Focus on the Bay Area with Jane Lurie Photography

One of the best things about blogging is the people you met along the way. Over the years I’ve been really fortunate to have met a lot of wonderful people through my blog who have inspired me deeply and have helped me plan my own travels to new places. When we began planning our family trip out to Northern California I knew I’d have to reach out to one of my favorite photographers in the Bay Area, Jane Lurie, for some advice on where to go and what to see. I have been following Jane’s beautiful photography blog for years and I love her inspiring work. No one knows how to capture the Bay Area and Northern California better than Jane.

Jane gave me some ideas on where to go, and while we were in California I realized how difficult it truly is to capture such a stunning place on film. We were there in early August which is normally quite foggy in the along the northern coast. I have never shot in fog before so it was quite a challenge. A few of my photos came out alright (which I will show later in another post) however I realized what a true art it is work with varying light and fog.  I knew instantly that I’d have to contact Jane and find out how she does it so beautifully. I also wanted to learn more about the woman behind Jane’s Lens so I invited her to do an interview with me. Here is what she had to say.

How long have you lived in the Bay Area? Where are you originally from?

I’ve lived in San Francisco for five years and part-time for ten. I grew up in New Jersey and worked in the education field there throughout my career. Then, my husband Bob and I lived near Charleston, South Carolina on Kiawah Island for many years before moving to San Francisco.

“Day is Done”. Photo credit: Jane Lurie

When did you learn photography?

I have been interested in photography for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I proudly created photo albums with pictures from my little Kodak Instamatic and received my first “big” camera, a Minolta DSLR, in high school. I always had that camera with me taking photos of my friends and family. I studied photography and darkroom early on and continued when I switched to digital photography after my career in the education field ended.

I currently enjoy courses at SFAI (San Francisco Art Institute)— the photography department, by the way, was founded by Ansel Adams – a lifelong inspiration.

“Fog and Trees”. Photo credit: Jane Lurie

California CULTURE North America TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY United States
Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

A Taste of the Tour de Mont Blanc: Hike in Val Vény, Courmayeur

After an incredible first hike along our taste of the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) into Courmayeur’s Val Ferret, we were thrilled to be doing our second hike in her neighbor, Val Vény. Val Vény is a pastoral valley of the Mont Blanc massif, that like Val Ferret lies southwest of Courmayeur. Val Vény was formed by two glaciers, the Miage Glacier and the Brenva Glacier which literally cut off the valley like an island by two massive moraine walls of the glaciers on each side. Val Vény is quite a magnificent place to hike.

After a filling breakfast of local cheese, cotta ham and fruit, we headed out to grab the local bus in the direction of Val Vény. This time we rode in the opposite direction of Val Ferret and followed the bus through yet another winding path inching us through the lush wide valley. About twenty minutes later, we reached the end of the line and got off at a tiny hamlet called La Visaille.

From La Visaille, we crossed a bridge and began our hike down a wide path sliced within a valley to the Rifugio Elisabetta, another stop along the TMB. It was another postcard-perfect day and I couldn’t have felt more alive. There is something about hiking and being surrounded by mountains that always makes my heart sing.

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

Arriving at the start of the hike in La Visaille

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

The start of the hike is breathtaking and gives you an idea of the treasure that awaits.

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

Approaching Lac Combol

Val Veny, Courmayeur Italy

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

My dad and son

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

Me and Max

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

A rifugio along the TMB

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

Adventure Travel Europe Italy TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking
Val Ferret Courmayeur Italy

A Taste of the Tour de Mont Blanc: A Hike in Val Ferret, Courmayeur

Our first hike along our taste of the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) was in the Val Ferret, one of two breathtaking valleys that cut through Courmayeur, Italy on the southeastern side of Mont Blanc. Known as one of the most stunning hikes in the area, especially if blessed with good weather, hiking in Val Ferret would set the tone of what would be a stunning eight full days of hiking around the TMB and leave me longing to go back.

We rose early to one of many mouth-watering, gorgeous mornings in the Alps. The sky was cloudless and eggshell blue and the view of the towering, snow-capped jagged Graian Alps pierced through the sky like lightning. We enjoyed a lovely breakfast of fresh Italian parma ham, local cheese, homemade bread, and sweets before lacing up our hiking boots and heading out.

