We decided to just jump off and take the boys out of the country for spring break. We were in desperate need of a family vacation after a long deployment and cold winter. Mark and I decided on Belize because I crave a little history/culture in every vacation (i.e. Mayan ruins), but we also wanted the warmth and beauty of the Caribbean. We'd been to Belize before for a mini-honeymoon and stayed in the touristy resort area of Ambergris Caye, so we thought we knew what to expect. This time, though we were venturing deep into the heart of the jungle, almost into Guatemala, near a town called San Ignacio. When our driver, Jose, met us at Belize International in n old truck and proceeded to wrap our luggage in a tarp while I hunted for seatbelts long-forgotten, I knew we were in for very different experience! It was 1 p.m. Belize time (Central), 3 p.m. our time after a 3 a.m. wake-up. We headed out on the main highway toward the west, sometimes bumping on dirt stretches, the full wind and humidity in our faces with occasional rain drops. We passed colorful pink, green and blue concrete homes built up on stilts, laundry in the breeze, tropical trees bearing papaya, banana, coconut, almonds, breadfruit. Also red dirt, garbage, sad stray dogs, and barefoot children. Our first stop - Belize Zoo.
Like the ex-Salvadoran soldier he is, (he fought in the civil war in El Salvador for most of his life before moving to Belize) Jose marched us through the Belize Zoo in 30 minutes flat. It was a small zoo full of rescued (and some quite tame) Belizean animals, sitting up close where we could get a great view. Spider monkeys, howler monkeys, deer, toucans, macaws, jaguar, black panther, tapir, agouti, stork, crocodile, and puma were just some of the indigenous species we saw.
But we were hot and tired and hungry and Jose took pity on us and hustled us back to the truck, which we'd left unlocked with everything of value inside. Already, we pretty much trusted Jose with our lives. After another 45 minutes of driving past the capital of Belmopan, we pushed through the twin villages of Santa Elena and San Ignacio and came to rest in the quiet working cattle ranch/ eco-resort on the Mopan (Mo-Pahn) River, Clarissa Falls.
Clarissa Falls resort is a magical place unlike anywhere I've stayed before, run by the amazing Azucena (Chen-ah) Galvez. It sits smack in the middle of a valley of cleared jungle where her brothers carry on the work of four previous generations - cattle ranching.
Like many Belizeans, Chena speaks English, Spanish and Creole fluently. She is equally at home working on her computer on FB, and hacking trails through the jungle all day with her machete. She is a phenomenal cook of anything from pizza (which Reis had every night) to traditional Belizean dishes like chicken with rice and beans. Her warm welcome and calm sweet manner put us at ease immediately. She showed us to our hut, fed us dinner in the open air restaurant, and tucked us into bed.
Because of the time difference (2 hours earlier) the boys and I were up at dawn, which was 6 a.m. We spent our mornings walking the roads around Clarissa Falls, with our two faithful sentinels, Biscuit (black) and Sacky (brown) as our guides.
We returned "home" with a good appetite - ready to hang out in the restaurant and order rice, beans, fryjacks (puffy doughnuts) and eggs, or (for the kids) delicious pancakes. Clarissa Falls, we found, was known throughout Belize. While we were there, many different groups came to eat at the restaurant, including Amish, Mennonites, local villagers, Mormon missionaries, and tourists. She often has school groups stay for several weeks. The team of archaeologists from University of Alabama uncovering the local Mayan ruin, Actuncan, also stay with Chena every year. For those staying at Clarissa, drinks, Belikin beer and Mennonite ice cream (made by the local Mennonites) operate on the honor system. We just grabbed them as needed and put it on our tab.
I'll leave you with this view over Clarissa Falls - stay tuned for our trip to the Mayan ruins and some fun on the river!