Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-NAHN-too-nich) is a Mayan archaeological site in western Belize, about 80 miles west of Belize City in the Cayo District atop a ridge above the Mopan River. The Mayan name means “Stone Woman”.

Getting to Xunantunich was easy enough for us this morning. We ‘commissioned’ our host John to drive us to the entrance gate. After passing through the small village of San Jose Succotz, we crossed the Mopan River via a hand-cranked ferry. This was a really neat experience, especially having an enthusiastic boat captain putting his all in to cranking the wooden shuttle along a thick rope 80 feet across the river. Then it was a mile uphill trudge to Xunantunich, which in the Mayan language means “maiden of the rock” or “stone woman”. John, our driver, dropped us off in the midst of thick mist that secluded the temples and forest from the outside world, or so it seemed. At 8 am, very few people were exploring the ruins, so we pretty much had the grounds to ourselves and the machine gun-toting security guards. It was fascinating to watch the site unfold as the weather changed, sunlight and clouds giving new depth to character and expanse of the rock remnants. One of the tallest Mayan ruins found within Belize stands here at 133 feet tall, providing panoramic views of the hilly Cayo District (situated a mere 2 miles from the Guatemala border) and an impressive view of the entire river valley. Also existing are well-preserved sun god and ancestral masks that decorate the sculptured west and east friez. There are six major plazas and more than 25 temples and palaces to educate the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of daily tourists that flow through this popular Archaeological Reserve.

Here is a little history of the Maya civilization as I gathered from the various signs and guided stories at Xunantunich:

Archaeologists believe that Xunantunich, like many other Maya sites, was an ancient city. Xunantunich was not a large city and probably had a population of 7000 – 10,000 people living within a radius of 3 km from the site centre.

The earliest known Maya communities in Belize were settled around 1200 BC. Archaeologists believe that these first Maya people likely immigrated into this area from Western Guatemala or from the area around Southern Chiapos in Mexico. The early Maya immigrants predominantly relied on agriculture for subsistence and were adept in the production of pottery. In Belize the earliest known Maya villages include Cahal Pech and Blackman Eddy in the Cayo District, and Cuello and Colha in Orange Walk. As these early settlements developed, their inhabitants began to participate in long-distance trade, craft specialization, and the construction of special function architecture. The ancient Maya were a pre-industrial urban agricultural society with the technology based on tools and implements of stone. To support their economy and the growing populations practice of intensive and extensive agriculture, they grew such crops as maize, beans, squash, chili peppers, and many other tropical plants, and added to their subsistence with hunting, fishing and the consumption of domesticated dogs and turkeys.

They practiced a complex religion that combined the worship of nature gods and deified ancestors with shamanistic magic. Their rulers were a literate, hereditary nobility who mediated disputes, led in warfare and interceded with the Gods. These rulers married amongst themselves, fought wars with each other, and fostered the distinctive and sophisticated art styles which we identify with Maya civilization.

Communication with other groups led to the exchange of ideas, technologies, and shared ideology. During the Middle Pre-classic period (300 BC to AD 300), Cahal Pech and other communities increased in size, and they began to construct monumental architecture. , and there are more obvious differences in the social status of some people in the population. By the end of the Pre-classic period, what were once small villages had become thriving towns and precocious cities. It is at this time that Maya civilization became fully established.

After our exploration of Xunantunich, we found we had probably just enough time to walk the mile back to the ferry, catch a local bus in to San Ignacio, fetch our bags from the Guesthouse and catch our 1pm bus back to Belize City. Already at 11am, the heat was muggy and intense. I, in an attempt to save our energy and escape the fiery solar rays, stuck out my thumb trying to catch a ride at least back to the ferry. As luck would have it, within a few minutes we were bustling along in an air-conditioned private tour van that shuttled us all the way back in to town. Bonus! This gave us plenty of time to fetch our bags and enjoy a leisurely lunch.

What an amazing tour we’ve had of the region! The 2 hour express bus ride back to Belize City was delightful, with room enough to have seats of our own for most of the entire journey. The music was typical Latin American Reggaetón with heavy beats and a lead-foot driver. Ola! We arrived back in the city with plenty of time to catch our 6pm water taxi back to San Pedro. I’m so happy that we took a few days to explore the mainland and discover a bit about the Belizean and Mayan culture.

