Travel is Our Drug

Belize: Road Trip to San Ignacio

This morning started WAY too early and WAY too stressful for a vacation day.  We were up at 4:15 – after only a couple of hours of sleep – to finish packing last minute things and get to the airport for our 7:10 flight.  We scrambled around the house, stuffing things in bags, setting up timers for the lights, feeding the cats, trying not to forget anything.  By the time we pulled out of the garage, we were already cutting it reaaaally close on time.

We’d made arrangements to leave our car at my grandparents’ and have my grandpa drive us to the airport.  But when we pulled up in front of the house, it was completely dark and I didn’t have the heart to ring the doorbell and wake them.  So off we sped (well, as fast as we can speed in a Prius) toward the airport.  Thankfully their place is very close to the airport.

We skidded into a parking spot in the longterm lot, hauled ass to a bus shelter and waited.  And waited.  And waaaaiiited.  When the first bus got to us, it was stuffed so full we weren’t allowed on.  So we waited some more.  We finally pulled up to the terminal at 6:25 and took off sprinting to the checkin counter.  We just made the cutoff for checking in and getting our bags on the flight.  Then we stood in line for entirely too long for security.  By the time we were through, we walked right onto the plane.  Thank God we made it!

As I settled into my seat, I took a deep breath, let my heart rate slow and got into vacation mode.  As we taxied out for takeoff, there was a spectacular sunrise over the hangars and runways.  The sun was an enormous, radiating ball of pink and orange energy (The photo obviously doesn’t do that justice.), which pretty well reflected how I was feeling on the inside.  I love the feeling of taking off for a new adventure!

AirportSunrise

We had a quick layover in Atlanta, and then on we went.  I really miss having a big international airport close by.

As we began our descent into Belize City, the views were amazing.  First, all I could see were the white, puffy, cottonball clouds reflecting off of the water below.  It was all so blue, it was nearly impossible to tell where the sky ended and the water began.

AirplaneClouds

A little further and we were over land.  There were all different shades of green, some areas bright green which appeared to be moss, other areas dark green trees.  Every once in a while there was a brownish body of water breaking up the green.  The closer we got to landing, the more cloudy it became.

PlaneView1

PlaneView2

By the time we’d landed, the clouds had darkened and closed in on us.  As we sat on the plane waiting to disembark, the sky let loose and it started pouring.  Welcome to rainy season in Belize!

PlaneView3

After a short wait to get through passport control and customs, we walked out and across the small parking lot to Crystal Auto Rental.  We chose Crystal because they are one of the only – if not the only – car rental companies that allow their cars to cross into Guatemala, where car insurance is not mandatory.

CrystalAuto

We hit another hiccup here.  In order to be able to take the car to Guatemala, a notarized permit is required.  The permit is attached to the vehicle/license plate, not the driver, and the permit must be requested in advance to allow time for the notarization.  Well, turns out the guy in the office made a mistake and gave our car to the couple who had just walked out the door.  And, of course, they’d already left by the time he went out to check.

So we sat and waited while he called the main office in Belize City to see if anyone could bring a new notarized permit for another car.  To compensate us for the inconvenience, they “upgraded” us from a Jeep Wrangler – which we specifically requested to help navigate the rough road up to Mountain Pine Ridge – to a Jeep Liberty, which – let’s be honest – shouldn’t really be considered a Jeep at all.  I was pissed, but really didn’t have a say in the matter at that point.  So we took the stupid Jeep Liberty.  After about 30 minutes of waiting, we were finally on our way.

Side note about Crystal Auto:  Apparently they have no set rates for rentals.  You e-mail them and they e-mail you back giving you your rate.  When you show up to the car pick up, be sure to have your e-mail because that’s the only way the person in the office knows how much to charge you.  You will also have to e-mail or fax them a paper with your full name, credit card number and signature to be able to confirm a reservation.  This kind of stuff always makes me nervous, but so far no issues with that.  They will also put a $200 hold on your credit card, which will be refunded in 5-7 days of returning the car if there is no damage.  This was not communicated to us at all prior to us arriving in the office in Belize.  In fact, there was a couple in while we were waiting in the office that were completely blindsided and had no way of paying for the hold.  They also promised free use of a cell phone included in our rate, which they didn’t have available when we arrived.  But they did have a free cooler to offer us to use.  (Um, yay?)

