No shirt, no shoes, no problem
You better Belize it!
Fancy a bit of pure hedonism? Sipping cocktails on pure white beaches with a view across a turquoise sea? Then you’ll love Belize. But Belize is also a place for adventure. Discover a world full of tropical underwater paradises, Mayan caves and waterfalls that are ideal for kayaking.
Adventure doesn’t always have to be hardcore, I think to myself as I stand, slightly light-headed from champagne, under Secret Falls, the water raging around me. We are in Belize, a small country on the Caribbean Sea just below Mexico, on the 7200-hectare private estate belonging to the Hidden Valley Inn. The estate is located in the Pine Ridge, a range of conifer-covered mountains in the Cayo District, with 145kms of walking and hiking paths. After a 15-minute walk through the forest, we suddenly stumble upon a pool. Lunch is served on a perfectly laid table, complete with tablecloths and a cooler containing a bottle of bubbly. The waiting staff are nowhere to be seen and that was our intention. We are the only ones here today and we prefer to keep it that way. “If you want to head back to the lodge, you can reach us via the walkie-talkie” was our instruction.
The next day as we drive past plantations we find another such hidden gem. Barton Creek is a small, crystal clear river which runs for atleast 10km underground. We step into a canoe, switch on a searchlight and slowly descend into the watery underworld.
Armed with a helmet, climbing rope, headlamp and life vest we follow the guide through the knee-high water over the rocks. The ancient Mayan culture was obsessed with these caves
The water shimmers milky in the bright beam of light. The river is high, and whilst I do my best to not break off any stalactites with my head, we paddle from one wonder to the next. And this is not the only underwater paradise. Oh no. Belize is jam-packed with such hidden gems beneath the surface. Each ready for discovery.
The Hummingbird Highway is one of the most beautiful roads in Bolivia, twisting through the jungle and through small villages with colourful houses. The driver turns off the road at a sign reading “Cave Branch”. A dirt road takes us deep into the rainforest. Belize lies on a large amount of limestone, which has the property of dissolving in water and thus creating large cave systems. These often become very large in size, causing the roof to cave in and resulting in a “karst hole”. The ancient Mayan culture was obsessed with these caves.
Enter the Mayan underworld: Xibalba or ‘Place of Fear’
Armed with a helmet, climbing rope, headlamp and life vest we follow the guide through the knee-high water over the rocks. Daylight is now a little far behind us as we enter the “cathedral”. Enormously long stalactites hang down from the ceiling like organ pipes, in search of their ground-level equivalents, stalagmites. I carefully follow the instructions of our Maya guide Ching in order not to cause any damage.
“It takes tens of thousands of years for such a formation to take form, and you can destroy several millennia of its creation with a single footstep”, he tells us. “This landscape is very fragile, which is why we only take small groups and you cannot have any sun cream or DEET on your body. Those toxins kill the primitive life forms in these caves.”
After a short climb to a walkway, we find pots and bones. “Two thousand years ago this was the domain of Mayan priests, and humans were even offered in order to appease the gods.“ I shudder at the thought and am glad to reach the physical highlight a little later: the waterfalls. Never before have I stood in a cave with a waterfall and now I have to climb one. We climb three of them in total. Secured by ropes we climb up and then jump off again, in a form of indoor canyoning.
The refreshing waters of the Moho River, in the south of the country, draw us in. Santa Teresa is a Mayan village an hour’s drive away from the civilised world on dirt roads. It consists of wooden houses covered in palm leaves and with floors made of rammed earth. Children run around among the pigs, chickens and turkeys. Santa Teresa marks the start of our river adventure. Together with Sue, a professional kayak guide from the US, Pedro, our local Mayan guide and his brother Mario, we sail down the Moho River in inflatable expedition kayaks.
The river consists of ‘drop pools’, calmly flowing water that suddenly turns into a waterfall and then continues flowing. We have sought out the most beautiful part of the river where you can kayak without it turning into white-water. This spectacular excursion lasts three days, during which we camp in the jungle. We paddle towards a bend in the river, and although I can’t yet see it, I can certainly hear some white-water somewhere. My stress levels increase and my heart is racing. Pedro stops before the drop and gives us instructions: “Pass me on the left-hand side and then take a hard right down below, otherwise you’ll hit one of these tree trunks” he shouts above the noise. I slowly paddle over to the edge and I still see nothing. I then suddenly find myself on the edge, ready to slide down. Mario cries out “yeeehaaaa!!!” in front of me before he paddles hard to the right and lands in the next part of the river. We have made it through. What a thrilling ride through the water. And that was just a small rapid. Towards the end of the second day, we’ve become fully-fledged kayakers and we easily navigate waterfalls with names such as Monkey Falls, Bucking Falls and Machaka Falls.
Glovers Reef is the only atoll in the Caribbean, a series of coral islands in the form of a circle which have grown into each other and formed a reef, in the middle of which lies a shallow lagoon. Perfect waters for kayaking therefore, and in a bungalow tent under the palm trees, lit up by an oil lamp, I can’t complain. With a Belikin, the Belizean beer, I nestle under a palm tree in the warm afternoon sunshine. In front of me, the pelicans perform spectacular dives down onto the schools of fish that inhabit the reef.
