Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Belize - Northern Highway Trip

On our first full day in Belize, we set out to rent a small car to see some of the countryside. When we got to the rental place, they explained that, given the conditions of the roads we’d be driving if we planned to leave Belize City, we’d need to be driving an SUV (which they didn’t have available) or a small truck (which they did have).

Kathy quickly became comfortable with the latter and so that’s what we got.

Belize only has one paved road—a two lane “highway” – in each direction. We decided, since the rental place was north of Belize anyway, to take the Northern Highway and drive up, past some Maya ruins and birding areas, to Orange Walk.

The drive along most of the Northern Highway isn’t very pretty. It’s mostly brush, with lots of lower and middle class houses along the way. The poverty of the area was pretty overwhelming and there were some things that initially jarred us. We passed, for example, some houses that were very ramshackled and lacked indoor plumbing but that had large TV dishes in the backyard.

35 miles out of Belize City, we turned onto Maskall Road,a one to one-and-a-half lane dirt road that made it quickly clear to us why we needed the truck.

We bumped along past lots of brush, now and then a home or two (most of which were up on stilts because of flood seasons), and a few monkeys. It took us about 45 minutes to go the four miles to the turn off for Altun Ha, a Maya ruin in the area.

Altun Ha was at its height (with about 10000 people living at it) from around 200 to 900 CE. The parts of it that are excavated seem to suggest it was a major ceremonial center.

Its largest excavated Temple, the Temple of Masonry Altars (the building you’re seeing over Kathy’s shoulder), has a single stairway going up to the altar at its top and inside excavators found tombs with bodies of what they believe were the high priests.

Also found at Altun Ha was a 15 cm high jade head of Kinich Ahau, the Maya Sun God. As with many other Maya sites, between 900 and 1000 CE, some kind of disruption –a revolt? a regional conflict? a Mayan “church rummage sale”?--seems to have happened to cause the population to decline severely.

After Altun Ha we bumped out way back to the main highway and headed north to Orange Walk, the second largest town in Belize. As we neared the tow, the brush changed to some fields of sugar cane growing and the road became littered with cut sugar cane that had clearly fallen off trucks. When we got to Orange Town we’d hoped to find a choice of restaurants so that we could pick where we could get a late lunch, but there was no such luck. The town seemed to be laid out in a hodge podge type manner and the best that we could do was to stop at one of the “fast food” booths and grab a soda and some potato chips before turning around to head south.

On the way back, since it was getting toward sundown, we decided to stop by the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary to see if—even though we didn’t plan to go out in a boat-- we could spot any Jabiru storks, which supposedly make their homes there during December and January. The road into the sanctuary, however, was “under construction” (read—even more full of ruts than the trail to Altun Ha) and after about ½ hour driving on it and seeing no birds at all, we decided to turn around.We got back to Belize City in the dark and, after getting lost several times, finally made our way back to the Fort George Radisson, where we were staying.

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