Sunday, March 29, 2009

Getting Ready for the Trip....

NOTE TO SELF: Check your passport renewal date Several Months before your travel date.

Two days before we have to leave, I decide to get my binder of Important Papers to be sure I had everyone's passports. I do not know what made me open mine but I opened and looked and discovered, to my horror, that my passport had expired in JANUARY. This happened on Friday the 13th, two days before we were supposed to leave. I had wondered what Friday the 13th was going to drop on me and I found out at 6:00 AM. Fortunately, that was early enough to take action.

While I was panicking and berating myself for not having checked my passport earlier, Bill found the address of the State Dept passport office downtown. This information is well hidden because they want you do go to a post office or renew by mail but Bill found it anyway. I am so lucky that he is the calm collected one in the relationship. I RUSHED the kids to school and then went downtown to beg for passport renewal.

I had everything together but the photos. Due to my poor planning, I could not get passport photos at CVS for $7.99 and instead had to pay $25 at the the passport photo place conveniently located next to the passport agency (and open at 8:00 am). By the time I had my photo taken, the line at the passport agency was nearly out the door. A woman at the photo place told me I had to have an appointment to talk with anyone there. I had no appointment because the appointment system on the phone didn't work (and I am sure one was not available anyway). Then I notice the Passport Expediting sign.....

So for an extra $150, the photo place would take my passport application upstairs next door and would have them renew it THAT DAY. This was WAY cheaper than trying to change my flight so I paid up. I came back at 4:30 as instructed to pick up my passport and had to wait, double parked, for 90 minutes. At 6:00, much to my relief, I had my new passport in hand! And I did not get a parking ticket. So Friday the 13th didn't end so terribly.

But it was a dreadful way to spend my day. What if I hadn't checked my passport until Saturday? What if we'd gotten to the airport and I couldn't go? It is one thing to manage my own expectations and disappointment but the kids, even Lyra, are old enough to be mad at Mommy for screwing up the trip and I would not have wanted to try to manage THAT.

PHEW. I had a lucky break. So , go on, check your passport expiration date right now! Some places won't let you travel if it is going to expire within 6 months of your travel date so don't wait until the last minute. Surely Obama can create a job or two by requiring the State Department to remind you to renew your passport six months before it expires.

Belize Spring Break Vacation

This year we again traveled Belize for Will's and Eva's school break. This time we returned to Chaa Creek which we loved last year, and added four days at the beach in Placencia where we did some sailing, snorkeling and beach combing.

We were more adventurous this year, doing an all day cave tour at Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) and a day trip to explore the Maya ruins at Tikal in Guatemala.

Chaa Creek was as great as we remembered, and once again everyone wants to return again. If you look at the third map here (The Mountain Pine Ridge) you can see Chaa Creek toward the upper middle on the left side. The ATM cave is on the right side of the map, Barton Creek Cave where we went last year is shown, as is San Ignacio, the nearest town to Chaa Creek.

We have posted below photos of Chaa Creek, ATM, Tikal and our experiences in Placencia. Enjoy!

Cath - We stayed at Chaa Creek last year (see all posts tagged Belize) and we loved it so much that we came back. There are two sections to the resort: the palm thatched cottages and the river camp.

The cottages are beautiful and have all sorts of creature comforts. The river camp is more rustic (1 room, no a/c, no electricity, shared bath and showers) but very comfortable. The landscape is natural and wild, not so manicured as the cottage area. This is the part of the resort we love! At least I do....I do love a simple and plain vacation.At night, you go to sleep with all the jungle sounds around you and there is all kinds of wildlife to see most of the time. The camp manager, Dosio, built the camp and he and his extended family run the camp. They cook local food and bend over backward to make sure everyone has a good time and whatever they need.

It is like going to stay with family. There is enough to do at Chaa Creek just on the grounds that we didn't feel "trapped" on the resort. We alternated an adventure day with a pool and horseride backing day (to quote Lyra) to have the perfect mix of activity and relaxation. I want to go back!

