Doyle’s Delight (3,688ft) – The Highest Point in Belize
September 17-25, 2014
Matthew and Eric Gilbertson, Josh Spitzberg
Day 1 (Wed 09/17/2014): Fly Boston – ATL – Belize City (BZE) [6 hrs]; Bus Belize City – San Ignacio [3 hrs]. Overnight in San Ignacio
Day 2: 4×4 truck from San Ignacio – Tapir Camp [3 hrs]; Tractor from Tapir Camp to Ceibo Chico camp [8 hrs]
Day 3: Hike from Ceibo Chico to ridge near Fork Camp [12 hrs]
Day 4: Hike from Day 3 camp to Doyles Delight summit [7 hrs], camp on summit. Eve of Belize Independence Day!
Day 5: Hike from Doyles Delight to Fork Camp [5 hrs] (Belize Independence Day!)
Day 6: Hike from Fork Camp to Ceibo Chico [10 hrs], tractor ride Ceibo Chico – Tapir Camp [8 hrs]. Overnight at Tapir Camp.
Day 7: Tour around Maya ruins at Caracol, 4×4 truck to San Ignacio, overnight in San Ignacio.
Day 8: Bus San Ignacio – Belize Zoo – Belize City.
Day 9 (Thu 09/25/2014): Fly BZE – ATL- BOS.
Something was amiss. The Río Ceibo Grande was murky.
The pristine jungle river – located deep within the Belizean rainforest in the heart of Chiquibul National Park – had been running crystal clear. As we had labored up the steep hillside the previous day, laden with heavy overnight packs, covered with mud, and sweating profusely in the humid tropical air, the cool aqua blue water tricking down from the Maya Mountain highlands into the in the deep broad pool had absolutely beckoned us to go for a swim. “On our way back tomorrow, we’re definitely jumping in,” I had said to Eric and Josh.
But something had changed, something had caused the water to cloud up over the past twenty four hours – it was the illegal gold panners. Derric and Boris had warned us about those guys. They said they would sneak into Belize from across the porous Guatemala border, scour the streams, dredge the riverbanks, gouge the hillsides, and ravage the virgin Chiquibul in search of a few flakes of gold. The silt dislodged from their pillaging and plundering would wash into the streams and would cause them to turn murky; cloudy stream water was therefore telltale sign of their presence and proximity.
They would arrive clandestinely in hordes, armed with prospecting gold pans, shovels, and machetes. And occasionally guns. Derric had told us about an incident last year involving a Belizean military sting operation to round up and capture illegal Guatemalan gold panners, not far from our current location. As the military encircled the gold panners and closed in to make the arrest, one of the gold panners raised a gun. Before he could fire it, he was shot and killed by the soldiers. The incident soured relations between Belize and Guatemala and helped bring the illegal gold panning crisis to the public’s attention.
Illegal gold panners were the reason that we needed an armed escort on this expedition. It was the reason that Derric and Marvin had guns, and was another good reason to carry along a few extra (and multi-purpose) machetes. Although Derric said that most gold panners would try to flee if they saw us and didn’t want to bother anyone, we needed to be careful and particularly alert as we traversed the danger zone – “ISIS territory,” Derric joked.
And that meant no swimming for us today. We had just camped the night on the summit of Doyle’s Delight – the highest point in Belize – and were on our triumphant descent back to civilization. We were likely the eighth expedition in history to reach the remote summit by foot. After the past three and a half days in the jungle, we were yearning for a victory swim, but today was not the day for it. A silent threat was lurking somewhere in the jungle nearby. “Sorry guys, but I don’t think it’d be a good idea to swim here,” Derric Chan—manager of Chiquibul National Park—said to us. “Let’s get to Fork Camp first and then think about swimming.”
Marvin, our scout, led the way up the steep hillside with his handgun in one hand and a machete in the other. After whacking through a few more palm trees, we finally arrived back at Fork Camp by 2pm. It was still early in the day, but Derric said that it was probably too late to proceed any farther. Our next destination was Ceibo Chico, a small Belizean military outpost we had camped at three days ago. Between us and Ceibo Chico lay 10 miles of challenging terrain. To reach the outpost, we could either 1) backtrack through extremely rugged, tangled dense jungle, or 2) traverse straight through the gold panning stronghold and hope for no encounters. It was a tough decision which needed some thought and a full day’s effort, so we elected to spend the rest of the day lounging around Fork Camp, a pleasant little area of flat land in the middle of the jungle at the confluence of two streams, to prepare for an early start tomorrow.
Suddenly, nearly simultaneously, we all noticed something moving on the hillside, about 100 ft from camp on the opposite side of the stream. Three guys and a dog suddenly emerged from behind the trees and started approaching us. For just a moment, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. We hadn’t seen anyone else for the past two and a half days. Were these other tourists? Were there other people headed up Doyle’s Delight? No, it didn’t make any sense. All three guys looked like locals – they looked to be ethnic Mayan, wearing t-shirts and jeans. Then I noticed that one of the guys was carrying a giant backpack; strapped to the backpack was a big plastic Tupperware bowl, which could only mean one thing: gold panners.
As they continued to approach our camp, Derric immediately stood up and started shouting to them in Spanish. Marvin stealthily pulled out his gun but kept it hidden. We could only imagine what was going to happen next.
We owed much of the success that we had had so far to a single connection that had been facilitated through none other than Google Earth. We had been planning to visit the highest point in Belize for a couple of years, ever since we had started our quest for all 23 North American Country High Points, but we knew it would be challenging. The precious few trip reports that we could find about climbs or attempts of Doyle’s Delight either reached the summit by helicopter or, if by foot, had required a weeklong bushwhack through the jungle—or longer. And more recent reports mentioned security concerns due to ongoing illegal activities in the area. In other words, this was going to be an expedition rather than a quick one-day outing, and due to the security issues would probably require a guide. For those reasons, we had decided to put Doyles Delight on the shelf for a little while. Better to pick the lower hanging fruit on the country high points tree, such as the Caribbean islands and the rest of Central America, and come back to Belize when the time was right.
By late August 2013, after we just returned from a successful trip to Hispañola to climb the Haiti and Dominican Republic high points, we had picked the last of the lowest hanging high point fruit and it was time to begin detailed planning for the expedition to Belize. As we dug a little deeper, it became clear that Doyles Delight was not exactly a “mainstream” mountain. People go to Belize to visit the beach, not slog through the jungle for a week to the top of a viewless hill. There was very little information online or in print. From what we could tell, the first summit had been by foot in 1970; since 1987, there had been a couple of other trips on foot, and a few by helicopter by the military and biologists. (When we later traveled to Belize, we learned from Derric of a few other undocumented expeditions by foot; we put together a timeline in Appendix A, at the end of this report.) Climbing activity had “intensified” by 2008, with an average of one expedition per year, including summits by fellow highpointers Christian Rodriguez (2008) and Jonathan Wunrow (2009). Jon wrote a great book titled “High Points: A Climber’s Guide to Central America,” which served as a great planning resource for us. In the book, he details his successful trip to Doyles Delight in 2009, a trip that took six days and started in the village of San Jose, on the south side of the mountain. That report served as the starting point for our planning. Christian Rodriguez had taken the same route the previous year, and also provided a brief trip report on Summitpost.org. His trip had taken eight days. Another fellow highpointer named Petter Kragset attempted to reach the summit by the same route in March 2013 and started from the same village, but was turned around near the beginning after hearing warning gunshots, presumably from illegal loggers. For a more complete timeline, refer to Appendix A.
We turned to our trusted friend, Google Earth, to learn a little more about the geography of the mountain to explore possible alternative routes. Belize is a relatively small country, about the same size as New Jersey, but it has the lowest population density in Central America (ref Wikipedia), and nearly 60% of the land area is forested, much of it in a vast expanse of virgin jungle in the southern half of the country called Chiquibul National Park. Doyle’s Delight, situated in the heart of the Chiquibul Forest, is located in the Maya Mountains, a divide that runs southwest-northeast from Guatemala through Belize. The difficulty in climbing Doyle’s Delight has little to do with its elevation (only 3,688’) and everything to do with its remoteness. As we poured over satellite imagery, from what we could tell, the summit was about 14 miles line-of-sight (LOS) – a synonym for “as the crow flies” – from the nearest paved road at Jimmy Cut, to the southeast. It was hard to draw any conclusions about the bushwhackability from satellite images alone, but if the fact that it was located in a dense jungle meant anything, that could explain why the previous trips had all taken at least six days.
“Well, we don’t want to take the same route as Petter did,” I had said to Eric. “We wouldn’t want to get all the way down there to Belize, then be turned around one day in after hearing some gunshots. There’s got to be another way.”
