“Am I in Africa or the Americas?” It was a question I asked myself often during the African heritage pride festivals that I attended in Belize, Central America. Commonly known as the Settlement Day Festival, the Garifuna (gah-REE-foo-nah) people of Belize celebrate their arrival on the southern Caribbean shores of Belize every November 19th, with a massive bacchanal replete with ceremonies, pageantry, parades, concerts and feasts.
The celebration starts at dawn with a ritual re-enactment of their ancestors arrival in Stann Creek, Belize from Honduras on November 19,1823. Dozens of Garifuna people come to shore in canoes loaded with drums, utensils, cassava and banana samplings, the same as their ancestors did 181 years ago.
So how did the Garifuna people get to the Honduras, what was the significance of their journey and why such a big celebration? It’s a story shrouded in myth, legend and conflicting historical facts. The general consensus seems to be that in 1665 two slave ships filled with primarily Nigerian captives shipwrecked off the coast of the British colonial Caribbean island of St. Vincent. The Africans swam to freedom and rapidly became an integral part of the Arawakan Indian society. The merging of races, cultures and languages resulted in a new population of black Caribs, known today as the Garifuna people. By the mid 1700’s the Garifunas were thriving in their new home as evidenced by their increasing population and wealth.
Witnessing their success the British tried to obtain by trick, persuasion or purchase, the fertile lands belonging to the Garifunas with the plan of using it for the harvesting of sugar cane. The Garifunas refused to give up their land, so in 1763 the British launched a war against them that lasted for 33 years. The British ultimately won in 1796 and proceeded to destroy their homes, canoes and crops. The remaining 4,300 Garifuna were shipped to a neighboring island Balliceaux where half of them died of yellow fever.
In 1797, the surviving Caribs were shipped to Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras. Many of the Garifuna people did not find the Honduras to their liking so they decided to migrate to Belize. On November 19th, 1823, the first large group of Garifuna from Roatan Island landed at the mouth of the North Stann Creek in which is located in the town of Dangriga. The date of this mass landing has been celebrated every year since 1941, when entrepreneur and civil rights activist, Thomas Vincent Ramos, launched the commemoration.
As the largest group of African people in the diaspora who was never enslaved, they retained much of their African heritage. (The current population is estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000). One of the most striking examples of the retention of the culture is evidence in their language. They are the only group of African people in the diaspora that have a language, which is completely devoid of non-European words. Their language a mixture of Indian and African words and idioms evolved during the time they lived on St. Vincent amongst the Arawak people. Listening to for the first time was almost startling for me as I found myself thinking again, “Am I in Africa or the Americas? The cadence, the tone and the lilt were distinctly West African. Most Belizean Garifuna people speak English, Belize’s official language as well as their native tongue. There are also communities of Garifuna people in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua as who speak the traditional language as well.
When I told a fellow travel writer friend of mine that I was interested in traveling to Central America she enthusiastically encouraged me to time my visit to coincide with the Belizean Settlement Day festivities. Following her advice, on November 17, 2003, I made my way via plane, bus and taxi to Hopkins Village, one of the rural hubs of Belizean Garifuna society. On route I encountered numerous Garifuna, Afro-Belizeans as well as European tourist embarking on the same migration. Part homecoming, part ceremonial ritual, and part frivolity, the Settlement festivities give family, friend, communities and visitors the opportunity to delve into the rich authentic cultural experience of the world according to Garifuna.
On Tuesday night, November 18th, I joined in the village’s opening ceremonies, which were held under and around a large thatched roof open air pavilion located on a sandy beach just south of the main dirt road that leads to the village. When I arrived, community members were schlepping ice for the makeshift beverage and snack bar, bustling chairs from the nearby church and school and the staff from the regional radio station were busily dragging cables and speakers to set up their sound system. They were eager to broadcast part of the event that would feature the participation of Paranda musical legend and traditional religious leader a/k/a (Buyei), Paul Nabor, 80, who was on route from neighboring coastal village of Punta Gorda. (Paranda is a genre of Garifuna music, which combines traditional African drumming styles interlaced with a touch of Latin/Spanish rhythms. Its instrumentation is totally acoustic primarily consisting of wooden drums, shakers, scrapers, turtle shell percussion and guitar).
