Brett and I just spent 11 days in Belize. We were on an REI Travel trip; Belize Ultimate Multisport Adventure. Our Maya guides called us “The Ultimates”. I highly recommend this adventure. Every single day was amazing. Brett and I had never done anything like this. Each adventure from landing in the Belize City Airport to camping in the jungle was an eye opening experience. Although we did many cool things like snorkeling, sea kayaking, paddle boarding, inflatable kayaking and caving and stayed in forest cabanas, beach cabanas and two man tents; what made this trip so spectacular was the local Maya guides.
We rotated through Juan Carlos, Mario, Valencio and Pedro. They were all very passionate and proud of their culture. They knew dates, statistics, history, animals, plants and trees and they took pride in sharing this information with our group of eleven North Americans. The official language of Belize is English, but among themselves, the locals speak a Kriol (that’s how they spell it) of English, Spanish and words from an ancient language. There wasn’t a language barrier although the dialect proved to be challenging. I thought they were offering a hummus sandwich but it was actually a ham sandwich. My mistake caused a genuine, loud, long, heart felt, contagious deep belly laugh from the Maya guide. The Maya were happy, easy going, laid back and real. They were what made this trip an unforgettable experience.
Juan Carlos was our first guide. He picked us up from the airport and took us to the Nature Center where we stayed in forest cabanas which were like staying in a screened in porch. We had our meals in the dinning hall; just a bigger screened in porch. Someone in our group compared it to summer camp. Juan Carlos gave us a talk on the history of Belize, formerly know as British Honduras and answered our questions. He prepped us on our cave tour for the next day with what to wear and why we couldn’t bring cameras. We met very early the next morning for the cave tour as Juan Carlos wanted to beat the crowds so that we could enjoy it more. It was a bit of a drive to the trail head and then a 30 minute hike to the cave entrance. We wore long pants, shirts, closed toes shoes (I wore a pair of old running shoes), headlamps, helmets, and life jackets. Juan Carlos carried a dry bag backpack with safety supplies and a machete. Now I wish we had been able to have a camera. We jumped into the river and swam to the entrance of the cave. From there we were anywhere from ankle deep to almost swimming deep while going farther into the cave. In some places we were squeezing our necks between narrow openings in the rocks and in other places the cave was as big as the Duke Cathedral. Along the way we saw many Maya artifacts and human remains while Juan Carlos told us all he knew about the cave and it’s ancient uses.
After returning to the trail head and having a picnic lunch, Juan Carlos drove us to Dangria where we met our next Maya guide Mario and our white guy guide Todd from Great Britain. Then a boat trip to the five acre island of Tobacco Caye where we stayed in small cabins that were also like screened in porches but a little more beefy due to the constant wind, sand and salt. Here we learned to snorkel and sea kayak. You could tell that Mario was at home in the water. He could stay under forever, swam like a fish and knew all of the names of the sea plants and animals. He used fins and a mask but no snorkel. He would just hold his breath, dive down, point out things with his pointer stick, swim back to the surface and yell out the name of what he just pointed out. We could all hear him because our heads were just on the surface of the water watching.
After snorkeling and before dinner Mario gave us a coconut talk. He climbed straight up a 30 foot coconut tree with only his hands and feet touching the tree and he was up in 15 seconds He twisted the coconuts until they fell from the tree onto the sand. White guy guide Todd tired to climb the tree too. He used his whole body to cling to the tree and slowly and painfully inched his way up, twisted a few coconuts and painfully slid back down. He then headed to his room to tend to his wounds. Meanwhile Mario told us about all of the uses of the coconut. He cut into the shell with his machete where you find the brown fuzzy nut that you see in the grocery store. He sliced off the top and poured the coconut water into one of the pitchers that we had borrowed from the kitchen. Our talk would be concluded with coconut water and rum cocktails. Mario sliced open the coconut and we all got to try the fresh coconut. He shredded some through a hand crank shredder and we tried that. Then he mixed the shredded coconut with the coconut water to make coconut milk which they use in the kitchen. It was a an hour long coconut talk and it was fascinating.
At our next Island of Southwest Caye at Glover’s Atoll we were joined by another Maya guide, Valencio; Mario’s cousin. Valencio helped with the snorkeling and other water activities for our two days of exploring Glover’s Atoll. Another boat ride took us back to the mainland where there was a van waiting to pick us up. We said good bye to Mario and hello to Mario’s brother Pedro. Pedro drove us to a beautiful lodge where we got our first hot shower and were able to wash away the sand and salt of the ocean. The next morning we rode for a couple of hours and down a long bumpy dirt rode, through several villages and eventually arrived at Pedro and Valencio’s village. Pedro took us to his home for a bathroom break. His home was a long hut with a thatched palm leave roof, a concrete floor, wooden walls that had been made with a chain saw, an open fire pit for cooking and hammocks for sleeping. There were no interior walls, no electricity, no running water. We had more stuff in our luggage than these people had in there home. The chickens came in and out as they pleased, but the pigs remained in the yard. Pedro’s wife and 3 of his 11 children were in the home and watched silently as Pedro gave us a tour. The tour just meant standing still and turning your head as he pointed things out. He took us out back behind the house down a short path to the place to use for a toilet. A hole in the ground with a wooden box over the hole and a toilet seat on top of the wooden box. The walls were palm leaves and there was a piece of plastic acting as a door.
