GAP International Expedition – Belize

by Andrea Wackerle


Annie Egelkraut

International Expedition

8 am came around quicker than imagined. Trailer packed, van loaded and, in the blink of an eye, we were off to Denver. Our morning drive started with icy windows and sleepy eyes. We made it down to Rawlins where we jumped out of the van and prepared our lunches. This moment was when the entire team realized just how much gratitude we had towards the idea of spending the next two weeks in the sweet, sweet warmth of the greatly missed sunshine. Our fingers felt frozen like little icicles and we struggled to enjoy our sandwiches. Needless to say, we did it! We packed up the leftovers from lunch, hopped back into the van, and filled the remainder of our drive goofing around and sharing stories with one another. We were in Denver and unloading the van in, what felt to be, a snap of our fingers! Better yet? We were treated to pizza before grouping up and touching base on the expectations for morning and, lastly, crawling into our beds.

Sunday was an early morning! The team met in the hotel lobby at 2:30 am in order to be prepared for our shuttle to the Denver airport. Our ride was quick; we grabbed our bags and headed to check in. We had an enjoyably smooth transition through security and enjoyed our first flight to Houston. Houston was another smooth transition, even with such a short connection time. We boarded our next flight and the team spent the next two hours watching films, catching up on sleep, and reflecting through journal writing. We landed down safely, made it through customs, and were on our way to the Trek Stop! En route, we stopped at Hodes Place for a nice lunch in order to celebrate Nicks birthday! We made it to the Trek Stop just after dark and nestled into our new homes.

After resting up through the night we woke up to meet our guide, Miguel. We were soon off to Xunantunich (in the case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced shew-naan-too-nitch). We had a short drive up the road from the Trek Stop before a really cool river crossing which was run by manpower – something we were all so amazed by! We spent several hours exploring the Ruins and learning their history. We cooled off later that evening with some swimming at Big Rock Falls, jumping off rocks into the refreshing water, and swimming under the falls. Later that evening Miguel helped us pick out a delicious dinner from Benny’s – empanadas and salbutes!

We woke up on Tuesday ready for another adventure! After enjoying our breakfast, we were greeted by Miguel and an additional guide, Louis, and were soon heading to spend our day cave tubing! We had a hike through the rainforest and ended at the entrance of the cave, where the majority of the team began the caving experience by jumping off the little riverside cliff into the water. We floated past bats, stopped for a rock skipping competition, saw plenty of little fish, continued floating, and got out of the river for a very small walk in the cave for more cliff jumping! We floated our hearts out, raced one another through the tunnel, and had the best time! Though we could have spent the entire day floating through the cave, it eventually had to come to an end. We had one of the most entertaining rides back to the Trek Stop – dancing in the van with Louis, singing karaoke, laughing endlessly, and eventually picking up fresh flour tortillas for dinner. YUM!

Wednesday was, of course, another adventure filled day. We’re off to the ATM Caves first thing in the morning. We enjoyed our short hike, crossing rivers and walking through the subtropical rainforest. We waded into the cave and spent the next several hours in and out of the water, making our way to the back of the cave, walking the same paths the Mayans once did. We eventually climbed a ladder and entered a part of the cave that nearly immediately felt sacred. There were hundreds of clay pots – some fully intact with only a few cracks and drilled holes, others completely shattered and calcified. Not only was there, seemingly, untouched pottery but complete skeletons! There are seven skeletons that have been found in the cave, four of which we were able to observe first hand! Being face to face with these skeletons and amongst the previous offerings of the Mayans to the Rain gods in such a beautiful cave really felt unreal. We were in complete awe! We spent the remainder of the day contemplating what we had just experienced and, while some of the team headed back to the Trek Stop to rest up and get in some journaling, others of the team wandered around the market, came across some Maya Chocolate, and enjoyed freshly made pastries!

Thursday came quickly, as our day began quite early. This was the day we would be stepping out of Belize and crossing the border into Guatemala. The atmosphere was seemingly filled with gloom while the hazy fog left us with the expectation for a miserably hot day ahead of us. We made it, smoothly, into Guatemala and headed to the town of El Remate where we dropped off our items at the Sun Breeze Remado – what a beautiful hotel! It wasn’t long before we were hopping back into the van and on our way to the city of Flores. Flores was beautifully painted in bright colors and filled our ears with the sounds of honking horns and street chatter. We took a boat across Lake Peten Itza for a hike about a quarter mile in length which lead us to a wooden tower that provided us with a 360-degree view of Guatemala. This allowed us to become more aware of the landscape, highlighting to us that the city of Flores is, in fact, an island and that the Maya Mountains stretch as far as our eyes could see. Upon hiking back down to the boat, we had another short ride to where we would spend the next several hours jumping off rope swings into the lake and swimming in the warm water. The team faced their fears and swung from the high ropes, while others jumped and flipped off the diving board 20 feet above the open waters, challenged each other to games of chess, and satisfied their thirst with chilled sodas served in glass bottles. In order to replenish the energy which had been burned off during our days worth of adventures, several of us caught a breathtaking sunset, back in El Remate, before walking up the street for a dinner on a back porch overlooking the lake.

