Tuesday, August 02, 2011

San Ignacio, Belize

We arrived at the Table Rock Jungle Lodge in mid-afternoon, so we were a bit disappointed to find that they didn't have a/c. (I guess none of the jungle lodges in the area do.) I guess it wouldn't have made much sense anyway, as our rooms were located in thatched cottages which were not airtight.

The couple who ran the place, Chris and Jen, showed us around; there were only about ten cottages, plus a main lounge/dining area, but the property itself was gigantic, with acres of fruit trees. They were also very serious about sustainability; we were given instructions on water and electricity usage, as the lodge generated most of its own power and used mostly purified rain water.

As it was still quite hot out, I chose to read in the hammock area, but several in our group decided to go fruit picking, and came back with a substantial haul of mangoes, oranges, and even some coconuts.

Afterwards, they went swimming to rinse off. The lodge is located on the banks of the Macal River, so it was only a short walk, and we discovered there were canoes available as well.

There were several resident dogs at the Table Rock, and they had a great time swimming with us as well.

Our first night's dinner at the Table Rock was amazing. Chris was the chef, and he served up a papaya salad, followed by delicious pork chops. Dessert had to be ordered separately, but after tasting the entrees we decided we had to try them. I liked the coconut flan very much, but I hear the cheesecake was good too.

After dinner we sat around playing board games for awhile, but we went to bed pretty early since we had to be up early the next morning.

The next day we had a tour booked with Pacz Tours to go to the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. It was quite expensive at 100 USD per person (normally 80 USD but with an extra 20 USD surcharge because of our "inconvenient" location), but nearly half the cost was the entrance fee, and they did supply us with lunch, so I guess it wasn't really so bad. It was certainly much more expensive than any of our Guatemala excursions, though.

We were picked up around 7:45am, but drove around San Ignacio for awhile getting our lunch and such. The drive from San Ignacio was over an hour as well, so by the time we got out of the van, it was nearly 10am. We hiked for about 45 minutes, fording the river three times, before we reached the entrance. There, we stopped and ate some of our lunch food as a quick snack before proceeding.

We were all wearing mostly swim gear, but we were instructed to fold our T-shirts up and put them into our helmets, so they wouldn't get wet. We were also given headlamps, and then we jumped into water about neck deep (or maybe chest deep for the taller people) in order to get inside. From there it was about an hour and a half of walking/wading/swimming through the cave, to reach the dry area with most of the Mayan artifacts. There were several areas where it was a pretty tight squeeze; at one point we even had to turn our heads sideways so that our necks would fit between the rocks on the two sides! I'm really not sure how a large person would be able to make it.

Once we got to the dry area, we were instructed to take off our shoes and put on our socks. We were then led through several areas where there were ancient Mayan artifacts just lying all over the floor. Orange lines were drawn on the floor to keep us from stepping on them, but otherwise there were no other barriers.

There were some places where we had to climb up rocks and ladders which were quite tricky and even a little scary for those who were afraid of heights, but we made it through with no mishaps.

Near the end, our guide pointed out some skulls which were the remains of human sacrifices, and finally the famous "crystal maiden", a young girl whose skeleton was almost entirely intact.

It was all a bit eerie but very cool. After taking lots of pictures, we turned around and headed back. For some reason, everything went much faster on the way back, and we exited the cave a little bit after 1pm. We were all pretty hungry so lunch disappeared quickly, and then we did the short hike back to the van.

When we got back to San Ignacio, we stopped at the main Pacz office to pay our tour fees. The guide seemed a bit surprised at the amount (he seemed to think it was low) but the guy in the main office verified our arrangement and rang us up. Next door, there was a homemade ice cream place, so we got some dessert for the bumpy ride home.

Overall I would say we all enjoyed the cave tour very much, but I'm not sure if that was because of our guide or in spite of him. He seemed to like the sound of his own voice a lot, and was very repetitive, but in the end I guess he got us where we wanted to go.

That afternoon we did a bit more exploration on the Table Rock property, and discovered a neighboring lychee farm! The lychees were delicious; just as good as in Taiwan.

For dinner, Chris served us another fabulous meal. The starter was a chilled melon and cilantro soup, and then we had roast chicken as the entree. The chicken was good but not as amazing as the previous day's pork chops. For dessert we had peanut butter pie (yum!). After dinner, Chris and Jen let us play games in the dining room until we were tired.

The next day, we had a nice leisurely breakfast; Chris made pancakes and french toast, and there were lots of fresh fruits as well.

We weren't scheduled to be picked up until 1pm, so we spent the rest of the morning canoeing and mountain biking (yes, the lodge even had bikes), before returning to our rooms to shower, change, and pack. Once we were ready to go, we returned to the dining area for lunch, where we had giant chicken and cheese quesadillas. They were much too large to finish (I think I ate 1/3 of mine) so we took quite a bit to go.

Our driver, William Hofman, arrived promptly at 1pm. He was quite a character; during the entire drive from San Ignacio to Belize City, he regaled us with stories about his own life, Belizean life, and more. I was napping on and off, but here are a few choice tidbits that I do remember:
- The police in Belize are armed, but their guns are old and crappy, and the Mafia has much better guns.
- The women in Belize are mostly out to find men that will give them money. As a result, they'll sleep with anyone and everyone.
- There are TV stations in Belize where movies are shown a day after US release. It's unclear how legal they are, but the police don't care.
He also had an unhealthy obsession with the Fast and the Furious series, so we got to hear a lot about how many times he'd already watched Fast Five.

We'd planned to take the 4pm water taxi, but we arrived early, just as the 3pm was about to leave, so with some mad scrambling we were able to get on the earlier boat. The ride itself was pretty uncomfortable; hot and crowded, but only 10 USD per person for an hour-long ride. After we disembarked, it was only a few blocks walk to our hotel, the Caye Caulker Plaza Hotel. Despite the name, it was relatively simple, but had awesome a/c, which was pretty much all I cared about at that point.

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