For my 40th birthday, I was toying around with the idea of a long weekend with friends somewhere like Nashville, Asheville, or New Orleans. But when tickets came up to Belize for $350 round trip, well, plans changed. Melissa (who turns 40 just six weeks after me) and I snapped up that deal and started planning caving expeditions, hikes, beach time, and snorkeling. It was a magnificent trip! Everyone should go. Belize is beautiful, safe, exciting, uncrowded, and filled with some of the most genuine and friendly people in the world. Here are seven highlights from my seven days.
1. Gonzo’s Guide to Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
The ATM cave is not to be missed. Although, if you don’t go soon, you might miss it because there are rumblings about closing it to tourists in the interest of preservation. I’ve never done any spelunking, and this wasn’t exactly that either, but it certainly wasn’t your average Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Caves tourist experience. We swam through rivers, both in and out of the cave, squeezed through crevasses, climbed boulders, and needed helmets and headlamps to get to the ancient Mayan chambers 50 meters above the cave river. Our guide, Gonzo, worked there as an archaeologist for several years, and he filled our heads with amazing tales of the people who used to hold ceremonies and the people who were sacrificed in those chambers. Hundreds of years of calcification have taken over the ancient pottery and bones, half burying them in an ever rising floor. The “crystal maiden” (most likely a 17ish year old male disemboweled by Aztec invaders) lies in rest at the end of the journey, calling to you from another era, another world.
2. El Pilar and the Marijuana Stash
I’ve seen a lot of beautiful, restored Mayan ruins in Guatemala and Honduras, so the idea of going to a remote site where the ruins remain largely unexcavated held a lot of appeal. The visit to El Pilar became all the more exciting when we realized we were the only ones there and would remain so throughout our visit with only a single, college-aged ranger checking on us for safety from time to time. We roamed among the mounds of dirt and leaves and trees that hid the buildings from the village that previously housed 20,000 people. We climbed into and around the bits that were exposed, imagining what the town looked like when it was populated. And we found a secret treasure. A little black box on the path down from one of the bird watching posts, near one of the only buildings that was fully accessible. I picked it up, pried it open, and laughed out loud when I realized it was full of marijuana. I looked around, certain this was some kind of set up like you see in the movies, that at any moment los federales would burst out from among the tree cover and arrest us and we’d end up in an overcrowded jail cell for the next five years while the state department and our distraught parents sought desperately to prove our innocence. But no one was around, not even the ranger. Melissa, much more knowledgeable in weed consumption than I, examined it and declared it was pretty low-grade but she’d still smoke it if she had a pipe with her. Since she did not, and I absolutely refused to put it in our rental car, we propped it up against a handrailing where we hoped the rightful owner could find and enjoy it, and then we continued on our way.
3. Spooking the Tourists at St. Herman’s Cave
Most people who visit St. Herman’s Cave opt to go tubing with a guide down the river back to the entrance of the park. Melissa and I weren’t interested, so we walked to the cave on our own and then several hundred feet into the unlit cave to the point where the river pools and you must be with a guide to go any further. We had passed a small group of tourists on the way and knew they would reach the chamber where we sat in a few moments. So, naturally, we turned off our lights and sat there in total darkness and silence. When the guide came round the corner, he swept the chamber with his flashlight one way and then another. Then, his light landed on us and he shrieked. It was awesome. We couldn’t stop laughing and, fortunately, he was good-natured about it and laughed too. After the tour group continued on their way, we stripped down and got in the river to swim. We got our bearings and a feel for the depth and width of the natural pool. Then, we turned our headlamps off again and swam a few moments in the pitch black abyss. Floating in water with what is arguably my most essential sense taken away was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It’s what I imagine being lost in outer space would be like.
4. Falls and Falling Branches in Billy Barquedier National Park
Billy Barquedier is a tiny national park that you might completely miss as you whiz past on the Hummingbird Highway. And even if you do pull into the parking area that can only accommodate three cars, you’d be forgiven for thinking the old man standing watch is just someone stealing your money, rather than an actual park official. Until you talk to him, that is, and realize that he, like just about all Belizeans, is a warm-hearted, helpful, and friendly person without a scamming bone in his body. He knows all about the trails and wants to make sure you get back safely. And, when you do, he might even offer you a delicious pear and ask to take your photos for the park’s nascent social media presence. We did the waterfall hike and had the gorgeous pool all to ourselves. At least, until we were walking back and heard a terrible racket in the trees, like workmen were pruning and tearing down branches. We froze. Poachers? A panther? The noise was unbelievably loud and close. When the branches started raining down on us, we looked up and saw that our tormenter was a lone monkey having a little fun at our expense.
5. The Day I Turned 40 on a Private Beach in Dangriga
I’ve previously written about some cool AirBnB places. This one joins the list now. The accommodations are very basic, but when you are on a beach two miles outside the nearest town with no one else around, what else do you need but a large screened in porch for eating tamales and drinking wine with a good friend? The warm ocean waves crash rhythmically a few feet away, all day and all night, beckoning you to spring out of bed with the first light and plunge in, just as you are. Which is exactly what I did when I woke up in a new decade of my life.
6. The Glow Fish and the Witch’s Brew
A new moon makes for a deep, dark sky that opens up the universe of stars above you. The bioluminescent effect in the lagoon on the north end of Hopkins mimics those stars as the fish jump across the water, leaving streaks of gold in their wake. The boat, too, appears to be illuminated from beneath as it moves through the otherwise navy blue liquid depths. It’s impossible to resist the urge to lean over and skim your fingers along the surface, becoming mesmerized by the stardust trails left behind. And when the boat stops and the tour guide hands out paddles for fun, you swirl, swirl, swirl the water into a potion of bright color and light, stirring up a cauldron of magic.
7. On the Catamaran with Carlos, Juan, and Benny
Snorkeling tours on Caye Caulker are a dime a dozen, but only one is on a catamaran with the best three tour guides I’ve ever had. Carlos dives deep in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve to point out turtles, manta rays, sharks, and beautiful fish of all kinds. He also cracks ridiculous jokes all day long. Juan watches out for your safety, expertly mans the sails, is always asking around to make sure everyone is having fun and to see if anyone needs anything. He also serves up chum to the nurse sharks so you can swim with them and killer rum punch to the passengers so they can get a little silly at the end of the day. Benny makes the best chicken and rice lunch I’ve ever had and is pretty damn easy on the eyes. Somehow, this trio strips away the tour guide/tourist relationship and makes you feel like you’re all just out there having a great day on the ocean together. This was the perfect last day activity.