DISCOVERING THE SECRETS OF BELIZE
Howlers, hot sauce, Hopkins and more, writes
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.
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.
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.
Caye Caulker is off the coast of Belize and only accessible by boat or airplane.
Stairs leading to the Mayan Ruins at Xunatunich.
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.