Our canoes dropped heavily into the green tinted water as our Rastafarian guide David pushed us on our way down the Macal River, just east of San Ignacio, Belize. Smoke curled up from the first canoe as David’s unnamed co-worker lit a pre-river cruise joint. I laughed to myself, and hopped into the second canoe with Kane clambering in behind me. We were off to explore the jungle, we were canoeing in Belize.
Our first jaunt in the canoe did not last long and David soon had us hiking on makeshift stone steps up the hill on the other side of the river, keen to show us his home. We had arrived in Belize a few days earlier and this would be our second adventure with the affable David; he had led us on a cave tour of an ancient Mayan burial site the day before. David had a knack for guiding and would continually surprise us with things like bifacial hand axes from pre-Mayan times. The artifacts were simply lying around his thatched roof home perched atop a hill overlooking what was most likely an undiscovered Mayan ruin in the heart of the Belizean jungle. Holding that ancient piece of rock in my hands was an experience I felt almost bad to have, in any other place, in any other world, this piece of history would be locked away in a museum, but here I was tracing the sharp edges of obsidian where primordial hunters had chipped off flakes to carve their dinner meat off the bones of a recent kill.
The ancient wonder was broken as my face blanched white and the world started spinning. Kane touched my back and guided me over to a rock bench at the edge of the hill, David’s self-proclaimed favorite smoking spot.
“Are you okay?” he asked gently. “Maybe we should head back.”
“No, it’s just a canoe ride. All I have to do is sit. I’ll be okay.”
I had come down with something resembling Dengue Fever that had left me crying on the floor of the Guatemala City airport while wracked with body aches and incapacitated for a week with fever dreams. Luckily, I seemed to be past the worst of it, but whatever tropical malady had waylaid me wasn’t giving up without a fight and I was still prone to weakness and sudden trips to the bathroom. Nonetheless, I was not going to let this ruin my short time in Belize. I wanted to see a monkey and damn it, I was going to.
While David clearly had hoped that we would spend longer admiring his collection of prehistoric items, the pallid color of my face spoke for me and soon he had us safely tucked back into the canoes, ready for our real-life jungle cruise.
We pushed off, sans David as he felt his co-worker could adequately handle two canoes, and floated down the calm, easy river. With Kane doing most of the work paddling behind me, I took my sandals off, folded my feet in the canoe, and relaxed into the rhythm of the boat. It was so wonderfully quiet. I could hear the life of the jungle around us, the calling of tropical birds, the snapping of branches by unseen creatures, and the gentle lap of water on the bottom of the canoe. I was in heaven.
We passed cattle wading in the river, saw bats sleeping inside small caves, and even glimpsed a toucan flying overhead. I snapped a few photos on my phone, then decided my GoPro would better capture the wide expanse of the river so I tucked my phone back into the dry bag, pulled out my GoPro, and took a few shots.
I was looking at the review screen, checking to see if a picture had turned out, when Kane called out, “Rapids coming, grab your oar, you might need to push off the edge.”
We watched as the first canoe, steered by the guide, deftly navigated the small section of rapids, cleared the trees easily and passed out of sight. That didn’t look so bad, I thought to myself. We can do this.
The rapids were carrying us quickly towards the edge of the river and I was nervous, but Kane seemed like he was handling it all right so I held my oar at the ready and waited. The eddy pulled us further to the edge than the first boat, closer to the overhanging trees, but it seemed like it was going fine, until I felt a yank on my hair.
The tree had somehow gotten stuck in my ponytail and was stubbornly refusing to let go. With the rapids pulling us forward and the tree pulling me backward, I was wrenched over the side of the boat, hands gripping the edges of the canoe, trying to avoid a scalping.
“Shit, shit, shit! Ow it’s in my hair!”
“Agh the boat’s filling with water!”
In my struggle to remain one with my hair I had tipped the canoe far enough to the side that it was rapidly filling with water, water that was now carrying all our stuff downstream. In what seemed like eternity, but was only a few seconds at most, my hair untangled itself and I was free to fall out of the canoe.
Together Kane and I hauled the water laden canoe into the middle of the river, using the shallow level of the water and exposed rocks to stop it too from floating away downstream. With one hand steadying the canoe and the other wielding the oar, we started splashing water out of the canoe as best we could. Once it was a more manageable weight, one that wasn’t going to drag me downriver with it, Kane waded downstream to recover our belongings. I was still on canoe duty so I started sopping up the last of the water with Kane’s towel, eager to get the canoe floating fully and find the group.
He quickly found the dry bag, which unfortunately for my phone did not turn out to be so dry. Turns out after 8 years of use a dry bag is likely to fail. The snag that had caught our dry bag also caught my sandal and he proudly returned with…one shoe. Then he started combing the rocks near our crash site, not where my shoe had floated to.
“What are you doing!” I yelled. “Find my shoe!” I hadn’t been wearing my sandals when we crashed and now one was somewhere in the river. What good was one shoe going to be? I only had that one pair, I needed to find my shoe. Why wasn’t he looking for my shoe?!
“I’m looking for your Go Pro!” Kane hollered back.
“It’s lost, don’t bother, look for my damned shoe!” I yelled angrily back. I was drenched, my GoPro was a goner, my phone likely ruined, and I didn’t want to be barefoot on top of it all.
“You’re GoPro is $400, give me ten minutes!”
I was being a pain and Kane was just trying to be helpful, but all I wanted was to find my shoe, get the canoe floating again, and find the group. Then what should I see, but Kane triumphantly clutching my GoPro.
“How? How did you find that?” I asked in surprise.
“I assumed it would sink near where we crashed, it was in the rocks,” he replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Okay, great, thank you, but can you please find my shoe?” I was trying to be happy he found my GoPro, but I was still sans footwear and worried about a barefoot walk back to the hotel. With an underappreciated look on his face, Kane went back to dutifully comb the snag for my missing shoe.
After about ten minutes, I had the canoe floating again, Kane had found almost everything, except my missing shoe. My right sandal seemed to have been engulfed by the ether, swallowed by some black hole in the middle of the river. More than likely, it was stuck in the rocks under the murky surface, but we would never know.
Then, just as we had finished loading up all our things back into the now water-free canoe, our guide appeared around the corner. Turns out they had thought we were just going slowly and that we’d catch up eventually so it took a little while until my friends voiced worry that we had yet to make an appearance. The guide laughed, asked us what happened, I pointed to the tree then the canoe, and we all laughed. With three people and five shoes between us, we continued down the river.
The rest of the trip turned out to be a calm, uneventful 14 miles back into town and at the very end I finally saw what I had been waiting for…howler monkeys. There were about five of them in the tree, three adults sleeping on the branches and two babies attempting to knock each other out of the tree. One would playfully grab the others tail and scamper away, out of retaliation range. This continued back and forth for the entire time we stopped to watch, but eventually we did have to move on if we wanted to make it home by dark.
When we arrived back in town, we went to dinner before heading back to the hotel. I got more than a few laughs when I walked up to the restaurant with my friends, my one barefoot conspicuous amongst the sandal clad feet. All I could do was smile and laugh, the price of the adventure had been my shoe, so be it. I got to see baby howler monkeys.
If you ever find yourself in San Ignacio, Belize and are looking for a great adventure tour guide, check out David’s Adventure Tours. David makes every trip memorable, and don’t worry, crashing your canoe isn’t mandatory, but just to be safe get a waterproof phone case if you want to bring your phone.