Black Iguana

This is a black iguana that had staked out a spot above a drainage culvert across from the ridings stables at Chaa Creek.  We also saw a variety of smaller lizards as well as green iguanas nearer the river.  Apparently the black iguanas are known locally as wish-willys and the green iguanas are known as bamboo chicken and are now raised for food.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Macal River Camp at Chaa Creek

Most guests at Chaa Creek stay in posh air conditioned bungalows with hot and cold running water.  We don't.  We stay in tent cabins in the 'River Camp' that have no electricity and communal facilities that you need to get up and walk to, even in the middle of the night.  There is hot water, but most light at night comes from kerosene lanterns, with the exception of lights in the bathrooms, showers and dining pavilion that are powered by solar charged batteries. 

This photo is taken from right outside our tent cabin.  The dining pavilion is on the right, and the showers are barely visible behind the trees toward the back.  This shot was taken very early in the morning so it is hard to see, but the cabins and dining pavilion are all arranged around a grassy area that the kids played in and Eva used for gymnastics practice.  Animals seem to view the camp as just an open spot in the jungle, coming through without much regard to the humans.  While in the camp we have seen howler monkeys, agoutis, a grey fox and many bats and birds.

Being in the midst of the jungle, the sounds at night are incredible, especially the howler monkeys.  Imagine this at 3:00am every morning (except the real sound is far louder than what a PC can produce).  We also had a rooster across the river than started crowing (loud) in the middle of the night every night.  

Upriver with Eva

Both kids loved canoeing on the Macal River.  Chaa Creek provides canoes for guests to use, and the river is beautiful with lots of birds and other wildlife like iguanas on the banks.  

Down the Macal

Will also loved canoeing, though I am hoping that after camp next summer he can be more of an equal partner in paddling, especially when we are going up river.  I let him sit in the back of the canoe once, and I ended up very frustrated with him.  Steering from the front of the canoe is really difficult.  Will loved canoeing through the 'rapids', e.g. the shallower faster moving water.  In a couple of years we can find some real rapids.  

Bill & Lyra in the Big Pool

While Lyra enjoyed the kiddie pool, she was even more enthusiastic about swimming with me in the big pool.  She would hold my hands and jump into the water so I could catch her *endlessly* - I never tired her out, I always called quits first.  She seems to have very little fear of the water, and occasional mishaps where she got dunked did not phase her at all.  

The new pool at Chaa Creek is pretty and well designed for older and younger guests.  It is also close to the bar and restaurant and has service from both (which the kids figured out very quickly).  The only problem is that the limestone tile around the pool is polished and is like ice when it is wet.  Chaa Creek management is aware of the issue and working to fix it, but the pool would never have been allowed to open at a US resort.  Eva fell most often, but Will took the worst fall, having his feet go out from under him on the stairs and ending up with a horrible bruise on his lower back.

Lyra *loves* the Water

The new pool at Chaa Creek was a big hit with all the kids, especially Lyra.  In addition to the main pool, there is a lower level 'kiddie pool' that is about 18" deep.  It is deep enough that Lyra can jump in knees first, but shallow enough that we did not worry too much about her while she was in the water.  She loved it and played for hours.

Will in the Pool

I think Will is part water rat.  He will stay in the water until his skin shrivels up.  He loved the new Chaa Creek pool and played endlessly - alone, with Lyra, with other kids he met, and even occasionally with Eva.


No Belize travelogue would be complete without a discussion of Belikin.  As far as I can tell, Belikin and its cousins are the only beers available in Belize.  Fortunately they are very good.  The most common beer is just called Belikin.  There is also Belikin Stout (my favorite), Belikin Premium, Lighthouse Lager, and Guiness brewed by Belikin under license.  I never saw any beer other than these in Belize.

The River Camp at Chaa Creek has no electricity and hence no electric refrigerator, but there was always a cooler full of Belikin and Belikin Stout on ice.

Road to the River Camp

This is the road in to the River Camp where we stayed while at Chaa Creek. This is a big pasture, sometimes with many horse other times with just one or two. Last year there was a mare in the pasture that foaled on our last day at Chaa Creek, and now that foal is a yearling named Romeo.

Riding at Chaa Creek

Chaa Creek has 31 horses, and at least one very pregnant mare so the number should go up soon.  Riding is one of the popular on site activities at Chaa Creek, and there are miles of great trails.  

Chaa Creek has 70+ identified Maya archeological features, none fully excavated (most just a mound that clearly has a pyramid or other structure under it).  Trail rides are a great way to see the Maya sites on the Chaa Creek property.  

