We’re about 10 minutes off the shores of San Pedro when our little six-metre (20-foot) boat is tied off to a big round buoy and my diving guide plops himself into the waters. I’m next. I sit backwards on the edge of the cockpit, put one hand over my mask and the other over my regulator, and fall backwards overboard.
According to diving protocol, I give the ok sign to the skipper, even though skippers are never looking, then deflate my vest to begin submerging. I locate my guide a few metres off, but movement below catches my attention. There’s a gathering of sharks swimming around under my flippers and I am descending into the middle of their party.
Several thoughts run through my mind, and then a rational one: “Surely these are nurse sharks that don’t eat meat or neoprened scuba divers.” The guide has moved on. I follow suit, all limbs attached, and for nearly an hour we meander around the sinuous, swaying flora and fauna among the natural channels of the barrier reef. The water, at 26 degrees Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit), is warm and clear and I’ve never seen so many types of corals at one site. Graceful eagle rays undulate by, then a turtle; a grouper shimmies past behind me.
With not enough time for Belize’s famous Blue Hole dive site, I’m fortunate to be able to squeeze in this overnighter to the picture postcard, palm-lined beaches of Ambergris Caye and its reef, but it’s over too soon. A half-hour flight the next morning lands me at the Belize City airport, where a driver is waiting to take me to the jungle interior.
We drive up the Northern Highway past dried up flood plains that for nine months of the year are covered in water, but now are parched and grey, scorched by fire, emitting an acrid smell of burnt leaves and brush. Wafts of smoke are visible here and there in the distance where spontaneous fires still smoulder. With May nearly over, the rainy season is late. At least some colour is provided by small homes we pass by and enormous flamboyant trees that will lose their flaming orange blossoms when the rain finally starts.
Eighty minutes later, the van arrives at the Lamanai Outpost boat landing on New River in the Orange Walk District. It’s 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and humid. The warm breeze is stifling until I board an airboat, which can reach 25 kilometres (16 miles) per hour. With my new guide, Mauricio, at the helm, we follow the dark river that bends, splinters and snakes through mangrove forest. Expanses of water lilies sweep out from the banks, producing a surface on which the northern jacanas, with their ridiculously long toes, can prowl for snails. Overgrown bushes and grasses fight for light among coconut palms, guanacastes, bullet trees and strangler figs. Long branches reach out over the water and provide landing points for the king fishers that swoop out from under overhanging foliage and race us up the river. Snail kites oversee the scene from higher points. A cormorant perches on the end of a protruding stump and a small colony of tiny proboscis bats hang, camouflaged, from a blond, split trunk charred black in patches.
At the bend up ahead, a bluish-grey form breaks through the water and dives back down. Mauricio stops the boat on a dime. It’s a manatee, he says, and we might see the shy creature if we wait it out. It will come up for air again in 15 minutes. We see a few bubbles near the boat; more bubbles surface further off a few minutes later. It’s either toying with us or avoiding us, or maybe just ignoring us. We move on.
The river alternates between rippled surface and glassy, between narrow passages and wide, between straight lengths and twisting; dense vegetation is interspersed with an occasional sugarcane plantation. Sometimes I smell smoke, but never see it. We pass Shipyard, one of the Mennonite communities established here, and we pass men string-fishing out of trim, painted canoes. They throw out a string and pull it in, throw it out, pull it in. It seems to work.
After two hours of peering and peeping, we cruise into New River Lagoon, a 45-kilometre (28 mile)-long, spring-fed body of water teeming with wildlife. Stalking jabiru storks slowly comb the calf-deep water; a green heron perches in wait on a fallen trunk, patient yet intense in an over-caffeinated sort of way; large, brown limpkins probe for snails with their long beaks. None of them seem particularly concerned about the crocodiles – maybe they’re napping. On the lagoon banks rest the Lamanai Mayan ruins, which we will explore, but first we’ll go to the Outpost for lunch.
Lamanai is thought to have been occupied since the 1500s BCE, eventually becoming a major Mayan city that existed even until the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s CE. Spanish friars proceeded to convert the Mayans, and were successful until the natives revolted (and reverted) in the 1600s, before eventually abandoning Lamanai. Excavations that began in the 1970s revealed various temples and an unusually small ball court, and there is plenty more to uncover when funding becomes available to finance it.
The Temple of the Jaguar Masks is excavated on the front only, with the sides and back still forested and a gumbo-limbo tree on top. Locals call it the “tourist tree” (its bark is red and peeling). The temple’s most interesting feature is the unmistakable jaguar mask at the base. Its creepiest feature is that it looks out onto a field of Mexican red rump tarantulas. With countless holes leading to spider burrows beneath the dead grass, we try to coax one out by feigning prey movement in the silk netting surrounding the hole. We fail.
Past the field, we climb over rocky ruins and into the jungle. It’s darker, but not cooler. Cohune palms, copals, bayleaf palms, guanacastes and strangling figs, all vegetation encroaches on the path. Black monkeys climb about the tree tops and colourful birds chatter as we make our way to the courtyard below High Temple, the third highest temple in the Mayan world, from 100 BCE. In Mayan days, the clearing would have been bare, but several trees now shade it. The steep steps that lead up the front of the temple are tall and narrow – an exerting climb that Mayan priests are said to have made on their knees. The view from the top is evocative of a mighty dynasty: to the left is the largest body of fresh water around and endless savannah beyond; to the right is the top of a boundless jungle canopy stretching into the horizon.
Walking beneath the palm fronds back towards the boat as dusk approaches, a barrage of ferocious roars bellows out, but I cannot see from where, or what. It’s eerie in a Michael Crichton novel sort of way. Mauricio says it’s howler monkeys defining their territories – a dawn and dusk ritual – thus, their name. I think it should be “roarer” monkeys, not howler, though it’s not as easy to say. At the boat I can still hear them.
Back at the Outpost over dinner, we choose an evening activity. We’ll head into the lagoon by airboat again, this time to peep and peer into the nocturnal goings on and catch a caiman for an up close examination of a mini croc. I can hardly wait to see what comes to life after the sun goes down in beautiful Belize.