The "highlight" of the tour for most people is the High Temple. And climbing it. As noted above, at 33 meters (108 feet) it is the 3rd highest structure in the Mayan civilization. You pass three levels by the time you reach the top. The first level is pretty straightforward to climb up to (the stone steps are spaced quite high with respect to each other). Access to the next level is the longest set of steps, and steepest, and there is a thick rope tied for people to use in going up or down. From that level there is a short set of steps up to the next level, around the corner to the right, and then a few more steps to the top.
Photos do not do the view from the top true justice. You can see the New River to the east, Mexico to the north, and Guatemala to the west (the rest of Belize to the south0. And jungle all around. Some of the group had problems with the height, some with getting up, some with getting down. Being all rock-climber-y and everything, it didn't faze me too much. In the end, pretty much the entire group was able to get themselves up and back down without mishap. Christian and I stayed up top until last, savoring the breeze (nicer than the hot, motionless air in the jungle below) and view before trotting back down again.
We began to run short on time, and our guide, still core-dumping information a mile a minute, took us to the Ball Court, then to the Royal Complex, and finally to the Jaguar Temple (this last I think built AD, not BC). Normally you could climb the Jaguar Temple, too, but we were woefully short on time by this point. Apparently the normal tours get 30-60 minutes at the museum and gift shop. Dan was giving us 5, 10 minutes tops, before the boat was leaving. Everyone ran to the bathrooms and gift shops. I did bathroom, museum (only one of our group to poke his head in), grabbed a t-shirt from one gift shop, then ran to the boat (but not last in!).
The museum was pretty cool, but I had no time to really explore it. And it was sparse with artifacts. Nonetheless, it would have been cool to take 15-20 minutes to read up on everything. Alas, another time, it seems...
Dan roared us back to our starting point, pushing the boat upwards of 41 mph when he could (being all geeky I had pulled out my GPS to see what our speed was). The twists and turns in the river slowed him down a little, but not by much. On the tightest turn we slid through mostly sideways at 16 mph. In about 45-50 minutes we arrived back at the launch point and were hustled into the waiting van by our ride to get back to Belize City. We missed the 4:00p water taxi, but we could still make the 5:30 one (last one for the day; otherwise we were stuck on the mainland for the night). We made it back to the water taxi terminal with 30 minutes to spare. We were back on Caye Caulker around 6:30pm. Enough time to get dinner then organize and pack for our departure on Sunday.
The next morning the sunrise was mostly clouded out, but an hour or so later, the clouds all but vanished and the day was proving to be....hot. After we packed we took a dip in the pool that was next to the apartment (no time to really go out and snorkel in the ocean and get back to clean off again). We tried to stop by a bakery (hours posted were 7a-2p Tues-Sat, 7:30a-2p Sun, closed Mon), but they were closed (this was Sunday; again, in the low season, establishments seem to alter their hours). This was a bummer, as both Lisa and I had fast become converts to their cinnabuns, and wanted to take a bag home.
Finally our golf cart taxi came and hustled us to the airport terminal (a three-room elongated shack by the air strip). We had the option of waiting inside in the air conditioning, or outside. While it was getting quite hot today, we opted for outside, figuring we'd get too chilled inside then the outside would feel worse.
The puddle jumper arrived and loaded us and another family of 4 or 5, and another lone traveler up, and soon we were in the air. Much nicer view today than when we arrived a week ago. :-) We flew over Chapel Caye, which I had heard was a "golf island" but the reality of it is....it is a GOLF island! There are three types of plant species - palm trees, mangroves, manicured grass - some buildings, sand traps, and an air strip on the island. And nothing else. It is one giant golf course (and just to land on the island I understood cost $300 Belizian, to say nothing of the price to pay to play).
In about 10 minutes (give or take) we had landed at the Belize International Airport. We had 3 hours before our flight to Atlanta took off. Given what we now experience here in the US, security (while it is there) is a bit more relaxed than here in the States. However, while relaxed, they are no less vigilant about things. I had brought back with us 4 medium and large conch shells, and was taking them in my carry-on luggage (so as to assure they would not break in transit). We checked our bags for the flight back to the states and went through passport control and security. Security advised me that nope, shells cannot be taken on board directly. They MUST be checked. Ugh! Our bags were already checked! Well, I decided to gamble and went out to the Delta desk to plead my case. The girl there was extremely helpful, got my one bag retrieved, and allowed me to swap out the shells for some other stuff. We reweighed the bag and sent it back to the loading area again. Whew! But, I had to go back through passport control and security again.
While we were souvenir shopping (trying to spend the last of what was left of our Belizian currency), the PA speaker came to life and requested that both Lisa and I return to the Delta ticket counter. Urrrrr....I was just there. What was up now?
Back out through security we went. To the ticket counter (a couple hundred feet away; the airport is not very big). There was a problem with some of our luggage. Security wanted to know what some of our stuff was. So they took us back to the baggage area and indicated to the two bags that had our dive gear in them. It turned out the concerns they had were due to our backplates for our buoyancy control units. Most recreational divers use a vest for their BC, whereas Lisa and I do more of what is called "tech diving" and use a backplate (a 5 lbs aluminum or steel plate to which the air tank is attached) fitted to a backpack-like webbing harness, and an air bladder that goes around it called a "wing". Security was familiar with the vest-style BC, but never seen before the backplate/wing style BC. We showed them the rig, and our other dive gear, and they were convinced this wasn't some sort of smuggling action or otherwise a danger to the flight. We repacked our bags and....went back through passport control and security one more time!