So anyway… we left the airport under very heavy, overcast skies and slight drizzle, headed to San Ignacio with e-mailed directions from our hostess at Moonracer Farm.

WelcometoBelize

But we didn’t make it very far before the written directions contradicted the signs on the road.  At the end of the airport road, our directions said turn left, the sign said turn right.  After some deliberation, we decided that maybe our hostess was mistaken, we followed the sign and found ourselves heading into the middle of Belize City.  And horrendous traffic.

So we reevaluated and decided that maybe we should give the written directions a try.  We flipped a u-turn and headed off in the opposite direction.  Lo and behold – the written directions were spot on.  No idea what was up with the signage.  But I had read before leaving home that, in general, the signage in Belize is pretty bad so it didn’t really surprise me all that much.

As we drove along, the landscape was flat and green – grass and trees as far as we could see in any direction – with an occasional brightly colored wooden building on stilts breaking up the green.  The mountains in the Cayo district were popping up in the background, seemingly so close.  The weather oscillated between overcast, threatening rain and torrential downpour.

Overcast1

Overcast2

There were several points where it was pouring so hard we could barely see out of the Jeep, even with the wipers on full blast.  It was a bit claustrophobic feeling and disappointing that we couldn’t fully see and enjoy the scenery around us.

Pouring1

Pouring2

At one point, we passed the Belize prison with a big tower and tall fences.  The prison itself wasn’t all that interesting.  But what did catch my attention was that the prison had a gift shop.  I can’t even imagine the caliber of souvenirs we could have purchased in there!

About 30-ish miles into the drive, we stopped for a late lunch at Cheers, with a tropical twist.

Cheers2

Our hostess at Moonracer Farm recommended this place, so we knew it couldn’t be too bad.  We pulled off of the Western Highway into a gravel parking lot in front of a wooden building.  The first thing I noticed is that that green Jeep sitting in front is the one we were supposed to have.  (Those jerks!)  And we’re stuck in this stupid Liberty.

Cheers1

We walked “inside” to find a huge patio area with tables, plastic lawn chairs and a food bar.  The patio was covered by a peaked tin roof which had guest-signed tee shirts from all over the world hanging from it, and the view was of lush, green vegetation on all sides.

CheersInside

CheersView

We essentially had the entire place to ourself.  Other than the workers, there were only two other people in the place.  We sat along a wall of the patio right next to an enormous tree.  We listened to the rain plodding into the saturated ground next to us as we enjoyed our food and drinks.  The cool, misty breeze was refreshing as it lightly kissed our faces.

There was an enormous rain collection system, which had a pretty elaborate labyrinth of PVC piping leading into a filtration system in the car port of the residence next to the restaurant.  It made my inner tree hugger super happy – especially knowing its enormous belly was filling up as we watched.

RainCollection

To top off the experience, the food here was pretty good, too!  I had quesadillas with delicious fresh made salsa and a Coke Light.  Yum.  (One of my favorite parts of traveling internationally is Coke Light.  It’s so much better than Diet Coke.)  K had a chicken sammich.  Both were very good and just enough food to hold us over until dinner.

CheersFood

We sat for quite a while hoping for the rain to let up so that we could go to the Belize Zoo while we were close by.  But after quite a while of waiting and the rain only coming down harder, we decided to cut our losses and head on to San Ignacio.

Back on the road.  We drove for a while – still in the rain – past bicyclists, horse and buggies, pedestrians, trucks stuffed with bananas, and wandering animals.

Buggy

The Western Highway is actually in fairly decent shape, so we made pretty good time.  The worst part was the monstrous speed bumps that seemingly came out of nowhere at times.  In some instances there were signs warning us they were coming, in other cases we just gritted our teeth and hoped for the best because we didn’t see them until we were on top of them.  (This photo doesn’t do that speed bump justice.  At all.)

