¡Adiós, amigos!

Belize was the place to become human again after three weeks of getting up before dawn to tramp in sweaty forests and old ruins, with no electricity on some days, not to mention — gasp! — wifi, as well as bites from a full gamut of invisible insects. Remember: we only do it so you don’t have to.

Here on Ambergris Caye, our feathered friends were still with us of course.

They weren’t the only ones reaching for the sky. (No, we don’t mean us.)

We were a mere 20-minute boat ride away from the Belize barrier reef, the longest in the western hemisphere. But somehow we were unable to rouse ourselves from our torpor long enough to go and explore it. We left that to others.

But all good things must come to an end. Our amazing Central America trip was officially over once we boarded a flight from Belize City to Cancún in a single-prop Cessna that bounced up and down non-stop for 90 minutes. Disconcertingly oblivious to the peril we were in, our Australian pilot and co-pilot sat chuckling as they watched the remake of Jumanji, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, streaming on an iPhone perched among their instruments.

You’ll be glad to know we survived. Next stop Gatwick!


Gone to rack and ruin

Damn this jungle heat. It does things to a man — especially an American man of the grizzled variety, to judge by the elderly specimens that keep coming up to Tere to express gushing admiration for her in their broken Spanish. (“Not that old!”, protests Tere.) Manfully suppressing his jealousy, Mike just stares straight ahead in the direction of an aracari toucan in the middle distance.

Tikal is considered the most impressive of all the Mayan sites in Central America, not only for its historical remains but because it is also a haven for wildlife. The ruins lie within the 576 sq km Tikal National Park, declared a World Heritage Site in 1979. The site’s mapped district covers 16 sq km and comprises more than 3,000 individual structures, temples, and courtyard groups. For centuries, like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Tikal was left undiscovered, lost to the sprawling lowland rainforests that grew over and around it.

Dating from 300 BCE but at its peak some 1,500 years ago, Tikal was home to an estimated 100,000 Maya (but see below). It was one of the more important urban centres of its time, particularly during the classic and late classic periods (AD 200-900) when it dominated the Maya-controlled area of Central America politically, militarily and economically. Many of the structures were built to pay tribute to past rulers and hopefully please the deities.

For largely unknown reasons, a gradual decline in population ended in the abandonment of the site by the end of the 10th century, leaving Tikal to the jungle that subsequently swallowed it, only to be rediscovered centuries later. Today there are remains of royal palaces, residences of important Mayans, ball courts and five main protruding temples that rise over 60m.

As a Channel 4 documentary recently demonstrated, cutting-edge technology has now revealed many thousand more structures hidden underground, awaiting discovery. It’s now known that the site extends much further than previously believed, and the population may even have reached 1 million. In fact, Tikal appears to be just a fraction of an immense hidden metropolis.

A bone-shaking two hours away, meanwhile, connected by a road that was supposed to have been asphalted except that the government funds earmarked for it were spent on paving the driveway of a local politician who’s since vanished, Yaxhá is the third largest Mesoamerican archaeological site in Guatemala. In its heyday, it served as the ceremonial centre of the pre-Colombian Maya era. Its name meaning “blue-green water”, it is estimated to have extended over 230 sq km, with a population of more than 40,000 at its peak.

Temple 216, located in the East Acropolis, towers above the site, with magnificent panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. That’s Mike up there with our colourful guide, “Rambo”, who claims in the bad old days to have participated in three Guatemalan coups d’état. Both the gents pictured are fine figures of men, but if you’re wondering which is which, Mike is the good-looking one.

And here is said panorama.

Also admiring the view from those precarious heights was this bat falcon.

Down below was our old friend coati mundi…

Along with a grey hawk…

… and overhead, howler monkeys, butting in (or possibly out) as usual.

Then another sunset, and another sundowner of wine and snacks — like the ones we used to enjoy in Botswana — by the edge of Lake Yaxhá. Sadly our sojourn is almost over as we head for our final destination: Belize.

The primacy of the market

See one market, you’ve seen them all? Not in Guatemala. A previous post showed you Chichicastanango market. Authentic, sure, but long a magnet for tourists too (as well as being the location for early Tarzan movies). Two hours’ drive from Lake Atitlán, San Juan Comalapa is something else. For one thing, we were the only gringos in sight. This was a market by local people, for local people…

… some of whom have family up north, apparently.

