Monthly Archives: April 2015

One cave to rule them all

We’ve been on kind of a lot of cave tours.  But now that we’ve toured caves in Belize, there’s no going back to the tame U.S. versions.  Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed in the ATM cave because several numbskulll tourists apparently dropped them on priceless artifacts.  However, you can check out this link to get a sense of the place.  Or try this video:

My family had a great time at the ATM cave. The cave has a much longer name in the Mayan language (Actun Tunichil Muknal), but everyone calls it ATM cave.

To get there, we had to walk about thirty-five minutes through the jungle and wade through three rivers. The park we walked through was beautiful. When we got to the cave mouth, we took a break for a few minutes to get ready for our hike in the cave. Our guide told us not to take pictures in the cave because people had damaged artifacts in the past by dropping their cameras or knocking pebbles onto to artifacts.

I liked the cave so much better than I liked the caves we toured on our cross-country trip. It was in the middle of the jungle and was so much more natural and much less changed by humans. The other caves had huge, built up entrances with gift shops, and paved walkways inside the cave. They had blasted away bigger passageways for people to walk through. In this tour, we climbed, swum, and squeezed our way through tiny passages. It was so fun!

At the cave mouth, the first thing we had to do was swim to a ledge about ten feet into the cave. The water was deep and freezing. We turned our headlamps on on the ledge. We walked for a while into the cave. We walked and swum through water and over rocks. Near the end of our hike through the cave, we climbed a rock face. At the top, we took off our shoes and walked in our socks so we wouldn’t damage artifacts and formations.

Our guide showed us lots of ceramic Mayan pots. A few were almost whole but none were complete because the Mayans would break them to release their spirits. Sometimes they smashed them and sometimes they only chipped them. We came to a large chamber. The floor was eroded away in swirls. As we walked across it, our guide showed us formations and told us about Mayan history.

At the end of the chamber we climbed a ladder. In the cavern at the top was a fully preserved skeleton of a Mayan sacrifice. Our guide told us that the Maya had gone through a time of drought. As they got more desperate they ventured deeper into the cave to pray and started sacrificing humans. Eventually they moved away. After that we made our way back out of the cave.

 

A few of our favorite things — Costa Rica edition

We’ll go back to the land of Ticos for just a bit, if you will allow us, to share with our blog readers our favorite experiences from our four weeks in Costa Rica. This was done by secret ballot and a complicated weighing process, and it seems to faithfully represent the will of the family. (Although parasailing is second on the list and only 3/5 of the family actually parasailed, the people have spoken, and the kids really seemed to have a good time up there.)

Our Top 5 Experiences in Costa Rica
P10101401. Snorkeling at Cahuita National Park (March 30)
It was fun when we went snorkeling. We saw so many fish! I loved it! We put toothpaste inside our goggles because it made it easier to see. — Lanie

  1. Parasailing at Playa Espadilla, Manuel Antonio (April 12)

Parasailing was an amazing experience. The most exciting parts were taking off and landing. First, we soared up into the air. We went so fast! The ground sped away below us. Once we were up in the air, it was slower but still really exciting. It was so cool to be hanging suspended hundreds of feet in the air! When it was time to land, the boat slowed down and we fell into the water. When we were almost there, the boat sped up again and we flew back up a little ways. I expected the water to feel cold but it was really warm! We rode on a jetski back to the beach. — Zoe

 P10100033. El Trapiche Farm Tour, Santa Elena (March 23)

How this will affect my gardening, I don’t know. Seeing the world’s three greatest (legal) vices all being cultivated on a relatively small area of land was definitely an inspirational experience for me.   The liberal samples of coffee beans, cocoa beans and sugar cane in various stages of production were inspirational to everyone else in the family. We even got a tiny bit of local cuisine that was not produced from one of the farm’s “Big Three” crops. — Bob

P10101174. Whitewater rafting on the Pacuare River (March 29)

We went white water rafting in Costa Rica. It was really fun because we got to go really fast. We went for about 3 hours. We did some hiking also. There are 5 classes of rapids. Class 5 is the biggest. We got to do classes 1-3. My favorite was class 3, because they were the biggest. — Nadia

IMG_75515. Giovanni’s Birding and Animal Tour, La Fortuna (March 26)