“Yeah, let’s see if there are any other roads that get us close to the mountain,” Eric said. “It’d be especially cool if we could somehow involve packrafts and/or mountain bikes.”
We scrutinized the satellite photos, struggling to find ones that had been captured when the mountain was not shrouded in clouds. We even got some help from a friend named Jake Osterberg, an expert in aerial imagery. Decades-old cloudless but grainy images appeared to suggest another gravel/dirt road within 10 miles of the summit, but we were unsure how trustworthy such old imagery could be – if the road were abandoned, it would have long since been consumed by the jungle. With respect to packrafting, a river was visible about 12 miles due east of the summit. A river is a much more stable and trustworthy geographic feature than a road; somehow or another, water is going to keep flowing down it year after year. Perhaps we could paddle up or hike along the side of the river, climb the mountain, and then packraft out? It sounded like a tantalizingly awesome expedition, but there was way too much uncertainty. Would it even be possible to go up the river? What about any red tape? None of the routes that started on the southern side of the mountain seemed very robust.
What about coming from the north? All of the reports that we had come across originated on the southern side of the mountain, in the Toledo district. Why did none come from the north? As I flew through Google Earth, I suddenly had a breakthrough. There was a tenuous jungle path that approached from the north and came within 12 miles LOS of the summit. While that by itself isn’t terribly exciting, as I examined to see where the road came from, I noticed a tight clustering of geo-tagged Panoramio Photos at a location called “Las Cuevas Research Station,” about five miles before the end of the road. Bingo. That means that the road is still in use, and is in fact quite accessible, at least to that point.
I found the website for Las Cuevas (http://www.lascuevas.org/), and learned about its mission, which is “to document and make known the biodiversity of the Maya Forest and contribute practical knowledge to the sustainable development and conservation of the Chiquibul-Maya Mountains Key Biodiversity Area.” There were plenty of photos of the facility and of American college students doing research. So, we concluded, it’s certainly possible to get to Las Cuevas. The question is, how close can you get to the mountain by road? Are there any access restrictions? I sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
That email turned out to be a game changer. Within 90 minutes, I received a reply from Boris Arevalo, Lead Biologist and Station Manager at Las Cuevas. He gave us a few key pieces of information: 1) he himself had climbed Doyle’s Delight from the north, 2) a guide is required, due to its remoteness and security concerns, 3) his organization can provide a guide, 4) the trip takes about six days roundtrip. Voila. We were in business. It was this single email that made the trip possible. It reminded us of the “golden nugget” of information we had uncovered when planning the trip to Pico Duarte, highest point in Dominican Republic, earlier that year (http://www.countryhighpoints.com/dominican-republic-pico-duarte/).
We negotiated the details over email, including the guide fees. Eric and I are loathe to pay any kind of fees to be guided up a mountain, but it sounded like this was our only option, so we had to bite the bullet. After some negotiation, Boris gave us a great deal on the fee because he said that several personnel from Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD, co-managers of Chiquibul National Park) would be joining us. He said that the FCD would provide all of the transportation from San Ignacio (easily accessible by bus) to the trailhead, involving several hours in a 4×4 truck and eight hours on a tractor. They would also provide security, because “sometimes people conducting illegal activities may be encountered.”
We initially targeted January 2014, then March 2014, but crunch time for thesis writing set in, and we had to postpone to September 2014, smack in the middle of the rainy season and at the peak of hurricane season. We kept our fingers crossed that the rains would be merciful and mindful of our quest.
BOSTON TO BELIZE
By early September, the flights were booked and the team was solidified. From Belize, it would be Boris Arevalo (biologist), Derric Chan (our guide, and manager of Chiquibul National Park), and Marvin Diaz (scout). As for gringos, it would be me, Eric, and Josh Spitzberg – a friend we had met through the MIT Outing Club.
On August 17, 2014, we hopped on a plane in Boston and, seven hours later, after a quick layover in Atlanta, we were in Belize. While it had been warm in Boston, stepping out into the humid, tropical Belizean air was like putting on a warm, wet towel. Temps were in the 80s with probably 100% humidity, but at least it wasn’t raining. We took a cab from the airport into Belize City, then hopped on a bus heading west to Belmopan. The bus was actually an old school bus, probably from the US. It was fixed up to almost like new, and proudly painted yellow, red, and green, with colorful decals nearly covering the windshield. Just Google-image-search “belize bus” and you’ll see what I’m talking about. We raced across the countryside at breakneck speed while Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” played through the intercom.
Three hours, one connection, and five dollars later, we pulled into the town of San Ignacio, which you might call the adventure capital of Belize. As we strolled through town on our way to Hotel Mallorca, we saw billboards all over the place offering jungle tours, whitewater rafting, tours of the Maya ruins at Caracol, and, best of all, cave tubing. We had planned a single buffer day into our trip, in case the schedule somehow slipped, and we knew there would be plenty of fun options in case it didn’t.
We checked into our hotel, grabbed some burritos and groceries across the street, and dumped out our gear, which completely covered the floor in our 3-bed room. We spent about an hour repackaging food into Ziploc freezer bags (quart-size, mind you), a ritual that we had practiced and honed before countless trips over the years. Although we knew what food to pack, we had never been backpacking in the rainforest before, so we weren’t completely sure what gear to bring. It was something that we’d discuss with Derric.
Derric arrived at about 7pm and we had a little powwow in our room. He and Rafael Manzanero (executive director of the Friends for Conservation and Development) had just returned from a radio interview in Belize City, in which they had discussed the challenges facing Chiquibul National Park (more on this later). We all introduced ourselves and went over the details of the expedition. In terms of transportation, he’d pick us up early in the morning and we’d drive three hours in a 4×4 truck to Tapir Camp. At that point, the road would be too rough for the truck and we’d ride in a tractor for another eight hours. In all, it’d be 11 hours of travel to get to a military outpost called Ceibo Chico, where we’d spend the night, leave the tractor, and continue towards the summit on foot. Derric would be the leader of the team, Marvin would be our scout, and Boris would be there to provide support. If, at any time, Derric deemed the conditions to be unsafe, we would turn around. Derric and Marvin would be carrying firearms in case of any encounters. The terrain would be difficult, the packs would be heavy, and it would be no cakewalk.
Derric is a man who earns your immediate respect. In my experience as a trip leader, at the beginning of every trip, when you meet someone for the first time, especially someone with whom you’ll be spending the next six days in this case, there is an inevitable and subconscious size-up that you perform. Can this person handle the trip? Will I need to worry about them? Will they be fun to hike with?
As a trip participant, you perform the same size-up of your leader. In any assessment of Derric, one could tell that this wasn’t going to be his first rodeo. He had a mental checklist of standard things that he goes over with clients for expeditions like this, from waivers and collection of the fee to planning, logistics, and discussion of what conditions to expect. Derric had the right combination of a deep knowledge of the jungle, practice coordinating complex logistics, and experience in communicating with clients that instilled immediate confidence. While Derric delivered the necessarily stern message that any trip leader should deliver during the first meeting, he did so professionally and amiably. You knew that Derric was going to be a good leader and, at the same time, fun to hang out with around the campfire. I hoped that Derric would have a similarly favorable assessment of us.
One of our first questions pertained to the weather. A week before the trip, in an email, Derric had said to us that the summer had been dry, but the rainy season was likely to begin soon. “We will just be wet all the time,” he said. “We would be anyway with sweat if it would be hot. I think it is better with some rain.” Accordingly, we had packed plenty of rain gear and trash bags to keep everything waterproof. But Derric was optimistic that the rain would hold off for the duration of our trip.
We went over our gear with Derric. Hiking boots or trail running shoes? Hiking boots. Sunscreen? Bring it for the tractor ride, but you won’t need it in the jungle. Sunglasses? Bring them for eye protection during the bushwhacking. Tent? Ok, but it would have been better if you had brought a hammock. Long sleeves and long pants? Absolutely. Soon, we had pared down our pile to essentially what we would bring along for a regular summer backpacking trip, plus a couple of small dry bags for moisture-sensitive electronics.
“All right, gentlemen,” Derric said. “Get some sleep, and I’ll see you at 6am.”
Despite our excitement for the journey ahead, the blasting cold air from the air conditioner and the fatigue of a long day of travel that had originated in Boston coaxed us to sleep almost immediately.
INTO THE JUNGLE
At 6am sharp, we met Derric and his jungle warrior. The jungle warrior was a circa 2000 silver Toyota Hilux, with four doors and four giant balloon tires that looked like it could get through just about anything. This wasn’t the type of “toy” truck that you might see in Boston, which looks capable but never leaves the pavement. No, the jungle warrior had the scars to prove it had waged many epic battles against the jungle during its rough life. Although it was in excellent working condition, the windshield was cracked, bumpers were dented in, and it had just the amount of mud that suggested that it had probably gone just a couple of days since its last shower. The mangled, rusted rear license plate was barely legible. It would be the perfect traveling companion for the first portion of our foray in to the bush. We threw our packs in the back, alongside a big barrel of fuel that would be used for the tractor in the next phase of the journey, hopped into the cab, and headed out of town.
