Xunantunich

Template for the whirlwind two-day tour of mainland Belize

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My brother Jim and I below El Costillo at Xunantunich, the top Maya archeology site in Belize.

My brother Jim wanted to close out his recent visit with an experience on the mainland of Belize. We had two days left and the “tour” had to end up at the international airport for his flight home.

We put together a whirlwind tour. And if I don’t mind saying, this could well be the template for The Two-day Whirlwind Tour of the Mainland.

Two Maya archeological sites, the Belize Zoo, visits to Spanish Lookout and San Ignacio with one great dinner and one decent breakfast that included fryjacks — and of course the thrill of navigating through Belize City and risking life and limb on 70 miles worth of the George Price and Great Western highways, bisecting the entire country. Read the rest of this entry »

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Drones fly over Belize, take first ‘selfies’ at Xunantunich

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Screen grab of Geoff's Caye from a three-minute high def video of Belize shot with drones.
Screen grab of Goff’s Caye from a three-minute high def video of Belize shot with drones.

I’m sure somebody will figure out how to shoot really terrible images of Belize. Somebody, some day. But not today.

Not while there are video drones around to give us entirely fresh perspectives on this beautiful country. Read the rest of this entry »

Seeing San Ignacio through the eyes of its people

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The open air marketplace in San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize.
The open air marketplace in San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize.

I learned something about myself today and learned how to begin loving a town that is pretty much foreign to me in almost every respect.

When we rolled into San Ignacio, the other day I was bewildered by how taken Rose was with this western Belizean outpost, close to the Guatemala border.

At the market in San Ignacio.
At the market in San Ignacio.

She started uttering “Beautiful!” shortly after we left the nation’s capital, Belmopan, and kept it up pretty much until we passed through Santa Elena and drove across the one-lane bridge into San Ignacio.

Where she was seeing beauty, I was seeing dust, dirt, decay, traffic and chaos. San Ignacio and its people look nothing like anything from my past. It was all so … so … so … foreign.

Imagine that. We go to Belize to find a place to live and I’m struggling with the fact that it seems foreign to me. Maybe I am the Ugly American after all.  Maybe I’m not the easy-going, adventurous, intrepid traveler that I thought I was.

Rose was San Francisco born but has roots in the Third World. Her father was Philippine and her mother came from Mexico. She’s an all-American girl but well-traveled around the world. She even carries a British passport, as well as her American one. She once lived in Western Africa for two years. She’s traveled in more countries than I can find and name on a map.

Me? I went to England once, as a pampered travel writer. Then there were two weeks on St. Lucia where Rose taught yoga as a guest at an absurdly upscale resort. (Anse Chastanet. Look it up, and drip with envy.) Real easy to be a world traveler when you are traveling first-class on somebody else’s dime.

But being of the world? More challenging when you are not wrapped in the high-walled comfort and exclusivity of a five star resort that has carved out its own self-contained space in a foreign country.

I wasn’t digging San Ignacio and I was liking myself less, for the only reason I could come up with was that I was “uncomfortable.” This wasn’t a place or culture that I was familiar with.

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The New French Bakery in San Ignacio.
The New French Bakery in San Ignacio.

So Friday morning we got up, skipped breakfast at the place we were staying – Ok, a resort … but  slightly threadbare and time worn one! – and walked down the steep hill to downtown San Ignacio. We passed a hotel where the Queen of England has stayed not once, but twice. Could we afford a room there, I wondered?

We grabbed some pastries and coffee at a place called the New French Bakery — which used to be called the Old French Bakery before it recently moved — where we heard numerous accents, none of them French. I think the total cost for three fresh-baked pastries and three cups of coffee was around $5 US. Best coffee I’ve had this whole trip, too.

We strolled across the street to the open-air market where fresh fruits and vegetables were going for a fraction of what we pay in the US. I was told later that on Saturdays you can get almost anything you need at the much expanded market, including jumper cables for your dead car battery …

The market lead to a stroll along the muddy and rain-swollen Macal River and across two one-way, single-lane bridges, one of them Belize’s only suspension bridge.

A funny thing happened as we walked through parks and markets and the town. I started picking up on the rhythms of the street and the smiles and greetings from perfect strangers. I was growing comfortable with San Ignacio. Well, a little.

We dropped in on Ginny Ophof at Rainforest Realty. She and Rose had been keeping up an e-mail conversation since Rose heard her program on Belize Talk Radio. Ginny knew of our plans and was totally onboard with the idea of trying out a place for six months before making a permanent commitment.

Rose and Ginny Ophof prepare to sit down for lunch at the Corner Cafe in San Ignacio.
Rose and Ginny Ophof prepare to sit down for lunch at the Corner Cafe in San Ignacio.

We talked about San Ignacio and expats – Ginny is Dutch but has lived around the world – and a bunch of other topics. She told us about her feisty 86 year-old mother who is an artist and has lived 30 years in San Ignacio, lately in what she called a “tree house.”

Ginny rang up Amalia Quiroz and Lovelia Seguro at the local branch of Atlantic International Bank and got them to hold off on lunch so we could get down there and open a bank account.

