Conch shells decorate the bow of a kayak during sunset at Ambergris Caye, Belize. (Photo by Bob Berwyn)

In praise of hurricanes and Mayan relics

COCKROACH CAYE, BELIZE —We’re standing near a makeshift Robinson Crusoe shack on Turneffe Atoll, one of the tiny specks of dry land off the shore of Belize, and since it's rare to hear a tropical island-dweller praise hurricanes, Leigh and I listen up when Carlos Miller starts to explain how the periodic storms help sustain the mangrove-coral ecosystem of Cockroach Caye.

While chunks of foil-wrapped chicken sizzle on a wood fire, Miller shows us the sweaty, salty leaves of a red mangrove. He explains how the hurricanes flush sand off the reef and into the trees, where the root pillars trap it to build new land, helping both parts of the related ecosystem. Bigger hurricanes can destroy mangrove stands. But over time, the cycle of storms leads to renewal and growth, not just destruction. A succession of mangrove species, fueled in part by the storms, help sustain the delicate balance between the reef and the oceanic mangrove forests, Miller explains.

It’s great to get that global perspective from time to time. That’s what passports are for. With that bigger picture in mind, I wonder if some events we see as natural disasters back home — pine beetles, forest fires drought, floods — are also part of natural cycles that drives ecosystems; but it’s challenging to remove the disaster tag when your life or livelihood is at stake.

Turneffe Atoll remains one of the most pristine and diverse marine preserves in the Caribbean. For now, the mangrove shoals around Cockroach Caye still function as the marine nursery for the Western Hemisphere’s largest coral reef, where Miller guides snorkelers and divers — and he wants to keep it that way.

Today, he’s cooking for six. Leigh and I share the boat with an enthusiastic Austrian family of travelers who are wrapping up a multi week backpack style loop through Central America. At one point, Miller’s friendly face breaks into an affirmative grin as we scoop up the last of the salsa and offer a cleanup day in exchange for a free overnight on the island. At both morning dive stops we see thriving and diverse coral colonies, with no sign of disease or decline.

Family flag
Miller’s family flag is firmly planted on the tiny strip of coral. He inherited the island from his grandfather, along with an aura of paternal wisdom he demonstrates by mentoring local kids as apprentice skippers. He’s a little grumpy first thing in the morning as he eyes his latest batch of tourists, assessing who might get seasick in his boat. But as the passengers starts to show some esprit de corps, he warms up and shares his stories. He’ll soon have more to tell. His wife is just about to return home from England with their first child.

After lunch we explore one more undersea garden, six of us spread out across acres and acres of Caribbean Sea with nobody else in sight. Late-afternoon sunlight shimmers through a school of translucent squid hovering in a fantasyland of purple, green and gold coral patches. Leigh and I float hand-in-hand. The gentle currents rock and drift us gently through the slots and outcrops, in synch with endless schools of fish. Together, we feel part of our beautiful world.

As we head northwest back toward Caye Caulker, a school of bottlenose dolphins plunges through our wake. Even though we’re running late, Miller cuts the engine and urges us to jump in for an impromptu swim. As soon as our ears are underwater, we hear the squealing sea mammals, gently inviting us to dive and spin with them. This is the deep blue sea. Beams of sunlight filter through plankton-rich water, and the dolphins swirl closer around us in a trippy Jacque Cousteau moment before they disappear below. After dark, we trail our fingers through phosphorescent scent streaks of plankton motoring back to Caye Caulker in Miller’s skiff.

San Pedro vibe
We’re well into into a whirlwind spring getaway, base-camped in San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye. It’s the hub of Belizean shore tourism, with a classic palm fringed beachfront strip running a few miles up and down and the shore, where bikes and golf carts rule.

The town is one of the main starting points for exploring the great Mesoamerican Reef, which is second only in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Partly for this reason, Leigh had long ago circled Belize on the travel map in her Summit County pad, so it was the perfect destination for her surprise birthday trip.
One evening, we rent a heavy sit-on-top kayak, carrying it three blocks across the narrow spit of land to the lagoon side. You’d think that, in a town that’s only a couple of hundred feet across, people would be accustomed to seeing boats everywhere. But our portage draws curious looks.

We glide out to meet the fiery orange sunset as a few egrets flutter out of the mangrove thickets. Near a headland, we find a conch shell dumping ground where local fishermen abandoned dozens of the empty vessels. I dip shoulder-deep into the still bay and retrieve a few of them. On the bow of the boat, rays from the sinking sun burst across the pink interior of the shells with a tender and inviting light.

