Before going to Belize in June 2022, I had put off getting my passport for years. Ever since I was a little girl, I’d fantasized about traveling abroad. When I went to college, I had plans to study internationally and had all of these expansive ideas about being a political analyst and covering international stories around the world. 

None of these things happened. And at 30 years old, I found myself not only without a passport but with zero international trip experiences under my belt. Honestly, the pressures of life had weighed down on me heavily, and getting a passport was the least of my concerns. 

So when I was given the opportunity to visit Belize and bring my boyfriend along with me, I was overjoyed. With very little time, I drove to Chicago to secure a same-day passport and hopped on a flight to Belize City the very next day. 

My flight to Belize wasn’t long at all. I’d always expected international flights to be this extreme process lasting five-plus hours and leaving travelers with intense jet lag. In all actuality, the flight only lasted about three hours. When I arrived at the Phillip S.W. Goldson International Airport, I was surprised by what I saw. 

Considering this was my first international trip, I had never experienced an airport outside of the United States. So I was blown away when we landed on the runway and descended down the stairs out of the plane’s backdoor. The airport appeared rundown and outdated. There were smaller planes sitting along the runway and the awning hanging over the airport entrance was tattered and torn. To be honest, I don’t think I’d seen such a high level of poverty. 

As we loaded into the shuttle and drove down the winding highway to the Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge, I continued to see dire signs of impoverished locals and a lack of resources. The houses we passed were falling apart and I could catch small glimpses of caved-in rooftops, doors swinging from hinges, and wandering stray dogs through the window as we passed by. All the gas stations we passed were abandoned and we passed a Christian school campus where children were running barefoot in blue and white uniforms. It was humid and hot and people were wiping sweat from their faces with dirty towels as they waited for the public buses. 

Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about how little the Belizean people seemed to have. I instantly felt privileged and ungrateful for the things I took for granted back home. Knowing we were headed to a fancy, luxury resort, I felt a sense of embarrassment seeing locals live a life lacking not only in luxury but in basic necessities. 

Sometimes I can feel emotions too strongly, so I pieced myself back together and relaxed as we drove past Sleeping Giant Mountain and through Belize’s capital of Belmopan. My heart was bouncing out of my chest as we approached the resort. It was gated and security had to let us in as we drove past huge trees with gigantic, lush leaves and colorful flowers of every hue. Palm and fiddle leaf fig trees surrounded the lobby entrance and they gave us complimentary mocktails upon arrival. My Belizean adventure had finally begun.

Photo Courtesy of Asad Photo Maldives.

The time I spent at Sleeping Giant was magical. Being surrounded by nature had always been a dream of mine. But I never thought I would be able to see the outdoors from this point of view. 

Our riverside suite had an indoor/outdoor vibe and I spent most of my time lounging in the outside day bed on the patio and enjoying the outdoor shower. The water pressure was better outside and there was something special about being naked outside and coming back in completely clean. 

I was mystified by the animals walking around the resort. Everywhere you turned there was ducks, turtles, peacocks, and horse strolling around gracefully. They didn’t bother you; just walked past as they tended to their babies running around in the grass. One of the most special things about Sleeping Giant was they grew most of their herbs, fruits, and vegetables on that same land. The food served in the Grove House Restaurant literally went from farm to plate, with freshly squeezed juices accompanying every meal. 

Although my stay at the rainforest lodge made me want to delve into endless hours of relaxation, I still was excited to see what the property had to offer. I went on a tour of a Mayan Ceremonial Cave that included an hour-long hike through the jungle terrain of Mount Carmel and a multi-hour spelunking excursion. The experience left my body exhausted. I was pouring with sweat and I could feel the fear and anxiety in my chest as I made sure to avoid poisonous plants, spiky tree branches, and giant roots that rose about the earth and tried to trip me with every step. 

Despite the overwhelming sense of danger and exhaustion, after the hiking tour, I was filled with a deep sense of strength and accomplishment. I had never done anything so physically tiring and honestly, I didn’t think I would make it through. But I did. As we descended out of the jungle trail, I grabbed an orange from the citrus grove as a symbol of my victory.

Sleeping Giant changed me and I’ll never be the same. The energy at the resort was life-altering. I’d never felt so close to the essence of life: I could feel the jungle breathing all around me. I looked down into the valley from atop a cliff and smiled as the sun set over the mountains. For some reason, everything seemed clearer at Sleeping Giant. I felt I’d finally rediscovered my purpose in life as a writer and deep inside of me change was happening. 

I cried when as the shuttle drove off and Sleeping Giant began to fade into the horizon. I had never experienced a place like that in my life. Somehow, I’d found a home in the jungle. It felt as if that was where I belonged. Although my time in Belize had not yet ended, I grieved as I left the rainforest. And I truly believe I left a piece of myself behind.

Photo Courtesy of Arnie Chou.