Courmayeur, Italy

View right outside my hotel window in Courmayeur, Italy

Although we had rented a car for the week, our hotel recommended taking the bus to the start of our hike since parking is difficult on busy weekends in the summer. With our backpacks ready to go and a picnic lunch of fresh Italian baguette, local cotta ham, tomatoes, and Piave cheese, we set off. We caught the bus at the city hall (Municipio) stop located a few short blocks from our hotel in the direction of Val Ferret.

As we left Courmayeur, it was obvious that the rest of the fully packed bus was also heading to the Val Ferret for a hike. The thirty-minute ride was filled with fellow trekkers from all around the world, sharing stories of their routes and experience on the TMB. It was fun to chat and compare notes, and I especially was excited to meet fellow women older than me partaking in the tour self-guided. Everyone was filled with smiles and laughter. Obviously, their souls were happy and fulfilled from the fresh mountain air and stunning views afforded along the TMB. It made me even more excited to start our day and do our first hike.

The bus drove through a winding valley road and we got off at the stop marked Rifugio Bonatti where we would access the trail.

The air was fresh and pure, and as soon as I was off the bus and on the trail, I felt alive with excitement and anticipation for our day. I was in my element, and all I could think of was the famous John Muir quote: “The mountains are calling and I must go”.

 hike to Val Ferret Courmayeur Italy

Heading off into Val Ferret

 hike to Val Ferret Courmayeur Italy

Sensational views like this are common on a lovely day in Val Ferret

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Hiking in Val Ferret, Courmayeur Italy

Two Days in Courmayeur

Tucked within two valleys, the Val Ferret and Val Veny on the southeastern side of Mont Blanc in the Aosta Valley of Italy lies the lovely alpine town of Courmayeur. Known for its divine scenery and proximity to three iconic long-distance hikes, Courmayeur is the perfect place to base your stay for exploring its stunning alpine scenery.

Courmayeur is actually a series of small hamlets peppered throughout the valley with a historic central village within the heart. Linked by both a tunnel and (for the more stunning view) a cable car to its counterpart, Chamonix, on the other side of Mont Blanc in France, Courmayeur offers a great mountain holiday any time of year.

Before the opening of the 11.6 kilometer-long tunnel in 1965, Courmayeur was relatively small and isolated. Today Courmayeur is known as one of the best ski resort towns in the Alps as well as a wonderful base for hiking, biking and exploring the divine beauty of the Italian Alps.

Why Go

When dreaming about an idyllic European town, Courmayeur is just what comes to mind. Courmayeur is a charming town awash in history, quaintness and ethereal beauty. It’s pedestrian-friendly walking streets are filled with lovely shops and boutiques, and a multitude of open-air cafes and restaurants that dazzle any foodie. Her lovely stone villas and glorious architecture all set against the sensational backdrop of the Italian Alps make Courmayeur the perfect place to base your stay for the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) or for those who want to refuel and relax in a lovely intimate Italian town.

Courmayeur, Italy

View right outside my hotel window in Courmayeur, Italy

Courmayeur, Italy

View from our hotel down Viale Mont Bianco one of the main streets into town.

Getting there

Courmayeur is located 98 kilometers southeast of Geneva and roughly 21 kilometers southeast of Chamonix. It is best to fly into Geneva and either take a bus, train or rent a car from the airport to Courmayeur. We rented a car for our entire trip because we needed flexibility. Depending on what you plan to do it is not necessary to rent a car as there are a lot of ways to get around whether it be a public bus, train or even gondola.

Where to Stay

We stayed at the delightful Villa Novecento Romantic,  a boutique hotel located in the center of Courmayeur right off the Viale Mont Bianco, one of the main streets leading into the heart of town. It is walking distance to the lovely Piazza Abbe Henry and the Via Roma, Courmayeur’s main shopping, restaurant, and pedestrian area.

Exploring Courmayeur

The heart and soul of Courmayeur starts on Viale Mont Bianco and leads into the main pedestrian walking street on Via Roma. Here you will find tons of fantastic restaurants, cafes, and shops to keep you busy. It is also wonderful for people-watching over a glass of Italian wine or a cup of cappuccino in the morning. I was impressed by the level of high-end boutiques and ski shops as well as all the family-owned meat and cheese shops.

