Expedition Mundo Maya, Part II

This feature first appeared in the March 2012 Sojournal. We liked it so much, we wanted to share it again.

Expedition Mundo Maya Part II

Now that Team Equipt had arrived in Antigua, Guatemala in our Toyota Land Cruisers and joined up with our amigos, James and Angela Brown of No Limit Expeditions, it was time to get dirty! I had been talking about this portion of our expedition for some time, ever since James had asked me if I wanted to re-run the Rainforest & Ruins trip during the wet season. Really, is that a question? We had done the trip last year during a dry period and it was awesome, but to do it in the wet season would be killer!

After performing lots of needed maintenance on our trucks in Antigua, we headed north to the Rio Dulce which would serve as a half way point between Antigua and Belize. This is a very comfortable place to be and close enough to cross the border into Belize the following morning. It made sense to us at the time to stock up on beer (because it was good and cheap), but our good beer luck would soon run out. We jumped through many hoops with the border guards and finally cleared customs and were sure we had made it through unscathed until...we met “The Man.” This is the guy who holds the keys to the gate and allows you into Belize, and on this day it seems he was quite thirsty! James and Graham were first to enter in their NLX defenders and “The Man” jumped head first in to their fridges. It pained me to watch him remove all of their beer, but he was kind enough to let them keep the rest of their food. He said this as though he was doing them a favor. I pulled up to the gate and could not stop thinking of all those cold cervezas that I was about to be without. I debated in my head trying a bribe of some sort, but in the end he dove straight in to my National Luna head first. Not only did he take all of my beer, but he dumped out my groceries from their bags so he would have a way to carry them home! Damn “The Man”....

The first official night of our trip with No Limit Expeditions would be spent at the always comfortable Pook’s Hill Jungle Lodge where we would meet all of the other participants. After proper introductions and a great dinner in the jungle-like treehouse, we all went to bed with visions of deep mud, monkeys and undiscovered Mayan ruins in our fuzzy little heads. The next morning after getting our feet wet quickly in the rising Barton creek we drove in heavy rain to Rio on Pools near the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. These are a series of huge water falls that flow through giant granite boulder fields for further than you can see. They provide the ultimate place for keeping cool on those hot and humid Belizean days. It is theorized that a volcanic island collided with the mainland to create this crazy out-of-place ecosystem. The only thing crazier than the place itself was to see Paul perform his granite butt slide and human canon ball maneuvers! This gave us all a good laugh that kept our minds off of the approaching storm clouds. We decided it was time to head for camp when the rain started again. It was going to be one wet go on the Monkey River Trail tomorrow....

Once to camp at the de Silva Ranger Station we started turning the old British military palapa into a suitable dining room. In great English fashion we would receive a beautiful meal from James’s culinary talents. The night was capped off with a bottle of Ron Zacapa Gran Reserve Rum and a nice cigar. This is how I fashioned Ernest Hemingway spent his nights in the jungles of Central America, swapping stories of a great day flats-fishing with his compadres by the campfire, all the while sipping a fine glass of cuban rum and keeping the massive mosquitos away by lighting up one of his favorite cigars. Although we weren’t going to do any fishing on this trip, I knew that there were going to be many great stories that would come from this time together. I just could not wait to start living them out.

The rain had decided to stay all night which meant putting up a wet camp the next morning. Everybody donned their rain jackets and got to work as a quick put-up would be rewarded with an empty Caracol. We were also lucky in that the military did not require us to take the tourist convoy that would not be leaving until 9:30 A.M. This meant that we were free to make time and have the largest Mayan Ruins in Belize all to ourselves. This site is not a small find in the Mayan world. At one time it covered more area than present day Belize City. The site dates back to 1200 B.C. and was once one of the largest mayan cities with over 15,000 people. Throughout its long history it was constantly at war with Tikal, Naranjo or Ucanal. Caracol boasts 25 stelae, 28 alters and 250 burials. By 950 A.D. the site was abandoned, as were most if not all mayan cities were in Central America. On a previous visit last year, I had been lucky enough to wander into the workers area and find some local kids separating artifacts. They were kind enough to let me in and shoot all the photographs that I wanted. However, on this trip, there was no work going on. All the makeshift huts were vacant, along with all the valuable findings, as if they had never been there.

