Sunday, 16 March 2014

Belize on a Budget

Belize on a Budget
The Great Blue Hole, Belize - a Bucket List dive.

By Nelson Bennett

My son wanted to explore rain forest; I wanted to explore a different kind of forest - the kind that grows under water: coral reefs. 
But we were on a budget, so it had to be somewhere in Central America, not Borneo. Costa Rica was the most obvious option, but if we were going to Central America, we might as well choose a destination with Mayan ruins, and Costa Rica has none. So we chose Belize. 
Not only is it safer than many other Central American countries, it's easy to get around, reasonably cheap and, since it's a former British colony, most of the country's population speaks English.

We did our vacation in two parts: four days in the Cayo district exploring Mayan heritage sites followed by a full week on Caye Caulker.

Lower Dover Jungle Lodge

With cheap taxis and buses, Belize City is easy to exit, which is good because there's nothing really worth seeing here. A two-hour bus ride took us to Unitedville in central Belize and from there it was a half-mile walk up a rural road to Lowe Dover Field Station and Jungle Lodge, a 100-acre private reserve that includes jungle hikes and unexcavated Mayan ruins.
Once installed in our cabana, Madeline Reynolds, the owner, directed us to the river. About 20 metres from our cabana was a small river that curves and drops into two pools. It was 32 degrees, so a cool dip in a pool shaded in jungle canopy was a great way to start our vacation. 

Later we went for a hike with Madeline's son, Justin, who took us to the unexcavated Mayan plazas that occupy their property.

Archeologists have just begun the painstaking tasks of uncovering buildings, taking them apart, stone by stone, and rebuilding it with new mortar. In addition to being a tourist lodge, Lower Dover also is a field station for archeology students studying Mayan history. For $500, anyone can come spend a week here volunteering on a dig.

The next day, we headed out for a self-guided tour of two temple complexes: Xunantunich and Cahal Pech.

They are a good appetizer for those who plan to visit the more extensive ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. For Liam it proved a sufficient archaeological fix - he had no interest in spending several hours on a hot bus to visit Tikal.

The next day, we hired a guide to take us through the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves. If you see nothing else in Belize, put this on your list.

The adventure started with a 40-minute drive into the foothills of a limestone moutain range followed by a 40-minute hike through jungle, including three river crossings (chest-high in some places) to get to the ATM cave entrance. 

Unfortunately, I have no footage of this adventure because cameras are now strctly banned from the cave, and there is a chance the cave may be closed to tourism entirely one day.

At the cave entrance, you must swim a short distance to get to a ledge, and for the next 45 minutes or so, you are wading or swimming and negotiating tight passages. The cave itself is spectacular. It alternates between tight passages (one of them so tight that it just barely allows you to squeeze your neck past a protruding rock) and vast cathedral-like caverns with 60- foot high ceilings. Eons of dripping carbonic acid has turned the limestone into stalactites and stalagmites, some of which look oddly like the coral formations we would see a few days later on Caye Caulker.

With helmets and headlamps, you follow your guide half a mile deep into an underworld that the Mayan priests considered sacred and where they came to make offerings, including human scarifices, to the rain god Chaac.

About two-thirds of the way, you leave behind the underground river system for what is called the dry chamber and begin to climb. It's a bit like rock climbing in the dark. The first artefacts you come upon are clay pots. They are about 1,500 years old. Some are well presevered, others smashed. Some of them were used to burn blood offerings.

As you continue upward into the cave you come upon a huge open cathedral-like cavern filled with glittering cave formations, and several human skeletons. Archaeologists found this cave in the 1980s and found 18 skeletons - half of them children - all of them sacrificed to Chaac. The youngest was judged to be eight months old but you are not allowed to see this one because it is hidden up a ledge and it would be too dangerous and too damaging to the cave's fragile system to allow hordes of tourists up there.

The first skull we come upon is just that - a skull that has become detached from the body, the calcified skeleton of which is just barely discernible. This first victim has the distinctive flattened forehead, marking him as high-born. These high-born Mayans would wrap an infant's head with wooden slats so that it deformed the skull, giving their heads a kind of conical shape. They also hung beads in front of their noses in order to make them permanently cross-eyed and would file their teeth. All of this gave them a weird, fiercesome, otherwordly aspect.

I notice this fellow has two front teeth missing. I ask our guide, Orlando, if this was part of the "beautification" practices. "No," he says, then pantomimes. "Tourist taking a photo. Dropped it."

This was about a year and a half ago, and all cameras are now strictly forbidden. Google ATM cave, however, and you'll find lots footage from before the ban.

As we reached the end of the branch of the cave we were in, an eerie quiet fell. We all knew we were approaching the Crystal Maiden. A respectful hush fell over us as we crouched down to look upon the skeleton of a young woman that has become calcified, and which shines in the light of headlamps like some gruesome jewel. 

