UnBelizable! A Journey to The Jungles of Belize

Belize wasn’t on the top of my travel bucket list, but in March of 2018, it had been one year since my trip to Martinique, so my travel itch was kicking in badly and I didn’t have an exact destination in mind. I did my usual steps - I logged on to Skyscanner and searched for the cheapest flights out of the Washington DC area. The expected results appeared; domestic flights to cities like Providence and Columbus, and the usual low-cost destinations like Trinidad & Tobago and El Salvador. A little down the list was Belize City - the accompanying image showing ancient Mayan ruins. That was all I needed to make a decision.

I’m not a Mayan historian by any measures, but I had just finished reading Douglas Preston’s book The Lost City of the Monkey God, so I was hyped up on Mesoamerican stories. After doing a little research, I found Belize to check off my list of goals for this year’s trip - adventures, hiking, and (new to the list) ruins.

Flights booked, I went looking for housing options. One airbnb stood out - Mooonracer Farms Camping Casita, which advertised the lack of electricity, jungle surroundings, and wildlife encounters that guests could expect. I exchanged a few emails with the hosts and booked my jungle casita. I’d soon find out that this decision would make my trip far exceed every expectation.

Early on the morning of April 9th, I boarded my Southwest Airlines flight to Fort Lauderdale where I’d then board a connecting flight to Belize City. Upon arrival I was greeted with the familiar Caribbean-style airport I’d been used to seeing from my cigar industry days in the Dominican Republic.

Something about these single-building, jetway-less airports brings about a simplicity of traveling as if re-living early days of flying. The days before the long security lines and terminals crowded with people arguing that their carry-on does meet the size requirements dictated by some budget airline.

I deplaned, made my way through customs, and awaited my luggage.

Across the street was Crystal Auto Rental, where I was to pick up a Jeep Patriot. I decided against the 4x4 that many TripAdvisor posts had recommended, but I felt confident enough in this Jeep’s high-clearance level and bulky tires. Throughout my trip, this confidence would be tested, but ultimately was validated. The Patriot did just fine.

On my journey to Moonracer, I stopped at the Belize Zoo with hopes of seeing a jaguar (hoping this would be the only time I’d see one on my journey into the jungle…). Jaguars were certainly there, along with many of exhibits of Belize wildlife, including my arch nemesis, the Fer de Lance (see my post on Martinique for context). I made eye contact with this pointed-eye demon snake through the plexiglass and still get chills thinking of it.

As much as I hate snakes, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for these serpents in a small glass enclosure. I’m not a fan of zoos in general and the emotionless faces on the jaguars throughout this zoo didn’t help me much. I’m no animal expert and I make no claims to the treatment of animals at the Belize Zoo (in fact, I was educated by locals about the many positive impacts this zoo has made), I just always have a tough time seeing mighty creatures behind bars - although I was happy that I got to witness the jaguars and snakes with a measure of safety.

Before departing the zoo, I stopped in their cafe for some delicious banana bread, stocked up on water, and had a brief conversation with a very friendly local who was fascinated that I came from snowy weather in DC just a few hours before.

Onward to Moonracer.

When my GPS told me to turn off the main “highway” onto a dirt road, I had just nine miles left to go, but 40 minutes. I was skeptical that such a short distance was going to take such a long time, but once again, I was wrong. Calling this boulder field a “road” is giving it quite the promotion. How anyone drives that road regularly without replacing their suspension weekly is beyond me.

I eventually arrived at the farm, a little shaken (literally), but excited to see my accommodations. I was greeted by Tom and Marge, the owners of this paradise in the jungle. Tom showed me to my cabin and warned me of the spiders, snakes, and scorpions that I may experience in my room. No worries, a point-tipped umbrella was provided so I could squish any scorpions that came to visit.

I had read the raving reviews of Marge’s cooking on the Airbnb page, so I decided to enjoy dinner with them that evening. After a short nap, I made my way through the now-dark jungle trail to their outdoor kitchen/dining room. Marge was cooking up steak, potatoes, and salad while Tom tempted me with the local Belize beer, Belikin. I would have my fair share of Belikin bottles throughout my stay at Moonracer.

