When we decided to have an adventure in Belize, we didn’t want 4-star hotels, casinos, or swimming pools. We wanted to explore Belize – hike in the rainforest, kayak on jungle rivers and snorkel on the coral reef, but we didn’t have time to stumble around the country ourselves. We needed a guide. I’m not sure how I found UpClose Belize, but they seemed willing to customize a trip that suited us: set up guides, accommodations at the level we wanted (that would feed us local food) and drive us where we needed to go. If I’d realized how lucky I was to discover Kim Chanona, I would have slept better the weeks before the trip.
Day 1 - When we landed in Belize it was a blistering 102° and we had been up since 5am. I had an image of melting bonelessly into a puddle on the sidewalk if Kim was not there to meet us. Not only was she waiting for us, but she was all smiles and hospitality with an ice chest full of cold drinks. She spoke with an interesting accent (that she later told me was creole) and as she drove us down country she chatted nonstop which helped since we were still a bit too stunned to hold up our end of a conversation.
We passed through scrubland marked by poverty and bad roads. The air conditioning sputtered and the heat shimmered off the flat landscape and I began to worry that perhaps I had made a terrible mistake. Then suddenly the landscape began to transform. Jungled mountains rose ahead and we crossed aqua blue rivers. Sleeping Giant Mountain appeared in the distance and the lush Belize rainforest closed in around us. After about 90-minutes we arrived at the Yamwits Lodge set in an orange grove with flowering bushes and a view of jungle-covered hills. It was still dreadfully hot though and there was no relief in the lodge (no air-conditioning), so we changed into bathing suits and Kim drove us a couple of miles down the road to a local swimming spot called the Blue Hole. We walked into the rainforest, down many steps and emerged into a kind of public pool paradise. The swimming hole was literally a deep spot in the river about 40 feet across, aqua blue and surrounded by jungle. The water was cold and as our body temperatures fell, our spirits rose. We watched the strange collection of different cultures all collected in this small respite from the oppressive heat. There were Americans, Canadians, Spanish-speaking Belizians, Creoles, and Mayans. We emerged feeling much more human and after a dinner of spiced chicken (the staple in Belize) and rice we collapsed into bed at 7pm (US Mountain time) and slept ten hours.
Day 2 - During the night the weather broke and we woke to a wonderfully pleasant 80°. Clouds covered the sun (perfect for redheads) and howler monkeys called off in the forest. Swarms of colorful birds were calling and flying everywhere from giant king vultures, vermillion flycatchers and parrots to tiny hummingbirds. After a breakfast of eggs and puffed up fried dough (called fryjacks) at Yamwits Lodge, Kim drove us to the Mayan ruins at Xuantunich (Stone Maiden in Mayan).
At Xuantunich, a tiny Mayan guide (who was about 92 years old) took us around the site and described the history and archeological significance of each structure. He climbed the temple like a mountain goat and had no trouble galloping down the other side where I was obliged to work my way down half sitting not to succumb to the dizzying height and exposure. The forest there was open and beautiful with towering ceiba trees (pronounced say-ba), bullet trees, poisonwood, gumbo-limbo, coconut and royal palms. We saw a tarantula and more tropical birds while picnicking in a palm-thatched pavilion. The mystery of the Mayans hung heavy around this magical site.
After lunch we shuttled to the Mopan River, near the Guatemalan border, where Henry, our river guide, took us down river on inflatable kayaks. The Mopan River was aqua blue with many small rapids. We passed through a town (Banco de Carmen) with a multitude of urban swimmers with their mobs of kids, scruffy dogs (which were everywhere) and skinny horses grazing along the river. There was admittedly a lot of poverty and random trash littered down the sides of the river in some places, but it couldn’t detract from the rich beauty of the place. Leaving town the river turned wild and for the next three hours we saw herons (green blue and green), kingfishers, parrots, swallows, cormorants, fork-tailed flycatchers (stunning), iguanas perched in trees, proboscis bats roosting on trunks and troops of howler monkeys feeding high above in the lofty ceiba trees (by now my favorite tree of all time). Bromeliads and orchids clung to trees everywhere draping over the river — almond trees, trumpet trees, bullet trees and many, many palms of all kinds. It was really breath-taking.
