On a February trip to Belize, a friend and I stayed in Airbnb rentals near villages, shopped for food in local markets, and did self-guided running tours through towns, rainforests and wildlife sanctuaries. Belizeans were friendly and engaging; they seemed content with their lives. Here are five ways of Belize that won my heart:
Live and let live. Barriers and “Keep Off” signs did not exist in parks and archeological sites allowing visitors to assess their own capabilities before climbing up pyramids or venturing into the jungle. Children and dogs ran around villages unsupervised, allowed to experience the natural unfolding of life’s lessons. I never heard scolding or harsh warnings in Belize. I felt free.
Smile and wave to others – even to strangers. It is a simple act that creates instant connection and harmony in the community. Warm greetings are genuine in Belize and I found them to be contagious. I felt happy.
Protect fragile ecosystems and endangered wildlife. Since gaining their independence from Britain in 1981, Belize has designated an estimated 26% of their territory, in water and land, as protected wildlife reserves and national parks. The reefs and the rainforests are pristine. I felt grateful.
Be inclusive. Most Belizeans are multiracial and bilingual. Maya and Europeans have blended into a single identity, Mestizo, and make up nearly half the population; Kriol, Africans, and Garifuna make up another forty percent and the remaining ten percent is a mix of other immigrants. There was no racial tension. I felt accepted.
Enjoy the outdoors. Belize’s warm climate is conducive to spending lots of time outdoors. Locals told us where to find the best local swimming holes. We saw Belizeans running, riding horses, and bicycling. Children played pick-up soccer games before and after school, laughed and played with their dogs, and hung out in the village with friends after dark. I felt refreshed.
I enjoyed the rainforests, ruins, waterfalls, swimming holes, monkeys, and birds we found in Belize’s remote parks and wildlife sanctuaries. But it was the people that wove Belize into my heart.
Heavy rain overnight left the morning air steeped in mist and fog. Droplets of water rolled off the trees onto our roof. Tropical birds fluttered between tree branches singing and squawking, while roosters crowed and frogs croaked. I emerged from our Airbnb hut on stilts, which sat off Bullet Tree Falls Road on the outskirts of San Ignacio Belize. My feet submerged into cropped rubbery vegetation soaked in cool standing water. I commenced my trek across the meadow to the bathroom, my flip-flops kicking water up my calves.
The aroma of coffee wafted out from the hut when I returned. I kicked off my sandals and closed the door just as another deluge of rain broke loose from the clouds. We sat down, coffee in hand, and waited for the rain to abate.
As expected, the deluge was short-lived. We shoved, jammed, and wiggled our feet into running shoes, damp and muddy from our previous day’s adventure. We grabbed our smartphones equipped with GPS and camera, tucked Belize dollars in our shorts pockets, slipped our water bottle straps onto our hands and stepped outside into the drizzle. Rain jackets were left hanging inside the hut; we had acclimated to varying degrees of wetness, from sticky to drenched, but had not yet felt chilled in Belize. Besides, the sensation of water rolling off our skin felt much nicer than a clinging wet jacket.
Bullet Tree Falls Road
Bullet Tree Falls Road
I tried to run the least muddy sections of the road – a strategy foiled by the onset of another torrential downpour. We turned toward a park expecting to find a footbridge across the Mopan River – a short cut to San Ignacio. Slipping and sliding down a grassy hillside, arms and legs flailing to keep ourselves upright, we followed a trail to the river. Instead of a bridge, however, we saw a yellow rope strung six feet high across the water. I envisioned us dangling from the rope swinging hand over hand, but was startled back to reality when a man’s voice rang out from under a nearby tree, “how about this weather we’re having?” Beside him was a rowboat with its nose on the shore. “You want a ride across?”
As we clambered onto the boat, trying to keep it steady, a Belizean man came careening down the hill on a bike calling for us to wait. He was wearing a garbage bag over his clothes as protection from rain and mud flung from his tires. The four of us, and one bike, stood in the boat while the captain used the rope to pull us across the river hand over hand.
