Writer Cindy Ross is in good hands as her guide gets ready to catch her at the end of a zipline in Belize.
JUST THE FACTS
CARACOL, BELIZE—As soon as we exit the jeep and enter the jungle, howler monkeys squawk high in the palms. Weaver birds zip by with grass in their mouths. Massive banyans engulf neighbouring trees with their strangling vines. Humongous ferns spring from the jungle floor. And in the distance, the stone pyramids of Belize’s Caracol rise out of the greenery as if they, too, are struggling for light above the canopy.
I am in another world, the Mayan world. Not much has changed over the last 600 years, except the passing of time. My friend Steve and I are here to celebrate this, as Dec. 21, 2012 will mark the end of the Mayan calendar and the beginning of a new age. What better place to consider the future of our planet than by spending time with the spirits of the Mayans, and their descendants today.
To climb up the 130-foot pyramid, Sky Place, I step high, lifting one foot at a time. It is steep. Sweat pours from my skin with the speed of water gushing out of a faucet. From the crown, the view of the Belizian mountains is spectacular. A breeze wicks my dripping skin. Human sacrifices were regularly held up here, the victim’s heart gouged out while still alive and then the bodies thrown down the steps, their vivid blood dying the white limestone red.
Down below in the grass courtyard, our tents are set up. In the early morning, I will take part in a more humane celebration with Mayan shamans and priestesses. A fire containing aromatic herbs and spices, gathered from the forest will be burned while prayers are said, requests are pleaded for, and thanks are conveyed to the Mayan gods.
Solstices and equinoxes have always been extremely important to the Mayan people, but this year especially holds special significance. Their calendar is ending. It is the end of the Long Count — a 5,125-year period, which began on Aug. 11, 3114 B.C. and will end on a winter solstice.
Perhaps not so much an end, modern reasoning has claimed, but the beginning of a new era for humanity. As Belizean archaeologist, Dr. Awe said, “It’s very much the way most people would look at the end of one year and the beginning of another, but over a very, very long period of time. It is a time for reflection, and for considering future direction.”
Throughout Mexico and Central America (Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico), you can participate in memorable Mayan ceremonies, learn from archeologists, become cleansed by shamans, get to know the warm and gracious Mayas of today and make a serious memory in your own life history
The Winter Solstice is a great reason to plan a visit, but there are many other reasons to seek this Caribbean destination and many involve the natural world. After Caracol, we head to the fascinating Cave Branch area where the limestone caves are located.
Leaf cutter ants climb high in the trees of the Belizean jungle to get the choicest leaf leaves. They walk in long lines, their cargo hoisted on their backs, like slaves in a chain gang. Coming and going, they march along our branch banister as we climb up to the next zip lining platform in the thick jungle. Since the jungle is thick, this activity allows you the freedom to move above it and look down into it, gain a different perspective. I could stay and watch the ants, as they seem like a sideshow and are nearly as entertaining as zip-lining.
A Mayan ruin called Xunantunich in the middle of Belize has been beautifully restored.
To zip line, we wear helmets and leather gloves with heavy flaps on the palms that act as a brake shield. It all feels extremely safe. We are zipping with a company called Discovery Expeditions, which offers multiple excursions around the country, into the interior and also on San Pedro Island where Steve and I will finish up our trip.
It is steamy here. The air is thick and heavy with moisture. You can zip nearly anywhere in the world now, it seems, but not above gigantic palm trees and wild orchids and critters like leaf cutter ants.
We fly up to 500-foot lengths, and sometimes a little over 50 km/h. If you hold the line back too far, it can yank your shoulder out if you brake too hard. The best way is to relax and let it glide, positioned right behind your head. I love feeling like Tarzan (or Jane) flying above the Belizean treetops.
Right after we zip down nine different stretches, we walk over to the Caves Branch Outpost and get ready to inner tube down the crystal clear limestone river. We are able to experience the jungle from yet another perspective — this time through it, along flowing water, and the famous limestone waterway that extends a full 14 kilometres.
Our guide, Oscar, wears paddles on his hands to help steer me. He holds onto my tube when we travel in the dark through the caves and tells me about the bats and the rock formations and how the ceiling “break down” allows for natural light to penetrate and also creates more put-in locations. We are only tubing a few of the 14 kilometres which has me planning another trip to experience the whole length, next time in a kayak.
A shaman prays to the Mayan gods during a ceremony on the early morning of the Solstice. In the fire burns aromatic herbs, spices and plants gathered from the forest.
Hearing the rapids roaring ahead but not seeing anything in the pitch blackness is a strange sensation. Oscar assures me that we are safe and will remain away from the cave wall. He holds onto my tube, regardless. The sound bounces off the limestone walls as we rock and roll through the waves.
SAN PEDRO, AMBERGRIS CAYE
Although mainland Belize has enough wonder to keep you happily occupied for your entire vacation, an island excursion is always worthwhile. Time seems to move slower on islands, showing you a way of living more typical of decades ago.
Our main activity at San Pedro, a town on Ambergris Caye is to boat out to a forty-foot-long mobile dive base where we’ll learn how to Sea Trek with Discovery Expeditions. A 65-pound helmet is lowered onto our shoulders. It is connected to a tube that pumps a fixed flow rate of air into it, like an inverted cup. Once underwater, it only weighs a dozen pounds and as long as we remain fairly upright, no water can enter underneath the open helmet. We walk the ocean floor, twelve feet down among the coral reef. With 200 unbroken miles, it is the second-longest living barrier reef in the world. It is loaded with waving sea fans, brain, elk horn and rod corals and brilliantly coloured fish. Nurse sharks and ribbony eels swim by us. Great schools of blue tangs engulf us as we hand out a piece of dead fish for them to pick.
Sea Trekking is great fun but the simple pleasures of island life create the most lasting memories for me. One morning, Steve and I get up early from the Banyon Bay Hotel to take some pictures. The hotel offers complimentary bikes for all visitors.
When you ride a bicycle around San Pedro, you have a better chance of blending in with the locals. Your bike will not have gears, and you will brake by pedalling backwards as you did when you were a kid. I learn to ride in the gutters, by watching the locals, for the streets are paved with stones and quite bumpy. Riding a bike allows me to wave easier, stop at a roadside stand for some fresh pineapple slices and coconut juice, hop off to take a picture, and chat it up. I have to dodge the 3,000 golf carts which motor up and down the 10 miles of roads on San Pedro. On the street by the airport are dozens of golf carts, which function as island taxis.
We ride down one morning to the wharf where the fisherman unload their catch, clean their fish and throw back the guts and heads, completing the food cycle. Huge tarpon, reaching up to 6 feet long, mosey into the shallows. Fruit is sold and loaded onto bikes. When a rain shower comes, we duck under a canopy where half a dozen men are lounging and they welcome us to hang with them.
It’s 8 a.m. They offer us some Belizian rum, which they pour into cups and mix with water. “You can’t drink it straight, it’ll kill you,” they warn. Steve and I decline. The owner of the open “carport home,” lies on a massive reclining chair which doubles as his bed. His buddies sit around on a bench, sipping and talking and laughing. Some of them take turns standing by the water and dumping buckets over themselves after lathering up. The rain rinses them.
The man who owns the carport has a rosary around his neck as a necklace. Many in San Pedro are deeply religious. He tells us of his half dozen children who live around the world or are attending universities When the sun breaks through, Steve and I make the rounds and shake everyone’s free hand (the other holds a cup) to say goodbye. They invite us back the next morning.
“We’ll be on a plane back to the mainland,” we decline, as we step on a pedal and get ready to ride away. “You’re always welcome,” our new friends yell to us.