The forest steals the show!

A day off in San Ignacio entails a 7am start (to avoid midday heat) to cycle south of town through the rain forest on a minor road. It was beautiful to see such verdant forest: peaceful, and at that time of the morning, lots of birdsong.  40% of Belize is protected from development – impressive – but being a developing country, the government is tied into bilateral deals with developed countries, for example a Canadian HEP scheme. Residents must buy their energy from the government, and to protect their deal the government makes it illegal to add solar panels to one’s property in an urban area.

What comes after a good bike ride? A huge brunch! On a veranda watching a storm approach. No sunshine??? The rain persisted throughout the day and into the night, at least 2”. Instant soaked to the skin rain returning to our hotel. We were hailed from the street to join a Garifuna Settlement day party: mostly drumming and dancing and I really enjoyed paper folding and chatting with a dozen bubbly children. One talented boy, maybe only 8 years old, couldn’t leave my hair alone, twisting it into creative styles. I’ve tried to replicate them, no chance of success.

 

At least this morning it was cool and cloudy as we pedalled away at 6am. By 8 we were across the border and into Guatemala. Sometimes I wonder why we are doing this, especially when we are carrying panniers up yet another steep hill. But then the rhythm of cycling kicks in, and there’s always something new to look at, new to learn. It is an adventure. Since our visit to Portugal in September we try to finish cycling by 2pm, then rest and explore. It is 4.15 now, Charles is wandering by the lake, and I’m on another veranda, swinging gently in a hammock, tin mug of tea beside me, and dense foliage in front with hummingbirds darting between flower heads.

 

 

 

 

 

Very impressed with Guatemalan roads- empty and new, except for a few Kms of mud.

Guatemala is complicated. The Mayans are the indigenous people, but they were already abandoning their lowland temples (deforestation, drought, disease, famine? ) when the Spanish arrived. Eventually the Spaniards conquered all of the tribes, sometimes using one tribe to fight another. The last independent tribes lived here in Flores near Tikal. By the time independence came in 1821 society was already divided into an Hispanic elite and an indigenous lower class with a powerful controlling church. After numerous failed uprisings (aided by anti-communist covert CIA operations) the country sank into 36 years of civil war. 200,000 Guatemalans died, millions were made homeless and thousands ‘ disappeared’. And if that wasn’t enough, natural disasters, for example an earthquake that killed 22,000 in 1976 compounded the high death toll. It is brutal, appalling, and makes me very angry.

In 1996 a peace agreement was signed between the guerrilla groups and government – resettlement of refugees, the return of guerrillas to normal life, and at last, accountability for armed forces’ violations.

But society continues to be unequal – 70% of arable land is owned by less than 3% of the people, or as a Guatemalan told us “ Guatemala is owned by seven families”.

Phew! I’ve read so much my head is spinning! There are too many leaders to name, but in an echo of India and Cambodia where corruption is rife, Perez Molina was elected as President in 2012, yet he was the army general in charge of the region where the worst atrocities of the civil war were committed. The people believe it takes a criminal to get things done. But he didn’t, and is now in prison facing impeachment.

The current president is Jimmy Morales, formerly a television comic. And I cannot read any more: he and his family are facing corruption charges…

Yet the people here are truly lovely: kind, helpful, polite, despite widespread poverty. Perhaps when there are no expectations of wealth or good governance, your family and community is your life….. We drank tea at a roadside cafe yesterday, an open fire, barely four walls and a tin roof, a nice woman with seven well-dressed affectionate children: it reminded me of my own sheltered childhood, a happy easy of its time bubble. But what is their future, particularly for those girls, a life of severe hardship and drudgery.

This is the oldest temple at Tikal, 700BC. And I am the only person to climb it! I clambered cover the barrier and scrambled up to the top, above the monkeys to take this photo. Just as I reached the bottom the workmen arrived to complete the structure, opening next month.

We are here to visit the temples at Tikal. The most striking feature of Tikal is its towering steep sided temples, but for me equally important is its rainforest setting. It’s like going to a concert but the support band steals the show!! Lots of birds and foraging mammals, silent empty tracks between sites, stunning! Shattered now after climbing so many temples and a 5.30am pick-up.

 

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It’s certainly different!

The oldest swing bridge of its kind in the world – the only attraction in ramshackle Belize city.

A triple whammy today: heat, headwind and hills, but it was interesting, incredibly green, lots of waves and smiles, and being Saturday, a few enthusiastic cycle clubs ( there are so few roads here, they nearly all ride between the old capital (Belize city) and the border with Guatemala). We planned to ride to Dangriga along the Hummingbird Highway “ the prettiest road in Belize” but tomorrow is Garifuna Settlement Day, celebrating the arrival of The Garifuna in 1832 with lots of drumming, dancing and drinking, and absolutely nowhere to sleep. Lucy, an English woman managing our hotel in Belmopan told us that yes, the road is scenic but it would be crazy busy with party people and even more accidents than usual! So we pedalled west from Belmopan to San Ignacio, instead of southwest to the coast.

