To start my 2 week journey back to Iceland, I flew from Cancun to Miami, which I had never considered that similar, but they definitely gave me a familiar feeling. The downtown area and beautiful beaches could verywell have been side by side, and the only real reminder I was in the USA was the big, multi-lane highways covered in shiny, new cars and oversized SUV´s. The Miami airport was almost totally employed by Spanish speakers, and even when I got to South Beach, many were still speaking Spanish. I just resorted to asking questions to retailers and bus drivers in Spanish again, and that went flawlessly. Different to the rest of Central America, people actually thought I was latina, so people assumed speaking to me in spanish was totally normal. I guess I wasn´t that far off from being confused at how everyone knew I was a gringa during my trip.
definitely one instance of "window-weather," as we say often in Iceland where it's actually common
Miami beach was shockingly cold, so even though Mexico hadn´t been that warm, sitting and starting out at the Caribbean Ocean on one of the sunniest days with temperatures at 5° C was really hard to comprehend. It was like a postcard picture of everyone´s expectations for South Beach, but then totally deserted except for a few people dressed in winter clothes and seagulls hovering way to close for comfort since I was the only person with tortilla chips in my hands.
I was wearing my 2 month old tattered clothes, jeans with holes in the legs, a summery shirt, and flip flops, so I certainly wasn´t prepared for the weather. I also wasn´t dressed for walking around Lincoln Road Mall, since everyone was super hipster, fashion savy and dressed to kill, some even appropiately warm for the weather – I didn’t know Floridans (Floridians?) had winter fashion. I decided to go into a clothing store and buy an entire new outfit, and came out, successfully, with new boots, jeans, a sweater, a scarf, and a faux-leather jacket. I left my old outfit on the top of a garbage can, just incase anyone would have any use for it.
Belize is a tiny, carribbean-coast country in Central America, the only one that does not include spanish as its official language, and probably the most ethincally diverse and mutli-cultural place. It’s a fusion of ex-colonial British influence crossed with the reggae-rhythm lifestyle of the West Indies, and a dash of latino mixed into everything. The architecture switched from the one-storey concrete blocks typical in Spanish colonial towns to the two-storey, stilted, wooden houses encircled by verandas, less subtly affected by annual hurricane damage. Even though it was by far the most expensive place, poverty was still severe, but the extreme class separations seemed more balanced. They say Creole English is the spoken tongue, but I’m not sure how long you can call a language a dialiect of English if it develops into a completely new way of speaking, incomprehensible to most native ‘English’ speakers. The super-thick accent, rapid but lazy way of speaking, and the number of novel slang words made it tough for even me to understand, even though I grew up with my Mom and Grandma speaking Creole English from Guyana.
the water taxi port from Belize city to Caye Caulker
I spent all my time in Belize on water, mostly on the coast but also on the New Belize river to see Lamanai. I spent one day in Corozal, in transit from the cayes to Chetumel, Mexico. I thought it would be more tourist-friendly than it was, but upon arrival realized there was only one budget place to stay at $20US per night. The Sea Breeze hotel turned out to be one of my main Belizean highlights, since the owner decided a hefty discount, a complimentary bar tab, and breakfast included would be the proper way to treat a solo-lady traveler nearing the end of an over-budget trip. He was an older guy from Wales who decided to retire to Belize and run a hotel after spending his golden years managing some amazing rock bands like Phish, the Grateful Dead and The Who. I also couldn’t get enough of the hot, pressurized shower, a queen sized mattress all to myself, and the shining white, clean towels and sheets.
boating down the New Belize River from Lamanai back to Orange Walk
who wouldn't want to hammock in Caye Caulker?
