In addition to Maya temples and other structures, there were plenty of other interesting sights at the Palenque Archaeological Site in Chiapas, Mexico.

We saw one of our favorite tropical birds, the Blue-Crowned Mot Mot. These birds must like hanging out at the ruins as the first one we saw was in Cahal Pech in San Ignacio.  I love the way they just sit still on a branch for so long, allowing us to take multiple shots.  Wish more birds would behave that way!
And this tree, on a closer look, revealed a fascinating fruit (reputed as a possible cancer cure), soursop.
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Soursop (graviola)
Here's a pretty tree -- no idea what it is, though.  Anyone?
It was interesting to me that vendors were allowed inside the park; we hadn't seen that at any parks in Belize.  We bought a refrigerator magnet with a hand-painted image of a Resplendent Quetzal.  Big spenders, I tell ya!
I didn't know exactly what this was until I did a little research.  Turns out that the Palenque site included an extensive system of aqueducts and channels used for water management by the Maya.
In addition to engineered waterways, there was a lovely river running through the site.  The stairs to access the river, which was much lower than the rest of the site, were extensive, but worth all the sore quads.  The jungle in this area was impossibly beautiful!
There was a very cool swing bridge over the river.
After enjoying the beautiful river walk, it was time to head back up.  By this time my quads were screaming.  It was not only the structures that had steep stairs, it was the park itself.  I was definitely "undertrained" for this site!
We got very lucky and got to see a troop of Howler Monkeys very close up at the site.  I always get very excited by a monkey sighting!
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Baby howler on momma's back
Before we leave the ruins, here are a couple of my favorite shots of multiple structures from up on high.
After a great day at the site, it was finally time to leave.  But not before a little shopping!  I bought a beautiful embroidered Mexican blouse from one of the many stalls in the parking area.  Little did I know, I'd later see the exact same thing available in San Cristobal for half the price.  Oh well, it was still quite inexpensive (approximately $14 US).
We then caught a collectivo back to town.  We were the only gringos in the van, as usual.  
Similar to taxis in San Pedro, Belize, the collectivo vans are old US mini-vans, and not in very good condition.  Rattle-traps!  And where's the license plate?  Hmmmmm....
Stay tuned...the Palenque food post is coming up next!

A note to our readers:  I thought it was odd that we hadn't gotten any blog comments in about a month.  I now realize why.  For some reason, Weebly has stopped sending me the email notifications of comments.  When I finally thought to poke around and see if I had any in a pending status, I found 50!  So, if you've commented on the blog in the past month, my apologies that you were ignored.  I am going to try to get these posted (and responded to, where warranted) as soon as I can.  Your patience and understanding is much appreciated!
 
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.
 
Since failing to reach the top of Antelope Falls in June due to a tight time schedule, we were determined to get back to Mayflower Bocawina National Park, near the villages of Silk Grass and Hopkins in the Stann Creek District, as soon as possible to finish the hike.  We also wanted to visit the town of Punta Gorda in the Toledo District of southern Belize for the first time.  So we decided to combine both goals into a week-long adventure.

On our first trip to the park, which we got to via taxi from Hopkins, we'd discovered an eco-resort right within the confines of the park, Mama Noot's.  We hadn't read about it in any of our resources prior to visiting the park, but once we found it, we knew it would be a much more convenient place to stay to hike the falls as well as indulge in our passion for birding.  So, we booked three nights to allow plenty of time for hiking, birding, exploring, and relaxing.  There is also a new zip-line onsite, but we didn't take advantage of it.  It looked like fun, but would have been an additional expense, and we really preferred the hiking and birdwatching.

We took off from Ambergris Caye on Tuesday, July 24.  We caught an early-morning water taxi into San Pedro, dropped Paisley off at Pampered Paws to board for the week, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at Lily's Treasure Chest, since we had some time before the ferry to Belize City departed.  

We've learned while traveling this summer that while the summer months are slow season in Belize for tourists from the US, Canada, and Europe; this is the time when Belizeans as well as other Central Americans travel, since the children are out of school and bargains are plentiful.  As a result, the transportation options most-used by locals, ferries and buses, are packed.  Today was no exception.  Both the ferry and buses were very crowded, and our final leg, a bus from the town of Dangriga to the park turnoff was standing room only.  We were not able to sit together, and Barry was forced to stand way in the back.  Practically the entire aisle was filled with standing passengers.  