Isn’t there a saying about not eating the profits?

Mother and daughter were giving the coconuts some welly.

Yes, amigos, it was hot.

Local women specialise in weaving, and there are few who don’t wear the product.

So much for the women. What do the men get up to?

They paint, is what. Guatemala’s greatest “primitive” artist, Andrès Curuchich (1891-1969), hailed from here. This Bull Dance is one of his. San Juan Comalapa is sometimes called the “Florence of America”, because of the many Kaqchikel painters who live here. (It was also the birthplace of the composer of the national anthem.)

On the road into town, murals depict Mayan creation myths and Guatemala’s bloody recent history, as well as offering hope for the future.

This is the old church. Note the jaguars on the facade, and the two-headed eagle, representing the duality of all things. Sadly, the 1976 earthquake (not 1974 as we mistakenly said earlier) brought the roof down, so a new one was built alongside.

We turned up just as everyone was emerging from mass in their Sunday best.

As we left, this dude was taking a break from his painting. Next: the jungle!

Turn up to the Maximón

Leaving Antigua, we were driven up into the western highlands of Guatemala to Lake Atitlán. Described by Aldous Huxley as the most beautiful lake in the world, it was nominated as one of the planet’s seven natural wonders. Who are we to argue?

The journey was not uneventful. We incidentally passed through the town of Chimaltenango, home to the Guatemalan secondhand car business, specialising in refitting scrapped US cars and school buses like the one in our previous post, known as chicken buses.

We took a detour to visit the Chichicastenango market, famous for its textiles, masks (Mike bought a jaguar to add to his collection), fruit, fish, meat… in fact everything is on sale, though haggling is de rigueur. Here in the 16th century the manuscript was discovered of Popol Vuh, the story of the Maya creation.

Santo Tomás church was founded in 1540 and inside, apart from what you would normally find in a Catholic church, there are Mayan altars with Shamans performing ceremonies involving candles, flower petals and alcohol. Outside on the church steps, as onlookers devoured ice lollies in the sweltering heat, women sold flowers to worshippers while other devotees lit sacred fires. Despite appearances, this guy with the terrifyingly noisy Catherine wheel is a member of a Catholic brotherhood — that’s a conquistador in his other hand. Unlike the fast-growing Evangelical Protestant movement, the RC establishment has reached an accommodation with the Shamanists.

Chichicastenango’s town cemetery is considerably more appealing than the one next to that airport in Costa Rica.

Having settled in here, we took a boat trip across the lake to visit a delightful village called San Juan. After the hubbub of Chichicastanango, this was an oasis of calm.

Colourful murals are everywhere, like these, advertising midwifery and dental services respectively.

Our guide Domingo explained this one, about bone doctoring. Ouch!

We also had a fascinating demonstration of cotton processing and weaving.

In Santiago, another lakeside town, rather less tranquil, we witnessed a Shamanic ritual involving an effigy of Maximón, a Maya deity who is the drinking and smoking saint of Guatemala. The Shaman’s assistant poured a bottle of local firewater down the dummy’s throat before lighting a ciggy for him while a lady wiped her face on the many scarves adorning the mannequin’s throat. Sorry, no pictures — our photographer wasn’t willing to cough up the fee demanded so here are some locals instead.

These chicas were paddling at lakeside, which shifts considerably every 30 years or so: 50m out from here, buildings sit semi-submerged, waiting for the edge to recede again.

That’s not a hat the lady’s wearing — it’s a traditional belt.

And back we come, after a very bumpy crossing, to our beautiful hotel with its stunning backdrop of three volcanoes — San Pedro, Tolimán and Atitlán. Next: the jungle!

But they don’t play cricket

Guatemala. For those of a certain age, the name evokes bloody military dictatorships propped up by the US. Back then, big brother to the north would routinely interfere in sovereign nations’ democratic elections. (Hmm…) Things are different now. Democracy is restored and a former national TV celebrity now holds the presidency. (Hmm… x2)

We are in the beautiful old city of Antigua, the original capital, where clear blue skies overlook gorgeous jacaranda trees and stately colonial-era architecture.

