The 'Island'(?) of Belize
On Valentines Day we said our Goodbyes to Mexico and crossed the bridge into Belize where we secured 1 weeks insurance for the bike and went for a tour around the duty free shopping zone before arriving at Belize immigration.
Belize (formerly British Honduras) has a population of approximately 230,000 people and gained independance from England in 1981, it has only just been recognised as an independant country by the Guatemalan Government.
Jules in Orange Walk - Belize
We were pleasantly surprised to find the immigration and customs halls almost empty. Immigration was a simple affair receiving a 30 day visitors stamp from the Officer who was busy talking to his girl friend on his mobile phone.
We explained we needed to temporarily import our motorcycle, he looked at us dumbfounded, even though we were carrying helmets and jackets, then sent us directly behind him to the Customs desk, which also was empty of people.
We presented our documents to the lovely English speaking officer who perused them with the proffesionalism expected of border officials. She raised concern that our papers looked like copies and would need authorisation from her superior to confirm the authenticity of ownership. We headed outside to the booth where her supervisor was checking cars entering Belize.
He looked over our papers carefully and explained to us that Belize does not accept copies of documents for the temporary import of vehicles. We explained that they were originals from Australia. He again scruitinised the paperwork, explaining that part of the problem with our papers was they do not have any holograms or watermarks in the actual paper as the North American documents have. We held our breath for what seemed an age wondering what we would do if they refused entry. Eventually he accepted them and we headed back into the Customs hall for our final paperwork and a check over of the bike.
Once all was completed we were on our way, sighing a sigh of releif of passing the first border in nearly six months. Though both of us have passed through many land borders, in the past, it still seems nerve wracking.
Road in Belize
We wound our way through lush green rain forrest, sugar cane fields and small towns. It was quite a strange feeling to see signs in English again.
The biggest surprise was how many Chinese immigrants there are in Belize. Every town, no matter how small, has several Chinese restaurants, grocery stores and hotels run by Chinese people.
As we both love a good Chinese feed, it was wonderful as we had read that the traditional national dish for Belize is Rice'n'Beans... YEEE HAAA!!
Restaurant Jian - They made fresh wantons for Julie!
Our first night found us in Orange Walk, the second city in the country, with an economy driven by agricultural with a several large Mennonite colonies near by. We were greeted by a loud and festive political rally. Elections are being held on the 1st of May and the UDP party was marching in the streets to the sounds of drums and trumpets. It was all very colorful and our vote will be going to Ms Netty as she had the best posters in the town!
Political rally - Orange Walk
We found treats like Heinz Baked Beans, Tomato Soup (with no MSG) and best of all Cadbury's Chocolate in all the supermarkets, things we have not been able to buy since leaving Australia.
Belize City has a reputation of high crime and corruption and being stopped at a police security check point just 15 kms from the centre made us somewhat apprehensive, fortunately it was just a licence and insurance check for all vehicles. In the rain we ride over large sections of broken tarmac and incomplete roadworks, no sooner we hit the suburbs and we are in downtown where we begin the standard procedure of hotel shopping.
On the Esplanade several reasonable looking hotels are located and Jules investigates while Grant stays with Miss Piggy apreciating the beautiful harbour view. He notices a Garifuna man (decendents of African Slaves and black Caribs) complete with dreadlocks and a Rasta hat checking him and the bike out. Occasionally he is joined by others. Grant becomes a little nervous as the Esplanade is devoid of traffic, people and the city's reputation does nothing to quell any fears. He continues to watch Grant and the bike from across the road and then moves rapidly closer and says with a fabulous sing song Island accent 'Hey, dats a nice cycle ya got dere Mann'. Grant almost falls off the bike in surprise at hearing an accent he though never existed. The man goes on to ask 'So, I notice ya got Canada, Alaska, Mexico and Australia on ya cycle dere, which is it mann?' Grant and the man continue to chat about where we had been, motorcycles and life in Belize.
Eventually we located a motel about 2kms out of town with a reasonable price tag and settled in for a few days.
House in Belize City
Belize city has many wooden clad homes on stilts reminiscent of Cairns and surrounds. It is divided by Haulover Creek and the narrow bridge that joins the two halves becomes a bottle neck for traffic. It is a bustling town with a distinct Island feel. We found the people to be warm and friendly, the children posess excellent manners and the city in general a delight to visit. So much for reputation!
Riding inland to Belmopan (the Capital City - population 8,130 approx) and then back to the coast to Dangriga we pass through huge orange plantations. The air is sweet with the smell of blossom and freshly picked oranges and the road is a joy with many single lane bridges and stunning tropical scenery.
Road to Dangriga
Dangriga (meaning Sweet Waters in Garifuna) is a coastal town and a launch pad for people visiting the nearby reef and cayes. The weather was very hot and we were unable to secure any reasonable accommodation.
