Jungle zipline is latest tourist attraction
From the vantage point of Belize City, the cruise ship business consists of endless boat-loads of visitors who disembark at the Tourism Village and wander the old capital in search of its virtues and vices. But while many cruise tourists opt for the city life, a majority choose to head out for more adventurous attractions. These include the reef and cayes, ancient Mayan sites, and of course, the rainforest... where hiking, mountain biking, and cave tubing await those fit enough for the challenge. And now, alongside those popular experiences comes the latest in jungle adventure. This morning I headed up the Western Highway to the resort known as Jaguar Paw where before long, I felt like the proverbial cat up a tree.
With cruise passenger arrivals mushrooming from just a couple thousand, five years ago to nearly a million expected this year, the industry has become a major player in Belize's tourism industry.
"But with that rapid growth comes concern of overloading traditional tourist sites. That's why Belizean entrepreneurs have been busy developing new attractions."
And this is Belize's newest attraction. It's called ziplining and it's a rush of pure adrenaline at seventy feet up in the air.
Harrison Santos, Lead Guide, Aerial Trek
"We have eight platforms, six cable runs, taking to about an hour and a half to two hours pretty much the whole tour."
On the ground, our guides get us geared up. Lead guide Harrison Santos says the most important element of his tour is the safety.
"You guys don't do anything. You are going to be clipped on at all times. If you are afraid of heights, you will be clipped on at all times to your tree, not even a spilt second you will be off clip. So if you are afraid of heights, we do ask if you are afraid of heights, if you are really scared, we can take you along and we also have ropes in which we can descend you guys down from any of the platforms."
Our trip starts with a short uphill hike to the first platform. Using experience and engineering from experts in Central America and the United States, Aerial Trek has constructed a series of wooden platforms connected by metal cables. But before we go hurtling through the air, we have to know how to stop.
"One hand goes here, the other hand goes here, this is what you gonna stop with, this is your brake. Open-handed, you gonna put pressure on the cable that way."
George Ramirez, Lead Guide
"I'll be giving you signals like this which means to brake or slow down. And you are not braking enough I'll be yelling brake, brake which means you need to apply pressure on the brake, all right?"
While most of the platforms average about thirty feet off the ground, platform number three is a little higher...and longer
"Is one of the longest ones; it's about three hundred feet, pretty much close to three hundred feet. And the third one, we are now at our third platform, it is seventy to seventy-five feet high, one of our highest also. We also have some others that are little high, but again this is--on the long you don't have to brake that much because the sag has kinda eased down when you get to the other end"
"Most of the time we get people braking too much on this run and they stop at the middle, so we gotta jump on the cable and go rescue them."
And because you might find out you are scared of heights in the middle of a cable run, these guides have also been trained to rescue a stranded and scared passenger. And in this drill, they demonstrate how quickly they can reach someone and bring them to safety.
But today, everything goes according to plan and we arrive at the last platform without incident. Here, customers even get in a little rappelling to get back on the ground...
"You have both hands on the rope and you can sit down on that harness...We have a person below in case she is going too fast, she pulls on the rope and that can stop the person that's lowering at any time. Once she pulls on the rope she can also stop them from going all the way very fast."
For Aerial Trek's owners, ziplining will skyrocket into a popular destination for local tourists and foreigners alike.
David Gegg, Cruise Solutions
"I think the way to overcome some of the criticism that the industry has faced is to create diversity in the product and we can do that without impacting our archaeological heritage or the Barrier Reef."
Construction of the facility began this past February and required creative building techniques.
"The platforms are built in some cases seventy feet up in the trees and the platforms are all local hardwoods which are very heavy, so it was quite a task getting them from ground, cut in specific sizes, up into the trees. The builder was literally hanging from the trees when he was installing the platforms and cables. It took about eight weeks to complete the build."
Aerial Trek currently employs ten full time guides but by the time cruise tourism kicks into high gear again in October, the company says they will have to hire up to twenty people to handle the crowds.
Ziplining prerequisites: an adventurous spirit...a love of the outdoors... and of course, you have to fit into the harness.
According to Aerial Trek, the price for Belizeans to go on the zipline tour is fifteen Belize dollars. For more information, please contact Discovery Expeditions at their offices in Belize City at telephone number 223-0748.