Roughly the size of Massachusetts, the Caribbean nation of Belize has long been a popular destination for travelers seeking the lure of its white-sand beaches, marine reserves, and its famed barrier reef-the longest in the Americas. But as it turns out, there's another side to this small country, a world of pine-covered mountains, tropical rainforests, and ancient Maya settlements seldom seen by tourists. So when our friends at Land Rover asked us if we'd like to spend a couple of days exploring the Maya backcountry last summer, we jumped at the chance, and hopped on a plane to Belize City, where our adventure begins.
Flying into the interior on a small charter jet, we marvel at the change in the country's topography, as alluvial floodplain gives way to mile after mile of highland pine forest. From our seats we can see a maze of dirt tracks snaking their way through the mountains, and we begin to wonder what 'wheeling wonders are in store. A half hour later, we land at a dirt airstrip, where we're whisked away to our night's lodgings, a rustic cabin complex at Five Sisters in the Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. After a hearty dinner accompanied by cold bottles of Belikin-the local brew, and quite tasty-we wander off to our cabanas to be lulled to sleep by the chirping of crickets.
The day dawns cloudy and very, very humid. At the lodge's entrance we're greeted by a fleet of new Land Rovers, and by our support crew, which includes familiar faces such as Bill Burke, Daphne Greene, and Lee Magee-Camel Trophy veterans all. Some members of the Belize Defense Force, who'll be riding point for the duration of our trek in a diesel Landy 110, are also on hand. While the Camel crew's LR3s are equipped with Warn winches, roof racks, and recovery gear, our flotilla of press Rovers are completely unmodified-save the tires, each Rover sporting a set of aggressive 255/55R19 Goodyear Wrangler MTRs. Don't bother looking for them in the Goodyear catalog-they were made to order exclusively for our 10-vehicle convoy. Knowing what it costs to produce a new tire-the molds cost upwards of 50 grand each-we surmise that these are the priciest treads we've ever driven, and likely ever will.
Under increasingly menacing skies, we bid farewell to the Five Sisters, and after a leisurely hour-long meander on pavement, through winding mountain two-lanes, we arrive at the magnificent Maya city of Caracol.
Caracol was continuously inhabited for over a thousand years, from roughly 600 BC to nearly 900 AD, and its mysteries-like those of the Maya itself-are only now beginning to be answered. How did the Maya maintain this highland city (and many others) for so long without a permanent source of fresh water? And why did the Maya suddenly abandon this site in the 9th century AD, as they seem to have done at other settlements throughout their empire, after inhabiting it for centuries? Recent excavations have provided some answers-throughout Caracol, archaeologists have discovered huge cisterns dug into the ground, which were coated with limestone, then sealed with plaster; the Maya evidently used these as reservoirs for rain water, which they then used year-round. This system worked well-as long as annual rainfall was constant and reliable.
Caracol (Spanish for "snail"; the Maya called it Oxwitza, "Three-Hill Water") is the largest Maya city in Belize, and one of the largest Maya settlements in all of Central America; at its peak in the 6th century AD, an estimated population of 150,000 lived and labored in more than 30,000 structures here. Lost for nearly a millennium amid dense forest, the city was rediscovered in the 1930s, with earnest excavations beginning only in the mid-'80s. After 20 years of near-continuous digging, only the city center has yet been excavated-an estimated 10 percent of the total urban area-but what has been recovered to date sprawls over 23 square miles of former wilderness and includes some of the largest intact structures of the Maya period. Among the ruins are buildings once used for administrative offices, imposing religious temples, dwellings for the temple priests and royalty, observatories and schools, a ball court, and various tombs and sepulchres. Upright stone stele-some as high as 10 feet-depicting important dates or events in Maya history are scattered throughout the site, though most are reproductions, the originals having been removed for safekeeping (see sidebar on page 75).
Besides being skilled architects and engineers, the Maya were sophisticated astronomers, and the 365-day calendar they codified millennia ago-we don't know exactly when, though the Maya "long count" calendar marks the start of time at 3114 BC-is virtually as accurate as the calendar we use today. Many Maya communities didn't practice irrigation-employing slash-and-burn agriculture instead-and as such had to know the exact dates to start planting their crops and to anticipate the coming of the annual rainy and dry seasons. They were also, contrary to popular belief, a highly competitive civilization, and rival tribes waged frequent wars against each other. And herein lie possible clues to the Maya's downfall. Recent dendrological discoveries suggest a prolonged drought throughout Central America in the 8th century-the severity of which the Maya had never experienced-and archaeologists now posit that this lengthy period of climate change, combined with decades of population growth, unsustainable agricultural practices, excessive demands on food supplies, and internecine wars waged over increasingly scarce resources all contributed to the Maya's rapid decline around 900 AD. Walking amid these towering ruins, though, it's humbling to ponder that this ancient people-once thought by Western scholars to be savages-had developed a complex and thriving culture many centuries before the grand cathedrals and palaces of medieval Europe were conceived.
