DIS­COV­ER­ING THE SE­CRETS OF BELIZE

Howlers, hot sauce, Hopkins and more, writes

Vancouver Sun - - TRAVEL - Wa­heeda Har­ris.

It is 9 a.m. and a swel­ter­ing 38 C as we slowly walk a dirt path be­neath tow­er­ing ma­hogany trees. Even though we’ll hear him be­fore we see him our eyes are scan­ning the tree­tops for a howler mon­key. Our guide Con­way, leads with a growl, hop­ing for an re­sponse.

The quiet of the for­est is soon shat­tered with an an­swer­ing bel­low from a male, and we are now stand­ing below six mem­bers of a howler mon­key fam­ily.

The youngest mon­key swings down the tree branches as he stuffs leaves in his mouth, keep­ing an eyes on us as we hap­pily snap photos.

Thanks to the ded­i­ca­tion of a lo­cal women’s co-op­er­a­tive to pro­tect the mon­keys, trav­ellers are able to learn about the mon­keys, lo­cally called ba­boons.

There are 4,000 pri­mates liv­ing in the Com­mu­nity Ba­boon Sanc­tu­ary in this Belizean vil­lage of Ber­mu­dian Land­ing.

I’m here on a 10-day group tour with Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Jour­neys G Ad­ven­tures tour which of­fers a cir­cuitous route through this Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try, from a Mayan site north of Belize City, west to San Ig­na­cio on the Gu­atemala bor­der to the south coast beach town of Hopkins and to the sec­ond-largest bar­rier reef via the is­land of Caye Caulker, a com­bi­na­tion of Mayan his­tory, wildlife and in­dige­nous cul­ture.

Day 1 be­gins with an hour-long boat tour along the New River, a for­mer trad­ing route for log­ging dur­ing the coun­try’s colo­nial era.

Our guide points out bright­coloured or­chids among the trees and nu­mer­ous birds such as egrets, boat-billed herons and the ja­cana, lo­cally nick­named the Je­sus Christ bird as it seem­ingly walks on wa­ter (thanks to a lit­tle help from wa­ter lilies).

As we cross our fin­gers for an ap­pear­ance of an elu­sive croc­o­dile, we pass small boats of fish­er­men, while Men­non­ite fam­i­lies re­lax in the shade on the river banks en­joy­ing a Sun­day off from farm­ing.

We are cross­ing the New River La­goon, to ex­plore the his­toric site of La­manai, which means “sub­merged croc­o­dile” in Mayan Yu­catec.

The for­mer Maya city has three ma­jor stone tem­ples ex­ca­vated, in­clud­ing the High Tem­ple, a place of wor­ship for more than 3,000 years. A stair­case built on the side al­lows vis­i­tors to as­cend the 33 me­tres while pre­serv­ing the struc­ture.

The mod­ern day Maya wel­come our group to lunch at the Cayo Women’s Co-op­er­a­tive. Cre­ated 15 years ago, the women de­cided to re­claim their cul­ture, cre­at­ing em­broi­dered tex­tiles and learn­ing how to make pot­tery like their an­ces­tors.

Their ded­i­ca­tion to re-learn­ing cul­tural skills earned them sup­port from Plan­eterra, the char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion of G Ad­ven­tures, and the co-op now of­fers Mayan lunch to tour groups and has a gift shop to sell their em­broi­dery and ce­ram­ics.

Belize, called Bri­tish Hon­duras un­til it be­came in­de­pen­dent in 1981, fea­tures a dis­tinct com­bi­na­tion of lo­cals: in­dige­nous Mayan peo­ples, Mes­ti­zos, a mix of Euro­pean and in­dige­nous, Kri­ols or Cre­oles, a mix of African and Euro­pean, Men­non­ites who came here from North Amer­ica in the mid20th cen­tury dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, and ex­pat Cana­di­ans and Amer­i­cans seek­ing a sunny place for re­tire­ment. Ev­ery­one in Belize seems to be mul­ti­lin­gual with English the main lan­guage, Span­ish and Kriol are also com­monly spo­ken.

