Of Mornings & Mayans

I love to be awake in the wee hours before the rest of the world begins to stir. Admittedly, I'm often much happier about the being awake than the getting awake, but it is always worth the pain of leaving a comfy bed to experience the world in those early hours. This lesson was driven home to me many years ago when I awoke alone in Budapest and greeted the sun as it rose above the gothic parliament building across the Danube River from where I sat in solitude at the Fisherman's Bastion. It was a morning that will remain with me forever.

On this sticky morning, I slapped the snooze button on my phone twice before stumbling out of bed in the dark, performing my ablutions, and locking my door behind me as I made my way quietly out of the guesthouse in the pre-dawn light. Coming to life as I walked and munched one of the bananas I'd picked up at the market on Saturday, I passed through the entrance of Cahal Pech just as the dark sky began to give way to the dim greys of an overcast morning. A little bummed that it didn't look like I'd get the golden rising sun I'd hoped to photograph, I was still eager to investigate one of the oldest recognizably Mayan sites in western Belize. 

There is something undeniably mystical and eerie and magical about sitting alone among structures built more than 1000 years ago as the watery light of the early morning leaves the shadow deep. I sat quietly for minutes at a time as I tiptoed from structure to structure and passed beneath the low hanging branches of wormwood and qualm wood trees and bay leaf palms. Howler monkeys roared in the distance and small songbirds flitted through the leaves, unconcerned with my presence. My disappointment at the flat grey light ebbed as I tuned into my surroundings and began to sink into a sense of connection and mystery.

Somewhere long ago I read about the idea of "thin places," places on earth where the distance between this world and the mysteries that lie beyond it contracts just a bit and we humans can sense a greater closeness. I don't know what truth there is in this idea, but I felt it once as I wandered the damp recesses of San Miniato al Monte near sunset, as the lamps were being lit by brown-robed monks. And I felt it here in these ancient ruins alone in the jungle, the echoes of lives and eras and ways so archaic.

After wandering and being still among the stones for nearly three hours in solitude, I left the site and walked back toward the main part of San Ignacio, hungry and ready to try out Pop's restaurant after hearing that their fry-jacks and refried beans were the best in town. Tiny Pop's was bustling and while I waited for a table, I met 91 year old Vivianna Logan, who joined me for breakfast and grabbed my heart with her tale. {shameless plug- the story of our conversation over breakfast that morning is the subject of my recent publication in Traveler's Tales…head over and check it out!}

We sat for hours, Vivianna and I, drinking coffee and talking. When we eventually parted ways, I decided to grab one last San Ignacio experience I'd heard about before figuring out how to get to my next destination and walked up to the luxurious San Ignacio Resort Hotel to visit their iguana exhibit. As our guide educated our combined group of four, we held and fed and were scowled at by the exhibit's many residents. It was a novel and enjoyable experience, though I admit to harboring qualms about these types of displays, not knowing enough about the local ecology or the reptiles to know whether the exhibit is responsible, sustainable, and humane.

I had reservations just a few miles outside of San Ignacio at Chaa Creek's Macal River Camp for the next few nights, so I checked out of my guesthouse and weighed the many options for getting there from town. Deciding that it was the perfect short distance to dip my toes into the local custom of hitchhiking from place to place, I headed toward the road near the edge of town. I barely had an opportunity to stick my thumb out as the very first car pulled over and I was greeted by Mr. Ireland, a gregarious man in thick glasses and a checked hat who actually took me right to Chaa Creek's entrance instead of dropping me at the end of the road as I'd expected. I waved goodbye to the rattling jalopy and smiling Mr. Ireland before turning toward the concierge desk for check in.

A bit about Chaa Creek. Founded as a small jungle farm in 1977 by Mick and Lucy Fleming, who took their veggies to market in San Ignacio via dugout canoe, visitors would sometimes find their way out to the property and ask to stay. As the number of those visitors increased, the Flemings had the idea of building a guest cottage from materials sourced from their land. One cottage grew into two and then three, the operation culminating in the swanky eco-resort that now dominates the property. In 1997, they added the Macal River camp, an unplugged camp located just under a mile downstream from the main resort on the Macal River. This is where I was headed.

Passing by the infinity pool and thatched roofs of the luxury cottages and suites, the camp's caretaker and manager, Dulcio, explained a bit about the day-to-day workings as we  bounced along the dirt double track in his truck. The only electricity in the camp is located in the kitchen/dining area and centrally located bathrooms, all solar-powered and thus in limited supply. Each room, or casita, is a screened-in raised platform outfitted with beds and two kerosene lanterns which he or his son, Ariel, would light each evening at dusk. Breakfast and dinner are cooked by his wife, Francelia, and are eaten in the dining area as a group at the designated hours. I could access the rest of the resort at any time by walking the mile-long Rainforest Medicine Trail that connected the camp with the main lodge.

When we arrived at the camp, Dulcio showed me to my casita and around the property and I met Francelia, already busily laboring away in the kitchen for dinner. It was perfect. Without the constant hum of electricity, I could hear the many birds in the surrounding jungle without impediment. My casita's small patio faced the web of trees and was complete with a hammock, of which I made immediate use. The soft breeze, rustling leaves, birdsong, and utter lack of human or machine powered noise lulled me into the first of many naps I would take on that patio, awakening just in time to get my fill of Francelia's culinary magic.