Cohune Ridge

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  • Day353

    V. CA Belize/W1, 4d: San Igna-Caracol EN

    August 17, 2017 in Belize ⋅ ☁️ 12 °C

    We, 16.08. Border crossing Flores-Melchor de Mencos/Benque Viejo del Carmen-San Ignacio
    Super spontaneous and as I was already awake quite early again I made my way to Belize early in the morning, the last of the 7 Latin American countries and my already 64th country. Despite public Colectivo bus incl a stop at the market the border was with only 2h quite close, I could leave Guatemala without departure fee and super quick, Belize took unfortunately half an h and thus a bit longer. I immediately noticed that all signs were in English and everybody spoke English fluently, the Queen can also be found on all notes. Without a lot of waiting I then took a Colectivo taxi for only 10B$ or $5 to San Ignacio in the Cayo District, being only a 20min drive away.

    Welcome to Belize! :)
    As former British Honduras and member of the Commonwealth Belize is the only country in Central America where the official language is English instead of Spanish - a perfect country for beginners without Spanish skills but also one of the dearest. It is also the only country in Central America not having access to the Pacific; it is located on the Caribbean coast south-east of the Yucatán Peninsula and is in particular known for superb diving spots in Caye Caulker/Blue Hole, an UNESCO World Heritage Site and second largest barrier reef in the world as well as its numerous Mayan sites which are best visited from San Ignacio in the Maya Mountains.
    Capital is Belmopan with only 20,000 habitants, biggest city as well as cultural and economical centre is Belize City on the Caribbean coast, currency Belize Dollar, distances are measured in miles or foot and everything is a bit American incl overly cold air conditioning.
    Food is a mixture of Latin America and Caribbean with many Creolian menus - in most cases again white rice and red beans, often in coconut oil with chicken, beef or fried fish. Seafood and lobster in particular is always good and especially soups such as Seré (fish in coconut oil), Escabeche (chicken soup with onions) as well as Relleno Negro (chicken soup with black recado) are super delicious and offered with either rice or corn tortillas - finally again a nice alternative :) Breakfast usually consists of eggs and flour tortillas as well as 'fry jacks', heavily fried balls with meat or vegetables as well as many Chinese and Indian restaurants. Between 12 and 1pm everything is closed and dinner is also rather early between 6-8pm, perfect for me ;)
    The population is again rather conservative with a lot of machism and haggling only done in the markets. The crime rate is also quite high, one should especially be ware on the borders and get a hostel with lockers. Nevertheless the people are all friendly, it is just so strange that everybody speeks fluent English; I am not used to that anymore :P

    For time reasons and as I am not a diver anyway I decided to only do a 3-4d trip to the only 3-4h far away town of San Ignacio. Together with the neighbouring Santa Elena (oh yes, many of them :P) this friendly relaxed town is the touristic centre of the Cayo District (being the reason that it is also called Cayo) and the perfect getaway for many Mayan ruins and adventure tours along the Macal river.
    The town itself is not very big but very beautiful with the police station being the most prettiest and central building. By accident I found a cool hostel or rather campground with sleeping in a hammock for only USD 7.50 (Belize is rather expensive with an average of USD 15.00) nice and calm located on Macal River and across the Farmer's Markets.
    After lunch I spontaneously visited the small Mayan site Cahal Pech located on a hill only 20min from San Ignacio's centre. Small but still with many corridors, stairs, squares and temples it used to be the royal acropolis of an elite family with Audiencia as highest building from which you get a good view of the town as well as the Xunantunich ruins close to the Guatemalian border, good weather provided. It was also not that touristy, I was more or less the only one and there was again a lot of information about the Maya: They did not have a currency but traded same goods and later coffee beans; they were never interested in gold, the most important stone was jade; they used plants and animals as colours; temples were sacred places and not meant to be climbed by anyone like we tourists do it nowadays - usually it was priests and the stairs are so high to glorify the gods, every step was a bow; they knew about the wheel (there is a wooden dog on wheels) but it was not used for construction works; they were not as peaceful which can be seen on the many ball games, bloody religious rituals or sacrifices as well as fights and they also did not diasappear but can still be found in some villages. They were very smart people, good in agriculture and many arts such as bones, shells, stones, metals as well as ceramics which survived all the years.
    After that I treated myself with 'Black Dinner' or 'Relleno Negro', a.m. black chicken soup and presumably the most typical dish here - very yummy ;)