After our tour of Caracol and a spicy Creole lunch, we saddle up the Rovers and hit the road. Our next destination is another Maya city at Xunantunich, some 20 miles to the north, but rather than bore us to tears on more pavement, our hosts at Land Rover have a detour planned: Camp Six Road, a former timber-company rail line and now a muddy two-track that snakes for several miles through broadleaf jungle. With any luck, we should be at Xunantunich in three hours, we're told-plenty of time for sightseeing before a leisurely hour's drive to our lodgings for the night.
Rain begins to fall as we turn onto the trailhead, a few miles north of Caracol. It is a good thing we have guides leading the way, for we would never have found this "road" otherwise. Barely discernible from the highway, the former rail line has been largely reclaimed by rainforest, its narrow track littered with exposed tree roots and slick grasses, and shrouded in a dense canopy of mangrove, palm, and mahogany. Even in broad daylight, the forest growth is so thick, visibility into the jungle is only some 20 feet from the trail without a flashlight. Our caravan slowly proceeds onward, headlights on, tires spinning, and ABS shuddering as our traction control keeps us inching across rain-slick clay that reminds us of winter 'wheeling in the desert Southwest.
An hour passes in low-range, and rain continues to fall, turning the greasy clay tracks into a thick morass, and our Goodyears' treads soon gum up. Lacking Terrain Response, the heavy, cumbersome Range Rovers are the first to bog down. The Rover Sports shortly follow suit, as in time do the most-nimble LR3s. The Camel Trophy vets earn their keep as they spend the afternoon using their support vehicles (which get stuck frequently too) to winch and yank our caravan from one muddy soup hole to the next. One member of our group, growing frustrated at the sight of more inexperienced drivers ahead of him spinning endlessly in the ruts, decides upon a bolder tack, pointing his Rover out of the ruts, then sliding sideways and losing traction. Mashing the throttle, his tires dig straight into the mud. Attempting Reverse, then hitting the gas in forward gear, he tries this method again and again, and in short order he's buried to the bumpers.
Daphne Green approaches the vehicle, motioning for a word with the driver:
"You like to have things your own way, don't you?"
"Of course," snaps the journo, "I'm the editor of Four Wheeler."
"Good. Try listening for a change and follow my instructions."
The journo rolls up his window, sulks, then decides to get with the program. Mud Driving 101: Stay in the ruts-don't even think of driving out. Keep the revs up, in low gear. Wiggle the steering wheel, wiggle it again, then wiggle some more until your biceps are bleeding. It seems too simple-there's gotta be a catch-but the approach seems to work, and by the end of the ride, one old coot has learned a few new tricks about muddin'-which, granted, we don't do often in sunny California.
The jungle shadows lengthen as daylight recedes, and the forest awakens to the cawing of toucans and the eerie barking of howler monkeys. By the time we clear the forest, exiting onto a semiarid savannah showing signs of slash-and-burned clearings, our three-hour tour has turned into a six-hour winchfest, and by the time we reach pavement, it's sundown. An hour later, in darkness, we arrive at our lodge at Chaa Creek, muddy and famished. We'd missed Xunantunich, but we're not complaining-not after a marvelous, and sometimes maddening, day of rainforest 'wheeling. A hot shower has seldom been more gratifying, nor a bottle of Belikin more thirst-slaking.
The next day dawns much as the previous one had ended: Dark and menacing. Rain has fallen throughout the night, and as we prepare to head out for our day's adventure, we're told that a tropical storm warning-with as much as 20 inches of expected rainfall-has been issued for the Belizean coast. That's great news since that's exactly where we're heading today, to inspect the Maya caves in the coastal lowlands near the Caribbean.
Driving eastward on the Western Highway, past the frontier town of San Ignacio, we run smack into the storm. The skies darken, visibility grows poor, and we slow to a crawl with our wipers running at warp speed. This being farm country, we also find ourselves stuck along the way behind slow-moving tractors and the occasional Mennonite horsecart (several thousand Mennonites live in Belize, where they've prospered as rice farmers), so while it's only 20 miles of highway to our turnoff, it takes us an hour and a half to reach it. The rainfall lightens as we exit the highway. From here, it's a 10-mile jaunt down a stretch of asphalt to the trail head, but by now, the "road" is submerged in up to 3 feet of water, so our party proceeds at a slow, cautious pace before reaching the trail.
We have less than two miles to 'wheel before reaching the caves, we're told, and even with a couple of river crossings thrown in, our hosts estimate we'll reach our destination within an hour, despite the bad weather. It doesn't quite work out that way.
The coastal lowland geography could not be more different than that of the mountains. Here the vegetation is sparse and low-growing, with only small stands of mangroves amid flat grassy marshlands and freshwater lagoons punctuated by occasional limestone outcroppings; this is where the Maya found their caves, which they used for storage and burials. Driving slowly, we see heron, hawks, and a rare jibaru stork, which can grow to 6 feet in height. The mud here is much thicker, chocolate-brown and gumbo-like, reminiscent of the American South, and while our tires struggle to self-clean, we lumber onward, making decent progress for the first half mile, past the first river crossing, which is only hub-deep.