From Pedro’s house we walked through the village of 400 plus people and to the community center where the women and girls had set up a craft sell for our group of eleven. Everything was laid out on the floor on blankets and the women and girls sat on the floor next to their crafts. We bought bracelets, baskets, wooden carvings, hair bands and other jewelry that they had made. They also had a donation basket for their school that we all gave to. Once we were done with our first shopping spree of the trip we left and the women and girls packed everything up and went back home or back to school. From there we went to another home for lunch. A family had prepared a hot lunch for us and we sat in their home on a long wooden bench and ate wonderful local home grown food. The village is completely sustainable . During the rainy season their road to the city is flooded and they are unable to get out for months. They all have their own farms, raise animals and there is plenty of fruit. The forest supplies all of the building materials for their homes. The community comes together and can build a home like Pedro’s in two days. One day for the walls and one day for the roof. We thanked the people for our lunch and headed out when we heard our van return.
Valencio, Todd and another white guy guide, Kyle had driven to the river put in, inflated our tandem inflatable kayaks, loaded them with our dry bags and everyone had a bucket of food on their boat as well. They drove us to the put in and gave us a quick paddle lesson. Pedro called the tandem kayaks “divorce makers”. It clearly took some practice. After the first day one couple realized it would be better to split up now in order to continue to have a good time on the trip and they never paddled together again. We camped in tents in the jungle for 3 nights as we floated down the Moho River. The guides made our meals for us. One night they cooked chicken over an open fire. They built a grill over the fire with sticks from the jungle. Then placed the chicken on the sticks that they had soaked in the river and then placed palm leaves over the chicken to keep in the heat. Pedro put on spices that he had made in his home from the peppers in his farm. The meat eaters said it was delicious. While the chicken was cooking Pedro and Valencio took us on a nature walk. They both carried their machetes. We didn’t get too far in the walk as we were mostly stopped while Pedro told us what all of the trees and plants were and what each one was used for. He gave us allspice leaves to chew on. He cut out a heart of palm for us to try. He showed us all of the different trees they used for building their homes.
In the evenings right as it was getting dark the noises of the jungle would start. It was a symphony of different noises with a light show from the lightening bugs and headlamp beetles. At the third night’s camping spot we heard Howler monkeys as well. Pedro and Valenio were open to telling us stories about their village and their families and even a little bit about their beliefs. I asked why there were Jesus signs on the road leading to their village and they said that was the Mennonites. They had three churches in their village. A Mennonite, a Roman Catholic and a Baptist but that none of them were well attended. They had their own ancient believes and tended to stick to those. Pedro had delivered his first 7 children in his home. After that the government told them that they had to go to the health clinic. Pedro’s son had been bitten by a poisonous snake when he was fourteen and was out looking for young coconuts. Pedro took him to the Shaman who sucked out the venom and knew the proper prayers for a snake bite. They boy’s leg swelled up and he couldn’t walk for six months. He is now alive and well six years later.
Valencio was fishing one night while on our trip and slipped and fell on the rocks. He explained that he then had fear to continue so he had to drink the water from the river and pee it out in order to release his fears and then he was fine. This all made me question the Mennonites and other religious missionaries that come into a remote village to change their beliefs. Actually, I was getting mad about it. Why is one belief better than another. These were happy, beautiful intelligent people who lived off the land in bare feet and gave birth to their children in their homes. Why would a group nail up Jesus signs in their villages. The Maya don’t come to other countries and nail up “Maya: we know the right prayers for a deadly snake bite; put your belief in us”. They could put up “Maya Happy; laughter is the best medicine”
On the fourth and final day of floating the river Pedro wanted us to see an Iguana up close. The iguana slept way up high in fig trees. Their defense when feeling threatened is to fall in the river from way up high in the tree. We did hear a loud splash once but did not see the iguana fall. Pedro told Valencio to go climb one of the trees with the resting iguanas. Valencio went up the tree as if he were just going for a walk on a paved sidewalk. He shook out an iguana and the white guy guides jumped into the river after it, but without the innate ability to swim and see underwater they failed. Further down the river Pedro found another tree of resting iguanas and he climbed the tree and shook one out. Valencio dove into the water like an Eagle diving for a fish. His feet were out of the water. Kicking and kicking and kicking. What we couldn’t see was Valencio wrestling the iguana underwater waiting for it to get tired out. Then Valencio swam back to his kayak with the iguana for show and tell. Brett started paddling towards him. I started paddling away. I was close enough to this reptilian, snake like, prehistoric looking animal and did not want to get any closer. I lost and was seconds from jumping out of the kayak as I floated too close and Brett took the iguana from Valencio.
We floated into the village for the take out and saw the women out in the river doing the washing and the children were playing and waiting for our arrival. Several of them hopped onto Todd’s boat and rode on top of his dry bags to the take out. We unloaded and disassembled the boats while the group of children helped us carry everything up to the road. We changed into dry clothes and the children led us to a home to buy cold drinks and then to another home for lunch and more craft shopping. This village was known as a mennonite village and most of the Maya women wore long dresses and head scarfs. After lunch we said our good byes and thank you’s to Pedro as we loaded the van and headed back to Dangria and then a ride in a small plane back to Belize City.
Thank you to Brett for a most incredible adventure. Thank you fellow Ultimates for sharing this adventure and all of the good times. Thank you Bruce for the pictures I stole from you for this blog post. And thank you to our guides who made this trip much more than just a vacation.
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