Friday, March 14, 2014

Belize Jungle Expeditions: An Unforgettable Time

"You will get a little wet..."
This comment seems pretty unambiguous, right? That's what we thought when we first signed up for the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Tour in San Ignacio, Belize. My boyfriend and I wore our swimsuits, and comfortable clothes that would dry quickly. I wore hiking boots, he wore tennis shoes. I thought it would be smart to bring an extra shirt, just in case, but neither of us even thought about a towel or dry shoes. It said "a little wet," so how much preparation did we really need to make? One of the other tour participants had a towel, so I quickly grabbed one right before we hopped in the van, not that I thought we would need it. How wrong I was.

We needed to hike about a mile through the jungle to reach the cave, and within 50 feet, we were waist deep in water crossing a stream. Before the end of the hike, we would wade through the stream two more times and trudge through muddy trails. To enter the cave, we had to swim across a deep pool, drenching our entire bodies before clambering up onto the solid limestone. A little wet? Yeah right!

San Ignacio was one of our first stops on our week-long trip to Belize. The vacation started off smooth, for the most part. We hit a small speed bump with a two and a half hour delay in Houston, which landed us in Belize City a few hours later than we anticipated with no food in our stomachs and nothing great close to the bed and breakfast we had booked for the night. Still, we were excited to be there, finally, after months of long hours and intense stress at work.

Port of Belize City
On our first morning, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast at the hotel, where we chatted with an older couple from New Mexico who had a condo over on San Pedro, the popular beach destination of Belize. They gave us many tips and suggestions on places to go, as they had been coming to Belize for years. It was definitely helpful to hear about the country, and what we could expect as we drove the two hours inland to San Ignacio. We made a quick visit to downtown Belize City, but there really wasn't any point, as there isn't much there to see. In fact, if you don't need to stay in Belize City for any reason, I recommend passing it by or using it only as a transition point in your trip.

Once we got on the highway, it was pretty much a straight shot west to San Ignacio. The area surrounding Belize City is pretty bare, just flat plains of brown and green shrubs. Not much to look at. I started seeing signs for the Belize Zoo, and thought it would be fun to check it out. Steve was a little apprehensive, he didn't think it would be anything special. We have zoos in America, after all. But instead of giving in on this, I insisted we stop. And it's a good thing we did.

In the U.S., most zoos keep the animals a good distance from the animals, and they are separated by strong iron fences, cement walls, and 10-foot moats. In Belize, animals and people are separated by...well...chicken fence. It's true. I could put my face right up next to a jaguar, with only a thin layer of wire fencing between us. It was incredible. That would never fly in America.

We spent about an hour at the zoo, and then continued on to the capital, Belmopan. We stopped for lunch at a cute little cafe, where we sat out on the patio and enjoyed our first sips of the local brew, Belikin. It's basically their version of Miller Lite, a beer I never drink (I'm a beer snob), but something about Belikin was much more palatable. Or maybe I loved the idea of drinking a cool beer at one in the afternoon in sunny 80 degree weather. Man, did I ever need this vacation.

Less then an hour later, we arrived in San Ignacio. Just a short drive up a hill from the city was our lodge, Maya Mountain Lodge. It consists of about eight or nine small lodges, and one large house that had seven rooms, which is where we stayed. We knew we had an early start the next morning for the ATM tour, so decided to have a relaxing evening at the lodge. We sat by the pool, had a quiet dinner and then drank some wine on the patio.

We rose bright and early, loaded up our backpack with sunscreen, bug spray, water and Steve's camera, and headed down to the main house for breakfast. I usually don't eat until mid-morning, and that meal generally consists of a bowl of cereal or some yogurt and fruit. In Belize, they definitely don't think small. We got a heaping of scrambled eggs, beans, ham or sausage, fruit and some kind of fluffy pastry that we topped with delicious mango jam. This was all complemented by coffee and fresh squeezed juice. I rationalized that we needed a big meal to keep up energized for the day, and proceeded to eat everything on my plate.

The van picked us up, along with another couple from our lodge, and we all piled in with some more folks from a place up the road. The ride to the cave was long and bumpy, but thankfully we had a local who knew how to navigate the many potholes and divots. I mean, if you think Chicago has bad potholes, go to Belize and you'll be singing a different tune. The whole way there, we were forced to slow down at speed bumps and pedestrian crossings, two things considered hassles in the U.S. But in Belize, they use it as a chance to say hello to the people standing along the road. It's not a typical wave or a shout "hi," but rather a peace sign. Just two fingers and a smile, and that's it.

When we got to the parking lot, we were told by the park ranger that absolutely no cameras were allowed beyond the lot. Sadly, Steve had to leave his camera behind in the van. We grabbed our water, strapped on our helmets and started walking. As I mentioned, when we reached the stream, our only option was to walk straight through the water. In the U.S., someone would have built us a nice, dry bridge to cross. But that's not how things work in Belize. It's all natural here, for the most part.

