Everywhere else is most of Belize. While in most of Central America, like Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, it's pretty simple to hop on a bus, land in a new town, and get a room in a small hotel. In Belize things felt... different. More remote. The majority of Belize's land is undeveloped. Tourists generally stay in a few ecoresorts spread out through the countryside. That's not arrive-in-town-and-see-where-it-takes-you traveling. That's planning-ahead-to-be-at-a-resort travel.
Kevin and I have never stayed at a resort and honestly have never been drawn to that. Resorts always make me feel like I'll be secluded away from where I actually am. While I can see the allure if you only have a weekend and want to relax, I generally travel to experience a new place so I want to be in the thick of it.
And I wanted to experience Belize. We had spent time in the Cayes (and loved it even beyond what we expected) so I figured we'd finish our time in Belize in the countryside. If you're going to book a resort it might as well be an ecoresort. I had read about Chaa Creek in San Ignacio. The resorts, including Chaa Creek, generally exceeded my budget, but Chaa Creek had a campground for budget travelers. You had access to the resort facilities when you hiked in from the cabins. I booked it.
When we arrived at Chaa Creek it felt fancy. Generally, on a graph of increasing fanciness my satisfaction decreases. I was a little nervous. Reception gave us a slip to give to the campsite director alerting him that I was vegetarian. Then they sat us down to wait by the manicured lawns to be driven to the campsite.
As we waited an older couple from New York passed us. They asked us if we were going to the campsite and we confirmed that we were. "It's rustic out there! There's NO electricity!" They told us in shock. We said, "We know." And nodded politely. Satisfied that they'd warned us they moved on.
Shortly afterwards, a big gregarious Mayan man showed up in a pick-up truck. Docio runs the campsite with his family. I showed him my slip of vegetarianism. He sized me up and said, "We don't do this." I shrank a little. He roared with laughter, "I'm just kidding! Get in."
I love Docio.
As soon as we climbed the hill to the little campsite we were happy. We gazed down on a few tarp-roofed, screened-in cabins. There was a shared outdoor bathroom and shower hall. A small kitchen and dining room were fully stocked with potable water and bug spray. As you climbed down the trail you were at an access to swim in the river. To the right was the Medicine Trail that lead back to the resort.
Kevin and I quickly climbed down to the Macal River and swam. Being in water felt very important during that time. We made it happen daily.
The water was cool and the river very quiet. There's not much around there. We listened to birds. We were nibbled on by a few fish. Docio's wife and son boarded a canoe at the far bank. They crossed the river and passed us as they climbed up to prepare dinner.
Dinner was summer camp style. We quickly made friends with a few other travelers. During our short time we'd catch up on their days over breakfast and dinner. Docio did indeed prepare me delicious vegetarian food.
Over dinner the sky got dark quickly. We used flashlights to pass slowly from the dining hall to the bathroom and then back to the cabin. While we ate, Docio's family had lit kerosene lanterns in each of our cabins. We returned to soft light.
While we read in bed the nighttime outside our cabin grew noisy. Each night I revelled at how the jungle came alive. The howlers around San Ignacio sound immensely more monstrous than howlers I had heard in Costa Rica. I don't know what it is but I wonder about their echoes over the river? It almost sounded like a band of ghost cows. Seriously. Cows because there was a mooing at times. Ghostly because it took on this echoed quality. It sounded and felt like rushing wind. It was so loud it woke me up every night. I loved hearing it because it reminded me that nature is not quiet but it is peaceful. The sound wasn't manmade and it affected me differently. It brought me proportionally into that environment.
And I won't lie-- it scared me too. I was 99% sure that the sound I was hearing was howler monkeys, which I know are no threat to me. However, it did sound kind of otherwordly so parts of me wondered about some type of zombie panther? I did bravely go to the outhouse. That involved leaving the cabin and walking a ways in the pitch black dark. I think I win at jungle survival.
After breakfast we walked the Medicine Trail back to the resort, which is about a 10 minute hike. This was so exciting to me! Kevin and I had read about Dr Rosita Arvigo who studied under Mayan Medicine Man Dr Elijio Panti. Together, they created the Medicine Trail as well as protecting huge swaths of Belizean jungle for old growth medicinals. I loved walking the path labelled with various plants and trees, watching birds and animals, and gazing down at the Macal River.
Back at the resort things were resort-y. I took advantage! I spent a whole day at the Infinity pool where I could order delicious drinks and eat at the really good restaurant. Certainly expensive food for Belize, but pretty sweet!
We started to understand the allure of a resort! Most guests would book these expensive tours each day. They spent a lot of money going around to the various temples (you could go to Guatemala for Tikal!) and ruins or caving or any other adventure. I mean, it's cool! BUT Chaa Creek sat on acres of FREE hiking trails. The trails wound through a working farm (that you could visit), the Medicine Trail and associated history, a natural museum, the pool, the river, canoes, and plenty else.