The evening’s festivities were launched by a cadre of drummers pulsing out their powerful rhythms from their crudely constructed drums. Shortly thereafter the music lured a group of 8 elder women to join in a circle dance, the cadence and sinuous undulation of which had distinctive African origins. The dancers as well as most of the women wore traditional style African garb made of printed cotton material; long skirts, short sleeved hip length tops with a cinched waist accompanied by cloth head wraps. The tempo, momentum and intensity of the music steadily heightened as people readied themselves to welcome and honor their Garifuna royalty. When the car drove up carrying Paul Nabor, the crowd erupted in jubilation. Surprisingly, there was no speech, no introductions, and no official welcome. He walked through the circled crowd of about 100, as if parting the Red Sea, sat down amidst the drummers and began playing his guitar and singing. I could see the pride, pleasure and reverence in the eyes and the clapping of the hands of the spirited onlookers. Most of the locals enthusiastically and loudly joined in. The Garifuna style of music and singing relies heavily on traditional African call and response patterns. Witnessing this kaleidoscope of colors, movement and rhythms was completely captivating, so foreign, and yet so familiar. Flashing back to memories of similar scenes in rural parts of Africa, the Caribbean and Mississippi, I found myself thinking again, “Am I in Africa or the Americas?”
I was startled from my reverie by a gracious young woman who discreetly handed me one of the evening’s program. I noticed that she and the other young women distributors were dressed in yellow, white and black African style dresses, the colors of the Garifuna flags that were planted and hoisted around the pavilion. The evening’s program had 13 entries, foretelling of an evening of storytelling, a beauty pageant, state of the village address, history of Settlement Day, political campaigning and much much more. By the look of things I figured the event would probably last until the wee hours.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to tear myself away but I knew I would have to leave within the hour if I going to meet up with, John Rodriguez, the proprietor of the guesthouse where I was staying. He offered to let me tag along with him to attend the Punta music and dance festival in the neighboring city of Dangriga I hated to miss out on the remainder of the Hopkins village extravaganza, but I couldn’t dare pass up the opportunity to see how the city folks launched their Settlement Day festivities.
Only 16 miles away but worlds apart, the Dangriga event was a massive open-air festival that was held in fenced field/stadium nestled between the town’s farmer’s market and the Stann Creek river. There was a huge stage, sound system, lights, food booths, music vendors and bleachers. The $10.00 entry fee seemed somewhat steep for the average Dangrian, but nonetheless there were at least a 1,000 people there. The scene actually reminded me of dozens of outdoor concerts I had been to around the United States…that was until the music, singing and dancing started. It was at that moment I knew, “I was not in Kansas” anymore. Punta music, Belize’s national music, is said to be a mixture of Garifuna percussion, pop, salsa, calypso and reggae blended into a highly danceable idiom. Stylistically, it actually reminded me of fusion of merengue, calypso and Caribbean zouk. It was the most engaging and unique mixture of African, Latin and Caribbean music I have ever heard.
I was blessed with the opportunity of seeing a performance by Honduran singer/songwriter/dancer Aurelio Martinez, who I suspect from the crowd’s spirited response, to be the reigning Punta king. His astonishing dancing prowess, remarkably strong, textured and melodious voice, his radiant smile and amazing stamina were unparalled. He sang with such joyous exuberance and danced with such speed and precision he had every eye in the place locked on him in blissful mesmerism. For over 90 minutes, he held us spellbound in awe with his extraordinary talent. At no point did he show any signs of windedness or fatigue. It was truly mind-boggling. Punta style of dancing is amazingly erotic. It embodies the simulation of the sexual seduction without the crassness you see in music video popular among American teens. It a primordial celebration of life where gyrating hips move in circular motions in such a deep connection with the highly poly-rhythmic drumbeats that the dancer actually appears to be forcefully entwined and propelled by them. For Aurelerio and other skilled dancers I saw, their movements were so silken and sharp that if was as if they had ball bearing in their hips.