Roberto, who seems to be in charge of the riding program, was enthusiastic and helpful, especially for those riders seeking a more spirited riding experience.

Eva with Appaloosa

Eva fell in love with the horse she rode at Chaa Creek, Appaloosa.  She even went to visit him and say good bye on our last day at Chaa Creek.  

We never figured out for certain if his name was Appaloosa or Appalooso.  Since the 'o' ending is masculine in Spanish, we kind of think it should be Appalooso.  

However you spell his name, Appaloos? was a great horse for Eva, with just the right amount of spirit and energy, but without too many bad habits.

Cath on Survivor

Cath rode Survivor on her first outing. We found that each horse had a very distinct personality, and its own unique ways of misbehaving (stopping to eat during the ride, refusing to be near certain other horses, etc). I will let Cath provide a run down on Survivor, and her other more recalcitrant horse.

Cath - No, Survivor WAS the recalcitrant horse. He just wanted to do his own thing and do it slowly. That wasn't bad the first day when we really didn't go fast. But, I went with Eva another day (after Bill swore off horseback riding forever); Eva wanted to do a more adventurous ride and Survivor just wanted to QUIT.

Our guide, Teddy, saw I was miserable so he offered to switch horses with me. Then he had to switch saddles because he was taller and we couldn't get the stirrups high enough for me. I felt bad for being the gringa holding up the ride.

Teddy's horse, Lionheart, was a beautiful, young and spirited yet civilized horse. Poor Lionheart....I didn't ever learn to ride a horse so I was pretty much holding on for dear life the whole time and I am sure he couldn't wait to get rid of me.

Survivor was even more difficult for Teddy than he was for me. Since we were trail riding, we were supposed to be riding in a line. Survivor was not used to be a lead horse and refused to go first. Since Teddy wanted him to go first AND go fast, Survivor put his foot down. All four of them.

The horses are so funny, they are just like people with their personalities and idiosyncracies. I love animals and I love to be outdoors so I am sure could get the hang of this if I had the opportunity to ride regularly with one horse who I could get to know and love. But I am not there yet! Eva, however, appears to be a natural.

Will the Equestrian

Eva LOVED the horse riding at Chaa Creek.  Will and I not so much.  When I took Will and Eva out riding (after popping a Claritin for my horse allergy), our guide Roberto decided to take us on a very spirited ride.  I now know about trotting, cantering and galloping as well as walking.  After my nether region was beaten up trotting, I was told cantering was much smoother.  It was a lie.  

(You have to click on this photo to enlarge it and see the expression on Will's face.)

Swimming Across the Macal River

After one of our canoe journeys, I suggest Will swim across the river just for fun. He did, and was very proud of himself. Eva of course HAD to do the same thing. I dropped her on the east bank of the river, and she swam across to the landing for the River Camp with me following along in the canoe (as I had for Will). Both kids were very proud of their accomplishment.

Interestingly, we had been assured that there were no crocodiles in the Macal, only at lower elevations closer to the ocean. Except on our last day at Chaa Creek one of the workers mentioned seeing a five foot croc the day before, and related a legend about the relationship between dogs and crocodiles. Apparently in legend the dog borrowed the crocodile's tongue so it could talk, and has never given it back. Now whenever a croc hears a dog bark, it chases and eats the dog to get its tongue back. Whether or not this story is true, apparently crocs are known for loving to eat dogs. We will be very careful in the future swimming in the Macal.

Cath - This is the girl who I had to haul through the water in the cave and who Bill had to force a life jacket onto during the Placencia snorkeling trip. I am hoping that Eva's swimming skills get a big boost in camp this summer and that she learns to have her confidence in line with her ability. I am appalled about the crocodiles.....especially after getting to see one go after food Live and In Action. See post further on down.

Eva at Breakfast

This is a photo of Eva during breakfast at the River Camp.   We loved breakfast at the River Camp, there were always a variety of birds - hummingbirds, thrushes, yellow birds, etc., and the food was great - every breakfast started with a big platter of fruit, always perfectly ripe.  

Macal River at Sunrise

I took this photo on our last morning at Chaa Creek.  It is just down the hill from our tent cabin in the River Camp and the view is looking down the Macal River toward San Ignacio.  The river was incredibly peaceful in the early morning, save for the many birds and the crowing rooster, who seemed to wake up at 3:00am every night.  

