Friday, August 28, 2009

25th Anniversary Celebration: Surf & Turf

Chuck and Marjie arrived just in time to be our heroes, taking over the care of the animals and the farm so we could be on vacation for ten days, celebrating with Rich and Sarah. They flew into Belize on Monday, August 10, just an hour before Marjie arrived back in Belize with Puppy. We went to the airport with Chuck, who waited for Marjie’s arrival, and Sarah, Rich, Tom, and I began our vacation with lunch at Cheers on the way back to the farm. We got back here and let them get settled in to the guest cabin, and then started the “turf” portion of our planned surf and turf Belize adventure.

The first day they were here, we went to Rio Frio Cave and then went hiking and caving with the BDF and Tourism Police soldiers, as Tom posted the day we did it. We made a stop at Rio On Pools, and then headed home. We were off to a slow and rainy start on Wednesday, but the weather cleared by mid afternoon and we drove up and spent a few hours lounging at Big Rock.

The water was muddy from the rain, but we had the place all to ourselves and Rich and Sarah were still able to appreciate the beauty of the area. On Thursday, we were off for an overnight to Tikal, Guatemala. This is a trip Tom and I have been talking about doing since we first visited Belize in January 2005, and it was even better than we expected and we’re glad we saved it to do with Sarah and Rich. We parked Tinkerbell at the Belize/Guatemala border at Benque, and walked across the border into Guatemala where we hired a minivan to take us to Tikal.

We had a great driver named Hugo, who pointed out the many sights along the way, and even pulled over so we could get a better look at some and take pictures.

He stopped at the zip line at the entrance to the Tikal Park, and joined Sarah, Tom, and me as we zipped through the canopy. We saw monkeys and birds in the trees, and got a good view of the jungle from the canopy as we zipped from platform to platform. We found Rich enjoying a Gallo (Rooster in Spanish) beer and his book in the little café at the zip line, then jumped back in the minivan and headed into the park.

Once in the park, Hugo again proved his worth by taking us to each of the three hotels in the park so we could get prices and see their rooms. We did this partly so we could decide where to stay, but also so Tom and I could refer our guests to the places we think best suited to them when asked for advice, which happens fairly frequently. Until now, we’ve had to shrug and admit our lack of knowledge, but we can now give people a pretty good idea of what’s available in different price ranges. We settled on the Tikal Jungle Lodge, and thanked Hugo for his help. Being a salesman himself, he offered to have someone from his family come to pick us up the next day. He couldn’t do it himself, he explained, because he was off to Guatemala City that night for an intensive course in French, which he feels he needs to learn in order to be a better tour guide. We all respected his initiative, and accepted the offer and made arrangements to be picked up a little after noon on Friday. We said our goodbyes, dumped our stuff in our rooms, and went to have a late lunch at one of the restaurants in the park.

By the time we finished, it was after four, so we were able to purchase Park tickets that would allow us to wander around until the Park closed at six, and would then allow us to tour the Park the next day. We took a walk to the Grand Plaza, and Sarah and Rich got their first sight of Maya temples – definitely awe-inspiring, both for them and for Tom and I, who still find the sight incredible.

On our way back to the hotel, we were approached by a guide offering to take us to Temple IV for sunrise the next day. This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I heard about it while researching our first trip to Belize, and while Sarah, Rich, and Tom weren’t all that nuts about meeting the group at 4AM the next day, they were swayed by my resolve to do it myself if they didn’t want to come, so all decided to join me. We paid for the tour, the tour guide made sure that our tickets were good for the tour, and we got the details on when and where to meet very early the next morning. We had time for a swim in the hotel’s very nice pool before dinner, and then enjoyed a good dinner and a bottle of wine before turning in early with our alarms set for 3:45AM.

None of us slept too well knowing we had to be up in what is essentially the middle of the night, but that didn’t really matter as we met the other sunrise adventurers in the dark near the Tikal information booth. We all had headlamps, and took off through the pitch black jungle following our guide to Temple IV. The guide asked for silence so we could hear the night time jungle noises, but it’s hard for a group of about 15 people, most slightly nervous about marching through the jungle at night, to be completely quiet. After about an hour’s hike, we reached the steps of Temple IV, the highest temple at Tikal, facing east. We climbed the wooden steps set up on the temple’s face. It’s a long climb, and it was a good thing for Rich that he couldn’t see how high we were in the dark.

Everybody found a seat on the stone steps at the front of the temple. Just as we all got settled, still attempting to maintain silence, the howler monkeys started roaring.

The timing was so perfect that Rich later said he looked around to see who had queued the sound track…but it was for real, and was awesome.

As we sat there, the sky lightened, the birds started chirping, the howler monkeys continued roaring, and the whole thing was just breathtaking.

