Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ometepe Island And The Fresh Water Monster That Lurks Off Her Shores.




From a distance, Ometepe Island  stands out like a double humped camel with it's head in the water.   The word Ometepe, means two mountains.  Two towering volcanoes rise from the island, Maderas Volcano is to the south and Volcano Concepcion is to the north. 

Concepcion is one of the most symmetrical volcanoes you will find, a Nicaraguan version of Mt. Fuji. The volcano is 5200 feet tall, but without snow.  It's probably the most popular volcano displayed in travel books and magazines about Nicaragua. 
 
The easiest way to get to Ometepe is the take a ferry from San Jorge.   Just hop on a bus to Rivas from Granada and then take a cheap taxi right to the ferry.  Boats leave every hour or so, and range in different sizes.

You can catch a ferry in Granada, but it only leaves Mondays and Thursdays and takes three hours to arrive at Ometepe.    

The ferry I took was a slow moving wooden, tug of a boat, with a smokey stack, that covered you in exhaust.    Riding on the rickety, bobbing, boat, I really expected at any moment, to find Popeye behind the wheel.  Pipe in mouth, huge forearms, a can of spinach or two laying around, just in case we get into trouble,  and singing the sailor man song, with a Popeye laugh.  

It the old days, making the long crossing to Ometepe,  would have been a little more adventurous and scary.  There was a time when the locals didn't dare swim or wade into Lake Nicaragua.  For the fear of the man eater that lurked and patrolled the waters.

To my knowledge Lake Nicaragua, is the only place in the world, that has fresh water sharks.  The local bull sharks are unique in that they can live in freshwater and saltwater.   Bull sharks have been known to swim far up rivers, one was caught 800 miles up the Mississippi River, so I'm sure bull sharks can be found in other lakes around the world, but may not live year round in them like they do in Lake Nicaragua. 

Before the Japanese and Koreans discovered the place, there used to be thousands of  fresh water bull sharks in the lake.   The shark fin market  killed off almost all of them.   There was a factory that processed the sharks that were killed on the shores near Granada.  An estimated 20,000 bull sharks were killed during it's short operation. 

Today it's only a rumor that sharks still survive.  Allowing you the sense of security to wade into the murky lake, but not swim to far out.  I talked to some locals and they hadn't seen a shark for the last 14 years.   They used to catch them right from beach at Ometepe.    But they said they still existed out there in the depth, or maybe just their imagination.   I read in books, that a few still live near the mouth of San Juan River.   

If crossing a lake with fresh water sharks, doesn't  capture your imagination, then arriving at Ometepe should.  The ferry gives you a great panorama view over the lake at more than just the volcanoes on Ometepe.

 The closer you get to Ometepe the taller the two volcanoes seem.   Just before you dock at Mayogulpa,  Volcano Conception is towering above you, like some sky scrapper in Dubai.   The top still active and smoking, the west side ripped apart and full of gullies and canyons where the most recent eruptions have occurred.   I took one look at the mountain and asked the guy next to me if it's possible to climb.  "Si senor"    

video

Video I took from a flip cam, crossing from Ometepe back to the mainland.

There once was a time when the island had more monkeys than people.  But now the 20,000 howler and white faced Chapuchin Monkeys, are the minority.   But still you are awaken by a chorus of howlers calling the in the trees.  Which makes the island a fun and unique place to visit.        

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua. The Gates of Hell.


I decided to go visit Masaya Volcano just to kill some time, while I was staying in Granada, Nicaragua.   But it turned out to be an amazing experience, I will never forget.   When ever I get a chance to stand next to an active crater, I will definitely jump at the chance. Back home it would  take a real trek to get up close to an active crater.  Let along permits. 

Located near the town of Masaya,  the volcano is a great chance to experience what happens inside the crater of an active volcano.   You can get just about as close to this crater as you possibly could, without falling in.    Don't stay at the edge too long or that's just what might happen. 

Masaya Volcano was described by the early Spaniards as the gates of hell. It has had some major eruptions in the past few centuries, and still erupts every few years.   The Spaniards actually built a large cross, near the crater edge, because the local Indians, used to sacrifice people by throwing them into the crater. The cross was to control the exorcism. A cross stands today in the same spot. Some unlucky or lucky visitors have gotten an up close experience of smaller eruptions.

 The crater is a huge steaming, gas emitting, sulphur smelling,  hole into the depths of the earth. So what does the Nicaragua government do.  They make it a National Park, and let visitors drive right up to the craters, edge.    I love it!

