Todd Swain “Bucket List Afternoon”

In late April 2012, we headed back to Belize – this time accompanied by our daughter, Hanna. This was a follow-up to our trip over Christmas when we were exploring the rock climbing potential of this Central American nation. Since this was the first time Donette had seen Hanna since Thanksgiving, we scheduled a couple days on an island off the coast before venturing back to the jungle covered cliffs.

The purpose of this trip was two-fold; to establish more climbs and to provide introductory rock climbing training to Belizean adventure guides so that ultimately, they may be able to take clients rock climbing.

We arrived in Belize City on Saturday April 21st after a short delay due to an ash cloud that had spewed from one of Mexico’s volcanoes. When we arrived, it was 92F and of course very humid. We retrieved our four huge bags (containing four climbing ropes, ten harnesses, six pairs of climbing shoes, a power drill, bolts, hangers, lots of other climbing hardware and a few clothes). After a quick taxi ride, we stored our bags and caught a boat to the island of Caye Caulker (an hour boat ride from Belize City). After it cooled down a bit, we wandered around, showing Hanna the island. It was about 300 yards wide and maybe 3/4 miles long.

On Sunday we went snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The boat ride from Caye Caulker was in an open 25 foot-ish boat.

Like last time, we saw beautiful coral, colorful fish, and got to pet both nurse sharks and southern (non-stinging) stingrays.

The HUGE difference on this trip was that we got to see and swim near a pair of manatees. As we were swimming on the last stop, we came across two (a male and a female) who were sleeping on the ocean bottom (maybe 15-20 feet down). They eventually surfaced for air, and in doing so, swam within six to eight feet of us.

They were roughly eight feet long and the guide estimated they weighed around 1,000 pounds each. We had the pleasure of watching them for at least 30 minutes.

None of the three of us had ever seen manatees in the wild and for us it was a “bucket list” afternoon.

First thing Monday morn we took the water taxi back to Belize City, where we were met by the owner of Cayo Adventure Tours (CAT), Michael Simmons, who sponsored the guide training and was very helpful with our logistics. He took us to San Ignacio (a two hour drive from Belize City), where we checked into our hotel.

We spent the afternoon at Barton Creek Cave, an hour drive from San Ignacio on bad dirt roads that pass through beautiful countryside. The limestone at this site was perfect for climbing and we got three climbs cleaned up in one afternoon.

While we were doing that, Hanna got to canoe into the cave, which she really enjoyed.

On Tuesday, we headed back to Barton Creek at 7:30am to complete the new climbing routes. Two local guides went with us, and by the end of the day we had established and climbed five new routes, one of them a 5.10-. While we were at Barton Creek, Hanna went to the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala (a UNESCO World Heritage Site two hour’s drive from San Ignacio).

On Wednesday, we provided training to seven Belizean adventure guides from the San Ignacio area. We also had five observers who weren’t guides, but got to try out rock climbing with us at Barton Creek Cave. The guides were very enthusiastic and picked up climbing concepts quickly. Most of the morning was spent going over knots, harnesses and other foundational stuff. The guides spent the afternoon climbing, practicing belaying, and improving their technique. We finished the day around 5:45pm and drove the hour back to San Ignacio, tired and happy. Hanna came along, did some climbing, took pictures and had a ball interacting with the guides.

On Thursday, we went with the same guides to Five Blues Lake National Park, which is a 90 minute drive from San Ignacio down beautiful Hummingbird H

ighway. We spent two hours reviewing skills, then practicing new ones, in a large open air pavilion at the parking area.

As we were hanging from the rafters practicing techniques, Donette noticed a huge SCORPION further up one of the beams! It was at least four inches long, not counting the tail!

While we were going over skills at the pavilion, Mario Perez, the local guide who had initially taken us to Five Blues Lake NP, arrived. He agreed to take Hanna to a nearby cave to see an intact Mayan pot.

In addition to the vessel, Mario pointed out piles of feathers in the cave, which he attributed to the predatory actions of VAMPIRE BATS.

