Barton Creek and the Pine Ridge Mountain Reserve (13 Sept)

When looking for a flat we could rent in the Cayo region, Conor found a place for sale very near Barton Creek and the famous cave series. He had an urge to go and see it, as we have had a half-thought about setting up some sort of charity over here that we could come and check on every now and then. Though goodness only knows how we could decide where to focus as so many different areas catch our attention, from a half-way house for the women leaving prison, to some sort of place for those with mental health issues on the streets, and much in between. Since we had bumped into the cave mappers in Maya Mountain Lodge on my birthday weekend, we had Barton Creek Caves down as a ‘must do’, so we decided to hire a car for 24 hours, see the property, do the caves, and mosey on into the Reserve. We had been on the edge of the Reserve when we had made our way up to San Antonio to visit the healer, so we knew what to expect in terms of unpaved roads and the time it takes to traverse relatively short distances.

Actually driving a car on these roads, and particularly in BC, was a bit daunting. Picture this: Cemetery Road is the main one-way street in from the Western Highway, which includes the route to Old Belize, the zoo, Belmopan (where you pick up the Hummingbird Highway and routes south), to San Ignacio and the Guatemalan border at Benque de Viejo – very near where we visited Xunantunich.  It comes through Lord’s (Lards) Ridge cemetery, and down into town, getting narrower and narrower and busier and busier. Whilst Albert St is supposed to be the main commercial area, with all the banks and courts, as well as shops, this road feels more like the South Bridges and Newington areas of Edinburgh. Lots of small businesses, tortilla factories, shop fronts, tailors, and the inevitable shoe shops. (Conor bought a pair of Velcro strapped sandals here, for BZ$20 and within 2 weeks they had fallen to bits. Many of these people can hardly afford a pair of shoes, and to have to replace them every two weeks is shocking. Somebody should set up a quality control or such like.)

When this street is full of people, there is a jostling both along and beside the pavements and storm drains, folk crossing the roads, bicyclists and the bicycle vendors, roadside stalls, and cars that come out of side roads and butt into the main stream of traffic whenever they feel like it. Or so it seems. No doubt to a local there is a code, much as in Paris or Mumbai or any other chaotic city street. Conor drove in Paris like a Parisian: point in the right direction and put your foot on the accelerator to make sure you get into the space in front of you before the next vehicle, whilst I just closed my eyes and tried to remember to breathe. To make matters worse, our navigator was usually our dear friend who lives in Paris and has notoriously bad eye sight and doesn’t drive. As Conor did a wheelie around a corner, hastily asking which way as 5 options loomed ahead, she would peer and flutter her hand vaguely saying somewhere that way – and somehow between the two of them we would reach our destination. But the road I am describing here in BC is much more like Mumbai than Paris. Once out of the city, there is relatively little traffic on the highways, and even less on the unpaved roads.

So we were quite relieved when Romillo from the car hire company came for us about 7.30am. Romillo was charming – originally from Guatemala, he came over when he was three, and said he wouldn’t return because unemployment is so high.  He drove us out to the car hire office on the Northern Highway to fill in our paperwork, almost 4 miles out of the city near Haulover Bridge. Haulover Bridge is so named because the mighty Belize River was used for logging all the wonderful mahogany, indigo and other hard woods for centuries.

The car hire firm was in an upstairs office of a rather unusual set up: a ware house type structure had a lovely selection of plants at its entrance, with wind charms sounding in the offshore breeze (the Northern Highway runs along side the coast at this stage before turning inland just after the bridge). There were antiques and bric a brac everywhere in front of us, old glass cabinets full of things, which were interspersed with sofas and tables and chairs. We weren’t certain if we were entering a private home, a café, or what. There were a few Spanish looking people there, but they could have been Mayan, Guatemalan or Mexican or both – Mestizos – complete with a little Chihuahua. We went up the stairs into the office, and it was a pleasure to be in a room that was tastefully decorated with some Mayan masks, some old embroidered ponchos, and other crafty bits and pieces. Two smiling and helpful men took us through the paperwork, inspected the car for dents etc, and then we were off.

