Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Day 19 – Miami boating

News – we’re on a flight this afternoon to Dallas, then London later that night but first our planned boat trip around Miami. What a glorious day – sunshine, calm water and our own boat to see the sights around Miami Beach and Key Biscayne. The homes were astounding – Matt Damon, Will Smith, Al Pacino, Gloria Estafan etc. But the sea itself was sparkling. We were out for a couple of hours before we had, sadly, to return to the airport.

Day 18 – Miami South Beach

Driven to Stevie’s Crossfire Gym then down to South beach, all Art Deco hotels and that huge, white beach and calm, clear water. Walking along I noticed something familiar – a beautiful Italianate house with a stone entrance and black gate. I know that house. Sure enough, Alan said it was the Versace house, the very spot where he had been shot by his jealous lover.

Day 15 – Miami Mall

Decided to make the best of it and headed off to eth Dolphin mall for a serious shop. Clothes galore. The place was huge with quite a few British refugees, showing the Dunkirk spirit by getting deeper into debt. No sign of an earlier flight.

I've been coming to the US since my teens and never really got the 'Mall' think until I was much older. I think it's the US version of the 'promenade'. Go to southern Europe and you'll see people walk (slowly) on set routes, along the seafront, up certain streets, chatting, stopping for an ice cream. As nobody walks anywhere in the US, the car has displaced the promenade to malls. The street has been recreated inside buildings. The mall promenade takes you past huge, glass shopfronts, the walk punctuated with little stalls and food halls. The outside has been created inside, you drive to take a walk. Note that I don't mean any of this pejoratively. I rather like the Mall promenade. What it does however, is squeeze out independent operators for a homogenised series of big names, so that every Mall in the US has become like every other Mall from Anchorage to Miami. Capitalism at its extreme end become commoditisation.

Day 17 – Miami Beach

Picked up by Alan, Gil’s cousin’s driver, who drove us to their home and we settled into sitting by the pool, playing basketball (in the full size court) and sleeping in a four poster bed, one in which Michael Jackson had slept! Linda, Gil’s cousin was a fantastic host and couldn’t do enough for us.

We heard that Chris had got two Bot Flies, and were suddenly searching for pupae shapes under the skin on all parts of our bodies. These flies lay eggs and the grub grows to the size and shape of a straightened out prawn. You have to cut them out surgically, or entice them out by strips of streaky bacon, then grab their heads with tweezers and pull them out.

Day 16 – Miami Marriot

There were no rooms at the Inn, so we headed to the airport and got vouchers for the Marriot. A bit of a disappointment so we decided to contact Gils relatives who live in a $35 million mansion on Miami Beach. This volcano was coming up trumps – every cloud has a silver lining!

Day 14 – Miami Inn

We set off by boat for Belize City, then to the airport, where we were told that our flights to Miami were OK but once there we had to hole up in a hotel until further notice. On landing in Miami, we headed for the transfer desk and were faced with the truth, that we had no chance of leaving soon. Iceland had lost its cash and was now blowing out ash. This country was stating to annoy me!

American Airlines were pretty good and found us a hotel (one I requested) for $70 per night, including breakfast but no flights until Friday, via Raleigh! So we found the hotel, after waiting for two hours as an airport employee had phoned the wrong hotel requesting the wrong bus three times (Hampton Inn and settled in for our stay (2 nights)). Nice Italian meal in a quiet part of town and some welcome sleep.

Day 13 – Caye Caulker – sharks, rays & turtles

Today was the big snorkel trip, again at three sites. But the main attraction was Hol Chan Marine Reserve – a fantastic coral site with rays and fish galore. Then Shark Alley, a gap in the reef where we swam with sharks, turtles, rays and huge groupers. The currents were quite strong but with fins, you could get around quite easily. The density of fish here is astonishing, and they’re not shy, as they’ve been fed. The feeding ahd to stop at one point as they were becoming too aggressive. As I was swimming I wondered what ‘too aggressive’ meant? We returned via round the back of the island and stopped at the entrance of an underwater cave, where about a dozen huge Tarpon swam, then back to the dock.

At night, after our final dinner at Marins, we wandered down to a bar that had Garafuni drummers. On walking home a tremendous tropical storm struck. The lightening lit up the entire seascape as if it were day and forks came crashing down onto the island the sea and between clouds. This was a great send-off show. We sat on the balcony and just watched. Unfortunately, thousands of miles tomthe north another natural phenomenon was kicking off – a volcano.

