A Travellerspoint blog

March 2020

Finding Italian magic in Cortona

Sometimes you find exactly what you didn’t even know what you were looking for

Travel often provides moments that offer magic in the most unexpected places. Every now and then though, there is a place that provides a connection that resonates on the most existential level. For us, it’s often Italy. This time, it’s Cortona. Made famous by Frances Mayes, author of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” Cortona is one of those places that threatens to disappoint, but for us right now, it delivers soul enriching memories.

We leave Montepulciano and drive through Tuscany, down winding roads cutting through vast vineyards and olive groves. It’s autumn, and the colors seem unusually bright. As we approach Cortona, my heart is torn. Montepulciano was everything we had hoped for, and I wonder if Cortona, now famous after Diane Lane makes it her own in “Under the Tuscan Sun,” might be overrun with tourists and somehow rendered inauthentic. The road winds up and up along strong stone walls, and we even manage to find a parking place right next to the city wall. Our suitcases clack clack clack on the narrow cobblestone lane as we try to navigate our way to the hotel. The neighborhood is so quiet we wonder if we took a wrong turn. Suddenly we come across an unassuming set of glass doors that whoosh open to beckon us into the new Hotel Monastero di Cortona.. The elegant lobby, with subtle touches of white and gray, whispers elegance. It even smells like a spa. A kind gentleman welcomes us and asks us to be seated while we are served a refreshing welcome drink and hot towels. We glance at each other and smile. “I think we’re going to love it here.”

Located in a 700 year old former monastery, the hotel has taken every care to restore the property to exacting standards, providing a friendly and luxurious experience for guests. The entire property has a hushed ambience that invites you to sit back, relax and be pampered. We even walk slower as we explore the property, almost as if an ancient monk might come around the corner to meet us. It’s October so the pool is more of a lovely courtyard centerpiece than a place to swim, but the flowers are still bright in the autumn sun. The hotel sits at the top of the town, and the views over Tuscany are a dream. The hotel staff teases us with an invitation to the underground spa and we are sorely tempted. We don’t usually stay at the same hotels twice but I assure you, we will stay here again.

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As Frances Mayes will tell you, the center of small town Italian life is in the piazza. Her new book, |See You in the Piazza., is a beautiful testament to this (do read it!). Cortona is no different. One morning, we sit down to have a cappuccino and watch the world go by and soon notice a flurry of activity near the town hall. “What would be happening at the town hall on a Sunday?” we ask. “Oh, today is a wedding!” the cafe owner tells us. Since Italy is such a religious and primarily Catholic country, we wonder out loud why a couple would be getting married at the town hall on a Sunday. The older gentleman next to us gestures and explains in a rather passionate fashion. Luckily, the couple next to us speaks Italian and translates: since the groom has been married before, and is not catholic, they have to get married in a civil ceremony. As always, everyone knows everybody’s business in small town Italy.

Friends and family gather, tourists stop to look, and just like that the bride appears and the celebrations begin. The entire piazza becomes a part of the celebration, and soon the cafe owner brings out bottles of Prosecco for guests and visitors alike. Toasts are raised, glasses clink and pretty soon it’s “Spritz for all!” It’s a joyous day, and for a little while we are all a part of the community.

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Our worries about Cortona being overrun and commercialized turn out to be unfounded. Perhaps in the summer it might be different but in this fine, clear October weather, we find it charming, endearing and perfect.

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Our days are spent exploring the countryside and looking forward to our favorite evening ritual - the passegiatta. In small towns all over Italy, the early evening is a time to walk, mingle and spend time with your neighbors. Hugs are shared, conversation buzzes and people connect. I often imagine how things might be if we did this in the U.S. No TVs, no internet, just...people.

We hear a crowd, walk to the piazza and see a large group of people in costume gathering on the town hall steps. Spider-Man, Captain American, Shrek, Batman...they are all here! I spot Beauty and the Beast, Dorothy and the Scaredrow and (of course) Elvis. We ask what’s happening, and someone tells us it’s a birthday party. The entire group sings, cheers and pops champagne before heading off to celebrate the night away. What a crazy mess of fun!

