My postcard to the editor--which I never actually got to mail--reads:
"Weather sucks, nearly drowned, almost caught malaria, wrestled with reptiles in our beds, and being stalked by Guatemalan banditos. Wish you were here. Oh yeah, and these Land Rovers rock."
Fine, I'll admit that when I opened the invitation, all I read was `Belize' and `drive a fleet of new Range Rovers.' I already had the bathing suit and snorkeling gear out of the closet before reading the fine print warning me this event involved off-roading through remote jungle areas.
We were told to leave the laptops at home (no wi-fi--seems it really is a jungle out there), but bring industrial-strength Deet to ward off malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Of course, they waited until we got there to warn us about the bot flies that can burrow into your skin and set up housekeeping for six weeks while their larvae mature. As for snakes, lizards, and other creepy crawlies, we were left to make our own personal discoveries in the rafters and showers of our otherwise comfortably equipped thatched roof huts.
Judging by the scream (a few octaves higher than the indigenous howler monkeys), my neighbor two huts down got that out of the way early. He was reading in bed when a snake fell from the ceiling, tumbled off his shoulder, and then demonstrated the proper way to choke down a live and kicking lizard. Around 3 a.m., I decide it's safe enough to poke an arm out from under the mosquito netting to turn off the light. I sleep with my socks on as a precautionary measure.
The first night is spent at the Five Sisters Resort, named after the quintet of waterfalls above which our huts are perched. We arrive in small planes that land in the middle of the jungle--or so it seems, because the tiny dirt landing strip in a narrow clearing between the trees is barely visible, or believable, until just before touchdown. We leave in the Land Rovers, using another almost invisible route, what was once the right of way of a logging railroad. Our destination: the ruins at Caracol, an ancient city that once housed 150,000 Mayans.
It takes about three hours to travel six miles through a green wall of hanging vines and branches covering a `trail' of more vegetation spread over a thick layer of muddy goo. The big Range Rover looks like a luxury vehicle, which it is, but thanks to its sophisticated air suspension and a handy control knob on the console that allows you to dial in one of five pre-set driving modes (which will take you through dry, paved road conditions to snow, sand, mud or extreme rock crawling), all you need to do is apply steady throttle and careful steering to get through almost anything. When it comes to the `almost' part, that's when you rely on Bob Burns and his team of driving instructors, who relish diving into the mud to hook up winch lines. Or in some cases hone their machete skills while hacking a path through the overgrowth.
Besides the Land Rover guides, we've got a platoon of Belizean soldiers in military-spec Defenders to guard the point and tail of our convoy. The tourist bureau doesn't like to admit it, but the protected plants--as well as rich gringo tourists--are lucrative targets for smugglers and banditos who cross over from nearby Guatemala. Dressed in fatigues and shouldering automatic weapons, these guys are a comfort to have around. Especially when they nervously peer over their shoulders into the bushes.
The next day, I wish I had packed the snorkeling gear. A monsoon dumps seven inches of rain overnight and more throughout the morning. Burns later admits it was like a Camel Trophy event minus the bamboo raft and bridge building exercises, although there are a few times when this seems likely.
The first chunk of the day is spent slogging about 10 miles across a flooded savannah. This includes doubling back after we discover a bridge leading to our morning destination is underwater. "Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle" becomes our battle cry as we stomp the gas and gyrate the steering wheel back and forth to maintain traction through slimy, muddy ruts and pools of water up to the axles. The rain pelts down as Burns and his crew occasionally have to wallow in mud to once again hook up winches and tow straps. It's exhilarating and a bit frightening to power through the mud, throwing up waves of water, the suspension slamming up and down as you saw the wheels this way and that to keep your momentum, at the same time dodging bushes and trees. Nothing feels worse than that gradual loss of progress as the water and mud tries to pull you down. And nothing better than when the big luxury SUV fights back and pulls itself free. I think if we'd have been driving Hummers, we would have been sunk, literally and figuratively.