Day 12 – Belizzimo: Caye Caulker

Snorkelling trip to the reef, at three different sites. At the first we saw a ray, moray eel and lobster but the coral was the star. At the second we had huge numbers of rays swimming right below us. There were so many that it seemed a little unreal. Finally, a snorkel along the reef.

Dinner at the rainbow on a dock over the sea, where we bumped into Tim, an American we had seen at San Ignatio, ATM and Tikal.

Day 11 – Belize City

Driving into Belize City was like driving into a third world country. Crack cocaine is rife and unemployment stands at 25%. It looks like a bad episode of The Wire, positively menacing. Jeremy Paxman describes it as a place”where all the painters and decorators left on independence”. He has a point. The buildings are ramshackle, apart from the colonial mansions in one small area.

Our hotel was an old colonial hospital, with a great view of the sea, creaky floors and old worn carpets. It was badly in need of renovation. Compared to the beautiful buildings in the streets surrounding it, and a hotel called The Old House, it was pretty run down. Nevertheless the food was fine.

The next morning we caught a packed water taxi to Caye Caulker. It’s three huge outboard engines were deafening. On arrival we walked down to our hotel at the south end of the island – quiet, with its own beach, hammocks and dock. Straight in for a swim off the dock in the warm water. Gil spotted a rare Batfish, with it’s long snout, wings and fins for feet – weird looking thing. Lunch at Marins and a slow day with beach volleyball at around five. Caye Caulker’s a chilled, quiet place. No rush. Dinner in a reggae bar with pizzas, pina coladas (fresh coconut juice and pineapple).

Day 10 – Tikal

Woken at sunrise by the howlers roaring ate each other, then off for a dawn walk to see the early morning wildlife. Saw a troop of XXXXs, YYYYs, a crocodile and so many birds, especially the ZZZ. Racine got a shot of a Bat Falcon taking a Parakeet on the wing, She just raised the camera and got it, right above our heads. I came back to wake Gil but the monkeys were raining fruit down on the metal roof of our room. It sounded like grenades going off.

Monkey puzzle

New world monkeys such as Howlers, Spiders and Capuchins (named after the friars), are a bit of a puzzle. How did they get here? Turns out their genetic markers suggest a fork in the evolutionary tree after S America had drifted away from Africa. The current theory is the ‘raft’ theory, where a 13 day journey allowed the first primates to cross the then smaller Atlantic Ocean.

Museo Tikal

Just enough time to visit the one room museum, and what a find. The stelae are in pristine condition, the glyphs clear and there’s a tomb wit a complete skeleton and tons of jade and obsidian surrounding the bones. Then there’s a fine collection of chocolate cups, enema pipes, bone skewers for blood letting and pots. If you’re thinking of buying a book on the Maya, I highly recommend The Maya by Michael Coe, a detailed and scholarly chronological treatment from the Yale Professor that has plenty of detail. I was also recommended A Forest of Kings by Linda Schele and David Freidel, but found it s a bit too speculative.

Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Centre (http://www.belizezoo.org/)

Even if you’re no fan of zoos, this place is a revelation. It rescues animals and has a real conservation ethos. We spoke to the owner, Sharon Metola, while she was feeding a huge endangered Harpie Eagle with raw meat from her hands. With no government funding she relies on tickets, donations and her shop. She’s done lots of work for BBC Radio4 and is a DJ on a weekly rock show. It was all about getting an emotional bond between the kids and the animals so that they don’t throw stones or kill them. She was, apparently. A lion tamer in a previous life. We also had the privilege of speaking to a fascinating German, who had sat in front of the Jaguar compound for two whole days taking pictures of this graceful cat. He gives presentations on endangered species, especially the Jaguar, and was on a mission to stop the habitat loss and monoculture of Palm Oil – the greatest immediate threat to the natural world, in his opinion (http://www.wildlifephoto.de/). He also laid into Chinese medicine, claiming that many endangered species are hunted and sold to Chinese dealers and tourists, who have crazy ideas about analogous shapes (rhino horns and erections).