From the rainforest, the shuttle drove us two hours away to Jaguar Reef in Hopkins, a beautiful beachside resort near a small village. The ambiance at Jaguar Reef was completely different from Sleeping Giant and I was thankful I was able to experience both sides of Belizean life. Whereas the rainforest was a peaceful vibe full of dense greenery, nostalgic Mayan decor, and riverside views, the beach resort was upbeat and fast-paced with tourists everywhere. 

The themes at Jaguar Reef were heavily inspired by the Garifuna people who were the descendants of the Afro-indigenous people from the Caribbean island St. Vincent who was exiled and came to Belize. The Garifuna people had a rich culture and traces of them were evident from the moment I landed in Belize. It was clear these people were darker complexion compared to the Mayan-Mestizos in the country. Honestly, they looked exactly like me and I felt a sense of belonging in their presence. 

I honestly feel like we did more excursions at Jaguar Reef than at the rainforest resort. As soon as we arrived, we were able to take a Garifuna cooking class. There was a local Garifuna woman named Ms. El helping the resort’s head chef prepare the food. She was a heavy-set woman with a round face and coarse hair. Watching her prepare the food was like watching an artist perfect a portrait as she seasoned and slid the snapper into hot grease and it began to crackle. The dish she prepared for us was hadut, a fish soup paired with coconut rice and smashed plantains. Everything was delicious and I fell in love with how Belize cuisine incorporated fresh herbs and coconuts to create unforgettable flavors. 

The next day we would take a cruise down the City River. Suddenly, I felt teleported back to ancient times when the indigenous people of Belize would sail down this same river fishing and gathering water for crops. The water was full of manatees and crocodiles but unfortunately, we only saw one baby croc sitting with his head poking out of the water onto the shore. We spent hours searching the river in the dark of night, shining our flashlights into the evening shade; tapping into our inner Crocodile Hunter as we made our way along the river bank. 

The river cruise symbolized the end of our trip. We would be leaving early the next morning to head to the airport but I wasn’t done yet with my Belize experience. The next day I woke up at 4 am. I wanted to catch the sunrise over the beach before I left the country. I’d always had an affinity for sunrises and I was sure this one would be special. 

My boyfriend and I walked barefoot to the beach that morning. The humidity hadn’t set in yet and the sea breeze was cool on our faces. We held hands as we made our way to the sand and sat in one of the cabanas. The sun had not yet risen but the sky was covered with clouds. It was hard to see but I was hopeful that we would still see the sunrise. 

I took out my planner and began to jot down some affirmations. I am a very spiritual person and I had been moved by my time spent in Belize. I wanted to set my intentions before coming home because I knew I would be returning a different person. I played the acoustic version of Howie Day’s Collide and as I started to write, tears began to fall from my eyes. 

I was not the same. Something had been reawoken in me that I had believed to be dead. All of my doubts, fears, and insecurities about myself seemed to have drifted away into the Caribbean Sea. As I walked along the shoreline reading my affirmations, water beating my feet and seaweed wrapping around my ankles, I was born again.

Photo Courtesy of Brandon Imbriale.

The days I spent in Belize were like a dream I never wanted to wake up from. Riding back to the airport was bittersweet. My time on the beach that morning had solidified my faith in myself and I was ready to get back home to put my new goals and plans into action. However, I still didn’t want to leave. I felt like there was more to experience. I felt like I’d missed something. I grieved as my vacation came to an end.

The mountains seemed to ride alongside us as we got closer to the airport. Once again we drove past the rundown houses with their caved-in rooftops and hanging doors. We passed the Christian school again with its blue houses. But my feelings about the living conditions of the Belize locals had changed. 

Instead of feeling like they were in the depths of poverty, I believed the locals to be very rich. Although my life back in the US was fueled by hustle and bustle, mainly to acquire materialistic goods, it lacked substance and peace. The people in Belize had that; every day they woke up to nature’s beauty. They were surrounded by it and the rainforest was their backyards. My backyard back home was a QuickTrip gas station. There was literally no comparison. While they may not have had all the material things and technological luxuries, they had a connection to nature that seemed unattainable back home. They were rich in a way that didn’t require money at all.

Since returning home from Belize, I have made some major changes. I started waking up earlier to get the most out of my day. I quit smoking cigarettes and just started being more intentional about my life. I felt like I had too many unnecessary things; mountains of unworn clothes and shoes. So I began to minimize my life. I realized my purpose in life is to be a travel writer and explore the world and write about the incredible things I see. 

Although this was my first international trip, it will not be my last. Visiting Belize made me realize how much more the world has to offer. Sometimes, it is easy to get caught up in the rat race of life. As Americans, we are always on the go, and relaxation is not only put on the back burner but sometimes frowned upon. My trip changed my perspective getting peace of mind and opened my eyes to how vast and expansive the earth is. While my time in Belize is behind me, it will always be at the forefront of my memory as the moment I woke up and finally was able to see myself in a clear view.