The Rain Forests, Reefs, & Mayan Temples of Belize, Guatemala, & Honduras
- aboard the Nantucket Clipper
"Did you see the big Parrot Fish trying to scrape off the little yellow Remora?"
"Yes! Did you see the Parrot Fish eating the little white star fish?"
"I hung over a cleaning station for at least 5 minutes before the current carried me away!"
Excited comments filled the snorkeling tender after a morning over the Belize Barrier Reef. Unfortunately this was at the end of a delightful week aboard the Nantucket Clipper, a week that included, in addition to snorkeling, hiking, handicraft shopping, and a visit to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. As on any of the four exceptional Clipper Cruise Line ships, the week included excellent meals and exemplary service. Like any other snow-bird, the Nantucket Clipper had fled her usual northern haunts for the azure seas and balmy climes of the Caribbean. She shuttled between Belize City and Puerto Cortez, Honduras for a total of nine trips this winter.
We were joined on the trip by Beth and Randall Ferguson who met us at the Hyatt Regency Houston. An overnight stay was necessitated by the early morning departure from Houston to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. We arrived at LAX at 11:30 am to allow the necessary three hours to clear ticketing and security in the post 9/11 era. There was no wait for a sky cap for curb-side check-in. He discovered that for some reason he was unable to process us so we went inside. We again discovered no lines at the Continental ticket counter. The agent asked if we would like to go on an earlier flight leaving at 12:30 pm since there was room. We responded, "Sure, if we have time."
She said that there was an hour and that should be plenty. I wasn’t so confident when we reached the security check point and found a long serpentine winding its way into the screening stations. The line moved quickly and we made it through the check point with only a slight hitch. I had to take off my shoes and they got to make their own trip through the X-ray machine. We arrived at the gate with enough time for Jodie to convert left-over European moneys back into dollars. She completed her transaction in time for us to walk onto the airplane. While sitting on the plane, I was able to reach Beth using our cell phone. She was just about to leave for the airport. I needed to tell her that we would meet her at the hotel rather than at the airport, since we would no longer be arriving at the same time.
We arrived in Houston a little after 5 and were in our hotel room by 6. Much to our surprise, Beth and Randall arrived together at 7:30. Randall was not due in until 8:30 however his flight from Monroe, LA was cancelled and he was placed on an earlier flight. (He had left Denver a day earlier than Beth so that he could take Ryan to stay with Ryan’s other grandmother while the rest of us were playing.) We had a mediocre meal in the hotel dining room and called it a night.
At 7 am we shuttled back to the airport and quickly passed through check-in and security at Houston-George Bush International Airport. Jodie had a bit of a problem getting her carry-on from the x-ray people however eventually persevered. Through the magic of the American Express Platinum card we gained entry to the Continental Presidents’ Club and had a spot of breakfast while waiting for the flight departure time. There was a statue of George the Older standing just outside of the Presidents’ Club. He was posed in a wind with suit coat thrown over his shoulder but blown straight back by the wind, making him look very much like Superman. The statue would have been more appropriate for Jr. Bush.
We boarded and departed on time and had another breakfast on board.
Upon arrival in Honduras we found a very long line of passengers waiting to pass through immigration. We were among the last from our flight to emerge. The advantage was that our luggage was waiting for us when we finally passed through immigration. Porters took our bags to the baggage truck while we boarded a bus for a trip into the city. We had our third meal of the day at a local restaurant and shopped a large crafts and food mall located across the street. We left around 3 pm for the 1 hour drive to the ship at Puerto Cortez.
Throughout the day I had been anticipating being greeted by Clipper Chippers on the ship. I was not disappointed. These chocolate chip-macadamia nut-Frangelico cookies are usually served, hot from the oven, on Clipper ships at 4 each afternoon. We were also greeted by hotel manager Michelle Williams with whom we have traveled twice before, the first time she was a dining room server; the second time she was an assistant hotel manager on the Clipper Odyssey. When she found out who we were she said she had put "a bunch of stuff" in our cabin.
After enjoying a glass of wine in the lounge we were shown to our cabins and had enough time to unpack before cocktail hour. Our cabin was generously sized since we had originally planned to have Beth with us. When Randall decided to come along Clipper told us to keep the same cabin while Beth and Randall were assigned their own near by. The "bunch of stuff" Michelle referred to included complementary wine cards from Joy, Jan Coghlan, CEO of Clipper Cruise Line, and Scott Gaghan, and a nice bouquet, also from Mr. Coghlan. (Least you think we are great buddies of Jan, all returning passengers are accorded this "courtesy.") We had traveled with Scott twice when he was the hotel manager on the Yorktown Clipper. He is now the Director of Food and Beverage for the Clipper Adventurer and the Clipper Odyssey.
