Sunday, December 26, 2010

Taking a break at 6 weeks

After puffing into San Ignacio, we puffed our way out again 5km north to Bullet Tree Falls, a pleasant little village that lies lazily on the banks of the sparkling emerald Mopan River and just a spit away from Guatemala. It turns out that Marcus and Theo, our very generous CouchSurfing hosts, run the Parrot Nest Lodge. Imagine our giddy glee when we found out that we were to have our very own bungalow, a definitive upgrade from the floor space we were expecting! Vinko had been suppressing a cold and at the first sign of friendly faces and homey comforts he released the floodgates and we spent the next five days taking it easy, getting cruisy with the guests and locals, and generally just getting our shit together. 6 weeks on the road will leave you in a bit of a spin, mind the pun. We also found out that the memory stick containing all the photos of the trip thus far decided to keel over and die on us. So we needed a few days to mourn and drink away the pain of this loss. Trust me folks, I'm more disappointed than you that we don't have any glitzy images to keep you reading this post ;-P

Rio On pools and waterfall at Mountain Pine Ridge

The Croat Haka amidst the natural water park of Rio Pools

Danger mouse through slippery slide waterfalls

Bullet Tree Falls and the surrounding area has so much to offer: multiple winding rivers, lush mountains, deep valleys, caves, Mayan sites, waterfalls, real cheese and whole wheat bread... Marcus - being wildly extroverted and always up for anything and everything - knows all the local hide-outs, which places has happy hour when and you can hardly walk half a block without loud greeting being swapped across the street. We spent mornings at the colourful market trying all the concoctions of fruit wine (carrot wine anyone?!?), happy afternoons floating down the river on tubes, and never-ending evenings downing super cheap cocktails at Meluchi's, a little bar operating from a 12 foot container overlooking the cemetery and blaring with either reggaeton or karaoke (great fun, especially considering the super cheap cocktails). We also got the chance to splash around in the Rio On Pools and Black Rock Falls at the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. The myriad of pools and waterfalls are freezing - what were we thinking?!?!?

Black Rock Falls, home of the brave, Tarzan´s playground

Lady in red, just downstream from Black Rock Falls

Marcus and Owen showing off their Carrot and Craboo wines at Parrot Nest Lodge, Bullet Tree Falls
But all is not play for this travelling duo... oh no sir, we also had to visit Chaa Creek Lodge as part of our research. Marcus and Theo are good friends with the owners of Chaa Creek, Mick and Lucy, who came to the property in the late 70s as crusty backpackers who survived on picking beans and taking their produce to the San Ignacio markets in a canoe. So there is hope for us yet! Despite the fact that the lodge was fully booked for Christmas and very busy, Mick carted us around in his little 4WD gold-buggy while doing his rounds and we got to learn so mush about the property and its evolution into the amazing place it is today. The number one thing that we learned at Chaa Creek was the importance of great staff - each person seemed proud of the place and happy to be there, and we felt special because they were so pleased to be of assistance. Spending time at the lodge was inspiring and it ignited us to start pedalling again to go seek our piece of paradise. Good thing too, since the looming hills towards the west was not a motivating thought even on the best of days! Onwards to Guatemala!

Betta is bigga, is greatta! Sign at Rio On Pools, Belize

Speed bump = sleeping policeman, literal is betta in Belize, Cristo Rey Village

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Northern and Central Belize

Belize has kept us busy! We have met the loveliest people in some beautiful places, and spending time on the internet has not been high on our priority list. We just cruised into San Ignacio in Western Belize, although the term "cruised" is a bit of a stretch of the imagination - we just encountered the first of the hills on this ride and "huffed" is a much more honest representation of our arrival into town! For those in the know, San Ignacio area reminds us a lot of Montville & Maleny in QLD, and Pai in Thailand.

To back-track a little bit: Arriving in blue-green Belize was simple and straight forward, and actually quite a mind-trip. As soon as we got stamped, the music changed from Spanish ballads to Reggae, "Hola!" was bumped out of the way by "Hey Mahn!" and there was no mistaking that we were in Belize. Sugar cane field and sapphire lakes sprang up around us as we rode on one of only three highways in the countries - a roughly tarred, unmarked road that is just wide enough for two cars to drive on. And the mosquitoes! They show up in armies and show no mercy! We veered off into Corozal, which has a bit of a seedy feel but a great little internet cafe, and camped out that night with our two Austrian friends from Bacalar, Stefan and Romana, ready to set off to Sarteneja by boat the next day to avoid riding on the highway.