We met lots of talented guides on this journey — those that could spy a dozen different animals where we saw only trees — none was quite the match of Giovanni. As we barreled down the roads of La Fortuna in his van (which luckily he wasn’t driving), we would suddenly screech to a halt, and within seconds he’d be on the roadside with his telescope, beckoning us over to see a perfectly framed creature. (Later on, we found he could pull off the same stunt even when he was driving.) And he so clearly loved what he did — after a morning of shuttling us around starting at 5:30am, he actually volunteered to take us out again that afternoon so the kids could pet a baby sloth. And, against all odds, he delivered on this promise. It doesn’t get much better than that. —Jen

Sentimental family favorites:

IMG_7271Bob: Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. I remember walking through this park and feeling totally at peace. The high canopy and the well maintained trails made the experience comfortable and soothing. After a brush with the Resplendent Quetzal in the parking lot, we were virtually unmolested by any other wildlife — or any other tourists for that matter — for most of our walk. Also, our house was a half-kilometer from the gates. We got there on foot. This was at a time when I was not excited about driving our rental car over unpaved roads.

P1000967

I’m not sure at this point what you’re meant to be looking at in this photo, but it gives you a sense of the atmosphere.

Nadia: Santa Maria Night Tour, Santa Elena. We went on a night tour In Costa Rica. We walked around a farm with flash lights and saw a lot of animals. We saw a sloth and an olingo. I liked it because I like sloths and walking around the farm in the dark was fun.

Zoe: La Fortuna swimming hole. I really liked swimming in a natural swimming hole in La Fortuna. It was beautiful. Water cascaded into a series of small pools and then finally over a waterfall into a large, deep pool. The pool had steep sides and was perfect for jumping. It also had a rope swing. I wanted to try the swing. I was nervous because it was so high up. When I did it it was awesome! I swung out over the blue water and then let go and fell a long way to the water. It was so fun!  (Sadly, we had gotten several dire warnings about being robbed, so we didn’t bring a camera and thus have no photos of this gorgeous spot.)

P1010374Jen: Manuel Antonio National Park. This place had it all — miles of gorgeous beaches, turquoise waters, trails through the jungle and into the mountains, and animals throwing themselves into our path at every turn. It’s amazing that one small area could offer so much.

Lanie: Proyecto Asis, La Fortuna/San Carlos. We took a tour around an animal rescue center. There were lots of animals, even an ocelot! After seeing them we got to feed them. I liked the ocelot. I also liked to feed the parrots. We got to go in to their cage.P1010069  (Note: Zoe wishes to document that she voted for this one too.)

 

Family scoresheet: Each family member voted on their favorite Costa Rica activity in order of their preference. First choices scored five points, fifth-place choices scored one. The scores were tallied and the activities ranked.   Tallies and voting are listed below:

Pick                                                                          Score

Snorkeling                                                              18
Parasailing                                                             14
El Trapiche                                                             10
Rafting                                                                    10
Giovanni                                                                  8
MA NP                                                                     6
ASIS                                                                         5
Monteverde/quetzal                                              2
Swimming hole                                                      1
Night farm tour                                                     1

Voting

Bob

  1. El Trapiche farm tour
  2. Manuel Antonio National Park
  3. Giovanni’s bird and animal tour
  4. Snorkeling, Cahuita National Park
  5. Monteverde Cloud Forest Refuge

Jen

  1. Snorkeling in Cahuita
  2. El Trapiche
  3. Giovanni’s tour/up close with baby sloth
  4. Manuel Antonio National Park
  5. Seeing the resplendent quetzal

Zoe

  1. Parasailing
  2. Snorkeling at Cahuita National Park
  3. Whitewater Rafting
  4. Projecto ASIS
  5. Rope swing/swimming hole in La Fortuna

Nadia

  1. Whitewater Rafting
  2. Para-sailing
  3. Snorkeling at Cahuita National Park
  4. Giovanni’s Animal Tour in La Fortuna
  5. Night Farm Tour in Santa Elena/Monteverde

Elena

  1. Parasailing
  2. Snorkeling at Cahuita National Park
  3. Feeding animals at Projecto Asis
  4. Whitewater rafting
  5. El Tapiche Farm Tour

 

From here to there

We are stretching things to come up with new modes of travel for Jen’s list. You might remember the excitement she experienced taking a golf cart taxi from the dock in Caye Caulker. After that we felt like we had to really scrape to come up with boat-pulled inner tubes to add to her list of conveyances.

