Category Archives: Central America

Revisiting our youth

When planning a trip for our 20th anniversary, I thought it might be fun to return to a place that we enjoyed long ago, before children and houses and all the associated responsibilities of middle age.  So we returned to Quebec City, a place we visited a few times before we were married.

Of course, a few things have changed since the days where we were roaming around the Winter Carnival with our friends Sarah and Chris, carrying a hollow red cane shaped like Carnival’s mascot, Bon Homme, that was filled with a mysterious liquor known as

It’s Bon Homme himself!

“caribou”.   For example, not even once today did we take swigs from a random bottle of alcohol that we found protruding from a snow bank.  (There are not yet snow banks available, even up here in the north.)  Also, in October there are not so many people wearing comical snowsuits.

Another difference is that we’re at an even greater language disadvantage.  For one thing, I’m 20+ years further out from my high school French classes.  Also, I discovered that attempting to learn Spanish a couple of years ago, during our Central America trip, has had a disastrous affect on what little French I used to possess.  Last night I told someone “gracias”, and today realized that I’d been responding to the parking lot attendant with “si”.  It’s all jumbled up in my head as “language that is not English” and there’s no telling which will emerge when under pressure.

Still, it’s pretty cool to drive a mere six hours from our home and feel like we’ve been transported to Europe.  Melodious (and incomprehensible) strains of French swirl around us as we pass by patisseries, cafes, and ancient buildings of brick and stone.  Our airbnb rental is a tiny flat on the outskirts of the old city, looking out over the cannons guarding the old wall.

The drive was pretty good, too.  The foliage colors in Vermont were stunning, and St. Johnsbury proved to be an excellent dinner stop, even if it did prove a bit challenging to actually find a restaurant.

Apart from miles of wandering, today’s main excursion was a food and drink walking tour of old Quebec.  I did a food tour with some friends in Charleston a few years ago, and realized that this is a great way to get an overview and orientation to the area.  On our six stops we sampled local favorites such as poutine, smoked meat sandwiches, and seafood fritters, as well as wine, a cocktail, and herbal tea from the local monastary (which has become a health spa).

At some point we’re planning to venture beyond the walls of the Old City into the Sainte Roque district for dinner.  But now rain has begun to fall, and we are enjoying a bottle of ice cider that we purchased at the farmers’ market — so it may need to wait until tomorrow.

 

Endorsements #2: The lukewarm and the cold

I think we were very forthright about things that didn’t go completely perfectly during our trip.  Readers of our blog found out about the scorpion hiding in Lanie’s backpack, the huge spider our canyon guide threw at my head, and the chicken that defecated only a few feet from our table — inside a restaurant.  Maybe we didn’t tell you that last story, but there it is.  A chicken did its business on the restaurant floor.  It was not the classiest eating establishment we’ve ever patronized.

Most of our experiences were somewhat greater successes than the three mentioned above, and many of the tools we used for to get us through our days were more helpful than a bag full of scorpion. But not all lived up to the perfection of our Keens or packing cases.  Here are some of the things we brought with us that were good enough, but could have been better.

Recommended with reservations


ASUS EeeBook:
 We purchased our first laptop in preparation for going across the country.  It’s still our main computer; but, while it fit into our crowded van, it would not have squeezed so well into any of our backpacks.   This time around we wanted a smaller device.  Because of our emphaisis on blogging, we wanted something with a keyboard.  We also wanted something with a hard drive to hold our pictures.

Jen copies photos onto the mini-book.  Kindle is in foreground; Tonya is in the background.

Jen copies photos onto the mini-book. Kindle is in foreground; Tonya is in the background.

This notebook worked well and did not cost very much (less than half what our big Dell laptop cost).  It allowed us to achieve our goals with a few annoyances.  While we managed to blog with regularity, we were constantly plagued by the jumping around cursor.  It moves at surprising times, often highlighting, then deleting, large pieces of text.  Thank goodness for Ctl-Z.   We put lots of pictures on it, but the hard drive was nowhere near big enough to handle our whole trip.  There is a free web storage feature and about halfway through the trip Jen had to figure out how to upload a lot of our photos to the cloud.  It seems that we’ve been able to retrieve them — Jen will need them to populate our book about the trip — but the uploading and downloading processes were fairly involved and tedious.   Nevertheless, the thing DID NOT BREAK and it DID NOT GET LOST.  And it proved very useful for communications and research whenever we had wifi access.  (Another major annoyance with this laptop was that it came with Windows 8, which the Microsoft decision-makers apparently introduced purely as an act of terrorism, but we can’t really blame the laptop for that.)

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How does Ross keep his shorts up? Drawstrings.

Quicksilver Amphibian Board Shorts:  Highly touted by my friend Justin, these shorts just about lived up to his promises.  The fabric is lightweight, wrinkle resistant, and quick to dry.  The pockets are well-placed.  They have durable belt loops, a clever no-zip fly system and were generally more stylish than rad, dude.  But that’s a bit of the problem.  When I actually used them to surf, the button kept coming undone and they kept falling down while I was trying to stand up.  Ironic, that:  board shorts that are at their worst while you’re surfing.  It’s entirely possible that if I wore the khaki pair on our surf lesson day I would have these listed in the Highly Recommended section of our endorsements.  (The khaki pair had two snaps, while the blue pair had just one.) And the truth was, I may have actually had a chance at surfing, albeit a very small one, if my shorts were not down at my knees most of the time.   Then again, I did get them at an outlet store at a two pair for $50 sale.  They usually cost $45 apiece.

