After the climatic visit of Tikal’s omnipotent temples amid the omnipresent monkeys, a warm goodbye from Guatemala’s border officials led to an immediate culture shock in Belize. Simply, the widespread presence of English felt odd to say the least. Especially after 17 months on the receiving end of almost unadulterated Español. I’d acquired a taste for the Mayan wilderness and its feisty fauna in Tikal National Park, so the Tropical Education Centre near Belize Zoo seemed a befitting place to make camp as any.
Getting there was challenging to say the least; barely able to concentrate on the traffic for everything and everyone was expressed and speaking in English. Where my filters had performed admirably for just shy of a year and a half—letting in only a recognisable slither of Latin American Spanish—were now practically non-existent in letting anything through. Local Belizeans in passing were all of a sudden engaging in deep and meaningful conversations with us, for our grasp beckoned a flawless level of understanding. I wanted to time-steal from everyone’s day. I understand you, d’hear—fully and fervently, talk to me…! I adored the local accent too, which rang out with this wonderful Caribbean lilt.
I began revelling in the ubiquity of my native language appearing on a vibrant scene of bright façades, multicoloured beach huts lying close to boats bobbing on sparkling aquamarine blue waters, and everyone’s lips whose skin shined in the sun like polished conker. So strange, a part of our distant past had sprung up in the unlikeliest of places. Even Queen Elizabeth II headlined the local currency; well sure, she would—she’s the head of state where Belize is still very much part of the Commonwealth.
Overwhelmingly simple pleasures aside, the Tropical Education Centre did anything but disappoint. With an ample and secluded campground nearby a host of rooms to rent on the periphery, the site was overrun with more iguanas, hummingbirds and pacas (large burrowing rodents), the odd venomous snake and scorpions, than people. Cool.
“Is that definitely a botfly growing inside you, Jase?” I asked with marked concern. After an on-the-spot appointment with a doctor moments after crossing the border into Belize, who had diagnosed the angry red lump bulging above Jason’s hip as such (allegedly having entered via a parasitic fly that was later supported by one of the Tropical Centre’s guides)—we’d perhaps been a trifle blazé about the dangers that lurk within the wild. Now was probably a good time to start with the prophylactics too; Dengue fever and other terrific tropical diseases are rife in these parts.
Sanity levels restored, a hospital visit later confirmed that the puss-oozing swelling was more likely formed from dirt trapped within the sweat-clogged pores of Jason’s skin, or an infected in-growing hair. By far the lesser of two evils over a budding botfly larva, who we’d already affectionately named Albert. Jase even took the courtesy of offering him a toothpick after meals, knowing how partial they are to their hosts. Alas, that was one less thing to write home about. Shame..!
Robert, the ‘man that can’ was our guide in the Community Baboon Sanctuary where there was no baboon in sight; it was simply the term the locals refer to the howler monkeys. Having spent years in the forest with the growling primates, Robert had built up their trust akin to Jane Goodhall with the chimpanzees. The instant that Robert became audible to a troop of howlers, they immediately started making their descent from the trees towards him. Oh boy, this is gonna be good!
Leaning in, Robert launched into his first question, “You wanna feed the monkeys, Lisa?” “Yeah!” I blurted out in anticipated glee. “Here, take this, it’s craboo, and it’s what day eat any-way in dis forest. We don’t wan-ta be feeding dem ban-an-nas or udder fruits dey can’t find demselves.” When he talked about his research based study in the field, his hands joined in like puppets on a stage. Sounds good to me; no forage, no good. Bring it on. Robert gently ushered me backwards, my head and shoulders aligning to make the perfect perch for said furry primates, which caused me preternatural excitement, irresolvable conflict and utter panic. They may’ve been familiar interacting with Robert but certainly weren’t with me, and were way more wild than tame.
Within seconds, a mother and baby male used my body as a natural extension of the tree’s branches, found purchase on my head, shoulders and chest, and draped themselves all over conveniently positioned me. A delectable moment of glorious convergence and sheer exhilaration. Without time to blink, the mother assertively reached for my wrist, grabbed it towards her mouth and wrapped her chops around the thumb-sized contents of my open palm—making my heart swell and ache at the same time. I took turns as to whom I offered up the golden yellow bonbons of bitter-sour goodness, allowing both the mother and baby to feast on the fodder. Despite her not being overly enamoured about my doing so. Tough love, mum, lets not overlook your growing little monklet.
Robert cupped his hands to his mouth in the direction of a male howler and effortlessly emulated their deep throated cry. The adult responded on the spot with his booming howl. At 90 decibels, makes it the second loudest creature only in line to the lion in the animal kingdom! My hearing all but half crumbled being in such close vicinity to the roar-like reverberations. An incredibly foreign and pitched sound.
Carrying a handmade brush with long thistles hanging down from it, I asked Robert what he primarily used it for. “Dis, Lisa, is to waft away the mosquitoes.” Oh yeah, of course! What now, there’s more? “It’s also a has-band tamer, a has-band beater, a feather duster around da home, a back-scratcher and a tick-ler. It’s many, many things Lisa. Why, d’want one?” The branches of laughter lines grew out of the corners of his eyes, becoming deep and lively. “If I had the room on my motorcycle, for sure!” Talk about multifunctional.
“Say, Lisa,” Robert directed at me in his Caribbean accent, “What say I tell you about de number of primates we got here in Belize. There are three. There’s the howler mon-key, the spider mon-key and what’s da other one?” “Erm, us?” I second guessed. “Yeahesssss, dat right.” This guy oozed likeability; I was smitten and undone by him having gifted us an experience that will remain special on my radar for the rest of time.