Courmayeur, Italy

Via Roma is filled with life and a wonderful place to eat, shop and watch the world go 

Courmayeur, Italy

The beautiful historic building for hiking guides also hosts a museum.

The Parrocchia di San Pantaleone is a lovely church at the start of Via Roma that has medieval origins and was completely rebuilt in 1722. It is a popular place for Italian weddings. We lucked out and saw a newly-wed bride and groom walk out to a shower of rice and the Romanesque bell furiously ringing with joy.

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There are plenty of places in Courmayeur to soak in the breathtaking views. The Alps are literally in your face everywhere you step and sit (such as at this public park right on the edge of Via Roma).

Courmayeur Italy

A lovely park in Courmayeur with a stunning view

Dinner at Lo Scoiattolo, a wine bar, restaurant, and hotel, was fabulous! 

Courmayeur Italy

There are plenty of bakeries and cheese and fresh meat shops to buy food for a picnic lunch

It is also lovely on the outskirts of the center of town near the hamlet of La Saxe where there are tons of beautiful old stone villas and hotels.

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What to Do

Most people come to Courmayeur to take advantage of the mountains. In the winter, Courmayeur is one of the top ski areas in the Alps and in the warmer months, it is the perfect place to hike either part of the Tour de Mont Blanc or other trails.

Take a Hike or Two

We did two half-day hikes, one to the Val Ferret and the other to the Val Veny, the two valleys that border the town. Both hikes are part of the Tour de Mont Blanc and are absolutely stunning.

Hike in Val Ferret

Getting there: Hop on the bus from the Municipio in Courmayeur in the direction of Val La Ferret and get off twenty minutes later at the stop for the Rifugio Bonatti. Once there, follow the trailhead to Rifugio Bonatti (about twenty minutes) and continue on to the glorious Rifugio Beretone and through the hamlet of La Saxe into Courmayeur. The hike takes about four hours at a good pace allowing for a few stops along the way to snap photos of the incredible, mouth-watering scenery. 

Hiking in Val Ferret, Courmayeur Italy

Hiking in Val Ferret, Courmayeur Italy

Hike in Val Veny

Take the local bus from the Municipio in Courmayeur in the direction of Val Veny to the last stop at La Visaille (approximately 20 minutes). Follow the path in the direction of Rifugio Elisabetta (roughly two hours) where you can either grab lunch or enjoy a picnic lunch overlooking the stunning glaciers and glacial valley. Return back to La Visaille the same way you came and take the bus back to Courmayeur. 

Hiking Val Veny in Courmayer

Hiking Val Veny in Courmayeur

Take the Skyway Mont Bianco to the top of the Alps

A highlight of any visit to Courmayeur is to take the Skyway Monte Bianco, the cable car to the Punta Helbronner at 3466 m (11,371 feet). You can get off and enjoy the incredible 360-degree panoramic view of the Alps, enjoy lunch and of course take tons of photos. If you like, you can even continue on to Chamonix. (The skyway links to the Vallée Blanche Aerial Tramway going to the Aiguille du Midi, which connects to the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi, the cable car from Chamonix). For more information visit www.montebianco.com.

Punta Helbronner Courmayeur

Skyway to the top of Punta Helbronner

Astounding views of Courmayeur valley

Astounding views of Courmayeur valley

Plan your trip

To help plan your trip, check out Reserve Your Tour de Mont Blanc, a website in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish that helps you plan your entire tour and reserve available hotels, inns, B&Bs and mountain refuges along the way. It is amazing!

Courmayeur’s Tourist information can be found at www.lovecourmayeur.com

In the coming weeks, I will write a few more detailed posts on both hikes to Val Ferret and Val Veny as well as give you a bird’s eye view on top of the world at Punta Helbronner. Stay tuned.

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Tucked within two valleys, the Val Ferret and Val Veny on the southeastern side of Mont Blanc in the Aosta Valley of Italy lies the lovely alpine town of Courmayeur. Known for its divine scenery and proximity to three iconic long-distance hikes, Courmayeur is the perfect place to base your stay for exploring its stunning alpine scenery.

Adventure Travel Europe Italy TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking
Hike to Lac Blanc in Chamonix

A Taste of the Tour de Mont Blanc

Known as one of the greatest multi-day treks in the world, the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) is a circular tour of 105 miles/170 kilometers around the mighty Mont Blanc massif traversing three countries – Italy, Switzerland and France, over the course of 10-12 days. Passing through some of the most divine high alpine scenery on earth, the TMB is one of the most stunning multi-day treks of all and is a dream for many avid trekkers.

