05.24.2011 35 °C
We left Antigua early morning with one of these overpriced, packed and uncomfortable tourist shuttles. The only advantage they have is that they take you from A to B without having to change 10 times on the way and it appears that they are surprisingly less targeted by highway robbers who are known to shoot public buses in Guatemala. That being said we felt a lot better later on in Guatemala when we finally managed to escape the crowds of tourists and hop on local buses, which turned out to be more spacious than the tourist shuttles.
We arrived in the evening in Semuc Champey, a site renowned for underwater caves and natural swimming holes deep into the forest. We stayed in a nice hotel, El Portal, where we had our own wooden cabin next to the river. The next morning we entered the natural reserve and walked about 1 hour –watching a few howler monkeys on the way - to reach the view point over what looked like a canyon with several swimming holes interlinked by small waterfalls.
The view was stunning. The site was unlike anything else we had seen previously and it gave us hope that we could still be amazed by the things we see during the rest of our trip. We walked down the mountain to take a closer look at the swimming holes and enjoyed some relaxing time swimming in clear and fresh water.
We left Semuc Champey for Flores, the main access point to the Maya ruins of Tikal. After another 9 exhausting hours in a cramped shuttle we decided to get off the shuttle and take a public bus to the village of El Remate, which is less developed than Flores but closer to the archaeological site. This was a great decision. We found a lovely room in the forest, just a few meters away from a lake with clear water where we enjoyed cooling off. The hotel was French owned and I enjoyed my first “Boeuf Bourguignon” in a long while.
The following morning we left the hotel at 5.30am to get to Tikal around sunrise.
The bus was a bit late and we missed the sun rise but at least we arrived quite early and we had almost the site for us alone. It took us about 7 hours walking into the jungle to go through the whole site. It was big! Temples were spread out in the jungle over several squared kilometres but the walk was enjoyable as there was a lot of wildlife, surprisingly few tourists and amazing Maya temples surrounded by dense vegetation. We saw a fox, toucans, woodpeckers, coatis and a lot of monkeys among other things.
After the visit we headed back to El Remate for another swim into the lake and to relax a bit before entering Belize the next day. During dinner we saw a tarantula crawling under our table… Nice! A local guide told us it was a baby but it was so big that I’m glad we didn’t see the parents. The guide also told us that he had seen a black panther crossing the street at dusk that same day! We still haven’t seen any big cats in our travels though…
We have spent only 6 nights in Guatemala but we haven’t been blown away by this country for which so many travellers have raved about. It wasn’t bad but this wasn’t our best experience. To do it properly, I think you need more time, take public transports and interact more with the locals. On the other hand we have also heard stories of travellers who have been robbed at gun point and others witnessing a bus being shot at, so we were not that sad to leave the country for Belize after just a week.
As soon as we crossed the border under a scorching heat we liked the atmosphere a lot more compared to Guatemala. People are actually native English speakers and songs played in the bus were in English! After 7 months of Spanish we almost felt at home instantly after crossing the border! The atmosphere was so hot and stuffy that we decided to head straight to the coast and miss out on the Cayo region where apparently amazing caves with human remains could be visited. By mid-afternoon we reached the coastal town of Dangriga and met Ellie and Florian from France who we travelled with towards Tobacco Caye, a tiny island about 45 minutes from the coast.
Upon arrival we found a rather cheap place to stay with Mister P at Fairweather’s, but the catch is that food wasn’t included in the price and there was almost no way to buy food on the island! We hated the place at first. We walked around the whole island in less than 10 minutes and we couldn’t really get any information from anyone. There are about 20 inhabitants on the island, most of which are crazy old fishermen or rasta men. We spent our first evening eating peanut butter on toast and chatting with our new French friends. We woke up the following day and went out to get some breakfast around 8.30am, which is quite late for us backpacker. People on the island were about to get things moving. We eventually managed to find some instant coffee and tortillas for a ridiculous amount of money (that I will keep for myself). Franck decided then to go fishing and catch a big fish for dinner. Mister P gave him a line, a hook and baits and there he went with Mister P’s grandson, Kermick, fishing on the pier.
I spent my time lying on the beach and enjoying the snorkelling, which is really rich. It is not too difficult to spot sea turtles and rays as they come really close to shore.
Life isn’t too hard on Tobacco Caye. After a couple of hours and still no fish, we gave a few dollars to Kermick who got a fish for us. He was so nice and friendly that he also cooked it. A Canadian couple from Vancouver turned up the same day. The hostel was full. They were coming to do some diving with Eric and Brian, who are in charge of the diving on the island. We decided to go with them the following day. We did two dives and saw nice coral walls, different types of colourful fishes and a cool turtle. We also went on Southwest Caye for a break, which is the most beautiful island we have seen so far in the Caribbean but really expensive to stay on.