Masaya is the most accessible volcanic crater in Nicaragua.  Just hire a guide and find a way to get up to the craters edge and you will find yourself so close to the molten lave below that, parts of the overlook have collapsed into to the crater.  The park rangers advise you not to spend more than twenty minutes at the craters edge because an eruption or landslide can happen at any minute. 

My guide was about a chill as any guide I have had. He let me run around taking photos with my tripod, not even carrying how close to the edge I got.   I even walked passed  closed sections, with a big sign saying do not enter, and which have collapsed into the crater,  and let me stand right above the molten lava below,

While I was standing inches from the edge, taking photos, in a closed section, because I wanted to capture the seeting sun along the rim of the crater .   A big burst of gas smoke, came up from the crater and engulfed me. I had to run from  the craters edge, my eyes were burning,  I couldn't breath and my skin felt like it was on fire.  It was a good reality check, of just how nasty the gas coming out of a volcano is and to listen to directions. 

It's an amazing experience to stand at a craters edge and look down into a  rumbling,  steaming, molten lava pit.    There are an average of thirty tremors a day, so things are always moving.     You find yourself a little jumpy around the crater.  Always ready to make a run for it.   I was told by my guide that 12 tourists died in the very spot, I was standing,  when an explosion of gas came from the crater and overwhelmed them.  Killing them where they stood. 

In 2001 visitors at the craters edge were provided an up close education on what happens in volcanic craters, as molten rock starting being ejected from the crater and falling all around them.   This video on You Tube,  captures a small eruption that happened in 2008.  It shows tourist racing back to their cars, as a small eruption begins.    My guide warned me,  if the gas and smoke stops coming out of the crater then run back to the vehicle. It  means the opening has been plugged up and pressure is building. It's the only warning they have discovered that lets them know their will be an eruption.   Luckily or unluckily, the gas and smoke kept coming, so there was no eruption for me.




Just say you could never find this kind of tourist experience back home in the United States.   Only thing close to this might be a geyser or hot springs at Yellowstone National Park.

But this is Nicaragua.   And I love how they let you live your life. 

Here are some of the park rules:

-Park you car backwards or facing exit in parking lot near crater edge, so in an emergency"meaning eruption" or can speed away quickly.

-An active crater can present any phenomena without warning, such as Gas emissions, expulsions of rocks, sand, ashes, and others.  We let you know that gases can irritate your eyes, and respiratory tract; affect asthmatic people, and lessen the visibility in the areas. Keep away from the area when it happens.

-Echo Balcony Look-Out is closed because of being a landslid area and emits heavy dangerous gas.  (That's were I was standing, when the gas engulfed me.

-Spend 20 minutes in crater area, especially if you come with children. 

-In case of rock expulsions, you can protect yourself under your car.

-This protected area offers you adventuring tourism, therefore visitors need to accept its risks.


If standing at the edge of an active crater isn't exciting enough.   Ask you guide to take you back into the lave tubes at night.  With only a hard helmet and flash light, you explore lava tubes, and get the experience of watching 35,000 bats, fly by you on their way to the opening of the cave.  

Once you exit the cave,  you walk back to the crater edge and look down in the glowing red crater.  Get a sense of how hot it is down there.   It really looks like the gate to hell.  

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Shark Diving Honduras.



                                                  Photos of Caribbean Reef Sharks from the Internet.

The thing I love most about traveling, is the unknown.   You have no idea what tomorrow will bring, no idea what you will experience next.  Nothing is better than doing something totally unexpected that turns out to be a unforgettable experience. 

 The Island of Roatan in Honduras, is famous for diving.  The waters and reef are pristine.    But it's no longer a secret,  so their are dive companies everywhere.   Some on big boats, some on small boats, some run out hotels, some run out of local houses.  There are so many dive companies that you don't even know where to start.

I personally,  like to avoid cookie cutter tour companies.  They are run by companies with a stock market mentality, which focuses on profit rather than providing a memorable experience.    I've done enough dives with companies only to have the experience ruined by some burned out dive master who isn't having fun at what he does anymore, because he has to baby sit 20 other divers, who scare away all the fish, can't control their buoyancy, and are kicking around knocking peoples masks off.

My girlfriend and I were completely happy just snorkeling from the shore, if we didn't find one that we liked.  The reef is so good, you see lots of fish, lobster, and eels right off the beach.      