Along the way, we stopped at a village to pick up Boris, who would be accompanying us on the journey. Boris was a biologist who worked for Las Cuevas, and was the person who had originally connected us with Derric. He grew up in Belize and had studied biology in Costa Rica. At first, Boris looked as if he was a soldier – he was dressed in camo with a green external-frame backpack. But he explained to us that military surplus gear is the cheapest reliable gear in Belize. And it would help to intimidate any illegal gold panners that we encountered. We were very excited that Boris could join us for the trip, because we knew that he could give us the inside story behind any flora and fauna that we encountered.
Soon the road turned to gravel and we began our plunge into the wilderness. Although it was gravel, for the most part the road was in excellent condition, and only occasionally did Derric, who was at the wheel, have to swerve around obstacles. We passed through a dry pine plateau, and eventually came to an abandoned town. On the side of the road we saw a small parking lot, and big sign indicating that this was the location at which private vehicles visiting the ancient Maya ruins of Caracol should wait for a military escort. We had read that the ruins of Caracol were comparable to those of the legendary Tikal in Guatemala, but saw far fewer tourists, which was partly due to the difficulty of getting there and partly due to security concerns.
“Why do private vehicles need an escort to Caracol?” I asked Derric.
“Well, a couple of years ago a few tourists were driving down the road to Caracol,” Derric answered, gesturing to the road that we were on, “and they were stopped by a group of armed Guatemalans. They robbed the tourists and forced them to turn around. Nobody got hurt, but it was a dangerous encounter. Nowadays, for extra security, and to reassure tourists that the route is safe, we require military escorts for private vehicles. The risk is lower nowadays, but there are still Guatemalans sneaking over the border here into Belize to cause trouble. They come for illegal logging and gold panning, and you’ll see what kind of damage that the gold panning can cause. They’re poor and desperate and it’s very hard to make a living in some parts of Guatemala.
“In recent years we’ve tried to establish a stronger presence in this area to deter these illegal activities. We have more rangers in the park. The Ceibo Chico conservation post was started a couple of years ago, which you’ll see tonight. They go on patrols and raids to disrupt the gold panning and logging. But we’re severely understaffed.”
“Do many tourists go to other areas of the park, besides Caracol?” I asked.
“Not many,” Derric answered. “In this area, we have one of the largest cave systems in Central America – the Chiquibul Cave – and occasionally a few tourists go there; recently we even had a National Geographic expedition. The cave system is highly protected, so it doesn’t see many tourists. Where we’re going, very few tourists ever visit. Chiquibul National Park is actually considered to be a “closed” park – no independent tourism is allowed, and there is no trail network. All tours are guided and escorted.
“But we are hoping to change that. With more trips like this one to Doyle’s Delight, we’re hoping to start building up the momentum for tourism. When you’re done with your trip, people will see your photos and read your report and see how cool The Chiquibul is. They’ll see that this place is worth visiting. I think that by improving the safety of the area and cracking down on these illegal activities, we can improve tourism and better protect the Chiquibul overall.
“Tourism is sort of a chicken and egg problem. If the government can be convinced that they can make money off of tourism, they would be willing to invest more money into it, and provide more protection for tourists. But currently, tourism infrastructure is lacking, so it’s hard to convince the government that there’s enough money to be had and hard to convince tourists that it’s safe to visit. Currently, about 97% of park’s effort (and budget) goes toward law enforcement and the other 3% goes to research. We only have 17 full time staff for this huge park, and most of what we do is resource protection. In the future, our goal is to move towards more tourism.”
Things were starting to make more sense to me now. It seemed that the goal of our trip aligned well with those of the park management. The benefit to the park wasn’t merely our trip fee (that wouldn’t go particularly far), it was that our trip would 1) help to promote eco-tourism and 2) help the park management to assert its presence and control over the area. I was beginning to realize that this expedition would be far more enriching that simply reaching the top of another country high point – it would enable us to learn first-hand (from a biologist and the director of the park!) the real conservation issues behind trying to protect a vast and pristine rainforest, while also supporting the goals of the park. It would turn out that this conversation was just the tip of the iceberg.
Soon, we came upon a large river – the Macal – over which spanned a long concrete bridge, called the Guacamallo. We were downstream from the large (and controversial) Chalillo Dam. But this wasn’t the normal type of bridge that is designed to always be high and dry, this one was designed to survive submersion during high water. During a big rainstorm, it’s impassible, and you’re stuck on one side. You just have to wait until the water goes down to pass. Fortunately for us, the water level was low, so we passed without issue, and on the other side arrived at a sign welcoming us to Chiquibul National Park, established in 1991. We were in Derric’s and Boris’ turf now.
Two bumpy miles later, we reached a small clearing in the jungle and spotted a few buildings and tractors. Tapir Camp. This is where the next phase of the journey would begin. Derric parked the truck and said with a smile, “next, you’ll get to ride the Jumping Viper.”
THE JUMPING VIPER
We spotted two giant John Deere tractors parked in the driveway, painted with their iconic green and yellow, along with a generous smattering of jungle mud. These were no mere lawn tractors, nor were they the kind you’d simply drive off the dealer’s lot in Belmopan. These ones were hardened and armored for combat with the jungle. They had two big deeply-treaded wheels in the back which were about five feet in diameter and more than a foot wide. The front wheels had the same aggressive treads and had a diameter of about three feet. These things were built for driving over and through some serious mud.
The most impressive thing about the tractors was the modifications and adornments. Winches were mounted to the front of the tractors, and were attached by custom brackets that were clearly fabricated by a skilled welder. Ladders were welded to the sides, and a heavy-duty equipment canopy was welded over the driver’s seat. Custom benches mounted next to the driver’s seat allowed it to accommodate extra passengers – they just had to be careful not to let their legs get caught up in the wheels. Perhaps not all of the modifications would have been approved by John Deere, but they certainly made the tractors far more capable.
Seeing these John Deeres reminded me of my Grandpa’s restored Model B John Deere tractor that his family bought in 1938. I had ridden in (and driven) it with him a few years ago around the streets of Montevideo, Minnesota, and wondered how different the experience would be in this one (model 6125D) in the jungles of Belize. I learned from grandpa that John Deere was the best tractor that money can buy. At about 125 horsepower and 8,500 lbs, this tractor was about ten times more powerful and 2.5 times heavier than Grandpa’s Model B.
Derric said that the money to buy the tractors (probably between $100k-$150k apiece) was actually donated by the US Government, in a program to help the Belizean military and park service in their efforts to protect their resources and curb illegal activities. (The program also funded new police trucks in Belize City.) He said that there is a significant amount of farming in Belize, and the tractors were purchased at a dealership in Belmopan. “Beyond this point, the road is too rough for the truck, so that’s why we have the tractors and the Jumping Viper.”
Let’s talk about that Jumping Viper. First, I’ll explain its construction, then I’ll outline how it got its name. “Jumping Viper” is the name given to the trailer used to transport people and supplies through the jungle. It’s a big steel box that rides on two wheels about three feet off the ground. Why so much clearance, you ask? Well as it turns out, that’s how deep the mud can get. It hitches to the back of the tractor, and has a few slots through which you can insert wooden boards for people to sit on. The craftsmanship and quality were remarkable. Derric said that he and his colleagues had welded it themselves, and had cannibalized the wheels and suspension system from an old truck. It looked so professional that I could believe that it was an accessory that they’d bought at the John Deere dealership.
Now I’ll talk about how it got its name. Derric explained that the Jumping Viper is used to bring soldiers to and from the Ceibo Chico outpost, and sometimes carries as many as 20 people. Because the suspension system was borrowed from the back of a truck, it’s stiff enough to support a relatively heavy load. Think for a moment about a vehicle going over a bump at a moderate speed. If the vehicle’s suspension system is tuned properly, the wheel moves over the bump, compressing the springs, while the body of the car ideally does not move up or down. A suspension system is supposed to absorb the impact of a bump and keep the passengers (or cargo) safe and comfortable. Now picture a truck going over a bump. The leaf springs in a truck’s suspension are stiff enough that if the truck is carrying a heavy load and goes over a bump, the load doesn’t get jostled around too much. The heavier the load, the less it will move and the smoother ride it will have (provided that it doesn’t fully compress the suspension’s springs).
What if the truck isn’t carrying any weight? In fact, what if you remove the bed of the truck completely, replace it with a cargo box that is much lighter, but keep the same stiff suspension system? You get the Jumping Viper.
