Thousands of still–uncovered sites are waiting beneath the park's landscape to be excavated. Our tiny group is led by Fredy, the highly knowledgeable jack–of–all–trades who will be our guide for our entire stay at Hidden Valley. Fredy explains the significance of the ancient seals that have been discovered in the park, how the Maya played their particular version of basketball, and which gods this community held most sacred—offering them human sacrifices at particular times of the year.
We head back to the hotel for a quick lunch and are off to visit Butterfly Falls, one of the many aquatic gems located on the 7,200–acre property. Scraps of cottony clouds follow us across the sky as we float in a 20–meter wide crystal clear pool of mountain water. The sound of Butterfly Falls is deafening, but with my head slightly under the water, it's a low, dull roar and I can concentrate on the blowing palms and blinding blue sky above.
Do we think a place is beautiful because we have been conditioned to believe it or because it truly is? I have to believe that the first humans to experience the power and surge of this 150–foot waterfall in the middle of the Belizean jungle had to have been awe–struck even though they had never seen an Ansel Adams painting or heard a fairytale. The hike in is moderate. A few ups and downs and some crazy tree roots to maneuver through, but anyone who walks and hikes even on a semi–regular basis will have no problem tackling it. No cars, no cellphone service, and no city within miles means a silence in the forest that is deafening.
To the Surf Side of Belize
When we fly the next day from western Belize to the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, the roads below are just as infrequent as we saw on our first flight, but this time alongside many are neat squares of cultivated acreage. I'm sitting behind the captain and we are flying through puffy clouds that each give our tiny 12–seater a little bump when we go through them.
Whatever break from the humidity we experienced in Hidden Valley comes back with full force once we step off the plane in San Pedro. But our boat shuttle from the San Pedro dock to El Secreto resort on the tip of the island is waiting for us with cold water and beer and we set off on a leisurely 30–minute ride to the hotel, passing playing dolphins on the way and the turquoise waters of the world's second largest reef.
We arrive to cool drinks, chilled towels, and the hotel's barefoot owner greeting us as we come off the dock. El Secreto, named for its location and inspired by the book of the same name, is a hidden beachside getaway with a manmade lake, beachfront swimming pool, open–air dining area, and palm trees that sway over it all.
We check in to our private villas (complete with iPod control, Jacuzzi bathtubs, and air conditioning—the first we've had since arriving) and promptly slip into island clothes and out of shoes. Our plan is to take it easy that first night and head out early for a snorkeling trip to the reef.
We awake in the morning to a storm building off in the distance and so wait out the light tropical rain under the thatched roofs of the resort's main common areas. I take advantage of the rain to grab a quick massage in the hotel's bamboo tree–house spa. The masseuse is good but the atmosphere is better—a tiny hut with the sound of rain falling on fat palm leaves and settling into the sand.
When it clears in the afternoon we check out the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Alley — the reef's officially protected area where visitors can come out and commune with the fish. Our guides are extremely well–versed on the dozens of fish and species of sea life that we see. When we are swimming with the nurse sharks and sting rays, Victor, one of our guides, brings a ray up to the surface for us — on top of his head. They are awkward, rubbery creatures that have a sweet look about them.
For our last night in Belize, Chef Lucia and her cooks serve up an incredible Belizean BBQ with fresh lobster, potato salad, grilled pineapple and "Coco Loco"—a cocktail which disguises its alcohol with coconut juice until before you know it you're "loco." A reggae band plays for us from the sand where our candle–lit tables are set up.
Sailing across the bay the next morning getting ready to board a plane back home, it is hard to imagine returning to the hustle and bustle of city life. I sit up front and talk to our captain, a man who spends day in and day out on the water. His birthday is a few days away and I asked him what he was going to do. "Go fishing," he replies with a smile. It makes me wish I could stay just a few days longer.
If you go:
Story and photos by Lydia Carey.