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?
“Don’t step there,” our guide Emilio barks out from in front as he points over to pottery left here by the Mayans centuries ago. The trail is littered with ceramic pots of all sizes, their bottoms broken in order to release the spirits. Camera flashes abound.
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
Tiny Belize, tucked neatly between Mexico and Guatemala with the western hemisphere’s longest barrier reef system and an outstretched coastline, has long been a destination of choice for water sport junkies and beach bums.
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.
It’s here where the owner Doug, a genial man with a cinnamon-hued face introduces the group to three of Belize’s culinary prizes: fresh seafood, smooth Belikin ale and the hottest hot sauce around, the best being Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce – a gastronomic Belizean staple.
Back in the Saddle
The nicely paved Western Highway with only the occasional undulation and heavy-foot driver turns out to be the perfect spot to warm up our legs and get used to being back in the saddle (there’s an Aerosmith pun in there somewhere).
However, the reality of the heat that we will be riding in quickly hits home. As a hot wind whips my exposed skin, the mercury is bit-by-bit sneaking upwards while we make our way under a roaring sun through the sleepy villages of Roaring Creek and Teakettle. You can always count on one thing when northerners come south to ride in the dead of winter: heaps of sunburns.
“Pretty hot eh white boy?” a man languorously swaying in a hammock shouts out to Frank, one of the riders who is now more and more looking like the tomato I had with my morning repast.
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.
Our evening around the campfire is filled with chitchat pertaining to how many of us wished we had trained a little more enthusiastically pre-trip or had gotten that much-needed bicycle tune-up.
Although, after a solid first ride under the steamy UV rays, few in the group have the energy to muster much of a dialogue. It’s not long after the last bits of light are wrung from the sky that everyone is buried deep in their tents sleeping like the dead.
A Complicated Border Crossing
Being a stone’s throw from Guatemala, it only made sense to hop over the border and take a peak at the much renowned Tikal. Crossing into Guatemala turned out to be an adventure in itself, involving exit fees, confusing passport checks and a whole lot of waiting around as we dived headlong into the wonders of bureaucracy.
“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.
A shabby, rough gravel road welcomed us as we headed west towards the mighty Mayan city, as did the hollers of “gringo, gringo” as we passed by. A vast improvement to yells of the four-letter variety I often receive on the streets of downtown Toronto.
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.
Birds absolutely fill the sky. Bold coatimundis, cute little raccoon-like mammals with a ferocious appetite, lurk everywhere. So used to human interaction that they completely ignore me as I fire away several dozen photos.
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.
For some Guatemalan historians, equally distressing is that the inhabitants of mighty Tikal appear to have had their butts handed to them in a battle with neighboring Caracol in A.D. 562. A kind of little brother beats big brother scenario.
Adjusting to “Belize Time”
Caracol is Belize’s most extraordinary archaeological site but to get there we must tackle the 50-mile, frequently undulating dilapidated Chiquilbul road that heads due south through some of the country’s densest forest.
The road’s mood is influenced by the harshness of the rainy season. However, watching tourists being bounced around in those trucks, I’m happy to be on two wheels instead of four.
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.
All Is Forgiven
At 136 feet, Caana still stands as the apogee of Belize’s man-made structures. Unfortunately just as I assemble my tripod the skies open up and my desire for a lingering glow is dashed by raindrops and a leaden sky.
“What did we do to you?” I yell up towards the Mayan gods.
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.
Holding the title of the country’s most scenic stretch of asphalt, the hilly Hummingbird is lined with orange, banana and pineapple plantations, the rain-forested draped Maya mountains and something that is near-and-dear to any cyclist’s heart: the Blue Hole.
The Lord of the Underworld
This glowing sapphire-blue limestone sinkhole located in Blue Hole National Park is the perfect spot to take a refreshing dip at ride’s end in the clean yellow light of approaching nightfall. And for many of the group, another dip at ride’s commencement before heading south to an area ruled by a four-legged not a bipedal mammal.
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.
Like predatory cats in other Central American countries, Belize’s jaguars have faced numerous hardships at the hands of angry farmers and the logger’s chainsaw. But, with the help of conservation efforts like the one at the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, Belize’s big cats are making a solid go of it.
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.
As the skinniest guy of the bunch, I’m confident that a hungry cat would first turn to one of my cycling mates for a good nosh. Our time in the reserve is spent tramping the numerous jungle trails and then cooling off at the plunging waterfalls.
Time for R & R
After more than a week exploring Belize’s interior on foot and on two wheels, it was time for some playa R & R in Placencia. One thing for sure though, if this seaside village expects to contend with other, more celebrated Latin American resort towns they may want to do something about the cruel main drag leading into it.
“Man, I hate this road,” Frank yells from behind as fast-moving trucks whiz by throwing up dust-balls, making negotiating the potholes that much more onerous. When I see the magic words “cold beer,” I ease his pain, joining him and a couple of retirees from San Diego at Mango’s for a pint. Others take solace in ice cream.
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.
It’s home to some of Belize’s best beaches, food joints and sunrises. But I doubt the locales were ready for us as we hit the white sand with an assortment of nightmarish tan-lines and legs covered in ungodly red spots – the end result of spending several nights fending off attacking bugs. I guess better bugs than jaguars!
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.
So with a few wise words from the Rev. Jerry Jones (yes, that really was his name) and the customary “I do’s,” we end our time in Belize in fine, romantic fashion.
Will this gringo ride here again? Better Belize It!
BackRoads, 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.