There aren’t many places in the world where you can snorkel and kayak on a barrier reef one day and mountain bike through the jungle to Mayan ruins the next. Belize, a small country just south of Mexico and east of Guatemala, is such a place. Some friends and I explored the outer beaches and interior jungles of this Central American country over a nine-day trip in early January 2002. We saw schools of Tarpon and Skipjacks in the ocean and Laughing Falcons and Keel-billed Toucans in the jungle. We learned Belizean history and culture from the local people and sampled their cuisine. What follows are some journal entries and pictures that I gathered from the trip.
Tuesday, January 8th, 2002
After landing in Belize City at around 2:30 PM local time, we took a puddle jumper to Ambergris Caye and then a twenty-five foot diesel engine boat up the island to Mata Chica, our first destination. The coast of Belize is dotted with many cayes (a small island) that are home to local fishermen, farmers, and resort owners. Ambergris was the largest of the cayes and its town of San Pedro attracted people from all walks of life. Children in school uniforms mingled with tourists buzzing around in golf carts and native islanders selling jewelry, clothes, and food from makeshift wooden carts.
On the boat, as we motored up island, I looked to the east and saw waves breaking on the barrier reef. The reef, the second largest in the world, stretches 190 miles from south of Belize all the way to Mexico. We arrived at the resort, threw our luggage in thatched-roof huts and were in sea kayaks, heading out to the reef, by 3:30 PM. The weather was sunny and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. We paddled from the beach for about 20 minutes and moored the kayaks to a buoy. Careful not to step on the fragile ecosystem of the reef, we put on snorkels and fins and swam around with small, brilliantly colored tropical fish. The water was only about five feet deep here and sometimes as shallow as two or three feet. After about an hour we made our way back to shore, exhausted from a full day of travel and adventure.
Thursday, January 10th, 2002
We went to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve today. A guide picked us up at the dock and took us down-island and about three miles offshore to an area where we swam with Stingray and Nurse Sharks. As Nurse Sharks are bottom feeders, there is no real danger of them taking a chomp of human flesh but we remained respectful of their space. The Stingrays are graceful, leathery hovercraft that took bait right from our guide’s hands. After swimming around this relatively shallow (about eight feet deep) area for a while we piled back in the boat and motored over to Hol Chan Reserve. The Reserve is a thirty-foot-deep kettle in the middle of the reef. As you dive overboard, schools of Tarpon and Grouper scatter and then reform as they assimilate with the human presence. Jagged walls of coral stretch to the ocean floor, forming a dramatic backdrop for this area that is about a mile in circumference and where fishing is banned. Our guide was able to find a Moray Eel hidden in one of the crevices of the reef and pointed out many of the over 500 species of fish that live here, seemingly hip to the no fishing rules.
Saturday, January 12th, 2002
We left the beach today and headed inland to a jungle resort about three miles from the border of Guatemala. On the ride from Belize City to Chaa Creek (the resort at which we’d stay), through countryside that is dotted with small farms and lush vegetation, our guide talked about Belizean history and culture. He stopped on the side of the road to show us a Bay Leaf Palm. The native tree, once growing in abundance, is used to thatch the roofs of farm houses and cottages. He explained that it takes over five years for the tree to mature and its palms can be effectively harvested only seven days on either side of a full moon. Unfortunately, the Palm has been severely overharvested and is on the verge of extinction. He then explained that some concerned Belize citizens (including the owners of the resort we were visiting) have started to grow the palm in a reforestation effort. This is ecotourism at its best. So what is ecotourism? Put simply, ecotourism is responsible travel in areas of natural and ecological interest. Responsible travel includes packing out trash when backpacking, practicing low impact mountain biking (that means no bushwacking), and respecting signs that prohibit travel in certain areas. Over the years ecotourism has grown to include interest in reforestation programs and fishery rehabilitation. For more information check out www.ecotourism.org.
