#398882 - 01/29/11 12:28 PM
Batted bats, fried lizards and Mayan ruins...
The restaurant’s proprietor, a voluptuous lady in a sweat-stained dress, had stormed out of the kitchen and swiped the little bat out of midair with a wet towel — no different than a common housefly. And just as I had begun to enjoy its fluttery dance around the bare bulb dangling from the ceiling to boot.
She picked up the limp body by one of the broken wings, and chucked it out an open window.
Turning toward us with a reassuring smile, she declared that it was safe to continue dinner. So we returned our attention to the rice and beans.
Less than two hours in the country, we were already getting our first impressions — simple cuisine, no patience for wildlife.
Welcome to Belize!
The following morning we learned that cuisine and wildlife also go together in Belize, when two dirt-encrusted children, no more than 10-years-old, tried to sell us an iguana for the pot.
The animal was still alive, its feet tied with its own tendons.
Lamanai, boat tours and garbled guides, oh my!
After a quick breakfast of rice and beans, we left the small village of Crooked Tree and headed north towards the New River.
Boat tours to Lamanai leave daily from the bridge where the Northern Highway crosses the stream. The New River, winding through swamplands, passes isolated farms and even a Mennonite Community! (Yes, there were several men standing along the river, broad brimmed hats, suspenders, long-sleeved shirts — the women, I assumed, were behind the houses churning butter.)
The river provides the easiest way to access the remote Mayan ruins of Lamanai, unless you just love long hauls on dusty roads. It also offers good chances to see some wildlife, like tiny tent bats (alive, mind you), endangered Morelet’s crocodiles and graceful snail kites.
The boat trip, lasting about two hours, is as interesting as the ruins themselves, and not just because of the specimen outside the craft.
A large man, with a floppy hat and safari vest, barged onto our boat, plopped into the captain’s chair and demanded with a thick German accent, “I wants to see a jaguar”.
The guide looked concerned. Unfazed, the man said, “At leasts a puma then."
Lamanai, meaning submerged crocodile, sits along an expansive lagoon and is the third-largest archeological site in Belize. It was one of the longest occupied Mayan cities in Central America — about 3,000 years — and survived several major cultural shifts all the way to the arrival of the Spanish.
The guided walk led past the Mask Temple to the Temple of the Jaguar. We saw howler monkeys, happily defecating in the trees, and minute black orchids, the national flower of Belize.
Our eager guide started every sentence with “matter of fact”, which, garbled by a heavy accent sounded a lot like “motherfuck” — it caught me off-guard until the very end.
At the conclusion of the tour, we climbed the High Temple and gawked at whorls of rainforest twisting towards the horizon. The nearby wooded hills were temples yet to be excavated — it was hilly country.
But at least the boat ride back was jaguar and puma free.
The ghosts of Mayans past
Near the town of San Ignacio in western Belize lies the small, but nevertheless impressive, ruins of Xunantunich, or Stone Woman.
While there are not many temples, from El Castillo — currently Belize’s second tallest structure — the view right into Guatemala is breathtaking. We easily reached the ruins by hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River, and a sweaty hike to the top of a ridge got us to the main plaza.
Between the few temples sits one of the best preserved stelae in all of Belize. Steles are pillars made of stone or wood used for commemorative or funereal purposes.
Above, enormous black and white king vultures drew circles in a cloudless sky.
Legend has it that on a moonless night, a female figure, wearing pure white garb, has been seen ascending the steep stairs of El Castillo and suddenly merging with the wall near the top.
We left before nightfall.
Do it right and sneak out of town
The busy border town of San Ignacio is also the gateway to Belize’s largest archeological site, the ruins of Caracol ("snail"), hidden deep in the Chiquibul National Park.
While several tour companies offer trips to the ruins, it is a lot more rewarding to visit on one’s own pace.
After a sleepless night in one of San Ignacio’s noisy hotels, we hired the cheapest four-wheel vehicle we could find, a rusty Isuzu Trooper. We had to use all our might to shut the doors, but the 4x4 light lit up promisingly. The vehicle steered wobbly along the pavement sneaking out of town, but felt a lot more secure on the potholed gravel leading into the Pine Ridge Mountains.
Caracol lies only 50 miles to the south of town, but since the track winds over the mountains and drops into jungle, past several waterfalls and inviting swimming holes, we decided to take our time.
