Wednesday, 1 March 2017

San Ignacio and border crossing to Guatemala – Days 165 to 167

At the Green Iguana Sanctuary
No sooner had we entered Belize that it was time to go. In all we had seven nights in Belize, one in Corozal after crossing from Mexico, four in Caye Caulker and two out in the west at San Ignacio. This morning, 28th February we crossed into Guatemala and have just checked into our lakeside hotel on the beautiful peninsular, almost island, Flores.

After leaving the beautiful laid-back island of Caye Caulker we took the water taxi to Belize City. There are two water taxis travelling the same route, at roughly the same times and from piers next to one another, but the prices are quite different. Belize Express Water Taxi charge BZ$30 (about £12.00), whereas the Ocean Express Water Taxi only charge BZ$19 (about £7.75). We don’t know why, the boats are almost the same, they arrive at virtually the same place and they both take the same time. Unsurprisingly, we chose Ocean Express and had no problems at all.

Our journey through Belize
Belize City we had heard unfavourable reports about, high crime rates, particularly at night and around the harbour area and, although we were arriving in the day, we were advised to take a taxi to the bus station. It was only 600m walk and we were very tempted to walk, others did and had no problems, but we negotiated a BZ$7 taxi fare (which we were told was the correct price), down from BZ$10, “I’m not going to fall out over BZ$3” he told us and off we went in the biggest and oldest American car that we had ever seen.

Standing on the old school bus to San Ignacio
Arrived at a very old, grubby bus station with no idea how to buy tickets and were told by other people that you just buy them on the bus. We waited about 20 minutes behind a metal fence by a gate with lots of other people and waited for the one with ‘Benque’ written as the destination (that’s just past our destination of San Ignacio, very near to the border). The bus arrived around 12:00 midday, the gates opened and there was a rugby scrum to get through the gate onto the very old American school bus as, first on board get the seats and there were clearly more people than seats trying to get on.

The Hi-Et Guest House in San Ignacio
We had cases that would go in a grubby storage area at the back of the bus so, by the time I had got our luggage there and made sure they were on-board, Jackie was sucked onto the bus and got a seat, while I was near the back of the queue with, predictably no seat. “You need to be sitting down to get on this bus” an official told me so I half sat down as the third person on a seat for two and said “I’m fine here”. “No you’re not” he said, next bus is at 13:00”. The conductor came over and told me to leave the bus along with the other people with no seats and go outside the bus station and wait on the road, the bus will come out, stop and allow us on. “It’s just a stupid rule of the bus station” he told me. I told him I hoped I could get back on as my luggage was on board along with Jackie who had no money! Yes, definitely, he told me, so off I went, feeling a bit apprehensive, but the others with me seemed relaxed about the whole affair. 
Sunday afternoon at the river in San Ignacio. Family picnics and swimming
We waited, the bus came out and stopped and there was another rugby scrum to get the best standing slots. I stood in the aisle packed with standing people, waved to Jackie at the back and we’re away on a 2 hour bus journey - the comfy bus journeys are most definitely over! I did, however finally get a seat after half hour or so as people got off, but they were not comfy seats! Eventually the person next to me got off and Jackie was finally able to join me, bringing both our rucksacks with her (she was really crammed in at the back, so it was a relief for both of us).

This lad was happy to put on a forward roll dive into the river for me when I asked for a photo!
Monday morning, here comes the bus for Benque for the Maya ruins
The bus stopped fairly regularly along the way, we saw Belize Zoo go by, which is supposed to be very good having only local species in there and doing lots of conservation work (we did want to go there, but thought it would be difficult, but in the end we could easily have used the bus, but we just didn’t know). On we went to the capital Belmopan, where lots of people got off and a lot more got on, filling the aisles with standing people again, but we were OK and finally pulled into San Ignacio at around 2:00 in the afternoon.

The Belizian City girl hand cranking the ferry
I had the hotel marked on the sat-nav I have on my phone, the position taken from the website where we had booked the Hi-Et Guest House. It’s only 600m, so we walked, in the 32°C afternoon sun and found….no hotel! have it marked incorrectly so, after asking around we eventually found it right back in the centre of town, just round the corner from the bus! Oh well!
We quite liked the Hi-Et, it’s an old historic building run by a family, access to the rooms being up the stairs from the road, through their lounge, past their kitchen, out onto an upstairs patio full of potted flowering plants and sleeping fluffy dog, up some more stairs to a balcony with swinging chairs and view of the road, with our room being off a small kitchen area with free coffee, a microwave and a fridge that we are free to use. Our room was fairly simple with just a fan, but had an ensuite and was OK for US$27 per night.

The ferry arriving on the far bank
In two of the other rooms were two guys and a girl who were young doctors from Cardiff who were over here volunteering at a local hospital. They were very friendly and chatty and quite nervous about starting the next day, so were swotting up. As it happened, when we saw them the next day they were not expected at the hospital. The person who had arranged it for them hadn’t done it properly, so they were turned away. This morning they were not even sure if they could start today, they were awaiting an email. How disappointing for them having allocated three weeks and losing at least one, possibly two days. We wished them well and hope they get it sorted.

