clare-hill.com The story of Clare Hill's voluntary work adventure in Belize

16/11/2008

No.31 Trekking and Stopping

Filed under: "the river",Adventures in Belize,Guatemala,Rainy Season — Clare Hill @ 08:46 pm

After a couple of weekends in wet BC, the prospect of a slightly drier weekend over Halloween and The Day of the Dead encouraged us to catch a bus up towards Succotz and the Guatemalan border. (Succotz is the village a couple of miles south of the border town of Benque, where we caught the wire and ratchet ferry over to the Xunantunich pyramids.) The towns with a Spanish and/or Mexican influence celebrate the Day of the Dead, not just Halloween, (ie All Saints not All Souls) and in particular the souls of dead children. More remote traditional places have very special ceremonies, but these tend to be well into Mexico and too far for us. So we decided just to head west and see what we see.

Thus to a bus on a Friday evening! Once more ensconced on the Western Highway, we were heading for Trek Stop, on the eastern edge of Succotz, and with an interesting write up in the guide book: an eco-centre, complete with wooden cabañas, kitchens, bio-degradable composting toilets and a butterfly farm. After nearly three hours on a busy commuter bus, the bus driver deposited us in the dark. Seeing our look of “EH?” he pooped his horn and made a hand gesture to show us in which direction to look. Through the darkness we saw a billboard on the other side of the road proudly announcing Trek Stop. As the bus drew away and we crossed the road, we saw a torch light and a friendly voice coming towards us. “I saw the bus pull up. You said you would be here about 8pm.” A charming young Spanish sounding man met us and with two large torches guided us up the slope to the centre. The ground was firm but damp underfoot, and we asked him if they had been OK in the recent floods. This area is in the reaches of the large tributaries of the Belize River, where much of the damage from floods had occurred. (The river was on the near side of the road when we got off the bus.) He explained that the lower lying ground near the road had been under water; but the centre itself had not been affected, other than the increase in mosquitoes and other insects which had been  noticeable everywhere, including our generally insect–free zone in the flat. We were guided through some light vegetation to a series of cabanas and one or two larger wooden buildings, including a communal kitchen with facilities for (free) tea and real coffee, Scrabble and other board games, and an interesting collection of spear heads, fossils and stones. We passed the showers, with water heated by solar panels, and the loos. I could see immediately that I was going to have a problem. I have a very sensitive digestive tract – not just because of my more recent dramas with diverticulitis, but throughout my life. It is supposed to be typical of those born under the sign of Cancer, and my mother says my grandmother (of the horses sweat statement for any regular readers) also had to take great care about what she did and did not eat, and she too is a Cancerian. Any upset in my life at all, and I immediately get a funny tummy or chronic constipation.

Many years ago, about 1971, my friend Caroline and I were at a Sufi camp on the side of a mountain above Chamonix, in the French Alps. There were a lot of us, and it was the hippy era so we all tended to have long hair and flowing robes. As we were about 50 in number, three holes in the ground were dug, with wooden planks around them, with a stunning view over the valley to Mont Blanc. At sunrise the sun glowed on the snows on one side of the peak, and in the evening cast long rosy shadows on the other. It was midsummer, so the days were long, and being in large tents, it got hot soon after sunrise. But try as I may, I just could not ‘perform’ squatting over a hole in the ground with two companions, even if we were looking at one of the most famous profiles in the world. So it was with a sense of resignation I noted that the next few hours would not be the most relieving that I had ever had. Despite the fine eco-notion of composting toilets, the long drop into a cavernous hole, not quite knowing if anything might rise to greet you, is still something I have yet to struggle with.

Nevertheless the wooden cabanas, though simple were perfectly adequate, and very soundly constructed. Because of the rains I had wondered whether our Trek Stop might have had the company of every snake and scorpion looking for dry ground, but I needn’t have worried. The insect screens and all joints were tightly sealed, and the worst I saw was a little spider. We settled in and made our way through the village to Benny’s Kitchen, which had been recommended as a good watering hole. It was Halloween, and there were children and adults in occasional houses and yards, doing what people do with masks and pumpkins, creating a congenial sense of ‘family’ in the pleasant evening.