Derric warned us that, over the course of the next eight hours on the drive to Ceibo Chico in the Jumping Viper, we would be in for one wild and bumpy ride. He said that the Jumping Viper bounced around a lot, and we would need to hold onto something. Once or twice, he said, guys had fallen out on particularly dramatic bumps when they were not paying attention. “We’ll take plenty of breaks to rest,” he reassured us.
While we were loading the Jumping Viper, we met the sixth and final member of our expedition – Marvin Diaz. Marvin was about the same age as us and had grown up near San Ignacio. He would be the scout on our expedition. His job would be to walk ahead of the rest of us, looking for any signs of danger (gold panners or any other armed bandits) and make sure that we didn’t walk into any ambushes. He would be armed with a machete and a handgun, and would also act as our navigator. With this role and in this jungle, we could tell that Marvin was in his element, and we knew we would be in good hands.
At Tapir Camp, Derric, Boris, and Marvin suited up for battle. In the building, which served as a ranger station, cache, and sleeping quarters for rangers, they loaded up food, radio equipment, machetes, backpacks, maps, stoves, and a big chainsaw.
“What’s the chainsaw for?” Eric asked.
“That’s in case we encounter any trees down over the road,” Derric said. “You know, this is actually a saw that we confiscated from an illegal logger a couple of years ago. We call these loggers ‘chateros.’ As soon as we spotted the chatero, he dropped the saw and ran away, back into Guatemala. This saw probably cost almost a thousand dollars. And the chateros themselves don’t own the saws, you know, they’re just poor guys who work for some manager in Guatemala who pays them next to nothing. You should see the poor horses and mules that carry out the wood. They’re starving, malnourished, and extremely overworked. When the guy who lost the saw got back into Guatemala, he probably got in some big trouble.”
Derric loaded a radio and a telescoping antenna into his pack. “One time, we actually lost a radio in the woods,” he said. “We don’t know if any of the gold panners or chateros ever found it. If they did, they could be listening to all of our conversations.” He chuckled. “In a few weeks, we’re planning to conduct a string operation against the gold panners in one area. It will be a joint operation between the Friends for Conservation and Development and the Belize Military. But don’t tell anyone,” he said, smiling. We swore to protect the secret.
TAPIR CAMP TO MILIONARIO
We loaded our packs onto the tractor’s cargo rack and prepared for what Derric had warned us would be an eight hour ride (approx 25-30 miles) to Ceibo Chico camp. He instructed me to fill up a big white bucket with gas from one of the fuel drums, which Marvin poured into the tractor. Eric and I, Josh, and Boris hopped into the Jumping Viper, while Marvin rode on the tractor with Derric, ready to spring into action in case danger popped up. The tractor lurched forward, and we continued down a gated gravel side road toward the southeast.
Although, for now at least, the condition of the road was no different than the road we had driven on so far, we soon recognized the aptness of the name “Jumping Viper.” As we proceeded at a moderate pace – probably 10 mph – the Viper sprang into the air with every rock that it ran over. “Grab onto the hand rail!” Boris yelled above the roar of the engine.
We clutched onto the sides of the trailer for dear life as the Viper bounced mercilessly up and down, left and right. At first, the journey proceeded as follows: we would encounter a smooth patch of road, let down our guard, loosen our grip on the handrail and try to take a picture, unconsciously locking our knees. Then, all of a sudden – WHAM! We’d go airborne, our feet momentarily losing contact with the floor due to the impulse of what was probably nothing more than a first-sized rock, and in the fleeting moment of micro-freefall, we’d grab onto anything we could, and brace for impact.
We quickly learned that the key to staying alive in the belly of the Jumping Viper was to use your legs to act as a sort of mini suspension system. If you bent your knees, you could use your quads and butt muscles to absorb the impulse energy from the floor while keeping the rest of your body stationary. With this technique, you could essentially compensate for the Viper’s stiff suspension by adding some soft suspension in the form of your legs. We guessed that if the trailer had been filled with twenty military dudes, as it often was, the ride would probably be a lot less bumpy. The transplanted truck suspension system was not optimized for such little weight at such a slow speed.
I spotted a small gray stowaway treefrog that was clinging onto the steel wall of the trailer for dear life. It must have climbed into the Viper before we started. Its sticky hands and feet must be giving it a lot firmer grasp than we could get, I thought. Boris picked him up and gently tossed him into the bushes. The belly of a steel viper was no place for a treefrog.
“Wow, this ride is crazy,” I said to Boris, after a particularly severe bump. “It’s going to be an interesting eight hours!”
“This is nothing!” Boris yelled over the loud drone of the engine. “Wait to see what it’s like when the road actually gets rough!”
After about eight miles of driving, we reached a crossroads. “This is Millionaro,” Boris said.
“How did it get that name?” Josh asked, smiling.
“Probably a long time ago some gold panner or logger thought he was going to get rich so he called it that,” Boris said laughing. “Down that road, in a couple of miles, is Las Cuevas,” he said, pointing to the left. “But we’ll go to the right.”
Derric stopped the little convoy and hopped down from the cab. “We’ll take a short break here to unload some gear,” he said. “This is where is starts getting muddy.”
As Derric and Marvin unloaded some supplies to give to a few guys also dressed in camouflage pants (presumably park rangers) Boris explained the history of this road to us. The road that we would be taking from here to Ceibo Chico had been constructed many years ago (it shows up in satellite photos from 1980), and up until 2013 had been used by a Canadian company doing some gold mining in the area. The company had of course obtained the proper permits and was conducting the mining sustainably, under the auspices of the Belizean government. At that time, the road was kept in good condition.
The company employed a Guatemalan gentleman, who was fired in 2011 (reasons unclear). A few months after he was fired, illegal gold panners began coming over from Guatemala to pan for gold and the floodgates opened. By 2013, the Canadian company was no longer profitable (perhaps due to competition with the Guatemalans?), and pulled out of the area. They abandoned their operations, their buildings, and the road, which rapidly fell into disrepair.
Presumably, it was simpler to buy a good tractor that can drive through anything, rather than trying to maintain the entire road. He said that in the dry season, the road can actually be quite passable. In fact, during a particularly dry month, it is rumored that a Land Rover made it all the way to Ceibo Chico, which was about 25 miles away. Boris said that one time he had even hiked the entire distance from Las Cuevas to Ceibo Chico, and that it had taken him a full 12 hours.
As the sun beat down on us through the clearing, we slathered on the sunscreen. “Wow, I thought we’d have to worry more about rain than sunburn,” Josh said. Although we were in the rainforest and expected rain, we of course preferred dry weather. We hopped in the Jumping Viper and continue into the jungle.
MILIONARIO TO CEIBO CHICO
Soon after Milionario, we realized the true reason for the tractor. Up until Milionario, the road had still been passable by a 4×4 truck. But after rounding a corner, we discovered the first big obstacle that meant the end of the line for wimpy vehicles – a giant pond in the middle of the road. We could tell by the ruts that previous drivers had tried to go around it, but the deep ruts they created merely served to widen the pond to perhaps 30 ft wide. It was hard to gauge the depth of the water by eye, but Derric didn’t hesitate for a moment and steered the caravan straight into the middle. As the water came higher and higher on the wheels, a big wave formed around the tractor and propagated across the pond. The wave caused a few panicked frogs and turtles to hop and scoot into the water, and we hoped that they would steer clear of the tractor. At the deepest point, the water made it nearly all the way up to the tractor’s rear axle – a depth of probably 18 inches – but the John Deere was unfazed. It just kept rumbling along with the Jumping Viper in tow.
That was only the beginning. Throughout the next few hours, we came to realize and appreciate what the tractor was truly capable of. At some points, it seemed like the “road” was just one giant puddle after another. Every time we crossed another pond, it seemed like we bested our previous high water mark. At some points the Jumping Viper’s wheels were completely submerged. We’d pass through a pond, emerge on the other side and plow through knee deep mud. Then we’d hit a patch of dry ground, speed up, and the mud and rocks stuck in the tires would go flying, forcing us to duck for cover.
Every once in a while we’d encounter a large fallen tree. Many could be removed with enough manpower, but some required the chainsaw. Derric said that the last time he had driven the road was after he dropped about fifteen military guys off at Ceibo Chico, which had been about ten days ago. So, all of the trees that we saw had fallen in the last ten days. I guess it’s not too unexpected for trees to fall in the jungle, but we were nevertheless surprised with how frequently we had to stop to help clear out trees. The largest tree was nearly 18” in diameter, but Marvin expertly sliced through it with the Guatemalan chainsaw. Without a saw or an axe, you could easily be stranded.
