By Cindy Blount
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I felt like I'd entered a pasta forest. Everywhere I turned there were vines -- some twisted like rotini, some hung over rocks like spaghetti or spiraled and looped like cavatappi. Others were gnarled together like shredded wheat or hung in our pathway like licorice. Fungi grew on trees like frosted cookies. Draped across the branches of trees were garlands of blooming orchids.
When I packed my bags and moved to Belize four years ago, my love for backpacking and camping came with me. Ever since I'd heard of this 3-day, 30-mile jungle trek through part of the Meso-American Biological Corridor between the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and Five Blues Lake National Park, I was interested. Its karst limestone formations and caves had been likened to walking through a giant block of Swiss cheese. When I learned that Marcos Cucul, my former neighbor, was leading the trip, I knew that I wanted to go even though I'd be joining a group of complete strangers. The caving adventure that he led me on a few years ago has remained near the top of my "Best Adventures in Belize" list and thus my expectations for this new one were high.
On the morning of the trek, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I'd be hiking with a family vacationing from Vermont, USA -- Jim and Ruth and their 17-year old son, Kurt. We acquainted ourselves on the 2-hour drive to the trailhead─
"For years I have been plotting a fishing trip to Belize with 'Shorty' (Kurt). I scouted the perfect spot on the Internet. Tobacco Caye is an island off the coast teeming with tarpon, barracuda, Spanish mackerel and grouper. Shorty and I showed up at the beginning of his Spring Break and spent five days fishing and snorkeling in the gin clear waters ─ Ruth had not been overly keen on the fishing aspect of the vacation. Ruth, in her wisdom, wanted to see the rain forest" was Jim's version of how they came to be in Belize.
"We wanted to do something like this with our son, Kurt, before he graduates from high-school and before we get too old and out of shape to do it", Ruth explained as she looked up from the shade of her "LL Bean" straw hat.
Kurt had to be one of the coolest 17 year old guys I've met in a long time. I mean, how many high school kids spend their Spring Break fishing with their dads for a week and then hiking thru the rainforest with BOTH parents?
Three fearless Belizean guides rounded out our party. Marcos has the formal jungle training and practical experience necessary to lead the adventure. He has great attention to detail and from the start was constantly checking on everyone, cautioning on the prevention of blistered feet, and monitoring safety. Marcos and his two assistants, Sifiano and
Luis, were prepared to serve as field teachers, bush doctors and jungle chefs. I was confident we were going to have a great trip.
Ten minutes after we had arrived and doused ourselves with insect-repellent and sunscreen, Jim broke out his portable air conditioner and we were on our way. A few minutes later, hiking with packs down an old logging road through a tunnel of grass in the 90 degree temperatures and dripping with sweat, Jim turned around and said,
"Gosh, this seemed like such a great idea from behind my computer in my air-conditioned office! Walk a few miles to a leafy glade, set up camp with the help of various guides and porters and then caper about identifying birds of paradise, butterflies and furry mammals of every stripe. Not as adrenalin pumping as catching a 50 pound tarpon but efficacious nonetheless."
Hiking and camping like this means carrying 15-30 pounds of bare necessities on your back for 10 miles a day while traversing over rocks, wading through water, sinking into sandy dunes inside of caves and maneuvering under and over fallen trees. Late in the afternoon, we would arrive at the designated campsite and begin to "set up house". Sif
and Luis set up the kitchen, made a campfire, started dinner and creatively made a bush bathroom complete with a privacy wall made from giant palm branches. The campsite was always near a creek where we would swim and cool off at the end of the day. Marcos put up our expedition hammocks which were like little tents suspended between two trees. Jim likened it to "being slid into a black tube suspended between two trees like a giant taco waiting to be devoured by jaguars." At night, we ate while watching click beetles fly around with fluorescent lights like little UFO's, traded stories around the campfire and were finally lulled to sleep by the sounds of the forest.
During the days, I got lost in the creative wonders of the rainforest. The forest was ALIVE with signs of new life everywhere. Seedpods, and casings of every size, shape and color littered the forest floor. The 'seed-dispersal mechanisms' were endless─potato-chip look-a-likes, giant foot-long pods, odd-shaped nuts, strawberry-red peelings, blue and red berries, fluorescent-yellow flower petals, and the fluffy, snow-like 'kapok'.
Of course, all of this beauty was interspersed with the realities of dangers that exist within the forest. There are the thorns of the spiny bamboo (that could actually puncture a hole in your hiking boot), spikes from the "give and take" tree, holes, cliffs, slick spots and creatures that will defend themselves such as the ants that live inside of the bull horn plant that will emerge and bite intruders. We saw signs of the presence other creatures and heard their calls when we entered their territories.
On our very first day, we saw tapir tracks. The tapir or "mountain cow" is Belize's national animal. Marcos explained that at this time of year, during the dry season, these animals love to go to the river and cool themselves off because they are so large."
"Boy, I can identify with that!" laughed Jim. "This is as far as I've walked outside in years without a golf club in my hand! I hardly know what to do with myself."
One morning when I went to pump water from the creek, I found the fresh feathers of a bird and the tracks of a jaguar. Our second night, we heard the haunting howls of the black howler monkeys in the distance, the rustling of palm trees being navigated by a kinkajou overhead and the splash of a large animal crossing the nearby creek.
At times in the forest, there was a majestic silence like just after snowfall - the kind that makes you want to be ever so still to absorb the peace and beauty of nature. Most of the time, though, dry leaves crunched, twigs snapped and grass rustled as we trekked along the path. Often we heard the trickle of fresh water over rocks as the trail paralleled the creek. The forest-dwelling birds are quite shy and well-camouflaged making it difficult to see them, but the distinct 'whoop-whoop' of the blue-crowned mot-mot and 'snap-snap' of the white-collard manikins excited us enough to stop and look for these birds.
By the last day, Marcos, Sif and Luis took more of the weight from our packs to allow us to fully enjoy the sheer beauty of the landscape as we hiked up-stream through the thigh-high water of Indian Creek Gorge surrounded by limestone walls and silky, clear waters.
Ruth told stories of being chased by wild boars in Papua New Guinea; Kurt exercised some of his cross-country energy and I adorned myself with a wild orchid. Jim gave me fatherly advice.
"OK, whenever you decide to get married, you need to take your fianc■e on THIS exact trip. I guarantee that you will learn all kinds of things about him and you will figure out what he's really made of!"
Back in Dangriga, after picking the ticks off of ourselves and showering the layers of sweat and dirt off, we rendezvoused for a dinner at Pelican Beach, a delightful beachfront hotel on the northern end of town. We celebrated our fantastic guides, the fact that we lived through the experience and that one of the best things about traveling and adventure is the people you meet. I now have another top adventure to add to my list and while Jim may not be up for another rainforest trek, I think I can convince Kurt and Ruth to join me on one of Marcos's expeditions to Victoria Peak!
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Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography