Nim Li Punit, Homestay in Blue Creek Village
Craig and Steph's Adventures in Belize
We drove for about two hours to Nim Li Punit Archaeological Reserve. When we arrived we noticed many locals, young and old, making their way towards the site with various bags and sacks on their backs. We entered a small museum which housed various small artifacts as well as some large stelae (carved stone tablets) which had been found at the site. One of these stelae is the second largest in the Mayan world. David gave us a lot of interesting information about the Maya. After finishing in the museum, we walked around the restored site. While looking at the ball court, David recounted the story of the hero twins and how the played ball against the gods of Xibalba. It turns out that hacky sack is a derivative of this ancient Maya ball game. The Mayans used a three pound rubber ball, and they had a hard material around their hips on which they would bounce the ball, trying to get it through a vertical hoop. The entire site was situated on the top of a hill and therefore offered stunning views in all directions. There were also various ceiba trees located around the site and on nearby hilltops, but unfortunately a few of these very old trees had been knocked down in recent hurricanes.
As we began to descend the site and return to our van, we noticed that the locals who had previously been heading up to the site had now situated themselves along the exit trail with all their various wares. Although they had many decent items which were very cheaply priced, we really didn't have room to start buying these sorts of things and weren't overly interested in the items being shown. We felt bad as we realized they had come all the way up here just in hopes that we would buy something. As we walked by, they were in fact were now packing up again. Fortunately, we had brought a box of pens with us when we left the van, and we were able to ask if anyone wanted a free pen. At first it seemed they were afraid to take our offering, but eventually one excited boy took a pen and then suddenly many others were interested. One older woman asked if it was ok if she take a pen as well. After only a minute or two, the frenzy ended as we had no more pens to give away. Suddenly the moment seemed much more joyous, with everyone talking with each other and waving and saying thanks to us. At least they didn't waste their time coming to see us while we stopped to visit this rather interesting Mayan site.
After a short drive we stopped to eat lunch at Coleman's restaurant. It was a small outdoor restaurant adorned with many hand-lettered signs, including "Look Men's Urinal" above the bathroom. We had fruit punch flavored Fanta that tasted a lot like the Inka Kola we had while in Peru. We also enjoyed a nice plate of rice and beans and beef. On the table we noticed bottles of the hot sauce just like the ones the Garcia Sisters had on their table. Considering we would be spending the night with a Mayan family we thought it might not be a good idea to have any on our food at this time, just in case. After lunch, we drove a little further to Blue Creek, the Maya village where we would be spending the night.
The ecotourism model in Belize is very interesting. The Toledo Ecotourism Association oversees operations. If villages choose to participate in the program, they construct a guest house in which tourists can spend the night. On a rotating basis, families within the community host the tourists for dinner. As we arrived in the village there were many small homes on either side of the main dirt road. We saw lots of farmers working their land, women washing clothes by the creek, and children working as well as playing. As we approached our guest house we discovered it was still being cleaned out for our arrival so we changed into our bathing suits and met up with Sylvano Sho.
Sylvano is a very knowledgable Blue Creek resident who took us for a short hike through the jungle to Hokeb Ha Cave. David has been inside many times so he waited outside the cave with our belongings, but Arthur went with us (it was his first time in the cave). This was much more intense swimming than Actun Tunichil Muknal had been, and we were required to wear life jackets. We had to swim against the current. At times we had to scurry up rocks, and sometimes it was difficult to stand up against the current. At times the water was very deep. You could see where the water level had been in the past, and it was obvious that this was definitely a flash flood risk in bad weather. This cave did not have elaborate limestone formations, as the changing water levels made the walls quite smooth. It was pitch black except for the lights coming from our headlamps (and Craig's headlamp died partway through). Sylvano was a great guide, a very strong swimmer, and was able to give us a hand scrambling over rocks when we needed it. We eventually got to our destination: an underground waterfall. We could barely speak over its roar. We hung out here for a few minutes appreciating the sheer power of the water flow and admiring the incredible location we were suddenly thrust into. Sylvano told us that he offers a hike through the entire cave where you can exit on the other side of the mountains but he says you cannot climb up the waterfall and instead must choose a different route back when entering the cave. We all felt it was probably best to just do the short visit instead. We then swam back out of the cave and took the short hike back to Blue Creek Village. On the way back, Sylvano showed us a few walkways constructed high in the trees. They looked very unsafe and we were told that they were no longer used since they had been damaged in the hurricanes a few years back. We felt fortunate, as I don't think any of our group would have wanted to climb the trees and walk along the highly questionable catwalks anyway.
Craig and I were looking forward to spending some time with our Mayan family when arriving back at the village. But, unbeknownst to us, there was another activity planned, so we changed into some dry clothes and hopped into the van again. David told us dinner wouldn't be ready for a while so we were going to take a half hour ride to a nearby village. Soon after leaving the Blue Creek Village we stopped along the road and gave a rather disheveled man a ride for a few miles to his destination. He was very thankful for the ride and waved bye as we pulled away.
