Tourists explore an area near the Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort in Belize. Tourist companies offer everything from cave tubing to animal tracking, bird watching and the exploration of Mayan ruins.
Deep in a cave called Actun Tunichil Muknal are the shining white bones of a long-dead Mayan. By the time I reach his skeleton, I am tired enough to want to join him.
Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM, as the locals call it, is located a four-hour drive inland from the Belizean coast. Then there’s a hike for two hours through heavy, humid rainforest. Then there are three rivers to cross. By the time my guide, Edward Alfaro, and I get to the cave, we are soaking wet. Which is excellent, because we spend half the time in the cave swimming though icy pools of water.
Inside the cave, huge stalactites hang from the ceiling. Clusters of dusky grey bats appear. We pass shards of pots from AD 900, pots that once held offerings to the God of corn, annatto and chillies. When the Mayans felt these offerings weren’t enough, they upped the ante and offered live sacrifices.
Up a ladder and down a tunnel so sacred we all have to take our shoes off, we see what happens when the Mayans worry about rainfall. Three skeletons appear, their bones gleaming white under the glare of our headlamps. Humans were brought into the cave alive, and usually sacrificed alive, their hearts removed, still beating, with a stone carving knife. Alfaro shows us a tiny skeleton of a baby. “This was the ultimate sacrifice,” Alfaro says. “This is what happened when there was no rain and nothing else was working.”
Outside the cave, we wipe down our bloodied knees and stretch our sore legs. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be beachside with a margarita; from dark and spooky AD 900 to golden sand beaches and perfect sun. The wonders of Belize are many.
Often overshadowed by Costa Rica, Belize is an independent traveller and adventure seeker’s delight. Half the country is covered in rainforest, caves like ATM and Mayan ruins. The other half is sun-soaked coastline and amazing scuba diving. On a recent trip to Belize, I experienced both.
LAPPING UP SUNSHINE
Three fearless, sunburned children are running up and down the length of our fishing boat. They’re talking, but it’s hard to make out what they are saying because of their snorkel masks. We’re about 45 minutes away from Hamanasi, a pretty, eco-friendly resort where the guests stay in tree houses surrounded by leafy forest. The water is a clear and crystalline aqua, a balmy 23 C and is as full of fish as New England chowder.
According to our guide, Neal, conditions for coral growth (salinity of water, sunlight, water temperature, oxygen levels) and the long-term development of the reef are near perfect in Belize. He tells us to watch out for “fire coral:” if we kick it by accident, we’ll damage the reef forever, as well as getting a nasty, stinging burn. Hence the name.
We see schools of fish flitting along, shiny yellow smallmouth grunts, distinguished-looking hogfish that look like they’re wearing tweed jackets and should be smoking a pipe, the sleepy, menacing shape of a manta ray lying motionless on the sand, a school of silvery, skinny barracuda.
On the drive back home, the kids pull out their fish cards and compare.
“I saw one of those!” says D.J., a blonde, freckled kid who is the unspoken leader of a pack of boys, pointing to a shark on the card.
His mother, a slim, athletic blonde from Portland, Ore., eyes him.
“OK, maybe not,” he says.
“I think my father loved me,” Abelina Cho says as she grinds cacao beans into a thick paste. “That’s why I got the farm.”
I’m at Cho’s chocolate farm, a few kilometres from Punta Gorda, a lazy-dazy town at the southernmost tip of Belize. Cho, a short, round-faced woman with a shy smile, is showing me how chocolate is made, from seed to Mars bar.
She cuts open a pod and then scoops out the beans inside, gets rid of the gooey pulp (she uses the pulp to make cocoa butter cream), and places the beans inside a wooden box to ferment for six days.
After the beans dry in the sun for another six days, she roasts them in an oven, and grinds the beans into a paste for 12 hours, adding raw sugar along the way. The paste is put into moulds and then refrigerated.
She sells the bars for four Belizean dollars at local markets and to local resorts. Visitors frequently come and tour her operation; on the day of my visit, she is expecting some high school students from Vermont, and after that, a group of doctors, nurses and pharmacists who are interested in the antioxidant properties of dark chocolate.
Around AD 700, Mayans used cacao beans as currency to buy and sell things. Now, Cho says, the beans bring in a flow of much needed extra money. Cho is proud of her farm and the ability to help the family’s finances stay afloat.
“No more babies for me,” she says, laughing. “Babies stop me from working.” She takes a bar of chocolate out of the fridge and hands it to me. I take a bite. It is cold, creamy perfection.
“Delicious, yes?” Cho says laughing. “A bit of my good fortune.”
Maggie Gilmour is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her trip was subsidized by Belize tourism.
Just The Facts
In Punta Gorda, the exquisite Machaca Hill Lodge has old-world colonial elegance, 4,450-hectares of private nature reserve and large, airy rooms with screened-in porches; nighttime howler monkey sightings are not uncommon. All-inclusive packages, including meals, drinks, taxes and tours, start from $485-$565 per person per night. For more info, go to: www.machacahill.com
Near Hopkins, Hamanasi is consistently rated the #1 hotel in Belize on tripadvisor.com, and it’s easy to see why. Grounds are impeccably kept, food is fresh and simple and customer service is perfect. www.hamanasi.com. Minimum stays are three to five nights, depending on season; rates for a tree house, the most popular form of accommodation, start at $285-$425, depending on season.
Belize has a few must-dos: beach time, snorkelling, rainforest tours and Mayan villages. Staff at decent hotels will arrange trips. From Hamanasi, half-day snorkelling trips to the Belize Barrier Reef are $115 per person; Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Tours are $175 (U.S.) per person.
In Punta Gorda, local favourite Grace’s features Belizean staples (rice, beans), classic breakfasts (eggs, bacon, fry jacks), and fresh fish for lunch and dinner; 19 Main St. 702-2414. For top-of-the-line food, the restaurant at Machaca Hills is the only way to go. In Hopkins, the most popular is surely the Barracuda Bar and Grill (try the fig-stuffed pork chops); more classic Belizean fare can be found at tiny Iris’s Place Restaurant. Neither of these places have addresses; just ask a local on a bicycle where to go.
Round-trip tickets from Toronto to Belize City in February 2011 are $925. Fly to Belize City and then transfer by tiny plane to Dangriga. It’s a two- to three-hour drive south to Hopkins, five to Punta Gorda.