Hiking in Belize: Consider the Salamander

A photo of the starry night sky in Belize.
Photo by Aristedes Carrera on Unsplash

At the hint of spring, salamanders’ oily and dappled bodies emerge from the ground all at once, like an amphibious resurrection. Out of their isolation, they travel to a pond reunion by following the earth’s geomagnetic field. The same solar force that powers our compasses also drops breadcrumbs for these creatures to find their community. Once they’ve undergone this mysterious and scientifically inexplicable journey, the salamanders, more or less, party and make love. In other words, they reproduce before scuttling back to their dirt bunkers. It’s a biological stumper—how they are guided by magnetoreception. The term, to me, sounds like the same kind of alchemy as hearing a loved one’s voice over a phone from across the globe. We humans have adapted to stay connected. So it’s an even greater stumper why, in the land of the advanced Wild West, we are so disconnected.

When I arrived at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education, colloquially dubbed BFREE, there was no Wi-Fi or cell service. Hot water and traditional toilets? Zilch. The conservation joint ran on solar panels and a squeaky-clean river. I’d hiked six miles into the gut of the Bladen Reserve with a troupe of English majors on a month-long study abroad trip—which I’d quit my job to co-lead. My intentions were selfish: I needed to resurrect my soul from the claws of the capitalist agenda. I needed to say sayonara to an existence I clocked in and out of, to computer screens and digital-age burnout. I needed to—metaphorically of course—party and make love. Where better to play than the jungle, an isolated place free from all this so-called connectedness?

At BFREE, we were surrounded by critters who were either endangered or endangered us, and wild fronds one might find potted and domesticated in hip American homes. Endless queues of leafcutter ants and overlarge footprints of tapirs welcomed us to the strange new world. Along with Jacob, the creator of the self-sustained oasis. Jacob was a spindly man, mid-fifties, with chest-length hair and magnetic glasses that clipped together at the bridge of his nose. He said things like we all run on solar power and the snake is the Buddha of the vertebrae.

“What happens if we see a puma on the trail?” I asked him over a plate of rice and beans one afternoon.

“Take a photo,” he shrugged.

Jacob’s answers had a way of making me feel as though I’d asked the wrong question. After lunch, we washed our own dishes in sudsy buckets behind the thatched-roof kitchen. This, paired with the rule of taking our boots off before we entered buildings, made BFREE feel like home. The workers who monitored cacao and turtles shared their meals, hammocks, and stories with us. They even gave us their time beyond their shifts.

Two of BFREE’s chefs, Eddie and Roxana, led us up to the observation tower on our first night. The tower was the only spot above the protective canopy that granted cell reception, but we sought something else—something that would offer us a new vantage point. To reach such an elevated status, we had to maneuver through the rainforest’s vine-hugged corridors after a storm, which was like a game of hopscotch—only we were trying to land on the squares with the least squeamish mud. After hopscotching for fifteen minutes through the blackness, our headlamps’ cylinder beams of light fell on a metal beast. Its magnitude was impossible to gauge. We shed our clunky shoes so we didn’t misstep on the way up—which would be effortless to do, given the rickety nature of the structure. Only one handrail kept us from slouching off into oblivion. Eddie kicked off what he called slippers—also known as Adidas flip-flops—around flight four.

The breeze at 112 feet high was a welcomed embrace as we reached the top, heaving air by the lungful. There was a wash of cloud, but the stars that freckled the sky were brilliant, as stars are. Eddie told us a Maya myth that advised people to look for the spot a shooting star fell—treasure would be there. The night didn’t need to be quiet to be intimate. We had noisy neighbors punctuating our sentences—the roars of howler monkeys like a prehistoric film in the background. As I blinked upward, the celestial orbs multiplied. I wondered how much I’d missed simply by glancing at life.


BFREE’s observation tower was built by Jacob, who lacked architectural credentials, but had enough determination to spend twenty years tinkering with it. He bummed the Belizean Eiffel at a Georgian auction for fifty-three dollars. It was once used as a lighthouse of sorts, but rather than boats it spotted fires. Outdated and clunky, the Georgians wanted to get rid of the thing, and Jacob wanted the thing. He just didn’t think about deconstructing the thing. It took, approximately, ages. And then there was the issue of transportation, which resulted in four blasted tires as he hauled the steel bones in his truck. All the odds-and-ends made it to the heart of the Bladen Reserve in the 90s.

“Probably caused my divorce,” Jacob had told us. “I was obsessed with that thing.”

I wanted to know why the hassle. What was the function of such a mammoth project? To catch trespassers or big cats lurking on the perimeter? To alert people of monsoons or other not-so-friendly tropical showers?

“It’s for the people who stay here,” my co-leader explained. “To… go up in.”

The tower’s only purpose, in other words, was for enjoyment. A beacon to watch the sunrise. A lookout to spot scarlet macaws migrating home. A ramshackle testament to paying witness. And most obvious to my self-centric brain, a monument to the New Year’s Resolution I’d made before the trip. In 2023, I planned to do something radical: deprioritize work and elevate play, which in the West’s cultural climate managed to be sacrilegious, unpatriotic, and a totally clownish agenda.

Back in the States, I rarely allowed myself to stop and digest, to kiss a thing goodbye before starting my next affair. I never finished novels or started television shows with three-plus seasons or cooked meals that weren’t microwave-ready. I wasn’t immune to the fear of missing out or the existential dread of the ticking clock. Was my impatience inherited? Had I been brainwashed by millennials’ hustle culture or sucked into America’s conveyor belt of efficiency? Maybe I needed to adopt the energy of the people I’d met in the rainforest, whose Get Shit Done playlists primarily consisted of reggae. 

