Belize is breathtaking

In a canoe, a guide takes his charges through Barton Creek Cave in the Cayo District of Belize. (Dina Mishev)

ďFishingĒ for a tarantula ó using a twig to tease it out of the hole in the ground it calls home ó is cool by me, at least after I pull the thick sleeve of my rain jacket over my hand. But I draw the line at holding the scorpion spider that my guide, Alex Guzman, offers me. He had nonchalantly plucked it off its perch and it now rests in his palm, looking as sedate and nonvenomous as a spider the size of an adultís palm can look.

Itís still a spider, though. The size of my palm.

Except itís not a spider. Alex tells me this in an attempt to convince me that holding it isnít such a bad idea. ďSo itís a scorpion?Ē I ask. Iíd rather hold a spider. But itís not a scorpion, either. A scorpion spider is related to both spiders and scorpions, but is its own thing, which Alex assures me is not venomous. Whatever it is or isnít, thereís no question itís the size of my palm. Iím not sold.

My attention returns to the main attraction. Weíre in the front cavern of a cave in the limestone-rich Cayo District in west-central Belize. The undulating walls, ceiling and floor are cartoonish and otherworldly ó ďThe SnorksĒ on Mars ó and glisten with mineral-rich water. Itís impossible to see the entirety of the chamber weíre in at once; sight is limited to the areas that our headlamps illuminate. As amazing as the features illuminated by our lights is the utter darkness surrounding us when we switch them off.

Belize has thousands of caves, and the countryís antiquities laws ensure that most of them are under governmental control. The laws give the government jurisdiction over all archaeological sites, underground or above. No private individual can own an archaeological site ó which most of Belizeís caves are, because the Mayans used them extensively. But when you have a small cave ó which the one home to that scorpion spider is by Belizean standards ó in the middle of more than 50,000 privately owned acres, access is an issue.

There are many caves at Caves Branch Adventure Company and Jungle Lodge, the resort Iíve signed up with for this caving excursion and owner of the 58,000 acres in which this cave sits. Caves Branch, named for a river that flows through the property, has cabanas, bungalows, treehouses and a botanic garden. Wildlife roams free though all of it. Caves Branch offers activities including cave tubing, rappelling, birdwatching and an overnight jungle ad≠ven≠ture.

By the time we hit this unnamed cave, guides Alex and Rosa Montero, both in their 20s, have already taught me about several edible plants. They have built a passable dining table from bamboo. They have helped me hang my sleeping hammock. They have cooked dinner ó they brought food, allaying my fears that weíd have to forage for it ó and made hot tea from the bark of a tree. And they have taken me into another cave, one that requires swimming.

Rosa Montero, a guide, starts a cooking fire in the jungle belonging to Caves Branch resort. (Dina Mishev)

The Caves Branch River ďdisappearedĒ near our campsite and, after Alex and Rosa build the dining table, we walk down to investigate the disappearance. It turns out to be superficial; the river flowed into a kilometer-long underground cavern. We swim into it wearing our headlamps and, in most places, the water is too deep to touch bottom. I go in far enough that there was no hint of daylight. How do places like this exist outside of ďAvatarísĒ Pandora or ďStar Warsí Ē Endor?

I reluctantly sign up for the overnight jungle adventure. Individually, humidity, bugs and mud can put me in a bad mood. I donít know how I would do with all three simultaneously. Thirty minutes into it, I decide it is one of the coolest things Iíve ever done. I canít shake the feeling that we are explorers in a landscape no human had ever trod. We hack our way with machetes ó at least, Alex and Rosa do ó through dense jungle, slog through ankle-deep mud and wade across creeks and streams. The humidity is profound, I am covered in mud, and it is glorious. It reminds me of my very best days from childhood.

By the time we hit the scorpion spider cave, we are on our way back to the lodge ó the overnight jungle adventure is almost over. Alex and Rosa say they donít usually bring jungle adventurers to this cave, but since I have taken so well to dirt and mud, they offer it to me as extra credit.

They had whacked their way to this caveís entrance before, squeezed through the slot that opens into the front chamber and descended into the second cavern, where Alex found the spider. But neither has ever been past the second cavern. To do this, you must negotiate a 10-inch tall, shoulder-wide tunnel. ďIím not sure it goes anywhere or how long it is,Ē Alex says about the tunnel as I direct my headlamp at it.

Iím afraid of spiders, but not of confined spaces, and ask if we can check it out.

On my hands and knees in front of the tunnel, Iím still too tall. I lie down on my stomach and am able to put my head, arms and shoulders into the hole. The only way I fit is with my arms stretched out in front of me, not that thereís any room to move them. I briefly enjoy my Superman pose and then start thinking through how I might move along the tunnel on my stomach without the help of my arms or legs. I flex my feet and dig the toes of my shoes into the soft dirt. Then I point my toes and push. Flex, point and push. Flex, point and push. Iím no longer Superman, but a centipede. Except Iíve only got two feet instead of the 35 an average centipede has.

