Biking Belize and Guatemala: From Temple to Temple
By Matthew Kadey
Shadows flicker on the cave walls as I squeeze into narrow crevices, skirt past 100,000-year-old stalactites, wade through waist-high algid water and slide down abrupt rock faces. What kind of courage must have it taken for the Mayans to enter such a forbidding place?
After a near-vertical climb up a rickety ladder, we come to a humbling spot in the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. There, aglow from our headlamps, lies the sparkling calcified skeletal remains of a 20-year-old Mayan girl.
“A sacrifice to the gods,” Emilio enlightens us on the motive behind the Crystal Maiden’s demise. Thankfully, my Belizean bicycle ride will not come to nearly such a forlorn ending.
A Cycling Hot Spot
But with vast chunks of protected fecund jungle, a scattering of some 600 Mayan ruins, a hospitable English-speaking populace and an abundance of serene, lightly trafficked roads it’s becoming a hot spot for spandex-clad cyclists.
For myself and eight other sun-starved Canadians, these perks, not to mention 30 degree (C) February afternoons (86 degrees F), have drawn us to this Central American gem for an eleven-day two-wheel vacation.
While weather and tourism might be hot in Belize, what’s not is Belize City. Known (justified or not) for being one of the more dangerous and unattractive cities in Central America, our pedal-power journey will start slightly west in the unassuming community of Burell Boom at the brand spanking new Black Orchid Resort.
Back in the Saddle
Once we get to San Ignacio – a dusty, rather humdrum town located at the western edge of Belize, which plays host to Belizeans of all creeds, rounds of ice-cold Belikin are ordered to cool our bodies and quench our thirst.
A Complicated Border Crossing
“Watch out for the banditos,” our money exchanger unapologetically warns us as he eagerly snatches Belizean currency from my sanguine hands.
While the danger of being relieved of your personal belongings between this border and Tikal has all but disappeared in recent years, the threat of getting bounced around on your bike is still the reality.
These inconveniences were more than worth it, though, to see the towering pyramids of Tikal, hidden inside the verdant jungle of the 222-square-mile Tikal National Park. Steep-sided temples, rising to heights of more than 140 feet are surrounded by dense, wildlife-crammed foliage.
But for some in the group, all these impressive sights were of little consolation, as a 5 a.m. wake-up call from our snug sleeping bags only to watch a rainy, sunless sunrise from the top of Temple IV was a tough pill to swallow following a big day on the saddle.
Adjusting to "Belize Time"
Several rest breaks are used to gorge on tropical goodies in the way of bananas, oranges and papayas supplied by our cook, Jason. His laid-back, “no problem man” style makes him the poster boy for the Belizean chill-out lifestyle. My type-A personality is having a hard time adjusting to the casual ‘Belize-time.’
There’s a curious flora transition that occurs along this rutted dirt road. At one moment, I’m riding through a vast pine forest - that unfortunately has a long way to go in its recovery from a devastating southern pine beetle infestation - and then the next, I’m in awe of the sights and sounds of the surrounding jungle canopy within Chiquilbul National Park where Caracol is so eloquently snuggled.
There are few signs of human presence in the uninterrupted green. The rough terrain combined with the first-rate scenery leaves me oscillating between elation and exhaustion.
Thanks to the generosity of the tourism board, we are able to arrange a camping spot at Caracol, a privilege not usually bestowed upon curious tourists. This little reward meant that at ride’s end we’re off to the top of the Caana Mayan pyramid to take in the sunset and the smashing view of the surrounding verdant jungle and mountain ridges.
Come dawn, as the first streaks of illumination start to peek their way into my tent, it’s apparent that all has been forgiven, and the benevolent gods bless us with a sublime sunrise. Oohs and aaws surround me as keel-billed toucans and green white-fronted parrots exchange perches overhead and howler monkeys fill the air with their haunting vocals.
The charcoal howler is usually an elusive primate, but seeing them in Belize is often a cinch. Its distinctive roar, especially when echoing in the predawn with the sun still a rumor, can be quite frightening for newcomers.
The Hummingbird Highway that brings motorists and cyclists towards the southern reaches of Belize has no shortage of jaw-dropping sites.
Jaguars are almost mythical. Balam in Mayan idiom, it’s an animal that represented the Lord of the Underworld. Their ability to elude contact with humans is perhaps why so many of us are drawn to these mysterious creatures.
Now we didn’t hold any illusions about actually coming across these motley felines when we decided to camp in the 155-square-mile reserve, but just the thought of riding into the park knowing that one could be carefully watching you pass by is exhilarating enough.
Time for R & R
Occasionally flattened by hurricanes, the sleepy town of Placencia, where you’d expect to see Jimmy Buffet wearing flip-flops sipping an brightly hued umbrella drink, is perched at the southern tip of a long, narrow peninsula in the bottom portion of the country.
Not only is Placencia the finishing point for our cycling trip, it’s also where a couple in the group Paul and Monika, decide to tie the knot. For a devoted cyclist and traveler, I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to wed - bikes, beach and beer.
Off Beat Roads, 416-928-0628) offers a 12-day all-inclusive cycling trip ($1695 US) to Belize and Guatemala in February and March.
Pacz Tours is the best around for a guided tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal. Emilio Awe is the person to contact (501-804-2667). The full-day cave tour costs $80US and includes food, guides, lights, and helmets.
Caribbean Tours can arrange accommodation and water activities in Placencia.
The Black Orchid Resort located in Burell Boom is a picturesque alternative to staying in Belize City and a great place to start your bike tour.
Mid-December through May is considered the dry season in Belize and are likely the best months for cycling.
Matthew Kadey is a Toronto-based photographer and freelance writer. Suffering from chronic wanderlust, he has cycled in Jordan, New Zealand, Ireland, Ethiopia, Utah and Hawaii. His photography can be seen at mattkadey.ca.
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