Avril gives an old-fashioned milking demonstration.  She usually uses a milking machine.

Avril gives an old-fashioned milking demonstration. She usually uses a milking machine.

Zoe opens the gate.

Zoe opens the gate.

How, we asked ourselves, would be continue our progress while stuck out in western Belize, with its highly developed system of taxis and buses?

Well, it turns out that western Belize is the perfect place to find new conveyances.

Nadia locks one in.

Nadia locks one in.

In this part of the world, where Mennonite dairy farms dot the hills over the sister towns of Santa Elena and San Ignacio, they ride cows! At least girls 13 and under do. Our hose granddaughter Cayla showed the girls how, even as her aunt Avril taught them how to milk cows.

Lanie gives food.

Lanie gives food.

Concocting in the kitchen

Concocting in the kitchen

More than that, they got to make ice cream, and repaid Avril for her time and patience (and fresh cream and eggs) by adding to Avril’s recipe book. She said she’ll always think of our family when she makes mint chocolate chip ice cream, since our girls were the ones who suggested using mint from the farm’s garden to make flavor it. (Though the real credit should be shared with our neighbors Cheryl and Kevin, who have made mint chocolate chip ice cream for us on several occasions.)

Lanie performs for the puppies

Lanie performs for the puppies

The end result

The end result

Although we were not able to ride them, the puppies on the farm deserve a mention, as well, because they entertained us so well. And while we’re at it, Avril’s sister Naomi cooked us several great breakfasts and a wonderful taco haystacks dinner, complete with home-made cilantro cream dressing.

The other new form of conveyance in the San Ignacio area is almost as off-center as cow riding. The hand-cranked car ferry that gives people access to the Maya ruins site called Xunantunich almost seemed superfluous.

ferry

Hand-cranked ferry

The ferry itself spanned more than half the river. However, the driver was very kind, giving us some Mayan historical facts as he took us from point A, on the modern side of the river where the bus stop is, to point B on the side with the antiquities.

Point B wasn’t actually where the antiquities were, but it was at least the correct side of the river. After the ferry, we still had to walk a mile to the gates of the park and another half-mile to the ruins themselves. Much of the distance was conducted over an uphill grade.

It was like Sturbridge Village, only with rocks.

It was like Sturbridge Village, only made out of rocks.

The temperature was over 100 degrees. We nearly wound up sacrifices to the demon god of heat stroke, but we had just enough water and just enough energy.  We climbed most of the structures, including the colossal “El Castillo.”  From its top we were able to see a village that was in Guatemala.

Nadia climbs El Castillo.

Nadia climbs El Castillo.

At least that’s what the guard up there said. This was the guard with no rifle, but with the smart phone blasting hip-hop music. We did not speak with the guard holding the rifle. Apparently, there is some tension between Belize and conquest-minded Guatemala, and El Castillo provides a good vantage point for the Belizians to keep an eye on the Guatemalans.

Lanie at the top

Lanie at the top

Otherwise, it was very calm and quiet at Xunantunich, the second-largest excavated Mayan site in Belize.  It once supported more than ten thousand residents.  Over the hills in Guatemala is Tikal, which once was home to over a million.  At the height of the Mayan empire, there were between one and two million people living in Belize. Currently, Belize has about 300,000 residents.  The country is littered with historical sites, both above ground and deep inside caves.

Despite our discomfort, it was definitely worth the trek to this site.  We would have been missing a major part of the country’s culture — and its appeal — if we hadn’t explored this facet of its history.

Time for tubing

While my sisters went SCUBA diving my friend Ganya and I went tubing.

We went to the tubing place. The woman said we could do it at 11 o’clock.   My friend and I swam in the pool till it was time to go.

When it was 10:45 we hopped on our bikes and rode over. A man took us down to the dock and we boarded our boat. Soon we were out to sea.

boarding

Getting into the tubes was the most difficult part.