Guides Montero and Alex Guzman walk along the Caves Branch River, near where it flows into an underground cavern. (Dina Mishev)

I am impressed both with my problem-solving and the general awesomeness of our world. This is not an amusement-park ride or an exhibit in a museum. The creator and curator of this adventure is Mother Nature. If my smile gets any bigger, itíll get me stuck in this tunnel.

After Iím safely through and standing back on my feet, Alex follows. Moving my light around the new room, I spot a pile of something on the floor and walk over to examine it. Pottery shards. ďThe Maya must have used this cave for something,Ē Alex says. I ask him how old he thinks these artifacts are: ďThe Maya were in serious decline in the 10th century,Ē he says.

Forget Superman. I am Indiana Jones.

Alex is sure this cave has been explored and weíre not the first to find these relics. Ian Anderson, who developed and owns Caves Branch, previously offered week-long ďBad Ass ExpeditionsĒ around the property to explore and discover new Mayan sites. Still, stumbling upon a millennium-old artifact of a long-gone civilization in situ is thrilling. No glass protects the shards, which look like they came from a medium-sized urn. I can bend down and pick up a piece. But I donít.

Into the depths

Seeing and not touching the Mayan urn is good practice for the next part of my Belize adventure: scuba diving. The second-longest barrier reef in the world sits off the coast of Belize. It is home to 500 species of fish and 65 types of coral. For both my sake and the health of the reef, I donít want to touch its flora or fauna, especially the coral, which is sharp and easily broken by a kick from an errant swim fin.

A fleet of boats awaits lounging explorers at Ramonís Village Divers, one of the oldest guide firms in Belize. (Dina Mishev)

The Belize Barrier Reef runs the length of the country and down into northern Honduras. Itís 186 miles long and reportedly visible from space. (Only Australiaís Great Barrier Reef is longer.) In 1996, the Belize Barrier Reef was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The farther north on Belizeís coast you go, the closer the reef is to land. At San Pedro, the largest town on Ambergris Caye, itís a quarter-mile offshore. Further south, at Placencia, itís about 20 miles offshore. I like the convenience of diving from San Pedro.

Planning this trip, I wanted the clash of rain forest and reef because there arenít many places in the world (outside of hard-to-reach South Pacific islands) where the two are in such easy proximity. The flight from San Ignacio ó I recover from the overnight jungle adventure with a couple of nights of jungle luxe at Kaíana Resort ó to San Pedro is about 80 minutes in a Tropic Air prop plane. Ramonís Village Divers is directly opposite the San Pedro Airport and does three dive trips a day. Forty dive sites are within a 15-minute boat ride from its dock.

During my three days in San Pedro, I divide my time between diving and napping in the hammocks that Ramonís has strung up under palm trees on the beach. Each day, I walk to Belize Chocolate Company and get the gooiest brownie Iíve ever eaten. The big surprise in San Pedro is how much I think about the jungle. I planned this trip as a diving vacation with a side of jungle adventure. And the diving is good, but Iíve been diving before. Never before had I belly-crawled through a tunnel and found a shattered urn centuries older than the Magna Carta.

Maybe Iím mooning over the jungle because itís October and not April or May. If I was on Belizeís coast in the spring, I could have seen whale sharks, which migrate at that time. Iíve always wanted to see a whale shark. Theyíre the largest fish in the world; they can be close to 40 feet long. But October is when I have the time to travel. Whale sharks might not be around, but it turns out there are plenty of other fish, such as reef sharks, one of which I see on Day 2 at the Tackle Box dive site. My group of five divers and our divemaster hang suspended about 40 feet below the waterís surface watching as the shark, about five feet long, lazily fins around us.

A reef shark glides along the bottom at the Tackle Box dive site on the 186-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef. (Dina Mishev)

On land, Iím a sucker for big wildlife. But while diving, I prefer the micro for its predictability (unless the macro is a whale shark). Coral and colorful, small fish are almost always around, but mantas, hammerhead sharks and turtles are in shorter supply. The Belize Barrier Reef has coral of all shapes and sizes. Some look like brains, others like fans, still others like organ pipes. After several minutes of watching the reef shark doing lots of nothing ó they are more active at night ó I turn to the coral.

Giant fans sway back and forth in a deep current that I cannot feel. A brain coral is the size of an SUV. Parrotfish, rock beauties, yellowtail snappers, blue tangs and horse-eye jacks are everywhere. A school of the latter dances around us for several minutes. The divemaster points out a camouflaged fish in the sand at the bottom of a mound of coral. It might be the ugliest fish Iíve ever seen. Since I do not know its name I give it one: warty barnaclefish.

You canít talk underwater, but the divemaster makes it clear with hand gestures that I should not try to touch this creature. Or even get close to it. This is fine by me.

Back on the boat, Iím curious as to what my warty barnaclefish really is. ďItís a spotted scorpionfish. It has spines that are very venomous,Ē he says. ďBut itís not really a scorpion, or even related to one.Ē Maybe Belizeís reef isnít as different from its rain forest as it would seem.

Mishev is editor of Inspirato magazine.

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