BELIZE CITY | BELIZE
FLORES | GUATEMALA
IT WAS EARLY IN THE MORNING WHEN THE BUS PULLED INTO BELIZE CITY. OUR BACKUP BUS DRIVER UNRAVELLED HIMSELF FROM A GLOVEBOX SIZED COMPARTMENT UNDER THE BUS AND UNLOCKED THE DOOR. THIS PLACE SEEMED TO HAVE MORE OF A CARIBBEAN ATMOSPHERE THEN A CENTRAL AMERICAN ONE, DREADLOCKED RASTAS SOON CROWDED AROUND OFFERING LIFTS TO THE FERRY TERMINAL.
My plan was to catch the bus from Belize City, cross the Guatemalan border and head to Flores. Once again though fate threw a spanner in the works. Having arrived in the middle of Mexican Independence Day I found myself in the same situation here. Belize was celebrating freedom from the British Empire, a parade had blocked off all the roads and our bus was going to be a few hours late. To kill the time I got talking to a local dude, an old dreadlocked guy calling himself Prince Charles Perez. Prince Charles promised to fill me in on the history of Belize in return for some cheese. I think “cheese” meant money. The alternative was “rat poison” which probably meant “not enough cheese”. We wandered around the crowded streets and got some breakfast in a small shack. Prince Charles Perez apart from being a recycling entrepreneur, painter, and car washer was also adept at fortune telling, like most Belizean recyclers, painters and car washers are. “Leona from Europe with green eyes” I’m coming for you! Prince Charles took it upon himself to dub me Ireland’s Official Ambassador to Belize. Meeting royalty is always fun. The majority of the conversation was made up of “Unbelizeable!” or “You’d better Belize it!” in between bouts of tourette’s level swearing, but it wasn’t too dissimilar to talking to old men back home so I didn’t mind.
Unsurprisingly my tip was “rat poison” so Prince Charles left to try his luck elsewhere. Just before I finally hopped on the bus to Flores I spotted him again shaking his head sadly. “Nothing but rat poison man”. You’d think a prince wouldn’t need to shake down tourists for some money but maybe times are hard for the royals, must cost a lot to pay off Will and Kate’s wedding.
Our bus driver warned us when crossing the Guatemalan border to ensure that we got our stamp. Often the border guards won’t stamp a passport and will then fine you on the way back out for not having a valid entry. While I was properly stamped some Israeli tourists on our bus had to go back and fight to get theirs. Soon we were off again and after a loud and bumpy few hours we arrived in Flores.
Flores is a pretty little town situated on an island in Lake Peten Itza and connected to the mainland via a causeway. It is the base for exploring the nearby ruins of Tikal. Tikal was one of the largest Mayan cities, in fact it is possibly older than Chichen Itza further north. It was a city constantly on the crossroads of warfare. There is even evidence that Tikal was sacked by the people of Teotihuacan sometime in the 4th century.
I booked a ride into Tikal for the next morning. Our guide turned out to be a naturalist rather than a historian. I hadn’t intended to go with him (I just paid for the ride) but he said if I threw him five dollars I could tag along for the tour. I’m glad I did. Tikal is a large site and is still in a much more primordial state than the more tourist friendly Chichen Itza. Most of the site is still unexcavated and saturated by jungle, small forest paths lead seemingly everywhere and because of the density of the foliage it’s not always easy to spot the temples and structures to get your bearings.
After a hike through the forest on which we seen tarantulas (people were posing with this thing in their mouths, what the hell?), sloths and toucans we arrived at the site. First we walked through the smaller mounds and pyramids, these are still moss covered and practically unexplored. Eventually we stumbled into El Mundo Perdid0 the part of the site known as the “lost world”. There is an impressive pyramid here along with an unfriendly howler monkey who delighted in flinging his crap at us. If the rest of the wildlife is this hostile maybe this place should stay lost.
A short walk away stands the Grand Plaza. This contains the enormous Temples 1&2 along with the acropolis of the mayan kings. Tikal contains the tallest mayan pyramids in the world. Temple 1 known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar stands 154 ft high. Opposite it is the 125 ft Temple of the Mask. Even these steep giants aren’t the highest temples here. We climbed up the rickety steps to the top of Temple 2 for a panoramic view over the Grand Plaza. Equally impressive I thought was the view over the jungle canopy from the back of the pyramid. An endless sea of green punctuated only by the majestic tops of the other temples poking up through the foliage, the view accompanied by the manic shrieking of howler monkeys. My god those things were loud, like pre-pubescent girls at a One Direction concert loud.
One guy in our group was obsessed with seeing a jaguar. Apparently they are quite common in this area and the park staff see them pretty frequently. Our guide told us the story of how National Geographic installed a camera on a particular tree to capture footage of them. Jaguars have favourite trees that they like to pee against, these trees have a particular musty scent – although I’ll admit I didn’t smell much. While reviewing the footage our guide (who worked for Nat Geo on the project apparently) seen his friends poaching in the woods. He laid the verbal smack down, and warned them if he caught them again he’d turn them into the police, or tie them to the tree and wait for the next toilet break.
