Tuesday, June 30, 2009

We Don't Mayan A Few Ruins



22 Jun to 1 Jul, 2009 – Tulum, Valladolid, Isla Holbox, Cancún, and many spots surrounding those

This may be our last blog entry for a while. We are flying to Cuba on Wednesday, and will be there until late July, and while internet is definitely going to be available, we think it may not be accessible enough for us to maintain the blog and photos, etc. So next update is due after that.

We crossed from Belize in to Mexico knowing that we only had a short time to get a little taste of this country. So we chose the main things in Quintana Roo and Yucatan provinces, and that meant quite a few Mayan sites.

Tulum was our first stop. Known for both a beautiful beach, and for Mayan ruins, and for the fact that those ruins are picturesquely situated above that stretch of beach.


Mayan Ruins At Tulum
Mayan Ruins At Tulum
I think this particular structure may have been one of the temples in Tulum (sorry, can't quite remember). It shows what a beautiful stretch of water the city looked over. There are a few beachy stretches and coves beneath the rocks.


An Iguana Looks Out
An Iguana Looks Out
Maybe the iguana is shaking his head at the crowds, or maybe he's just taking in the overall vista of the ruins. There were many iguanas wandering about, and with such crowds almost daily, they are quite accustomed to people.


Cocktails On Tulum Beach
Cocktails On Tulum Beach
Less than a kilometre from the ruins and the rocky cliffs they are built atop, the beach opens to many kilometres of powdery white expansive beaches with gentle and warm waters of perfect turquoise for great swimming. Beth and Ben from Wales joined us for some cocktails.



En-route from Tulum to Valladolid, we stopped at a more overgrown Mayan site, called Cobá.


Nature Integrated
Nature Integrated
Tree roots hold together the roof structure of a passage leading under a Mayan pyramid in the ruins of Cobá.


Cute Pyramid With Rounded Corners
Cute Pyramid With Rounded Corners
The rounded corners appear to be far less common. In my opinion, they soften the appearance of the structure considerably. This structure is in the Mayan ruins of Cobá.



Valladolid was our base for a few days, which was nice for Jo's birthday, as we weren't moving around. We began celebrating on birthday eve, and why not, as it was already the next day back in Aus. Cocktails, and a Mexican style “fondue”. This was like a pizza without a base, or more correctly, a pizza with a base of melted cheese!

For the actual day of her birthday, we headed to Chichén Itzá, one of the seven wonders of the modern world.


A Magnificent Mayan Pyramid, Pyramid Of Kukulcán
A Magnificent Mayan Pyramid, Pyramid Of Kukulcán
This structure is the principal attraction of Chichén Itzá. Beautifully constructed, with many significant connections with the Mayan calendar, the temple on top was where priests would determine the best times to do things, from planting crops to invading neighbours. This structure apparently shows some Toltec influences.


Decorations On A Platform For Sacrifices
Decorations On A Platform For Sacrifices
The “Platform Of Skulls”. A place of sacrifice. The Mayans were not that big in the sacrifice department, but Chichén Itzá was a mixture of Mayan and Toltec culture, from the north of Mexico. It appears the Toltecs were sacrifice obsessed, with many sculptures showing decapitations and human heart offerings.


The Observatory
The Observatory
Also called El Caracol (the snail) because of the spiral stairway inside. A very interesting building in the ruins of Chichén Itzá.



The birthday eating/drinking continued in to the night. Pre-dinner cocktails at one of the oldest colonial mansions in town, followed by a return to the restaurant from the night before. We stuffed ourselves on a couple of regional specialities. As the evening progressed, the singer found out, from me of course :D, that it was Jo's birthday. Minutes later a cake with a candle appeared, along with a rendition of Happy Birthday in Spanish. Followed by a Mexican birthday song. Jo did blush!


Pre-dinner Drinks With Ambiance
Pre-dinner Drinks With Ambiance
In a beautiful colonial mansion. The candelabra behind Jo was a lovely touch.


Strawberry Cake For Jo
Strawberry Cake For Jo
Happy Birthday! The restaurant provides a birthday cake with no notice or prompting.



Another trip from Valladolid had us at yet more Mayan ruins, and our last ones for this trip at least. Ek' Balam.


A Mayan Winged Figure
A Mayan Winged Figure
Sometimes called a Mayan angel, although angels are not at all a part of Mayan religion. An intriguing figure on the main pyramid of Ek' Balam.