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Have you ever had nights that make you want to pinch yourself because they seemed so perfect? That’s how it feels on this night in Cortona. An amazing dinner in a thousand year old cistern, a stroll during passeggiata, and a turn into an alley that ends up as magic. These are the travel moments that imprint in your brain and change you forever. “Contentezza totale” - total contentment.

“Is that Crosby, Stills and Nash I hear?” Paul asks. We follow the sound and see a group of young men singing and playing guitars on the steps of an enoteca. We order Prosecco, sit on pillows on the steps and settle in. I don’t know if it’s the music, the night air, the Prosecco or the company but it turns into one of those nights you remember forever.

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Posted by traciekochanny 14:23 Archived in Italy Tagged italy cortona tuscany piazza hotel_monastero_di_cortona Comments (0)

I fell in love with San Pedro...again. Life in the slow lane

Tropical the island breeze, all of nature wild and free, this is where is long to be...la Isla Bonita, Ambergris Caye, Belize

sunny 82 °F

What is it with Tropic Air? We show up, get on whatever plane is leaving next, and we have the jet all to ourselves. Safe, comfortable and fast. We love them. We head back to San Pedro, because we love it too.

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Last time we stayed several miles north of town and just about wrecked our kidneys on the bumpy golf cart ride back and forth, so this time we stay at Belizean Shores.. It’s a pretty place, right on the beach, with a gorgeous pool area.

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It’s Thursday night so we headed straight to Daydreamin’, our favorite local B&B, where we stayed last time. We planned this trip on 24 hours notice, so they didn’t have a room for us, but we knew they had their Thursday evening wine social. Music, wine, great apps (thanks Mar!) and great company.

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One of our favorite things to do in San Pedro is to walk the beach in the morning. Birds, sand, coffee and a warm breeze...does it get any better?

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Thanks for the T-shirt Rick Steves!

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Sometimes you just need a coconut. And a guy to crack it open for you. And offer to put rum in it at 8:00 am. We stuck with coffee.

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So here’s a secret that’s not a secret about San Pedro. On Tuesday nights, you’ve got to go to the chicken drop at Wahoos. What is a chicken drop, you ask? Well let me tell you. Picture a giant square with numbered tiles, a couple dozen happily drunk people lining up for tickets, and a chicken (or two) that walks around the squares waiting to drop...a...well, you know. If he ‘drops’ on your number, you win the $$. Trust me on this, it’s serious fun! Sometimes you just need a chicken to tell you where to go.

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“The chicken who doesn’t poop tonight is barbecue tomorrow!” Im telling you, these people are cutthroat. No chicken is safe.

Ambergris Caye is only about 25 miles long. But when you’re in a golf cart and the road looks like this, we’re talking about a day trip. A nice little Belizean custom involves men stopping at any point on any road to pee, so there’s that. The north end of the island borders Mexico so we figured we’d know if we’d gone too far. Adventure time!

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First stop, mile 5.6 or so... Rojo Beach Bar. Fantastic place, nice people, great atmosphere.

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Next stop, El Norte...mile 10. So let me get this straight, you mix your own drinks here. Seriously. A guy sits on a stool and tells you how to make his rum punch.

-one shot dark rum
-one shot coconut rum
-one shot white rum
-whoa are you kidding me
-pour in some unidentifiable fruit juice from an unmarked bottle
-whoa wait a minute
-top it off with club soda
-it’s going to be a long day

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At mile 14.5 they are building a new Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville resort. So here’s the thing...there are NO ROADS and no airport here! It took us 2 hours on a golf cart from San Pedro! So we ask the one guy who’s working there...”how are people supposed to get here?” He says “water taxi”. So if it’s raining, it’s windy, seas are rough...? Yep. “But,” he adds...”Jimmy’s trying to get an international airport in Chetumal.” Oh, OK. I’ll be curious to see how this place goes. They may have water and electricity most of the time, but at least they’ll have boat drinks.

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This is the only building they have finished at the new Margaritaville resort. It has a model condo and one can be yours starting at $399,000 US. Let me know how it goes.

