Belmopan, Belize - “Fishing” for a tarantula - using a twig to tease it out of the hole in the ground it calls home - is cool by me, at least after I pull the thick sleeve of my rain jacket over my hand.
But I draw the line at holding the scorpion spider that my guide, Alex Guzman, offers me. He had nonchalantly plucked it off its perch and it now rests in his palm, looking as sedate and nonvenomous as a spider the size of an adult's palm can look.
It's still a spider, though. The size of my palm.
Except it's not a spider. Alex tells me this in an attempt to convince me that holding it isn't such a bad idea. “So it's a scorpion?” I ask. I'd rather hold a spider. But it's not a scorpion, either. A scorpion spider is related to both spiders and scorpions, but is its own thing, which Alex assures me is not venomous. Whatever it is or isn't, there's no question it's the size of my palm. I'm not sold.
My attention returns to the main attraction. We're in the front cavern of a cave in the limestone-rich Cayo District in west-central Belize. The undulating walls, ceiling and floor are cartoonish and otherworldly - “The Snorks” on Mars - and glisten with mineral-rich water. It's impossible to see the entirety of the chamber we're in at once; sight is limited to the areas that our headlamps illuminate. As amazing as the features illuminated by our lights is the utter darkness surrounding us when we switch them off.
Belize has thousands of caves, and the country's antiquities laws ensure that most of them are under governmental control. The laws give the government jurisdiction over all archaeological sites, underground or above.
No private individual can own an archaeological site - which most of Belize's caves are, because the Mayans used them extensively. But when you have a small cave - which the one home to that scorpion spider is by Belizean standards - in the middle of more than 50 000 privately owned acres, access is an issue.
There are many caves at Caves Branch Adventure Company and Jungle Lodge, the resort I've signed up with for this caving excursion and owner of the 58 000 acres in which this cave sits. Caves Branch, named for a river that flows through the property, has cabanas, bungalows, treehouses and a botanic garden. Wildlife roams free though all of it. Caves Branch offers activities including cave tubing, rappelling, birdwatching and an overnight jungle adventure.
By the time we hit this unnamed cave, guides Alex and Rosa Montero, both in their 20s, have already taught me about several edible plants. They have built a passable dining table from bamboo. They have helped me hang my sleeping hammock. They have cooked dinner - they brought food, allaying my fears that we'd have to forage for it - and made hot tea from the bark of a tree. And they have taken me into another cave, one that requires swimming.
The Caves Branch River “disappeared” near our campsite and, after Alex and Rosa build the dining table, we walk down to investigate the disappearance. It turns out to be superficial; the river flowed into a kilometre-long underground cavern. We swim into it wearing our headlamps and, in most places, the water is too deep to touch bottom. I go in far enough that there was no hint of daylight. How do places like this exist outside of Avatar's Pandora or Star Wars' Endor?
I reluctantly sign up for the overnight jungle adventure. Individually, humidity, bugs and mud can put me in a bad mood. I don't know how I would do with all three simultaneously. Thirty minutes into it, I decide it is one of the coolest things I've ever done. I can't shake the feeling that we are explorers in a landscape no human had ever trod. We hack our way with machetes - at least, Alex and Rosa do - through dense jungle, slog through ankle-deep mud and wade across creeks and streams. The humidity is profound, I am covered in mud, and it is glorious. It reminds me of my very best days from childhood.
By the time we hit the scorpion spider cave, we are on our way back to the lodge - the overnight jungle adventure is almost over. Alex and Rosa say they don't usually bring jungle adventurers to this cave, but since I have taken so well to dirt and mud, they offer it to me as extra credit.
They had whacked their way to this cave's entrance before, squeezed through the slot that opens into the front chamber and descended into the second cavern, where Alex found the spider. But neither has ever been past the second cavern. To do this, you must negotiate a 10-inch tall, shoulder-wide tunnel. “I'm not sure it goes anywhere or how long it is,” Alex says about the tunnel as I direct my headlamp at it.