It was not as nice as it looks.

It was not as nice as it looks.

VRBO/AirBnB:  As Jen plans and stages our trip she uses a variety of tools, including those that connect travelers with owners of rental apartments.  For the Nicaraguan leg of our trip we stayed mostly in hostels and small hotels.  Once we moved into pricier Costa Rica, we sought out accommodations that allowed us to do some of our own cooking.  Thus, we saved a bit on our food expenses. Typically, apartments booked throgh the sites above cost about the same or only a little more than decent hotel rooms, and we usually end up with multiple bedrooms as well as a kitchen.  In just about every case that we have booked accommodations this way, we have been completely satisfied. The one exception, sadly, was the first apartment we rented on this trip.   The long driveway, the unfinished ceiling, the creaky celing fan.  I was prepared to write off the long, rocky driveway and the stream of ants in the bathroom as eccentricities of rural life in Guancaste, but the general dinginess was depressing.   And this was after five weeks in Nicaragua, which is not the tidiest place in the world.  The real kicker was that although this place was, as advertised, close to Rincon de Viejo National Park, it was not at all close to the park’s entrance.  We would have had to drive an hour and a half to get into the park.  And that’s not including the driveway time.  So we felt bamboozled by this place — though it should be said that this was our one chance to be off the main tourist track in Costa Rica, and the hamlet of Fortuna was bemusedly welcoming to us as we shopped for the two dinners we happily cooked here.  There followed many great experiences with direct-from-owner apartment rentals, which often came with concierge service from owners or apartment managers — we can thank them for the El Trapiche farm tour and Giovanni’s touch-a-sloth extraveganza, for example.   But bamboozling was always in the back of our minds, particularly when it was time to pull up stakes at one place and move on to someplace new.  That experience was always accompanied by a mild sense of dread that lasted until we were firmly rooted in the next spot.

This blogging Website:  Jen’s our IT director, too, and as such she set up our blog.  The site we’ve been posting on has been very good (though I would have preferred we call it Into the Big Picture — it’s a little more active) for most of the trip.  It’s easy to use and pretty flexible.  Jen was good about teaching me how to do it.  Then, without warning, IT STARTED FLIPPING OUR PICTURES SIDEWAYS.  Not all of them, just the ones we had to rotate to make vertical in the first place.  It makes them not vertical again.  It cancels out our rotating. We can’t figure out why.  It makes our work look even more amateurish than it really is.  If the people who make this blogging software can fix our pictures, we’ll move them up to the Highly Recommended section of our endorsements.  No questions asked.
The Kindles came out in force on travel days.

The Kindles came out in force on travel days.

Kindle Fire HDX:  Zoe and Nadia love these devices, which they received from Grandma upon their most recent birthdays.  The idea was that the girls would use them for homework, connecting to school-approved Web resources and zapping completed projects back to their teachers.  The reality was that the girls did a lot of things they wanted to do on the Internet with their Kindles — caring for fictional horses and kittens, texting friends, reading the Washington Post. However, when it came to doing homework, they claimed they needed the laptop with its keyboard.  Moreover, the HDXs weren’t even great reading devices.  I had to fight for the purple Kindle, the old, clunky purple Kindle, against girls who had their own full-color touch-screen devices.  (The purple Kindle, which is now departed, had many more books on it than the other Kindles.  The Fifth Amendment of our Constitution excuses me from having to explain why.  It was meant to be used by me and Lanie, the Kindle-less ones.)  Of course, bus and plane rides were made easier by the HDXs’ little glowing screens.  They showed their value on the very first travel day, when we found to our dismay that even though they’re international flights, trips to Central America on major US airlines include neither personal TVs or meals bigger than a bag of peanuts.  Racists.  We got treated like royalty when we flew to Europe.

 *  *  *

Then again, some things just didn’t work out at all.  Here is a chance to do some complaining for anyone who feels like listening.

Now for the rants

Major US airline flights to and from Central America:  Ok, it’s not that far of a flight from Atlanta to Managua.  It’s under three hours.  That’s one of the truly amazing things about Central America:  It’s so different, but it’s so close.  Nevertheless, we’re going from if not one continent to another than from one major region to another.  Our kids’ Usborne Children’s Atlas had a two-page spread for Central America, I’m pretty sure.  Why was I finding myself looking at the blank back of the seat in front of me?  Where are my movie and TV selections.  We didn’t even get headphones and music.  And don’t get me started about the food.  Jen’s still speaks in syrupy tones about the coffee on the Al Italia flight we took three years ago.  The meals (yeah, we got more than one) were excellent and there was free wine.  We definitely had high expectations for the international leg of our journey, only to have them smashed.  It’s a testament to our strong resolve that we did not just tell them to land the plane and let us off in Miami.  Why would a flight to Italy be so lavish and one to Nicaragua be so pedestrian?  We’re still on international flights going to new Usborne Atlas pages.  I’ll tell you why.  The Central Americans don’t rate the effort from the airlines.  They’re fine for populating Banana republics, canal zones, and counter insurgencies, but they’re not good enough to merit warm, lemony towels or Friends reruns.  Incidentally, the flight we took from San Jose to Belize City was very comfortable.  At least the leg from San Jose to San Salvador was.  It had little TVs and breakfast sandwiches.  Way to go, Avianca.  You do Central America proud.