View Over Ek' Balam
View Over Ek' Balam
We didn't realise how far we had climbed on the main pyramid, but the view back down on the main plaza was pretty good and well worth the effort.


Another Interesting Mayan Sculpture
Another Interesting Mayan Sculpture
This expressive figure graced the main pyramid of Ek' Balam. The overall style (although not the facial features) reminded us of something so very Asian.



Check out this place for a cool place to swim, only a few kilometres from town.


Swimming In A Cenote
Swimming In A Cenote
One of those blurs is Jo. This fantastic pool in a cave is Cenote Dzitnup, near Valladolid. The water is crystal clear, due to the natural limestone filtration that occurs. There were some fish in there, too. In fact, quite a lot.



And a great convent slash fortress from Valladolid.


Convent Interior, Valladolid
Convent Interior, Valladolid
Soft light filters in to the cloister.


Convent Exterior, Valladolid
Convent Exterior, Valladolid
Built with a dual purpose – church and fortress.



Here is a lovely sunset from Isla Holbox.


Sunset At Isla Holbox
Sunset At Isla Holbox
The colour stayed in the sky for a very long time.



Anyone who has been following this blog knows that we were hoping to snorkel with whale sharks in Honduras, and it didn't happen due to the bad weather. Well, we didn't really want to hold our hopes up too much, but we thought there might be another opportunity, here in Mexico, at Isla Holbox. And it happened. And it was amazing. The biggest sharks known, and they only eat plankton. Go figure. Anyway, these amazing gentle giants were breathtaking. And to snorkel along with them, being eyed off by those spotty fish of immense proportions, that is something we will never forget.


Whale Shark, Side On
Whale Shark, Side On
We were not the only ones swimming with the shark. I don't think any of the fish had cameras, though.


Whale Shark – The Mouth
Whale Shark – The Mouth
Gorgeous, isn't she. And not just tolerant, but seemed to almost enjoy our company. She surfaced while we swam with her, and stayed close to us for at least 45 minutes.


A Photo For Scale
A Photo For Scale
David swims on the other side, taking some video. A beautiful little clip it turned out to be. Unfortunately, far too big to upload without editing, so that will have to wait. Anyway, we thought this photo was fantastic to show just how big this awesome creature was. We think about nine metres.



And not just whale sharks, we saw heaps of dolphins, and some incredible manta rays. These rays were about two or so metres across, and when they leapt from the air and slapped back in to the sea, less than five metres away, it was almost too good to be true. Even the captain said he had never had that happen in such close proximity to the boat. Unfortunately, no photos available of leaping manta rays.


A Manta Ray Waves Us Over
A Manta Ray Waves Us Over
On its back, “wings” arced over. This was confirmation we were approaching a manta ray.


The Manta Swims Past
The Manta Swims Past
Maybe two metres across, the manta glides past our boat.



From Isla Holbox, to Isla Mujeres and Cancún. And as stated, we will fly on to Cuba. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

We SNORKELLED With A Manatee!



16 to 22 Jun, 2009 – Dangriga, Belize Zoo, Belize City, Caye Caulker, Orange Walk, Lamanai

Alternate title: “As you step off the boat, please watch your head. If you hit your head, please watch your language.”

We spent a day in the Garifuna coastal town of Dangriga, where we had a strange visit to what was advertised as a “cultural centre”. There we found a guy who makes traditional Garifuna drums. He seemed rather puzzled that we were there, so we asked if we could look around. He said yes, and 30 seconds later we had looked around. There were a dozen or so drums in different stages, wood shavings everywhere, and that was all. He offered no information, he didn't point out things for us to look at or admire, and he certainly had very little to qualify being called a “cultural centre”.

On our way to Belize City, we stopped at the Belize Zoo. Jo had a riddle for me on the bus – What's worse than hearing a number of Mariah Carey songs in a row? Hearing the same Mariah Carey song over and over again. I don't know if the girl who was listening to that song on her mobile phone was consoling herself or something, but as the song finished, she would replay it... Anyway, on to the zoo. We had only been there a half hour or so when the light drizzle turned in to full on pelting rain. So we took shelter for an hour or two, but the rain was not showing any signs of easing up. Time to brave the weather. At least most of the animals were braving the elements, too, so we looked at a heap of soggy animals. Kudos to the zoo, though, for some excellent animal exhibits. We chose to go, although we normally steer clear of zoos, due to its reputation for only keeping animals which can't be released, and for the humane way they are kept and displayed. In the end, though, we rushed the last half dozen or so enclosures, and headed on our way, wet.

