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story & photos Frank Greco
Belize is a country full of natural wonders. Most people know Belize for the many islands off its coast, for having the second largest barrier reef in the world and the place where one can see the largest fish in the world - the docile whale shark. But just a short trip inland will show Belize’s true wonders.
If you are looking for a real eco-tourism adventure, Belize is the place to go. Imagine experiencing the jungle-like thrills of the rainforest while staying at a 4-5 star resort that blends itself into its surroundings.
Be awakened every morning by howler monkeys up in trees that seem to touch the sky, hear the roar of jaguars that run wild in the forest, catch a glimpse of a tapir and see more caves than you could ever imagine.
Belize is a country rich in lush vegetation, wildlife, adventure, history and mysticism. Inhabited by the Mayan people well over 900 years ago, Belize is a jungle wonderland that has so many hidden archeological sites, new sites are still being discovered.
The most famous site is called Xanantunich (pronounced shoo-nann-too-nich). The name means “Stone Woman,” named after the ghost of a woman claimed to inhabit the site and said to have been first sighted in 1892. The focal point on this site is a pyramid called “El Castillo” (The Castle), which stands more than 40 metres (130 feet) high. One can climb to the top and get a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside and the border towns of Guatemala.
As you walk around El Castillo, you will witness magnificent carvings created many centuries ago. Locals always joke that on every property there’s a cave - and caves were very important to the ancient Mayan civilization. They believed their gods lived in them so they conducted their ritual ceremonies there.
Almost every discovered cave in Belize houses fossilized artifacts and even human skeletal remains of the Mayan people. There are two ways to explore the caves. One is by canoe and the other is by a rubber inner tube. Exploration by canoe is fun, but for a really thrilling, or I should say "chilling" experience, try cave tubing.
Imagine trekking through the jungle, hiking along the bank of a river (the Caves Branch River) that cuts in and out and through the hills that surround you, then after an hour or two of hiking, you reach the starting point, walk into the river, sit in the inner tube and let the river take you on an amazing ride.
The river winds through a number of awesome caves and as you float inside, you’ll see spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations, and yes, bats as well (they are harmless).
The water is chilly but you’ll soon get acclimatized. Here’s a tip, relax and don’t resist the current, but let it guide you. You’ll move much easier. Don’t worry, the water is not very deep, sometimes as high as your knees and other times, let’s just say much deeper.
A headlamp is provided for you, and believe me, you’re going to need it. Going through my first cave, I heard the guide suggest that we all turn our lights off. We all did just that and let me tell you, I could not see my hand touching my nose, that’s how dark it was. The cave became very eerie and we turned on the headlamps, almost immediately.
If you want to get an unforgettable bird’s eye view of the dense jungle vegetation, whoosh past exotic birds and black howler monkeys, then you need to try the thrill of zip lining. You are harnessed-up and suspended on a steel cable with your feet dangling about 24 metres from the ground.
The zip line that I experienced was stretched across eight platforms. This thrill ride covers a lot of ground across the Belizean jungle, so make sure as you fly through the trees that you wave at the Howler monkeys. You do get really close to them!
At the end of the ride, the only way back to the ground is to repel down more than 24 metres at the final platform. If you are afraid of heights, do what I did, yell a lot and don’t look down as you repel.
The one place where you can cave tube as well as zip line through the rainforest is a resort called Jaguar Paw, located about 120 kilometres from the Belize City airport. It’s a jungle reserve blessed with miles and miles of underground caves and an abundance of wildlife, located in the Cayo district of Belize.
One of Belize’s best-kept secrets is the Belize Zoo. It was started in 1983 for the purpose of providing a home for animals used in making documentary films about tropical forests. The zoo now exhibits more than 125 animals native to Belize. The one animal I will always remember is the tapir - a cross between an anteater and a hippo. Locals refer to them as mountain cows.
I was lucky to meet the zookeeper who let me in their pen to help him feed them, so he gave me a handful of peanuts. Just so you know, Tapirs have humungous teeth, so I was careful. They seemed and acted very friendly as I fed them. I also helped the zookeeper in getting their main meal (lots of leaves and greenery) so I put the remaining peanuts in my side pocket (real smart on my part). As I tried feeding the group of Tapirs some leaves, the youngest in the group (her name is April), trotted behind me unnoticed and chomped at the peanuts in my pocket. Let’s just say she missed the peanuts and connected with my butt…ouch!
The crocodile pen is also a must see. Get this - they roam free without any enclosures. The zookeeper told me that the tapirs and the crocodiles come in and out of the zoo frequently since the zoo boarders the jungle, so don’t be shocked if you see one of these animals along the zoo trail.
If you visit, make sure to make a small contribution to the zoo fund and sign the visitor wall where you will see the late Steve Irwin’s signature (The Crocodile Hunter) - and mine, Frank Greco, The Travel Guy.
A visit to Belize is not complete without a stop at the Hidden Valley Resort in the Mountain Pine Ridge area of Belize. The cottage-like resort is situated in a 7200-acre private reserve where you can experience more than 145 kilometres of hiking and mountain biking trails and discover secluded pools and waterfalls in the dense jungle. Don’t worry, you will be given maps and briefings before you venture out from the resort – they will even pack you a lunch.
Dangerous animals like jaguars and poisonous snakes frequent the area. There are steep hills and drops, slippery terrain at spots and falling trees, so stick to the trails and be careful.
Two outstanding sights are the thousand foot falls, that drop down an almost endless cliffside then disappear into the seemingly lush jungle below - and Butterfly Falls - probably the most visited spot on the property.
The falls plunge 25 metres into an inviting pool surrounded by rocky cliffs and very lush vegetation. The only sound you hear is that of the water. Discovering these waterfalls is half the fun. The other half is actually swimming in the brisk pools created by them and taking photos.
Just a short note - some of the falls are off limits to swimming, because of potential dangers. The staff at Hidden Valley will guide you through this.
Belize truly is Mother Nature’s best-kept secret.
Frank Greco is a world traveler, producer and host of the television series The Travel Guy airing in 116 countries. Frank can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. GL
There are many caves like this one that you’ll enter on your tubing
adventure. The water gets deeper and colder as you glide into the cave.
ABOVE Located at the Succotz Village in the Cayo District of Belize you will need to cross the Mopan River in a handcranked ferry to experience Xunantunich and climb to the top of El Castillo.
ABOVE The Butterfly Falls provide a beautiful and secluded picture spot. It's the most popular spot at Hidden Valley