Kinga Philipps delves deep into the Belize jungle, exploring caves, visiting ancient Mayan ruins, and sleeping amid the treetops at Parrot Nest Lodge.
Charlie, said endearingly as if referencing an old friend, is the palm-sized wolf spider you might see occupying wall space in the cabins and bathrooms at the Parrot Nest Lodge. Let me clarify, Charlie is the common name for ALL the various wolf spiders you might see. Then again, that’s part of the package when you’re in the jungle of Belize.
And in the jungle you are. A few miles out of San Ignacio in a village called Bullet Tree Falls.
Two tree houses perched in 100-foot Guanacaste trees and seven rustic cabins set on the banks of the Mopan river for $50-$75 a night are the specs you’ll find in a guidebook. But it’s the spirit of the Parrot Nest that makes you contemplate becoming a jungle dwelling ex-pat. The humid air fits the hippy-esque vibe since it makes sense that free spirits would have wild, unruly hair. What also makes sense are the communal tables in the open-air lounge area and abundant hammocks overlooking the riverbank. Really making this spot hard to leave are the fireflies, a pet guinea pig, the family dogs and cats who you will know by name…Nina, Kimba, Pally and Ninjo… and the sound of rain on the roof of your cabin. It will rain. You’re in a jungle.
Bring a flashlight. The paths are dark and jungly at night and either your imagination or a stubbed toe will get the best of you. I’d love to instill a fear of jaguars, but they prefer the deeper jungle…a few miles away. Here it’s mostly coati, agouti and various birds.
Parched? Grab a soda out of the community fridge and write it down on the honor system. It’s the same sheet of paper where you can sign up for dinner and breakfast. Both are good options. The home cooking is tasty and mealtime is when you swap travel stories.
Daytime lounging will at some point lead to a dip in the river. Grab inner tubes, ask directions and go float. Chances are the dogs will come along and swim the entire way back like professional river guides.
When lounging turns into hard work, the adventure options abound. Caracol and Tikal are the local Mayan ruins reminding you that you are a mere blip on the timeline of civilization. Horseback riding, river tubing and of course caves round off the smorgasbord, but one of these grottos will nestle deep into your memory: Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM for short.
Walking into a cave can be intimidating enough. Here you swim in while tiny fish nibble your skin and your guide explains Mayan sacrificial rituals where the intended victims saw daylight for the last time in that exact spot.
If you’re game for the 45-minute jungle hike complete with three river crossings and the doggy paddle entry, then get ready to take your pick of what impresses you most. It could be the history of the Mayan people and their desperation for an end to drought that led them into the depths of the cave with offerings and sacrifices over a thousand years ago; maybe the near physical presence of pottery, carvings, stonework and calcified human remains; or possibly it’s the spectacular natural formations that define the interior of the cave.
Probably all of the above combined with the fact that you’ve been swimming, walking and climbing in a cave that would require a ten-page liability waiver stateside, while coming close enough to priceless archeological jackpots to make a museum curator weak in the knees. But that’s the magic here. This isn’t some Pirates of the Caribbean Disney tour. This is the real deal. This is you as Indiana Jones exploring something remarkable. No cameras are allowed in the cave, so staying present is a bonus side effect. That’s not a difficult task when you are standing next to a shimmering calcite crystal coated skeleton of a child, hunched in final position, left in the dark in exchange for rain. Take in the gravity of that when your group turns off their headlamps to experience the engulfing blackness.
On the way out, if you take the short cut, you will swim through rock formations, turning your head sideways not to get stuck. Goonies never seemed more real.
The ATM experience costs $110 with PACZ tours, the guys with the best guides around, but missing it would cost your life’s repertoire a lot more.
By the time the fireflies come out, you’ll be back at the lodge. With a bit of swagger, as if you just upstaged Shackleton, you get to share your terra incognita story at the dinner table. I imagine that’s played out about as many times as there are mosquito bites on the legs of the guy who forgot bug repellent.
Never one to sit still, Kinga Philipps has tested herself for the past decade by traveling the globe, rappelling, caving, scuba diving, jumping out of airplanes and diving with sharks as a writer, producer and on camera host for networks such as CBS, NBC, ABC, USA, AMC, Travel Channel, Fox Sports, Food Network, Current TV, Syfy and National Geographic. Most recently Kinga is the adventure seeking host of Travel Channel’s “The Wild Side with Kinga Philipps”.