Taking a Plunge in Belize
Strapped in and dangling from a cable, I cautiously peer over the tree stand. My heart is in my throat. Somehow, the lush dense green of the rainforest almost lessens the severity of a 140-feet drop. Before I know it, I’m gliding effortlessly over the treetops and marveling at the beauty of this island gem (in between giddy girl screams, of course). Belize has completely won me over.
Zip lining thorough a tropical rain forest is just one of many jaw dropping experience visitors can add to their bucket list. Sacred caves and ancient Maya temples, world-class diving and snorkeling, and memorable dining options are just a few to consider.
Situated between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize encompasses the best of both worlds. On one side, you’ll find Central American jungles, on the other side – the Caribbean Sea. With that map, it’s no wonder Belize a primary port of call for many cruise lines. That was the case with us – just an excursion day. After one visit, though, I decided just one day here would never be enough.
Our zip-lining adventure took place in Caves Branch Archeological Reserve, southwest of Belize City. Many local tour guides are available, and packages can often include zip lining and cave tubing (which we also did).
The Caves Branch system was a beautiful introduction to the world of cave exploring. Our tour began with a 30-minute hike – not too strenuous, but just enough to assure us we worked off that morning’s breakfast buffet. Weaving through the cavernous wonderland, it was easy to understand why Maya priests believed these to be the gateway to the Underworld. Mysterious and beautiful, the caves seemed to come to life when flashlights spilled along the walls.
We booked our excursion through Cave-tubing.net, and were very impressed. Our group was much smaller than others there, and we felt less “herd like”. Being able to actually hear our guide as we floated through the caves was a big plus, too.
Throughout Belize, there are lots of other cave systems, and many are part of a forest or nature reserve. The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, part of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, includes a hike through jungle streams and a brief swim. Vacationers get to see massive pots, Maya ceremonial chambers, and human skeletal remains embedded in the caves limestone.
A more vigorous workout is required for the Che Chem Ha Cave, but the reward is worth it. A 45-minute uphill hike leads you to the cave entrance, decorated with Maya motifs and beautifully preserved Maya pots. A guide will lead you through the system, which includes climbing ladders to reach some of the chambers.
When the Maya people weren’t conducting ceremonies in caves, they were building amazing temples. Believed to have been at the heart of the Maya civilization that dominated Central America from 250 to 900 AD, Belize has the greatest concentration of Maya sites – over 1,400 recorded.
You can get to most of them fairly easily – group tours, or public and private transportation. I recommend making use of local guides to gain the best perspective of the cultural significance and architectural elements.
Some of the best-preserved sites include Caracol, El Pilar, and Lubaantun. Caracol, “the Snail” can be found in Chiquibul National Park, It was once the largest Maya center (more than 150,000 people). Caana, or “sky palace”, the impressive 140 foot pyramid remains the tallest man made structure in Belize.
El Pilar, located in the Cayo District, stretches over the Belize/Guatemala border. Over 25 plazas and 12 pyramids dot about 100 acres. It’s also a great spot for serious birders. You’ll find collared manikins, honeycreepers and a variety of flycatchers throughout the sub-tropical forest.
One mile from San Pedro Columbia Village in the Toledo District is the site of Lubaantun. The unique process of cut stones fitted and laid without mortar makes this an architectural treat. It was once a major center of political, religious, commercial and ceremonial activities from 730 to 860 AD. It is also known as the site where the famed Mitchell Hedges crystal skull was found.
The Toledo District also has more than 50 traditional Maya villages to visit once you leave Lubaantun. Here, you can immerse yourself in the Maya culture by stopping by the quaint man made huts and tasting the local cuisine of homemade tortillas and chicken stew.
While there’s obviously a lot to take in on land, time along Belize’s coast is well spent. Scuba fans and snorkelers will find something new every dip. Belize boasts the longest unbroken reef in the western hemisphere, the Belize Barrier Reef. In addition, there are atolls, fringe and patch reefs, and over 400 islands offering countless dive and snorkeling locations year round.
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