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BELIZE Part 1: The Western Frontier

story & images by Vicki Andersen


Stirred from a night of fitful slumber by the longed-for flutter of the fan above my bed, I came to a decisive conclusion: by the time I returned home I would either be totally exhausted from lack of sleep, or I'd be unable to slumber due to the relative quiet of mere nighttime traffic and barking dogs. At least the fan's teasing breeze meant the generator was running, and I could soon shower and find my way to breakfast.

Welcome to the Belizean rainforest, and its attendant nocturnal commotion.


Descending toward the airport, I caught a glimpse of the Belize River, its surrounding jungle giving way to scattered clearings along the riverbank marked with a handful of buildings. The only settlement of any size in this country, Belize City is the main commercial center and a bustling seaport, but lacking in charm or amenities that would entice a visitor to linger.

B-City's lack of appeal wasn't a worry as I was headed for a getaway in the Maya Mountains. Located near the border of Guatemala, this is an unspoiled region of rivers, waterfalls, wildlife, and hidden cities of the ancient Maya. Driving through mostly tropical lowlands enroute to the western edge of Belize, the road gradually rose towards the jungle-like interior.


Nearly half the country is protected as a natural reserve or park. Rainforests and jungle are rich with thick stands of ceiba, giant mahogany, and sapodilla (a.k.a. chicle) trees, providing a rich habitat for a staggering variety of wildlife: jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, mountain lion, agouti, jaguarundi, otter, brocket deer, peccary, agouti, anteater, armadillo, tapir, coatimundi, kinkajou, black howler monkeys, iguanas and lizards.

The jungle canopy shimmers with brilliant flashes of color from keel-billed toucans, scarlet macaws, parrots, great curassows, king vultures and Blue Morpho butterflies. Waterways provided a nesting place for Morlet crocodiles and several species of turtles.


Belize is bordered on the north by Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, on the south and west by Guatemala, and her eastern coastline by a174-mile stretch of Caribbean Sea. The country is a mixture of Mestizo and Maya, Creole and Caucasian, Garifuna and East Indians, and a half-dozen Mennonite communities. This homogenizes into a blend of outgoing folks who are blessed with a culture of racial harmony and religious tolerance.

Belize was considered a backwater by the Spanish when they arrived in the 16th century, her only value the vast stands of logwood used for making dye. A group of shipwrecked British sailors established the first recorded European settlement early in the 17th century. Soon English and Scottish pirates were attracted by the enormous price to be fetched by a cargo of logwood. As the 19th century rolled around, Belize was pretty much one huge logging camp, filling fleets of ships with logwood and mahogany.

In 1862 Great Britain laid claim and monikered the new colony British Honduras. Citizens from all parts of the British Empire were encouraged to settle here, and many - including a large influx from India - did just that. During the mid-1800s trade diversified when the country sold arms to the Maya rebels fighting the War of the Castes in the Yucatán. Refugees from the War flooded into the country, as well as former Confederate soldiers from the Civil War in the United States.


A few years ago, statistics listed Belize with 300 miles of paved road and about 1,800 miles of unpaved thoroughfares. Five highways criss-cross the country: the Northern, Western, Southern, Coastal and Hummingbird Highways. Town and village names can bring a smile or thoughtful introspection: Bound to Shine, Revenge, Never Delay, More Tomorrow, Cool Shade, Meditation, Camelot, Go-To-Hell Camp, New Town.

Following the Western Highway, I passed countless hillocks, most of which were in fact ancient Maya habitations still buried under the abundant foliage. Belize was home to some of the earliest Maya settlements, with some dating back to 2000 BCE. Heading into the Cayo District, one of the six districts that make up the country, I passed clearings in the verdant vegetation, now under cultivation and producing most of the country's fruits and vegetables.


Near the west bank of the Macal River, atop a precipitous, towering rise, sits one of the earliest Maya settlements in Belize: Cahal Pech. First settled round 1000 BCE, a variety of tropical flora and colorful birds live in this park-like site which overlooks the town of San Ignacio and the fertile Belize River Valley. During excavation it was discovered that Structure A-1, at 77 feet the tallest building at Cahal Pech, completely encases an earlier building.