We awoke to the early morning dawn chorus, being on the edge of the rain forest, and to my delight we heard a parrot or parakeet just above us. By the time I got out of bed it had gone! But in the day light, we could appreciate the centre and its setting. Small cabanas were dotted around, with shingle paths linking up the various buildings. They were all interspersed with beautiful trees, with their gorgeous barks, and large and small shrubs, some in flower and some with fabulous foliage. One green leaf has a lacy creamy white border to it, whilst another looks as if Jackson Pollock has had a go. The various rubber plants and other indoor plants we see in the UK all grow wild and free here, delighting the eye with their vigour and variety.   Towards the back of the area is a ‘proper’ wooden house on stilts where the family live.

Navigating the ablutions without mishap, we wandered down to the eating area for breakfast – it had been closed the evening before. A party of tourists sat at the table beside us, two from Australia, two from Ireland and one from Canada. They had just arrived from Cancun and were going on to the Mayan site of Tikal, unable to visit the local sites because of the flooding making some roads impassable. We pondered over how very different their experience of the country was to ours. For the first time ever I indulged in banana pancakes and to my amazement two huge ones appeared on both Conor and my plates. We struggled gamely through, and they were quite delicious! An enormous bottle of maple syrup was passed liberally from table to table.

Before leaving, we decided to have a look at the small exhibition centre and butterfly farm behind the breakfasting area. The farm area was a vast netted-in piece of the rain forest, with particular plants for the caterpillars to feed off, or to camouflage a certain species. Because at this point the weather was just beginning to change from the few weeks of rain to a ‘cold’ front, and still a little overcast, not many of the butterflies were flying. A small boy, about seven years old, wandered in, and began to delight in finding the names of the butterflies for us (in Latin, Spanish and English!) shaking a branch here to disturb a particular butterfly, pointing out the chrysalises pinned up in a special box there. He was such good company that we gave him a couple of dollars for being such an excellent tour guide. At this he seemed to think that he had not really earned his wage yet, for he stopped us from leaving, seemed to pause a moment, then turned us back to show us how one butterfly was perfectly camouflaged on the bark of a tree trunk, and two large rust coloured caterpillars (he called them worms) were stationary on another trunk looking completely like the twigs around them. Clever.  At this point he seemed satisfied that his job had been well done, and let us go, each of us with a contented smile on our faces.

The sky was clearing, and the conditions perfect for walking: temperatures in the upper 60’sF, about 27C, and NO humidity! We had decided to just follow our noses, and began the walk through the village. We had noticed a sign about a local artist as we wandered through the previous evening, and had decided to look inside before moving on. As we approached the series of three simple buildings, we immediately noticed the details in the stone work steps, the careful positioning of plants, and a sense of welcoming peace. The middle of the three rooms was an open studio area with a typical potter’s room behind, complete with clay and wheels. A small Mayan man (most of the villagers in Succotz are of Mayan origin) probably about 60 years old, was sitting painting some pottery. His work immediately caught our attention. A variety of shapes and sizes but all most delicately painted. He uses local clays, and is currently developing more traditional glazes. The ones we saw were painted in acrylic, so will not be dishwasher proof, and will mark if scratched, but the art work was exquisite. Being limited by weight as we travel home, we purchased a couple of small pieces for gifts, depicting scenes from the Mayan cosmology. We stayed chatting to this gentle man, who told us about his work over the years, teaching women and children how to use the clay, and creating financial independence for the women. This has been a big issue within the Mayan culture as for aeons women were considered to be the property of their men folk, and any sign of independence seen as an insult to the family’s – and in particular the husband’s –  honour. He and his wife have been social activists for the last thirty years, and it was so good to talk with him and feel such hope for society that in every nook and cranny there are people like him quietly making changes and working towards a fairer world.

Usually we wilt after walking about two miles, so we were relishing the clear sunshine and fresh air, striding along the swollen river banks towards Benque with not even a hat on our heads! The high water marks were very evident, well up over the road, and though still a fast and vigorous volume of water speeding by, it was considerably lower than a week ago. As Succotz and Benque sit higher on the side of the valley, very few people’s homes were affected, fortunately. Meanwhile, all sorts of water birds, kingfishers, small herons, limpkins and waders were taking advantage of the waters. People too, were gathering to wash their clothes and themselves, or to dunk their pickneys (children) into tubs of water, pouring water over their screwed up faces. 