Elaine with Aurelio Martinez
Toward the end of his performance, Aurelio was joined on stage by Andy Palacio, Belize’s most popular Punta rock musician and performing artist, for a dynamic display of authentic Neo Garifuna culture. In addition to being accomplished performers, Martinez and Palacio are also leading cultural activists with a deep commitment to preserving the values of his Garifuna culture. They have traveled has traveled extensively throughout Garifuna communities recording the music and stories of elder Paranda masters.
After leaving the concert, Mr. Rodriguez and I visited several neighborhood street parties, each of which was replete with live drumming, dancing and drunken celebrants. He referred to almost everybody he introduced me as his cousin. I was welcomed warmly. Most people thought I was a Belizean visiting from the United States. I certainly looked the part.
Making our way back to Hopkins Village, I sat in the car joyfully savoring the reverberations of the rich cultural smorgasbord of experiences I had indulged in that evening. That was until we hit our first pothole on last stretch of the bumpy dirt road leading to Hopkins Village. The suddenness of it jerked me out of my exhaustion laced stupor and back to the reality of my next big challenge; how I was going to get myself up in only 3 hours to witness and hopefully participate in actual Settlement Day rituals and festivities, scheduled to begin at 6:00 a.m.
Luckily, at the appointed hour, the sounds of the other guests stirring, joined with my muffled travel alarm and the nearby ocean waves, corralled me to wakefulness. I caught up with several tourists from Austria who had gathered behind the guesthouse as we staggered blurry eyed along the beach to return to the place of last night festivities, where we were told we would see the ceremonial reenactment of the arrival of the Garifuna people to Belize almost 200 years ago. Watching the sunrise, we basked in the pride of having dragged ourselves there on time. Squeezing ourselves into the small school desk/chair combinations that were strewn about the pavilion, we started our vigil. One hour passed, then another, as I fiddled with my new digital camera between nods. Slowly but surely the townspeople began to gather. It was like everybody in the village but the tourists and a few die-hard locals knew the event would start on “cp” time, i.e., that 6. a.m. meant 8 a.m.
At last, after a crowd of about 60 people collected themselves near the shore, surrounding the drummers who began pounding out their rhythms. The singing and chanting started shortly thereafter. About ½ later, in come three boats full of people whose heads and bodies were wrapped in huge ivy leaves and vines, waved palm fronds and banana leaves to symbolize the cassava that sustained their ancestors during the boat trips from St. Vincent and Honduras. As they docked the boats the drummers and flag bearers lead the “settlers” in a lively procession, singing and dancing their way from the beach to a nearby Catholic church. Many of the celebrants attended mass, others gathered under the in the open air pavilion and a large group of women scurried off to a nearby hut to complete the preparation of the free village feast that would be provided after the church service.
I approached a fellow who seemed to be displaying a modicum of leadership behavior to try to get help figuring out more about what was going on. In addition to explaining to me about the historical underpinning of the event, he pointed out some of the key players and he took me to the place where the food was being prepared. The large structure appeared to be an abandoned or partially constructed house. There were no doors at the entryways or screens on the windows. Several women were making charcoal and wood fires on the cement floor, on which they would heat the food and grill the fish. Others were working on makeshift tables to prepare and serve cassava in banana leaves, beans cooked in coconut milk, plantains, falmoa (a dish made with boiled vegetables, tubers, fish and coconut milk), Sere (Fish Soup), Boil Up, and Hudut. On the other side of the house they were organizing the coffee, bush tea, cakes, puddings and tableta (a dessert made of coconut, ginger, and brown sugar. We were given a sampling of the cassava, fish and falmoa, which we ate, with our fingers. He explained in detail about ingredients and preparation of the foods we were eating, which of course they looked and tasted completely West African.