SpeedBump

We arrived in Santa Elena – the turn off point to get to Moonracer Farm – around 3:30.  We decided, since it was still fairly early, to visit the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech before we turned in, so we continued ahead into the downtown area.   At 3:30, the downtown area was a congested with shops, cars and pedestrians – everyone seemingly hurrying home at the end of the day.

SanIgnacioTown

We followed our directions through downtown Santa Elena, turned off to detour toward the low-lying bridge – a simple wooden bridge crossing the Macal River – before winding around and meeting back up with the Western Highway.  (We had no idea at the time why we had to take this route, but found out on the way back that the bridge on the Western Highway is one-way going the opposite direction.)

WoodenBridge

Just as the detour met back up with the Western Highway, we crossed the highway and headed up an incredibly steep, rocky, rutted-out, muddy path toward Cahal Pech.  When I say incredibly steep, I mean, this lame Jeep Liberty almost couldn’t make it in 4×4.  I had the feeling we were just going to tip over backwards and tumble down the hill, but with a little coaxing we made it.

We arrived at Cahal Pech to find that we were the only people in the place.  We went into the visitor’s center to pay our entry fees and we were able to pick up a guard/guide there for a small fee.  From the parking area outside the visitor’s center, we headed back into the trees along a cement pathway.

CahalPechSteps

At the top of the steps, the area opened into a large courtyard surrounded by ruins and tree-covered hills.  This was likely a central market of the city.  This is also the area that gave Cahal Pech (the place of the tick) its name.  Before the ruins were excavated, this area was covered with grazing animals, many of which carried and attracted ticks to the area.

CPCourtyard

In several places there were trees so ingrained into the structure of the ruins that the trees have been left atop the stones to avoid destroying the sites.  It is thought that many of the hills in this area are ruins that have not yet been excavated; the trees sitting on top ingrained in the structures of buildings below.

CPTrees

We wandered through a series of structures, starting with some stone archways.  Our guide told us that one of the defining features of the Maya architecture is the capstone at the top of the archway.

CPArch

From here, we entered a smaller, more secluded courtyard.  This is the area where the king would have entertained a more intimate audience than just the general public.

CPCourtyard3

At one corner of the courtyard was a small doorway, leading to a secret passageway back to the bedrooms and living area of the royal family.  This gave the king a more ceremonious way to enter the courtyard than through the same entrance as the commoners.

CPKTunnel

CPTunnel

We walked past a “kitchen,” which was basically just a flat, open area between the courtyard and bedrooms.  The bedrooms were small rectangular rooms with stone platforms and very little additional space inside of them.  The platforms were used as beds with woven mats and blankets for comfort.  Though I’m not really sure how you make a stone platform comfortable no matter what you put on top of it.

CPBed

Some of the platforms still had remnants of red dyes that were originally used to decorate the rooms.  It doesn’t look like much, but it’s amazing to me that these natural dyes have withstood years and years of weather, dirt, digging, etc. and are still intact.

CPBedDye

I assume the Maya must have been short people, since I just barely fit in the doorways of the bedrooms.  Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and smacking your head on that on the way out!

CPBedR

From the bedroom area, we wound around and climbed to the top of the observatory, which is an area the Maya would have used as both a lookout point and a place to study the stars.

CPObservatoryR

The top of the observatory wasn’t very high, but it did give us a different perspective on the area from up above.

CPObservatoryView

Scattered around the site were a species of palm trees native to Belize called the Give and Take.  The trunk of the tree was covered in needles that secrete a poison when touched (the “take” part).  Beneath the needles, in the bark of the tree, is a substance that can be used to neutralize and reduce the effects of the poison (the “give” part).  Our guide told us that the bark can be placed on a wide variety of wounds – cuts, scrapes, burns, etc. – and your skin will heal quickly and completely with no scarring.  Many local people use this bark in lieu of bandaids or other ointments.

GiveAndTake

We left from Cahal Pech around 5:15, headed toward Moonracer Farm.  Our directions told us that it wasn’t far distance-wise but the vast majority of that distance was on a dirt road.  Still, we assumed it wouldn’t take more than about 30 minutes to get there.  Wrong.  It ended up taking over an hour.