The zoos enclosures back right onto the jungle, giving it a real habitat feel, although in the real rainforest, it would take you years to see these rare animals. The cats (Jaguar, Ocelot, Cougar)

Day 9 – Guatamala Mayan site: Tikal

Into Guatemala via a border post that demands a couple of sly dollars in each passport then a road that passed an endless number of Mayan mounds. At one point the road cut straight through a Mayan Temple revealing the steps like a cutaway drawing. The ancient population count has been upped recently as they’ve discovered dwellings between the mounds (previous estimates relied on mound counts). This is a poor part of Guatemala, and we see loads of guys on horseback and houses with separate thatched kitchens.

We dumped our stuff in the hotel and headed off for the Tikal site, stopping for lunch in a residential Mayan building on the east side of the site. Tikal’s sense of place comes from its position in the centre of a rainforest. The surrounding trees crowd in on the grey limestone buildings and when you climb one, you see the tips of others poke above the canopy of trees. The sheer size of the place makes it difficult to get a clear picture of the entire site. All around, parrots squawk, coloured birds roost and wild turkeys strut across ancient plazas. Then there’s the monkeys, howlers sitting feeding then roaring like lions. Spider monkeys swinging with tails, legs and arms. Causing the branches to swish. A very special sight was the beautiful Indigo Buntings in the evening sun against the limestone.

We stopped in complex Q & R with its seven sets of ‘twin’ pyramids to mark the end of a period of 20x360 day years. The replica of the stelae shows the last king of Tikal in full headdress.

We climbed the huge temple (IV) at 64m bult in 741 AD. The views of the surrounding jungle are astounding and only the tips of the other tall temples are visible. Then down to the Great Plaza, where the magnificent Temples II and I face each other , stepped 44m pyramid with nine levels, and a room with a comb on top. It is perfectly proportioned, tall and graceful. We climbed Temple I, a mere 38 m, and enjoyed watching the evening light in the plaza. Tn off to the huge acropolis complex at the back of which were four wild turkeys and a lone Howler, enjoying some fruit.

After this we headed back to the Plaza of the Seven Temples, where we saw parrots, a spider monkey and climbed the 32m Great Pyramid. We sat here until sunset, then asset off for a night walk in the jungle. Walking down the trail, fireflies spun across our path, Callum spotted a frog and a pair of cat’s eyes shone from behind the trees.

Cultural archaeology

Our guide in Tikal was a sophisticated and knowledgeable man, who saw in archaeology a series of imported cultural perspectives. In the post-war period it was all internecine warfare and sacrifices, in the sixties, hallucinogenic drugs and communing with gods, and in these days, climate change and environmental catastrophes. You can’t get into these sites on 23rd December 20112, as all places are booked by whacko, apocalyptic groups gathering for the end of days. He was in favour of a more complex and pluralistic explanations, with a focus on Mayan beliefs and cosmology.

Mayan dualism

Now here’s a thing. I had read the Hero Twins myth, and having twins with me (my sons) started seeing twin phenomena in many of these sites. There were twin temples with twin masks, twin ballcourts in which twin teams enacted (perhaps) the Hero twins’ myth. Mayan glyphs are read in pairs and their metaphysics was dualistic with a real world and other word, accessed through drugs, taken orally or anally (enema tubes are commonly found in tombs and pictured on pots). This was never mentioned by any of the many guides we had on this tour or in any museum.

Them stones and stones….

What’s strange about these Mayan buildings, even in cleared sites, is that you can wander right up to one without noticing until you’re almost climbing the slope. They’re sort of cloaked in vegetation and leaves making them invisible. Then you see a dressed stone, look up and see the symmetry in the hill and a shouldered level.

It’s easy to forget that this was a stone-age culture. They built these skyscrapers using stone tools from the only stone available, the ubiquitous limestone. Their ornamentation was green jade, valuable items glassy, black obsidian and asymmetric flints. Metals, such as gold, were rare, but not valued. There were no readily available ores or alluvial metals.

Day 8 - Mayan cave: Actun Tunichil Muknai

After a drive up a river vakkey, apst tree plantations, corn and many Mayan mounds, we started our hike to Actun Tunichil Muknai, or the ‘cave of the stone sepulchre’. After three river crossings, our feet were thoroughly soaked but this mattered nought, as we were about to get as soaked as I’ve ever been. The entrance to the cave is a tall triangle withg a turquoise pool of deep water that fades into the darkness. We swam into the cave, and boy it was cold, then clambered up the rocks on the other side of the pool inside the cave, where a huge spider sat on the rock, as of guarding its entrance. We then plunged waist deep back into the water and for the next hour clung to the sides, waded, squeezed through cracks, avoided sharp rocks, climbed, clambered and slid over up and down rocks. The cave was only discovered in 1986 and deep inside after a climb you enter the final cathedral size chamber that contains, not only stunning formations but dozens of deliberately, broken pots, skulls and skeletons. The final site, after squeezing up a further crevice and ladder, is the skeleton of young women, who may have been slain/sacrificed here, as a stone weapon lies nearby. It’s an eerie sight as she lies lit by our head torches. It was wondrous just to enter this place and wonderful to have been allowed into such a fascinating site that is more than archaeological – it was a pilgrimage into the beliefs of an ancient culture.

