My wife and I took a trip to Belize, what better way to celebrate our thirty-third anniversary. Or, as our tour guide pronounced it, “Dirty Tree years”. Well, I must say, Belize was a fun trip. We were able to visit some of the historic Mayan ruins and experience how people live in different parts of the world. It does bring a focus to how insignificant our problems can be in comparison. Third world countries provide a window into what real hardships can be. The following is a story of our experience.
The Belizean economy banks on tourism.
Upon arriving at the airport, we were greeted on the tarmac by those roll up steps, a sure sign things are different in the Caribbean. As we entered the terminal, I realized that the locals were betting on just how much Liz and I, along with the other vacationers, would add financially to their struggling economy.
After getting a cold soda, well somewhat cold soda, we were approached by a nice looking fellow who politely requested that we allow him to escort us to our hotel. We agreed, because there is no Uber in Belize, their flip phones won’t download apps.
Our drive into town was interesting. The eclectic look of the town landscape would become more familiar during our week of travels. The zoning in Belize is, well, let’s say there is none. As we approached the Great House, our lodging while in Belize, we noticed several landmarks. The famous lighthouse, the rainbow-painted BELIZE sign, and that blue, blue ocean.
The Caribbean has the most magnificently blue toned water – from sky blue, turquoise, to that rich sapphire blue.
We checked in and decided to take a quick walk around. As we headed towards the lighthouse, we were approached by a little man holding a bucket of empty soda bottles – his catch of the day. The man introduced himself as the famous Prince Charles Peres, self-proclaimed goodwill ambassador of Belize. He began to educate us on the history of the country; he was extremely articulate and well-educated.
I realized that the education we were receiving would not be free and we were more than happy to pay the tuition due. We then got a quick dinner at the Celebrity, a local restaurant Prince Charles Peres recommended, and one I would now recommend as well.
Early the next morning, we found ourselves in the middle of the tourist section of Belize City. It was our intention that we would schedule a tour for the day. The locals were at full throttle, hawking their wares and calling out their various offerings, working hard to increase their country’s economy. One of these hard-working individuals, Mr. Gerald Lewis, a Belizean native, approached us with a big smile. Holding a laminated guided tour price list, he promised his prices were the best. Right then, we knew he would be our tour guide, even though we weren’t sure his prices were the best. Something about Gerald Lewis led us to believe we would be in good hands.
So we loaded up in Gerald’s Jeep and headed out for a day of adventure. We decided we would travel to the Howler Monkey sanctuary, then work our way to the Altun Ha Mayan ruins. After about an hour traveling, we arrived at the sanctuary. I thought we would be going through some type of zoo. In fact, we would be traveling with one of Gerald’s family members on a private tour that was a guided walk through the open jungle.
Our guide explained that the sanctuary consisted of private land which the owners elected on their own to preserve for the Howler Monkeys habitat. As we walked through the jungle, our guide began imitating the sounds of the monkeys. After about a half hour there, suddenly overhead, we were surrounded by a family of Howlers. They were excited to see us! I could tell, because Howler Monkeys don’t wear pants.
They quickly ran down the tree to greet the obviously friendly tourists in their jungle. The locals, you see, don’t wear Tilley hats and plaid shorts (come on I was on vacation!). This obviously would have been a great time to feed my new friends a banana, but unfortunately it was confiscated at the beginning of the trail, because I somehow missed the large sign ‘Please do not feed the Monkeys’. I must say that seeing animals in their habitat beats the cages of the zoo.
Before leaving the Monkey Habitat, Gerald suggested we check out the souvenir shop, a tent with repurposed pallets as tables displaying beautiful carvings – some of which, I was sure, as I watched my wife’s hands flutter over the variety of baubles, would end up on bookcases in my den back in Nashville.
Elvis, the craftsmen, a longtime friend of Gerald, was very excited to explain what he carved from and how he did it. We did buy a Manatee (aka a sea cow) carved from the horn of a recently slaughtered land cow (it makes sense if you think about it). But of course, you can’t just buy one carving, so we are also the proud owners of a carved wooden bowl as well.
So down the road we went, heading for the Altun Ha ruins. The humidity was extremely high and we both knew we’d shed more than a couple of pounds from our middle-aged bodies (ok, a little past middle-aged bodies unless we had married at age 5). About a half hour into our drive, we determined that a cold coconut drink should be on the very near agenda.
Gerald enthusiastically agreed and said, “Oh yah man, cold coconut water is God’s gift.” He then informed us that he knew the best place for coconut water and to trust him as continued driving through the middle of nowhere… hours from the ocean, in the heart of the jungle… I have to admit at one point we decided we were either being kidnapped or we were going to be absolutely amazed with our coconut drink.
Finally, by the roadside we spotted an umbrella with a repurposed pallet as a table, and a sign saying ‘Coconuts 5 dollars (or $2.50 U.S.). As we ordered our drinks, the man at the stand, who also happened to be a friend or family of Gerald’s, quickly pulled out a machete and hacked off the coconut top, poked the white meaty part, and stuck a straw in it. Ok, fresh coconut water, freezing cold, is absolutely fantastic, I must admit. We will have this at home if I can find the right coconuts.
