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DESTINATION: BELIZE | San Ignacio, Belize

Moments of jungle awe and `ah-ha!'

A Central American equestrian tour brings Maya ruins, allspice and other discoveries, large and small.

May 21, 2006|Hope Cristol | Special to The Times

RIGGO HERNANDEZ steered his palomino toward a smallish tree, plucked a leaf and held it over his head. "Smell one of these," the guide hollered over his shoulder to our group of four riders.

I followed his lead and grabbed a long, oval leaf to sniff. I expected a woodsy, grassy or floral pungency. We were, after all, in the jungle.

"Pumpkin pie!" I blurted in surprise.

"Allspice," Hernandez corrected.

An allspice tree might as well have been a pumpkin pie tree as far as I knew. I never before had stopped to consider that the spices in my kitchen cabinet came from somewhere outside of Whole Foods. What a thrilling little discovery -- the first of many, each more curious than the one before, on my December horseback-riding tour in this English-speaking Central American country.

For instance, in the Belizean wilderness grow medicinal plants with such eyebrow-raising names as jackass bitters (said to kill intestinal parasites). The haggard-looking gumbo-limbo tree is more often called the "tourist tree" because its red, peeling bark resembles sunburned visitors.

The rain-forest canopy rustles not only with birds and monkeys but also, on occasion, with machete-wielding men. These native chicleros slash zigzag patterns in sapodilla trees to release a natural sap containing chicle, an ingredient in chewing gum.

This addition of cultural intrigue made my weeklong trip an incomparable experience. For a horseback-riding trip among strangers to be a hit, there must be good-quality horses, breathtaking landscapes and amiable fellow riders. I've taken several such vacations, and all have delivered on the trifecta to varying degrees. But the outfitter on this trip, Mountain Equestrian Trails in Belize, upped the ante by melding an equestrian adventure with trips to Maya ruins.

Tourists generally come to Belize for its Caribbean beaches and barrier reef, the second-largest in the world. Cayo Province, on the western side of this Massachusetts-sized country, is known for Maya ruins -- esoteric caves deep in the rain forest as well as tourist-friendly ceremonial centers with informative guides. Our itinerary included both.

Most of Cayo's 40,000 or so residents live in the "twin towns" of San Ignacio, home to the expansive and well-maintained Cahal Pech ruins and museum, and Santa Elena. The rest, including Mennonites who still practice their traditional way of life and a variety of ethnic groups, sparsely populate sprawling farms and villages.

A representative from Mountain Equestrian Trails waited for me at Belize International Airport. There, I also met the three other women on my tour, in their 30s. Although I had considerable riding experience, they had very little. But the disparity in skill wouldn't be a problem, because it takes gumption more than finesse to trek steep, tortuous paths on unfamiliar horses.

These women were from Minnesota and were on their second annual horseback-riding vacation together. They had booked their trip through Hidden Trails, a Canada-based outfitter for equestrian and other outdoor vacations. I had made my arrangements through the Wyoming-based Equitours, which I found on the Web, simply because the Mayan Jungle Ride excursion fell on the dates I was available to travel.

Thanks to instant camaraderie and cheerful banter with the wonderfully brassy Minnesotans, the two-hour drive to the MET Lodge passed quickly.

Arran Bevis, the tan, blond 28-year-old who runs the 10-room lodge his parents built decades ago, showed us to our Maya-style cabanas: charming huts with palm-thatched roofs, tile floors, beds with hoop-style canopies of mosquito netting and lighted by kerosene lanterns instead of electric lamps. The cabanas' bathrooms had toilets, hot showers, soap, towels and bottled water but no other amenities.

We generally spent downtime at the cantina, where guests gathered for beer, wine, cocktails and soft drinks (available for purchase) at the bar and around wooden tables for meals (included in the tour price).

That first night, after our long journey and a fair amount of local Belikin beer, we said good night at 8.

"Bed already!" Bevis said in surprise as he stood behind the bar, tinkering with the MP3s on his laptop. "Want me to check your rooms for spiders or anything like that?"

The Minnesotans took him up on the offer, but I didn't because bugs weren't particularly bothersome to me -- or so I thought at the time. I walked to my cabana and changed into flannel pajamas, necessary because the temperature had dropped from nearly 80 degrees during the day to the low 60s.

I awoke at 6:30 a.m. to a choir of birds outside. Wooden shutters instead of glass windows let in the wonderful avian sounds and, to my horror, many insects. When I opened my eyes, I found scores of bugs crawling on the netting enveloping me. It was as though I was in an episode of "Fear Factor."

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