Hearing loud singing coming from the church, I noticed a long line of church attendees emerging from the doorway singing, swaying and marching around the pavilion. Many of the people wore clothes that were the traditional Garifuna colors of white, black and yellow.
The marchers joined in with other community people for a community forum where many of the attendees discussed the history, present conditions and future plans for the Garifuna people of Hopkins village, greater Belize and neighboring countries. Afterwards, the feast began, then most people dispersed to ready themselves for the afternoon parade.
Unfortunately the parade was a major letdown, due to the threat of rain and mechanical problems with the lead truck’s sound system, the parade was several hours late starting. The crowd had dwindled in size from about 150 adults to about 20 adults and 30 children. They marched, sang and danced behind the big sound truck throughout the town. No costumes, floats or pageantry of any kind, making me wish I had jumped ship again and fled to Dangriga where the festivities were supposedly on a much grander scale, better organized and well attended. I thought that the rural setting of Hopkins Village would lend itself to a more authentic and traditional celebration, which it did but the infrastructure and organization was sorely lacking. In retrospect I think I should have divided my time more evenly.
Later that evening, I met a Garifuna couple at the guesthouse that had recently arrived completely exhausted from the Dangriga festivities. They told me that they heading to the island of Caye Caulker the next morning in order to get back to work. I later learned that the Austrian tourists were heading there also. I had been torn about whether my next stop should be Ambergris Caye; the larger, more beautiful and upscale island or Caye Caulker; the more laid back, backpacker and party scene. I decided to ride the horse in the direction it was going and joined the caravan to Caye Caulker. We were up again at 6:00 a.m. readying ourselves to walk to the center of the village to catch the 7:00 a.m. bus to Dangriga, the 8:00 a.m. express bus to Belize City and the noon water taxi to Caye Caulker. Turned out that everybody else had the same idea, so the 7:00 a.m. bus was full. There we sat in a collective stupor, backpacks propped dreaming of steaming hot coffee and the next bus.
We made to Caye Caulker a bit behind schedule but no worse for the wear. Caye Caulker is a tiny quaint island that is only four miles long and less than a mile wide. It has no cars or paved roads; the main means of transportation are bicycles and an occasional golf cart. Its main drag is a waterfront promenade lined with lovely restaurants, outdoor adventure outfitters, gift shops and all manor of lodging. Being a long distance swimmer, I opted for a motel on, what the guidebooks and fellow travelers called, the beach side of the island. After settling in I decided that laying on a sandy beach, snorkeling and swimming would be the perfect antidote for a half-day of traveling and two back-to-back days of Settlement Day festivities. As I sauntered to lands end, what a rude awakening awaited me…I saw sun seekers sprawled out on their towels atop broken cement piers that jetted up from the shoreline water. BEACH???? I saw a small patch of sand next to a bar and wondered why not one was sitting on it. As started to squat down I soon learned why it had been abandoned by humans…it was fully inhabited by nipping little sand flies, as were most of the beaches I visited in Belize. The shoreline was also covered with sea grass, which I hate. But I love to swim more than I hate sea grass, so managed to swim out past it only to find that the current was too strong for me, so I sulked back to my room, unpacked and moved onto Plan B; exploring the island.
As I walked along the main drag, in the distance I noticed a brown Belizean man grilling over a half steel drum. As I grew closer I could see a dozen or so lobsters sizzling away over the coals. After greeting him, I asked him how much they were and he said free, I asked him again and he said free again…so I asked him how I could go about getting one, he said for me to go across the street to inquire inside the club. I peered in the cavernous space, did not see any one and decided he was just joking with me. So, I proceeded to go to a nearby internet café to check my email but I couldn’t get the lobster off of my mind. So an hour later, I made my way back to the lobster fest and it turns out that all but ½ of one was left and that they really were free; the owner of the club was in one of his regular generous moods and was simply sharing his bounty with the community. He offered me a free drink to enjoy with my piece of lobster, potatoes and veggies.
