Pat and Dave’s Tremendous Tropical Trek – PART 2: Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica

In Part 1 of this blog series, I described our activities while traveling to our departure port and on board the Viking Star. As promised, I’ll move on now to describing our shore excursions. In this installment, I’ll cover our first four stops as shown on the map below: Cozumel, Mexico, Belize City, Belize, Roatan, Honduras, and Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.

Cozumel, Mexico (Friday, March 10, 2023)

After two days of sailing covering more than 600 miles, the ship docked in Cozumel, Mexico, a 250-square-mile island located off the southeastern shore of the Yucatan peninsula, about 40 miles south of Cancun. The name is derived from the Mayan “Ah Cuzamil Peten,” which means “the island of swallows.” Cozumel has become a hot tourist spot and a snorkeler’s paradise since the discovery of the world’s second largest coral reef system by Jacque Cousteau in the 1960s. The Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park was established in 1996 to protect the resource. Though Pat would have loved to go snorkeling, I’ve demonstrated my ineptitude at that several times in the past (comical to her, near fatal to me), so we opted for a different activity. We departed the ship and walked through a touristy area in the port of San Miguel before boarding a bus for a 10-mile drive through the Cozumel countryside to the Mayan ruins at San Gervasio.

The structures at the San Gervasio site date to around 1000 to 1200. The Mayan people there were flourishing when the Spaniards first travelled to the island in 1518 and established good relations, but were soon decimated by smallpox brought in by subsequent explorers. The population today is still almost entirely of Mayan descent, including our tour guide, Paco.

Our Mayan Guide, Paco

The Mayan settlement was a hub of worship of Ix Chel, the goddess of the moon, childbirth, fertility, medicine, and weaving. Pre-Columbian Maya women from the mainland would try to travel to the site and make offerings at least once in their lives. Paco pointed out several pieces of obsidian, which is not native to the island but was brought to the site by these pilgrims as gifts to the goddess.

The Mayans built a stone road through the jungle from the northern edge of the island all the way to the site, where visitors entered through a stone arch. Remains of the original road can still be seen. The altar in the central square and most of the structures are laid out so that the sides face precisely to the north, east, west, and south.

The Main Square at the San Gervasio Ruins
The Entry Arch and the Mayan Road to the Coast

The site also features a sinkhole, networked to others on the island through underground aquifer, that was used to obtain potable water. The sinkhole apparently had been dry during periods of drought since remains of an altar were found well below the normal water level.

The Sinkhole

The building called Las Manitas, named for the red-colored handprints on the interior walls, was the home of the Mayan ruler.

Las Manitas (zoomed in to see handprints below)

One of many interesting anecdotes that Paco shared was the origin of the name “Yucatan” for the nearby Mexican peninsula. Apparently, it is derived from a Mayan word that was given in response to Spanish explorers who asked, “What is this place called?” Later scholars learned that what the Mayans were actually saying was “We don’t understand you.”

After our tour, we returned to the boat for activities described in Part 1 before sailing off into the sunset.

Belize City, Belize (Saturday, March 11, 2023)

We awoke the next morning in Belize City, or more precisely, anchored 2.5 miles off shore, since the Belize City harbor is too shallow for ships at only five feet deep. Belize is the country formerly known as British Honduras until its independence in 1981. (Many people seem unaware of where Belize is – as one of our guides told us, they changed the name but forgot to tell the rest of the world.) It is the smallest and least populous of the Central American countries (23,000 square miles and 440,000 people) and the only one that does not border on the Pacific Ocean. The official language is English, but the natives also speak Belizean Creole, a mixture of broken English, French, and who knows what else.

On the Tender Boat heading fir Belize City
Welcome to Belize City

For the second day in a row, we opted for a tour of Mayan ruins. We left the ship on a small tender boat (capacity about 80 passengers) for the trip into the Belize City harbor, where we boarded a bus for a one-hour trip to the ancient site of Altun Ha. Two Creole “sistas” served as our guides, describing the sights in the city and the Belizean countryside. They also had fun trying to teach us some Creole. When they spoke very slowly, we could almost understand what they were saying, but when they spoke at their normal speed it was completely unintelligible.

The Altun Ha site was much more extensive and more accessible than the one on Cozumel. It was first inhabited during the Pre-Classic Period of Mayan history with the first major construction beginning in about 100 BCE. The site reached its peak during the Early Classic Period, from 200 to 600 AD and began to decline thereafter. The most impressive structures are large pyramids that served as ceremonial and civic centers as well as tombs. The impression I got was that the lower floors initially served as residences for the rulers and upper classes, then as tombs when they died. New residences were then built on top of the tombs for the new rulers. One interesting aspect of the construction is that the Mayans had no pack animals or wheels, so transport and erection of the huge stones must have required enormous amounts of human labor.

Temple/Tomb at Altun Ha

The guides told us that, while human sacrifices occurred at other Mayan sites, the rituals at Altun Ha were limited merely to bloodletting and non-fatal piercings and mutilations. Those “lucky” enough to be chosen for these rites were given allspice to induce a euphoric state and deaden the pain. A number of large allspice trees are still growing on the site.