International Cell Phone:  Should you be currently marveling at the accomplishment of shepherding a family of five through an eleven-week escapade in Central America, prepare to have your mind blown.  We did the whole thing without a functioning cell phone.  That’s right, we were out there.  Not intentionally, of course.  The pay-as-you-go International phone we bought for our Italy trip claimed, via the company’s Web site, to work in all the Central American nations on our itinerary.  We checked and double checked.  Only it didn’t work in any of them.  Actually, by the time we got to Belize, we were so used to being out there that we didn’t even bother to try it.  In Nicaragua it was useless.  Jen emailed the company and they said our phone was “not compatible with the local network.”  That’s not what it said on their Web site.  This led to some hairy situations in the Miraflor and Esteli where we got on a bus to Granada not knowing if we had a hotel room waiting for us or not.  We were extremely grateful to our Lindos Ojos hostess for calling ahead and setting things up for us.  In Costa Rica we had a little icon in the corner of the screen that indicated we had a network, but when we tried to us it, it told us “Emergency Calls Only.”  Shame on you international cell phone company.  How do you sleep at night?  Well, it’s nice that you donate a portion of your profits to the developing world, but you really should make your phones work, or give us accurate information so we can know before our trip if they’re not going to work.   Of course, this suggests that a family of five in 2015 was able to travel for 11 weeks in Central America without a working cell phone.  It seems incredible, but it’s true.  The Brookses even declined to internationalize their cell phones when they met us in Belize.  Amazing that we even managed to find each other without on-board GPS, but we did.

This pretty much captures it perfectly.

Please feel free to linger on the descriptions of torture stenciled on the wall.

The Folklore and History Museum of Leon, Nicaragua:  Jen doesn’t condone putting this place on our rant list, but it was truly a horrible experience for me.  You would think that combining homemade statues and vignettes of folkloric characters with a defunct political prison and torture center would be a surefire good time.  It was not.  It was the center of all creepiness.  It is where Stephen King goes to psych himself up for another round of freakfest literature.  I can’t believe we let our go through this.  It started with a life-size paper mache model of the matronly collector of folkloric figures that the matronly collector commissioned only months before her (probably horrific) death.   She asked someone to make a life-sized copy of herself in paper mache so future generations could behold her in the foyer of an old prison?  That’s what the guide said. Then it went downhill from there.  Take an infrequently-visited museum of the Nicaraguan revolution set in former prison where revolutionaries were tortured and killed.  Add several dozen life-sized paper mache statues of folkloric characters (this must have been where the matronly collector chose her medium) that nobody seems to know what else to do with.  Add a ghoulish tour guide…I can’t go after the tour guide.  Clearly he had a difficult lot in life.  One can’t walk day after day past wall after wall of drawings (again life-size) depicting the torture techniques employed at the prison, and tell stories of women-demons who suffocate lecherous men between their breasts, and not be affected.  I was just in the place for an hour and I feel pretty deeply scarred three months later.   Strangely, Jen and the girls seem untouched by the experience.  I should also say that while this museum was definitely a low point in Nicaraguan culture for me, the nearby cathedral and its gleaming white roof form an almost perfect counterpoint and could be a very cleansing experience for anyone who happens to fall into the folklore museum trap.

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Preferable to a rental car?

Renting a car:  This was unavoidable, but unfortunate.  I don’t do well driving when I don’t know where I’m going, and it’s impossible to know where you’re going in Costa Rica.  One can have suspicions as to where a particular road leads, but without in-depth knowledge of the area earned through years of trial and error, it’s impossible to really know.  You can’t simply pull in cues from ambient information, say from words and arrows printed on a sign easily visible along the roadside.   You mustn’t expect buildings to be numbered in a coherently ordered and evident fashion, or signs to tell which road is which, or numbers posted even sporadically to tell you which route you’re on.  Jen knows I get very stressed out in situation where directions are murky, but there was no way she could have avoided this.  There was a gap in the Costa Rican public transportation system that prevented our first few stops in that country from being connected in any other way.  It didn’t help that we got railroaded by a taxi driver on the way to pick up our rental car ($40 for a nine-kilometer drive?  Highway robbery!).  On positive note, we did avoid getting pulled over by the local authorities, which seems to be a common occurrence for foreign drivers in Central America.  Then again, many of the roads we were on were so steep, winding and rocky that the Costa Rican police must know enough to steer clear of them.