The laid-back pace of San Pedro suits our languid mood. We stroll late, eating ice cream and frozen custard first, then scouting seafood joints. The search culminates with a birthday dinner of fresh crab and conch in a sand-floored bungalow, where a trio of local kids does magic tricks and signs us up for a probably nonexistent school raffle.

Our first reef excursion is close to San Pedro. Both casual snorkelers and serious divers find it all here. Dozens of outfitters line San Pedro’s piers, all offering treks to popular spots like the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. Longer dive trips venture out to the famed Blue Hole.

We sign up for one of the standard tours. The first stop is Hol Chan, a break in the reef where we spot a flotilla of patrolling barracudas and a sea turtle majestically riding the tidal current, along with armadas of neon-colored reef-nibblers, straight out of Finding Nemo.

At Shark Ray Alley, the guides chum the water to draw a school nurse sharks and rays to the boat. It seems a strange practice for a marine reserve, but the guides say fishermen have been cleaning their holds in that spot for generations, long before they started hauling tourist divers to the area.

Traffic at both sites is high during peak season. At times we feel like we’re playing footsies with scuba divers below and rubbing shoulders with passengers from several other boats anchored nearby. But the density and variety of marine life makes it worthwhile. As the swimmers disperse, Leigh and I are wide-eyed at the sight of a neon moray eel. We marvel at how close we can get to a golden curtain of fish, all swaying as one with the tidal current.

The half-day visits to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley are action-packed and great for kids. But for Leigh and I, the eco-oriented Turneffe Atoll trip with Miller had a more rewarding flavor, well worth the exhilarating two-hour ride across choppy seas.

On our last island day, we ride the water taxi back to Caye Caulker, Miller’s stomping ground. We enjoy the mellow barefoot mood on the sandy main street. A squall moves in, and the beachfront vendors hustle to pack away rainbow-hued sarongs and strings of beads. For our last dinner of the trip we meet Miller at the Happy Lobster, curious to hear more of his take on the touris trade.

Cave relics
Ecotourism stems from the mindset of tourists as much as the number of recycling bins, Miller reminds us. That means when we travel, we must show gratitude and respect for the privilege of sharing other environments, cultures, landscapes and food. This attitude can pay off with access to amazing sights like the Aktun Tunichil cave system, where we visited on the first day of our trip.

Ten centuries before Miller started thinking about the sustainability of his guiding company, Mayan priests used the cave to appeal to a god for a balance between rain and sun. Danny, our guide, explains that, deep in the labyrinth, the Mayans prayed to Chaac, the sustainer.

The keyhole-shaped entrance to the cavern is draped with thick vines. Moss-covered boulders line the banks of the pool where we must swim to get inside the cave. We find our footing on a narrow ledge, one hundred feet past the entrance, and maneuver through a maze of stalactite-draped passages and sparkling caverns.

In the openings, 1,000-year old pots and bones are arranged around small sacrificial areas, including whole vessels, each one with a small piercing in the rim where a Mayan priest some thousand years before made an opening for the spirits believed to reside within.

At first look, the remains appear jumbled. But the ritual use of pottery may have included aligning the pots to mirror heavenly constellations, Danny explains. The caves themselves were part of the ceremonies as a place of emergence, he said.

Most archaeological evidence suggests that, along with symbolic offerings, dire times called for human sacrifice. Priests opened the chests of their victims to tear out a beating heart. The bones we see reflect the intent of the priests. Entire skeletons are covered with a thin layer of sparkly limestone, beautiful but grim. Other sacrificial victims were somehow tied to the cave walls and left to die in a certain body position meant to show intent to the gods, Danny says, as we view the skeletal remains of the Crystal Maiden.

Mainland Belize also has a rich collection of Mayan ruins. Early morning on our departure day, we hookup with Johnny, a hustling friend of Miller’s who runs a one-man taxi guide service out of the capital. As we speed north on the main highway, Johnny shows us pictures of his daughter on his cell phone while trying to keep the driver-side door closed with his left hand. By the time we’ve heard all the Ford (Fix-Or-Repair-Daily) jokes, we’re parked at Altun Ha, one of Belize’s important Mayan sites along with Caracol and Lamanai.

