Tikal and Flores

“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!

Barton Creek and the Pine Ridge Mountain Reserve (13 Sept)

When looking for a flat we could rent in the Cayo region, Conor found a place for sale very near Barton Creek and the famous cave series. He had an urge to go and see it, as we have had a half-thought about setting up some sort of charity over here that we could come and check on every now and then. Though goodness only knows how we could decide where to focus as so many different areas catch our attention, from a half-way house for the women leaving prison, to some sort of place for those with mental health issues on the streets, and much in between. Since we had bumped into the cave mappers in Maya Mountain Lodge on my birthday weekend, we had Barton Creek Caves down as a ‘must do’, so we decided to hire a car for 24 hours, see the property, do the caves, and mosey on into the Reserve. We had been on the edge of the Reserve when we had made our way up to San Antonio to visit the healer, so we knew what to expect in terms of unpaved roads and the time it takes to traverse relatively short distances.

Actually driving a car on these roads, and particularly in BC, was a bit daunting. Picture this: Cemetery Road is the main one-way street in from the Western Highway, which includes the route to Old Belize, the zoo, Belmopan (where you pick up the Hummingbird Highway and routes south), to San Ignacio and the Guatemalan border at Benque de Viejo – very near where we visited Xunantunich.  It comes through Lord’s (Lards) Ridge cemetery, and down into town, getting narrower and narrower and busier and busier. Whilst Albert St is supposed to be the main commercial area, with all the banks and courts, as well as shops, this road feels more like the South Bridges and Newington areas of Edinburgh. Lots of small businesses, tortilla factories, shop fronts, tailors, and the inevitable shoe shops. (Conor bought a pair of Velcro strapped sandals here, for BZ$20 and within 2 weeks they had fallen to bits. Many of these people can hardly afford a pair of shoes, and to have to replace them every two weeks is shocking. Somebody should set up a quality control or such like.)

When this street is full of people, there is a jostling both along and beside the pavements and storm drains, folk crossing the roads, bicyclists and the bicycle vendors, roadside stalls, and cars that come out of side roads and butt into the main stream of traffic whenever they feel like it. Or so it seems. No doubt to a local there is a code, much as in Paris or Mumbai or any other chaotic city street. Conor drove in Paris like a Parisian: point in the right direction and put your foot on the accelerator to make sure you get into the space in front of you before the next vehicle, whilst I just closed my eyes and tried to remember to breathe. To make matters worse, our navigator was usually our dear friend who lives in Paris and has notoriously bad eye sight and doesn’t drive. As Conor did a wheelie around a corner, hastily asking which way as 5 options loomed ahead, she would peer and flutter her hand vaguely saying somewhere that way – and somehow between the two of them we would reach our destination. But the road I am describing here in BC is much more like Mumbai than Paris. Once out of the city, there is relatively little traffic on the highways, and even less on the unpaved roads.

So we were quite relieved when Romillo from the car hire company came for us about 7.30am. Romillo was charming – originally from Guatemala, he came over when he was three, and said he wouldn’t return because unemployment is so high.  He drove us out to the car hire office on the Northern Highway to fill in our paperwork, almost 4 miles out of the city near Haulover Bridge. Haulover Bridge is so named because the mighty Belize River was used for logging all the wonderful mahogany, indigo and other hard woods for centuries.

The car hire firm was in an upstairs office of a rather unusual set up: a ware house type structure had a lovely selection of plants at its entrance, with wind charms sounding in the offshore breeze (the Northern Highway runs along side the coast at this stage before turning inland just after the bridge). There were antiques and bric a brac everywhere in front of us, old glass cabinets full of things, which were interspersed with sofas and tables and chairs. We weren’t certain if we were entering a private home, a café, or what. There were a few Spanish looking people there, but they could have been Mayan, Guatemalan or Mexican or both – Mestizos – complete with a little Chihuahua. We went up the stairs into the office, and it was a pleasure to be in a room that was tastefully decorated with some Mayan masks, some old embroidered ponchos, and other crafty bits and pieces. Two smiling and helpful men took us through the paperwork, inspected the car for dents etc, and then we were off.

