The healing powers of the rainforests of Belize

A seldom-visited nook of Belize presents author Alex Schechter a contemporary perspective on his battle with most cancers.

A month earlier than I flew to Belize final fall, I known as my oncologist. I used to be planning to go to a nationwide park named after Don Elijio Panti, a well-known Maya healer, the place I hoped to study native medicinal crops. I needed to know what my physician, a non-Maya Belizean with a relaxed, jovial demeanor, thought of the “bush medicine” that continues to be so widespread in his residence nation. 

I started seeing Dr. Grant quickly after my surgical procedure for testicular most cancers, 5 years in the past. Despite the sobering nature of my visits, our conversations had been all the time pleasurable. He is aware of I’m a journey author, and he usually hinted (not too subtly) that I ought to write about Belize. When I known as and defined the particular topic of my search, he recalled how his grandmother would treatment toothaches and upset tummies utilizing roots and leaves from her yard. He admitted that “sometimes, some of those things worked pretty well.” But the oncologist in him was extra skeptical.

“People begin making broader claims,” he defined over the cellphone. “They say, ‘This one plant cures everything from diabetes to cancer to memory loss.’ Like all things, it becomes outlandish.” I discovered that Dr. Grant had been treating most cancers sufferers in Belize since 2008 at a most cancers clinic he based (the nation’s first), one thing that had by no means come up in our earlier conversations. 

Away from the seaside, into the rainforest

Up to now, my impressions of Belize had been largely based mostly on photographs I’d seen of tropical white sand seashores and blissed-out snorkelers. This journey, nevertheless, would contain winding jungle trails, sacred Maya caves and medicinal tree bark. I discovered a lodge, the Gaïa River Lodge, that bordered the edge of Elijio Panti National Park, a sprawling wilderness in the west Belize district generally known as Cayo. The lodge provided guided “shaman” excursions by the forest, which felt like place to begin to raised perceive the position of conventional drugs in the nation. 

Dr. Grant appeared happy that I had chosen to go to Cayo, a less-traveled space of Belize. So usually, he stated, vacationers stick with all-inclusive resorts on the cayes, or islands and keep away from the mountainous area additional inland. “They miss out on all that green,” he stated.

Writer, Alex Schechter meets Jose Magaña, a working towards Mayan healer who’s well-versed in the native flora of Belize, by Elijio Panti National Park © Aquila Flores / Lonely Planet

Botanical remedies with a Maya healer

On a drizzly Saturday morning, I met with Jose Magaña, a working towards Maya healer who’s well-versed in the native flora of Elijio Panti National Park. He greeted me in the foyer of Gaïa River Lodge sporting saggy cargo pants and a woven linen shirt. Soon, we had been traipsing by the rainforest, crushing allspice leaves in our fingers and slicing slivers of Billy Webb bark to make use of as a mosquito repellant. 

I discovered that Magaña’s grandfather was a nephew of Elijio Panti, the park’s namesake. Like his well-known relative, Magaña takes his position as a healer very severely. His sufferers come from throughout the Cayo district, looking for remedy for diabetes, migraines, bronchial asthma and a number of different afflictions. But as he defined, the enterprise of curing them entails extra than simply choosing the proper leaf: “What’s missing are the prayers,” he stated, snapping off a purplish stem of bullhorn acacia. “You cannot harvest the herbs just because you want to. You have to talk to the plants.”

The jaws of leafcutter ants present in the rainforest can be utilized as stitches © Aquila Flores / Lonely Planet

Soon, Magaña started hopping up and down on a pink dust mound, inflicting a small military of leafcutter ants to emerge from tiny holes close to the prime. Magaña seized one and allowed its mighty jaws to clamp down on his pinky nail. When he pulled, the ant didn’t let go. This, he defined, was the Maya precursor to surgical stitches: as a substitute of thread, a collection of leafcutter ants would connect on to the torn pores and skin, and their highly effective bites would assist seal the wound. I winced at the thought of placing their scissor-shaped heads on the website of my very own stitched incision, simply above my pubic bone. 