The dinner was incredible, the beer was ...well, it was cold at least, and the conversation was inspiring. In fact, this was true for each night I spent at Moonracer. Every single night, the food was delectable - I’ve even brought home some recipes. Desserts were impeccable (again, recipes were brought home and Marge’s famous brownies now sit on my counter every few weeks). The beer was always cold and the conversation was always inspiring and entertaining.

There were guests from countries like Holland and Germany. We’d talk about politics, current events, travel, and cultures. I shared and I learned, but mostly I was grateful for this enlightening exposure. The nights spent around the dinner table at Moonracer are some of my favorite travel memories.

During the days, when I wasn’t feasting on homemade delicacies, I spent time constantly on the road to visit all the sights I had on my list.

I arrived early morning at Cahal Pech, a popular Mayan site. Arriving early meant I was nearly alone in the ruins. The morning fog rolling off the structures gave a wonderfully eerie feeling as if I were a real explorer. I climbed the ruins and explored the site as far as I could. I was amazed by the intricacies - amazement that would be exponentially heightened by the next stop.

I journeyed closer to the Guatemalan border on my way to Xunantunich, ruins of a ceremonial center for the Mayan people. To get to Xunantunich, you drive aboard a hand-cranked ferry for a short journey across a river. From there, it’s a drive and short hike to where El Castillo, the largest structure of Xunantunich, towers over the ruins.

Once again in awe by the scale and intricacies of these structures, I had to take some time to admire the work of this civilization. I sat upon the top of El Castillo for what seemed like an hour, watching over the ruins, peering into nearby Guatemala, and appreciating my ability to bear witness to such beauty.

I eventually convinced myself that it was time to leave, although I could have stayed at Xunantunich for hours more. I drove my dirt-ridden Jeep to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, which is situated just outside of Moonracer. These roads were just like the boulder field of a road I’ve gotten a bit used to - except much longer! The destination was Big Falls, which had a nice hike from the parking lot. I was glad that I got a proper hike in the books on this trip, and the waterfalls at the end of the trail were certainly worth the visit!

As the weather seemed to be turning, I decided to head back to Moonracer, shower, and get ready for dinner. As I trekked along the path to my casita, I crossed paths with a red and black snake - not my last encounter of the trip. This little guy did no harm and caused no panic. He slithered along the trail a bit before turning off as I entered my casita. No scorpions to greet me today! Until dinner, that was.

Another inspiring dinner with Tom, Marge, and seven total guests from all corners of the globe. Mid-way through dinner, Tom broke out the machete to handle a minor scorpion issue. No concern for him - slightly concerning for the rest of us. Nothing another bottle of Belikin couldn't cure. According to my travel journal notes from that day, “it’s really nice to close out the day with this dinner company”.

My final full day in Belize was to be the pinnacle of what I had hoped to experience, as I joined a tour to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. I’ll have a full post about this tour published shortly, as it undoubtedly deserves an article of its own. It was, without hesitation, one of the most rewarding and awe-inspiring excursions I’ve ever taken part in. There are days that I still get goosebumps thinking back to the richness of history and expansiveness of adventure. If you ever venture to Belize, do yourself a favor and experience the ATM cave tour - it’s worth every penny and every minute.

I drove back from the tour office in San Ignacio with an unwavering sense of awe from the day’s journey. But, as my luck serves me, that sense of awe was halted by the sight of a 4-5’ black tailed indigo that decided to come from just outside my casita, chasing a lizard on the path to the kitchen...not 2 minutes before I needed to venture there for dinner.

“Scurried” is probably the most appropriate way to describe my journey to the kitchen, but it was worth the slight terror. I stayed a few extra minutes that night, capturing every bit of conversation that I could with Tom, Marge, and the other guests. These are the moments I miss the most.

I spent one final night in the casita, listening to the sounds of the jungle - the bugs, the howler monkeys in the distance, the unrecognizable wildlife that sounded to be right outside my door.

I spent that night with a deep sense of appreciation for this trip. As travel has done in the past, this trip showed me things that matter, opened my mind to new ideas, and gave me a sense of adventuring wonder. I would have spent a month in that jungle and still not have seen everything I wanted to. But it was all worth it - thanks to the memories, journaled notes, countless pictures, and world’s-best brownie recipe that gets plenty of use back home.