Jon Huertas, best known as Miguel from NBC’s This Is Us, wrote an exclusive essay for Us Weekly, detailing his trip to Belize, booked through Kind Traveler.
Every winter, my wife and I normally plan a vacation to a tropical destination, so this year we chose the lesser traveled Central American country of Belize. The absolute best way to book a trip like this, is through Kind Traveler. Founded by my friends Sean and Jessica after their first trip to Belize (how’s that for full circle), Kind Traveler is a way to book an amazing hotel and also do some good in the world. You see, Kind Traveler is a “give and get” hotel booking platform where travelers, like myself, can give a donation to a charity (I picked the Cayo Animal Welfare Society) and for the donation, get some pretty special discounts and perks in return. What could be better? I mean, come on, I get a discount for being a nice guy? So, when I found a property in Belize that believes in sustainability and positively impacting their community, I booked a couple flights and we were off!
In my 20+ years of traveling this amazing planet, of course, I’d heard of Belize. Being a Padi-Certified Rescue diver, I’ve had my share of conversations about diving at the famous Blue Hole on Belize’s Barrier Reef which is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second largest the world. Yes, I just nerded out on Scuba diving but I love it. However, this trip would be different because for the first leg of our pre-Christmas trip, we’d decided to stay at the beautiful Ka’ana Luxury Resort in the Cayo district of Belize, which is nowhere near a reef or even the sea for that matter. No, we were headed into the heart of the jungle close to the border of Guatemala. I didn’t really know what to expect.
Welcome to Belize
In Belize City, we patiently waited for our ride aboard TropicAir, the island’s largest and most experienced local airline. As we walked out onto the tarmac, we spotted a lone pilot warming up the engine just as our scuba bags were tossed into the belly of the small single engine Cessna 208 Caravan. Yes, I’m a bit of an airplane nerd, too. We climbed aboard and I swear, the pilot taxied the craft like it was some kind of sports car … Damn, he was good. With seven passengers on board, he throttled it hard, whipped this thing around. In about 90 seconds, we were airborne. We were soon getting a bit tossed around in the turbulent winds and to be honest, I was just hoping this dude could maintain control. However, the pilot was a vision of relaxed calm, Belize it or not. Before we knew, we leveled out and headed across a green sea of Belizean countryside. It was an awesome take off – an adrenaline junkie’s fix for sure. Or you can take a scenic drive to Cayo!
Not only do these planes serve as the airborne buses hopping around this small country, they’re also like Belize’s version of UPS. We stopped at a small outpost, dropped off some Embassy packages, then picked up somebody’s wedding cake. Our pilot never cut the engine. We then took off from a runway narrower than my driveway and were on our way to our next stop Cayo. The view from up there was high enough to know we were safe but low enough to play the “Spot the Howler Monkeys in the Trees” game. I didn’t see any. It was our landing in Cayo that really impressed me; our pilot gently set us down on the most picturesque airfield surrounded by mountains, trees and fields. I looked at Nicole and said, “This is Belize?”
While staring at one of the most magnificent trees I’ve ever seen, a young man introduced himself as our driver. One of the most important takeaways from this trip was that the people of Belize love and take tremendous pride in their country. They each know a detailed history, from the reign of the Mayans, British Colonialism and the important story of gaining its independence. They also love to educate people on all of it. The first thing we learned was that the Belizean people are made up of Maya, Kriol, Mestizo, Garifuna, East Indian, Mennonite and Chinese. There are also a large number of expats making Belize their home as well. I took in the interesting mix of farmland and jungle as we made our way to the hotel and as we rounded a bend, we spotted a big house on a hilltop. When our driver noticed us peering upon at the behemoth house that seemed out of place, he pointed out that folks living there belong to a long lineage of a very wealthy Lebanese family and that they are the only producers of toilet paper in the country. Then he smiled broadly and said, “It’s the house that s—t built!” I giggled a bit then said, “So it’s a s—t house.” Maybe that was a bit crude, but it is ironic, funny and true, so dammit, it’s OK to giggle. The locals in Belize have an amazing sense of humor so there were a lot of laughs to be had.
Soon, we turned into the long driveway to Ka’ana. Somewhere along the way we found out our driver was also the property’s gardener and boy, did he take pride in that – as he should. The grounds of Ka’ana are lush and beautiful, meticulously manicured to highlight all the local species of plants that grow in the jungles surrounding Ka’ana. Each tree and plant are labeled so as you walk the winding walkways, you realize that exotic doesn’t even begin to describe the true feeling you get when immersed in such horticultural diversity.