Later that evening, he confided in me that he was making a lot of money in real estate in Arizona and enjoyed sharing his good fortune, particularly with solo travelers. He was gregarious, friendly young man who never charged me for another drink for the remainder of my 3 days in Caye Caulker. Within hours, I was behind the bar helping serve drinks, popcorn and generally “hangin” out. During that evening as the club filled up with partiers, I met the island’s mayor, several local business owners as well as a couple of the people I met in Hopkins Village. It turned out that the Oceanview Bar was the liveliest spot in town, which is no surprise considering their brand of hospitality and penchant for creating instant communities. My days were filled with ocean adventures, e.g., swimming with stingrays and sharks, snorkeling, visiting neighboring islands and a manatee reserve. My evening were filled with dancing, partying, karaoke, bar hopping and helping out at the Oceanside Bar and Grill.
Whenever I travel I always corral fellow travelers and locals into helping me plan the next leg of my journey. I informally tally the polls and make my plans. The consensus in this case was that my next stop needed to be in the Cayo District of the western mountain region of Belize. It was there I was assured that I would see a wide array of Mayan Ruins, jungles and rivers. Additionally, I was also advised to visit the Tikkal ruins in Guatemala, the largest uncovered Mayan City in the Central America, which was only an hour’s drive from the San Ignacio, the capital of the Cayo District.
After taking the water taxi to mainland, I traversed by bus the small country of Belize in search of the San Ignacio. We had a lunch stop in Belmopan and I coyly followed a couple of locals to a group of food vendors peddling their products on the side of the road. I followed suit and bought some lusciously moist and custardy tamales that were stuffed with chicken, onions and green peppers. Seventy two miles later, as we approached the city limits of San Ignacio, a young schoolboy, about 8 years old, ventured back to my seat and asked me if I needed help finding a place to stay and I said yes. He offered to help me. Upon disembarking the bus, a friendly rotund gentleman approached me to ask if I needed help finding a place to stay and the young boy looked at me and nodded. Interpreting his gesture as a green light, I said yes. After a couple of stall outs, he whisked away in his raggedy circa 1975 Toyota station wagon to E & J guesthouse, whose proprietors, John and Helen Lamb, warmly and eagerly greeted me.
After shuttling my things into my room and feeding me a snack, John whipped out a stack of brochures, spread them on the table and enthusiastically proceeded to tell me, in his challenged English, the “must do” adventures to experience during my stay in San Ignacio. He said that the favorite spots for most of his guests were Actun Tunichil Muknal, Tikkal and Xunantunich. Other than Tikkal, I had never heard of the places before, so I got the name and prices and decided to do a bit of research on my own. I grabbed my daypack and my faithful guidebook and made my way to Eva’s, which was supposedly THE adventurers’ hub. Chock full of hardy travelers and local travel info, I read up on dozens of excursions Eva had mapped out on her walls as well as talked to other travelers, several guys of whom I had met in Caye Caulker. Afterwards I came to the conclusion that Mr. Lamb had the best suggestions and the best deals. After wandering around the uneventful town, I headed back to the guesthouse to make my excursion arrangements.
The next morning at 7:00 a.m. I was on route to Actun Tunichil Muknal, i.e., the Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher, which the Lonely Planet guidebook described as “the most adventurous and incredible tour you can take in Belize. My journey into the deep recesses of the sacred cave that ancient Mayan used for human and food sacrifices to the gods of the underworld, turned out to be one of the most exhilarating, fascinating and physically demanding adventures of my life.