Except we weren’t – Conor discovered it was an automatic, despite asking for a standard gear stick, and when they saw him looking puzzled, they realised and swapped us for another car – more inspections, more paperwork, but this time we really were off. And even better, we could cut across from the Northern to the Western Highway by going north a little and then turning past Burrell Boom (another logging town) thus completely avoided driving in BC at all.

We had an uneventful drive past Old Belize, the zoo, past the turning to Belmopan, through Tea Kettle (yes, that is its name: there are also Two Head Cabbage, Cotton Tree and many more!) and on to Georgeville. We passed a bunch of cyclists on the way – all terribly smart and slick and un-Belizean in their lycra, helmets and goggles – who held us up as their marshall successfully blocked our passage! 

At Georgeville we turned left onto an unpaved road towards the Reserve which is also an alternative, more easterly route to San Antonio, commonly called the Chiquibal road. It was unpaved, and after a bit we followed our instructions and turned off through a large wrought iron gate with cement walls on either side, into Shady Orchards. This is acres and acres of very well maintained orange groves, neat, uniform, tidy, American! We had been told to make our way through this and Upper Barton Creek, a Mennonite Village, and we passed a horse drawn carriage on the way with two women, two men and a couple of teenagers in the very back. They slowed down to let us past, and were the first group of smiling, friendly Mennonites we have seen since coming here. And still clothed in very heavy clothing!

We were surprised by the Mennonite village – it was much smaller than we expected, and less wealthy. The Mennonites provide a huge percentage of the national produce, and their cheeses and yoghurts are the same as or more expensive than the imported brands from the US. So I had expected their houses to be a cut above the regular clapperboard that you see everywhere. But no, true to their ethos of simplicity, I suppose, they had simple houses with huge verandahs and a scattering of boys sporting braces and Panamas and girls with Dutch-like headdresses and long blue worsted dresses.

As our instructions predicted, we found the sign to the Barton Creek Caves to the right, and a track to the left, which led us down to two handsome wooden houses, one much larger than the other. They are constructed out of cabbage bark, a beautiful deep chestnutty hard wood, and each room is spacious though not many of them. Their office has every mod computer con you could imagine! The 50 acres includes a citrus orchard with the original clapperboard house and very large solar panels and shed full of batteries to store the electricity. Two tropical rain forested mountain sides sport the usual varieties of fruiting trees (ackee, mango, bread fruit, custard apple, avocado and many more) and they had some interesting varieties of banana palms, including a red banana. They had different bananas fruiting throughout the whole year.

The new houses are in a dip beside the very beautiful Barton Creek, a clear river emerging out of the ground through the cave system a mile or so away. The rivers tend to be so beautiful here, slow-moving, clear with gravely bottoms, with gorgeous trees lining either side, vines hanging off them and into the water. There is one tree, an inedible type of fig, which has the most gorgeous base, its roots beginning to fan out about 2 feet above the ground in a sensuous series of soft folds much as a curtain might fall. The bark is relatively smooth, and the whole appearance is so gracious. These seem to like being beside water, I notice. But the place was not for us – just as Ellemford is a space which is open to the world, this was concave, insular and not suitable for our natures. Quite apart from the fact that it was all a bit pie in the sky anyway!

We moved on to Barton Creek Outpost, and for the second time today came across somewhere which was tastefully decorated: a little café and river swimming pool that had lovely jungle flowers and leaves everywhere. (It might be fun to do a garden here!) After an ice cold drink, we got in our car to move a couple of hundred yards round to the Barton Creek Cave system. The car wouldn’t start! As we had forded the creek to reach the cave system, we hoped that it was just a question of drying out. We decided to walk round to the cave entrance and do the tour, and with a bit of luck it would start later….