Arriving in Belize City, we potentially could have continued, aiming for the islands. Being a bit weary, we decided to hole up instead. It was nowhere near as bad as we had been warned to prepare for. There were a couple of unsavoury characters about, but moreso because of their state of inebriation than their general demeanor. Still, it is a long way from being a pretty city, and it does lack tourist oriented sites. It is not a bad base for some trips, but most people choose to base themselves elsewhere. On a tight time-budget, it is a city worth skipping...

Caye Caulker is accessible by boat from Belize City. Caye Caulker is one of many spots that can be used as a base for diving and snorkelling. However, Caye Caulker is the most budget oriented spot for said diving and snorkelling. So, we ended up in Caye Caulker. And we ended up snorkelling. And renting an underwater camera. It was a no-brainer, really, when we knew what we were likely to see. And we were still blown away!


A Manatee Swims Below Us
A Manatee Swims Below Us
Caye Caulker, Belize. Snorkelling in the marine park, we were privileged to be visited for a few minutes by a magnificent manatee!


Spotted Eagle Ray Swims By
Spotted Eagle Ray Swims By
A Spotted Eagle Ray flaps his "wings" and glides past us as we snorkel near Caye Caulker.


Loggerhead Turtle
Loggerhead Turtle
I really had to back up to get out of the way of this beautiful turtle who was coming through, regardless of our presence.


Jo And The Stingrays
Jo And The Stingrays
Jo admires some Rough-Tailed Stingrays as she snorkels over them.


Being Chased By An Eagle Ray
Being Chased By An Eagle Ray
That Eagle Ray really had no issue with us. It was all we could do just to stay out of his path.


School's In
School's In
Although, there appears to be some misfits in amongst these.


Another Turtle
Another Turtle
I know he doesn't look so green, but it's a Green Sea Turtle.



Oh, and the lobster season just began! Lobster, lobster, and more lobster. Yummo.

Our last stop was in a northern Belizean town, Orange Walk, which was a base for a trip upriver to the Mayan city of Lamanai.


A Character From Mad?
A Character From Mad?
An ancient pottery fragment at the Mayan ruins of Lamanai, looking a bit like a drawn character from Mad Magazine.


Belize's National Flower
Belize's National Flower
The Black Orchid.


Looking Up ...
Looking Up ...
The tallest structure at Lamanai, build around 100 BC.


...  And Looking Down
... And Looking Down
Surrounded by forest, an amazing view was to be had from the top.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

I Belize We're Having A Good Time



13 to 16 Jun, 2009 – San Ignacio, Cockscomb Basin

Can't decipher Creole. Don't know a word in Garifuna. My Mayan is non-existent. But Spanish is spoken a fair bit. The official language is English. Don't be surprised to hear Mandarin or Cantonese or something random like Indian or Thai. Welcome to Belize.

The day we crossed the border, nothing could have come between Jo and her lamb chops. Not that I complained – I went for the lamb curry. My, we have missed our lamb! Food choices are delightful, and thankfully, they are not put on just for the tourists. Oh yes, the typical dish is still built on a base of rice and beans (or beans and rice, which IS actually prepared differently). However, options exist. And we use them! Indian another night, and it was an authentic curry made from fresh spices. In a town called Maya Centre, we stayed with a Mayan herbal doctor and her husband. She made us some Mayan dishes using many ingredients picked fresh from her herbal and medicinal garden. Those of you who know us know that we do place a great emphasis on god food in relation to enjoyment of a particular region.

We filled in our afternoon in San Ignacio with a visit to a project trying to revive the Belizean population of the endangered Green Iguana.


Who's Having More Fun?
Who's Having More Fun?
Iguanas like to climb, apparently...