San Ignacio is spread over about three square miles. We ran through its center with the traffic, noting ATMs, tour companies, sidewalk menus touting stewed beans and Belikin Beer. Hostels were near internet cafés and small businesses sold household items. Delivery trucks clogged the narrow streets, parked with flashers on. School children, dressed in uniform, walked together in clusters along the side of the road. A short steep ascent up the last quarter mile to the Mayan ruins, Cahal Pech, was empty compared to the rest of town. It seemed we were the only people on vacation in San Ignacio.
Cahal Pech, means “place of the ticks” in Yucatec Mayan language. The name reflects the working conditions the archeologists faced in the 1950’s when the site was also a pasture. Yet excavations on this hilltop between 1988 – 2000 revealed what experts have determined to be a palatial home of an elite Maya family. Ceramic pottery discovered in the area has been dated back to 1,200 BC. I thought the name ill-fit such a remarkable discovery.
We were the only visitors meandering through the tunnels, walkways, rooms, steep stairways, and plazas. I tried to imagine how it looked there when the Maya went about their business. Fog enfolded the structures and it was quiet, which made the occasional chirps and whistles of birds seem amplified. Not a tick in sight.
On this same run, we ventured out to the rural village of Santa Familia. The locals, from an integrated mix of Creole, Maya, and Latino origins, were relaxed and friendly. Children greeted us, residents waved from porches, dogs sprawled in the road in front of their homes and regarded us with disinterest. Homes rose on stilts, some with adjacent outhouses; clothing sized from adult coveralls down to the tiniest infant socks hung on clotheslines and fences, soon to be dried in the afternoon sunshine.
A sheltered wood-fired oven sat in front of a home with a sign posted, “tortila de vende.” The vendor, a stout weathered woman, was unaccustomed to having foreigners for customers. When my friend asked to take her picture, she laughed, deepening the lines on her face and revealing a small gap in her smile; she held her hands in front of her face and shook her head. We paid $1 BZ (50 cents USD) for a package of ten piping hot corn tortillas to consume at our Airbnb; they were the perfect accompaniment to hard-boiled eggs and silky avocados spiced with local hot sauce. A fresh pineapple, sweet like candy, topped off our meal.
Bullet Tree Falls Road
We drove back to the center of town in search of internet access, fresh produce, and information from the Cayo Welcome Center. The outdoor produce market had permanent stalls open daily. There were papayas the size of footballs, monster melons, bananas at varying stages of ripeness and stacks of pineapples. The aroma of tropical fruit was intoxicating, the colors alive. We strolled through the entire market and purchased the makings of a vegetarian feast.
The man behind the desk at the welcome center was about twenty years old. His eyes lit up when we asked about local trails and swimming holes. He flipped open his notebook to a photo of Big Rock Falls in Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. He pointed to a rock wall adjacent to falls and described how he and his friends would climb up and leap off into the swimming hole. He jotted notes on the map, clearly describing the landmarks at crucial turns to get there. The waterfall looked voluminous, the swimming hole inviting and the rock walls treacherous. We would go there the next day.
A fifteen-minute drive west from San Ignacio took us to a hand-cranked ferry that carried us across the Mopan river to the Xunantunich archeological site. In contrast to our ferry earlier that day, this one had a platform to carry cars and we shared it with a pick-up truck. During the short ride across the river, the captain pointed out iguanas lying still on tree limbs over the water.
Xunantunich is Maya for “Stone Woman”. Like other ruins in the area, its original name is unknown. The jaw-dropping spectacle of “El Castillo”, a pyramid situated on the axis of the cardinal lines of the site, commanded our attention. The Belizean rule of “climb at your own risk,” despite steep stone stairs that are slippery when wet, was a novelty. In the US we see fencing and “Keep Off” signs, restrict access in the interest of preventing lawsuits. Xunantunich is in a peaceful sanctuary for tropical wildlife. While standing atop “El Castillo” we could see down howler monkeys thrashing and roaring in the treetops.
San Ignacio was our hub for venturing down backroads to waterfalls and lush forests. We enjoyed the tropical scenery and wildlife. The day we spent close to town was a delightful immersion into the human side of Belize.
