“I got the new Xbox360 and the Wii,” someone exclaims, and someone responds immediately, listing their gifts and the reasons they are better. It’s the first day of school after December break. The most gossipy day of the year, filled with discussions of gifts received during the holidays. My mouth is sealed; I don’t talk about my present until a month later, just before the February break. In my family, for Christmas, we don’t give gifts, we travel.
Belize is a country in Central America; I had never heard of it until I found a plane ticket underneath my Christmas tree. The plane ride from New York City is not that long, less than five hours. My mom, sister and I stayed at Caves Branch, a jungle lodge. Do not be fooled by the name, the place is hardly a lodge. You have to sign a death waiver to stay there. There is no Wifi, no air conditioning, no electricity, and no walls to the room. Instead there are oil lamps, mosquito netting under a thick straw roof, and a jungle breeze. You fall asleep to the sounds of the exotic animals that live inches outside the netting: jaguars, tapirs, howler monkeys, frogs, and various birds. With light limited to daytime, you sleep at sundown and wake at sunrise – a completely different experience than the city life I’ve gotten used to. You squeeze your own juice in the morning from the selection of fruit in the area, enjoy an already-made breakfast, and then you’re ready for your daily adventure.
Caves Branch has a selection of day adventures to participate in. You can choose to zip-line through the canopy of trees above the rainforest, go horseback riding, water tube through the underground river system, go spelunking down caves and underground waterways, take a trip to the nearby Barrier Reef, second largest after Australia’s, to snorkel or dive, or take a run down bus to the Guatemalan border to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal. Each of these trips lasts a full day, includes a decent amount of physical activity, and is accompanied by at least two experienced guides.
During my stay at Caves Branch, my favorite of the five expeditions I participated in were spelunking in the caves and exploring the Mayan ruins of Tikal. I spent seven hours hiking underground in the pitch dark with only a head light following an underground stream. I swam fully clothed through rivers, climbed four waterfalls over ten feet high, and crawled on my stomach to continue on the route. In Tikal, I learned about the ancient Mayan culture, climbed to the top of the highest temples, and stood on ground where previous kings and priests had lived.
I met various people from around the world at Caves Branch with whom I shared experiences I’ll carry with me forever. Mike, a twenty-year old Canadian with whom I played chess and repelled down a 300 foot cavern. I met a Nebraskan couple on their honeymoon, with whom I explored the marine life of the Barrier Reef. The guides who live and work at the Lodge are very friendly and open about all discussions. Through them I discovered the poverty the majority of the population lives in, but also how Belize is filled with culture and a liveliness that few American homes can match. It was a whole new world, with a different set of values, and provided a fresh outlook on life. The Xbox360 and Wii both pale in comparison.
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