Ever since my dad and I did the lesser-known Tour de Vanoise back in 2012 (located in Savoie, the eastern Rhône-Alpes region of France), I had dreamed of doing the popular TMB.  My father too had wanted to complete some of the TMB after scaling Mount Blanc in 1998. Thankfully, the opportunity finally arrived this summer and better yet, it would be not with two generations of trekkers but three.

On July 4th, my father, 14-year-old son and I left for a ten-day intergenerational hiking trip to Mont Blanc, devising our own Tour de Mont Blanc to fit our needs. Armed with maps, internet resources, and guide books, we set off and had a magnificent time. I learned a lot along the way about what works and what can be improved with planning your own Tour de Mont Blanc. Here is what I discovered and my thoughts on planning your own Taste of Mont Blanc.

Tour de Mont Blanc

My dad, me and my son on our own Tour de Mont Blanc.

Why Go

At 15,771 feet (4807 m), the mighty snow-capped Mount Blanc soars 12,000 feet (3700 m) over Chamonix, dominating the region and controlling the weather in all the surrounding valleys. As the masterpiece of the Mont Blanc massif, an area measuring 29 miles (46 km) long graced with numerous peaks and aiguilles, jaw-dropping sheer rock walls, ridges and tumbling glaciers, the TMB is known as one of the most stunning multi-day treks in the world.

What makes Mont Blanc even more unique is her incredible location at the crossroads of three European countries – France, Italy and Switzerland – giving the trekker a unique cultural experience as well as extraordinary views. Two distinct towns converge below Mont Blanc: Courmayeur (Italy), and Chamonix (France). Given its high elevation, with 11 summits measuring over 13,123 (4000 m), most of the surrounding area is snow and ice-covered with glaciers pouring down the steep mountain-sides creating a magical, breathtaking scenery that delights the eyes and fills the soul.

If you have one long-distance trek to do on your bucket list, then the TMB is the one for you.

Tour de Mont Blanc Val Veny, Italy

With stunning views like this on the hike through Val Veny in Italy, the TMB will never disappoint.

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Hiking in Aosta Valley, Italy

The Power of Intergenerational Travel: Me, My Dad and Son Hike Around Mont Blanc

It was yet another beautiful day hiking in the Alps. The sky was a robin’s egg blue dotted with powderpuff clouds. A gentle breeze kissed my face and the stunning scenery of the Alps made me continually want to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t all just a dream. It was our third day of hiking during a ten day intergenerational hiking trip around Mont Blanc. So far our trip could not have been more surreal.

As my dad and son climbed up the steep path leading us higher and higher above the dazzling aquamarine Moulin Dam far below, all I could think about was the reward for our efforts. A view of the legendary Lac Mort, a high alpine ice-covered lake at 2843 meters (9327 feet) above the Aosta Valley on her perch in the Italian Alps. But then, after two hours of hiking and only twenty minutes to go to our destination, the wind began to change. We could see a series of rain-laden clouds off in the distance over the Aosta Valley. I checked the radar and knew we would be fine however my dad grew nervous. He had been caught in a ravaging thunderstorm atop a mountain before and swore he’d never do it again. He wanted to turn back.

Hike in Aosta Valley to Lac Long

My son and dad on the long hike up from the glorious Moulin Dam to Lac Long

We had just reached the first of two alpine lakes, Lac Long, and it was stunning. It would only take another twenty minutes to reach Lac Mort but my dad said we couldn’t go. An argument brewed because I hate to not complete a hike especially when I knew we could make it before the rain. But I had to respect my dad’s decision despite my displeasure and disappointment. Upset, we turned around and headed back without ever seeing the prize.

Me and my son Max at Lac Long in Aosta, Italy

We were painfully close to the prize destination

I didn’t talk for the next hour of the hike down to the car and purposely held back on my pace letting my dad and son go ahead. Yet it was at that moment when I fully realized the true beauty and power of intergenerational travel.

