Maya Quest or
Belize If You Please
by John Kobak & Chuck Singer
After months of planning and reading every guide book on Belize Peggy and I were finally on our way. The warm early winter in Cleveland had finally turned nasty and it had been snowing for the past week. I shoveled my drive for the last time and read the forecast. "Sunny skies and Dry roads" We started out this trip by driving to Florida to visit some close friends. After our visit we flew to Cozumel, Mexico where we would meet Chuck who left a few days before us.
Chuck drove just hours ahead of a big ice storm in Tenn. and a grass fire in Texas. He called me when he reached the Mexican border when he realized he had borrowed a two-person Sit-on-Top sea kayak from Dave Boyd but had no papers to prove it was his. I told him go for it since he didn't have any papers for my Foldboat which he was also bringing down to Belize. Chuck was bringing down most of the food and heavier gear that our group of seven would need for our kayak adventure.
After we read Kirk Barrett's excellent guide book on sea kayaking in Belize we decided we didn't need any guides except ourselves. The other paddlers, Elliott Drysdale, Thury O'Connor, Judi Cleary and Art Vaughn all planned to fly directly to Placencia, Belize where our kayak adventure would begin.
So after three days and 1800 miles of driving Chuck made it to Matamoras, Mexico. Chuck was anxious to again practice his Spanish which he excelled at a LCC. Its nearly as good as his middle ages Latvian (just kidding). I don't know what we would have done without his great communication skills.
Chuck drove about 400 miles a day in Mexico driving 8 to 10 hours. The gasoline, thanks to the devalued Peso was about $1.03/gal and Unleaded Gas was readily available. One gas station managed to successfully compress 34 gallons into his 32 gal tank. Must have been able to compress the gasoline molecules by selective collapse of the S-P sub-orbitals. After that he watched them pump the gas into his van more carefully.
He stopped at many Aztec and Mayan ruins on the way to Cozumel, the most interesting being Palenque. There were three tour groups speaking German, two Spanish and three groups in French. He followed to pick up a few pointers but never did figure out why the Bratwurst Princess was sacrificed to the Eiffel Tower.
The campground at Palenque was filled with many folks from the counter culture. There were Dutch kids, Londoners and a couple of Swedes all debating the relative strengths of the local "Magic Mushrooms".
He stopped looking for a place to camp near a small waterfall. He was told it was OK but it also was the town dump. The folks invited him to stay with them, fed him supper and took him to a small fiesta which celebrated the young girls in the village turning fifteen. There was food and dancing and it was beautiful in its simplicity.
He tried this technique in several other towns and was able to get a place to park his van and a local meal. He traded apples and cheese. The local people would never accept money and it seems apples are a rare treat in Mexico.
The weather was very hot and humid and they use the Celsius scale. Chuck figured the conversion was to add about 100o since that's what it felt like. The roads varied in quality. Some are like interstates but most are like secondary highways in West Virginia. There are many toll roads and bridges. They use the Metric system except when the sign says 80 kph they apparently translate this to 80 mph. Guess what happens on the turnpikes that have 110 kph limits.
Left turn blinkers mean that the car is about to pass or telling you that it is safe to pass. (Don't try this in Belize where they really turn left) If you are approaching a vehicle and he turns on his headlights, it means move over, he needs more room. Since no one obeys the speed limits the government invented "Topes". We call them parking lot dividers. If you cross at more then two mph your vehicle becomes airborne. NASA could use these for launch pads. Some towns have them every 100 meters. The best thing about them is that everyone sells something at the Tope because you are almost stopped anyhow. He bought pop, juice, tortillas, pineapple, donuts and jicima. One Tope sold wheel covers recovered from errant motorists.
He drove through Chiapas right when the government and the rebels were fighting. When listening to the local news spoken at about 1000 words per minute all he could pick out were words like muerte (death), problemas and guerrillas. He immediately looked into his Spanish phrase book for "Don't shoot I'm only a stupid tourist". But nothing really exciting happened.
Chuck left his van in a hotel parking lot in Playa Del Carmen where he caught the ferry to meet us in Cozumel. When he arrived at our hotel he gave us a big surprise. Chuck wore a large white straw hat and a white sport coat, he looked the part of a rich planter coming to his big night on the town.
