Tag: Flying Banana

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Instagram Feeds

We’ve been seeing so many incredible birds (Colombia has more bird species than any other country) and vintage cars (Colombia also seemingly has more vintage SUVs than any country) that I decided to (or succumbed to) start a couple Instagram feeds. Feel free to follow, if you’re so inclined.

Birds: Balakay @balakaysbirds

Cars: Vanablog @workingvintages



Okay. We lied: Palenque is not the Indiana Jones ruins. Tikal is. This is where you can harness your inner Indiana — though, unlike Palenque, they don’t sell fedoras at the entrance.

Calm Ruins

I’m sure Tikal gets overrun. We arrived on a Sunday. We expected throngs of tourbuses and tourists and trash and tiendas. General chaos. We expected to wait until Monday. What we got instead, was a handful of cars, a few buses, and two Ocellated Turkeys.

It was overcast and the Weather app said rain. We’d just polished off some fairly epic chicken paninis at the Jaguar Inn, where we were crashing (they allow overlanders to overnight in the parking lot). Given the weather, and our full bellies, naps seemed imminent. Or perhaps slices of key lime pie and then naps. Inertia for certain. But the more we looked around, the more we were reminded how few humans were around. It felt like having Disneyland to yourself. We couldn’t risk crowds on another day. We packed our raincoats and marched toward the entrance. Andrea grabbed a coffee.

Creature Sites and Sounds

When the Mayans left — reasons are uncertain, ranging from overpopulation to agrarian failures to meteorological drought — animals moved in. And mosquitos. Though I suspect both were there before the Mayans.

White-nosed coatis now roam the streets — a band of coatis passed right by us at one point, momentarily petrifying Everett and Paheli. Spider and Black Howler Monkeys leap through the trees. Red-lored Parrots, Masked Tityras, Lineated Woodpeckers, Keel-billed Toucans, and Montezuma Oropendolas fly overhead.

Tikal is a feast for the eyes and ears. Howler monkeys yell conversations between the trees. Spider monkeys drop fruit seeds from the canopy, which sounds like rain. Toucans croak. Woodpeckers hammer. Parrots squawk (they’re kind of annoying). And oropendolas make that bizarre, mechanical teapot sound heard here.

Sheer Size

Tikal is the largest excavated ruin in the Americas. It felt like it. It’s a twenty to thirty minute walk, down an ancient, crumbling Mayan causeway canopied by rainforest, to the first significant structures. Another twenty minutes to the next. I’m guessing we walked ten miles (at least). And we didn’t see everything.

We also hiked to both the top of the Lost World Pyramid and Temple IV, the tallest pyramid/temple in Tikal and pre-Columbian structure still erect in the New World. Our glutes were nice and taught. Temple IV was also where George Lucas filmed the scene where the Millennium Falcon flies over the Rebel Alliance base on Yavin 4 in Episode IV: A New Hope! We took the photo below from that exact location.

Tikal, with it’s bisecting causeways (named after the archeologists that discovered them), and grouped structures, felt more like a city than a site, unlike many of the other ruins we’ve visited, whose main structures were concentrated in a condensed area. Though Tikal (est. 90,000) never grew to the size of Teotihuacan (est. 250,000), it remained an important, some say the most important, Mayan site until its final collapse.

You could spend days, weeks, touring and absorbing Tikal. Many do. We only lasted an afternoon. It was, however, with the slight rain and slight tourists, just about the perfect afternoon to hike the tens of miles and thousands of steps to witness this archeological marvel. A world heritage site and one of seven wonders of the new world.

Clarissa Falls, Belize

Clarissa Falls, Belize

What’s around that corner? Greener grass? Whiter beach? On this trip, I often ruminate, sometimes pontificate, on those questions. I’m also innately antsy. And when you’re constantly looking elsewhere, you struggle to see what’s right in front of your face. I’m sure some famous person said that. Or something similar.

Third Day

We spent the first two days at Clarissa Falls, a campground a few miles outside of San Ignacio, Belize, debating if we should leave the campground. Go see those ruins. Tube in that cave. Cross into Guatemala. The debate occupied most of our free conversation — all while a beautiful river and jungle surrounded us.


We saw a Keel-billed Toucan perched atop a ceiba tree at our first meal in the campground’s restaurant. That should’ve been the first smack on the side of the head to stop and look around. Smell the jasmine. The next morning we saw two Collared Aracaris, named for the apple red collar that wraps around it’s berry black and banana yellow belly. It has a black sawtooth pattern on its red, yellow, and orange bill.

[Can you spot the aracari in the picture below?!]

Fun fact: Toucans, at least the keel-billed ones, croak. Like frogs. You can hear them above your head every other hour of the day. Yet even when you hound the sound, and despite their crazy colors, toucans remain difficult to spot.

Jade Water

Green water is suspect. Like swimming through algae. I’m much more inclined to hop into blue, or even brown, provided its brown from mud and not other sources, water. Perhaps it’s just unfamiliarity.