Wash-in mosquito repellent:  Jen busted her butt treating our travel clothes with a wash-in chemical that is supposed to keep mosquitoes away.  She had to hang them in the basement  in a rig involving ladders.  She was concerned about how the chemical would affect our septic system.  It took up a lot of time at a point in our lives when we didn’t have a lot of time.  Someone should have told us that there aren’t any mosquitoes in Central America during the dry season.  And when there were mosquitoes, such as during or week on the Pacific in Jiquilillo, the people have a home remedy for them:  They burn trash and let the smoke confound the wee beasties.   While unpleasant to us, the smoke did keep the bugs at bay for the day or so that they started to become a problem.  Apparently, there’s only one or two days every summer where the mosquitoes come out, and we were in Jiquilillo for that time.  (The locals save up their trash for this very occasion, it seems.) It should also be noted that Jiquilillo was the only place we visited that skirted a malarial region.  The bug repellent was a sound idea, I just have no idea how effective it was because no one else we met down there seemed to be bothered by bugs either.
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Neck pillows notably absent

Neck pillows:  Given the amount of time we were on buses, lugging along the girls’ neck pillows would seem like a good idea.  The problem was the girls never used them.  It wasn’t that they didn’t want to sleep on the buses, particularly in Costa Rica, where the buses started to get boring;  the girls just forgot to take them out of their suitcases before the suitcases got put in the under-bus storage (in Costa Rica) or on the roof of the bus (in Nicaragua).  There was a lot of scurrying and anxiety over where the neck pillows were at pack-up time, but they never seemed to be where they needed to be when we were actually in transit.

Endorsements #1: The Good

Believe it or not, there are multiple families traveling across the US in minivans, spurred on by information published in this blog and its predecessor, the Getaway Van.    Real people in real vans following our mostly made-up blog.

Oh, alright, we don’t really make most of this up; the Spreadsheet is real, and surely a great resource for families wanting to head west with their families as far as five weeks will allow.

None of these families has actually returned yet.  But we figure they’re fine.  Things can’t have changed that much since 2011.

And as imitation implies flattery, so does flattery inspire bloggers to keep on blathering on about whatever it is they feel like.

So, for anyone else considering a trip with youngish kids, maybe some of the following endorsements from our Central American odyssey will come in handy for you.

 

Highly recommended

The contents of my backpack, still organized on day 74 of the trip.

The contents of my backpack, still organized on day 74 of the trip.

Modular packing:  Jen picked up these cool soft-sided cases for packing purposes.  The backpacks lent to us by the Brooks family were excellent and very spacious.  There was a lot of potential for huge messes every time we opened them up.  Inside each backpack were individual cases that held clothes, toiletries, school supplies, games, etc.  This greatly facilitated unpacking, packing, and general organization, and cut down on the time it took us to set up or strike camp.  The cases that Jen ordered worked well, but so did the re-purposed packaging from sheets, blankets, and pillow cases  (generally clear vinyl cases with zippers).   We won’t travel again without them.

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What can tackle a muddy volcano and clean up well enough for a night out in Moyogalpa? Keens.

Keens sandals:  For the vast majority of the the eleven weeks abroad I wore my trusty pair of Keens.  This includes the day we left frozen New Hampshire (with socks that day) and throughout all 16 kilometers of Volcan Maderas (a week later I was still washing mud out of them).  By contrast, the flip-flops I brought lasted only five days in Jiquilillo before the left one started falling apart.   Everyone had a pair of Keens and all five pairs made it home intact.  They didn’t even start to smell (at least not enough to stand out from the rest of our smelly stuff) until after we got home.  To remedy the situation, by the way, we had to stick Lanie’s pair in a bag full of baking powder and stick the whole thing in the freezer for a night.  They’ve been fine ever since.

 

Actual picture from our snorkeling trip in Cahuita, taken on our Panasonic Lumix underwater camera.

Actual picture from our snorkeling trip in Cahuita, taken on our Panasonic Lumix underwater camera

Panasonic Lumix DMC TS25 underwater camera:  We would not have pictures of our waterfall cave and cave tubing tours, not to mention the girls’ scuba trip and our first snorkeling trip without this camera.  When taken on land, the pictures were not as good as the ones from our trusty Canon A70 point- and-shoot, but when taken in places filled with water, the pictures from the Panasonic were bordering miraculous.  Its ability to withstand  wet conditions allowed this camera to preserve some of the most exciting experiences of our trip and present them in our blog to our incredulous fan base. In general, the underwater pictures came out better than we expected.  Even if they were not as good as those taken by Carlos, our guide, remember that I don’t have his experience on the reef, and I was getting seasick by the end of the trip anyway.

 

We were so happy when the pavement started that we took a picture.

We were so happy when the pavement started again that we took a picture.

Toytota Yaris four-door sedan:  Renting a car was not the best experience of our journey.  I get very stressed out driving in unfamiliar places.  We were deeply conscious of how much more it costs to rent a car than to travel by public transportation.  So we didn’t fork out the extra money for an SUV.  It turns out that the roads of Costa Rica — even the ones connecting highly popular tourist attractions — are a lot worse than we expected.  But this lightweight Toyota sedan is sturdier than it appears.   These were bumpy, unpaved, uneven, winding roads.  Hilly, too.  Even filled with our family and our luggage, we made it from Fotuna to Monteverde and then to La Fortuna and then to Alejuela.  I wouldn’t say it was a pleasure to drive, but it was a necessity, and the Yaris did its job.  Plus, it had an aux-in jack that allowed us to listen to a good portion of “My Friend Flicka” on the ipod, when the road noise would allow.

