Although I’ve traveled extensively around the United States and vicariously through library books, I haven’t traveled internationally much at all. I’ve been to Rocky Point in Mexico, Niagara Falls in Canada and had a wonderful 2010 trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. So it was really special to me to get to spend my New Year’s week in Belize with my beaux. He’s traveled widely around the world but hadn’t ever been to Belize so it was a new experience that we got to share together.
It was a long trek to get to our Ambergis Caye resort. We flew from San Francisco overnight to Miami. Then we flew from there to Belize City where we had to go through customs then catch a small 12-person plane to San Pedro Island. From there, we were picked up in a van and taken to a dock for a half hour boat ride to our hotel. I was a little grumpy, a little achy, but when I looked down out of that tiny plane and saw that stunningly clear green-blue water beneath me I felt refreshed.
The first big activity that we did was snorkeling, which I’d never done before. Belize is apparently one of the best places in the world to snorkel and scuba because it has a coral barrier reef comparable to Australia’s and clear warm waters that are comfy to swim in. I’m not a strong swimmer and I’ll admit that I found snorkeling tough and a bit uncomfortable. I couldn’t quite figure out how to keep me flittered feet from popping to the surface behind me and I kept forgetting that I could actually breathe under the water. My neck hurt from trying to stay afloat and still se my guide and not bump into anybody. I confess that there were frustrated moments when I thought, “I’d rather be at an aquarium”. But looking back I can see that it was an amazing experience, that it was already getting easier for me by the end of the first snorkel stop, and that there’s a possibility I’d do it again someday somewhere although if I never do I think I was lucky to have such a beautiful place to enjoy that experience.
We swam with green turtles, huge eels, nurse sharks, transparent fish, rainbow fish and more. Our first stop was probably about an hour long. It’s a little weird to be a few feet away from wild animals and surrounded by a hundred other people in flippers exploring the same area. Throughout much of our Belize trip I kept wondering how “wild” these animals really are when they aren’t domesticated but are so accustomed to us people. I was reading a great book, Animal Madness, about mental health issues in animals including animals in captivity and it just gave me pause for thought about all of the experiences we were lucky to be having.
There were three other stops on our all day snorkel trip – two to swim in Shark Ray Alley and one that was more of a coral-focused stop. I didn’t snorkel for any of those because I was tired but I enjoyed just being on the boat and watching the animals in the water and relaxing in the sunshine. I forgot how much I really enjoy being on the water in that way. The nurse sharks come right up to the boat to eat the chum that the guides are tossing out while the snorkelers swim around. The birds swoop down to try to get their share. Rays and skates slide by.
Another major thing we did during our trip was to visit the Mayan ruins of Lamanai and Altun Ha. They were very different experiences even though the ruins aren’t particularly different from each other or even very far apart location-wise. We went to Lamanai first on a guided tour with dozens of other people during a time of day when there were many, many other similar guided tours. The ruins were flooded with people traipsing up and down them. We got a lot of information about the history of the ruins and the Mayan people and I felt glad that I was learning that and seeing the site but I didn’t feel anything particularly magical or awe-ful.
That was in deep contrast to the day we visited Altun Ha on a private tour. We woke up incredibly early to get there and were there before anyone else. It was raining quite hard (the only day that we were really rained on a lot, actually), which contributed to no one else being there. It also apparently was one of the few days of this high season that there wasn’t a cruise ship coming in to port. All of those things combined for an experience of being the only people – me, my beaux and our guide – in the entire area. We climbed the ancient tombs and temples, looked down below on where the people would have looked up at the high priests, listened to the howler monkeys calling out in the trees around us … I don’t have words to describe the magic of being the only people in that place, in that weather, in that space and time. I doubt I’ll ever have a replica of that experience again in my life and while the ruins were originally not at the top of my list of exciting Belize things to do it turned out that it was the most memorable experience carried with me back from that trip.
Howler Monkeys and Tapirs
The howler monkeys could be heard around the ruins but we specifically went to a sanctuary to see them. It’s a pretty amazing place where the local people have signed a pledge to protect the monkeys in their yards and not cause construction or destruction that might harm them. They are supported by tourist visitors and donations.