We’ve had so many pleasant trips aboard all four Clipper ships that there is an aspect of "coming home" when you board one. You know what to expect (like Clipper Chippers) and are confident that all the personnel will be friendly and eagerly helpful. The Nantucket and Yorktown are US registered and therefore have all US crews however the mostly Filipino staff of the two foreign-flagged ships are just as friendly and helpful.
A bouncing, uneasy nighttime ride brought us to Cayos Cochinos, Honduras around 9 am. These are also know as the Hog Islands. Local tenders, or whale boats, took the first group ashore for a strenuous hike, Beth and Randall included. After that, passengers went ashore to snorkel or sun bathe. Jodie & I chose neither but went ashore later to wander around. Wasn’t much to see, other than the ruins of what must have been a fairly nice house that was destroyed by a hurricane. After lunch we snorkeled, again there wasn’t much to see. There were few fish however some very nice fan coral. Some fairly large barracuda were hanging around. One followed us as we swam from the beach across the bay to a supposedly better coral outcropping.
The ship departed around 3:30 and arrived at her birth at Coxen’s Hole, Roatan Island after sunset. The captain arrived late to his cocktail party. He was still involved in mooring when it started. Entertainment after dinner was provided by a local group, consisting of one guy playing an electric piano and singing Reggi and C&W tunes. He was joined at times by another man and some women who also danced a bit.
The primary reason for this stop was the Dolphin Encounter/Glass-Sided Boat tour. We opted out and instead hired Melvin and his cab to take us to West End where the shopping was supposed to be better. Coxen’s Hole is a small community with many simple houses. Many are built on stilts or pilings. There is a mix of cement block and wooden construction. The few scattered stores are mostly grocery, notions, and hardware.
The ride across the island on good asphalt roads took less than an hour. The paved road became pot-holed sand/dirt when we reached West End, on the shore. This is where most of the hotels, resorts, and dive operators are located so therefore that is where the tourist shops and restaurants are. After shopping we returned to the ship for lunch.
Beach snorkeling at Tabyanna Beach Resort was offered in the afternoon. The long drive followed the same road that we used to reach West End, however it continued beyond, crossing over the mountainous ridge in the center of the island. Snorkeling was fairly good among the coral. At times we became caught in the maze of shallow and deep channels but finally were able to make our way out without stepping on the coral. After an hour we got out in time for an intense tropical shower, a shame to get wet after snorkeling.
During the night the ship moved to Punta Sal, Honduras, in the heart of 782 km2 of protected territory (a national park?) Beth, Randall, and I signed up for a strenuous hike, for which I awakened at 6:15 am. Jodie slept in until 7. We found out as we were departing the ship that the landing would be wet. Although the Nantucket Clipper carries three zodiac-like inflatables, they are never used for passengers. All of our transportation to and from the shore was by local tenders. Moving between the ship and these whale boats was always a chancy thing. Wet beach landings were also a challenge. In fact, most tender operations were very poorly handled, some to the extent of being dangerous. The Nantucket Clipper crew has none of the expertise in these operations that the crews of the three other Clipper ships have.
Once ashore and shod in dry foot wear, we set off with Marcel Lichtenstein through the rain forest. (Marcel is a naturalist from Costa Rica with whom we traveled before on the Yorktown Clipper.) Banana trees were in abundance, planted or wild? The undergrowth was quite dense, suggesting that it is second growth. As we started up from the costal plain we encountered a troop of howler monkeys. Although they were evidently quite close, based on their sounds, they were very difficult to see. Eventually we succeeded in seeing a sedentary female sitting on a branch with her young. We crossed a low ridge and dropped down to Capt. Morgan’s Bay, a beautiful natural harbor. I wanted to search for treasure but we just hiked on.
In the forest at the end of the beach we came to the highly touted 638 wooden steps leading to the ridge line. I was very much the last one reaching the 400 foot ridge at the top. We hiked along the ridge and then eventually took the 500+ steps back down to the beach where the ship was anchored. The final part of the hike was on a dike through a banana plantation.
After everyone was back aboard, the ship departed for Guatemala. One featured afternoon event was a lecture on the significance of color in tropical coral reef fishes by Dr. Gary Ostrander, the escort for the Johns Hopkins University group on board. He is a "fish man" and presented a very interesting, illustrated lecture.