We left the river after negotiating a bigger rapid called Clarissa Falls where I almost swamped. It was a silly move as I lunged to catch my hat that flew off and smashed my elbow into some sharp, limestone rocks. Kim was waiting for us below the rapids and we swam out into the falls and sat in the bubbles admiring the jungle for a while.
Later we heard from another guide that inner-tubers had been hitting their heads coming over Clarissa Falls (and drowning) and most guides now take the boats out above them. (Better not to know until afterward…)
We eventually got chilled in the falls (amazingly) and changed into dry clothes at a little thatched cafe riverside. On the drive back to Yamwits we stopped in St. Ignatio so I could buy a hammock and Kim bought some cashew wine – a local specialty and some Belizian chocolate, which was delicious. We decided that we ought to try all the different locally made chocolates, just to be fair. Back at Yamwits we tried the wine, which was more like a sweet liquor, but the group preferred the local beer. I, however, was totally addicted to the fresh juice squeezed from limes grown in the Yamwits orchard and sweetened with locally grown cane. Delicious.
Day 3 – Wednesday another guide picked us up and took us to another lodge where we waited for gear and other kayakers. It was more rustic than Yamwits with huts raised on poles and outdoor showers. A group of Canadians were staying there and we chatted while watching for keel-billed toucans and tasting fried plantain.
Finally we were ferried by truck down bumpy roads to the Cave Branch River. We were geared up with life preservers, helmets and head lamps and walked down to the river. Wading through chest deep (cold) water we made for the cave opening – a crack in the limestone into the darkness, where the kayaks were tied up. I had some trepidation, stumbling into my boat in the darkness and waiting for everyone else to get situated. We had three guides – Frances and two Marios – and were grouped with about a dozen Canadians including (unfortunately) about five rowdy teenagers. They were hooting and bumping boats and the commotion pushed my boat into the cave wall where I tried to stay and calm my sense of discomfort. I’d been down countless rivers and made my peace with the total darkness of caves, but in combination with the frenetic motion and noise of the kids echoing in the darkness – I was jittery. Then I felt a steadying hand on my boat. Dillon had paddled up and joined me. He was checking in and somehow his presence pushed back the discomfort I was feeling. I took a deep breath and we we head off into the darkness.
The four of us paddled in the back for the first half getting the feel of the kayaks and the flow of the river. The cave had a low ceiling and many low hanging stalactites, so we had to be watchful and listen to the guides (which was at times hard over all the shrieking). Occasionally I was startled by sudden rapids in the dark and currents dashing us into sharp, limestone walls, but mostly it was just fun and exciting. Every once in a while the jungle burst through into the cave pouring greenery and sunlight onto the river and it was stunning. I loved those moments most. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the paddle through the dark (though I did think it possible that this was where Golem spent 500 years), it was all exciting, but to see the jungle tumbling down the slopes to the river was just beyond description.
We lunched on a rocky beach where the cave opened into rainforest and the jungle hung in close over the water. So beautiful. The kids immediately found a rocky overhang from which to jump into the river screaming. The guides asked them to stop as there were hidden rocks in the river, but they ignored them and their parents just looked on wearily. I turned my back to the potential disaster and admired the forest as we ate lunch figuring that there were probably scavengers in the caves that would appreciate a nice broken teenager (waste not…).
After lunch, we dragged the boats through the forest to another section of cave. It was wider and more open and easier to negotiate. Dillon and Stacy got in front of the group to lead in the afternoon and were thereafter away from the main body of the group. I tried to join them but passing the mob was almost impossible and when I tired, I swamped the kayak and was almost run down by one of the girls (who was careening out of control behind me). After that we hung back and admired the waterfalls, jungle windows and bats in their little cave niches. The guides tried one last time to get the kids to be silent in a particularly lovely section of cave, but it was not happening (and however tempting, they were not allowed to use their paddles as incentives). Regardless, it could not really detract from the amazing experience.
