Feb 16th

Wow, we did so much today. We ended up visiting three different Mayan sites, plus driving all the way to Crooked Tree reserve.

Our original plan was to first visit the Belize Botanical gardens, but after driving about 4 miles on a dirt road, we came to a big hill. Hmm - I was sure we could get down the hill in our little rental car, but could we get back up again on that bumpy dirt road? We decided to skip the Botanical Garden and made Xunantunich our first stop. We arrived at Xunantunich so early that we got there before the official who opens the admission gate (he was on the same river ferry that we took, except he was going to walk up the road to the front gate. We gave him a ride to his office so he could open Xunantunich for us.)

We had just started exploring the first structure in Xunantunich when a guy came up to us and offered to give us a guided tour for $25. Since he had keys to the building where the stela are stored, I figured he was really an offical part of Xunantunich rather than just a local playing a joke on the gringos. So we accept him as our guide, and he led us all around the site. He said he had worked with the excavators on Xunantunich for over 30 years. Most of what he said sounded authentic, but I wonder about his claim that the Mayans deliberately filled in their buildings before abandoning their city. I always had the impression that the society had simply collapsed (due to drought? Invasion? Rebellion?), so there wouldn't have been time for such organized in filling.

Because we arrived so early, Xunantunich was cloaked in fog when we started. You couldn't see temples that stood on the other side of the plazas. I have a few photos of the foggy conditions and then pictures taken from the same spot after the sun had burned off all the fog.

The giant structure of El Castillo makes visiting Xunantunich a prime destination. This is a huge temple that looms over the south end of the site. Best of all, tourists are still allowed to climb all the way to the top. On top of El Castillo you can easily see miles over the jungle in all directions, including west into Guatemala, which is less than a mile away.

Because our guide knew the site so well, he led us to the residences beyond the main acropolis, and he also showed us where the Mayans had quarried the limestone that they used to construct their temples. He turned out to be a worthwhile guide.

After Xunantunich, we drove back to San Ignacio. The Mayan city of Cahal Pech is located on the south end of the city. We couldn't find any signs, so we had to ask at a couple gas stations before we found the dusty road up a hill that leads to the site. Moon Handbook says Cahal Pech is just a 20 minute walk from downtown San Ignacio, but it would be uphill all the way and there don't appear to be any signs to show the way.

Cahal Pech is much smaller than Xunantunich, but is still well worth visiting. It is located high above the present site of San Ignacio, presumably the elevated location above the river was a symbol of authority (closer to the gods in the sky) and besides, it was probably cooler. Because it isn't famous, there were only a few other tourists at this site while we were visiting. Despite the compactness of Cahal Pech, there is still a lot of rooms to explore. And of course we climbed up to the top of the tallest structure.

After Cahal Pech, we drove over to the Green Iguana Conservation Project. Unfortunately, we were told that another 45 minute tour had already begun, so we would have to wait for it to end. Plus, there was only one man who gives the iguana tours, and he had not had a lunch break yet - it was 2 PM - so we would have to wait another hour after that for him to eat his lunch. We had reservations that night in Crooked Tree, which is a two hour drive from San Ignacio, and I did not want to drive in the dark (which turned out to be a good idea considering the state of the Crooked Tree roads - more on that in a minute). In hindsight, we probably should have waited to do the Iguana tour, because Melanie really wanted to see the big lizards. But I decided that we could instead try to visit Altun Ha that afternoon rather than just sitting in our car.

It took us about two hours to reach Altun Ha. We drove all the way across the country, from west to east, and then took the old Northern Highway to Altun Ha. The old Northern Highway was the original road north from Belize City, but it has been replaced by the modern highway and now it is in disrepair. It is a dirt road for a few miles, and there are ruts to slow you down. In many places it is just one lane wide, but it is easily driven in just a rental car.

We got to Altun Ha about an hour before it closed. Because the site isn't that large, an hour was ample time to explore both plazas. The most impressive building is the Sun God Temple, which has been nicely restored. Of course we climbed to the top of each of the temples

The sun was setting when we reached the turn off from the main highway to Crooked Tree. The road to the peninsula is a bumpy dirt road that turns into a causeway that crosses the lake. Unfortunately, Crooked Tree was recovering from recent flooding, and there was water flowing over the causeway. How deep was it? I couldn't tell in the bad light. I wished we could see another vehicle coming in the other direction so I could judge how deep the water was. But there weren't any signs saying impassable....so we crawled forward. I was afraid water would splash up into the engine compartment and stall the car, and then we would be stranded in knee deep(?) water as darkness fell. It took us half an hour to inch across the causeway, and it was dark by the time we reached Bird's Eye Lodge. If there are signing pointing the direction to the Lodge, we couldn't see them. We ended up stopping at a few houses and asking directions. So I was agitated by the time we finally reached the lodge.

The lady at the Bird's Eye Lodge reception was chatting with two other tourists when we walked in. She told them just a week previously the causeway was under 7 feet of water, and that they had used boats to get back and forth to the mainland. Indeed, there had been a boat collision that killed a teenager and injured three children. Holy smokes! There was chance of rain in the forecast, and I could just imagine the flood waters rising again, stranding us at Crooked Tree. She told us that the government had claimed to have made $2.5 million in improvements on the causeway, but no changes were visible. I decided that if I heard it start to rain that night we would just leave and get out before the waters rose. I think Crooked Tree was the biggest disappointment of our Belize Trip, but we didn't really spend enough time there to give it a fair assessment.

Here are maps for each of the sites we saw. The first map is Xunantunich

This is the map of Cahal Pech

The map of Altun Ha

Single click on any thumbnail to open photo in new window. (You don't need to close the previous photo to click a new thumbnail.) Place your cursor over any thumbnail to see the picture title.

Xunantunich Photos

Cahal Pech Photos

Altun Ha Photos