Our guide abruptly sprinted ahead of us. What could be more alarming in the jungle?! His trail Crocs echoing like muddy suction cups in my head, I wondered, “should I be straining to see what he’s rushing toward or whiplashing to catch a glimpse of what’s coming at us from behind?”
We were in the green mountains of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, inside 128,000 acres of protected land and the first jaguar sanctuary in the world. My kindred travel friend and I were staying less than an hour’s drive away in Placencia, a quaint village of mixed Belizean cultures with an infusion of expats, celebrating life together on a picturesque peninsula along Belize’s southern coastline. We spent much of our time in the village perusing Placencia’s annual Sidewalk Art Festival and chatting up locals for glimpses of life behind the scenes. Yet, we craved an experience in the lush Belize countryside, and we placed blind faith in our guide to see us through it alive.
Part I: The Jungle Hike
Joseph called to us to catch up, to fixate on a small, dark hole in the moist earth. And from it, he propped a straw bridge. Out scurried the beautiful and bothered tenant. What a treat to see this stunner in the wild! According to our guide, this hairy arachnid, had most likely commandeered its home from a mouse who was a reluctant host and the main course for dinner.
Joseph was our engaging guide. In his young 20s, he impressed us with his knowledge of Belizean plant an animal life. He told us of powerful jaguars, and that we were unlikely to encounter the nocturnal cats, but to keep a watchful eye. He raced into the tree line to track the toucans in the canopy, in hopes of leading us to a glimpse. And he alerted our group to each of many industrious carpenter ant highways on the trail.
This brief tarantula encounter was one of many highlights for our patchwork group of six American tourists shuttled into the Belizean jungle. From first-hand demonstrations of the mega strength of ants, to chewing on bitter forest leaves, to tracing our hands over tree bark marred by jaguar claws, we put our trust in our guide to keep us un-venomed, un-poisoned, and intact on the jungle trail.
Part II: The Free Float
After a break for a savory Belizean lunch offered by our guide, we ditched our valuables (including cameras, so you and I must use our imaginations from here). We suited up for our hike to Stann Creek and toted our inner tubes down a grassy pathway. We plopped into the slow river current and drifted away from shore, soaking in tropical sunbeams.
Most critters were out of sight at the height of the afternoon, save for a few. Joseph motioned in the direction of the overarching canopy where plum-sized bats dangled from low tree limbs. They took flight just above the surface of the water, darting to avoid colliding with our heads. I laughed nervously, relieved that no flying puppies were entangled in my hair. I even shooed away my beloved dragonflies, a thoughtless reaction from this nature-immersive gal who knew she was a little shy of shots in a foreign jungle.
We ebbed and flowed as a group, pausing to cluster together from time to time. I savored some time to reflect on the likelihood of these moments. For reasons I can’t remember, I’d waited a long time to be here—in this country, on its shores, deep in its jungle. Finally, a last-minute decision to wait no more landed me in this easy paradise of adventure and wonder.
We floated along Stann Creek for almost an hour, without incident. Our biggest threat had been bottoming out over an occasional sandbar. Relaxed, we docked at our departure point to prepare for the final leg of our jungle adventure.
Part III: The Slippery Slope into a Trust Fall
We climbed single file up a jungle trail in our swimwear and soppy hiking shoes. Our destination was a watering hole below a 30-foot waterfall. I wasted no time and waded into the cool pool. The ground disappeared about ten feet from the shore, and my knees scraped against invisible boulders as I swam awkwardly toward the torrent. Others in the group were close behind me. We took a beautiful beating from a jungle waterfall.
The natural pool filled and spilled over the opposite end in a series of rock slides beyond view. We learned this was our way out, should everyone agree. If one of us opted out, the group would retrace our steps down the jungle path. After some nervous laughing and quips about dying in such a way, the decision was unanimous—down we’d slide!
The tiered rock slides had been naturally smoothed by eons of cascading water, yet this was no small-town water park. We listened closely to Joseph’s tutorial at the top of each slide; lean left at that curve to avoid tumbling over those rocks; keep hands and arms at our sides to avoid elbow trauma in the narrows right there. “See where I’m pointing? This is important.”
We were standing at the top of the rock slide that would ultimately empower us. It was a two-part slide, and the first chute ended abruptly at an edge we could not see beyond. Joseph slid down and caught himself from going over, somehow. He steadied himself in the shallow water at the bottom of the slide and vowed to catch us. It was the ultimate trust fall.
We watched from above as Joseph clamped his arms around the torso of the first in our group to slide, breaking her momentum, her legs left dangling over the ledge. The rest of us gasped quietly. And then we put our trust in Joseph and followed suit. One-by-one, we apprehensively launched ourselves down the slide, clumsily attempting to slow our speed as we plummeted. We gathered in the shallow pool beside Joseph, troubled by the sight beyond the ledge. There, loomed a perilous fall that might have necessitated a call to mountain rescue. Surely, no one had needed to make that call before. Surely.
Joseph guided us down the second of the two-part slide, which was twisty and bumpy and tame in comparison. At the bottom of each tier of slides was a pool of water. Some were deep enough to cannonball into and others we waded through to the next slide. And at the end of the rock slides, we took inventory of our bumps and scratches and powered the rest of the way down the jungle path with adrenaline and a little disbelief.
We left the jungle as it was, taking with us only celebratory bumps and bruises and memories. The stories we recount of Joseph’s casual heroics are all the souvenirs we need. And isn’t this the point of it all—to live and share our collective stories as we ride this exceptional little space orb together? I Belize so (sorry).
NOTE: In this article, I have omitted names and changed the name of our tour guide for the sake of others’ privacy. We met several Josephs in Belize, and I thought it fitting to work this affable name into my jungle adventure.