On the second night, we were just hanging out listening to a band play in a bar called Beaches, on West  Bay.   The band was called West End Players. The lead singer was named Bryon James, who had toured with Bon Jovi. 

We started talking to the drummers nephew, who mentioned that his uncle was a dive master.   And said that he has his own dive company.  It grabbed my attention because I love going with companies that aren't attached to resorts or hotels.  I knew the guy would be fun if he was in a band. 

We  met Konrad after the show and he talked about some of the best dives around the island. Some good cliff dives, wreck dives, then he talked about a shark dive.  His passion about diving was what hooked me.  I knew this guy was going to be fun to dive with.   If he doesn't like the vibe of the person then, he won't take them out. 

 My girlfriend and I both agreed right away.  If we only have the time to do one dive, might as well do a dive where we get to see some big fish.  So the next day we were picked up by Konrad and taken out on an amazing experience.

Konrad is a Swiss guy,  who owns his own dive company and rents rooms at his house so you can dive right from his place.  He is very experienced.  Look up www.Condorito.ch   Condorito means quality not quantity.  

The shark dive takes you a few smiles off the island.  Where the reef drops off to the deep channel between Roatan and the main land.  You only go to 73 feet, any further and you would drop off the edge to over 1,000 feet.

I'm not a big fan of feeding animals so they become accustomed to humans, but allowing people to dive with these sharks, helps protect them.  It's the same for trophy hunting in Africa.  If there is a value for an animal, there is a better chance that locals will put the effort into keeping it around.   If it wasn't for the dive companies convincing the Honduran government about how important it was to protect these sharks,  then they might have been over fished by now.   Around the world there is a major problem of over fishing shark species.

As soon as you dive into the water you, look down and see sharks circling below you.   I've never looked down into the water when I had actually been free swimming and have seen sharks below me. Well, bigger sharks like these were.    I have spend lots of time in South Africa photographing and cage diving with great whites, but being in a cage isn't the same. Visit this Link to See Photos of Great White's Breaching  But still an amazing experience. 

As soon as you descend you feel like you are diving in an aquarium. The reef around you is in amazing condition, you have cliffs, the water is crystal clear, everything is normal except the school of 14  sharks swimming around you.  It doesn't feel reel. 

Caribbean Reef sharks, are pretty beefy looking sharks, they are nothing like the cute nurse sharks we snorkeled with at Caye Caulker Belize.   They have those intense eyes that you see in cats, that go along with being a predator.

For the first 10 minutes you stay on the bottom and watch them circle around you,  making sure to keep your arms close to your body.  Humans have fed the sharks from their hands, so they might mistaken your out reached hand as a sign of food.   

You take time to allow them to get used to you, and most importantly allow yourself to get used to being with them.  They wouldn't be here if it wasn't for a bucket for of fish that the dive master had with him.  They aren't looking for humans to eat,  they are looking for the free hand outs.   With out the food, the sharks would have been scared off.

If the current isn't strong and the sharks aren't acting aggressive, then you get to kick from the bottom and free swim with the sharks.    It's an amazing experience, swimming inside a school of 14 sharks.   It goes against every  natural instinct of survival.  it's like swimming around in the middle of a group of crocodiles.

After another 10 minutes, one of the dive masters, places a bucket full of fish on the bottom.  This is what the sharks have been waiting for.  Their slow pace soon turns aggressive, as they take turns pulling fish out of the bucket.  It's a feeding frenzy. The more fish that gets ripped open the more the sharks go crazy.  But once the fish is all gone,  the sharks disappear.   They don't want anything to do with you. 

When the feeding frenzy is over, if you look around on the bottom you can spot shark teeth.   They fall out pretty easy when sharks bite down on something. Sharks are an amazing species.  They have a conveyor belt of teeth. When one falls out there is another ready to go in its place.

Back on the boat you get to share the amazing experience.  One you will never forget.  I totally, recommend everyone to do it, so they hopefully learn to respect sharks, and realize sharks aren't man eaters, we aren't what they are looking for. Even if you cut your leg on the reef, which one guy did, you don't have to worry about them going after you, they can tell the difference between human blood and fish blood. Fish are what they are after.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Roatan. Honduras. For My Father

 Before my dad passed away, I asked him where in the world he would like to travel to the most.   He told me he had always wanted to visit an island in the Caribbean.   Saw pictures of how blue the waters were, and thought it would be amazing to see it in person.    Just months before I left on this trip, I was by his side when he passed away. 

