Belize, Guatemala, and Portugal
January, 2005

After Mongolia, we felt entitled to a relatively gentle destination. Belize is nearby, English-speaking (until 1981 it was British Honduras) and warm. Lots of beach and no desert.

The country is smaller than Vermont and has fewer than 300,000 residents. A fair number of these live in Belize City, the one place we were advised to avoid, and did. We were picked up at the airport and driven about 100 miles west. On the way we stopped at a restaurant where we were reminded that Central America is not known for the variety of its cuisine. The waggish menu offered chicken with rice and beans or chicken with beans and rice.

We started with three nights at Chaa Creek Resort. It offers two types of accommodation: luxury and campground. We had the latter--a cabin with a couple of beds but no electricity or water. The roof was canvas: ideal for amplifying the sound of rain. There was more of this than we had expected, but happily much of it fell at night. Activities at Chaa included: 1) horseback riding. Very scenic. Slightly uncomfortable for me, but pleasanter than camels. 2) Night walks to view animals. We saw a pair of kinkajou eyes and a great deal of darkness. 3) Canoeing. Upstream or down. We chose up. It was fine until we met the rapids. We struggled past the first, but a second defeated us. The river, what we saw of it, was beautiful in a tropical way, with trees overhanging the sides.

A few days later we headed west into Guatemala, to the Mayan ruins at Tikal. We spent two nights there, in a comfortable cottage. The ambiance was enlivened by a family of howler monkeys in the trees directly overhead. Their weird cries can be heard from miles. They sound like an army of vacuum cleaners.

The ruins are spectacular. Recently uncovered, principally by archaeologists and students from the University of Pennsylvania, they tower over the jungle. Be prepared for a stiff climb of a few hundred feet. Many of the structures remain uncovered hills of jungley vegetation, but dozens of sites are accessible. Our guide, Danielo, was very enlightening when not describing the end of the world, which he thinks imminent. He was guardedly optimistic about the future of his troubled country.

Two nights ensued at Flores, a lake island an hour away. A pretty town, permitting lovely lake excursions. We were awakened by gunfire and feared a coup, but it was just the local population celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany with enthusiasm.

We had one more night at Chaa Creek, this time in the luxury of our own hillside bungalow. In the afternoon we wandered down to the canoe launch. Very tranquil. An Englishman was reading a John Mortimore novel. The river had a barely perceptible current. For a moment, all was right with the world. And after all, Bush couldn’t stay in office more than four more years. A youngish man steered a canoe to the shore. He disembarked, climbed a couple of the embankment’s high stone steps, then faded dizzily and fell. As we say in the rock climbing world, it’s not how far you fall, it’s how you land.. He landed badly. The Englishman attended to his head wounds and tried to keep him conscious while I ran for help. After it had arrived, we adjourned for several rounds of drinks. As to the victim: he turned out to be a relative of the Chaa owners. Lately he had had “problems,” apparently related to alcohol. He emerged from the hospital in a state of good cheer.

We concluded with several days at an actual resort. The Inn at Robert’s Grove, right on the ocean, had a swimming pool too, and good food. Drinks available included “Slippery Nipple,” “Dirty Banana,” and “Tie Me to the Bedpost.”

We went on a snorkeling expedition, on which I failed to snorkle, and a boat trip up the Monkey River. Many monkeys and large birds.

All too soon we flew back to Belize City, thence Miami. After a long flight we landed in Lisbon.

True, there was an interval of three months. We didn’t reach Portugal until the morning of April 21st, in premature celebration of Susan’s 60th. The minute we arrived, we wanted to fly on to Madeira, but were told we would have to fly with our luggage on a later flight. But the bags decided to spend a little extra quality time at the airport, and showed up in Funchal (Madeira) hours after we did.

Madeira is a 90-minute plane trip southwest of Lisbon. It is about 50 miles long and 20 high. Very lovely, especially in a time like this, when the temperature is moderate. Until lately, all the roads were narrow and snaky, but now there is a freeway that pushes and tunnels its way around most of the island. Faster, but less fun. The island is forested and mountainous. Roads run up and down but not across. We rented a tiny blue Nissan. It had four doors but little else. The trunk was large enough for only one of our bags.

After a night in Funchal, a tiny version of a typical European city, we drove to a lovely mountain inn.The forested peaks rise above 4000 feet, sometimes quite steeply. We decided to hike to Pico Grande. The trail is lovely, but largely unmarked. (Directional signs, including road ones, are minimal on the island.) By the time we got high, clouds had rolled in below us. Fortunately I have an excellent sense of direction. “Are you sure this is the way?” Susan asked. “Everyone else is taking the other trail.” “Of course. It will take us back to the valley where we started.” “It doesn’t look right to me. We shouldn’t be going up, should we?”

After a time the trail began a gradual descent. “Told you.” “But where did this road come from? It isn’t on the map.” “Maybe it’s new.” It was cobblestoned and looked old.

Then we found ourselves among houses and a few small stores. We stopped at one of them to confirm our location. Folks spoke little English, but we had a map. They pointed a place in the adjoining valley, many miles from where we were supposed to be. A taxi was summoned. The driver had no English, but spoke French as badly as we. He drove us back down to the ocean--the only way--and then back up the next valley. Sixty dollars later we were back at our Nissan.

After this adventure, we spent a day driving around the island. Short distances, precarious roads. Gorgeous cliff-edged seashore.

The food is very good, with emphasis on the sea. We ate at Restaurante Churchill--so-named because Winston painted a picture there. You can select your own fish for dinner. It will be dead, but will nevertheless regard you accusingly.

Our last stop was Ponta do Sol, where we stayed in the Estalagem. This gorgeous hotel is perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. One of it swimming pools is designed to appear an extension of the ocean. The food was excellent. Whereas we had already got lost at the end of one hike, this time we missed our way at the beginning and never regained it. We had been trying to following the network of levadas (irrigation sluices) to a valley trail; all we got was a tour of suburban Ponta do Sol.

Back to Lisbon after six days. It is a lovely city, of manageable proportions. It’s hilly and has a clean subway system. Its buildings were undamaged by WWII--they go back to the devastating earthquake of 1755. Many good places to eat. We recommend Lisboŕ Noita on the Rua das Gáveas. (It was recently mentioned in the NY Times--perhaps we had been seen there.) We also found a place (there are many) where fado music is performed somewhat lugubriously at intervals. Don’t miss the Gulbenkian museum.

Our final day we explored the old hilltop town of Sintra. Once the residence of Portuguese royalty, it is now a holiday and tourist destination. We scanned the subway map for the stop of the train station; that’s how we met Dan and Cathy from Spokane, who were likewise engaged. We spent a lovely day with them in Sintra. They are from Spokane, but currently live in Taipei, where he is the physician at the U.S. embassy.

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