“Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce”
Ignition R. Kelly
My wife, Sarah, and I have now lived in New Jersey for just more than five years and in that time we’ve learned that the best time for a “getaway” is the first or second week in February. It cold be the cold, the rain or snow, the grey skies, or just the fact that from April through September her schedule is rather jam-packed with commitments. Regardless of the reason we generally look at the spot on the calendar right after Punxatawny Phil has seen, or not seen his shadow, to seek a warm place. This time there were conditions; a direct flight (no more than a handful of hours in duration), to a place we’ve never been before. We chose the Central American nation of Belize.
Thanks to a little research and American Express we were introduced to an expert in travel to that country who set us up for a trip that would include visits to resorts located in both the jungle and at the beach. Our vacation would start in the mountainous region of western Belize at the Blancaneaux Resort then, after 3 days, we’d traverse the country on the way to the beachside city of Placencia and the Turtle Inn Resort which would become home base. Both places are owned by Hollywood icon Francis Ford Coppolla. We were joined on this adventure by my wife’s parents, Bob and Susan Green. Delightful people and our more than occasional travel companions. After a surprisingly busy Saturday morning check-in and security screening process at EWR we boarded the plane and were on our way.
We passed through customs, collected our bags and headed into the warm early afternoon air and were greeted by a friendly Belizean named Noely. She would be behind the wheel of the van that would take us the three and a half hours to Blancaneaux. Riding along on one of the nation’s few main highways we saw trees, livestock, buildings and people; all in various stages of vigor. What I didn’t see was a speed limit sign. We passed cars and trucks and in turn were passed by cars and trucks. When we approached or arrived at populated places our speed was regulated by bumps that spanned the entire width of the road. There were a lot of them. The literature we read before travelling mentioned that part of the trip from the airport to the resort would be over non-paved roads and about two hours into the ride we made that transition. The speed bumps that were placed by construction workers, on the main road, purposely gave way to speed bumps and holes that were randomly applied by mother nature. I’ll just say it was a good thing Noely had stopped a little earlier to let us all visit the restroom. As we crawled along, kicked up dust, and swerved to and fro I felt for Noely. It was impossible to avoid the rocks, potholes and bumps. We didn’t avoid very many. I couldn’t help but think of the Betty Davis quote from All About Eve, “Fasten your seat belts it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” (upon googling the line I found, like many, I had gotten it wrong. The actual quote is “…It’s going to be a bumpy night.” For us “ride” was much more apropos). Finally we arrived at the resort in plenty of time to freshen up, have a quick look around and then enjoy a cocktail before dinner.
One of the first things we noticed was how friendly everyone at Blancaneaux was. Each person, at various times, greeted us with a smile, introduced themselves, and then asked us our names. While we couldn’t remember theirs, they never failed to recall ours. Gilbert was our initial bartender, Johnny took care of us at dinner and, all along, we were Mr. Bob. Miss Susan, Miss Sarah and Mr. Keith to them. We enjoyed a delicious meal of salad (courtesy of the resort’s incredible garden), fish wrapped in banana leaf, plantains, vegetables and potatoes. Our vacation would begin in earnest the next day with a trip to the Ancient Mayan city of Caracol so we retired early and got a good night’s sleep. It was surprisingly chilly at night and Sarah found the old-fashioned, rubber, hot water bottle a welcomed addition to our bed covers.
We awoke early and headed up to the main lodge for a cup of coffee (delicious, strong, black, strong, French press, Guatemalan strong) coffee. It was good and did I mention it was strong? After breakfast we met our guide for the day in the resort’s main lobby and headed out for our first Belizean adventure. Our guide, Andres Gilberto Lucero (“they call me Hill“) greeted us and led us to the SUV. He turned out to be engaging, entertaining and informative making unscheduled stops along the way to point out a toucan or white hawk perched high up on a nearby tree branch, or a crocodile sunning itself on a rock in the middle of the Mecal river. Between the bumps and dips I couldn’t help but think of the dozens of Disney rides that had been a part of in both my, and my children’s, youth. It was a real-life “Jungle Cruise” and it was very cool. Other times the stops, mostly in the middle of the road, were so “Hill” could get out and pluck a flower from a bush or a leaf from a tree. Upon returning to the car he would crack or rub the flora and pass it around for us to feel or smell. Aromas of mint, or garlic, or lemon invaded our nostrils and gave us, me at least, a renewed appreciation for the jungle.
