My obsession with lost civilizations was first sated in Belize when I visited the Mayan site of Cahal Pech. It's one of the oldest in Belize -- dating back to 1200 BC -- but its temples aren't quite as high or as grand as other Mayan ruins. I'd call it an an understated (and under-appreciated) ruin.
That's probably why we were the only two people in the entire place, free to lounge around on the ruins and enjoy views of jungle-covered stone structures and surrounding river valley. It was a peaceful way to ponder the life of the people who once lived there.
Cave to the underworld
We learned more about the Mayans when we joined a small group to explore a ceremonial cave by boat. Approaching from a small lake, we paddled silently into the cavern, ducking down to glide under some low hanging rock formations.
Our guide aimed a powerful spotlight across the red and golden-hued walls. Thousands of stalactites and stalagmites hung down from the ceiling and sprung out from the sides of the cavern like ornate masterwork sculptures. The spotlight moved across alcoves and recesses containing broken clay pots, groups of sleeping bats hanging from the ceiling, piles of ash from ancient fires and even a human skeleton.
The local Mayans believed the cave was a sacred entrance to the underworld, and they often performed rituals and sacrifices there. Among other ceremonies, our guide told us, they offered up the blood of captive enemies as nourishment to their gods. I shivered to imagine such dramatic scenes.
For a few moments, the guide switched off the light so we could experience complete darkness. We were far enough into the cave that no light penetrated. It was like my eyes were closed, except they weren't. I was disoriented. The only sounds were soft plinks of water dripping from the stalactites and the occasional flutter of bat wings. At first those wing flaps made my heart quicken. I dreaded the thought of a bat getting tangled in my hair or raining droppings down on my head. I breathed in deeply and closed my eyes, listening to the silence for a moment. Exhale -- pure tranquility.
Speaking of complete darkness, there were nightly power outages in the town of San Ignacio during our stay. At first we thought it was just our hotel, but we later realized it was more widespread.
Maybe it had something to do with the traveling circus being in town - were they hogging the area's electricity supply? Or was the grid always so unreliable? Whatever the reason, the situation left us sprawled across our beds, sweating in the stifling heat as we played cards and swapped stories by flashlight.
Swimming with sharks
Fast forward a week or so and we were sipping on rum and cokes. It was less than $2 for a VERY stiff drink at an outdoor 'bar' - a collection of picnic tables on a section of beach. We were on the tiny island of Caye Caulker, and it was the most laid back place I'd ever been.
Golf carts were the only vehicles, and the 'streets' were simply sand that was a bit more packed down than the non-street parts of the island. It was a sunny, breezy tropical paradise.
It's also the place where I touched a shark - really! We took a fantastic snorkeling trip with a guide recommended by other travelers, and what a score that recommendation was.
Rudy had developed a special relationship with a family of reef sharks after rescuing the injured pregnant mother a couple of years prior. He would head out to swim and visit with them every week, and they a would actually recognize him.
With his guidance, we were able to approach, and actually pet the mother. Wow! What does shark skin feel like? Coarse sandpaper, of course. What a scary-exciting thrill!
As if that wasn't enough, the technicolour underwater views of the vibrant reef oh-so-close to the surface were stunning. It remains my most memorable sea experience to this day.
The sounds of Belize have also stuck with me. They've been shaped by a mix of British, African and Caribbean influences over the centuries.
Walking down main street, we were hailed time and again by colourful characters in calling out singsong in Kriol. We couldn't be sure exactly what the rapid-fire phrases meant, but they were obviously they were various forms of greeting.
Da how yu di du? Weh yu nayhn? The animated acknowledgements were always accompanied by friendly grins and crinkled-up smiling eyes. And those smiles grew bigger when we returned them in-kind.
And then there was the music. Lilting reggae, bouncing calypso, throbbing hip hop and syncopated Belizean punta rock blared out of every other house and restaurant, competing for airwave dominance. The town pulsed like no place I'd been before.
A live band was belting out infectious Afro-Caribbean melodies to a steady beat. Customers sat at picnic tables sipping on rum, swaying to the rhythms, tapping their feet on the sandy bar 'floor', and occasionally singing out a line of the chorus in time with the music. We just had to take a seat and sway along with them.
It was so much fun to discover the unique sounds and rhythms of the tiny nation. I still hear Belize beckoning me back sometimes. I'm not sure how much longer I can resist.