Our next ad­ven­ture is found in the mar­ket town of San Ig­na­cio, the sec­ond-largest city in Belize. Ac­tun Tu­ni­cil Muk­nal, nick­named the ATM, is the ma­jor at­trac­tion here, the cave was used for cen­turies by the Maya for cer­e­monies and con­tains crys­tal­lized sta­lag­mites, sta­lac­tites, Mayan ce­ram­ics, skulls and a cen­turies old Mayan skele­ton.

To get there we hike 45-min­utes in the un­re­lent­ing sun, and cross a river three times, be­fore get­ting to the cave’s en­trance, where a swim through the cool wa­ter leads to a scram­ble above and below rock for­ma­tions. Our guide gives us hel­mets with head­lamps and leads us sin­gle file into the cave’s depths, where we have to walk, wade, swim and climb as we go fur­ther in.

Our mantra for this three-hour ad­ven­ture: go low, go slow. Fi­nally we scram­ble over sta­lag­mites, up a lad­der and into a smaller cave to see the sparkling Crys­tal Maiden, a cen­turies-old cal­ci­fied skele­ton of a Mayan teenager.

From phys­i­cal chal­lenge to palate chal­lenge, the Hum­ming­bird High­way leads east to Marie Sharp’s Fine Foods, pro­ducer of Marie Sharp ha­banero pep­per sauces. The sur­round­ing 400 acres of fam­ily farm are the source of fruit and vegetables used in the sauces, jam and jel­lies, all made here and dis­trib­uted around the world. As we taste and con­sider what to buy, the fiery lady comes to say hello, telling her story of how she worked on recipes ev­ery night af­ter work and went door-to-door to sell her pep­per sauce.

Fur­ther down the Hum­ming­bird High­way is the coastal beach vil­lage of Hopkins, known for its Gar­i­funa cul­ture, an Afro-Caribbean in­dige­nous group that set­tled here in the early 1800s. It’s the idyl­lic place to nap un­der a palm tree, cy­cle the main street or look for man­a­tee in the Caribbean Sea.

Af­ter a fun at­tempt to learn some Gar­i­funa drum­ming skills at Le­beha Drum­ming Cen­ter, din­ner is at Tina’s Kitchen, where Ms. Tina makes ev­ery­thing to order, in­clud­ing Gar­i­funa spe­cial­ties such as conch soup or hudut, co­conut milk soup with whole fish served with a side of mashed plan­tain.

Three hours to Belize City, an hour by fast ferry, and we’re now on Caye Caulker, on the edge of the Me­soamer­i­can Reef, the sec­ond­largest bar­rier reef in the world.

Flip flops or bare­foot is stan­dard for vis­i­tors wan­der­ing Front Street for its colour­ful com­bi­na­tion of small inns, street ven­dors hawk­ing lo­cally made sou­venirs and fresh co­conut wa­ter, and tour of­fices to book snorkelling or div­ing trips.

We take a Bike with Pur­pose tour, led by Al­iza, who shows us the tar­pon and sea horse projects, man­groves and medic­i­nal plants and her high school; her work as a tour guide helps pay her school fees.

Spend­ing our last night on a sun­set sail around the isle, our group toasts the ad­ven­tures, nu­mer­ous mos­quito bites and friendly Belizeans that made our trip to this Caribbean and Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try so mem­o­rable.

G AD­VEN­TURES

Vis­i­tors can as­cend the La­manai Ru­ins — us­ing a mod­ern stair­case that pre­serves the site — to take in a sweep­ing view of the for­est sur­round­ing them.

BARRY GUIMBELLOT

Off the shores of Belize is the world’s sec­ond-largest bar­rier reef, the Me­soamer­i­can Reef, which is teem­ing with di­verse and in­ter­est­ing aquatic life.

WA­HEEDA HAR­RIS

Caye Caulker is off the coast of Belize and only ac­ces­si­ble by boat or air­plane.

Stairs lead­ing to the Mayan Ru­ins at Xu­natu­nich.

GETTY IMAGES

Around 4,000 howler mon­keys live in the Com­mu­nity Ba­boon Sanc­tu­ary in the Belizean vil­lage of Ber­mu­dian Land­ing.

The Crys­tal Maiden, the cen­turiesold re­mains of a cal­ci­fied Mayan teenager, is lo­cated in a cave.

The open­ing to the Ac­tun Tu­ni­cil Muk­nal, nick­named the ATM. Guides lead groups in an In­di­ana Jones-like tour into the cave’s depths.

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