Sunday, September 6, 2009

Say Goodbye to Hollywood


Wrapping it all up, our last two travel days were a nice, slow re-entry.

Saturday morning was spent poolside at the hotel, with Ellery and Fletcher playing their wonderful imaginary games. Around 1 p.m., it was finally time to say goodbye, check out of the hotel and head, almost literally, across the street to the tiny Placencia airport and fly to Belize City, and then to Houston.

At the hotel in Houston, we were greated by friends Leslie and Phil and their kids, Rachel and Gabe, for a late by satisfying dinner. Then, this morning, it was back to the airport and the flight home.

And so, we are home. At least physically.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Swimming With The Fishes

Today was a marvelously relaxing way to end our vacation.

Early in the morning, we set out with Rene, Billy and the crew to Laughingbird Caye, a small atoll about 1/2 hour away by boat. Along the way, we had the good fortune of being followed for a bit by several dolphin, which gave the kids a real thrill.

The Caye is tiny and uninhabited with the exception of the park ranger who makes sure that there's no fishing and no removal of coral or shells from the area. While Billy and Rene went scuba diving a bit offshore, the rest of us went snorkeling ... and it was fabulous. We saw a greater variety of fish than I've seen anywhere else, parrotfish and angelfish and barracudas and nurse sharks and dozens of others. The coral itself was not particularly vibrant but the fish more than made up for it. Lunch was on the island and then a second snorkel/dive and home we came.

The rest of the day was pure relaxation ... napping, sitting by the pool, and enjoying dinner with the Raineys. The evening ended with a spectacular full moon over the ocean (I really couldn't capture it on film but I tried) and a painful sunburn ... but well worth it.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Just Like A Movie Set

(September 3) Although yesterday we had been told that we had to go back to Puerto Barrios to catch a 10:00 a.m. boat to Belize, in Livingston, anything is possible if you're willing to pay for it, and that includes a skiff directly to Punta Gorda, Belize. It thus took us only 45 minutes to get to Belize, instead of the 3 hours we had budgeted for this leg of the journey.

Once in Punta Gorda, we immediately jumped onto the Belize equivalent of a chicken bus -- an old school bus that does the familiar hop-on, hop-off type of route -- and made it to Mango Creek in 2 hours. Then it was a 20 minute boat ride on the Hokey Pokey Water Taxi to Placencia, otherwise known as Paradise. Or a movie set.

Our final destination of the trip, Turtle Inn, like La Lancha, is owned by Francis Ford Coppola and consists of a number of Balinese style luxury huts sitting on the beach, which is raked daily. Among the huts are a few swimming pools, restaurants, and a beach bar. It is, in essence, a movie set. And not unexpectedly, it is populated by a good assortment of beautiful young couples and "industry" people.

Ellery immediately staked out her territory -- a 6 year old named Fletcher. Fletcher came attached to a 2 year old sister, Sophia, a nanny named Ariel, and parents Renee and Billy, tv producers from Los Feliz. And there were great people, so while the kids played, and then ate dinner, and then had a "dessert party," the adults sat and talked and drank and generally had a wonderful evening together before stumbling back to our respective huts on the beach.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Long Day, Well Worth It

(September 2) Once again, we were up well before dawn. Amazingly, so was the staff at our wonderful hotel, who had prepared us breakfast at 3:30 a.m.! Now that's service.

Shortly after 4 a.m., Gustavo, our driver for this leg of the journey (too much to do in one day by bus) arrived and we loaded up, heading for Copan, Honduras. Ellery and I slept for the first few hours, but eventually woke up for a second roadside breakfast around 9 a.m. During this break, we had time to chat with Gustavo, an adorable guy who spoke terrific English, thanks in large part to his having visited his sister in Atlanta every year.


Crossing the border into Honduras was fairly straight-forward, owing in large part to the fact that visitors to Guatemala often make this journey to Copan. And it is definitely worth the side trip.

Copan is very different than Tikal, and we had a great guide, Juan Carlos, to show us around. Because the stone in Copan is hardened by the lava of the volacnoes, unlike Tikal, much of the carvings are in terrific condition. So, while the scale is not the same, the quality is supurb -- Mayan kings, serpants, and jaguars all come to life on the massive stones. Just as facinating is the history of the excavations, including the diversion of the Copan River, which had been erroding much of the site. Copan also has a fantastic on-site museum, where many of the sculptures are displayed.