The ancient jungle cities stand tribute to the Mayan era. Along with human sacrifice, this era produced extensive trade signifying a well-developed economy. Arts, math and astronomy matching the levels of the Arab and Hindu worlds were prominent. Some of the older sites date back to 600 BC, and some were inhabited through 900 AD, spanning the entire range of the Mayans.

Johnny power-walks us through the old fortress and temples, making sure we stay just ahead of the throngs of bus passengers streaming in from the cruise ships anchored in the Belize harbor. It feels a little like a race, but we find a few spots where it’s quiet and we feel how the Mayans used the man-made mountains as look-outs to scour the jungle canopy for campfires or other signs of intrusion.

From the summit of the highest temple, it all seems so clear and orderly; the neat plazas and paths, giant steps leading up to perfectly proportioned plateaus. But it’s also a reminder that every edifice, every civilization is subject to decay and decline. Maybe Mayan civilization collapsed under the weight of civil and political strife as neighboring settlements battled each other for a scarce resource.

On the bumpy road back to the airport, we scarf down the last of the spicy chicken taquitos from the sidewalk vendor in Caye Caulker, our last taste of Belize on this trip. We wash them down with $10 see-you-later drinks at Jet’s Airport Bar in the departure hall before winging back to our snowy mountain home. All is well in the age of jet travel, as long as you have an open mind, a pair of flip-flops, a Bloody Mary in your hand and a smiling travel partner at your side.

Things to know about Belize before you go
Belikin Beeris served in tiny 10 ounce bottles, with very thick glass that help the brew stay cold. But be prepared to tilt the bottle up all the way and suck nothing but air — they go down quick and smooth.You can use U.S. Dollars to buy those Belikins; greenbacks are commonly accepted at a fixed two to one exchange rate. The language is English. As a Commonwealth country Belize currency features historic portraits of the British Queen.

Belize City isn’t touted by the guidebooks, but we stayed for two nights in the downtown Hotel Mopan, using the city as a jumping-off point for the cave tour at Aktun Tunichil Muknal. We enjoyed the scruffy but safe vibe of the port town, right down to quaffing beers alongside local fishermen and hookers at a canal-side red-light bar. Plus, it’s the only place we’ve been solicited for real estate by a sincere-sounding sidewalk salesman: “Pssst, you wanna buy 20 acres near the airport?”

The town is full of tumble-down clapboards, and since we’ve heard that Leo or some other celebrity has recently bought property in Belize, we fantasize about the interior mansions hidden behind the weathered façades. Since most coastal travel in Belize is by boat, the ferry terminal in the city is a central station of sorts, advertising connections via boats, planes and buses to many regional destinations. The well-stocked convenience store in the terminal will have anything you might have forgotten, from bottle-openers and batteries to ice-cold Belikins.

Stay away from Jet’s Bar in the Belize City airpor. It’s cozy enough, but beware. The charming owner will convince you he has the best Bloody Marys for miles around, but he won’t hit you up with the $10 bill until you’re running to your gate.

Caves and snakes: The deadly fer-de-lance lives in the tea-colored tropical Belizean rivers. Crossing the RoaringRiver crossing on our trek to the cave, the guide makes us all stand still while one of the zig-zag-backed serpents slithers out of the water and into a tree.

Aktun Tunichil Muknal is a two-hour drive, then a 45 minute hike from Belize City, in the Maya Mountain backcountry. Several tour companies run trips from the nearby town of San Ignacio, but PacZ tours picked us up at our Hotel in Belize City and offered first-class service and a friendly guide.
For cave tour info and reservations contact and check out this blog post on the cave.

The reef is a highlight of any Belize visit. We were thrilled by the low-key, personal and environmentally oriented snorkeling tour to Turneffe Atoll with Carlos Miller, based on Caye Caulker. And Amigos Del Mar Divers in San Pedro offer a full range of trips, including the standard half-day excursions to nearby Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley. Amigos del Mar. Carlos Miller’s Red Mangrove Eco Adventures.

According to the CIA’s world fact book, Belize is slightly smaller than Massachusetts, at about 22,966 square kilometers. Most of the mainland consists of a limestone bench covered with jungle scrub, rising to mountainous terrain on the western border with Guatemala. Mexico’s Yucatan region is to the north, with Honduras to the southeast.

Belize became part of the colony of British Honduras in 1854 and didn’t gain independence until 1981, a move delayed by territorial disputes with Guatemala. According to the CIA, four out of every 10 people has a cell phone.