Continuing our adventures in Mexico...

On our first full day in Tulum, we caught an inexpensive collectivo from the main street through town to the Maya ruins and beach nearby. This is the number one tourist destination in Tulum, and it is well worth a visit.  Although you can take a private taxi for just a bit more ($50 MX, or about $4 US), collectivos run every few minutes and cost just $40 MX for the two of us (approximately $3.20 US).  Just ask them to take you to the"ruinas" since many of the drivers don't speak English.
Be forewarned, however; the collectivo dropped us on the main road about a quarter-mile from the entrance to the park, so we had to hike in the rest of the way.  A taxi will presumably take you right up to the entrance.
We'd been warned to get to the ruins early as the tour buses would start to arrive around 10 am, but unfortunately, we arrived right about that time.  And one of the most striking things about the entire day was how many people there were, everywhere.  After getting used to visiting Maya ruins and national parks in Belize, where we sometimes had the place to ourselves, or were among just a handful of others, this was a real shock!  Since these ruins are just south of Cancun and Playa del Carmen -- and with end of the Mayan calendar just days away -- it seemed that everyone and his brother, aunt, and cousin wanted to see the ruins and the gorgeous Tulum beaches on this day.  I recognized a lot of French being spoken in particular, but there were certainly people from all over the world visiting the well-manicured site overlooking the beach on dramatic cliffs.  We heard almost no English being spoken in the park.
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So many people!
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Certain parts of the ruins were roped off to keep tourists on paths -- different from Belize
When we glimpsed the beautiful turquoise water and wide white-sand beach for the first time, it took my breath.  All the hype I'd heard about Tulum's beaches was justified.
A closer look...
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Ahhhhh...gorgeous!
The ruins were nice, though not as dramatic as some we'd already seen, like Lamanai.  And unlike in Belize, quite a few of the structures were roped off and could not be climbed on.  A little disappointing, but I guess this site gets so many visitors, they have to be really careful to preserve the structures.  This reminded me much more of a well-manicured park in the US than one in Belize, where pretty much anything goes.
From one of the structures high on the beach-side cliff, there was a staircase allowing people access to the sandy beach below.  This was definitely the most crowded beach we'd seen in a long, long time.  We didn't bother going down; we planned to hit the less-crowded beach after leaving the ruins.
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Tourists everywhere!
This guy didn't mind the crowds one bit from his sunbathing post.
Your intrepid reporter...
These cliffs were so beautiful and rugged.
One more shot of the crazy gorgeous view.  Barry did a great job with the photos today!
Once we'd seen the entire site, it was time to leave the worst of the crowds behind.  
We walked down the road south of the ruins for quite a bit and finally found a public access to the beach.
Now this is a beach!  Super wide, with incredibly soft, white sand for walking, and stunning blue water.  Enchanting!  And the best part?  Not many people at all.  They were all back on the little beach below the ruins.  Ha!
It was still a little too early for the numerous beach bars and clubs to be open, so we eventually cut back to the road to start walking to a restaurant for lunch. 
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View from the road -- stunning
This proved to be a long -- and very warm -- walk (though quite a few taxis offered us a ride along the way).  We'll share our eventual destination in a future post.  Stay tuned!
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We were glad to finally get to this sign and see exactly where we were!
 
If you are a regular reader of our blog, you know how much we've enjoyed traveling around Belize.  And some of the highlights have been our visits to the tropical rainforest in Stann Creek and Toledo Districts for hiking and birding.  There's just something about the jungle; it's quintessentially tropical -- moist and green.  It smells and feels so earthy, as if all the massive trees forming a canopy above your head are shielding you from all things wrong in the world.  Even with its inherent dangers, the jungle feels safe, almost womb-like.

There's no arguing that Ambergris Caye is beautiful, but it tends towards a sandy, beachy environment.  So, we were awfully surprised (but delighted) to find a little jungle oasis right in southern Ambergris last weekend.