In the north east I spent some time in Belize City, but unfortunately planned my entire day there on a Sunday (its a pretty religious population) which meant everything was closed an even the main streets at midday were ghosttowns. From there I took a 1 hr motor-boat taxi to the caye’s, and instantly felt like I was surrounded only by sand and tropical ocean. Caye Caulker is basically just a mile-wide strip of sand surrounded by ocean along its 5 mile length, and an altitude of maybe a couple metres above sea level. There are only golf carts or your own two feet to get around, and you’ll quickly get to know all the locals that line the main streets trying to sell you today’s catch for dinner. During the day tourist guides and shop vendors all shout out hello to you, wanting to know how you are, directing you to walk slow, or just flatter you with compliments until you give them a big enough smile. All the houses were pretty colourful, and the resident population is probably always dwarfed by the constantly renewed tourist population, but somehow it maintained a really local, laid-back vibe that anyone picturing a small-island getaway would consider perfect.
Crossing into Mexico was one of the stranger borders, since you leave Guatemalan customs in La Mesilla and then need to take a taxi 3 km to Ciudad Cuauhtemoc to officially enter Mexico; which country are you in for those 3 kms? No man’s land I guess. I went from the border town another 3 hrs to San Cristobal de Las Casas, a fairytale colonial city that actually made me think I was in Disneyland a couple of times. It’s located in Chiapas, a state full of mountains, ecotourism, Mayan history and an unexpectedly cool climate. The backdrop of the cobblestone downtown is Cerro de la Santa Cruz, a small mountain with steps leading all the way to the top where you can find a church with the most beautiful view of the city, and the biggest, more patriotic Mexican Flag you could ever imagine. There are 31 states in Mexico, and it’s a huge country, but funnily enough its often not included in talk of North America or Central America, so it’s just kind of in its own league. Respectfully so, though, since just the state of Chiapas has over 100 languages spoken by all the different indigenous groups, a testament to the countries rich and complicated culture. Nothing was really that different for the first couple of hours driving into Mexico, but it slowly became obvious I was somewhere new when the roads stayed consistently safe, American tourists were numerous, people didn’t speak just Spanish (usually English or some indigenous dialect), and I saw a Wal-Mart supercenter in the middle of the countryside. I also thought it was awesome that there are actual places in Mexico called Tabasco, Jalisco, and Tequila, and that stray chihuahua’s replaced the non-descript, middle-sized dogs I had gotten accustomed to.
a pretty city nightscape in San Cristobal
I couchsurfed some more in Guatemala and Mexico and the host I had in San Cristobal de las Casas was a young guy who worked for the Ministry of tourism, lived right downtown, and ran a bar on the main nightlife street with friends of his. He was such an awesome host, and as it turns out, we ended up having a mutual friend in Oregon since he went on a Rotary exchange in highschool to Eugene and met Clare, my former Semester at Sea (fall 2006) classmate Ryan’s girlfriend who I stay with when visiting Oregon. Small world.
me and Gabe at his bar, Pura Vida
I didn’t spent much time in Chiapas since I was mostly taking the huge detour inland to see Palenque before making my way back to the Caribbean coast. I crossed back into Belize before going north again, through Chotumel and straight into Tulum, a big backpackers. There’s a beautiful coast line there, speckled sparcely with resorts, a mayan site, and lots of cenotes. I stayed at the Weary Traveler hostel, which was cheap and included a mediocre breakfast, but offered a stiff atmosphere and an overly complicated way of managing its guests – if you’re there soon, I highly suggest taking a bus or a cab out to the coast and paying $5 to sleep in a hammock on the beach.
the bluest sea I think I've ever seen
I spent a few days in Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, both overridden with middle aged or retired cruise ship passengers, mostly Americans or Quebecois Canadians. They all port off just for a day, with the assumed goal of shopping til they drop, buying all sorts of Mexican souvenirs, cheap alcohol, and overpriced jewelry. It was fun to hear all the Spanglish exchanges, since every tourist just knew a little Spanish, and most of the vendors knew enough English, but together they spoke thi hilarious Spanglish to negotiate just the right price.