After taking some lunch and resting on the beach admiring the Caribean Sea we headed back inland towards San Ignacio (Cayo) and the Guatemalan Border.
Resting at Dangriga
San Ignacio is filled with tourists visiting nearby archealogical sites both in Belize and Guatemala, it is a lively and friendly town ideal for a stop just before entering Guatemala.
Loading the bike for Guatemala
Whilst our time in Belize was short, we enjoyed it very much. It is a great place to visit if you have the time and money. There are so many wild life and nature sanctuaries to fill your days. Basically the whole country is a great big national park.
BORDER CROSSING - EXIT BELIZE
A very simple but somewhat expensive affair. You need to pay Immigration a Departure Tax of $30.00BZE and a National Parks tax of $7.50BZE each. You then can get your passport stamped and hand in your vehicle permit at Customs. Try and change Belize dollars into Quetzals before arriving in Guatemala as Guatemala will only change US dollars.
You cannot take fruit or vegies into Guatemala
Posted by Julie Rose at 08:18 PM
Tuxtla Guitierrez is the capital city of Chiapas. It is quite modern and has a wonderful zoo where you can actually roam about with many of the animals. ZOOMAT was founded by Doctor Miguel Alverez Tores to ensure the preservation of the native animals and plants enabling the local indigenious people access to thier heritage.
To get to the zoo it is easier to catch the Collectivo. This was an experience! The bus hurtles through narrow streets and stops suddenly for passengers at any time. In the mean time passengers, carring all sorts of goods and chattle, are packed in like sardines.
Leaving Tuxtla we climbed high into the mountains to San Christobal de la Casa. From there the road winds through lush mountains and valleys to Ocosingo and then onto Palenque. On the way there was evidence of the previous troubles in Chiapas with many signs and political posters warning this was Zapatista territory and you are under thier rules.
Local Transport - Chiapas
During the day Jules got an insect sting in her eye, for over eight hours it wept heavily and before gong to bed she took an anti-histamine. By the following morning it was puffed up like a balloon, she was a very sorry sight. Fortunately it went down very quickly the following day and all was well.
We were looking forward to camping again stopping at Maybells Campground, close to the ruins of Palenque. It was very dirty, full of a lot of drunken tourists and seemingly drugged out hippies. We stayed a few nights, to save some money, but it was quite an unsavoury experience.
Sugar Cane Hauler
Leaving the mountains of Chiapas behind the ride to Merida via Campeche was pleasant with long coastal roads. At the small town of Chable on the state boarder we crossed the toll bridge and found a small restaurant for lunch. We were a bit hesitant about eating there as it appeared empty and a little dirty, however when Grant is hungry, he must eat! So we ordered fish and a Milenesa and were greatly surprised by the quality of the food and the huge servings all for $US7.00! It was the best fish meal Grant had eaten in all of Mexico.
Upon arrival in bustling tropical Merida we found ourselves quite lost in the narrow streets around the Zocalo. Once again our street map (in our guide book) proved to be almost completely different to what is actually on offer. That is not quite true, because most Mexican towns are a maze of one way streets, so to get to where you want to be on the map you have to first work out which streets go in what direction. Oh so amusing!
Building in Central Plaza - Merida
We stopped to ask for directions only to be interviewed about our travels for a local radio station! In our broken Spanglish we managed to communicate our story, reving the engine of the bike, at the request of the interviewer, for artistic effect.
Merida is a lovely town though very busy Most of the cities population appear to spend their days crowding onto the narrow, hot one way streets, however, you can find solice in some of the many shaded parks.
We visited several museums, one being for modern art where we were treated to a free and delightful concert and the zocalo where dancers in thier white costumes performed.
After several days we headed off to Celestun to see the flamingos that were not in season! Oh well you get that! However the town was pleasant, but unfortunately inundated with flood waters from recent tropical storms. We found a cheap hotel with a million dollar view from our balconied room, situated right on the beach overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. That evening we had a huge feast of fish and chips whilst watching the sun set.
The Puuc region beckoned us where we found Muna and Santa Elena. Whilst in Muna Grant changed the front brake pads and bled the system and also changed a full set of sprockets and chain. We had put up with a clunking chain for over 10,000kms and it was very refreshing to ride the bike that felt new again.
Anna Maria runs the GL Hotel in Muna Centro. The rooms are very clean and spacious with Cable TV, fans or air con and offers safe parking for vehicles, all for $US15.00.
Santa Elena, 40kms from Muna, is another typical Yucatan small town with a massive Spanish church. This one is built on the foundations of an ancient Mayan pyramid with a facinating museum about the town and area. One of the most interesting exhibits is that of 4 mumified bodies of children exhumed from the floor of the church. They were discovered when maintenance on the flooring of the church was being undertaken.