Friday, March 27, 2009

'The Inn' Robert's Grove

This is where we stayed for the last four nights of our vacation, The Inn at Robert's Grove. This is the main building with the restaurant, bar and reception. We stayed in an out building to the left and set back from the water.

We had a wonderful apartment for our stay. Chaa Creek was a very rustic and camplike affair with one room, five cots, no electricity and shared bathrooms and showers. Here, we had two bedrooms and a big living room. All the kids had beds, and Cath and I had a bed IN A SEPARATE ROOM. The housekeeping staff took away dirty laundry and brought it back, magically cleaned and folded. We also had a second floor deck with a table, lounge chairs and a hammock. Much of the early part of this blog was written on the deck at Robert's Grove.

Unfortunately, our apartment was the best part of The Inn. We read many five star reviews and spoke with many people who raved about this resort for a family location but our experience was more average.

The three pools were beautiful but all were 4.5 feet deep. There was not a single place for Lyra to play where one of us didn't have to get in a swimsuit and get all the way in with her. Even Eva (almost 9 and tall) had trouble standing comfortably in the pool. The edge of the sea, while shallow, was very choppy because of the wind, so Lyra needed very close supervision there too. If you have small children, this is probably not the place for you.

Excursions for snorkeling, horseback riding etc. are very expensive compared with nearby alternatives. Horseback riding at Chaa Creek was $45/person for 2.5 hours. It was $110/person at the Inn. A half day of snorkeling was $77/person at the Inn but $30/person locally.

We wish the menu had more variety. There were only two kinds of fish and few local dishes on the menu. However the guac was the BEST and the mangoes at breakfast were exquisite.

Mostly, we wish the service was more personal and attentive. I think it was the owner who was so kind and gracious when Will was stung by the jellyfish, but the rest of the staff was not on board. It's not that the service was bad; it wasn't. But we had to tell the same server every day about Eva's nut allergy and ask (again) what food was safe. They did not really engage with us, try to remember our names or preferences, or offer a special level of service. It would have been so easy for them to remember that Eva loved hot chocolate, had a food allergy, and bring a hot chocolate and an update on safe food every morning without being asked. We have vacationed at other places that provide this level of service, so our expectations may be different from the average Joe.

I could go on, but this is not meant to be a review. We enjoyed our stay at Robert's Grove, but not enough to justify the high price or attract us to return.

Sunrise 22 March 6:07AM

It must be a rule that every beach front tropical resort have a long pier with a thatch bar at the end.  This is the view from just in front of the Robert's Grove resort restaurant, and it is pretty, especially very early in the morning.  

Another Sunrise Shot

This just seems like a classic tropical beach sunrise photo.  Silhouetted palm trees, sliver of beach, sun reflecting on the water.  Too bad it was 6:30am.  

Leaving Placencia

We arrived in Placencia by road, the last 20 miles of which were dirt, now in the process of being paved.  We left via Maya Island Air using the Placencia airstrip.  

The airstrip is narrow, and looks barely paved.  It reminds me of a country airstrip in rural America, not an airport.  The airstrip runs east to west, perpendicular to the road into the village of Placencia.  The road into town literally curves around the airstrip (the road is the flat dirt area in the foreground in this photo) and cars must stop when a plane is taking off or landing.

I have to say though, I liked this way of flying.  No security screening, no x-rays, no security lecture, no control tower delaying takeoff.  Just jump in the plane and go.  

Our Plane

The airstrip is oriented west to east so the planes can take off to the east, into the sea breeze.  The runway is narrow, but it is paved.  The runway spans almost the entire width of the peninsula, with the east end being just short of the water line.

Please Ship Your Cash FedEx, Not Maya Air

So do people tell Maya Air that the boxes they want to ship contain bricks of Ben Franklins?  Sadly I can't think of any explanation for this sign at the airstrip other than the presence of drug money in Placencia.  

Placencia Peninsula

Placencia is at the southern end of this peninsula you can see out the window of our plane.  The ocean is on the near side in the photo and the lagoon (where the crocodiles live) on the far side.  

