City guy turned Horseback Rider in scenic Cayo, Belize
It’s safe to say that I’m a city boy, an urban dweller, I have lived in the urban sprawl for most (if not all of) my life. This doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t rough it with the country folk (though there was a learning curve). Living out in the jungle of Cayo, Belize takes some adjusting but I’m certainly not one to pass up an experience, so when I was offered to join a small group going horseback riding I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Now that I think about it, my uncle had horses but I haven’t actually been on a horse for about roughly 8, maybe even 9 years!
Anyway, back to the story, I, being the most excited one waited patiently for the allotted time to get this train (eh, carriage?) moving, I made sure I had sent all the emails that I needed to send, and finished my Friday tasks early. When the time finally rolled around I got into the van which drove us up to the stables where the horses were waiting. Chaa Creek houses over 20 horses at their stable, they were beautiful to say the least. I have never been particularly enthralled by horses but I couldn’t deny how majestic these creatures are, or even how excited I was to get back on a horse and gallop off into the jungle. At this point, in my jet black button-down I was channelling Zorro even though I knew that I had no clue what I was doing. My ambitions to being a crusader in black were further crushed by a helmet and a playfully stern “Safety First!”
Each of us got a horse chosen for us based on height and weight (that, is requested beforehand), I’m about 6”1 and around 180 pounds. My new hoofed companion was aptly named “Prince”. The guides explained to me how to get onto the horse and I quickly climbed up and swung my leg over all while making sure my lengthy extremities didn’t knock anyone out. So there I was, finally, on this graceful animal, I got comfortable on the saddle, slipped my feet into the holder and was good to go (or so I thought). It was a strange feeling being so high off the ground, being that I am a tall guy and it is regular for me to be towering over people but it was never quite like this. Our trusty guides explained to me how to steer Prince and I quickly got a hang of this and moved him into position to begin the adventure.
The guide explained to us that horses are highly intelligent and intuitive, able to sense if you’re afraid, nervous, calm, happy, and a range of other emotions and that they are able to react accordingly. He also explained that these horses were very well trained, reassuring the more nervous members of the group to relax and enjoy. And so began our trip, the guide, Emil whistled and all the horses began to follow (“Horse whisperer” I thought to myself). We began down the trail which quickly engulfed us in canopy, everything was green (I really mean everything) lush foliage, and the sounds of more birds than I could distinguish came from everywhere, it was wondrous, and we had only just started!
We came out to a trail which bordered some pastures and I wondered immediately how many spiders may have been crawling in that thick grass (I have a love/fear of spiders). All this time Emil our lead guide was explaining to us the different trees and their potential uses, history, and characteristics while pointing out small animals or sounds as we passed by. I found myself thinking that he was some manner of wizard, he was pointing out insects (tiny ones), identifying bird calls, pointing out trees, and leaves, he was very good at this, I still don’t know how he did it all (my bet is still on magic). We cleared the pasture and arrived to a fork in the road, the guides then announced that we were in for a treat, they created a new trail and we would be the first to go on (I was overwhelmingly eager as you could imagine). We continued down the main trail and I saw a small break in the foliage, I knew immediately that this was the new trail. We turned into the tiny path which took us straight into the jungle.
Upon entering, my Zorro fantasy went straight out the window, Luckily Indiana Jones walked through the door promptly to replace him, and I felt like a real jungle explorer. This new trail was awesome, Emil quickly pointed out an Agouti (which is a large jungle rodent, oddly adorable), and soon after we heard some weird deep moans, I knew exactly that was the Howler monkey. The horses knew too but weren’t at all bothered, the monkeys were high up in the canopy and moved quickly making their signature howls which can be deafeningly loud if heard from too close. They were eating the leaves of the Trumpet Tree, which turns out was also popular with the Mayas who used to smoke the leaves of the tree for the reportedly incredible high. The Mayan priests would smoke the leaves of the tree kind of like tobacco especially in religious ceremonies, the howlers seemed to be big fans as well.