I ended my trip in Mexico in resort-filled Cancun. Ending a two month backpacking trip in central America there was a little ironic, very expensive, but totally practical for flight purposes. I was spoiled by being put up in an all-inclusive resort for 2 nights, a strange thing to do alone but almost even more luxurious that way, and spent most of my time writing, drinking specialty coffees with Kahlua, and swimming in the ocean or the pool, depending on how salty I wanted to be. It was a prefect middle point between Central America and Miami, where I flew to after leaving, slowly readjusting me to American culture, more spoken English, and the gradual drop in temperature and loss of sunlight hours I felt while heading North.
its not always sunny in paradise, but the water's always baby blue
My first site was Copán Ruinas, in Honduras. It was super impressive, probably because it was my first Maya site and it did look just like what I hoped the ruins to look like. The surrounding lawns were well maintained, so it was hard to picture the place a thousand years ago – was it thick jungle, totally clear, covered in livestock or crops, or equally groomed? It was also really hard to picture the temples any colour but grey stone, but apparently the buildings were sometimes elaborately painted and decorated. Copan was the most expensive ruin site, costing $15US for entry, and another $15 to enter the tunnelways underground. A guide cost even more, so I didn’t quite get the full experience only walking around the outside grounds, but was much happier to enjoy them in the unexpected quietude of only a few other people sharing the entire site.
My second visit was to Palenque in Mexico, which sat in dense vegetation, elevated a little above the town of Palenque, perched on the hillside 8km away. It was bigger, had more freedom for climbing the ruins, and was better maintained and restored. It was busier, with hundreds of tourists bustling around, and dozens of market vendors lined the walkways selling all the same things, easily distracting me from looking up and around at the much more important temples.
My third site was in Guatemala. Tikal as a tourist destination was very organised, with San Juan tours monopolising almost all the tours and bus transportation to the isolated destination almost 40 km from any towns. However, when you got there, you were dropped off to the entrance of a 15km2 densely vegetated park scattered with ruins all over and temples rising way above the jungle canopy visible only from the tops of each other. It was so wild, with entire 3 storey temples completely buried in new vegetation with hundred year old trees rooting on top of them. Only about 20% of the entire site has been excavated, so I can’t wait to go back there in 25 years to see what it looks like then.
My fourth site, Lamanai, could only be reached from Orange Walk by a bumpy dirt road or a 2 hr motor boat ride down the Belize New River. I went to the ruins with a local and his wife who agreed to drive me the hour and a half in a sedan for $35US, and met up with a tour group there that Jungle River Tours from Orange Walk organised for me to have a guide and ride back to town with. It was the only site I had a guide and it definitely gave a totally different experience; instead of walking around gawking at the big temples wondering what it looked like before and what the people did back then, the guide basically explained everything he knew to paint a perfectly clear picture of how it might have been back in the 600’s. The boat ride back might have been the highlight, since we saw lots of birds, water lilies, crocodiles and even a pair of very friendly spider monkeys – one even came in our boat to steal a couple of our leftover bananas.
Tulum was totally different than the other ruins by being located right on the coast. Instead of a jungle environment, they were perched right over the most tropical, baby blue water and white sand beaches, with palm trees swaying in the perfect Caribbean breeze. The site was small and so were the buildings, so it was certainly crowded with the hundreds of people visiting, but it was still a pretty place to visit for a morning.
I was no exception to the tourist frenzy of trying to get my portrait with the temple
My final visit was to Chichen Itza, a way of saving the best for last, since this site had so many different era’s and types of archaeological ruins, scattered over a pretty big area, but still small enough to walk and see everything in a day.The main temple, now one of the 7 new wonders of the world, was really majestic, sitting huge and ameliorated in the middle of a big, open lawn with people from all corners of the world surrounding it, trying to take that perfect portrait with Chichen Itza to take home and show all their friends. All the walkways connecting the older ruins to the main temple and the main temple to a beautiful cenote nearby were lined with vendor after vendor, who would call out to every passerby “almost free,” advertising their cheap prices. They did sell little trinkets for 10 pesos (less than a euro or dollar) and the one time I responded, jokingly but cheekily, “I only shop for free stuff,” the vendor put a handcarved wood statue in my hand and said “enjoy with your family.” This of course but a big smile on my face, and I thanked him with a hug and a picture together. It was certainly a better tactic than others asking “hey lady, something for your boyfriend?” *short silent pause* “somthing for your ex-boyfriend?” I would always politely dismiss the first, but couldn´t help but laugh out loud at the second question.