A Guatemalan Adventure and a Belizean Dream
From November 2013 to January 2014, Andy and I traveled through vibrant Guatemala and laid back Belize. These pages share the stories of our journey- by Jodi Stolle.
"Guatemalan's are short, round and friendly" - Andy.
Despite Andy's succinct view of the Guatemalan's, they just can't be summed up in a few words. They are many things. They are cowboys and rebels. They are pious and hard working. They are laid back and easy going. They are polite and friendly, but shy and modest. They will go out of their way to help a stranger, and do anything for their family and friends, and God they love a chat. It doesn't matter if you speak their language or not. They are patient people and proud of their country. They are talented weavers, carvers, farmers and gardeners, and are some of the happiest people you are likely to meet. But behind the smiles and generosity of many exists struggle. Families outside the city and wealthy towns have lots of mouths to feed and many go hungry. The effects of drinking and poverty are a common sight on the streets. However, despite the many things these people experience and represent they all have one thing in common, and that is that they are all the heart and soul of Guatemala.
Estudio de Español
During our first week in Guatemala we stayed at a Spanish school in the pretty town of Antigua. For a small price, we spent a week in a little castle surrounded by balconettes, a rooftop terrace and a glass wall that overlooked the magnificent Volcan Agua (one of the three volcanoes that surround Antigua).
For four hours each morning, we studied Spanish in the gardens. Our tutors, Rebecca and Lily, would teach us so much more than just the language. They would teach us about their lives, the lives of the Guatemalan people, and their culture and their history.
With afternoons off, we spent time discovering the town and it's hidden courtyards. We searched through the markets, sat in Antigua's social centre - the park, and watched it all happen around us, we listened to preachers frothily deliver the word of God, and, of course, tried to find the best mojito and practise our crap Spanish.
AntiguaClick thumbnail to view full-size
Antigua Tuk Tuk
Miguel, the Tradesman, the Father and the Widower
On the third day of our lessons, Lily told me a story about a man who lost his wife and was left to raise his 10 children on his own. She began the story by telling me that a few days earlier, her water heater had broken and that yesterday, Miguel the repair man, looking thin, pale and drawn had shown up at her door with three children in tow to repair it. Concerned, Lily asked Miguel if he was sick and that's when the flood gates opened. Miguel broke down and wept.
You see, Miguel had just lost his wife whilst giving birth to their 10th child. Her heart couldn't take any more and so now he was a single father with 10 kids to feed. In order to cope, he was forced to send his eldest son to the city to find work, the next three eldest were taken out of school and sent to work with him each day to learn the trade, the youngest five were at home alone and the newborn baby was given away.
As sad as this story is, unfortunately it is also a common one for many Mayan families in Guatemala. Its traditional for Mayans to have big families. They have little money, access to education and medical.
Volcan Pacaya - A Trip to the Dragon's Lair
"A good trip with dogs and explosions" - Andy.
Highlights: Over a packet of M&Ms, Andy makes friends with a local dog.:: Dog becomes Andy's personal tour guide.:: Eating volcano steamed marshmallows on a stick.:: A one person volcano sauna.:: Volcano surfing.:: Awesome tacos for lunch.
Feature: Watching the dragon breathe, cough and spew molten rock from its gaping mouth hundreds of metres into the air.
Lowlights: Eating lunch in front of starving animals and children in the village at the base of the volcano. You would think that living at the base of an active volcano was bad enough.:: Offering our uneaten biscuits and chocolate to the children and having the food desperately snatched from our hands like it had been days since they had last eaten. It looked more like weeks.:: Knowing that whatever food or money you did offer wasn't enough.
Finca El Paraiso's Hot Waterfall
"A really pretty place and a lovely day" - Andy.
On the 8th of December, we arrived at our first tropical destination, the Rio Dulce (sweet river). The rio is hot, wet, full of mosquitos and is still a beautiful place to relax. When you come to the rio there are three things you have to do before you leave. You have to cruise the rio, check out the Castillo de San Felipe and visit the hot waterfall at Finca El Paraiso.
To get to Finca El Paraiso, you've got to hop a collectivo from town, pack in the van with 50 or so locals, half of which are hanging out the slide door and hang on while the guy at the wheel redlines it to your destination only slowing down to pick up or drop off literally anyone standing on the side of the road. The regular slowdowns for pick ups and drop offs are probably the only reason the collectivos and their passengers make it to their destinations alive.