Except we weren’t – Conor discovered it was an automatic, despite asking for a standard gear stick, and when they saw him looking puzzled, they realised and swapped us for another car – more inspections, more paperwork, but this time we really were off. And even better, we could cut across from the Northern to the Western Highway by going north a little and then turning past Burrell Boom (another logging town) thus completely avoided driving in BC at all.

We had an uneventful drive past Old Belize, the zoo, past the turning to Belmopan, through Tea Kettle (yes, that is its name: there are also Two Head Cabbage, Cotton Tree and many more!) and on to Georgeville. We passed a bunch of cyclists on the way – all terribly smart and slick and un-Belizean in their lycra, helmets and goggles – who held us up as their marshall successfully blocked our passage! 

At Georgeville we turned left onto an unpaved road towards the Reserve which is also an alternative, more easterly route to San Antonio, commonly called the Chiquibal road. It was unpaved, and after a bit we followed our instructions and turned off through a large wrought iron gate with cement walls on either side, into Shady Orchards. This is acres and acres of very well maintained orange groves, neat, uniform, tidy, American! We had been told to make our way through this and Upper Barton Creek, a Mennonite Village, and we passed a horse drawn carriage on the way with two women, two men and a couple of teenagers in the very back. They slowed down to let us past, and were the first group of smiling, friendly Mennonites we have seen since coming here. And still clothed in very heavy clothing!

We were surprised by the Mennonite village – it was much smaller than we expected, and less wealthy. The Mennonites provide a huge percentage of the national produce, and their cheeses and yoghurts are the same as or more expensive than the imported brands from the US. So I had expected their houses to be a cut above the regular clapperboard that you see everywhere. But no, true to their ethos of simplicity, I suppose, they had simple houses with huge verandahs and a scattering of boys sporting braces and Panamas and girls with Dutch-like headdresses and long blue worsted dresses.

As our instructions predicted, we found the sign to the Barton Creek Caves to the right, and a track to the left, which led us down to two handsome wooden houses, one much larger than the other. They are constructed out of cabbage bark, a beautiful deep chestnutty hard wood, and each room is spacious though not many of them. Their office has every mod computer con you could imagine! The 50 acres includes a citrus orchard with the original clapperboard house and very large solar panels and shed full of batteries to store the electricity. Two tropical rain forested mountain sides sport the usual varieties of fruiting trees (ackee, mango, bread fruit, custard apple, avocado and many more) and they had some interesting varieties of banana palms, including a red banana. They had different bananas fruiting throughout the whole year.

The new houses are in a dip beside the very beautiful Barton Creek, a clear river emerging out of the ground through the cave system a mile or so away. The rivers tend to be so beautiful here, slow-moving, clear with gravely bottoms, with gorgeous trees lining either side, vines hanging off them and into the water. There is one tree, an inedible type of fig, which has the most gorgeous base, its roots beginning to fan out about 2 feet above the ground in a sensuous series of soft folds much as a curtain might fall. The bark is relatively smooth, and the whole appearance is so gracious. These seem to like being beside water, I notice. But the place was not for us – just as Ellemford is a space which is open to the world, this was concave, insular and not suitable for our natures. Quite apart from the fact that it was all a bit pie in the sky anyway!

We moved on to Barton Creek Outpost, and for the second time today came across somewhere which was tastefully decorated: a little café and river swimming pool that had lovely jungle flowers and leaves everywhere. (It might be fun to do a garden here!) After an ice cold drink, we got in our car to move a couple of hundred yards round to the Barton Creek Cave system. The car wouldn’t start! As we had forded the creek to reach the cave system, we hoped that it was just a question of drying out. We decided to walk round to the cave entrance and do the tour, and with a bit of luck it would start later….