“Watch out for the peccaries” the ranger said “they can be mean.” I wasn’t familiar with this term and envisioned an aggressive tropical bird. He noticed the confused expression on my face and continued, “They are pigs with tusks, they travel in herds of 60-80 and they will charge you if they feel threatened. Can you climb a tree?” I looked around at the moss-covered trunks, none with branches low enough to climb, but decided I could climb anything if charged by a peccary. “Just be careful” he said. He didn’t say a word about the jaguars.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve is a stone’s throw from the Caribbean Sea in Belize. Brian and I convinced the ranger to let us run the 7.5-kilometer Outlier Trail; they had just finished clearing it the day before. He looked us up and down, decided we were fit enough to tackle it and said, “I’ll see you at about 3:00.” His estimate gave us nearly six hours, a generous amount of time for 15 kilometers; I ignored the tiny warning light in my head that signaled “challenging terrain ahead.”
We consulted the map board at the park headquarters which was oriented south-up. Upside-down maps are popular in Australia and South America; when viewed from the world perspective their appearance raises the status of these regions. Australia is no longer “down under”; Africa and South America take center stage, and Mexico appears dominant to the United States. The park map showed the Outlier Trail to be the lone path in the direction we were heading so the risk of getting lost was nil.
We slogged up the park road through puddles and sloppy mud on our way to the trailhead. A tropical downpour commenced five minutes into our run diluting sections of the road into a slippery soup. Sunscreen and bug spray dripped into my eyes, stinging and blurring my vision. Having already seen one fer-de-lance viper earlier in our trip, we resisted the urge to dash into the thick vegetation for cover. Startling a “mean” peccary had been added to my list of things to avoid, so we stayed on the road, heads down, and wished the rain would cease.
Our experience running trails in Colorado familiarized us with signs of mountain lion activity: half eaten deer appendages, tracks in the snow, the pungent scent of cat urine. The reward of running in the mud with our heads down was the sight of feline paw prints. In Belize, it is common to see scat and tracks from five types of felines: jaguar, puma, margay, jaguarundi and ocelot. There are an estimated 200 jaguars in the 150 square miles of Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve, the highest concentration of these cats in the world. The tracks we saw were the size of saucers so we assumed they were from a jaguar. Like mountain lions, the jaguar is elusive and our chance of encountering one was slim but spotting their tracks piqued our hope of a rare sighting and we became acutely aware of movements in the forest.
We ducked under a “Trail Closed” sign (with the ranger’s permission), and soon found ourselves swallowed up in the forest on the Outlier Trail. Under our feet was a soft bed of clippings left by expert hacks of a machete. The forest canopy created a sticky cocoon of stagnant warm air and dim light. Fronds from the giant palms and ferns twitched and waved at the slightest touch of a birds and raindrops.
We stopped frequently to look in the trees for colorful macaws and other tropical birds known to live in Cockscomb but the ones we heard were hidden within a scrambled mass of verdant leaves, branches and vines. The trail dipped through several shallow streams with steep slippery banks and then began a steady climb straight up a mountain. We grabbed trees and vines to pull ourselves up the steep gradient rather than relying on the tiny bit of traction under our feet. The Belizean National Parks Service had decided not to cut switchbacks into the hillside.
Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve
Outlier Trail – Cockscomb Basin
As we gained elevation, we were enveloped in the clouds. Moss hung off every tree and branch. Creatures were quiet. For the first time that day we felt a refreshing breeze; the vertical terrain broke open the forest canopy. Each foot plant depressed an area of the ground five times the size of our foot and then sprung back when released. Narrow sections with steep drop-offs to one side provided mossy tree roots to grasp for security.
Several points near the end of the Outlier Trail present expansive views of treetops and the Caribbean Sea. I was grateful the clouds had thinned so we could enjoy the surrounding landscape. We had climbed about 610 meters (2,000 feet). Victoria peak, at 1,124 meters (3,688 feet), was behind a veil of clouds.
At one point during our run back, we heard a knocking sound in the woods, not far from the trail, that made us stop in our tracks. Could it be the dreaded peccary tusks? We didn’t stick around to find out.