The city is a Unesco heritage site. The University of San Carlos was founded in 1675, though faculty and students have long since decamped to Guatemala City.

Here, we are surrounded by three volcanoes.

The aptly named Fuego is still active, regularly spewing up ash to prove it.

Antigua has regularly been destroyed by earthquakes over the centuries, the reason the capital was moved in 1773 after the cathedral was taken out. The last one hit in 1974, killing over 20,000 people.

Converted US school buses rattle along the cobbled streets.

Everywhere indigenous women are hard at work. This lady is doing the laundry.

Most prominent are the dignified women who daily come into town on those buses from the highland villages to sell their wares, largely trinkets, shawls and scarves.

Many of the latter now seem to have been imported from Pakistan or China — but not all.

Working in the sizeable informal economy, these people have little or no access to social protection. Those in need of medical care come to this church to be ministered to by volunteers.

Believe it or not, complex floor decorations like this one, a couple of metres wide, are entirely done in sawdust. This one is in the cathedral, but they form an integral part of the city’s huge Easter processions.

Here our day begins with an American breakfast, including mashed frijoles which look like nothing so much as a… well, you decide. On that note, away we go again.

Quetzal the fuss about?

And so to cooler climes. No, not back to the UK but to the Costa Rican cloud forest, where thermals, socks, heaters and hot water bottles are essential items. And why did we make this trip? To see the resplendent quetzal which lives here. And lo, we did! Just about. At some distance, requiring maximum zoom — hence our rather fuzzy portraits, the second of which was spoiled by the wretched avian swooping away just as the shutter was pressed. For a more vivid likeness, scroll down to the pic our trusty guide, Greivin, took on another occasion, when these magnificent birds were feeling more amenable to outsiders.

Setting off at 5.30am on our great quetzal hunt, we fondly imagined there would just be us and maybe a couple more hardy souls twitching at such an ungodly hour. Not a bit of it! Buses, mini-vans and 4x4s were backed up along the road beside the wild avocado trees whose fruit attracts the colourful creature. Japanese bird fanciers with their huge camera lenses stood out in the multinational throng.

There were other beauties around, including the summer tanager…

… the sooty thrush, foraging along the ground for the benefit of us happy snappers…

… the northern tufted flycatcher…

… and who could forget the sooty capped chlorospingus? Not us. But it’s not all about birds here. Other creatures abound too.

Our cameraman is unduly proud of this sunrise shot, which he imagines to be “artistic”. Finally, here’s that quetzal in all his finery. We’re hoping for another chance now we move on to Guatemala.

Dolphins smile

From the volcano to the jungle boot camp. We kid you not. After a long car journey — complete with wifi — to the airport we boarded a tiny plane that bumped and dipped its way to the Osa peninsula and the Corcovado National Park. It was a white knuckle ride which did not end on landing: the runway is handily placed next to the cemetery.

Then a 45-minute journey in searing heat along an unmade road, made bearable by Jason, the driver, who spent the whole time telling us how he longed to live in a cold country. En route we encountered this common potoo, with her chick — see its little open beak?

On arrival we were given a whole set of ecological do’s and don’ts, mealtimes, etc., but it was all good. No aircon, wifi only in the lobby — but we survived. It’s been a wonderful stay in a cabin surrounded by all the sights and sounds of the forest, with the natural and rather scary wake-up call of the howler monkeys, whose bark is considerably worse than their bite (or so we are told). This one’s a capuchin though.

Our chief photographer didn’t even need to stir from his armchair to capture this hummingbird…

… and butterfly. Exactly the way he likes it, in fact.

Overhead, croaking away, our old friend the toucan — the yellow-throated variety this time.

The coati was lurking in the bushes nearby, possibly to recuperate from that nasty gash under the eye.

We went to look for dolphins in the Golfo Dulce, or “sweet gulf”, a so-called tropical fjord. Over in those trees they’ve been filming Jurassic Park: Island Survival, now in pre-production.

Our luck was in: we saw not only bottlenose dolphins, which swam alongside our boat…

… but also spotted dolphins, rather more reserved than their cousins.

Pelicans — or as Ronny, our Capitán, called them, the Costa Rican Air Force — provided a low-level flypast.