From the turn off in Santa Elena, we had approximately 9 miles to drive through two villages – Cristo Rey and San Antonio – before reaching Moonracer Farm.  Our directions from our hosts told us to follow the road through Cristo Rey and San Antonio, and when we came to the T at the end of the road, Moonracer farm was only 200 yards from the turnoff.

We turned off of the Western Highway onto a dirt road and off we went.  At a snail’s pace.  The road was very bumpy and rutted out with large rocks and larger potholes.  It reminded me a bit of our trip into McCarthy in Alaska a few years ago.  But at least we didn’t have to watch out for railroad ties here.  The two villages had small portions of paved roads, but that was it.  As we took our time, crawling along in this not-really-a-Jeep Liberty, several dirt bikes and trucks screamed past us leaving us in a temporary cloud of dust.

MRDrive

In San Antonio, we came to a sharp bend in the paved road with a dirt road teeing off to the right.  We assumed this was the T in the road that we were looking for, so we turned off and drove for a while before we realized that Moonracer Farm was not 200 yards from that turn off.  We drove around in circles for a bit, searching through a small row of homes looking for Moonracer, only to find nothing.  We were lost and sticking out like a sore thumb here in our brand new Jeep Liberty.  Finally a local stopped us.  He had no idea where Moonracer Farm was, but knew that it wasn’t where we were driving around.  So we got back to the road and kept driving.

At this point, the sunlight was fading fast and it was nearly dark.  We didn’t drive much further before the pavement ended again and we were bumping along in the dark.  Not too far outside of San Antonio, K had had enough and pulled over to let me drive.  And wouldn’t you know it – not even 5 minutes later we came to the T in the road we’d been looking for.  We pulled into Moonracer Farm just as it was getting to be pitch dark.  We could vaguely make out the kitchen lit up with kerosene lamps and not much else.

Julio, the property manager and groundskeeper, came to meet us with a flashlight.  He took us in and quickly showed us around our room before dinner.  The room is basic, but perfect.  There are two double beds with a bedside table in between, a table for flashlights and lamps, a couple of luggage stands and a few photos on the wall.  The floor is just the wooden frame with no insulation, so it echoed as we walked across.  The wall that the beds are on is shared with the room on the other side. (Sorry, photos are a little blurry, but I purposely took photos without the flash to give a better idea of what it was like inside the room when it was daylight outside).

MRRoom2

MRRoom1

There is a basic bathroom with a sink, toilet and shower.  All are run with rain barrels outside of the room that have a heating element to provide hot water, even without electricity.  And we have one more high-powered flashlight in the bathroom.

MRBath1

MRBath2

There is also a screened-in porch on the front with a table and chairs and a nice hammock to relax in.  (Photo obviously taken another day since it was pitch dark when we got here.)

MRPorch

After dropping our bags and getting the initial tour of the room, we headed across the property to the outdoor kitchen were Julio’s wife Janeth had prepared dinner for us.  The outdoor kitchen area was really neat – just a thatched hut with a table, chairs and a few porch swings on one side and a full kitchen on the other, separated by a bar counter in the middle.  There is no electricity at Moonracer, so the kitchen area was lit by kerosene lamps, which gave it a very warm, intimate glow.

MRKitchen

Dinners are served family-style at Moonracer with all of the guests served at once.  We were the only guests tonight, so we had the wonderful experience of having dinner by ourselves with Julio, Janeth and two of their children.  Janeth had prepared salad, a local chicken dish with rice and carrot cake for dessert, all of which were fantastic.  We really enjoyed talking with all of the family – learning from them about the farm, the area, their culture, etc.  The kids were adorable and so well behaved.  We talked with them a bit about them starting back to school on Monday.  As we sat and chatted, the rain fell steadily on the roof and all around us.  It was really wonderful and calming to have the sound of the rain so close.

Before we left for the night, Julio let us know that we would need to be up early to have time for breakfast before meeting our guides at 9:00 for the ATM Cave Tour.  My least favorite part of vacation is the waking up early, but it’s for a good cause, so I guess I’ll make do.

We got back to our cabin around 8:30 and immediately got into bed.  This day started way too early and we have to be up early tomorrow, so we’re both ready for sleep.  Lying in bed listening to the rain is so calming, I doubt it will take long to fall asleep tonight.

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