What a first week back in Belize! So many amazing adventures already. The Cayo District, where I’ve spent most of my time so far, is a great place to experience Mayan history, culture, and the outdoors (rainforests) at the same time.
These are my five favorite activities from the past week.
1. Cave Tubing: Floating Through A Mayan Cave
Hop in the back of a tractor, stand and hang on for dear life to the side railing and to the pile of booeys in the centre of the truck. The cave tubing adventure with Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch literally starts from the parking lot. A ride to the river and rainforest area where we take off, takes about 20 minutes. It’s a bumpy one, but it’s fun. And when the tractor heads toward a small stream, you’ll probably gasp and say “are we really driving through that?!” Yep, you do. And once at the entrance of the rainforest, the hike is only about five minutes to the entrance of the cave and the river where the tubing begins.
Life jacket on, our guide Arnold demonstrates quickly how to tube on the river and through a cave. Hop in the booey, lean back on the thicker side and put your legs over the front. Use your hands to paddle to where you want to go. Seven mile float through five different cave systems. Sounds easy, right? The scenery takes my my breath away as we enter the cave. My heart sinks that I don’t have my camera with me. Arnold had warned me that I would get all wet and it was too risky. But, if I keep it above my chest, or even cover it under my life jacket, won’t it be fine? I had tried and lost the argument.
We were tubing along, headlamps on, and before I knew it, the river was pushing me slowly, my hands in the water…what an awesome experience – floating through ancient Mayan cave, once a sacred place. The sound of the river alone makes me feel the spirits. I get distracted for a second while admiring the formations and before I know it, the water is pushing me another way – away from my fellow travelers and toward a rock! I panic. I splash my feet and my hands, to no avail. In less than a second, bam! I’m in the water. My scream followed by my laugh echo and Arnold, who is a little ahead, turns around. “You okay Lily?” “Ummm…well, I’m in the water!” One of the other folks on my tour helps hold my tube still while I hang on to the rock and climb back in.
Arnold decides I need to be controlled. “OK Lily, over here!” No more self-guided tubing for me. He is somehow behind me now, and straddles his legs over my booey. I find out later this is how large tourist groups (read: cruise ship folks) usually travel through the caves, so everyone sticks together. But it’s okay with me. I breathe -no chance of getting lost in the river or in a Mayan cave for the rest of my days.
I look up and enjoy the scenery while Arnold drives our two booeys along the river. The others are paddling away with their arms, getting a serious arm workout. We pass two or three rapids and each time, Arnold shouts “stay to the left, paddle to the right!!” I watch the power of the water dragging some and yet releasing those who do not go against the stream. “You just have to go with the flow, just follow the waves,” Arnold says.
The view of the caves against the blue sky whenever we switch cave systems is breathtaking. As are the formations all along the interior of the cave. I only have a small borrowed Kodak Share camera with me, that was supposed to take videos and photos but the quality is poor, and the batteries die so I give up. I keep thinking, the whole way, I should to do this all over again just to take proper shots and just to take in that scenery, one more time.
2. Rappelling Into The Rainforest: The Black Hole Drop
I wrote about my rappelling experience here, but what I didn’t talk about is the hike getting to the 300 feet in the rainforest. Probably one of the toughest I’ve done to date. There are three very steep hills (a couple with near-vertical steps), and I’m pretty sure I called out to my mom once or twice. My guide Chico showed me medicinal plants along the way, which helped distract me. Even he admitted this was a tough hike, so I felt better about that. But if you’re in pretty good shape and love a challenge, the whole experience is worth it. I really think my legs have toned in just a week in Belize! Now I just need to work on the abs.
3. Canoeing Upstream On The Macal River
I love rivers, so any activity on the river makes me happy. But canoeing on the Macal River in the morning was such an energizing way to start my day. Again, like the tubing, it looks super easy – until you hit that small rapid. Watch for it, avoid it by sticking to the banks and paddle hard for a minute or two, and you should be fine. Or you can have a guide paddle with you – which is what I did- and get to learn more about the plants or small wildlife around the river as you go along. The scenery alone is worth it.
4. Night Walking Through The Rainforest
Now this, is one experience I will never forget. Caves Branch offers a guided night walk through the rainforest on their property. After dinner, you take a slow and quiet hike to try and spot some nocturnal animals. It was another incredible experience of overcoming fear – and it’s definitely not for everyone.
