Tag Archives: Belize

Belize, part 1

Hola from beautiful Flores, Guatemala!

Many of you knew that I was going to Costa Rica after the fall dinner party with my college friends Nate and Sandy and Christian. As it turns out, the flights were full to Miami, so we had to rethink our trip entirely. Flying by the seat of our pants, we chose to go to Belize and Guatemala.

We arrived in Belize City on Monday afternoon after a 3 hour flight from Dallas. We bargained hard for a 4 wheel drive vehicle to get us around the country, and got one from a company who would let us take it across the border into Guatemala.

We headed west from Belize City, stopping at the Community Baboon Sanctuary. Belizians call howler monkeys BABOONS, and this little sanctuary of reclaimed farmland hosts over 1000 howler monkeys who travel in groups of 6 or so. Our guide, Alvin, was well into his seventies, and was as interesting as an old codger can get. He had lived in the village his entire life, and had known this particular troup of monkeys for twenty years, and had watched the dominant male, named Bob, grow up from a tiny baby. Alvin walked through the jungle grunting and calling Bobs name. Finally, we heard a loud grunt from above us, and the trees came alive with monkeys!

Baby Howler Monkey in BelizeThey came down to our level, and a tiny baby, no bigger than a small kitten, came down and wrapped his hand around Sandy’s finger! They were precious. Bob stayed high in the treetops and grunted back and forth with Alvin.

That evening we drove into San Ignacio, in western Belize, and had curried lamb, black beans, and rice at a fantastic restaurant called Hannah’s. The next morning we drove west to the ruins of Xunatunich, one of the largest ancient Mayan cities in Belize. To get to it, we had to drive onto a rickety barge that was winched across a rushing river with a hand crank and a metal cable. Bats lived under each end of the barge, and when the barge would land at the opposite bank, the bats would fly out and around to the other side. You’d think they’d get tired of doing that all day and find a new place to live!


Look real close and you can see us!

The ruins were magnificent. We climbed to the top of a 16 story pyramid that was festooned with magnificent carvings. We saw only four other people the entire morning.

Wild Iguanas Fighting in BelizeBack at the ferry, two massive iguanas (easily 6 feet long each!) came up out of the river and had a fight right in front of us. The looser, bloodied, climbed high in a tree to escape the winner. We fed the winner a banana peel and he was quite satisfied.

The slate carvers of Xunatunich, Belize

He got a WalMart watch. I got the Mayan sun god carved in slate.

I typically don’t buy things when I travel, but the villagers in Xunatunich have perfected the art of slate carving, and they had magnificent carvings of Mayan gods that were just unbelievable. I was able to barter for some with my WalMart watch…thank you WalMart!

We crossed the border into Guatemala with a generous amount of bureaucratic hassle and headed into the hinterland toward Tikal, one of the largest Mayan ruins on earth. Guatemala is considerably poorer than Belize, and our drive on the long dirt and rock road to Tikal was fascinating. Pigs were sleeping in the middle of the road, along with horses, dogs, and, sometimes, people!

We got to Tikal just in time to hike the mile into the complex and climb one of the many massive pyramids to watch the sun set. Tikal is vast, with over 6,000 separate pyramids and temples! We will return there this afternoon.

Flores, GuatemalaLast night was spent in the gorgeous little town of Flores, on a tiny round island in the middle of crocodile-infested Lake Peten Itza. It has cobblestone streets and beautiful century old buildings. Our hotel last night, the Hospedaje Dona Goya, sits right on the water. It has a terrace on the roof, covered with thatched palapas to keep out the afternoon rains, and lots of hammocks strung everywhere to lay back and enjoy the breeze coming off the lake. Our rooms were basic, but had private bathrooms and lots of hot water …a rarity in Guatemala… and cost us an exorbitant rate of $11.

Today we will visit Tikal again, and then head back to Belize for caving and waterfall hiking!

If you’re watching Hurricane Wilma, it is right off the coast of Belize. They do not expect it to significantly effect Belize at all, especially inland. But we are watching it carefully and will make sure to take proper precautions if it happens to jog to the west enough to producing heavy rainfall or flooding.

I love you all, and hope to write again before we return next Monday!

Belize, part 2

I am sitting in an internet cafe in San Ignacio, Belize, eating an ice cream cone filled with homemade sweet corn ice cream. That’s what the locals eat here! It’s really quite good.

First, to ease any fears you may have about Hurricane Wilma, we are perfectly safe. The hurricane has passed Belize safely by, though the outer islands on the Belize Reef were evacuated inland. It made finding a hotel last night a little difficult, but that was the extend of Wilma’s effect on us. She has passed on to the north and will make landfall in the Mexican Yucutan later tonight.