Then we hiked into the Duende Caves area of the park, through beautiful jungle that was much drier and less muddy than last time. We had the guides climb several of the easier routes. All the guides (including Michael, the tour operator) ultimately led multiple routes and had a great day.

On the hike out, Hanna was introduced to LIVE TERMITES as a food source. She reported that they had a minty flavor. We got back to San Ignacio about 7pm.

On Friday morning, Michael loaned us a small SUV to travel to the training sites for the second set of Belizean adventure guides, who hailed from the Belmopan area. We knew the roads well so navigation was not a problem. Having previously seen the technique of passing on blind curves demonstrated in Belize and Cambodia, Todd was up to the task of driving like a local.

Meanwhile, Hanna was invited along on a commercial tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave with one of the guides from the previous climbing training. The guide (nicknamed “Bling”) is pretty smooth, having by the age of 24 fathered three children by two different women and escaped marriage in all three instances. Hanna was clearly his next target, but we were fairly sure she had the fortitude to resist.

ATM Cave is perhaps the most famous of all the caves in Belize because it is packed with Mayan artifacts and skeletons. Hanna had a great time on the trip and said the cave lived up to its reputation.

While Hanna was caving, we drove back to Five Blues Lake NP and met up with Mario and the five other guides from his area. We spent most of the morning at the park pavilion reviewing technique, then hiked into the Duende Caves before noon. It started raining , making for an authentic jungle hiking experience. The rain later stopped and the cliffs dried enough to climb.

No sooner had we arrived at the cliffs, than a tribe of HOWLER MONKEYS moved into the trees above us. They passed through twice while we were there, serenading us with yelps, howls, screeches and guttural sounds for a 20 minutes.

Lunch consisted of fresh fruit from trees in Mario’s yard; some freshly made tortillas we had purchased at a roadside stand earlier that morning and a watermelon we had purchased from a traditional Mennonite man. The Mennonite man was dressed in traditional garb – a straw hat, long sleeved blue button up shirt, black suspenders, black pants and boots. He was selling watermelons from his horse-drawn wagon, which was parked alongside the road. It was a good sized watermelon, was very sweet and cost $3 US.

After eating, we set up a number of routes and all the guides climbed them.

While I was going up one of the routes, a group of SPIDER MONKEYS came through. One hung from its tail and watched us from above. Very cool!

Just a few feet from the base of one of the routes, Mario noticed the nest of a Great Tinamou with four eggs in it. This is a chicken-sized land based bird that lays chicken-sized pink colored eggs. Amazingly, the eggs are laid on the ground. You’d think given the snakes, skunks and other critters that would eat the eggs if discovered, that the bird would lay them elsewhere…

Saturday (the 28th) we climbed at Barton Creek with the Belmopan guides. Due to the distance and expense of gas (now $12 BZ/gallon [$6 US/gallon]), most had not been there more than a couple of times. They picked up the skills quickly. As we were wrapping up in the afternoon, Donette managed a dip in the creek that flows into the cave.

We arrived back in San Ignacio about 6pm and met up with Hanna. She had visited a local Mayan ruin (Cahal Pech [“Place of the Ticks”]) and wandered around San Ignacio during the day.

That evening we went to adventure guide Diego Cruz’s house for dinner, which was a short walk from our hotel. Diego works for Michael and is the guide we have spent the most time climbing with. We finally got to meet his wife and young daughter while having a tasty meal of rice, red beans and BBQ chicken.

On Sunday morning Michael drove us from San Ignacio back to the airport. During the drive Michael told us that he and the guides who attended the training were in agreement that rock climbing is a viable activity in Belize. He asked us for assistance on several fronts: to help him draft a proposal concerning rock climbing as a guided activity for review by the Belize Tourism Board; and to provide additional training for guides next spring and to assist with the procurement of climbing gear.

We’ll see what the next year brings – we may be in Belize again!

4 thoughts on “Todd Swain “Bucket List Afternoon”

  1. Is there any way to get into contact with Todd? I will be living in Belize for some time and will be bringing my climbing gear. I would love to see what routes are already established and what areas could be set up.

  2. I wish to contact Todd Swain in order to enquire about one of the early Gunks climbers in the mid 60s, Dennis Mehmet.

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