Fording a second stream, we passed two young backpackers, one of whom hailed from Penicuik near us in the Scottish Borders! He was making his way round the world. The other, a New Zealander, had met someone from his town earlier that day. Small world. They had just done the tour, and chuckled that their Mayan-Spanish (Mestizos) guide was called Boris! (Names in this country can be fantastic, or obviously Spanish, and here in Belize, often have British or Irish roots. Very common surnames are Flowers, Acuillar, Martinez and Mackeson. Forenames are equally varied.) 

Once more, we entered an attractive open cabana, with tables for refreshments and lots of woodwork for sale laid out on tables. We bought our tickets from our guide and walked down a stone path leading up to the canoes. A playful spider monkey wearing a collar and lead which was threaded onto a long wire running the length of the grass caught our attention. She was enchanting! She would use her tail as a fifth limb, to reach for her favourite grasses which were beyond her hands or feet, or to pull down the wire as she reached to walk along as if suspended from a wire bridge. Apparently the monkeys in the tropics are the only ones which will hang from trees solely by their tails.

Boris introduced himself to us, and led us to our canoe. I sat in the front, Conor in the middle, and Boris in the back with a paddle. We each had a large spotlight and battery, and strict instructions not to shine it in the eyes of any canoes that may be coming out of the caves, and Conor had to be careful not to shine it onto me because it would be very hot!

The jungle-fringed entrance to the cave was immediately across the clear green river in front of us. Clever vines had dropped twenty feet from the rocks above, and produced a root system as they floated in the water, creating a breathtaking portal. We both immediately liked Boris, a slight gentle man, who most obviously had an affinity with both the caves and the Mayans who had peopled it. He started by telling us that this cave system and its river were the most important to the Mayans of the many caves in Belize, and that it lead to ‘Xibalba’ (Chib….) literally ‘the place of fright’, the underworld. He reiterated the story we heard from the man on the street on our first day here. The Mayan cosmology had the nine levels of the underworld, and it was people by nine fierce gods. You have to go through this layer after death to your place of rest. The middle layer is what we call ‘earth’.  The heavens have 13 layers, each with its own god. The cieba tree with its wide up- spreading limbs sprouting from the top of the trunk bridges the heavens, earth and the underworld.

With the gentle paddling of the canoe, we traversed the magical threshold, with light behind and darkness in front. As your eyes become accustomed to the darkness, and passing the spotlights over the surfaces of the limestone, we began to take in our environment. The stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere, and with as many different shapes and formations as the corals we had seen on the reef. Some were thin, like spires, some massive pillars. Many had met one another over the centuries, and I felt once more as I had when visiting other cave systems in the Pyrenees, that there are almost archetypal shapes and patterns that can be seen in these ancient rocks, which are then picked up and repeated in myriad different ways – flower, trees, sculpture and architecture, Islamic design, and not least the corals.

Occasional dark streaks of manganese coloured the surfaces, or a line of powdery white crystals forming on calcium material. Overall the hues were all shades of ochre, from rust through to a pale creamy hue. The size of the caverns varies enormously, from vast cathedral spaces to having to crouch and bend to navigate overhanging rock formations. The system is many miles long, but we just paddled for one mile as you need diving equipment further in to move from one cave to another. In the spotlights we could see bats for at least a quarter of a mile along the river, and everywhere droplets of moisture hanging in the air, accompanied by tiny flying insects. The occasional fish also broke the surface of the water, and Boris said that they had found cat fish way further into the caves than they thought they would be. After heavy rains, the water level changes radically, and we could see a high water mark at least six feet above us. Where the tunnel is very low, water runs in parallel levels above the one we were in. In many sections the roof was pot-marked with perfectly formed round bowl shapes. Boris informed us that they did not know what made them. Bats roost in them, but they have been found in areas in which there are no bats. Later as we drove over the terrible road, I thought of the word ‘pot-hole’ and wondered whether there is some ancient connection.

(Incidentally, bats are abundant in the tropics, and there are over seventy bat species in Belize, the most diverse mammal species. Apparently some are tiny insectivores, and some large carnivores with a wing span of over a metre. Glad they weren’t in our cave!)