After the collectivo drops you off at your stop on the road, its a short walk through the jungle to the hot falls and swimming holes that are fed by a thermal spring. Local families come here on weekends to relax, socialise and bathe in the mud. So, when in Rome.........
Then after a really great day, when you're all talked out, mud mask fresh, and have a thermally singed backside, its back to the road to flag the next death wish collectivo into town.
The Rio DulceClick thumbnail to view full-size
Castillo de San FelipeClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Garifuna town of Livingston, GuatemalaClick thumbnail to view full-size
Belize Fast Facts
Population: 334,000 people = lots of space.
Armed Forces: A heafty 1,000 personnel, deployed to protect Belize's borders from the Mexican and Cuban drug traffickers and from the Guatemalan's trying to reclaim what they lost.
Food: Fried plaintains (Andy's favourite), rasta rice, creole fish, lobster and shrimp till you burst, jerk chicken cooked by big mamas, and an endless pie list; sweet potato pie, caye lime pie, coconut pie, sweet rice pie....... Result - no skinny people but everyone has a smile.
Culture: Garifuna, Rastafarian/Creole, Mayan, Amish and Mennonite.
Transport: Buses, water taxis, tiny planes and hitchin a ride are the way to go in Belize. Buses are the most commonly used mode of transport. They are slow but cheap, dependable and easy to catch, just stand on the road and stick out your arm. With the exception of Belize's three highways, roads outside of the city are generally unpaved, and all, paved or not, resemble a heavily bunkered golf course with the added butt bruising fun of regular speed humps used as an alternative to traffic lights.
Beaches: With a Pina Colada in hand, Belize's gorgeous, laid back Caribbean beaches give you the serenity you've been searching for....... just as long as you brought the insect repellent because the 'no-see-ums' will eat you alive.
No-see-ums: Invisible biting midges.
Population of 'no-see-ums': More than you could count even if you could see um.
Number of tourists covered in angry no-see-um bites: A lot.
Oddities: Skinny white boys with a Rasta accent.
Maya Beach and PlacenciaClick thumbnail to view full-size
Marie Sharp's Hot Sauce
"She's the hottest girl in Belize and everyone's tasted her" - Andy.
You can find her all over Belize, in every restaurant, every market and in every cafè. Marie Sharp's hot sauces are a national icon.
Her sauces range from mild to comatose. XXXXX rated for a comatose heat is Marie's hottest sauce, BEWARE, which comes with it's own beware warning, not to be given to the young, old or frail.
However, no matter which sauce you choose, mild, comatose or somewhere in between, you won't be disappointed. Marie Sharp is very, very, tasty.
Hopkins Police Station
Hopkins Police Arrest Procedure
Step one: Ride solo police bicycle to scene.
Step two: Cuff perpetrator,
Step three: Walk perpetrator and bicycle back to the abandoned looking building that is the Hopkins Police Station .
Step four: Arrest success!
HopkinsClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Drumming Lesson
"It was interesting" - Andy.
A 13 December bike ride through the cratered sandy roads of the Garifuna town of Hopkins ended at a little hidden bar where the best Garifuna drummers in Belize were waiting to give us a private lesson in how to carry a rhythm.
Things started off ok. Basic one-two beats weren't a problem, but when our drummer boy, Warren, began to up the tempo, things came undone. My lack of coordination; my frustration; the fact I was white, limited my drumming abilities. So when we hit the fourth rhythm, the cracks opened, the dam burst and everything fell apart including our guide, Neil, who found it very difficult to keep himself upright and on his chair laughing at my attempts to hold it together. Warren says, "relax man". I say, "you trying being uptight and white".
That fourth rhythm. I hate that rhythm! Even as I write this, Andy is drumming it. That bastard.
"Its only three beats!" - Andy.
The Snorkel Trip
"Good. Lots of fish."- Andy
It was the first sunny day that we'd had in Hopkins, so we were down at the jetty first thing for a snorkel trip out to the reef.
The Belize Barrier Reef runs the length of the country and is one of the largest barrier reefs in the world. It is home to reef sharks, rays, turtles, conch, squid and thousands of tropical fish.