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We finally hit Tranquility Bay...about 17 miles up. This is what a place looks like after a zombie apocalypse. THERE ARE NO HUMANS HERE! We learn that there are a boatload (see what I did there) of bone fisherman who patrol the flats all morning looking for fish they can lie about catching bonefish, permit and tarpon, and that they will, in fact, be back after lunch. The one woman working here sits in a corner ignoring us while we sit looking around at the bar, until we finally ask if we could get some food. “Oh sure” she says. Never gets up, never asks us what we want to eat, just sits there looking at her phone. We finally ask for a menu, She looks up surprised, as if she forgot we there there. She finally takes our order and...goes in the kitchen to cook it. Interesting place! It’s quiet, I’ll give you that.

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The road really improves after this point...if you don’t value your kidneys.

We soldier on, and quickly realized we had gone too far...(we didn’t really make it to Mexico, we just ran out of road).

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One of the best things Ambergris Caye is the sheer number of thatched roof, funky beach bars with great live music. We make it our mission to check out as many as possible. Purely for research purposes of course.

This is Stella’s Sunset. Everywhere you go, you hear a lot of Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Jeff Walker. Jerry calls this island his home away from home and has a music festival called ‘Camp Belize’ every January. We just missed it last time we were here.

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In our travels to Ambergris Caye, you’re going to see a lot of pictures from The Truck Stop.. It’s an amazing place with incredible food trucks, great music, fun family activities every night, sunset views, pool with a swim up bar...I could go on but check it out yourself. Also, this is Serena. We met her and her husband Scott the first night on island and continue to run into them EVERYWHERE! Pretty soon we were fast friends. I love when that happens.

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This is Coco. Her owner is sitting next to me, leans over and says “hey, can you watch her? I’ve gotta run out for a few...” Uh, sure. She’s pretty cute and lots of fun. She almost came home in my suitcase.

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If you love Colorado, you would love 3O3 Belize. The owners are from Denver (thus the 303 area code) and everything about the place is ski related. It’s a great overwater bar.

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Another favorite is The Dive Bar. A literal dive bar and a great PADI certifying dive operation. Last time we’re here it was their annual wahoo fishing tournament and wow was it fun!

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The cut separating north and south Ambergris Caye has. ‘toll bridge’. The ‘fee’ is $5 BZ but there is no rhyme or reason to whether you’ll actually be asked to pay. There are always guys standing around to collect, but most of the time they are just yakking it up with each other, or they’ll stop you and just say, “hey, how are you doing? Are you having a good day?” The Belizean hospitality is real and is costing the toll collectors a boatload!

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We head south of town on the golf cart one day and stumble upon Pirates at South Beach. It’s got a white sand beach, table in the water, a great bar and plenty of places to have a cocktail and just chillax. We will definitely be back here!

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One night we hear that there is a live reggae band at a place called the Sun Deck. We decide to check it out and find a ragtag bunch of Rasta guys who have apparently decided they are going to try to burn the entire island down have a bonfire on the beach, even though the wind is whipping. I think their massive intake of rum and ganja might have led to bad decision making. We make introductions and try to dance around the flying embers but decide we’d better get out of there before my hair starts on fire. The bartender runs after us and pours AN ENTIRE GLASS OF RUM into my thermal mug. Says “have a good night, irie!” This Belizean hospitality will get you in trouble if you’re not careful. Thankfully I am old smart enough to pour it out after we leave.

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We stumble (is it stumbling if you arrive in a golf cart?) on Paco’s Tiki bar one afternoon and have a fantastic lunch on the beach. We play a few games of ‘shut the box’ and meet a local realtor who offers to show us around. A group of very drunk enthusiastic, friendly women loudly toast to each other with their massive frozen cocktails, and we laugh. The owner invites us back for another bonfire (because of course he did...these people will invite you to move in with them, I swear) and we end up having a great time.

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We used to love going to Key West and Meeting of the Minds (the largest gathering of Jimmy Buffett Parrotheads). We still love the Keys and ran into a very cool guy named Roger Jokela.. We have a great time sharing stories and listening to his music at Rum Dog., another great overwater bar.