The ranger was surprised when we returned shortly after noon; he was not accustomed to the pace of trail runners. We asked where to find the nearest swimming hole so we could clean up and cool down. He directed us to the “Waterfall Trail”, a one-mile path to a swimming hole where we could have a pummeling shower under the falls. Tubers were hiking out on this trail wearing sandals and swim suits; they had floated 2 hours down the winding river.
After a refreshing plunge in the cool water under the falls, we sat and listened to the soothing white noise of the falls and reflected on our adventure. Butterflies the size of my hand flitted between the trees. In this little oasis, it was hard to imagine there were mean peccaries or predatory felines; even the mosquitos and flies left us alone.
Belize is well known by scuba divers and snorkeling fanatics for its thriving reefs off shore. Inland attractions are lesser known and offer immersion of a different sort: tropical rainforests, Mayan ruins, and a mix of Creole, Latino, and Mayan cultures. As a former British colony, the primary language is English but driving is on the right side of the road. US dollars are widely accepted and you can expect change given in a combination of US and Belizean currency at a 1:2 exchange rate.
Mayan Ruins You can climb all over four impressive ruin sites near San Ignacio which is a 2 ½ hour drive from Belize City: Xunantunich and Cahal Pech are close to San Ignacio; Caracol is a three-hour drive from San Ignacio on rough roads; El Pilar, discovered in 1983, is seven miles up a four-wheel drive road and rests under a rainforest canopy that is stirring with howler and spider monkeys. Crowds are non-existent. Fees at ruin sites are $5-$10 US.
Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Native Belizean pine forest with waterfalls, swimming holes, and caves. Four-wheel drive is recommended or you can hire a guide (required for exploring the caves) out of San Ignacio. The staff at the Cayo Welcome Center in San Ignacio shares directions to the local’s favorite falls and swimming holes in this park. You can enjoy the scenery and a refreshing plunge with few other people around. No fee.
Herman’s Cave. Hike 10 minutes through a lush tropical forest to enter the outer 200 meters of St. Herman’s Cave with flashlights; you can go deeper, if you wish, with a guide. Your entrance fee includes access to Inland Blue Hole a mile down the Hummingbird Highway – a great place to swim and cool off after your hike. Fee $4 US
Hopkins. This Garifuna village on the Caribbean coast was named “Friendliest village in Belize” by Belize First Magazine. The residents welcome you as part of the community. Ask the locals where to find live Garifuna drumming for your evening entertainment.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve. Hike trails to waterfalls, tube the river, and peer into the lush green forest of giant palms and ferns for jaguars, peccaries, macaws, toucans, ocelots, and other tropical wildlife. If you don’t have a rental car, you can take the bus from Hopkins to the Maya Center and hire a taxi or hike the six-mile access road to the park. The cats are elusive but mosquitoes are bold – bring insect repellent. Fee $5 US.
(For tips on driving in Belize, check out my guest blog post at One World 365 )
The El Pilar Mayan ruins in Belize are at the end of a seven-mile access road riddled with deep potholes, slippery mud, and dark narrow stretches that disappear into the throat of the rainforest. Brian and I abandoned our rental car a half mile in and slipped on our running shoes. We packed our running vests with water, snacks, bug spray, headlamps and money for the nominal park entrance fee. The sun was sinking toward the horizon over Guatemala. Our intent was to arrive at the ruins by sunset.
Beads of sweat immediately seeped out of our pores soaking our shorts and tanks and dripping into our eyes. The air was too saturated to allow cooling by evaporation; we labored in the heat. Grackles and butterflies flew about as we slogged up and down hills through rocky and muddy terrain. We heard howler monkeys in the distance ahead of us; we looked at each other with eyes wide and gleaming, excited to be close to them in their habitat.
The road was devoid of traffic except a half-dozen pickup trucks bouncing and jostling their passengers as they headed toward San Ignacio. Young men stood in the truck beds looking forward over the top of the cab. Small children peered out the windows at us with curiosity. Drivers passed with caution and everyone waved and smiled.