The stepped pyramids acted almost like a magnet, drawing us to climb. Pat went first, on the building called Structure A1, an important temple and tomb with a wide, tapering staircase, while I thought about whether my arthritic knees could handle it. Eventually I succumbed to the lure, and found that going up was not too bad but coming down was terrifying. I managed it by going sideways and, for the final half dozen large steps, easing down on my butt.

Pat was First to Climb

Emboldened by this success, I had to climb the largest structure on the site, which had some scary access stairways on one side and in the rear. Pat opted to stay on the ground for this one and serve as the photographer.

The Largest Structure at Altun Ha
The Conqueror (but I was too wobbly to go closer to the edge!)
The Rear Access Stairs

On the bus ride back to Belize City, we passed through what is called the “dead center” of town. The main highway actually runs directly through a cemetery! The guides continued to regale us with information about Belize. One odd fact they proudly told us is that there is no welfare system in Belize. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” one of them said, claiming that this wisdom comes from the Bible. I’m no Biblical scholar, but this struck both Pat and me as the antithesis of what Jesus stood for and seemed at odds with the guides’ claims that Belize is a religious and compassionate country. Since tourism is essentially the only industry, it also seems rather difficult to sustain. Mahogany exporting was the first major industry during Spanish and British colonial rule, with slave laborers brought in to harvest the trees. However, mahogany trees are now essentially nonexistent, despite being the national tree of Belize, since they were literally all taken away.

On the tender boat back to the ship, I snapped the picture that I used as the “featured image” for Part 1 – just in case you were wondering how I got a picture of the boat in the middle of the ocean.

The Tender Boat Returning to the Viking Star

As we settled in for the evening and the boat set sail again, we decided that we had had an “Un-Belizeable” day in Belize.

Roatan, Honduras (Sunday, March 12, 2023)

When we left the ship on Sunday morning, we found that it was docked at a very modern cruise ship port called Mahogany Bay, on the island of Roatan. We were told that our ship would be one of the last to visit the island for several months as the rainy season would be starting shortly, running from Late March until early September. Roatan is located about 40 miles north of Honduras in the Bay Island archipelago, also very popular for snorkeling due to the same reef that runs south from Cozumel. We boarded a bus for a one-hour trip to Gumbalimba Park a private history and eco-adventure park founded in 2003.

The Cruise Port on Roatan
The Cruise Port on Roatan (Mahogany Bay)

We first learned about the island’s history by visiting an exhibit near the entrance to the park. Needless to say, Christopher Columbus is not a revered figure here, where the indigenous people first welcomed him only to be sold into slavery, infected by European diseases, and subject to brutal treatment. The island became a haven for English, French, and Dutch pirates before eventually being populated by Garifuna natives deported from the island of St. Vincent by the British in 1797. Britain then ruled the island until ceding it to Honduras.

Diorama at Gumbalimba Park

Another exhibit included an impressive collection of butterflies, moths, and other insects native to the island.\

Butterfly Exhibit at Gumbalimba Park

We then went on a walk through the park where we encountered iguanas, agoutis, macaws, and capuchin monkeys as well as lush tropical plants and trees. We even crossed a river on a wobbly suspension bridge, which added a bit of excitement. The macaws and monkeys had been trained to interact with the visitors and were very friendly, as you can see below. However, all of the animals roam freely in the park – there are no cages.

This young girl was more nimble than I on the suspension bridge …
Macaws mate for life and can live for up to 80 years
Here I am with some new friends
The Capuchin Monkeys were also very friendly
Too bad our condo has a no-pets policy
This tree split into two trunks which then rejoined
The jungle foliage was lush and beautiful

All in all, I think the Gumbalimba tour may have been the best shore excursion of the entire trip.

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica (Tuesday, March 14, 2023)

After two days of sailing, we docked in Puerto Limon. Columbus anchored his boat in this bay on his fourth voyage in 1502. As we were told by our guide, the native people welcomed him and brought various gifts in his honor. Columbus remarked that it must be a very “rich coast” – i.e. “Costa Rica” – if the people could afford such gifts. In fact, Costa Rica was not rich in gold and silver, consisting primarily of dense jungle and volcanos. Who knows if this story is true.

Our shore outing for the day included a bus ride to a nearby river and a peaceful boat ride where we observed the lush vegetation, multiple birds, a caiman lolling in the water, and howler monkeys cavorting in the trees. I’m posting some pictures, but you can barely make out any of the wildlife as the background vegetation seems to drown out the animals. Trust me, the experience was wonderful, even if I don’t have the photos to prove it.

On the boat in Costa Rica
The river was calm and quiet, but we could hear the Howler Monkeys
There were half a dozen Howler Monkeys in these trees — see if you can find them
Best of all — no mosquitos!

Back at the Cruise Ship dock, we checked out some of the usual touristy stuff …

… before returning to the ship, where we attended a lecture entitled “The Stupendous Story of the Panama Canal,” by historian John Freedman. By this time we had sailed about 1600 miles, drawing ever closer to the principal attraction of the cruise. I went to bed that night with visions dancing in my head – not of sugarplums but of the amazing canal.

OK, that’s it for Part 2. In Part 3, I’ll cover our stop in Panama (including Colon and Gamboa), our transit of the Panama Canal locks, and our final stop in Jamaica.

Stay tuned …

3 thoughts on “Pat and Dave’s Tremendous Tropical Trek – PART 2: Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica

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