The drive through the Pine Ridge Mountains comes as a bit of a shock. The once rich forest of Caribbean pines has been decimated by beetles. In many areas, only dry trunks are left standing above shrubby regrowth.
The forest around the major landmarks has been saved, though, offering a chance to see what the natural habitat looked like before the pine beetle infestation.
Being there, beetle free
On the first day, we drove to Douglas de Silva Forestry Camp, where we set up shop for the night in a broad, open area of grass and scattered, beetle-free Caribbean pine. There was plenty of space to choose from, as we were the only campers.
After setting up our tent, we explored the Rio Frio Cave, where an underground river has drilled a deep, natural arch through the soft limestone. A quick swim was a relief from the heat and humidity.
The following morning, we started right after a misty sunrise. Surprisingly, after a few miles of dirt road, smooth pavement appeared — and by now, the road to Caracol must be paved.
On both sides of the road, primary rainforest pressed in close, until a large clearing and the entrance area to the ruins appeared.
Archeology in action
Caracol was one of the largest Mayan sites in all of Central America, encompassing an urban area seven miles around the epicenter, including up to 140,000 inhabitants.
For hundreds of years, jungle had claimed the remains of the city, until the ruins were discovered by chance in 1937. Excavations began in the 1950s, and in earnest in the 1980s.
Over the decades, researchers have discovered Caracol to be even larger than previously thought and of more significance.
While many temples and structures have been restored, the majority of the site still lies beneath tangles of roots, rotting leaves and dense jungle. We wandered around the site for hours ,and several trails lead past mounds covered in impenetrable vegetation with just a few carved rocks poking out.
Caracol invites the imagination, it offers the chance to study rebuilt temples and see what the ruins looked like when rediscovered. It is also a great place to see archeology in action, as there is an active research camp during the dry season.
At 140 feet above the forest, Caana ("sky temple") is the largest structure in Belize. A hot climb up the impossibly steep stairs (didn’t Mayas have short legs?) revealed the archeological work in progress — only a small fraction has been excavated.
Of the 35,000 structures identified, only a few have been restored, but these include several major temples, an observatory, plazas, and ball courts.
What to do when you're all ruin-ed out
Should you tire of Mayan ruins, another great way to explore the fascinating culture is a trip to one of several caves found in the region.
These natural caves were used by the Mayas for food storage, rituals, and burials. The best examples include Barton Creek Cave, Actun Tunichil Muknal, and Che Chem Ha, all near San Ignacio.
In the south of Belize, there are many Mayan villages tugged into the rainforest, and with a sense of adventure, it is possible to visit.
We drove for several hours along confusing dirt roads in the Toledo District, until discovering an inviting looking river near a small village.
While packing for a quick hike, several small children came streaming from nearby houses. I figured they don’t see tourists every day.
They quickly surrounded us with outstretched hands, crying, “Take picture for dollar."
Editor's note: This is the first story in a three-part series on Stephan Lorenz's Belize adventures. Look for part two next weekend.
#400237 - 02/14/11 09:09 AM
Re: Batted bats, fried lizards and Mayan ruins...
Loggerhead sea turtles mull about Belize's barrier reef the second-largest barrier reef on the planet.
Twenty miles northeast of Belize City, Caye Caulker is a small limestone coral island that is becoming increasingly popular with backpackers.
The Sapodilla Cayes, an island group off the coast of Belize's Placencia Peninsula, consists of about a dozen small sandy strips covered with mangroves and surrounded by shallow waters.
Coastal Dangriga is the largest town in southern Belize.
Would this charter boat take us to beaches? We would find out.
Everyone, including us, had the same befuddled and slightly disappointed expression on their faces, lips contorted into a question mark.
“Where is the beach?”
About a dozen people in all shades of sunburn, from pasty-it’s-going-to-happen to all-the-aloe-vera-in-the-world won’t stop the hurt, gathered about the concrete breakwater and pathetic strip of yellowed sand.
Some took it in stride. I mean, how long does unhappy last on a tropical island?
People plopped down and pulled beer from bags, others retreated and one brave soul even went in for splash. While hanging about, another dozen backpackers cycled through and I learned how to say “Where is the beach?” in half a dozen languages.
Naturally all beach seekers funneled to the Split, the northern terminus of the island, promisingly labeled as “swimming area” on the guidebook map. But it was nothing more than warm turbid waves sloshing back and forth through a muddy 30-foot channel, left after recent hurricanes cut Caye Caulker in half.