Fording a second stream, we passed two young backpackers, one of whom hailed from Penicuik near us in the Scottish Borders! He was making his way round the world. The other, a New Zealander, had met someone from his town earlier that day. Small world. They had just done the tour, and chuckled that their Mayan-Spanish (Mestizos) guide was called Boris! (Names in this country can be fantastic, or obviously Spanish, and here in Belize, often have British or Irish roots. Very common surnames are Flowers, Acuillar, Martinez and Mackeson. Forenames are equally varied.) 

Once more, we entered an attractive open cabana, with tables for refreshments and lots of woodwork for sale laid out on tables. We bought our tickets from our guide and walked down a stone path leading up to the canoes. A playful spider monkey wearing a collar and lead which was threaded onto a long wire running the length of the grass caught our attention. She was enchanting! She would use her tail as a fifth limb, to reach for her favourite grasses which were beyond her hands or feet, or to pull down the wire as she reached to walk along as if suspended from a wire bridge. Apparently the monkeys in the tropics are the only ones which will hang from trees solely by their tails.

Boris introduced himself to us, and led us to our canoe. I sat in the front, Conor in the middle, and Boris in the back with a paddle. We each had a large spotlight and battery, and strict instructions not to shine it in the eyes of any canoes that may be coming out of the caves, and Conor had to be careful not to shine it onto me because it would be very hot!

The jungle-fringed entrance to the cave was immediately across the clear green river in front of us. Clever vines had dropped twenty feet from the rocks above, and produced a root system as they floated in the water, creating a breathtaking portal. We both immediately liked Boris, a slight gentle man, who most obviously had an affinity with both the caves and the Mayans who had peopled it. He started by telling us that this cave system and its river were the most important to the Mayans of the many caves in Belize, and that it lead to ‘Xibalba’ (Chib….) literally ‘the place of fright’, the underworld. He reiterated the story we heard from the man on the street on our first day here. The Mayan cosmology had the nine levels of the underworld, and it was people by nine fierce gods. You have to go through this layer after death to your place of rest. The middle layer is what we call ‘earth’.  The heavens have 13 layers, each with its own god. The cieba tree with its wide up- spreading limbs sprouting from the top of the trunk bridges the heavens, earth and the underworld.

With the gentle paddling of the canoe, we traversed the magical threshold, with light behind and darkness in front. As your eyes become accustomed to the darkness, and passing the spotlights over the surfaces of the limestone, we began to take in our environment. The stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere, and with as many different shapes and formations as the corals we had seen on the reef. Some were thin, like spires, some massive pillars. Many had met one another over the centuries, and I felt once more as I had when visiting other cave systems in the Pyrenees, that there are almost archetypal shapes and patterns that can be seen in these ancient rocks, which are then picked up and repeated in myriad different ways – flower, trees, sculpture and architecture, Islamic design, and not least the corals.

Occasional dark streaks of manganese coloured the surfaces, or a line of powdery white crystals forming on calcium material. Overall the hues were all shades of ochre, from rust through to a pale creamy hue. The size of the caverns varies enormously, from vast cathedral spaces to having to crouch and bend to navigate overhanging rock formations. The system is many miles long, but we just paddled for one mile as you need diving equipment further in to move from one cave to another. In the spotlights we could see bats for at least a quarter of a mile along the river, and everywhere droplets of moisture hanging in the air, accompanied by tiny flying insects. The occasional fish also broke the surface of the water, and Boris said that they had found cat fish way further into the caves than they thought they would be. After heavy rains, the water level changes radically, and we could see a high water mark at least six feet above us. Where the tunnel is very low, water runs in parallel levels above the one we were in. In many sections the roof was pot-marked with perfectly formed round bowl shapes. Boris informed us that they did not know what made them. Bats roost in them, but they have been found in areas in which there are no bats. Later as we drove over the terrible road, I thought of the word ‘pot-hole’ and wondered whether there is some ancient connection.

(Incidentally, bats are abundant in the tropics, and there are over seventy bat species in Belize, the most diverse mammal species. Apparently some are tiny insectivores, and some large carnivores with a wing span of over a metre. Glad they weren’t in our cave!)

