Exploring Mayan Ruins and the Rain Forests in Belize

I woke up with a jolt to the pitch darkness around me.I thought I had heard a roar. And there it was again! Wild, deep, guttural sounds right outside our cabin.

“Are these the howler monkeys? Are they dangerous?” At 11PM and without electricity or cellular service in our cabins in the tropical forests of San Ignacio, all we could do was wait until dawn to learn more about the monkeys. I resolved to hold my bladder and stay in the safe confines of our cabin until then!

The roar of the howler monkeys. Dont they sound like the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park?

Getting To San Ignacio

After 3 days in Ambergris Caye, the husband and I had set out to explore San Ignacio in the Cayo district of Belize. A 2 hour drive down the Western Highway took us past varied landscapes – scraggy grasslands and bushes, acres of farmland with grazing cows, groves of citrus orchards, and the outlines of dense tropical forests.

Stopping for some coconut water and tender coconut meat
Snacking on the apple of the coconut sapling. Have you tried it? It’s called ‘pongu’ in Kerala, India.

We stopped at San Ignacio town to grab a quick lunch at Cenaidas -a local favourite with cheerful, yellow interiors and homely food- before heading on to our base for the next couple of days – The Macal River Camp at the Chaa Creek Lodge.

The view from the hammock at our casita in the Macal River Camp

Eco – Jungle Lodges: The Macal River Camp at Chaa Creek

The last 5 kilometers to our destination was a bumpy 20 minute ride on an unpaved road built by the British Army Corps of Engineers in 1983. The husband muttered a prayer for our rental vehicle and carefully navigated our way up the hills and into the grounds of Chaa Creek.

Arriving after a bumpy ride

With 400 acres, the cottages and camp site at Chaa Creek are sprawled over a hilltop with the Macal river flowing through the property. We checked in at the Main Lodge reception and were picked up by Dosio, the camp manager. A 5 minute drive through steep dirt pathways brought us to our Casitas in the middle of the forest – clean, spartan wood cabins with canvas roofing lit up by kerosene lamps – no electricity, internet or phone service. The husband made a beeline for the hammock on our private balcony with a view of the dense, lush foliage. Beneath, we could see the Macal river snaking its way through the forest.

The inside of our clean and spartan casitas
Early morning coffee with a view

Dosio, his wife Francelia and his son Ariel run the camp – cooking delightful Belizean meals, ferrying people up and down to the main lodge, and coordinating tours. We had communal meals in the dining hall – a thatched casita in the middle of the camp – with everyone exchanging stories about their adventures that day. The guests at the camp are an adventurous lot with many returning every couple of years. We spend evenings conversing around the bonfire, gazing at the stars, reading books by the light of kerosene lamps and listening to the symphony of birds and cicadas late into the balmy night. Earplugs were essential when the howler monkeys became too boisterous!

From left: Francelia, Dosio, Ariel, Nona and The Husband
Kerosene lamps light up the casita after dusk
The camp bonfire

A brisk, 10 minute walk up a steep pathway cut into the hillside, brought us to the Main Lodge, which is worlds apart – luxury cottages with every convenience that one can ask for. We spent a few evenings at the bar, trying out various concoctions and local infusions that Umberto, the bartender, served us according to his creative mood that day.

Steep trails that connect the camp to the Main Lodge
Umberto adding the final garnish to our drinks
Relaxing at the spa

Chaa Creek maintains a butterfly farm showcasing the life-cycle of the Blue Morpho and the Owl butterflies. Hundreds of butterflies flit across the room at various stages of their short life. Rows of pupae are lined up in one corner and butterflies laying eggs can be found in another.

Butterfly laying eggs. The water like droplets are eggs
Rows of pupae waiting to transform into butterflies
The Butterfly Garden

In the evening, we paddled upstream , prompting a flock of egrets to take flight, and watched dusk fall across the forest. The water levels in the river were low because of scanty rainfall the past year. At certain bends in the river the low water levels forced us to step out and drag the canoe upstream until we reached deeper levels.

Leonso guiding us on a sunset paddle
Egrets roosting at dusk

At 8 PM that night, we gathered in front of the bar as Leonso, our guide, handed out headlamps and instructed us to stay quiet, watch our steps and follow him on a trail into the forest. With the light from the headlamp he pointed out tarantulas peeking out of their burrows, scorpions with their menacing pincers, owls, ants and other creatures that inhabit the forest.

Eeks…a tarantula crawling out of its burrow
Scorpion lit up under UV light
Can you spot the reptile?

Mayan History

The view from El Castillo, Xunantunich

The earliest evidence of the Mayan civilization in Belize dates to 1200 – 1000 BC. The Mayan civilization, centered around the Yucatan peninsula and Guatemala, reached the peak of their civilization around the 6th century AD and then declined after. Excavations have unearthed palaces, pyramids, plazas and cities that highlight their past architectural and engineering ingenuity.

We avoided the long rides to Caracol and Tikal, and decided to explore the excavations of Xunantunich (pronounced: shoo – nun – too – nitch), a 20 minute drive from our lodge. En route, we crossed the Mopan river, on a hand cranked ferry that accommodates 4 – 5 vehicles at a time.

The most imposing structure in Xunantunich is El Castillo, a 40 metre tall pyramid that serves as a shrine and palace for the rulers of Xunantunich. On the sides of the pyramid are stucco friezes representing the gods.

El Castillo with its stucco friezes

The structure is built to impress and intimidate. The ruler addressed his subjects from the top of the pyramid. The acoustics of the plaza ensured that his voice reverberated and was amplified. The steps are hard to climb and for the short 5 foot Mayans, they would have had to stoop to climb up.

