(click on thumbnails for larger pics)
In the jungle, mornings are for the birds. Literally. Before the sun even comes up, as the new light of day creeps through the canopy, it starts with a chirp here, a warble there, now and then. But as the dappled sunlight spreads across and warms the ground, the birds spring to life, announcing all of their glory in a symphony of sound. It’s quite a nice way to wake up to nature’s alarm clock, but nothing here as pedestrian as a rooster. No, these are birds of a fancy tropical and plumed sort. The kinds of birds the sight of which merits an excited utterance, as in “Did you see that yellow breasted female fly-catching pendula?” The abridged checklist of birds at Caves Branch alone is in the hundreds, resulting in lots of people skulking quietly through the morning jungle with their binoculars.
But first you have to get there.
We took the puddle jumper from Lamanai to Belize International, a 10-minute flight that was surprisingly smooth in light of the turbulent looking sky.
We lifted off over the jungle canopy and headed towards Belize City, an urban sprawl lying on a flat peninsula jutting into the sea. There was no divider between the cheap seats and the cockpit, giving us a pilot’s-eye view of the take-off and landing.
Back at the international airport, we sat in the terminal and did some people watching. Locals greeting their loved ones back home, loads of sunburned tourists, a family of Mennonites in tears, apparently sending its little girl off to big bad America. These in particular be the Reform Mennonites (there are actually two opposing factions, one “orthodox” – machines bad – and one “reform” – machines good) as they were dressed casually; the women even showed their ankles, revealing that, whatever they think of machinery, they do not believe in razors. Before leaving Lamanai Ben showed us a new hotel that the Mennonites were building on the banks of the Lagoon. What, exactly, one would do for fun at a Mennonite Hotel has yet to be determined, but Ben did mention that one of his largest cocaine busts as a Ranger involved a powerful Mennonite leader.
Eventually we were picked up by Marcos from Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Lodge. After a two hour drive on the Western Highway (again, without air conditioning, and a stop at Cheers for an overpriced drink), we arrived at Caves Branch, just south of Belmopan on the new Hummingbird Highway, almost directly across from the Blue Hole.
We were met at CB by Sue, the ex-pat chain-smoking resident manager from San Bernardino, California. After yet another long, hot, tiring day without air conditioning, we were really not in the mood for idle chit chat. As we were being led to our Cabana, we were greeted by groups of Howler Monkeys and Toucans in the trees right above the camp.
Had we known we were to meet these monkeys again and again in the dead of night, every night, we might not have been as charmed. We also shortly met the 4-legged residents - Jacob, Flash, Chester, and a couple others whose names escape me.
The eponymous Caves Branch Jungle Lodge lies next to the Caves Branch River (which was dry as it was just the beginning of the wet season) and on the edge of the Caves Branch Valley. The valley has recently been developed as a large citrus farm, growing grapefruits and oranges. The land on which we sat and 59,000 of the surrounding acres are owned by a Canadian real property development partnership (who are also partners with the owner of Caves Branch), that is seeking to derive the best use from the land. Unfortunately, what is best for the land is not always best for the people. The company is selling parcels off for development, which is not necessarily in the best interest of Belizeans, most of whom cannot afford to buy property without assistance. The primary investor and manager of the company were visiting Caves Branch during our stay, the very embodiment of foreign ownership, which currently poses a significant problem in this developing country.
The cabana walls are three- and five-foot high with screens covering the rest and a thatched roof overhead, affording a 360-degree view of the jungle surrounding your cabana (and a 360 degree view of you as well, in various states of (un)dress). There is no electricity except at the main house, and all light is provided by kerosene lamps and torches, which lends the place an eerie glow at night.
There are packages here, but the shortest is 4 nights, which seemed one night too many for the jungle, so we paid a la carte prices. We opted for the cheaper Jungle Cabana instead of the Cabana Suites, which offer en suite facilities as their only draw.
The common bathrooms are as clean as any, however, and unless you have a large group, stay with the cheaper digs. There is also a bunkhouse and space for camping.
Our first night at CB was spent agonizing through the insufferable heat. It was hot. It was humid. It was still. The air was thick. No electricity is quaint – screw quaint, I want my fan back. There’s a saying that adventure is merely discomfort remembered. This wasn’t adventure, this was discomfort. We acclimatized over the next couple days, but the first night was hard. Thankfully, there were absolutely no bugs at CB, I found myself walking around in the middle of the night (I’ll explain later) in just shorts and sandals. Ian’s wife Tangie (from Texas) was visiting from their home in Antigua, Guatemala, and she gave us the tip of the day: the showers near the main house are cold showers. They are great for getting the body temperature down, but like Chinese food, an hour later you’re sweating again.