From a distance, I observed and listened to my dad and teenage son talk about life, the world, their hopes and dreams. Slowly my disappointment and anger eased and instead a deep sense of gratitude grew. For this is what it is all about and why it is so incredibly meaningful to travel as family. This unburdened time together in the middle of nowhere. Sharing our common love of nature and mountains, creating bonds that somehow are often harder to create at home. It is magical and priceless.

 

My Dad and son talking away

Me and Max

The trip ended up being all I had hoped for and more. It gave me precious time to reconnect with my teenage son, spend more time with my dad and realize what an incredible gift all of these priceless memories are. I look forward to sharing my stories in the upcoming months and reliving the beauty of not only the Alps but of spending sacred time with family. Stay tuned.

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Travel Guide to “Go Slow” in Caye Caulker, Belize

After an exhilarating time exploring the wild jungles and mysterious Mayan ruins on mainland Belize, it was time to soak up some surf and sun on one of Belize’s many cayes (islands). I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to end my wonderful week in Belize than in Caye Caulker. Located roughly 21 miles northeast of Belize City, Caye Caulker is one of 400 cayes along Belize’s 180-mile long coastline and after Ambergris Caye is the second most visited. However, don’t let her popularity fool you. This tiny island offers island and ocean loving travelers a wonderful refuge to swing away lazy afternoons in a hammock or take an adventure of a lifetime swimming with nurse sharks and sting rays in the nearby Belize Barrier Reef. Best of all, Caye Caulker still has retained her laid-back island charm despite the upswing in tourism. Whether a few days or a week, there is plenty of things to do in Caye Caulker. Check out my guide on how to go slow, as the locals say,  in Caye Caulker.

Caye Caulker, Belize

The motto in Caye Caulker is “Go Slow” and after a few days on this lovely, tropical paradise you will easily slip into this mentality.

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Tikal

A Day Trip to Tikal: Discovering Tikal’s Tantalizing, Mysterious Past

After almost a week in Belize exploring the ancient Mayan masterpieces of Lamanai, Xunantunich and the depths of the mystical underworld of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave, one would think that I’d had my fix of Mayan ruins. However, as soon as I realized that one of the grandest ancient Mayan cities of all, Tikal, was right across the Guatemalan border from our base in San Ignacio, I knew I’d have take a day trip to Tikal. With over 3,000 buildings spreading across 212 square miles of thick rugged jungle, Tikal is the largest and most restored archaeological site of the pre-Columbian Maya Civilization. Yet, the plot thickens. Recent LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) mapping has revealed that the ruins of Tikal are even grander and more magnificent than ever imagined.

Deep beneath the jungle canopy lies 61,000 hidden structures representing part of a vast network of ancient Mayan cities that were perhaps the most advanced civilization of its time. The historical and archeological significance of the findings is immense. Could Tikal be even grander than the ruins of ancient Rome or Egypt? With all the mysteries surrounding Tikal, I knew I’d have to see for myself.

Grand Plaza Tikal Guatemala

View of half of the Grand Plaza of Tikal, the most excavated area of the ruins. 

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2020 Mother-Daughter Trips to Peru with GOOD Travel

Next summer of 2020, join GOOD Travel on one of their upcoming Mother-Daughter Trips to Peru!  As an avid traveler and mother of two kids, it has always been a dream of mine to show them the world and instill a love of travel and exploring new cultures while they are young. These are my children’s formative years and I know that time is going all too fast. Before I know it my kids will be out in the world and I want to do my part in spending as much time as I can with them and teaching them some lifelong lessons at home and abroad. That is why I can hardly wait to bring my 12-year-old daughter Sophia to Peru with me next summer on a GOOD Travel trip.

I first went to Peru in 2001 not long after the horrendous 9/11 attacks. I recall being a bit fearful to travel out of the country in such a difficult time yet I didn’t let it stop me. Instead, my dad and I went on a father-daughter trip to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu setting off a lifelong passion to explore the world and understand it. I hope to be able to give these opportunities to my own children as travel has changed my life and made me who I am today, a global citizen, humanitarian and writer.

Machu Picchu Father Daughter Travel

My Dad and Me at Machu Picchu circa 2001

What makes GOOD Travel trips so unique is that their mission is to do good, give back and interact with the local communities within the destination. This is very important to me as I view these travel experiences as the best. In Peru, GOOD Travel is proud to have partnered with Peruvian Hearts to bring a once in a lifetime mother-daughter trip to this amazing country.

