We decided to start the day with breakfast at Mr. Greedy's, where we'd eaten pizza the night before, as we noticed that the prices were a bit less than at Ko-Ox Han-Nah. We had delicious breakfast burritos, orange juice, and excellent coffee. The burrito was only $8.75 BZD (approximately $4.36 US), which included one large mug of coffee, a great deal.
Our plan for today was to rent mountain bikes in Bullet Tree Falls, just a few miles from San Ignacio, and to ride up to El Pilar
, an Archaeological Reserve and partially excavated Maya site, which we'd read had many hiking trails, excellent birding, and few tourists. Perfect! Our Lonely Planet guide suggested that mountain bikes could be rented at Cohune Palms River Cabanas to navigate the eight-mile gravel road to the site, and we thought that sounded like a perfect way to burn off some of the restaurant meals we'd been eating.
It was too early to catch a bus to Bullet Tree Falls according to the schedule we'd seen, so we hopped into one of the many waiting taxis on Burns Avenue and asked the driver, Mike, to take us to Cohune Palms. Unfortunately, upon arriving there and talking to a worker, we found out they did not have any mountain bikes to rent. Perhaps they had in the past, but no longer. Kinda reminded us of the Mexican restaurant being closed the day before -- was this trip doomed to be one of many disappointments? (Answer: no.)
So, we moved onto Plan B and asked Mike if he could take us up to El Pilar. At first he seemed a bit unsure, as his taxi was a small Geo that did not have 4WD, but I guess he figured he better give it a try as the fare would certainly be much better than he'd make in a day hanging out in San Ignacio with many other cabs competing for not many tourists. He quoted us a price of $50 US to drive us there, wait for us to hike and bird-watch, and drive us back to San Ignacio, so we decided to go for it. This ended up being a great decision as it was a very difficult slog up a messy, rocky road, and even on mountain bikes would have been a challenge. Had Plan A worked out, we might not have had any energy left for hiking after biking the mostly uphill, messy road, as it turned out. This photo does NOT do the road justice. Many portions were steeper, with deeper ruts and larger rocks. Mike really had to take it slowly and carefully in his little car, and he bottomed out on some of the worst parts. Fortunately for us, he made it to the top!
The rocky road to El Pilar
We got to the check-in point and paid our $10 BZD entry fees. We found out later that we were the first visitors to the site in three days! And we were the only ones here this day as well. Our own private 100-acre park -- what could be better for a couple of tourist-weary island residents?!
El Pilar entry building and Mike's taxi
We bid Mike goodbye and took off into the jungle. This place was amazing! Trails, stairs, overlooks, ruins, huge shade trees, and birds galore. You'll notice in the photos that I am wearing my biking clothes since we'd thought we'd be getting here on two wheels instead of four.
Looking for birds
Maya Ball Court (unexcavated)
Stairs and railings crafted of wood and sapling trees keep things natural at El Pilar
It actually took awhile to start having bird sightings. In fact, the first wildlife Barry spotted up in the trees was a couple of Howler Monkeys! They weren't howling or calling (just making a racket by climbing in the branches), but did come closer to get a good look at us from up there. I had heard that they could be mean, so I didn't hang around for too long, worried that they might come closer.
This guy was checking us out very thoroughly
Barry got some great shots with his 12x zoom lens, but the monkeys weren't as close as they look in the photos (good thing!) since these have been cropped.
I hadn't even thought of seeing monkeys here, so I was very excited that we had this opportunity. Soon thereafter, we started seeing birds, and plenty of them, including this exotic Black-Headed Trogan, another new bird for our life lists.
As I mentioned in yesterday's entry
, we'll do a blog posting showing many more bird pictures at the end of this trip report, since there are already tons of photos for each day without including them here.
There were signs like this scattered around El Pilar giving details on different portions of the site. They were right about how nice and cool it was under the tree canopy.
We got quite a workout climbing and descending many sets of stairs over unexcavated mounds
Barry watching birds at the lookout
There were a couple of excellent lookouts
We finally found a trail map -- we'd been flying blind before this point
There were a lot of trails -- we hiked all of the ones that didn't go off to never-never land, since we had Mike waiting for us with the taxi!
Though most of the trails were pretty short, like this one, it took awhile for us to hike them as we had to stop to look at birds many, many times
And sometimes we had to stop to look down -- like at this interesting jungle bug
We saw a cave up in this unexcavated mound and thought it deserved a closer look.
Cave near top of mound
Back of cave
Barry went into the cave on the front side to scout it out...
...but found this bees' nest inside, so decided he'd seen enough!
Part of the ruins that had been excavated
Another overlook ahead
This overlook had an amazing view of Guatemala to the west. Barry took these photos panorama-style.