After a 90-minute drive on the freeway, down dirt roads, through a factory farm and over a corn field, (i.e., no road), we arrived at the edge of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve to park the truck, drench ourselves in bug spray and launch our journey. I was a guest of Pacz Tours, one of only two companies allowed by the government to take people into the cave. The cave which was used by the Mayan people from 900-1200 a.d, was rediscovered in the 1970’s but not fully explored until the 90’s, by an expedition lead by Belizean archeologist, Jaime Awe. Actun had only been open to tourist since (?1999) and I wonder how much longer it will remain to tourists considering the fragile nature of the artifacts in the caves as well as the arduous and potentially dangerous journey required to access its inner recesses.
The 45-minute hike to the cave’s entrance took our motley crew of 8 through jungle trails and three thigh-high creeks. After arriving at “boot camp” we had our lunch, were given an informational lecture and were fitted for our hard hats replete with headlamps. Much to my surprise, we had to swim through a 25-foot pool of water to get to the actual entrance of the cave. It was an ideal precursor of usual events that were to unfold. It turns out that the 2-mile “hike” to the sacred chambers was a trek through and intricate labyrinth of trails, pools and streams. On several occasions we had to climb up narrow passageways, pretzel our bodies through remarkably small openings and scurry over yards of broken boulders. This trip was not for the faint of heart or weak of body. To add to the drama our guide, Ramon, instructed us to turn off our headlamps and he guided us hand in hand for 20 yards in the pitch-blackness through one of the few flat-bottomed creeks.
Through much of our inner earth journey, we were surrounded by enormous shimmering rock formations jutting up from the ground and hanging from the ceiling. The magnificent stalactites and stalagmites ranged in length from 1- 20 feet. The most spectacular display was located in a huge circular cathedral-like area right below the entrance to the sacred chambers.
After climbing up a long narrow metal ladder to the upper ledges, we were instructed to remove our shoes. Slowly we proceeded along an extremely narrow path behind Ramon. We came into a huge open flat area strewn with numerous broken ceramic pots; we had to be careful not to step on them because many of them were right next to the path. It was like walking into a living museum.
As we continued our trek we saw what appeared to be skeletons. One of our group members stated in a rebellious voice, “I will go no further – this is holy ground, not designed for gawking tourists.” I suggested that we stop and say a prayer to the people whose lives were sacrificed here for the spiritual well being of their community. Ramon let us in a quick acknowledgement (he had obviously encountered this before) and onward we proceeded on our journey. Our comrade remained behind. I thought it probably wasn’t a coincidence that my camera stopped working at that point.
As we snaked our way around another corner we came to another open area with more pots and even more skeletons. I counted 14, appearing to range from infants to adults, some had flattened forehead and some had teeth filled with jade plugs, signs of Mayan beauty. There were remnants of hundreds of pots, mostly shards but many partial pots and a few whole ones. The researchers and tour operators had been very careful not to move or reposition things. Ramon told us of the mythology and ritual practiced in that exact spot over 800 years ago, opening a window into the lives and deaths of his ancestors. It was a wonder to behold this slice of history, a truly unforgettable experience. To preserve the memory, I hope to locate a copy of the 1993 National Geographic Explorer documentary film titled, “Journey through the Underworld,” about an expedition team that explored Actun Tunichil Muknal.
On day two in the Cayo District, Mr. Lamb made all the arrangements for me and 2 other guesthouse dwellers to take a day trip to Tikkal, Guatemala. While we were waiting for his son to take us to the border to meet the tour van driver, he instructed us to leave all of our jewelry and valuables with him due to the recent flurry of tour van hijacks. Due to extreme poverty in Guatemala, many young men had been turning to robbery and found tourists to be easy targets because most do not have guns and the vans are easy to overtake. The dirt road portion of the highway to Tikkal is full of enormous potholes, which require the drivers have to slow down to maneuver around them. That is when the bandits would make their move. So there I stood at the precipice of a major decision, do I leave my deceased parent’s wedding ring and my cartouche from Egypt with a virtual stranger or take the change of losing it possible thief? I had two minutes to decide. My fellow travelers and I turned our valuables over to Mr. Lamb and his son, Emil carted us away.