Overall, I’d say that the 25 mile stretch of road from Tapir Camp to Ceibo Chico was 50% dry dirt, 25% soft mud (< 6” of tire sinkage), 15% deep mud (> 6” of tire sinkage), and 10% water. But it was far from drudgery. Once we grew accustomed to the temperament of the Jumping Viper, it was an exhilarating ride though the jungle. We didn’t see much wildlife – the roar of the engine scared away every living creature – but the lushness of the jungle was amazing. There were vines hanging from everything, giant ferns everywhere, and plenty of palm trees.
There we also some curious attractions along the way. In one clearing we stopped for a short break and Derric showed us some edible fruit called oro ciruela (golden plum). I spotted some bright red berries, which Boris said were also edible (with the vulgar local name of pelotas del perro, ie dog balls). It was great having Boris – a biologist – along because he was an expert on edible jungle plants. Boris also pointed out some chicle trees that had extensive scars on them from sap harvesters called “chicleros.” The sap is apparently used to make natural rubber. About half way we stopped by an awesome natural arch over the Ceibo Chico River. The arch was so gigantic that it actually served as the bridge over the river. As we drove across the arch, it was so wide and forested that you couldn’t even see the river below.
Finally, after about eight hours, we arrived at a large clearing in the woods and, in the fading twilight, spotted a small house upon a little hill. We had made it to Ceibo Chico, where we would spend the night.
If you zoom into western Belize on Google Earth, you will see a landmark labeled “Ceibo Chico.” The icon that Google Earth uses for Ceibo Chico is the same as the one used for cities, but Ceibo Chico is little more than one small building at the end of the road in the middle of the jungle. Derric told us that the area had served as a camp of sorts for many years, and several years ago a new building had been constructed to house military troops. The purpose of the camp was to serve as a Conservation Post so that the Belizean military could maintain a permanent presence in the area and defend the Chiquibul from illegal loggers and gold panners. The park management was trying to securing funding for more Conservation Posts to provide better control of the area. There are always about 10-15 troops at the camp, and the soldiers conducted daily patrols and occasional raids. Boris said that one of their roles would be to help protect us on our expedition. As we approached the building, we spotted a couple of big guns sitting on the porch, which the soldiers quickly put away, probably in an effort not to scare us.
As we cooked dinner, we got to meet some of the soldiers. They were all super-friendly and curious, and were all about our age. We told them about our mission to climb Doyle’s Delight which, even though it was only about 10 miles away, many of them had never even heard of because it is so seldom visited. They had been in the jungle for the last 10 days, and would be leaving in a few more days, after which they would get a couple of days off. Most of them spoke good English. Some were from the eastern side of Belize, where English is widely spoken, and others were from the western side, where there is more Spanish.
We were all tired from a long day of travel, so soon after dinner Boris, Marvin, Derric, and Josh all set up their hammocks on the porch, suspended between some of the beams. Unaccustomed to sleeping in hammocks, Eric and I had brought our tent, which we set up on the lawn next to the hut. We staked out one side of our tent using a clever weightlifting setup that the soldiers had made. They had cut two trees in a Y-shape and pounded those into the ground. The barbell consisted of a straight branch with one heavy steel hub from an old truck on each side. It looked like they could use it for squats and bench press.
We fell asleep to the peaceful sound of tree frogs interspersed with the quiet rustling of the palm trees.
INTO ISIS TERRITORY
We awoke slightly before dawn to a magnificent scene. From our perch on the hillside, we watched as fog drifted through the clearing, wafting through the palm trees in the distance. The John Deere and Jumping Viper rested majestically on the front lawn. As we ate breakfast we watched the sun cast its first rays of light into the valley while five of the soldiers headed out on patrol. If our level of safety was proportional to the size of the guns they carried, we knew that we wouldn’t have any problems on our expedition.
Forty five minutes later, we packed up our stuff and started hiking. It had basically taken us two full days to get from Boston to the “trailhead” here at Ceibo Chico and we were eager to finally start walking. With heavy packs carrying four days of food, we proceeded in the direction that the soldiers had gone, up an old road. Soon we passed by the remains of the Canadian mining camp that had been abandoned a few years ago, and shortly after that the road began to deteriorate. As soon as the road had been abandoned a few years ago, the jungle had been working hard to reclaim it. Machete in hand, Marvin took the lead, slashing though vines and low hanging branches.
After a couple of river crossings, any remaining vestige of a roadbed that we had been following disappeared, and it was now a hiking trail. The frequent patrols by soldiers kept the trail quite clear and passable. The terrain was rugged, but the trail was in good condition and group was strong so we maintained a good pace.
After a few hours of hiking, we reached a crossroads. “Down there is ISIS territory,” Derric said with a smile, gesturing to the valley. “That is where the gold panners have their camps. We probably won’t have any problems if we go through there since the military patrol just went through, but you never know. Just to be safe, I think we should avoid that area completely. Generally with the gold panners, as long as you don’t bother them, then they don’t bother you, but let’s play it safe this time. I think we should stay up on this ridge and go around the valley,” he said, gesturing with his machete up the hill. “The last time I was here, which was a couple of years ago, I was here with Boris to climb Doyle’s Delight. There had just been a forest fire and a lot of the ridge tops had been burned. It was very easy to walk, you could almost run in fact.”
That sounded like a good plan to us so we departed the trail, proceeding up the hill behind Derric and Marvin. Soon we neared the top of the ridge, which appeared to be devoid of large trees. “Awesome,” I said, “it should be smooth sailing once we get up there.”
But alas that was not the case. Six-foot-tall jungle grass of impenetrable density carpeted the ridge. Derric began to hack a path through the grass, in the hope that it would open up on the other side, but unfortunately it did not. The hiking had rapidly changed from easy bushwhacking through an open shaded forest to basically swimming through a wall of wet grass under the scorching sun. Our speed dropped by probably a factor of four and our rate of sweating doubled. We plowed along the grassy, unrelenting ridge for about an hour then stopped to reassess.
“If we keep walking along the ridge it will be very slow,” Derric said. “But if we go down there into the trees we run the risk of an encounter.”
“Can we walk along the edge of the ridge, in the trees?” Boris asked.
Derric thought about it and we were all in agreement. We picked an elevation that kept us above the perils of valley but below the impenetrable fortress of the grassy ridge. It was still very difficult, traversing along such a steep slope, and the risk of slipping was constant. After another hour of slow progress, Derric, Marvin, and Boris came to the reluctant conclusion that the only way to make it to our destination (Fork Camp) by sunset would be to descend the hillside into gold panner territory – or “ISIS territory,” as Derric like to call it – where we could walk along the well-worn trails that the gold panners had created. “They’ll probably hear us coming and flee anyhow, Derric said, “so I doubt that we’ll see them.”
Me, Eric, and Josh welcomed the decision. We were eager for easier hiking terrain and of course secretly wanted to catch a glimpse of the elusive gold panner.
We made rapid progress down to the bottom of the valley and soon realized with dismay the havoc and destruction that the gold panners had wrought. The pristine jungle had been hacked down, and there were campfire ashes all over the place. In the creekbed, trees had been uprooted and big pools had been excavated for gold panning. From trash bags to food wrappers to soda cans, trash was strewn everywhere. The once pristine jungle creek was choked with scraps of plastic, murky with silt, and a black sheen of oil covered the surface. It was incredible that this level of destruction could be caused by people who had hiked 20 miles from Guatemala and only had hand tools.
On the one hand, we felt sorry for the jungle. But on the other, we couldn’t help but feel sorry for the gold panners themselves as well. Derric said that many of the gold panners typically have families of five kids or more back in Guatemala. The area is extremely poor and there are almost no sources of income. The men hike all the way in here and pan for gold for days at a time. They carry out their gold in small vials, and only make about $10 a day. “To improve the situation, the most effective thing to do is of course to improve the economic conditions in Guatemala. There are organizations who are investing in towns just across the border in Guatemala in an effort to help make the economy better, so that people won’t have to turn to gold panning to support their family. But we have a long way to go.”
“Do gold panners who get caught go to jail?” Eric asked.
“People captured doing illegal stuff like gold panning or logging will usually get a few months in jail and have to pay some fines, before being sent back to Guatemala, unless they’re armed, in which case they get about five years in jail. Belizeans are starting to get outraged that foreigners (the Guatemalans) are coming in and stealing their resources – taking gold and lumber and destroying the environment. The public is starting to pay more attention to the situation, so hopefully things will continue to improve.”
Although the destruction was appalling, the walking became much easier, as we could hike along the trails that the gold panners used. We didn’t spot any gold panners, but Derric said that they had probably heard us coming and fled just out of sight. We proceeded swiftly up the stream in an effort to minimize our time in “ISIS territory.”
Eventually we reached the source of the stream and the gold panning activity began to disappear.
