Tikal National Park, Guatemala

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When Blue Eyes and I were planning our trip to Belize I knew I wanted to spend some time on one of the northern caye’s (we chose Caye Caulker), and some time exploring some of the ancient Maya ruins in the interior. The more I looked, the more I really wanted to visit Tikal National Park in Guatemala, a few hours away. I know there are a number of amazing sites in Belize and others in Guatemala, but something about Tikal was calling to me. So, I researched various transportation options, figured out a way to get us from Caye Caulker to Flores, Guatemala, and set my sights on Tikal.

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Our guide, booked through our hotel, was AMAZING. He had a PhD in Central American archeology and spent his retirement days doing independent research, taking small groups through Tikal, and traveling to conferences to learn more about Maya culture, both ancient and current. He lived within a few miles of Tikal for most of his life and spent his childhood accompanying his archeologist father into the park. I know there is certainly something to be said for exploring such an amazing place on your own, and Tikal is ripe with places to explore. But I know I wouldn’t have had nearly the enriching experience without our super knowledgable guide.

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Tikal was built over several centuries, from about 600 BCE to the peak and eventual decline in 900 AD. Think of European cities from 900 AD, they were squalid cess-pools of plague and tribal fighting. To compare to this massive ancient city will make your jaw drop, the sheer SIZE of the various buildings is incredible, multiple stories, stone work that was covered in white plaster and painted in bright reds and yellows and blues and greens. The architectural genius of this civilization is still baffling; Blue Eyes is a civil engineer and he was amazed at so many of their inventions and strokes of genius, stuff that modern engineers are still struggling to figure out, these ancient people had perfected, without computers or power tools. This ancient world was stunning in every way.

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Many of the buildings, temples, and palaces are excavated, but there are literally hundreds more than are covered in jungle and just look like hills. I wish I had taken notes while we were wandering around the park, I have already forgotten so much of the history and detail, both of the reigning kings, the culture, the history…the layers of richness–and the quantity of information our guide was throwing around–are so amazing.

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This is part of the biggest plaza that has been excavated so far; you can climb all over these ruins, explore the rooms, and sit in the shade, your back cooling against a wall that was built 3,000 years ago. NBD.

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Part of the original Star Wars was filmed in Tikal, it stands in for the Rebel Base. And that is, literally, the least interesting thing about this place.

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The long, low buildings are palaces, mostly for living. The taller triangle-shaped pyramids are temples, which are for worship and ritual, and, to impress people, obviously. Each new king would try and build something bigger and better than the previous ruler, to show his dominance and general badassery. Dude, that strategy TOTALLY worked on me. Because, LOOK AT THEM!

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The main plaza, two enormous temples facing each other, with tiers of buildings in-between. We arrived in the park really early, but it was still oppressively hot, 108* and wicked humid with raging forest fires which turned the skies a dense, smoky white and made your lungs burn after several hours (or, after hiking a couple hundred steps to reach the top of one of the temples). We didn’t linger in many areas and I bought several bottles of water as we walked through the park.

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I kind of feel like I’m running out of ways to explain how AWESOME this place was, I was geeking out like crazy and wishing I could download all of the research on the ancient and modern Maya into my brain for reference. I have since ordered a few books (on recommendation from our guide) and I can’t wait to dig in and learn more about this amazing civilization.


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If you go: You must show your passport at the park entrance, and pay a cash-only fee of Q 150 quetzals (about $20, but they only take quetzals). Bring water and sunscreen! Bring your camera! SERIOUSLY consider taking a guided tour, we got so much back story and behind-the-scenes information, just because our guide told us where to look and then explained what we were looking at.

La Lancha, Guatemala

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I tend to max out my vacations, with a lot less of the “hang out and relax” and a lot more of the “hike this mountain! explore this national park! spend the day in these 12 museums!” While we were planning our five-year anniversary trip (and the first proper vacation we’ve taken since our honeymoon) I tried REALLY hard to maximize the relaxing part and minimize the 12 museums part. But, I was hoping we could visit Guatemala for a few days after spending most of the week in Belize. After some research on transportation and talking to Erica about a similar itinerary she took a few years ago, we decided to spend a few days in northeast Guatemala and I immediately booked our room at La Lancha Hideaway on Lake Petén Itzá, per Erica’s recommendation. This was, hands down, the best recommendation I have ever received in my entire live-long life. The two days we spent here are what swoony travel dreams are made of; the meals were some of the best I’ve ever eaten, the rooms were large and perfectly appointed, and the staff was friendly, kind, and went out of their way to ensure we had a lovely time.