Hence my hesitance to swim or paddle board in the Macal River. The water was clear. But jade. Clear…. But jade. I contemplated that as I contemplated jumping off the dock below our campsite. I mean, there’s a difference between apparent and true color, right? And this river is surrounded by jungle. And limestone. It’s reasonable, almost rational, that the color would be a shade of green. Plus its clear. Yet jade….

I eventually took the plunge. We all did. The temperature was the perfect amount of cool to offset the, at times, stifling heat. We spent as much time in the water as on the land, mainly jumping from a deceased tree and then floating to the dock (see video below). This kids also caught minnows — using crackers and plastic bags! — off the dock. It was incredible. Refreshing. Though I now may have a horn growing from my back….

Electric Fireflies

The kids spotted fireflies the second night. Compared to the fireflies we’ve seen in the Northeast and Southeast US, which have more of a candlelight glow and casual flight, Belizean fireflies are electric, both in color, neon green, and action, swiftly zagging through the night, leaving a trail of light behind them.

Awesome Host

A host is as much as part of the overlanding experience as the site. Chena, the owner of Clarissa Falls Resort, was as good of, if not the best, host we’ve encountered on this trip-venture. Amazing, friendly, accommodating. She also cooks mean tacos and Belizean dishes. She cares, sincerely cares, about her guests, not just what’s in their wallet. You’d love her smile. And you, like us, would be excited just to order a meal from her.

Mayan Ruins, Part Uno

Mayan Ruins, Part Uno

Well, we had our first mishap with the van, in route from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Palenque. The road was narrow, hilly, curvy, and infested with topes and semi-trucks. Semiremolques, as they state in Spanish on their rear doors. Slow going in other words. I must’ve passed dozens of, or at least a few, semiremloques — even some doble semiremloques — in route. Then came the one after a few.

The road straightened. Briefly. I saw my shot. And I took it, pushed the pedal to the carpet. Pushed it real good. The van accelerated with the gumption of a lawnmower. I had almost passed the semiremolque when, in my periphery, I saw an indigenous Mayan (presumably) mother grab the back of her son’s camisa, to prevent him from dashing in front of our van (presumably).

I flinched. Swiveled a meter. The steel bolts that jutted a few inches from the semiremolque’s wheel shredded our van’s rim and tire. It was like that famous chariot scene in Ben Hur. Except no one was injured or killed.

Maya Belle

We arrived a few hours and one cuss word later (Andrea said it was only the second time she’s heard me cuss; I wonder what the first time was…). Not to the ruins but to the campground. Maya Belle. A welcome reprieve after a fairly stressful van ride. A jungle oasis replete with a pool, blended drinks, tezmecal (sort of a Mayan sauna), and tropical birds and animals. Tent campers, van dwellers, and cabana crashers all share the facilities, which sowed seamlessly into the surrounding jungle canopy. My favorite campsite to date. One of my favorite locales overall.

Lizards and Toucans and Monkeys, Oh My!

We’d played a few YouTubes of howler monkeys before we arrived. We didn’t want our kids — especially Everett, who is going through a bit of a “everything in the world is out to kill me” phase — to be scared. Or at least not frightened. I don’t mind scared. But I’m also not winning any Father Of The Year awards.

Howler monkeys project one of, if not the (depends on what scientist you ask), loudest vocalizations of any animal on the planet. And unlike, say, a lion, which roars infrequently, howler monkeys howl frequently. Like they’re just yelling their conversations at each other. Normal stuff. Like how to eat that bug or where to toss that poop and what not. It’s loud. Louder than the video below. And it’s frightening, err, fun to hear the volume crescendo as the troop nears — they can be heard up to three miles away.

We also saw a handful of scarlet macaws, dozens of lizards and iguanas, and one keel-billed toucan during our visit. I followed the toucan, which looks like a flying banana from the ground, from tree to tree, but unfortunately, as I learned, it will not lead you to the fruity taste that shows….

Indiana Jones

Palenque will summon your inner Indiana. Thick, like baseball bat thick, vines gnarl down from the cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla treetops to the moss- and fern-covered floor. Loud (sound-wise) monkeys and loud (color-wise) macaws fly between the vines and trees. Iguanas roam the grounds. Candles glow from skulls. Arrows shoot from walls! Evil cult warriors chase you through the jungle to steal back that emerald statue you stole (which they stole from the nearby village first)! You will have those fantasies while here. You just hope they don’t distract you from learning about the site.

Palenque rose to power between 600 and 800 AD, becoming one of the most prominent Mayan cities, alongside Calakmul, Tikal, Chichen Itza (where we visited a couple days later). It’s glory didn’t last long, however. It, like the Mayan civilization in general, declined in the late 800s and early 900s. The jungle reclaimed the territory shortly thereafter. The Spanish conquistadors never discovered it. It was rediscovered in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1900s when Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) began vast excavations.

Archeologists have restored a lot here — included Pakal’s tomb, one of the most significant archeological finds of the 20th century, the American equivalent of King Tut’s tomb — yet they estimate only 25% has been uncovered (some say as little as 10%). The jungle has engulfed the rest. Thus, there’s still treasure to be found, still time to summon your inner Indiana! You can even buy fedoras (but no whips) at the entrance.