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HIGH ANXIETY: An acrophobe goes rappelling in Belize

Esperanzaguide_2

by Ed Wetschler 

    I was snoozing on a soft, sandy beach in Belize when my friends aroused me with a news bulletin: Our hotel could arrange for us to head inland the next morning, hike into the jungle, and rappel down a 300-foot cliff.

    A great idea, but for one hitch: Hadn’t Jon and Neil ever noticed that I have vertigo, that I get queasy just glancing up at kites? Apparently not.  And this worried me, because I’d thought it was clear to all parties that we had traveled to Belize in order to spend a week at the beach, go snorkeling, maybe take out a Hobie-cat for a half hour, and practice bending our elbows. Nevertheless, I agreed to go rappelling. The fact is that even on the far side of fifty, I hate to look like a wimp.

That Whole Wheat Vibe

    Eco-adventures like this one are big business in the interior of Belize, insofar as anything is big business there. Resorts and tour operators offer birdwatching, hiking, caving, tubing, tracking giant iguanas and (with luck) jaguars, and other pursuits guaranteed to either cure you of your fears or reinforce them. And one of the stalwarts of the eco-adventure biz is Caves Branch Adventure & Jungle Lodge.

(All photos copyright Caves Branch 2008)

    A collection of rustic wooden structures, including tree houses, Caves Branch is not your five-star eco-luxury hideaway. Rather, it is the genuine article, an unpretentious, modestly priced adventure center with a whole-wheat vibe that’s more retro summer camp rather than Hollywood retreat.
    As you drive from the coast to Caves Branch and the interior in general, Belize’s population changes from one that’s mainly Garifunas–the descendants of runaway slaves–to a more Hispanic mix. Our twentysomething guides fit that demographic: Esperanza was from neighboring Guatemala, and Augustine, from El Salvador. They greeted us at the little parking area and handed each of us a backpack, helmet, and four liters of bottled water.
    "I really don’t sweat much," I assured them, "so I’ll just carry one liter of water."
    "You’ll sweat today," said Esperanza. I took four.

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    A tractor-pulled car hauled us to a trailhead, where the guides warned us about dehydration, poison wood, poison root, and the even more poisonous fer-de-lance. The latter ranks as the most venomous of Central America’s 130 or so snakes, which is no mean achievement. These snakes hide under logs and leaves before suddenly leaping out to bite you, so the best way to guard against them, I suggested, would be to stay out of the jungle. "But then," said Neil, "we’d miss the rappelling."
    Oh.
    Before going to bed the previous night, I had visited the Caves Branch website, which explains that the cliff is actually a 300-foot sinkhole called Actun Loch Tunich, "the abyss of the ancient Maya gods." The website promises such an exciting rappelling experience that "you might just throw up!" It’s an interesting approach to marketing.

Esperanza and the Death Harness

    After an hour or so of climbing through the jungle, we reached the top of a mountain; a wall of blue sky opened in front of us. Augustine and Esperanza gave us another safety talk and handed out gloves, carabineers, harnesses, and other gear appropriate for throwing oneself off a cliff.
    "Do you understand what this part is for? And this part?" asked Esperanza as she fitted me into my death harness.
    I did not. My brain was numb, so she had to explain everything to me two or three times. She was remarkably patient, which impressed me. I also approved of the way our lines were attached to two trees, not just one, in case something, y’know, snapped.
    "There’s a third guide, Morelio, at the bottom of the cliff," explained Esperanza. "Whenever you want to stop your descent, yell down to him and he’ll pull on a rope that stops you right there. Yell again when you want to slide down a little further."
    Neither a fast nor a prolonged descent appealed to me, but then an odd thing happened: When Augustine asked, "Who wants to go first?" my arm shot up. Really. No point standing around the top of a cliff in a state of panic.

Birds Underfoot

    So okay, here goes. I backed up over the edge, as directed, stepped down a couple of feet, and…omigod, the cliff was concave! The face of the wall backed away from me, leaving me hanging here, feet kicking in a frantic, absurd attempt to connect with something, anything. I fought the urge to toss my cookies, which would have been bad form. At the bottom of the cliff were trees, tall trees, but they were 200 feet below me. I shut my eyes.
    Then I opened them, and I saw fantastical stalactites on the concave wall. I swung myself around, and an emerald green jungle canopy stretched to the horizon. Brightly colored tropical birds coasted and swooped, but the weird thing was that the birds were flying under me. It was beautiiful.    
    My grip on the line relaxed, I stopped kicking at the air, the nausea disappeared. I descended 20 or 40 feet and yelled "stop!" Morelio halted my descent, and I dangled at a new level, a new vista. A couple more drops and I was at eye level with the birds; two more and I was closer to the canopy, which looked like a soft green mattress that would have supported me if I’d jumped into it (it wouldn’t, so I didn’t). And then, slowly, I descended the last 100 feet in the leafy shade, savoring every sculpture nature has carved on Actun Loch Tunich.
    A great ride, a marvelous experience. And it even comes with an epilogue. Back home one month later, my wife tells me the skylights on our roof need some caulking.
    "I’ll call someone," she says.
    But then an odd thing happens, something that surprises us both. "Don’t call," I tell my wife. "I’ll get the ladder and do it myself."

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Rappelling and More

Jaguar Reef Lodge, a beach resort near Hopkins Village, offers the full-day Black Hole Drop tour, including transportation and lunch, for $125 per person. Call 800-289-5756. Caves Branch Adventure & Jungle Lodge offers kayaking, mountain biking, wildlife viewing, cave tubing (shown here) and other adventures as well as the Black Hole Drop. To directly book lodgings or any of these activities, call 011-501-822-2800 0r 866-357-2698.

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