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There are great bonefish flats on Ambergris Caye. PK loves getting up at the crack of dawn (I know, what the hell, I’m on vacation) to fish. We head out over the causeway toward Secret Beach, enjoying our coffee and the sunrise over the flats. We see one crocodile and zero fish, but it’s a pretty relaxing way to spend the early morning. Every morning, food carts rumble down the streets of San Pedro, offering local fare at ridiculous prices. We scoop up three chicken tacos for $1 BZ (50 cents US), pick up some fresh juice and a bunch of bananas ($1 BZ) and breakfast is served.

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Our favorite place on island is Secret Beach, and more specifically Blue Bayou. BB is a new, overwater restaurant that has tables scattered all over in the ocean. Great food, great service, great live reggae band on ‘Sunday Funday’ and the BEST mango daiquiri ever on this planet. Go there!

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These people have it right...next time I am bringing my float for sure.

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We’re home now and the coronavirus is raging. It’s bittersweet writing these blogs but I am happy for so many good memories and hopeful that we can make more sometime soon. Take care, everyone.

Posted by traciekochanny 11:59 Archived in Belize Tagged beach caribbean belize central_america secret_beach ambergris_caye blue_bayou_belize san_pedro_belize truck_stop_belize Comments (0)

The Belize Zoo and Mayflower Bocawina National Park, Belize

Most of these creatures want to kill you but just enjoy and keep walking!

sunny 93 °F

I am not generally a zoo person because I feel bad for animals in captivity, but I also realize that the best zoos are trying to create awareness and provide care for animals that may not survive otherwise. In Belize, seeing many of the local animals will get you killed can be a rare thing, so I really wanted to make the trek to The Belize Zoo. I had heard good things about their environmental commitment to education and the care of birds and animals, and I knew that many of their animals were rescues that would have been absconded for the pet trade or shot as nuisance animals. Here’s what they say about what they do...

The Belize Zoo was started in 1983, as a last ditch effort to provide a home for a collection of wild animals which had been used in making documentary films about tropical forests.

Shortly after the backyard "zoo" began, it was quickly realized that its Belizean visitors were unfamiliar with the different species of wildlife which shared their country. This very aspect fomented the commitment to develop the little zoo into a dynamic wildlife education center.

Today, The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center exhibits over 200 animals, representing over 45 native species. The Zoo keeps animals which were orphaned, rescued, born at the zoo, rehabilitated animals, or sent to The Belize Zoo as donations from other zoological institutions.

The Belize Zoo has become the first nature destination in Belize that is fully accessible to visitors with physical disabilities. It is a non-governmental, non-profit organization focused on wildlife conservation through wildlife rehabilitation and environmental education. 52 Belizeans are currently employed at TBZ.

We also found out that the Belize Zoo works with other zoos to safely relocate Belizean Jaguars. If you want to see one, visit the Milwaukee or Philadelphia zoos.

We loved our visit and learned a lot.

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Have you ever seen a tapir? I hadn’t! The tapir is the national animal of Belize. Its nickname is the ‘mountain cow’ although it’s not a cow at all! We found out it’s most closely related to the rhino and the horse. Do the math on that one.

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This is Sylvia the Jaguar. She is clearly not happy here, but she was considered a ‘nuisance’ animal because she was killing livestock. Had she not been relocated to the zoo, she would have been shot. Considering that there are less than 800 jaguars still estimated in the wild in Belize, putting her here gives her a fighting chance.

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This guy is a harpy eagle. He is HUGE. He has hind talons that can be as large as those of a grizzly bear and stands 4 feet tall. His wingspan is 7 feet! However, it can only fly with prey weighing less than one half its own body weight so he probably won’t kill you. Watch your kids, just saying.

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Belize is a great place to try local food, so we stop at roadside stands whenever we can. Three tacos for $1 Belize, which is 50¢ US. Not a bad deal.

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Our next stop was Mayflower Bocawina National Park. Home to spectacular waterfalls and an entire city of unexcavated Mayan ruins, it was a great place to spend an afternoon. Plus PK got to play Tarzan in the hanging vines so that was a bonus.

