Story by JM
Photos by Henry Georgi
La Ruta Maya Paddling Smorgasbord and Slickrock's Caribbean Island Vacation
It’s late afternoon on the opening day of the Ruta Maya canoe race, and I’m enjoying my sudden dunking in Belize’s cultural melting pot. We’re camped at the Banana Bank Lodge on the Belize River, a riverside spread run by Montana transplant John Carr, a real-live cowboy with the rodeo championship belt buckle to prove it. As competitors straggle in after the first stage of this four-day, 170-mile canoe race across Belize, an old Creole man strums a guitar and sings Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. Each time he comes around to “Won’t you help to sing/These songs of freedom,” I get a tingle in my spine.
Then, without losing a beat, he switches to an old Hank Williams tune, and the cowboy puts down his plate of rice and beans and joins in. That’s how I’ll remember Belize—two old men sharing a song, while a half-dozen younger Belizeans try to follow the old-timey country beat on drums crafted from five-gallon plastic buckets.
Luis Garcia, whose parents fled the Guatemalan civil war in the 1980’s explains: “In the old days the only radio station anyone could get in Belize came from Texas. That’s why all the old people here love country music.” It’s a perfect analogy for the cultural feast that is Belize.
The next morning I awake to a 4 a.m. bugle call, courtesy of one of the at-risk kids Garcia mentors. “He’s a good boy, and he’s come a long way,” Garcia says of the trumpeter, who woke the camp an hour early, “but sometimes he can’t help himself.” I inhale fry jacks in the pre-dawn blackness, preparing to paddle 60 miles with two American Peace Corps volunteers who first held a canoe paddle the day before. Their attitude is inspiring—I am subbing for a heat-struck team member, who will later rejoin the crew and finish the race—but the experience leaves me feeling anything but pampered. So that evening I hitch a ride to San Ignacio to join Slickrock Adventure Tours’ more luxurious exploration of Belizean rivers and reefs and best vacation package.
I sleep in a comfortable cabana that night and wake to a far different breakfast: piles of fresh fruit, toast, bacon and perfectly prepared eggs. We linger over coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice as our guide, Neri Chi, briefed us on our day’s adventure—an easy float down the Cave’s Branch River, through nearly five miles of limestone caverns to the place where, according to Chi’s Mayan ancestors, the land of the living meets that of the dead. I am glad we are not cave tubing Belize, but rather kayaking down this jungle river.
The next day we sample the Mopan River’s Class III rapids before traveling to Long Caye on Glover’s Reef, one of only four coral atolls in the western hemisphere. The island is the exclusive domain of Slickrock, and it’s a kayaker’s dream. A thatched roof shelters a fleet of sea kayaks and surf boats, and the island provides perfect opportunities for both, not to mention world-class fishing, snorkeling, scuba and wind-surfing. The sheltered lagoon stretches for miles to the east and north, while the windward shore sports an active surf break.
This isn’t pampering in the five-star white tablecloth sense; it’s highly-living Belize style. We sleep in thatched cabanas perfectly situated to take in the sea breeze, our showers are warmed by the abundant sun, and the toilet is the pride of the island—a one-of-a-kind composting affair that smells pleasantly of wood chips. The Belizean staff prepares excellent family style meals, and after dinner they destroy us at dominoes.
Our guides are full-time professionals, and it shows in their complete mastery of every activity, from wind-surfing to snorkeling. The head guide, John Ariola, gives the best talk I’ve heard on kayak wet-exits and assisted rescues, and then declaims “I’m sorry if it’s hard to understand me. English is not my first language; I have my own language.” John and most of the staff are Garinagu whose ancestors escaped slavery on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and intermarried with Carib Indians, adopting their language and much of their culture. After a long struggle, the British deported them to Honduras in 1797; their distinctive Garifuna language and culture has since spread up and down Central America’s Caribbean coastline.