Day 7 – San Ignacio

Mayan site: Cahal Pech

Up at 5,30am to visit Cahal pech; on my own. It’s not often you get an entire Mayan site to yourself swathed in an early morning mist. Entering rooms, lying on ancient Mayan beds and just sitting on the steps of an empty plaza surrounded by great architecture, then walking trough an empty ballcourt, where who knows what games were played, with what consequences, is what I came here for. Sometimes, being alone gives you more time to look carefully and reflect on what you’re seeing. In tis case it was some of the detail of Mayan architecture; the intimacy of the plaza enclosed entirely by buildings or the simplicity of the small ballcourts, that suggest something other than the drama of a murderous game. You enter the place through the woods then enter a packed set of buildings full of corbelled rooms and passages that lead from one complex to another. There’s even a stepped corbelled staircase and stucco drainage pipes from the high temple into the plaza. The site guardian arrived just as I was leaving which gave me the opportunity to pay and walk round the small museum.

Mayan site: Xuantunich

We crossed on an old wooden ferry that was hand cranked using fixed cables across the Mopan River then up a steep road past a three doored residential building with beds, one with a stone pillow, a room with a view, to an artificial platform and the Xuantunich site dominated by El Castillo. We climbed the 40 metres up the huge temple and had a great view across the entire site and the jungle beyond. Parts of a complex frieze were visible. These are vertiginous places, with acutely steep steps and narrow unprotected tops. One mistaken step backwards for a photo and you’re off and dead. This was happening with disturbing regularity at Chichen Itza, so most of the high temples are closed off, but half the fun of these more remote sites is the dangerous climb. Other side and across to an unexcavated mound, stopping to chat with the two soldiers on duty to protect tourists. They were bored and left their guns lazily on the bench. We then passed through the ball court and climbed the palace temple. I took a route across the three buildings on the right hand side of El Castillo. This was a quiet and beautiful place.

Mayan Wheel debate

Bruce, our knowledgeable guide at Xuantunich, started by showing us some pottery that he claimed was wheel turned, his opening gambit in an attempt to prove that the Mayans had the wheel. His arguments were as follows; the evidence for pottery wheels, toys found with wheels and circular nature of Mayan calendar. However, against this is; the lack of images on pots and paintings, no wheel ruts or compaction on roads, o pack animals therefore less need, no actual examples of wheels in graves or elsewhere. On balance it seems unlikely.

Mayan Ballcourt debate

Why are the ballcourts so small? Why is there no room for spectators? Why do they often come in pairs? Why are the markers of such religious significance? I concur with Bruce who sees these sites as ritual rehearsal areas for symbolic ballgames, mimicking the trial of the hero Twins , who defeated the gods of the underworld in a ballgame. It’s a sort of moral trial, like the Egyptian weighing of the heart. The ritual use is confirmed by the discovery of a pot of mercury under the central marker at Lamina. You can see how archaeologists are tempted into sensational hypotheses such as fights to the death, with the winners being sacrificed through decapitation or the games being used to settle inter-territorial disputes, but it’s all a bit fanciful.

Mennonites

After lunch we travelled through a rough road valley occupied by Mennonites. Their plain wooden farms were like Little House on the Prairie structures and we passed , first an ox-pulled cart driven by a typical bearded man with rolled up shirt sleeves and the usual black trousers held up by braces (or ‘suspenders’ as our US cousins would say). Later, in Miami, I’d be caught cold by a description of Larry King in his ‘suspenders’ (which in England attack black nylons to panties). Another from of transport is a single horse buggy, like a car, that takes a family of four and some goods in the back. We passed a couple of these, with the Walton-like kids smiling and waving and mother looking severe. Finally, there’s a smaller buggy for tow or three people on a single seat. It was like coming across a lost valley or huge film set.