We came upon a rest area with picnic tables and decided to sit for a few minutes and eat the snacks we'd brought -- peanuts and fiber wafers. It felt good to sit down after all the walking.
Lunchtime for our weary hikers
These wasps were hanging on the roof of the shelter -- eeek! Fortunately, they didn't bother us, nor we them.
There were pit toilets and even a nice sink with soap for hand-washing
Termite nest -- you see these often in Belize. They eat the deadwood from trees so are actually considered beneficial!
This natural jungle garden was very pretty
See? Really lush...
We came upon this sign near the end of our hike. I guess we did it in reverse of what a lot of people do.
Our last trail went way down low to a creek, then way up high a zillion stairs to a 360-degree overlook. I thought my heart was going to come out of my chest after climbing all those stairs straight up!
This is the lower part of the trail
Lovely views from up high
Near the very end of our hike, Barry spied this feather on the trail. Since we'd just seen and identified our first-ever Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot the day before at Cahal Pech, we knew it was a tail feather from this wonderful bird. I felt sad because I doubt the bird could fly or live without this beautiful feather, so assume it had met its maker.
Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot tail feather
After nearly five hours of hiking and birding, we returned to Mike and the taxi. Fortunately, he was taking a little snooze, so I didn't feel quite as bad for making him wait so long. I am sure it had to have been pretty boring, but probably still decent money for his time, considering the typical taxi trip and fare. And going back down the rocky road was not as difficult as coming up for his little Geo.
We did, however, run into a bit of road traffic on our way back to San Ignacio...
We had to wait until they'd all safely crossed before we could get going. So cute!
After our big day of hiking, we were pretty lazy for what was left of the day. We walked up the under construction section of Burns Ave. for dinner at "Flayva's". Barry got the jerk chicken, and I had grilled fish. We both chose rice and stewed beans and sauteed veggies for our sides, so we ate healthfully, since our entrees also came with veggies atop. It was absolutely delicious! After dinner we stopped for a little gelato at a stand along the road. It wasn't nearly as good as at Tutti Frutti's in Placencia, but it was nice to have a little taste of something sweet after dinner.
Burns Avenue in San Ignacio
My grilled fish
Barry's jerk chicken
I'm enjoying the "flay-vas"
Today the plan was to walk to a nearby Maya site, Cahal Pech
. It is one of the sites here in Belize that doesn't require a guide, which we appreciated. Belizean guides are incredibly knowledgeable and very reasonably priced for the service they offer, but being from the US, we are used to doing things on our own and taking as much time as we like to linger over things that especially interest us but aren't necessarily the focus of a guided tour, especially birds. We are more amateur naturalists than history buffs, as regular readers of this blog probably know. We are also fairly frugal, so anywhere we are not required to take a guide, we probably won't. We also liked the fact we could walk to the site, rather than take a taxi. With all the restaurant meals we'd be eating, we knew we could use the exercise, and we just plain enjoy walking.
But first, breakfast! We once again ate at Ko-Ox Han-Nah across Burns Avenue from where we were staying, Casa Blanca, because we'd read their breakfast menu the night before, and it sounded good. We were not disappointed. Barry had a massive breakfast burrito, and I had banana pancakes with a side of vegetarian "sausage". I didn't care much for the "sausage", but I ate most of it because I wanted some protein for the long day ahead. Breakfast came with a steaming mug of coffee, and we also ordered freshly squeezed orange juice -- delicious.
Barry's breakfast burrito
My banana pancakes and veggie sausage
The walk to Cahal Pech was nearly all uphill, something we're not used to these days living on the flat island of Ambergris Caye. It was a warm and sunny morning, so I was definitely sweating it out, but the views from up high were excellent.
We trekked up a long and dusty hill
Cahal Pech is at the top of the hill under dense tree cover, as seen in the middle of this photo
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Along the way, we came across this "super store". All the groceries in the Cayo District seem to be owned by the Chinese, who have immigrated to Belize in large numbers. They are called "Chiny Markets" by the locals, which seems rather racist, but no one seems to think anything of it here. Belize is a true melting pot of cultures, and all races seem to get along quite well. The US could definitely learn some lessons here.
"Super store" has a different meaning in Belize than in the US for sure
When we arrived at the site, we entered a small museum and paid our very reasonable $5 BZD ($2.50 US) entrance fees. The museum housed some interesting artifacts as well as historical information about the site.
Upon leaving the museum, we entered the most glorious jungle with huge trees, beautiful foliage, birds singing, and a cooling breeze. The temperature dropped at least ten degrees as we escaped under the tree canopy. We felt as if we'd been transported to a completely different world from the dusty city so close by.