Sunday, January 13th, 2002
Today we mountain biked from Chaa Creek to the Xunantunich Mayan ruins. The ten-mile roundtrip ride included crossing a river on a ferry that was attached to cables and powered by hand and climbing some steep hills that lead us to a thousands-year-old city of limestone and moss. The city was built by the Mayans between 900 and 1200 AD. Our guide Miguel was a Mayan who told us about the day-to-day lives as well as the history and rituals of his ancient ancestors. His father was a leader of one of the Mayan tribes and his people lived close to the earth and nature. He said the Mayans built villages on hilltops throughout the jungle, often communicating with each other by signals blown from a conch shell. He pointed to mountain tops, across wide swaths of lush green jungle, on which signs of other ancient villages were apparent. The ruins we explored were once a thriving Mayan city and inhabited by over ten thousand people. The Maya had no central king or government but instead many independent cities ruled by a chief of sorts. Each major city was supported by contributions from smaller cities and surrounding farm villages. The Maya worshiped over 100 deities and asked their gods for rain, an abundance of crops, health, and prosperity. Click here for more Mayan history.
Monday, January 14, 2002
In the morning, after a breakfast of farm fresh eggs, juice from oranges picked from trees right on the farm, and coffee that is grown in Guatemala, I took a solo hike in the jungle that surrounded Chaa Creek. I hiked for about three hours in the steamy jungle, noticing that the more softly I walked, the less noise I made underfoot, the more sounds and sights I was able to hear and see in the canopy fifty feet overhead. Whatever animals were up in those trees noticed me before I noticed them. Toucans, with their oversized brightly colored beaks, fluttered through the trees, while lizards scurried across my path. There have been almost 250 different bird species spotted in the forests within a five-mile radius of Chaa Creek, many contributing to the cacophony above. I came upon more Mayan ruins and an overlook from which I could see the Xunantunich village. I imagined myself a Mayan chief, 800 years ago, atop this hill blowing through a conch shell to tell the villagers on the other side of the jungle about the marriage of my daughter.
In the afternoon, I paddled a canoe up the Macal River, which forms the border of Chaa Creek. I saw a man in snorkel and fins who had a speargun with him and was trying to catch his dinner. There were other groups on the river fly fishing and taking pictures. I came to a few points where the water was running strong and I had to get out of the canoe and pull it through the rip. The ride back down river was much easier and exciting.
Wednesday, January 16th, 2002
We left the jungle on Monday and are spending our last few days back on Ambergris Caye. This time we are staying on the southern end of the island. Today, we are taking a relaxing mountain bike tour of the entire Caye. We start early in the morning, while the sun is low and the dirt streets have not yet become dusty. We go through San Pedro and stop at a coffee shop for breakfast. We leave San Pedro and head northwest. After about a thirty minute ride, we arrive at a hand ferry that forges a rip between two shores. We load our bikes onto the ferry and look across a salt water marsh that opens directly onto the ocean. The marsh is teeming with egrets, herron, and other shore birds. On the other side of the rip, we ride down a sandy road and eventually come to a small cottage that is serving lunch. We ride back towards town, meandering through the windy dirt roads and stop at roadside huts to look at jewelry and clothes.
Tonight we eat dinner at The Jerk Pit. Jerk is a Jamaican dry rub recipe that is put on chicken and pork before grilling. The spicy rub goes well with side dishes of rice and beans (a staple of the Belizean diet). The owner of the Jerk Pit tells us that many Jamaicans and other islanders come west to Belize and settle here. He says that he splits his time between Belize, Jamaica, and Martha’s Vineyard . . . a true Islander.
Thursday, January 17th, 2002
Today we must head back to the United States. I get up early so that I can snorkel one last time. I take my fins and mask to the of end of the dock and ease into the warm water. I swim about 200 yards away from the dock to an area where a fishermen told me there was a conch colony. Conch, a large mollusk, push themselves in short, sudden spurts along the ocean floor. They live in colonies and graze on sea grass and algae. The water is very clear and I dive down and pick empty conch shells from the ocean floor. These were the shells that the Maya once used as an ancient form of communication. I am a little sad because I know it is almost time to catch the plane that will take us home. Nine days was not enough time to spend in this small, vibrant country. I don’t think a month would be enough time to see and do all that Belize has to offer.
If you want to learn more about Belize, visit www.belizenet.com