After lunch we made the hike to Temple IV. This is the tallest pre-colombian pyramid in the Americas at a dizzying 230 feet tall. We made the climb up the wooden staircase attached to the side and then gingerly stepped out onto the stone platform. The view was insane (it’s the featured image at the top of this page). As far as the eye could see was nothing but verdant jungle to the horizon. The only signs of humanity were the tops of the other temples, conspicuous, like stepping stones in a pond. Unlike Temples 1&2 the rest of the temples are still aren’t excavated fully. They are still surrounded by jungle and choked by mud and vines. Peering down from the top of Temple IV the jungle clawed at my feet like a hungry zombie. It was an amazing experience to to sit here and gaze in wonder at a scene that looked utterly untouched by modernity. Then a giant jungle rat ran by and tried to grab my lunch. These creatures that look like large sleek raccoons are called coatyls, and like their north american cousins, are the cat burglars of the animal world. Screw those guys.
I found it hard to choose a favourite between Chichen Itza and Tikal, both are pretty similar. However purely due to the view from Temple IV I’d have to give the nod to Tikal. It’s a place still only emerging from the jungle, like a landscape time has forgotten. Walking the jungle paths alone listening to the bellows of the howler monkeys you just hope you aren’t pounced on by a puma and pissed on.
Back in the tiny town of Flores I was delighted to spy the asian-style tuk tuks plying their trade through the narrow little streets. It’s a bright and breezy place surrounded by an impossibly blue lake and cute little multicoloured buildings and houses. There is a beautiful white church near the town square right beside the school. I was enjoying my day in the sun here initially until I suddenly realised a grown single man hanging around outside a school looked a little dodgy. I decided on a more socially acceptable pastime. I went to the bar.
The mosquitoes here in Guatemala have to be the most aggressive I’ve seen anywhere. Sitting in the hostel lobby you are instantly surrounded by swarms of the satanic bastards. And not just one or two, I mean swarms. Stock up on your malaria pills and insect repellent, you’re gonna need both. Big time. After a few minutes my chair is streaked with small bloody patches of ex-mosquito. Malaria and a dozen other transmittable and possibly life threatening diseases are a small price to pay for free WiFi though.
In the early hours of the morning I began my long trek back north into Mexico. First though I’d have to spend a night in Belize City and book the ADO bus there to take me to Cancun airport. I eventually found my guesthouse – an old wooden house down near the port. The owner was a strange fish to say the least. After checking in I spent two or three hours listening to her as she told me how she tried to set up her husband with her friends to see if he would cheap on her. Then she broke down in tears and cried about how she didn’t deserve him. I kinda agreed with her, but decided it was probably wiser not to turn this into a central american Jeremy Kyle. I sneaked out to get something to eat and soon I found myself at the famous rotating bridge. Twice a day this small one lane bridge is rotated by hand to allow the boats to pass through. I nipped inside the little restaurant here on the corner to get some food, after sitting down I came face to face with the biggest spider I’ve ever seen. Seriously this was one of those dinner plate sized abominations that would have Godzilla reaching for the newspaper. Sometimes nature is jaw droppingly beautiful and rewards those that take the time to seek it out. Other times it drops the pretense, spits in your face and tries to kill you with all eight of it’s hairy legs.
Things weren’t much safer back on the streets. Random guys just get up off the ground and start following you around, trying to sell you drugs or just generally yelling random insults at you. I never thought I’d be missing the companionship of Prince Charles Perez but here I was telling people I didn’t know to fuck off and leave me alone. I sneaked back into the guest house and up to my room. Thankfully I think my host had passed out in the kitchen.
The next evening the rain was torrential, and the streets had flooded. I waded down to the bus station, the filthy water lapping at my knees. Once down there I did my best to dry my socks and shoes out before changing into new ones. A local guy seen me and started ranting how the corrupt government had pocketed all the money earmarked for improving the streets and installing a drainage system. As a result every time it rains it turns into a deluge, the only people able to get by are those that had to foresight to build an ark. “The corruption is insane! This would never happen in Europe!”
I’ve heard Belize is a beautiful country, and what I seen of the countryside from the bus window bore this out. The Caribbean islands off it’s coast and cayes that punctuate them are world famous, while the reefs are supposedly spectacular and among the largest and most colourful in the world. I’d love to revisit some day and see The Great Blue Hole for myself.
My advice would be get the hell out of central Belize City as soon as possible though. Humanity has lost here.
Back on the ADO bus we traveled through the night and back across the Mexican border to arrive at Cancun airport just as the sun was about to rise. From here I had a flight booked to Cuba. For a country that seemed at first glance to be pretty inaccessible (to US citizens anyway) it was surprisingly easy to get the visa. There was a special visa counter at the Cubana desk opposite the check-in counters. All that was needed was to fill in the short form and hand over my passport. After the $25 dollar fee I was given the slip right away. Easy. Almost disappointingly easy actually.
Exciting times. This would be my first time visiting a Caribbean island, a pivotal figure in the Cold War and a bastion of piracy during the golden age of sail. I heard they have rum too.
Next time : Classic cars and classic scams and I find a nuclear warhead.