With arms and legs spread akimbo, mouth open, it almost looks as though she fell from a great height, but her sepulchre is a low-celinged cavern, so she must have been placed like this after she was killed. Further back in this chamber we are told there is the remains of another infant. It is chilling to think that the baby that was sacrificed may have belonged to this 20-year-old woman. Unlike the adults, who were all killed with blunt trauma to the head, the babies were simply placed here and left to die.

We are told that the Maya were becoming desperate due to a prolonged drought, and resorted to increasingly desparate and ever more barbaric sacrifices to Chaac. Whatever drove them to this, I find it had to resolve the Mayans' barbarity with their sophistication. When you visit the temples they built, the precision of their construction speaks to their mathematical sills. They were also accomplished astrologers. It's hard to reconcile their scientific achievements with their superstition.

As we start back, I linger. For a brief moment I am alone in the chamber with the Crystal Maiden. I try to imagine the horror of being led deep into this cave, possibly with her baby, to be sacrificed. I take one last look at her, and then leave her in the dark. 

Caye Caulker 

As our Belizian snorkeling guide cradles a 
 sting ray so that we can pet it, I am tempted to ask if he had ever heard of Steve Irwin, who died when a ray stung him in the chest.

He later tells us that few tourists have ever been stung. After 10 years, he has never been stung by a ray, although he has been bitten. Indeed, in Belize, there are far more dangerous creatures than sting rays, including nine kinds of venemous snakes, poisonous spiders, bullet ants (so-called for a sting so painful it is said to feel like being shot) and hideous creature called the bot fly, which hatches under your skin.

On our introductory snorkeling trip to the Hol Chan reserve, swimming with nurse sharks and sting rays turned out to be the highlight. The sound of a motorboat draws dozens of sting rays and half a dozen nurse sharks like a dinnerbell because the guides feed them herring. It's pretty amazing to see these elegant prehistoric looking fish passing just a couple of feet in front of you. I took photos with an underwater camera, but I will not have them developed until I get home.

The half-day snorkeling trip we took had three stops: Hol Chan reserve, shark-ray alley and the "coral gardens." Snorkeling with nurse sharks and sting rays was definitely very cool. To be honest, I found the coral reef - at least the part we visited - was a bit of a letdown. This is the second largest barrier reef in the world, after all, and one of the reasons I came to Belize was for the snorkeling and diving. So it was disappointing to see coral so bleached out and damaged from hurricanes and over-use by tourists. Compared to Jibacoa, Cuba, it seemed pretty monochrome.

But I am planning a three-dive trip that will include the famous Blue Hole, so I am hoping that we will see some healthier coral during that dive. While I dive, Liam will snorkel. At $700 Belize (US$350), this will be the most expensive excursion of our trip. 

Yesterday's snorkeling trip had some consequences: Liam and I are badly sunburned on the shoulders and back of the legs - the part exposed to the blazing sun. So today, we were forced to just stay put in our cabana at the Tropical Paradise  But there are worse places to be housebound.

The Great Blue Hole

If there is a single image that says "Belize," it is an aerial view of the Great Blue Hole. Situated as it is along the world's second largest barrier reef, the Blue Hole is a bucket list dive that draws scuba divers from all over the world.

Formed when this area was above water, the Blue Hole is a limestone sinkhole leading to an underground cave. As such, you will find stalactites that formed before it became submered. Three hundred feet in diametre and 480 feet deep, it is an almost perfect circle surrounded by coral.

I have read that as a dive, it is not that remarkable - something to tick off your list, but not a dive you would do twice. But this is definitely a dive I would do again.

The Blue Hole takes a full day. Located about 60 miles off the coast of Belize, it takes two hours to get there by boat and it is typically done as a three-tank dive. The deepest I have ever dived is 90 feet, and this one takes you down to 140 feet. That's how far you need to go to pass under an overhang and swim among huge stalactites. It's also how far you need to go to see the sinkhole's resident sharks.

As we slowly made our way down, it felt like flying in slow motion into a cave with no bottom. To my left I saw a long sloping wall of rock, to my right - dark, blue emptiness. I heard a sharp metalic sound - our dive master tapping his tank to get attention. He pointed off into the murky depth and gave the hand signal for "shark." I see a dark form gliding through the murk - a large shark that I am later told was a bull shark. Unfortunately, we never did see a hammerhead. 

Soon we reached a depth of 130 feet and were swimming parallel with enormous stalactites. We followed the dive master underneath an overhang and floating betwen massive columns. 

Because we went so deep, we could not stay down long and the dive over over in 27 minutes.

Next we moved onto Half Moon Caye wall, which was the most spectacular dive I've ever been on. It is an underwater moutain range of coral with a healthy population of fish. One hightlight was seeing a sea turtle floating above us. 

After the dive, the boat took us to Half Moon Caye for lunch. The island is a nature reserve. It is a breeding ground for red- footed boobies. The island also has