When we got to the border, Emil pointed out our van driver, who was waiting for us on the Guatemalan side. Once we made eye contact and waved, Emil told us to meet him back here at 5 p.m. and he would take us back to the guesthouse. No sooner did Emil leave the parking lot that moneychangers pleading for us to change our American money for the Guatemalan quetzales swarmed us. They were sorely disappointed to learn we only had Belizean dollars. Despite my noblest effort, neither my currency converter nor I could not figure out the exchange rate from Belizean dollars to Guatemalan quetzales. I was so nervous and flabbergasted from the commotion, I couldn’t think straight and neither could my travel companions. So we finally gathered ourselves together and decided to exchange only a few Belizean dollars… we estimated the amount we would needed to get through customs and figured we worry the rest later.
After we made our way through the interminable Belizean and Guatemalan customs lines, we felt completely overwrought and it was only 8:00 a.m. We looked with envy at the groups of well-heeled tourists who were being shepherded past us by their high priced tour guides. We finally met up with our driver who we discovered could not speak a lick of English and I, only a lick of Spanish. Somehow we managed to get our plans together and headed off for Tikkal. The road appeared to be recently paved and we felt relieved as we jetted down the highway. About an hour later the highway ran out and the infamous dirt road appeared. Even though Tikkal was only 90 miles away, it took us almost 3 hours to get there because the poor road conditions. Luckily we made it to the nearby city of Flores, robber-free to pick up a paved road again as well as our tour guide who was waiting at a bus stop with his young daughter. Mario was short, thin wiry Belizean of African and Indian descent who spoke impeccable English at a remarkably fast clip. My brain could barely keep up with the non-stop flurry of words. He was so full of facts and figures that within an hour we all had a glazed looks on our faces from being on overload. He said a short day trip was not enough time to fully appreciate Tikkal so he had to talk and move fast in order for us to get the basics.
The upshot on Tikkal is that it is an ancient Mayan city build and inhabited from 700 B.C. until 900 A.D. and stretched over 2 ½ million acres. During its heyday, during the 6th century, it had over 100,000 inhabitants. We actually visited Tikkal National Park, which encompasses 222 square miles of the city and is home to its most striking homes, palaces, temples and pyramids, the highest of which is over 144 feet high. Most of the structures are adorned with steps making it easy to access them. The massive abandoned city is nestled in a rainforest, replete with not only hordes of tourists and wildlife such as, howler monkeys, wild turkeys (which had glorious iridescent feathers), parrots and toucans. It was a truly remarkable experience and well worth the inconvenience of getting there. As agreed, Emil was there waiting for us when we traipsed across the boarder and Mr. Lamb graciously returned our treasured valuables when we returned the guest house.
My last day in the Cayo Region was less of a blockbuster adventure than my previous two days but most interesting nonetheless. I got a chance to hike to the Xunantunich, the Stone Maiden, one of Belize’s most impressive Mayan sites. It is home to 25 temples and palaces including the second tallest Mayan structure in Belize, the pyramid El Castillo, which measures 130 feet high. I was struck by the intricacy and cubism of many of the carving, many of which were clearly telling a story. During its zenith period from 600 to 1,000 A.D., Xunantunich had over 10,000 residents. It is located 8 miles outside the city limits of San Ignacio.
After visiting there, Mr. Lamb was took into the mountains to visit a gallery and workshop of a friend of his who makes traditional clay Mayan jewelry, plates and pots. I particularly liked his merchandise because so many of the patterns he used reminded me of African art. I bought lots of necklaces for my friends.
Afterwards, I picked up lunch, jumped on a bus and headed back across the country to Belize City’s Airport for my flight to Costa Rica.
During my 10 amazing days in Belize, I managed to manifest one of the most culturally rich, exciting, affordable and action-packed escapades I’d ever put together. Copyright/Elaine Lee 2008