Timeline of Cahal Pech
Unfortunately, workers were doing string trimming and lawn mowing as we entered the main courtyard, so we stayed on the fringes of the site looking for birds as much as possible until they broke for lunch. We were rewarded throughout our time there with many new bird sightings, and Barry took a ton of photos. We'll do a separate blog posting just for bird photos later, but here's one of the most exotic and beautiful birds we've seen in Belize so far -- a Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot. He was huge and sat on this branch for so long Barry got many, many shots of him. Check out his cool tail feathers...the end "dart" was hanging on by two thin spines that looked awfully fragile to me!
The site itself was much more modest in scale than Lamanai
, but it was still impressive. It was originally the home of a single Maya family, not an entire village. Pretty nice digs for one family, right on top of a huge hill, where they certainly had amazing views of the valley below. We enjoyed exploring the excavated ruins and scrambling up high for better viewing, but we always kept our eyes open for birds in the many overhanging trees. The temperature in the shade was absolutely perfect.
Remains of Ball Court
We had this place almost to ourselves -- just a few workers eating lunch under a tree
Watching Mama and Daddy building a fantastic bird nest dangling from a branch
Taking a photo of Barry up high on a structure
Checking the "Birds of Belize" book -- an invaluable resource
More bird book research
Barry on top of one of the temples
There was only one other couple at Cahal Pech the entire time we were there. We spoke to them briefly, answering a few questions about the birds there. In addition to the many birds, we also saw some other interesting flora and fauna at the site.
Interesting reddish insects
Wasp nest Barry just about leaned against -- eek!
One of the most interesting sightings was this little wild pig, who ran away quickly when I came upon him. After doing some research online, I have to assume he was a peccary
, common in Belize, though his ears were a different and his coat browner. He was also smaller than a typical peccary, but perhaps he was just a kiddo. If anyone has any other ideas of what type of piggie this little fellow might be, please put them in the comments section below.
After spending hours watching birds and wandering the ruins, we finally bid so long to Cahal Pech and began the long walk downhill. It was definitely easier on the way down, and the views were great.
At Cahal Pech parking lot overlooking San Ignacio and Cayo District of Belize
Back down the hills we go
Approaching downtown San Ignacio
We grabbed a couple of yogurts and waters at one of the small groceries near the Casa Blanca and sat on the balcony for a quick lunch. We figured we'd eat dinner early and could avoid the cost of a restaurant lunch. We ended up doing this for our entire visit, eating breakfast and dinner out each day, and just snacking at lunchtime.
While we were eating, Barry asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of the afternoon. I figured we'd just wander around town more and maybe back down to the river. He suggested that instead, we hop on a bus to Benque, a border town not too far from San Ignacio, to check it out. He wanted to eat dinner at a good Mexican restaurant he'd read about in our Lonely Planet guide. Of course, we didn't actually have the guide with us, as we'd printed out only the pertinent pages from the pdf file to carry with us on the trip. So we didn't actually remember the name of the restaurant, just that it was Mexican, supposed to be good, and in Benque. Well sure, why not? It was a small town, so we could certainly find it. What did we possibly have to lose?!
We walked down to the bus terminal and hopped on a bus to Benque (full name Benque Viejo del Carmen), a mestizo village just two miles shy of the Guatemalan border. The bus ride over only set us back $1.50 BZD each. On the way, we passed the hand-crank ferry over the Mopan river to the great Maya ruin Xunatunich.
San Ignacio fruit market by bus terminal
Our chicken bus to Benque
When we arrived in Benque, we started walking around with our eyes peeled for a Mexican restaurant. This after walking to and from Cahal Pech already, and all around inside the site. I didn't even wear walking shoes as I figured Benque was small, and how hard could it be to find what was probably the only Mexican restaurant in town? But we were there plenty early and had plenty of time, so we just checked out some of the town sights as we walked around. I don't think we saw another tourist in town as any staying here were probably at Xunatunich or Tikal
, a national park and large Maya site over the border in Guatemala, for the day.
There were plenty of churches and this religious monument in town
Since Benque is so close to the Guatemalan border, there is plenty of Spanish spoken and on the signs
Cemetery with brightly-colored graves and some stacked three high!
Where San Ignacio has Burns Ave., Benque has Burns Street, so of course I had to pose for a photo!
Beautiful bougainvilleas on Burns St.
We wandered down to the brilliant green Mopal River, where I fell in love with a perfectly manicured property (with home tucked into the trees) across on the other side. I wonder if the owners had to take the hand-cranked ferry to get there? Barry started getting a couple of mosquito bites, so we moved along fairly quickly and continued our restaurant search.
We saw many Chinese restaurants, but not a Mexican one in sight.