Our first snorkel site took us through underwater canyons and valleys and was spectacular, but being on the exposed side of the reef made things a little rolly. About 30 minutes into it, I started to feel, couldn't quite put my finger on it ..... odd. Then at about the 45 minute mark, I puked a little in my snorkel. Woops, too many eggs at breakfast? At the hour mark, the call to return to the boat was made and as soon as I set foot on deck, my legs went and I nearly lost it all over the side. That's when I figured it out, seeeeasick. Thankfully it was a short ride to one of the cayes whilst everyone besides Andy and the crew, lost theirs over the side.
Land! Beautiful, solid, stable, non-moving land!
After everyone had made a full recovery on stability, fruit, biscuits, and juice, it was back on the boat to snorkel site two. Thankfully this site was on the sheltered side of the reef. Lovely, calm, non-rolling water, a turtle, and beautiful rays made it a gorgeous site and all in all a great day. Even after I discovered that the sunscreen I had chosen wasn't the waterproof one. Oops.
The Belizean Air Cab
"Not as terrifying as expected" - Andy.
On the 15th of December, we decided to cut some time off our travel and fly from Dangriga to Caye Caulker saving us a couple of hours on our trip. However, the anticipated short flight turned out to be a multiple stop cab ride.
It began with a short 20 minute flight from Dangriga to the first stop, Belize International Airport, to drop off everyone on the plane bar us. Then off again for a five minute flight to the second stop, Belize Municipal Airport, so we could watch the movie Click in the lounge. Then it was back to the first stop, Belize International, to pick up more people, pack 'em in like fat sardines and finally, finally off to our intended destination and the fourth stop on the joyous up-down cab ride, Caye Caulker.
15 minutes later we were on ground and watching the 'US super size me's' that we left on board take off again for a more 'bigger is better', American style caye.
Going Slow on Caye Caulker
"If I went any slower, I'd still be going" - Andy.
The Belizean island of Caye Caulker prides itself on it's laid back lifestyle. Here, the locals spend their days sitting under a coconut tree, selling conch shells, coconuts and chatting.
The island is only three miles long, so you don't have to go far to get what you want and that leaves plenty of time for hammock swinging, drinking pina coladas and watching the sun go down at the Lazy Lizard. The island has three main streets that run the length of it and are practically named, front, back and middle street. There are no sidewalks or paved roads, it is all just lovely white sand. No cars are allowed on the island, people get around on golf carts, bikes or on foot.
Caye Caulker is the island of chill, and to make sure that you don't forget, there are 'Go Slow' signs everywhere. The best snorkelling in the country is also found here at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and there are plenty of tours falling over themselves to get you on their yacht for the day.
A person could spend a lot of time here, swinging in a hammock, swimming off the jetties and chasing the big rays.
Chaa Creek and San IgnacioClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Ball Game
"It sounds like an incredibly difficult game of hacky sac which results in the loser having his still beating heart ripped out of his chest." - Andy
An integral part of the ancient Mayan civilisation was the ball game. The ball game was used for amusement, to settle differences, to determine life or death, or most importantly, it was used to determine whether a city's ruler, who had been captured in battle, would reclaim or lose his city to the rule of another. Because the outcome of the ball game for a captured city meant so much, the best ball players were often also the city rulers.
When a city was taken by another in battle, the captured ruler was given a chance to keep his life and win back his city in the ball game. However, no victorious ruler would want to risk losing the city he'd just acquired, so before the ball game was played, he spent time getting to know his prisoner and lulling him into a false sense of security. The captive ruler was treated like royalty, afforded every luxury except freedom and studied very closely. When his capturer decided that he had learnt all of his captive's strengths and weaknesses, the ball game was called.
To win the ball game, the players had to manoeuvre a rubber ball across the ball court using their elbows, hips and knees, without it touching the ground, and eventually, through a stone hoop or target. The loser of the ball game would lose his city and his life. Death would be a sacrifice to the Gods by decapitation, the removal of all limbs or have their still beating heart ripped from their chest.
Some of the best things that happen on a holiday are those off the beaten track. They take you away from it all and allow you to lose yourself. For Andy and I, that was Belize's ATM Cave.