Keeping to the river bank, we avoided the main road up to the Guatemalan border and Immigration, and meandered through some leafy lanes, enjoying the sense of village life. The usual accompaniment of stray dogs and scrawny cats followed us, as we picked our way forward. While standing debating whether to keep going along a narrowing track, a red pick-up truck with a family in it stopped beside us, asking us where we were going. The man advised us that down that lane and into the undergrowth we were yards from the border, a notorious area for illegal immigrants and not very safe. Decision made, we thanked the man and turned back!

Still enjoying ourselves enormously, we decided to keep walking towards Succotz and San Ignacio until a communal taxi came along – which it duly did! The San Ignacio Saturday market was our first port of call, its abundance of fruit and vegetables sorely diminished from the last time we saw it. The whole market area had been under water, and thousands of acres of agricultural land ruined for this growing season. This will have a huge impact on the rural people, who have a subsistence-farming lifestyle, selling any extra produce in the markets of villages and towns. We were heading towards Bullet Tree, which had been flooded but was now passable, and which had some cabanas beside the falls according to the guidebook. It is the spot where the Macal and Mopan tributaries become the mighty Belize River. Suddenly the truth of Belize being a small country hit us, and everyone knowing everyone else. Waiting to cross the road to an ATM, we were hailed loudly and turned to see our ‘first day man’ hanging out of a front passenger window waving frantically! It was a taxi, with a couple of tourists looking at us curiously from the back. He had got himself a good deal there as a guide. Good for him, he knows his stuff.

In the queue for the ATM, a man who had attended a training day a week or so ago, based in San Ignacio, grabbed our hands. He had been very involved in the assessment of some of the flood damage, and told us a tale or two. He reassured us that we should be able to get to Bullet Tree. And whilst chatting to him, who else should come along but Ernesto! He greeted us warmly and it was good to see him. We hadn’t seen him for well over a month, and he looked scrubbed, with clean clothes and shoes on his feet. As we walked towards the market to get a local bus to Bullet Tree, we saw him loading some things onto the back of a stall holder’s lorry, so hopefully he had some work and was doing better for himself.

The road to Bullet Tree was indeed clear, and the taxi man – no local buses at that time of day – dropped us off near the river. He was gone before we had time to take in the scene……Both banks had the flattened vegetation left after water has receded, and on the far side, the restaurant and cabañas were soggy-looking and draped with mats and other bits and pieces out to dry. The so-called falls were completely covered with a raging mass of water, nothing particularly beautiful or picturesque, but at least no one was harmed.  Disappointed, we had no alternatives to make our way back to San Ignacio. Another communal taxi passed – great scheme that, we should do it in the UK – and we were soon back in the market place. Scouring our guide book, we suddenly recalled that one of the ones listed was recommended by the man from Fyffes bananas who gave us a lift up to San Antonio a few weeks ago. It was full, as a big concert was happening at the Cahal Pech site that evening, and the owner recommended another near by. Soon we had a room, very different to our Trek Stop the evening before.

The following day dawned brightly too. We had had a pleasant afternoon and evening roaming the town and its side streets, enjoying the names of drinking holes such as ‘Fiya Wata’, and despite odd bursts of noise, were not too disturbed by the concert overnight. We decided to take advantage of the perfect walking weather, and head off towards Belize City, and just pick up a bus when we had had too much. Eight glorious miles of trekking through the countryside, enjoying the space, the hills and forests, the flats and marshes, and all the wild life and cattle along the way, we eventually came to Georgeville and the bus stop. A small shop provided deliciously cold liquid, and then we had a very long wait as full bus after full bus went by. Beginning to know how the buses work, we decided to start walking again, and to stop somewhere where we could be easily seen and where we were alone. If too many people are waiting at a stop and the bus is very full, the driver does not stop. But for the odd one or two, he may. And he did! The people we were sitting with were not on the bus when we eventually got on.