After about 3 hours in Copan, we proceeded to Puerto Barrios, on the Carribean coast. Again, the landscape changes were very evident as we returned to the land of tropical plants, cowboys and thatched roof huts. Still, not all was unfamiliar -- at Ellery's request, we stopped for lunch at a McDonald's.

Gustavo dropped us off at the dock in Puerto Barrios where we hopped on a skiff taking us to where we would spend the night, Livingston. Livingston is a tiny town at the mouth of the Rio Dulce and, I confess, there's little to recommend it. The "capital" of Garifuna culture, it's little more than a main drag, a few tattered restaurants, and a few even more tattered hotels. Garifuna is similar to reggae, and clearly music is very important to the people here. And the language is certainly a unique one -- not Spanish, not a Mayan dialect, not English -- it's unlike anything I've heard before.

Anyway, our housing options were limited and night had fallen, so we ended up staying at what was probably the most tattered of "hotel" of them all. Without going into details, suffice it to say, it was the opposite of where we had been and where we were going. We slept on top of the sheets and didn't use the bathroom (which we paid extra for). It was, however, less than $9 for the night.

However, the stop was worthwhile simply for seeing the place, and for meeting Phillipe. Phillipe appeared at first to be your average hustler, trying to get us to buy things, taking us to hotels and restaurants where he would receive a kick-back from the proprieters. But, he was facinating in his own right. If his stories hadn't been so detailed, including facts that you had to live to know, I wouldn't have believed him, and I'm still not sure I do. But Phillipe, born and raised in Livingston, found himself with admission and a scholarship to the University of Illinois thanks to the local priest. With a dual degree in music and environmental sciences, he went to work for the US Navy at Point Mugu in California. But neither navy life, nor life of a scientist suited him, so he went back to music, playing all up and down the west coast and in Mexico. Eventually, he returned home, and found himself hanging out with Jerry Garcia. (I checked out this last one and apparently the "rumor" of Garcia hiding out in Livingston is not just Phillipe's). In any event, whether any of this is true or not is almost beside the point; Phillipe was a great story-teller and made the night a most interesting one.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Antigua -- A Day of Rest

Today, we took the day off. Or at least, managed to stay in one town for a full day. Antigua, the historical capital of Guatemala, is the very definition of Spanish colonial. Like Atitlan, it is surrounded by volcanoes. The street scene consists of stucco structures with red clay roofs, and all one sees is walls and wooden doors. But inside each door is a beautiful courtyard, with a fountain in the center and businesses lining the gardens. Jewelry stores, cafes, art galleries, handcraft shops ... it's all here.


We started the day, as we always do, wandering the local market. Here, while the food and produce was mostly sold in the typical crowded maze with tarps overhead, the rest was along much wider paths, open to the sky. Here, the market backs up to the chicken bus station, and the array of brightly colored buses was as much a treat as the bright fruits and vegetables.

After the market, we did the historic church/monastery/convent tour, stopping at the Church in the Parque Central, Las Capuchinas Convent, La Merced (which houses a fabulous museum of ecclesiastic art), and the Church of San Francisco. All of these buildings, whose origins are deep in the 16th and 17th centuries, have been partially destroyed as a result of several large earthquakes and yet, the fact that they are mostly in ruins simply adds to the atmosphere.




Two items of note: first, in one of the markets, an American began talking to Ellery -- the type of American I will never become. A bit of dialogue revealed the following: he's a former marine, he moved to Guatemala because he didn't want to pay "those ridiculous taxes" (HELLO ... who paid your salary when you were in the service?), Obama is going to decide who my doctor will be, and .... the man speaks barely a word of Spanish after being here for over a year. How is that possible? I wouldn't have believed him had he not gotten into a car bearing license plates from ... Pennsylvania. I am shamed.

The other item is more humorous. After our church-in-ruins tour, Ellery and I stopped at a cafe in the Parque Central. We oohed and aahed at the pastries in the case but, having just eaten lunch, resisted them. Good thing too, because as I was sipping my cappuccino, I saw one of the barristas remove a packaged frozen cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory and slide it into the pastry case!

Tonight will be an early one for Els and I because tomorrow is a long one; at 4 a.m. we leave for Copan in Honduras, and from there to Puerto Barrios and on to Livingston for the night, before returning to Puerto Barrios for the boat back into Belize.


Oh, and finally, this hotel rocks. An incredible building, incredible rooms, incredible service, all very understated and comfortable. The perfect twin to our hotel in Atitlan.