So many anticipated experiences disappoint when you finally get to do them, but this one was everything and more than I expected. Because of some low clouds on the eastern horizon, we didn’t get to see the true sunrise, but it didn’t even matter as we heard and watched the waking jungle, and rays of sun shot up from behind the clouds.

After the sunrise, different types of birds, aracaris, parakeets, jays, and a variety of others started feeding in the trees whose canopies are just below where we were seated, so we had a front seat view at an amazing bird watching tower.

With this background, the guides presented an incredibly well-delivered narration on the history of Tikal as the center of the Maya world, and delivered an orientation for the site, pointing out the different structures as they appeared through the trees.

We hadn’t realized it when we signed up for the sunrise tour, but the tour included a guided tour of the entire site after we climbed down from Temple IV.

Ruben, our guide, walked us through the site, pointing out both archeological features and traipsing through the bush to show us monkeys, coatis, birds, lizards, tarantulas, and any other wildlife we encountered. We finished in the Grand Plaza just in time to get back to the hotel for breakfast, with all of us very enthused about the tour as well as very hungry. After breakfast we went for a swim, showered and packed, walked around the site model and the gift shop, and inspected the camping area. This took up the rest of the morning, and we were ready when Hugo’s mother, Adix, arrived to pick us up for our return trip.

On the return trip, we decided to take a side trip to Flores, a Spanish town built on an island in the lake of Peten Itza. Hugo told us the day before that the island had been a Maya temple, but the Spaniards destroyed the Maya site and built their colonial town, which supposedly hasn’t changed much in the past few hundred years. The streets are all paving stones, the houses are all stucco, and everything is painted in bright Caribbean colors.

We had a delicious lunch with Adix at one of the hotels with a view of another small island right on the water, wandered around the town looking for a post office so Rich and Sarah could send some postcards with Guatemalan postmarks, and then got back in the car to head back to the Belize border. On the way, we stopped at Adix’s restaurant so she could check on her daughters who were keeping it open for her while she drove us around.

The highlight of this stop for me was meeting the two-month old toucan who was given to them as a nestling by a neighbor (it was found in the jungle with no parents to care for it). They’ve cared for it and watched it grow, and it now hops around, entirely free, eating fruit and vegetable scraps and entertaining everybody in the kitchen. We made it back to the border and checked out of Guatemala and into Belize without any difficulties.

We were home in time for dinner, and found that Marjie and Chuck had done a great job taking care of the animals, and everybody was happy. Tom and I now have a little bit of a conflict, since we’ll have to tell our future guests that an overnight to Tikal is definitely worth it, even though we’ll probably be saying goodbye to them from here a day earlier than we would if we didn’t encourage people to do the overnight trip. But, we want everybody to love Belize as much as we do, so we figure giving good advice will pay off for us in the end.

On Saturday, we took it easy and tried to get ready for our Sunday departure to Caye Caulker. Rich and Sarah weren’t coming back here, so they had to get everything packed, and Tom and I had to get ready to be away for a longer period than we’d ever left the farm.

It turned out to not be too difficult, and Rich and I stayed here and did laundry, while Tom and Sarah went on an excursion to Ka’ax Tun. Sarah was as impressed as everybody else has been, and Rich and I used the time they were gone to get everything ready.

...and Surf
Despite the preparations, we still didn’t get out of here until 10 on Sunday morning, so although we’d originally planned to go Cave Tubing and then go to the Zoo, we decided to skip the Cave Tubing and just visit the Zoo. We had a good time there as we always do, and Rich and Sarah enjoyed seeing Belize wildlife up close. We left the Zoo around 2:00 and went out to the Western Highway to hail a bus. Tom and I have done it before, but taking the bus from the Zoo into Belize City was an experience for Sarah and Rich. The bus was packed so we couldn’t sit together, and as we proceeded down the Western Highway towards Belize City, it got fuller and fuller until there was barely any standing room. It was hot, loud, and dirty – but for $1.50US per person, it was a much better deal than paying lots of money to leave the truck in a semi-safe lot near the water taxi for four days, and one of the perks of us donating thousands of square feet of cage material to the Zoo is that we can leave our truck parked there when we go out to the cayes. Despite the crowded bus, we made it to the bus terminal in Belize City shortly after 3. Tom and I always walk from the bus terminal to the water taxi, and didn’t even think about getting a cab – which it turned out was a little disappointing to Sarah and Rich, who felt a little strange being middle-aged gringos wheeling their suitcases through downtown Belize City. Sarah said she wished they were traveling with backpacks as Tom and I were so they could at least look like part of the backpacker crowd, but in the end it didn’t matter and we made it to the water taxi terminal by 3:45, which left us a comfortable margin for buying our tickets, checking our luggage, and getting on the 4:00 water taxi to Caye Caulker.

