Day Eight – An Uninvited Guest, Mayan Ruins, and the Southern Highway
Friday, November 26th , 1999

We awoke early to the Sun coming in the windows.  I headed for the enormous bathroom to take my morning shower.  To avoid dripping across the length of the room, I grabbed a towel off the counter and put it on the edge of the tub.

The shower has a gas-fired demand heater that emits water close to the boiling point.  It takes some care to adjust, but after that it’s heavenly.  I take a long, hot shower, turn off the water, and pick up my towel. As I pick it up, a giant scorpion falls out and towards me!  I levitated to the far side of the tub, while producing a manly bellow of surprise. [Oh, is that what it was? J]

The relaxing effect of the shower having vanished, I took advantage of its ability to produce boiling water and gave the scorpion a personal bath.  Normally I wouldn’t do this, but I was still in a bit of a shock.

Once I was sure it wasn’t going anywhere, I called Judy and she was almost as shocked as I was.  We picked it up on a fin-tip and dropped it into the jungle below.  When we mentioned the scorpion to George, his only comment was, “Well, you are in the tropics.”  Of course, he was right.

We then began to do what we should have done from the start, and shake out all of our shoes and clothing before putting it on. (We were a bit shocked at all the scorpion stories we heard from then on – as many from Florida as from Belize.)

Since the car was now in working order, we decided to spend this day driving down to the southern end of the country to see the Mayan ruins.

Fortified with breakfast, we headed in to Placencia to fill up with gas and purchase some stamps for a friend in the states.  While were there we walked up and down the “Narrowest Street in the World”, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.  It’s called the Sidewalk, and is a concrete path, perhaps a meter wide, that goes, well, a long, long ways.  We didn’t make it to the end. You can’t see it from the village’s sole road. Most of the village’s population actually lives there, and it is much more pleasant than what you can see from the road..

Back in the car we headed north up the peninsula to the junction with the Southern Highway.  We had eventually figured out that when the locals waved at us from alongside the road, they were not merely being friendly, they were asking for a ride. Just north of Seine Bight, we picked up a Garifuna gentleman with a long machete and dreadlocks who was headed north to a visit a friend and harvest coconuts.

After dropping him off, we found the Southern Highway and turned South into new terrain.  Our destination, which we didn’t quite make, was Punta Gorda at the Southern terminus of the highway.  Along the way we intended to stop at the Mayan ruins and a Butterfly Ranch mentioned in the guide book.

We drove a few hours along the Southern Highway, past the Jaguar Sanctuary,  over the Monkey River, and deeper into rainforest, all the while the land  becoming more agrarian and peaceful.  The Creole and Mestizo majorities of the Northern areas are here replaced by the native Maya.  The Maya are a graceful people and the women are all dressed in brightly colored skirts.  Families walk along the roads between the tiny groups of two and three thatched houses in the jungle, and the women wash clothes in the many rivers while the children swim and frolic in the water. They are completely unconcerned by (or perhaps resignedly used to) the clouds of dust turned up by the passing traffic.  I always tried to slow way down when we met them.

We arrived at Nim Li Punit, a major archeological site, shortly before lunch.  We parked the car and toured the wonderful visitors center they have there.  Nim Li Punit is Mayan for “The Big Hat” and is derived from one of the site’s 26 stelae which depicts a figure wearing a large headdress.  Nim Li Punit was first settled around AD 400 and lasted, perhaps, until AD 1000.  The site was only discovered in 1976.

To get to the ruins proper, we had to first thread our way though a group of 13 extremely polite and colorful Mayan children selling souvenirs.  After assuring them that we would look at their wares on our return, we entered the ruins proper.  Since there was only one other car in the parking lot, I don’t know that the children make all that much.

Much to our surprise, the driver of the other car turned out to be George, with a tour group from Rum Point.  He invited us to join them and we caught the last part of the tour before they headed home and we went on by ourselves.

The ruins were different from others we’ve seen.  This was more of a cleared place in a forest where history could be seen in its living state.  While some walls had been rebuilt, and descriptive signs told the centuries’ tale, most of the once mighty city still reposed under the jungle that was steadily working to reclaim it.