I'm afraid of spiders, but not of confined spaces, and ask if we can check it out.
On my hands and knees in front of the tunnel, I'm still too tall. I lie down on my stomach and am able to put my head, arms and shoulders into the hole. The only way I fit is with my arms stretched out in front of me, not that there's any room to move them. I briefly enjoy my Superman pose and then start thinking through how I might move along the tunnel on my stomach without the help of my arms or legs. I flex my feet and dig the toes of my shoes into the soft dirt. Then I point my toes and push. Flex, point and push. Flex, point and push. I'm no longer Superman, but a centipede. Except I've only got two feet instead of the 35 an average centipede has.
I am impressed both with my problem-solving and the general awesomeness of our world. This is not an amusement-park ride or an exhibit in a museum. The creator and curator of this adventure is Mother Nature. If my smile gets any bigger, it'll get me stuck in this tunnel.
After I'm safely through and standing back on my feet, Alex follows. Moving my light around the new room, I spot a pile of something on the floor and walk over to examine it. Pottery shards. “The Maya must have used this cave for something,” Alex says. I ask him how old he thinks these artifacts are: “The Maya were in serious decline in the 10th century,” he says.
Forget Superman. I am Indiana Jones.
Alex is sure this cave has been explored and we're not the first to find these relics. Ian Anderson, who developed and owns Caves Branch, previously offered week-long “Bad Ass Expeditions” around the property to explore and discover new Mayan sites. Still, stumbling upon a millennium-old artifact of a long-gone civilisation in situ is thrilling. No glass protects the shards, which look like they came from a medium-sized urn. I can bend down and pick up a piece. But I don't.
Into the depths
Seeing and not touching the Mayan urn is good practice for the next part of my Belize adventure: scuba diving. The second-longest barrier reef in the world sits off the coast of Belize. It is home to 500 species of fish and 65 types of coral. For both my sake and the health of the reef, I don't want to touch its flora or fauna, especially the coral, which is sharp and easily broken by a kick from an errant swim fin.
The Belize Barrier Reef runs the length of the country and down into northern Honduras. It's 186 miles long and reportedly visible from space. (Only Australia's Great Barrier Reef is longer.) In 1996, the Belize Barrier Reef was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The farther north on Belize's coast you go, the closer the reef is to land. At San Pedro, the largest town on Ambergris Caye, it's a quarter-mile offshore. Further south, at Placencia, it's about 20 miles offshore. I like the convenience of diving from San Pedro.
Planning this trip, I wanted the clash of rain forest and reef because there aren't many places in the world (outside of hard-to-reach South Pacific islands) where the two are in such easy proximity. The flight from San Ignacio - I recover from the overnight jungle adventure with a couple of nights of jungle luxe at Ka'ana Resort - to San Pedro is about 80 minutes in a Tropic Air prop plane. Ramon's Village Divers is directly opposite the San Pedro Airport and does three dive trips a day. Forty dive sites are within a 15-minute boat ride from its dock.
During my three days in San Pedro, I divide my time between diving and napping in the hammocks that Ramon's has strung up under palm trees on the beach. Each day, I walk to Belize Chocolate Company and get the gooiest brownie I've ever eaten. The big surprise in San Pedro is how much I think about the jungle. I planned this trip as a diving vacation with a side of jungle adventure. And the diving is good, but I've been diving before. Never before had I belly-crawled through a tunnel and found a shattered urn centuries older than the Magna Carta.
Maybe I'm mooning over the jungle because it's October and not April or May. If I was on Belize's coast in the spring, I could have seen whale sharks, which migrate at that time. I've always wanted to see a whale shark. They're the largest fish in the world; they can be close to 40 feet long. But October is when I have the time to travel. Whale sharks might not be around, but it turns out there are plenty of other fish, such as reef sharks, one of which I see on Day 2 at the Tackle Box dive site. My group of five divers and our divemaster hang suspended about 40 feet below the water's surface watching as the shark, about five feet long, lazily fins around us.