Now, I love great design and even pride myself on being an amateur designer myself so I can be very discerning. Ka’ana’s design was gorgeous, to say the least. With its use of locally sourced materials, it has a luxurious but rustic jungle setting that makes you feel as if you are part of the environment not impinging on it. Immediately, you can tell that Ka’ana has a commitment to sustainability. Every bit of hardwood on the property was sourced within a 30-mile radius, and they even refill the shampoo and conditioner in little hand-carved wooden pots instead of using plastic. I found out that all of the soaps and cleansers are organic and locally sourced as well – what a testament to making an effort to do better by the environment.
The quaint, farmhouse style La Ceiba restaurant, although small was very big on taste. Our first night there was BBQ night, where you pick the meats you want grilled and 20 minutes later, they hand it to you fresh off the coals. We literally ate every single meal at Ka’ana except when we went on our curated adventures where they packed us a nice lunch to have on the excursions. And in keeping with their sustainable vibe, most of the ingredients on La Ceiba’s menu are sourced from the hotel’s onsite organic garden.
Horseback Riding to Xunantunich
Belize has horses! I love to ride and try to do it as often as I can so when I found out that I could ride horseback to the famous Belizean ruins of Xunantunich, I said, “Let’s do this!” We were driven about 10 minutes away from the property to a small horse farm called Hannah stables. There we met Jimmy Lindo. Jimmy was to be our guide on this journey and in Jimmy, I found someone passionate – not only about horsemanship but also about the environment and the country he was raised in. Jimmy is Kriol, a mixture of African and British but because he grew up among the jungles of Belize, he is connected to Belize as much as a Mayan descendant. What he knew about the plants, animals, birds, howler monkeys, rivers and the nation’s history would blow your mind. It blew mine.
We rode along the scenic Mopan River toward the village of San Jose Succotz. When we arrived, we walked onto the craziest contraption I’d ever seen: a hand-cranked river ferry. The horses knew exactly what to do and where to stand which was just the coolest thing ever, and the ferry’s operator even let me crank us all across the river! Check out my Instagram to see me cranking.
As we rode up the mountain toward the ruins, Jimmy pointed out the various and plentiful plants that serve as remedies for anything and everything from the common cold to a sore foot. However, the most memorable was his demonstration of the “Cojones de Caballo” tree. You could get out your translator app but the easiest way to figure out what this particular tree is named after is to imagine two big round fruits stuck together dangling off a tree branch (and knowing that caballo means horse.) Anyway, Jimmy taught us that the sap of this fruit has been used as glue for thousands of years and as proof, had me take some of the white sap between my fingers, hold it for one minute and voila, my fingers were stuck together, and the bond was pretty friggin’ strong. It was even pointed out that this very glue is what the Mayans used to create the mortar that helped build the temples and their Empire!
As we arrived at the base of the Xunantunich site and began to tie up our horses, Jimmy pointed out a family of howler monkeys just chillin’ above our heads in the trees. What an amazing site to see and man, those are some big monkeys. Their howl can be heard for three miles. (They didn’t howl for us but I’m not mad at them.)
As we ambled up the steep hill toward the larger temples, we saw what looked like mounds of Earth, but in reality, were uncovered Mayan ruins. We were surrounded by them. The Mayans built vast cities covering the high grounds and only so much can be uncovered by archeologists here to study the various Mayan cultural sites. There were distinct periods in which the Mayans existed: the Archaic period, the Preclassic period, the Classic period and the Late Classic period. The majestic ruins of Xunantunich represented all of these periods in one way or another. You could see where a Preclassic structure met with Classic period structures as the Mayans would add on as the wealth of Mayan nobility grew. But the pinnacle of the visit to the ruins was standing atop El Castillo, the highest temple in Xunantunich, where you could see 360° in every direction. When looking across the jungle and into Guatemala, one can easily differentiate between Belizean and Guatemalan culture while peering at two villages directly across the border from one another.
On the ride back, I was bordered by trees on one side and the river on the other. I quietly mused over the influx of history I’d just taken in as we headed toward the stables. But then Jimmy called out to me, knocking me out of my stupor and suggested I take my horse to a full gallop through the jungle. You don’t have to ask me twice to run a horse, but the thought of going full speed on horseback through a jungle where I could get strangled by a vine hanging low over the winding trail had me a tad apprehensive. Once I made eye contact with the beautiful steed I was riding, I knew he wanted blow off a little steam and with barely a tap from heels, we were off. Galloping through the jungle was nothing less than thrilling and exhilarating. It was also a serious workout for horse and rider alike so at the treelike, we pulled up and rested waiting for Nicole and Jimmy to catch up. I took this opportunity to snap a few photos of the gorgeous Mopan river.