The trip will provide moms and their daughters (ages 6 to 16) with the unique opportunity to spend time immersed in Peruvian culture with the girls involved in Peruvian Hearts projects. Activities are developed with various age groups in mind to ensure unique experiences for all.

Every aspect of this trip – from the hotels to Machu Picchu to the llama hikes to the chocolate making – has been designed to ensure that the local community, economy and environment benefit from your visit. I personally can’t think of a more impactful way to travel.

Meet GOOD Travel

GOOD Travel was founded in 2013 by four women from Peru, USA, South Africa and New Zealand. Their vision is to transform the tourism industry into a force for GOOD by promoting and facilitating travel that gives back to the local community, economy, and environment.

Highlights of Mother Daughter Trip to Peru

  • Spend time with like-minded moms in a true community of travelers.
  • Group size averages 8 moms and 10 daughters to ensure a personalized experience.
  • Hike one of the 7 wonders of the world, trek with llamas, make chocolate, visit indigenous communities, shop in local markets … all with your daughter!
  • Experience a fun, enjoyable, real vacation without having to worry about what is happening next and having everything (except airfare) included in the cost upfront.
  • Understand the culture in Peru – something you cannot do from a tour bus.
  • Create memories that moms and kids will share for their lifetimes.
  • Show your kids how to be responsible travelers, kind and compassionate friends, researchers of new cultures, explorers of new experiences and appreciative of all they have. And prove to our formidable enemy – time – that we moms can connect with our kids in meaningful and memorable ways.
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Xunantunich Belize

Day Trips from San Ignacio Belize: Exploring the Ancient Maya Ruins at Xunantunich

Resting majestically atop a plateau overlooking the Mopan River and the Guatemalan countryside of Western Belize lies Xunantunich, one of the largest ancient Maya cities ever built. These impressive yet mysterious ruins were lost for centuries until discovered in 1890 by a local villager who mistakenly thought he had seen a ghost of a maiden giving Xunantunich its infamous name which translates into “Stone Maiden”. Built in the 7th century, these incredible ruins feature some of the most stunning hieroglyphics and friezes in ancient Maya culture as well as intricately carved stellas, 25 temples and well-preserved palaces.

Today Xunantunich is Belize’s most visited site, and the surrounding area of the Cayo District has become one of the most popular destinations in mainland Belize known for its multitude of Maya sites as well as its incredible caves, waterfalls, rivers and lush jungles. There are tons of adventure activities to be found which include hiking, kayaking, swimming, canoeing, zip-lining and of course exploring the incredible cave systems. You can easily spend a few days here with the highlight of your visit being a trip to Xunantunich.

Exploring Xunatunich

The Maya empire evolved around 2000 BC and thrived until their decline in 1500 AD. The highest point and power of Maya Civilization was known as the Classic Period from 250 AD  – 900 AD.  It was during this time that the political system changed into a Theocratic system where rulers represented the Gods to the lower class people on earth. Knowledge was power and since low-class people had no education, they believed whole-heartedly in their rulers. The Classic Period was a flourishing period of massive growth and the building of the incredible temples, pyramids and cities that are left behind today.

Xunantunich may have been occupied as early as 1000 BC but it was little more than a village. The large architecture that we see today began to be built in the 7th century AD. An estimated 7,000-10,000 people lived at Xunantunich during its peak and the city was quite possibly politically aligned with neighboring Naranjo just 9 miles west in Guatemala. In 1000 AD Xunantunich was abandoned right around the time that many other large Maya cities were being dismantled as the Maya civilization was falling apart.

Xunantunich is unique because it is the oldest continuously excavated Maya site in the country. The ruins were first explored in the 1892 by Dr. Thomas Gann, a doctor from Britain. Gann returned a second time in 1924, unearthing many Maya treasures which have tragically been lost or given away to private collectors. There has been continuous excavations and restorations since 1990 by the University Of California (ULA) under the direction of Dr. Richard Leventhal. These excavations continue to bring new discoveries and treasures helping historians and archeologists piece together the ancient Maya past.

One of the biggest and most impressive Maya buildings ever found was discovered in Xunantunich. Known as “El Castillo” (The Castle), it is covered in elaborately carved friezes, and remains the second-tallest tallest man-made structures in Belize. One of the figures carved on El Castillo is a three-dimensional seated person which is rumored to be the “stone maiden” that the villager saw when he stumbled upon the site. 