After what seemed a long ride down winding dirt roads, passing through various villages, we arrived at Santa Cruz and the Rio Blanco National Park. We took another short hike to a waterfall. There were a few other tourists having a picnic here so we lost a bit of that feeling that we had the place to ourselves. David told us we came here because apparently this is a popular swimming hole, but more importantly it is where the river sort of disappears into the ground as it flows through the mountains to emerge inside the Hokeb Ha Cave where we had just been swimming. Although it was a nice swimming hole none of us jumped in since we had just changed into our dry clothes and left our swimming gear behind. After a short visit, David taught us a few things about the neighboring plants and trees. We looked at a few plants that have a rather symbiotic relationship with ants. The ants live within little holes in the plant, and when the plant is bothered by something the ants come out to sting and bite the intruder. As David was showing us how this worked one of the ants in fact came out of a little node and bit him.
We then went back to Blue Creek and got set up in our thatched-roof guest house. The guest house has two bedrooms which each have four bunks complete with sheets and pillow (two bunks on the top and two on the bottom) and little individual mosquito nets. There is a common room in between the two bedrooms. There is no electricity, and there is a separate outhouse and shower building. Marlene had a preference for the bottom bunk, so Craig and I immediately took the top bunks. Although the sun was preparing to set, we had yet to meet our Mayan family, so we decided to attempt making a connection.
We had brought a Frisbee to share with the family, and while the rest of our group was chatting waiting for dinner, we threw the Frisbee around in front of the guest house. A boy rode past on his bike and we asked if he wanted to play with us. He seemed very shy and said no. Then a man came over so Craig asked if he wanted to play. He hesitated for a moment and then said "May I try?" We demonstrated how to throw the Frisbee and then I threw it to him. He caught it and then threw it back to us. He did very a good job for his first time, though he apologized because his aim was a little off. He seemed very excited, but then jumped out of the way when the Frisbee was thrown back to him. "I was a little scared," he said, laughing. He tried throwing it one more time, and then we were called for dinner.
It turned out that our Frisbee friend was also our host, Pedro Ack. We entered a rather large wooden building where there were two tables pulled side by side in the center of the room. The cement floored building contained a refrigerator, a stereo, and a diesel powered corn grinder. We also noticed there were a few plastic baggies of water hanging from the ceiling. It was an interesting collection of items gathered in this room and we chuckled at the size of the stereo over against one wall. It really seemed out of place here. As we all took seats around the table, Pedro's daughter Serafina passed out plastic cups, plastic bowls filled with a warm tomato egg mixture, and fresh piping hot tortillas. They gave us Quench Aid to drink (a Kool Aid type of drink). We also had a sugared chocho gourd, which tasted like candied yams.
Unfortunately, the women and children were all eating in the kitchen (which was a separate building), but Pedro ate with us at the table. We chatted with Pedro while we ate the delicious meal. We couldn't get over the amazing tortillas and marvelled at their freshness. Pedro told us that the corn grinder is used by others in the village and he charges them 10 cents per pound on corn being ground. He says another villager charges 15 cents, so many prefer coming to him instead. As we finished off our batch of tortillas, Serafina and one of the other daughters came in briefly to use the corn grinder in preparation for making more. Not 5 minutes later, these torillas found their way onto our table. No wonder they tasted so fresh! While eating, we had lots of laughs talking with Pedro. He had a great sense of humor and we were enjoying his company very much. We finally had to ask about the plastic bags hanging from the ceiling, as we noticed them when eating lunch at Coleman's too. He told us their purpose was to scare away the flies. Puzzling us for a moment, he continued to tell us that the flies see their magnified reflections and get scared away. After finishing the very enjoyable meal, we gave Pedro the Frisbee and he promised to teach the children how to play. Craig also gave one of the girls a pen before leaving.
After dinner it was fully dark outside, and we met up with Sylvano for a nighttime jungle walk. Our headlamps came in handy. Sylvano had hoped to show us kinkajous, armadillos, etc., but that was not to be. We saw a marine toad, a butterfly, termites, a grasshopper, a few spiders and some leaf cutter ants. David picked up the marine toad and it shot a sticky liquid into his hand. He told us this was the hallucinogen and this was our chance if we wanted to try some. We all laughed and thought about how this was likely not the optimal time to try such a stunt. He said that was a wise idea and was glad none of us were interested. It was a nice walk, and the sounds of the jungle were fascinating. It isn't every day that we find ourselves walking around in a jungle in the dark hoping to come across some form of wildlife. Despite not seeing too much our adrenaline was coursing through our bodies anyway.
On the way back to the guest house, we stopped at Sylvano's house to get his business card (for his email address). He told Craig that he is working on building his own guest house, and that he would like to host guests and sell cold beer, etc. Craig said that was a great idea, and he'd be willing to buy a cold beer. Sylvano quickly went to the fridge and cracked two beers. He gave one to Craig and one to me. I hadn't realized one was for me (I thought they were for Craig and Sylvano himself), and I had to apologize that I am allergic to beer. When he tried forcing the bottle cap back onto the second beer Craig (the martyr) offered to buy both beers from Sylvano to avoid this unfortunate situation. Sylvano said he would be happy to send us email updates from Blue Creek, and that he likes having friends around the world. We walked back to the guest house and Pedro set up three candles for us. I sat on the floor in the common room and journaled by candlelight. Craig sat with me for a while and we went to bed at around 10.