When we were all reunited, we made our way out of the jungle and into a clearing where we spotted a minimalist wooden deck built on the bank of the river. Laying across it were several oversized cushions, a big picnic spread awaiting us complete with locally grown food and a big cooler full of the Belizean beer, Belikin. Well, I can’t really put into words how that beer hit the spot as we munched and gazed at this picturesque river carving through the jungle with the perfect soundtrack of the water tricking over river rocks. It was romantic as hell and a perfect end to a perfect day.
I gave to an amazing charity, CAWS, when I booked Ka’ana to receive a discount and some cool perks. So of course, I wanted to meet with some of the people and animals of CAWS, the hotel’s partner charity that I had chosen to give to. The Cayo Animal Welfare Society specializes in dogs and cats. Ka’ana’s manager, Anoushka, loves animals as much as I do and had just rescued a kitten so she was happy to set up a meet and greet with some of CAWS animals. I also had chosen CAWS because I knew it would complete a full circle that had been initiated by the founders of Kind Traveler.
Sean and Jessica had vacationed in Belize in 2012 and on an excursion, came upon a group of malnourished, emaciated dogs. They couldn’t just stand idly by and chose to stop, buy some kibble and feed these poor dogs. This inspired the others on that excursion to also buy food for the dogs and feed them. It’s a testament to how easy it can be to inspire people with kindness. That is what life is all about: sometimes, we can do what seems like the smallest thing that somehow inspires a good deed. This model can only lead to a positive change in the world. Now on to the dogs! We spent the day sleeping in, hitting the spa for a couple of world class massages then finally scuttled off to our appointment with the volunteers at CAWS. They brought several of their cutest rescue dogs and told us all about the organization while we rolled around on the ground, kissing and wrestling with puppies and dogs … now that’s a vacation! Anybody whose mission is to provide a better life for domestic animals through education, healthcare and adoption is special in my book. If you visit Belize, go to KindTraveler.com to learn more about CAWS and their mission. You can even “give without getting” to support them or do what I did: donate, get a discount on your stay and take advantage of some other perks all for donating to Kind Traveler.
A Mayan Cooking Class
Right after rolling around with dogs from CAWS, we scuttled up to an onsite Mayan cooking class. We met two Mayan women from the nearby village of Succotz. They were waiting patiently and greeted us with the biggest, most genuine smiles I’d ever seen. It was obvious they were elated to share their Mayan traditions with us, and we jumped right in. We made our own corn tortillas and caldo, pausing every so often so they could explain the history behind the traditional Mayan cooking process, and we made Tomalitos on a traditional Fogon in a Maya Kitchen! How cool is that?! One obvious takeaway was that the biggest staple in the Mayan cuisine is corn, corn and more corn. So … you better like corn! But what they can do with corn and how many different ways they use it, and every part of it is absolutely fascinating.
ATM Cave Adventure
I had no idea what I was getting into, and I liked it like that. It gave me the sense of being real adventurer. All I knew was that I was being taken somewhere called ATM and that I was told I had to do it before I left Cayo. I was also told I’d have to meet my guide at 7am in the lobby. “What?!, I’m on Vaca!” But getting an early start would prove to be a necessity.
We drove for about 45 minutes toward Guatemala past tiny villages, Menonite farmland and jungle. Our guide snorkeled his 4×4 through a creek and soon we landed next to a wide river where a few palapas with tables sat under the jungle canopy. This is where it got weird for me. I only saw three other people there, and they were all putting on caving helmets, floatation devices and prepping like safety was an issue. Me? I was wearing a pair of Adidas Prime Knit low tops. Remember I was going blind into this adventure! All I knew was that I needed closed-toed shoes and a pair of socks. So … what the hell were they getting ready for?
We were going to Actun Tunichil Muknal which in Mayan means “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher.” It’s located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve of Western Belize.
I asked our guide, Juan Carlos, if I should be putting on a floatation device. He asked, “Are you a good swimmer?” I said, “Yes,” and we were off, hiking down a trail towards the river. Next, he asked me if I was ready to get cold and before I could say, “Hell no,” he was jumping into a freezing river that was shoulder deep. Yes, it was friggin’ cold!
During the 45-minute hike through the jungle, we crossed that river two more times. I investigated the underside of rocks and logs, spying the different species of insects, lizards, snakes, fish and birds while Nicole listened to Juan Carlos tell her about how he spends all his vacation time traveling to other archaeological sites all over Central America and Mexico. The landscape on the way to the cave was gorgeous, the river crossings are cold but manageable and based on several tracks found in the mud, the threat of jaguars is real.
Walking out of the jungle and up to the mouth of the cave is really unexplainable. I could paint a beautiful enough picture in words to describe the giant leaves of jungle fauna framing the huge mouth of a cave with the clearest turquoise water flowing out of it. And Belize it or not, the water from the cave was warm compared to the river.
