08 April 2013 | Shelter Bay marina, Colon.
Mexico and back to Tuatara.
Among our souvenirs from Cuba was an unhealthy dose of streaming colds for us both. Alan felt the worst, don't men always, so we piled out of the airport bus in Cancun spotted a good hotel across the road and were soon back in the western world, internet, TV, takeaways and a well stocked pharmacy down the road. The heavily armed police inside and outside the Cancun airport had also been a reality check, we didn't know whether to feel safe or worried. It is a little scary how soon armed guards and police everywhere, even at the supermarket becomes the norm and they become invisible. We never felt unsafe or threatened the people of the Yucatan seemed a friendly helpful bunch of amigos.
We flew from Havana across to Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula. Cancun is nothing to write home about but it is the gateway airport for the hundreds of beach resorts along the Caribbean coast at Playa del Carmen and Isla Mujeres. We weren't in Mexico for the beaches we wanted to visit Mayan Mexico. The buses in Mexico are a comfortable, air conditioned, cost effective pleasure to ride in. Our first long distance trip was the 4 hours from Cancun to Merida. The long flat highway through uninspiring scrubby landscape was a little boring, I was a little worried the driver would fall asleep with boredom, no corners, very little traffic and not even a loo stop.
Merida however was far from boring, although very hot, the temperature in the 30s everyday. Merida reminded me a lot of Trinidad in Cuba, Spanish colonial buildings, pretty plazas and music. We arrived on Sunday in time to spend the afternoon wandering the market in the Plaza Grande, we sat in the cool of the Cathedral to rest our colds, had a heart stopping moment when our bank card took a bit too long to slide out of a money machine and generally filled in time until a traditional dancing display started in front of the lovely pink Municipal building. Every night of the year in Merida there are free musical events. On Monday night we returned to the Plaza for more traditional dancing and on Tueday night we went to Plaza de Santiago for dinner and listened to the dance band and watched couples twirl around the plaza to their favourite 50s dance music.
We spent 3 nights in Merida a night longer than we had planned. We don't usually stay in the pool type hotel but the Yucatan Vista Inn was in our price range, our colds had slowed us down and Merida was a lovely place to be. The pool was a cool haven from the afternoon heat. The region is winding up for the hotter wet season, a trip earlier in the year would have been better but our timetable was not geared that way. Wandering around in the cool evening admiring the lit up colonial buildings and plazas, Merida was busier with locals and tourists than in the day time. We weren't the only ones hiding from the daytime heat.
We visited the Mayan ruins at Dzibilchaltun just outside Merida and were a little disappointed they weren't as impressive as the write up said. Maybe if we had been there a few days later on the 21st of March when the sun shone through then arch way on the temple we would have been more impressed. On the solstice we were at Palenque and were impressed and amazed. Mayan pyramids and ancient history amongst rainforest just as I imagined.
Palenque is an 8 hour bus ride south of Merida. Another lovely ADO bus, two movies this time and loo stops for which my bladder was eternally grateful. We didn't need the movies really as the scenery improved the dry scrubby plains turned into rolling green pastures full of cattle, real life cowboys rounding up cattle on horseback, a few acres of palm oil here and there, glimpses of rainforest, rivers and little towns.. We had moved from the Yucatan to the Chiapas region, still a Mayan stronghold even today the population is 60 % Mayan.
Palenque is the Spanish name, according to my Lonely Planet the Mayan name was more likely Lakamba and was first occupied in 100BC and flourished until about 740AD and finally abandoned around 900 AD. The site is about 15sq km but only a small amount, relatively speaking has been excavated. The area has many temples the tallest one being the Templo des Inscripciones. We climbed the steep steps of this temple and others getting some great views and lots of exercise. These Mayan pyramids had us wondering which is more grand and awe inspiring the pyramids of the Egyptians or the Mayans. Difficult to say but that fact that the modern Mayans hadn't succumbed completely to tourism and put a paved road at the base of their Pyramids won my vote. Although there are still souvenir stalls dotted throughout the site, the noisy howler monkeys in the tall trees are more intriguing then the smelly desert camels of Cairo.
As I have said we were at Palenque on solstice, also Alans birthday, and as we wandered around we came across a Mayan solstice ceremony at the base of the Templo del Sol. The small group of white clad worshippers danced in a circle to the beat of a drum, turning to face the four points of the compass. We couldn't understand it completely but we could tell this was not a tourist demo and the few of us watching, sat quietly in the shade until it all got a bit repetitive and our attention wandered to our lunch deprived stomachs.
The next day we started early on the next leg of our Mayan journey. In Palenque we booked a two day trip that got us to two more Mayan sites in Mexico, a night in a Mayan Cabana, a trip down the river to Guatemala where we met a bus to take us to Flores the closest town to the towering pyramids of ancient Tikal. The van picked us up at 6am and we found we were about 30 years older than everyone else in the van, the youngsters slept the hour or so to the breakfast stop we enjoyed the scenery more farms cattle rainforest and little towns. I can understand the lure of the US for some Mexicans after seeing the one room shacks and poverty in some of those places.