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sister Support

This is Eva holding Lyra's hand while we fly.  In reality, Lyra did not seem to have any issue with the small plane at all, actually telling me later she preferred it to the bigger jets.  I suspect this was partly because we flew 20min from Placencia to Dangriga, landed for five minutes to take on two passengers, and flew 15min more to Belize City.  Much easier than three hours from Belize City to Houston.

Village of Placencia

During the four days we stayed at the Inn at Robert's Grove, we went into the village of Placencia about six times (it is a 10min cab ride). It is a wonderful little town, very undeveloped in appearance, but with a diverse variety of restaurants, shops and bars. (Thankfully no chains except the Shell station.)

There is a mix of cultures in evidence, from global hippie, to Spanish, Maya and Garifuna. Most locals speak very good English to tourists, but revert to Creole when speaking to each other.

In the eyes (and taste buds) of the Phelps family, the #1 attraction in Placencia is the TuttiFrutti Gelateria. We went to TuttiFrutti every time we were in Placencia. It is owned by real Italians, and the Gelato is fabulous.

Cath - I had 3 hours to kill in the teeny weeny town of Placencia while Bill took the big kids snorkeling and Lyra spent the entire time trying to find TuttiFrutti, having been there with Bill the day before. She was incredibly singleminded. It was like Laurel and Hardy.
"Lyra, do you want to go to the playground?"
"The ice cream place is down there."
"Why don't we go to the beach?"
"The ice cream place is near the beach!"
"Do you have to go to the loo?"
"No! It's time to get ice cream at the ice cream place!"

Placencia Sidewalk

You can just see Lyra and Will walking along the Placencia Sidewalk, it is 4,071 feet long and 4 feet wide - according to the Guiness Book of World Records, the narrowest main street in the world!

The Placencia Sidewalk is the heart of Placencia Village, an artery that linked the visitors, residents, businesses and homes of Placencia Village.

There is also a road into town, but more houses, shops, restaurants and hotels actually front onto this sidewalk than onto the street.

Di Guava Tree

Clever and amusing signs seem to be a local tradition. Some appear to be formally placed by the town, many others like this one are informal.

Cath - Oh but there were so many signs that I WISH I'd photographed.

Like the one for the boutique located "behind the old graveyard and around the corner on the sidewalk" since nothing here has an address, just a relative location on "the sidewalk."

Or the one at De'Tatch,for evening entertainment: "For Poker Game (Secret) Call Fred 660-697-****" That reminds me of a secret love note Eva wrote to her friend, Jacob, ON A POSTCARD.

Or important driver information near the Placencia Airstrip (NOT Airport, AirSTRIP): "Drivers must give way to landing and departing aircraft." Eek. But we all did survive the taxi rides and the flight out too.

Pet Crocodile

Next door to TuttiFrutti there was a building with a restaurant and travel agent - and a small pond out front with turtles, fish and two small crocodiles. Cathleen took this shot at feeding time when a man came by with a platter of raw chicken for the croc.

Apparently this croc was caught last year in a nearby lagoon as a baby. It is now about five feet long. There used to be many small turtles in the pond. Now there are only a few big turtles, and one other smaller croc that hides most of the time.

Cath - Where was the $&@*#$(@# video camera??? It was cool to watch the croc suddenly sink straight down out of sight. There was also a smaller crocodile who had to sneak out for his chicken because this one wouldn't let it go anywhere. Even the turtles and fish, very carefully, found a way to get their share. I did not know turtles would eat chicken.

Another Sign

A universal truth that speaks for itself.

Cath - But I had to take the photo anyway.

Placencia Elementary School

Would this be a great place to grow up, or what? This was recess time at the local elementary school, and you can just see the kids enjoying the shade under the school building. Placencia is remote, and poor by US standards, but the kids all had clean uniforms and were playing with great abandon during their recess.

Cath - My running buddy, Cheryl, says her Belizean students are in much better shape than many other immigrant students at her school because of Belize's priority on education.

I must say I can't even see the kids in Bill's photo here. Lyra and I did walk right next to the playground during recess (this was while Bill and Will and Eva were snorkeling) and the kids really were having a lot of fun playing on the swings, playing tag, and generally running amok.

Yet Another Sign

The anti-littering signs are clever and entertaining, but not very effective. We saw quite a lot of trash in Placencia.

