Trotting Tropical Trails
As dawn broke that first morning of my Mayan Jungle Ride in Belize and the mist slowly lifted from the valley, the sun’s first rays gently warmed the cool air left by the night. The enchanting chatter of tropical birds was pierced by the screams of distant howler monkeys. The jungle air was heavily perfumed with floral scents from the hedges and bushes surrounding our cabana. A glorious day for a jungle trail ride was beginning.
The base for this ride is a small lodge built within a tropical broad leaf forest on the edge of the pristine Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. Cascading waterfalls, crystal-clear rivers, enormous caves and fantastic vistas of the rainforest are part of the riding adventure.
The center of activity was the cantina where delicious home-cooked meals were served. Every morning breakfast started with fresh Belizean coffee and plentiful locally grown fruits such as watermelon, papaya and pineapple, followed by a full American style breakfast. The delicious picnic lunches were lavishly spread out before us on tablecloths covering the jungle floor. Dinners were served at the cantina while stories of the day’s adventures were shared and embellished upon.
Our horses were tacked up and waiting for us at the stable every morning. A mix of Quarter Horse and local breeds, they are very much adapted to the tropical climate. Well trained with a gentle disposition, they are surefooted and reliable when it comes to negotiating some of the slippery jungle slopes. In addition, they are always ready to pick up a canter or gallop when the terrain allows. My mount for the ride was a mare named Equis whom I came to love and trust over the next adventurous days on the jungle trails.
The rides were generally guided by Mel, a Guatemalan gentleman raised in this area. Fluent in both English and Spanish, he readily shared his wealth of knowledge about the flora and fauna of Belize with us. Unforgettable were both his skills with the machete, which he carried around at all times to keep the trails cleared, and his sharp eyes for spotting birds and wildlife. I was amazed by the diversity and variety of ecosystems we passed through. Mel expertly pointed out various native plants and trees and explained their traditional uses. The forest canopy is home to many bird species, and thanks to Mel we were able to observe toucans, motmots, orioles and parrots. In addition, we saw wild peccarries – actually smelling before spotting them in the thick underbrush.
The ride to Big Rock Waterfall took us through dense forest to the Pine Ridge area. Sandy trails through pines and palm trees offered opportunities for canters and gallops. After experiencing the surefooted horses on the steep and sometimes slick trails along the mountain slopes, we felt confidant about picking up the pace, and our mounts eagerly obliged. During our lunch break, the horses were tied in the shade of palm trees where they waited patiently for our return. We took a steep but short trail down to Big Rock Waterfall and were rewarded by its beauty and the warm water in the natural pools. After a refreshing swim, lunch was served along the bank of the river.
The next day started with a visit to a nearby butterfly farm. Thanks to the sunshine and warm temperatures we were able to observe a wide variety of butterfly species, including the Blue Morpho. On we rode through Seven Mile Village and large Mennonite farms, following the trail to Barton Creek Cave. Once reaching the cave, we were served lunch at its mouth before launching canoes to explore the interior. In addition to the Mayan pottery present in the cave, I was very impressed by the assortment of shapes, forms and sizes of stalagmites and stalactites. Leaving the river valley through groves of mango, avocado and citrus, we were impressed with the simple farming techniques with which the Mennonites turned this area into such productive farmland.
Our destination on the third day was May cave, one of the numerous caves found in this limestone karst area. After we squeezed through the tight entrance into the cave, two chambers of limestone formations opened up before us. Fragments of Mayan pottery were scattered in the more remote areas of the dim chambers. The cool darkness of the cave made it an eerie experience despite the flashlights we carried.
During the half-day ride to a captivating Vega, a secluded river valley, we came upon inspiring vistas of that sunken area from the top of an unexcavated Mayan ruin. This excursion was wonderful preparation for our trip to the ruins of Xunantunich, the most accessible and significant ancient site in Belize. From there we had outstanding views across the Macal River valley and into Guatemala.
On our way to the airport we took time to stop at the Belize Zoo, an oasis of ponds, forests and flowers amid the savannas west of Belize City. This visit gave us a chance to see some of the nocturnal creatures we had heard about but hadn’t been able to catch a glimpse of during our daytime rides.
The Mayan Jungle Ride is not only a wonderful adventure on horseback for the rider but also offers a great variety of activities for the non-rider, including hiking, birdwatching and touring by vehicle to various points of interest.
Saying good-bye to our gracious hosts Aaron and Mel as well as the rest of the staff was not easy. They made us feel like part of their extended family and shared the tranquility and peacefulness of their home with us. The time spent in Belize was very relaxing and rejuvenating for both body and soul and I’m sure I will return to this jungle haven again some day.
Ride Review written by Biggi Hayes