We toured the muddy jungle in the rain with a guide who told us a lot about the local plant life. She showed us the “hot lips” plant that the midwives use as part of the healing process during birth and the pregnancy test plant that you pee on and if the leaf turns yellow then you’re pregnant and the bark that you eat if you’ve gotten a snake bite because it will slow your heart rate down and buy you time to get to safety.
She found a group of four monkeys for us hanging out in the back yard of one of the homes so we entered their gate, said hello to the family sitting on the porch and then went in the backyard and right up to the trees where the monkeys were sitting. We pulled native plants out and extended them to the monkeys as an offering to eat and they came down and grasped them. There was a six week old baby monkey clinging right on to his mama as she scampered down to take the plant and another one year old baby that was curious and approached on his own. They were absolutely adorable and it was precious to be able to have that face-to-face experience with them without the bars of a zoo cage all around.
We did, however, go to the Belize Zoo. It’s such a curious place. It was started as basically a rescue sanctuary by an American woman who had rescued a bunch of exotic animals from the entertainment industry and realized that Belize could use a zoo. Each animal there has a story of being rescued, which is written in rhyme form outside of its exhibit. They’ve been rescued from fires, from lives as inappropriate pets, from hunting and deforesting situations.
The exhibits are filled with native plant life, much more so than most of the zoos I’ve been to in the past, and apparently the woman who started the zoo comes around at night and plays her guitar for the animals. That’s not to say that they are happy or enjoy being in a zoo because I obviously don’t know that but there were qualities of this zoo that felt to me more like a rescue than a zoo even though it’s a caged place. And I will say that the guides do guide out of their way to try to convince the animals to perform for the tourists, which felt a little disturbing.
The zoo has a large section for tapirs, the national animal of the country. It’s a cross between a horse and a rhino but looks more like a pig. They are friendly and come right up to the edge of the exhibit to nuzzle human hands. I reached out and this snout just moved back and forth as a warm tongue checked out my hand, much like a big puppy.
The other popular zoo animals are the monkeys (spider monkeys and howler monkeys), big cats (ocelots, jaguars, pumas) and colorful tropical birds. My favorite, however, was the kinkajou – a raccoon-like animal that has teddy bear ears and big eyes and is nocturnal so we were lucky to be there first thing in the morning when he was still out and awake.
We also managed to fit in some cave tubing while we were there, which was super cool. We didn’t explore the ATM cave, which is the famous attraction where you can go into caves and see Mayan sacrifice offerings, but we did go into an amazing cave where we saw some stunning geo formations. We plopped into inner tubes on one end of the cave and floated through the darkness with head lamps and watched the limestone quartz glittering all around us, thinking about the Mayan belief that this was the underworld or hell on earth. Cave tubing was so relaxing and lovely and I can’t really believe that I’ve never done it before.
Fireworks, Coladas, Hammocks and More
We were in Belize for New Year’s Eve so we took the boat from our part of the island to San Pedro and watched the fireworks show. It lasted about forty minutes and was really fun to see. All of the fireworks shows I’ve seen recently were on cold nights in San Francisco when I wavered between wanting to see them and wanting to be inside and warm! It was nice to be out at night on New Year’s Eve in short sleeves with a tropical breeze. I was a little overwhelmed by the crowd; it wasn’t really that crowded, not like in San Francisco, but I admit that the long days of travel were hard on me. Still, it was worth it to see the show.
And we did have some days of downtime. I fell in love with pina coladas, and the occasional mango colada, and drank a lot of them throughout the days on beaches up and down the island coast. I enjoyed watching the calm waters change colors in the dawning of sunlight, the brightness of a full moon, the mixture of clouds and sunshine. There was one day that we saw a rainbow that lasted almost all day long, a double rainbow for part of that, and it was magical and special to see that. We laid in hammocks looking out at the water. We sat on sand looking out at the water. We walked along the edge of the water and watched the play of light. We kept our phones off and didn’t bring laptops with us and although it took a few days to settle in to a different pace of life the settling did finally happen and it was a nice way to ring in the year.
Reading: How to Cook a Tapir: A Memoir of Belize