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Into the place of fright

We crossed a shallow stream generally known as Vaqueros Creek, climbed up a subject the place thigmotropic weeds folded at my contact as if by magic, then swerved again into dense jungle. At the finish of a hall of large, arched cohune palms, we reached the entrance to an underground cave. Magaña stated this was Xibalba, a sacred Maya cave which means “place of fright.” But scared was the final thing I felt as Magaña gently lowered himself to the floor and uttered a welcome prayer earlier than getting into. When he completed, we strapped on helmets with flashlight beams and climbed down a ladder into the murky hole. 

Descending right into a cave for a standard Maya healing ceremony © Aquila Flores / Lonely Planet

Magaña refers to himself as a h’males, Yucatec Maya for “one who knows” (he fastidiously avoids the phrase shaman, which is often related to sorcery and darkish spirits). We ducked beneath jagged, pale yellow stalactites, handed by a collection of labyrinthine tunnels and at last arrived at the cave’s innermost chamber, the place we sat down for a standard Maya ceremony. Magaña lit 4 white candles in the dust, stuffed a wood bowl with a piney resin used for incense known as copal and unraveled a material containing a number of crystals and an obsidian blade. 

“Some people get confused,” he stated. “They see a stone and they think ‘magic.’ No! These are symbols,” he stated, pointing to the objects surrounding him. There had been no chants or invoking of spirits. Instead, he spoke, reflecting on the significance of setting instance for youthful generations. He sprinkled a fistful of dried rosemary into the burning copal, and we sat there in silence. As the smoke swirled up in the direction of the cratered, calcified roof, the auditorium-sized chamber took on a ghostly high quality, as if the collected prayers from previous generations of jungle dwellers had been all buzzing in the air without delay. It felt like the most secure place I might think about.

Looking up from inside a collapse Elijio Panti National Park © Aquila Flores / Lonely Planet

When we emerged in the daylight, the forest was serene and dappled in gentle. I requested Magaña why he was snug sharing such an intimate ritual with somebody like me, a vacationer. “I want to show people that we, the Maya, are still here.” He pointed at his t-shirt and backpack. “We dress in modern clothes, but that doesn’t mean we’re not Maya.”

Elijio Panti National Park recovered

Elijio Panti National Park was established in 2001, and at the moment, it stands as a cultural image for the hundreds of indigenous individuals who name this nook of Belize residence. But its protected standing has been shaky. In 2009, the Itzama Society, the native, all-Maya council who co-manages the park with the Belize Forest Department, misplaced its joint stake, and for 10 years, the 13,006-acre park languished at the fingers of poachers, looters and loggers. “It was sad,” recalled Maria Garcia, the society’s chairwoman, and a niece of Don Elijio Panti. “This forest is our life. We have grown with it. It’s part of us.”

The Itzama Society regained co-management of the park in 2019 after a two-year negotiation with the authorities, and Garcia set her concentrate on group outreach. She started inviting Maya college students as younger as 13 to come back for weekend workshops led by Maya elders. “The young people are hungry for it,” Garcia instructed me. “For some, it was their first time being in a Maya ceremony.”

Hiking beneath Elijio Panti National Park’s lush cover © Aquila Flores / Lonely Planet

Seeing the park by a ranger’s eyes

Two days after my hike with Jose Magaña, I traveled to the park’s distant inside and acquired a personal tour from Abdon Tzib, who grew up in neighboring San Antonio. Tzib is one of 4 rangers who work on a volunteer foundation, clearing trails and patrolling an space the measurement of Manhattan. Walking beneath a pristine cover of sapodilla timber, he pronounced the park’s full title – Noj Kax Meen Elijio Panti National Park – and defined that it was a reference to a Yucatec Maya time period which means “the grandmother forest of healers.”