The travel guitar is affixed and ready to depart Granada with the rest of us.

The travel guitar is affixed and ready to depart Granada with the rest of us.

Guitar Works SO-GWG-TC1 travel guitar:  Ok, I did try to check this with the rest of our luggage when we flew from Costa Rica to Belize.  By this point I was tired of carrying my travel guitar around worrying about it getting crunched.  Of course, Jen realized that it would definitely have gotten crunched if I checked it with our backpacks for an airline flight.  She talked me down and I carried it onto the plane where it went nicely into the overhead bin.  Even on the manifold bus trips that we took, the guitar suffered little more than going slightly out of tune.  Mostly, it was un-noticeable when we traveled, strapped to the outside of my backpack, not increasing the overall weight of my load significantly.  It does not make a lot of noise when I play it (a blessing for anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity), but it makes up for this with its life-saving track record:  If I hadn’t returned to our hut in Jiquilillo to strum a few chords, I would not have noticed the (potentially) venomous snake crawl under the wall and slither up into Jen’s mosquito netting.  Where would I be then? I ask.   Somewhere with a traumatized wife, that’s where. Carrying around my guitar and Lanie’s violin proved useful endeavors, as I do not feel like I got too rusty being away and Ms. Louise seemed pleased that Lanie was able to keep her Suzuki Book 1 songs “in her fingers” for when we came back.  Plus, Lanie earned a few bucks busking at our resort in Belize, and generally received acclaim wherever she played.

David Archy Quick-Drying Men’s Underwear:  That’s right, I got special underwear for this trip.  I exclusively wore David Archy Quick Drying boxer briefs, black if you must know, from one end of Central America to the other.  That’s right, four pairs.  Quick drying underwear meant I could wash one pair — often in the shower — and expect it to be dry and wearable the next day, even the next morning if I washed them at the end of the day.  I could’ve made it through with two pairs. Four pairs was an extravagance.   When paired with my quick-drying Quicksilver surfing shorts, they made fine bathing suits; thus, I was relieved from the burden of carrying around a dedicated bathing suit.

Grandma gets a pre-trip lesson on Skyping.

Grandma gets a pre-trip lesson on Skyping.

Skype/Facetime:  Most of the world already knew about Skype when we left for the trip, but we had barely — if ever — used it.   This mode of communication made our laptop (and our ipod Touch for our friends on the Facetime platform) extremely useful communications tools.  While we tried to get the girls to describe their surroundings in the blog, it was much more fun and easy for them to take their Webcam out to the balcony and show Grandma Arenal volcano across the street from our apartment.  This served as a launching pad for them to talk in better detail than we might have heard from them otherwise.  At one point in the trip Grandma admitted that she felt less worried about us on this trip than she had felt when we drove across the US. (???!!!???)  I think being able to see as well as talk to us contributed to this feeling. We did not use Skype in the Getaway Van days.  I’m not sure we called her more than a few times from the road.  It was all on the blog back then.   Skype/Facetime also made up for the fact that our “international” cell phone was c-r-a-p.  Crap.  We were able to be in communication whenever we had wifi, which wasn’t always, but it was just about good enough.

Jen rocks the travel skirt on the streets of St. Ignacio.

Jen rocks the travel skirt on the streets of St. Ignacio.

Travel skirt: (Jen here.  Despite its many virtues, Bob has not adopted a travel skirt.)  For hot-weather travel, nothing beats a skirt like this.  It’s at least as comfortable as shorts, and it can go so many places that shorts can’t — nice dinners, cathedrals, etc.  Given the extremely limited amount of clothing we had room for, a multi-tasker like this was critical.  This one is made of lightweight, wrinkle-free, quick-dry fabric and has several convenient pockets.

 

Did the monkey want to snatch my lunch, or my hat?

Did the monkey want to snatch my lunch, or my hat?

Airflow sun hat:  This hat, proudly made in Canada, was left behind by the previous owner of our camp.  Likely it belonged to the wife of the previous owner of our camp.  Yes, I probably walked around Central America wearing a woman’s hat.  Kept the sun off, though, and held up well to washing.  The chin strap came in handy on top of Mombacho where the wind was threatening to carry my hat out over Lake Nicaragua.

Fine-tipped markers:  Jen found these on Amazon and got them for the girls to use for their school work.  Incredibly, none of them appear to have stayed in Central America.  The whole set stayed together, thanks largely to the roll-up packaging.  Also, I don’t think any of them dried out.  Impressive, given all the coloring that went into just the Costa Rica rainforest coloring book Zoe and Lanie chipped in for in Monteverde.

IMG_7032(Small) games: We are a game-playing family, and a rainy day or quiet evening is much improved by having some family-friendly entertainment on hand.  One of the packing modules Bob mentioned above was a small plastic pouch containing the essential pieces of several of our favorite games, along with a little pad of paper for score-keeping.  Naturally among these was the classic deck of cards, usable for a nearly infinite supply of games.  Ones we played regularly included Hearts, Spades, Go Fish, Crazy Eights, War, Spit, and the kids’ favorite, I Doubt It! (which also goes by a less child-friendly name that several of you are no doubt familiar with.)  Lanie also developed an obsession with building card-houses, and spent many happy hours in this pursuit.  Other games were selected based on a combination of how much we liked them and size/weight (which mostly meant card games).  These included: Iota, Sushi Go!, Horse Show, Dominion (my personal addiction; for the true geeks out there, we brought a subset of cards from the original and Intrigue sets), and Left Center Right.