Cath - This was disappointing to me. I don't mind seaweed washing up on the beach but there was a lot of man-made trash despite many signs pleading for people not to litter and to clean up. There were also many yards with junk and scrap metal and trash heaps right there. WHY?

De'Tatch - Main Entrance

This is the sign for the De'Tatch restaurant off the main sidewalk in Placencia.  If you click on the photo you can see the day's lunch menu.  The price for the lunch special is $11.00 Belizean, e.g. $5.50US.  

De'Tatch - Ocean Side

This is the ocean side of De'Tatch where the dining area is located under the palm trees. As noted elsewhere, we were not big fans of the food at the Inn at Robert's Grove, but since we had purchased the meal plan, we did eat most of our meals there. On our last full day in Placencia, I took Lyra and Eva to De'Tatch for lunch. It was so good we all decided to return for dinner. (De'Tatch is local slang for The Thatch, referring to the thatched roof.) At dinner Will and I had grilled shark steak and Cathleen had grouper. Both of the fish dishes were excellent. Eva had chicken fingers, which were actual fresh fried chicken, not prefrozen.

Although the food was great, the place was super casual, there was a floor in the restaurant, but no walls. In the bar there was no floor, just sand. Their motto seems to be: De Tatch, "No shoes, No ties, NO PROBLEM MON!"

Cath - There were all kinds of kitty cats running around through Placencia, as you might expect in such a warm climate with food aplenty. Just about all of the cats we saw were black and white. It was like they were all descended from a single pair of black and white cats. But at De Tatch, there was a brownish siamese looking cat with pale blue eyes. This cat was not allowed in the restaurant but she came in anyway and promptly made good friends with Will, who was missing our cats terribly.

Placencia Beaches

The Placencia beaches were not that wide, and every night there was a new deposit of seaweed and plastic bottles, but the beaches were long.  We could have walked the five miles from Robert's Grove to Placencia all on the beach.  This is apparently the only spot in Belize with such long beaches, in many other places the coast is mostly mangrove swamp.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Our Trip to Tikal

One of the high points of our vacation to Belize was a day trip across the border into Guatemala to visit Tikal National Park, site of the largest excavated ancient city in the Americas.  Tikal was a Mayan city, and as we spend more time in Belize, we are coming to appreciate just how large and sophisticated the Maya culture was at its peak.  Tikal was a large city, supported by a network of man made reservoirs and complex agriculture and water management.  In fact, the fall of Tikal coincides with a sustained drought.  Tikal and another Maya city at Caracol in Belize both likely had populations over 100K around 500AD.  

To get to Tikal, we had to cross from Belize into Guatemala.  Belize is a very small country with a population of about 280K.  Guatemala is much larger, with a population of about 14M.  This is one of the major border crossings between the two countries, and in fact an industrial free trade zone is being constructed on the Belize side of the border.   With a professional driver who makes this crossing daily, no luggage and as obvious tourists, this crossing took an hour.  There was a line of at least 20 semi-trailers on the Guatemala side waiting to get into Belize, and our driver said it can take them a day to cross.  We all now have Guatemala stamps in our passports, and also know that the VIN number for the type of Toyota van we were driving is located under the passenger seat (our driver and the Guatemalan authorities spent about 10 minutes searching for it).   I also got a chance to try and explain to the kids the concept of an anti-personnel shot gun, which some of the Guatemalan guards carried.

The Road to Tikal

To be fair, about 80% of the 75 miles of road between Chaa Creek and Tikal are paved (or what passes for paved in Guatemala).  However, the first 12 miles of road after passing into Guatemala from Belize are NOT paved.  

The road is very dusty now (and reportedly a real mess in the rainy season).  I suspect the drivers must have to replace their air filters after every trip.  Needless to say we drove with the windows up.  I opened a window and stuck my arm out to get this shot, and now the automatic lens cover on my camera has stopped working properly.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ceiba Tree

On the path leading into the Tikal ruins, there is a huge Ceiba tree beside the trail.  The Ceiba was sacred to the Maya, who beleived it connected the planes of the Underworld (Xibalba), the skies and the terrestrial realm.