Belmopan market.

The modern sculpture is a gift from Mexico – gee thanks!!

Usually I cycle behind Charles: I’ve lost count of the number of times I have looked back and he is gone! Besides he is really good at setting a steady pace, and when there’s a headwind he shelters me. But this morning he was behind, so when I braked at a rumble strip he wasn’t looking  and ran into the back of me. I think that’s the first time he has fallen off his bike! Fortunately only superficial scrapes, and the bike is fine, the biggest injury? His pride. And being a good (guilt-trip) Catholic girl at heart I apologized lol!

 

We stayed in Belmopan, the 10th smallest capital city in the world (19,458 inhabitants). I think that being so very modern made it dull: the market lacked atmosphere, and the huge central areas of parkland were empty, dividing communities rather than bringing them together.
But San Ignacio is a vibrant bustling market town nestled in the hills 25km from Guatemala. The buildings almost tumble down the hillsides, chaotic but cared for. I like it here. Maybe the rum tour helped, with a lovely friendly couple who manage our excellent hotel. Food is great, people are varied, but united by noise and banter.  We haven’t stayed anywhere like this before.

 

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Belize!!

Crossing the border into Belize was an isolating experience with its severe security: an empty 2km road in no man’s land – with enough razor wire to withstand a zombie apocalypse perhaps? And a customs officer who accepted proof of our pre-paid exit fee through BA but insisted on a second payment as we were leaving over land, not by air. A common scam, but we stood calm and firm and saved ourselves £50.

 

We heard laughter and music from this home opposite our accomodation.

Please see to arrive before the storm!

 

Corozol  is a run down border town of dilapidated shoddy buildings, and ruined roads and pavements. Only eleven buildings survived a hurricane in 1955   “ could do with another one” Charles. But it is friendly and noisy, busy with markets and people: a real wild west feel. The only other English couple were in the room next door – indefatigable Kat and her partner Glyn. She is another lady from Coventry! It’s a small world.

 

Usually crossing a border entails a transition from one population to another. Not so in Belize. Immediately we are in the Carribbean. There are less than 400,000 in the whole of Belize. Sadly the truth is that there just aren’t enough people in this country to destroy the environment. The population is dominated by four main groups: Mestizo (European/Amerindian descent), Creole, Garifuna in the south (Nigerian slave survivors of a ship wreck/Amerindian) and indigenous Mayan. Currency is the Belize dollar, sporting our Queen’s head. 25 cents is a shilling and weights are imperial.  Most speak English, with archaeic but endearing quirks such as ‘Mr. Charles, Miss Suzanne’. There is no tax on income in Belize, only on purchases, making everyday produce expensive: a kilo of peanuts for example is US$37!

Memonites catching the ferry with us: very Anne of Green Gables! I don’t know how they cope with the heat, but at least their bonnets provide shade.

Development ignores the threat of global warming, despite a storm washing away all of the wooden piers last year.

The northern road shows that the island is at sea level.

From Corozol we took the Thunderbolt (!) to San Pedro, and Jim’s Hotel del Rio, on a quiet stretch of beach. Our thatched roof cabana was spacious and cool, right in front of the central palapa with hammocks, breakfast and lovely company.  Yesterday morning our personal guide took us out to three snorkeling sites here at Hoi Chan Maine reserve (on the second largest reef in the world) and we are still giddy with pleasure! A manatee!!!! It came up for air right in front of me. So many nurse sharks, 8’plus, they skimmed against my body (a mix of shout and laughter from my snorkel!) three type of rays – the spotted eagle ray looked like it was flying! A huge old loggerhead turtle, parrot fish, eels, dense shoals of horse-eyed jacks swimming with us, a myriad of small fish darting in and out of the healthy varied coral. No photos but a visit I will treasure forever.

Sandy toes bar!

Our cabana

The rays feasted on scraps from fisherman in the shallow water in front of our hotel

Caye Caulker is a smaller island south of San Pedro – only a few golf buggies, no cars, lots of bicycles but no motorbikes, and all of the roads are packed sand. It is very chilled, no traffic, no fumes, quiet with balmy breezes!! Caye Caulker pictures are at the top of the page.

 

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Leaving Mexico (again)

Who knew I could be charmed by Mexico? Me encanta Bacalar!! We stayed in Bacalar for six nights, reluctantly cycling into Chetumal this morning, to cross the border into Belize tomorrow. The kind family-loving people, who like to laugh and dance ( we salsa’d on the jetty), the colourful spicy food, super considerate drivers….