At Frontera Corozal we got on a small river boat and went for 22 kms up the Rio Usumacinta to Yaxchilan. We climbed the steep steps to the Acropolis and here we could imagine Indiana Jones bursting out of some secret tunnel or come crashing out of the jungle searching for lost treasure.
After our return trip down the river the van bumped past road workers to Bonampak. The men were fixing potholes with concrete mixed on the side of the road. The empty cement bags along with tree branches were then used as road makers to warn motorists of the wet concrete.
Bonampak is a small Mayan site, the draw card is the beautiful frescos inside
the Templo de las Pinturas. The day had been long, hot and interesting we were pleased to be staying near Frontera Corozol instead of taking the long trip back to Palenque as most of the others were. Our Mayan Cabana was beside a pretty little stream and waterfall. We did worry about the mosquitos getting through the narrow gaps in the wall boards. Thanks to running the fan all night we had a comfortable mosquito free night.
Next morning we had a very civilized 8am start, we were picked up by that days van from Palenque and deposited by the Rio Usumacinta again. The river boat took us up stream this time to Bethal where we entered Guatemala. Reminded us of when we entered Laos from Thailand, river and boats nearly identical. The bus from there to Flores was a very distant cousin to the Mexico buses. No AC and narrow seats but we survived.
Flores is situated on the banks of Lago de Peten Itza, in fact where we stayed was on a little island connected to the mainland by a small causeway. Flores was even hotter than Mexico.
"hot! This is only 35deg wait until next month it gets to 45deg!"
We didn't intend to wait. The next morning we caught the 4.30am bus to Tikal for a cool morning walk along some of the 10k of rainforest shaded paths. We arrived at Tikal at 6am just as the mist was clearing, a coati (looks a bit like a raccoon) snuffled through the damp grass and peacock coloured turkeys picked up bugs all oblivious to our camera clicks.
The bus/guide combination ticket was an excellent idea, we got to Tikal in the cool and before the crowds and our guide Donald Gonzales, " my name is easy to remember, just think of Donald Duck and Speedy Gonzales", gave us all the information we had missed on our guideless wandering at Palenque. The towering steep sided pyramids, the tallest about 61 metres are surrounded by tall rainforest.
Only one can be climbed to get a view across the tree tops at the other pyramids. Our guide left us there and we found our way back to our start point and the bus stop. Tikal had lived up to all the hype we were not disappointed. Donald had told us a theory as to why Tikal had been abandoned, the Mayans had cut down all the trees to make way for agriculture and for cooking etc, there is no natural source of water, so no trees, no rain, no water to keep the huge reservoirs filled. Seems like a familiar story.
We had been at Tikal nearly 5 hours, the day was getting very hot, we were surprised at the number of people just entering the park in the heat of the day. We were ready for a sleep.
Forget Egypt go to visit the Mayans in Mexico and Guatemala a much more pleasant and dare I say it more awe inspiring visit. Pyramids and rainforest a great mix, thanks to Lasse and Lizbeth of S/V Hilda for giving us the inspiration for this trip.
Easter was approaching and our minds were wandering back to Tuatara and the Panama canal transit, Guatemala was hot and the cooler coast of Belize was tantalizingly close by. We looked at our options for getting to Caye Caulker an island in the Barrier reef system of Belize. Another early start 5am bus to Belize city and a ferry to Caye Caulker we could be there by lunch time the next day. By this time early starts were becoming the norm so off we went the next day to Belize.
The bus arrived at the ferry terminal just enough time to buy a snack and get on the ferry. Caye Caulker is a flat sandy island surrounded by blue sea. The roads are all sand only golf carts for transport not that you need it, everything is in walking distance. Alan was going to do some diving but the weather was a little rough so trips out to the Blue Hole where he wanted to go were cancelled. He decided to do some snorkeling instead. A morning trip out to the reef had him swimming with and handling stingrays.
We ended up having 4 nights on Caye Caulker a few days of holiday, something we haven't done for a long time. Usually our land trips are for seeing things and going places, we enjoyed the change of pace.
We flew out of Belize City on Good Friday, the ferry back to the city skimmed across the shallow water. We could see the bottom nearly all the way, no wonder we only saw catamarans anchored by the island.
Our flight took us to San Salvador where we changed planes for Panama. Being Good Friday not many people were flying. There was just 6 of us plus flight crew on the 94 seater plane to Panama city. Even though there was no one in first class they wouldn't let us shift not that we were crowded where we were!
The next afternoon we were back on Tuatara at Panamarina. Tuatara was safe and sound ready for moving to Colon and Shelter Bay Marina where we are now waiting for our canal transit on the 16th April.
www.pancanal.com you may see us going through.