The Ceiba is prevalent all over Central America, giving its name to cities in Honduras and Puerto Rico.  The tree was grown commercially for much of the first half of the 20th century, when it was commonly known as the Kapok tree.  Its fruit provides the kapok fibers that were used in life preservers and auto upholstery until synthetic alternatives were developed.  

Temple II

This is Temple II, the first major Maya structure we saw as we entered Tikal.  I believe this is the second or third largest Temple in Tikal.  It is really tall, as you can see from looking at tiny Eva in the foreground.  This is the back of the temple, the front faces onto the Grand Plaza.

Great Plaza

This is a view of the Great Plaza, with the Central Acropolis on the left and Temple II in back.  There is an excellent map of Tikal here, which helps to provide a sense of the layout of the site.  

When Tikal was a living city, it was clear (no jungle) and the different plazas and building complexes were connected by causeways.  Today, you walk from complex to complex under a jungle canopy and it can be difficult to keep oriented to how the city looked overall.  

According to our guide Noah, the population of Tikal at its peak was 80K - 100K, which would have put it on par with the largest European cities at that point in history.  (On a related note, the population of Belize during the peak of Maya civilization was reportedly 1M.  Today it is just over a quarter of that, 280K.)

Packing Lyra

Lyra has ridden everywhere this trip in an orange canvas baby carrier that works like a non-rigid backpack, holding Lyra onto Cath's back.  Unfortunately (or not) the back pack does not fit me, so when I carry Lyra she rides on my shoulders.   


Tikal is truly in the jungle, and we saw a lot of wildlife.  This is a Central American wild turkey, known technically as an Ocellated Turkey.

We also saw a spider monkey, howler monkeys, a young crocodile, a tarantula (which Will held), and an animal I thought was a Coatimundi, but according to Wikipedia is correctly called a Coati.  Like everywhere else in Central America, we also saw a wide variety of birds.

On the drive in from Belize, we saw a good variety of domestic animals.  Horses were very common, in almost every yard and tethered on patches of grass beside the road.  They are used for riding, and also as pack animals.  We saw many pigs (and piglets), goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys and of course mangy dogs.  We also saw many, many Brahman cattle.  Guatemala must be a significant meat producing country (one of their beers has a Brahman as a logo).

Cement Factory

Our guide Noah explained that the Maya made cement by heating limestone, then grinding it up and adding water and some other stuff (I was not listening carefully).  I believe this was one of the pits used for heating the limestone.  

(On a side note, the Greeks and Romans are really lucky so much of their building was done with granite and marble.  The Maya built with limestone which is soft and easily erodes.  I suspect huge amounts of Maya culture has been lost because the stone it was carved into literally dissolved.)

View From Temple IV

This is one of the iconic views at Tikal, looking out over the city from near the top of Temple IV.  This is such a famous view that George Lucas used it as the backdrop for a scene late in the original Star Wars movie, now known as Episode IV: A New Hope.  You can see this view as planet Yavin 4, the site of the rebel bases here.

Temple 4 is very high (a long climb up steep wooden scaffolding).  This view gives a great sense of just how big Tikal is.  The low structure to the far right in the photo is in the Plaza of the Lost World.  The very tall structure middle left is Temple III, the two structures further to the left are Temple II and Temple I.  The area of Tikal that has been excavated (really partially excavated) covers 10 square miles, the full extent of the Tikal National Park is 222 square miles.

From this location, Tikal does have a mystical feel, and in fact  woman was sitting near where I took this photo meditating.  I am not sure how Will and Eva affected her experience.  They generally do not promote calmness.  

Going Where No Hamster Has Gone Before

Will and two of his close friends have created a society based on their stuffed animals.  They have different cultural groups, religions, wars, etc.  Most of the key animals are small rodents, especially hamsters.  

These two, Twinkie and Ginger, made the trip to Guatemala to see Tikal so they could report back to their friends at home.  

Tropical Mystery

This is Cath here, posting under Bill's login. I must say that this @(#*$&(@)*$ Aperture software is not very intuitive and it is taking an unreasonable amount of time to complete a simple post. But the software and Bill's document filing system are not the tropical mystery.....

They mystery is why, aside from the creepy crawlies you see here, we really have *not* seen all that many tropical wigglies. Why? I have been to other tropical, warm and wet places and seen bugs big enough to carry off the furniture. I suppose one of the reasons I like it so much here in Belize is that it has been relatively bug-free.

