It wasn’t particularly easy to get to, which might be why it’s such a hidden gem. From Boston we laid over in Houston, then on to Belize City on the mainland, and finally a puddle jumper to Ambergris Caye and San Pedro. The island is car-free, roads—mostly sand—restricted to pedestrians, bicycles, and golf carts. I didn’t see any mega-resorts—just smaller hotels and simple condos. Belize, this small country in Central America wedged on the Caribbean coast, felt remote and unspoiled, like we were just let in on a secret.
It helped that my brother met my wife and I there from California. We’d been talking about joining up someplace interesting one of these days, and now we’d finally pulled the trigger. Because of his presence and influence, the trip became something much more than had it been just Christine and I. Jeff pushed us. He’s not a sit-around-and-sip-cocktails-on-the-beach kind of guy. Relaxing and drinking is something to be done as a reward for an adventure, not something to do twenty minutes after breakfast.
One morning we joined a tour that took us out to a few popular snorkeling sites. The guides got some chum in the water to attract the sharks. Before long the waters were churning with them—nurse sharks, some six feet long, darting to and fro and filling the frothing sea. It was impossible not to brush up against them. One guide, swimming alongside me, wrapped one in his arms and handed it off to me. The shark let me hold it for a few moments, long enough for a long look in the eye and a photo, but soon shook me off with a vigorous lash of its tail and disappeared into the rest of the frenzy.
We rented bikes one day and proceeded to get ourselves lost, the high sun baking the island into a muggy stew. We tried to find Secret Beach but were turned around. We stopped to help a couple of women whose bikes had lost their chains on the bumpy and rugged terrain. They were hot and frustrated and sweaty and dusty. It gave us some perspective—we were all those things, too, but at least we had chains on our bikes. Jeff found a watchtower and climbed to the top in order to see if he could locate the water. He did, and eventually we found the beach. We swam and cooled our overheated bodies, and I dreaded the pedal back into town.
Another day we took the ferry over to the tiny island of Caye Caulker, where we swam across the mouth of a river, fighting the pull of the current, and I watched Jeff back flip from a high, twisting branch into the water. I couldn’t quite find the courage. Later, we bought beers and played corn hole—more my speed.
The week’s biggest adventure had us on a twin-propeller plane back to the mainland. There we met our driver who took us from Belize City to the Actun Tunichil Muknal Caves, an underground Mayan site hosting a collection of long-withered human remains. During the hour-long drive, we were pulled over by local police, large guns draped over their shoulders, who proceeded to ask our driver to get out of the car. They talked to him behind us for several minutes, minutes that seemed to stretch on a long, long time. He eventually came back and we continued on, and while we drove he told us that the police would not let him go without a $40 bribe.
From the car we boarded a van that took us the final eight miles over bumpy terrain that couldn’t really be considered a road. At the parking lot, we hiked two miles to the caves, crisscrossing rivers and traversing overgrown rainforest paths. We were told we’d have to wade through possibly shin-deep water to get through the entrance of the cave, but when we finally arrived, we found the mouth of the cave half-submerged, and so we had to dive in and swim. The water was dark and well over our heads. Once inside, we followed our guide to the far rock wall and shimmied along its cool, slick side, where the water was only waist deep.
We spent the next several hours working our way deeper and deeper into the cave, sometimes through wide-open spaces, other times squeezing sideways through rocky crevices that I thought for sure I would get stuck in. Bats darted overhead. Spiders, one the size of my fist, retreated hastily on our approach. I skidded on one wet incline and skinned my knee. The guide called it a souvenir. Later, we climbed a shaky wooden ladder that took us up to a plateau where we found the skeletons of ancient Mayans. I felt, with a twinge of pride, like Indiana Jones.
Later that night we were back on Ambergris Caye, eating and drinking, our bodies worn but feeling good. We were proud of ourselves and spent the evening retelling the stories. A cold beer had never felt so earned. Waves lapped the shore in the dark below us, and Jeff wrote our name on the graffiti deck where so many others had etched their names. Conway – 2016.
On our final day we booked a private tour with Scuba Steve. He and his son, Eugene, took the three of us out on his boat for a day of fishing, swimming, and snorkeling. We saw more nurse sharks, then sea turtles that we followed around and touched. We saw a moray eel and then, the highlight, an eagle ray, its back spotted and beautiful against the sandy floor. It flapped its wings in an elegant and leisurely glide, like a giant bird flying in slow motion. Its long tail followed behind, with Jeff kicking to keep up.
After, we beached onto a deserted stretch straight out of Robinson Crusoe. Scuba Steve and Eugene got a fire going and prepared lunch with the fish we’d caught. We twisted the caps off bottles of beer and sat on driftwood, looking at the Caribbean Sea and the dancing of blue and green light. A dog roaming the beach stopped for Christine to pat, which made her week: she’d been trying to pat dogs since the beginning of the trip and they’d kept running off. But this one stuck around and she gave it her attention. Jeff climbed a crooked tree, going after coconuts. Smoke from the fire pit rolled in our direction. Lunch smelled good. We sat on driftwood and clinked beer bottles and breathed it all in—the food, the fresh salt air, Belize.