I don’t remember how much I love Cayo â€” Belize’s wild, wonderful west â€” until my bus pulls up to the park in San Ignacio and I step out onto the narrow streets. I am flooded with memories as I shoulder my pack, shake off the taxistas, and take a deep breath of Maya mountain air.
I walk past several mud-splattered Land Rovers, drop off my bags at my guest house â€” there are a dozen reputable mom-n-pop affairs clustered in the center of town â€” and head straight for the best greasy spoon in the country and the closest thing Belize has to a “diner.” This is Pop’s, whose owner, David Awe, I describe in my book as an “Ernest Hemingway look-a-like.”
Dave â€” a.k.a. “Pops” â€” is 100 percent Belizean and one of the most erudite restaurateurs you’ll ever meet (his brother, Jaime Awe, is the nation’s top archaeologist and director of the National Institute of Culture and History in Belize). Pops is pleased to finally meet the man who compared him to Papa (many people have showed him the write-up) and in turn, I thank him for not shaving his beard, thus keeping my book accurate. The Awe family is a wonderful cultural melange, hailing from a line of Christian Lebanese and part-Jewish Mexicans among others. This is typical of Cayo, where the peaceful diversity of the inhabitants is as enticing as the thick, natural splendor that surrounds San Ignacio â€” or the mystic Maya magic in all the nearby ruins.
To prove this point to myself, I wander up to Cahal Pech, a cluster of cleared plazas on the hill above town, and let my thoughts run wild as I imagine the ceremonies that once took place in this royal residence.
“There’s a reason the Maya settled here,” says Michael, a transplant from Chico, California to me, as we tie the canoe back to the roof of his Jeep. “This is a powerful place.”
While Mike kayaked, I paddled upstream in the canoe â€” five miles upstream! â€” with Matt and Sean. They are all in training for La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge, the second longest canoe race in the world, which starts in March from San Ignacio, as contestants paddle 170 miles to the sea. Matt is Country Director of Pro-Belize, a volunteer organization I once considered working for, and Sean, a Parisian, is the owner of Cayo’s only French bakery. I take the stern and the three of us work well together, pulling our way up the Macal River, surrounded by nothing but greenery, exotic birds, and the clean, green current of the river. They want me on their team, but alas, training would be difficult in the Colorado winter and besides, I’ll be leading a trip in Mexico that week in March.
Up to Chaa Creek, turn around, and paddle back to town â€” three solid hours of digging with only one capsize in the tippy fiberglass racing boat. Walking from the river back to my room, I am soggy, sore, and feeling very, very burly. I’m also wondering what else Cayo has in store for me this week.