Winter Vacation 2010, Day Four: The Macal River

by J.D. Roth

After Monday’s long and tiring tour of Tikal, Kris and I decided to take it easy on Tuesday. We spent the morning on the porch of our cabana: Kris took photos of birds (look for all of our bird photos on Thursday), and I read and smoked.

Me in a Hammock in Belize

When the heat and humidity increased, we made our way to the unused yoga pavilion, grabbed a couple of drinks (I had a red “fruit punch” Fanta and Kris had a lime juice), turned on the ceiling fans, and continued reading. The Macal River roared below us. It was bliss.

The Macal River runs through the Cayo District (a district is like a state or province) in western Belize. There’s a dam just upstream from Black Rock Lodge, and the folks who run the dam open and close the gates at seemingly random intervals. Sometimes the water level is high; sometimes it’s low. When the water is high, as it was on the night I tried to swim across the river, the current moves swiftly and the waterfall is shallow. But when the water is low, the current is very gentle and the waterfall is steep.

Floating on the River
In the afternoon, we got a closer view of the Macal. We hiked about a mile upstream carrying tubes, life jackets, and helmets. We put ourselves into the warm water (maybe 16 or 17 centigrade) and pushed off for the lodge.

We floated.

We floated.

We floated.

Every so often, we’d come to a series of rapids, which gave us a bit of variety and allowed us to get soaked. Because the water was low (and the current slow) when we started our tubing adventure, I often found myself high-centered on rocks and boulders; I’d have to stand and walk to deeper waters. But mostly, we floated.

As we floated, we soaked in the sun. We splashed in the water. We pointed out the birds, big and small. We looked at the trees and the rocks and the sky. We took our time.

After about an hour of floating, we neared the lodge — and the waterfall we knew was coming. As we approached, we could sense the pace of the current increase. (We didn’t know it at the time, but they’d opened the dam and the water level was rising.) We could hear the roar of the falls.

“If you make it over the falls without flipping, your first beer of the night is on me,” Giovanni (the day’s manager) had told me. I gave it my best shot, but my best shot wasn’t good enough. I flipped, though I managed to hold onto the tube.

Tim Tubes the Macal River 1

Tim Tubes the Macal River 2
Note: This is not me. This is Tim making the run when the river is high.

I watched Kris make her run. She did it! She stayed on, and the crowd of onlookers cheered — but then she lost her balance and went under.

I made a second run at the falls (in order to retrieve Kris’ lost tube), but this was worse than the first. I lost my grip and went under, sucked beneath the falls and kept there by the suction. I felt like I was under for 15 to 20 seconds. (“Nah,” said Giovanni when we got back to the lodge. “It just seemed that way. It was maybe a couple of seconds.”)

Note: Twice during this trip — during my failed swim across the river, and when I was trapped under the waterfall — my mind raced to a book I finished reading recently: Shadow Divers. This book is about SCUBA divers who hunt for shipwrecks. One of the profiled divers has a motto that goes something like, “Take care of the first problem.” By this he means, when something goes wrong, take care of the problem immediately, and just take care of that problem, instead of panicking and creating additional problems. Sound advice.

In the late afternoon, we sat in the lodge with Tim and Shana, and Simon and Catherine.

When Spiders Ruled the Earth
Note: If your name is Jeff Roth, you probably want to skip this section.

After dinner (snapper and linguini), Kris and I took a one-hour night hike. Our tour guide, Elvis, equipped us with spotlight headlamps and led us along the trail above the Macal River. Elvis, an experienced hunter and self-trained naturalist, pointed out birds, scorpions, tarantulas, and spiders. Especially spiders.


In fact, it’s impossible to describe just how many spiders we saw. We’re not talking hundreds of spiders or thousands of spiders, but millions of spiders. When our lights shone on them, their eyes sparkled in the night like tiny stars of yellow, blue, and green. It was amazing — and more than a little frightening (especially when they moved).

Here’s an audio recording of the first ten minutes of our night hike, which includes tilapia, a scorpion, a centipede, a nightjar, a couple of tarantulas, and thousands of spiders:

After the hour-long trek through the stifling heat of the jungle, we were soaked. “It’s hot,” Elvis said at one point. When the natives think it’s hot, it’s hot. Back in our cabana, we took cold showers.

This was a sad evening in a way, because it meant saying good-bye to two couples we both liked: Tim and Shana, and Simon and Catherine. But who knows? Maybe we’ll see them again someday.

Updated: 02 March 2010

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