    Th, 17.08. San Ignacio: ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal)
    After the 3 smaller Maya sites in El Salvador, the huge complex Copán in Honduras, the enormous site Tikal in Guatemala, the small village Cahal Pech as well as the smaller site Xunantunich planned for Friday I needed a break from all the ruins and decided to do the absolute highlight here and recommended as number 1 of the caves by National Geographic: adventure canyoning in the caves and former Maya site ATM - Actun Tunichil Muknal, meaning cave of the stone tomb and was an absolute unique experience. Especially in this region Belize has a lot of caves such as the popular Caves Branch Cave and Barton Creek Cave; the first one is famous for tubing, the second one for canoing - which I all already did apart from canyoning in a cave :)
    Discovered in 1986 you can only visit them with one of Belize's dearest tours (usually $110, I haggled it down to $80 :)) in a combination of adventure canyoning and archaelogical remains. It is a 3 miles underwater river that can only be reached by swimming, subterranean chambers with nice stone/rock formations as well as 1000y old Mayan relicts but the most spectacular are the scelettons of the human sacrifices. As a tourist dropped his camera and destroyed a relict in the cave 5y ago in 2012 as well as for security reasons (to not have any splitters in the rivers/on the paths and to avoid injuries due to distraction) it is not allowed anymore to take pictures or to bring any other objects apart from helmet, headtorch, life vest and shoes - you also have to wear shorts and shirts over the bikini for religious reasons. The photo ban was a completely new experience for me, you thus enjoy everything a bit more ;)
    We were also a small group with only 8 people which you also should be especially in the caves with the many sharp rocks and instructions of the guides. After 1h normal and half an h drive via gravel road we first had a 40min walk through super green grass/forest scenery until the entrance of the cave where we already had 3 river crossings with super warm water - which was the opposite in the dark wet cave :P There we went 1h through the wet along super cool rock formations via pretty slippery and sharp stones mostly hip-high swimming or wading, partially super narrow through the caves. We also saw many cristals as well as some bats. On the dry part we had to take off our shoes and walk with socks only to protect the paths but it was absolutely unique: being 200m under the ground there were many signs of the Mayan culture and their sacrifices such as ceramics, skulls and scelettons. The cave was tremendous with so many colourful glittering rocks similar to coral reefs, very nice :) After almost 1,5h we then went back the same way through the river before treating ourselves with a typical lunch consisting of rice, beans, chicken and nachos as well as the obligatory Rum Punch, yummy :) It was a nice experience with a lot of walking, climbing, a bit of swimming; however no real adventure canyoning but rather culture - in contrast to the Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua with jumping as well as Semuc Champey in Guatemala with candles.