Once the tourist in pressed khakis started to show up at the ruins we all hopped back into our expedition equipped vehicles and headed for the Las Cuevas Jaguar Research Center which was located deep into the Chiquibul. If we got there early enough we could run the famous Monkey River Trail before it got any wetter, as if this mattered! At six miles long there was no way that we would complete the run all the way down to the river in these extremely wet conditions, but we were going to have fun trying! This was also the opportunity I had been looking forward to, putting my wife Beverly behind the wheel of “Lucy,” our 97 Toyota Land Cruiser. Bev had slowly been taking over the off-road driving duties so I could shoot more (for us this was becoming a team sport). This would be the first time that she would be experiencing this kind of tight jungle terrain and mud at the same time, but I was fully confident in her driving skills. I was not going to miss this opportunity of shooting these four fabulous vehicles in this kind of environment and conditions. This was going to be good.

Almost right out of the gate one of the defenders wheeled its way (or was sucked) into what has been appropriately named “Angela’s Ditch.” In an instant the English made diesel powered Defender 110 was helpless. Within a moments notice our lead guide, Graham Jackson, had the trucks winch cable attached to a shallow rooted tree using one of our Secure Tech Tree Savers. Although the tree was shallow rooted as most are around these parts, by placing it at the roots of the chosen winch point there was plenty of hold to allow for a quick extrication. From that time on in the trip there was a constant whine of synthetic line being retrieved by the slow mechanical drums that we call winches. This continued for two miles and several hours before night began to fall on us. All the while the non-relenting rain increased in volume and intensity.

Although I can’t remember how it happened, somewhere along the trail a bet was made that Beverly couldn’t drive “Lucy” through “Angela’s Ditch” without getting stuck! For some unknown reason, I was the one left to spot my wife through the track and somehow video the attempt at the same time. I tried to get her on the high line left, but the land cruiser quickly lost traction on the off-camber muddy hill and slid into the dreaded ditch. At this time Beverly rolled down the window just enough to hear me, but not enough to let much rain in. I simply said lock the front and rear lockers in and give her hell...and at that she did. It was like watching a carnival ride that had jumped the tracks, but that you just couldn’t take you eyes off of. She broke just about all of the rules of driving in loose off-camber terrain, but somehow managed to make it safely to the other end unaided. After a big Toyota jump, Bev started giving high fives to everyone standing in the rain, including James!

Another highlight of visiting the research center at Las Cuevas is getting to do a little spelunking. I’m not talking about squeezing between dark chambers filled with bats, or getting lost only to be discovered hundreds of years later by another civilization. What I’m talking about here is a caving experience that is more like a nice walk down into the dark for a couple hour tour of some very cool and easily accessible caverns. It is said that this is one of the main openings to the Chiquibul Cave System that is quite large and harbors some of the largest chambers in Central America. Others say that it is the entrance to the mayan underworld? There was no shortage of pottery shards from ancestral maya activities to see when we deposited ourselves into the dark. As a matter of fact, there were artifacts everywhere. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were!