The ATM Cave in the jungle is a 5km underground river and cave system used by the Mayans to perform religious ceremonies and sacrifices. To this day it's still very much undiscovered with an unknown quantity of sacrificial and ceremonial artifacts. The small portion that has been revealed hosts skeletons, clay pots, tools, and jewellery.
When we arrived in San Ignacio the cave had been closed for a month due to heavy rain. With only three days in the area before we had to cross back over the Guatemalan border, we thought we were going to miss our chance. But on our last day luck was on our side, the rain stopped and they opened the cave. Hallelujah! However, everyone in San Ignacio had been waiting for the cave to open, so when it did, every van going out there was filled in a heartbeat. It took some doing but we found a guy who could take us out and we were off.
On arrival after an hour and a half's drive, our guide instructed us to dump everything except our water bottle, took us through a safety briefing and hiked us 45 minutes through jungle. The safety briefing went something like: "Stay on the path and don't touch anything - everything bites and stings. Do what I tell you, you are going to get wet, so get used to it. And don't pee in the water- the fish will swim up your whatsit and you don't want that."
So after the 45 minute hike and three river crossings up to our necks in flood water, holding on to each other for dear life in an effort to not to get washed downstream, we made it to the mouth of the cave. We still had a 1.5 km trek to go inside before we reached the site, and due to the recent heavy rains the water was high, cold and moving fast.
We plunged into the cold water and began swimming and scrambling upstream, pushing against the current, sometimes dragging each other through tough spaces like a monkey chain. After an hour or so, shivering from the cold water, we finally climbed out onto a cavernous dry space littered with artifacts. Making our way slowly along the scratched out path in single file and wet socks, trying not to step on anything was difficult.... artifacts were literally everywhere- including under the clay beneath our feet.
The best finds were the skeleton of a 14 year old boy still lying in the position he was sacrificed, and the misshapen skull of another.
The Mayans were avid body sculpters, binding babies heads at birth to create a cone shape skull as they grew, filing the teeth of warriors into sharp points to make them more fearsome, and embedding jade stones into the teeth of royalty. The misshapen skull I mentioned earlier was flat and wide instead of a cone shape. The parents of this boy hadn't bound the head correctly causing it to grow sideways. This boy didn't look like he was supposed to and that may have played a part in the decision to sacrifice him. It's an eerie feeling, standing in the place where people suffered pain and death and others had tried to alter their states of being.
With that creepy feeling, it was time to get our shoes back on and leave. Getting out was infinitely faster and easier than getting in. All you had to do was lie on your back and let the current rush you out. Emerging from the cave and the cold water, we welcomed the heat of the jungle..... until the mosquitoes found us. Then, it was a race back to the van, with everyone trying to outrun someone fatter and juicier than themselves.
The ATM Cave is, hands down, the best adventure you could have in Belize.
So what did we do, while we were waiting for the ATM Cave to open? We visited the Amish.
Return to Guatemala
Flores IslandClick thumbnail to view full-size
Is There Something On My Face?
As you walk through what remains of Guatemala's largest ancient Mayan city, Tikal, you are awestruck by it's beauty and immensity. Enormous temples peak through the jungle canopy casting shadows that stretch for kilometres, beautiful green plazas separate stone buildings, and jungle Coatis run around your feet looking for ants. As you climb to the top of the stone temples the view of the ancient city, now partially swallowed by the jungle, is breathtaking. Tikal is truly a beautiful and wonderous place................. and then someone sticks a tarantula on your face!
Lake AtitlànClick thumbnail to view full-size
How to make a Traditional Mayan Headdress
La Navidad (Christmas)Click thumbnail to view full-size
A Xmas Eve Fiesta
"How much Space is too much Space?" - Andy
On Christmas Day, Andy and I attended a Christmas turkey banquet put on by expats for the crowd away from home. At $20 a head we stuffed ourselves with fruit punch, canapes and a buffet that the Roman's would give up their empire for.
Mouths watering, we lined up at the buffet table and wondered how we were going to get it all on our plates. The chef had been cooking for days and was standing at the head of the mile long table looking chuffed about the result. When it was our turn, the chef asked us if we were doing Space. With no clue what Space was, we said, "yes, of course." We made our way along the table filling our plates and eventually reached the gravy section. There were a number of marked jugs on the table. One of them was marked 'Space', so we kept our promise to the chef and covered our plates in it.