Journey to Mainland Belize

Today we decided to grab the early morning 90 minute water taxi over to Belize City. We only had 2 days to spare on our busy schedule, so visiting several Mayan archaeological sites in the heart of the country best suited our desires and time constraints. We opted to visit San Ignacio, a mere 9 miles east of the Guatemalan border.

Known locally as “Cayo”, San Ignacio is located along the Western Highway about 70 miles west and is an adventurous 90 −180 minutes bus ride time from Belize City. The bus we caught from the terminal in Belize City happened to be the ’Sunday stroller’ in that it stopped at every single bus shelter along route. Made for a very long trip. However, we wouldn’t trade that cultural experience for the world! As soon as we boarded the already burgeoning Blue Bird school bus, we knew that we were in for an adventure. slaDE~ ended up standing about 40 minutes before shuffling to an ‘available’ seat, whereas within 5 minutes I was sharing a bench with a bountiful woman and her two small children. Remarkable how many people both the conductor and driver manage to cram into such a tight area.  And then the music began. Oh my. Old time country and forlorn 90’s love songs blared through the loud speakers scattered along the bus’s ceiling. I was smiling at the inaneness of it all until several young women started singing along with the tunes. Thankfully, we didn’t have to endure that for the entire 3 hours. Only 2 :~/.

We received some excellent tips on several places to stay whilst exploring the area. In the end, we chose the J&R Guesthouse (John and Rosarita) … an extremely clean and affordable quaint little house, run like a B&B. It was ideal and truly lovely to stay with this resident couple so full of local Belizean character and knowledge. John was extremely kind in offering to drive us to our first Mayan site at Cahal Pech. The walk would have been a 45 minute uphill climb midday with the sun beating down. It felt wonderful to bypass the heat, enjoying the surrounds of the outstanding legacy of palaces and temples.

It was fascinating to learn more about the Mayan civilization and their history. The Mayan culture began as early as 1500 BC and to this day, a significant population is still scattered throughout small villages within Belize, which is considered the epicentre of the ancient Mayan world. The whole area of San Ignacio is crawling with Archaeologists, Peace Corp workers, many retirees from North America and plenty of tourists seeking the thrills of the area (ATM cave exploration, Zip Lining through the rainforest, Cave Tubing through the sacred Mayan caves, visiting the Belize Zoo housing over 100 different species of Belizean wildlife, Xunantunich Mayan ruin; San Ignacio is also a Belizean gateway to the ruins of Tikal — an ancient Mayan city buried deep within the Guatemalan jungle). The name of Cahal Pech means “Place of the Ticks“. I must have been bitten 5 or 6 times by what appeared a tick. Annoying at pest ;).

Cahal Pech began as a solitary forest farmstead and over the centuries grew to a hamlet and ultimately to an imposing hilltop citadel. Cahal Pech “is a collection of 34 structures, with the tallest temple being about 25 meters in height, situated around a central acropolis. The site was abandoned in the 9th century CE for unknown reasons.”

It truly was a spectacular expanse of structures. A photographer’s delight indeed! What made our experience complete was standing on the tallest temple and spending a ½ hour talking with a couple local fellows who were visiting with their families. It was fascinating to hear their perspective on life in Belize, about their sense of safety with living in this area compared to the dangers lurking in Flores Guatemala, specifically targeting Tikal (with the current volatile situation associated with the rampant drugs and violence. I felt very blessed to live in Guatemala when I did, even though I left because of the brutal violence experienced by 2 fellow travellers at my Spanish Immersion school).

What a fabulous day!

Paradise Is Where Your Heart Is

Saturday … the weekend. A time for joyous celebration with the ending of a work week. But hold on, every day is Saturday in my books, as of late. Each day runs into the next, enmeshed by that glorious sense of freedom and lack of responsibility. Wake up, feed the stomach and soul, shower, nap, swim, sunbathe, beach-comb, skydive (not necessarily in that order) …. whenever the feelings urge and inspire me. And today, we find ourselves halfway through our Belizean adventure. Thinking, planning, staying present yet leaping forward, at times, responsible to a greater good, a future that has plenty of surprises for us in store. A return to reality. With 2 fiercely wonderful reasons for returning to our Ontario home in 2011. Beautiful and vibrant reasons to move forward, taking us from Belize, to Texas and then back to Canada in time for the Spring. I’m savouring the peace now as fireworks are certainly bound to explode in a vibrant cacophony of melody and beauty. The calm before the storm.

