Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Recap of November 2018 - Part II

This is a continuation of my post from last week: A Recap of November 2018 - Part I

Week Three

After being out until 1:00 a.m. on November 15th, Alfonso and I woke up a couple of hours later at 3:30 a.m. and he drove me to the Fuente del Norte bus station in Guatemala City. I had a ticket for the 7:15 bus but we arrived early enough that I was able to get a seat on the 5:20 bus just before it departed. The drive to Flores took more than 11 hours with one 20-minute pit stop at the bus station in Morales. The scenery was mountainous heading east and we had to go very slow due to construction on the winding main road. It eventually opened up to farmland and cattle ranches. The landscape was very green and sparsely populated.
Interesting scenery on the bus ride to Flores.
I arrived on the island of Flores that evening and went for a sunset walk along the lakefront before retiring to my hostel to catch up on sleep. The next day was the first time in several weeks that I had no plans other than to do some reading, writing and research. But when I got in touch with Selene Castro (a member of the extended Perez family), I was soon on my way to her beautiful home in nearby San Benito and thus began a full day of adventure. Along with Selene’s husband Francisco, we set off on an eight hour exploration which included the caves at Actun Kan, the Mayan archaeological site of Yaxha, and sunset at a dock in El Remate on Lake Peten Itza. The entire day was such an unexpected and delightful surprise! That evening I discovered that my new loftmate at the hostel was a girl from Portland, Ore., a first occurrence during more than two months of travel at this point.
Francisco shines a light on some
interesting formations in the cave.
The next morning I met a shuttle driver at 3:00 a.m. for the hour-long trip to Tikal, the vast Mayan archaeological site in northeastern Guatemala. There is nothing like hiking through the pitch black jungle at 4:30 in the morning with two other travelers (one from Australia and one from the Netherlands) plus a guide with only a headlamp to keep us from tripping over tree roots or stepping on insects or animals! We summited Temple IV just after 5:00 a.m. and sat quietly at the top for an hour, listening to the jungle wake up as sunlight slowly illuminated the landscape around us. Afterward, we spent the next five hours exploring the ruins; a couple more hours with our guide and the remainder of the time on our own.
Me climbing one of the many pyramids at Tikal.
After taking a two-hour nap upon my return to the hostel in Flores, I enjoyed a sunset dinner on the rooftop of a nearby restaurant. Then I walked up the steep hill to the main plaza for the town’s Christmas light illumination party complete with food vendors, fireworks, and live music. While enjoying the festivities, I ended up bumping into the couple from Wisconsin whom I met in Monterrico (on the completely opposite end of the country) one week before.
The recently illuminated Christmas tree in Flores.
The next morning I had a ticket on the one daily bus that goes from Flores to San Ignacio in Belize. The border crossing was painless but took over one hour because of a problem with one couple’s documents. I actually crossed the border on foot: you take all of your luggage off the bus, get stamped out of Guatemala, walk about 200 feet, and get stamped into Belize. I arrived in San Ignacio around noon and, after checking into the guesthouse, I walked to the main tourist street in town to arrange for an excursion to Caracol. That evening I had a delicious meal of a traditional Garifuna dish called hudut (mashed plantains and coconut soup served with a whole fried fish) at Authentic Flavors, a restaurant that was recommended by the manager at MayaWalk Tours.
San Ignacio has some fantastic murals!
I was at the MayaWalk office the next morning at 6:45, ready to depart for Caracol, the largest Mayan site in Belize. We ended up delaying our departure until 7:30 because all of the activities that involved water, in particular the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves, had all been canceled for safety reasons due to heavy rain overnight. Those people were given the option of a full refund or to transfer to another tour. We left with 11 passengers. I soon discovered that the only other solo traveler in the group was a woman from Beaverton, Ore. I also met a couple who live near Seattle, Wash.
This is before the road got really bad.
The tour was a lot of fun and really necessitates a dedicated blog post to describe it in full detail. Suffice it to say that the road to the archaeological site requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle and takes about two hours each way to navigate. After being tossed around the van like rag dolls, it then continued to rain, hard, for the first hour of our tour at the site, meaning we were squishing through the mud, slipping on the worn stones of the ruins, and battling to keep our cameras dry and defogged in the hot and humid jungle air. This also meant that we did not get to do two of the activities that are normally part of this tour: exploring Rio Frio cave and swimming at Rio On pools. But the sun came out eventually, I saw lots of interesting and unique birds, and the ruins, as always, were a sight to behold. Upon our return to San Ignacio that evening, I ended up hanging out with Lauren from Beaverton (Lauren, if you're reading this, thanks again for the beers, food, and friendship!) and a couple from Sweden who were also on the tour, drinking beer and talking about life and travel.
This is Rio On after a couple of days of heavy rain.
The next morning I had time to visit the smaller but no less impressive Mayan site of Cahal Pech which sits above the town of San Ignacio. For a bit more legwork but $90 less than cost of the tour yesterday, I had the entire site completely to myself for the better part of two hours. I returned to the guesthouse just before another torrential downpour that lasted for over an hour and quickly flooded the streets. I also discovered that all of the public water supply in the entire city had been shut off for an unannounced reason. It was still off (at that point going on six hours) when I departed for Hopkins.
I loved having the ruins at Cahal Pech all to myself!
The drive to Hopkins took about three hours, first going east to Belmopan and then continuing on the Hummingbird Highway which runs southeast to Dangriga. About 8 km before reaching the coast we turned right onto the Southern Highway and followed it to the turnoff for Hopkins. The scenery was mostly pastureland, banana trees, and citrus (orange and grapefruit) orchards. In Belize, the fruit is processed into a juice concentrate which is then exported to the U.S. to make a well-known brand of the breakfast beverage. Since this is harvest season, we passed many large trucks hauling huge loads of fruit to the processing plants.
Citrus fruit in transit to a processing plant in Belize.
Upon my arrival in Hopkins I immediately noticed two things: 1. The town is tiny, essentially two streets running parallel to each other and to the Caribbean Sea; and 2. The vast majority of people were dark-skinned. This is because Hopkins is one of several Garifuna settlements along the coast.
The beach in Hopkins, Belize.
Since this post is already running long, I will continue with my third and final November recap as soon as possible, including more information about the Garifuna culture.


  1. Direct commenting is bizarre. Not a bad thing, just isn't done anymore. I enjoy doing something different ;)

    How are you mostly finding tours? Online search, locals etc?

    Your description of the rain and flooding is fantastic.

    1. Thanks! For the tours, especially if there are many operators, I check reviews and prices online using TripAdvisor, Google, and other blogs and, if I have time in advance, I do on the ground research at the destination. In the second case I ask around at the hostel and see if anyone has just done the same or a similar tour and also ask the proprietors if they have recommendations.