Returning to our table we wolfed down the first round and just as Andy was chewing on his turkey leg the chef approached and asked if everything was ok. "Beautiful" we said. "Delicious." Chuffed again, he smiled and we asked, "Sooooo, tell us. What's Space?" Grinning wider now, he replied, "It's gravy infused with marijuana and it's all over your turkey. So, don't worry, it won't be long until you have space for more." Things just got interesting.
Some time later, the owner, doing his table rounds, comes over and asks if we'd like more Space. Of course we did! Give it to us, and put it all over our turkey.The owner visits us again and again offering more Space and each time he found us greedy and waiting. Maybe it was on his second or third visit to our table, time was no longer clearly defined, that Andy looks up at him and says, "How much Space is too much Space?" Far out, I fall off my chair in a fit and the owner points to me and says, "that's too much Space. You two aren't going anywhere for a while." So that freaked me right out. What did he mean?
After I pondered what he could have meant for a few minutes, or maybe it was a few hours, we thought it would be best if we left before things got weird, so we bolted down the street back to the hostal bar. It was only a block away, how could it have taken us a couple of hours to get there?............
Chi-Chi MarketsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Do I Take a Chicken Bus?
The pros and cons of the buses de pollo. You decide.
Chicken buses - suped up old US school buses.
- They stop wherever you don't want.
- They're full of thieves.
- Their number one favourite thing is driving on the wrong side of the road at break-neck speed.
- Their number two favourite thing is overtaking in the face of oncoming vehicles.
- No one on them speaks English.
- They stop wherever you want.
- They provide opportunities to meet interesting people.
- They're cheap.
- They go like the wind.
- They're indestructible and colourful.
- Loads of opportunity to practice your Spanish.
Guatemala is the 'land of bang'. They bang in the streets, the squares, the parks and their houses. Its a Guatemalan past time and they make the most of it.
Banging is a group activity, children run through the streets with fists full of explosives throwing down bangers at the feet of passers by. Old men giggle in their doorways after letting off a good one. Banging activities are stepped up during Xmas and New Year. No one gets any sleep then, the streets are covered in bits of exploded paper, the dogs become a quivering mess, the place sounds like Beirut and everyone has a great time.
At Lake Atitlàn, neighbouring villages challenge each other by exploding canon-like bombas that echo off the surrounding hills and volcanoes. One town sets the challenge by letting off an explosion that sounds like it cleared a small block and is soon answered by an equal or greater explosion from a neighbouring village. The back and forth continues until there is a winner that cannot be matched or someone runs out of bombas. Its very entertaining.
These people don't need tickets to a fancy show or an expensive dinner to entertain themselves, they have something better. They have explosives!
Return to Antigua - Casa Santo DomingoClick thumbnail to view full-size
Un Dia Mucha Peligrosa (A Dangerous Day)
30 Dec 2013
8:00am: The news reports that a chicken bus has run off the road and down a ravine killing or seriously injuring everyone inside.
10:00am: We spend the morning blissfully discovering the ruins of Antigua's monasteries and cathedrals.
1:45pm: We are told that our mountain bike ride has been called off because the ride that went out four hours earlier had been held up by a man and his two sons with guns and machetes.
2:00pm: Disappointed that we couldn't do the ride but relieved that it wasn't us that had been held up, we get on a different ride going out to a local coffee plantation.
3:00pm: One of the guides on the ride gets hit by a drunk driver in his pickup truck.
5:00pm: Frightened, three people in the group decide not to return to Antigua on the bikes.
7:00pm: We run into Andrea (backpacker from London) for the fourth time on our tour of Guatemala and Belize and join her on a pub crawl.
10:00pm: A nearby volcano rumbles in the distance, reminding us that it is very much alive. Andy worries about his volcano climb the next morning.
Footnote: The guide hit by the car was not hurt.
Huevos con Salsa de Tomate
In Central America, all eggs come with tomato salsa. Not like the cold salsa we have at home that goes on bruschetta or nachos but a delicious warm salsa sauce. All eggs come with it on the side and they are delicious.
Why don't we have this? Our eggs are plain. They are boring and lifeless without this kick. Do we know what we are missing for breakfast? Are we destined to suffer boring eggs for the rest of our lives?