After having a great time at Las Cuevas it was time to head back to civilization and resupply.This was going to be very challenging because the rain had not stopped for days and we had honestly barely made it in. What was referred to as a dirt track in the summer was now nothing more than a wide and deep mud pit with the larger holes approaching 200 meters in length. If we got ourselves in a complete quagmire I don’t think that AAA will be coming to get us gringos. Since I wanted to photograph everybody else coming through I had to go first. With both lockers engaged and hardly any control over the steering, Beverly, Jackson and myself started the slog. I had shifted into second gear in low range and initiated the second gear lock that the cruiser has to ensure that she would not shift on me. This was a good decision and made for a good pace through the thick and sticky Central American mud. It also ensured that I wouldn’t over-work the transmission without cause. After backing up three times for a very short distance, “Lucy” made it through unscathed. Much to my relief I didn’t have to get winched out by Paul in the other land cruiser - or even worse by one of the Defenders! Shortly after the NLX trucks came through in tandem with lots of action and mud slinging, making for some great photos to capture. Paul pulled up the rear in his solidly built 100 series land cruiser giving us a 1000 batting average for the largest obstacle that had stood in our way. We continued along in this fashion going through the trenches one at a time until we all finally arrived back on the highway.

Once we were back in civilization, James broke the good news to the group that we were headed to Chan Chich Lodge, which was located on a nature preserve in Orange Walk, Belize. At this point a nice hot shower sounded great as I was still covered in dried mud from wrestling with my new RUD mud-chains. There is just no easy way to install or remove them without getting completely dirty. The two hour drive to the preserve took us on the private Yalbac Ranch & Cattle Company road where we got up close and personal with lots of wildlife. Once there we toured the old mayan plaza and burial site that the lodge is built on. This is a place we most likely would have never visited if it had not been for the trip with NLX. It was amazing! But like the others, my mind had already drifted a few miles to the west and was exploring the jungles of the Petén in Guatemala. From Chan Chich we could throw a rock into the Petén, however it would take the better part of a day to drive back down and around to the border and into Guatemala.

The crossing back into Guatemala went as smoothly as it could and we soon found ourselves at our destination of Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo National Monument. Or better known as where they filmed “Survivor Guatemala” in 2005. This is an overlanders paradise. You gain access to many jungle routes that lead to the ruins of Nakum and Naranjo. The designated campground was abandoned as most places here are and sets right on the Yaxhá Lagoon.

The following morning we all squeezed into a local guides boat and headed to the ruins of Topoxoté. It’s always amazing to see mayan ruins in the jungle, but when you see them on an island, it just makes you ask how and why! The ruins are well preserved and were only discovered a little over 100 years ago, therefore they are in really good shape.

We spent lunch at the main Yaxhá ruins. Once our energy levels were up we started the climb to the top of Structure 216. This is one of the tallest pyramids in the mayan world and you must climb a very long stairway to access it. Once on top the views of the lagoon and ruins below were well worth it and made for some very good photo ops. After viewing the main ruins near camp it was time to climb back into the rigs and make a run at Nakum. Earlier in the day we had asked some local guides how the road to Nakum was and all they did was laugh. This gave us a good indication of how rough and deep the next 17 kilometers might be, but we never ever would have guessed that it was it was in the condition it was! After four hours of mud bogging, scouting and winching we had made it only 5 kilometers and it was starting to get late. All of our trucks had been stuck at least once and the ruts were getting very deep and holes extremely long, with our heads bowed we turned back. With the tallest of us sitting on 33” tires, we just did not have the clearance to make it through in this insane late rainy season...the Petén had won this battle.

The next morning we awoke to thick fog over the lagoon and extremely muddy trucks and gear. After lots of cleaning, re-spooling winch lines and repacking, we were on the road to visit the ruins of Tikal and Uaxactun. James had secured us special permits that allowed us to drive our expedition vehicles right through the center of Tikal. This meant that we would be able to access the road to one of our favorite places in all of the Petén. We arrived to our camp in Uaxactun about an hour and a half before sunset and instantly setup camp. There are very few times in your life that you are allowed to spend the night at a group of spectacular mayan ruins, but this was one of those times. So in style we all took it in and enjoyed ourselves, toasted the mayan gods at sunset and overall had a fantastic time. The stars that night over the pyramid were awe inspiring and Team Equipt slept like ancient royalty. This would be a night that we would all remember and talk about for years to come.

Expedition Mundo Maya, Part I

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