Unfortunately, that also meant that the trail vanished. As we climbed to the top of a ridge, we once again took the plunge into a sea of dense grass, and swam our way up to the top. When we reached the crest of the ridge, we finally got our first view of the summit. Derric pointed to a ridge just a few miles away and indicated that one of the humps on the ridge was the summit. It wasn’t an awful lot higher than our current elevation – perhaps only 500ft – and if probably only had a few hundred feet of prominence. It also didn’t look too far line-of-sight-wise, but as we had discovered, covering any distance in the jungle can be much harder than expected.
We had hoped to make it to a place called Fork Camp for the night, but Derric said that we probably wouldn’t make it there by nightfall, so we’d have to camp somewhere in between. We squeezed as much hiking as we could out of the fading twilight before darkness finally caught up with us. We picked a spot next to a creek to set up camp.
“Is that enough space for you to set up your tent?” Derric asked.
“Probably,” Eric said, “we’ll make it work.”
Because we were on the hillside we didn’t have too many options for camping, and we knew we would have to do some excavating. While I excavated some dirt on the uphill side, Eric built up a small terrace on the downhill side. Meanwhile, Marvin chopped off some small tree branches that we could use to cover up the mud and help to smooth out our little site. By the time we were finished we had an awesome tent pad. We even spotted a small land crab as we were clearing our site.
After another dry night in the jungle, we pack up our gear and proceeded downhill, towards Fork Camp. At the bottom of the valley we encountered the Ceibo Chico River and realized that we would soon be entering the Wet Foot Club. The hillsides on each side of the river were steep and would be very difficult to traverse. The river, meanwhile, was nice and open, with a slow flow and sandy, shallow bottom. Derric, Marvin, and Boris took the plunge into the river and walked right up it. We gringos stuck to the bank, trying to hop from one rock to another in an effort to keep our feet dry. But it was no use. Soon we all got wet and ended up hiking in the river together.
It was interesting to compare the different types of gear that we had brought on the expedition. Me, Eric, and Josh all had American-standard Gore-Tex hiking boots, which were good as long as the water didn’t go higher than the top of the boot. Derric had shin-high rubber galoshes, while Marvin and Boris had boots that didn’t even attempt to be waterproof but dried quickly. Our footwear represented the spectrum of the different schools of thought on footwear.
As for backpacks, Eric, Josh and I had our fancy internal frame Gregory and Osprey packs while Marvin and Boris had green military-style external frame packs. “By the way,” I asked Derric, “why is it that most of your gear looks like military gear? Is it from the Belize military?”
“Most of our gear is surplus gear from the US military,” Derric said. “My jacket is actually surplus from Operation Desert Storm,” he said pointing to his brown coat. “This gear is affordable, but for the most part, it is very expensive to get equipment down to Belize. You have to either fly it in and know an insider in customs, or put it on a truck in Texas and drive it down through Mexico. It can take more than a month to get anything from the US. But the nice thing about military gear is that it makes you look more intimidating to the Guatemalans. When the Guatemalans see our camouflage pants and jackets they think we are in the military, even through we’re actually park rangers instead. The intimidation factor is important.”
After another half hour of hiking we finally reached the elusive Fork Camp. It’s funny that, like Ceibo Chico, Fork Camp also shows up on Google Earth, just like a town. But calling it any more than a clearing in the woods is generous. It’s situated at the confluence of two streams, and provides one of the only level areas around. We could tell that people had camped there before, probably gold panners, but there was no evidence of their activities in the stream, which ran cold and clear.
It was still early in the day, so after a quick break at Fork Camp we continued up the mountain. This would be our last water source for the next day or so, so we filled up all of our bottles. Just beyond Fork Camp, we passed by a magnificent clear pool in the stream. It was perhaps 20 feet wide and well over our heads in the middle. A large rock nearby looked to be the ideal rock for jumping off. “Wow, that’s gotta be the most appealing swimming hole that I’ve ever seen,” I said to Eric. “It’s just asking for us to swim in it. Think how awesome it would be to jump in there.” Others echoed that sentiment, but ultimately we decided to keep moving, in favor of reaching the summit before sunset. We decided that we would jump in the following day, during our decent, when we probably would have more time. It would be a decision that we’d later regret.
After Fork Camp, the hike became surprisingly easier. We had expected for the forest to grow denser as we climbed (as it does in the White Mountains of New Hampshire), but here in the Chiquibul the virgin trees were relatively sparse with little undergrowth and it was easy to pass through without the help of a machete. There were even orange ribbons on some of the trees, which Derric had placed on his trip with Boris two years ago. The only things that you had to watch out for were the trees that were covered in two inch-long thorns, or the tarantulas, or the pit vipers (one of which we almost stepped on!)
After a few more hours of climbing we stopped for a break on the ridge. “This is the last possible location where we can get water,” Derric said. “The creek is about 300ft below us and about a half a mile away.” Eric and I volunteered to go down and top off water for the group, just to be sure that we’d have enough. After a steep descent and grueling climb back to camp, our mini-mission was accomplished.
We continued hiking along the ridge and soon we could taste the summit. As fate would have it, the next day was Belize’s Independence Day, and this evening was the evening that people traditionally set off fireworks, so it would be an especially fitting day to reach the summit. It was basically the equivalent of July 4th evening in the US. We continued plowing through the trees and at about 4pm on September 20, 2014, we triumphantly emerged into a small clearing in the trees that marked the highest point in Belize!
But we weren’t quite celebrating yet. Even though Derric said that we were at the top and our GPS’s corroborated it, we couldn’t be absolutely sure until we saw the summit marker. Derric had told us earlier that the last time he was here, he and Boris discovered a small metal summit marker embedded in concrete, flush with the ground. He said it had probably been placed during the first expedition in the 1970s. We knew it wouldn’t be easy to find because, as far as we knew, we were the first people to reach the top in the past two years, and the grass had grown quite high in the meantime.
Marvin and Derric hacked away the knee-high grass with their machetes, while Eric, I, Josh, and Boris carefully combed through the brush and moved away the fallen branches. After a full 30 minutes of searching, Derric exclaimed, “I found it!” We ran over to investigate, and sure enough, there it was.
An overwhelming sense of relief came over me. After countless hours of planning and months of research, after all of the emails and phone calls, and after days of sweat and toil, we had at last accomplished our goal of standing on the highest ground in Belize. Our hard work had finally paid off. I felt that from this point on, basically anything could happen and we’d still be ahead. We could be captured by Guatemalan bandits, robbed of our passports, bitten by a viper, and/or miss our flight and it wouldn’t be a big deal. All of those things would of course be very unpleasant, but none of them could take away the fact that we had stood on top of Doyle’s Delight.
The summit marker was plain and boring – just a 2” diameter metal disc that read “LEGAL SURVEY MARKER 354.” One would think that there would at least be a sign that exultantly exclaimed that this was the highest point in Belize, but perhaps it more in keeping with the wilderness spirit that this small marker was the extent of the human footprint on the area.
As we high-fived each other and took countless victory photos, Derric assembled his radio’s antenna to notify the outside world of our success.
“Maya Quest 3 expedition to base, over,” Derric said. (“Maya Quest 3” was our expedition’s call sign; Maya Quest 1 and 2 had been Derric’s call signs on his previous two expeditions.)
“Maya Quest 3, this is base, we read you loud and clear,” a voice responded. We guessed that it was probably soldiers on the radio back at Ceibo Chico.
“Base, we are happy to report that we are standing on the top of Doyle’s Delight.”
“Nice work, Maya Quest 3, we’ll pass that information along. Any encounters?”
“Negative, base, but we’ll keep our eyes out.”
“Copy that, over and out.”
A NIGHT ON THE SUMMIT
We set up our tents and hammocks and Marvin started a big campfire. We didn’t have any fireworks to celebrate, but as the sky grew darker, we noticed some flashes in the distance. “Cool, that must be other people celebrating Independence Day,” I said.
“Uh, I think that’s actually lightning,” Eric replied. His suspicions were quickly confirmed – the flashes seemed to be coming from behind the clouds rather than below them. But we couldn’t hear any thunder, so we knew the storms were pretty far away.
As we roasted some marshmallows that Derric had brought, the jungle started to come to life. Marvin spotted a few small colorful snakes slithering around and we noticed a giant stick bug walking over the map. We had never expected the summit to be so pleasant. It was nice and dry, with no flies or mosquitoes, and the temperature was comfortable. We had a pleasant sleep as the highest people in Belize.
SUMMIT TO FORK CAMP
When we woke up the next morning, we had a couple of mini-missions to accomplish before heading back. The first was to make a cairn next to the metal summit marker so that it would be easier for the next people to find it. The problem was, it was a jungle and undergrowth covered everything. After a half an hour we managed to scrounge up a couple of rocks, which we submerged a few inches into the ground, pointy side up, so that even after a few years of jungle growth an intrepid hiker might still be able to find it.