These pacifists, hounded from country to country, were invited into Belize in 1958 to provide agricultural expertise. They now supply 70% of Belize’s food on land leased from the government. Founded by a Dutch Priest in the 16th century it moved to Switzerland, Prussia the US then south to Mexico and Belize. They’ve now moved further into S America into Bolivia. They’ve split into modernists and old timers, depending on their attitude towards technology such as tractors and cars. It’s a strange, anachronistic sight to see these men dressed like cowboys and women right out of a 19 century costume drama, ride around in little horse drawn carriages. I saw them everywhere, in supermarkets, on the water taxi to Caye Caulker, in restaurants, on the rivers, climbing temples, on the roads and on their farms, and it was always odd seeing them juxtaposed with the multitude of black and brown Belizeans.

Mayan cave: Barton Creek Cave

We climbed into canoes and entered the darkness of Barton Cave across a pool of deep, jade-greenwater. Within seconds we were the darkness of the cave, finding bats in roof cavities – their urine dissolves the limestone and creates holes in which they roost. But ut was the stalagmite and stalactite formations that rose, dropped and billowed from the caves sides, roof and floor. At one point we had to lie back flat in the canoe and paddle under a curtain of stalactite to make progress. Carl actually got his canoe stuck on a stalactite which was inside of back of the boat anchoring him to the spot. At the back of the cave, 1600m in, we switched our headlamps off and couldn’t see a centimetre in front of our faces. A skull and pots were visible on the ledges as this was a ‘place of fright’ for the Mayans, where they came to sacrifice and perform ceremonies for rain. These were the entrances to the underworld for the Maya, and not places of fun. The journey back was just as interesting our headlamps showing the bottom in crystal clear blue water, then the tiny glimpse of daylight that gradually turns into a greenish then bluish light at the entrance. On the way back we could see the Mennonites hard at work, as the good book decrees.

Day 6 – Cockscoomb Basin & Blue Hole

Day 6 – Cockscoomb Basin & Blue Hole

Breakfast at a Mayan village at the entrance to the Cockscoomb Basin Park, a refuge for wildlife, especially the endangered Jaguar. The little shrine round the back showed that the modern Mayan’s have fused their old beliefs with Catholicism. After breakfast we headed off up the mountain in the humidity and heat. Within a few minutes we had spotted an anteater up a tree on the trail, a rare sight. The walk then ascended up a trail past a waterfall to the top of the hill, and although it was draining (we dubbed it they Death March) it was a fantastic view across the entire basin. We stopped at the pool and waterfall, halfway down for a refreshing wade. Gil was to suffer the next day from mild heatstroke!

Blue Hole

Next stop, the Blue Hole, on the Hummigbird Highway, a cenote where an underground river bubbles to the surface and re-enters a cave just 50 yards round the bend. The water was deliciously deep, blue and cool. We also stopped for lunch at Chris’s local restaurant (guess what rice beans and chicken). By this time we were rather enjoying this staple, even ordering it when there were other things available. When Paul joked that he thought he was allergic to something, Carl quipped that “it would be savage if it were rice and beans!”

Day 5 – Placentia

Laughing Bird Key

A boat ride out to Laughing Bird Key for two snorkel trips round east then west sides of the island. This is a tiny desert island with pristine white sand, coral, rays and fish. We stayed until almost sunset. Here we saw our first rays, lobster, green moral eels and lots of fish. Lunch was – you’ve guessed it; rice, beans and chicken.

Languages

Although English is Belize’s first language, and widely understood, I rarely heard it spoken. The language I heard the most was the wonderful Creole. Chris would drop into this when dealing with the locals, or Spanish which eh also spoke fluently,, but it was the Creole that caught my ear with words and bits of words that were familiar, rooted as it is in English. The local newspapers had Creole articles and signs were sometimes written in comic Creole. 70% of Belizeans speak Creole, which has its roots in native American language, languages from the West coast of Africa, and English. Lots of the words drop the consonant so end in vowels ‘R’s are often deleted and the grammar is different, making the language sound clipped but familiar. Spanish is also widely spoken along with Mayan languages.

