Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dreaming of Placencia from rainy Vancouver

Now that I’m back in rainy Vancouver where the clouds don’t break for days at a time, it’s hard to believe that not long ago I was here:

We had such varied experiences during our tour of Central America that it’s hard to pick a favourite spot or activity, but Placencia, Belize is certainly among the finalists.

The little village of Placencia is located on a peninsula about three quarters down the coast of Belize on the Caribbean Sea (a 15-minute boat ride from Independence).

To reach Placencia from Honduras, we caught a boat from Puerto Cortes. Actually, this was the one point of our journey that was not at all flexible since the boat only travelled in this direction once a week. The D-Express was much smaller than we imagined and crammed inside with our luggage wearing the life jackets they had given us, it wasn’t a pleasant ride. The destination, however, was worth it.

 The little town had a laid-back Caribbean feel to it and seemed to retain its natural charm while being very tourist-friendly. I even preferred it to the lovely island of Roatan, Honduras, which we had visited the week before.

We stayed in an inexpensive guesthouse called Deb and Dave’s Last Resort, which was clean and comfortable and only a two-minute walk from the beach.
Actually, you can walk anywhere in the town within a few minutes. Placencia basically has the main road and then a paved footpath running parallel to the road called The Sidewalk. Anything you need can be accessed by one of the two and there are brightly coloured markers everywhere that point you in the right direction.

There isn’t much else to do in Placencia besides spend time on the beach or visit the restaurants or bars, but it felt great just to relax. We even indulged ourselves and got pedicures, which we convinced each other that we needed after wearing our sandals for almost three weeks.

The one disappointment was that because it was low season, many of the recommended restaurants were closed. We didn’t even get to try the gelato that was apparently the best in Belize. (Actually, it seemed to be nearly impossible to find ice cream anywhere in Central America.) But we did try some nice Creole dishes and I managed to find some yummy papaya smoothies – my new favourite.

After a short stop in this tropical paradise we boarded the Hokey Pokey Water Taxi to the mainland and continued our journey. Of all the places we visited, I wish I could have spent more time there, especially now as winter approaches.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jade and Chocolate

It has been extremely interesting to learn about the Mayan civilization. Their history of human sacrifice aside, the Mayans used cacao (cocoa) as money, drank chocolate during their wedding ceremonies and viewed Jade as their most precious stone, and these are things I can get behind.

We got our first taste of Mayan architecture in Copan, Honduras. This site in western Honduras, not far from the Guatemala border, is considered one of the most impressive of all Mayan sites, not because of its size, but its legacy of craftsmanship.

We entered the site through the west court of the Acropolis and the sight of the stone temples, hidden behind the trees only a moment before, was rather breathtaking.

I’m normally quite a miser, but I happily paid the extra cash to get a guided tour of the site and it was worth it to have our own guide so that we could ask questions throughout the tour. I even paid the $15 extra to tour the tunnels, which allowed us to view the temples that have been discovered underneath the ones visible from the outside. (Apparently each new ruler would build bigger temples than the last ruler. Sometimes they would destroy the old temples and other times they built over top.)

We also learned about the Mayan ball game. Though it has been hard to decipher the rules, many archaeologists believe that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed at the end of the game — an honour to enter the afterlife.

These ancient sites are a history-lover’s playground and it was amazing to explore the site at our leisure after the tour and climb to the top of the temples that were open for climbing.

Closer to the tail end of adventure we also visited Tikal in Guatemala — a site that our guide book describes as possibly the most renowned of all Mayan ruins. Tikal includes several giant temple pyramids, the largest of which rises to 64 metres above the forest floor. Thousands of other buildings dot the landscape, many still covered by trees, roots and earth.

We had read that it was possible to book a sunrise tour and watch the sunrise from the top of the temples. So we booked a tour and were ready by 4:30 a.m. for our shuttle. In fact, the shuttle didn’t arrive until just before 5 a.m.

I hear in Guatemala you have to add half an hour to all time estimates and this is all very well, except that the sun doesn’t follow these rules. The sun rose as we travelled the hour journey to the park and it was light by the time we arrived. It didn’t seem like any other groups made it earlier and the park only opens at 6 a.m., so I guess it was just a case of false advertising.

Otherwise, the tour of was great. Our guide showed us the ruins and shared facts about the flora and fauna. He picked up a big, black tarantula and pointed out monkeys and a poisonous snake.

The temples were impressive and we climbed three or four including Temple IV, the highest in the Mayan world. It was also neat to see the temples that have not been uncovered yet. I would easily have mistaken them for hills covered in plants and trees.

I’ve always secretly wanted to be an archaeologist and exploring the ruins only renewed that desire. I’m just not sure I could handle working alongside the tarantulas and poisonous snakes we encountered in the jungle. So, for now, I’ll keep the Mayan culture alive by indulging in their favourite treat — chocolate.

Overlooking one of the courts in Copan.
The Lonely Planet apparently published the same jumping photo. (Tikal)
One of the temples in Tikal.