We woke, on Friday, to the sound of the birds in the trees and the nearby traffic moving through the streets. We had the opportunity to sleep in slightly later than the previous morning before beginning our day by crossing the street, to El Arbon, in order to indulge in steamy cups of cappuccino paired with warm homemade peanut butter cookies, baked with ground Ramon Seed. We continued to satisfy our yearning for coffee with fresh, hot cups of the local coffee before being presented with steaming breakfast plates full of beautiful colors and tasty looking foods. Some Stargazers enjoyed pancakes with freshly cut fruits while others delighted in toast and veggie omelets topped with freshly made salsa. To fill the desire for more caffeine – the Energia Betido was a wonderful compliment. Fresca banana, cocoa, y Romon Seed. The atmosphere of this place was every bit as welcoming as it was relaxing; the ferns and ivy-draped the surrounding walls, as did the creations of local artists. The mystical sounds of the music playing overhead added to the overall feeling of complete zen. Soon we would be off to Tikal. We packed our luggage into the vehicle, hopped in and began cruising down the road, passing through the landscape painted with palm trees, corn, farmers, and cattle. Soon after passing the entrance of Tikal, Edgar, one of our Guatemalan guides, pulled to the side of the road and pointed out to us several monkeys lounging in the treetops. We watched, momentarily, as a few of them crawled around and hopped branch to branch. The sounds of Spanish music rang through the speakers, into our ears, much like the breeze danced through our hair; it felt much like a dream filled with the yearning for love as the artist sang in an aching tone about Venezuela, while we drove through the jungle, catching simple glimpses of the sunshine beaming through the branches.

Parque Nacional Tikal, the City of Calcium: given the name “Tikal” for its calcium-rich walls of limestone, located in the northern jungle of Guatemala. In order to be defined as a jungle, the area must contain more than 15 species of trees and plants. Tikal is home to 105 different species of trees and over 100 species of plants! The rich and varying vegetation growth is stimulated by 100 inches of annual rainfall combined with an endless amount of sunshine. We hiked under Spider Monkeys, the second largest monkey in the Americas, as they swung through the trees using all of their limbs and their tail! The first largest monkey in the Americas is the Howler Monkey, which we didn’t have the opportunity to see but certainly heard on a handful of occasions. The Spider Monkeys are much more active than the Howlers; Spider Monkeys move very quickly and are active at most times whereas, the Howlers will typically stay up in one single free for the entirety of the day! The Spider Monkeys were considered sacred, to the Mayans, and were related to the underworld. The number 9 represented the underworld and with the monkey having no thumbs and only 4 fingers plus the arm was considered to be equal to 9. We gained an array of this kind of information during our hike through Tikal, gained appreciation for the history and belief systems of the Mayans, and enjoyed the nature surrounding us. We even saw three toucans and some really cool lizards!

We ended our full day with a home cooked meal by the family who runs the beautiful Trek Stop. And, to top things off, the team competed against one another, in a heated fashion, with a habanero pepper eating contest. Whew! That was a spicy one! Ask your Stargazers about that one for some really silly stories! We tucked ourselves into bed, later that night, after saying our farewells to the members of the Trek Stop who made our stay so welcoming and warm. We packed up our things and, on Saturday morning, started our journey south. We stopped for a hike into another cave and, later, cooled off with a swim in the Blue Hole encore checking in at the Education Center. That night we had the privilege to experience a night tour through the Belize Zoo! We saw so many big cats (some of which could do tricks like somersaults and rolling over), got to feed pet and Tapir, and even hold a big ‘ole snake!

After several days filled with endless adventure, Sunday was a day everyone was looking forward to! We made it to the coastline and enjoyed a refreshing soda before piling into the boat that would take us to the island of Tobacco Caye. It felt almost too good to have the salty water splash our faces as the shining sun warmed our whole bodies. We made it – it was like something of a dreamy paradise. We spent this day, and the next several, relaxing on the hammocks which hung over the warmer, read good books on the piers, snorkeled our hearts out, and even went hand-line fishing! The snorkeling was so neat, as it was many of the Stargazers first time! We saw so many incredible fish, sharks, coral, urchins, and some of us even witnessed a stingray eating a barracuda! Talk about cool! A handful of the Stargazers really took a liking to the idea of helping out on the island. A few members of our team were helpful hands in the kitchen – scaling fish, gathering coconuts, preparing meals, serving, and even cleaning up. I’d say we all felt truly at home during our stay on the island and were quite heartbroken to be leaving on Wednesday morning! It was time to get going, though.

We enjoyed the beautiful drive from Dangriga back to Belize City, enjoyed a riverside lunch, and before we knew it we were boarding our flight back to Houston! Most of the team napped through the flight and were well rested to make a quick transition through customs. Customs in the States takes quite a bit longer than it did for us in Belize!! But we made it! And we were quickly boarding our next flight. We landed in Denver and filled our bellies with tasty airport food. It didn’t take long for us to realize that it was snowing! Boy, I don’t think any of us were ready for that!

We started our drive back to Wyoming on Thursday morning, stopping in Fort Collins, Colorado for a grocery buy. The day went smoothly and the weather placed nicely for us. While we were sad to no longer be on Belize time, basking in the sunshine, we were very satisfied with our own beds that night! We’ve got a busy few weeks ahead of us, transition planning, finishing up CWC classes, and planning the final expedition. We’ll fill you in on all of our hard work, soon!

Happy trails!