My last day on the island of Caye Caulker was much slower-paced than the three prior. I actually slept in & wasn't on a strict timetable because I was seasick from the combination of water taxi + snorkeling + journey to the Blue Hole. However, the worst part of my trip thus far had to be la bicicleta a.k.a. the bicycle supplied by Hummingbird Cabin. It was such a buzzkill. Yesterday I returned home from a priceless day at Lighthouse Reef but my mirth fizzled as soon as I saw the decrepit bike, waiting to take me home. It was a much quicker way to traverse Caye Caulker, but by this fourth day riding it was unbearable. The seat had absolutely no padding so jostling over bumps was painful (having a sunburnt butt didn't help either); the handlebars were oriented so low that I resembled a hunchback on wheels; worst of all, the gear was stuck in fifth so it made even a flat, smooth ride a grueling work out.
I pedaled north for "the split," an accessible snorkel spot where Caye Caulker was literally cut in half by a hurricane in 1961. On the other side of the vivid blue canal was a maze of mangroves & just gazing into the water I could saw heaps of scurrying fish. I passed much of the morning here writing until the suffocating heat & nipping sandflies became too much. The see-saw tables that stood in waist-deep water suddenly looked like a better place to finish the postcards. It was day #4 & the last time in Belize I would see the ocean so I lingered as long as possible.
Back on the mainland, I procured a hire car with one of the few agencies that allowed visitors to take a vehicle into Guatemala. In surveying la mapa a.k.a. the map I noted there were only four highways throughout the entire country -- which was about the size of Massachusetts. Away from the coast there were precisely zero highways. The whole left half of la mapa of Belize (from northern to southern border) was blank. No state routes nor country roads were indicated. And what's a bypass? According to la mapa (and this proved to be true) everything was oriented directly off a highway so this made planning a route quite easy.
I high-tailed it out of Belize City, crossing over Haulover Creek, driving north on the appropriately named Northern Highway. La autopista a.k.a. the highway was very basic, two cars wide, and without dividing lines or emergency lanes. However, in villages -- most unidentified on mi mapa -- there were treacherous, unmarked speed bumps. I’d be speeding along and catch sight of one, but it was usually too late to slam on the brakes. Knowing there was nothing I could do to prevent the impact, my body went rigid & I braced myself as the car became airborne. Upon crashing back down to the ground both the car and I let out a collective groan.
The majority of the drive north was along the barren autopista through bucolic land with a few hills occasionally breaking up the horizon. For the remainder of my trip, I would not see the coast. From now until day 8, I would be tackling the mainland & its interior.
The only indication that I was in an actual city (instead of town) was the single stoplight on the Northern Highway in Orange Walk. I had not encountered a stoplight since leaving Belize City an hour & a half ago. It was around 17:00 and I noticed the shops had already pulled their metal garage doors down to express their closure. Yet, el centro a.k.a. the main square/downtown was bustling with peddlers at fold-up tables, loiterers & people walking home from (I assume) work. Despite the vibrant colors of the city's buildings & a few landmarks, my first impression of Orange Walk was: run down & quiet.
The appeal of Orange Walk lied along its river. After I checked into Hotel De La Fuente, I wandered down to the New River's banks and found a tiny -- and perhaps, unintentional -- garden with gorgeous trees that looked like they belonged in a charming Southern town like Savannah [Georgia] or Charleston [South Carolina].
By 08:30 the following morning the heat was blazing despite the cloud coverage! Still burnt from my days on Caye Caulker I was extremely grateful that my tour boat had an awning. Although visitors can access Lamanai's Mayan ruins via a 4-wheel drive access road, it was infinitely more scenic to putter up the New River. Verdant trees reached for the river, lilypads created floating gardens, the aptly named Snake Cactus slithered across branches, and the bright sky was reflected on the glossy water.
In the still of morning, the loud motor of el barco woke the forest. Hundreds of stark white egrets poured out of the trees, in contrast against the solid green background. It was captivaing to watch a flock of them race the boat, skim the river's surface & trace the path ahead. Our guide identified a Great Blue Heron peacefully resting on a lilypad, the largest foul in the country -- a Jabiru -- on a bough (although it wasn't half as beautiful as its Australian counterpart), another species of Heron & the "Jesus Christ bird" (so nicknamed because it walked on water). Downriver something must have died because approximately 100 vultures circled, speckling the sky from afar. The bird life alone was worth this tour.
The New River really took on a life of its own, curving sharply, then opening up to a wide delta, then splitting, forcing the captain to choose left or right. Along the bank, a "small", startled Crocodile hissed at el barco, as reptilian eyes spied above the water's surface. Further upriver some insect bats braved the daylight and an ornary Spider Monkey harassed my group by throwing leaves onto el barco below (I anxiously expected feces to rain down upon us next). At the archaeological site Howler Monkeys dozed to escape the humidity.