The man fit me in the smallest tube. He let Mom out first, then me, then Dad, then Ganya. The man told us to go slow. We slowly floated out behind the boat.

It was amazing. The water was so blue, and we were so close to the water we could see it all around us.

drinksup

This is the first round of two from the surfboard.

Slowly the boat pulled us. It was fun. The captain set out a surfboard with drinks on it. The purple cups were filled with orange juice. The yellow ones were filled with alcohol. (Ed. note: Not completely full of alcohol! The adults got rum mixed with fruit juice.)

We sipped our drinks and closed our eyes. It was peaceful and fun.

Under the sea part II

P1010624P1010646On our last day at Caye Caulker we went scuba diving. Everyone went except Lanie, Mom, Dad, and Ganya Brooks. Diving was really fun. We went out on a boat to the reef. When we got there we put on our air tanks, vests and flippers. The vests were what the air tanks strapped onto. They had controls so you could inflate and deflate them to go up and down. Before we left, we had to do some training. We had to learn how to clear our goggles and get the water out of our breathing tubes if they got water in them. We also had to learn how to find our tubes if they got knocked out of our mouths.

P1010639Once we had our equipment on and were done training, we sat on the side of the boat and rolled off backwards into the water. When we were in the water we let ourselves down slowly so we didn’t hurt our ears. We swam around on the bottom and looked for fish. We saw some flounder. We also saw a lot of cool coral formations.

P1010630On the first dive I had to stay near the top of the water because my ears started hurting if I went too deep, but on the second dive my ears didn’t hurt so I went all the way down. The first dive went down 5-10 feet. The second went down 20 feet. It was really fun.

P1010652

Going slow

"No shirt, no shoes, no problem"

“No shirt, no shoes, no problem”

It’s hard to believe we’ve been on Caye Caulker, a small island in Belize, for almost a week already.  More Caribbean than Central American in feel, the motto here is “Go Slow” and people take it pretty seriously.  We’ve slipped into the rhythm ourselves, and the days have slid away like pearls on a string.

IMG_7830We all laughed with delight when we got off the ferry here and saw the tropical paradise: streets made of white sand, lined with palm trees and brightly-colored buildings, with the impossibly turquoise sea stretching out beyond.  Better yet, Caye Caulker is also a safe and friendly place.  We ride our bike around the car-less streets, weaving among pedestrians and golf carts.  Rastafarians P1010620smile and shout out greetings from roadside shops, and we smile and wave back.  Everyone seems to know everyone on this tiny island, and it feels like if you stayed for a few weeks you’d know everyone too.  It’s a far cry from other places I’ve been in the Caribbean, where wealthy tourists are barricaded into their resorts to prevent any possibility of contact with the native population.

Rush hour

Rush hour

P1010615We have a lovely house with a pool, and our friends the Brookses have the same a couple of blocks away.  We’ve spent much of our time swimming — in the pools, in the ocean at “the Split” (where a channel cuts the island in two), off the dock that our house has access to — and biking around town.

IMG_7845

THEY NEVER STOP EATING

Less happily, we also seem to spend a great deal of time thinking about our next meal and running to the store, since feeding 12 people is not a casual endeavor.  Fortunately we found vendors of fresh tortillas, and no one has complained about frequent meals composed of some variation on tortillas, cheese, salsa, and guacamole.  It seems like one meal is barely finished before they want to eat AGAIN.

Luckily we’ve also been able to sneak out for a few adults-only restaurant meals.  The other day the kids were very excited to create their own “restaurant” and cook while we went out.  Preparations were elaborate and they lived up to their agreement to clean up afterwards, so everyone was happy.

IMG_7835 IMG_7836
IMG_7862Today we split up into two groups.  Zoe and Nadia joined most of the Brookses for an adventure that they will be describing in the future, while Bob and I took Lanie and Ganya on a tubing trip.  We were pulled along behind a boat through the clear, blue-green waters around the perimeter of the island, with juice and rum punch being passed back to us at frequent intervals on a surfboard.  A good time was had by all.

IMG_7851Tomorrow we sadly say goodbye to Caye Caulker, heading back to the mainland and into the western mountains.  We also say goodbye to the Brookses, but not for long — we’ll be heading home in just over a week!  It seems hard to believe.  Two more stops in Belize and then we’re done.