Then it was off for one more birdwatch before we move on to the next port of call. Our smudger claims he took several prizewinning snaps on this jaunt. Sadly he managed to delete them “inadvertently” before they saw the light of day. So the red-crowned parrot and black-throated trogon above were taken with his phone through the lens of a telescope, which is a bit of a cheat. The redbreasted blackbird is a real eyecatcher, while the menacing caracara is a vulture which we had seen before, in Patagonia.

So as the sun sets on our visit to the Pacific side of Costa Rica, we prepare to head north again, to colder climes.

Take me to the bridge

From the northern Caribbean rainforest of the Tortuguero national park we moved inland to the humid forest land around the Arenal volcano.

Mike took on the 3km hanging bridges trail, rising high above the forest canopy via a series of 15 bridges, six of them hanging. It’s quite a recent addition to Costa Rica’s ecotourist circuit, completed at the start of this century.

The top of Arenal — which is still active — is only visible about 70 days a year. We got lucky.

Along the trail we came across this row of fruit bats under a rocky overhang, patiently queueing for fruit, presumably.

Oblivious to the rain, this russet-crowned motmot observed the tourists going by.

Our hotel here boasts its own exotic flora and fauna, like this kiskadee.

Right outside our window, Tere witnessed a set-to between a black squirrel and two brown ones. Outnumbered, the former was forced to retreat.

Frogs and toads emerge at night, unfazed by the flashmobs.

Then it was off to the Caño Negro wildlife refuge, a twitcher’s paradise on the Río Frío, where this American pygmy kingfisher was waiting to greet us.

There were more herons than you could shake a stick at, so we didn’t.

El Pájaro Loco (that’s Woody Woodpecker to you and me) was keeping busy.

Amazonian kingfishers were everywhere. The Caño Negro lagoon is considered the world’s third most important wetland area. By kingfishers, possibly.

Caimans lurked in the murkier crannies. This one turned tail on noticing us.

Slider turtles were taking the sun too.

Meanwhile, back at the hotel, Mike’s size 44s narrowly avoided reducing Costa Rica’s tiny dwarf gecko population by one.

¡Qué Rica!

Our previous blog post clearly stretched some of our readers’ knowledge of Spanish lingo to breaking point. The heading meant “Where to now?” and the gorgeous photo of a quetzal — nicked off Google images — was supposed to be a clue to our destination: Central America. Still, we’re here now, which is the main thing. Here being Costa Rica.

This is a very environmentally conscious country. Here in the little Caribbean coastal town of Tortuguero — where in a few months’ time the turtles will be hatching on the beach under David Attenborough’s watchful eye — colourful bins stationed every few metres along main street even make it an enjoyable experience to chuck your rubbish.

The journey northeast from San José was by bus and boat, passing this conjunction of two rivers, one “dirty” because it carries sulphur down from the country’s tallest volcano, the Irazú; the other “clean”.

Amid the banana, coffee and pineapple plantations we (or rather Jonathan, our guide) spotted this sloth, its beige fur denoting that it is of the two-toed variety.

Arriving at our lodge here in the tropical rainforest, we were welcomed by this green iguana training its beady eye on us.

Under a torrential downpour interspersed with intense sunshine, we struck out by boat into the natural channels that meander through the dense forest and its lush vegetation. As luck would have it, the first non-avian creature we encountered was another member of the sloth family, three-toed this time.

High up in the branches, a keel-billed toucan (the name possibly an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino). We also saw both its cousins, the black mandible and aracarie toucans.

Everyone loves a cheeky monkey. This little fellow is a white-faced capuchin.

We nearly missed this spectacle caiman, using the swamp as a cunning disguise. Only its baleful eye gave it away.

As the sun came out, this green heron emerged to stretch its legs.

The Jesus Christ lizard is so called because it walks on water. Provoked by our guide, Luís, this baby duly skittered a couple of steps across to the next log.

We rudely disturbed this howler monkey at his lunch. He was polite enough not to howl.

The great curassaw is related to your Christmas dinner, apparently. The name must be a transliteration of Curaçao. That’s what we reckon, anyway.

What the Jesus Christ lizard looks like fully grown.

As we returned to base, bedraggled from the precipitation, a line of brown pelicans flying in formation dipped their wings in salute. At least, that’s our story.