Ξ January 25th, 2008 | → Comments Off | ∇ Beyond Northeast |
This half of the Yorkblvd duo spent 7 nights of my Christmas vacation travelling through Guatemala and Belize. I had originally thought of taking the easier route through Cancun and the Mexican Mayan Riviera for sites like Chichen Itza. My girlfriend however, who was partially raised in Mexico, wanted to travel somewhere new, so we compromised on Guatemala. Now, the lynchpin of my vacation was the Mayan ruins in Tikal. I bought the tickets via Spirit Air, a no-frills carrier throughout much of Latin America and one of the few direct LAX to Guatemala City flights. My better half insisted she wanted to spend at least some of the vacation lounging on the beach. I figured this would be easy: Guatemala exports bananas and coffee; is near Mexico, Belize, and lots of other countries famous for virgin sand; and is closer to the equatorthan Los Angeles. In my mind, these added up to parasols in daiquiris.
I was wrong: Guatemala has notoriously disappointing beaches. Unchecked farming, volcanic sand, and potent currents resulting form vicious shorebreaks create a relatively hostile Pacific coast. Then, what little Caribbean property Guatemala owns is mostly monopolized by the port of Puerto Barrios, which makes most of the water unsafe for swimming. Fortunately, we did our research and decided to include the Belizean peninsula of Placencia into our itinerary.
Here are my impressions of my travels:
From Guatemala City Airport to Placencia, Belize –
You cannot get here in less than one day from Guatemala City without flying. I thought I could but grossly overestimated Central American transportation infrastructure. The bus and boat rides were hard on our backs.
Livingston, Guatemala might be worth another visit. A Garifuna settlement that can only be accessed by boat from Puerto Barrios, Livingston is populated by the descendents of British slaves who were exiled to several Central American islands after a rebellion. The hub of their culture is Roatan, Honduras. Livingston had a lot of Americans with dreadlocks and a definite ganja culture. Also, I was ripped off on the exchange rate at one of the restaurants. This was only a few hour stopover on our boat ride to Punta Gorda.
We barely saw Punta Gorda in daylight but what we did see wasn’t impressive. This was partially our fault as we arrived on Boxing Day. Everything was closed except a few Asian owned stores. We ate awful Chinese food and flew out the next morning.
Placencia was the heaven on earth we expected. In my less tolerant years I viewed beach vacations as cowardly and wasteful. I remember arguing with a former (no surprise right?) girlfriend who wanted to visit Ibiza. “There’s so much culture out there.” I would argue. “Why waste such a great travel opportunity on hanging out at the beach?” Well, I was wrong. Placencia was the highlight of the trip. Thick air, heavy with the scent of orchids and hibiscus greeted us to a peninsula of white sand beaches and warm Caribbean water. We snorkeled at Laughingbird Caye, the southern end of a huge offshore reef; walked the narrow sidewalks; but mostly lazed on the beach, reading and drinking in our hammock. The only drawback had to be the food. Belizean cuisine bears a striking resemblance to American soul food: Fried Chicken, red beans, and dirty rice. The local cuisine was pretty bland and every restaurant had a bottle of Marie Sharpe’s habanero hot sauce on the table to give the food some flavor.
A few days later, we were driven to El Remate, Guatemala, on the shores of Lago Petén. We really just used this as a jumping off point for the Mayan ruins at Tikal. The best advice I can give to anyone visiting the ruins is to take the sunrise tour. Though it was a misty morning, we got to hear the fauna of the jungle wake up from the top of a 2,000 year old temple. Then, we toured the rest of the complex (although only something like 10% of it has been unearthed) before the weather got too hot and hordes of tourists clogged the sites.
The remainder of the trip was spent in Antigua, a small colonial town near Guatemala City. Unfortunately, my Olympus camera was malfunctioning so I don’t have many pictures. Cobblestone streets and brightly painted walls surrounded by a panoramic vista of volcanoes made it clear why this is the top vacation destination in Guatemala. We took a bike tour, ate, shopped, and chatted with locals and visitors alike. Some of my favorite memories:
Biking around the small towns outside of Antigua and seeing the beautiful floral arrangement set out in one small plaza for their fiesta.
Singing along to Café Tacvba’s “Como te extraño mi amor” at a New Year’s Eve concert in Antigua’s central plaza. The bands were unknown and playing mostly covers, and it basically amounted to a commercial for Pepsi, but it was fun and we were surrounded by young Chapínes from (presumably) the capital.
Making fast friends with a guy at an Irish Bar (they’re everywhere) and finding out hours later that he was a Sergeant in the Army. If you’re not aware, Guatemala’s military doesn’t have the squeakiest human rights record around. He bragged about his uncle’s ability as a sniper and I didn’t have the heart to ask many more questions. I’m pretty sure he was chatting with me mostly as an excuse to hit on my girlfriend anyway.
Next Central American trip will be either another visit to the beaches of Belize with daytrips to their Mayan sites, or possibly a jaunt to the Honduran ruins of Copan with some beach time at the islands around Roatan. The summer is bringing a trip to Thailand so look for that in June.