We finally stopped and asked a friendly local woman walking along the street about the restaurant. She knew where it was, even mentioned the street name (started with an "A", but we couldn't quite remember it once we continued walking), and she gave us a rough explanation of how to get there, which involved walking way back up a large boulevard we'd already been to the top of once and come back down. We asked her if we could walk there, and she indicated that we could. We still had plenty of time as it wasn't even 5pm yet, but I was already thinking chips, salsa, and margarita thoughts. It had been a long day of walking already.
We walked up the Boulevard without a sign of the elusive Mexican restaurant and got to the very top of the hill overlooking the valley and town below. We'd now walked from one end of town, where we got off the bus, to the other, where we saw this welcome sign. Even though it's not a large town, it's not a tiny village either. We had done some walking!
We decided we would walk just over the top of the hill, which looked really rural, and if we still hadn't found it, we'd turn around and ask someone else. Right when we turned around, we saw this sign -- a wonderful sight indeed!
Now we had the restaurant name, the location, and, though it was a bit hard to read, a phone number. Yes! I wrote down all the information on a card in my purse, and buoyed by our terrific luck, we headed back the way we came. Now we just needed to find Arenal Rd., which was the "A" road the local lady had mentioned.
There are very few street signs in town (Burns Street being one of the exceptions), so we asked a local man on a corner in our very rudimentary Spanish if he could point to Arenal Road. Luckily, it was the dirt road right behind him, but there was no sign of the restaurant. We asked him about it ("Comida Mexicana?"), and he pointed off in a couple of directions, said a few words in Spanish, and shook his head. We still aren't quite sure what that was about, so I told him "No entiendo" (I don't understand), but we thanked him and headed into a grocery store right there to ask further.
Gotta love the name!
The clerks in the store (Chinese, naturally), did speak English and told us to go up a bit and the restaurant would be right up the road. Okay, now we were getting somewhere!
We headed up Arenal Road, and when another unmarked, unpaved road branched off to the left, we saw this sign. Yippee! I could taste that margarita already.
However, all we could see in the building was "Benque's Bargain Center", no sign of a Mexican restaurant. We were confused, and after walking down the road a bit more, I was ready to give up. I had my cell phone, so called the number on the sign but got an answering machine message in Spanish that I couldn't understand. I figured they must have gone out of business and no one we'd asked realized that, save for maybe the man who shook his head and tried to tell us something in Spanish.
Barry was determined to get to the bottom of it, though, so he poked his head into the Bargain Center and asked. The proprietor said that yes, the restaurant was there and was still in business. But where?!? We even asked a little boy riding a bike, and he seemed to think it was there as well.
Finally, we figured out that the back of the house where the Bargain Center was located was where the restaurant was located. When it was open, that is. It was after 5pm by now, and there was no sign that it would be opening anytime soon.
Apparently this is where the restaurant normally operates. Even the dog looked disappointed.
House where restaurant should have been...sigh...
In one last desperate attempt, we went back into the Bargain Center and told them that the restaurant appeared to be very much closed, and asked if they typically closed on Tuesdays or if they didn't open until 6pm, by chance. She thought neither was the case and that it should be open. She said "Wait just a minute", and went to the back. Apparently she knows the owners, and they actually live in the house on the site (upstairs, presumably), but she came back saying that they weren't home. Who knows, perhaps they had a family emergency or went on vacation, or something, but the place simply wasn't open. What a disappointment. But at least we know where it is should we ever have the opportunity to come back.
We didn't know if any other restaurants in town were good, and we weren't really in the mood for Chinese food anyway, so we made the long walk back to the bus terminal. At least it was downhill! On the way we ran into the lady who had told us where to find the restaurant. She asked if we'd found it, and we had to tell her the sad news that it was closed for the night. She very generously said "Are you hungry? Do you need some food?" How sweet! We thanked her but told her we'd be fine; we were headed back to San Ignacio for dinner. It wasn't even that late yet. We grabbed a water from a little store right next door, and waited 15 minutes for the 5:30 bus back to San Ignacio.
When we got back to San Ignacio, we just barely had time to get to Mr. Greedy's on the section of Burns Ave. under construction before Happy Hour ended at 6pm. We'd heard they had good pizza ("with the only hand-tossed Italian crust in Belize"), and their veggie pizza did not disappoint. They even made it easy for me to transfer my olives to Barry's slices, by not putting them under the cheese as is usually the case in the US. It wasn't Mexican, but it was delicious, and we'd earned every bite after the many miles we'd walked on this day. And yes, there were NO leftovers!
Great Happy Hour prices ($3 BZD = $1.50 US) and Burns Ave. being repaved
Finally, the reward after a long day with many miles hiked!