Day 4 – Mayan site: Altun Ha

Central America and corruption

On the way to our next Mayan site at Altun Ha, near the coast, Chris explained that this stretch of road had seen a jet land, full of cocaine. The government impounded and sold the jet but the drugs and the people disappeared. It showed the level of corruption in these countries. The current Prime Minister has literally monopolised the telecommunications industry and appointed relatives to the board. Drug trafficking is causing real problems with crack cocaine a menace on the streets of Belize City, where the murder rate is rocketing. While on Caye Caulker, the news reported a plane that had ditched off an island with a tourist resort closed for the season. There was no real explanation for the identity of the pilot, where the drugs had gone and do on. While in San Ignatio, a bus had been hijacked by two Guatemalans, one with a handgun, another with a live grenade. They had robbed the passengers, then the gun jammed and the passengers stabbed one assailant to death, the other escaped across the river to Guatemala. This took place on the same road we used on the same day.

Guatemala itself has a history of brutal repression and genocide, especially of the native population. This was bravely revealed by a Maya woman called Rigoberta Menchu who won the Nobel Prize for Peace. The whole country is run by only six families and has a terrible human rights record, as has the US in branding every attempt by the poor to fight back as ‘terrorism’ by ‘guerrillas’. At a local level, we all had to pay an illegal $2 tax when entering the country, which goes into the pockets of the local police! You simply tuck it into your passport.

On the subject of corruption, Belize is best known in the UK for the infamous Lord Ashcroft, largely known as a crook in these parts. He has a past in dodgy business dealings and a 30 year tax exemption in Belize as well as lying about his non-dom status in the UK. Spending his tax savings on swinging an election in the UK and lying about his intentions make him a criminal in my eyes. He also imposes ridiculous charges on banking services in Belize – for example, 17% commission on exchanging Euros to Belize Dollars.

Altun Ha

Our guide at ALTUN Ha was a hoot, deadlocks and a huge amount of enthusiasm unfortunately not matched by his knowledge of the site. He saw the Mayans as having died out through over-sacraficing themselves – novel but wrong! He then got the dates of most of the temples wrong and had never noticed the marks indicating a structure in the middle of the plaza. However, he was great fun, especially when comparing Copal to cannabis!

This is an interesting site in that it lacked stelae and seemed to be a trading town, acting as a distribution point from the coast to the interior. Unlike most other sites it may not have relied so much on agriculture and was occupied for around 1200 years. It has about 500 buildings, We did a clockwise loop of the site climbing the Temple of the Green Tomb (550 AD), ending on the largest temple in the complex, where the famous Jade Head was found.

Shaking your booty in Belmopan

We then drove to the capital Belmopan, where we visited the Parliament building, which looked like an Eastern European slum. We did, however, have a very nice lunch; rice, beans, chicken and fish, in a local restaurant, and bought a Punta CD and some coconut cakes. If you have never heard of Punta, it’s dance music that needs the independent control of each buttock muscle, otherwise known as ‘shaking your booty’.

Hummingbird Highway

Then off to one of the most beautiful drives in Central America, the Hummingbird Highway, famous for its citrus industry. Indeed, there were two Tropicana factories alongside the road. But it was the birds and forest that made the drive so beautiful. Dense forest, occasional Cortes Trees, blooming for only four days in an intense yellow bloom. We stopped at Chris’s house, surrounded by trees he had planted, his dogs, chickens and river at the foot of the garden. His little blue house was a gem, and after a beer in the local restaurant, we were on our way to Placencia.

Placencia

This long peninsula was being redeveloped and at one stage the Macmansions were a hideous reminder of what tasteless drug money brings. A casino was half built and looked like hell. However, the original peninsula communities, such as the Garifuna village of Seine Bight, was dirt poor and with an African looking population, very different from other villages. We then passed Scorcese’s hotel as we were bound for the less luxurious Seaspray Hotel, where I was offered cannabis within five minutes of arriving! We ate Tacos and fish at a fish restaurant the first night then prawn curry at the De Tatch restaurant the second.

Day 3 – Mayan site: Lamanai

We drove to pick up a boat to Lamanai, the beautiful Mayan site on a lake. On the trip up a river with jungle on either side, we stopped to see humming birds (nest on very tip of a branch over the river), Boat Billed Herons and a small croc. We passed a couple of Mennonites fishing, who nodded, but weren’t keen on attention.

First thing we did was trek up to the old sugar mill behind the site, a British effort with a huge iron steam engine, still in place, being strangled by vines. The bricks came as ballast in ships from London and the iron parts from New Orleans. The enterprise was a failure but you’ve got to admire the reach and bravado of these hardy entrepreneurs. ‘Abroad’ is strictly for holidays these days and there’s something to be said about Britain’s loss of ambition. Chris, our English guide, originally from the Midlands, has set up home with his wife and child in Belize and is making a go of replanting part of the rainforest. In addition to be good humoured, he was brimming with knowledge and devoted to conservation.

