With fascinating and dramatic history, crowd-free Mayan ruins and wildlife-packed forests, the Central American nation of Belize feels like a lost world just waiting to be explored...
The sound was eerie, almost primeval. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The loud roars were coming from different sides of the lagoon, as if two groups of something fearsome were trying to outdo each other.
Paddling in the half-light of pre-dawn, it was easy to imagine that we were canoeing past Jurassic Park and a dinosaur might stick its head through the tangle of trees any minute. I turned to our guide, Abdul. "Howlers?"
"Yes," he confirmed. "Howler monkeys. The sound scares people if they don't know what it is."
We entered a tranquil channel and paused in awe as the golden orb of the sun came up over the reed-beds. As the roars of the monkeys faded, they were replaced by an explosion of birdsong and the gentle dip of the paddles.
We were floating on the New River Lagoon in northern Belize, its largest body of fresh water. But despite this Central American country's modest size (at around 23,000 sq km, it's not much larger than Wales), just getting there had been be an adventure in itself.
I'd arrived by boat the previous day, a journey that took a little over an hour, having flown into Belize City that morning, then been driven to the appropriately named Landing Stage. Soon, we had left any sign of settlement behind, as the banks became increasingly lined with twittering trees and the only figures we encountered were the occasional fisherman.
Reaching the lagoon, the boat swung into the jetty at Lamanai Outpost Lodge, its thatched cabanas dotting the hillside. I headed for its hammocks, looking out across the water. It was hard to believe that one of the major sites of the Maya civilisation was just a short walk away, a lost world that, like the much of the Belize that its handful of visitors see, was still being rediscovered.
The city of Lamanai dates back to around 1500 BC and, at its peak, was said to have a population of perhaps 60,000, similar to that of Belize's largest city today. However, there was a marked decline in the Maya civilisation by the 10th century AD, with several theories as to why: one being that there had been a severe drought. But Lamanai survived longer than many Maya centres, and its people were still here by the time the first Europeans arrived in the 16th century, possibly thanks to the city's access to water.
After breakfast, we headed there, as Abdul explained that 733 different structures had been found in Lamanai, yet only six were partially excavated. We paused by a sabre tree, easily recognisable from the thorns on its bark. The Maya believe the tree links the underworld with the upper world, but there are many superstitions about it. Even today, some people will not chop one down because they believe bad spirits can rise up from the ground.
We started at the northern end of the site, stopping at the Mask Temple, so named for the two huge masks carved into its facade. Now covered in fibreglass (for their protection), these are the largest examples of their kind found in the Maya world. Originally built around 500 BC, the structure was added to over the years across five different phases, with staircases later built in front of the masks. Listening to Abdul, who'd spoken to archaeologists involved with the site, it was clear that much of what is known of the ancient civilisation here is still theory and speculation, yet as an ignorant Maya novice, I nearly strolled past the nearby ball court, once the heart of the city.
"This was a stadium!" announced Abdul, pointing to a grass alley flanked by two mounds. Here, the Maya played a game using a heavy rubber ball; it is believed that the idea was to keep it off the ground (i.e. underworld) without using your hands, and the game was won when the ball went through a hoop. The stakes were high, as it was used to choose sacrificial victims, though there are different theories as to whether it was the winner or loser who became the sacrifice.
The whole time we wandered through the site, we spotted two-dozen other visitors at most. Lamanai can be busy in the middle of the day, as tourists are brought in by boat from the coast and the cruise ships. But, either side of that time, it's just you and the howler monkeys.
However, it is another creature that gave the site its name. 'Lamanai' roughly translates from the Mayan for 'Place of the Crocodile', with the area still known for its large number of crocs; around 400 have been tagged here in recent years. That evening, I joined a boat safari that crossed the lagoon, and as a spotlight was turned on, two eyes just above the waterline beamed back at us. The crocodile sank back under the surface and casually swam past the boat, its outline easy to make out in the clear, shallow water.
We scanned the trees and bushes, spotting a kinkajou (a tree-dwelling mammal) hanging upside down by its tail from a branch, while, in another tree, we saw two huge iguanas. We slowly chugged past herons, bitterns, kingfishers and fishing bats, all unconcerned by our presence. The entire scene was accompanied by a soundtrack of insects and the rattle-like call of the gloriously named Rio Grande leopard frog. As we stared up at the same stars the Maya would have seen 3,500 years ago, it felt like we were truly in the middle of nowhere.
