We crossed the border into Belize to begin our 4-day visit to this tiny country. We knew very little of Belize before coming, and learned a great deal while we were here. We learned about the small population (360,000), the various ethnic groups (mixed Mayan/European, African, Latin American), the many languages (English, Spanish, Creole, Garifuna), and the many Mennonite communities in Belize that now act as the economic and agricultural engines of the country. We pre-booked a few tours in the country, a very expensive way to travel and see the sights, but a sure way to get to those spots which are most unique and memorable.
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Our highlights in Belize were:
1. Xunantunich Ruins – on the afternoon that we crossed into the country, we stopped to stay in San Jose Succotz, which was just down the road from the Xunantunich ruin site. The site was across the river from the main road, and there was a small barge which carried our car across the 50 ft slow-moving river. It had a hand turned crank, which pulled the ferry on a cable across the water. Tera and I and Nathan were the only ones who visited the site, as the other kids were happy to stay back at the Airbnb and have some down time. The site was much smaller than Tikal, but still very impressive. At the top of the tallest excavated ruin there, the 2nd highest man-made building in all of Belize (the first being a different Mayan temple at a different site), we looked out over the vast jungle surrounding us and enjoyed the loud calls of the howler monkeys and a front-row view of many playful spider monkeys.
2.ATM Cave – After being thoroughly delighted and impressed by the candlelight trek through the Guatemalan caves in Semuc Champay, we thought we were pretty well prepared for the ATM cave in Belize. This was another wet cave, so the experience of wading and swimming through the cave was similar. However, the ATM was massive, with limestone cave formations and stalagtites and stalagmites oozing and dripping from the ceiling and cave walls. We went in, not with a candle this time, but a helmet and head lamp. The fantastic cave itself was worth the visit, - again trekking and swimming along an underground river, but the fame of the caves comes not from the geology, but from the archeology. The cave was a ritual Mayan cave, which was used almost 1500 years ago as a site to offer up sacrifices to the rain deities. Once we got to the ritual areas, about 500 meters back, we saw hundreds of pottery remains littered on the floor. Part of the ritual was to break the pottery as a sacrifice to the rain gods, so all of the pots had some crack or break in them but had then been untouched and unmoved in millennia. Even more amazing, were the human remains, skulls, bones, and even an almost complete skeleton dubbed the “Crystal Maiden”. Over the last thousand years, with alternate flooding of the cave with water and subsequent drying, the bones became encased in limestone and quartz crystals.
The experience of the cave tour, with the walking, wading, swimming, and viewing the archaeological remains was the newest addition to one of my top 10 global tourist experience.
3. Scuba Diving and Snorkeling with sharks, rays, and manatees – During the Christmas of 2012, we gave the gift of scuba diving certification to the three oldest kids: Emily, Nathan and Anna. We had not been scuba diving in the 5 years since, so our trip to Belize – and to the 2nd longest barrier reef in the world, needed to include a return to the water. We booked a trip to the Hol Chan Marine reserve – a beautiful reef with tons of coral and fish, where we were leisurely joined by barracuda and sting rays and manta rays. It was fun to get geared back up and under the water, and the oldest 3 kids did great alongside us while Tyler, Megan, and Jacob snorkeled on the surface. Our 2nd stop was at Shark Ray Alley, which is a gathering place for nurse sharks and manta rays. The water depth was only about 8-10 feet, so everyone snorkeled, - but what an experience! Our favorite quote was when the boat guide said: “Okay, everyone needs to be ready to jump in, because as soon as we get there, the sharks will rush to the boat expecting lunch.” Megan looked at Tera with shock in her face and we all laughed at how ridiculous that sounded! The guides threw cut fish (their expected lunch!) over the side of the boat while the nurse sharks wrestled with each other. We all jumped into the water fray to see the schools of fish and sharks and rays that gathered. I was close enough to grab onto numerous shark tails, and feel the rough skin of the fins as they thrashed in the water. It was an amazing snorkeling experience.
Then, on the way back to the dock at the end of the day, the guides spotted a large white splotch in the water. He slowed down the boat and encouraged all of us to jump back into the water with our snorkels fins and masks. We swam about 40 feet ahead of the boat and saw a large white manatee, bobbing about 3 feet under the water. It took a slow turn around, like a lazy but graceful walrus on the catwalk and, with a molasses-like turn of its tail, came up to the water to breathe - showcasing an incredible spectacle of a manatee in its natural habitat. Giving it a good 15 feet of distance between us, we swam around it for a bit longer and then headed back to the boat, leaving the manatee to hang suspended in the water as we motored away.
4. Lamanai Mayan ruins with an LDS tour guide – Our last activity in Belize was to visit another Mayan ruin site, called Lamanai ruins. We hired a tour guide who gives tours tailored to LDS visitors, tying some of the archeological information of the site to passages in the Book of Mormon. The tour started with a jungle safari boat tour in which we saw crocodiles, bats and colorful birds of all shapes and sizes. The ruin site was larger than Xunantunich, smaller than Tikal, and stretched along the river in a way different than the other sites. The temples were huge and exciting to see, but the possible highlight was the troupe of howler monkeys that we spied in the trees. Rather than being high up in the trees, these were low to the ground, only about 10-15’ up. One of the mother monkeys had a brand-new baby clinging to its back. The baby monkey was tiny, smaller than your palm, and took its first grasps of branches and vines as it ventured away from the mother’s back. It was cute beyond belief, and so close as to almost reach out and touch it. Another larger monkey climbed down the palm leaves and hung upside down from its tail, about 3 feet in the air, eating leaves and staring at all of the spectators. When it finally dared to walk on the ground for a few seconds, all of the experienced local guides broke out their cameras – shocked at their first time ever seeing a howler monkey on the ground. It was great way to end our Belize trip.
Plan? What plan?
Our first Gap Year was a fabulous "2017-2018 School Year" of travel: from the Netherlands to Jordan to Texas to Hawaii to Mexico to Central America to London and back to the Netherlands. Our "2018 Summer Vacation" took us all around Western Europe, back to the USA on a transatlantic cruise, a road trip through New York and into Canada, and ending up in Utah. We have now kicked off the "2018-2019 School year" with a trip to Asia. Follow along with us on our visits to new places, as well as revisiting some of our favorite places from our time living there. It's going to be great!!