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A few months ago I took a week-long trip to Belize with my favorite travel partner Cassandra. Other than visiting back and forth we hadn’t traveled together since we studied abroad in Tanzania in 2010, so this was an exciting trip to plan. After choosing the area based solely on a spectacular National Geographic Belize itinerary I had lusted over for months, we planned a week of outdoor adventures throughout Belize and a bit of Guatemala.

Belize is a small country with an even smaller population, roughly 340,000. All the people are clustered around cities and small towns leaving the jungle (most of the non-coast of the country) largely untouched. We learned about the colonization of Belize by Britain — it used to be part of British Honduras — until its peaceful independence in 1981. It’s one part Latin America, one part Caribbean, and one part Mayan, making the people a really beautiful combination of ethnicities. I was surprised to learn that most Belizeans speak at least three languages — English, Creole, and either Mayan, Spanish, or both. I was most impressed by the intense love Belizeans have for their country and history. Each person I met was happy to talk for hours about the food, the people, the history, the plant- and animal-life, and their travels throughout Central America and the southern United States. I could point to any tree, flower, bird, or bug and a Belizean could tell me all about it. It touched me and helped me realize how little I know about my region and how badly I want to learn about it.

The first half of our trip was spent in the western part of Belize. Our home base was San Ignacio, a lovely, walkable town with access to what felt like a million things to see and do. We booked a couple tours through our hotel (the Rainforest Haven Inn, I highly recommend it) and I found a few others in guidebooks or through TripAdvisor. We went canoeing through ancient caves where Mayans performed sacrificial rituals; rode horses to and explored Xunantunich, an abandoned Mayan city; went cave tubing through a 65-million-year old cave and swam in a lake deep inside the cave that Mayans believed was holy water (I cried); and we stopped by the Belize Zoo, maybe my favorite zoo in the world (if you’re generally opposed to zoos like me definitely read more about their project). We ate some incredible fresh fish and local fruit juices, curries, and the standard Belizean meal of rice and beans. I bought a mug from the tiny breakfast spot we walked to at 6:30 every morning we were in San Ignacio.

Truthfully I was most excited for the second part of our trip — snorkeling! kayaking! floating in the ocean! — but looking back some of the moments in San Ignacio were my favorite. Swimming in that cave moved me in a way I’ll never be able to reconstruct and I’m almost glad to have not had my camera at the time. It feels like a sacred moment shared between Cassandra, our guide, and me, all alone in that cathedral-like cave. One evening Cass and I watched the sunset from our hammocks on the roof of our hotel, and I’ll never forget the breeze, the violently pink sky, and my full-body peace. I journaled every evening about the bits of wisdom I gleaned from all the people I met and the things they taught me about how to live in this world — what is beauty, what is community, what is living from the earth, what is life!

This is a sampling of the many photos I took while we were in and around San Ignacio. I can’t recommend that town or this country enough — add it to your travel list and start dreaming. Also, if you should ever find yourself in this wonderful place, be sure to try fresh tamarind juice. That shit is magic.