The next day, though, was the adventure. Actun Tunichil Muknal, frequently called ATM, and thankfully so, as I didn't want to have to keep stumbling through its full name. A drive of an hour and a half, followed by a wet 45 minute walk (because we had to walk through the river three times) and we were at the cave entrance. A bite of lunch, and then in to the river, to swim in to the cave, as the entrance is flooded by a pool in the river that flows out of the cave. Not a long swim, though, and then we walked upriver in the cave for a bit under an hour. Sometimes ankle deep, sometimes up to our chest, and occasionally requiring a few strokes where it was very deep. Finally, arriving at the main cavern, nicknamed the cathedral for all the beautiful formations. We were, however, not here just for the columns, stalactites and mites, flowstones and curtains and candelabras, although impressive and beautiful, we were here because it was sacred to the Mayans about a thousand years ago. And they had left behind many pots. And a few skeletons to boot.


Mayan Pottery
Mayan Pottery
Thousand year old pottery pieces, lying about a cave. The main cavern of Actun Tunichil Muknal is littered with hundreds of pottery pieces and thousands of fragments.


In The Cave
In The Cave
Some of the beautiful formations (behind us, that is), in the main cavern of Actun Tunichil Muknal. This cavern is called “The Cathedral”.


The Crystal Princess
The Crystal Princess
The calcified skeleton of a teenage girl, found in the far reaches of Actun Tunichil Muknal.


ATM Entrance
ATM Entrance
Jo swims across the pool of water that flows through the cave entrance of Actun Tunichil Muknal.



I mentioned the Mayan herbal doctor earlier. Good timing to stay with her, as Jo was feeling a bit of a cold coming on. So she had a consultation, and she was soon stocked up with a decongestant, a herbal tea she picked fresh, and a cream for the bites on her arm which have not settled down from many weeks ago.

We got up at 3:45 the next morning to head in to a Wildlife Sanctuary, Cockscomb Basin. Primarily created as a jaguar preserve, we knew our chances of spotting one were slim at best. We saw some claw marks, and some very fresh jaguar shit, but no felines were to be seen. We saw a lot of birds, some lizards, and a kazillion frogs.


A Helmeted Lizard.
A Helmeted Lizard.
Possibly Hernandez' Helmeted Lizard.


Jaguar Scratching Post
Jaguar Scratching Post
Like big domestic cats on furniture, jaguars sharpen their claws on trees. Although, it is probably more likely that domestic cats are trying to be like their bigger wild cat cousins.


Cute Little Cricket Tree-Frog
Cute Little Cricket Tree-Frog
Almost cheeky. In a "frog pond" with thousands upon thousands of frogs making a deafening roar. He was one of the few that we found that was staying still! In the full resolution, when you zoom in on his eye, you can see the reflection of trees and the horizon.


Two Frogs Having "Special Cuddles"
Two Frogs Having "Special Cuddles"
Cricket Tree Frogs share an intimate moment.


Large And Colourful Caterpillar
Large And Colourful Caterpillar
Thought I better get a finger in there for scale.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

“We Come In Peace”



8 to 13 Jun, 2009 - Guatemala City, Semuc Champey, and Tikal

Ambassadors Of Peace. It is now official, and we have certificates to prove it. I mentioned in an earlier blog entry how we had wanted to visit the National Palace of Culture but couldn't due to the visit by the president (prime minister?) of Taiwan. We had written it off, but after our bus debacle, we found ourselves back in Guatemala City, and doing a tour of said palace.


Reception Hall
Reception Hall
The beautiful reception hall of the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, Guatemala City. The chandelier allegedly weighs in at two tonnes!



One of the things that we really wanted to catch was a daily ceremony at the monument for peace, which is in one of the courtyards of the palace. This short and simple ceremony involves a military guard who takes yesterday's rose off the monument and replaces it with a fresh one. Not wanting to risk missing it, we asked a couple of people about it. Before we really knew it, Jo was asked if she would like the honour of performing the ceremony. She naturally accepted, and some minutes later was humbly carrying in a tray with a fresh rose. There was a small group of onlookers, from the general public, and we were both asked if we would like to say a few words. It was an extremely moving experience.


Jo Brings In The New Rose
Jo Brings In The New Rose
Jo carries in a tray with a fresh rose, to be placed on the Peace Monument in Guatemala City. It was an honour for us to be chosen to perform this ceremony. It is usually performed by a guard, and sometimes by important visitors (e.g. the Dalai Lama, or visiting Heads of State), so Jo is now in some very good company. We also received certificates declaring that we are Ambassadors of Peace in Guatemala.