And so to Lamaiai. This was what I was most looking forward to, the archaeology. This site was occupied for 3000 years until the 16th century and has more than 700 mapped structures. Archaeologists moved from foot to plane and now to infra-red from satellites to plot these sites. The limestone buildings leech limestone into the surrounding vegetation which creates different intensities from the leaves. These allow you to use satellite images to find new sites.

Climbing that first Mayan pyramid was thrilling –the Mask temple, a 6th century structure with stucco masks on both sides, representing the ruler/sun God Kinich Ahua. The structure has several smaller temples entombed in the structure going back to around 100 BC – so it has a 600 year provenance!

Three Mennonnite girls were climbing the second pyramid with us and were shy and dressed in 50s looking dresses below the knee, hats, hair nets and nylon pop socks with sensible shoes. We also saw a family, who looked for all the world like the Waltons, stroll through the ruins. They are a constant presence in Belize – but more of them later.

Then round past the ancient dock to the High Temple or El Castillo, 115 feet high, dating back to 100 BC. The view from the top across the forest and lake is stunning and we could hear the howler monkeys roar. Then through the ballcourt and residential buildings and down to the museum, with some fine pots, stelae and eccentric flints. This site lasted longer than most for the Maya due to its remote location and supply of water from the lake.

Mayan Collapse

A good account of the Mayan decline is in ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond. Diamond uses the collapse of the Maya as a primary example of his multiple-cause theory and devotes an entire chapter in his book to this case. Unlike the other cases in his book, he feels that the evidence is very strong and the society that collapsed was large. Four of his five causes were at work; 1) Environmental damage (deforestation and erosion), 2) Climate change (droughts), 3) Hostilities (internecine warfare), 4) Political/cultural fixity (Rulers short-termism). His fifth criterion is ceasing to trade but he puts less emphasis on this with the Maya.

1) Environmental damage (deforestation and erosion), This is a seasonal tropical forest with a dry season and unpredictability on rainfall, along with regular hurricanes. As maize was the staple food, swidden agriculture (slash and burn) meant rapid deforestation and erosion from hillsides. David Webster showed that in the 8th century the sediment on valley floors indicated severe erosion from deforestation, which in turn was used as fuel and for burning limestone to create lime for plaster. The creation of the cities themselves seemed to an act of self-destruction. They had no pack animals for transporting food or ploughing fields, no metal, couldn’t store food for more than a year in their humid climate. Maize, moreover, has considerably less protein than wheat or barley.

2) Climate change (droughts). The lowland Maya in the Yucatan had cenotes and access to water but in the karst country in the highlands they had to build plaster-lined reservoirs. At Tikal, this could only support 10.000 for 18 months, making them vulnerable to drought. Recorded droughts, as measured by sediment analysis of oxygen isotopes, show droughts in 600 AD, 760 AD (2 yrs), 810-820 AD (10 years) and 910 AD (6 yrs).

3) Hostilities (internecine warfare). Warfare was endemic and brutal, with religious and ruling class motives behind some truly brutal practices, such as pulling out fingernails and teeth, cutting off lips, cutting off the lower jaw and trussing captives up in a ball and throwing them down the stairs of temples. This was limited to city state like disputes as they couldn’t transport food far enough for distant campaigns.

4) Political/cultural fixity (Rulers short-termism). With leaders who promised rain and the continuation of prosperity through blood letting, droughts took away their legitimacy. The last monument at Tikal was dated 869 AD. Their short-termism meant not building relevant infrastructure or sustainable agriculture or sustainable agriculture or innovation.

When Cortez arrived in 1524/25 there were only 30,000 and he could barely find enough villages to obtain food. Diamond sees parallels in the US where the rich elite are doing all they can to preserve their own lifestyles at the possible expense of a sustainable future.

Day 2 – Belize City and Crooked Tree

Few could accurately identify Belize on a map and fewer still say much about the country but it’s a hidden gem. With two teenage boys in tow, we were looking forward to a holiday where we were on the move with lots to do.

The flight from Miami flew down the east side of the keys, a huge, long splatter of islands and turquoise sea. After flying right over Key West we skirted the west side of Cuba and hugged the Yucatan coast eventually spotting the enormous barrier reef, a thin white line of breaking waves.