See Ma - no trees, walls or fences required!

Now, Sarteneja is a little fishing village on the end of the Shipstern Nature Reserve, 60km from the next town of any mention. And that 60km is not an easy ride - it is to date the worst road we've been on. The whole road was rocks the size of potatoes with sharp edges, so no matter where you rode, it was catastrophic. We decided that secondary roads in Belize wasn't going to be worth it. Upside is that we did go past a whole whack (pun intended) of Mennonite settlements, where all the kids passing us on horse-carts looked like brothers and sisters.

Literally THE WORST ROAD EVER - (Little Belize to Orange Walk)

In Orange Walk Town, we did our second tour-activity and took a boat down the New River to the Lamanai Archeological Reserve. The boat ride itself was spectacular - clean blue water, lush vegetation, birds and critters galore and we even had two spider monkeys come on board to grab some bananas. A classic case of Monkey See, Monkey Do: because they are the only two monkeys on the island and they only encounter human tourists, they walk on their hind legs when they come onto the boat. Apparently Lamanai was the only Mayan city in the larger area to flourish during the Late and Post-classic Mayan Period, so its architecture is unique and the culture was much different that many other cities of the time. We got our first sighting and sound-clip from the Howler Monkeys, who happened to have a territorial war going on in the canopy above our heads. Imagine this: you're 8 people in a jungle, age-old ruins around you and it sounds like the banshees of hell are closing in on you. Incredible experience though!

Dos platanos (spider monkey on Lamanai tour)
High Temple at Lamanai, and yes we are at the top there...

We headed down the highway to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, where our trip almost ended. Not in a bad way - we stayed for 3 days with Angie, Mick and their kids (Zach and Cory) at the Crooked Tree Lodge; we loved the lagoon and serenity of the place, they needed a cook for the busy season. I won them over with a potato dish and it was a close call, but in the end we decided to seek our destiny elsewhere.

Ghetto breakfast - old corn tortillas given new life by topping with peanut butter and bananas before toasting in the pan!
Good ol´classic southern barbecue meat at Slim´s Grill in Biscayne, Belize
Noah makes possibly the best Cashew and Blackberry wine in Belize, Sand Hill

The ride leaving Crooked Tree was hard, partially because we couldn't find a good place to stay along the way, and partially because my stubbornness wanted to get all the way to Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. The 85km ride was our longest yet, and we rested there for 4 whole days to check out the area and recover. After yoga in the morning, Tim and Cory, two motor bikers from Calgary (Dad, take note! Terranova Expedition - their Dec 12 blog has some photos of our day at the zoo!) gave us a ride on their bikes back to the zoo. The zoo was devastated by Hurricane Richard in October, but the staff did everything they could to ensure we still had a great day. Hats off to them. We got up close and personal with a python, tapiers, mountain lions and scarlet macaws. We even got to do a "roll-over, high-five" with a jaguar - so close that you could smell its breath and it was exhilarating. Jaguars are massive cats, much bigger than either of us anticipated. The next day we we cycled 20km backwards (one-way!) to Gracy Rock, a small Creole Village, with our new friend Alex who grew up in the village. It's a gorgeous little village on the Sibun river - we had to paddle a boat over the river to Alex's house. Him and his family was very kind to us and it was his birthday coming up, and I made him and the rest of the great people at Monkey Bay 2 massive lasagnas the night before we left.

Oh my god! Look at that beard!!! - Belize Zoo
The Schalk of envy, Tim and Corey from Terranova Expedition with one of the bikes
Bridge over Sibun River with Alex at Gracy Rock

Now we are in hilly country and apparently the hills towards Guatemala are even more difficult. So wish us luck - we'll be heading out there probably in about a week!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Adios Mexico, Bienvenidos a Belize

The last week in Mexico was a tumble dryer; we travelled quickly and struggled in parts of the wilderness, pampered ourselves at an ecolodge and lay-low for a while in a campers hideaway paradise, and even played a small role in the theartical drama of a bustling populated albeit little Mexican town.