5. Spending A Night At The Macal River Camp
When I first learned I would be staying on the camp side of Chaa Creek, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the minute I met Dosio and his wife Francellia – a charming, 40 to 50-something Belizean couple who manage and run Macal River Camp daily, I had a feeling I would love it. And I did. Just a five minute walk through the rainforest to or from the Main Lodge at Chaa Creek (and along a nice pathway that is also a medicinal trail) – the camp has 10 cabins “on stilts.” They are surrounded with rainforest and set above the river. My casita is basic – with four single beds, more of a student set-up, but it is just fine. There are a couple of oil lanterns lit at night but no electricity at the camp, and yet the mood is better that way. With screens all around and light curtains, I can “hear” the jungle around me and see my porch, hammock swinging in the breeze. I feel like I’m camping but I’m more comfortable than I would be in a tent. The bathrooms and showers are shared among the cabins but they are all super well-maintained.
That evening, I was scheduled to go to a local town fiesta in nearby Benque del Viejo, also the last border town before Guatemala. It’s one big outdoor festival – with local food stalls, plenty of beer, live music and dancing, marching bands and mechanical rides for the kids. A classic Belizean festival – each town has its own – celebrating the town’s patron saint.
Well, sadly I never made it to the Benque Fiesta. I was bummed.
Dosio could tell and felt a little bad himself that I missed it because I had no one to take me. It’s after dinner – his wife Francellia cooked for the camp as she always does – and I’m still sitting in the communal open air dining area. There’s a big group of American students and teachers staying at the camp as well. They are part of SUNY’s Summer Teacher Institute in Belize – an annual program that brings teachers and college education majors to Belize for a unique environmental learning experience. For a week they immerse themselves in the environment and culture of Western Belize and interact with Belizean teachers who are also part of the program.
The group was fascinated that I was in Belize blogging my way around – how did I get this gig? What’s Matador? How can they sign up? How long have I traveled? I think I convinced a couple of them to sign up for MatadorU! But I digress. After dinner most of them decided to go swimming at the main (fancier) Chaa Creek lodge on their last night. And I just wanted a local experience. But clearly the Benque Fiesta wasn’t going to happen for me.
“If I light a bonfire, you can take photos?” Dosio asks.
“Sure, yes!” I smile. I’m surprised that even though I had met Dosio just a few hours ago, he knew what would cheer me up. But then he has spent almost 15 years running the camp, dealing with all the guests’ sensitivities and observing them, from kids to adults.
He lights a nice fire in no time. We sit around it, each of us on wooden benches circling the fire. Francellia joins us, she’s had a long week of cooking three times daily for a large group of guests. One of the teachers who walked back alone from the main lodge is now with us.The rainforest is all around us.
Dosio tells me that most nights in December, the weather is a little cooler in Belize and they do this often. They sit and talk around a bonfire. It’s my kind of place.
We talk about Belize, about Cristo Rey where they live, a community just 20 mins away, and how they commute by canoe to Chaa Creek.
I want to take photos of the bonfire and I go behind my bench to kneel and shoot. I watch the ground carefully before I do this, because as I’ve learned quickly in my first week here, “it’s the jungle and you should always expect anything” and…well, I’ll tell you about that part later!
I sit back down and we talk some more until… I hear a loud thump. Right by my casita, in the back. Something fell from the tree, some sort of animal.
Dosio says he doesn’t know. He gets up with his headlamp and the rest of us follow him to the tree in question. We see something up in the branches, a small furry looking animal but all I can see are his beady eyes.
Dosio starts making a screeching sound, calling him over. “I’m trying to sound like his mom,” he says, laughing. He doesn’t know if it will work but he figures it’s worth a try.
And it is. The small animal crawls back down, slowly. Except he doesn’t just get a little closer. He comes way down, and down further. He decides to head to the branch nearest me, and reaches the edge of the branch, staring straight into my camera (which I had ready).
Everyone stares back, stunned.
“That’s incredible! Some people wait a lifetime to see one of these, do you know that? I think you may just have a National Geographic shot right there!” the teacher says.
I’m trying not to smile too much at his comment and shake my camera. I keep holding it still, snapping while I can. I don’t know about National Geographic but I was experiencing nature at its best in Belize. You just really never know what you’ll see and when it will show up.
And still, none of us knows what this cute creature is. Dosio wonders if it’s a kinkajou, a Belizean mammal, but then this one has a different color – hazel brown, with white patches.
He climbs back up in the tree, and Dosio makes that screeching sound again. The animal turns around for the second time. He comes down onto a different branch this time, all the way to the edge, staring right at me and my lens.
“I’ve never seen this one before,” Dosio says.
I smile. I was less bummed about missing the Benque Fiesta.
The next morning, Dosio pulls out the animal look-up sheet at the camp and we learn that what we saw was a woolly opossum or Caluromys derbianus.
Other fun adventures that week: hiking through a cave to a small waterfall, visiting a butterfly farm, and learning about medicinal plants.