Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We're climbers, not birders

Belize detour a humorous prelude to High Temple high

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Halfway to the freshwater lagoon, the British couple split off from each other, goose-stepping through the tropical grass.

The wife makes it safely to a flagpole and crouches down, binoculars ready. The Jaribu stork they are stalking takes a step forward, and the husband freezes mid-stride.

"He looks exactly like that damn bird," Steve whispers across the table. It's just after sunrise and we finally have the restaurant patio at the Bird's Eye View Lodge to ourselves.

We're in Belize researching material for a television series, and we've committed a cardinal travelling sin. We booked a three-day sightseeing tour to visit the Mayan ruins at Lamanai and Altun Ha, but didn't read the fine print.

It turns out we're on a birding tour and what we thought would be an interesting inland add-on to our Belizean Barrier Reef snorkelling trip is beginning to feel like a Monty Python skit.

Almost on cue, the husband lifts his back leg up to take a step forward. He freezes, leg mid-air, as the stork moves along the shoreline. The wife whistles. He whistles back, loses balance, then steadies himself.

Steve rolls his eyes. I combat a case of church-giggles by pinching the inside of my forearm. We're one day into the tour and Steve is already more foul than fowl.

The screen door behind us swings open and the ibis thankfully flies off. Miss Verna, one of the lodge's owners, pokes her head out. "Meet Rudy at the van in 20 minutes, boys." With her accent, it comes out as baihz. "It's time for your river cruise."

Crooked Tree (population roughly 900) and its surrounding wildlife reserve offer a unique look at village life in Belize's countryside.

Tranquil and quiet, it's a welcome break from busy beach destinations such as Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. Crooked Tree's proximity to the New River also makes it an ideal jumping off point to explore the ruins at Lamanai.

If you depart from the docks south of Orange Walk Town, the trip to Lamanai takes roughly an hour by motorboat. Every bend of the river offers a new surprise. Keep an eye out for the former compound of software tycoon John McAfee, now burned to the ground.

Competing with the crocodiles and countless bird species are locals fishing by hand, whipping loose fishing line overhead like a lasso before letting the hook fly out into the river.

At the end of our boat tour, the river opens into a massive lake. Our captain points to the shoreline, gold rings flashing in the sun. It's obvious a large portion of Lamanai remains unexcavated, but it's one of the few Mayan cities continuously occupied until the Spanish colonial period.

We start at the Mask Temple, but I can hardly focus due to excitement. Steve and I have come to climb the High Temple. Unlike many other Mayan sites in Mexico and Guatemala, the temple stairs at Lamanai are open to the public.

Rainforest and ruins blur together until we emerge from a rough trail and spot a single rope twisting down ridiculously steep steps. Aside from a young dreadlocked couple, Steve and I are the only other climbers. The rope jerks and snaps in my hands until we emerge above the forest canopy.

Up top, the Lamanai valley fills the horizon, mind-bogglingly green.

Steve turns to give me a smirk and I know exactly what he's thinking: not a bird in sight.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2014 E5

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