28.10.13

There and Back Again

So in just one year, I've traveled to 8 different countries.
Oh yes, 8 in one year, and 6 of them on separate trips.
Prior to last year, I had never been out of the states.
Passport: 1, Taylor: also 1
Last week I added my most recent two countries: Belize and Guatemala.
Holy cow, what a trip.
A year ago I was in Italy, and for that trip we literally planned nothing except our hostel for the first night. We just up and went. You can read about my Italy trip here if you're interested. Or just go look at the pretty pictures.
Our Central America trip on the other hand, we put a bit more planning into. We booked our hotels for every night we were going to be there - 7 nights and 8 days - but none of the transportation. We didn't even bring a map, so... we were relying solely on the kindness of strangers for our transportation and directions.
Also local buses and taxis.
Our rough itinerary went as such:
Day 1: Belize City, Belize
Days 2-3: San Ignacio, Belize (jungle)
Day 4: Cave tubing/traveling, Belize/Guatemala (jungle)
Day 5: Tikal, Guatemala (jungle)
Days 6-8: Placencia, Belize (beach)
I made a (very rough) map of our travels, with each of the places we stopped at. Belize is a very small country, and took at most about 4 hours to get from one side to the other by bus.


Before I show any photos, I want to give a disclaimer: my camera broke. 
Yes, my beautiful Canon my father gave me for Christmas broke, and I have no clue why. I won't be able to have him look at it until I get back to Washington in two weeks.
So, all my photos were taken on either my iPhone or an old, malfunctioning waterproof camera. The latter which I only brought for our swimming, but ended up documenting some (blurry) photos of nearly our whole trip.
So, what I'm saying is, don't expect the best photos out of me for this trip. You won't be getting them.

Anyways, back to the story. Belize. Day 1. We landed around 4:00pm in Belize City - the capitol (the old capitol, I'm told?) of Belize. 
Belize City is located right along the coast, and I was expecting it to be decently large and have some pretty beaches.
You know what they say about making assumptions, right? Yeah. I was wrong.
Belize city - as I had been warned - is no where near the nicest city in Belize. In fact, it is very old and poor, with no downtown area as far as I could tell, and lots of decrepit buildings and old cars. There are no large sky-scraper type buildings, stores, or new buildings. In some ways, Belize City reminded me of some nicer parts of Egypt.
So landing there, I was a bit disheartened. We planned just to stay the night there the first night since we had 3-4 hours to travel to our nice hotel, and we hadn't made any plans. We ended up just walking to a small little grocery store, buying a giant tub of ice cream, and eating it in our (super hot) hotel room. 

The sunset looking out the back deck of our hotel onto the river; you can see what all the buildings look like here - sunbleached, and very old. The colors of the sky were gorgeous though.
The next day we woke up early (6am to the sound of church bells across the river, to be precise) and went searching for the bus station. We found an 'express' bus - one that doesn't stop for people on the road - to take us to San Ignacio, the location of our second hotel. The bus ticket cost $4.50 USD apiece, and it took us about 3.5 hours to make it to San Ignacio from Belize city. The public buses used are super old school buses, so I felt like I was back in middle school. 
But this time with a boyfriend (finally, haha).

Our hotel in San Ignacio is the most highly ranked on TripAdvisor for all of Belize - The Black Rock Lodge. I was excited, but didn't really know what to expect. It is located about 7 miles into the jungle up a dirt road, about 40 minutes away from San Ignacio. It cost $40 one-way to take a taxi there because of the treacherous road you have to take to get there. Ouch; that's almost as much as it cost to stay at the hotel for a single night!

We got there in mid-afternoon, and arrived at an open-air reception hall with a huge deck with this view:

Wow. Seriously though.
They took our bags, handed us drinks, and promptly began telling us about the (dozens) of insanely awesome adventures you can go on via their hotel.
What you can't see in this photo is that at the base of the jungle is the Macal river, which they have swimming and tubing access to.
We opted to go swimming that night (after a huge rainstorm), and weren't disappointed. We were the only ones there, the birds and monkeys were incredibly loud, and I felt like I was actually in the jungle.
Which, you know, I was. But still. It was just surreal.
The calm waters at the swimming area, at the base of the ridge under the hotel. This is the black rock which I presume the hotel is named after. It was really cool because there was a bunch of fog up near the top of the ridge; totally picturesque.

We got back for dinner which they serve family style - it was seriously good. A three course meal of food I would have enjoyed anywhere in the world. We went and spoke to one of the hotel managers after that, and booked the adventure we had settled on: A horseback ride through the jungle to a Mayan ruin site. We would leave promptly the next morning at 8:00am for the 4 hour trip.

Our horses- Zachariah and Joshua - for our trip through the jungle. This is just the start of the trail, so you can't really see the jungle part yet. It was pretty fantastic.
Xunantunich (pronounced zoo-nan-too-nich), the Mayan ruins we rode to. The hotel workers told us it wasn't too great, so I was expecting a pile of rubble and barely recognizable ruins - not this massive temple we stumbled upon. It was beautiful!
We climbed to the top, and I was terrified! It was so high! I settled for sitting near these rocks at the center of the temple while Phil went crazy running around near the edges. 
The view from the top of the temple! You can see Guatemala from here - crazy! You can see the other smaller ruins on the site grounds as well. It was a fantastic site.
Phil killed me with this one. I'm quaking in fear as far from the edges as I can place myself, and here he is dangling his legs off the edge like it's no big deal. If I could have gotten close enough, I would have punched him. It made for a cool picture at least.
Looking along the backside of the ruins, you can see some beautiful carvings at the top of the temple. I'm not sure if these were re-done in the recent past or not, but regardless, they are a good example of typical Mayan sculpture. 