Aside from the wildlife, el barco sailed by bridge graffiti, a sugar mill (I could smell the sugar burning), a dilapidated rum distillery and a boatload of locals commuting to work to sell timber.
Mi barco passed numerous liveries en route to Lamanai, all crammed with too many well-fed cruise ship passengers. With an average age of 58 & a median weight of 220 pounds I pitied the masses on the excursion for a few reasons. First, they had such a strict timetable that -- from my barco -- I could hear the guide corralling them via megaphone. Second, the passengers were squeezed elbow to elbow or -- sometimes -- elbow to walker on rickety boats. At Lamanai I found one, poor, old soul waiting in the oppressive heat at a picnic table with his oxygen tank! As I headed toward the docks, the day-trippers filed endlessly toward the ruins like ants. I realized the only thing I liked about the cruise ship passengers was their fresh smell because it was the antithesis of me. Indeed, by now my boots + feet were absolutely fetid, I wreaked of sweat & bug spray and my bangs were an oil slick. On the contrary, the cruise ship passengers donned flip flops, salmon-colored capris, cologne & clean cotton clothes.
Two hours later, after frequent stops to point out local fauna or landmarks, I stepped onto the wooden dock at Lamanai. From the river, the forest obscured all the ruins except one specific platform.
All the temples at Lamanai were ceremonial & of great importance to the Mayans, but most were barely excavated due to a lack of financial funding. Mask Temple displayed two stone faces that had been renovated [& replaced with facades], but two more stone tributes were believed to be buried under la tierra a.k.a. the earth. Remarkably, the left & most recent face that resembled an Olmec god was only refurbished in 2011… some 3,000 years after the first Mayans lived here! I could only guess at what was still entombed by the earth at Lamanai. While remarkable, I think Lamanai is best approached with a little imagination. The royal housing looked more like a prison with its unyielding beds. Stela Temple looked quite plain (in comparison to Lamanai's other structures) but many of its original stone tablets had been removed for restoration. Luckily, I could imagine the other stelae with elaborate Mesoamerican carvings adorning the temple & sculpted pottery strewn about. Upon restoring Stela #9, archaeologists were -- & still are -- bewildered by a few, unknown symbols.
The largest -- not tallest -- and most impressive of the structures at Lamanai was Jaguar Temple, so named for its two stylized Jaguars erected in the bottom corners. It was squatty and positioned like a royal throne on an open field. Nearby was a ball court, though it was hard to envision it as such with its illogical set-up & the imposing plants. In the past, the Mayans played a footwork game similar to soccer here with a 9 pound a.k.a. 4 kilogram, solid stone ball.
How did they not fracture toes? Taking into account the ball's weight, was the game even fun? More intriguing than a barefoot culture partaking in sport with such a hefty sphere, was what was buried beneath here. In 1980, a massive limestone "marker" in the center of the court was hoisted & revealed a ceramic pot -- typical of Mayan culture. Inside the pot was liquid Mercury. It was the first discovery of the element in liquid form at a Mayan site ever. So here was a race that inhabited Central America for centuries yet, up until just 30 years ago, modern civilization was still postulating the resources of its people... but the story gets more mysterious. To this day, historians are unsure as to how the Mercury arrived at Lamanai. Was it collected in small amounts from the Guatemalan highlands or smelted on site? Even more baffling was how this liquid fit into the Mayan's life because there are "no other examples of Mercury use in Mesoamerica." Which led me to ruminate about what other treasures & semi-precious metals were still undiscovered at Lamanai -- especially since its excavation was incomplete!
In the background of the ball court, loomed the ceremonial structure, High Temple. Since Mayans eventually fled to the Yucatan peninsula in the 1860s to escape the human diseases of the area [brought by settlers] that claimed 100 lives per day, Lamanai had long been abandoned. Therefore, I did not feel guilty about climbing High Temple the way I did with climbing Uluru (a sacred, Aboriginal monolith).
What perplexed me about High Temple was the height of the stone steps. I am only 5 feet 1 inch a.k.a. 1.5 meters tall being a homo sapien in the 21st century. How a shorter race of people living hundreds of years ago could summit this structure, I do not know. The park offered a rope for the steep bottom section, but I wanted to do this the Mayan way. The stones were so large I was able to put my hands on the next step & sort of push myself up. My climb up High Temple more resembled a bear crawl.
The day only grew hotter, making the bear crawl to the High Temple’s apex a major trial & butt workout. However, I was rewarded with panoramic views of the flourishing jungle & New River and -- inadvertently -- a newfound fascination with Central American history. From atop Lamanai's tallest structure, trees shrouded everything to the horizon. I unsteadily gazed down at the tiny people on la tierra below. Though Lamanai was dilapidated now, I felt like I had stepped back in time. For the my view was almost identical to what the Mayan priests saw centuries ago as they conducted sacrifices from High Temple.