Now, here I was standing on a Caribbean Island, looking out over some of the most beautiful waters I have ever seen.    A place where the dark blue waters of the deep ocean, mixed  with shallow waters and white sand, so fine, is  more like a powder.  Together creating a light green color  that is of some other world.  Roatan is a  mecca for diving and snorkeling.    I couldn't help but get emotional.   Wishing my dad had the chance to see this place in person.   


We arrived to Roatan by ferry, which took almost 2 hours, from the town of La Ceiba, Honduras.   Once on the island we travelled by taxi, looking  at different places to stay.  The west end was a more  hip place, with hostels, and a bit cheaper. But taking one glimpse of the west bay beach we decided to stay all three nights on that part of the island.

We found a place, called West Bay Bed and Breakfast.  Only a short walk to the beach.   Glen who owns and runs it moved to Roatan from San Diego.   He made the choice to walk away from a respectful career, because he needed less stress in his life.     

Glen was a psycho therapist, back home.     His job was to council patients in Hospice, who were waiting to die.  He later taught a course at the hospital helping workers council people who are dealing with the depression of death.  

I told him about my father passing away, and how he wished he had travelled to the Caribbean.  Glen told me, that during his time spent with patients who were facing death,  he discovered that people were depressed, not because they were dying,  most eventually accepted it.  What makes them so depressed is coming to the reality that they never did what they dreamed about doing.   For some that was, never traveling and experiencing the world.  For others, it was working all their life and never following their hearts.   Glen  made the decision to follow his heart, to find land, and a beautiful island to start his business. 

On on the second night, we were  at a bar called Beaches, on west Bay,  listening to a band called the West End Players.    The band rocked!  We found out later, the lead singer was named Bryon James, used to tour with Bon Jovi.   Bryon moved back to Roatan after and is living the simple life, playing for small audiences at bars. 

 After the show, we made friends with the drummer, named Konrad who was from Europe.  He told us  he had his own dive shop and dive company.   He invited to take my girlfriend and I out diving.  To show us an amazing dive with Caribbean reef sharks.   One that we would never forget.

He told us about his life and how he came about starting his own dive company.   How he had a bad motorcycle accident, and was so banged up he wasn't sure he would ever get to dive or play the drums again. 

When he got better, he made the decision to start his own company.  He now runs a dive center out of his own house,  with guest houses.  You can stay with him, and dive right from his house.   Look up Condorito Dive Company.    I'll write more about him and our dive in another blog.  I don't have his website in front of me.

On the last day, I walked along west bay beach, the stars were reflecting over the calm ocean.  It was a slow night, not many people were on the beach.  The scene reminded me of the scene in the movie Contact.  Where Jodie Foster gets transported into space.  The aliens read her dreams to help understand her more and a scene that she would be most comfortable in.  

The scene was a beautiful beach, with coconut trees swaying, calm seas reflecting the night sky.    Then her father appears, which she hasn't seen since he died when she was a small child.   They talk for a short while.  Talk about life. 

If someone could have read my dream, at that very moment.  It would be exactly the same setting. Having my father next to me,  on the beach,  together catching up with what I have been doing, and  talking about how beautiful the Caribbean was finally experiencing it together in person.     

Thursday, February 16, 2012

In the Land of Jaguars!






A sound wakes me from a light sleep. We are deep in the rain forest.  The mosquito's and humidity , make it impossible to get comfortable. There is no fan or electricity to give you any relief, from the heat.

The howlers are calling in the forest outside, tricking your mind into thinking the worse. I remind my imagination that monsters don't exist,  that it's just the abnormal calls from a monkey,  smaller than a chimpanzee.  I hit the light on my watch, it reads 3am. Why are the howlers calling so early?

Howler monkeys, call for two main reasons, to warn off other howlers, or announce approaching bad weather. Sure enough, the rains came. Light at first, then turned into a down pour that made it seem as if we were in a monsoon. I was sure glad to be in the rustic cabin, we had rented, and under a  tin roof,  I headed back to sleep.

My alarm goes off again, waking me from a dream. It's still dark out, no sounds. The rains have stopped and so have the howlers. I look at my watch, it's 5am. Time to get up.  I wake my girlfriend, who is already awake.  She couldn't get to sleep.  

For the last three days, I made a deal, she got her beach time, in Placencia, so I could get my adventure time, back in the Belize mountains looking for Jaguars.  I would have liked to spend a week, in the mountains, but exploring in the jungle can be tough and dangerous. Something I would rather do alone.  So we decided on just one night in the Reserve.


Cockcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is a large piece of land set aside, mainly for the jaguars.  It's a mountainous area, with step peaks and waterfalls.  It's not set up for the high maintenance tourist. So if you came to Belize on a cruise ship, this place isn't for you.  

The day before, we spent the day exploring some of the Jaguar Reserve.  We hiked all over the valley floor, then made our way  up tiger fern trail, that had an amazing view of the Sanctuary.   The hikes ends at two amazing waterfalls,  that were made for photography.  One towering 75 feet, cascades into a deep clear pool, which then cascades into another deep clear pool.   We had the place to ourselves, meaning clothing was optional. The swim made the exhausting, hot trek up the mountain, in the heat of the day, worth it.  On the way back we spotted, lots of Jaguar tracks.  Which got us excited for looking for them later when it got dark.  

So here we were up early and heading out into the jungle,  when the Jaguars are most active.  Hoping to get lucky enough to spot one moving, hunting, at the very least disappearing into the jungle.  



It didn't take long to spot the first fresh jaguar tracks.  The down pour only hours before, would have erased any tracks made before then.    There was a jaguar here at this very spot, within the last hour.   Was it still in the area?

Your heart begins beating fast, knowing you aren't alone. It could be watching you, at this very moment. It's ability to remain hidden, and living hidden in some of the most remote and rugged landscapes,  is the only thing that has kept, this absolutely stunning animal from going extinct.

As if on cue, a shape  slithers across the path in front of us. A non poisonous snake, races to get out of our way. Just as worried about us as we are about it.  In the movies, when someone relaxes after a scare, that's when they are attacked.  But this isn't the movies,  it's reality.  

We are both on edge.   Continuing our walk deeper into the woods. Every step taking us further from the safety of our cabin.   Every falling branch, makes us  jump. Every rustle in the forest, makes us freeze in our step.

I shine the light into my girlfriends face, making sure I'm not dragging her along on some adventure, that she didn't want to go along.   But her face, tells  me she is just as excited.   Nowhere back in Alaska,  can you go looking for Jaguars in the Jungle,  and here we  are, deep in the jungle, with one somewhere close by.   It's what makes me addicted to traveling.  


The light from the rising sun, slowly washed out the darkness from the night.  The monkeys began waking up and moving about.  The birds began to sing.   


We never did get lucky enough to spot a Jaguar,  but it was still amazing, getting out there, and exploring.  A total,  rush hiking through the  Belize jungle, in the dark,  looking for the largest cats on the Continent.  


If you would like to visit the Jaguar Reserve,  just take a bus to the Mayan Center.   From there you can arrange a taxi to take you back into the reserve from the gift shop-restaurant on the corner.   Please buy something from them or order some food from the nice Mayan ladies.  The villagers were kicked off their lands, when they created this reserve.   

Dirty Dogs!

Along my travels, I've come across more dirty dogs than I could ever count. Every poor country has them running wild. You could probably rate how poor a country is, by how many dirty dogs you see running wild per street.

No collars, no owners, no rules, they dodge cars,  fight it out in the streets, they are almost wild animals. Except they live amongst humans, live off us, and still look to us for care. Some have been owned and given up, others born to the life on the streets, by some nipple sagging, dirty bitch.

I call stray dogs, "dirty dogs," because they are rarely ever clean, rarely ever without some sign of battle, and never have name tags. Most of them scratch in desperation from, being infested with fleas and ticks. Ears, hang ripped open, noses and legs have open wounds. Most are in tough shape.

Some dirty dogs, pass you by in the streets, like you aren't even there. Some poor souls, look like they want to come up to you and be loved, but don't dare come closer, because they have been beaten. Their tail tucked between their shaking legs.  Some dogs, just don't know how to act to affection from humans,  the other day a dirty dog was wagging his tail and showing his teeth at the same time. 

No matter their outlook, you will find me at least, greeting them as I would my own dog, when I walk down the street, or sit waiting for a meal.  It's comes in a voice, that you would expect more from a 5 year old, then a 6'5 grown man. "Hey, dirty dog," "oh, you are a dirty dog."

Don't worry, unlike women, dogs don't have insecurities, don't care much about their looks. Even if they knew I was calling them "dirty dog," I'm sure they wouldn't care much. They have more things to worry about, than being dirty.

But when I do find a really cute dirty dog, that looks nice and shows signs of needing some love. I never hesitate to provide, a nice neck massage, nose pat, tummy touch, butt rub,  or a combination of them. It doesn't matter how dirty they are, it's nice to see the dirty dogs just melt when you give them some love. That hard outer shell, dissolves, until they are acting just as sweet as the black lab you have at home.

