Vanish To: The Jungles of Belize

One of my first press trips ever was to Belize, back in 1997 I think it was, and the destination was fresh on my mind at that time as some of my university professors in ecology and natural resources had been pioneers in eco-tourism in Belize beginning around the late 1980s. It was incredible as a young person to see some positive change happening in the world, and the trip opened my eyes and life to a career in adventure travel.

So when I got the call to head back down for another trip into the jungles of Belize, to follow along on one of the most iconic multi-day canoe races in the world, I rearranged my schedule of spring skiing and hut trips and said yes. It seemed like a unique opportunity to see how a place like Belize would develop over two decades, and to revisit some of the natural beauty I remembered from that first trip, from snorkeling with sharks to swimming underneath remote jungle waterfalls.

If I would have known how shut down the country was during the pandemic, and that they were really just barely emerging from long stints of mask requirements, curfews and quarantines, I might have second guessed my decision, but hey, travel in a post-pandemic world is a pain in the ass no matter what, and I’m usually up for an adventure. I guess that’s why I get invited on so many of these weird trips.

Even still, we are all pandemic weary, and with my two little girls at home, I haven’t been able to risk any potentially long quarantines in strange places due to COVID exposures or other fucked up circumstances that often come with adventure travel, so I’ve, for better or worse, been laying pretty low the last couple years. But I really did want to get this unique viewpoint. Had the country changed, I wondered, had I?

The mood was light as they whisked us through customs in order to expedite our safe and speedy passage up river to San Ignacio for the start of the canoe race, held up briefly by our lack of a permit for our drone, but not a major setback since the airport was not crowded at all and nothing is very far in what I rediscovered is actually a very small country, with a total population of just about 400,000 people.

Our first day on the ground we went on horseback, through the jungle and small neighboring villages, across the river and all the way to the Guatemalan border essentially, and the archeological site of Xunantunich. Along the way we had an edible and medicinal plant and ecology tour I won’t soon forget. Seeing some of the same spots I had when I was here in the 90s was a head trip; and I have to keep holding space for grief as I imagine a lot of businesses, in all tourism-dependent economies globally, will not re-emerge out of the pandemic.

Belizeans are tough and resolute however, diverse, brilliantly humorous, and people seem generally happy and positive, ready to get back to normal. For me it was really cool to see that a relatively obscure sporting event like a 25-year-old canoe race can bring a nation together and inspire people to get back out and start living again. One thing I had not remembered, was how poor this country was, from broken down hot tubs to being out of seemingly everything. I couldn’t even get a large bottle of water most places. Maybe I hadn’t had the chance to see it, or didn’t have the experience to recognize it on my first visit, I don’t know. Sometimes on these trips you only remember the good once you’re home. But the bad can stick with you too.

Belize is a country of natural wonders that deserves to be preserved and protected — and in fact more than 45% of the country is already protected from development, including the largest barrier reef in the world. The only thing I could think when I was there this time, staying in several small resort properties that were essentially deserted in the interior of the country, was that they very much needed tourism to come back online. It felt like a ghost town, like time had frozen mid-2020, and I don’t know if they were even expecting any tourists. I’m not going to tell you what locals told me their bi-weekly government stipend was for layoffs during the pandemic, but it made me feel pretty damn fortunate.

One of the most incredible spots we visited along the route of the canoe race was Belize Ecolution Adventures, and I cannot recommend enough that you go and check them out. This multi-generational family had the most peaceful and symbiotic relationship with their environment I had ever witnessed. In the jungle, we experienced a detoxification, “so that the vibration of nature could resonate, issuing a constant reprogramming of the mind,” Shane Baizar told me as he spoke of an ecological revolution, and a diplomatic balance between man and monkey. I was blown away by his level of intelligence, passion and sophistication, and I could have stayed for days, enjoying his grandmother’s cooking (the best food we had in the country) and sitting peacefully by the river. I highly encourage sustainable-minded travelers to come and experience Belize if you have not already.

After more than 20 years it seemed that not much had really changed in Belize, except maybe a few more paved roads, and a whole lot more plastic water bottles littering the landscape. They were sorely in need of a nation-wide recycling program, as a start. But the history of epochs and ecology here is irreplaceable, and must be preserved. It has to be one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world, holding its own place among Caribbean and Central American culture. And I know the coasts of Belize hold a myriad of fly fishing, diving and other obvious recreation and beauty that any visitor to the area would be remiss in not taking advantage of.

Unfortunately we didn’t get out to the keys on this particular trip, even though that had been one of my fondest memories from my first adventure, we ended up getting stuck in Belize City, a rather unwelcoming and underdeveloped town of about 80,000 with no real access to the beach or other recreation. That night we wandered into town and found a small streetside restaurant, and were treated as outsiders, unlike the friendly treatment I have had in similar situations in other countries. On a visit to Belize you’ll also run into some odd Canadian ex-pats, Mennonites, and other random gringos along the way, many who escaped the hustle and bustle of the U.S. many years ago like my college professors, in favor of the mellow vibe and temperate climate of Belize.

Despite the fact that the La Ruta Maya canoe race welcomed only about half the amount of teams and spectators it enjoyed pre-pandemic, it seemed that everyone considered it a resounding success, and hundreds lined the bridges and riverbanks daily as we made our way down river toward Belcan Bridge in Belize City. Despite the fact that the race is sponsored by the largest local beer brand in Belize, Belikin — a delicious, simple lager available only in country — there’s a noticeably low key vibe, unlike many places in Mexico for example and other Caribbean destinations that place a heavy emphasis on alcohol, it’s not like that in Belize. It’s the only press trip I’ve ever been on where the booze was not comped, and I didn’t know if that was indicative of an attitude toward partying or an overall lack of resources. At the end of the day, I would definitely consider Belize a destination for a more mature traveler — one more interested in ancient archeological sites and wildlife preserves than beach parties.

So had I changed? Was my perspective on the world and on international travel different, after having done this type of thing for more than 20 years? I really don’t think so. It reminded me of when I found my old journal from my travels in Africa a decade later…I was so hesitant to open those pages and see what a fool I was, what a stupid kid, only to find that my thoughts were lucid, my observations valid, and my frame of mind and outlook was essentially the same.

Of course we are all eager to — in desperate need to — start living again, to socialize, and to get out and be with our fellow countrymen and fellow humans, just like these Belize locals so clearly were. If anything, my experience has given me more perspective, more maturity, made me less judgmental, for the more you know, the more you realize you know nothing at all.

Photos by Steven Lauder

Author Aaron H. Bible is an award-winning writer and multimedia producer with three decades of experience as a content specialist, creative director, and journalist. Aaron is a contributing writer, editor and photographer to publications including SKI, Freeskier, Men’s Health, Popular Mechanics, Sunset, Gear Junkie, 5280, Elevation Outdoors, Vanish, and more. He holds an MFA in photography from the Savannah College of Art & Design, and has worked as a photographer, gallery director, and educator. He lives with his family in the high-country of Colorado where he and his wife are raising two girls to love thin air, fresh pow, and the flow state. Follow him on Instagram at @DefinitelyWild.