Stone Woman

Yesterday in Belize we visited Xunantunich, a Maya archeological site near the Guatemala border (about three hours drive from our AirBnb in Placencia). Humans have been at this site going back at least to 3000 B.C., and the structures date to around 700 A.D. Most of the excavation at Xunantunich occurred between 1890 and 1960, but archeologists are still discovering things—including a previously untouched burial chamber that was found in 2016.

While historians have no idea what this site was called in ancient times, the modern name of Xunantunich means “Stone Woman.” It gets its name from a ghost that was first reported in 1892. A local hunter said he had encountered a woman dressed completely in white with fire-red glowing eyes at the base of a pyramid-shaped structure called “El Castillo.” As the legend goes, she ascended the stairs and disappeared into a stone wall.

Versions of that story have been repeated many times since, most recently by a tour group from Canada that claimed to have seen her just after sundown. Some believers think that she formerly lived within the city in ancient times, while others think that she was a human sacrifice victim that re-lives her last moments time and time again.

Xunantunich is a World Heritage site, and for good reason. There are six courtyards and more than 26 structures across about a square mile. El Castillo, at the heart of the old city, is the second tallest man-made structure in Belize at 150 feet. Adventurous visitors (including us) can climb to the top through a series of steps, with wild exposure that is not for the faint of heart. Apparently three tourists have fallen here in the past few years, “but they had nothing more than broken legs,” a local told us cheerfully (if not reassuringly).

There is great significance in how Xunantunich is laid out against the “axis mundi,” which is the intersection of the two cardinal lines of the old city. And all of the features (stairs, openings, etc.) are prime numbers. The Mayans were quite good with geometry and math, among other things.

We didn’t see any ghosts, but we still enjoyed our time walking through the courtyards and climbing the three main structures. It’s easy to see why this location was chosen by the Mayans, as there are commanding views in all directions.

I’m not sure I believe in the Stone Woman, although Souzz does sometimes have fire-red eyes and occasionally disappears—but usually just into the beer tent.

Elegantly Simple

Snorkeling and cooking may be an odd pairing, but odd pairings have never stopped us before. So with odd pairings (and snorkeling) in mind, we headed out of Placencia in southern Belize by boat to Lark Caye, and then hit a reef at Bugel Caye on the way back. Placencia Eagle Ray Tours was our outfitter of choice–and Rene and Dido knew their stuff, and also seemed to genuinely enjoy their work. Lark Caye was only about a 40 minute boat ride from Placencia, so it set up well for our trip.

Souzz and I had never been snorkeling before, so we had a few things to learn. For starters, it’s important to sense when waves are overtopping your snorkel and you are getting ready to inhale saltwater…and a few gulps of saltwater is its own kind of motivation to figure that out. There are also a some dangers to be aware of–coral that can sting, the occasional stingray, jellyfish that “would ruin your whole day,” and of course sunburn–so it’s not a “check your brain at the door” kind of activity.

But once we got going, there were amazing colors of coral and fish, a whole world below us that I had never really thought much about before. I can totally see how people get into snorkeling and diving, and we are already plotting our next trip.

We followed our time snorkeling with some beach time and then we went to a cooking class in town that we set up through a company called Taste Belize. Chef Radiance generously shared her home with us and together we made a conch dish with rice, peppers, and zucchini.

In addition to our lovely conversation with Chef Radiance–which touched on a range of topics that included Belize’s independence from Great Britain in 1981, changes brought by tourism, Hurricane Iris, traditional Mayan cooking, and Anthony Bourdain–we learned a lot about how to prepare Belizian cuisine. We squeezed out coconut milk from the pulp (very hands-on), enjoyed cooking with traditionally made coconut oil (a much different taste than what you get at a store in the US), and learned about a new (to us) Belizian spice/condiment called recado.

Recado is a deep red-colored paste made from seeds of the achiote tree (which is native to the tropics). We smeared the conch meat with it before cooking, which gave it a bit of color and also a bit of a nutty and peppery flavor. For our dish, we also used lime, salt, turmeric, Italian spices, garlic powder, and hot sauce.

There were lots of flavors going on in Chef Radiance’s kitchen, but yet everything seemed elegantly simple.

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Aaaah, yes, elegantly simple. Snorkeling and traditional dinners are both elegantly simple in their own way, and they are two more things that are helping us fall more in love with Belize with every passing day.

Panti Rippas

Souzz and I had so much fun in Scotland and the Faroes this summer that we decided we needed another trip abroad this year. With limited vacation time, we had to look for a place that was “relatively” close. We considered Canada and Mexico, but we wanted to go a little further afield.

Enter Belize, a country of 375,000 that is just 1600 miles away. That’s closer to us than Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and pretty much the entire west coast of the US. Further enticing us was the promise of warm weather, 240 miles of coastline, Mayan ruins, barrier reefs, and a very interesting culture. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s a coconut rum-based drink in Belize called a Panti Rippa.

We arrived in Belize City this afternoon and took a short 25 minute flight in a Cessna Caravan to the village of Placencia (which would have been about four hours by road, wow). Placencia has a population of about 3500, a blossoming adventure travel scene, and a friendly small town feel.

We’re staying at a lovely Airbnb right on the beach, and first impressions are pretty great. There’s a nice breeze, the town is lively and welcoming, and the ocean is delightfully clear and warm.

Tomorrow we head out snorkeling and then have a cooking class in the evening. As we settle into the mellow pace here, our plan seems a little ambitious–especially now that I’m into my second Panti Rippa.