Our new bankers! Amalia Quiroz and Lovelia Seguro at the local branch of Atlantic International Bank.
Our new bankers! Amalia Quiroz and Lovelia Seguro at the local branch of Atlantic International Bank.

Amalia walked us through the paperwork and Lovelia explained the finer points of the Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Program (QRP) which provides me with all sorts of financial incentives if I commit to depositing a minimum amount of cash in a Belize bank each year.

When we were done, Ginny picked us up and showed a sampling of what’s available on the local market, even though she knows we won’t be returning until next year and might not even decide to move to San Ignacio. We saw riverfront houses for $600 and $700 a month and a brand new two bedroom house filled with native hardwoods going for $139,000. The builder was onsite and beaming with pride. “I just get better and better with every house,” he said with a broad smile.

Over a delicious lunch at a little street corner kitchenette in a tiny shack that could barely hold the three women cooking inside, Ginny told us stories of expats and family and the ups and downs of being a stranger in a strange land. The lunch, by the way, consisted of two delicious quesadillas and a burrito and three all-natural fresh fruit juice drinks and the bill was less than $12.

She told us about the  La Ruta Maya Canoe Race down the Macal and Belize rivers. that starts in San Ignacio and ends in Belize City on the coast. Thousands of people join in the race and turn it into a four-day celebration. Her mother became a local celebrity after she painted the first map for the race, which many people laminated and still use.

Once she learned that Rose once danced and taught ballet professionally she stated, with mock insistence, that we MUST live in San Ignacio. The town, she said, hasn’t had a ballet teacher for the school kids for two years. Many ex-pats, she said, are coming up with after-school programs to keep kids involved and away from trouble.

Back at her office, she marched me down to a small brightly colored shed — a very bright tropical green — in which a Scottish (I think) fellow named David sometimes sells fish but mostly decimates other ex-pats at cribbage, exchanges gossip  and witty retorts and runs a paperback book exchange. An American couple, Mike and Judi, from New Jersey and North Carolina respectively, were hanging out, playing cribbage.

David was in high spirits because the couple had brought him a large pouch of dark pipe tobacco  to replenish his nearly depleted supply. “In the nick of time,” exclaimed David, holding up the pouch. He was tossing off one-liners like Billy Connolly unleashed.

Mike and Judi had lived in several places in Belize before settling on San Ignacio. It is, in their term, “the most normal city in Belize.”  They’re very happy and offered us the sum total of their experience so far, including impressions of various Belizean towns and their experience shipping furniture and goods through an Alabama firm. Naturally we exchanged phone numbers.

As we were sitting around the cribbage board,  Hector Mar pulled up in his pickup truck for our trip to Xunantunich, which I wrote about yesterday. As we left with hearty handshakes and well-wishes all around, David flashed an impish grin and said, “Remember, when you come back: dark pipe tobacco!” He held up the over-sized pouch from Mike and Judi for emphasis.

I got a funny warm feeling, just knowing that someone expected us back – and in time to refill his cache of tobacco!

Much of the road to Xunantunich is lined with eco-lodges and large houses with stately well-kept lawns. It felt like an upscale Western-ish suburb compared to the urban chaos of San Ignacio.

Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That's our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.
Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That’s our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.

Hector, who had once been vice-mayor of San Ignacio filled much of the drive to and from the Mayan ruins with stories of his family and life. When Hector’s turn to become mayor came up in rotation, he deferred to a “younger and smarter” council colleague “with better ideas.” The older politicians weren’t having it and crushed the young man with the bold ideas and drove him from politics and San Ignacio.

Here's Johnny! He's a Mayan slate carver with a spot along the Mopan River near the ferry to the Xunantunich archaeological site. He does great work. If you go, buy something from Johnny. He's a really nice guy.
Here’s Johnny! He’s a Mayan slate carver with a spot along the Mopan River near the ferry to the Xunantunich archaeological site. He does great work. If you go, buy something from Johnny. He’s a really nice guy.

Hector quit politics but not before working with “the people” to drive out the leader of the older politicians, after first coming to the man who had been a mentor and giving him a chance to resign with dignity. “Because I spoke with him first and acted like a man and told him exactly what I intended to do,” said Hector, “we are friends to this day, even though he had to leave politics.”

Hector left politics for another reason, too. His wife, a Guatemalan who had paddled across the border into San Ignacio at 14 to find work, was dying. Hector made a promise to God to serve him alone if his wife was spared.

On the way back from Xunantunich, we picked up a load of hitch-hiking Catholic high school students and dropped them off in the center of San Ignacio. Seems like the classic posing of high school students anywhere in the world, eh?
On the way back from Xunantunich, we picked up a load of hitch-hiking Catholic high school students and dropped them off in the center of San Ignacio. Seems like the classic posing of high school students anywhere in the world, eh?

She recovered and Hector became a Christian minister. They served their church together until she recently passed away. “God gave her to us for nine more years. How beautiful is that?” said Hector with a slight welling of tears.

He talked a bit about what it feels like to live without her, and I recognized in Hector some of my own older brother, Jim, who suddenly lost his own wife earlier this year.

