May 31, 2009

Travel Log: Belize Jungle - Cayo District/San Ignazio (May 2009)

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After spending 5 days in the the paradise of the Belize coastline, we took a 15 min flight back to the mainland and trekked into the rural Cayo District (via a rickety red mini van) just outside San Ignacio on the edge of the little village Cristo Rey [map]. On the way, our guide Eric Tut gave us a tour of the Belize Zoo - a small zoo packed with Belizean wildlife - some of which we would see more of. The highlights included a tapir and getting up close to a jaguar.

To reach Crystal Paradise (which would be home for the next 3 nights) we took the East/West "Highway" - one of 2 major roads in Belize. This "highway" is equivalent of an secondary state highway in need of attention. Given the potholes in the road, I found the speed bumps ironic. Little did we know this was, relatively speaking, a high quality road compared to the roads ahead of us.

Ambergris Caye was on the verge of third world living, a mix of local shacks and upscale beachfront homes (Jimmy Buffett owes a hideaway here). San Ignacio/Cristo Rey was definitely third world. No fine dining, no Burger King, no sports bars w/ HDTV, no TV at all, or AC - for the locals or us. Despite the lack of traditional comforts, we enjoyed the beautiful grounds of Crystal Paradise - full of huge coconut trees, cacti, cockspur trees, hibiscus, Heliconia Bihai (aka lobster claw), pineapple plants (doesn't resemble a pine or apple tree), posionwood (avoid the sap!) and others I've never seen before. Aside from some pines, the foliage doesn't resemble anything like those found in my mid-Atlantic states. This "resort" is run entirely by Victor and Teresa Tut, a local Belize couple, and their 10 children!

After a hearty dinner of chicken with rice and beans prepared by Carolita Tut (Eric's sister) and a round of Belikins, we all retired early (a common trend for the trip). Our rooms were equipped with authentic thatched roofs and screened windows that worked most of the time. Despite numerous warnings, mosquitoes were not a problem - my backyard is worse, as is the Belize rain forest area (which was confirmed by the legs of some other travelers that just left that area).

On Friday we took to the trees - zip-lining! In another first for us, we donned harnesses, were clipped to heavy cables and zipped through the canopy of the forest. It was a blast and went by fast. Even Tee's 4 yro nephew Blake enjoyed it (as any Batman fan would).

Following a picnic lunch and with Eric Tut leading the way and pointing out details we would have missed, including a tarantula and giant toad (I'd guess 2 lbs - and T spotted this creature 1st!), we hiked through the jungle with inner tubes for 45 minutes,
taking in the nature along the way. Our destination: the Caves Branch River. For the next couple hours we floated back down river - part of the time through a large cave.
"Cave Tubing" was a lot of fun.

Massive Cave

We saved a trip to Mayan ruins for our final full day in Belize. Everald Tut (Eric's oldest brother) ferried us in the questionable red mini-van over 2 hours worth of bumpy dirt roads through the scraggly Pine Mountain Ridge to the Caracol Archaeological Park

Dirt road leading to Caracol
To quote Everald, it is "the longest 37 mile ride you'll ever take", but it was worth it. The Caracol Mayan ruins sit just 3 miles from the Guatemalan border. For safety precautions, the last stretch of the trek was completed via a military lead convoy. Apparently Guatemalan bandits roam the area and rob tourists (the last incident was Feb 12th, and it was Everald's tour that was hit, lovely). This area is so remote, the ruins weren't [re]discovered until 1936 (it was abandoned by the Mayans in 1050 AD). 10 years ago the roads to the site weren't penetrable. A lot of excavation work has been complete, but a lot remains. Experts believe this could be one of the largest Mayan sites ever discovered and is home to the tallest man-made structure in Belize; the Caana temple stands 43.5 meters tall - higher than any modern building. Everald actually worked at the site for several years and was a terrific guide with lots of insights (and a few jokes). It was an amazing site.
Caracol Caana Temple
Caracol Caana Temple

Seeing and climbing over structures built 1 to 2 thousand years ago without modern technology and the back breaking labor that went into it boggles the mind.
cute baby howler monkey
The afternoon concluded with a late picnic packed by the Tut's and a visit with a cute baby howler monkey which fell from a tree and is now cared for by the rangers guarding Caracol.

We dipped into the natural Rio On pools to cool off on the route back to Crystal Paradise. We all slept well our final night in Belize.

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