Slowly we approached a bridge, known as the Mayan bridge, which was the remnant of one of the two parallel tunnels after the ceiling had fallen in. The river was about six feet across here, and the bridge was two feet wide. Boris steadied the canoe and shone his spotlight to a broken Mayan pot perched on a shelf to our right, and as he did so, noticed a whip scorpion on the rock face. It was more like a large spindly harvest spider, white of course because of the darkness, and apparently has no sting. It hardly moves, waiting for insects to pass it and catching them with its claws. He was quite excited because it was rare to see one. I was glad I was in the canoe nevertheless!

Shining his light over to our left, we saw a small skull near to a sunken area. Boris explained that there was a period of severe draught, and the Mayans believed they had to appease the god Chaac, the god of rain and fertility. He was one of the fierce gods of the underworld, and he needed a blood sacrifice of virgins. Archaeologists had found the bones of at least 18 young boys and girls in the sunken area by the skull. Boris told us about the rituals that the priests would go through, together with their ‘sacrificial lambs’ to purify and prepare before the rituals.

(There is one school of thought that one of the main reasons for the demise of the Mayan culture is that the human sacrifice got out of hand – any problem needed a death to amend it, and more and more and more to effect change. It is also interesting to see how the lineage of the concept of appeasing the gods by killing progeny runs through both the Old and New Testaments too.)

Eventually we turned round and slowly made our way back to the entrance. As in St. Herman’s Cave on the Hummingbird Highway, there is something so special about the quality of light nearing the entrance of a cave; a half light, calm and unreflective, framed by the dark rocks, with strands of foliage hanging down. 

Navigating our way round the large rock at the entrance and the trailing vines, the heat and bright sunshine revealed the 4 other guides sitting beside their canoes, enjoying the river. Conor had mentioned to Boris that we thought we had water in the engine, and asked him if he had some WD40. Boris approached one of his fellow guides, a ‘cheeky chappy’ with a broad grin. “Where you from?” “Scotland.” “Oh I can make some money out of you then!” We formed a line – our mechanic, Boris and one of the other guides – and followed our leader along the river’s edge to the Outpost where the car was parked. We explained to the owner why we were traipsing through his land, and he followed us up to the car park, too. Our mechanical friend bantered with Conor about how he would make it work immediately, how competent he was, whilst Boris and I were more into wondering whether the god Chaac was playing water tricks on us. He asked us if we spoke Spanish, and we explained that we have been looking for a teacher in BC but couldn’t find one. He told us that there is an easy way – just kiss the tongue of a Spanish speaking boy or girl! Conor tried to turn the engine on first, still hoping that it would have dried out in the baking sun, but it was as dead as a dodo. The mechanic looked under the bonnet, and then got in, and it immediately started! We all collapsed with laughter. He explained that there is a safety mechanism on these cars, of depressing the clutch in order to start the engine. Pity the car hire firm forgot to tell us, and thank goodness we had someone to bail us out when it happened.

We risked a very steep water gouged hillside track, using the four wheel function, and made our way into the Pine Ridge Reserve.  We hoped to get to Rio On Pools, have a swim and be back on the Western Highway by dark. Half way there we wondered if we had made a big mistake….the road was very bad in parts, very slow, and it was taking us forever. Many of the pines have been killed by a fungus too, so it was not that attractive either. But we pressed on, sure it could not be much further, and they were indeed very lovely. A series of descending pools and water falls meandering down the mountain side, rocky sides and sandy bottoms full of clear river water. The swim was welcome, and now refreshed we made our way back to the Western Highway as speedily as possible. We did not want to be on that road in the dark! We made it, and with dusk closing in, Conor drove the last hour and a bit safely back to Belize City, managing to avoid the cyclists without lights, the cyclists driving towards you on your side of the road, the groups of villagers congregating on the roadside enjoying one another’s company in the cool of the evening, and the raggedy tarmac edge. We were exhausted, but it was a good day.


Welcome to CHill-i-pedia! There are all sorts of anecdotal things that I observe that don’t fit into any particular story, but which interest me. I thought of calling it ‘Odds and Sods’, ‘Anecdotes’, ‘Bits and pieces’ – but none of these felt right. It occurred to me that it is like Wikipedia – disjointed pieces of information that do not have to hang together! I will do a CHill-i-pedia every now and again.