We did all the free thangs.
Kevin and I canoed up and down the Macal River, or more accurately, Kevin canoed and I watched toucans and all types of fantastic birds. We woke up early one morning for a free guided bird tour with the best Tanzanian guide who gleefully shouted "Excellent!" every time he found a bird. We visited the butterfly reserve and were surrounded by blue wonder. We hiked and hiked and hiked and read and swam and relaxed.
One morning I thought I woke to rain. I heard big plops on the tarp roof of our endearing cabin. I went onto the porch and saw a band of howler monkeys. What I was hearing was the sound of the nuts they were discarding and throwing onto our roof. I love monkeys. They give no fucks at all.
A friend at the campsite suggested a lovely and very discounted DIY day. We arranged to canoe down to San Ignacio and have Chaa Creek pick us up a few hours later. We assumed our known arrangement: Kevin took the oar and I proceeded to enterain him with stories. We rowed 5 miles down the Macal, through territories of birds of every conceivable color. I don't think I've ever seen nor heard as many birds in my life. I felt like I floated through worlds before slowly encountering the small town that is the city of San Ignacio.
As promised, a Chaa Creek employee met us and took up the canoe (fancy resort!). We walked into dusty San Ignacio, through the fruit vendors at the flea market, and wove into a few shops. It's a sort of rough and tumble town. A lot of travelers don't like it but use it as a base camp for adventures in caves and ruins. I could definitely see doing that.
Kevin loved it. It felt like the perfect balance of grit and skepticism of outsiders.
We decided that next time we're in Belize we'll likely stay there to do the tours that interest us--like the ATM caves-- through independent providers (which is less expensive than booking at Chaa Creek). Then we'd go back to Chaa Creek. The peace of the jungle had a hold on us.
We hailed a taxi to take us to the Mayan ruins located in San Ignacio, called Cahal Pech. The museum is one of the better I've seen and the ruins are practically empty of visitors. As opposed to the dense crowds of Chichen Itza and Tikal, here you get a very personal and calm visit to beautiful ruins.
Some of the museum exhibits we've encountered at ruin sites speak of Mayan people as though they no longer exist. Any trip through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, or elsewhere in Central America shows what a lie that is-- Mayan people are everywhere. Cahal Pech did a much better job of acknowledging the continuity and lineage. I also came to better understand Belize's history.
I had been reading census figures of Belize's diverse population. The literature kept talking about various groups coming to Belize maybe a hundred or two hundred years prior. The ruins date human presence much earlier than that! The exhibit at Cahal Pech explained that Belize's population at the height of Mayan civilization was three times what it is today. When the inexplicable event happened that dashed Mayan populations, Belize was practically empty of humans. The jungle overtook many of the ruin sites. Many have still not been uncovered, or uncovered by people outside of Mayan lineage. Mayans and other groups began coming back to Belize in the last few hundred years.
Kevin and I have happily visited many Mayan ruins. This particular portal was a first! I shared this photo on social media just thinking it was kind of cool. My friends alerted me to the "feminine" quality!
That night, we decided to do one last Chaa Creek tour by signing up for the night hike. A few other campers joined us in shining our flashlights on the Medicine Trail as we hiked back to the resort after dark. We met our guide at the bar. Having been at the campsite we had no idea that it was a party down there! Our guide gave us each a head lamp so we could be the cool kids at the happening bar.
We set off as he shone his light at the lawn just feet from the bar. The whole lawn sparkled with THOUSANDS OF SPIDER EYES. Immediately, I saw what we had gotten ourselves into. This was a "things that go bump in the night tour." It was so funny because the guide was totally spooked by any type of creepy crawley-- he'd had a lifetime of experiences of bites and near misses. I understood why we'd been asked to wear socks.
As we walked quietly deeper into the woods, I fell in love. We saw scorpions, tarantulas, every type of spider, possums, snakes, and all the stuff of nightmares. We all learned to quickly train our lights, to walk softly, and carry no sticks.
Kevin was the first to spot the snake on the rail post. Apparently this guy is a fast mover and poisonous. The guide was very cautious. The snake was so beautiful!
After the hike, we sat at the bar with our friends. I felt sleepy and so happy. The jungle is so alive. Kevin kept talking about something sort of unnerving and also really liberating-- in the jungle, you could lie down and be claimed. If you waited long enough, you wouldn't exist anymore. The density of the jungle would absolve and dissolve and be with and use every bit of you. There was something weighty and beautiful in that.
As with the whole of our trip to Belize, I was surprised. Honestly, I didn't think I'd like it that much. From afar, I couldn't get a read on Belize's personality or way of being. I think that's because Belize has nothing to prove. It is. It's a sense. It's a feeling. It pulled me in. I love it.