So you see, perfection has its moments here in paradise, and right now, I’m thinking of a blissful skydive, followed by a rum cocktail punch, complete with lounging by the pool and the writing of some postcards expressing “Wish you were here”. Ah, now that’s the life. Or is it?

I really don’t want to wish for anything more than I have. An awesome husband and a home that we adore, with a lifestyle that lends itself to moments of complete and utter surrender, peace and chaos. Love all-encompassing. 9 + years in the making. Here, and present in paradise (sans the silver bullet, of course — home is where you make it). Wishing for nothing other than one breath after the other, living the dream. Hoping that someday (or today, this very moment) you may too experience the beauty of paradise, wherever that may be for yoU.

The Artist Resides Everywhere

I awoke bright and early, wanting to capture the first glimpses of a sunrise, sun peaking above the ocean horizon. Fisherman waited patiently hoping to catch some tasty delights. A walk south along the beach filled my morning, discovery upon discovery stirring the awe-struck photographer within me. Exotic flowers filled my nostrils with glorious scent, vibrant colours provided a rich canvas from which to frame my vision; a 3 story bird viewing platform held spectacular perspective of the Coconut Palms and Sea Almond Trees from above; a pre-wedding setup on the beach thrilled the romantic in me; bicycles and people fascinated my artistic senses. A kaleidoscope of colour and beauty. All before 10am. Today we welcomed the next crew of skydivers, this time from Europe, invited and organized by Bruno Brokken, Gaby Meis and Regan Tetlow. A much smaller crowd, making for more unique activities and intimate events as planned for by Rich. We were both looking forward to participating with the crowd, when there was room on the plane. Another fabulous advantage to us staying longer at the Boogie. I am so grateful that we opted to vacation as long as we did. We decided to explore south of the landing area, towards town, by foot rather than water taxi, allowing for a more complete picture of the true Belizean lifestyle here on San Pedro.

After lunch we spent some time visiting with the Sunbreeze Hotel’s resident artist Christopher Emmanuel. He’s an amazingly talented painter and author. His shop is filled with fabulous images colourfully represented on canvas, and specifically, I loved his commissioned work of skydivers jumping in to the Blue Hole whilst capturing the underwater aspect of the dive. I felt very honoured when he granted me permission to photograph him working on this original piece.

Diving the Coral Reefs of Belize

Diving, flipping, open, carousing, barrel rolling, succulent open water dives. 2 of them. Tuffey and Victorian Canyons. The coral, spectacular. Life changing, breeding glorious vibrant life. It’s so important that we protect our coral reefs. Seeing them from underwater up close and personal gives new meaning to their beauty and importance. It’s a whole new world in the deep blue seas surrounding a Barrier Reef. Filled with life and vitality, in a constant state of flux, rhythmic and musical. Brutally surreal and present. A fish-eat-fish sort of world where one can never be too ambivalent nor caught off-guard.

As it stands, 75% of our Earth coral reefs are threatened “by agricultural runoff, shipping, overfishing, coastal development, pollution, climate change, warming seas and ocean acidification” as reported by the World Resources Institute, titled “Reefs at Risk.” The report is a follow-up to a 1998 report they did on the same global problem, but this time more detailed.

This article from Care2 shows where the Coral Reef Systems are located and asks the vital question of:

Why are coral reefs important? They provide the highest biodiversity for all marine ecosystems in the oceans. They also host 25 percent or more of all marine fish species. One estimate put the benefits coral reefs provide at 29 billion US dollars per year. They generate billions of dollars per year for tourism and recreation and are the foundation of life for many marine organisms. Reefs around the world have been dying off due to the various impacts caused by human activity. When they are gone, the biodiversity depending on them also goes. As one researcher said, it’s like when everything in the forest is gone except for little twigs.”Coral Reef locations

From One Boogie to Another

More friends going home. It’s been almost 14 years since seeing one old friend. Amazing. The shifting, the coming and going. A continuous stream of friendly faces, both at the Boogie and in life. Some that I know quite well, and others, new to me but just as lovely. And as the lull of the first American Boogie comes to an end, the second round of skydivers, this time from Europe, will roll in to town tomorrow. Fresh and dewy, glistening like the Belizean sea. It’s truly amazing what a week in the sun, sand and tropics can do to the spirits and heart (and suntan / burn!).

