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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Belize and Guatemala

There are many places I haven't gone. There are many I yearn to see. This is a story about a place I've never been and one that, honestly, was never even a blip on my radar. As told to me by my daughter, Emma, this is the account of her adventure to Belize and Guatemala.
Belize, which only gained its independence from Britain in 1971, is a tiny English speaking country in the midst of a slew of Spanish speaking Central American neighbors. It is nestled against the Caribbean Sea just a few hundred miles south of Mexico's more famous resort of Cancun and on the eastern border of Guatemala. Although it is only 80 miles wide by 174 miles long, Belize boasts diverse habitats - forested mountains, tropical rainforests, white sandy beaches, and a myriad of small offshore islands called "cayes" that lure divers, snorkelers, fisherman, or those just looking for their own private paradise.
"I flew into Belize City," Emma wrote," and immediately went to the boat terminal to take a speed boat crammed with people to Caye Caulker."
While Belize City is the old capital and the largest city in Belize, any charm it once had has been whittled away by poverty and a series of hurricanes. Clearly it is a place to be in transit to and quickly in transit from. The boat ride to Caye Caulker takes about an hour.
"Caye Caulker is a small island. You can walk completely across it in less than ten minutes. There are lots of hostels and inexpensive hotels and a handful of restaurants and bars, most with their own little docks extending into the sea. You get around barefoot or on hired golf carts. It is very, very chill."
Ambergris Caye is a larger island north of Caye Caulker with more tourists. Its hotels are bigger, fancier, and pricier. You can take a variety of day trips from either island.
The Hoi Chan Marine Park is just north of Caye Caulker and is a world class destination for diving and snorkeling. When Emma wasn't snorkeling, or swimming with sharks and sting rays in the warm, shallow waters of Shark-Ray Island, she lazed about on shore, swaying in a hammock, under palm tree shade. The Blue Hole is another destination near Caye Caulker. It's a 1000-foot diameter circular reef with a dramatic deep blue, 400-foot sinkhole in its midst formed apparently by the collapse of a subterranean cave. It's rated as one of the best dive sites in the world.
After a few days exploring the cayes, Emma took a water taxi back to Belize City and headed for the bus terminal.
"I got on an old American school bus with people packed three to a seat. As we drove through poverty stricken countryside, people would grab their belongings and jump out the back of the bus seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Road signs, in English of course, well described the vibe of the country. 'Drive,' one sign read, 'like you are making love to the road.'"
She got off at San Ignacio, a small town on the western edge of Belize just ten miles from the Guatemalan border. San Ignacio is a jumping off point for nearby tours of jungle shrouded rivers, dramatic caves, and spectacular and curious Mayan ruins on both sides of the border - Carcol, Zunantunich, Cahal Pech in Belize and Tikal and El Peten in Guatemala.
"Our guide drove us about an hour out of town and into the jungle. We changed into our bathing suits by the car and took an easy hike through the jungle carrying inner tubes. We then slipped into a river that quickly flowed through a spectacular string of caves. With flashlights atop our heads, we floated through pitch black caves on our inner tubes with our lights flickering over great stalactites draped from the roof of the cave. I imagined Mayans with torches seeing these sites and contemplating their shadows as gods or devils. It was absolutely gorgeous - but floating in complete darkness and silence was eerily claustrophobic. A fantastic lunch greeted us at the end of our inner tube adventure and then we set off for the Belize Zoo. Although the zoo is small, it has a great collection of animals you rarely see in the U.S. and is set in the jungle where you stand only feet away from the animals - as if they had just dropped some chain link fence in the jungle and whatever got stuck inside became the exhibit. It was extraordinary and worth the visit."
The following day, using the local MayaTour Company (Mayatours.com), Emma hopped in a van with half a dozen other tourists and headed for Tikal in Guatemala.
"Crossing the border was hectic, crowded, and confusing and Tikal is a several hour drive over very, very bumpy dirt roads. You can also fly directly into the city of Flores - which makes the trip to Tikal much shorter."
In Tikal, 2000 year old Mayan step pyramids seemingly erupt of nowhere in the jungle.
"We hiked through jungle, watched monkeys swing from trees, and climbed up and around Mayan temples. Being in Tikal is like being sucked back in time and you truly realize the intelligence of the Mayan people and the mystical energy of that civilization."
The nearby town of Flores is set on a small island on the man-made Lake Peten Itza. Its homes and stores are painted in bright colors giving the town a special warmth and charm.
"Flores is a great place to stay before or after going to Tikal. There a many good hotels and restaurants. We stayed at one with a balcony overlooking the gorgeous lake. Be sure to take the boat ride around the lake. It's scenic and relaxing."
From a nearby small airport in Santa Elena, Emma flew to Guatemala City which she described as crowded, dirty, and smoggy, and from which she quickly fled to her final destination, the nearby colonial city of Antigua. Antigua is one of the most beautiful cities in Latin America with cobblestone streets, terracotta homes draped with bougainvillea, grand colonial cathedrals, all surrounded by the imposing peaks of active volcanoes - Volcan Acatenango and Volcan Fuego.
"Antigua is a tourist mecca. Lots of young people flock here to study Spanish. I was one of them. The only problem is that there are so many tourist-students that wandering the streets you hear almost every language being spoken except Spanish.
After enrolling in my school (Academia de Espanol Guatemale - www.acad.conexion.com), the principal took me to the home of a Guatemalan family where I would be staying. Four Dutch girls were staying there too and we became quick friends. After breakfast each morning with our family, we went to Spanish classes for half a day. We had our afternoons free to be tourists and our nights for dinner and dancing."
Another Emma adventure was the "chicken bus" trip to Guatemala City. These are old school buses painted in garishly bright colors.
"The 'chicken bus' is crazy! A man literally leans outside the door as the bus drives by and screams, 'Guate, Guate Guate!' You then run to the bus which barely comes to a stop, jump aboard, and try to find a seat among people carrying everything from their children, to vegetables, to live chickens. The driver then drives on like a bat out of hell, blaring his horn, and sashaying around steep corners and down cliff side roads. The trip is a lot like Space Mountain without the safety features. If you want to pray for dear life and feel like a local, I highly recommend it."
After a week studying Spanish in Antigua, Emma took another bus to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan.
"The lake is huge, surrounded by a number of small towns. Panajachel is the largest with a huge boardwalk main street and hundreds of street vendors. Lago de Atilan is one of the most beautiful places on Earth with many of its towns still very untouched by modern civilization. But while the locals have kept their native culture, there's also a 'hippie-like' atmosphere with many 'gringos' having come to settle around the lake. From Panajachel you can take a boat to any other town around the lake. And each has its own special charm. For example, in the village of Santiago, there's an idol called Maximon. The idol is unimpressive, but getting there, discovering where they keep Maximon and watching the Maya worship this wooden cigar smoking image, decked out in scarves, was fascinating.
If you want to swing in a hammock in the middle of the jungle or float in waters surrounded by a view of volcanoes, Lago Atitlan is the place. If you're looking for a four star hotel and great service, it's not."
Clearly Emma enjoyed her trip to Belize and Guatemala. The area is blessed with inspiring scenery, curious wildlife, beautiful beaches, lakes, and islands, and a rich culture - at once ancient, colonial, primitive, and modern. I have never been there. But it's now big on my travel radar.