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This is our little hacienda, the photos I took of the inside were somehow corrupted (I’m blaming the humidity…and maybe also the bugs?), but you can check out the interior spaces on their website. It’s a mix of modern furniture and antiques from Central America and Bali, with the most glorious textiles, an enormous luxury bathroom, and amenities up the wazoo. Seriously, the wazoo.

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You better believe that I spent some seriously quality time in this hammock with a book and a cold drink. I need more hammocks in my life. It was way hot while we were there, over 100 F plus 80-90% humidity, and we managed to be right in the middle of the burning season, the fires left a low white smoke over everything, not quite enough to sting your eyes, but enough to irritate your throat after a few hours. Visibility was really low, we could hardly see the lake, let alone the jungle on the other side. So, that was pretty disappointing, but truly the only real downside of our stay at La Lancha.

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La Lancha’s open-air dining room, which, if there wasn’t so much haze from the fires, would give you a beautiful view of Lake Petén Itzá. This space is built like the traditional Maya huts, soaring ceiling of branches and thatch supported by columns in the corners. We ate our breakfasts and dinners here, and I have never been happier with patio dining.

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Blue Eyes and I wandered all around the property, I’m glad we chose the room we did, it was a little more out-of-the-way and the chances of lost, nosey tourists clomping across our front porch was highly unlikely. (We didn’t clomp, we very carefully tiptoed and honestly didn’t see anyone in our wanderings. Aside from the packed dining room in the evenings, it honestly felt like no one else was staying here.)

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After a VERY hot and sweaty day at Tikal National Park, a dip in this cool, clear pool was so glorious! Blue Eyes and I “swam” laps for almost an hour. Ok, we slowly floated, moving just enough not to sink and not enough to exert any real effort.

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La Lancha has canoes you can borrow to go paddling on the lake, but the wind was pretty strong and after sweating all day in the heat, the last thing we wanted to do was sweat some more. The air was so hazey and the smoke smell was so strong (plus, it was still 100-ish degrees and humid), we opted for the cool water of the swimming pool instead of the lake.

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I dream of La Lancha, I would go back there in a half-minute. The two days we spent there were, easily, the most relaxing vacation days of my entire life. If we’d had more time I would have liked to check out the little town of Flores and Santa Elena, and visited some additional ruins. I can see myself going back to La Lancha, so perhaps some more exploring in Guatemala is in my future!

Scuba Diving in Belize

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Years ago I got SCUBA certified, both my Open Water and Advanced Open Water, but due to a really boring combination of circumstances, I had never actually gone diving in the ocean. Now, I don’t particularly like the beach, I don’t like sand in all my bits and I don’t like salt water in my eyes. After only diving in fresh water (and geothermal hot springs, no less), I was worried about my first foray into the actual ocean. Would I like it? Would I hate it? Would I freak out in all that WIDE OPEN water? Would I be eaten by sharks?

Mr. Blue Eyes and I talked about the possibility of diving while we were in the Caribbean, I mean, Belize is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world (Great Barrier in Australia is the biggest) and apparently has some amazing diving opportunities. Blue Eyes decided to get certified before we got there, just in case, and we decided we’d play it by ear a bit once we got to Caye Caulker.

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Blue Eyes finished up his certificate right before we left and I had done a little research on a few of the dive shops on the island, there were maybe a half-dozen options, but I was most impressed by Frenchie’s and we decided to pay them a visit once we arrived.

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One our first day on Caye Caulker we actually rode our bikes around the entire island checking out the other diving outfits, everything from a hand-painted sign tacked to someone’s carport, to a super fancy technical dive shop with a couple of their own yacht-sized boats. But after spending a few minutes talking with the staff at Frenchie’s we knew we’d come to the right place. The staff were helpful and okay with us newbie divers and promised to get us down with the turtles and tropical fish in short order. They fit us for wet suits and fins and got us tricked out with the rest of our gear. Blue Eyes and I signed up for a quick refresher course (refresher for me, old hat for him) and a couple of dives the next day. Blue Eyes INSTANTLY fell in love with diving and we ended up diving three days in a row with Frenchie’s! Totally. Worth it!