Nicaraguan Zipper Wallet:  I wanted a non-leather wallet because I suspected I was going to get very wet at some point and leather wallets don’t hold up very well to those kinds of conditions.  For my birthday I got a cool, colorful wallet with three zippered pockets.  I still don’t know how well it holds up to water, but it definitely keeps a low profile in my pocket.  True, I don’t hold nearly as many frequent buyer cards as I used to, but I am a much more nimble and efficient traveler these days, even when I’m just running down to the market for some milk.  This wallet was probably made in Indonesia, but, as it was purchased at the market in Masaya, it is a Nicaraguan wallet to me.

Without the date function on the Iron Man, would we have known it was time to go home?

Without the date function on the Iron Man, would we have known it was time to go home?

Timex Iron Man watch:  As far as I know this is not an expensive watch, but it served me brilliantly during our trip and continues to do so.  I’ve often had issues with watch bands cracking or tearing, but this one held up well.  No problem with water, either.  It held up to two snorkeling trips, several river caves, and a couple of swimming holes. The calendar display was appreciated — it’s easy to lose track of days on excursions like this — as was the two time-zone settings, which made it easier to adjust to switch back to EST during our home voyage.  Also, several of the Brooks boys have the same watch, making it trendy with the young folk.  Not bad for a watch that was turned to steel in a great magnetic field.

Renting to nice people:  It is always a gamble turning your house over to other people, and we did just that, for eleven weeks, to people we barely knew.  And we were extremely fortunate.  Not only did Deb and Denny keep the pipes from freezing and the local cat burglars from preying on our possessions and copper pipes, not only did they inhabit our home in the middle of the winter without the comfort of cable tv or an adequate snow blower, they shoveled our roof at one point and cleaned our oven — heroic feats, both.  Here’s hoping they’ve moved into the new house they were building this spring, and that it has a very clean oven.

 

 

 

Best of Belize

What a surprise that such a small country can offer so many cool opportunities, but You Betta Belize It!, as the t-shirts there proclaim.   Even though we only had two weeks to spend there, we still managed to pack in the adventure; and picking favorites seems a tougher challenge than we experienced when summing up our visits to Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

The seaside adventures were different from any we’d experienced before, without a lot of sitting on the beach, but with a lot of in-water activities.  The water was warmer and more clear than we could have imagined.  Plus, we got the thrill of seeing home-town friends in an exotic environment.

Then, a short drive inland opened up an incredible range of experiences and adventures.  Many thanks to Chris and Wendy Brooks for lining up locations and accommodations for much of our stay in Belize.  Caye Caulker and Cool-M Farm were their finds, and they were perfect places to spend time.  We also owe thanks to Nadia, whose interest in the Great Barrier Reef led to us tacking Belize and its reef onto our Central American Itinerary.  For this, she earns first spot in Best of Belize roll call.

Here are our lists of top 3 Belizian Experiences:

The puppies were very popular.

The puppies were very popular at Cool-M Farm.

Nadia

  1. Adventures, dinners and drinks at Cave’s Branch Lodge
  2. Milking cows for ice cream/playing with puppies at Cool-M Farm
  3. Scuba diving with Brookses
P1010729

Nadia was no stranger to the Cave’s Branch bartenders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caye Caulker was a great place to tool around on a bike.

Caye Caulker was a great place to tool around on a bike.

Jen

  1. ATM Cave
  2. Tooling around in Caye Caulker
  3. Hanging out by the pool at the Cave’s Branch Lodge

 

 

We're only just dipping into the CD of pictures our snorkeling guides took.

We’re only just dipping into the CD of pictures our snorkeling guides took.

 

Zoe

  1. Waterfall cave
  2. Snorkeling with Brookses
  3. Xunantunich

 

Despite the heat, Zoe climbed all over Xunantunich.

Despite the heat, Zoe climbed all over Xunantunich.

 

All the caves were incredible, but waterfall jumping was a singular experience.

Lesson learned: Don’t always believe the brochure when it says a tour is for kids 10 and up.

Lanie

  1. ATM Cave
  2. Snorkeling
  3. Waterfall jumping

 

 

 

 

 

 

A cave family portrait, plus our friend Sarah

A  family portrait, plus our friend Sarah, during our cave tubing tour

Bob

  1. Tubing Cave Tour at Cave’s Branch Lodge
  2. Snorkeling on the barrier reef
  3. Xunantunich

 

 

 

 

 

Time to go home

All our bags are packed.

All our bags are packed.

At various points during our trip, any one of us was likely looking forward to the day we headed back to New Hampshire.  That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy our time in Central America, but there are many things calling us home: grandparents, friends, our own beds.

Lanie's passport stamps

Lanie’s passport stamps

Regardless of how much we enjoyed our journeys through Belize, Costa Rica and Nicaragua — almost 80 days on the road — it all seemed to revert to distant memories the minute we got onto our airplane in Belize City and headed for Atlanta.