We stayed 4 nights at Plaza Las Glorias. The hotel is within walking distance of the city and is a beautiful complex catering to divers.
We decided to dive with Dive Paradise which picked us up at the hotel dock. The diving was different then any I experienced in others parts of the world. Because of the strong northerly current they all do "drift diving". This means you all jump in and stay together so that when you surface the boat following the air bubbles from your group can pick you up. If you get lost you would probably end up in Cuba. The coral and fish life was plentiful and I enjoyed swimming through large caves in the rock.
The food at all the local restaurants was good and very inexpensive since the Peso devaluation. We recommend La Choza in town for dinner and Costa Brava next to Dive Paradise for breakfast.
We left on Thursday on the 6:30 AM ferry so that we would have an easy drive to Chetumal a Mexican city on the border of Belize. Remember that in these lower latitudes the days are only 12 Hrs. (6 am to 6 pm) and no one would drive on these highways in the dark.
We camped at a beautiful campground right on the coast just North of the city. Grassy area, Palapas to hang your hammocks which can be purchased in the city from Mayan weavers from $10 to $20 each. We decided to buy all our fresh food to take advantage of the cheap Peso
The next morning we tried to pass through customs and found that no fruit can be imported into Belize and had most of it confiscated by friendly customs officials.
We stocked up on vegetables at the first major town in Belize (Orange Walk). The roads in Belize are one step down from Mexico and we couldn't find any "Tope" salespersons. The only decent road is the Western Highway which runs from Belize city to Guatemala. We decided to take a shortcut to avoid the infamous Belize City and another from the Western Highway to the city of Dangriga on the coast. This road was fairly new but dusty and bumpy. It took us the entire day to finally get to our destination, Placencia. We were slowed by one flat tire and we stopped at a Mayan home to pick oranges to replace those taken at the border.
When we found our hotel, Elliott was already there. He excitedly reported the story of his arrival to the airstrip. It seems after he got out on the runway with his luggage he didn't notice that the small plane does not stick around. It quickly taxied to the end and took off toward Elliott. As he stood changing clothes in the middle of the runway the taxicab driver was trying to get him to get off the runway. Elliott, paying little heed until the last minute when he looked up to see the plane bearing down on him. He dove into the dirt swearing that the plane missed him by inches. Good way to start an adventure. Within the hour the rest of our crew arrived. We stayed at Ranguana Lodge right on the beach in Placencia watching the beautiful 6 pm sunset.
Food and Lodging prices in Placencia, Belize are a little high considering the quality. This is starting to become a popular Eco-Tourist & Adventure Tourist destination and it is off the beaten path. Like many places in the Caribbean this tends to push the prices up since they have to import all their food. One grocery store in town supplies all the food. By Saturday their selection is quite limited so it's best to bring your own for a trip.
After a good night's rest at Ranguana Lodge ($70/room) we got all our gear together for the Kayak trip. What a pile! How will we every get all 7 of us, a 2-man kayak and my foldboat (Still folded) into the little outboard boat for our 20 mile trip to Ranguana Cay (pronounced KEY). The owner of the island, Eddie Leslie, was taking another group of 5 kayakers so Art & Elliott went with them.
Right after we pulled out of the dock it started to rain. This was the only rain on our entire trip. We waited for ten minutes until it ended. As we cruised out to the island the sun came out and gave Judi and Elliott severe sunburns. In the tropics if you don't want to damage your skin you really should use a SPF 25 on any exposed flesh and apply it twice a day.
Ranguana Cay was like the picture in the book, a palm island surrounded by a coral reef with white sand beaches. There were plenty of trees for shade and erecting our hammocks. Eddie also has a few cabins on stilts for rent. It wouldn't be bad spending a lazy week on this little island if you don't mind doing your own cooking.
This is where we filled our water jugs for the trip. We were worried about the quality and taste. What a surprise! He has a Reverse Osmosis apparatus that is powered by his generator and makes 40 gal a day of freshwater from sea water. It was excellent. We filled up plastic milk jugs that we brought with us in the 2-man kayak. We took 40 gal for our 6 day kayak trip and had a few gallons left when we returned. There were flush toilets and showers on the island. The fee for camping was $5/person.
We got to the island about noon and assembled my foldboat and got the three kayaks (Scupper Pro Sit-on-tops) which Eddie keeps on the island for rent. The kayaks rent for $30 per day but must be reserved in advance from Reef-Link Kayaking in Des Moines, IA.