Slowly we approached a bridge, known as the Mayan bridge, which was the remnant of one of the two parallel tunnels after the ceiling had fallen in. The river was about six feet across here, and the bridge was two feet wide. Boris steadied the canoe and shone his spotlight to a broken Mayan pot perched on a shelf to our right, and as he did so, noticed a whip scorpion on the rock face. It was more like a large spindly harvest spider, white of course because of the darkness, and apparently has no sting. It hardly moves, waiting for insects to pass it and catching them with its claws. He was quite excited because it was rare to see one. I was glad I was in the canoe nevertheless!

Shining his light over to our left, we saw a small skull near to a sunken area. Boris explained that there was a period of severe draught, and the Mayans believed they had to appease the god Chaac, the god of rain and fertility. He was one of the fierce gods of the underworld, and he needed a blood sacrifice of virgins. Archaeologists had found the bones of at least 18 young boys and girls in the sunken area by the skull. Boris told us about the rituals that the priests would go through, together with their ‘sacrificial lambs’ to purify and prepare before the rituals.

(There is one school of thought that one of the main reasons for the demise of the Mayan culture is that the human sacrifice got out of hand – any problem needed a death to amend it, and more and more and more to effect change. It is also interesting to see how the lineage of the concept of appeasing the gods by killing progeny runs through both the Old and New Testaments too.)

Eventually we turned round and slowly made our way back to the entrance. As in St. Herman’s Cave on the Hummingbird Highway, there is something so special about the quality of light nearing the entrance of a cave; a half light, calm and unreflective, framed by the dark rocks, with strands of foliage hanging down. 

Navigating our way round the large rock at the entrance and the trailing vines, the heat and bright sunshine revealed the 4 other guides sitting beside their canoes, enjoying the river. Conor had mentioned to Boris that we thought we had water in the engine, and asked him if he had some WD40. Boris approached one of his fellow guides, a ‘cheeky chappy’ with a broad grin. “Where you from?” “Scotland.” “Oh I can make some money out of you then!” We formed a line – our mechanic, Boris and one of the other guides – and followed our leader along the river’s edge to the Outpost where the car was parked. We explained to the owner why we were traipsing through his land, and he followed us up to the car park, too. Our mechanical friend bantered with Conor about how he would make it work immediately, how competent he was, whilst Boris and I were more into wondering whether the god Chaac was playing water tricks on us. He asked us if we spoke Spanish, and we explained that we have been looking for a teacher in BC but couldn’t find one. He told us that there is an easy way – just kiss the tongue of a Spanish speaking boy or girl! Conor tried to turn the engine on first, still hoping that it would have dried out in the baking sun, but it was as dead as a dodo. The mechanic looked under the bonnet, and then got in, and it immediately started! We all collapsed with laughter. He explained that there is a safety mechanism on these cars, of depressing the clutch in order to start the engine. Pity the car hire firm forgot to tell us, and thank goodness we had someone to bail us out when it happened.

We risked a very steep water gouged hillside track, using the four wheel function, and made our way into the Pine Ridge Reserve.  We hoped to get to Rio On Pools, have a swim and be back on the Western Highway by dark. Half way there we wondered if we had made a big mistake….the road was very bad in parts, very slow, and it was taking us forever. Many of the pines have been killed by a fungus too, so it was not that attractive either. But we pressed on, sure it could not be much further, and they were indeed very lovely. A series of descending pools and water falls meandering down the mountain side, rocky sides and sandy bottoms full of clear river water. The swim was welcome, and now refreshed we made our way back to the Western Highway as speedily as possible. We did not want to be on that road in the dark! We made it, and with dusk closing in, Conor drove the last hour and a bit safely back to Belize City, managing to avoid the cyclists without lights, the cyclists driving towards you on your side of the road, the groups of villagers congregating on the roadside enjoying one another’s company in the cool of the evening, and the raggedy tarmac edge. We were exhausted, but it was a good day.