We got horrified reactions and lots of head shaking when we announced we were taking the children to Central America. We were reminded of terrible events that made the news, a general lack of medical care, crime rates and culture shock. We had the time of our lives (so far!) and definitely our best adventure yet.
My husband and I traveled frequently before we had children. We took a month-long backpacking trip through Europe within weeks of meeting (whew, did we learn a lot about each other!) and vowed to get a stamp in the trusty passport at least once a year. Then our wanderlust budget turned into the diaper budget.
The diapers are long in the past now, and the kids have passports of their very own. On our trip to Central America, I realized that no matter how seasoned a traveler you are, exploring the world with children is a vastly different experience. Their eyes light with such wonder at things we take for granted, and every activity or new setting is met with such exhilaration. I’ve always been a bit of an introvert, but my children greeted each stranger along the way with big smiles and many questions, and even with a language barrier, that excitement to learn about another culture comes through.
As a family, we hiked through the rainforest, listening to the howler monkeys call out over the treetops. We explored Mayan ruins and sat on the steps of ancient pyramids. A Belizean grandmother taught us to make chocolate from cacao beans, and we stuffed ourselves on fry jacks and sour sop ice cream. We snorkeled with friendly nurse sharks and sea turtles, even though my son kept spluttering sea water – it’s hard to get a proper seal on your snorkel when you can’t stop grinning at shark antics! Definitely our best adventure yet.
Our two most treasured adventures on this trip both involved learning about Mayan culture and history. Early one morning we boarded a bus with our fry jacks and coconut chips, and bumped along an old dirt road to Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) in Belize. The ATM cave is a semi-flooded twist of passages deep within the earth, and a place very sacred to the Maya. One thousand years ago, the ATM cave was viewed as an entrance to Xibalba, an underworld that needed to be placated to ensure continued good fortune for the Mayan people. We swam into this cave, lit only by our bobbing headlamps, where we discovered glittering chambers, draped cathedrals and Mayan sacrifices. After an hour of swimming deep within the cave system, we found toeholds to climb a rock formation and finally a rickety wooden ladder ascending to a sacred chamber. The Crystal Maiden, an 18-year old sacrifice from hundreds of years ago, is completely covered with natural mineral deposits from the cave so that she appears to sparkle. It was a humbling experience to learn about the Mayan traditions that lead to her final resting place, and to visit such a sacred site.
Another early morning found us on yet another bus, this one headed for Guatemala. We drove past goat herders and stopped at tapir crossings, and slowly the landscape changed from rolling hills and azure lakes to dense jungle. Three hours from the border of Belize lies Tikal, one of the most iconic Mayan settlements in Central America. I had a picture of Temple IV on my wall when I was a kid. I know, it’s weird. Pretty sure I was a wanderluster even then, and I frequently taped up pictures from National Geographic for my “some day” wall. Sharing a “some day” with my kids, watching their eyes widen and their jaws drop as the sunlight finally broke through the tree cover and washed over Temple IV, that was priceless. After we got over our initial awe, we spent the day wandering around, looking at ancient ball courts and cooking areas, studying hieroglyphs carved into calendar stones, and chasing butterflies and wild peacocks to the soundtrack of howler monkey calls.
Traveling with kids can certainly be challenging at times, but it’s also so unimaginably rewarding. We found some of the warmest, most friendly people I’ve ever encountered in Belize, and I never felt unsafe with my children. I’m so very thankful we took this trip together and had our best adventure yet!
Amy McFarland is a mom of two wild and wily children who inherited her wanderlust. Whether hiking to alpine lakes, hunting for hidden waterfalls or zip-lining through the rainforest, she loves sharing adventures that the whole family can enjoy. You can read more about her journey at The Gypsy Momas.