Most never want to leave your side, claiming you as their owner. Following you where ever you go. I had one dirty dog in Italy, stay with me for three days, slept outside my tent, and even managed to crawl inside one night with out me knowing.

A dirty dog, in San Ignacio Belize, was there waiting for us outside our hotel, every morning, with a wagging tail.  The dirty bitch, was one of the fatter dirty dogs, I have seen. I was told later, the locals called her, tourist dog, because she latches onto a tourist who usually feeds her. 

Dirty or not, they still have the cutest smiles on their face and are as happy as can be getting some tender loving car.  If only for a few seconds.  While,  every travel book will tell you not to pet stray dogs, I don't listen much to travel advice. If I did, I wouldn't leave my house.  I'm a dog lover through and through.   You won't find me calling out or rubbing dirty cats. Unless I was lucky enough to pet a dirty lion, leopard, or Jaguar.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tikal








The Mayan ruin of Tikal in Guatemala,  is one of those places that captures your imagination.  Like a lost world, it is hidden in the jungle. Once a powerful empire, now only stands temples blanketed in rain forest.    Between 600 BC and 900 AD, the empire controlled the northern part of what is now Guatemala  As many as 150,000 Mayans, lived in Tikal.  Today, only twenty percent of it, has been uncovered, the rest is still covered by forest.

What attracted me to Tikal,  was not only having the chance of standing before towering temples, but in between temples you get to walk below the forest canopy, and hear and see life in the jungle.   It's a bird watchers paradise.  Parrots fly over head, tucans land on trees at eye level, and even jaguars,  have  been seen running through the ruins.

We made the decision to stay in the park,  instead of in a town of Flores, two hours away.   We wanted to wake up in the jungle,   instead of catching a bus from Flores  at 4 am to catch the sunrise in the ruins.   Like the majority of people do.  There are a few lodges to pick from at the part entrance.   Jaguar Inn, Tikal     

  Anyone who has heard howlers, in the morning knows, the show they put on.     They sound like a dragon is attacking a pig.     I've heard them before in South America, and have been looking forward to hearing their morning calls ever since.   They put on a show, that rivals, hearing lions roar in Africa and  wolves howl in Alaska.

video
Just before sunrise,  my girlfriend woke me up,  with a worried sound to her voice.    "Listen!  Somesthings outside"   I shot up and told her to come with me with a smile on my face  and we walked into the darkness and  stood below a tree where a male howler was sending out his call. 

I told her they were howler monkeys,  she laughed and said at first she thought I was making some horrible snoring sound, like I was dying,   then thought there were people doing some kind of chant outside. It made spending the night in the jungle worth it.  We stood below the howlers till the sun rose and they went silent.

It was a perfect  ending to our time in Tikal.  the day before we walked through the ruins, under clouds,  then the sky pulled back to put on a show.  Just before sunset,  we climbed  ontop of the highest ruin, temple 4, and watched with clear skies, the red sun slowly dipped below the horizon.  The sounds of the jungle made for a great soundtrack.  We  had the top practically to ourself.

I almost thought about paying off the armed guard,  and sleep ontop of the ruin.  It would have made for an amazing and unique spot to spend the night. 

Temple 4 is so high you look down over the forest like you are ontop of a mountain.  The rainforest, stretches for  as far as the eyes can see.    Spider monkeys pass in the canopy  between.  It's one of those spots you stay for a minute after the sun goes down.  Because you want to make sure to soak it in completely.   









Spelunking!










San Ignacio was the next stop. A town near the Guatemalan border, packed with activities to do, from cave exploring (spelunking), cave tubing, to day trips to surrounding Mayan ruins like Tikal and Xunantunich.

You could destroy your budget trying to do all of them so, we decided to just do Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM for short. Then head to Tikal on our own the following day.  Tourists not knowing about the cave and just arriving, would laugh when you say all we did in San Ignacio is the ATM. Thinking you only spent time taking money out of the ATM machine.

Belize is described as being like swiss cheese.  Meaning there are caves everywhere, cutting through the limestone.  Caves that the Mayans have used hundreds of years ago.  ATM, "the Cave" is one of the most famous. A guide takes you for an hour long hike through the jungle, where you have to wade almost waist deep cross a river three times. Then for 2-3 hours he takes you deep into the cave to explore the ramains of an old Mayan burial chamber.