The next mission was to look for a view. The summit itself is relatively broad with tall trees all around, which meant that there wasn’t much of a view. Eric and I hiked around and finally found a climbable tree. I climbed about 25 feet up and from the top of the tree I could finally start to see some nearby hills. I looked to the southeast and spotted a large body of water in the distance. The Caribbean Sea! According to our map, the Caribbean was only about 25 miles away, but through the haze it seemed much farther.
Back in the summit clearing, we packed up our stuff and prepared to leave. Boris and Marvin took down the big blue Belize flag that they had been flying since yesterday evening, and Derric presided as they ceremoniously folded it up. As an offering to the Mayan gods (or so he didn’t have to carry it down the mountain), Marvin left behind his machete next to the summit cairn. We hoped that the next hiker would be able to make good use of it.
Finally, we shouldered our packs, bid farewell to the summit, and took the plunge back into the jungle. The descent was far easier than the ascent for a number of reasons. First of all, the trail was well-cut, so we could follow it without needing to consult the map and compass frequently. Second, it was downhill, so gravity was helping us. And third, it was psychologically easier; filled with the relief of having accomplished our goal, we lightheartedly marched downward.
In a few hours we were back at the stream near Fork Camp, and spotted the glorious swimming hole that we had identified the previous day. “All right, time for a swim!” I exclaimed.
But something wasn’t right. The river, which had been crystal clear the previous day, was now a cloudy light blue color. We knew what that meant. “There must be gold panners upstream,” Derric said. “They dislodge the silt and it makes the water murky. I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t think it would be a good idea to swim here. We may have some company.”
We continued on, dejectedly, and hoped that the conditions would be safer for swimming at Fork Camp. When we made it to Fork Camp, it was still early in the day, but Derric decided that it would be best to stay here. If we continued, we’d have trouble finding campable terrain with water before we entered “ISIS territory.” We went to work clearing a spot for our tent. We grabbed dozens of giant fallen palmetto fronds which we laid out on the ground to smooth out the bumpy spots. Afterwards, we lounged about and started eating lunch.
Suddenly, I noticed something moving in the trees up on the hillside. Boris, Marvin, and Derric noticed it too. “Wow, are those other hikers?” I wondered for a moment. Soon we spotted three guys and a dog, and they were quite clearly not recreational gringo hikers like us. As they approached us, we observed that two of the guys were carrying nothing, but one had a giant backpack with a large Tupperware pan. Gold panners.
Derric immediately hopped up and started to approach them. Although we had been warned about the dangers they posed, we weren’t particularly concerned. There were six of us and only three of them (well, only three of them were visible, at least). None of them seemed be carrying a machete, and there was a fast-flowing stream that separated us from them. They just seemed to be curious about us. “What are those three gringos doing down there?” they probably wondered.
Initially, Derric began yelling at them in Spanish and it appeared that they were starting to walk away. We figured that Derric was telling them to get the %$#@ out of here. But after a bit of shouting back and forth, they came closer and began to talk with Derric for a while. Marvin stealthily withdrew his gun from his belt in case things got dicey, and I noted the location of the nearest machete. After a minute or two of discussion, they slowly turned around and began to walk away, back up the hillside from which they had descended. Derric walked back to us with a faint smirk on his face as the three guys and dog disappeared back into the jungle.
“They’re definitely gold panners,” Derric said.
“What did you tell them?” Eric asked.
“They asked about you guys, and I told them you were potential investors in gold panning operations in this area, and I was your guide,” he said with a smile. “I think they trusted me, because they saw that I was wearing the same boots as them, and dressed similarly, and spoke with the same accent. Luckily, they didn’t see my gun or my camouflage, or they would have gotten suspicious. There isn’t really much else we could do. I didn’t want to tell them to get out of here or they might have become suspicious that I was park management and that might have caused them to become hostile. Darn, if I would have been thinking, I would have told you guys to get some photos and videos of them.”
“We did get a couple of photos,” Josh said. In a couple of the photos you could make out their faces.
“These are great,” Derric said. “We can compare these photos with the photos that we’ve taken of the people who’ve gotten caught, and see if any of them are repeat offenders.”
We sat there for a few minutes, ultra-alert, scanning the hillside frequently to see if the gold panners would come back. But soon we began to relax, and sensed that the danger was over. After about an hour, Derric gave us the long-awaited go-ahead to swim in the creek right next to camp. It wasn’t exactly the magnificent swimming hole that we had passed earlier, but it would be a welcome opportunity to cool down and wash off some of the dirt we had accumulated over the past couple of days. “I don’t think they’ll come back, but try to stay within view of camp.”
Eric, Josh, and I swam around for a good half hour in the refreshing stream. It was the perfect temperature – not the icy chill you get in alpine streams in the US, but the much more pleasant and tolerable jungle coolness that you can enjoy indefinitely.
The gold panners left us alone for the rest of the day, and we had another relaxing evening around the campfire and a quiet sleep beneath the palm trees of Fork Camp.
FORK CAMP TO CEIBO CHICO
The next day, the plan was to take a more direct route to Ceibo Chico, where we would spend the night. We wanted to avoid the agonizing ridgetop bushwhacks that had slowed us down a few days earlier. Derric radioed to Ceibo Chico to tell them about our plans and relay the encounter the previous day. They said that they would send a patrol to rendezvous with us and escort us back to Ceibo Chico.
After climbing up and over a few hills, we dropped down into a creekbed and spotted some more signs of gold panning activity. “This is really the center of the gold panning operations,” Derric said. “The gold panners probably heard us coming and fled.”
We walked past one pit after another through nearly a mile of devastation. It was incredible just how much of a mess that the gold panners could make. They had to walk about 20 miles to get here – just think how much of a mess they’d cause if they could drive trucks all the way in, we thought to ourselves.
By about noon we reached the top of a ridge, the point at which we had chosen to deviate from the trail a couple of days ago. By traveling through the gold panner territory, we had gone about twice the speed. When we arrived, we were greeted by our escort – approximately eight soldiers from Ceibo Chico, each of which had a large gun. A couple of the guys had been laying on the ground with guns pointed into gold panner territory, ready to cover us in case anyone attacked. We thanked them for coming, and continued back towards Ceibo Chico, with four soldiers in front and four in the back. It felt like we had our own bodyguards, and we knew nobody would mess with us. By 3:30pm, we were back at Ceibo Chico. The soldiers quickly changed into civilian clothes and offered us some kool aid, which we drank ravenously.
ONE MORE RIDE IN THE JUMPING VIPER
We were prepared to camp out, but because it was still relatively early in the day, Derric proposed that we try to push all the way back to Tapir Camp that day. It would be eight more hours in the Jumping Viper, and we wouldn’t arrive at Tapir Camp until probably close to midnight, but it sounded good to us because it’d give us extra time in Belize. We had given ourselves one full buffer day in Belize in case things didn’t go according to plan, and now this opened up the possibility of two full extra days in Belize. We were keen to check out the nearby Mayan ruins of Caracol, and Derric said that he could arrange a visit for us the next day.
As we packed up our stuff, Boris pointed to a tall tree behind camp. “Check those out, those are scarlet macaws,” Boris said. “There are only about 200 in the wild in Belize, and you are looking at 1% of them right there.” Although they were relatively far away, we could still make out their magnificent red, blue, and yellow feathers.
We hopped back into the Jumping Viper and waved goodbye to the soldiers at Ceibo Chico. The tractor lurched forward and we began the arduous journey back to Tapir Camp. Due to the lateness of the day, we made fewer stops, except to cut out the occasional tree, which had fallen in the past couple of days, and arrived around 11:30pm. It had been a long day of hiking and standing in the Jumping Viper, and we were exhausted. We set up our tent below the ranger station and promptly fell asleep.
EXTRA CREDIT: CARACOL
By the time we woke up the next morning, Derric had already left. He had driven back to San Ignacio to take care of business in town. Another ranger offered to give us a ride to Caracol, so we hopped in his truck and 30 minutes later we were at the ancient Mayan ruins.
In the interest of keeping this already long trip report from getting even longer, I’ll spare the reader the details of our day at Caracol, but I will note a few highlights.
First, since this was the off-season for tourism, we had the entire complex almost completely to ourselves. We climbed up thousand year old temples, walked through subterranean passageways, and admired intricate stone carvings like the kind you see in history books. From the highest temple, we could even see Doyle’s Delight, nearly 45 miles away. Imagine having a place like Machu Picchu completely to yourself!