After this most of the rest of the trip was smooth and quiet. That is, until we landed. It was one of the, ummm, harder landings I had ever experienced (it wasn't a bounce, but a "bang"). As the plane taxied to the terminal one of the flight crew announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are now in Atlanta, which you probably noticed upon landing."
In Atlanta we had a three-hour layover, and that was good, because we had to go through customs, and no one knew where the Belize flight luggage was going to be brought (all other international flights were being prominently announced and displayed on which belt their luggage would be coming). One harassed lady suggested we try "belt six" so our plane population as a whole went to belt six and waited. 20 or so minutes later our luggage arrived. Then we rechecked the bags, did the customs thing, and we were "in" the United States!
Grabbed a sit-down dinner at TGI Fridays, then went to wait for our final flight to BWI. Meanwhile, the sun set. The flight back was quiet. We landed at BWI at 11:42pm. We had our luggage by 12:05am. We were out at shuttle bus stop #2 by 12:10am. We had opted to park at the Express Parking area due to the convenience of the bus coming to get you at your car, and dropping you off again at it on return. This seemed to be a good thing, esp with the luggage (our dive gear) we were dragging around.
The night was hot and muggy. The temperature was still in the upper-80s, humidity not far behind it. And long story short, we waited and waited and waited and WAITED for the Express Shuttle Bus to come get us. We saw the Daily come through repeatedly, the Long Term A and Long Term B come through repeatedly, and the MARC/Metro come through several times.
But not an Express bus to be seen.
Half an hour later we saw one. It drove right by, not stopping. We weren't the only ones waiting for it. We had a growing crowd.of unhappy (and tired and miserable) people who wanted to go to the Express parking. We waited some more. 20 minutes later, another Express bus drove by. People complained to other busses (whose drivers called dispatch, but it seemed to not do much). FINALLY, after over an hour of waiting, an Express bus came. We could tell the driver was not expecting much in the way of tips, given the mood of everyone there. He loaded us up and dashed us over to the parking. Everyone gave him their numbers, but he managed to drop the first couple off about 20 spaces from their car, and was in the process of driving past ours when Lisa shouted "THAT'S US!". He hustled us off but forgot one bag. I went back on to retrieve it and he started driving away again. He finally stopped and I jumped out. Then off he disappeared.
It was now past 1:30am. We loaded the car and were home by 1:45am.
The adventure had now officially and finally concluded.
Language. The official language of Belize is English. This stems from when Belize was a British colony known as British Honduras. However, I found in our travels that most everyone was speaking Spanish (the second language of Belize) or Creole (the third), and English only when speaking to tourists, travelers, trekkers, or between cultural groups who did not speak Spanish. I also learned that the further away one got from Belize City (and any "destination" spots), you would begin finding more and more people who did not know English at all, but only Spanish (such as up in Northern Belize near Mexico).
The "highways" in Belize are just two-lane roads. Sometimes they don't have center line markers. This makes driving....interesting.
Taking a bus in Belize is interesting. Before you leave the terminal, a number of people will get on the bus with snacks, food, and goods for sale. They wander up and down the bus, coming on repeatedly until the bus is ready to head out.
If you take a bus and your destination is a popular or highly populated location, expect to be inundated with taxi drivers at the door of the bus as you get of, either asking or insisting you want/need their services.
Almost all Belizian drivers use their turn signals, either when turning or passing. Very few I saw did not.
Belizian drivers will pass on almost any stretch of road someone before them who is going slower than they want. There are few, if any, formal passing zones on roadways. You just gotta...go for it!
Traffic in Belize City was an "every man (or woman) for themselves!" type of affair. It didn't matter what you drove: car, truck, bus. Their manner of handling "right of way" was "I was here first" or "I'm going to push in front of you first". Someone has to give. There ain't no car insurance action down there. But given the apparent reckless nature of the driving, we saw no accidents.
Bicyclists in Belize. Out away from the city there usually was plenty of room on the roads for bikes and cars to share. Cars would sometimes even toot their horns as they approached bicyclists to let them know a vehicle is coming from behind.
Bicyclists in Belize City. They are extremely vulnerable, and participate in the "every man for himself" arena. Vehicle drivers aren't malicious and don't go out of their way to run bicyclists down, but they also aren't going to wait around for the bicyclist to move out of the way, either. Right of way? "Hey, I'm coming, you'd better pedal faster to get over 'cause I ain't slowing."
Technology base. Belize is an interesting juxtaposition of technology levels. It is a third world country (city streets crowded with people, run-down, dirty, and are most places even I wouldn't want to walk alone), but with a lot of first world gadgets and amenities (ipods, cell phones, blackberries, mp3 players, etc, etc).
Given the poverty level of many Belize citizens, we were not approached very often by panhandlers while on the mainland. A few times, but it was rare, given the population around us. Over on Caye Caulker, however, I was "befriended" almost every other day by hard-luck beachcombers who all seemed to have family or relatives in New York, but needed money.
With next time trying to avoid tropical storms...