Kayaking down Macal River

Trip Start Dec 25, 2014
Trip End Jan 11, 2015

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Flag of Belize  , Cayo,
Friday, January 9, 2015

Having spent two satisfying days at Tikal it was time to move on. Next we were headed east to San Ignacio, across the border in Belize. Since most visitors to Tikal come on a day trip from Flores / Santa Elena, there are frequent buses that ply from Santa Elena  not just San Ignacio but all the way to Belize City. But there is no direct transport available from Tikal which is an hour north on a spur road and we had no intention of back tracking two hours back to Santa Elena only to head in the opposite direction eventually. Preliminary enquiries at the hotel did not provide conclusive information on our options. We consulted Luis the birding guide and he agreed to arrange seats for us on the tourist shuttle to take us to El Cruce (literally crossroad), the junction on the road from Santa Elena to the border. 
As it turned out, all this prior planning was totally unnecessary. As we waited for our transport at 11am in the morning, we found collectivos and vans that dropped off tourists and hotel staff gladly willing to take passengers on their way back.  Our designated van eventually dropped us off at El Cruce and a fellow-passenger (who was a guide himself) gave us helpful suggestions on where best we should park ourselves so we could flag down a bus to the border.  

A slight drizzle had us waiting under a street-side shelter and the first vehicle that passed by turned out not to be a fancy bus but a local collectivo that was already crammed with passengers. The ayudante (helper) convinced us that there was room for two more people (and their backpacks) and since it was only an hours’ drive to the border we huddled in hoping that the ridership would thin down sooner rather than later.

We admired the lush landscape of El Peten as the van made numerous stops to let people in and out. When the drizzle turned into rain, our backpacks were quickly rescued from the top of the vehicle and dumped inside, further cramping the available space for others passengers. To everyone’s credit nobody complained. We were still several miles from the border when the pavement gave way to gravel, it was as if work on the road stopped abruptly someday and never resumed. To our relief that lasted only for a few miles and the final stretch was under smooth asphalt.

Even as we alighted from the van at the border town of Melchor de Mencos, moneychangers were at hand eager to transact business. We had set some money aside for an unofficial but anticipated Guatemala exit fee but the money changers pooh-poohed existence of such a fee. Confident we would be able to pay with US dollars if the need arose, we exchanged all remaining Guatemalan Quetzals for Belize dollars and had enough to get us from the border to San Ignacio (and ATMs) in a taxi if required.

The meandering Mopan river makes a brief incursion from Belize into Guatemala around here and we crossed the bridge over the river on foot to get to the border posts of both countries. Guatemala exit procedures were minimal and to our relief no mention was made to any exit fees. The Belize border officials greeted us in English, a new experience on this trip. Despite being surrounded by Spanish speaking countries, Belize, a former British colony, uses English for all official business. 

With a waiting shared taxi just outside immigration, we had no time to linger around. San Ignacio is only 15 kms from the border and we expected to get there in no time. But with the only other passenger besides us getting off at Benque Viejo (the border town on the Belize side), the driver cruised around looking for more paying passengers. He eventually had to give up and we made it into town in about 20 minutes.

San Ignacio is the principal town in the Cayo region of Belize. Besides being an important transit town to and from Guatemala, it is popular in its own right as a base for exploring Belize’s famous Mayan ruins (Caracol, Xunantunich). It also offers plenty of outdoor activities like zip-lining, caving, hiking, kayaking, horseback riding etc. We made our way to a hotel where we had made reservations over the phone. Despite having no record of this they had no trouble accommodating us. The town is compact and most necessities like lodging, restaurants and market are all within walking distance from the  center. 

We had an afternoon to look around and make plans for the next day. A young man at the Welcome Center provided useful information to plan onward travel and options for local activity.  We also stopped by a couple of travel agents to see if there were any tours that would interest us. After Copan and Tikal, we were not keen to visit more Mayan sites anytime soon. We were looking for something completely different to do here in San Ignacio.

At David’s Adventure Tours, we were presented with an option that involved kayaking down the Macal river.  Mrs David who runs the office, spoke only Spanish, an exception in this town where most locals are bilingual and are able to be witch between Spanish and English as needed. She was originally from Guatemala and had married across the border. She tried to explain the details in a mix of Spanish and English but we still had trouble fully understanding all the logistics involved. Yet slow paddling downstream seemed like an ideal way to round off this trip and we looked upon this option favorably. 