When we separated, Hector invited us to come stay at his home, become part of his family and enjoy some good local cooking when we return to San Ignacio. And there it was again, “when you return to San Ignacio.”

Friday morning we were planning to leave early for Placencia and make a few stops along the way. One problem: I’d left the lights on in the Suzuki Jimny and over the last two days the battery was completely drained.

That’s when Carlos Panti showed up with jumper cables. Even though he was at our hotel, Cahal Pech Resort, to pick up another couple for a tour of nearby Mayan ruins he took time to charge the battery and make sure the car was running for me.

Carlos told me about recently starting his own tour guide business after working for bigger firms for several years and about his wife who teaches at the local high school and about the great deal he got on his SUV. He gave me some advice on keeping the Jimny running safely after putting it through some rugged roads. And he told me about his father who was caretaker at the Xunantunich archaeological excavation site for 25 years.

He talked about cave tubing, which is one of his tour specialties, and promised us a great experience “when you return to San Ignacio.”

Needless to say, this brief immersion into San Ignacio has left me with a very different impression than the one I started with. It only took getting to know a few people just a little bit to start to liking a lot this city of 9,000 people (20,000 if you count the surrounding “suburbs”).

Like Hector Mar had been saying, “It is through our stories that we learn, that we teach, that we find God. And I have many many stories.”

We may have to return to San Ignacio to learn and record those stories.

But first I’ll need to pick up an extra large pouch of black Cavendish pipe tobacco.

Electrician at work on a future illuminated sign, in downtown San Ignacio, seen just as we were pulling out of town.
Electrician at work on a future illuminated sign, in downtown San Ignacio, seen just as we were pulling out of town.

On top of the (Mayan) world at Xunantunich

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El Capitillo at the Mayan archeological site Xunantunich, close to the border with Guatemala is the second highest structure in Belize. The name of the site is Mayan for Stone Lady and refers to a ghost of a woman in white sometimes seen high up on El Capitillo.
El Castillo at the Mayan archeological site Xunantunich, close to the border with Guatemala, is the second-highest structure in Belize. Xunantunich is Mayan for Stone Lady and refers to a female ghost in white seen occasionally since the 1800’s  high up on El Casitillo.

It was late in the afternoon on Thursday as we stood atop “El Castillo,” the soaring temple at the heart of the Mayan ruins known as Xunantunich. The Stone Lady. From the rainforest and Mopan River below, an ethereal mist was rising to meet the low gray clouds. A slight drizzle and hint of breeze repelled the dank humid air that hugged the ground, some 130 feet below.

Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That's our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.
Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That’s our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.

We were the only three people amid the ruins – Rose, me and Hector Mar, our new friend from nearby San Ignacio and guide for the afternoon. We savored the stillness from atop the second tallest structure in all of Belize. (The tallest is also a Mayan temple.)

Suddenly, from the west, arose the sound we’ve been talking about and aching to hear since deciding to come to Belize – the howler monkeys.

If you’ve not heard them, these monkeys unleash a full, deep-throated roar that sounds like the wail of fresh souls condemned to hell. I’m not exaggerating. Search for “howler monkey”” on YouTube and feel the chills.

For a good ten minutes this band of howlers, hidden in the rainforest just beyond the western edge of Xunantunich, bellowed back and forth. Were they sending out mating calls or challenging each other or defending their turf? Hard to say. But the sound is haunting, even from high above.

The experience at Xunantunich was capping an absolutely incredible day in which we’d taken a full immersion course in the secret beauty of San Ignacio, found an excellent cup of coffee, checked out some great deals on houses and even opened a bank account at Belize International Bank.

More on that later. For now I’m going to share some images from Xunantunich, which is between San Ignacio and the Guatemala border. You can see the border crossing and the Guatemala frontier from atop El Castillo. The site is 80 miles from Belize City.

The core of the city of Xunantunich was about one square mile and it was serviced by many farms in the area surrounding it. So much of the site has still to be uncovered. “It will never be done in our lifetimes,” said Hector.

IMG_2093Hector never mentioned that the name Xunantunich or Stone Lady was inspired by the ghost of a woman dressed in white who is sometimes seen walking in the upper reaches of El Castillo. She disappears into the stone. The woman was first spotted sometime in the late-1800s. Another guide that I met just this morning grew up in a little village beside the entrance to the ruins. His father was caretaker of Xunantunich for more than 25 years.

Did his father ever see the ghost?

“Yes,” said Carlos Panti gravely,  “many times. The story is true.”

Standing up there, listening to howler monkeys and watching the mist rise from the rainforest, it felt as if a thousand ghosts might rise up at any minute from beneath Xunantunich.

 

Views from atop El Castillo.
The view from atop El Castillo, looking north toward the city plaza.

 

Western side of El Castillo.
Western side of El Castillo.

 

The eastern side of El Castillo.
The eastern side of El Castillo.
Rose and Hector climbing to the top of El Castillo on the southern side.
Rose and Hector climbing to the top of El Castillo on the southern side.
Another view from the top.
Another view from the top.
Rose couldn't wait to climb to the top.
Rose couldn’t wait to climb to the top.
View from the top,looking toward Guatemala.
View from the top,looking toward Guatemala.