We arrived on Caye Caulker around 5PM, and caught a taxi down the beach to where we were staying. Rich and Sarah sprung for a suite at Barefoot Beach, while Tom and I slummed it down the beach at Ignacio’s Beach Cabanas. There’s nothing wrong with Ignacio’s Beach Cabanas, but it was quite nice to have the kitchen at Sarah and Rich’s room to make ice for our rum drinks, and to have the stove to boil water for tea in the morning. We settled in, and walked back into town for dinner and to check the water taxi schedule since we planned to go to San Pedro the next day.

On Monday, we had a late breakfast and then caught the 11AM water taxi to San Pedro. Tom and I both prefer to vacation on Caye Caulker – the constant admonishments there to “Go Slow” are just what we need when we’re trying to take a break – but we like San Pedro and thought Rich and Sarah would enjoy seeing what many people think of when they think of a Belize vacation. We wandered around town, snooped around in the gift shops, Sarah and Rich bought a few gifts to take home, and we had an absolutely delicious lunch of papaya and pineapple smoothies and lobster and chicken quesadillas at Caramba’s. The lobster quesadilla was probably the best food I ate while we were on the cayes, and the papaya smoothie was so yummy that I almost, but not quite, decided to forego the expected stop at Morely’s for ice cream. One of the things I miss about living in Cayo without electricity is that it’s hard to get good ice cream around here, and even when we go to Spanish Lookout and have ice cream at Western Dairies, we can’t take it home and store it in our miniature butane freezer. San Pedro has a couple of good ice cream parlors, so while many people around here go out there to party, I go to eat ice cream. So, after lunch we wandered around a little more, got our feet wet at the beach, then got ice cream before heading back to the water taxi for the return trip to Caye Caulker. We were all tired after a day of walking in San Pedro and not very hungry after eating our way through the town, so we had dinner at a pizza place not to far from the hotels and made an early night of it.

On Tuesday, we went snorkeling with Tsunami. We planned to do a half day in the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve on Tuesday, and then a full day at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve on Wednesday. We decided to do the half day first because Rich was waiting for a replacement lens for his prescription mask (a very sad tale about how it broke before even getting near the sea), and we hoped that the lens would be in on Tuesday so he could use his mask on Wednesday.

Fortunately Tsunami had a prescription mask that worked for Rich, and we spent the late morning and early afternoon looking at the reef fish and coral, and swimming with the rays. We were back on Caye Caulker in time for lunch, and then spent a perfectly delightful afternoon sitting on the porch of Sarah and Rich’s beachfront room drinking rum drinks and talking. It wasn’t our traditional anniversary ride to Sapodilla Falls, but considering that we were sharing our 25th with great friends who share the same anniversary, a deck right on the Caribbean was a more than acceptable substitute!

On Wednesday, Rich and Sarah decided not to do the full day snorkel trip – the half day had been more than enough salt water and sun! – but Tom and I decided that we needed to soldier on and do it in the name of research for our business. We were really glad we did, since we saw more marine wildlife that day than we have in all of our snorkel and dive trips combined.

On our first stop our guide, Rene, found a manatee, who floated in the water watching us,

and then swam directly under our group as she went on her way.

We got back in the boat and headed to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, where we saw turtles, sharks, rays, morays, barracuda, tarpon, more fish whose names I can’t remember, and amazing coral formations.

We got back in the boat and went to Shark Ray Alley, where we saw some fairly large nurse sharks, more rays, more fish of all colors and sizes, and more coral formations.

Our last stop was at a coral garden, where the coral is less than 10 feet below the water line, so the colors of the multitude of fish in the area and of the coral are amazingly bright. On this stop we also saw a spotted eagle ray, which was thrill. We then returned to the dock around the back side of Caye Caulker, enjoying rum punch and tortilla chips and salsa. It was a great day, made even greater by the fact that we met three women who ended up coming back for a very enjoyable visit to Moonracer Farm with us for three nights – but that’s another story. Tom and I returned very tired and a bit sunburned, met up with Rich and Sarah at their room, and then went to the Sports Bar for their Trivia night. The trivia isn’t just sports, which was a good thing for us. With Sarah’s vast scientific knowledge and a bit of arcane knowledge thrown in here and there from the rest of us, we managed to have ourselves in first place going into the bonus round. However, the final bonus question was a sports question, and although we went for it and bet the maximum number of points, we got it wrong and didn’t finish in the money – but we had a really good time!

Thursday was the last day of our wonderful vacation. We all dragged our feet getting ready, sat at a picnic table on the beach trying to remember what still needed talking about after 10 days of talking, and waited for the water taxi. We said our sad good byes as Tom and I got on the water taxi to go back to Belize City, and Rich and Sarah caught a Tropic Air flight directly to the International Airport to catch their flight back to Boston. We crammed a lot in to ten days, but were amazed how fast it flew by – and now we’re planning on what we’ll all do for our 50th anniversary!

1 comment:

Rich said...

As the official fact checker, this blog entry gets a 100% correct rating.