"Use third gear and saw with the steering wheel to cut through the mud," directed Land Rover driving instructor Daphne Greene. Greene was ankle-deep in the thick goo of the rain forest on a four-wheel-drive track cut through jungle for logging operations. Recent rains and lack of use had created a slick, overgrown swath in a land that was home to jaguars, scorpions, snakes, and spiders large and small.
This ex-Camel Trophy veteran now gave the fisted "stop" hand signal to John Mason, who was at the wheel of a Land Rover Discovery. "You're high-centered," she explained to Mason, of Lake Tahoe, California, "we'll need to use a tow strap to get you out." Bob Burns, Director of Land Rover University and all of Land Rover's four-wheel-drive training programs, appeared with a strap and, after a quick snap, provided by the heft of a Defender pickup, our convoy was underway again.
It was Day Two of an eight-day trek through Belize (with a brief stop-over in nearby Guatemala to view the Mayan ruins at Tikal), one of the many Land Rover Adventures set up for enthusiasts in a wide variety of locations around the globe. Each location is selected to provide participants with a unique visit to an interesting, picturesque, and historical place where four-wheeling and driving instruction become the heartbeat of the trip.
In 1995, Belize, a small country that lies on the east coast of Central America, was used as the jumping off point for the '95 Camel Trophy. Since then this country in the heart of the Caribbean Basin has become a favorite location for this British four-wheel-drive manufacturer to host trips for Land Rover owners and other lovers of the world that starts where the pavement ends.
Previously known as British Honduras, Belize borders Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south, and is flanked by the Caribbean Sea to the east. It has a total population of around 200,000 people of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish, Mayan, English, Mennonite, Lebanese, Chinese, and Eastern Indian heritage. English is the official language, although Spanish, Creole, Garifuna, and Mayan are widely spoken throughout the country.
The country is steeped in Mayan history, boasting some of the largest and best-preserved Mayan ruins in the world. Evidence of Mayan civilization dates back as far as 1500 B.C., and although it began its decline in 900 A.D., some Mayan cultural centers continued to be occupied until contact with the Spanish in the 1500s. During the classic period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.), Belize was the heart of the Mayan civilization, with a population of well over a million people. Although large Mayan cultural centers no longer exist, there is still a significant Mayan population residing within many of the small villages that we traveled through as we came back to civilization each night to stay in a jungle lodge, after our four-wheel-drive treks through the rain forest.
The importance of religion in Mayan culture is evidenced by the many temples and palaces they erected in tribute to their leaders and gods. A prime example is the ruins of Xunantunich, which overlooks the Mopan River, and which our group visited after crossing the river on a hand-cranked ferry. Xunantunich was a major ceremonial center during the classic period. The site is composed of six major plazas, surrounded by more than 25 temples and palaces. The most prominent structure located at the south end of the site is the pyramid El Castillo (The Castle) which is 130 feet high above the plaza.
El Castillo was the tallest man-made structure in all of Belize until the discovery of Canaa at Caracol, another location visited during our stay in Belize. Accessible only by four-wheel drive, Caracol is the most extensive Mayan city in the country, and is located deep in the Chiquibul Forest.
Europeans were first recorded in Belize in 1638. In 1871, British Honduras was declared a British Colony after years of scuffling between Spanish, English, and Portuguese interests in the New World. The country achieved its independence on September 21, 1981.
Belize also boasts remarkable marine life, with the second longest barrier reef in the world, three major offshore atolls, and about 1,000 mangrove and island cayes. The cayes (pronounced "keys") and atolls are great places for scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, boating, sailing, sailboarding, and sea kayaking, and they provide habitat for nesting birds and turtles.
Mangrove systems both offshore and along the coast create a tremendous wetlands environment for a diverse variety of birds, fishes, mammals, and reptiles, including the keel-billed toucan, Baird's Tapir, and the stealthy and endangered jaguar.
The island cayes have undergone extensive development into resorts and ecotourism sites to serve watersports enthusiasts and the marine naturalists. Ambergris Caye, the last of five destinations on our trip, is the largest of the cayes located in the northernmost waters of Belize. This narrow, 25-mile-long strip of paradise surrounded by the Caribbean was once a part of the Yucatan Peninsula, and it is believed that the Mayans occupied the area more than 1,500 years ago and dug a narrow channel to separate Ambergris Caye from Mexico. East of the Ambergris Caye lies the Belize Barrier Reef, which runs for approximately 190 miles along the length of the country.
Early this century the fishing industry was the island's biggest source of income and was centered primarily on San Pedro, the jumping-off point for our final two nights' stay at the island resort of Mata Chica. Beginning in the 1970s, the fishing industry gradually took second stage to tourism, as visitors discovered the island's beaches and snorkeling. Thanks to the island's mangrove forests, tropical savannas, lagoons, and white beaches, Ambergris Caye has become Belize's most popular tourist destination.
Here, as we soaked up the warmth of the sun in the day and slept under mosquito netting as the warm Caribbean breezes cooled our nights, we reminisced about our journey. While the beauty of a tropical sunset over the turquoise sea was a sight that would linger long in our minds, we all agreed that it was engaging low-range 'wheeling and motoring into the jungle that captured our hearts.
Land Rover Off-Road Driving Adventures and Special Events
Five- to nine-day expeditions, ranging in price from $2,600 to $5,200, excluding airfare. Off-Road Driving day- and weekend-long events in Britain.
* "Landscapes of Africa," Namibia-April/September/October
* "Gulches & Ghost Towns," Colorado/Utah-July
* "Mysteries of the Maya," Belize-January
U.K. Driving School events for 2002 include: days and weekends at Eastnor Castle; weekends at Skibo Castle; half-day tour of the Land Rover Solihull factory, lunch, and half-day on the Jungle Track; Ultimate Challenge, at Eastnor Castle.
For further Information: In U.S.: 407/438-3844; in U.K.: 011/44-1908-352-352; or firstname.lastname@example.org
How To Get There
American, Continental, and Taca Airlines fly to Belize City, Belize. From there, rental cars are available at the airport or through vendors in the city. Regional airlines fly to Ambergris and other inner-country locations.