Someday, I’m sure it will all be reconstructed, glassed in, and fenced off like so many sites in America, but I preferred to see it this way and muse on the connection those colorfully dressed children had with this ancient city.

On the way out we soberly examined the goods the children offered for sale.  Judy selected and purchased a pendent and then went back to the visitors center. While I waited by the car, the children drifted over and tried to convince me to buy something else.  Failing that, with the day drawing to a close, one of the older and bolder girls asked for a ride home.  I conferred with Judy and when she agreed, thirteen Mayan children instantly packed themselves into the back seat and cargo area of our white Jeep Cherokee!  I just had to take a picture.

The road to Nim Li Punit is very steep.  Thirteen Mayan children weigh a lot, taken together, and then there were Judy and myself.  I had visions of sliding down the hill and wiping out an entire Mayan village in the process.  In compound low, and very carefully, we ground down the hill.  It was only half a mile, perhaps less, when we arrived at the village and let the children out.  They didn’t really need the ride – it was just an adventure for them…  and for us.

George had given us directions for a back way to another famous archeological site, which took us off the main highway and into the country a bit. The guide book mentioned the Fallen Stones Lodge and Butterfly Ranch on the same road, and Judy didn’t want to miss that.

The road to the Butterfly Ranch was one of the most exciting we were on.  Paved, in part, with fist-sized and larger rocks, it was designed more to resist the tropical rains than to be a superior road surface for automobiles.  Still, we forged on (happy with our tough new tires) and were rewarded for it.

Ray Halberd owns this lodge in the middle of the rainforest.  Entirely run on solar power, it blends well with its surroundings, and would be a lovely place to stay.  The lodge is run by Ray, a British entomologist, to support his first love, butterfly farming.  Two large rooms support eight species of butterfly, with the enormous Blue Morphos being the most spectacular.

Ray and his native crew raise butterflies and ship their chrysalises to live exhibits around the world.  It is clearly a labor intensive operation, which provides much-needed local employment.  Judy and I entered the first room and were confronted with hundreds of bright blue butterflies ceaselessly fluttering about or clustering around feeding trays.  Strings of chrysalises hung on branches ready to burst into life as the next generation of these wonderful insects. Soon we both had numerous huge butterflies settled on our heads and shoulders.

In order to support his farm, Ray has also created plantations to grow the food plants—each butterfly prefers a particular plant.  Since Ray primarily spoke in binomial nomenclature, I don’t remember the names of any of these plants, but it was a wonderful experience nonetheless.  Fallen Stones Lodge and Butterfly Ranch is definitely on our list of places to stay when we return to Belize.

When we left Ray, in truly British fashion, was settling down for afternoon tea.

The day was already growing late and we had a long way to go, so we only paid a cursory visit to the second site, Lubantuun (The Place of Fallen Stones), and then drove on. When we once again hit paved road, it was too late to reach Punta Gorda and return to Rum point in the daylight, so we regretfully turned our Jeep’s nose towards the North and ran for home.

Retracing out steps, we arrive back on the peninsula just as light was beginning to fail.  With many miles still to go, we noticed a couple walking down the road.  Miles, mind you, from the nearest village.  We stopped and picked them up.  I don’t know if they were pleased or not since I was driving fairly fast on the washboard road and at least one bump and perhaps more left them weightless above the back seat.

Several times medium sized animals ran across the road in front of us and our passengers identified them as “blue foxes”.  Sometime later we dropped our passengers off in Seine Bight and continued home.

Dinner this night was again at Luba Hati. Once again we were early and dropped into the bar to chat with Franco  and Mariuccia.  We asked them about the couple who we picked up and were told that, yes, they were prepared to walk the entire way.  With the increasing traffic on the road chances were good that someone like us would come by to pick them up, but a ten-mile walk was just considered a stroll.

Tonight Judy and I reversed our choices for dinner with Judy selecting the lobster and I the chicken.  We were both immensely pleased. Franco is truly a master chef.

With some pangs, we return for our last night at Rum Point Inn.  It’s been a wonderful vacation, but it is time to return home to our California winter.