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A bedtime story, deep in the jungle in Belize

It was the 6:30 p.m. darkness that got to me.

Every night, in Belize, in February, it gets dark at 6:30. Oh, if you’re at a Belize resort or hotel, the lights come on at 6:30 and you can continue your vacation fun. But if you’re in the jungle, without electricity, the darkness is so all-encompassing that it almost has a scent to it, of green plants, and decaying compost, wet grass, and exotic flowers that don’t grow in the United States. Maybe the scent emerges so strongly because one of your other senses has been temporarily eliminated in the dark. I don’t know why I expected to have electricity at the Yaxche Jungle Camp and why I didn’t know that, at 6:30 in the jungle camp, having finished dinner by the light of the one light bulb in the main gathering room of the camp, there was just one thing to do: go to sleep until morning. Or at least go to bed and wait for sleep. Years ago, as a camper, the same thing happened: darkness. But we were prepared with our trusty flashlights, and we lit campfires and sat around and told ghost stories and then, tired enough, we headed to our tents and sleep.

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We weren’t ready for this in Belize and it’s probably because I hadn’t even thought about electricity where we were headed. I know what camping is; I should have thought we were going camping and called it that. Our gracious hosts, Oneida and Francis Cucul, gave us headlamps after dinner so that we could make our way on the stone path to our cabin in the jungle, and they lit gas torches along the path leading to it, but the lamps were not really strong enough for reading, and here in Belize the darkness holds new fears for visitors, of jaguars, venomous snakes, and tarantulas, the latter which we met as he crawled into his home in the foundation of the dining center. So we just lay there listening for creatures of the jungle and imagining every one of them just outside our cabin (especially the fer-de-lance, the most vicious and lethal venomous snake of Belize) until we got tired, and when the sun came up, and the many birds began to sing at around 5:30 a.m. each day, our activity began.

OK, because we were in a cabin, with a bed, and sheets, and a minimalist bathroom with a sink and running water (cold), I guess you can call it glamping. We certainly didn’t need air conditioning; the weather was perfect, night and day. We didn’t expect TV or turndown service. There were no noisy neighbors and there was no traffic outside, and our hosts were a sweet family of three: one full-fledged Mayan, one former Guatemalan, and one little blended mixture of the two. And as we settled into the ritual of the jungle, the nicest sounds were the morning birdcalls. One of the earliest I began to hear around 5 :30 each morning was “al-co-hol!” “al-co-hol!” The birds of Belize are spectacular, and Francis, who is Mayan, knows them all. He has an app on his cellphone that replicates every call of the birds near the camp, and when he plays it, he gets lovelorn responses from birds who think they have finally found their soul mate.

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Francis is a professional Mayan guide in addition to a camp owner, and each day, in that capacity, he took us on a different excursion. One day we visited the Belize Zoo, with jaguars, crocodiles, Yucatan spider monkeys, and 42 other native species, all of whom were left, helpless, from the filming of a nature documentary, and which could not survive if they were released back to the wild. They all have either been injured, orphaned, born here, transferred from other wildlife facilities, or were confiscated. (It is illegal in Belize to keep wildlife as pets.) Here, among the many creatures, we got to see up close the notorious fer-de-lance snake, which is very pretty, but if it bites you, Francis told us, you have one hour — “the golden hour” — to get to a hospital to be treated. (Yaxche Jungle Camp is one hour and 15 minutes away from the nearest hospital.) On another day we swam in the Blue Hole, not the famous diving spot of the same name miles out to sea, but a very pretty place to jump in for a cool swim deep in the middle of the jungle.

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Francis was prepared as a guide to take us to visit Mayan ruins, archeological expeditions, ziplining, bird watching, cave kayaking, or even rappelling down a waterfall, if we asked for those activities, but on our last day we opted for the gentler visit to a beach at the edge of the Caribbean Sea with his wife and adorable 4-year-old daughter, Amber, who speaks English, Spanish, Mayan, or Creole, depending on who is with her at the time. There are enough activities in the interior of this country, even without beginning the diving for which Belize is famous, for several weeks, but we felt we had just enough for our five days at the camp.

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Each day, Oneida cooked three meals for us, and her chicken dinners were varied and delicious. One day, we stopped at a farmers’ market before returning to the camp, and Francis picked up a couple of fresh pineapples. With them, Oneida used a blender to make them into fresh pineapple juice, and we discovered that the difference between fresh pineapple juice and the canned version — the only pineapple juice we’ve known until now — is similar to the difference between staying at a Motel 6 and enjoying a Relais & Chateau bedroom.

Yaxche Jungle Camp hosts visitors from all over the world, arriving in different ways; while we were there, a couple from Switzerland rolled up in their rented RV and slept in it, using the property to park there for the night and cooking their own dinner. Although Yaxche has three cabins and one family dorm with 10 beds, a woman from the Netherlands brought her own tent and set it up near another of the cabins. We wouldn’t have given up our porch with its hammock for those more primitive sleeping arrangements, and we felt we had a bargain regardless of the tent and the RV: The camp charges $70 per night if you stay in a cabin, and $10 per meal. The excursions can cost up to $150 per day, mostly because of the high cost of fuel in Belize, and the time involved in the guiding.

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Were I to visit the camp again, I would stay for two nights rather than five, ending the Belize stay at a beach resort with a few more amenities of home. But if you head to Belize only to dive or swim or snorkel at the shore (in a place with electricity), you have missed a rich and important part of this lovely country.

Yaxche Jungle Camp, Mile 42 Hummingbird Highway, Ringtail Village, Cayo District, Belmopan, Belize. Telephone +501-600-3118.


Julie Hatfield can be reached at julhatfield@comcast.net.