The Caribbean, caves and Creole (well, technically it’s Kriol), pretty much sum up Belize. This tiny country, a former English colony that’s part of mainland Central America but seems much more like the Caribbean, may not be rich in dollars, yet it’s a trillionaire when it comes to natural beauty.
Getting to Belize involved an early morning start to catch the 8:30am ADO bus from Tulum in Mexico to the border town of Chetumal in time for the ferry to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, which overall was a smooth trip until the wind picked up and the two-hour ferry ride was more like an adrenaline-fuelled activity!
Flying over the world’s most famous sinkhole, known as the ‘Blue Hole’ was like something from my dreams. Reef for miles, all the blues I could imagine and then there she was. Feeling like a rock star, I chartered a flight from San Pedro Airport, which was relatively straightforward. A short walk from my hotel, the Conch Shell Inn or ‘Pink Beauty’ as it’s known by the locals, to the Mayan Air airstrip, and 30 minutes later and US$450 lighter, we were on our way.
After 45 minutes, we reached Lighthouse Reef where the Blue Hole is found. Made famous by Jacques Cousteau, the Blue Hole is a magical sight to see from the air. It’s possible to snorkel and dive there, though on the windy day we had, no boats braved the two-hour choppy journey to the hole. The reef ranged from turquoise to navy with the distinct deep blue of the perfectly formed circle outlined by the lighter reef, dropping to a depth of 125 metres and a width of just over 300 metres. From above, it was smaller than I expected and much more spectacular – truly unforgettable.
“Weh di gaan an?” (in English: “What’s going on?”) Creole or Kriol, as it is known in Belize is usually described as broken English – plus, they speak quickly in Belize and it’s tough to understand. Sitting at the Barrier Reef Bar on the idyllic island of Caye Caulker with the sand between my toes, local Belikin beer in hand, I had my first Kriol lesson. My teacher Austin, explained that in Kriol you don’t pronounce suffixes ‘er’, ‘ar’, ‘or’, so water becomes ‘wata’, for example. I could have listened to Austin talk all night but the pull of the I&I Reggae club was too strong and I soon found myself dancing to Kriol lyrics until yet another island sunrise.
After a few lazy days of snorkelling and sunbaking on Caye Caulker, I reluctantly said goodbye to my Caribbean paradise. At the tiny airport, I took the easy, yet pricey, option to cross the country. Boarding a 20-seater Tropic Air flight to San Ignacio (with a layover in Belize City), I was on my way to explore the jungles and caves of Belize. The relaxed nature of the pilot and small aircraft meant I got to ride up front as co-pilot – what a thrill!
At Actun Tunichil Muknal cave or ATM as it’s commonly called, I had the extreme privilege to stand where history happened. ATM was seen as the passage to the underworld by the Mayans and is one of 1,500 caves that dot the country.
It was no easy feat to get there, a bumpy one-hour drive from San Ignacio followed by a 30-minute jungle hike, and several river crossings later we were at the entrance. Entering the cave for a 3.5-hour tour, I crawled over slippery boulders, waded through the river with depths ranging from ankle height to over my head, and squeezed through small, tight crevices. We climbed high into the cave to the dry chamber to view the artefacts – mostly skeletons, sacred ritual vessels and even sharp carved obsidian knives used in bloodletting ceremonies.
Bloodletting in some form still exists in the Mayan culture but thankfully, the ritual of sacrifice stopped a long time ago. To be sacrificed was considered an honour and provided guaranteed entry to heaven as the Mayans knew it. The person to be sacrificed and the shaman performing the ritual would live together for 260 days prior as part of the preparation. Generally the ritual involved a beheading and the body was laid in the foetal position to signify a rebirth into the afterlife. I was told all of this while standing next to the ‘Crystal Maiden’, a preserved skeleton of an 18-year-old man (previously thought to be a woman) who was willingly disembowelled over 1,000 years ago.
Looking at the relics at my feet, it was easy to picture the stories our guide, Mr Louis, told of shamans dressed as monkeys, while the smoke from lanterns billowed as they licked frogs for the hallucinogenic effects that enabled them to connect with the gods to read their messages.
For good measure I’d throw in a fourth ‘C’: colour. The bright pink, green, orange and yellow cottages lining the shores of the turquoise Caribbean are permanently etched into my memory for those days that I need to smile. Belize – it’s all about the ‘Cs’ and so much more.