With each turn of the wheel, my anticipation grew. Standing on a rickety, hand-cranked ferry, which was nothing more than a rotting plank of wood with a makeshift roof powered by a rudimentary wheel and cable system, I contemplated what lay ahead. This trip to Belize was my first to Central America. As we inched closer and closer across the Mopan River to the ancient city, whose name I still have trouble pronouncing, I tried to imagine what it would look like. As we disembarked, a steep, one-mile hike was next.
Finally we reached Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-NAHN-too-nich), an ancient Mayan city perched on a grassy hill overlooking the surrounding jungle. My family and I saw ruins of six plazas encompassing 25 temples and palaces. The main attraction is El Castillo (The Castle), which, at 40-meters, is the tallest building in the city. After climbing to the top, I saw the buildings below were perfectly aligned. It was incredible to walk around a city that was built between 200AD and 900AD. I had read about Mayan civilizations in middle school but the pictures and descriptions were nothing compared to seeing it in person. Visiting the ruins was the highlight of my four-day cruise to Belize.
Our trip began in Fort Lauderdale as we boarded the MV Explorer, a ship owned by Semester at Sea, a study abroad program. In 2003, my sister traveled on Semester at Sea and circumnavigated the globe. This trip marked her five year reunion. Our first night, second day and fourth day were spent at sea. Like most cruises, there were many amenities like buffet meals, a gym, a pool and entertainment. But unlike other cruises, there was an educational component too. There was a lecture on Belize including its history and culture, a drumming lesson, yoga and meditation classes along with screenings of documentaries made by former students.
On the third day, we arrived in Belize. Since the port is too shallow, we dropped anchor several miles offshore and transferred to a tethered boat, a small motor boat, which took us to shore. I would say the most disappointing aspect of the trip was that we were in Belize only one day, so we could only tour Belize City and the ancient Mayan ruins. Other shipmates chose to visit the Belize Zoo or go on a ripcord and tubing adventure through the jungle. We arrived on a Saturday which is not ideal as it is a day of rest for Belizeans. Many of the shops in the port and surrounding area were closed. What we did see were impromptu weekend markets and barbecues throughout the city. We also walked across the world’s only manually operated swing bridge.
Another highlight was the food, which is inexpensive and delicious. A traditional lunch was included in our tour. We feasted on grilled chicken, rice and beans and plantains. Of course, no meal in Belize is complete without Marie Sharp’s hot sauce, the national condiment and souvenir. I was too chicken to try it. As I meandered through Belize City’s narrow streets flanked with dilapidated, pastel colored buildings, – there are no skyscrapers or fancy malls there, – scents of grilled meat blew by and Belizeans cheerfully greeted me with “Hello, friend!” The walk made me realized how lucky I was to travel there. Now I can hardly wait to embark on my next adventure.
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