El Castillo pyramid (left) and other temples from the top of yet another pyramid
Stone carvings protected by fibreglass on the El Castillo pyramid
Anyway, we headed into town to look for a restaurant for the evening and to discuss a possible trip for the next day. This is a tourist area as there are a huge number of trips to do. Top of everyone’s list is the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (known as the ATM cave!), which is a very adventurous outing involving swimming and climbing through the cave, but you get wet and cold from the start and have to take your shoes off at one point to avoid damaging delicate structures. We’d also heard of the ‘conveyor belt’ system of ferrying huge numbers of people through. “What happens if there’s an emergency” someone had asked in Tripadvisor. A good question indeed!

View from the top of El Castillo pyramid. This site was first in use around 200BC and was abandoned around 800AD
The ballpark
Our decision was made up when they quoted us a price of US$120 each for the trip – nearly £100!! Most definitely not then! Alternatives? A trip to Tikal in Guatemala? No, we’re doing that in a few days when we’re in Guatemala. Plenty of other trips to get into the jungle, do tubing down a river (that Steph had done a few days earlier and described it as almost boring) and nothing was under US$75 per person.

The building at the far end of the site. Some theories believe this was a government palace, others are not so sure
Silly photos in a jungle setting
We’re not terribly interested in any of these we thought and most certainly not at these prices. We did, however get some good advice from the girl in the Mayawalk tour shop who told us we could visit the Maya ruined temple site of Xunantunich, which sits atop a hill. To get there we can catch the bus (BZ$2 each) to Benque (the same one we came in on but a bit further on, very close to the Guatemalan border). When we get off the bus we cross the river on a handcranked ferry, walk uphill for a mile and pay BZ$10 each to get in the site. It’s very beautiful with good views she told us, so that seemed like a plan.

The 'serious' photo with El Castillo in the distance
Jackie had also found something on the internet about a Green Iguana Sanctuary in town that we could visit. The entrance is US$9 each, but you get close up and personal with these creatures and we both fancied the idea of that, so a plan was hatched of doing both the next day. The evening was capped off when we saw an Indian restaurant called The Tandoor that we thought we had to try as we’ve been Indian food deprived since we left the UK. The prices were about the same as we’d pay in the UK and they offered a bucket of 7 beers in ice for BZ$20 (£8): the night was sorted! The food was superb, I had chilli chicken curry, ordered ‘spicy’ with coconut rice and salad, Jackie had mutton biryani. We were in heaven, so much so we went back the following night and had different and equally tasty dishes again. The staff were great as well and we can absolutely recommend this restaurant if you like Indian food (they also serve pizzas and other stuff as well, but why?)

The two Belizian girls waving as we left
So the next day we caught the earlyish (8:30am’ish) bus, getting a seat after most people coming from Belize City got off. On the bus were a couple of Belize City girls off to the ruins to celebrate one of their birthdays. They had been up at 4:30am to get here by this time, had been to the ruins several times before and said how nice it was, so we took that as a good recommendation.

In the centre are howler monkeys making a huge noise
We were off the bus in the middle of nowhere next to the river and there was the ferry with a few stalls just setting up alongside. The girls had booked a taxi to take them to the top and they invited us to share it if we wanted for BZ$5 each. It was still cool in the morning, but warming up rapidly, but Jackie convinced me it was a good idea and we could always walk down, so OK. One of the girls took over the hand crank across the river, we jumped into the taxi and arrived at the ruins before most other people. Had a great wander round, listening in on the few other people who had taken a guided tour, chatted to the security guards by the old Mayan ballpark, one of who was searching for parrots in the trees. He pointed two out and I took photos, but they didn’t come out. We did see and heard them though, but they were green, just like the leaves on the tree!

At the Green Iguana Sanctuary
We met the girls again on top of one of the pyramids, photobombed with silly poses as they took a photo and they posed for us with a silly pose on the top of another pyramid as we waved goodbye to them. Back at the ferry I took over the hand cranking back across the river, we caught the bus back into town and were back by just after midday having had a great time. With the temperature at 32°C with 99% humidity it was debilitating. I had a cold shower that lasted 5 minutes before I was hot again, but we had some lunch and walked uphill to the Green Iguana Sanctuary, which is housed in a very posh hotel overlooking a patch of jungle.

This one had an injured tail and has grown a second tail
We paid our money and waited in posh chairs for our guide at 2:00pm feeling a bit out-of-place, but the youngish local guide was a nice guy and took us through the hotel and out to the edge of the jungle and a biggish compound containing about 30 green iguanas that have been rescued after being injured for various reasons. They rehabilitate them and, where possible, release them back into the wild. Some of them can’t be released as their injuries are too severe, so they keep them there permanently where they are looked after.