The boat to Punta Herrero from Punta Allen was in the end a mystery never to be resolved, the weather did not improve, at least not within a reasonable time bracket for our trip, and we took the rugged road through Sian Kaan to get to Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Cycling through the middle of a biosphere reserve jungle as four o'clock swings around, the day begins to yawn and you have no clue where you will sleep that night can heighten the stress levels just a tad. Luckily for us the lesser visited Caseta Santa Teresa did in fact exist and came just at the saving tick of time, Manuel the ranger working there was a saint and showed us into the very comfortable military style sleeping quarters and bathrooms. We had a great nights sleep after a well deserved warm meal and loads of liquids.

We reached Felipe Carrillo Puerto well into the afternoon after another tough ride and a minor puncture in Sian Kaan. The road closer to Carrillo seemed to be the hunting ground for many a poacher or logger, it was a sad sight to see the scars left behind as layers of jungle were torn out of the thick vegetation. A quick stop at the first little mini-mart, a few cold cokes later and we found a hotel to rest for the night. That evening and early the next morning we enjoyed the delights the regional town markets of Mexico tend to offer, fresh licuados and hot empanadas - yumm!

After the Sian Kaan adventure, the rough nights sleep in Carrillo and lots of headwind, the 75km ride to Pedro Antonio Santos for our next stop was a real, real tough challenge. We crashed for a quick lunch and a rest in one of the random staggered yellow concrete bus stops along the highway. We reached our destination late into the day, it was a beautiful end to our ride - the wind calmed, birds and grasshoppers flew across our view of the setting sun. We rode in these calm, dry and comfortable conditions until reaching the turn off to Laguna Azul, a German run camping and cabana hang-out on the northern edge of the Bacalar Laguna. We stayed for two magical and relaxing nights where we came to a deeper understanding of why people tend to move to live at the edge of a lake.

Vinko and Stefan attempting the world's first canoe launched Kite Surf, Laguna Azul

Our stay in Bacalar was eco-romantic at the Kuuch Kaanil cabanas, again the stunning lake and the relaxing setting made it difficult to cut our stay any shorter (we stayed for three nights). While staying with the nice people at Kuuch Kaanil we explored the lake for half a morning with a couple from Mexico city who were staying there on a friends recommendation. Our guide Angel took us to a 120 meter deep cenote (Cenote Azul - often used by deep sea free divers) as well as gliding through the Canal de los Piratas, a channel used by logging pirates local from the region who used to smuggle out mahogany to be used on expensive furniture made in England and Europe before the 20th century. This area is definitely going on our top picks list to return to and maybe start our eco-venture, it is truly amazing and very well worth looking after. The couple from Mexico city, Manuel and Mansul turned out to be extremely generous people. That afternoon they invited us to come along for a walk around Chachobben (they insisted on paying our entry fee!), a rarely visited group of Mayan temple ruins much more majestic and stunning that anything seen at Chitchen Itza - but this is probably largely due to the fact that you might well turn out to be the only person at the site to experience its calm wonder.

The mission ride to Belize turned out to be quite a bit more difficult (mostly due to head wind - again) and quite a bit further than we initially envisioned. We crossed the border after paying a departure tax to leave Mexico - a common feature it seems in most Central American nations. Right on the border between Mexico and Belize there is a place known as the free-zone, a place of bargain shopping with tax free prices the size of a smaller town, totally lawless and chaotic. Immediately upon entering Belize one could sense the striking differences in culture; the music, the accents, the clothing, the cars and of course the currency. We bought only necessary supplies in the free-zone and snatched a quick lunch at a road stall serving Mexican style buns with chicken and salsa, these went down well with a couple of soft drinks to quench our day's thirst.

We reached Corozal, our first destination in Belize, after a brisk hour ride from the border. Drivers on the road, again were very considerate and took sweeping lines to provide lots of clearance for us - this is even more remarkable when considering the fact that this was highway number one, a road with just enough space for two trucks to pass each other and no painted lines. Corozal is a cute little town with a lovely little central plaza or park, it had just the right number of shops and stops for us to stock up on supplies, get on the internet to complete this website (yay - milestone!) and get a night's rest. We got up very early the next morning for our boat transfer to Sarteneja, an end of the road seaside town with a more regional road access to Orange Walk - at this point our preferred travel route.

Three 250 horsepower outboards, that beats anything we saw as kids on Lastovo!

All in all, we miss Mexico already and having explored just a small number of gems that just the state of Quintana Roo had to offer, we pledge to return again sometime to explore more of this thriving middle ground and rich melting point standing between North and Central America. Belize it turns out, as we predicted, is already a lot more pleasant and friendly than people warned us along our route so far - but that's always the case, isn't it?!