When we presented ourselves at their office at 8 am next morning, Mrs. David immediately locked up behind herself and hailed a taxi. It appeared this was a regular arrangement for her and we got in armed with couple of oars, PFDs (personal flotation device), a dry bag for our cameras and other valuables. The plan as to drive us several miles south of town to David’s jungle camp located on the east bank of the Macal river. The duo would drop us off there with a kayak and we would  paddle back at our own pace, a distance of 14 miles to San Ignacio. 

Getting to the jungle camp involved detouring off the paved highway a few miles south of San Ignacio, on to an unpaved road that eventually led to pasture land complete with grazing cows. The taxi drove right through this grassy terrain until we reached a path descending to the river. We noticed a 2-person kayak secured to a tree along the edge and with four of us there it took two trips to get all of us to the opposite bank. 

Reaching the jungle lodge further involved a steep uphill climb through the bush. It had rained a lot on the previous day and tackling the slick moss-covered stones in slippers that we had donned (with just paddling in mind) resulted in few unhappy tumbles on the way.  

The steps led to a small clearing on the top where they had built some simple cabins. Interestingly, the 50-acre property encompassed an unexcavated Maya site that archaeologist were now taking a lot of interest in. The high vantage point provided a beautiful view across the river valley and it was considered a perfect place from which the Maya could watch out for invaders. Mrs David spoke enthusiastically about the property and gave us a extensive tour walking through the fruit trees and the unexcavated mounds that conceal Mayan structures. But the muddy, slippery path coupled with the  recently acquired bruises interfered somewhat with fully appreciating the the charms of this beautiful place.

Seeing that we were itching to get started, she thrust a bag full of tiny yellow bananas from the property into our hands and we gingerly made our way back to the river. This was a rare occasion when we felt we would be safer over water than on slippery terra firma. Crossing the river again (they needed to get back to the taxi and back to town), we were handed control of the oars and we parted ways.

The Macal River rises in the Maya Mountains that straddles Belize and Guatemala and flows in a northernly direction where it joins the Mopan River just south of San Ignacio to form the Belize River. Due to recent heavy rains the river was higher than usual for this time of the year (or so we were told). There are several small rapids in the lower reach of the river and  current was a tad strong just before where the river swung left or right but we quickly got into rhythm and were able to maintain a steady comfortable cadence.

Video: Macal River Kayak 1

The river was sparkling clean and we would often pause paddling and enjoy the quiet surroundings as we floated with the current. The shoreline was covered with a lush tree canopy, the natural habitat for tropical birds, butterflies and iguanas. Herons, egrets, cormorants and anahinga were everywhere and we unintentionally disturbed one too many Kingfishers as the kayak drifted too close to their perch. 

There are a number of jungle resorts along the banks of the Macal and we passed several through the day. Hidden behind thick forest cover, the only clue to their existence usually was a wooden sign tacked to a tree and a few bobbing canoes or kayaks along the edge. The only one we visited was the DuPlooy’s Lodge as it sits adjacent to a highly rated Botanical Garden. We pulled up our kayak over a sandy beach and spent a few minutes at DuPlooy before continuing our journey downstream.  

Video: Macal River Kayak 2
Well past mid-day we noted our progress on the off-line map and determined we had much distance to cover to get to San Ignacio. There was also a threat of rain late afternoon and we did not want to be caught in a downpour while on the river. So we got serious about putting those rarely used muscles to work and focused on covering distance while navigating around  fallen trees and minor eddies

We were not able to completely escape the rain; the skies opened up and cameras and binoculars were hurriedly stashed into the dry bag. We briefly took shelter under overhanging branches but since we were drenched anyway we decided to continue paddling in the rain. Closer to town our pace slackened both due to fatigue and the comfort of knowing that our destination was not too far away.
We came across a particularly serene part of the river with towering rock formations on either side. There were hundreds of swallows’ nest on the rock face and it was a great place to just float around and enjoy the surroundings. Not too far was a basking iguana up a tree and we had to turn around a second time to get a good look. 

In the several hours we were on the river, we had not encountered anybody save for the people at DuPlooys. The river, the birds, the surrounding jungles and the gentle sloshing of oars will be our predominant memory of Belize of years to come. It was a perfect way to wrap up our Central America adventures. Next day, we had to make a dash to Cancun,  a distance of about 600 km from San Ignacio. We had all day to get there, but distance was only one of several factors when traveling in these parts.

Photo Albums: Tikal to Belize     Macal River Kayak


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Ramesh on

Well, you almost look like professional kayakers :)

The trip is coming to a close all too soon :(

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