Reading between the lines, it became obvious that Caye Caulker doesn’t have much to offer when it comes to beaches.
Still, the Caye — just four miles long and no more than 650 yards wide — is one of the most popular islands of about a dozen just the northeastern shore of Belize
With our tails between our legs
Eventually, we retreated also and explored the rest of the island. Caye Caulker compensates for its lack of postcard beaches with a wide array of affordable accommodations (think budget and simple), succulent seafood and utterly calm, bright sunny days (except during hurricanes). If high end resorts and manicured beaches are your idea of bliss, visit nearby Ambergris Caye.
We settled for a few nights in a concrete block with blinding white walls, with as much charm as one of the touts waiting for the Belize City—Caye Caulker ferry, but the price was right and it came with a fan to stir viscous air.
That night, we learned that the partitioning walls lacked concrete and involuntarily partook, at least aurally, in the passions of the couple next door. Even the earplugs of decency couldn’t drown out the noise of sunburns being slapped together.
Bare feet and mangroves don't mix
The following morning, a bit groggy, I explored the southern end of the village along a labyrinth of sandy paths. Here dense stands of mangroves, full of bird life and crabs — but not ideal for swimming — blocked the way to the water.
Being a bit stubborn and determined to immerse myself in the Caribbean, I fought my way through the tangle, an obstacle course of sturdy prop roots and foot-wrenching shoots waiting in the muddy bottom (if you get nothing else out of this article, just remember — don’t ever walk barefoot into mangroves).
After the quick lesson in mangrove ecology that came with subcutaneous wounds on my feet and legs, I stumbled out of the thicket. I stood knee deep in water and eelgrass. Great for manatees, poor for swimming.
The key to the Caye
Bobbing across the crystal blue waters in a speedboat that yearned for paint, we finally understood why visitors crowd the Caye Caulker ferry — it’s for the snorkeling and diving. Voila!
The boat skimmed over eelgrass, past the sandy Split and mangroves, straight toward shark-ray alley and the reef just offshore. The barrier reef, stretching from the Yucatan and Honduras along the entire coast of Belize, is the second largest on the planet. In addition to snorkeling, the area is well known among divers as a top spot in the world.
A choppy 20 minute boat ride got us right next to the reef, and the aptly named Shark Ray Alley didn’t disappoint. The waters here are clear and relatively shallow. A dozen nurse sharks and sting rays grumbled about the sandy bottom, and, being used to snorkelers allowed close approach. Black-tipped reef sharks made brief appearances and checkered loggerhead sea turtles mulled about.
Interestingly enough, our guide was more cautious about the sea turtles taking a chomp out of us than the dozen or so sharks present!
Head south and then further south
The search for the perfect beach continued on the central coast in the town of Dangriga. When we arrived in the late afternoon, it was quiet, and there was no traffic at all.
Upon closer inspection, there was no movement whatsoever, except for palm leaves twisting in the breeze. We roused someone at a small restaurant and had a quick lunch of rice and beans.
A walk along the waterfront revealed — yet again — no beaches. But with patience, you will soon find out why the town should not be passed up, and not just because it's the heart of Garifuna culture and the home of Marie Sharp, maker of the famous Belizean habanero pepper hot sauce.
South of Dangriga, the highway loses its already narrow shoulder and has more curves and potholes. It runs inland for miles before turning back towards the coast near Placencia.
Resorts have solidly arrived along the softly undulating band of perfect beach along the Placencia Peninsula. Towering complexes, slightly incongruous with the otherwise flat land, line the beach and offer packaged relaxation.
While the beaches looked inviting, we pushed on and continued along the worsening road towards the south and Punta Gorda.
Leave the crowds behind
The Southern Highway ends in the small town of Punta Gorda. From here, it’s only possible to continue by ferry to Puerto Barrios, in Guatemala. The majority of travelers don’t make it past Placencia, and we couldn’t find any other tourists in town as we wandered the streets looking for boat charters or tours to get us out snorkeling in the nearby marine reserves.
Consulting the guide book for help, we didn’t have to read between the lines — basically, no one comes to Punta Gorda, so there aren’t many tour operators. Eventually, we spotted a small sign advertising boat and snorkeling trips and walked right into the office. The woman behind the desk looked stunned for a moment as we stood in front of her inquiring about tours.
Several phone calls later, some waiting and a bit of haggling, we had arranged a trip for the following morning. For what I wasn’t exactly sure, but something involving snorkeling and beaches.
