Spring in Belize
A princess arrives
The Mountain Pine Ridge - part 1
For my last tourist trip, I lucked into a tour up into the Mountain Pine Ridge area to visit the Mayan site at Caracol and several other attractions. I actually had my name on a list down at Eva's for this trip for several weeks -- that is, any time a guide had room for one more (because you can't afford to take the trip if there's only one of you). As it turns out they had the wrong phone number, so it took an enterprising guide, Everald, who asked around until he figured out where we lived (Jana and I are not hard to describe in this town, even among the white temporaries). Then he scared the hell out of us by appearing at the side door one night. Fortunately we had seen him around and he's not very scary looking (and not very tall), so we didn't immediately call the cops.
(We actually were more than a little jumpy, because a bar owner about 3 blocks down from us was murdered for the night's proceeds the other night, at least that's the most prevalent neighborhood rumor. But since this is not likely to be more than $100, I'm more inclined to believe the drug connection story. But then again, a drug deal is more comforting to us than thinking about how much we have compared to our neighbors.)
The Mountain Pine Ridge is a large granite outcropping; maybe 20 miles long rising about 2000 feet above seal level at the northernmost edge of the Maya Mountains. There are lots of caves and falls and lodges in the area -- the major set of recreational destinations from San Ignacio (which is itself the second-most active tourist destination in the county; San Pedro on Ambergris Caye is first). People tend to call the whole area the Mountain Pine Ridge even though the national park covers a lot more territory than just the mountain. The Macal River, which runs though San Ignacio, basically separates the pine forest from the jungle and originates up in these mountains, possible in Guatemala.
The trip to Caracol is about 50 miles and takes about 2 hours. The roads are really pretty good except for here and there where they are absolutely dreadful and you couldn't go without 4-wheel drive. Virtually all of the area has been logged over, the Brits took out the mahogany and cedar and then later pine. Well, that's why they were here. Now the logging is controlled and by permit. There are still (or again) enough mahogany and other hardwoods to support a good local furniture business in San Ignacio, but I suspect Belize's wood exporting days are over for a long while.
We saw lots of lizards along the way, the kind they call Jesus Christ lizards, because they run up their hind legs and can "walk on water." These lizards are small and dark, about the size of a hamster. But skinny of course. We also saw millions of butterflies! Most of them were black with white stripes, or black with red spots but there were also sprinklings of clear white, yellow and gold and white with black stripes and occasionally the most startling opalescent lime green, powder blue or lavender.
Occasionally there would be thousands of them clustered on the edge of the road and Everald said they were "sipping" -- apparently drinking water that was oozing up through the sand. We drove through butterflies for over half an hour, probably 15 miles. Everald of course, made no effort to slow down or avoid them and probably couldn't have anyway, but it was hard not to wince as we plowed on through these flocks of beautiful creatures.
Caracol itself is an extensive Mayan site with about 40,000 structures marked so far. These are the people who kept attacking Tikal and presented the enemy front that allowed the Tikal rulers to make their city so large. I don't think Caracol actually ever won one of these battles, because they have stone carvings commemorating their defeats and comparing them to previous rulers. Or possibly I misunderstood.
The site is being actively excavated by archeologists from the University of Central Florida (a married couple named Chase), so there are several dozen workers onsite and scaffolding where they are working and excavations in various stages so you can see how the process goes. Only three main central plazas, a dozen buildings and the ball field and reservoir have been excavated well enough to walk around in. The current workers live in thatched huts scattered through one of the plazas and you can almost imagine they are the working class and the city is still alive, except of course they would have lived far outside the central plazas and temples. And many of them are Mestizo rather than Mayan.
Everald turned out to be more of a driver than a guide because he left me and Justin, a young man from South Carolina on a two-week backpacking trip, to wander around on our own. One of the most interesting parts to me was the Mayan use of a clay-lined reservoir in this area for much of their water needs. There is no river very close to this city and according to the visitor's center information, the Mayas did not have the wheel or use beasts of burden, so it was necessary to maintain enough water to carry them through the two- to three-month dry season.
As I said yesterday, though, the wet season is upon us and
we got rained on while at the site, which led to an adventure
I'll tell you about next.