After our coconut break, we arrived at the Altun Ha ruins. WOW can be one way to describe what you see – Mayan ruins are spectacular anywhere you find them. If you ever have a chance to walk in a place where a different world existed prior, you must do it. The experience of walking through a history of such magnitude his hard to explain, it must be experienced.
The next day came early, we awoke at 6 AM and headed downstairs, yes stairs, no elevators at the Great House. The coffee shop was a quaint place with exceptional service, the beautiful native girl at the registered quickly greeted us – we ordered our coffee, sausage roll, and yes, the giant cinnamon bun. As we finished our coffee, I heard the now familiar sound of an old Jeep with a bad clutch approaching (and more than likely dripping oil), our day was about to get exciting. We were going cave tubing; traveling on a tire tube through the ancient caves the Mayans called the Underworld.
When we arrived at the caves, Gerald informed us that he would wait for us, he once heard a story about snakes in the cave waters, and he then abandoned the thought of ever exploring them again. Gerald introduced us to one of his nephews, George, who would be our guide. Liz enjoyed his knowledge of the jungle, and we felt much safer if snakes happened to show up. She knew that her old man of Dirty Tree years would only scream and jump into her arms, not fight them off. So her survival would more than likely depend on George.
The Belizean caves were unimaginably beautiful. George pulled us through the cave, paddling, him on his tube, us on our tubes, stopping often to explain the Mayan beliefs. It seems that every cave formation had some specific and magical meaning, and the devil got blamed for a lot of things.
Traveling through these caves was exciting, and as we looked at the formations, we also kept our eyes on the water – making sure we avoided snakes. We eventually exited the caves – and thankfully, no snakes. I do think George made up the snake story to keep his uncle Gerald from doing the tours himself.
The next day we decided on a trip to Caye Caulker. It was about 500 miles off the coast. Well, it seemed that far, in the bumpy, one hour ferry ride. There are many island sprinkled throughout the area. The waters were the bluest we have ever seen. As we ferried across, you could also see attempts at homesteading; there were many little shacks or shanties or primitive structures from modern materials. I could have sworn I saw the boat from Gilligan’s island sitting on the banks of one of these islands. But then remembered the episode where they were rescued.
We soon pulled up to the dock and headed up the sandy shores. Caulker is a very small place. If you are looking for a small town to live in, I don’t think they get any smaller – anywhere. I did not notice any dry cleaners, and if you asked for directions to one – the locals would more than likely feed you to the sharks. Literally. They warned us with a sign.
We walked around most of the tiny island, had breakfast and decided to hang around the Lazy Lizard at the Split. It’s a great place at the end of the island where Hurricane Haiti decided to separate the island in two pieces. The cold Belikin beer and that blue water made for a very relaxing day, excluding the minor incident I had when I slipped off the dock at the Lazy Lizard, into the arms of an unsuspecting tourist.
The next morning, after waking up sunburned, we decided on a trip to the Lamanai Mayan ruins. Unlike Altun Ha, Lamanai is a vast site of many acres. It is estimated there are more than 600 pyramids which have been consumed by the jungle. The site is the farthest we traveled to during our trip. First we drove north for about two hours. The last part of the journey was southwest by boat on the old Belize River, a roughly twenty-five mile boat ride through the jungle.
That ride was very interesting in and of itself. The river was alive with everything you would expect to see – wild orchids and bromeliads hung from the trees, crocodiles rested on the banks and iguanas hung out on the branches of the fallen trees at the river’s edge. The boat ride was fast enough to be fun and slow enough to catch the sights of the wildlife and natives along the way.
As we pulled into the dock, we were greeted by our tour guide, another friend of Gerald’s. He was extremely knowledgeable of the Mayan culture. As we walked the paths carved through the jungle, we were taught about the plants, both edible and poisonous. The Mayan people were extremely innovative and brought the world many inventions, and they were the first to teach the world much about the universe. When you visit these places, you can feel the presence of this past culture, oozing from the environment and everything around you. However, nothing proves you need to exercise more than climbing to the top of a Mayan pyramid. The Mayans had many insights, however, handrails were not one of them.
Back at the Great House, after an adventurous day, we needed a shower and more importantly, a drink. We were feverish to try the bottle of Cashew wine we picked up on the way back from a road side stand (operated by another good friend of Gerald’s). He had assured us the wine would be great. We also tried the local blackberry wine, which is not what you think, they are a blackberry that grows on a tree. The cashew wine was interesting – the fruit itself is tart, though the wine had more of a whiskey taste. Both of these drinks made great night caps on the balcony of the great house.
Well, those were the highlights of our trip. I hope you enjoyed my story. Belize is a great place to visit; the people are very friendly and if you’re looking for something other than a Caribbean cruise, go to Belize, find your Gerald Lewis and help his cause of supporting his friends and family.
Sometimes what we experience in life can also provide great experiences for those around us.
We had a great time and enjoyed meeting our new friends. Many thanks to Gerald Lewis, his family and friends, who shared with us their great Belizean hospitality.