Did you know the second-biggest barrier reef in the world lies in front of the coast of Belize?
The next day I am up bright and early. Mike is about to go fishing for our dinner. He sets course for a group of pelicans. “Wherever the pelicans are, there are fish”, he tells me as he casts the next net. “Those are a bit small,” I say. “Wait, that’s out bait” replies Mike. Now we’re really going fishing. An hour later we’ve caught a basket full of red snappers, enough to feed the whole camp that is now slowly beginning to wake up. Mike cuts off a fillet and hangs it on an even larger hook. We slowly glide over the reef, with Mike steering and me fishing. Suddenly the line tightens. “I’ve got something”, I call out, pulling on the line with all my strength but to no avail. “He’s pulling away!” It appears to be an enormous barracuda, and after a short struggle we land him on-board. “There’s nothing better than living from nature! We started with a sardine and now we’ve caught a barracuda, what more can you want?” shouts Mike, who is pleased as punch with our catch. “Kayaking” I cry. That’s what I’m here for.
We paddle to Middle Caye, an hour or so from our camp, in order to go snorkelling. The turquoise-coloured water is smooth and calm and we soon get into a rhythm. Below our kayaks eagle rays swim off frightened. They are not used to humans, as very few come to this maritime reserve which protects this underwater world from overfishing, the results of which we see a little later as we jump into the water with our snorkels and diving goggles. Hundreds of fish swim silently along among the colourful branches of coral. A large green moray eel sticks its head out of a gap in the coral and bares its razor sharp teeth when I get too close. Further along, a barracuda sits motionless amongst the fan coral, waiting to ambush any fish swimming past, and before we finish a sea turtle swims alongside us. The day cannot get any better; the combination of kayaking and snorkelling is surely the best way to see this underwater world up close. A seahawk takes an interest in our lunch and flies down from its nest in the palm tree to take a closer look, and we photograph it in return.
Rays, sharks and whale sharks
Between San Pedro and Caye Caulker lies the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a snorkelling and diving sport and the focal point for the most of the activities organised here. We set out from San Pedro in a catamaran towards “Shark Ray Alley”, the part of the reserve where the largest concentration of nurse sharks and stingrays are to be found. As soon as we reach the buoy they swarm towards the boat. Armed with a snorkel and flippers we dive overboard to get a closer look at these harmless creatures. They are so used to humans that they are almost tame. The same can be said of the huge sea bass and moray eels, giving the place the feel of a zoo without cages.
Belize is the place where many large marine creatures come together. Every year, during the full moon in April and May, snappers come to the Gladden Spit Reserve to spawn, with the largest fish in the world in their wake: the whale shark. These sharks, measuring up to twelve meters in length, eat plankton and filter out the eggs of the fish with their gills. During this time of year, you can observe these grey-white giants if you go diving or snorkelling.
Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the manatee. These funny-looking sea cows are often victims of boat propellers, so you can only navigate these shallow waters using an oar or stick. They are also regularly sighted in Hol Chan.
No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem
Caye Caulker is the most relaxed island in Belize and therefore a great place to end my trip. On the unpaved main road of this car-free island, there are hippies, rastas, backpackers and more than your average number of Europeans. Walking barefoot, cycling or riding in golf carts, they stroll past the colourful shops, bars and restaurants on their way to the ultimate sunset.
As I sit enjoying a ‘panty ripper’ cocktail in a cabin on the beach, I see the sun setting over the Caribbean for the last time and reflect on everything that I have experienced over the last two weeks. Belize is the absolute dream destination. “I’ll be back! You better Belize it!”
What does the expert say?
Katie Panagou is senior-manager at National Geographic Expeditions. For those who are unfamiliar with the company, National Geographic Expeditions has been operating in the United States since 1999 and organises hundreds of trips each year to over 80 destinations spread across all 7 continents.
Katie, what makes National Geographic Expeditions so special?
“We want to make a difference. National Geographic Expeditions is committed to protecting the character and integrity of each of its destinations, meaning the environment, culture and heritage, as well as the well-being of local inhabitants. We want to offer our travellers an authentic travel experience, but we also strive to support local economies in our choices of certain services.”
“Whoever travels with us makes the difference”
Jullie zetten je dus in voor duurzaam toerisme?
“Inderdaad. We geloven dat duurzaam toerisme een positief economisch effect heeft, maar ook dat het mensen kan inspireren om zorg te dragen voor het behoud van de bestemmingen.
What is your connection to the National Geographic Society?
“The proceeds from our trip finance the Society’s activities which contribute to discoveries education and scientific research. Since its establishment in 1888, the Society has built an excellent network of colleagues and collaborators. Experts and scientists are not the only ones supported by the Society, but also the world-renowned articles published by the National Geographic and National Geographic Traveller magazines. With the help of these collaborators, National Geographic Expeditions organise unique exhibitions to extraordinary parts of the world. Whoever travels with us makes the difference, both for themselves and the world.”