We arrived back in BC very contented after a weekend of perfect walking weather in very pleasant countryside. I was golden, Conor lobster pink!

28/09/2008

Tikal and Flores

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Guatemala,Tikal and Flores — Clare Hill @ 11:19 am

“Tikal”. The word kept appearing long before we arrived here in Central America. The Rough Guide to Belize includes a special chapter on Tikal and Flores; various friends who have travelled in this part of the world all said it was a must-do; reading about the Mayan culture invariably makes reference to it. So when we learned that Monday 22 September was a public holiday (September 21 is Independence Day in Belize) creating a three day weekend, we thought “Now or never”.

 

Tikal is in Guatemala, a two hour drive once over the border into the more remote eastern region of the country. It is a vast site; I quote the guidebook: “As you approach the entrance to Tikal National Park, a protected area of some 370 square kilometres that surrounds the archaeological site, the sheer scale of Tikal as it rises above the forest canopy becomes overwhelming, and the atmosphere spell-binding. Dominating the ruins are 5 enormous temples: steep sided pyramids that rise up to 60 meters from the forest floor, and around which lie literally thousands of other structures, many of which still lie underneath mounds of earth and covered in jungle.”

 

Having risked hiring a car for one day the previous weekend, and also seeing how tiring driving on unpaved roads can be, we plucked up our courage and planned to hire the car for 48 hours, driving from 11am on the Saturday and returning by 11am the following Monday. We hoped to persuade other volunteers to join us and cut down the costs of the car hire. Unfortunately two were leaving the following week, and despite that they would have loved to have come, because we were so last minute in our proposal they had already committed to a barbecue held in their honour by the woman in whose house they had been lodging. Another had a friend arriving that weekend from the UK, and yet another insisted that things Mayan were not interesting to her. So Conor and I ended up with just Sean to accompany us, a delightful young Canadian man who was as intrigued and excited about the prospect as we were.

 

I made a deal with Conor that I would drive in Belize on relatively good roads, and he would do the Guatemalan stretch. With exactly the same car that we had had the previous Saturday, we set off complete with picnics and loads of water. We reached the border crossing in a couple of hours, and since we had read alarming things about armed robberies after changing money at the border, we ignored the many touts anxious to exchange $US and $Belizean for quetzals (Q). Money did get a bit confusing in Guatemala as we ended up thinking in 4 currencies. Q3 = 1 $BZ. 4 BZ$ = 2 $US = £1. 7Q = 1US$. Etc. I found the easiest way to deal with it was 140Q = 20US$ =£10. And money was important because we had also been told that the costs of Mayan and traditional goods over there were considerably cheaper than Belize (which is expensive) and we hoped – and indeed managed – to purchase most of our Christmas presies over there.

 

Knowing the Western Highway like troopers by now, I confidently drove all the way to the border without a hitch. The immigration was the usual mix of bureaucracy, efficiency, inefficiency, chaos, queues, and officials more interested in maintaining their conversation between themselves than addressing you. The Belizean side was true to its ex-colonial heritage and definitely had the organisational edge as we passed from Belize into Guatemala, and into a mild sense of confusion: moving from one queue for people entering the country, another for the car, another for paying into a bank window, queue-jumping as a guard in what appeared to be a black and red conquistador-like uniform took our papers up to the window, toting a huge rifle from his belt. Once back in our car, we then also had to pay a toll over the bridge into the border town of Melchor de Menchos. We were pleased to see that the road, though rough and unpaved for the first 8 kilometres, was no where near as bad as Pine Ridge Reserve the previous weekend. A few vast potholes littered the surface in parts throughout the length of it, and Conor did masterly avoidance manoeuvres!  There were a few stretching the width of the road that were unavoidable….