IMG_7874

P1010621

Super snorkelers!

P1010431

Lanie beholds a loggerhead sea turtle

Yesterday we went snorkeling. We stopped at 3 places. First we went to Hol Chan, which is where there is a channel in the barrier reef. We saw some sea turtles and lots of fish.

After that we went out to lunch. The restaurant served breakfast all day. For lunch I got banana pancakes.

P1010456

Exploring the deep with the Brookses

P1010509Zoe and I climbed a coconut tree and picked coconuts for the restaurant. After lunch we went to a place called Shark and Ray Alley. We saw a bunch of nurse sharks and sting rays. We got to pet a shark.

At Shark and Ray Alley

At Shark and Ray Alley

Sharks and rays

Sharks and rays

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nadia pets a nurse shark.

Nadia pets a nurse shark.

P1010557

Zoe reaches for a ray.

 

 

 

 

 

The third place was called Coral Gardens. Our guide said we were going to see a hammerhead shark there, but he was only teasing us. We did see 3 manatees and a lion fish.

P1010572

Cool coral

P1010599

Not a hammerhead

 

Para-sailing!

Me and my sisters decided to go para-sailing.  We asked the man what it cost ourselves. The man said it cost $50 per person, and you had to be three or older.  So we decided to go.

They harnessed us up.  Then they told us the rules: Stay straight; hold on; don’t fall off.

As we took off, it was like flying. Seeing the wake of the water of the boat, I felt as light as a feather.  We went for a long time.  I was not scared.

It was worth it.

 

All harnessed up

All harnessed up

There's the boat in the background, ready to go.

There’s the boat in the background, ready to go.

IMG_7758

There they are — that little speck over the land bridge between the Cathedral Point and the rest of the national park.

IMG_7757

Coming in for a landing

Coming in for a landing

 

IMG_7769

That $50 per person includes a jetski trip back to shore!

IMG_7771

Ready for the next adenture

Costa Rica gets what it wants — Rid of us!

We didn’t tell you this, but before the dust of Nicaragua on our shoes had been covered by the dust of another country, when we were in no-man’s-land petitioning for entrance into Costa Rica, we had to prove one thing. It wasn’t economic means. They had posted several signs congratulating themselves on not charging an entry tariff. We didn’t have to pledge allegiance to anything. We simply had to prove that we were going to leave Costa Rica at some point before any roots grew under our feet.

Jen had to pull out her Kindle and show the confirmation for the plane tickets she bought, thankfully, the night before when we were on Ometepe pondering new adventures in a new country. Before we could get to those adventures, the man at the entry station needed to see that we had an exit strategy.

They turned up the heat, too.  It was 104 degrees in Quepos when we walked to the bus.

They turned up the heat, too. It was 104 degrees in Quepos when we walked to the bus.

That is the strategy we used yesterday to fly to Belize, leaving a country that was very nice, but all the same asked us not to let the door hit us on the way out. I mean, c’mon, yes we like tourists, yes we like your money, but we don’t want you to get too attached. Let’s just keep it casual, you know. Keep it simple, baby. Free and easy.

Anyway, Costa Rica’s a nice place, but it was clearly trying to get rid of us at the end. Jen got a stomach sickness early last week and that was just a shot across the bow.

Yesterday, for the first time in all of our experience in Central America, the bus was late. We waited in the hectic Quepos terminal, with very little information to go on, trying to figure out why the noon bus to San Jose was still not in the terminal at 12:30. It’s not you, Costa Rica wanted us to think, it’s me.

They also employed advertising to remind us of our native country in a clear attempt to draw us back to our nest. On the bus back from Quepos I saw even more signs of US cultural imperialism: Office Depot, Hooters, Carl’s Jr. — we don’t even have Carl’s Jr. in New England! How do they rate one down here?

Preparing to spend our last 3,000 Colones in the airport.

Preparing to spend our last 3,000 Colones in the airport…

In the candy aisle

…in the candy aisle.