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See that? That’s me NOT freaking out under the big, vast ocean with all sorts of fishies and plants and the potential to come face to face with a SHARK and still, not freaking out. (Ok, the truth? My first several dives I was carrying WAY too much weight and I kept feeling like I was sinking…because I was literally sinking. I was having to essentially tread water to stay in one place, but I couldn’t figure out what the problem was and assumed it was just stupid anxiety. After 4 or 5 dives I finally realized I was probably just too heavy and I dropped half of the weights I was carrying (dropped into the boat, not, like, into the ocean, I’m not a monster). All of a sudden, I could float, effortlessly, and my experience was changed. I wasn’t tiring myself out by treading water for 45 minutes, and I wasn’t sucking oxygen because I was treading water…it was glorious. Note to Harriet: you need 8 pounds of weights, not 14.)

Scuba Belize 14_feistyharriet_April 2017Some areas had a lot more wildlife than others, but overall the floor (and walls!) were FULL of plants and corals and fish. Our Frenchie’s Dive Masters were really great at pointing things out, knowing where certain fish would hide or hunt, and navigating us along the reef.Scuba Belize 18_feistyharriet_April 2017

Our first two days of diving were pretty relaxed, lots of coral reefs and some amazing formations and animals. We saw green moray eels hiding in the coral, an octopus, angel fish and trumpet fish and camo fish and a zillion other brightly colored swarms that I can’t remember or name. There were crabs and lobster and conch and corals in turquoise and purple and lime green. I swam with sting rays and nurse sharks and barracuda, there were several massive spotted eagle rays (above), their wingspan is something like 8 feet. They are bigger than a dining room table and the most glorious creature I’ve ever seen. Whoever called them Majestic Flap-Flaps was on to something; these creatures are so amazing!

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The biggest dive we did was the Blue Hole, a massive submerged cave 1000 feet across with stalagtites at about 130 feet below the surface. We slowly made our way down to the hanging rock fingers and swam between them. It was dark, and murky, and there was LEGIT a freaking shark. Not a little shark (barracuda) or a harmless shark (nurse shark), but a 12 foot long Belizean Reef Shark. Ok, so maybe it’s not, like, Great White dangerous, but it is a SHARK. In 25 minutes I managed to face my three biggest fears: open water, the dark, and sharks. And I couldn’t scream and knew I couldn’t run…I just had to keep breathing. In the dark. In the ocean. With a shark. I am a freaking badass. (The Blue Hole is so deep and even though we were the first boat in for the day it was still pretty murky from kicked-up sediment, none of the photos turned out very clear, so, just believe me when I say that I came literal face-to-face with a SHARK and my heart didn’t stop or anything.

Between the Blue Hole dive and the rest of our day, Frenchie’s took us to Half Moon Caye, a tiny little island dedicated to the Belize Audubon Society. Our Dive Masters made us a traditional Belizean lunch  (rice and beans, pasta salad, fruit, spicy wings) and let us wander around for a while, stretching our legs and getting our nitrogen levels back to normal.

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I’m still dreaming of these white sand beaches and this tiny little island in the middle of miles of turquoise water.

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On our way back to Caye Caulker we had one more dive, The Aquarium. Honestly, it is just what it sounds like, a peep show at a zillion fish in their super gorgeous natural habitat.

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I think that big gaping hole is a coral tube? They were everywhere, some tiny ones, some that were several feet across and a hiding place for little creatures and home to colorful sea anemones.

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This last dive was amazing, another spotted eagle ray and a big ole turtle, just hanging out with us divers (that’s me on the right of Ms. Turtle). This wasn’t the biggest turtle we saw, but she was the most stationary. One of our earlier dives brought me face to face with a massive loggerhead, over 5 feet long and covered in barnacles and wrinkles, just like the Old Man of the Sea, poking his wizened head over the reef wall, seeing a bunch of us in his pool, and slowly swimming away towards less touristy waters, I assume.