A dozen miles north of San Ignacio, spilling across the Belize-Guatemala border, El Pilar appears as it did to the first archaeologists who came across it less than 30 years ago. Pathways lead from plaza to plaza, the routes lined with structures still covered with jungle or left in the earliest stages of excavation. I come across bits and pieces from El Pilar's 2,500-year-old city: an arch, a room, a stairway, a long-abandoned aguada or water reservoir. In the Plaza Copal, eight major levels of plaza floor have been uncovered, revealing 3,000 years of history. Yet, as we roam about this still largely unexplored city, we don't encounter another person.


Numerous streams make their way out of the Maya Mountains to feed the Macal River, and straddling this river, just ten miles from the Guatemala border, is San Ignacio. Sitting in the midst of a large orange grove, surrounded by hills and jungle, it offers many lodging and dining options and some shopping possibilities. It's enjoyable to spend some time wandering among its Spanish ambience, enjoying a fresh limeade and getting to know some locals.

A few miles further, just a few hundred yards from Guatemala, the alluring Mestizo town of Benque Viejo Del Carmen is renown for its luscious fruit and striking gardens. Also situated on the banks of the Mopan River nearby, San Jose Succotz is the gateway to the ancient Maya ceremonial center of Xunantunich via a one-vehicle, hand-cranked ferry across the River.


Built atop a 115-foot tall, leveled limestone ridge, Xunantunich's Structure A-6, the second-tallest structure in Belize, extends another 135 feet up for an incredible view of not only the site itself but nearly the entire Cayo District. It is graced with a remarkable and elaborately carved band of stucco frieze, buried and protected by the construction of a later temple.

Those many miles of unpaved roads included access to my retreat at duPlooy's Jungle Lodge. Their individual bungalows stretching along the Mopan River were a pleasant retreat after long, hot and humid days of exploring the countryside and climbing weathered pre-Columbian constructions. I couldn't pick a favorite time of day for the journey "home": early in the morning, with the sight of cattle and horses feeding in lush pastures as the night mist slowly burned away, or returning at dusk and being mesmerized by clouds of fireflies filling mile upon mile of roadway.


One of the country's most inaccessible Maya ruins, Caracol is reached by way of one of the country's most scenic routes, although very dependant on dry weather to be passable. To cut a couple hours of driving time off the trip, I descended the path to the Macal River where a boat waited to paddle me a mile downstream so I could hook up with my guide waiting on the opposite bank. A quick sprint up to the van and we were on our way.

Traversing the Mountain Pine Ridge we pass through the 312-square-mile Forest Reserve of the same name as well as the Chiquibul Rainforest. Broadleaf forest gives way to pine as we ascend. The Vasquez River cuts a luxuriant swath through the granite and limestone mountains, and throughout this region waterfalls and rivers gush forth. An area rich in wildlife, I catch glimpses or hear the calls of parrots and toucans, and am enticed by unidentifiable skittering along the roadside.

When we reach the magnificent Río On Pools, I make a vow to myself and my guide that I WILL be stopping here on the way back to refresh in these magical swimming holes. In its passage over a succession of ledges and huge rocks, the Río On has created a chain of clear and inviting pools, with the smooth boulders adding the perfect touch by providing the original model of water slides.


Built on the Vaca Plateau, deep in the middle of rugged rainforest near the western boundary of Belize, Caracol is only 53 miles south of San Ignacio but well over two hours of travel time. Biggest and most spectacular of the country's known Maya sites, the core of the city ranges across 15 square miles, and the 36,000-plus structures that have been identified extend over more than 34 square miles. Immense trees play host to orchids, bromeliads and a riot of vines.

Howler monkeys scold us for our intrusion into these lesser-visited ruins. Huffing my way to the top of the massive pyramidal-based Caana, or Sky Place, I concur it is aptly named. Its 140-foot height makes it the tallest man-made structure in all of Belize. However, on the summit is another massive plaza bordered on three sizes by additional pyramids of considerable size. None of this is even visible from ground level. Across the base-level plaza sits Structure B5, whose massive carved masks have only recently been uncovered from their burial beneath two subsequent structures.

I am astonished that such a small country - about the size of Massachusetts - can contain so much beauty and history, support so much tropical forest and wondrous wildlife, and still be slowing revealing more mysteries from its past. But as much as I love this Western Frontier, I eagerly anticipate my sojourn in the eastern Districts of Belize.


Vicki Andersen may be reached at: skicat1@comcast.net.


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