This was Art's first time snorkeling on a coral reef. After a few minutes, Art came swimming back to shore shouting "Eye Candy". He had never seen the colorful fish and coral life that exist in the warm Caribbean water. Art spent the bulk of his free time on the entire trip snorkeling. He remarked that he may have to become a certified diver to expand his horizons.
We forgot that the sun sets so early (6 PM) and ended up eating in the dark on our first night. I guess we better start preparing the dinner about 4 PM to ensure that we can have it cleaned up before dark. Not much to do after dark. Not even mosquitoes to swat. If you stay on islands that have sand beaches and no mangroves there seems to be no bugs.
The wind picked up that evening and my tent almost blew away. Not enough vegetation for wind protection so we used a tarp for a wind break. I got in the habit of tying my tent to a few palm trees in case the stakes pulled out of the sand.
It was still windy in the morning. Right after I packed my tent Art said it looks like the waves are too big, and what happens if they get bigger?" Lets stay here another day." Well, we out voted him and started out for our first taste of Ocean Kayaking. The waves were 3-4 ft but very manageable. Peggy liked the way our foldboat handled and it was very fast compared to the sit-on-top kayaks. Our group didn't stay together too well but we could all see our next destinations, Pompion Cay and Round Cay.
We got to Pompion Cay after 3 Hrs of paddling into the stiff North wind. We were a little tired but after a nice lunch we were ready to paddle the final hour to Round Cay. The other kayak group was behind us but planned to stay on Pompion Cay so we didn't want to crowd in, beside there was a drunk caretaker on the island who wanted to charge us $5/person whether we camped or even just stopped for lunch. After some negotiating he agreed not to charge us for our lunch stop.
Round Cay is very tiny. But we had enough room for our 4 tents and kitchen. The wind picked up even more. We discovered that if you walked the 200 Yds across the island to the leeward side it was like you stepped through a time warp into a new climate zone. While our campsite was windy and cool, the leeward side was calm, warm and sunny.
When it got dark, the island became alive. Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes crawled out of holes everywhere. You couldn't walk through the camp without stepping on one. I thought; let's have some good evening entertainment, Crab Racing. Everyone gathered up their favorites. We put them into a large circle which we had drawn in the sand. We identified our entries with magic marker. The first crab to make it outside the circle was declared the winner. Judi's crab won two heats and Peggy's one, great fun.
The next morning the waves looked even bigger, Art announced I'm not going anywhere. We decided not to break camp but to wait and see if it got better. When we were on the Leeward side we decided it looked good, but when we walked back to our tents the cold wind and big waves discouraged us. We watched the beach erode away from the windward side and redeposit itself on the leeward side. We stayed another night.
The next morning things looked calmer, we started late. After watching the other kayak group paddle by, we decided to leave. After a short paddle we arrived on Middle Queen Cay, about the same time as the other group. The small island was crowded with tents but as I paddled toward shore I noticed that two other kayak groups were packing up and leaving. Now there was plenty of room for both our groups and the small group of fisherman.
There are three islands in this group, the south island was small and had a large group of fisherman, the north island is tiny and rocky but Middle Queen Cay was perfect. Elliott found out that he enjoyed sleeping in his hammock better then in the tent. The evenings got cool but we did not require a sleeping bag in the tent, only a light flannel sheet. The temperature each day was in the 80's the water temperature was 81o F, night time temps in low 70's. Tough winter camping.
We stayed two nights. Thury, Peggy and I took a 6 mile round trip paddle to Hatchet Cay. This Cay had been owned by some North Americans who while building a lodge did some blasting of the coral to make a dock. They were put in jail and their island was taken from them. All that remains is a foundation and small shack. It seems that if you leave your island alone without a caretaker, pirates will come in and strip every last thing. When we got back to camp, both Thury and Peggy were covered with bug bites possibly Sand Flees? These were the only bites anyone received on the entire trip.
That evening we decided to have a fish dinner. Since our fisherman, Art, only caught one fish, then fed it to a pelican, we offered the island fisherman a few dollars for fish and Conch. We roasted the fish on charcoal and coconut husks. One big fish fed all of us, we used the Conch as an appetizer.
