Well the Embassy thing was a bust. When we arrived at the US Embassy on Friday we found that they had very limited hours in which they assisted US Citizens, and we had missed their allotted time period by about 10 minutes. Being good bureaucrats, when we asked them to help us anyway, they said "No, please come back next week and by the way Monday is a Belizean National Holiday so you'll have to wait until Tuesday before we can help you."
OK, we're flexible so we decided to skip Caye Caulker (at least for now) and head toward the beaches in the southern part of the country. Belize is a small country and even we can get far in a day. So after exploring Belize City and stopping at a great local restaurant for lunch, we hit the road. In our exploring, we were searching for a place to leave the Fuso (our current name for the expedition vehicle) when we return again in our attempt to update our passports and visit Caye Caulker.
We heard about "The Tourist Village" and that it may be possible to park for a few days. We found a taxi driver to take us there to find out. It turned out that the taxi driver, whose name was Prince Charles - really, we saw his license, was also a tour guide so he gave us a free tour as he drove. So before I lose my train of thought, we did find the Village, and yes they had a secured parking area where we could park for 24 hrs for only $6 BZ. A great deal, and we'll be able to get there by driving around the edge of town and not have to drive through the crazy downtown area.
The Village was out on the east edge of town just before the Baron Bliss lighthouse. Baron Bliss visited Belize in 1926 and fell in love with the country and the people. When he died, very shortly later from something like food poisoning, he left his money in a trust to help the people of Belize. Since that time, the trust has built schools, paved roads, funded an arts institute and much more. In fact, the national holiday that I mentioned above is actually Baron Bliss Day.
Now back to my story about the taxi driver. He told us about Baron Bliss and told us about the history of the city. He was very vocal about the politics of Belize and how he felt about the corruption he saw in the government. It was very interesting to hear his viewpoint. That is one of the things we love about Belize, that the people are very friendly and love to talk.
After our short tour, the taxi driver took us back to our Fuso. In Mexico we learned that rather than drive into the heart of a city in the truck we should find a store with a big parking lot where we could park for a few hours. So in Belize City, we found a big grocery store with a big lot. This way we could pick up supplies when we left the city.
Along the way, we stopped to visit the Belize Zoo. This zoo treats their animals more as guests rather than caged animals. It also gave us the opportunity to see many of the animals native to Belize. We also took photos of them so you could see these wonderful creatures. Among the animals we saw were tapirs- which are the national animal, howler and squirrel monkeys, panthers and other cats, scarlet macaws and Don's favorite - a Harpy Eagle. The Harpy is terribly endangered and it is unlikely to see one in the wild. This guy was so curious about us that he flew off his perch and came to us to visit. Turned out that he was fascinated with our blue camera bag, even trying to grab it right through his fenced enclosure!
When we tried to find a campground for the night, we found that the old standby, JB's Watering Hole was closed up, as in Out of Business. So we drove next door to Amigo's Restaurant and asked for permission to park in their lot. We were welcomed by the owners who said it was OK. Since they were nice enough to let us park for free, we paid them back by enjoying dinner in their restaurant.
When we were researching Belize for this expedition, one of the adventures that really sounded exciting was an exploration of a cave to see Mayan artifacts. The cool part of this was that we'd be exploring the cave while floating on inner tubes on an underground river! The company that actually owns the land where the cave is, runs the tour. So our destination would be Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Jungle Lodge - where we'd also camp for a couple of days.
Along the way we stopped at Belmopan, the capital of Belize, to pick up a few more supplies and to visit an internet cafe.
Caves Branch Cave is one of several subterranean sites that were carved out of the limestone foothills of the Maya Mountains by the Caves Branch River.
Archaeological investigations in Caves Branch Cave indicate that the ancient Maya utilized the site for several hundred years. Between 300 and 900 AD, they made regular pilgrimages to the site in an effort to ask their gods to nourish their fields, to provide bountiful crops, game and sustenance and to request stability in a very volatile world.
