Belize’s Macal River –
A Love Affair
When you think of having fun in the waters of Belize, the first things that come to mind are the stunning Caribbean coast, Ambergris Caye and the Belize Great Barrier Reef with the fabled Blue Hole and the world’s largest atolls.
However, there are a number of aquatic adventures to be found all over Belize; amidst the inland rainforests, up on Mountain Pine Ridge and even underground.
To acquaint fellow water lovers with these watery treasures, we’re beginning a series about wet and wild Belizean adventures. Here, as the first offering , is one of our absolute favourites. Ladies and gentlemen, meet:
The Macal River
One of the great unsung attractions of Belize is the Macal River in the Cayo District. This meandering waterway was one of the ancient Maya’s superhighways, linking urban, trade and ceremonial centres and connecting the interior to the coastal trade routes. After linking up with the Mopan at Branch Mouth, it joins the Old Belize River to carry on down to the coast. For centuries it was a vital part of the Maya Empire and an important source of water, transport, communication, trade, food, hygiene and recreation for the Maya.
When Europeans arrived the Macal continued to serve these vital functions. It was essential to the timber industry for floating logs down to the coast, where they were contained within large floating booms (hence village names like Burrell Boom) before being processed for shipping overseas or turned into lumber for local construction. As logs floated down the river, people worked their way up, and the Macal brought in the early settlers and everything they needed for survival.
Back when the Western highway was an often impassable dirt track the Macal was the lifeline for San Ignacio Town and the early logging and chicle camps, and later, the settlements and farms that began springing up along its banks.
By the time the present day owners of Chaa Creek decided to turn an overgrown orange orchard into a working farm and raise a family in the late 1970s, the Macal was still the main highway into town, with the ubiquitous dugout canoes, known as dories, plying the river. Every Saturday morning the Macal would come alive with dories carrying people and produce into town, and then that afternoon and evening making the return trip back home with the weekly supplies and passengers.
The advent of outboard motors created more noise and faster trips, but only for a while – as roads were pushed into the area and dirt tracks improved, the river traffic dwindled and golden age of the Macal seemed to be over.
And then came ecotourism and a new class of river travellers.
Today most of the traffic on the Macal appears to be canoes paddled by visitors taking the opportunity to experience Belize’s forests at their most pristine. A variety of wildlife can be seen along the banks, with large green and orange iguanas commonly sunning themselves or loudly splashing into the water when disturbed. Riverbanks are also a bird watcher’s paradise, with local and migratory species providing colour and birdsong along the banks.
Things to do
Discovering the Macal is a treat, and even for those of us who have been up and down the river scores of times, it never gets old. The occasional gravel and sand beaches are great for picnics and a refreshing dip, and there’s always something to catch your eye.
Using Chaa Creek’s canoes, there are several ways to discover Belizean river life. For those wishing to paddle upstream, it’s a perfect way to visit the Belize Botanic Gardens. Check with the front desk or guides to see how the river is running that day, and work your way up. Once at duPlooys’ you’ll appreciate a cold drink and wandering around that fascinating Cayo attraction. And then it’s a leisurely downstream paddle back down to Chaa Creek, or you may wish to carry on into town.
A downstream paddle to San Ignacio Town is a great day trip. Pack a picnic, or have lunch in town at one of the local eateries such as the Guava Limb café for delicious healthy meals and pleasant atmosphere. Stopping at Cristo Rey village is another worthwhile option for beverages, snacks, meals and a taste of traditional, rural Belizean living. Just pull your canoe up on the beach, tie it off and walk up the bank.
The trip into town is fairly effortless, with just a couple of patches of shallow, fast water, rather ambitiously called rapids. For the most part you only really need to steer and let the current do the work.
All too soon, it seems, the historic Hawksworth Bridge appears around a bend, and the sound of traffic clattering overhead announces that you’re back in civilisation. You’ll have been told where to leave the canoe, which will be delivered back to Chaa Creek with you when your exploration is finished.
You’ll return to your room pleasantly tired and with a slew of wonderful memories and images on the camera. Whether you’ve made the trip alone, with your family, friends, or as a romantic interlude with that special someone, this is a day trip you’ll be talking about for a long time.
The La Ruta Maya River Challenge
The annual La Ruta Maya is a four day race held in March, running from the Hawksworth Bridge in San Ignacio to Belcan Bridge, 175 miles (282km) down river in Belize City.
Started in 1998 by local beverage company Big H, it’s grown into an international event attracting paddlers from around the world. It’s a gruelling race, with the three person teams needing to maintain a pace of about nine and a half miles an hour to be competitive. The first day’s run is 49 miles, the second is 60 miles, the third is 36 miles with the final sprint to the Belcan Bridge some 26 miles.
But you don’t need to compete to enjoy this iconic Belizean event during the Baron Bliss Day holidays. San Ignacio comes alive before dawn to cheer the boats off, and there’s a party atmosphere at the towns and villages along the way, with a big fiesta in Belize City at the conclusion. If you’re lucky enough to be in Belize around baron Bliss Day, this is a don’t miss.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to enjoy the Macal River. Ask about the Miss Macal river excursions aboard a traditional johnboat harkening back to Belize’s colourful Pirates of the Caribbean days. There are also tube floats, guided trips and other ways to get to know this beautiful piece of Belizean history.
However you get to know her, it’s a fair bet that, like so many others before, you’ll be seduced, satisfied and occasionally surprised by the Macal. She’s that kind of a river.