When we arrived at El Pilar the park ranger, Daniel, approached us from a cabin a short distance away up the hill from the gate. A teenage boy sat on the porch smiling with amusement; we were soaked with sweat and without a car. Daniel pointed to his wrist and said, “Do you still want to see the ruins? I was just about to close the gate!” I spotted an SUV parked nearby and no visitors were in sight. Only a few hundred tourists per year venture up the road to El Pilar as it is outshined by the excavated ruins closer to San Ignacio. We logged in, paid our fee, and followed Daniel to the map board for a quick orientation.
He gave us directions Belizean style with wild animated arm motions and vague descriptions of landmarks and distances, “a few minutes up the road, onto the trail, through the plaza, up the stairs to the viewpoint where you can reach out and touch Guatemala, back to the road and up a little bit to the second group.” As he rambled on I hoped Brian was taking it all in because I was lost from the beginning and it sounded like a lot to see in our short time left of daylight.
Daniel assured us that the howler monkeys were mellow and the spider monkeys “usually” leave visitors alone; he recommended flashlights to illuminate the interior of certain structures. We walked through the gate and had the park with all its creature inhabitants to ourselves.
American archeologist, Anabel Ford discovered El Pilar in 1983. Geophysical surveys of the area indicate at its peak, before 1000 AD, El Pilar had a population of around 180,000. Though the surveys show over 25 plazas and hundreds of buildings on the site, excavation of the area has been minimal. The Maya used stucco and plaster protect the limestone from the elements; today only a few caretakers maintain the site. The rainforest canopy helps to protect the ruins by providing shade and breaking the force of heavy downpours.
El Pilar has had over a thousand years to be engulfed by the rainforest. Most structures are still under mounds of earth, sprouting trees and lush vegetation. As we went deeper into the park we found stonework forming rooms with windows, tunnels into dome-shaped mounds, corbelled arch doorways and stairs. Typical of Mayan community design, structures were oriented in cardinal directions around ballcourts and plazas.
The Maya remodeled their structures either by calendar events or at the whim of their rulers; platforms and extensions were layered on to the original design. Ballcourts with stepped stone seating and plazas for social gatherings were numerous. Shrines were situated on top of pyramids but tombs have rarely been found inside.
As daylight waned the spider and howler monkeys created a stir in the canopy. I hoped the howlers would not roar up close to us in the dark; next to the African lion they are the loudest mammals on Earth. A sudden screech above and behind me followed by a cracking sound and thud on the ground startled me off the ground. Brian laughed “you should have seen the look on your face!” It was the third branch that had fallen on the ground close to us since we arrived and I suspected mischievous monkeys were at work.
In the dark, we found our way back to the gate where Daniel stood watching for us to exit the park. Belizeans love conversation and Daniel was no exception. He wanted to chat for a while before we left, believing we had run to the park from a nearby campground. I found myself adapting the Belizean method of wild arm motions to describe where we left our car, but Daniel couldn’t fathom anyone coming so far by foot late in the day to see El Pilar.
I felt the telltale itch of a mosquito on my arm; standing still in the jungle made me a feeding station for all kinds of blood thirsty insects. We had six and a half miles left to run and were getting hungry, so we bid Daniel farewell and eased back into our run. Colors and forms of the jungle vegetation had faded into the night; songs of the cicadas drowned out the rustling in the forest. I appreciated the light of our headlamps on the mud and loose rocks under our feet but found it unsettling when it reflected off the eyes of small animals that watched us from the side of the road.
Fatigue and the monotonous rhythm of our footfall lulled me into a trance. My mind wandered to our Airbnb hut on Bullet Tree Falls road where our groceries, purchased at the farmer’s market earlier in the day, lay waiting for us to prepare dinner: fresh pineapple, curry powder, coconut milk, potatoes, cauliflower, peppers, onions, cashews, ginger, and garlic. By the time we reached our car my stomach was growling.
In the dim light of the single bulb in our hut, we devoured our curried vegetables and pored over the map planning our next day’s run. The highlight would be a set Mayan ruins, Cahal Pech, which rest near San Ignacio high above the confluence of the Mipal and Mopan rivers. The map showed a bridge on our route crossing the Mopan river. But what we discovered at this crossing was not what we expected – and that is part of another story.