The final moments in Central America

The final moments in Central America

As the day progressed, the reality of home solidified.  We weren’t even distracted much by the confiscation of all our rum in Atlanta. (There’s a whole other security check irrespective of the one we went through in Belize!  Why didn’t anyone tell us?)  Ok, I was a little distracted about that.

Our successful return

Our successful return

And there was a little grumbling going through customs in Atlanta, especially after we got flagged and pulled into a long line of other people who apparently also had contact with farm animals while they were overseas.  (The cows at Cool-M farm were still worth it.)

Sam Brooks found us in the arrivals section only a minute or two after Jen’s pack slid down onto the luggage carousel.  Moments later we were in sight of the Brooks family Suburban and a comfortable trip home.

Sam arrives just in time.

Sam arrives just in time.

We’re still unpacking three days later, and we’re dealing with a home problem or two.  A leaky shower valve — and the effort to find it — has left our kitchen ceiling looking a little more industrial than it usually does.  All of our cordless phones seem to be on the fritz.  The check engine light is on in the Getaway Van.  The purple Kindle is acting funny.

But we’re home, and glorious spring is emerging all around us.  Testimonies from the locals suggest that the snow only really left two weeks ago, but now it’s garden planting time.  I’ve already purchased my beet seeds, and I’m warming up the soil to plant them in time for Tuesday’s rain.

We haven’t had to cook for ourselves yet, thanks to grocery deliveries and  a dinner invitation from my extremely thoughtful sisters and parents.  We’ve also been treated to dinner by our potluck friends and Bagdad Road connections.    Tomorrow, the girls return to school and Jen goes back to work, truly cementing our home lives back in to place and surely making our adventures seem like daydreams

Luckily we have our blog posts and pictures to revisit and re-read.  We still have to come up with our best-of list for Belize — no easy task, that — and I have to dig up a map to display our routes of travel.

So keep checking in.  We’re home, but we’re not done.

Finishing with a flourish

There are many ways to view this trip.

Here at the Cave’s Branch Jungle Lodge, during the final days of our journey, I’ve started to think of it as an ice cream sundae. Our journeys through Nicaragua and Costa Rica were each large scoops of different flavored ice cream. The week in Caye Caulker was a generous dose of hot fudge sauce. Cool-M farm was a generous dollop of whipped cream.

And this place is the cherry on top.

Squeezing oranges at a lodge breakfast

Squeezing oranges at a lodge breakfast

It is also a curious bookend to the experience that began this whole journey, our two weeks at La Mariposa school in Nicaragua. Both places emphasize experiential learning and communal meals. In neither place are we meant to feel like mere tourists. At the school we were students of Spanish; here we are adventurers who want to get away from comforts and into the wilderness.

Towel-art luxury meets screen-porch bedrooms.

Towel-art luxury meets screen-porch bedrooms.

The “away from comforts” part is not entirely accurate. The Caves Branch Lodge brochure stresses that the lodge does not sanitize the experience of being in the jungle. This is true, inasmuch as our cabana suite is virtually free of walls, instead relying on knee-height-to-ceiling screens to keep the bugs out. All the sounds of the surrounding landscape, be they pleasant or jarring, come through loud and clear. But the accommodations are extremely clean and nice, the indoor and outdoor showers are luxurious, and the daily towel origami has not lost its charm even after four nights here.

The lodge and guest houses are surrounded by a well-manicured, expertly designed jungle garden. There are many established trees of various varieties with an under-canopy containing an amazing collection of useful plants. Our walk from the pool to our cabana brings us past a cacao tree, an allspice bush, and a tree of the type that inspired and was used to produce Chanel No. 5. We also pass a small structure that houses dozens and dozens of varieties of orchids, including the one that produces vanilla beans. It’s very beautiful and educational, but not virgin forest brimming with wild animals — even if they do warn us to look out for snakes in the paths on our way back from dinner.
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The dinners are communal and pleasant. We have even struck up quite a friendship with a family from Massachusetts (it seems like all the guest here are from either New England or Colorado) whom we plan to keep in contact with once we get home. But the dinners feature four courses and multiple options — usually three types of meat, plus a fish option. It seems like overkill compared to our single-plate, home-sourced Mariposa dinners. The kids are not complaining, but I don’t think Jen and I will feel hungry for a few weeks.

Zoe climbs the big waterfall.

Zoe climbs the big waterfall.

As for the adventures, they have lived up to the billing. During our first two weeks in Central America, our Spanish classes drained us mentally and gave us a bridge to the culture we were about to immerse ourselves in. The Caves Branch adventures have challenged us physically and ratcheted up our adrenaline, while transporting us to places we’d never imagined we’d get to see.

Zoe called the shots in this area, proclaiming her desire to do the two most vigorous of the activities offered (our package deal here allows us three adventures). Once Lanie got the ok from the staff, we all followed Zoe’s lead.

Arnold and Lanie on their way down

Arnold and Lanie on their way down

So we found ourselves in helmets and headlamps climbing up underground waterfalls with cold, clear water splashing all around — and over — us. Then we leaped back down into the pools below. There was even one technical climb that required harnesses and ropes. The climb itself wasn’t difficult, but it was tough looking up for your next handhold with a waterfall plunging down into your face.