Where I know it, I have added the Creole pronunciation, and the stress is almost always on the last syllable, with a rising intonation.
Most words have an ‘a’ as in an English RP ‘bad’ or ‘mad’ as the predominant vowel and mouth shape. Thus ‘dollar’ becomes ‘dahLAH’.
The voiced (as in ‘the’) and voiceless (as in ‘thief’) forms of ‘th’ are pronounced differently. The voiced ‘th’ is spoken as it might be in London, as a ‘v’ sound. So ‘the’ is written as ‘veh’ and sounds like the first bit of ‘ve -g’ with a breathy ending… ‘veH’. The voiceless form is spoken as in parts of Ireland, as ‘t’ – so, ‘tief’ or ‘tanks’.

Scorpions (SeecorpiYAN)
I have been reading up a bit after our introduction in Crooked Tree. They are arachnids, like spiders, with eight legs.

Our Trinidadian friend  Charleen, who we have been giving stories to about eating mangoes just to make her homesick in wet old Bristol, advised us that if stung, you need to dilute the poison as fast as possible, using juice, pee, spit – whatever may be handy.

The guide books assure us that although painful, scorpions in Belize are not fatal. The fatter the tail and thinner the claws means the more deadly.

Scorpions hold their prey with their claws, and puncture the prey with the sting on the end of the tail, spraying the poison into the wound at the same time. Ingenious.

A work colleague told us that August and September tend to be the mating season here, so scorpions are more active. She said that if there is one, there are probably two! And that she never puts on a pair of trousers without shaking them first, or checking her shoes. It is second nature, she just does it automatically. I was surprised, as I get the feeling that there are not many within the city – maybe I am being naive!

Hammocks (HamMAK)
I tried sleeping in the hammock we slung up for our friends to sleep in for our last night in Crooked Tree. It was surprisingly comfortable. I discovered that just as having the houses on stilts allows air to circulate all around them, and keeps them cooler; equally being in a hammock allows the air all around your body. I was lying with the front and back doors shut only with an insect screen, so there was a through draft. I had placed a sheet into the hammock to lie on and protect me from the strings a little, and wrapped it around me like a shroud. It was almost cold!

I started in a more upright position, bum and legs in the base, but when I awoke I realised I had found the optimum position in my sleep! My head and back were level in the base of the hammock, with my legs slightly higher (very good for both the circulation and the back).

So this ancient method of sleeping in the Tropics takes up little space, keeps you out of reach of creepy-crawlies, keeps one cool, looks after the back, and keeps the heart pumping well. Clever!

Air Con and the outside
A man remarked today, as he moved out of his air conditioned office for 5 minutes and returned with sweat dripping down his face, that you go outside to defrost!

I have lost hair and gained heather. It is so springy grouse could nest in it and not be spotted! Provided they kept quiet of course…The crisping and baking of the relentless sun – despite sun hats; the coarseness of the sea; the constant sweat: all has conspired to create a thatch thick enough and coarse enough to re-roof Aunty Lynda’s thatched cottage! My hair was cropped before I left Edinburgh by my much loved hairdresser, and she reassured me it could probably last the full 6 months. I wish! I have gone 3 ½ months, but it is now dire! Not because of the shape, but because it is nearly standing on end, having been fried and burnt to a crisp. I am hunting for a hair dresser! Or maybe hand my scissors to Conor!!!!

Lloyds Bank
Shortly after I arrived, I was asking someone where something could be found, and she said “Lloyds Bank”. “Oh”, says I, “Do you have a Lloyds Bank here? I didn’t realise.” She looked at me very strangely.

