Caracol, Kissing Bugs and the Border War
I want to take a tour so I visit MayaWalk Tours office.
I am spoiled for choice…
There are a number of cave systems in this area and the biggest attraction is the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave or ATM to the tourists! You have to swim in to it and then scramble, crawl and wade through a number of chambers until you are rewarded with ancient Mayan remains, including ceramics, stoneware and human skeletons! It sounds amazing but I don’t feel up to the physical challenge.
I could lie in a tyre tube and float down a river which would take me into some other caves but I’m concerned I might get stuck in the tube!
There are tours to the Tikal Maya Site across the border in Guatemala. However, my enquiries are brushed off. Apparently you spend more time trying to get through the border control and travelling than you do spending time at the site.
I finally settle for a trip to see the Caracol Maya site, which is Belize’s largest and most important site as one of the most powerful cities in the Maya world.
Caracol is situated some fifty miles south of San Ignacio so there will be a stop to look at a cave on the way down and the chance to have a swim at some natural river pools on the way back to break up the journey, with lunch thrown in at the site. The small point that we will be driving for hours on a wash boarded road has been simply washed over!
I have to be at the meeting point at 7.30am and as I want breakfast before I go I am up before daylight showering and getting organised for the day ahead. Suddenly the power cuts out and the hotel is plunged into darkness. Thankfully I have my head torch and soon make my way out into the street as the first glimpse of daylight starts to appear. The entire street and presumably the town is without power and I doubt I will find somewhere that can supply me with hot breakfast. Nonetheless I enter a little shack where the staff are going about their business by candlelight and they confirm that there is hot food and coffee on offer. They tell me that the powercut was scheduled for some work to be carried out and will be off until mid-afternoon! I’m surprised I haven’t heard about this and can’t imagine what kind of mayhem it will cause for the town, especially in the stifling afternoon heat.
I particularly enjoy my breakfast which consists of a very flavoursome omelette, nicely brewed coffee and toast with butter and delicious jam, but I don’t have time to savour it as I am in a hurry so I quickly eat and run.
My other companions for the day are already at the meeting point and we all greet each other. There are two elderly American men who don’t appear to wish to engage in small talk and a young Canadian couple, Phil and Kerry who I quickly chum up with.
Mario, our guide introduces himself and our driver, Ande and we are soon on our way. We are in a little old minibus and as we pass through a nearby village we pick up Peter who is Ande’s young son. As it is Sunday he wants to spend the day with his Dad and we all welcome him on board as he retreats to the back of the minibus to be seen but not heard!
As we leave the sealed road and start motoring along on dirt things start to get a bit bouncy. However as we motor further into the jungle the road gets even worse and Mario confirms there won’t be any improvement. By now we are being tossed about in our seats and the mini bus rattles and shudders as it bounces across the corrugated road surface, Ande is doing his best to swerve the worst of the potholes and washaways’ but we frequently hit holes and grip on to anything we can in a vain attempt to stay on our seats!
It seems to take forever before we get to our first stop, the Rio Frio Cave and we are all extremely relieved to be out of the vehicle and away from the relentless noise and bouncing.
As we approach the cave we are met by two soldiers with machine guns. I can’t imagine why they are here but don’t dwell on it after having already met one at the top of a Mayan Ruin only yesterday!
It is a lovely large cave with an abundance of dramatic stalactites. The two elderly gentlemen aren’t interested in exploring it but Phil, Kerry and I follow some other tourists and venture into its great dark mouth clambering over rocks and stopping to take photos as we go.
A river runs through it and there is a lovely rock pool with a sandy edge. It is quite alluring but we are not permitted to bathe in it. Mario has followed us in and chats with Phil while Kerry and I follow the other tourists further into the cave to explore. We are laughing and chatting as we clamber from rock to rock until Mario suddenly calls us back with some urgency.
Once we are back with him he explains that there are “Kissing Bugs” where we were heading. We both look at him blankly until he explains that “Kissing Bugs will bite you but you won’t know it, however in seven years’ time you will die!!”
He explains that he has seen them on several occasions and they silently climb the walls, sneak up on the bats while they sleep and devour them!! However, the few bats that have survived the mass ravaging are clever and have retreated to the other side of the cave!