Belize City airport was delightfully old-fashioned with customs officials behind old wooded desks and a bit run down. It still had the air of an old British colony, which Belize was until 1981. Its population, at 300,000, is just a little more than my home town of Brighton and Hove.

Within seconds of leaving the airport we had spotted a Vermillion Flycatcher a bright red and black bird on the airport security fence and at our first stop for lunch were treated to howler monkeys at Bermuda Landings, a river crossing where we also saw a ton of birds. Chris, our guide explained that there were lots of Scots’ names in the area as it had been colonised by Scottish loggers, who were after the wood that provided indigo dye. A troop of howlers had been befriended by a local man and these normally shy primates, who keep very much to the canopy, came down to feed from our hands.

We then headed off for Crooked Tree Lodge, a clapperboard hotel bang in the middle of a huge wildlife reserve. The lake out front was packed with birds, including the famous Jaburu Stork standing at five foot tall. Wood storks, egrets, ibis, herons, cormorants, vultures, sandpipers, ospreys, snail hawks – there were thousands of birds here, especially as this was late in the dry season and the waters had shrunk, concentrating the fish. We went for a long walk in at sunset, along the lake edge and spotted some recent cat tracks in the mud. Belize has Jaguars, Ocelots and other cats in the wild and a couple had clearly come to the water’s edge for a drink. That night we went out for a night watch and spotted Nightjars, hawks, bats, spiders and a porcupine up a tree.

Then a big meal of rice, beans and chicken washed down with the local Belikin Beer and some Cashew Nut wine. But the highlight for me were the humming birds in the garden the next morning, hovering stock still while they drew up their nectar, in iridescent green and red. They have to feed every twenty minutes and have a heartbeat of 1200 per minute. Truly astonishing creatures.

Birds of Belize

One of the great joys of this country is the birdlife. We saw humming birds, parrots, macaws, hawks, vultures, egrets, cormorants, frigate birds and the endangered Jabiru Stork. Everywhere we went we saw new species, helped by our brilliant driver and guide (Sylvino and Chris). It also helped to have two expert birders in the group (Stan and Racine). This lot could spot a sparrow at half a mile.

To give you some idea of their prowess, Sylvino spotted a rare Pootoo while driving, which was almost impossible to spot when you were standing a couple of feet in front of it, as it seems to grow out from the tree with its white bark camouflage. It’s a type of Nightjar, nocturnal, static and sleepy during the day http://videosift.com/video/The-Amazing-Camouflage-of-the-Pootoo-Bird.

Crooked Tree has the largest population of Jabiru storks in the world, and boy are they big. They tower over even the largest of other birds such as Wood Storks. I also liked the Roseate Spoonbills, fashionably pink against all those white and black waders. In the woods we saw the Kiskadees, lots of vultures (still trying to distinguish Turkey Vultures from Yellow Heads and Savannahs). The Snail Hawks are superb with their hooked beaks for prising out snails and there’s Ospreys and Kingfishers galore. On the morning walk we saw a punkish red Northern Cardinal. Grackles are everywhere.

Day 1 – Miami

A funny thing happened on the way to the US today. About four hours into our London-Miami haul, a member of the cabin crew leant down beside me and said, “Are you the parents of the two teenage boys at the back of the plane?”Having received similar questions in the past from teachers on the telephone, police and even paramedics, I visibly shrunk into my seat. “Well, we’d like to give you this bottle of champagne, as they’ve been so well behaved, really delightful children.” This was about as probable as winning the lottery without buying a ticket, and, as it turns out, not the first surprising event on this trip. So it was Bucks Fizz all round on our stop-over in Miami.

In 1986 we travelled around Mexico and went to the Yucatan and Chichen Itza, the huge Mayan site with its pyramids and sacred cenote. I was pleased, therefore, to be going to Guatamala and Belize to visit the Mayan heartland, to sites such as Xuantunich, Altun Ha, Lamanai and Tikal. We also planned to canoe and swim into two deep caves containing Mayan sacrificial relics and skeletons. In addition, we had the prospect of the rain forest, something I’ve always wanted to hike in, especially to see the bird life. You see, I’ve developed an amateurish ‘birding’ habit, regarded as a the onset of dementia by my children. Finally, we’re to chill out on an island off the Belize barrier reef to snorkel with sharks, rays and turtles. This form of wildlife, unlike birds, is regarded as pretty cool by my children.