A week or two later, I realised that she was referring to a place, not a bank: Lord’s Bank!  Pronounced ‘Lards’……

The 10 Commandments

Having insisted that they would have the road surface completed by the September celebrations, the new government did a hasty repair job last weekend. They put a layer of liquid tar down on Albert St, and hand covered it with quarry dust. The result on Monday and Tuesday was dreadful – literally a dust cloud over the length of the street, and our apartment looked as if it was covered in a layer of volcanic dust. On Monday morning I was working at the computer when I realised I felt quite headache-y and ill. I paid more attention to myself, and noticed that the air con unit right above my head was drawing in the tar fumes from the street outside. We turned off the unit, turned on fans and opened the doors. Later in the day, Conor’s rhinitis set in, which has been very much better over here than in the UK. Don’t know how anyone with asthma would have been faring.

(Fortunately it rained heavily for an hour or so in the night, so Wednesday’s Independence Day parade was visible after all! But I am jumping ahead of myself.)

About 5.30pm on Tuesday Conor and I made our usual stroll over to the sea wall, sitting and chatting, enjoying the evening breeze coming in off the sea, the colours of the sky and the lowering of the temperature. As the light was going, we saw a familiar figure approaching us complete with sketching surface in hand – an empty pizza box this time. We haven’t seen Ernesto for some weeks, apart from a glimpse in the bus terminal a few weeks ago, and then passing him on the canal by the market one day. He always greets us with a wave on those occasions on the street, and it was nice to see him approach with his familiar, slow pace and twinkly eyes. The sea wall has a very quiet street in front of it and some large old colonial properties on the other side. Various occupants have come to recognise us, and the dog walker greets us cheerily, and we have struck up a conversation with a man of Scottish origin who attended a prep school just outside of Edinburgh but was evacuated back to Belize, his home, when war broke out in 1939. Anyway, it is a quiet street, and apart from the odd car making its way homewards and a few passers-by, we had the area to ourselves.

Ernesto is always interesting to chat to, as he is such an intriguing combination of education, insight and street-wise wit. He has never tried to draw us again since our first portraits; he just knows us and knows we like him. He makes us laugh, but when we question his philosophy on occasions, he is not too happy. Definitely a king in his own kingdom!

We got round to talking about the shootings and grenade at the carnival on Saturday, and he told us how he saw the violence before the violence. (We refrained from saying we did too!) He told us that he thought that there were about 18 gangs in Belize, which was far fewer than Mexico, but then Belize was much smaller than Mexico. When we asked him if he had ever been caught up in any violence, and he said he often witnesses it, sleeping in the little park but he keeps out of the way. He asked us if we knew the 10 commandments for living on the streets. Each was delivered with a little homily, explaining why it is so important, and that great gift for a raconteur, timing!

1. If you cannot trust yourself, place no trust in anyone else.
2. Never bite the hand that feeds you.
3. See no evil
4. Hear no evil
5. Speak no evil
6. We can’t remember!
7. We can’t remember!
8. If someone has a gun, don’t stick your head out to see what’s going on, get down as fast as you can and stay down. (He did a lovely parody of someone peering out to locate the gun!)
9. After a great pause, he said “And number 9 is never tell them what number 10 is because then you always remain the teacher”!

All of this is accompanied by his twinkly gaze and broad smile, making sure that you have appreciated his point. He was just chatting, and never gave any indication that he was after anything, but we gave him a few dollars, and nipped back to the flat to fill up a plastic bag with bread and cheese, some salad stuff and fruit while he waited on the sea wall. Funny old world.

Don’t stop de Carnival!

…..Well, the 4am walkabout didn’t pass our door – whew! One of the CWW volunteers accompanied some of her colleagues, despite having been warned that you are covered from head to toe in Paint! We met up with her about noon when we wandered round to the house where she and two other volunteers live, having just emerged from a few hours’ sleep and a shower. I was glad I stayed in my bed!

