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The Magic of the Macal

14 August 2013 No Comment

Belize Macal River Canoeing

Sometimes it’s the things you don’t plan on that turn out to be the best.

We were vacationing at Chaa Creek with my friend Al and his girlfriend Kate and were having a sunset drink or two at the Jungle Lounge “recovering” from a full day of swimming, walking the Rainforest Medicine Trail, having a hearty lunch, swimming again, and then the girls treated themselves to a massage at the Hilltop Spa while Al and I wandered around the Natural History Centre before leisurely walking back to the Jungle Lounge to meet the girls.

Whatever they did at the Spa worked like magic, and we both commented on how radiant the girls looked.

But I digress.

While working up our appetite for another one of Chef Mario’s exquisite dinners, we discussed what we’d do the next day, our last one at Chaa Creek before heading home. We’d already toured Xunantunich and Cahal Pech, been horseback riding and generally accomplished what we set out to do – push the boundaries of extreme relaxation.

So with one more day remaining, and wanting to stay true to our mission of achieving comfortable tranquillity, we were discussing what to do. We’d already set the parameters. No getting up too early, no exertion, and nothing that would cause anyone to break out in a sweat. Our friendly bartender Saul heard Kate and Angie saying they wanted to visit the charming town of San Ignacio one more time and perhaps do a bit of souvenir shopping and suggested, “Why don’t you go by canoe?”

Now, I had some canoe experience, and Al said he did too (turned out it was when he was at summer camp when he was about 14 years old). The girls, having never been in a canoe were a little hesitant, but after another one of Saul’s excellent margaritas they warmed to the idea, and suddenly we were booked in with two canoes for the next day.

I have to admit that even I was a little nervous the next morning. I mean, we were about to set off by ourselves on a real jungle river surrounded by real jungle filled with real jungle animals. I’m fairly comfortable on the water, we could all swim, and we had lifejackets and all the necessary gear, but still… We were a long way from Cincinnati, Toto.

But the Chaa Creek naturalist guides turned out to be excellent teachers, and after a few practice sessions at the canoe landing we loaded up with sunscreen, caps, drinks, binoculars, waterproof camera bags and were ready to go.

“You’re sure we’ll be alright on our own?” Kate asked a different guide the same question she’d been asking various people all morning and got more or less the same answer.

“You’re going to love it!” he smiled.

And we did. In a big way.

If you ever find yourself on the Macal River, I can’t recommend canoeing down it enough. Big enough but not too big, it is the very definition of meandering as it winds its way down through rainforest, pastures with some lovely little rustic houses and even  the occasional gravel beach on the banks.  The day we went there was just enough of a pleasant current that paddling was more to steer the canoe than actually power it. Mostly you float along and take in the sights, and there are photo ops galore. The amount of different birds we saw was amazing, and once you begin to recognise them, iguanas, some huge with orange markings, are everywhere in the trees, rocks and bushes. We went past Cristo Rey village where laughing and splashing kids yelled greetings, passed a rock overhang filled with small birds like swallows, and felt transported to another, timeless world.

We were told where the rapids were and what to do when we hit them, but they were really just patches of faster moving water and it was no problem at all. We were advised that if we had trouble or even tipped, just get out and pull them over the shallows, but we never had to do that. All in all it was just the most peaceful, enjoyable couple hours we ever had.

And suddenly, like something out of a movie, there was the Hawksworth Bridge, which links San Ignacio with Santa Elena. Kate said something about being reminded of “The African Queen” movie and sure enough, we learned later, the bridge actually is from Africa, imported to Belize long ago to replace the ferry that connected the two towns and was the gateway to the Guatemalan border.

Paddling under the bridge with the traffic rumbling overhead seemed like the perfect signal that we were back in civilisation after such a pleasant river idyll, and it was almost too soon that we were tying up at the cement landing where the Chaa Creek truck was parked. They loaded the canoes on while we walked around town, shopped and had snacks and a few cold ones at a place called Eva’s before driving back to Chaa Creek.

That afternoon we all agreed that canoeing the Macal River was one of the best things any of us had ever done, and we gratefully thanked Saul for his suggestion. We are so happy to have not missed an effortless experience of a lifetime.

The moral of this story? Don’t be afraid to try something new and don’t be afraid to take advice from a bartender – as long as he or she works at Chaa Creek.


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