Here is where our guide finds out if you were lying about being a good swimmer. You have to swim into the cave through 12-15 feet of water. It was a combination of “Holy s–t” and “This is AWESOME!” Once inside, we were in awe. The ceiling was covered in crystalized stalactites dripping naturally purified water down to equally beautiful stalagmites – and they all have distinct colors depending on the minerals the water passes through. The immense size of the cave, and the way the light from your headlamp and guides flashlight sparkles like rare gems is mind blowing. As we continued into the cave, we came face to face to huge scorpion spiders the size of my hand. After a brief stare down, we continued into the cave. I have to say exploring the ATM Cave can be pretty friggin’ challenging. No website could ever prepare you for how much work it’s gonna take to get through the cave system but oh man, is it worth it! Swimming through crevices in neck-deep water only wide enough for your head to fit through, we then were startled by bat colonies dangling from the ceilings. Plus, if you’re brave enough, your guide will have you turn off your headlamps! We grabbed each other’s shoulders and started moving through the cave experiencing the most complete and total darkness I’ve ever seen or … not seen.
Soon, we got to a wall and Juan Carlos instructed us we needed to climb. Now I like climbing, but this wall was 20 ft. tall, located in a dark cave, a half a mile below ground; my little Adidas Prime Knit shoes were soaked and not made for climbing. However, Juan Carlos was the boss, so I did what he told me. We made it! Getting down would be a challenge, though. Once at the top, he again asked me to do something unexpected. “Take off your shoes,” he said. Here is where the required socks came into play. After a few feet of walking into this upper room, we came across our first grouping of Classic Period Mayan artifacts … and we are standing right next to it! Hence the socks. It’s the Belizean way of protecting the artifacts: in case you accidentally kick some pottery, you’ll break a toe instead of the 1200-year-old pot. We were so blown away at just how many artifacts were in this upper chamber and that we were just able to walk amongst them. I looked to Nicole and said, “I can’t believe they allow people to do this; we’d never be able to do this in the states or anywhere else in the world for that matter.”
Near the back of this upper chamber, Juan Carlos pointed us to a lone aluminum ladder ascending to an even higher chamber. With our wet socks, we climbed the wet ladder and soon experienced our first sighting of human remains: these were sacrificed Mayans that were offered alongside the food and pottery scattered around. We were told that most Mayans welcomed being sacrificed. It meant they were allowed to skip the nine levels of hell. This was pretty remarkable but then we continued moving until we came to the end of the chamber where, here, we stood in front of the “Crystal Maiden;” the skeletal remains of a sacrificed teenage girl sparkled brilliantly due to a thousand years of calcification from minerals. We stood there gazing at this girl imagining what her final moments must’ve been like.
The ATM cave experience was one of the highlights of my life and I can’t stress enough what an amazing adventure you will have and remember for the rest of your life. In fact, all of the adventures Ka’ana provided are truly special and may give the feeling of being connected to an ancient land, the heart of the Mayan Culture and the people that make it their pleasure to show you the magic of the western part of Belize.
After the ATM experience, we hopped into a waiting SUV for a drive across the country toward the beach. We head to Placencia where the white sand beaches and quaint little village make you want to pack up and move from an Urban existence to the simpler life!
After a night of well needed rest and a wonderful breakfast at Turtle Inn, Francis Ford Coppola’s Belizean vacation property turned resort, we were picked up by Shay, the sales manager for Ka’ana’s sister property, Itz’ana Resort and Residences, for a quick tour. This property sits right on the beach and will be spectacular when it opens (summer 2019). From the second-floor speakeasy bar to the grand lobby, you feel like you’ve been transported to a more classic version of a tropical destination a la a 1940s romance film. We can’t wait to get back and experience the property once it’s running at 100 percent.
Belize surprised me in so many ways, from English being the first language to the diversity not only of the people but also the fauna. However, the most exciting part is that people are finding it, and that we not the only ones journeying to this lesser known Caribbean destination. It was apparent when I randomly bumped into Misha Collins while scuba diving – he was exploring the amazing reef together with his huge family – that people are coming more often to this jewel of a vacation destination. I also randomly bump into my pal Jason Beghe at dinner here at the Turtle Inn.
Belize really was so special to me because it seemed like everyone we met was personally invested in conservation, preservation of their cultural heritage, philanthropy, sustainability and trying to leave Belize and the world better than the way they found it. I’m so glad I found Ka’ana through Kind Traveler and that I could honor the founders of the company by going to very destination spot that inspired them to start the most socially-conscious way of booking a vacation — Kind Traveler.