The natural world took centre stage at my next destination, too. Chaa Creek Lodge initially seemed rather sophisticated, with a swimming pool, spa and manicured lawns. But the floor-to-ceiling glass of my villa also looked out over the rainforest and, by exploring its grounds, I spotted huge butterflies, a toucan and what looked like a long-legged guinea pig, otherwise known as an agouti.
The next morning, as the sun rose above the hillside opposite, the deep-throated roar of a howler monkey penetrated the dawn chorus as if performing its own unique rendition of Salute to the Sun. It was my cue to head down to the waiting point for excursions, where several guests were assembling to cross Belize's western border and visit the famous Maya site of Tikal in neighbouring Guatemala. They looked blank when I explained that I was going instead to a site in Belize called Caracol, around 150km to the south.
My guide and driver, Ricky, met me and we headed off in a 4WD on a sometimes bumpy three-hour journey along unpaved roads and the red sand tracks of the Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, before arriving at Caracol, deep in the forest. En route, Ricky had been filling me in on various theories about the history of the Maya. By the time we arrived, he had explained that their temples had been shaped like pyramids to replicate volcanoes, as the Maya believed that the gods lived within them, while cave systems were thought to be the entrance to the underworld, and so offerings were made at their mouths.
Caracol dates back to around 600 BC and grew to be a major city state, one of the largest in the Maya world in its day, bigger even than Tikal. It was incredible to think that it was only rediscovered in 1938 by a logger, and that much of it is has not been excavated. Ricky explained that, as the cities grew, large amounts of land were cleared and farmed. This deforestation, in turn, damaged the soil and caused drought. The ballcourts became bigger over time, as the need for more victims became more desperate. Eventually, even the rulers' own children would be sacrificed.
We walked to Ca'ana temple, still the largest structure in Belize, and climbed to the top, where a team of archaeologists were at work. They had dug a hole down to another layer, and it was easy to see how the structure had been added to over the centuries. At the nearby Observatory, I was desperate for another visitor to come along, so that I could get them in a photo to show the scale of the buildings. But my only companions were the swallows swooping above. It was hard to believe we were in such a significant and beautiful ancient site, but practically had it to ourselves.
It was time to meet some modern day Maya. I flew south to Punta (Port) Gorda, and then transferred out to the Lodge at Big Falls. Owner Rob, a British expat, explained that not much Spanish was spoken down here in the Toledo District. Instead, English and Mayan languages were commonly used, as well as Creole on the coast.
I was picked up the next morning by guide Bruno, a German who runs both a tourism and a wood business. We drove through Maya villages of traditional thatch buildings, before pulling up at a plot of luxuriant trees and vegetation where a bright-eyed and energetic man in his late 50s greeted us.
When Eladio Pop started the farm, he used the usual slash-and- burn methods, but then saw another way: "The forest was disappearing, but I didn't think it was the right thing. I took courage from the agouti. I wanted to bring back the forest for them and the other animals."
Eladio strode up his hillside, stopping to point out various plants, all growing organically. He demonstrated how the stem of a palm can be made into a thread that could be used for making rope, clothes or baskets. Other plants had medicinal benefits, and he was growing turmeric to sell, as there was currently so much international demand for it.
But it was the cacao plant that got Eladio particularly passionate. He had already told us that he used the shells as compost.
"And if I get hungry, I just open a cacao pod," he said, as he drove his machete into one. I wasn't sure what to expect but the flesh inside was white. It was ripe and refreshing, a little like guava but with maybe a hint of chocolate.
I had already heard that the selling price of cacao was scant reward, especially given that it is so labour-intensive to farm, taking three years from planting to harvest. But Eladio stressed that cacao was an important crop to grow, not just for income but because it helped to save the forests. It needs semi-shade, so taller trees are the perfect solution, while wildlife helps to naturally propagate the seeds, giving locals a good reason to preserve both the forests and their wild residents.
We drove to his house, where cacao beans were fermenting in wooden casks covered in leaves. They would be in there for six days, whereupon they would be spread out to dry on large sheets for ten days or more. Following Eladio down the steps to an open kitchen, we were introduced to his oldest daughter, Adalia, who would show us how to make chocolate from the dried cacao.
Adalia explained that chocolate had originally been so revered among the ancient Maya that it was just for royalty; only later did it become the tipple of choice among all Maya looking for an energy boost. Women would make it for men when they came in tired from the fields, and mothers would drink it when they were nursing. If a man wanted the hand of a girl in marriage, he would leave gifts of cacao on the family's doorstep.
