Bicycling to Mayan temples
Spot jungle wildlife and soak up history as you pedal around beautiful Belize
Michael de Jong, 41, is a Toronto native who is known in international bicycling circles as founder of the 7,200-mile, 100-day Tour d'Afrique (Cape Town to Cairo). He is based in Placencia, Belize, where he owns the Placencia Hotel.
Q. You started the Cape Town-to-Cairo Tour d'Afrique (from South Africa to Egypt) in 2003. Talk about the Central American bike trek you launched this year.
It's called templetotemple.com -- the same name as its Web site --and it starts at one of the oldest Mayan temples in the south of Belize, Luban Tuum, which is near Punta Gorda. From there it zigzags through Belize, stopping at different temples and other scenic spots each night -- beachfront towns, temples, waterfalls, caves -- and ends up at the Caracol Temple. That's one of the largest Belezian Mayan temples.
Normally you can't camp at that temple, but we got permission to stay there the night. There's no modern development around there, and it was like going back in time. You'd hear the howler monkeys at night. We had yoga sessions under the stars. It was a spiritual experience -- maybe that's why the Mayans picked the spot.
The next tour here is Jan. 28, 2007.
Q. What do you ride on? Jungle trails?
Mostly fairly wide gravel roads -- maybe 7 feet across. It's not like you're messing with a nasty environment. It's fairly safe, and you can tour at your leisure. You don't have to hop over rivers or that kind of stuff.
Q. Belize is on the Mosquito Coast. Do you steer your bike with one hand and swat bugs with the other?
This isn't close to a U.S. camping experience. Belize has a rainy season without much wind; the sand flies are more annoying then than mosquitoes. The mosquitoes at lakes in summer in the United States and Canada are way worse.
Even when you're not riding here, you're not swatting anything.
Q. You see animals on the bike trek?
On, yeah. The area is known for jaguars, but they're nocturnal animals and hard to spot. You see macaws and lots of parrots -- an incredible number of birds. And howler monkeys. Somebody saw a tapir. Some people sitting on a beach saw a couple manatees roll by.
Q. How long was the trek?
It was approximately 450 miles and took seven days, round trip. We end up at Placencia, at the residence hotel.
Placencia is a whole community; we're on a peninsula about 11 miles long where people built residences -- American lifestyle places with luxuries and all that stuff. The whole peninsula has private beach homes and little hotels. (Film director) Francis Ford Coppola has a place.
The hotel is right on the beach.
Q. So you've got this high-luxury area right on the edge of the jungle?
We like to call it "going uncivilized without going uncivilized." You can live in pristine beauty. Unlike at Cancun (Mexico), you're not competing with people on the beach; it's not one hotel after another. On the beach, you'll see manatees in the water, but no jet-skis. No ships on the horizon. In that sense, it's a virgin area -- a community for people who like this kind of microclimate.
You've got mountains, ocean, rivers and jungle all within an hour of each other. Each place has its own dock; you can bring your boat to your front door. It's like Florida, but not overpopulated.
Q. How do you get there?
You can fly to international airport and drive to hotel. Or take a small commuter plane. Or come by boat.
Q. What about the hotel you own -- how many rooms?
Right now, 42. In December, there'll be 90. High season for all Belize is December through mid-February.
Q. Who's going there?
Mostly people who bought residences or condos. Maybe 80 percent American, 10 percent Canadian and 10 percent British.
We get more visitors than buyers. It's a condo hotel. That's a concept that started in Florida. You can own hotel rooms or suites and stay there for six months; it's rented when you're not there.
Q. Sounds like a timeshare.
With that, you own time there. With this, you have title to the property, plus revenue whenever someone stays there.
Q. What do you do for groceries, TV and all that stuff?
The resort hotel has the largest pool in Belize, a spa, room service and so on. There are three restaurants and the whole place is wi-fi enabled. It's luxury in a virgin place. You can be outside the U.S. and still be connected.
Q. What do the locals think of this? They like it, I think. There's so little development here, and this is the only place for jobs in the area. The town has maybe 600 inhabitants. But the lagoon is becoming a destination for scuba diving and fly fishing. People are migrating here from other parts of Belize for jobs.
Q. Belize used to be a British colony. It's also in Central America. What do the people sound like?
They speak Caribbean English; it sounds like something in Jamaica. If they see someone obviously not from here, they'll speak pretty good English, not with a heavy accent. If they say something to each other they don't want you to understand, it sounds like they're speaking pig Latin.
The literacy rate in Belize is 95 percent, and education is based on the British school system.
Q. How far is Placencia from the Mayan ruins?
It's maybe 45 to 55 miles to the first temple, Nim Lit, which is fairly decent size. Temples run all the way south to Punta Gorda and Guatemala, southeast of Belize. North, they go all the way to Cancun and Mulum in Mexico. Belize is one of the hearts of Mayan civilization. There's lots of cool history. Some temples are excavated; some are completely raw. Walking along paths, you can find stuff.
Q. What have you found?
When I first came here I had a farm, and I had to build a bridge across this water. I found some Mayan warriors carved out of jade, and serving trays and little boat ornaments made of jade. http://www.charlotte.com/mld/observer/living/travel/15430688.htm