Church - Santa Elena
Sacbe Bungalows offers camping and bungalows in a beautiful garden setting within walking distance of the town. Many Mayan sites are located near Santa Elena including Kabah where there is an enormous archway at the enterance to the sacbe (an ancient Mayan road or causeway) that ran to Uxmal (another Mayan City) and beyond.
Archway to the sacbe
On the steps of the Archway we were greeted by a beautiful iguana resting in the sun. He did not mind us being there and even posed for photos.
We spent several hours wandering the site and enjoying the solitude of this small rarely visited archeological site.
Statues - Kabah
Many of the towns in this area have enourmous Spanish Catholic churches which were often built from the building materials of ancient Mayan structures and were constructed by using thousands of Mayan slaves at the time of Spanish occupation.
Heading towards Tulum, on the Carribean Sea, to celebrate Grants birthday, we found the main highway through Coba turned into one lane filled completely with potholes. Many trees and sections of forest are still flattened providing evidence of the hurricaines that devastated parts of the Yucatan Peninsula in the last 6 months and as such many tourists have stayed away causing a great deal of economic hardship for the locals.
Tulum turned out to be quite dissapointing, it was something like a surreal version of Disney Land, with very crass names for beach resorts like Dreams Six.
We stayed briefly in a slightly upmarket accomodations to what we have been use to, which made for a very nice respite.
Arriving in Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo, we were surprised to find a very modern city, with wide two way streets, traffic lights that work, no busses in the centre and an enourmous cosmopolitan shopping centre with cinema and English movies.
Chetumal has a laid back feel with out the fuss and scurry of the usual large Mexican towns. It was a great base to plan our trip to Calakmul, a major ancient Mayan city somewhat isolated and off the normal Ruta Maya circuits.
Our intention was to ride the 145km to Xpujil, the nearest town to the site, find a hotel and then travel the 240km round trip to the site in a day. After unsucessfully securing cheap accommodation we ended up heading into the biosphere to stay at Yaax Che Campground (Km 7 Calakmul Road) within 60 kms of the site.
We were not sure what to expect from Calakmul (Calak = Towers, Mul = two) as there is little published information on the site that has been steeped in secrecy and mystic for many years since its discovery. It has only recently been opened to the public and is now believed, by the working archeologists, to be the greatest ancient city of all Latin America, with more than 10,000 buildings and temples discovered to date.
The nearly 60 kilometre ride was beautiful. Thick jungle, tight corners on a narrow strip of black top. Butterflies fluttering through our path, peacocks running across the road, every now and then you can peer through the underbrush and see an obvious mound of rocks that would once have been a dwelling or small temple. It is an exciting ride.
Road to Calakmul
We paid our 33 Pesos each and went in through the gate. You seem to walk for miles seeing mounds of rubble covered with brush. Spider monkeys jump from tree to tree forraging for food. In the distance you hear all number of birds singing and Howler monkeys sounding thier eerie cry.
The site is wonderful. It is a beautiful nature park as well as holding some amazing buildings. It contains over 140 stellae detailing the names and dates of the ruling classes thus there is a clear record of the history of the city which was inhabitated for 14 centuries or more.
We climbed to the top of Gran Acropolis, the largest of all the structures, breaching the canopy of the jungle below. After the steep climb we turned around and could see the tops of Buildings 2 and 3 rising up through the trees. The view is spectacular and you can see right to the horizon. You notice that all the surrounding areas is flat apart from mounds that used to be temples and a few mountains right off in the distance. From this vantage point you can see clear into Guatemala.
View from the Gran Acropolis
We sat up there for quite a while eating a mango and absorbing the atmosphere and energy, watching the howler monkeys down below jumping from tree to tree, and wondering about the people who used this place as their home.
In all we spent about 6 hours at the site before returning to our campsite both of us tired but feeling in awe of our days experience. We decided to eat in the small restaurant at the campsite and as we were the only customers staying in the campground we were given special service with the cook and her helper showing us through the traditional Mayan kitchen so we could watch the cooking in progress.
Making tortillas in the Mayan Kitchen
Calakmul was a wonderful end to nearly six months of travel in Mexico for Chetumal is the border to Belize our next country on the journey south.
BORDER CROSSING - EXIT MEXICO
A very simple affair but be warned: Corruption is rife at this crossing and we were conned out of 100 Pesos ($US10.00) for supposed services provided by the Immigration Official.
Note: There are no charges to exit Mexico for persons or vehicle!
After six months in Mexico without experiencing a trace of corruption it saddened us, however, shit happens!
Posted by Grant Guerin at 05:59 PM