TikalYesterday we went back to Tikal, the massive Mayan city in northern Guatemala. We explored some lesser pyramids, and found a deep tunnel beneath one pyramid that had 7 vampire bats living in it. We took some fantastic pictures of them and their little pointy teeth.

We watched sunset from the top of the Grand Pyramid, in a section of Tikal called “Mundo Perdido,” or “The Lost World.” I have never seen, and probably will never again see, a sunset like that. After the sun had sunk beneath the horizon, the entire jungle filled with an eerie greenish yellow light. It actually got BRIGHTER than it had been before the sun had set.

We were accompanied by two bright green parrots who were flying in circles around the pyramid and squawking, as well as a troup of howler monkeys in the trees below the pyramid who were shrieking so loudly it sounded like war.

Tikal SunsetThen the colors started to change. The wispy clouds which were strung across the sky turned green, then yellow, then pink, then red, then orange, and then purple. The pyramids sticking up out of the jungle reflected the changing colors against their white limestone. It was unreal. We walked the mile and a half back to the car through the dense jungle in almost total darkness.

That night we drove back across the northern Guatemalan jungle (occasionally swerving donkeys, pigs, dogs, and people sleeping in the road) and made it back here to San Ignacio around 9.

This morning we hired a guide to take us to Actun Tunichil Munkal (translated from the Maya as “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre”). It is deep in the Belizian rainforest, and was featured several times by National Geographic as one of the richest sources of Mayan religious and death artifacts. Over 98% of the artifacts found after the cave was discovered in 1986 are STILL inside the cave!

The entrance of Actun Tunichil Muknal

Wanna go in there?

The trip began with a hike for an hour through the steaming rainforest, and the crossing of the Roaring River three times. We arrived at the cave entrance, which was a massive, misty crack in the mountainside, with a deep green pool and river coming out of the entrance. We swam across the 20-foot-deep pool, and climbed out on the opposite shore inside the cave.

Actun Tunichil MuknalFor an hour we waded and swam through the river, upstream deep into the cave. Finally we arrived at a point where the guide had us scale the right-hand wall of the cave, and we reached a major side passage where we removed our shoes and continued in socks to protect the delicate flowstone formations inside the cave.

Pots in Actun Tunichil MuknalWe passed hundreds of Mayan pots, each more than a thousand years old, which were brought into the cave for religious rites.

We passed cave formations that put anything I’ve ever seen in American caves to shame. And I’ve been into a LOT of them.

Then we came to the skeletons.

Human Skull in Actun Tunichil Muknal

This was once a human

Human skulls were embeded into the calcite crystals in the floor. More than 13 people had been sacrificed in religious rituals in the cave. Archaeologists classify the sacrifices as “willing” and “unwilling.” Which means that most of the people who were sacrificed in the cave had given themselves (or their families had given them) as sacrifices, and they had gone willingly.

A few were considered “unwilling” sacrifices, and were probably slaves captured in battle.

The sacrificial skeletons ranged in age from infants to early 40s.

The Crystal Skeleton of Actun Tunichil Muknal

Cave of the Crystal Skeleton...Indiana Jones, anyone?

The culmination of the trip was a peek into the chamber for which the cave got the name “stone sepulchre.” In a tiny chamber high above the main passage was a perfect human skeleton, a female in her 20s, which had been totally encrusted and preserved in calcite crystals. She was cemented to the floor in a perfect, restful position, her eye sockets staring emptily up at the ceiling. It was a supremely creepy place.

All in all, we were underground a little over 4 hours in the Mayan burial cave. It was probably the most intense cave I’ve ever visited, since 75% of the time we were in water up to chest deep.

Tomorrow we will drive the jungle road to Caracol, a vast Mayan city that is just now being excavated by archaeologists, with some stops at waterfalls and caves along the way.

I hope you all are well, and, again, don’t worry at all about Wilma’s effect on us! When we got back to the entrance of the cave and saw sunlight for the first time in four hours, a heavy rain was falling outside, and clouds of steam and mist were rising from the jungle. Incredibly beautiful! It was Wilma’s tiny little way of making our vacation better. Now she is up north, and won’t pose us any more threat…at least to us.

Belize, part 3

While Hurricane Wilma is several hundred miles to our north tearing into Cancun (hopefully Justin and Katie, and their other friends who are there, are safe and sound), we are relaxing after another incredible day in Belize.

I forgot to mention a detail in yesterday’s email. On our hike to the sacred Mayan cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal, our guide pointed out lots of edible rainforest treats. We picked and devoured fresh limes from the trees. Among the more interesting things he offered were termites, fresh from their bulbous mud nests which hang low on tree trunks.

Ben Starr eats a termite

Nate and I eating termites. They taste like carrots.

“They taste like woody carrots,” he said.