We reached the mouth of the cave and made our way across the deep pool of bluish gray water. When our whole group had assembled on the limestone, we turned on our headlamps, and followed our guide through the darkness. Again, I was expecting some kind of assistance in the cave, some lights here and there, a ramp or two, some railings. But there was nothing of the sort. We relied only on the headlamps for light, and a marked path, forget it. We waded through water, climbed along limestone, squeezed through rocks, clung to slippery walls and swam through shallow pools, until we made it nearly a mile into the cave.

There, we were faced with yet another unexpected challenge. We needed to get to an upper passage, the burial site for hundreds of Mayan artifacts and a few skeletons. But to get there, we had to ascend a large limestone formation in the middle of the creek, and then pull ourselves up to a shelf-like portion of the rock face, without the help of a ladder or any other kind of man-made contraptions. And so we climbed.

Once everyone made it up to the passage, we had to take off our shoes so as not to cause damage to the artifacts as we walked through the hollowed chambers. Pottery and tools were all over, calcified right into the cave floor. We continued through the caverns, where we spotted three skulls and even more ancient artifacts. The tour culminated with the best-known of the skeletons, the "crystal maiden," a young female whose bones have been calcified so they appear almost crystallized.

The return journey didn't feel nearly as long, and we emerged from the cave a short time after descending from the upper passage. I was grateful to feel the warm sun on my skin, as being in a dark, damp cave for three hours didn't help the fact I was soaked to the bone. Despite the chill I felt, it was one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had, and one I won't soon forget. We made our way back to the van, where everyone changed into dry clothes and we ate a quick lunch before heading back to the lodge.

After a warm shower and an outfit change, I was ready to explore the city of San Ignacio. Our guide told us about a great restaurant slightly off the beaten path called Cenaida's. It took us a little while to find it, as it was on a side street and didn't have much signage to set it apart. There were two seats at a bar on the tiny front patio, so we quickly grabbed them, not knowing how busy it would get. We ordered two Belikins and perused the menu. We both opted for the coconut curried fish special. The fillet was super fresh and perfectly seasoned, and the rice had just the subtlest hint of coconut, perfectly complemented by black beans and fresh vegetables. We ordered two more beers and finished off our meals. Absolutely one of the best meals I had the whole trip. And for less than $25, total!

We met up with some people from our lodge and others from the cave tour at a little bar near the main square, where the drinks were super cheap and the floor was basically an indoor beach. We chatted for a few hours, before calling it a night and heading back.

The next morning, we got up early again for our next tour: Barton Creek canoeing. We had another filling breakfast and then headed out to the cave with our guide. During our long and bumpy ride, our guide took us through the Amish country of Belize (yes, there is an Amish country there), and it was interesting to see these people plowing the fields with only the use of a horse, all wearing the exact same outfits. It's exactly like the Amish living in Pennsylvania.

We made it to Barton Creek, where we threw on some life jackets and hopped in our canoe. We thought we were going to be doing a lot of physical activity, but it turned out to be a very mellow canoes ride, with our guide doing most of the paddling. Steve sat in the front and took pictures, although it was very difficult to get a good shot. It's very tough to capture the grandeur and intricacies in these caves. The water has carved incredible formations throughout, you really have to just see it to understand how amazing they are. A quick hour in and out of the cave, and we were on to our next adventure: A waterfall.

We had to drive a few more miles to get there, and then make our way down a steep set of stairs to get to the base of the falls. We jumped right into the refreshing water, swam around and lounged in the sun. It was a nice afternoon, very relaxing, and the incredible setting didn't hurt either.

Back at our hotel, we started packing up all our stuff, as we were leaving early the next morning. We had one more dinner in the city at Ko-Ox Han nah. Another recommendation from our guides that turned out to be a great meal. It was a little more expensive than dinner at Cenaida's, but still very reasonable. I also enjoyed their cocktails, which is amazing since they are heavy on the rum, and I'm not much of a rum drinker. We wandered around downtown for a little while, before going back to the lodge and drinking some wine on the patio.

In the morning, we loaded our car and scarfed down a quick breakfast before driving out to Xunantunich, an ancient Mayan ruin that is right next to the Guatemalan border. To get there, we had to take a ferry across the river, which was hand operated by a guy who has been carting people across for over 20 years. We were the first people at the ruins when they opened, so we got to explore without worrying about a bunch of crowds or tours getting in the way. As we walked up to the ruins, we could hear this eerie howling. That, combined with the heavy fog that hung over the moss-covered stone temples, gave the place a haunted feel, which makes sense considering its hundreds of years old. The howling, we soon learned, were howler monkeys. We ventured into the trees and found them leaping from branch to branch above us, howling and barking like mad. It was pretty entertaining.

Once the fog lifted and the sun burned off the clouds, we made sure to make our way to the top of the main temple to see one of the most amazing view of the surrounding jungle and Guatemala. It was truly remarkable.

We got back in our car and started out on the drive back to Belize City, where we would begin the next leg of our journey to the island of Caye Caulker. As we made our way through San Ignacio, I slowed the car to traverse a few speed bumps. A few local teenagers were waiting for the bus. I smiled and threw up my fingers in a sign of peace.

(second half of the trip to come in the next post.)

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