There was one other couple that came with us on the horseback ride/ruins adventure with us, so we spent a lot of time talking and getting to know each other. They were also from the states, and the guy is originally from Argentina. She was meeting him for a week long vacation in Belize while he was on his way on a road trip from Florida to Argentina. I was seriously jealous.
So we kept talking and asking about what there plans were, and we asked what they were doing the next day.
His response: "Oh, well I'm dropping her off at the airport, but then I'm travelling to Tikal in Guatemala."
Us: "Oh crazy! We're going to Tikal tomorrow too."
Him: "Oh nice - do you guys want a ride?"
jkfleajfda;jfkdlsjfldksjfldskjeiowur0w9rufjikljpjdfs YES
We had been worried about how we were going to cross the border and manage to pay for the (likely) expensive travel. This was such an answer to prayer - so crazy!
We got back to the hotel, and decided to try out the river tubing the hotel has to offer. It was just the four of us, so it felt super local and awesome.
We hiked about half an hour through the jungle to get to the drop-off site, and then it would take another half an hour to make our way back to the hotel.
There are four rapids along the course, with the largest set being at the base of the lodge.
The hotel has an ongoing bet placed that anyone who makes it over the last set of rapids - the most difficult - without falling off, gets a free drink on the house.
We all set out with the goal of making it over.
Only two did.
Me and the other girl. Ha!
Although in all honesty, the only reason Phil fell off is because he was helping me to stay afloat. What a gentleman ;)



As we were floating we were talking to the couple more. They told us they had gone cave tubing - inner-tubing through a cave system with headlamps - the day before in another part of Belize. Phil and I had been hoping to do that, but we couldn't find a tour company that would take us for less than $100 a person.
Them: "Oh, you can just show up and pay $25 each for a local to take you through the caves. Do you guys want to go? We can just drop you off on our way to the airport, and then pick you back up afterwards and go to Guatemala."
SERIOUSLY.
People are so amazing. This is a perfect example of why I love travelling and getting to know people along the way, locals or other tourists, it doesn't matter. You make some awesome connections all over the world, and are even given some great adventure opportunities along the way.
So, we left early the next morning, were dropped off at cave tubing, and then went on our way to Tikal. So so perfect.

You had to hike through the jungle about thirty minutes to get to the caves. On the way, we spotted this wild tarantula. Now, I'm not afraid of spiders, so it was super impressive for me to see. The body alone was six inches across - absolutely massive. 
This is the entrance to the caves. The water is the most stunning shade of blue! The people pictured just finished rappelling down the cliff side, but we had the inside of the caves to ourselves. 
The inside of the caves are pitch black; Phil, our guide, and myself each had a headlamp as our sole light source for the trip. The caves were pretty impressive though. At one point we turned off all our headlamps, and you can't see anything. It was so surreal floating and not knowing where you were, not even being able to see your own hand in front of your face. 
I was practically my own light source. 
Floating through the caves took about an hour, and then our ride picked us up. We headed out for Tikal! For those of you who don't know, Tikal is the largest Mayan ruin site in the world, home to the tallest Mayan temple. It is one of 36 lost cities in the world, and wasn't rediscovered until the early 1900's. You can read more about its history here.
Or, you might recognize Tikal from here:



We stayed at the only hotel in the park, and then woke up at 4:00am to climb the tallest temple and watch the sunrise over the jungle. Pretty crazy. (The view we saw is the one pictured in the above Star Wars clip).

So, bad luck, there was a ton of fog. So you couldn't see the jungle. Or the sunrise. But, you could still hear everything, including howler monkeys and toucans. It was still an amazing trip. Plus, we went on Phil's birthday (happy belated birthday love!) so he got a pretty sweet birthday celebration out of the deal.
As we were sitting at the top of the temple (220 feet high), this little guy fell on my head! I may or may not have squealed when it happened... 

This is the Temple III - it's not even the largest temple, but it is the most exposed. 



The Temple V - one of the unexposed temples. Having been there, I can totally understand how this place was undiscovered for hundreds of years after having been abandoned. 
 After Tikal, we made a long trip back to Belize, and on to our final destination: Placencia. Placencia is a tiny little village on a peninsula at the southeastern side of the country, and is pretty much tourist free. It has stunning beaches and superb snorkeling. We met another amazing couple there who went on a snorkeling trip with us, and hung out with us for most of our stay there. At this point though, my camera broke, so I don't have many photos to share.

This is the beach access from our hotel. The beach was totally empty - maybe five people at most on the beach at one time. The water was incredibly warm and clear, and was perfect for a day of swimming and relaxing.



Our second day in Placencia, we hired a local company to take us out for a full day of snorkeling. We took a boat over an hour away from the coast, and landed on this teeny tiny little island. The colors were incredible, and we saw so many little creatures. So so cool.
Shortly after this, my camera died. So I don't have any photos to document, buuuut - I saw some crazy stuff. Two giant sea turtles, about a dozen stingrays and eagle rays, and a nurse shark. YEP. A real nurse shark, about five feet across. I may have screamed a bit into my snorkel.. We also swam with massive schools of fish, swam through a minefield of tiny jellyfish, and saw some super brightly colored little fish that are only kept in aquariums where I live. 
Our last day in Placencia we woke up early, and left for the airport via water taxi and bus. It was a very very long day of traveling, and by the end of it we were absolutely exhausted.

Pretty safe to say, this was an incredible trip. I'm not sure I could have changed much to make it better. Only problem now is... I want to keep traveling.

I'm back in DC post Central America for two weeks of hanging out with Phil. We don't have quite as many adventures planned for here - we're mainly in recovery mode. But I'm so happy I got to take this trip, and I'm already on my way to planning the next one!
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