My dearest hubby went on his second open water scuba dive today, towards becoming a fully certified scuba diver through PADI. So proud. Such a natural. He truly loves the water, swimming as strongly, gracefully and beautifully as a dolphin!

Adventures By the Sea

A quiet windy day by the pool. So windy that slaDE~ wasn’t able to get his 2 scuba dives in due to the strong current and waves. Patiently he waited, studying for his scuba quizzes and Padi final exam. And with flying colours, he excelled to the point of only needing to finish his remaining dives. Because of my difficulty with mask clearing in the ocean yesterday, I borrowed a mask and snorkel and spent a bit of time in the pool intentionally testing my limits of comfort. Not easy to empty the snorkel with a full mask and a snort of water. But progress I must if I am to be safe on our dives. I think I’ll do much better with a scuba tank and octopus. At least if I snort a nose full of ocean salt water, I can breath unencumbered with a self-clearing regulator. The trick is NOT to panic!

Another day in paradise, hanging by the pool, soaking up the sun, free to roam and pursue whatever whim might blow my way. A daily ritual for me seems to be evolving … visiting the local bakery to buy sweet breads for my sweetie, buying some fresh fruit and vegetables where I can find it, looking for the least expensive but yummiest dish of rice and stewed beans amongst the many small restaurant vendours (an inexpensive but nutritiously filling and hearty staple for me here in San Pedro), return to the Sunbreeze pool via the beach, escaping the golf cart fumes and traffic.

On San Pedro time, the days melt in to each other with the ever-brilliant sun and wind caressing the body in to a relaxing seductive trance that leaves me breathless at the beauty of the Caribbean, forgetful of the world outside and all the deadlines and distractions that it may hold for me otherwise. My computer lays dormant and my blog unattended with so many options (or not) to pursue. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity, especially as I see my fellow skydiving friends return home after their week long vacation comes to an end. We set aside three weeks for such a luxury. And it’s important for me to honour what time I do have here. Who knows when / if we’ll be back? Rich had a surprise announcement for us at the closing evening to the Tsunami Skydivers Boogie. With the birth of his new drop zone in Oceanside, this Boogie would be on hiatus, perhaps indefinitely. So much work and effort, with little return on his part. I’m keeping everything crossed (fingers, hands, arms and legs) that we’ll have the opportunity to skydive in to the Blue Hole with the European Boogie. it may be the last ever opportunity. HuzzaH!

The evening brought with it plenty of surprises. slaDE spent a good amount of time meeting an interesting new friend on the porch of the local dive shop. Johnny B. Eccentric and a fellow skydiver who lives for his hop and pop jumps at Lodi, California. We chose to join him for a night taxi boat ride to “The Green Iguana” restaurant. Fine dining at its best, with watermelon Mojitos that were startling (so refreshing!) to begin followed by delicious savoury sweet potato mash topped with freshly grilled Ahi Tuna that had me salivating for more (main course). Apart from the food, I think my favourite part of the night was becoming one with the night as we sped from dock to dock in the two-engined 300 horsepower taxi that was skillfully backed in to each jetty point, offloading the passengers at their chosen destination. The night air was crisp, salty, vibrantly clear with stars that dreams are made of (perfectly pitch black, universes beyond ours visible by way of the refracting water). The coastal San Pedro Island sparkled with light dotted between docks lit up with their faerie lights. It felt very surreal as we jetted at full speed in the shallow waters. Magic in Belize, truly.

14 years, Scuba Revisited

The quiet before the storm. Such a dream-like rush. Fluidity encompassed. Yet the exhilaration of past dives came crashing down upon me, toppling me and overthrowing my senses with a fierce wave of emotion. Feelings of fear, delight, joyous lightness, trepidation and downright terror filled my every senses. My close call with death as a child (I nearly drowned), keeps bubbling to the surface as a flashback of gasping presence, where instinct overrides every ounce of knowledge and wisdom imparted to me in my training. Skydiving is comparable to scuba, in that if emergency drills are not practiced thoroughly and grounded in physicality, fear will override the necessity of common sense and mental clarity. Then out the window goes the margin of safety so intrinsic to ones survival. That I am certain of. And experience it I did. Luckily only at a depth of 10 feet underwater.