When we approached a police checkpoint along the highway, all those passengers standing in the aisle had to be seated, as apparently standing passengers are not allowed (even though it happens all the time).  So these additional passengers had to scrunch onto the very edges of the tiny seats originally intended for two children (the buses in Belize are former US school buses) but now occupied by two adults, in most cases.  Barry ended up perching on the edge of one of these seats as a third person.  There was also a third person squeezed onto the edge of the seat I was in, and many crouched in the aisle so they wouldn't be seen standing.  Apparently it's pretty routine here for the buses to exceed their designated maximum passenger capacity -- and to hide that fact when they pass through checkpoints.  

The park is not a usual bus stop, though local buses will stop pretty much anywhere a passenger requests, so I had to let the conductor know that we needed to get off there.  The Belizean man I was seated next to was chatting me up the entire time (only about half of which I could understand) as I tried to watch for the stop.  Since the park is only six miles south on the Southern Highway outside of Dangriga, we would be the first stop, so the conductor had to make his way down the crowded aisle to let Barry know to start working his way to the front of the bus to be ready for the stop.  Fortunately, the driver did stop, and we got off at the appropriate place.  It was really nice to be out of that crowded bus and enjoy the fresh air again.
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Mile 6 of Belize's Southern Highway
As you can see on the sign for Mama Noot's, it is 4.2 miles in on the unpaved road, and the bus doesn't go in.  We could have hired a taxi in Dangriga, but we figured the hike in wouldn't kill us after so much time seated in ferries and buses, and we're trying to keep our travel as frugal as possible.  Times like these are why we travel with backpacks rather than rolling suitcases in Belize!  It was a beautiful hike with no houses at all along the road, just green as far as the eyes could see.
Our shoulders got a little tired, but it was mostly flat and not a difficult hike.
As we walked down the road, we met the manager of Mama Noot's, Liz, as she was heading the other way into town in an SUV.  She offered us a ride, but we were within a mile at that point, so decided to forge onwards.  Before reaching Mama Noot's, we entered park land.
As we neared Mama Noot's, one of the workers met us on the road and walked us the rest of the way in to the resort, and Ms. Marci, who does all the cooking in the restaurant there, showed us our cabana.  We had requested a regular "Longhouse" room since the summer rate was only $39US, but since those rooms were currently under renovation, we were lucky enough to be upgraded to a larger cabana.  Since it is low season for tourism, we were the only guests at the resort for the three nights we were here, although there were zip-line workers staying in the larger cabana close to ours.
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Can't beat this gorgeous setting
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Our authentic Belizean cabana
The cabana was very Belizean with tiled floors, a thatch roof, and screened windows all around.  It was definitely more rustic than most places we've stayed, but charming.  Inside there were two sleeping areas, each with a queen bed, a large entry area, and a bathroom with tiled shower.  The sleeping area had a screened porch feel; there were curtains for the windows but not all had slats to close.  The heavy overhanging thatch roof kept rain from coming in, however.
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Side view of our cabana
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Sleeping area we used - note mosquito netting over the bed, a first for us!
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Second sleeping area we didn't use
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Entry area between sleeping areas
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Tile shower
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Interior of thatched roof, as seen from our bed
Meals were served in a large dining hall (photos later).  Before our first dinner, we chatted with Liz, who brought us a beer, salad, and some of Ms. Marci's delicious home-baked bread.  We were starved by this time, since we'd had only snacks for lunch, so it sure went down easy.  
We had Belizean pork chops, rice, and veggies for dinner, followed by a slice of key lime pie.  Yum!  We definitely did not leave hungry, and the food made the long hike (and day of sometimes uncomfortable travel) all worthwhile.
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Barry's favorite -- no meringue!
Stay tuned to future days' blog posts for hike reports and photos (see whether we made it to the top of Antelope Falls this time!) and more on Mama Noot's.  Also coming up:  Visiting Punta Gorda and the Toledo District, Hickatee Cottages, and a brief return to Placencia....