CB is built on activities, and activities cost money. At dinner, the guides (all of whom are either short, skinny, or short and skinny, and you wonder how they would rescue you if rescuing was needed) come around and explain the various trips going out and see who is interested in what. I was expecting a hard sell, but it really wasn’t. We opted for the cave tubing, which is what brought us here. The river being so low, we couldn’t do the 7 mile tube, but would have to settle for the Lost Cave Expedition (they actually knew where it is), which combines cave tubing and hiking through caves containing Mayan artifacts.
We retired back to the cabana and decided to try the jungle showers. The common showers are four outdoor pens separated by thatched walls, surrounding a central water heater, from which four PVC pipes provide water to each pen. The pipes empty into a bucket with holes cut in the bottom. Very unique, if quite public, way to take a shower. No one can really see you, unless they want to, then it’s very easy for them to see you. This one appears to have been filled with vodka.
These showers had two settings, off and scalding, neither of which are good options under the circumstances, and there tricks of the trade which I never seemed to master.
That night, at 2:30 a.m., as with every night thereafter, we were awakened by a frightening howl, something huge and evil in the trees sounding like a cross between a lion, an elephant and a passing subway train. These were, of course, our resident howler monkeys. They are neither huge nor evil, but they are loud. Apparently, our gang heard another gang passing the camp some ways away, and decided to let them know whose territory this was. So, for twenty minutes we listened as the two troupes called and responded, until there was just one lone male (in our camp, I thought proudly), grunting and barking and obviously relishing in his male monkeyhood. You go boy.
During the fracas, I decided to see if I could watch them in the trees. As I walked around the jungle at 2 am in just my shorts, it was a little creepy, especially with the howling. But, shining a flashlight in the trees will apparently shut them up. For a few minutes. As much as I might sound like a complainer, we actually found this to be a real treat. As far as I know, we don’t have howler monkeys in Los Angeles.
We arose the next morning for breakfast before the tubing. The food at CB is fine, but expensive. Breakfasts are $12 or so, dinners $18. But you can’t walk to the corner for an Egg McMuffin, so what are you gonna do? The meals are served buffet style, but there is plenty of food and it is filling. The self-squeeze orange juice is delicious. We borrowed a pair of their hiking boots (your own boots will get soaking wet in the caves), and met our companions for the trip, two couples visiting CB just for the day.
Thank god we were not paired with the obnoxious families from Nebraska with the fragile little 10 year old princess of a daughter who screamed and yelled all night from the Cabana Suites (of course) about the spiders on the wall while her parents ignored her (there’s a reason why the four parents were in one cabana and all the kids were in the other) and the rest of us tried to enjoy the peace and quiet of the jungle. Jesus, don’t they have spiders in Nebraska?? I don’t think this “jungle experience” was sinking in: Later during our stay we were to hear her ask, “wasn’t it in Switzerland where we . . . ,” and “what month are we going to Spain?” Phew. [rant mode off].
We were, in fact, paired with two very nice couples who had already spent a week diving off of a bareboat charter. The cave tubing was a nice change of pace, spending all day in the cold water. The artifacts in the cave are quite amazing, as they have not been catalogued or set off behind some barricade. They are right there (supposedly) where they were left by those that left them. Pottery shards, carvings, bowls, fire pits. The caves also contain nature’s beauty as well in the form of stalagmites and –tites and beautiful crystal formations, taking thousands of years to create. Then there are the larvae that hang several web strands off of a main line, and then slowly pull whatever is unlucky enough to get caught up like a fisherman pulling in lobster traps. And the scorpion spiders. . . . .
Lunch was served by candlelight on the sandy bank of an underground river, after which we returned to caving and exploring. These caves are DARK. At one point, we all turned off our lights as we floated slowly downstream. It was so dark, there was no difference at all between having your eyes open or closed. You saw just as much. I was sure that I was going to end up down some side channel and be lost forever, floating on that tube through the maze of rivers until my skeletal remains were found, still floating on a Goodyear innertube.
That night was easier, having acclimated to the heat a bit. The monkeys returned, and all was well with the world. We had considered doing the Black Hole Drop – a 300 foot rappel into a sinkhole and through the canopy, but the thought of a “vigorous” 1 ½ hour hike through the steamy jungle appealed to exactly neither of us, so we decided to stay local and visit St. Herman’s Cave and the (inland) Blue Hole, both of which are within a mile of CB. St. Herman’s Cave was, well, a cave. Not quite as spectacular as the prior cave, but nice, as caves go. Of course, my fear was that our lights would go out and our skeletal remains would be found years later . . . . (notice a pattern here?)
$4 Belizean will get you into both the cave and the hole.