Tzib doesn’t think about himself a h’males, however throughout our stroll, he identified the medicinal properties of aromatic lemongrass, avocado leaf, wild pineapple leaves and one thing known as firebush, which may supposedly assist with ladies’s menstrual cramps. “That’s a really good plant to have around,” he commented. He named so many crops, I misplaced rely. I trailed behind as he plunged confidently into thickets of vines and leaves, zeroing in on the actual specimen he was after. His affection for the crops was apparent. At one level, he seized the spiky pods of an achiote tree and opened them to disclose crimson annatto seeds, which he smeared on the palm of my hand.

A private strategy to healing

I by no means talked about my most cancers to both of my botanical guides, primarily as a result of it performs such a small position in my life at the moment. Five years after my restoration, I’m extra fascinated with studying about different cultures’ attitudes to illness, and the situations that result in it, than the particulars of my previous analysis. 

Native flora all through the rainforest of Belize are utilized in healing and wellness © Aquila Flores / Lonely Planet

Walking with Magaña and Tzib, each of whom in their very own means proceed the h’males custom that Elijio Panti popularized, I used to be struck by the Mayas’ private, big-picture strategy to healing. I questioned what it will be like for oncologists, as we all know them in the US, to contemplate a affected person’s underlying emotional state when prescribing remedy. 

Magaña instructed me his sufferers usually complained that they had been victims of an enemy’s curse. He was fast to problem such reasoning: “Not everything that happens to you is black magic,” he warned them. “Sometimes, we create our own problems. If we don’t accept that we’re suffering, how are we going to get better?”


Belize Aquila Flores DJI_0062-2 LP.jpg
Belize’s Hummingbird Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the world © Aquila Flores / Lonely Planet

From the drugs of a jungle to a most cancers clinic

On my final day in Belize, I drove three hours to the coast in Dangriga, to go to the most cancers middle that Dr. Grant based. I used to be curious to see his different workplace and likewise to learn how my classes in the jungle measured up in opposition to the harsh realities of extra invasive remedies like chemotherapy. (Testicular most cancers like mine has a 95% survival fee, and barely requires radiation or chemotherapy.)

I rang the buzzer to a modest two-story constructing, which turned out to be Dr. Grant’s childhood residence. A nurse led me by a small ready room stocked with American magazines and framed photos of tropical seaside scenes. Only one affected person was current: a 5-year-old boy receiving an intramuscular injection for leukemia. Behind him, his smiling father and youthful brother sat quietly, the smaller boy distracted by a online game. 

Dangriga, capital of the Garifuna community, Stann Creek, Belize, Central America
Houses in Dangriga, Belize © Robert Harding / Alamy

Unlike the highlands of Cayo, coastal Belize was muggy and scorching. I stood sweating in the ready room, quizzing the nurse about residence treatments like noni juice and soursop tea, which many Belizeans (not simply Mayas) think about to be pure antidotes to most cancers. He shrugged. “If it works, it works. But with targeted therapy, we can say ‘x’ amount of chemo will have ‘x’ result. We can back that up scientifically.”

Another drawback was early detection. Most sufferers, the nurse defined, didn’t hassle coming into the clinic till they had been in unhealthy form. And as soon as the most cancers had metastasized, it was unlikely that any kind of remedy – chemical or in any other case – can be of assist.

My journey with most cancers

I assumed again to the summer season of 2016, that frightful, whirlwind week once I found the lump in my scrotum, scheduled an appointment with a urologist and was booked for surgical procedure the following day. I discovered my most cancers early earlier than it might do any actual harm. I used to be additionally fortunate sufficient to have entry to respectable healthcare and a household that rallied round me.

After the surgical procedure, I had a sense of being reborn and a newfound respect for the delicate workings of my very own physique. This consciousness, the need to know precisely what I’m feeling in all moments, has stayed with me. As any healer would inform you, that’s simply as vital as the drugs itself.

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2022

Belize is on our 2022 Best in Travel listing. For extra tales from some of the world’s most enjoyable locations click here.

Safety suggestions and restrictions throughout a pandemic can change quickly. Lonely Planet recommends that vacationers all the time test with native authorities for up-to-date steerage earlier than traveling during Covid-19.

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