The kids did find a scorpion in our cabin; we must have not shut the door all the way. I was actually not present for that and Thank Goodness for you probably would have heard the shrieking all the way back in the U.S. It must have stood still long enough for its photo op and then scurried around, just as terrified as Eva was, trying desperately not to be caught.

The tarantula picture is from Tikal. While there was no way I was going to touch it, it doesn't seem quite as horrible to me as the scorpion. The tarantula was so large it looked almost like one of the kids' toys, like a Beanie Baby. And it didn't move very fast (although I am sure it can when it wants to).

So I am not sure why, in this tropical paradise where so much is Alive, the volume of large and spectacular insect life isn't higher.  There were no scary surprises in the River Camp loo or showers, not even in the twilight hours.  But I am not complaining.  

What we have found instead, now that we are in Placencia and down by the beach, are these microscopic sand gnats.  They are teeny, you can barely see them at all but they feast upon you as soon as you go outside and you find out later just what a smorgasboard you've been.  The itching is torturous.  Unfortunately, I think these gnats have had many many generations to build up their resistant to deet and other insect repellant.  We can't tell that the bug spray is working at all.  I guess the bugs you can't see are worse than the ones you can.

Jellyfish Attack

Will has had a bit of a rough vacation in terms of minor injuries.  His worst experience came within a couple of hours of checking in at Robert's Grove.  Will and I were swimming in the ocean, and all of a sudden he was running up to the beach screaming like he was on fire, which I guess in  sense he was.  He had just had his first run in with a jellyfish.  

His arm had red swollen welts which he, unfortunately, spread to his belly when he drew his arm tight in an effort to stop the pain.  Poor guy looked like he'd been flogged with a cat o' nine tails.

Will said it felt like he'd stuck his arm in an electric socket.  This photo was taken about an hour later, after some of the swelling went down.  We gave Will a Benadryl, and it seemed like the pain went away after about ninety minutes, and Will was fine the next morning.  

Fortunately we were told that jellyfish are uncommon here, and we have had lots more swimming without further incident.

Snorkeling Trip

Yesterday morning I did a half day snorkeling trip with Will and Eva.  We only went about 30min from Placencia, not all the way out to the barrier reef which is 20+ miles off shore.  

I am very glad this was only a half day trip, and it appeared at first it might turn into a disaster.  Neither Will nor Eva had snorkeled before, and Eva is not a strong swimmer, a fact she is in denial about.  Our guide Bernard was not helpful, more of a taxi driver, not offering much in the way of snorkeling guidance.  

We were snorkeling off the boat, and the first place we dropped anchor had decent sized swells.  Eva could not get the hang of clearing her snorkel, or keeping water from getting inside the mask (and of course she blamed the equipment).  She also struggled to tread water in the chop, making it much harder for her to adjust her gear.  I could not take my eyes off her because I was afraid she would drown, and of course Will just took the opportunity to critique her swimming.  After the second time I had to drag her back to the boat I told her she could not get in the water without a life preserver.

Eva did not react well.  She is stubborn and prideful, and the thought of having to wear a life preserver when her brother did not was far worse than any fear of drowning (8 years olds apparently being immortal).  Fortunately we did not stay in that spot long, and went next to a small island for some shell collecting which Eva and Will loved.

Eva eventually accepted 'trying' the life preserver (she was concerned that she would not be able to get her mask in the water with it on).   The life preserver worked well, and I could snorkel without worrying about Eva.  We saw a ray, many angel fish, numerous varieties of coral, starfish etc.  Both kids said snorkeling was a high point of the vacation.  Of course Eva continued to complain that the life preserver prevented her from diving below the water (which was about 10 feet deep), but she was able to see just about everything from the surface, and she did not drown.  We stayed in the water close to an hour, and everyone was exhausted afterwards.

Cath - I am SO GLAD I wasn't around for this.  Lyra and I spent time wandering around Placencia and eating gelato at a place run by a real live Italian woman far from home.  More on that with photos after I get home and can use my PC to look at the photos on my camera.

Channeling His Inner Dog

On the boat ride out to the snorkeling spot, Will played the dog hanging its head out the window of a speeding car.  He went so far as to droop his tongue out as well, but that did not make an attractive photo.