We showed up early the next morning at the town pier, as did our tour operator, captain and guide all in one package. He had gathered just enough functioning snorkel gear and even brought a simple lunch of fruits and sweet bread.
Early morning clouds dispersed to reveal a white sun reflecting off calm blue Caribbean waters. As we left the mainland behind, we could make out palm covered dots in the distance — the Sapodilla Cayes. This island group consists of about a dozen small sandy strips covered with mangroves and surrounded by shallow waters. It has been declared a marine reserve and fish and other marine life are thriving.
After an obligatory stop at Hunting Caye, where the national park maintains an office (the park rangers literally stranded in paradise seemed to welcome any diversion), our guide took the boat across several channels to an empty beach.
A crescent of white sand, just the right grain size, the water cool enough to give reprieve from the sun (but warm enough to allow unlimited snorkeling) greeted us, all to the backdrop of palms and mangrove.
Finally in the far south of the country, after days of searching, we had found an abandoned beach with nothing but the Caribbean stretching in front, the rustle of the palms behind and water filled with nothing but colorful fish.
I closed my eyes and suddenly heard the gurgle of two 64 horsepower engines pushing another charter boat around the corner. Four slightly inebriated Italians joined us on the beach, smiling just as big as I was.
Editor's note: This is the second story in a three-part series on Stephan Lorenz's Belize adventures. Don't forget to read part one above
#401223 - 02/27/11 09:41 AM
Re: Batted bats, fried lizards and Mayan ruins...
LEAVE YOUR TEVAS AT HOME
Photo by Stephan Lorenz
Belize invites you to explore. Beyond the marketed canopy walk of tourist areas, we found this sketchy hanging bridge in a small national park in the south.
Photo by Stephan Lorenz
The Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve is one of the few places in the world where these elusive cats are thriving.
Photo by Stephan Lorenz
Canoeing offers the greatest chance for solitude and wildlife spotting at Crooked Tree, where flooded forests and narrow creeks invite long paddles.
Photo by Stephan Lorenz
Howler monkeys are a common sight and sound in Belizean rainforests.
Grab a tube (or canoe), dodge the jaguars, do a nutty, fishy festival in the Belize rainforest
Finally, we found ourselves in the rainforests of Belize.
But this wasn’t your beer-transporting weir of Texas Hill Country tubing fame. There were plenty of overhanging snags here in Belize, waiting to snatch the reckless, with a few rapids for the pulse and throbbing jungle pressing in on all sides.
The rental fee for a tube was just a dollar — good all day. We just had to hike back up river for another hour-long run.
Along the left bank, a snake slithered into the water and swam gracefully upstream, just far enough away to make it impossible to determine whether it was venomous or not.
On the right bank, something large rustled in a tangle of vines, just out of sight to tell whether it, too, was dangerous or not.
After 15 minutes of this, I just relaxed, folding at the hips into my tube, bobbed through some ripples and watched the bright tropical sun play hide-and-seek in the canopy.
Float through the lair of the jaguar
Whose idea was it to have tubes for rent in a jaguar preserve anyway?
Well, after our first run, it made total sense.
Belize’s rainforests are sweltering places, but a clear, cool stream ran through the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. And to me, this was the perfect way to blend in — passively floating along, getting up close to a plethora of wildlife.
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Belize is the only jaguar reserve in the world, and yes, it is working. About 200 of these elusive spotted cats roam the mountains and forest here — apparently the highest density in the world. The chances of seeing one in the wild are slim, but I heard them grunt almost every night I spent at the reserve, at least.
Cockscomb Basin offers relatively easy access to a truly remote area. A short taxi ride along a rutted strip of dirt from Maya Center village, located along the Southern Highway, brings visitors to the modest headquarters. Accommodations vary from tent camping to simple cabins.
By the third run, tubing the South Stann Creek, the jungle had lost its menacing feel, and we splashed water on our faces as we leisurely spun midstream.
Miles of trail leave from here and crisscross the rainforest, ranging from 15-minute walks to arduous multi-day treks that lead into the nearby mountains.
For now, we were happy drifting along.
Don’t sleep yet, and look out for the small stuff
One of the most thrilling ways to experience the rainforest is at night.
At Cockscomb Basin, local park rangers can arrange night hikes. Or simply load fresh batteries into a powerful flashlight, put on sturdy boots and wander down a trail to see if there's any eyeshine around the corner.