“This tree is known as a poison tree,” Gilberto would say pointing. “And that red one,” his gaze and gnarled figure shifting to another tree a few feet away, “is the antidote.” As we headed for our first stop, Rio Frio Cave, he stopped the SUV in the middle of the road one last time and uttered one, two-syllable word, “tapir”. While we didn’t see the actual animal ( even though”Hill” knew it hadn’t been long since it wandered through) we did get a good look at what it had managed to pass through its digestive system and leave on the road. It was safe to say both the tapir and what it left behind were healthy specimens. We continued a short distance further and parked, along with a couple of other tour vehicles, at the entrance to the Rio Frio Cave. It was an impressive walk-in cavern. According to Gilberto it was a sacred place for the ancient Mayans and it was easy to see why. A slowly moving creek passed through rock formations, many of which, were two or three times taller than any of the humans inside taking pictures with a camera, mobile phone, or simply a mind’s eye. It was a fascinating place and a great start to the day.
The next stop was Caracol and we were eager to see it. Traveling from Blancaneaux to Caracol or to Barton Creek Cave (the next day’s stop) you’ll ride in some form or fashion of a resort provided Toyota Land Cruiser going between 4 and 40 kilometers an hour; sometimes along the same 200 yard stretch of dirt, rocks, mud and very, very rarely pavement. It’s an unconscious ab workout, good for a bit of a laugh, certainly a memory AND if you’re susceptible to motion sickness, or have a headache or kidney stone, it’s a nightmare.
Belize is apparently home to a huge population of jaguars but sadly while we did see our share of wildlife we never got a glimpse of the jungle cat. We did however get to experience the unique sound of a howler monkey during our walking tour of Caracol. That, along with the ruins was well worth the price of admission. Caracol means “snail” and it is an archeological wonder. Consisting of 267 structures (at various stages of being unearthed) it was once home to more than 100,000 ancient Mayans. An information center on the grounds informed us that the approximately 200 square kilometer “city” was occupied as early as 1200 B.C. and lasted more than 2,000 years before, this time according to “Hill”, natural forces, mostly drought, drove the Mayans out. Now it is occupied by tourists, archeological students and soldiers (you can see Guatemala from several places).
Caana is the largest structure on site (more than 100 stone steps to the very top) and is an impressive reminder of how advanced the Mayans of thousands of years ago were. We heard the howler monkey on the way to Caana, and could still hear it, hundreds of kilometers away, when we got there. To call it a “howler” monkey does not do this creature justice. It growls. When Bob, Susan, Sarah and I first heard it we all swore it was some kind of cat or other four-legged animal pissed off and loaded for bear. And by the way coming through the jungle for us. Instead of taking off running in a panic we all noticed “Gilberto” leaning in and actually walking toward the noise. He wasn’t worried so could we be? A little. Maybe, I calculated, this creature had long-lost it’s taste for Belizean “food” and could smell an international meal from a mile away. But “Hill” assured us the monkey was not a threat, even though it sure sounded like one. So on we went to continue exploring Caracol, monkey howling (growling) in the distance, with me occasionally looking over my shoulder.
After a picnic lunch, provided by Blancaneaux, we headed back, bouncing all the way, with our heads full of Mayans, monkeys and more. Our dinner that night was a special treat, offered only occasionally, by the resort. Blancaneaux is home to an incredible garden which provides almost all of the fruits and vegetables you enjoy in meals while on the property. We also found out they send some of the delights to the sister resort, The Turtle Inn, at the beach. Our dinner would be “family style” experienced by two other groups of guests (a couple from London and a family of four from Toronto). After a tour of the garden, two mojitos (one lemongrass and one all spice) we feasted, told stories, laughed and listened. Upon our return trip home we all agreed the garden dinner, enjoyed on our second night in Belize, was the highlight of the vacation.
It was nice to have a fond memory when my head hit the pillow because the next morning’s itinerary had my undies in a bunch. We were going to climb in a kayak and, on purpose, paddle along a stream, into the mouth of Barton Creek Cave. Filled with stalactites, stalagmites, Mayan sacrificial bones, artifacts, and BATS.
“Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my”. But that’s a tale for another day… how about tomorrow?