Marriage talk out of the way, Adalia took us through the process of making chocolate. The cacao beans are roasted for half an hour, and then ground. She pulled out a traditional grinding stone and demonstrated how it was done: "You don't need to go to the gym if you do this every day!" she smiled. I had a go and had to agree.
Eventually, through some amazing alchemy, oily liquid oozed from the ground beans and it turned into a rich paste, some of which we added a little honey to for sweetening and then spooned into small moulds to set. I tasted some she had made earlier, and expressed surprise that they showed no sign of melting, despite the midday heat. "That's because they have no additives or sugar in them," Adalia explained.
Meanwhile, Eladio's wife had been cooking lunch, all from their own produce, including a spicy 'slaw, yam and rice. "The jungle is like a supermarket; you can get your food, your housing and your medicine from it," Eladio pointed out, just as the chocolates I had helped make were brought to the table.
This message was reinforced the next day when I visited another Maya family, who offered something called the 'Living Maya Experience'. Chris and Nina have ten children and try to live and eat as naturally as possible.
"The Maya relied on the forest 100 per cent for food, shelter and medicine," said Chris. "But too many now eat processed food. We show it is healthier not to."
We were in a traditional building with an earthen floor and palm-thatched roof. At one end of the room was a selection of musical instruments, including a marimba, a large wooden xylophone integral to Maya music even today. There was also a selection of cedar-wood Maya drums of differing sizes. Chris explained that the Maya had used drums for communication over the centuries. While this had mostly died out, he was trying to revive it.
"You should see how the communities react when we produce the drums at events," he smiled, just as a taxi arrived for me. "Where are you off to now?" he asked.
"Funnily enough, a drumming workshop!", I replied.
Like the Maya, another indigenous group of people within Belize have a strong drumming heritage. The Garifuna people descend from a group of West Africans who survived a pair of shipwrecks off the Caribbean island of St Vincent in the 17th century. Having settled there, and intermarried with the Caribs and Arawaks, they ended up being forced out by the British in the late 18th century, and many eventually settled along the southern Belize coast, where they have their own flag, language and culture.
Back in the coastal town of Punta Gorda, its somnolent streets lined with pastel-coloured wooden houses, I pulled up outside one home to be met by a smiling dreadlocked figure. Ronald 'Ray' McDonald teaches drumming, and was a patient tutor as I fumbled through the various beats he demonstrated. Garifuna music has received many international accolades in recent years, with their artists combining traditional rhythms, such as paranda, with a more contemporary sound. The drumming was hypnotic and I was transported to a very different world than the Belize I had been exploring to date.
Back at the Lodge, where fireflies twinkled on the lawn, I swapped notes with the other guests on our discoveries of the day. One couple had been on an idyllic boat trip and seen manatees. Another had spent the day exploring Maya sites, stunned at the lack of visitors at them. I thought back to the vast ruins of Lamanai and Caracol; to the wildlife of the rivers and the forests; and to all the stories and traditions I'd heard and seen.
"You're not going to tell anyone about this place, right?" they asked. Trust me, I won't tell a soul.
This article won the 2017 Caribbean Tourism Organisation Travel Feature of the Year Award.
The author travelled with Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk, 020 8600 1881). A 13-day holiday to Belize, staying at the Lamanai Outpost Lodge, Chaa Creek, The Lodge at Big Falls and Victoria House, includes flights from London, domestic flights, transfers, excursions and most meals.
For accommodation, Lamanai Outpost Lodge (lamanai.com) is next door to one of Belize's top Maya sites. A choice of two activities per day are included in packages, and all are by water or on foot. It's fantastic for bird watching and nature lovers.
An award-winning luxury 'resort' hotel, Chaa Creek (chaacreek.com) has a range of accommodation and activities, as well as its own 1.5 sq km nature reserve, which can be explored on horseback or foot.
A relaxed base for exploring the Toledo district and local culture, The Lodge at Big Falls (thelodgeatbigfalls.com) has a pool, great birding, river-tubing and kayaking. It is also close to the Maya site of Lubaantun, best known for the crystal skull that was 'found' here in the 1920s, in what is believed by many to be a hoax.
Victoria House (victoria-house.com) is a luxurious colonial-style boutique resort on Ambergris Caye with a beach, activities and fine service. It's g good spot to end a trip.
For further information and inspiration on travelling in Belize, visit Belize Tourist Board.