Adventures With My Brother In Belize
By Meg Harbin
We left before the children and grandma woke, stealing away in the dark before the rising sun. We made our way on two separate 737s, meeting again on the tarmac to weave through customs, a quick stop at the Hertz rental car counter, and lunch at a roadside food stand of coconut rice, plantains, beans, and onion sauce (pickled spicy-sweet onions, peppers, and carrots). Then we were onto the pot-holed streets through Belize City.
My brother and I had never taken a vacation together, even as children. Our getaways were only ever limited by our imagination and the sandy creeks that crisscrossed our neighborhoods. We decided Belize would make a great adventure. My husband and sister-in-law agreed. We stopped half-way to visit the Belize Zoo, more of a sanctuary and greeted friendly tapirs - "mountain cows" - related to the horse and rhino but really resembling a mash of many creatures - aardvark, pig, hippo. The Harpy eagle was most impressive with its enormous pearl grey head and talons thicker than my fingers, who preys on aardvarks and armadillos and mates for life to raise one gosling at a time. Then back on the road for another one and a half hours, passing shacks of happy people cooking in front yards, grazing horses roaming free or tied in yards. Finally, we arrived at our destination in the Cayo District, a jungle abode set high on a hill above Chaa Creek Lodge, with mountain views.
We first visited the majestic ruins of Cahal Pech, my favorite ruin to date. We wanted to play hide and seek through so many passages leading into stone structures covered in moss and lichen, shaded by ancient trees. A spider wearing a mask stood guard at the entrance of a vaulted room; he was a little guy - black, with an orange and yellow horned head. Next, we sought out Xunantunich, an impressive ruin, though not as magical - but huge in stature. Go see both. You won't be sorry.
We conquered the Actun Tunichil Muknal, National Geographic's #1 cave tour! We couldn't bring cameras along due to a tourist incident a few years back that cracked skeletal remains, but pictures are out there on the internet if you search ATM. We began by swimming across the Roaring River in neck-deep icy waters, and we hiked 45 minutes along the jungle floor, crossing the river twice more before swimming into the mouth of the cave. The real fun began as we trudged, swam, and navigated through crevices so narrow we had to thread one arm over a jagged rock which grazed our throats before bobbing and weaving head and body through sideways.
Then we climbed up into the ceremonial chamber, where skeletal remains of sacrifices told the story of how increasingly desperate the ancient Mayans became for survival as resources dwindled. I felt a little silly to tear up over lives lost hundreds of years ago, but I had trouble not crying at some points as we stood over open graves of people believed to be held captive and ultimately murdered. Actun Tunichil Muknal means "Cave of the Stone Sepulcher" and is the final resting place of The Crystal Maiden, a young human sacrificed to appease the Mayan god of rain, Chac. The story remains a cautionary tale that will continue to haunt me long after I've returned from the cave.
Exiting the cave was even more exciting if that's possible to say. Footholds and tricky maneuvering required focus as current from the whirlpools threatened to pull us down and expel us from the depths. We had to catch and brace ourselves along the cave walls, fingertips clawing to grasp a hold to keep from being slammed into rocks that protruded out at head and neck level. One final swim through the mouth of the cave toward beckoning daylight. We retraced our footsteps along the jungle path, drying in the sun just in time to swim across the deeper part of the river and head back to camp.
I spent our last day in Belize swinging in a hammock, alternating between book and nap. I woke to the sound of horses next to me and figured it must be my brother snoring. After hearing it again, I sat up in the hammock to peer over the edge of the veranda, hoping to see a horse nearby. There was a herd of about 8 horses grazing feet from where I slept after a fresh rain! It was the most magical gift I received in Belize, and I closed out the trip with another hike down the river on the Medicine trail and a sunset paddle up the Macal River. About 24 hours later, my brother and I parted at the airport for his flight back to Boston. Until we meet again this Fall in Maine for an even grander adventure!