04.03.2014 - 09.03.2014 32 °C
Over the border into Belize, we set up a base in San Ignacio. We didn't love it - although there were some nice places to eat (we'd recommend Ko-Ox Han Nah, already well-appreciated on Tripadvisor - the food is just fantastic), there were a few too many tour agencies and we just didn't especially like the feel of the town. We went from here on a trip to the nearby Mayan ruins at Xunantunich, back towards the border in the village of Benque Viejo - which we liked so much it became our new base.
To reach the Xunantunich site entrance, you approach from the other side of the river and then cross by means of this hand-cranked ferry (free).
Xunantunich has some good pyramids with well-preserved frescoes and good views over the surrounding forest. We arrived in the morning and got a good look at the site...
...before the inevitable arrival of the tour buses.
I'm sure there might be advantages to joining this kind of tour (the information provided by the guide, the convenience of the transport back and forth from your hotel). But we are both too stubborn to enjoy being herded from place to place and too impatient to wait for others before wandering off to explore, so we've never chosen this option. If you are outside the tour group, however, they're a bit of a nightmare. Xunantunich rules limit the size of groups to fifteen per guide, but this still allowed for groups of about 40 shepherded by 3 supervisors. If a group like this goes and see one small part of the site, you don't want to be there too. Jim pointed out that standing atop this pyramid watching tour groups swarm up it was a bit like playing Left for Dead, preparing to fight off a zombie hoard, and he could be seen quietly calculating how soon it would be before one of the nippier ones came within range.
At one of the smaller pyramids on the site we actually heard a guide yell "OK, just go up, take a picture and come back down!" Ugh.
[If you want to avoid sharing sites with tour groups, they seem to come streaming in around 10-11am at most sites we've seen - better to be in and out before then]
Benque village is a very relaxed and sleepy place, but its got more than its fair share things to see and hosts regular festivals and cultural events. Being right on the border, it has a good number of Spanish speakers and Guatemalan influence, while remaining unmistakeably Belizean. Its not much of a tourist centre, yet, and I think this helped to make it a friendly and welcoming place where its easy to get involved in whatever is going on in the community. Our new accommodation was the Benque Resort and Spa - which is rather an overly grand name for a small, well-kept hotel by the river (it offers some massages, but we didn't indulge). it does have an amazing roof terrace with views over the river and town, and owner Steve can give you information on about 100 things you can do in the area to suit your tastes.
We borrowed some inner tubes for floating down the river, and braved some minor rapids (a lady on shore told us if we both went down in one tube over the largest rapids, it would tip over. The next day, we thought we'd try it anyway, but of course she was right and we got some bumps and scrapes to show for that) Steve also directed us to the 'Cave Garden', where a Mayan flute musician serves great coffee and plays his music amongst bamboo trees and basking lizards.
Wandering on our final day in Benque, we came across a group of people doing something rather strange - they were dyeing heaps of sawdust in bright colours and laying it out to dry. Questioning the lady in charge (bottom right), we discovered that this was in preparation for the Easter parade, and the work would take a full month to complete with volunteers. Pictures would be made from the colourful sawdust to line the parade route. That day was a public holiday, so the sawmill was closed and they'd run out of raw material and were taking a break that afternoon. Along with some donations via the Cultural Centre in town, it would be funded from the volunteers' own pockets. She said that although it was hard work, she didn't mind, because she believed that God gave the world so much and it was nice to give something back. We were sorry that we'd miss the parade.
The tiny Monte Magico bar, which we'd already visited because it was local to our hotel, was our final stop that day before taking our onward bus. The public holiday found the owner, Jose Quetzal, having a very small party with two regulars who were swinging each other around the bar to salsa music. Jose is a fascinating character, who while clearly loving his job serving the coldest beers in town in his cozy bar, also has great stories and big ambitions. He's writing a book, on the origins of the border town, and has firm opinions about Guatemala's claim on this part of Belize - historically, its English, and it always should be. The two nations have something of an ongoing feud as Guatemala claims that much of Belize should be part of Guatemala and that this was prevented by British colonial occupation. Of course its crazy to generalise about the opinions of everyone in a nation, particularly one as diverse as Belize, but most Belizeans we've spoken to seem to be remarkably pro-British, and some have mixed feelings about independence. Belize gained its independence in 1982 and welcomed self-government, but many Belizeans are concerned that without British protection, Guatemala will attempt to claim its territory once more (a claim that has rumbled through the courts for years, after Guatemala agreed to no military intervention on the condition that the British built a new road connecting them with the Atlantic coast, a promise which it seems the British never fulfilled).
Jose might have been feeling particularly charitable towards the British that day because the public holiday being celebrated was Baron Bliss Day, which honours a wealthy British sailor who left his entire estate to the country of Belize to be used for the benefit of the people. The capital has not been touched, but the interest has provided for many pubic buildings, projects and festivals in Belize. Interestingly, he Baron never actually landed on Belizean soil, but spent the last months of his life exploring the coastline by boat (more eccentrically still, he specified in his will that no American should ever be involved in the administration of the trust, and no-one knows why).
It was great to talk to Jose about his book, his country's history and his visions for a united world. We promised to send him a postcard from home, and to keep an eye out for his e-book ("and maybe the Queen would like to read it too!" he added). In the past he has worked alongside trade union leaders, and he dreams of setting up a school to train future political leaders of his country to rule honestly and in the best interests of the majority. Right at that minute, his computer was broken, so he was content to sit in his shady bar, happily chatting to us and watching his friends dance the salsa.