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This is Rose. Her brother works at Sleeping Giant. Her cousin works at Jaguar Reef. Her cousin knows Amir and Axel from Sleeping Giant. Walter at Jaguar Reef is married to Jessica whose cousin is Alcindor at Ian Anderson’s. The point: everyone knows everyone in Belize.

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This is an unexcavated Mayan Temple. They estimate that there may be as many as 3,000 structures in this park alone.

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These are leaf cutter ants. They are amazing. They can carry more than 50 times their weight, and travel in lines up to 100 feet long. They are so focused on their work that they don’t stop to sting you, but if you wreck their line by stepping on some of them, they will try to crawl in your shoes and invite all of their friends to come along. Just a piece of jungle advice. Keep walking.

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Next stop: Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge. You’ll love it. I know we did.

Posted by traciekochanny 12:40 Archived in Belize Tagged rainforest zoo jungle waterfall parrot crocodile belize toucan tapir jaguar belize_zoo bocawina_national_park Comments (0)

Sleepy little Hopkins, Belize

Off the beaten path on the Caribbean Sea

sunny 82 °F

We used to travel to the Yucatán in Mexico. After hearing about increased gun violence and reading 8 pages of State Dept. warnings about violence throughout Mexican tourist regions, we stopped going. Hopefully someday things will improve. We had looked at Belize but figured we couldn’t get there easily from our little Traverse City, Michigan airport, where it usually takes a couple of long connections to get anywhere. Luckily Facebook sends me thoughtful targeted ads after profiling me ???? and one popped up about flights to Belize.

5:00 am Traverse City - Chicago, 10:30 am Chicago - Belize City, landing at 12:30 - seriously? So we booked it with less than 24 hours notice.

Belize is an incredibly diverse country with less than half a million people and only 8 stoplights, all in Belize City. Belizeans share their country with Mestizos from Latin America, the Garifuna from the southern Caribbean, Chinese (who apparently own every grocery store in the country) and a surprising population of blonde hair, blue eyed Mennonites who are dairy farmers.

We like off the beaten path locations, and discovered the tiny village of Hopkins. Home to less than 1000 people, it is the cultural center of the Belizean Garifuna people. They arrived to Belize in the late 1800s from the island of St. Vincent. Hopkins is often called “the friendliest village in Belize” and considering that Belize is the friendliest country we’ve ever visited, that is saying a lot.

We wimped out on staying at a local cabana or hostel (because we are old) and ended up at Seiri Del Mar.

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This is the cool hostel according to the local (young) backpackers...the Funky Dodo. It gets great reviews and you can get a dorm bed for $13 a night!

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The beach is really sleepy, which is just how we like it.

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Thatched roof beach bars are our favorite and there’s no shortage of them here!

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We decided to head down to Placencia, another little beach town. We loved it. On the way to Placencia you have to drive by the Placencia airstrip. Since it goes by the road, there is a gate which closes when an aircraft is approaching. You stop, plane flies, gate opens. Cool!

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Placencia is home to the world's narrowest main street. It is 4,071 feet long and 4 feet wide and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the narrowest main street in the world. This is it!

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Back in Hopkins, we decided to check out the south end of the beach. Driving on Hopkins one paved street is an adventure, because even though it is one way, no one obeys the rule because the other streets are sandy and full of ruts! It freaked us out the first time we drove down the one way and saw cars barreling toward us, but we got used to it.

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This is the Big Dock Bar at the Jaguar Reef Lodge. It is gorgeous. It’s an overwater bar with several levels, and nets to sit on and watch the fish and manatees. We came back again the next morning for more drinks to enjoy the sunshine.

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On the way out of town we saw a random ATM (not common in Belize) and decided to get some Belizean $$. PK figured out that you had to scan your ATM card to unlock the door. After he was done, he tried to scan it to unlock the door to get out. Nope. After a short panic, he yelled through the door for me to get my ATM card and scan it, and happily, the door unlocked and he got out. So my question is, “What would have happened if he was alone?” Mysteries of Belizean life.