To both the ancient and modern Maya, caves represent entrances into the underworld. Known as Metnal or Xibalba, caves served as the home of powerful gods, and were both places of death and of creation. Deities resided in these dark, mysterious, but sacred places and it was expected that the people would provide ritual offerings. In these caves offerings such as corn, chili pepper, cacao seeds, and pine needles have been found. Some caves have evidence of copal (incense) being burned. Most of the sites also contain implements that were used for hunting, tilling of the soil and the processing of corn. The ultimate gift, however, was the offering of one's blood or human lives. Some of the cave sites contain the skeletal remains of victims who were offered in sacrifice to the powerful dwellers of the underworld.
Our visit to the caves started with a ride standing in a trailer with about 25 other people and 25 inner-tubes. After about a 1/2 hour ride through beautiful orange groves, we arrived at the river. Never having "tubed" before, we really didn't know what to expect. We were given instructions however on how to properly use our tube, so placing it in the water (valve side down, thick edge to the back) we ungracefully plopped down into it. Cold water splashed down our backs as we gasped and laughed.
The entrance to the cave was upstream, so we all turned backwards and back-paddled with our hands toward the entrance. We entered the cave and were immediately swallowed up by blackness. Turning on our headlamps, we continued into the dark. Stalagmites and stalactites greeted us at every turn and dripping water glistened on the ceiling and walls. Beautiful sights that probably existed when the Maya visited this cave humbled us. Periodically we would climb out of our tubes and explore dry caverns where the Maya performed their rituals. Evidence of fires and broken pottery were everywhere. Some of the rooms still held unbroken pottery that was quite magnificent. Our guide explained that pottery was used in rituals and broken at the end and that the whole pottery probably held water or corn liquor.
One of the caves even held a sculpture that had been carved and plastered by the Maya. It was very impressive. None of the caves we visited had any human remains.
Our tour ended with a float back down the river out of the cave. It was a tremendous experience and one that we enjoyed immensely.
We left the mountains today as we drove along the beautiful Hummingbird Highway. This road is evidence of the government's attempt to modernize the country by paving many of the main roads. Just a few short years ago this was a rough dirt road. We drove up and down hills and crossed many streams via small one-lane bridges barely wide enough for us to fit. Fortunately we never met any other traffic while trying to cross a bridge. We did pass an intercity bus that had caught fire the night before. The bus was destroyed, but luckily no one was injured and also important, it didn't block any of the bridges. We passed more orange orchards and processing plants which make concentrate from the juice to ship overseas. Where sugarcane is the main industry in the north, orange juice is the industry in the center of the country.
Our destination would be one of two towns that adjoin each other. Hopkins is a Garifuna village on the Caribbean, while Sittee is a smaller community located on the banks of the Sittee River. Arriving in Hopkins we found a small cafe and Kim and I each ordered fish with the usual serving of rice and beans. What we got was a whole fish each, lightly fried and OH so good.
While we were waiting for our food, Don approached a couple of local guys who were playing dominoes. This is a game we've seen being played all over, and while we understand its basics we really didn't know how to play. So Don joined in for several games and actually won the last two before our lunch arrived. No one could believe it.
Although the beach looked inviting, we decided to drive into Sittee so that we could launch our kayak in the river and look for manatees and crocodiles. We found the Toucan Sittee Lodge where we were allowed (for a fee) to camp right on the river. After we parked, we got in our kayak and jumped into the river. We had a fun paddle as the river here is flat, meaning that the elevation drop is nearly nil and that there is practically no current. So we were able to paddle upstream, but it also meant that we had to paddle back downstream as well. We had a great time checking out the small riverside homes and looking for birds - as we didn't find any crocs or manatees.
The bugs along the river got to be too much for us. There were biting flies and mucho mosquitoes. We decided that after taking another paddle in the river this morning, that we would go back to the beach because there was a nice breeze blowing the bugs away. So we spent a lazy day at the beach doing laundry, working on the computer and relaxing in the shade of a palapa, a palm frond roofed shelter.