Post a final pit stop at Caribbean Village, Jason inadvertently pitched our tent a hand’s breadth from a timid tarantula stationed in its hole until lightly nudged with a twig—leave him be, babes—adjacent to aquamarine waters and the Belize border a little farther on. There goes our stint in Central America. And with that conclusion, came the 25,000 milestone of the trip as we approached the land of Tequila, Chihuahua and Tabasco—actual places in Mexico.
No doubt, we’d dipped into some agreeable pockets of the isthmus between the two continents, however, would have to support that as impressive as portions of Central America had been, didn’t quite wow the socks off us overall, like South America did. Now there’s a land mass that blew our minds and bodies into next week. Still, the nations of Central America visited certainly bestowed some unique encounters and experiences, and although it wasn’t quite as striking or spectacular collectively as what lies beneath, will definitely get you in the mood for more…
Sinking the side stands down in powder soft white sand at Maya Luum in Tulum, landed us at an exceedingly basic but extraordinary beach. ¡Hola México! Giant green and Loggerhead turtles would come shuffling close to the shoreline in the wee hours to lay their precious eggs each night. And purposefully dig comparably-sized craters with their flipper-like limbs, flicking sand in Jason’s face as he nosied right in. Oh what I’d have given to witness what he relayed, “One was popping out eggs the shape and size of ping-pong balls, Lise.” A magical moment missed, twice!
I, on the other hand, had initially skipped the event in exchange for a healing eight-hour kip the first night—sleep when you’ve snuffed it, woman!—and then had been unexpectedly plied with Tequila by a lively bunch of Mexicans, during the second evening. Man alive, that stuff is strong, even when tempered down with a glassful of fizzy every time. Or perhaps my tolerance to stiff drinks had become wildly low over the last few months; well, leaving friends that own a winery in Argentina anyhow.
“Why the heck is the ceiling of our tent smeared with blood stains, Jase?” I enquired the morning after the buzzed night before, content on pickling my liver and marinating my mind. “That would be where your feet took five minutes to find the entrance of the inner tent, Lisa [our fly sheet was nowhere in sight] after opening the zip—bringing in half the beach with you and a free-for-all invitation to the mosquitoes,” came the disparaging and heated response. Or something dangerously close to that effect. “Ooh,” I acknowledged with loaded regret, realising that between the pair of us we were sporting about 30 new bites. They itched like hell and became hotter than fire the more I scratched.
“I’m so sorry, Jase,” I offered as damage limitation reaching for the anti-sting salve. I continued to champion the All-will-be-well-again view: to remain positive at all costs but hadn’t the foggiest notion of why I then remarked, “At least we’re giving our anti-malarials the chance to work now,” adding to the carnage. Oh monkeys, I’d missed the turtles again—sinking envious teeth into my lower lip. That and my dot-to-dot for a body ablaze in bites had to be Karma’s punishment for my recent road blockade behaviour—where I’d been acting like some outlandish and alien twin of me. As for Jase, I had some serious making up to do.
Taking leave of Tulum without getting our gills wet seemed outright rude. Crikey, it’d been six years since I’d hung my fins up. I still couldn’t recall why I’d shelved my passion for diving; crisp and clear, the memories from thousands of dives around the watery globe were right there, right where I’d left them. To say I was keen to have some fun’derwater again was an understatement. Getting a great vibe from Paolo at Cenote Diving Tulum, who offered to take us into Cenote Dos Ojos made the decision to spend the unplanned pesos an easy one.
‘Cenote’ pronounced sen-ot-tay is derived from a Mayan word, which means ‘sacred well’. A culmination of certain geological occurrences and climate changes formed a remarkably unique ecosystem in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Namely, a complex set of caverns and underground rivers that were created naturally over 6,500 years ago. Awaiting us lay more than 300 miles of interconnected passageways and underground enclosures. ‘Cenote Dos Ojos’ incidentally means ‘two eyes’; a pure blue pool—the all-seeing eye, and another dark and cavernous one, the black eye.
Slowly descending into waters with enough clarity to give you vertigo, we spent a couple of glorious dives discovering the dark yet tranquil splendour of these pristine waters; floating through caves packed with a unified wondrous web of limestone. Letting our eyes adjust to the sunlight streaming through, flooding the subterranean world of stalagmites was sublime on the senses. Seeing and hearing didn’t seem separate in this place; I could practically hear the visual beauty of the bluey green waters and could see the surging, joyful perfection of everything for around 100 metres. It seemed that you couldn’t look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it—without joining it in some mystifying way. Submerged, I felt it, laid into my very being.
Exhilaration flowed further as we shined the flashlight only some of the time. It became more mysterious, enigmatic even—diving blind in an adrenaline-soaked reality—looping our fingers around the permanent line for guidance when natural light beams barely cut through the water column. Although after a period of adjustment, I still felt secure and at ease without my fingers tethered to the safety of the line. I listened intently to my own blood whoosh and pulse behind my ears as the liquid jelly-like water suspended me in perfect harmony.
Body relaxed, time trickled by as we explored cave after cavern; one semi-dry, home to a fabulous assortment of fruit bats snuggling among the stalactites, the bat cave. After breaking the surface, I wrung the last of the water from my hair, gooseflesh pricking my skin. I felt clean, and somehow better about myself as I combed out the snarls in my hair. The sunlit waters within the cenotes left my soul enchanted and buoyant, awash in an unreserved calm.