Then the skies open, a deluge descends, and the trail turns into an impenetrable bog. The Rovers mire down, tires spinning and clogged, and our trek once again turns into a serial winch-a-thon as one vehicle, then another, gets stuck and retrieved. With few big trees in the marsh, we struggle to find suitable winch points, and progress is agonizingly slow. An hour passes, then another-and four hours later, we've barely moved a hundred yards. The rain shows no sign of relenting, and the afternoon skies are darkening. Two members of the Camel crew, who've pressed ahead to reconnoiter the last river crossing, return with bad news-it's 7 feet deep now, so we'll need to turn around and head back to the highway. And the quicker the better, for we need to recross the first river-and we have no idea how deep it is now.
Slowly, we winch each vehicle around, 180 degrees in a semicircle, and following our ruts, we blast towards the highway, driving like desperate car thieves. Treading Lightly goes by the wayside as our convoy bounces from one deep water hole to the next, engines howling at five grand in First gear as sheets of muddy water spray over the roofs and onto the windshields. The first river crossing is now nearly 4 feet deep-and it's an odd sense of foreboding one feels to see one's hood disappear as water rises to your beltline. How we manage to avoid sucking any water into our Rovers' side air vents, we'll never know, but by 3 p.m., we've all made it back to pavement, where soggy sandwiches and lukewarm sodas await us for an impromptu roadside lunch.
There's no more time for Maya sightseeing today-we've still got hours of backtracking to reach our evening destination at Chan Chich, in the northwestern mountains. We return to the highway, turn westward, then veer off the road a few clicks later to take a shortcut, we're told, that will save us time later. We drive graded roads past small farm villages before we enter La Selva Maya-400,000 acres of protected tropical forest, the largest such expanse in Central America. Once again, we're soon surrounded by a dense canopy of giant palms, mahogany, and teak as the road gives way to narrow washed-out sections of asphalt and dirt. Runoff from the day's rains leaves deep waterholes to ford, and our party proceeds carefully. Sundown approaches, and the banshee bleats of howler monkeys, thousands of them, fill the air with an otherworldly serenade.
Nature has one last trick up her sleeve for us-a quarter-mile stream crossing in hood-deep water. The trick here is a light touch on the throttle, maintaining a slow and constant speed and a moderate bow wake in front of your grille. Luckily, the roadbed here is fairly solid, and we all make the crossing without incident. From here, it's two hours of dirt roads in darkness to our final night's lodging at Chan Chich, where we arrive rain-drenched and weary; our Land Rovers are filthy by now, their interiors caked with dry mud everywhere, and we're glad to be spared any cleaning detail as we enjoy a fiery Caribbean feast before bed.
The next morning, we pack our belongings, say our farewells, and board a small charter jet bound for Belize City at a nearby private airstrip. We'd missed most of our intended destinations, but we had learned a thing or two about mud driving. Most important, we got to spend a weekend immersed in pristine wilderness, far away from the tourist hordes. And we were reminded, again, of what we love about 'wheeling the backcountry-the scenery, the solitude, and the simple thrill of being Way Out There. Like the saying goes, it ain't the destination, it's the journey.
The governments of Belize and Guatemala settled a longstanding border dispute with a treaty in 1998, but clashes between residents near the borders of both countries occur sporadically. Primary causes of conflict involve the poaching of wildlife, illegal timber harvesting, and the plunder of Maya sites. A few weeks before our trip to Belize, a busload of American tourists was robbed at gunpoint near Caracol by a group of Guatemalan bandits. In response, the government of Belize issued an order advising tourists against venturing into the Pine Ridge Reserve area without an official government escort-which explains why an armed posse from the BDF accompanied us last summer. As of press time, we couldn't find out if this advisory had been lifted or not, so it's not a bad idea to check out the State Department's travel site (travel.state.gov) for any potential travel warnings before you go.
The Maya cities of Caracol and Xunantunich-like the storied site of Tikal in Guatemala-are a magnet for adventurous travelers. They're also a magnet for antiquities thieves, who over the years have looted much of these cities' ancient treasures. While security at these sites has improved somewhat-and public awareness of the problem has grown exponentially-these repositories of human history are still vulnerable to plunder.
In 1994, Land Rover formed a partnership with the Belize Department of Archaeology to help fund the preservation of vulnerable Maya stele and hieroglyphic panels which adorn many of the temple walls. The project, which is still ongoing and which Land Rover continues to endow, involves the work of dozens of volunteers who painstakingly remove stone stele, where they're placed in storage while a stela house is being built to accommodate them. In their place, local artisans fabricate exact clay and fiberglass replicas-some of which are 10 feet high and weigh hundreds of pounds-which are then cast and painted on-site. Once completed, the stele are placed where the originals once stood, and the panels are carefully positioned over the originals, protecting them from the ravages of weather, insects, and would-be souvenir-hunters.