Belize, Tikal & Copan - Jan 2004

Belize

The 4 hour bus ride from Chetumal, Mexico, to Belize City, Belize was informative about Belize. The first two buses scheduled to depart the Chetumal terminal simply never arrived, and I waited 3 hours for the first departure in the old North American school buses that constitute the bus fleet in most of Central America. On board, the young bus conductor charged the white European tourists USD$10 for the trip, but charged me BZ$10 (half as much) for the same trip and didn't care if my European neighbours heard him. I was later to deduce that this may have been because there is a sizeable oriental population in Belize, to my surprise. The majority of stores in Belize city were run by Taiwanese and Koreans. A Japanese traveller I met later in Guatemala had avoided Belize because he required a visa -- he claimed Belize was run by the Taiwanese mafia. I spent about 2 hours in Belize city, which didn't seem nearly as seedy as its reputation, but then I wasn't there at night. The wooden buildings along the port reminded me of a Canadian fishing village, and the English and creole speaking Afro-carribean population of the city was a dramatic change from the latino populations in other Central American countries. The institutions also followed the beat of a different drummer following the baton of a different colonial master. Food was of high quality but expensive. There is only one ATM machine in the entire country that will accept foreign cards. Only one Internet place in the country actually works efficiently, a newly opened branch of Mailboxes Etc. But the postal service has a sterling reputation. The contrast with Mexico and Guatemala was as fascinating to me as anything else I saw in the country. In the afternoon, I hopped on a bus to visit the world renowned Belize Zoo, started by a naturalist who collected animals tamed for films or injured in the wild, and which has since expanded into an intriguing collection of creatures unique to Latin America. By the end of the day I was waiting for the next bus to San Ignacio in western Belize, where I expected to spend the New Year. It turned out that the first bus to stop for me by chance happened to be the once-a-day shuttle bus between Chetumal and Flores, Guatemala. Since the bus was empty (hence no witnesses) I was able to negotiate a special price with the driver, who pocketed the cash, at a fraction of the cost of a bona fide ticket.

Spider monkeying around at the Belize zoo

Tikal ruins, Guatemala

And so it came to be that I passed my New Year's Eve in the hot and humid Peten province of northern Guatemala, noisily with fireworks, capping a long day starting in Mexico and passing clear across Belize, from the Carribean into the jungle. Flores is a tiny, pleasant island on a lake connected by a 500m long solitary land bridge. It is also the usual base for backpackers for daytrips into the Tikal ruins. I managed to visit Tikal on New Year's Day, when everything else was closed, and stayed overnight near the ruins after fortunately finding a dormitory bed available at the adjacent inn. Even two full days left just barely enough time between intermittent showers to see everything at the site, one of the grandest jungle ruins in the world. The main temples rise above the rainforest canopy, and within the jungle, ruins intertwine with the lush foliage and wildlife run amok. Every visitor remembers vividly the first time they heard the eerie roars of the black howler monkey, which echo across the land like a nightmare.

Temple I in the main complex, Tikal ruins, Guatemala

Near the south acropolis, Tikal ruins, Tikal

Copan ruins, Honduras

From Flores, a long 11 hour day of transportation, changing buses twice and crossing the Honduran border deposited me in the very pleasant colonial town of Copan Ruinas, supposedly the jewel of Honduras along with the Bay islands in the carribean. The famous Mayan ruins next to the town is called Copan. The town itself is called Copan Ruinas. Go figure..

A bucolic view from the edge of the town of Copan Ruinas, Honduras

There is no ambiguity, however, about the magnificence of the ruins. Anybody who wants to see fine Mayan sculptural detail on steles and facades should not considering going anywhere else. Nothing can hold a candle to Copan. It may not the be biggest ruins but it makes up for its size with breathtaking designs that are truly staggering. The famous hieroglyphic staircase, with Mayan hieroglyphics carved onto every square inch of every step, boggles the mind.

A gateway atop a pyramid at the ruins of Copan, Honduras