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This is Hamanasi, another fancy resort. Way too stuffy for us but pretty for sure.

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The top level of the Big Dock Bar.

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We actually found an authentic Italian restaurant and met the owner/chef from Sicily. Another special surprise!

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The main restaurant at Jaguar Reef Lodge - it is the sister resort to Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge (our favorite) so we will definitely be back to stay here.

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Gee, this looks dangerous relaxing.

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Now it’s back to the rainforest to see what adventures the jungle has in store for us this time!

Posted by traciekochanny 12:34 Archived in Belize Tagged beach caribbean belize central_america placencia hopkins_belize Comments (0)

Xunantunich Archaeolgical Reserve, Belize

3,000 years of Mayan history in one visit

sunny 95 °F

Belize is the epicenter of the ancient Maya world. At one time , more than two million Maya lived in the region. The Maya were advanced in their knowledge of agriculture, mathematics and science and they ruled the area for over 2,000 years. The civilization reached its peak from about 250 A.D.to 900 A.D. When the Spanish conquistadors arrive in the early 16th century, the civilization began to decline and eventually the great cities were abandoned and to this day historians still don’t know why. No one can figure out how they created vast networks of cities without the wheel.

On a lighter note, a favorite Jim Morris song sees it this way...

“I was walking by the ruins in the jungles of Belize
When I saw this little building by the wall
The tour guide was explaining but he ain’t fooling me
This ain’t no sacred temple after all

The Mayans had a tiki bar and they partied every night
I saw those funny pictures on the wall
They were dancin’ and a flirtin’ just sacrificing virgins
I bet those crazy Mayans had a ball”

I kind of like Jim’s version of events.

To get to Xunantunich, you have to load up people and vehicles on a hand cranked ferry to cross the Mopan River...pretty awesome if I do say so myself!

It’s remarkable to imagine that despite all of the discoveries that have been made with regard to Mayan history, much of it is still speculation. Costumes today at ceremonial functions are beautiful and elaborate, but since little evidence exists, who knows?

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Secret to happiness? Corn tortilla recipe? Who knows?

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Am I climbing the pyramid? No way, I am not! Thanks to PK for getting to the top!

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They call this tree ‘Monkey No Climb’...wonder why.

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So here’s some information from Wikipedia...

El castillo is the second tallest structure in Belize (after the temple at Caracol), at some 130 feet (40 m) tall. El Castillo is the “axis mundi” of the site, or the intersection of the two cardinal lines. Evidence of construction suggests the temple was built in two stages (the earlier dubbed Structure A-6–2nd, which dates to around 800 AD, and the later Structure A-6–1st). Structure A-6–2nd had three doorways, whereas Structure A-6–1st only had doors on the north and south. The pyramid lays underneath a series of terraces. The fine stucco or "friezes" are located on the final stage. The northern and southern friezes have eroded, and the others were covered during the reconstruction and over time. There is a plaster mold on the Eastern wall frieze. The frieze depicts many things. Each section of the frieze is broken up by framing bands of plaited cloth or twisted cords (which represent celestial phenomena).[9] The frieze depicts the birth of a god associated with the royal family, gods of creation, as well as the tree of life (which extends from the underworld, the earth, and the heavens).

OK, wake up! Let’s keep moving.

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Thanks to PK for braving it all the way up! Here’s the view from the top, looking out over Guatemala.

Lose your step here and you’ll have a new definition of the term ‘human sacrifice’

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This is the notorious ball court, where battles were fought and the gods of the underworld were summoned. Just don’t lose, because they’ll cut off your head.

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These guys spent their time dropping fruit on the heads of unsuspecting tourists...

It’s always remarkable to me to be in another nation and to see the lack of safety precautions. In the US this would be behind a barrier, covered with guard rails and 10 different signs with warnings. Here, just climb up and hope for the best.

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The Mopan River is breathtaking. Unfortunately I couldn’t swim...next time. Xunantunich is less than 1km to Guatemala so that’s where we headed!

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Posted by traciekochanny 12:20 Archived in Belize Tagged mayan_ruins belize pyramid xunantunich british_honduras Comments (0)

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