Gripped with a sudden (an uncharacteristic) urge to eat bugs, I popped a few into my mouth.

They tasted like…


They tasted EXACTLY like woody carrots.

Sandy was the only person who abstained from this lovely culinary adventure.

This morning, after a hearty Belizian breakfast of refried black beans, scrambled eggs, locally-made cheese, fresh papaya, and fry jacks (something like a sopaipilla, smothered in a local honey made from bees who cruise the rainforest and its many thousands of flower species), we headed south on an extremely rough dirt road into the most remote part of Belize.

The region is called Pine Forest Ridge, and the plant life and terrain look more like the Colorado foothills than a tropical country in Central America. The red-dirt road climbed high on a ridgetop that was covered in tall pine trees. The air was very cool and it was misty.

Rio Frio Cave in Belize

This is one BIG cave!

After an hour of driving, we turned off the main road toward the Rio Frio cave. The road took us into a canyon where the forest changed back to tropical rainforest, to the shores of a thundering river…the Rio Frio. We parked and walked upstream a short way to a cliff around 600 feet high, where the river poured out of a massive cave mouth easily 10 stories high, and twice as wide. It was overwhelming!

We climbed high onto a ledge which led back into the cave, well above the whitewater river which thundered below, and found that we didn’t even need flashlights. The cave’s entrance was so huge it let in enough light to see our way easily.

Around a bend we saw the opposite entrance to the cave. It’s basically a massive tunnel that the river created in order to shortcut a lengthy bend around the mountain. Several football stadiums could fit inside the space, it’s so huge!

The top pyramid of the Caana Temple in Caracol

This is one of 3 pyramids ON TOP of the BIG pyramid of Caana!

Then we headed further south, leaving the last sign of civilization behind, and traveled another hour deep into the rainforest to the ancient Mayan city of Caracol. Caracol has been known about for 70 years (it was discovered in the 30s by a British man who was hunting for mahogany trees), but has only recently begun to be excavated. At its heyday, more than 150,000 Maya lived there (nearly half of Belize’s population today!) and there are more than 30,000 separate buildings. Only a few have been restored, one of which is Caana, a massive (and I mean MASSIVE) pyramid well over 150 feet high. It is still the tallest building in Belize, and it was built more than 1,500 years ago!!!

The best thing about wandering around this massive (and very active) archaeological excavation was that we saw two other tourists there. Two. At what is probably the largest Mayan city ever discovered.

Flocks of parrots were screaming overhead all afternoon. They were bright green, and usually flew close together in pairs. (Parrots mate for life.) We also saw a bright yellow spider that looked JUST like a flower.

On the drive out of Caracol, dusk was settling in. As we rounded a bend in the one-track dirt road deep in the rainforest, we spotted a HUGE dog in the middle of the road and slowed down.

Only the dog we spotted was SPOTTED. Yellow with black spots.

And was a LOT bigger than dogs normally are.

It turned to look at us, and it was instantly clear that it was not a dog. It was a cat.

A really really REALLY big cat.

A jaguar.

Jaguar in Belize at Caracol

All my camera got of the rare jaguar

Belize and Costa Rica are the only places left in Central America that have native jaguar populations, but they are very elusive, and few in number. There were 8 reported sightings of a jaguar in Belize last year.

The jaguar looked at us, obviously curious but nervous. He was HUGE, maybe 6 feet from toe to butt (not including the tail). He scurried off into the bushes shortly after, and we only got two fleeting pictures of him.

Regardless, we felt INCREDIBLY lucky to have witnessed such a magnificent animal. He was utterly gorgeous. All the hair on the back of my neck and my arms stood on end when I watched him move!

A light rain (remnants of Wilma) cooled off the jungle as we made the two hour drive back to San Ignacio.

Dinner tonight was conch fritters (one of my FAVORITE foods, but I can never get it unless I’m in the Caribbean, so I was a VERY happy camper) and a pizza made with vegetables from the nearby Amish farm. Very very tasty. Around $6 per person, when all was said and done.

You will likely not hear from us until we are back in the states. Tomorrow we plan on doing a little tubing inside a cave (a popular pastime here in Belize…MOVE OVER Guadalupe River, now there’s something COOLER!), and then we will head to the coast, where we will leave the car (and civilization) behind and head to Tobacco Caye…a tiny sandy island on the Belize Reef, the largest reef in the western hemisphere, and the second largest in the world behind the Great Barrier Reef. Tobacco Caye has less than 20 full time residents, and a few bungalows right on the beach for weary travelers such as ourselves. No electricity, my friends! They bring oil lamps to you at night in your bungalow so you can read.

If all goes as planned, we’ll be back in Dallas on Monday evening.

Love to you all, and our thoughts and prayers for Justin and his friends braving Wilma up in Cancun!