For this last entry, I thought I would talk about some sites I visited in and around Chicibul.
Not far from my place was Barton Creek Cave, so I booked a guide and took the tour. The cave is about one mile down the road from my place and then 7 miles east down another pretty rough road. The first surprise on the road was that we passed through Mennonite farmland. There is a substantial Mennonite presence in Belize and these folks appeared to be a more conservative community. I saw a charming horse-drawn wagon driven by a maybe 11 year old boy and filled with school boys and girls in denim overalls and broad hats or gingham dresses. A number of farmers were out in their fields with their horses but the most interesting sight was their horse-powered sawmill in operation. I chose not to take any pictures out of respect - sorry, you'll just have to make the trip.
The cave is accessible by canoe and goes back into the mountain maybe 1/3 of a mile. It is a very tall and narrow cave that my guide said was used by the Mayans for spiritual and religious purposes. Caves are pretty tough places to take photos while drifting along, but here are pictures of the entrance and the interior.
The more famous cave adventure in Belize is called Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM for short. This is a clambering/wading tour highlighted by access to a Mayan burial. Folks I talked to raved about it but I didn't have time to fit it in. The Barton Creek cave was an enjoyable hour or two and, combined with the opportunity to see the local Mennonite farms, worth a visit.
Back in San Ignacio I also visited the local Mayan ruin, Cahal Pech. It is right in town at the top of the hill. It's a compact site with a main courtyard, a ball court and additional buildings. Excavation and study is still under way; I was fortunate that one of the archaeologists was giving a tour to a group of college students (in English!) so I discreetly listened in. The aim of the excavation was to document the peoples who lived on the site in the years after it had fallen to ruins, abandoned abruptly (around 1000 CE) like so many of these sites. I really enjoyed this site. It is a quiet location, has a lot of interesting structures and is not too crowded. For me, another key asset was that I was on my own; I could spend time looking closely at things, taking photos and just sitting and taking in the experience. This was one of the high points of my trip. There is also a small museum with historical information and some interesting artifacts. Here are a few photos.
I also took a full-day guided tour to Guatemala's Tikal ruins. It is about a 3 hour drive from San Ignacio. When we crossed the border into Guatemala, we walked across the border and boarded a different vehicle, probably to avoid waiting for a vehicle search. We passed through some attractive countryside in Guatemala, often along lakeshores. Here's a picture from a brief rest stop on the way.
Arriving at Tikal, I found the contrast to Cahal Pech dramatic. Tikal is huge, magnificent and crowded. While at Cahal Pech there was relative peace and I set my own pace, Tikal is busy and with a guide, there was a lot of 'you now have 20 minutes to climb to the top of this temple and get back down here.' It's understandable given the length of the trip. Our guide was courteous and informative, but was clearly motivated to keep us moving. Despite the pace, I was able to get a few pictures.
Doesn't look too crowded, does it? I was able to work around folks pretty well, considering. Most of the impressive stone stairways at Tikal are off limits to tourists - it is pretty dangerous to climb them as if you slip there is no way to arrest your fall. There have been deaths as a result. Climbing is allowed at the smaller temple above. So I did it (tut, tut)....
We headed back, stopping for lunch and the traditional gift shop visit. I bought some organic Guatemalan coffee beans, which are pretty tasty.
I guess if I were going to Tikal now, I would make an effort to spend more than one day there, staying nearby and getting there early to enjoy the peace and quiet. I would also buy a guidebook and use it rather than engage a guide. Some car rental agencies in Belize can arrange for you to take your car into Guatemala but be sure to check in advance because some of them forbid this.
When I got back to my place, I decided to head out to a place I had heard of - Blancaneaux Lodge. A resort built by Francis Ford Coppola. I knew that it was near my place, but without a map or cell service, I just kind of headed farther up the road. I made one wrong turn and ended up in a village where the nice folks turned me around. When I found the road (it was pitch dark by the way) you are greeted by a guard at a gate who shines a flashlight in your eyes (zombie check?) then opens the gate with no further ceremony. The lodge is located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve which is a destination in itself, with caves and ruins of its own. It was another 7 miles down the road to the lodge. This road made the road to my place look like a freeway. It was very rough, lots of big ruts and potholes and, as I really had no idea where I was going, seemed to take a verrrry long time. Finally I spotted the resort (there are a very few small directional signs along the way).
It's gorgeous. It was night so I didn't see a lot, but I was very impressed with the grounds. I went in for dinner in a lovely screened outdoor dining area and enjoyed a delicious meal with excellent service. One extra treat was that there was a young couple staying there who had been on my Tikal tour and they invited me to join them for dinner. We had some really good conversation and wine (Coppola wine, of course) which really made the evening a treat. Prices were really pretty reasonable, so I would encourage you to check the place out.
The next day I took a road trip to the south of Belize just because. this took me into some of the more mountainous parts of the country which gave more open vistas than the lowlands
I turned around in Placencia, a small town with almost no tourist presence. It's right on the water but lacks beaches or docks and so is not particularly attractive to visitors, I guess. I headed home and packed for departure the next day.
My overall impression was, honestly, that I missed some stuff. I need to go back to see some manatees and mangroves up close, to spend time to contemplate Tikal, to explore some more caves and ruins, to snorkel at leisure, and to eat some more really good food. I suppose that is a reasonably good definition of a great vacation!
To close, here's the traditional sunset picture taken on my way back from Southern Belize.
Hope you enjoyed the trip!