On land, I'm a sucker for big wildlife. But while diving, I prefer the micro for its predictability (unless the macro is a whale shark). Coral and colourful, small fish are almost always around, but mantas, hammerhead sharks and turtles are in shorter supply. The Belize Barrier Reef has coral of all shapes and sizes. Some look like brains, others like fans, still others like organ pipes. After several minutes of watching the reef shark doing lots of nothing - they are more active at night - I turn to the coral.
Giant fans sway back and forth in a deep current that I cannot feel. A brain coral is the size of an SUV. Parrotfish, rock beauties, yellowtail snappers, blue tangs and horse-eye jacks are everywhere. A school of the latter dances around us for several minutes. The divemaster points out a camouflaged fish in the sand at the bottom of a mound of coral. It might be the ugliest fish I've ever seen. Since I do not know its name I give it one: warty barnaclefish.
You can't talk underwater, but the divemaster makes it clear with hand gestures that I should not try to touch this creature. Or even get close to it. This is fine by me.
Back on the boat, I'm curious as to what my warty barnaclefish really is. “It's a spotted scorpionfish. It has spines that are very venomous,” he says. “But it's not really a scorpion, or even related to one.” Maybe Belize's reef isn't as different from its rain forest as it would seem.
If you go...
Where to stay
Ramon's Village Resort
Coconut Dr., San Pedro
This full-service resort with thatched-roofed, air-conditioned cottages is directly across from San Pedro's small airport. But being on the beach, you hear waves more often than planes, especially if you're relaxing in one of the several hammocks strung between palm trees. Rooms from $150 (about R2 000).
Mile 411/2 Hummingbird Hwy., Belmopan
An adventure-based jungle lodge - caving, tubing, hiking, rappelling - on a 90-square-mile estate located 12 miles outside of the country's capital. Three-night minimum. Rooms from $169.20.
Mile 69¼ Benque Viego Rd., San Ignacio
If stellar Mayan ruins weren't an easy drive away, it'd be tempting to enjoy the amenities - including swinging benches hanging from trees, an infinity pool, morning yoga classes and an organic garden - and cozy cabanas at this “Small Luxury Hotel of the World” all day. Rooms from $299.
Where to eat
Pescador Dr., San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye
Go for the coconut shrimp at this restaurant with a sand-floored dining room. Entrees from $15.
Belize Chocolate Company
Barrier Reef Dr., San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye
Treats made from organic ingredients starting at $3.
La Ceiba at Ka'ana Resort
Mile 69 ¼ Benque Viego Rd., San Ignacio
This Mayan-influenced menu, using ingredients from Ka'ana's own organic garden, tastes best at a candle-lit table on the patio. Dinner entrees from $20.
What to do
Ramon's Village Divers
Coconut Dr., San Pedro
The world's second-largest barrier reef is a quarter-mile offshore from this dive shop; more than 30 named dive sites are within a 15-minute boat ride. The company offers daily trips at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.Rates from $50 for a single-tank dive.
Caves Branch Overnight Jungle Expedition
Mile 411/2 Hummingbird Hwy., Belmopan
Spend two full days and one night out in the rain forest with a guide, learning about medicinal plants, how to use a machete and exploring little-known caves. Rates from $225 a person.
Barton Creek Cave
Upper Barton Creek, Cayo District, San Ignacio
Tour this cave full of Mayan artifacts in a canoe while armed with a spotlight.
From $135, including pickup from a Cayo District hotel.
Chiquibil Forest Reserve
The largest Mayan site in Belize covers about 65 square miles, but only a handful of the 35,000 known buildings have been excavated. Climb about 140 feet to the top of the site's main pyramid, Caana, or “Sky Palace,” for 360-degree views out over the jungle. As a bonus, you can say you've been to the top of Belize's tallest building. Guided tours from $175, includes transportation and guide for one to four people.
Mayan cooking class at Ka'ana Resort
Mile 69¼ Benque Viego Rd., San Ignacio
Cook items such as caldo, corn tortillas and tamales on a fogon, a traditional Mayan stove. Classes from $50.