Afterward Kim picked the four of us up and took us to the Belize Zoological Park (a kind of rehab center for injured local wildlife) where a keeper took us on a night tour. It was in a word – fantastic. We helped feed, touching tapirs, watching (and listening) to howlers display, meeting jaguars close and personal, jaguarundi, margay, puma, ocelots, boas, honey badgers, macaws, harpy eagles, agoutis, and toucans – who seemed very excited to have visitors and sang (in a very frog-like call) passionately to us. Afterward Kim took us to eat dinner at the highest point in the capitol at an open air, thatched-roof restaurant overlooking the small city. We feasted on locally-grown beef, shrimp ceviche and fresh-squeezed lime juice and talked about life in Belize. Kim’s family owned an orange grove next to Yamwits and her brother was studying architecture in college in Guatemala. I want to point out how much we liked Kim. She was so accommodating to our every need and a lot of fun to hang out with when she could join us. (She is also a beautiful blonde with a full back dragon tattoo which kind of matched her feisty personality.) Really fun.
Day 4 - Wednesday we headed for the coast, Kim driving us through small villages in beautiful, jungle mountains with many emergent ceiba trees which I loved so much.
We stopped at Cock’s Comb Wildlife Preserve and a Mayan Guide – Benidicto – hiked us through the rainforest and identified trees and animal signs. We saw leaf cutter ants everywhere on their tiny missions, giant termite nests and many kahuna palms. Then we walked down to a waterfall where we swam and picnicked. We tried the local organic Mayan chocolate which was delicious and so far our very favorite.
Then we continued on toward the coast passing more orange groves and then banana plantations. Soon we were out on the Placencia Peninsula with water on both sides of us. As we drove down the peninsula, the poverty diminished and there were new expensive condos and then even more upscale Belize tourist digs. Kim told us of an unsuccessful attempt by a vacationing gazillionaire to build a resort, golf course and million-dollar condo development. We drove by the shells of the abandoned, partially-built condos perched on the ocean front looking desolate and sad. (It looked perfect for a post-apocalyptic movie set.) I admit, I was relieved to hear the development failed. Why do people see paradise and want to make it into what they came here to escape?
Kim drove us through tiny Placencia and pointed out her favorite cafes, restaurants, coffee shop, Chinese grocery, and the Seahorse dive shop where we would report for our coral reef snorkeling expeditions. Then she deposited us at a small hotel on the bay side with a lovely open air cafe, appropriately name Paradise. We said our sad goodbye’s to Kim and went to sit out in a thatched hut at the end of the pier to watch the boats bob in blue waters. Paradise indeed.
Day 5 – Richard and I left Dillon and Stacy to explore Placencia and took a boat down the coast to Monkey River, a tiny village at the mouth of the river. Our guide – Alex – motored us up the mangrove-lined river pointing out birds, iguana and crocodiles. The mangroves are pretty fascinating. They are impenetrable by man, but a haven for wildlife, their arching roots housing roosting bats, fish, crabs, crocodiles, nesting birds, lizards, etc. We saw more than 25 species of birds in all – squirrel cuckoo, great kiskidee, tiger heron, groove-billed ani, mangrove swallows, yellow tails (with nests hanging from the branches of a huge ceiba tree), tropical kingbird, white-winged kite, magnificent frigatebirds, brown pelicans, little blue heron, social flycatchers, common black hawks, osprey and vultures. We stopped the boats and wandered back into the jungle, our guide harassing troops of howlers monkeys to get them to howl. That was a bit weird, but I imagined this was a daily event for this troop of monkeys. A highlight was Alex talking a tourist into biting down on a live termite to taste its minty flavor. I declined.
Richard and I waiting on the boat to go down the coast to Monkey River.On the way back we stopped the boat out in the bay when Alex saw other boats watching the water. We sat and watched a family of manatees rise to breathe as they swam through. Though I was thrilled to see them, I couldn’t help feeling again that we were harassing these animals to catch a glimpse of them. Talk about a conundrum.