 

The terrain was a little different to the Belizean side; still lots of small hills, and many trees, but less dense and seemingly fewer of the very large fruiting broadleaf varieties. There was far more agricultural land: fields with crops, and pastures with the handsome cows such as we saw in Mexico – much less beefy than the ones we see in the UK, with a large hump on their backs and a heavy flap of skin beneath their jaw, called a dewlap. Their floppy rabbit-like ears frame their pretty soft features, and are topped by long curved horns. They populate this area generally, and are apparently a mix between the Indian Brahman cow and European breeds, as the Brahmans are particularly tolerant to high temperatures. (They sweat better than most cows, apparently; that does sound rather familiar…)

 

These fields and pastures, dotted with trees, are interspersed with small villages. The people are predominantly small and slight, with golden brown skins and strong frames. Many were on horse back, and horses – some very thin and mangy – were also tethered at the road side or roaming fields. Bicycles were the other main form of transport, followed by scooters and mopeds, often with a driver and passenger with one or two small children squashed in between. Everything was pretty basic, but there was far less plastic and other rubbish than in Belize. People in the villages often sat at the roadside, and I even saw a young woman suckling her child in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, calmly sitting at the side of the road. Unfortunately most of the agricultural land has been reclaimed from the rainforest, but there are regulations now about how and when this can be done.

 

Sean had a guidebook about the whole of Central America, and it was interesting to read that the civil war in Guatemala stopped only 9 years ago. It explained how the whole region was having a civil war in one country only to be replaced by another as it quietened down. And guess which country’s money was invariably involved? The US! They would support one regime here, insurgents there, as the paranoia about communist or fascist domination influenced their political affiliations. Belize has many immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and the Yucatan as internecine strife predominated in their homelands. We also read that Guatemala is currently owned by about 6 families.

 

It took us two hours to the border, and just over two hours further to our destination, with one hour in immigration. A tropical deluge which reduced visibility to zilch at various times made the driving interesting, but Conor enjoyed the challenge! As we approached Flores, we passed the pretty lagoon, nestling beneath the forested range which housed Tikal, our destination on the Sunday. Flores is a tiny island with a causeway approach, much like Crooked Tree but even smaller, in the middle of a ‘foot’ at the bottom of the large lagoon – Lago Peten Itza. It had been recommended to stay in, an attractive series of aging houses and cobbled streets surrounding a church and plaza. And it is also cheaper than Tikal for buying presies! There are two modern suburbs on the mainland by the causeway, but they fail to have the faded charm of Flores, more the bustling commercialism of Central American towns. We entered through the island’s portal at about 4.30pm, and making our way on the one way system around the tiny place, we ended up exactly outside the cheap and cheerful place the guidebook recommended.

 

Flores is a sort of Guatemalan Venice with a Mexican-esque feel to it…higgledy-piggledy houses, a few streets criss-crossing one another, and glorious water all around. All the shades of terracotta cover the walls, which sport attractive wrought iron shutters and verandahs. Traditional pots and containers decorate most surfaces, and yet it still feels very much lived in, people’s home. No doubt in the height of the tourist season – January to March – it would feel a bit different. The evening light was directly facing us on the west, under the odd distant rain cloud in a wide sky. The heavily wooded shores of the northern mainland in front of us were illuminated, showing the houses between the trees and the boats littered along the shoreline.

 

A bit of history: Flores was the ancient capital of the Mayan kingdom of Peten, and was the last local region to resist the Spanish until 1697. Guatemala became part of Mexico, a Spanish colony in the sixteenth century, which was dissolved in the early 1800s. Together with other Central American countries it became part of a Mexican Empire for two years, before separating to form the United Provinces of Central America. That too dissolved in a civil war between 1838 to 1840, and even since independence Guatemala has ricocheted from one leader to another, with the church, US and large landowners never too far away. Deep in the heavily forested north-eastern region of Guatemala, the region of Peten has up until the 1960s had closer connections with Belize than with Guatemala City.

 

Having found our rooms (120Q or less than £8.50 for a double room) we went to explore Flores before the light went completely, and immediately became enchanted with the dozens of shops literally crammed full of goodies. The quality was fabulous, and at first I felt so guilty at being able to purchase so much – things which would be 3 or 4 times the price in Belize, and even more at home. (Belizean prices range from the sublime to the ridiculous and I can never quite work out why sometimes.) Then I realised that actually these shop owners need people like me to be so captivated, and that it was a healthy symbiosis. It was intriguing to see how one shop had many things I could chose from, and another, equally full and varied, just was not my taste. But that is the same the world over, whatever you are buying. As someone who is normally shop-adverse, and has a very low tolerance threshold for such things, I was like a kid in a sweetie shop with her Saturday pocket money clutched gleefully in her palm, delighting in how she could spend every penny! Gauging the current size of various grandchildren was the hardest part….