As we mentioned in a previous blog post, we took a long bike ride south on Sunday, and after going as far as we could, we turned around and headed back just a short ways to the Marco Gonzalez Archaeological Reserve/Maya Site, which we'd never checked out because we don't get down that far south very often, and when we do, we don't always have bug spray with us.  Today we did, so we decided to venture in and have a look around.  As we learned from the sign below, this is a very ancient site.  And it became the first Maya Site National Park on Ambergris Caye in 2011.
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The attendant booth is closed on Sundays, but you can still walk in and have a look at the site.
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Our bike parking
Although we slathered ourselves with bug spray, we really didn't notice any mosquitoes -- a lucky break.
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Applying bug spray
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Entering the site
To get to the site, you first must traverse a quarter-mile boardwalk over a swampy mangrove area.  According to the link above, this marshland was created after 2000 years of ocean rise and the resulting mangrove encroachment.  The boardwalk was only built in 2010, allowing public access to the site.  Just traversing it is an adventure in itself, as it was built with various sizes of lumber, probably mostly salvaged or donated, along with some newer parts.  You definitely have to watch your step, but I enjoyed walking it.
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A newer section
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Gotta watch your step here!
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Still kinda low, scrubby growth here, but just wait!
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Getting into some taller foliage
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Entering the site
The site, once we got inside, was much bigger than we expected.  However, there was enough standing water in parts of it that  we couldn't access the entire site.
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Map of Marco Gonzalez site
There were some nice fans made from palmetto (?) leaves near the entrance we borrowed for our walk in case of spider webs blocking the trail or to whack bugs away, though we didn't notice any webs or bugs.
The signage in the park is very educational.  We learned all about the Gumbo Limbo tree, the bark of which can be used to as an antidote if you are unfortunate enough to get too close to a Poisonwood tree.  Sounds like the Gumbo Limbo bark has other uses as well -- for burns, insect bites, and even for gout, among other things.  It's an attractive tree and a good one to know about, just in case!
Here's a better shot of the Gumbo Limbo, also called the "Tourist Tree" since its bark peels like a sunburned tourist!
The site is also home to a bevy of Poisonwood trees -- fortunately marked.  It would have been just my luck to grab onto one and end up burned and miserable.  This blog post gives an excellent description of the dangers posed by the Poisonwood tree.  The warnings on this sign should not be taken lightly.  DO NOT TOUCH!
As we got a little farther into the site, it really started to feel like being in the jungle.  Sure, the trees weren't quite as tall as the rainforests of southern Belize, but for Ambergris Caye, it was a welcome haven.  The temperature was at least 10 degrees cooler in here than out in the open.
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Poisonwood (note the black sap) on the left, Gumbo Limbo right beside it. Mother Nature is wise, no?
The Maya structures in this site are un-excavated and not very large, so it's no Lamanai, but it's still an interesting site if you enjoy history.  There are forty-nine structures total on the site.  Here are examples of a few:
This limestone and conch shell mound was quite impressive.  I've certainly never seen so many conch shells in one place.
Here are some nice collections of Maya pottery shards we came upon:
The going got a bit wet in places!  We ultimately had to turn around when we encountered a larger wet area that we didn't feel like slogging through (not this one). 
From our photos, it appears that we didn't see another soul on the site, but that wasn't quite true.  We did run into a small group of tourists with a guide, much to our surprise.  We thought we were alone in there!  

We also enjoyed watching birds as we trekked through.  There were a lot of them!  But we didn't have our binoculars, so birding was a little frustrating since we weren't able to identify too many of them other than just general categories ("flycatcher").  We also saw quite a few hermit crabs crawling about.  I've seen more hermit crabs in Belize than anywhere else in my life!
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Black Catbird
We finally finished our tour and emerged from the jungle into the light once again.  
It was an interesting visit and definitely worth checking out if you're on Ambergris Caye.  For further information, click here.
 
Due to the large number of photos, this day is divided into two parts.  Part 1 includes up through our morning trip to the Castillo de San Felipe, and Part 2 will cover our trip to town, lunch, and dinner.
We got up early(ish) on this beautiful, bright Monday morning so that we could have breakfast, wash dishes, and be off the boat by 7 am as Simon had requested.  It turned out that our space on the dock was a great place to watch the local boats come and go in the morning at the complex of buildings and boat ramp next door to the boat yard.
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View from s/v Hope
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Boats coming...
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...and going
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Morning men's club, Guatemala style
Our spot was also a good place to do some birding.  There was a lot of action in a bank of trees across the water, though we wish it had been just a bit closer so we could have identified more, but our binoculars did help a lot. Bruce and Chunky joined Barry and me in the bird watching while Ruthie prepared the daily eggs and sausage for the crew. (Barry and I made our usual oatmeal.)  

We were particularly impressed with this "oriole morning meeting" we witnessed.  The one male with orange breast was glowing so brightly it looked like neon through the binoculars.  I suspect he's "top bird" in this flock.
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Orioles and friends
We were excited to add a new bird to our life list, the Montezuma Oropendola.   We got a better photo of one later, at the park.
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Montezuma Oropendola
Promptly at 7 am, the boatyard workers splashed the Moorings catamaran, as promised, so that s/v Hope could take its place on the hard.
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Worker under the Moorings cat
After everyone had eaten and the dishes were washed (a rotating duty among the crew, although Captain Clive often beat us to it and did it so fast we hardly realized he'd already done it), we debarked s/v Hope to begin our day of sightseeing in Rio Dulce.
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Cap't Simon bidding (L) bidding farewell to the motley crew
We happened to see this boat with bleating cargo nearby as we were leaving.  Somehow I don't think these cuties were destined to be someone's pets, but perhaps at least "mama" will be kept for wool and milk.  
Barry and I led Bruce, Chunky, and Ruthie to the park we had found the previous day.   Here are some of the sights we saw on our walk along the way.
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Chickens alongside the road
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Cute Guatemalan making tortillas for sale
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The pool hall from the night before, in the light of day