We look back at the scene of this recent carnage as the other tourists explore the danger zone, happy in their ignorance. Mario explains that he only knows about the Kissing Bugs because he has researched them. He does tell the other guides, but they don’t know about them and let their tourists go in to the area. Two of Mario’s previous tourists insisted on going to see the Kissing Bugs – one being a doctor who had only ever read about them and wanted to see them first-hand. The other was a seventy year old man who was intrigued to see them and insisted that if he lived another seven years anyway he’d be very happy!
We are lucky to be under the care of the knowledgeable Mario and as we don’t want to die in seven years’ time we retreat rather swiftly from the cave, checking our limbs for bite marks as we go!
We continue travelling uncomfortably on to Caracol and just before our arrival stop to register at a check point patrolled by more armed soldiers.
Ande and little Peter also escort us around the three hour trek of the ruins and they share interesting jungle knowledge with us as we go. From time to time we hear the now familiar roar of howler monkeys as they argue over their territories somewhere nearby in the jungle and there are a number of soldiers patrolling the perimeters of the site.
Our two elderly gentlemen are not travelling together as I’d initially assumed, but they are both passionate about Maya History. They have travelled all over Central and South America visiting the many Maya sites and share their knowledge with Mario as we go.
As usual the midday heat is overbearing and while both are reasonably agile, the elderly gentlemen take the easier routes and decline to climb the ruins. Ande takes care of them finding them shady spots to wait while the rest of us clamber about.
A throw away comment by one of them makes me realise they are both around eighty years old and while I am disappointed that they don’t wish to chat with the rest of us I gain a renewed respect for them. They are managing to travel Central America alone and wander around ancient Maya Ruins in oppressive heat at their age and they really are not required to waste unnecessary energy talking dribble to forgettable strangers.
I truly hope and pray I will still have the will, health and capacity of mind to take on new adventures when I’m in my eighties and I admire these two gentlemen, but I do hope nonetheless that I will still want to engage with younger people.
I manage to climb the biggest pyramid with the assistance of my young companions and Mario. It is nowhere as scary as Xunantunith but it is extremely steep and my vertigo takes hold once again. At one point when I don’t think I’m going to make it up the last couple of steps I throw my daypack, its weight hampering my efforts, at Phil and implore him to carry it for me, which he does willingly.
As I’m clambering on all fours up the high steps, thinking yet again that these Mayan people must have been very tall or my short legs are indeed extremely short, Kerry tells me that she had read somewhere the steps were deliberately designed to ensure ordinary people would have to climb them on all fours, therefore submissively paying homage to the Elite Rulers and the Gods above! While I don’t like to accept that I am climbing submissively up to the Elite or their Gods, I am relieved to know that my form of climbing has been fashionable for thousands of years and I’m not being too pathetic after all!
Eventually we finish our tour and settle under the welcome shade of a purpose built shelter area with picnic tables and benches. We help ourselves to lunch from the cool box that Ande has carried from our minibus. I am now accustomed to this standard tour lunch which usually consists of rice and beans with stewed chicken. It is a staple Belizean meal and I really like it.
As we eat we chat idly. Phil and Kerry each have their own businesses and are very driven so this is a much needed holiday for both of them. One of our elderly gentlemen is sitting next to me and tells me that he has such a perfectly content life back home with his wife of eternal years that he takes himself outside his comfort zone every so often just to shake up the status quo while his wife visits her sister. I like his attitude and warm to him. Sadly our other elderly companion still can’t be bothered with us.
Lunch over we pile back into the minibus for the dreaded bouncy trip home. Mario registers us out at the army checkpoint and we continue on our way.
As we drive on Mario explains that the heavy army presence on the border is because Guatemalans have been known to cross the border in the past and rob tourist buses. Only eighteen months ago after some Guatemalans came over with their horses which a twenty year old Tourist Policeman confiscated the horse owners snuck up behind him while he rested and shot him dead; exactly where my elderly companion and I had been sitting at lunchtime!
I’m shocked and saddened by this information. I’ve grown accustomed to feeling secure and safe in this passively friendly country. I’ve also heard from many people that Guatemala is generally a safe place to travel and the people are equally as friendly and helpful as they are in Belize. But Guatemala is a poor country and I guess sometimes people are driven to do bad things for survival.
Our stop at the natural pools is another welcome break from the tedious bouncing and rattling and Phil, Kerry and I enjoy swimming in the cool fresh water in a very pretty location.
Later as we cross the bridge over the Macal River on our approach to San Ignacio I note with pleasure the many families enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon picnicking on the sandbars of the river as children splash and play about in the river, driven there no doubt by the heat and lack of electricity at home.