 

Wandering on round, a restaurant caught our eye, and a bit later the three of us were sitting at a table in the open sided dining area, enjoying the lovely cool of the evening – the best time in this climate. The storms of earlier had gone and the lights were reflecting off the still black water. A charming waiter welcomed us in, and my fish from the lagoon was delicious. Incidentally, Guatemala produces very good coffee. Strolling on, we made our way to the central plaza, and delighted in seeing all the different age groups playing ball, climbing railings, courting, families congregating, having a beer or licking an ice cream, all hanging out in the pleasant  evening in the plaza-centred way of Mexico and other Spanish speaking countries. 

 

What is Tikal? Tikal is believed to have been at the centre of the Mayan culture between 300BC and 900AD, known as the Pre-Classic and Classic periods, though there is evidence of people having been there from at least 900BC. The site is the pinnacle of Mayan architecture, with some of its most impressive pyramids being built around 700AD, which was towards the culmination of the Mayan culture. (Lowland Mayan culture began to ‘fade’ around 900AD.) Other significant cities in that period include Corozal to the east, near the Rio On Pools in Belize, Teotihuacán just north of Mexico, and Kaminaljuyu in modern day Guatemala City. Like any great city at any time, it was a leader in terms of culture, the arts and religion. It was also a warrior nation. I have written elsewhere here about how their shamanic traditions were integrated into Christianity, and how the culture is not too far away when you talk to modern folk, who readily refer to the use of ‘bush medicine’.

 

Setting out about 9am, we made our way back around to the east of the lagoon, and then went north climbing gently all the time deeper into rainforest. There is a barrier at the entrance to the national park, with a fee to pay in exchange for a piece of paper with the time on it. The road was wide and very well surfaced, and the lovely light was dappling through the trees. Every now and then we would pass the Tikal equivalent of our local deer sign, warning motorists about animals which maybe crossing the road. These included: a jaguar; a coatis; a monkey; a snake; an armadillo; a paca or rather large guinea pig; and a peccary or wild pig! 15k down this road we came to a large site complete with a parking lot, full scale model, over-priced ‘tipica’ and cafes, a museum and a booth full of rather over-zealous tour guides. Before we could get in to park, another man asked to see the ticket which we had been given. He looked at his watch, wrote down the time, and then very sternly in funny half–Spanish told Conor off for coming through the park too fast – a speed limit of 25 k an hour. Ooops!

 

While acquainting ourselves with the model, comparing it to the map in the book, and noticing the orientation of the main pyramids was on an east west- north south axis (the Mayans were superb astronomers) Sean excitedly called us over. One of the stall holders had asked him if he wanted to see a crocodile, and there in a swampy lake just behind the tourist facilities was a small 3-4 foot croc basking in the sun at the water’s edge with a turtle breaking the surface just behind it! At last!!! Sean had been with us at Crooked Tree and witnessed our many attempts to track one down, and was as pleased as punch to lead us to this trophy!

 

We set off, scanning the ‘You are Here’ map conveniently placed at the first cross roads, and began what felt like a pilgrimage as we ambled slowly along the forest path. Only about 10am, the sun was already hot and high in the sky, but the wide paths and verdant trees created constant, welcome, dappled shade. This was some of the most beautiful rainforest I have ever experienced. Even without the architecture, it was worth the journey and was balm for the soul. A deep sense of peace pervaded everywhere, accompanied by the loud silence of the natural world – birds and insects providing the drone of life’s heart beat in our ears. The forest is a curious paradox – all is in superabundance, and yet there is always a feeling of there being space for each and everything. None of the squash of a planted forest, or the lack of light; more the gentle placing of everything in just the right corner – low enough here, broad enough there, sinewing round or towering above – it reminds me of TS Eliot’s description of each word being perfect and in the right place. The sense of the garden bully, or the bracken which would take over the hills, things out of balance, does not seem to exist here, yet without a doubt the forest as a whole would take over any space it could and very quickly, too.