While many animals, especially large mammals, are nocturnal, don’t expect a parade of glowing retinas floating through the jungle gloom — these animals are shy.
(One of the local rangers explained to us that an especially fanatic wildlife watcher had spent three nights sitting in a tree until spotting an ocelot, a small wild cat that tends to be the most common species.)
Instead, pay close attention to small things. The tiny eyeshine of hundreds of spiders will most likely be commuting along the trail. Frogs become vociferous at night, and after rain, the din of chirps, clicks and grunts can be deafening. Snakes are also quite active and the majority are harmless, so use common sense.
And please, no walking around in Teva sandals!
But even if wandering around a strange jungle at night is not on your to-do list, it's possible to enjoy the sounds from the safety of the spacious porch attached to the preserve’s bunkhouse.
Get crooked, and party with the nuts and the fish
But there aren't just animals in the rainforest.
Crooked Tree is a village of clapboard houses with its windows thrown open to humid breezes. It’s an island floating in a lagoon during the rainy season, and dry turf in a swamp during the rest of the year.
Yards of rank grass and ponds grade into thickets, turning into a wild mixture of pine and rainforest just beyond houses. Flocks of chickens mingle with wild birds along the lagoon’s shoreline, and gnarled limbs of ancient cashew trees throw thick lines of shade over the entire tumult.
The best time to visit Crooked Tree is during the first weekend in May, when the whole village partakes in celebrating the annual cashew harvest.
We missed the Cashew Festival. But one Sunday morning in March, we woke up in the middle of the new Tilapia Festival.
A flea market had sprung up in a clearing ringed by cashew trees, and pickups loaded down with wares or people kept streaming in and out of the village along the narrow dirt road.
That evening, with the heat of the day still clinging to us, we wandered over to a dozen stands all grilling tilapia, and ate some of the best fish we ever had. Drum beats flowed out over the water, inviting us to dance.
During the days that aren't filled with festivals, you can explore the complex system of lagoons, swamplands and creeks by boat tours or canoe. We lugged a scratched-up canoe from the Bird’s Eye View Lodge toward the water and started paddling. We spent hours following narrow channels and crossing expanses of shallow water.
On days like these, I'd suggest you add sunscreen, water, a spare paddle and map to your arsenal of essential gear.
Walk on, Annie, and get your gun
We'd seen so much, but we still wanted more rainforest.
The sign had been pretty clear — "Rio Frio Cave to the right." We followed a wide gravel road into the hills for a mile or two, until we reached the narrow mouth of a cave just off the road.
We clambered down some muddy limestone and squeezed into a small chamber. It took less than five minutes of spelunking to realize that the “passageways” weren’t going anywhere.
A bit disappointed and confused as to all the hype, we stuffed our head lamps back into our backpacks and walked back to the campground of the forestry station at Douglas da Silva.
Lesson learned: Sometimes, it’s important to walk to the end of the road.
It was two years later on another trip to the area that I realized my grave mistake. There is, indeed a Rio Frio Cave — a spectacular natural arch studded with 10-foot stalactites and cold crystalline waters gurgling underground. I don’t even think the slippery muddy hole on the left of the road has a name.
While exploring the area further, we found ourselves on a narrow trail winding uphill past enormous trees. Around a bend, we met another group, including a guide, two tourists and a park ranger in camouflage brandishing an automatic weapon. (Their escort, I guess.)
We exchanged the usual friendly hellos and continued on separate ways, one question in my head: Do we need an armed guard? I never figured out what the threat was, but I might recommend checking for safety alerts if you're if traveling to the area.
A thousand feet down
Another worthwhile stop in the Pine Ridge Mountains — no guard required — is the aptly named Thousand-Foot Falls, the largest waterfall in Central America.
A thin ribbon of water tumbles from a forest-clad plateau and plummets more than 1,500 feet to a refreshing pool. The hike to the bottom of the falls is challenging, but the sight from a viewpoint overlooking the gorge and falls in their entire length is breathtaking.
These places are just scratching the surface of Belize’s mountains and jungles. With a population of only 350,000 people in a country roughly the same size as New Hampshire, there are lots of uncharted spots on the map waiting to be discovered.
Editor's note: This is the third story in a three-part series on Stephan Lorenz's Belize adventures. Don't forget to read part one — "Batted bats, fried lizards and of course Mayan ruins — all in a Belize day," and part two — "Swimming with the sharks & some real danger (those giant snapping sea turtles) in Belize."
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