 My personal very educated guess, since I had lots of time to study the cave, is that the cave isn't a burial chamber, since there aren't more then 15 bodies found in them, but rather a place where a Mayan group maybe hididng, was found and killed.   Why should you believe me? Besides the fact the all the skulls have trauma to them, one skeleton bound with his legs and arms behind his back and his head bashed into the cave wall, I do have two PhDs.  One in post hole digging, and the other in pot hole dodging. 

 At the cave enterance, you strap on your helmet, turn on your light, wade into the river, and swim your way back into the cave, hoping the fresh water lobsters and crabs don't think your toes are something good to eat.

When you finally can touch bottom, you follow the river back into the cave. Bats hang from "bat holes," in the ceiling. When the guide pointed them out, it sounded like he was saying butt holes.
The cave gets extemely narrow at points. Some spots called the neck ripper, is just wide enough to squeeze by 6'5 frame through, my neck just fitting through a guilotine like crack in the cave.
You head nearly a mile back into the cave, the guide entertaining you with shadows from the formations that look like different people, animals, and body parts. I'm sure you know which body part was pointed out the most.

Almost a mile back into the cave you climb from the river and head back into other passages, some places opening up into a cathedral like opening. You can spot Mayan Artifacts, pass Mayan Skulls, and bones. Finally you arrive at the grande finale, which mades the cave famous, and attracted National Geographic and Ghost Hunters, to come film here. A full well preserved, skeleton of a women rests at the end of one of the passages.

After a full day climbing around a cave like monkeys, our bodies  were sore.   The trek back through the jungle the bugs had a field day, biting into our wet bodies.  When I walked into our hotel roomafter going for some food, I found  my girlfriend  on her back with her legs over her shoulders.   Trust me I know what you are thinking.   Just like me I got a little excited,  but then she laughed and said, I'm just trying to count how many bites I have on my legs.   :)












Thursday, February 9, 2012

Belize Zoo

The Cayes along the coast of Belize are amazing. Would love to spend weeks exploring them with my own sailboat. Probably why Leonardo DiCaprio has his own island here. But since,  we have a time budget, we left the Cayes and headed to Belize City to catch a bus inland.

 It's a shame Belize City doesn't have more to do. It's located right on the ocean. But everyone I have talked to has said to just jump on a bus and get out of there, as fast as you can.   The store front shops only open up when cruise ships arrive, the rest of the town looks as if it's falling apart.  

So that's what we did,  we meandered our way from the dock to the bus station, and caught a bus heading to the capital of Belmopan. The buses are old American school buses, painted green. The seats, all ripped up and barely could hold my weight. Last time I was in one of these, I had a school bus driver  in
Junior High, always yelling at me to keep my feet out of the aisle.   I would reply, "Don, my legs are too long, my knees don't fit in the seats."   " Then cut them off"   He always replied. 

On the bus, I had the same problem trying to fit in the seat. Except this time, I didn't have a bus driver yelling at me, since people were standing up in the aisle, packed in like farm animals. 

 Along the way, I was entertained by a true Bushmen.  I could barely hear him or understand him, since Reggae music was blasting on the speakers  and he talked in broken english.    Besides him telling me he was a bushmen, showing me his swollen gnarly hands, and his home made drink, which he gladly offered me to try.   How could I tell he was a bushmen?   Well,  he showed me his shotgun, and shotgun shells, that he had on the bus with him, and talked about how he has to shoot deer for food, and crocs, so they don't eat his dog.    It was pretty ironic, that the place I got off the bus at, was the Belize Zoo.

It's no secret that I have  the biggest soft spot for animals. I've travelled enough now to know first hand just how fast the the poor animals around the world are getting hammered. It's no different in Central America.

I read alot of great stuff about the Belize Zoo. I'm not a fan of animals in cages or enclosures. But I will always take time to support financially, a program that is actually making a difference in a country. Zoos around the world are great places to educate people about conservation and get them up close to animals. In poor countries it's the best way to convince locals that saving the animals is best for their country in the long run.   Sometimes it takes seeing a wild animal up close to capture your heart for the rest of your life.

While Belize has protected 40 percent of it's forests, which sounds great on paper, it doesn't stop locals from poaching on those lands.  Just like the bushmen I met on the bus.   Where ever you have mouths to feed, you will have someone willing to poach. And programs helping  to take in injured, orphaned, or problem animals at least gives them a fighting chance.