As we continued down Emil showed us Sapodilla trees used in the past to make chewing gum by the Maya and later the British during our colonial period. He also showed us the Cohune palm which was abundant and is used to make cooking oil out of the nuts, it’s also used to make roofing and walls along with the Bay Palm, and detailed to us the Heart of Palm which is considered a rare delicacy located in the centre of the tree itself. We came upon a tree and Emil stopped the group to show us a Peanut Head bug, this bug is among the weirdest insects I’ve ever seen, it blends so well into the tree it lives on it & took us about 5 minutes to spot it. This insect has an impressive set of wings which when fully spread resembles owl eyes, very exotic and useful way to scare off predators. The guide explained that this was a mother protecting her eggs which he pointed out to us as well, planted on the same tree and blended in as the mother herself.
We continued to make our way through the thick but beautiful under brush until we got back onto a clearing and eventually came out near a Teak plantation. This was really something to see all the Teak in perfect lines, it was eerie but beautiful a nice contrast from the sporadic jungle. The teak (which typically takes 30 to 60 years to mature), it turns out was planted for furniture use in the future but was beautiful in its organizational distinction none the less. We stopped between two sets of teak forest where Prince decided he fancied a bite and lunged for some grass. He had been such a good horse throughout that I was not about to deny him a snack (especially since he had quickly become my favourite). We kept going following the guide as he led us through the jungle up and down some steep inclines which Prince handled masterfully (Sometimes the horses slide when on these slopes but they have impeccable balance). Emil then took us to a long path that he said was perfect to canter on (which is the middle ground between a trot and a gallop). This was exciting, he gave us a crash course on how to adjust ourselves on the saddle, and arranging our feet properly. He then began to canter and called to our horses to follow. What a rush! The horse quickly picked up speed and we raced through the jungle all the way until we were but a stone’s throw from The Maya Farm.
The farm is where The Lodge at Chaa Creek grows a large portion of its produce, and houses goats and sheep (the local pets). Emil tied up our horses and gave us a quick tour through the farm, showing us the process of composting and how they plant the vegetables. While walking the farm (which I might add, operates totally organic) we also spotted a pair of Keel Billed Toucans, the national bird of Belize, they made their signature frog sound and were right above us on a large tree branch. They had such a striking set of colours; a bright yellow crest on the chest, and a vibrant colourful beak. They were mating and thus travelled in pairs, this is one elusive specimen who flew away about as quickly as we saw. It was a quite a treat seeing the national bird in the wild as a Belizean, it woke up a sense of civic pride within me.
As we made our way back to the centre of the farm we saw the goat pasture, one of the guides Yonie then asked if we wanted to see a baby goat. Of course I jumped to the front of that line, he took us to a small stable were he took the kid out from the pen, a beautiful small white baby goat just two weeks old. It was adorable, a very awe-inspiring moment, I love animals and immediately fell in love with the kid. That’s when I saw the mother goat staring at us holding her baby, she had massive horns and a deep look of concern for her offspring, not wanting to upset the mother we returned the baby back to her pen and Yonie showed us a few other young ones about the farm. They were going to town on some Mombasa grass, I recognized the grass because it was the same type that Prince was eating and I was told by Yonie that this grass was preferred by the animals and the farm as it is filled with nutrients.
We left the farm and continued on, I jumped back onto Prince and headed behind the guide. As we were leaving the farm he pointed out a Maya Mound, this looked like a small hill but he explained that in the past at the height of the great Mayan civilization these were all small structures and the area was filled with small Maya communities. They explained that it is believed that Chaa Creek was once a farming community that fed the great cities in the area such as Xunantunich, or Cahal Pech. Yonie pointed out many Maya mounds on our tour which were impressive to see, and it got me imagining how this place was at its height. He explained that the property which is about 400 acres had a couple mounds that were excavated and that the artefacts found are now on display at the Natural History Centre for visitors to see.
We finally made our way back to the stables, it was bitter-sweet to get off Prince (charming) although I bet he was tired of having me on his back all day. Once they took off the saddle and allowed him along with the other horses to cool off we removed our helmets and thanked the guides for the great tour that day. I’ve decided that I will definitely be back to ride again, especially after being informed that there were more trails we didn’t visit. Horseback riding in Cayo Belize was nothing short of an awesome time.