Jo Places A Fresh Rose
Jo Places A Fresh Rose
A fresh rose is placed on the Peace Monument in The Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, Guatemala City.



OK, so I've recently been talking about buses and pickups. In today's blog we'll cover minibuses and pickups. Why? Because our minibus broke down and we transferred to a truck! :D OK, so minibuses don't vary from chicken buses by a lot. They are just as slow in town, and just as fast on the road. The significant difference is that you NEVER have much room. Even if they are only half full, you still have your knees around your ears. Even more-so if you have to sit on the folding seat, and then are expected to squeeze four on to the three seats. The assistant still has similar functions, but he spends more time hanging precariously out of the open door, and sometimes that's the only space left for him. Trucks are a new domain. Adult male dominated, they are usually taking workmen to or from town, and may make room for others, but that is just bonus income for the driver. They are generally not so crowded – most men just sit up on the sides, while others sprawl out on the floor. These trucks are about the slowest way to get from A to B.

Yes, our minibus died. Upon hearing awful sounds from the wheel, we pulled over. Twenty minutes later, there was a mess. The wheel mount was completely disassembled, with tools and parts spread all around the poor driver, who couldn't undo a few nuts and bolts due to poor tools. A truck appeared, going our way, so we bailed on the poor guy, and thanked him, while he needlessly apologised. Jo got offered a seat in the front of the truck, while I was expected to find my own space in the rear. I must say, I was rather surprised that Jo was so comfortable with hopping in to a truck with over 30 men. She must have been OK with it due to my being there to keep an eye on the situation.


First Class Travel
First Class Travel
Well, only class travel. A few stay in the truck, the rest ride on the walls. With transport, sometimes beggars can't be choosers, but they just have to make the best with what comes along.


Good Friends
Good Friends
Good friends, or at least we hope so. If you can't find something comfortable to sleep on, find someone comfortable.


Scenery En-Route
Scenery En-Route
Taken while riding on a truck to Lanquín.



Semuc Champey is a series of beautiful pools formed in limestone, connected by little waterfalls. Most are swimmable, and all are picturesque. There were lots of little fish that enjoyed our company, or at least enjoyed us. They swam around, darting in to bite at the hairs on my arms, legs, and chest. They even took little nips at Jo (who is not hairy, I should point out). I think they were eating flecks of dead skin, sort of like a natural fish exfoliation.


Swimming At Semuc Champey
Swimming At Semuc Champey
Swimming in one of the numerous turquoise pools at Semuc Champey.


Semuc Champey, From The Mirador
Semuc Champey, From The Mirador
This is the postcard angle. It took about 15 to 20 minutes to climb from the pools to this breathtaking viewpoint.



Fish were not the only wildlife encounter. A long green snake caused quite a stir and became the centre of attention for a while.


Snake, Posing
Snake, Posing
OK, the debate is raging. We were told on site that this was a poisonous snake, either a viper or a vine snake. Later, someone who seems to know a lot about snakes identified this as a parrot snake, which he said was not venomous, but was “all show”. He seemed to be the most knowledgeable, so we'll stick with that for the moment. This beautiful creature was certainly quite the showman, and quite a long beast, too, approaching two metres in length. He stuck his head up and remained in a strike pose, for a few minutes, then quickly shimmied somewhere else, where he would go back in to his defensive (or offensive) posture. Then down again, under some branches, and his head would just pop out from somewhere unexpected. This he managed to keep up for about 15 minutes. All the while, we kept a healthy distance, especially when we saw just how quickly he was capable of moving when he wanted to.



After a horribly long trip of multiple buses, we arrive in Flores, in the north of Guatemala. This is the base for trips to the magnificent Mayan ruins of Tikal.


Jo, Dwarfed
Jo, Dwarfed
Some of the imposing structures at Tikal.


Watch That First Step, It's A Doozy!
Watch That First Step, It's A Doozy!
They're steep, and they're hard. Steps up to the top of one of the Mayan temples in Tikal. You really don't want to miss your footing!


Lazy
Lazy
This black howler monkey came down to check us out. The ruins of Tikal are still in thick jungle, with very little vegetation cleared. The wildlife around the temples was a highlight.


A Picturesque Mayan Temple
A Picturesque Mayan Temple
One of the outer temples of Tikal.


Temple I
Temple I
Relaxing in the Great Plaza of Tikal.