Two years ago we cycled from Los Angeles south through desert Baja California to la Paz and then a ferry across to Los Moches. It was physically exhausting, our toughest ever ride.  A train took us up to the Copper Canyon where we hired mountain bikes. All of it was incredibly beautiful, and so interesting to meet indiginous people, but it skimmed too close to disaster. We couldn’t believe that two young surfing Aussies were shot dead in an assumed robbery 5 days after meeting them. Nor seeing three masked men with sawn off shotguns holding up a truck in front of our rural bus. Early in the afternoon!! Then there was the hotel fire that closed the town centre in Los Mochis, and a month later the gun battle in the centre of town that killed El Chapo….

When Sarah asked to join us on bikes for Christmas I knew it was too dangerous to continue in western Mexico. I had to ask myself why then were we there?? So we flew here, to Yukatan and Quintaroo where it is safe. Thank you Sarah, I think you saved us from calamity had we continued from Los Mochis. Last visit we were nervous and recovering, this time we are more relaxed, less anxious. Mexico truly is wonderful!

Some last photos of Bacalar, with Azul cenote (90m deep, eerie blackness!!). Charles enjoyed food in a vegan restaurant!!!!!! It was served with chips.

I have another never in my life to forget image. Of course it is of Charles, my 24/7 partner! We stopped at an abandoned property to have a wee. I walked further along the path to hide and turned to see Charles, mid-flow, convulsing and slapping as a swarm of mosquitoes attacked. I ran for my bike, followed by Charles and we scarpered! But that image…… forever.

Poor man – we were in bed in a grotty cabin but stunning location, under the net, when a cockroach scuttled across the bedside table ‘yuck!’ I cried flinging a bit of black bike light strap at Charles’ leg. You have never seen a man jump so high or scream so loud!! I laughed for a good 20 minutes. Charles fetched a towel and divided the bed into two halves!!

 

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Bacalor

A rainstorm – what a relief!!

Bacalar is part of Mexico’s  “Pueblos Mágicos/Magical Towns Programme” – a tourist department initiative to promote towns that offer visitors a “magical” experience because of their “natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance”, not just sun, bars  and beaches. It certainly works for us! We planned to stay for two nights but have booked for five! Bacalar means the ‘Lagoon of Seven Colours’ because of its crystal clear turquoise-blue waters

The town is quiet, very green, very clean, with small cafes and bars. It’s square, with its beautiful shady trees, attracts families out for an evening stroll. We visit San Felipe fort – built in 1729 to protect the town from pirates – and swim, and read, and chat and swim some more.. The cenotes fed lake with wooden jetties is the prettiest lake we have ever visited. It is shallow, very warm and crystal clear. An absolute delight! So our adventure has come to an early (but temporary) full stop and we are enjoying a holiday! On Saturday we return to the main road and cycle to the border with Belize.

Our public jetty with shelter.

Beautiful clear water, but by the town the are few fish

These boys loved our googles!

Sunrise from our hotel room

 

San Felipe fort

Our colourful lunch

The central Square

Did I show you the lake??!

The view from the square

This is the fort.

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Six days in Mexico

It has taken six days to finally adjust to the heat, food and time difference. This morning I slept right through to 5.30am, not woken at 3 by UK time, or itching from mosquito bites, or, during one night, several loud farts – yes, my own! Groggy sleep to instant alertness in microseconds, then relief, yes! it was just gas!

We depart at dawn for 3 hours of cool, shady cycling before temperatures reach 25 degrees and we begin to wilt. Our route south cuts through endless forest, some subsistence agriculture, and pineapple cultivation. The road is wide and quiet, with our own shoulder lane. Pairs of green parrots and dozens of butterflies and dragonflies flutter alongside but there’s little else to see. Loncherios, roughly every 40km, offer shade, a friendly family to chat with, and huevos rancherio – eggs, toms, onions, stewed black beans and corn tortillas – cooked on smokey fires.

In Tulum our host suggested a local cenote in the forest. We jumped in, climbed out, dared to jump through a narrow hole, and swam in the dark flooded cave beneath, all in a heavy downpour. Once, deep beneath, passing cave divers lit up the rocks, magical to see, but I have  absolutely no desire to join them Sarah!!  Fish nibbled us – no harm – but mosquitoes bit, even in heavy rain. Few mosquitoes anywhere else, just in the forest, and we are suffering. I cover itchy bites with small round plasters until the bites calm. It works, but now my legs have a reverse polka dot tan!

Away from the coast, we stayed in a Mayan working town called Felipe Carrillo. We like to meet local working people, eat local food – here bursting with a variety of very hot chillis. Google maps showed us a great place to eat in Tulum. In Felipe, 5* took us to a (live) music and dancing hall but as we approached the bar, I realised that the customers  were male and the ladies were grinning at me – this was a brothel! An ignoble shuffle to the exit.