The volunteers stay in a large Spanish speaking household, run by a capable woman who keeps a motherly eye on all her charges. She is involved in the Lions Club, a version of the Rotary as far as I can gather, raising funds for various good causes. I mentioned her very early on in our stay – she cooks for about 15 people, including the volunteers and 3 generations of her family, every day. Mrs. L. had asked the group of volunteers involved with either CWW or the Women’s Department if we would like to partake of the Lions Club Barbecue. The clubhouse is right on the Princess Margaret Boulevard and the Carnival Parade due to pass by. So we were all congregating before walking the ten minutes up to just beyond the hospital. We could tell when we were close because of the aromas and smoke coming from 4 or 5 barbecues. There were all under a red awning up against the back wall of the parking area in front of the clubhouse– needed for either sun or rain, though this was a blisteringly hot day – and smelled good! There is a standard style of barbecue that you see everywhere here, on street corners, in gardens, on verandahs, or by the market. They are a metal cylinder about 3 ½ feet long, cut in two, hinged, so that the top opens up and closes down as you wish. They stand on 4 legs at waist height, and people use a mix of paraffin and coals. I felt sorry for the men doing the cooking though!

The clubhouse was like any other concrete building the world over! Entrance area, stairs up, doors through into the function room with large kitchen hatch off, loo and office. Some tables were lined up in the middle, with neat rows of polystyrene lidded trays with some baked beans and cole slaw in each of the smaller pouches. Large bags of plastic forks and paper napkins lay nearby. Mrs. L greeted us, and we sat at a couple of tables as close to the air con as we could get! The barbecued chicken was added to each tray, and we all tucked in, washed down by water or some Belikin beer – the local brew – available from a stall under another awning right on the edge of the parking area, next to the pavement. It was one of those days when everyone had rivulets of sweat running down their faces and damp patches appearing over all your clothes the moment you made any contact with a chair, table or part of yourself. Mrs. L. reminded us that there was another stall with pastries beside the beer, so we wandered outside. By now people were beginning to gather along the roadside. We knew the parade started at 1.30pm, but we were not sure what time they would get to us. It was not unlike the misinformation for the folk waiting for their $5 on Fridays – in half an hour, in an hour and a half, about 4pm. It turned out to be the last, so we had a long wait. The woman in charge of the Lions Club kindly said we could take some of their white plastic chairs to the curb side, so we sat there with our sunhats on and our umbrella up, roasting! Fortunately one of our party nipped back to Mrs. L.’s house to pick up his brolly (they are used as parasols here as well as for the rain) and came back with some sun protection. Good man – my feet were really beginning to burn, protruding as they were from underneath the chair. He told us that he saw the parade on the telly, and that it looked good fun!

The time went by remarkably quickly, watching with fascination the crowd growing, the groups of families here, friends there. One gaggle of gorgeous teenage girls were posing in the back of a pickup truck – the far side of the boulevard was lined with parked cars and trucks – with a group of younger lads gazing hopelessly at them from a few feet down the road! The beer stall between us and the Lions Club was doing a roaring trade, only surpassed by the roar coming from the speakers beside the DJ entertaining the crowd as we waited. Slowly the pavements filled up, as the people from BC and beyond came to enjoy their carnival. Every now and then, one of the stalls on wheels you see everywhere in Belize would trundle past, each bearing different goodies. The stalls are sometimes hand pushed, and sometimes on the front of a bicycle, but basically a metal cage with shelves at different heights for holding various things. Large insulated blue and white boxes, 2 ½ feet by 1 ½ feet by 1 ½ feet, are used all the time, too. Sometimes they are full of ice and fresh fish for sale, sometimes freshly cooked tamales keeping warm. At the carnival, many were full of slush ice which was put into a cup with a squirt of green, red or yellow flavoured juice on top. Others had icy water full of fresh coconuts. When you bought one, the vendor sliced off the head with his machete and stuck a straw in – coconut juice on the rocks! There was a typical ice cream van doing a non-stop trade, which had exactly the same dreadful tune that the van had in CT one Sunday a few weeks ago. The writing on the sides looked similar too.

There was a man wandering around with a large television camera on his shoulder, and after a bit he was joined by another with a sound system, and a third with a large red and white padded microphone. They were approaching various people, and then somewhat to my horror they came up to me! Explaining that they were from Mexican TV, the man with the mike – obviously Belizean – assumed I was a tourist and asked me whether I was enjoying Belize and looking forward to the carnival. They moved on, to the 2 pretty young Canadian volunteers behind me! Later, I saw the camera man having a long chat with one of them ….