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San Antonio Women's Cooperative Belize

Empowering Maya Women at the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative in Belize

I woke up to the singsong sound of birds as the sun burst through the drapes, casting a zigzag of light across my room. After two carefree days at the Black Orchid Resort near the tiny village of Burrell Boom in Belize, I’d finally been brought back to life with a newfound energy that had long disappeared. I jumped out of bed, excited for the day ahead as we were heading to San Ignacio, the heart and soul of the Cayo District in Western Belize where we’d be swallowed into a world of thick, lush jungle, mysterious caves and extraordinary Maya ruins. But first, we were making a stop in the village of San Antonio, home of the largest Maya community in all of Belize.  In San Antonio, we would learn about an exciting initiative helping to empower local Maya women called the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative supported by our tour company G Adventures and their nonprofit partner Planeterra.

As out group gathered into the van, I sat up front next to the driver so I could learn more about the four different ethnic groups in Belize. Our driver Carlos was Mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Indigenous decent) which is the largest ethnic group in Belize making up approximately 34% of the population. After Mestizo, the next largest group is Creole followed by Maya and Garifuna. The Creole and Garifuna population both are descendants of African Slaves whereas the Maya population is centered within the tropical lowlands of Central America. Over time, the Maya spread out into parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. The Maya make up about 11% of the population in Belize and there are three different linguistic groups: The Yucatec Maya who came from Mexico and live in the north, the Mopan Maya who live in the Southern Toledo district, and the Kekchi Maya who live in Western Belize.

Nestled in a verdant valley, about a 20-minute drive from the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena in the heart of the Cayo District of Belize lies the village of San Antonio. Populated by primarily Yucatec Mayas, the village is known for its beauty and art, and has a strong farming and agricultural heritage. When we arrived at the co-op, the first thing I noticed was the beauty and lushness of San Antonio. We were surrounded by tropical trees and flowering shrubs. It was no surprise that the Yucatec Mayas chose to settle in San Antonio for its fertile land. Agriculture is king in San Antonio yet it has its downfalls especially for the women who have large families and don’t have the means to earn an income outside of farming.

The San Antonio Women’s Cooperative was founded in 2001 to help promote and conserve Maya heritage, culture and tradition within the community and provide women with an alternative, sustainable income outside of farming. Since most Maya families have on average seven children and education is not free in Belize, girls are often the ones left behind and have few options besides raising a family. Poverty is a big issue and finding employment (especially without an education) in a small village is challenging. The San Antonio Women’s Co-op offers education in traditional pottery making, embroidery, cooking and serving guests through sustainable tourism as a means to preserve their culture and make a living. Today, there are 25 women in the co-op and they are working to encourage youth to participate as well.

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Mask Temple Lamanai Belize

A Visit to the Lamanai Ruins of Belize

One of the highlights of any trip to Belize is a visit to the ancient Maya world and thankfully one of the best ancient Maya sites, the Lamanai ruins, is not far from Belize City and can be easily seen in a day. Lamanai is one of the largest and oldest Maya ceremonial sites within the region consisting of over 700 impressive structures. Lamanai – which translates into “submerged crocodile” – dates back to 1500 BC and tells the story of the ongoing Maya resistance against the European invaders for centuries making this site the longest known occupation throughout the Maya empire. It wasn’t fully abandoned until the 17th or even possibly 18th century. Its impressive setting along the banks of the New River surrounded by lush tropical jungle make a visit to the ruins all the more meaningful.

Located about 25 miles south from Orange Walk Town on the shore of the New River Lagoon, getting to the ruins is half of the fun and is quite frankly an adventure in itself. The majority of tourists opt to take an hour long speedboat ride to the site so you can observe and explore the fascinating flora and fauna that live along the mangroves of the river. Blessed with over 590 species of birds in Belize and plenty of unusual trees and plants, not to mention sun-bathing iguanas and crocodiles, the ride is magnificent and adds to the adventure of the arriving at the ruins. The ride back is full speed ahead and all the more thrilling.

Lamanai was my first experience exploring the fascinating ancient world of the Maya during a week long trip to Belize and Guatemala, and began a deep curiosity and appreciation for Maya culture and civilization.

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