The other kayak group headed back to Ranguana Cay but we planned an extra day to go to Little Water Cay. This was about a two hour paddle and was the largest of the islands that we stayed on. It seems that this Cay opened as a Nudist Resort. There were about 6 cottages and a large restaurant and bar. After they were open for a few weeks the Belize Gov't. came in and closed it down. With no income the bank foreclosed and quickly retrieved anything that was removable. Luckily the owner left a caretaker to keep the beautiful resort from being looted.
The caretaker was very friendly and seemed glad to see us. It turned out that the owner had quit paying his salary and he is living on the money that anyone gives him for staying on his island. He allowed us to use anything we wished. We cooked dinner in the restaurant and enjoyed sitting at real tables. Art's spicy hot chili was enjoyed by the caretaker as well. Everyone except Peggy and I chose to sleep in the cabanas. It is all for sale. Perhaps the Keel Haulers could get together about $3/4 Million and buy our own island.
On Saturday morning we started our long paddle back to Ranguana Cay. The waves were big but we had a following sea. It was surf city all the way back as we tried to catch wave rides and pass each other.
We stayed overnight at Ranguana Cay before heading back to Placencia on Sunday afternoon. With less gear, our whole group fit into one boat. However, as usual, we had motor troubles on the way back. It seems that we hit something and broke the slip clutch in the prop. We were able to limp back, good thing we weren't in a hurry.
The next morning Chuck took Judi, Elliott and Art to the airport and we then headed off toward Guatemala for the rest of our adventure. The Hummingbird Highway took us to St Ignacio in the Cayo district. Everyone told us that the highway used to be bad and we will enjoy the new road. Wrong, it is under construction and someday it might be OK. The narrow bridges and broken pavement made for slow going.
In St. Ignacio we located a junk yard to buy a rim that would fit Chuck's van. When he bought the van used he never tried the spare tire. The rim turned out to be from a car not a van. Luckily we got the correct rim and remounted our spare.
Guide books recommended stopping at Eva's restaurant. Well they were right. We wanted a small place on a jungle river so that we could paddle the river and take out at the lodge. They recommended the Parrot's Nest. After taking a few wrong turns and asking directions a few times we finally found our way to the resort. It seems the owner does not believe in signs and part of the journey is through closed gates and a farmer's field. Luckily Eva called ahead for us as we got the last two rooms. They furnished breakfast and dinner and our room was a tree house in a large Guanacaste tree.
Chuck and I decided to run the Mopan river from the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich back to the lodge. The American owner told us that it was a 4 hr float trip. The river was low, as this is nearing the end of the dry season. The river is fairly large, (Upper Cuyahoga sized) with travertine ledges varying from 1' to 4' drops. In between the water is very slow moving. It flows through farms and forested areas. Women wash their clothes in the river and children swim with the pigs and the cattle. We saw lots of birds. We paddled hard all the way in Dave's 2 man kayak. The water was too rocky for my foldboat. We figured we could do it in two hours, it took us three.
That afternoon we opted to drive to the Mountain Pine Ridge area and visit the Rio Frio Caves. What a surprise! High in the hills the huge area is nothing but pine forest with red soil, very reminiscent of SC or GA. The caves were interesting as the river cut a half mile tunnel through the limestone rock.
The next day our adventure continued. We would drive to the Tikal ruins in Guatemala. The good Western Highway ends at the Guatemala border where our van was fumigated to kill the Belize bugs. The road then became very bumpy until just before the city of Flores where an excellent paved highway then leads you to outstanding Mayan ruins in Tikal.
The ruins are within a 150 sq. mile park. The campground was a large grassy field with Palapas to hang your hammocks, flush toilets and showers. There were 4 restaurants adjacent to the camp. We stayed for 3 nights and it took us two full days to see all the ruins.
There are 5 huge pyramids and many structures, the largest over 200' high. This city was built around 700 BC and was abandoned AD900. The city had over 3000 buildings and was home to around 100,000 people all living within the 23 sq. mile site. Today it is one of the big tourist destinations in Guatemala. Best time to see the ruins is in the morning and late afternoon to avoid the crowds.
Our group split up on Friday. Thury flew from Flores via Belize to home and we flew to Miami via Cancun. Chuck was stuck with the long drive home. He made it home in 8 days and visited some of the same Mexican homes along the way.