Long slender feet for climbing, not ripping meat
It was just the two of us with the keeper and a school boy volunteer in amongst them and we were able to hold them and feed them and they just walked all over us! It was fabulous! They are great creatures, some of them growing up to 7 feet (2 meters) long and the one I held was about that length and really quite heavy, but they were very placid and didn’t seem to mind being fiddled with for a short period of time. They are vegetarians, getting through two large bin bags of leaves per day between them. He bought some leaves in and half a dozen or so came crawling over rapidly to munch away as we held on to the stalks. Jackie crouched down and had three climb up on her, one climbing up onto her shoulder and onto the barrier behind leaving its tail dangling down over her. The schoolboy went and brought out a nine month old baby who was very green and she was also very keen to go climbing over us. All in all and great visit and so worth the money.

This is for exposing to the sun and for agression
This morning we were up and outside the Guest House at 08:30am hoping to meet up with the shared taxi driver who had agreed to take us to the border. It turned out we needn’t have arranged anything as numerous shared taxis came past asking us if we were going to the border for BZ$5 each. We jumped in one after 08:30am deciding we had given a good chance to the guy we’d asked and set off for the 15 minute drive to the border. It turned out the driver spoke almost no English so our final moments in English speaking Belize were us trying to converse in Spanish. Jackie did very well, me joining in a bit when I could.

But when he opens his eyes he can look quite intimidating!
The border crossing went very smoothly, a bit of a queue at Belize exit immigration as the huge party of French cyclists travelling through Central America that we’d seen the previous day were ahead of us in the queue and, as a result we were standing outside in full, hot sun! Here we met Helen, a Swiss girl travelling on her own for a few weeks before meeting up with her boyfriend in Buenos Aires in a few weeks. She seemed to latch on to us, which was fine and we helped each other through customs and to find a collectivo minibus on the Guatemalan side to take us two hours to Flores. She didn’t have too much of a plan of where to go, so ended up doing the same as us and taking a room in the dorm of the same hotel we’re in (but we’re in a private room with ensuite), the Hotel Mirador del Lago.

Jackie held Iggy who has a bent spine and can never be released into the wild
After checking out of the Belize customs, paying our BZ$40 each exit fee we showed our passports at another window and from there walked on into Guatemala. There were a number of people trying to sell us places on their collective to go to Flores. We’d been told to go over a bridge, turn left and there we will find the collective area where they will charge us 30Q (about £3.30) for the 2 hour drive to Flores. In front of us was the bridge and we were bombarded with sellers. We agreed 45Q (£5) each for someone to take us directly to our hotel and, after Helen said she’d come with us we negotiated down to 40Q for 3. 
Iguana feeding time - they really like those leaves
He then pointed us to the Guatemala immigration area, something we would have completely missed had he not said. We’d assumed the two windows we’d visited were out of Belize and into Guatemala, but no, they were both for Belize. We could have easily just walked into Guatemala without going through immigration – talk about security! What would then have happened when we came to leave without an entry stamp in our passports is anyone’s guess. Anyway, we checked in, got our 90 day free visa, came back out, changed our Belizean dollars for Guatemalan Quetzals at quite a good rate and were ready to go with our man. Unbelievably his rate had changed from 40Q (£4.40) to US$40 (£32.00), a point we’d almost missed. We’d heard about his kind of deceit before so we told him where to go, headed off over the bridge and found the collectivo minibus depot where they crammed 22 people into an 18 seater minibus – all in 32°C heat and no air-con, for the 2 hour journey!

They got everywhere!
Surprisingly it wasn’t too bad and we arrived something after midday in Santa Elena, a couple of km from Flores looking for an ATM to get a decent quantity of Quetzals out and a lift into Flores. Helen and I left Jackie with the cases and went looking for an ATM to find both machines wouldn’t accept foreign debit cards. Got back to Jackie to find she had a lift waiting to take us to Flores for 10Q each (£1.10). It was a guy with a big 4x4 who agreed to stop at a working ATM and then take us to our hotel. We got money out, he stopped to pick up his 7 year old daughter from school and we were at the hotel by about 13:00. All fairly smooth with just a few slight hiccups, all part of the travelling experience!

Jackies thoughts on Belize:
  • It’s expensive
  • It’s lovely to have English spoken and see the Queen on the notes, albeit looking much younger
  • Belizean cats were much more friendly
They seemed to like Jackie too...

Getting a bit too familiar

She makes a good climbing frame!
Just needing a little helping hand to get up here...
Thats it, made it!
Here's the 9 month old baby
Who was also keen on climbing
I'm easily pleased!
But she is very cute!
So it's goodbye to Belize, this is the border post
The border bridge into Guatemala. That's Helen and Jackie on the other side waiting for a bus
And this is the entry to our new hotel for three nights, the Hotel Mirador del Lago in Flores

1 comment:

  1. What a lot of travel experiences you two have! I reckon you could start up your own travel agency now! Iguanas looked delightful x