Second, we spotted a number of noteworthy jungle creatures at Caracol. As we entered one of the caves, I glanced over my left shoulder and nearly hit my head on the ceiling as I jumped away from a giant arachnid that we later learned was called a “whip scorpion.” The critter looked like a gigantic spider, with legs wide enough to spread across a large dinner plate. We later learned from Boris that, luckily, it isn’t poisonous. We encountered another interesting specimen in the bathroom sink at the visitor’s center. Except this wasn’t a whip scorpion but rather a regular old fashioned scorpion about two inches long, ready to sting if I got too close. We also saw a bunch of foot-long skinks sunning themselves and, coolest of all, numerous colonies of leafcutter ants. You could tell where the leafcutter ants were located if you found a miniature 3” wide trail through running through the woods. It was incredible to watch these tiny ants carrying twigs and leaves about three times as heavy as they were. Once, we introduced an obstruction into their path – a leaf. The ants began to pile up on one side before a few adventurous ants found the path around the leaf. The other ants began to follow and a new path was formed. We amused ourselves for much of the afternoon observing the ants.
Our ride was scheduled to arrive around 3pm to pick us up, but one of the guards at Caracol told us that he had gotten a call over the radio that our ride would be a few hours late. That was just fine with us, we thought, it’s not every day that you find yourselves in the most spectacular complex of Mayan ruins in the world with a few extra hours to kill.
We walked around for a few more hours but our ride still didn’t show up. It was getting late in the day and we were anxious to get back to San Ignacio so we could be on schedule for the next day. It just so happened that a couple of other gringos were finishing up their tour of Caracol and had some extra space in the back of their pickup truck, so we hopped in and got an exhilarating ride back to Tapir Camp.
A RIDE WITH RAFAEL
At Tapir Camp, we met Rafael Manzanero, the executive director of the Friends for Conservation and Development, the organization that had helped organize our trip. Rafael and Derric worked together to keep Chiquibul National Park running smoothly. Rafael reminded me a lot of Derric – he also spoke great English, with the same slight Belizean/Mayan accent. We hopped in his truck and began the three hour ride back to San Ignacio.
“How was your trip?” he asked us.
“Fantastic!” I said. “It’s too bad you couldn’t join us.” (Rafael had been planning to join but had to cancel at the last minute.)
“Yeah it’s too bad I missed out this time. I heard about your little encounter with the gold panners.”
“It added a little bit of spice to the trip,” I said. “It was nice to have the escort, it felt very safe to me.”
“That’s good to hear,” Rafael said. “You know, things are progressing in the right direction here, but slowly. We would like to help promote more tourism in the Chiquibul, like your trip for example, while at the same time also promoting conservation. I think that tourism and conservation are closely related, and in fact the two actually help each other. If we can start having more tourists in the Chiquibul, that will help to deter the Guatemalans. A couple of years ago, we had a big adventure race called the Maya Mountain Adventure race, and there were teams from all over – Belize, US, Denmark, and Ecuador. It was very popular. We plan to have another one in 2016, and the hiking route will probably involve mountain biking to Ceibo Chico and then hiking to top of Doyle’s Delight. Hopefully that will help to open up the door to more tourism in the Chiquibul.”
“That would be awesome!” I said. “How about security for the previous race? Did any teams have problems?”
“No teams had problems with security, although a couple did get a little bit lost,” he said smiling. “In addition to tourism, if we can also improve our military presence in the Chiquibul, then that will also help to scare off people doing illegal activities. The prime minister of Belize has verbally pledged funding for three more conservation posts like the one you saw at Ceibo Chico, but so far no funding has come. This is all very frustrating for Chiquibul National Park staff. In fact, Chiquibul was mentioned by name by both people running for prime minister during the Independence Day speeches a few days ago, so it is on everyone’s radar. Hopefully the prime minister will visit the Chiquibul sometime, because I think that will help him to feel more of a personal connection to it. The British air force has said that they would do Chiquibul a favor and fly the prime minister in on a chopper for a short visit, but so far he hasn’t taken them up on the offer.”
“So how did Doyle’s Delight get its name, anyhow?” Eric asked.
“That’s a good question,” Rafael said, “The name was coined by Sharon Matola, director of the Belize Zoo in 1989. It was based on the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who in the early 1900s was flying to the area to climb the mountain but died in a plane crash while en route from Panama. It is also a reference to Doyle’s Book ‘The Lost World,’ because of the great biodiversity in the area. But there has been a push in the past few years to give it a name that fits better with its Mayan heritage. Some people have suggested renaming it ‘Kaan Witz,’ which is Mayan for ‘Sky Mountain.’ After all, it’s located in the Maya Mountains. But we’d like to rename it something inspirational or motivating. Do you have any ideas?”
I realized at this moment that Rafael had presented us a very unique opportunity, one that modern day mountaineers almost never get. At this moment, we had the opportunity to rename the highest mountain in the country. “How about asking the people of Belize for suggestions, and having them vote for their favorite?”
“Yes, we are planning to do that, and we’re trying to come up with a few suggestions for now to get started.”
“How do you go about changing the name of a mountain?” Eric asked.
“Once we choose a new name, it should be pretty straightforward to change it, we just need to submit the appropriate paperwork to the appropriate agencies and get the name on the map changed. Once the name is changed on the map, it’ll be official.”
“We’ll let you know if we come up with anything,” Josh said.
Engaged in almost continuous conversation with Rafael, the three hour ride had sped by in the blink of an eye, and before long Rafael had pulled up in front of our hotel in San Ignacio. As we bid farewell to Rafael, I realized that our expedition had been much more than just another country high point, another peak bagged. It had been a fabulous learning experience. We learned about conservation and park management from Derric and Rafael – the directors of Chiquibul National Park, we had learned about jungle flora and fauna from Boris – a professional biologist, and we had learned how to hike and survive in the jungle. It had been an immensely enriching experience, as evidenced by the fact this is the longest trip report that I have ever written. As I sit here finishing this report, I realize that it has taken me a year and a half and countless sittings to finish this writeup. I wanted to tell the story in full and not leave out any important details.
“Good night,” Rafael said, “and please tell your friends to come visit the Chiquibul!”
With the air conditioner blasting full force, we had an excellent sleep back in our beds at the Hotel Mallorca. In the morning we hopped on the bus towards Belize City, and got off at the half way point to visit the Belize Zoo. Boris had advised us that the zoo was not to be missed, and it did not disappoint. We got to see more scarlet macaws, tapirs, ocelots, jaguars, and panthers. All of the animals in the zoo had either been rescued from captivity as pets or injured during encounters with people. After a few hours we hopped on the bus and were back in Belize City by sunset. We toured around town for a couple of hours and enjoyed our final night in Belize.
In the morning, we caught a Delta flight back to Atlanta. As we lifted off, and Belize City disappeared in the distance, we got one last view of the rainforest in between the clouds. Forest stretched for miles in every direction, with no visible trace of civilization. I let out a big sigh of relief that everything had gone according to plan, and the trip had been such a great success. I leaned against the window and rapidly fell asleep.
APPENDIX A: A BRIEF CLIMBING HISTORY OF DOYLE’S DELIGHT
1970 – Augustin Howe from San Antonio Village on the north made several trips for the purpose of land measurement for the Department of Ordinance Survey. He approached from Palmar camp along the Smokey Branch and placed the summit marker on top, as well as clearing trees to make measurements.
1987 – (Aug) “Maya Topping Expedition” on foot by five British army personnel, two pilots, one archaeologist, and two members of the Belize Audobon society
1989 – Name coined by Sharon Matola of Belize Zoo. Based on author Doyle, who in the early 1900s was flying to the area to climb the mountain but died in a plane crash en route. The name is also a reference to Doyle’s Book “The Lost World,” because of the great biodiversity in the area.
1989 – (Aug) Helicopter trip by six British special forces personnel and eight scientists to summit
1993 – (Dec) Helicopter trip by scientists
1994 – (May) Helicopter trip by scientists
1996 – Derric Chan and three friends bushwhack in from the north, five-day approach
2004 – (Aug) Biological expedition via helicopter
2007 – Pavel, friend, plus two Belizean guides (Alfredo and Emiliano Sho) bushwhack in four days from Toledo in south
2007 – Helicopter trip by scientists
2008 – (June) Christian Rodriguez and four friends bushwhack in from south with Alfredo and Eric Sho.
2009 – (February) Jaime Vinals
2009 –(September) Jonathan Wunrow and Anthony Melov, with Alfredo and Eric Sho from the south
2012 – Derric Chan, Borris, and two others bushwhack in from north, finishing at Ceibo Chico
2013 – (March) Petter Kragset and partner attempt approach from south, but turn around when hear gunshots
2014 – (September) Eric and Matthew Gilbertson, Josh Spitzberg, Derric Chan, Boris Arevalo, Marvin Diaz round trip from Ceibo Chico four days.
2016 – (January) – Expedition by Branndon Bargo and company.
For more information or for the GPS/GPX tracks of our trip, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.