And then, as a final boot in the pants, this weekend it seems that they froze our assets. Our debit card — our access to trip-lubricating money, our life line — would no longer work at the Bank of Costa Rica, where it had worked fine for the past four weeks. We were very lucky that Jen spotted the noble Lion of the Bank of America Central during our taxi drive to the hotel. We’d been in this country, it is clear to me, for longer than that for the country comfortable with.

Jen seriously doubts this money freezing thing really happened, even though she can’t produce another reason why our card suddenly wouldn’t work at the national bank of Costa Rica, even though it worked at BAC. I agree that it would seem counter to Costa Rica’s purposes of kicking us out. Despite the lack of an entry fee, Costa Rica does charge a hefty exit tax (like $29, per person) and if we can’t get to our bank account how are we supposed to pay? Have you thought of that, Costa Rica?

In the welcoming arms, only briefly, of  an El Salvador layover

In the welcoming arms, only briefly, of an El Salvador layover

Yes, they have. What is right there inthe airport, right next to where you queue up to pay the exit tax? It’s a cajero automoatico. Is it under the rotating cube of BCR? No, the ATM in the terminal proudly sports the BAC’s lion. We don’t need your stinking service fees, gringo, just go.

Well played, Costa Rica. I hear you loud and clear.

0n the water taxi

On the water taxi

Anyway, we’re gone. At the top of this post you can see a map of our complex journey among the Ticos. I’ll soon start the Belize map, which will feature even more water taxis, and — Jen was particularly excited at this because she’s keeping track of  modes of travel — a golf cart!

On the dock at Caye Caulker

On the dock at Caye Caulker

That’s what picked us up on the dock at Caye Caulker and drove us the kilometer to our very nice villa. We tried the pool out and then headed back into town to wait for our dear friends the Brooks family, who were in Belize and coming out for a week in another villa right here on Caye Caulker!

In a new conveyance!

In a new conveyance!

Except they weren’t on their way, they were already here. We got our first glimpse of them from about four blocks away. They were standing in the middle of the main intersection in town (on this Caye there’s only bikes, golf carts and a couple of dump trucks). Nadia spotted a large group of people — some tall, some short — wearing backpacks. It fit the profile perfectly.

We spot the Brookses.

We spot the Brookses!

They spot us!

They spot us!

By the time we caught up to them, they had sat down at a restaurant and were preparing to order some lunch. It was a joyous reunion, complete with nachos, smoothies, tug of war with a palm frond, lots of talking and a stray dog that seems to like noise and activity because she seems to have adopted our families as her own. A man with a shirt that said “Tourism Police” started to approach them, probably to put an end to the palm frond abuse, but upon taking in the entire mass of swirling children and dog, wisely decided to keep walking.

Happy kids by the sea

Happy kids by the sea

Happy parents by the seafood vendor

Happy parents by the seafood vendor

The accommodations are great here, the scenery is magnificent, and we’re ready for a week of adventure with our friends.

 

Crazy bear lady meet paronoid iguana people

What?  Behind the Iguana?

What? Behind the Iguana?

Some people who have been reading our blog for a long time will remember our friend the crazy bear lady from way back in Yellowstone. I wonder if she knows these people: We were on a beach in Manuel Antonio National Park when a single iguana strolled out onto the sand to lie in the sun. A nearby group of teenagers seemed very alarmed. Whenever anyone came onto the beach they would yell “LOOK OUT! ON YOUR LEFT!” and seemed confused when people weren’t scared of it.

“Do they speak English? They must not speak English.”

They warned everybody that, “they can jump! watch out!,” and when Lanie went within five feet of the basking iguana , they yelled, “Someone get that little girl away! It’s dangerous!”
Before you start worrying about our safety, let me say that we see iguanas almost every day and they’ve never so much as walked toward us. All they do is lie in the sun and amble away if we come too close.

IMG_7565

Feeding time in Muelle. Lanie survived with all her toes still attached.

You might be in danger, however, if you happen to be covered in cabbage. Remember our trip to “Iguana Corner” in Muelle a few weeks back — feeding time was a sight to behold, even if the giant iguanas were pretty tame once their salad was gone.

At the end of their time at the beach, the teenagers at Manuel Antonio walked out one at a time past the iguana, calling out who should go next. ” Tom, you go. Okay. Mary, you next.” Let’s all hope they didn’t get mauled by a sloth on the way out of the park.