The Belize Zoo, is supposed to be one of the best in Central America. You have to come with an open mind. This isn't the San Diego Zoo, but you do get an up close experience with animals you would have a small chance of seeing in the wild.

The Jaguars were active and walking inches from you, the cougar was standing next to the fence, looking as if he was waiting to be let out, some smaller cats were standing up on the fence allowing you to stroke their paws.

The highlight for me,  was seeing a pair of harpy eagles. One of the largest eagles in the world. I would love to someday photograph these eagles in the wild, before they are extinct.   The females are massive.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Caye Caulker





 Waking up on an exotic island is always refreshing, well unless you are ship wrecked in the middle of the ocean on an  isolated island, and you only have Gilbert Gottfried as a companion. 

I didn't know much about Caye Caulker before arriving. I always prefer traveling that way.  If you start with no expectations you rarely get disappointed.   Since I have a travel companion this time, I let my girlfriend do all the planning, She is as happy as a clam doing it.

She has been studying her Lonely Planet book about Belize like she is studying for her boards.  The poor book is marked with tabs, so that it looks more like a  research manual, than a travel guide.  Or a drag queen porcupine.

When asking what and where she wanted to eat, she had a whole list of recommendations.   We went down the list of places, to check them out.  This place was rocommended for good food.   This place was recommended for meeting other travelers.  This place was recommended for the view.
 
Finally we settled on a street vendor right on the beach, called Budget Man.    It was my kind of dinner.   A huge plate of BBQ chicken and rice, with some veggies and bread. Served from a guy with lots of personality  and we got to eat it sitting on an old wave break, looking out at the stars over the ocean, with a pack of  stray dogs begging only feet from us.   Felt like home!

 I've always been a spontaneous person,  prefer to take the path less travelled. I'm pretty stubborn like that.  I'm terrible on organized excursions, lead by a guide.   I always get yelled at to follow directions.
For example,  on the second day on the island we booked a all day sailing trip along the barrier reef.    Taking us to some of the top spots to visit in Belize.

It was pretty amazing, to snorkel with sting rays and and nurse sharks  in shark alley.  But my snorkel guide was always on me for snorkeling too far from the boat, not staying with the group like a little pack of ducklings, and chasing around the fish with my girlfriends under water camera.

 I couldn't help but laugh.   To be honest, this came from a guy who was chumming fish with lunch left overs, grabbing and flipping over nurse sharks and sting rays, so people could pet them,  in Shark Alley, and poking into the reef to scare fish out, so he could point them out.  And I was one of about 100 snorkelers,  from seven different boats, racing around with motors.   Some tourists never before had been snorkeling before,  couldn't even hold their breath,  had to wear floaties, but still tried to chase the sharks and sting rays.    I felt like I was stuck on the bunny slope of Whistler  Ski Resort in British Colombia, on a huge powder day.    I was getting lead around by Mr.Rastaman,  with long dreads  who kept hitting on every girl on the boat including my girlfriend.

To be honest Rasta guys and me get along like lions and hyenas,


Monday, February 6, 2012

Entering Belize



I'm back from two weeks off the grid and basically back from traveling back in time. The last two weeks were some of the most fascinating experiences I have ever had.   I'll talk about this experience later on.   For now I've managed to find myself a nice bar in Caye Caulker, Belize, that has free wireless and having dinner with my girlfriend who flew down from Alaska to travel for the next two weeks with me.

I made my way to Belize, by water taxi.  Arriving just as the sun was setting, dolphins were hunting for fish in the shallow waters.  The ride was smooth because the islands and reef block the waves.  We both timed our arrival so perfect that  she actually flew over me, landing on the small island runway in a small puddle jumper,  and arriving at the cute Maxapan Capanas a minute before I arrived.

The water taxi from Chetumal, Mexico,  was actually very simple to catch.   I figured it would be much more work.  Made it cheap and fast to get to the barrier islands, of Belize without having to travel to Belize city.   It cost only 37 dollars for a 2 hour ride, you can buy the tickets right and the Chetumal bus station, then check in an hour before it leaves.    The taxi leaves once a day at 3:30.   I'll include more info about this later when I get more time. 

For the next three days, we will be exploring the second biggest barrier reef in the world, behind the great barrier reef in Australia.  Tomorrow will be spend on a sail boat, traveling from island to island, and to a place we can dive with sharks.   I'm looking forward to traveling with a companion, since most of the time, I'm traveling alone.   Sunsets and sunrises will be a little more special when you have some with you that you care about, and it's always good to have some one to laugh with and share the experience with.