Castillo de San Felipe

The park that Barry and I had discovered by chance on the walk the day before turned out to be a national park, much to our surprise.  It was the site of the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, a Spanish colonial fort located at the entrance to Lake Izabal, just beyond where s/v Hope was docked.  According to WikipediaKing Philip II of Spain ordered the fort to be erected in an attempt to reduce pirate activity in the area. 

The park proved to be a super interesting and beautiful spot, whether your tastes ran to history or flora and fauna.  The entry fee of 20 Quetzales per person, or a little less than $3, was a ridiculous bargain (for a national park?!)  We had a brief conversation in our very best "Spanglish" with the two friendly government workers who took our fee.  Since were the only tourists there at that time, I am sure they were glad to see us.

The park was surrounded by water on three sides, and there were beautiful trees, foliage, and greenery on the walk to the fort, which lay at the end of the road.  
There were a ton of leafcutter ants in the park.  I'd never seen these interesting creatures before and found them fascinating. 
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Leafcutter ants bringing leaf pieces down tree trunk
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Lovely road to fort through the lush, tropical foliage
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Ruthie and Bruce
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There was a graveyard in the park
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We thought the lace drapings on the graves were interesting
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Huge tree with snake cacti and orchids growing all over the branches
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Park gift shop
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Orchids were even growing on the wires
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Approaching the fort -- these cannons meant business in their day
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Castillo de San Felipe looks small from this shot, but inside, it's HUGE
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The first tower of the fort was built in 1595
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The fort was rebuilt for the second time in 1651
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Moat around fort
After signing in, we were free to roam at will all over the fort.  I only saw one guard on the second level.  We had tons of fun exploring it at our own pace.  We were the only people in it the entire time!  When we left, we finally saw some other folks signing in.
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Emily signing in
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There were many rooms and passageways all over the fort. Easy to get lost in!
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This room had a large, old wood dining table in it
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Artifacts
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Courtyard
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Chunky on the stairs
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Bruce and me
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The view was stunning!
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Chunky and Ruthie on the "rooftop terrace"
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Barry got this view from a high tower
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Barry is a bit too tall for this doorway
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Chunky, Bruce, Ruthie, and Emily
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The drawbridge over the moat
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These are the cranks and chains used to raise and lower the drawbridge
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Barry bravely ventured down into some dark, dungeon-like rooms that he lit up with only his camera's flash
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Emily up in the tower
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Boom!
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Steep steps to the tower with no hand rail -- this would certainly be roped off in the US, but no one stopped us from climbing them here!
On our way back through the park after thoroughly scoping out the fort, we heard the most interesting bird song.  We finally found the singer up high in a tree above us -- the same species as we'd seen in the morning from the boat:  the Montezuma Oropendola.  What an exotic bird!
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Montezuma Oropendola
We spent even more time watching the leafcutter ants on the way out.  We were amazed to see the trails they had created in the forest, like miniature hiking trails.  And the mound they were going to and from was absolutely huge!  I could have watched these industrious little guys all day long.  One thing I wondered about is all the ants going along with the ones carrying leaves that weren't appearing to do any work themselves.  Are those the "manager ants", barking orders to the workers?!  Some things are universal, I guess....
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Army of leafcutters
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Leafcutter ant mound
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A leafcutter ant trail -- just imagine the thousands of trips back and forth it must have taken to create this path.
After leaving the park, Ruthie wanted a cold drink, so she stopped at a little shop on the roadside.  She was also trying to explain that she wanted some ice to put in her water bottle, but found it hard to do with hand gestures, since the woman running the shop spoke only Spanish.  Fortunately, Barry and I had brought along our Spanish for Cruisers book, so we were able to come up with the term hielo (ice).  The woman immediately understood and went over to chip her off some ice from a block -- not cubes, as we would have expected.  
After leaving the little shop, we were all standing around discussing what to do next, when a young boy (likely the son of the woman running the shop) came running over to us. Ruthie had left her camera on the counter, and he was returning it.  What a wonderful thing, and not something we'd necessarily have expected in a third-world country.  Ruthie went over to thank him again and took him a US dollar as a reward, which I am sure made his day.  His simple act of honesty brought a smile to us all.

Stay tuned for Guatemala Cruise Day 3, Part 2:  A Long Day in Rio Dulce