The Blue Hole is a beautiful oasis set in the middle of a lush jungle. The river emerges from the cave for just a few hundred yards, but what a beautiful stretch of river it is. The water is a bright blue that doesn’t show in photographs. When we arrived there were two local girls swimming there, and then a large group of yahoo tourists arrived, but as soon as the obligatory photos were taken, they eventually left, leaving the hole to me and my wife for a couple hours. This is one of the great benefits of traveling off season.
The water was refreshing, but we had to leave sometime, as we were getting seriously low on hammock time.
That afternoon we discovered an owl nursery just yards from our cabana. There were three baby screech owls in various stages of leaving the nest, all socked away in their individual nooks of a tree stump. Mom and dad were discovered nearby, just outside of our cabana window. One was obviously very ready to get to flying, but the other two were content to sleep. Can you see all three owls in this photo?
The next day, we were scheduled for a 6 am pickup to go on a day tour at Tikal, Guatemala, one of the premier Mayan sites in Central America. But, one week before we arrived, several American tourists were robbed, one was raped and a guide was killed. I don’t need this on my vacation, and my wife certainly doesn’t need it, so we opted to tour local Belizean ruins instead. The tour was arranged through the Aguada Hotel, which is owned by Bill, the ex-pat owner of the Aguada. He grew up in Delaware with Sen. Biden, and had a very interesting perspective as a black Belizean citizen with many years of management and work experience in the States. Despite this background, he has found that once you are identified as a Belizean, oddly enough you are automatically seen as inferior in the eyes of many Belizeans. If you are a foreigner (with money), you get right in without an appointment. Good luck even making an appointment if you are Belizean. The Aguada is a great little hotel in Santa Elena, just across the Macal River and a 20 minute walk or $4 cab ride from St. Ignacio.
We were led on a tour of El Pilar, Xunantunich and Cahal Pech by Omar of Mayan Mystique. Riding shotgun was his 13 year old nephew, Kareem, who was on summer break and purportedly wanted to be a tour guide someday, but clearly seemed better suited to acting like he wanted to be somewhere else or falling alseep. He was good at those things, even for a 13 year old.
El Pilar is a ruin about an hour outside of San Ignacio. While we were there, we met the project head of the dig, although I can’t remember her name for the life of me. This day was the final day of the dig before the rains so the local workers were replacing rocks and earth that had been removed. Most Mayan sites are discovered as several mounds located around a central market or gathering area. The philosophy at this site was to make discrete digs into the mounds but essentially leave them as they are. This is at odds with an older method of excavation by destruction, essentially plowing through a mound to see what was on the inside, leaving a cut straight through, as at the Jaguar Temple at Lamanai.
Many other sites, such as Lamanai and Xunantunich have been totally or partially “rehabilitated,” or rebuilt using Mayan methods. El Pilar would forever be hidden under its leafy grave. El Pilar was said to have been a trading center with Tikal, as it was barely a mile to the Guatemalan border.
Xunantunich, or Maiden of the Rock, is an impressive sight. Cross the hand-crank ferry to the other side of the Macal River, and follow the road up to the top of the hill. There actually is not much to Xunantunich except for El Castillo, or The Castle.
The last stop was Cahal Pech, or the Place of Ticks, at the meeting of the Macal and Mopan Rivers. And, after swearing that I was NOT going to walk up to the top of any more damn ruins that day, I found myself climbing alone to the top of the building from which the king would hold sway over his minions. The king would awaken in the Royal Residence, allow himself to be seen by the commoners, and then engage in an elaborate ritual designed to represent a transformation from a man to a god. I found the structure of the Royal Residence haunting, with traces of red paint still visible on the king’s huge stone bed (it was larger than the others, indicating that he had a lot more wives.) Thank god it was the last one......
That night, the Aguada was featuring an American chef from Boston now living in southern Belize at Gales Point. The last thing we expected was a gourmet meal, but it was quite a treat. The next day was Saturday, market day in San Ignacio. We walked into town, passing an intimidating San Ignacio bull
and took a stroll through the market where all the local farmers gather to sell their fresh produce.
San Ignacio is a small town, but very busy. The shops were full of people and things to buy. We didn’t do much more than window shop, and we didn’t buy anything, but we do know where you can get some edible panties if you’re ever in San Ignacio, Belize (Sam’s Variety Store, if you have to know). Later that morning we settled up and started the drive towards Belize City. We had been blessed with fantastic weather all week long, but all of a sudden, the rainy season appeared out of nowhere; dark storm clouds, driving rain, a lightning strike just hundreds of yards in front of the van. You know how you’re supposed to count the seconds between the strike and the thunder? We barely got to “one-” when the crack exploded just above us.
It looked like it might be an interesting 3-hour tour (uh-oh) to get to Manta Resort, our next stop.
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