Puerto Barrios, Guatemala is the jumping off place for our trip to the most significant Mayan temple complex, Tikal. As we left the ship at 7:30 we were given a sack of snacks since we wouldn’t have lunch until after touring the complex. We arrived at a military base which seems also to be the local airport. We milled around a bit and then the BAC111 landed and we boarded for the 1-hour flight to Flores. Remembering the Mrs. Sloan dictum, we all sought out the rest rooms before boarding the buses for the ruins. (Mrs. Sloan said, "Never stand when you can sit; never sit when you can lay down; and never pass up the opportunity to use a rest room." After experiencing the lack of service and amenities on commercial airlines, I have added a fourth rule: "Never pass up a chance to eat.")
The ruins of Tikal cover 6 mi2 and consists of at least 3,000 structures. There are 6 pyramids with the tallest being 229 feet tall. Not all of the pyramids have been cleared of their embracing blanket of dirt, plants, and trees. Each pyramid complex consists of two facing pyramids, fronted with 9 large circular carved stone altars each with a stone stele behind it. The pyramids lie north and south of each other; to the east and west are ancillary buildings resulting in a plaza surrounded by the four structures.
But so much for the dry facts. As the bus approached Tikal the road was gradually enveloped by rain forest. We left the bus at the visitors’ center which features a large model of the ruins as they would have looked when occupied. Our guide led us off into the forest, under a thin overcast. We strolled in the relative cool until we reached the first pyramid complex. The major, southern pyramid has been cleared while the northern one has been left with its blanket of vegetation. Construction is of massive limestone blocks that were shaped by "pecking" with harder flint stones. Mortar cements them in place. Massive steps mount each face.
We left the small clearing and moved through the forest to another complex. This features a pyramid built on top of a rise or hill. Steep wooden steps have been constructed to allow a relatively easy climb to the top. The view is of the rain forest with pyramids poking through here and there, according to Jodie, Beth, and Randall who climbed up.
The next complex had been fairly well cleared. Visitors are allowed to climb the very steep stone steps of the southern pyramid. This is not an easy task since each step is at least 1½ feet high. It is thought that the steps were actually intended as seats for an audience, much like a modern stadium.
Our final visit was to the Plaza Mayor, the jewel of the place. This is the best cleared and maintained complex and also seems to have be the most important of all the complexes. The northern, shorter pyramid is available for climbing. A rabbit warren of small rooms comprising the western building suggests that it could have been some sort of residence. One striking difference between Tikal and the Egyptian pyramids is that access to Tikal is limited so the visitor never encounters beggars or annoying souvenir peddlers.
Plaza Mayor concluded our tour so we made our way back to an open-air restaurant near the visitors’ center. The meal was soup, a half a grilled chicken, potatoes, some overcooked vegetables, and a most welcome cool beer. All in all, the temperatures remained surprisingly cooler than what we had expected. We arrived back at the ship around 5:30.
Another night-time ship repositioning, this time to Bahia de Amatique, off of the mouth of the Rio Dulce. The ship couldn’t approach the shore too closely because of the sand bar built up by the river. The depth inside the river would have been sufficient for our little ship.
We took a tender up the river to the Asociaciòn Ak’ Tenamit co-op. Another so-called strenuous hike was offered that wasn’t too strenuous. It went up and down in the hills behind the co-op in the second growth rain forest. There was nothing to be seen other than a lot of green. Various native crafts are offered for sale. The co-op provides schooling and medical care for the locals.
After the visit we went on up the river and then raced back to the ship. The river is quite beautiful. Near the coast it passes through a deep, wide canyon. Many egrets and pelicans frequent the shores. We eventually reached a bird island where cormorants, egrets, and herons live, and perhaps nest.
We finally reached Belize and its famous barrier reef. We anchored off of Cocoa Plum Cay. Snorkeling tenders took us off to Elephant Cay for a morning of excellent snorkeling. This was the only time when the transiting between the tenders and the ship seemed safely handled. The tenders dropped us off along the edge of a reef and then moved down current to pick us up. Thus we were able to move with almost no effort along the edge. The center of the reef was too shallow to swim over. There was a profusion of fish and much beautiful coral.
The Captain’s farewell dinner was held while the ship was moored at the dock in Belize City. We left the ship at 9 the next morning for a 1-hour drive to the airport. Security was extensive but ineffective. Our carry on luggage was given a cursory hand examination as we entered the airport. A serpentine line led us to the ticketing agent however both the checked luggage and carry on received a hand check before ticketing. Finally we passed through a magnetic detector while the carry-ons were X-rayed. I had to take off my shoes and send them through the X-ray by themselves. One marked difference from LAX, a chair was provided so that the passenger may sit while removing and replacing his shoes.
Although the trip was much shorter than our usual trips, it was quite enjoyable.