When we got back, Eric, the dive master, invited us for dinner and made the best dinner we had in ages, coconut rice and Caribbean chicken stew. We were tempted to spend more time on the island and do more diving as they were looking for the whale shark the following day. We fought back the temptation and thought about our finances. We decided to head to Caye Caulker with Ellie and Flo, which was not cheap either!
It took us about a day to go to Caye Caulker. First, we took a boat from Tobacco Caye to Dangriga; then, we took a bus to Belize City and another boat to Caye Caulker. We settled in Edith’s guesthouse, which was cheap compared to the other places.
We also got a 10% discount on the diving because we were staying with them, which was the argument for spending more money on the diving. We are kind of addicted to it now. We hence decided to stay at least 3 nights as both snorkelling and diving are worth it. We went snorkelling in Hol Chan with Ellie and Flo and saw a massive manatee. We then headed to another spot, shark alley, where nurse sharks and rays gather around the boat as they got some seafood from the captain. We were on the water with them (these sharks do not have teeth, which makes life easier), which was nice for the experience but the whole concept of feeding them felt not right.
On the way back, we got served shrimp ceviche and rum punch. It didn’t do me any good. I arrived at the dive shop a little tipsy to fix my equipment and try my gear. One of the guys asked me the number of dives I did as everything looked upside down. At this stage, Franck was a bit ashamed.
No worries, I did manage to get on the boat at 5.30pm and get down the Blue Hole the next day. It’s a deep hole with supposedly sharks in it. It was impressive to see the stalactites but unfortunately, we did not see any sharks. Some divers saw 17. We then did two more dives at the lighthouse reef, which has splendid corals and marine life. We saw sea turtle and a manta ray. There was also a colony of red footed boobies that Franck enjoyed taking photos off.
Our last day on Caye Caulker was dedicated to the beach. We spent the entire day on the pier enjoying the sun.
After another early start to the day and a combination of boats, taxis and buses we made it to the pier where we could allegedly take a boat to get to the Maya site of Lamanai, near the town of Orange walk. We got there at about 10.30 but all tours had already left. We were left a bit frustrated but decided not to spend the night in Orange walk and make our way to nearby Mexico instead. The region around Orange walk is known for its peculiar local community of Mennonites. The Mennonites are a religious community which were funded by a German guy opposed to Catholicism and Protestantism. I don’t know much about their ideologies but all I could tell is that they are dressed in a very old fashion way. Men wear straw hats, checked shirts and shoulder straps, while women wear long black or blue dresses, hats and tights despite the heat. They look like characters from little house on the prairie (la petite maison dans la prairie). The contrast with rasta men could not be bigger and I really wonder how they ended up cultivating the land in this part of the world rather than anywhere else, which would have seemed a little bit less out of place.
We made it to Tulum, in Mexico, by about 9pm and checked in a hotel near the bus terminal on the main street. On our first day we visited the ruins which are situated on the sea front. There is nothing much left of the temples and the fortress however the location just on top of a cliff by the beach is stunning. The colours of the sea and the white sandy beaches around there are some of the best we have seen on the Caribbean. The only problem is the mild wind that makes the sea a bit rough. We did some snorkelling there but it was a bit expensive and not good at all because of the waves.
On the next day we started our Advanced Open water course (we are talking about scuba diving here), which involves 5 speciality dives. The Yucatan area in Mexico is famous for its “Cenote”, which are caves often used by the Maya as human sacrifice places and we were looking forward to being trained inside these caves. Unfortunately, our first two dives took place at sea and that was all the more unfortunate that the sea was so rough that I felt sea sick and threw up a few times. Anyway, we completed our first 2 dives and saw a massive turtle but nothing else out of the ordinary.
After spending the rest of the day at the beach we took a cab and headed back. Well…we asked the driver to drive us to Tulum, hotel Maya for 50 pesos. He took a scenic road along the coast and stopped in front of resort Hotel MayaTulum. We told him that we wished it was our hotel but ours was hotel Maya in Tulum. He asked for 50 more pesos making the trip a 100! We said no way. He then decided to go to talk to the police, which were down the road. We ended up having an argument in front of the guards. We tried to explain in Spanglish the situation. The police was laughing as the argument was going nowhere. As they could not see who was wrong, they proposed to talk to a judge. The taxi driver suggested we pay him 80 pesos to get back to Tulum. We said no and we did not want to get back on the taxi with him. The police said you will have to pay for the service though, so at least 50 pesos and then take another cab for 50 more…hmmm we were going in circles. I dropped the price to 70 pesos but he dropped us 4 blocks away to destination, just to make the point, as he drove past our hotel.