Time, in Belize, moved like tire in mud. People tended to take siestas rather than shots of caffeine, spoke each word to the pace of faucet drip, and idled over the hump of crosswalks every half-mile on the highway. While construction in the United States took a few weeks or months, a once-started process in Belize could span decades, becoming an intergenerational project. This was evidenced by the roadside buildings, each a discarded toy—colorful but lacking a vital roof or wall. The windows were unscreened, the yards strewn with skinny dogs and rusty lumps that resembled cars. Mostly likely, owners ran out of money to smooth out the kinks. While it was easy to romanticize the pace of life I yearned for, it was impossible to ignore its economic consequences. As a middle-class American, my privilege didn’t place me in circumstances that forced patience often. But slowness, I was learning, could be both curse and treasure.

Maybe some of the slowness evolved from a mythical twist on Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, a hand-me-down of the area’s Maya ancestry. On a visit to the Maya archaeological site Xunantunich, our guide Louis told us it took three-hundred years to shape the glorious temples now dubbed ruins. El Castillo, the largest structure on location, was 130 feet of moss-dappled limestone. Its designs boasted stories of sun and moon gods, of music and dancing and all things worthy of worship. I climbed to the top, my body porous with salt and sunblock, and reaped the awe of someone else’s labor.

For many Americans, it’s inconceivable to throw our backs into something we won’t witness the fruits of. We saturate our sunrises with greenhouse gases and hope our children cook up a last-minute solution to our ecological warfare. We treat our bodies as receptacles of carcinogenic goodies and liver-shriveling booze in the name of letting loose, sing to nihilistic pop songs that glorify dying young. We live for tonight because who cares what comes tomorrow. Delayed gratification? A foreign term we don’t bother to pronounce.


“It’s called cacao,” Jacob informed us. “Not cocoa.”

We sat in BFREE’s classroom packed with biology texts, jarred specimens you might browse in an oddities shop, and a whining fan. Jacob spoke over its rusty hiccups to tell us about an unexpected project he’d adopted: making chocolate. After he discovered a pocket of lush trees that could rival Wonka factories, he submitted the beans for genetic testing and the results were a rare strand of magic—also known as Criollo, or theobroma, food of the gods.

The journey from cacao pod to glossy package was, of course, no convenient drive-through. But a man who’d dedicated sixteen years to constructing a tower wasn’t a foe of commitment. Over a span of three days, our group bonded as we donned ugly hairnets and drooping gloves. Together, we entered into the process of chocolate creation: 

  • Step 1: With shears, clip the trees’ ripe cacao, typically orange in hue.
  • Step 2: Crack the cacao open by slamming its skull against pavement. Harvest its seeds.
  • Step 3: Seal the seeds in a bin until they ferment and dry.
  • Step 4: Sort naughty beans from nice beans. Toss the moldy and brittle ones.
  • Step 5: Roast and shell until you’re left with nothing but the nib.
  • Step 6: Refine the nib through a grinding process.
  • Step 7: Liquify with high-tech instrument—a hairdryer—until you’ve got cocoa liquor.
  • Step 8: Add sugar and whatever funky flavors you’re into.
  • Step 9: Temper so it doesn’t melt on the shelf or in fingertips.
  • Step 10: Delight in your chocolate.

Our final product didn’t have Lindt’s creaminess or Godiva’s salivating gelatin. In fact, it was mediocre at best. But it was our mediocre chocolate, and now we understood it took a village to raise a cacao bean. It was at that point I realized, in true Westernized fashion, I’d been traveling with a consumeristic mindset: What can I get out of this experience? What lessons can I take with me like souvenirs? How can I try on a new lifestyle in Belize to replace the old one I’m dissatisfied with? I’d valued product over transformation—the kind of transformation the required reciprocity.

Reciprocity looked like swapping stories at dinner—not only listening to Tom the Jaguar recount snake bites and visits to heaven, but offering my bland Midwest tales too. It looked like grabbing a paddle to help Barney the turtle conservationist steer a canoe upstream, then falling halfway in love. It looked like building a cairn made of the Bladen River’s rocks on the bank before our group left, acknowledging BFREE was more than a pitstop to enlightenment—it was a home so many of us yearned for.

In the mysterious fashion of magnetic fields, the cosmos brings humans together for an instant. These strange bump-ins can be an antidote for species loneliness, for feeling cut off from each other, if we let them. Before reaching BFREE, our travels collided with Terry, a fellow tourist at the Nuuk Cheil Cottages in Maya Center. An herbal healer and traditional Maya farmer owned the haven of mint-green huts and gardens blooming with red ginger and hibiscus. As we filed into the kitchen, Terry inserted himself at our lunch table. Somehow, his crimped white hair and milk-blue eyes were not the loudest qualities about him, but his floral shirt and anchor shorts. Also, the autobiography he shared with us over chicken burritos.

“I lost my memories for two years,” he mused. “Lost who I was.”

He’d gotten locked with toxic chemicals in his art studio, but his hippocampus was repaired by a Maya healer’s tea. Still, Terry was off. Not quite himself. The healer suggested he return to the scene of the accident to call back his soul. Terry yoo-hooed in despair for hours until, finally, something happened. The night sky gifted him a shooting star and his spirit was restored.

I considered Eddie’s myth about shooting stars, and how a multitude of tales promise treasure at the end of the metaphorical rainbow. But more prevalent, it seems, is that everyone is searching for something. Maybe a soul. Maybe a party or love. And the part of the process that brings us together in our separate pursuits? That’s the real magic. The unnamable assurance that, somehow, we’re headed in the right direction.

Jamie Hudalla

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