Back it up a bit. Today both slaDE and I made a scuba dive together. The first of slaDE~s PADI certification training and part of a refresher course for me. The last time I dove was 14 years ago in the cold kelp-filled ocean waters off Monterey California, with my dive-buddy at the time being my friend Randy Pacheco. Quite ironic and sweet that Randy happens to be attending this Boogie in Belize, also enjoying the beauty of skydiving and scuba diving the coral reefs and Blue Hole. For me, scuba diving is: surreal, unforgettable, unimaginable, all encompassing. At the same time scuba for me is borderline terrifying and death-defying as I am unable to exist in this underwater world without the tools that another air-source provides. No gills, no air. Only water, me, the tank and my instruments. Completely at the mercy of the elements, one with my breath and oxygen source. A heightened sense of danger is ever-lurking, ever-present. Perhaps that’s why we both love it so? That rush of living on the edge. Pushing my comfort zone. Truly a guest in a world where I am so out of my element. Vulnerable, yet so completely and utterly buoyant (if I have my weighting down) and free :).

There’s a big comfort in knowing that San Pedro has Belize’s only hyperbaric chamber to deal with any decompression sickness and illness (aka the Bends). The chamber is located near the island airstrip, minutes away from our dive centre. Within most dive shops, a small box sits where one can submit a $1 donation per tank dive and fill. This goes toward funding the chamber and its work, also covering 50% of the chamber cost if the need arises for yourself.

Our dive today took us out to Tuffey Cut, just outside the reef and in to the choppy open water. The dive plan for us was a scenic coral drift dive that had us start with exploring a wreck and then led us winding through the reefs, bountiful with Grouper, Bermuda Chubb, schools of Blue Striped and French Grunt, Peacock Flounder, Sergeant Major and a beautiful starfish. All this after we completed our skills. We both did fabulously on our drills, that is until I had to fill up my mask with water and try to clear it at depth (by blowing air into the mask through my nostrils, releasing the water pocket). Unfortunately, I managed to snort in a huge nostril full of salty water in my attempts, and my immediate gag / drowning reflex of choking sent me shooting to the surface. A very bad maneuver. Luckily we were only at 10 feet at the time. If this had happened at any depths greater than 30 feet, I could be in for a world of hurt due to the possibility of the Bends and lung over-expansion. After calming down, Israel had me complete the task again (I felt it was a mediocre attempt on my part) before we began our dive. Because of this, I was a bit reticent and concerned, making for a less than ideal first dive after 14 years. One thing that I am finding: wearing only a shortee wetsuit in these warm waters still has me shivering after about 10-15 minutes. Next dive trip, I’m going to bring my own full-length wetsuit.

The waves were quite large, bigger than any past experiences I have had in the open seas. Not such a big deal on entry or during the dive, but when trying to get back on the boat, an interesting feat in acrobatics and tumbling! Grateful for really helpful onboard dive crew. Overall, a great experience to dive with my hubby and new dive-buddy. Sweet!

Canopy Washing 101

When people skydive in to the Blue Hole (salt water + canopy and skydiving container = not so great on the longevity of the gear’s life), it’s vitally important to care for the gear once the jumper has returned to shore. On this trip, Rigger extraordinaire (Aidan Walters) took the task to heart and washed, rinsed and again rinsed all components of the skydiving system (that being the main canopy, reserve and container + components) in a 3 stage barrel washing process. This is then followed by a production-line operation where many hands help in hanging up the canopies to dry from the bannisters of the Sunbreeze Hotel. All this for the bargain price of $100US (truly worth every penny, having witnessed the ordeal involved).

It was quite fascinating to watch the skill, dexterity, speed, and teamwork of Aidan with his busy group of workers Not an easy task when bombarded with 15 − 30 rigs per day of jumping in to the Blue Hole!

The vision of canopies billowing in the night breeze, hung out to dry (alongside container and freebag) was a sight to behold worthy of many inspired photographs.