And then, at last, we could see things making their way up the boulevard. The now dense crowd breathed in to give more room for the floats and marchers to pass. By now, the parade had been going for nearly 3 hours, and the first to pass us were a very weary group of 5-8 year old girls who had lost most of the twirl in their batons and spring in their steps. One could only feel sorry for them – I had been sitting all the time they were walking, and the sun was HOT! What they lost in vigour, they made up for in their costumes. In fact, all the costumes were quite stunning. Loads of plumes and feathers, masks and head-dresses, sequins and beads. I was particularly struck by the unusual and very striking colour combinations. Conor’s comment was that the Belizeans were even more colourful than their birds! Edinburgh College of Art would have been hard pushed to have chosen the best in their costume design section, or their theatrical wear. I look forward to reading who won the prize in the local paper (There are 3 which come out on the same day twice a week, with a similar format, story lines and probably the same printer too).

The parade was a mix of walking bands and majorettes, mainly from schools, dancing women with a few men, representing local businesses, floats on lorries, and a couple of good steel bands. They were a relief from the rather boring monotonous regular thud thud thud that all the rest of the entrants had chosen to accompany them. Usually each group of dancers would have one main exhibit, with a woman or man pulling along an effigy or display on wheels. Occasionally folk would swap around as the pulling was hard work! Some men and women walked alongside squirting water over the dancers and players from time to time to help keep them hydrated. I was heartened by the way that the dancing women were all shapes and sizes; no one was too this or not enough that, all seemed to be welcomed to join in the celebrations. It makes me wonder if that is another positive side effect of the glorious melting pot called ‘Belizean’? The Mayans, for example, tend to be very small, slight people, whilst some of the people of African descent have large, strong frames. So with all the intermingling over the years, there is such a rich variety of shapes and sizes. Maybe the racial tolerance one perceives has by default included much more tolerance of a difference in appearance that includes shape and size than exists in the UK.

My most favourite of all turned out to be the tumblers that we had seen practising weeks earlier in our evening stroll to the sea wall. Wearing special gloves to protect their hands from the road surface, two or three at a time would move forward, and make their spectacular series of somersaults, walking on their hands covering some distances, and some achieving complete body rotation as they somersaulted. Then they would move to the back of their group as others came forward. They were just great, and I applauded them loudly. It was striking how with such a flamboyant thing as the carnival, there was relatively little ooohing and aaahing from the crowd – quite a silent audience, over all. A few young men near us had begun to make their presence felt over a period of about 2 hours. Too loud here, too pushy there. We saw one minor altercation between a couple of the protagonists, but the police quietly moved between them and some of their crowd separated them too. It quietened down, but just as the parade was ending and the crowd joining in behind, they picked up again. Conor and I had decided to return home at this point anyway, but he said to me that they were spoiling for a fight. The other younger volunteers were deciding whether or not to join the revellers at the end of the parade as we left.

When I went into the Women’s Department this morning, I learned that they had in fact gone home after us, and that about ten minutes after they left, a gun was fired between the young men. Mrs. L was there helping to clear up and witnessed the event. No doubt we will read the details in the paper. My Belizean colleagues were sad today, saying that carnival is usually such a good natured family event even if folk have had a beer or two. I could feel their distress and concern – Wednesday is a public holiday celebrating Independence Day, with more marches etc., and there was anticipation of more trouble in their voices.

Adding this a day later: as Conor and I were leaving the parade, before the shooting started, the police were cordoning off one side of the boulevard a hundred meters from where we had been standing. Today we have discovered that a military scatter hand grenade had been thrown but did not go off as it was in a black plastic bag. The pin had been pulled out but the tight bag meant that the trigger could not be released. Shocking. And thank goodness – the glass in the hospital and bank nearby would have exacerbated the fatalities and injuries.

If anyone wants to read about it, see Belize Channel 5 News.