Cave Tubing

We had booked the River Cave Expedition with Ian Anderson’s Jungle Lodge, a 1.5 hour drive through the scenic Hummingbird Highway. Our guide, Wilmer, picked us up in an army truck and drove us for 20 minutes past citrus groves laden with fruit until we reached the start of our expedition.

With inflated tubes and headlamps, we made our way to the stream. Splash! The current was strong and with aching shoulders, we back paddled our way against the current and into the catacombs. Our headlamps illuminated beautiful, shimmery mineral formations, stalactites and stalagmites and colonies of bats hidden in shadowy corners.

Donning headlamps and getting ready to float on the river on our inflated tubes
Climbing up the caverns

The Mayans, believing that Gods resided in the caves, journeyed deep into the cavern system to offer human sacrifices and practice bloodletting rituals. They hoped to appease the Gods and petition them for rains, good harvests, to win wars and to have children. Tools for bloodletting – sharp obsidian rocks and stingray spines and ceramic pots functioning as receptacles to collect blood – have been discovered by archaeologists and can still be seen in the caves.

The fertility god, chiseled into the walls of the cave by the Mayans

After 3 hours of wading through cold streams and exploring the cave, we were hungry. We were now so far in that when we switched off our headlamps, it was complete darkness….like being blind. We were far away from any source of light.

Wilmer spread out a candle lit lunch for us – fluffy wheat tortillas, eggs, cold cuts and vegetables. As the candles flickered and threw eerie shadows around the cave, it was’t hard to imagine how Mayans in their hallucinogenic drug induced state believed that evil spirits and underworld Gods that demanded bloody sacrifices lurked here.

Candle lit lunch deep inside the cave

Bird Watching

Rufous – tailed jacamar

Belize is a favourite destination for bird watchers from across the globe. The country boasts a diverse habitat and is home to a variety of bird species.

Jeronie Tut, our bird guide, setting up his scope

We had signed up for a half day (and our first) birding trip to Laguna Aguacate in the Spanish Lookout with Jeronie Tut. Our trip started right outside Chaa Creek, where Jeronie pulled out his spotting scope and pointed out red billed pigeons, melodious blackbirds, social flycatchers and the great kiskadee, while we frantically tried to spot them before they flew away.

Great Kiskadee
Eastern Meadowlark
Social Flycatcher

We drove past various habitats on the way to the Laguna. We spotted vermillion flycatchers, roadside hawks and fork tailed flycatchers as we passed vast acres of farms owned by the Mennonite community.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher
Roadside Hawk

By a marsh land, we spotted woodstorks, the little blue herons, northern jacana….and through the spotting scope, Jeronie pointed out an olive throated parakeet perched high on a Cacao tree.

A Little Blue Heron, The Great Egret, Wood Stork
Northern Jacana

Further along in tall forests, Jeronie listened intently and we heard a croak like sound. “That’s the toucan!” We had our first sighting of the keel billed toucan, the National Bird of Belize, perched at the top of a tree. This was shortly followed by a sighting if the rufous tailed jacamar and a very industrious, black cheeked woodpecker.

Keel- Billed Toucan
Black – cheeked woodpecker

At the lagoon, we spotted our 2nd keel billed toucan and the yellow crowned night heron. After spotting about 40 species of birds, and with a light drizzle starting to get us wet, we called it a day.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

We made a pit stop at Western Dairies, a Mennonite ice cream and dairy farm before driving back to the city to grab some lunch at the popular Ko-Ox Han Nah.

Where to Stay in San Ignacio?

After having traveled across San Ignacio, we highly recommend staying in one of the jungle lodges to experience the rain forest rather than staying in town. A few places that we considered were:

  1. The Macal River Camp – Chaa Creek (This is where we ended up staying)
  2. Crystal Paradise Resort ( Run by Jeronie’s family and is frequented by birdwatchers)
  3. Macaw Bank Jungle Lodge

Getting Around

  1. Renting a car: We had pre-booked our rental car at Crystal Auto Rental, at the international airport. They run a very efficient operation, have insurance details clearly laid out and our car was in great shape. If you ask, they’ll offer you a phone with a Belizean SIM card and a cooler. Renting a mid-sized SUV comes to about $100 USD per day. Gas in Belize is expensive and is priced at $4.8 USD/ Gal
  2. Shuttle Services: Williams Shuttle is a shared shuttle service operating between Belize City and San Ignacio. Pricing depends on the number of passengers slotted in the trip.
  3. Hotel Pick Up: Most hotels also offer shuttle services. Chaa Creek’s shuttle service is $150 USD for the 2 hour drive from Belize Airport to the Lodge
  4. Day Trips: Most hotels/lodges offer day trips from the hotel. It can be expensive but definitely worth it if you don’t want to drive

Where to Eat?

The 2 restaurants that we loved in the city were Ceneida’s and Ko-Ox Han Nah. The latter comes highly recommended for its lamb dishes.

Rice, beef stew and cabbage slaw prepared by Francelia at the Camp

Traditional Belizean food consists of rice and beans, chicken stew, fried plantains and cabbage slaw. Belizean rum and Belikin beer are the drinks of choice. The one condiment that appears at every table is Marie Sharp’s hot habanero sauce. We fell in love with this tangy, spicy hot sauce that seemed to go with everything – pineapples, jicamas, raw mangoes, rice, barbeque chicken, scrambled eggs……..

We now have a bottle of Marie Sharp’s on our dining table in Houston reminding us of our beautiful time in Belize.

Marie Sharp’s hot sauce to remind us of Belize

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