Back at the hotel we joined Dillon and Stacy on the veranda with cold drinks and suddenly I realized how sunburnt I was. I had never been in the direct sunlight all day so had not thought to put on sunscreen. I can testify that reflected sunlight does burn human skin. Stacy came to the rescue with aloe vera and after much hydrating and sunscreen lathering, I was ready to explore the tiny shops of Placencia. We bought locally made honey, hot sauce, jam and chocolate to bring home. So many resources made into yummy products in this tiny, wonderful country. I was pleased to support them. We ate dinner at Omar’s, another outdoor cafe, the breeze gently cooling us as we ate fish caught that day and cooked in curry and coconut milk. Delicious.
Day 6 - Our snorkeling days had finally arrived and we bumped our way for an hour over choppy water out to Silke Keye – a tiny sand island surrounded by coral reef. Many boats anchored in the narrow bay and we all broke up into little groups to snorkel or dive. Our group of four gathered with a few more and struggled to get comfortable with snorkel and mask. We wore UV protective shirts and Nick, our guide, gave us instruction. It was awkward at first – almost impossible to breathe through the tube and lie face down in the water, but I soon got the hang of it. Though it was never comfortable, it was workable for an hour at a time and we swam out over the reef and saw a myriad of beautiful fish in colors almost cartoonish in their vibrancy. We spotted barracuda, lemon sharks, sea urchins, huge lobsters, a groups of squid and and many, many kinds of coral. Again I felt this sense of harassing a habitat to experience it, though we never touched the coral or removed anything. The coral looked a bit bleached in some places and I hoped this was not what I was seeing. It was a small reef and not swarming with fish, but we did see more than 30 species and all were stunning. In the afternoon we repeated the dive and afterward were unexpectedly chilled despite the warm air and had to change into dry clothes for the boat ride home.
A little ways off the island we joined other boats as they expelled snorkelers to swim with a few loggerhead sea turtles feeding in the shallows. I was pleased to see them and the passing sharks and rays from the boat but felt uncomfortable with the mob of people in the water. It just seemed like more harassment to me, but I’m not sure what I expected — everyone, including me, wanted to see these beautiful creatures. One woman, fixated on photographing sharks, accidentally blocked one of the sea turtles from surfacing for air and the turtle bit her. After that I felt a little better. They are not so passive about our annoying presence. If we get too annoying – they bite. Ha. I was more cheerful on the bumpy ride back to Placencia.
Dillon and Stacy on the boat to Silke Keye for a day of snorkeling.
Day 7 – A calmer day, the ride out to Laughing Bird Keye was a little less bumpy. A slightly larger sand island, it was lovely and we did a longer snorkel in the morning. By noon I was sunburned and chilled at the same time (odd combination) and we decided to sit in the shade of a palm tree with my book and look out over the startlingly aqua waters around the island.
We talked at length with a local guide (Leo) about the Belizians fighting the influx of oil exploration. They have failed so far and tankers collect 10,000 barrels a day from 3 sites inland – some on previously protected National Forest (that was converted to allow the exploration). The oil companies have paved some roads and funded some infrastructure, but as of yet Belizians still pay $10 a gallon for gas. The impression we got from Leo (and from Kim earlier in the week) is that Belizians struggle to get together and lobby successfully for what they want, but are getting better at it over time. Tourism is still the most effective way to bring money to the country and an oil spill would really hurt that.We worry for them. It is hard to protect paradise from those who would exploit its resources or just love it to death (tourists like us).
That evening – our last – we ate at the Rumfish – a very stylish open air restaurant owned by ex-pat Americans. The food was good (and more expensive) and we loved sitting up high on the porch over-looking the palms and village homes painted in pastel colors, their sandy paths lined in old conk shells.
Day 8 – We woke early on our last morning and walked the beach. There were interesting buildings – condos of sorts – for sale and we talked of what it would be like to own one as a group to share. But not being hot weather people generally or able to tolerate even a hour in the Belize sun, the idea would never gel. We flew out on a tiny plane up to Belize City for our big flight home. It was cool to see the Peninsula and coast from the air and I was very glad we had opted for a flight instead of a long car ride up the coast.
Belize is a stunning, little country, still mostly untouched by the huge condo and luxury hotel syndrome so prevalent in the Caribbean. Perhaps its small size and rugged roads will help it resist this end for a while longer. We certainly wish them well.
Placencia Peninsula from the air.