Images courtesy of Luke Daniel Photo
The rental car company forbid us from crossing the border into Guatemala. Instead, we drove to the very edge of Belize where I contemplated crossing over on foot, had it not been for the machine gun-wearing military man standing nearby in the jungle.
Luke and I drove 3.5 hours from Placencia to the Maya ruin site Xunantunich just outside of San Ignacio. After spending much of our time traveling through the countryside, getting around this bustling Central American town was disorienting to the point of finding ourselves driving the wrong direction down a busy one-way street. Our error was quickly corrected thanks to the many honks, stares and helpful hand gestures supplied by the locals.
The final leg of our road trip to Xunantunich involved crossing a small, milky blue river aboard a hand-cranked ferry. I was asked to exit the vehicle and ride next to the operator, an older gentleman with one eye the same milky blue color of the river.
“It’s crowded up there….lots of cruise ships,” he said wearily, fishing for a reaction.
“Oh man, they’re the worst in these types of places,” I said.
“The WORST!” he confirmed, relieved he had someone to commiserate with. “They’re always in a hurry. I have to work twice as hard when they’re around and don’t get paid any extra.”
I could see he was right. A small horde of visor-clad seniors milled anxiously about on the other side, eager to get back to the air-conditioned bus. I handed him a tip and stepped off the ferry through the throng of people pushing past me.
We parked and walked a short distance to the ruin site. Most of Xununitich’s crowd was concentrated at the top of its tallest structure situated at the far end of the property. Smaller ruins sat in the center and lined perimeter, separated by wide-open stretches of flat, green grass.
We watched a line of thick-soled New Balance sneakers slowly snake up one of the narrow staircases leading to the top. Once everyone was up, we started our climb.
Mysteriously, the crowd we saw just a few moments before had disappeared down the back steps and we had only a handful of people to share the view with. The grounds below also suddenly cleared of visitors, giving us the impression we had the place to ourselves, which, at times, we did.
From the top, I overheard a guide point out the dusty, white road running along the site’s perimeter, marking the border of Guatemala. It was no more than 400 meters away. I could easily walk through the jungle on Xununitich’s property, step onto the road and claim having visited another country.
The mid-day sun was blazing hot by this point, so we started making our way back down from the top. Along the back staircase, we spotted the camouflaged head of an iguana poking out of the stone wall next to a room full of sleeping brown bats I unwittingly walked into. We also saw a howler monkey in one of the nearby trees, his thin, black arm poking around the treetop grabbing handfuls of leaves. We crept over for a closer look and found him curled up into a small ball, asleep in the crook of a branch. His small, brown butt turned toward us in a fitting gesture.
Luke went to check out the site’s ancient ball courts and I darted off in pursuit of the dusty white road. On my way, I passed a picnic shelter shading two tourists and one fatigue-clad gentleman wearing a rather large gun. He stood stock-still leaning up against a tree. I’m certain his purpose is to protect the site against looters and vandals, but I’m also certain he moonlights in keeping Americans within the borders of Belize.
I pretended to check out one of the ruins they were working to reclaim from the forces of the jungle, then about-faced back to where I belonged.