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Belize City, Central America

Tikal 1/10 Wednesday, March 19, 2003
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Map of Tikal

The ship anchored off Belize City and dropped the hook around 5:30am. Our tour group would be the first off the ship since we had the furthest to travel that day. The first tender out left around 6:15am and the 20 minute tender ride ended at a small wharf in bustling Belize City. Belize City is almost a frontier town, and in the past had quite a reputation for pirates and drug runners. Belize was formally British Honduras and is now one of the most stable countries (next to Costa Rica) in Central America. The Brits still have a presence there, and the only dispute Belize has is with it's western neighbor, Guatemala. There have been times when Guatemala has wanted to annex a large part of Belize, refusing offers for some land, Guatemala wants more. With the advent of finding oil in the mountains near the border, there is a renewed push for access to the Caribbean for a port.

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Belize City

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After we met our tour guide, we took a 30 minute shuttle ride just outside of the city to the International airport. Most buildings are on stilts here, or raised, since Belize City is at, or below sea level. When a major hurricane hits, the storm surge effects everything.

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Maya Island Air To Peten

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After waiting at the airport about 30 minutes for our flight, we had found that there were some issues with smoke and fog that delayed the flight. Finally when cleared, we boarded a Cessna (C208C) Caravan. The Caravan is an interesting airplane, since it's like a larger version of the overwing Cessna, but has a turboprop instead of a normally or turbo charged aspirated engine. I got to sit in the copilot seat, and the ten remaining sat in a cramped cabin. The views from in front with the large Plexiglas windows were amazing. I watched as the GPS slowly ticked the miles as we entered Guatemala, about an hour flight for a distance of about 145 miles. The Caravan averaged anywhere from 130-150 miles per hour. The sky was full of a haze, from unknown origin until we finally got closer to our destination, Peten, Guatemala. We passed over a huge natural lake near Peten, which measured about 40 miles long by three miles wide. The lake had the prettiest milky blue green color to it, and was a 150 meter deep freshwater lake. The approach to Peten was rough, with the thermals from the hot tropical Sun bouncing the plane around.

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Bus Ride to Tikal

The airport in Peten is typical Latin American structure, with a open-air building. Most of the turboprops here are made in the Soviet Union (Len) and resemble a variation of the Mitsubishi Business Turboprop, called by pilots the Rice Rocket , since they're so fast. After clearing customs, we boarded a bus and headed towards Tikal. Our tour guide explained to us the slash and burn technique which was still being used by farmers to clear the land. The effect on this hot day, was huge amounts of smoke in every direction. You could not get away from the smell of it. Our guide told us it would be even worse as the day progressed. The bus ride took about an hour as we climbed from about sea level to around a thousand feet. There were hills in this region, unlike the flat Belize from which we came. Our tour guide was the very knowledgeable Javier Perez. It was interesting to note that Norwegian charges us $399.00 for the tour, which is available on shore for about $250-275. You may contact Javier direct in Belize on his cell phone at cell 6000901.

Tikal

We passed through the main gate in Tikal, which is heavily forested in a jungle escarpment, then had to drive another 15-20 minutes to actually get to the site. Tikal covers 200 square miles, which is a huge area for any ancient civilization for a group of structures. There are over 10,000 platforms here (or structures) which is just amazing. The Mayans had a extensive network of aqueducts and food storage to keep the religious centers thriving. After parking at the welcome center, we began out walk into the primary group of structures in this area, and which is known as the most famous towering pyramids. Since the Cieba (Kapok) trees here grow to hundreds of feet, you really can't grasp how large this one area is, and the hidden treasures that the huge trees disguise. After about 30 minutes at looking at very small structures and Stele, I pressed ahead on my own to get to the main temples, so that I could start doing my photo shoot of the religious center. It was approaching near 100 degrees there, but the tall trees shaded some of the sun so the walk wasn't too bad. I had noticed that there were steep inclines occasionally on the sides of the dirt patch, which were unexcavated temples. As I got nearer, three spider monkeys swung from limb to limb on some trees above.

Tikal

Mayan pyramid structures represented Sun revolving around the Earth, and for an 18 day period to equal a month, and 20 months a year. This seemed to by a common thread with the building of the temples. On some of the smaller structures, I inquired how they put the ruins back into some organized manner, since they looked rebuilt to some extent. Most of the of what looked like random hills where uncovered temples, which had long since been entrapped by the jungle. When the workers cleared these ruins some of the structure was not where it originally had been, but using the simple but complex orientation developed by the Maya, they had been rebuilt to some degree of accuracy.

Wildlife at Tikal

The amount of wildlife at Tikal is amazing. Walking on the patch you're likely to encounter Spider monkeys, wild turkey, any number of four-legged jungle animals, birds of prey, and even some crocodiles in the small lagoon outside the visitor center.

Tikal

After a lengthy walk and after asking from some directions, I finally found my way to a clearing, which was surround by tall peaks, or what appeared to be very steeply pitched hills from the backside. When finally walking around to the front of the structure, the incredible panorama of Tikal started to reveal itself. The main courtyard was bookend by two very tall temples, and flanked by some lower, but equally as impressive structures with stele and other carvings. One of the pyramids could be accessed, so I climbed up the huge steps which were very steeply pitched. Balance is a necessity here, since one wrong move will easily lead to a very (and possibly lethal) fall to the ground. Finally reaching the top level of the temple, you could relax, and gaze upon the court below, and scan the horizon for more hidden treasures. The Sun by midday was incredibly hot, and relentlessly beat down onto the carved rock of the temples. If you put your hand on the stones (which was a necessity when climbing) too long, you would burn yourself. so it became a balancing act of touching to steady your ascent, but not lingering long enough to burn yourself. The view from the top (which was over 150 feet) was spectacular. The treed top level seemed to touch the sky and the canopy was still higher in some areas. Looking carefully, you could easily see that by scanning the horizon, there were a number of temples still waiting to be found. Tikal is a magical place, and only shows itself to a few willing to look very carefully. The jungle here conceals very well, and what isn't properly maintained, the jungle claims as it's own, slowly devouring what ever structure you have into the escarpment

Slash and Burn

What I found very interesting, and quite demoralizing was the extensive use of slash and burn from both the resident farmers and the military. The smoke was so great by the end of the day that it filtered out the Sun to a reddish yellow hue. The smoke was also thick enough to burn your eyes. The slash and burn technique blanketed the rural countryside, and from what I could gather, covered hundreds of square miles in the region. When we arrived back at Belize International, somebody was doing a local slash and burn which resulted in the ash falling down over the airport. It was interesting to see new arrivals from the states get off a American Airlines jumbo jet, just to be pelted with falling ash.

Tender Back

We got on one of the last tenders back to the ship, and it seemed as though most of the passengers had the same idea. The tender ride back was rough, the bay here is very choppy.

Sunset

The sunset while anchored off of Belize City was spectacular, and the best one of the entire cruise.

Dinner at Pacific Heights

We did a group dinner at Pacific Heights, which is a non-cover restaurant located near the Sports Bar. It's touted as a low-calorie fare but we all agreed that the dinner was bland and very average. None of us would eat there again given the choice of any of the other restaurants.

Additional Photographs: Tikal 1/10

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