Shadows flicker on the cave walls as I first walk, then slip and finally slide on my rear down the mud-slick passageway, toward the center of the Earth. I squeeze past boulders...
Shadows flicker on the cave walls as I first walk, then slip and finally slide on my rear down the mud-slick passageway, toward the center of the Earth. I squeeze past boulders, climb rebar ladders and grasp knotted rope lines in an attempt to stay upright. Then I round a bend and stop, speechless.
Illuminated in the dim glow of my headlamp are scores of large ceramic pots, scattered on the dirt floor and lined up on high ledges some clay-colored, most burnished deep brown, many more than two feet in diameter. They lie just as they were set down by the Mayans centuries ago in this little-known cavern in the mountains of western Belize.
Two days later, I’m snorkeling off the coast of Ambergris Caye, nearly spitting out my mouthpiece in amazement. I’ve swum the waters of half a dozen Caribbean islands, but never before have I seen such a vast array of marine life in one place. Rainbow parrotfish and yellowtail snappers, blue-spotted damsels and striped sergeant majors, four-foot nurse sharks and playful stingrays I feel like an extra in a Discovery Channel special. In Belize, you’re speechless a lot. Get used to it.
This Central American country tucked between Mexico and Guatemala has long been popular with the backpack set. It’s known mainly for its spectacular barrier reef at 185 miles the longest in the Western Hemisphere and a lifestyle so laid back it’s practically prone. But now more and more U.S. travelers are discovering the country’s inland activities as well. Belize’s lush tropical rain forests are home to a host of soft adventure options jungle trekking, birding, canoeing, rafting, horseback riding and exploring ancient Mayan ruins. With a peaceful, stable government, a friendly English-speaking populace and a favorable exchange rate, this former British colony (it won independence in 1981) makes an excellent Caribbean alternative for travelers who want a little history and adventure with their sun.
I want to experience both surf and turf, so a friend and I have planned to spend a couple of days at a jungle lodge in the country’s western reaches, then head east to explore the fabled Ambergris Caye for three more days. This way, I figure, we’ll have plenty of time to sample all the myriad attractions the country has to offer.
I am so wrong.
A river, some ruins, some rum
The bad news about the Mopan River Resort is that it takes a long time to get there. The good news is that when you finally walk in the door, you’re handed a Banana Velvet. This concoction of rum, bananas, coconut cream, orange juice and pineapple juice loosens many a tongue during cocktail hour each night at this all-inclusive hotel in the Cayo district of western Belize.
Ordinarily I’m not partial to all-inclusives, but this one offers good value compared with going à la carte, and its location near the Guatemalan border means a day trip to the Mayan ruins at Tikal is possible. Plus, the place is gorgeous. It’s set on 10 verdant, manicured acres on the Mopan River, with 12 luxury cabanas amid flower gardens and coconut palms. A swimming pool with waterfall, 20-foot bird-watching tower and artfully displayed Mayan artifacts add to the effect.
The village of Benque Viejo (“Old Bank”), by contrast, is rustic and rural, with painted concrete houses, chickens wandering dirt roads and beautiful, glossy-haired children splashing in the river. The resort is reachable only by boat, so we pile onto a wooden flat-bottom raft for the five-minute ride downstream. The Mopan is a great-looking river, slow-moving and impossibly, impenetrably green, overhung with trees and vines, its banks dotted with villagers’ wooden canoes and the odd iguana. It’s what you always imagined a river in the jungle would look like.
Heart of the underworld
Chechem Ha cave, eight miles from Mopan in the Maya Mountains, isn’t listed in many guidebooks, and with luck it will stay that way. It was discovered 15 years ago by a local teenager whose dog headed into a hole at the top of a mountain and led his master to incredible sights.
Today William Morales, 32, leads visitors through the cave he found, retracing his steps as he tries to explain the emotions he felt that day.
“This is not a killer hike unless we want to make it that way,” Morales says solemnly. So we take it slow, zigzagging around the mountain for about a mile, Morales pointing out the sights: a mimosa plant that curls up when you touch it, a mahogany tree, a chartreuse cedar fern, a foot-high termite mound, an exquisite blue morpho butterfly. We stop to marvel at a huge strangler fig that is slowly but surely killing off a hapless palm tree.
And the flowers! Wild begonias with leaves the size of hubcaps line the path, and there are huge stands of delicate maidenhair ferns the kind I pay $12.49 a pot for at my nursery.
As we approach the cave, at 1,600 feet, Morales talks about the day he discovered it. “When I first saw that big hole going down, I didn’t know what to think. Then I went inside and started finding pieces of pottery. Then all of a sudden I found big ceramics.
“I looked behind me. … I felt like there was somebody still there. The way everything was all arranged, all displayed … it was like a nightmare. You sweat cold and you get goose bumps all over.”
The Maya believed caves had strong connections to the underworld, and they came here to perform religious rituals and purification ceremonies, including bloodletting. Some pots were used to hold offerings; others were burial urns. Inside the cave, their pottery is everywhere. Some pots are placed upside down, broken into from the bottom; others stand upright with fitted lids. For the most part they’re unadorned, but one features a bas-relief of a monkey.
Moving on, we pass a 100,000-year-old stalactite, climb down a narrow chute and find ourselves in a chamber about 80 feet high. In the middle of this room is an altar a ring of stones surrounding a stone monument. The ceiling is blackened from long-ago fires.
“This was their cathedral,” Morales says. “The deeper you go, the closer to the gods of the underworld you are. We’ve made it to the heart of the underworld.”
Wonders beneath the sea
On Ambergris, it’s all about what’s underwater. So our first morning here, we sign up for a snorkel trip to Hol Chan Park and Shark Ray Alley, about a 15-minute speedboat ride away.
As I watch the psychedelic parade of marine life passing before my face mask, I think that my time at Hol Chan is the most amazing snorkeling experience of my life. But then we get to the watery neighborhood known as Shark Ray Alley, where nurse sharks and stingrays like to hang out. For whatever reason, they allow us to pet and caress them. I feel we’ve made a connection, although I know their friendliness has a lot to do with the chum that the aptly named Genie, our magician-like, gold-chain-wearing captain, throws out.
Later I ask Genie to help me identify some of the fish we’ve seen. He rattles off several dozen names if I had a life list for fish, it would be in the triple digits. He’s most excited about the four spotted eagle rays we saw swimming together, not a common sight. Then he shakes his head. “Didn’t see no trumpetfish. They’re my favorite. I always look for them.”
No problem. There’s always tomorrow.