    Fr, 18.08. San Ignacio: Caracol & Maya Mountains
    Ah, the people in Belize are also all super punctual, friendly and especially honest, in contrast to Guatemala nobody really tried to poak on me.
    I went to Caracol, Belize's biggest Maya site that day. Apart from me there was only another guy from Luxemburg, it was thus almost a private tour and with a visit of the guide's mother and family also a nice local experience. They showed us the black orchid (Belize's national plant), Keelbild Tucan (Belize's national bird) as well as many fruits such as bananas, papayas, avocados etc. After that we entered the so called Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve located at an altitude of 460m - an incredibly nice scenery of mountains and dense pine forests and additionally to that an almost 2h ride incl massages via gravel roads ;)
    Caracol itself is Belize's biggest Maya site, won over Tikal in Guatemala and is located in Chiquibul Forest Reserve in the deep rainforest jungle only 7km from the Guatemalian border. Based on its remoteness, a.m. exhausting 2h ride it is not a much visited site (currently 100, in the main season 180 people per day) and you are accompanied by a military truck leaving the site at 2pm for security reasons. Only parts of it are discovered or maintained and on a surface of 180km2 it had 150,000 habitants - twice as much as Belize City today. The pyramid The Canaa is with 43m the highest building of the site and whole Belize from where you had again a nice view. Apart from Mayan history (corn people of the 3rd generation after 1. burnt similar to Sodom&Gomora, 2. flooded similar to Noah; Maya Calendar 360d + 5 unlucky days) there were again many animals such as grills, hawler monkeys and birds.
    After another typical lunch with rice, beans, chicken and fresh avocado we continued to Río Frío Cave - such a genious cave I have never seen something like that before with awesome rock formations, river, bats where you see both entrances at once - just look at the pictures ;) Same for the Río on Pools - super beautiful natural pools with genious whole body massage waterfalls, crystal-clear warm water as well as super hot rocks for sunbathing - just perfect to relax after climbing all the ruins in the heat and it is just amazing what nature offers us; btw this was my very first tour where I did not feel stressed but on the contrary the guide gave us a lot of time at all places, it was such an amazing day :)))

    Sa, 19.08. San Ignacio-Xunantunich-Santa Elena
    After another nice sunrise in the hammock I first went to San Ignacio's market in the morning - oh I just love the markets ;)
    After that I took the 30min chicken bus towards the Guatemalian border to visit the also a bit smaller Mayan site Xunantunich. The quiet village San José Succotz is located only 12km west of San Ignacio directly on the border to Guatemala next to the ruins of Xunantunich meaning 'Stone Maiden' - after a legend of the people from the village. It is the easiest one to reach, just by taking the bus to the Guatemalian border (super handy as I had to return to Flores anyway to make my way to Palenque and finally San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico) and then after a short free river ferry another 2km/20min uphill walk until the entrance. The site is located on an artificial hill with 5 hills and El Castillo, with 40m highest building incl the typical 13 portals (13 portals for the sky) from where you get a super view of the whole forest as well as the Guatemalian border - it was built over 4 generations with 500t limestone. Of course you also have to pay the double Gringo price here but it was definitively worth it: I have seldomly had sooo extremely loud hawler monkeys and also seen so many of them and so close. The ball game was again very important here as well as Yaxche (also known as Ceiba/Kapok/Silk Cotton Tree) - with 70m the highest tree of the rainforest, most common one in the Cayo region and very sacred for the Maya as tree of life (branches for the path to the sky, tree for the current life and roots as access to the underworld).
    Also sacred and portals to the underworld are caves which you will find a lot especially in the limestone region in Western Belize. Mayan did not use cemetories but had tombs directly below their buildings to stay close with their dead people and the earth was considered to be flat with white representing the North, red the East, yellow the South, black the West as well as green Ceiba for the centre. There was again a lot of military and it was already so hot at just about 10am - well, it is always worth getting up early, above all as it was Saturday and the site full with a lot of super loud American and British tourist groups :P However, I could still enjoy the views from all 3 main buildings - just unbeliezable :)))
    I then took a Colectivo taxi to the border where the taxi driver informed me that a hurricane is likely to reach Belize's coast on Tuesday also explaining the extreme heat; best preparations are to get a 3-4days water and food supply as well as a safe house of cement. Having paid the $20 Belizian exit fee I went back to Guatemala passing Yaxhá lake and ruins where I then enjoyed Flores island and the sunset and only had to do some orga stuff for Mexico.

    Similar to Honduras I did not have enough time to see more of Belize but I got an absolute positive impression: Super friendly people, better food and nice scenery - absolutely worth returning :)
    The only drawback are the costs, financially I was especially with the two with $80 super expensive tours unfortunately over my budget of 33€/d, having spent almost 195€ in 4d or around 49€/d and thus 64€ too much; which I can hopefully get back in presumably cheaper Mexico ;)
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Cohune Ridge