 

(There are some photos in this blog showing the tangle of vines or the huge girth of some of the trees, but they do not do it justice.)

 

The city, like the jungle, is vast. Though much is still not excavated, and all but the most central plazas have been taken over by the jungle, the sheer number, size and magnificence of the steep sided pyramids cannot fail to impress. Once magnificently decorated, the many friezes and stellae are in various states of preservation. Some adorn platforms, some lie at the base of pyramids and some are in the museum back at the Visitor Centre. Despite the heat you haul yourself up to the top of the ones you are allowed to climb, and as well as enjoying the increased breeze, the view of the pyramids breaking above the canopy is wonderful.

 

Slowly we made our way around, making sure that we got to both Temples 5 and 4.  We had seen from the scale model that they towered above the others, and couldn’t miss that. Heading towards Temple 5, a deep, loud, repetitive ‘Hoar, hoar, hoar’ could be heard from the tree tops some distance away. Howler monkeys, and this one was either displaying to its troop or not very happy! A quick bend of a branch caught our eye, and looking up we saw a spider monkey just above our heads, leaping agilely from tree to tree, hanging from its tail gracefully.  Rounding a corner, Temple 5 suddenly soared above us. It is surprising that such a vast structure cannot be seen until you fall over it, but the trees are so dense that until the pyramid breaks your immediate horizon they are superbly camouflaged. (In the city’s heyday the area would have been cleared of course, and the magnificence of the city as a whole would have been more than apparent.)

 

Boy oh boy, straight up! Narrow, steep sided and awe-inspiring! The original steps were roped off, but a series of wooden ladders moved up the left hand side, much like a ship’s ladder. Up the right, down the left. A cabana provided shade for those too young, old or just plain scared to make the climb. Occasionally cheers and clapping would break out as a friend or relative reached the top. Now, I get vertigo, but I really, really, really wanted to get to the top. Sean and Conor were hugely kind and promised to stay both in front and behind in case my knees went, and also promised not to go near the edge at the top which can alarm me as much as anything else. Despite how ramshackle the wooden structure seemed it was actually easy to climb, and because your face was constantly only a foot away from the side of the pyramid, there was no opportunity for an accidental glance down. For those of you unfamiliar with vertigo, the difficult moments are those of transition. Despite solid ground beneath your feet, you only seem to notice the lack of solidity all around you. The sensation is a bit ‘Alice down the rabbit-hole-ish’, but creates anxiety because if your knees do buckle or you do faint, the consequences are not insignificant. Clinging to the side of the pyramid like a limpet, I inched my way across to a narrow ledge and sat down. After a bit, my body relaxed enough to be able to look out (not down!) at the most stunning panorama. The pyramids in the central plaza broke through the canopy in front of us, and all around a mass of tree tops for as far as the eye could see. As you watched, a fast-moving branch would reveal the whereabouts of a troop of monkeys, and black vultures soared on the up-drafts.

 

Never completely relaxed but so pleased to have made it to the top, the slither along the ledge to the ladder was achieved, and once more the descent with one’s nose against a strong wall immediately in front of you was remarkably and surprisingly reassuring!

 

Still following the roar of the howler monkey, we sauntered on to Temple 4, the highest of them all. Spider monkeys graced us with their dancing, and at one point a furry brown kinkajoo, related to the coatis, ambled across the ground about 15 feet in front of us, totally un-phased by the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ following it. Temple 4 is the most northerly pyramid in the city, rising 60 meters in the air, but climbed much more easily in a series of graded steps. The structure is wider, vaster, less phallic than the previous one, and there is a sense of space on it. The top has many steps and ledges, and does not create the feeling of imminent demise. Slowly one’s eyes adjust to the vastness of scale, beginning to see more details, notice ranges of hills, orientate oneself to the skies. No wonder they were fabulous astronomers.

 

By now pretty tired, thirsty and hungry, we mistakenly took the long way back! A fabulous large butterfly fluttered past, and while we stopped to photograph it, two toucans moved out from the branches just above us. Eventually we made our weary way back to the car park, only to find that I had foolishly left food in the car. Barbecued bananas in their skins, baked ‘raw’ carrots and shrivelled lettuce!

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