Tonight we are staying in an eco-resort (Airbnb) 3km down a dirt track through forest to the edge of a lake. The lake is beautiful. Our own creaky jetty (to match our creaky knees), two deck chairs and utter tranquility! Again there are green parrots, storks and eagles, insects galore, and the gentle sound of water lapping the shore. We swim with fish in the crystal clear warm water, then read for a while…. then repeat. There are no other guests and even the owners are absent: they said popping into town would take them least four hours, seven hours ago! Charles thinks they have scarpered to their neighbour’s after I mentioned that we met an old German on the main road buying 3 litres of spirits for his cocktails. Turns out he is Fritz and he lives nearby.

As dusk settles on the jetty the forest shade becomes complete darkness.  It is rare not to see any man-made constructions, not even lights! Not that we wouldn’t appreciate a few lights in our cabin right now! Only two small solar panels provide electricity so by bedtime we have no lights, or power to pump any water – no shower (it’s a hosepipe) no toilet flush. The owners have returned, pissed and arguing so we finish our Scrabble and sit out on the jetty; the full moon reflected on the water, the sky bright with stars. It is remarkable and compensates for the crappy room with inadequate services. No cocktails for us but cockroaches galore. Good job we brought our own food and water.

Remarkably we both slept soundly and enjoyed our cereal breakfast with sunrise over the completely calm lake, only a few bird sounds, even the forest sleeps this morning. Imagine rowing across the lake every morning instead of in our spare bedroom on a machine!

There is a community of Mennonites here, similar to/related to the Amish. They live a very traditional life with very strict religious views. Like the Amish, Mennonites reject many forms of modern technology, and isolate themselves from outsiders. It tickled Charles to see one husband enter a petrol station for fuel “in his basket”, it was a plastic container. The women wear heavy long sleeved dresses, the men in braces, and their skin is strikingly white.

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A room without a view!

The scariest Day of the Dead costume: originally this was a summer festival but changed to Oct 31st to coincide with Spanish Christian All Saints.

All family members participate in the public holiday party.

We missed the parade on Saturday night, but on 31st the centre of town buzzed with costumed crowds.

The sea is warm, beaches are beautiful, but Plays del Carmen is a party town with booming club music from all the hotels.

So great to be comfortable in shorts after India.

Carvello cenote: dare you jump into black hole barely 2 feet across?

Blast! Charles did it so I felt obliged. A smile of relief, not pleasure!

The wide entrance was easier, with a ladder to climb out. We were there during a downpour – wonderful warm rain on bare skin- but the mosquitoes were dreadful, and the tiny fish in the water nibbled our backs. Interesting and fun…honest. Deep below us shone cave river torches. Now that was scary: how did you ever drive the put Sarah?

This is our room without a view in Tulum, a noisy Mexican neighborhood, very friendly, interesting bird calls, including one that mimics a wolf whistle!!

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Sintra – into the hills by train.

Monkeying around at the monastery!!! Interesting art work, probably after the monks when the monastery became a palace.

The 19th-century Pena National Palace, is over 400m high on a hilltop, whimsical, with sweeping views to the sea

Fossil train station!

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Lisbon.

Time Out eating hall: delicious food and a great place to meet Portuguese families and people from all over the world

Commercial square

Aeroplanes fly over and the motorway/ train bridge roars from above.

Erected in the honor of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator in 1960 to commemorate Portugal’s many famous explorers and adventurers, or enslavers and conquerers!

16th-century Belem tower

Volvo racing yachts in the harbour.

This is the beautiful “Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown” building where the river Tagus meets the Atlantic, used for science, medicine and technology research

A 440 year old olive tree!

Jeronimos monastery from the modern art gallery.

The gallery is stunning, cut but not polished marble.

Lisbon cathedral

Outside the cathedral.

Planes, trains, automobiles….. and bikes, cruise ships, yachts…… it’s all there in one photo. Lisbon is an exciting city – quite extensive so we use the cycle route along the waterfront – with a successful mix of modern and old.

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Arriving in Lisbon

Look closely and you can Charles’ quaking knees

Lisbon at last! The final hour in suburban Lisbon south of the river Teja was slow and busy with traffic after the quiet roads further south.

Arrabiba National park is stunning, and only 35km from the city

Desert farming! Raspberries, strawberries, large scale market gardening in the sand.

Crossing fiver Sado into Setebul

Funky hostel accommodation

Industrial Sines

Setabul town, full of Harly Davisons the next morning

River Mira at Vila Nova dear Millfontes: a delightful small town. The Portuguese here enjoy a fabulous quality of life

The huge empty beach at Lago de Santo Andre. Very quiet pine forest with those huge shady mushroom topped pines. Oh and a gin and tonic on the beach ( Charles ” How much?!!!!!!!”)

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