February 26, 2011 - Best Last Day in Guatemala Ever! Another beautiful sunny hot day in Guatemala; we actually haven’t seen rain since we arrived. The mornings have been cool and pleasant, and the last two mornings we were able to have breakfast under a huge 60-foot-high thatch roofed mezzanine overlooking Lake Peten Itza. The lake has a turquoise hue from the limestone base. Breakfast was a buffet of tropical fruit and juice, local cuisine like rice and beans and peppers, and an omelette made-to-order before your eyes.
We loaded on to the minibuses for a day of being a tourist. Our first stop was a local artisan’s coop in the nearby village of El Carabe, which means ‘mahogany’ in the local Mayan language. There we were able to buy hand-carved products made from that wood; sample from an 8’ by 10’ chunk of the natural Chicle gum sustainably harvested from local trees; and learn that ‘Chiclet’ means chewing in at least one Mayan language. We also had a sample of a cookie made from breadnut flour, a nutritious staple of the ancient Mayan diet that supplemented their corn-based diet.
The main stop of the day was the New York of the Mayan world, Tikal, which is the biggest archaeological site in Central America and located in the “Mayan Biosphere Reserve”, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The topographical map at the Visitor Centre gave a perspective of the grandeur of the 560 square kilometre site. Tikal was ‘rediscovered’ in 1848, though local peoples had always continued to bury their holy people in the area. Tikal was a city-state which had extensive trade and alliances with other city-states in the region. As we walked the jungle paths carved out of the dense jungle, and climbed the massive temples, we imagined ourselves walking around a beautifully painted and fully-developed city of 100,000 people. Tikal was founded in 2000 BC, reaching its zenith at 600 AD just as a competition for resources (especially land and water for agriculture) created a bloody warrior culture where animal sacrifices turned to human sacrifices. After climbing 184 steps to the top of the largest temple where the greatest king of the age performed sacred astronomical and divination ceremonies, the panoramic view was breathtaking and included other temples from previous kings peaking through the rainforest canopy like tombstones. We marvelled at the massive six foot wide trees, at least 150 feet tall, some of which were at least 1200 years old, planted at the time of the city’s collapse along with the rest of the Mayan civilization around 900 AD.
Walking out of Tikal National Park after six kilometres of hiking and climbing, we were exhausted. Coming around a corner we were met with a canopy tent with a long tablecloth, ornate flower arrangements, and covered chairs - it was the ultimate Guatemalen picnic. Arriving at the tent, a waiter presented us with cool wet cloths on a silver platter, which felt so cool and soothing in the heat of the day.
The adventure continued as most of the group braved a zip lining experience, flying along 2300 meters of cable through the rainforest canopy. What an awesome experience, with some of us checking off something on our bucket list and some surprising themselves by overcoming their fears. Screams may have been heard back in Canada as the adrenaline rush provided us a shot of energy.
From there we hurried back to the hotel as there was still one more activity on the schedule. A sunset cruise on the lake – it was a relaxing way to wind down after a phenomenal day.
Our transportation to dinner in the nearby village was the ultimate surprise, as the whole group loaded on the back of a ‘clean’ cattle truck and headed down the bumpy road. Traveling in a group tour we sometimes feel like cattle being herded, but this was a little too literal. We enjoyed some local cuisine at an open-air restaurant and a ‘spirited’ evening celebrating an amazing last day in Guatemala.
February 27, 2011 - A new beginning! Sunday morning was the beginning of a new week and a new country - Belize. We had an early start beginning at 5:30 a.m. as we enjoyed another great breakfast for those that could get up in time. Unfortunately our early start was for naught as one of the tour vans broke down as it arrived at the hotel. After a short delay another minibus arrived and we were off on a two-hour drive east to the Belizean border. The scenery was hilly and rugged and dominated by rocky pastures scattered with Brahma beef cattle. We crossed the Belize River to get to the border crossing area, where we had to individually walk our own luggage across the border line and through Belize Customs. Fortunately the process went smoothly and quickly and we ended up gaining back the time lost earlier in the day.
Belize was a British colony up to as late as 1980, and its many differences with Guatemala were immediately apparent. The cultural influences from Britain and the Caribbean, its low population of 300,000, established land ownership system, and higher levels of wealth and education than Guatemala, led to both a more laid back and orderly feel. We were told there is less corruption and less crime in Belize, and we could see it in the level of development in the towns.
We traveled the Hummingbird Highway through Belmopan, the smallest national capital in the world, and into the gorgeous forested Mayan Mountains. Hurricane damage from the previous year was very apparent throughout the mountainsides. Forty percent of the country is protected in National Parks. We passed many citrus plantations, and stopped to look at a spot where pineapples had been planted on the side of a hill. The many real estate signs were very noticeable given their absence in Guatemala.
Our main destination of the day was the country’s only citrus processing factory, Citrus products of Belize Limited, which is a grower’s co-op employing over 600 people. Ninety-five percent of their business is concentrate, and the bulk of this is exported to Asian markets. We were given a fascinating tour of the plant. Even though it was originally established in 1948, you could tell they had adopted state-of-the-art technology. We walked through the process of loading, sorting, and washing the oranges, the extraction of the orange oil, and finally extracting, concentrating and freezing the juice.
Belize has 570,000 acres of citrus, which amounts to two acres per person in the country, showing the importance of the industry to the country. With orange concentrate prices so low on world markets, sadly half of the plant will be idled for the next two weeks. With a premium product, their strategy is to look for new European buyers and cooperate with other processors in the region to compete with growing competition from places like Brazil. After this interesting tour we drove to a great resort on the Caribbean Sea and relaxed for the evening on the beach.
Doug Eng, Arlie McFaul, Arik Theijsmeijer – AALP Class 13