Waist-deep in adventure

Waist-deep in adventure

Three hours tramping around in a dark, wet cave (plus a half-hour for lunch on a huge flat rock)? No problem. We had a good group, good guides, and the kids are in good shape for adventuring. Hector the guide seemed to feel that Lanie needed a piggy back ride once in a while, but she was scrambling over rocks on her own two feet.  It is probably good that our other guide Arnold took Lanie on his back when he did the big jump off the highest waterfall. (Or it’s highly possible that we’re the worst parents ever for putting our kid — and our guide — through this. Where would we be if we weren’t questioning our sanity? Not in a cave.)

Tubing into the cave with our friend Sarah

Tubing into the cave with our friend Sarah

The next day was meant to be a rest day. We selected the cave tubing adventure, which is only rated for three sweat beads in the catalog (our other two adventures are rated for the full five six sweat beads). This adventure turned out to be a nice combination of our waterfall cave adventure — because we got very wet– and the ATM cave tour we took in San Ignacio — because we saw lots of Mayan relics.

Drinking filtered water straight from the cave ceiling

Drinking filtered water straight from the cave ceiling

In fact, the the historical elements of this cave rivaled those of the ATM cave. There was an awesome altar to the fertility god and a huge intact pot that we could walk right up to. No human remains, though. That’s why ATM gets all the limelight.  But it still doesn’t have a monopoly on skeletons.  The parents from the family we befriended took a tour of a different, dry cave that had human remains. (Their daughter accompanied us for the tubing.) They said their tour was cool.

Scrambling up the cave walls

Scrambling up the cave walls

No doubt it was. For one thing, people here tend to leave artifacts where they find them in the caves. The above-ground Mayan sites have been pillaged by locals and by early 20th-century archaeologists alike. The cave sites are more difficult to access (good luck trying to get in without helmet, headlamp and a pretty good idea of where you’re going — and even more good luck trying to get out). They were discovered many decades later than the cities, and the trend among those studying the sites now is to disturb them as little as possible.

Adventure hides in the hills around the orange grove.

Adventure hides in the hills around the orange grove.

Plus, there just seems to be an incredible amount of cool things in a relatively small area here. All three of our tours took place in the hills surrounding a single, innocuous-looking orange orchard.

Altar of the fertility god

Altar of the fertility god

Our bloodthirsty friends’ human sacrifice cave tour was in those hills, too. (Just kidding. They probably aren’t all that bloodthirsty.) That’s a lot of amazing stuff inside an area of a square mile or two, all of it a 10-minute drive from our lodge.

Zoe examines an in-tact Mayan pot.

Zoe examines an in-tact Mayan pot.

This has to do with geology. The hills are primarily limestone remains of ancient coral reefs. Rivers, the Cave Branch River among them, carve out cavities all through these hills. Ground water seeps in and dissolves minerals that eventually settle out as fantastic cave formations. The Mayans encounter the caves and take them for the entrance to the underworld, the realm of their gods, and the source of human existence.

Voila! The stage is set for adventure.

For our last trip we stayed above the ground, working on top of a cave that had collapsed creating a giant sink hole. Our task for the day was to hike a mile or so into the jungle to the edge of the sinkhole and rappel down to the bottom. The bottom was only 300 feet below. Jen calculated that to be about a 30-story building.

Nadia is ready to go.

Nadia is ready to go.

Zoe and Nadia were stalwart and somewhat stoic as they went over the edge. Lanie giggled nervously and tittered, “Oh, my gosh!” as she was lowered over (Lanie was lowered the whole way by rope from above, the rest of us used our hands and climbing equipment to lower ourselves — we were all also connected to the top by a separate safety rope managed by a guide). Jen steadfastly tried to lean back as advised, despite every rational instinct to not lean back near the edge of a 300-foot sink hole, and groaned, “I looked down. That was a mistake.”

Zoe and Lanie in transit

Zoe and Lanie in transit

I felt my breathing and heart rate accelerate to that of a cute little tiny bunny rabbit, times about a thousand.

But we all made it down, sorry to douse the suspense. I had planned to take pictures of Jen as we rappelled together, but I could not work the camera with my thick leather gloves on and I was not capable of contemplating taking my gloves off to make the camera work. We’ll have to rely on the pictures our guide Marvin took from the top and those the girls took from the bottom.

I can't believe I did this.

I can’t believe I did this.

How’s that for adventure. We even got a day off to linger around the lodge before it was time to pack up and leave. That meant access to the pools, some time to catch up on blogging, a few trips to the bar for alcoholic and non-alcoholic concoctions from Anthony the bartender (drinks were included in our package as long as we stuck with the local labels and refrained from anything that required the blender and, strangely, Gatorade).

By evening a family of howler monkeys had settled into a tree above the pools, we had gotten in a few rounds of the games we’ve lugged around for almost three months, and Nadia showed off her steadily increasing ping pong skills.

After one more four-course meal it was time to settle in for the seventy-seventh straight — and final — night in a bed that wasn’t our own.

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.