PS. All these photos were taken with a GoPro, it’s tricky to take a photo underwater with low light and you floating around not staying still. Also, without a red underwater filter, most of the colors are far more chartreuse than they should be and my editing skills are not quite up to the challenge of combatting chartreuse. Some of these are from Mr. Blue Eyes’ GoPro, others from Jen from Australia. Thanks Jen!

Vacation re-entry would be easier with more fish tacos

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A few weeks ago Mr. Blue Eyes and I took the most lovely, long-planned and saved for vacation, we spent most of our time on a tiny Caribbean island, lots of hammocks and fish tacos and scuba diving; and then we hopped inland to visit some Mayan ruins before the sad-to-be-leaving-but-looking-forward-to-proper-AC-and-Diet-Dr-Pepper flight home.

And while I am not lounging beach-side or feasting on ridiculously cheap fresh-caught fish, I still kind of feel like I’m on vacation. The weeks leading up to our adventure were crazy stressful for both of us, mostly in a general Life Is Stressful way, but also with trying to make sure to have everything we needed taken care of for this big adventure. Life is still a little stressful, but not NEARLY what it was, and we are both literally glowing from spending a week in the Caribbean. Well, Blue Eyes is glowing and golden; I’m mostly just covered in sand fly bites that make me look like I have some kind of pox.

This may be surprising (but it totally shouldn’t be), but I can be super Type A, and I planned this vacation out like crazy. We don’t have the luxury of extra time, but do have the luxury of a little extra money, so we planned to spend our money in ways to maximize our time (meaning all travel was pre-booked, even down to the golf-cart taxi to take us and our luggage from the ferry to our Caribbean AirBnB). I spent the two or three weeks before we left finalizing all those little travel details on top of making sure our technology was all in order (cameras charged, memory cards emptied, details on phone use while abroad notated), ordering foreign currency for two countries, trying to memorize the exchange rates (2:$1 / 7.333:$1), making sure our credit and debit cards wouldn’t get flagged for fraud if we needed to use them, finalizing travel insurance, printing out every. single. confirmation. in triplicate, just in case, having the post office hold our mail while we were gone, asking a kind neighbor to come babysit my plants and make sure they didn’t shrivel and die, packing my suitcase and then re-packing my suitcase several times, having lengthy conversations with my sister on what shorts or cover ups I could leave home without missing (she was right on every single one) and what would be essential to my happiness, buying waterproof mascara and stocking up on sunscreen (I went through 3 full size tubes in one week, SPF 85, SPF 45, and SPF 30, and that is a post all by itself)…you know, the usual.

Or, maybe that is 100% not The Usual when people go on a big vacation, and maybe it was part of the reason why the weeks leading up to our trip were kind of stressful? Whatever, that pre-planning made our week away SO much more relaxed and we ended up coming in significantly under budget because I had a 15 oz bottle of SPF 85 IN MY SUITCASE and didn’t have to spend $20 dollars for a 4 oz tube, or, maybe $80 dollars for four 4 oz tubes (and $80 more for SPF 45, and $80 more for SPF 30, and, and, and…).

We’ve been back for a week or two and life is mostly back to normal…kind of. I mean, I still honestly feel like I’m on a part-time vacation. Let me explain: I still go to work, I still take care of my garden, I still make dinner and do the washing up and on Saturday I had the tremendously glamorous job of shampooing the family room rug and furniture, which is the epitome of Not A Vacation-y Experience. However, for the most part, life is easy-breezy. I’m not going to the gym every night in anticipation (uh, dread) of spending a week in a swimming suit; I’m not cutting out all sugar and carbs and happiness anymore; my To Do list is short and mostly unimportant… I spend my evenings reading…and slowly am going through and editing my photos…and, uh, hanging out on the patio and enjoying the last of the semi-pleasant weather…? I mean, I honestly feel like I’m still on vacation a little bit. And I’m afraid if I start writing about it here it will break the spell.

Dammit, I probably ruined it; it’s 1:24 am and my body is not at all interested in sleeping despite work as usually in the morning, and maybe that means the vacation spell is broken now anyway? I don’t know, but it is nice to stretch my write-y muscles here again, fish tacos or not, I’ve missed this little corner of my world.

So, what’s been up with you? Fill me in on everything.