Whether Garinagu, Mayan or Canadian, our guides are consummate watermen and passionate volleyball players. For the first couple of days I am content to bask in the sun like the island’s resident Iguanas, saving my energy for the afternoon volleyball match and dives to Long Caye Wall—one of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite dive spots, which happens to lie 200 yards from my cabana. Twelve hours of cane racing had temporarily dulled my paddling appetite, but the deep blue Caribbean revives it: Soon I am rallying the crew for a 12-mile paddle to a neighboring caye. This island has a more substantial human footprint, including a fishing resort with air-conditioned rooms and a perfect little bar on stilts. We sip cool limeade as the proprietor tells us how tourism in Belize has saved the tiny island’s economy after coconut blight. Then he ushers next door for a proper seafood feast, served with cloth napkins. The way back would turn into a sprint—our life of comfort has left us with energy to burn—but until then we loiter over our coffee, enjoying the warm Caribbean breeze. Info: www.slickrock.com
Story and photos by EDB
If so, shuck your day-to-day responsibilities aside and head south to one of the world's Top Jungle Rivers. Each waterway listed below can be run in a variety of craft, from inflatables to hard-shells, and is guaranteed to put you in some of the best bush on the planet -- the type where your alarm clock rings from high in the rainforest canopy. The main attraction of these rivers, of course, is boulder-strewn, jungle-lined whitewater, ranging anywhere from cricket-chirping Class II to snake-hissing Class V. Listed alphabetically by continent, the following runs include simple day trips, over-nighters in thatched-roof huts and week-long outings where you can camp like Dr. David Livingstone under the rainforest canopy. And who knows, after spending time in the jungle, you might just unleash that hidden Tarzan or Jane that's been waiting to break out of its city-locked shell. Just don't blame us if you come back to work growling.
When a team of British army adventurers first ran Belize's Macal River in the early 1980s, little did they know that -- despite the many Class VI portages -- they had stumbled on a run destined to be a jungle classic. In 1994, hardshell kayakers Cully Erdman, Dugald Bremner and Josh Lowrey affirmed this fact by running all but five drops in the river's 20-mile granite gorge in one day. "It's definitely a classic," says Erdman, who feels so strongly about the river that he offers eight-mile, one-day trips on the lower gorge through his company, Slickrock Adventures. "It's got everything you need in a jungle trip."
The Macal is the largest drainage of Belize's Maya Mountains, funneling countless rainforest tributaries through a 20-mile gorge cutting through the highlands. In the heart of the gorge, vine-clad walls tower up to 1,500 feet overhead, many of which harbor cascading waterfalls and hidden limestone caves. After flowing north out of the highlands near the Guatemalan border, the river opens up to a lush valley before joining the Mopan River in San Ignacio. Be forewarned, however, that it is not for the faint of heart. The granite river bed creates classic pool-drop rapids in the form of waterfalls and strong hydraulics. The best levels to tackle the rapids are between 500-1,500 cfs, which usually occurs when the rainy season subsides from November through March. The river often rises as high as 45,000 cfs in the rainy season. Excluding the Class VI portions, the average gradient is about 75 feet per mile
Helping river runners -- but harming the river's wilderness qualities -- is a hydro-electric complex recently built in the middle of the canyon that diverts flow for a few miles before depositing it back in the river at the base of the gorge's Class VI section. The power plant provides the only road access to the lower eight-mile run, which houses such rapids as Cartwheel Falls, Rock-Hell Falls, Vaca Falls, Duck soup and The Wall. The lower section still has several portages, including one that avoids a Class VI cataract, before you reach the take-out at Black Rock Lodge (you can also paddle another four miles of flatwater to an alternative take-out at Chaa Creek Lodge).
For a jungle fix without the adrenaline, head to the nearby Caves Branch River, which, when not meandering through rain-forest cloaked countryside, flows under ground through Mayan artifacts-filled caves for five of the run's eight miles. And it's the perfect place to learn white water kayaking. And that's someplace even British army adventurers dared not venture in their reconnaissance of the area in the early '80s. This is the ultimate Belize vacation. For information on this trip and a three-day tour of Mayan civilization, contact Slickrock Adventures: (800) 390-5715.