The healing powers of the rainforests of Belize

A seldom-visited nook of Belize affords 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 peaceful, jovial demeanor, considered the “bush medication” that continues to be so standard in his residence nation. 

I started seeing Dr. Grant quickly after my surgical procedure for testicular most cancers, 5 years in the past. Regardless of the sobering nature of my visits, our conversations have been at all times pleasant. He is aware of I’m a journey author, and he typically hinted (not too subtly) that I ought to write about Belize. Once I known as and defined the precise topic of my search, he recalled how his grandmother would remedy toothaches and upset tummies utilizing roots and leaves from her yard. He admitted that “typically, a few of these issues labored fairly effectively.” However the oncologist in him was extra skeptical.

“Folks start making broader claims,” he defined over the cellphone. “They are saying, ‘This one plant cures all the things from diabetes to most cancers to reminiscence loss.’ Like all issues, it turns into outlandish.” I realized 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

So far, my impressions of Belize have been principally primarily based on pictures I’d seen of tropical white sand seashores and blissed-out snorkelers. This journey, nonetheless, would contain winding jungle trails, sacred Maya caves and medicinal tree bark. I discovered a lodge, the Gaïa River Lodge, that bordered the sting of Elijio Panti National Park, a sprawling wilderness within the west Belize district generally known as Cayo. The lodge supplied guided “shaman” excursions by the forest, which felt like place to begin to raised perceive the function of conventional medication within the nation. 

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

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Author, Alex Schechter meets Jose Magaña, a practising Mayan healer who’s well-versed within the native flora of Belize, by Elijio Panti Nationwide Park © Aquila Flores / Lonely Planet

Botanical therapies with a Maya healer

On a drizzly Saturday morning, I met with Jose Magaña, a practising Maya healer who’s well-versed within the native flora of Elijio Panti Nationwide Park. He greeted me within the foyer of Gaïa River Lodge carrying dishevelled cargo pants and a woven linen shirt. Quickly, we have been traipsing by the rainforest, crushing allspice leaves in our arms and slicing slivers of Billy Webb bark to make use of as a mosquito repellant. 

I realized that Magaña’s grandfather was a nephew of Elijio Panti, the park’s namesake. Like his well-known relative, Magaña takes his function as a healer very critically. His sufferers come from all around the Cayo district, searching for remedy for diabetes, migraines, bronchial asthma and a number of different afflictions. However as he defined, the enterprise of curing them entails extra than simply choosing the right leaf: “What’s lacking are the prayers,” he stated, snapping off a purplish stem of bullhorn acacia. “You can not harvest the herbs simply since you need to. You must discuss to the crops.”

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

Quickly, Magaña started hopping up and down on a crimson dust mound, inflicting a small military of leafcutter ants to emerge from tiny holes close to the highest. 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 an alternative 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 on the considered placing their scissor-shaped heads on the location 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. On the finish of a hall of huge, arched cohune palms, we reached the doorway to an underground cave. Magaña stated this was Xibalba, a sacred Maya cave that means “place of fright.” However scared was the very last thing I felt as Magaña gently lowered himself to the bottom and uttered a welcome prayer earlier than coming into. When he completed, we strapped on helmets with flashlight beams and climbed down a ladder into the murky hole. 

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

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

“Some individuals get confused,” he stated. “They see a stone they usually assume ‘magic.’ No! These are symbols,” he stated, pointing to the gadgets surrounding him. There have been no chants or invoking of spirits. As a substitute, 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. Because the smoke swirled up in 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 have been all buzzing within the air without delay. It felt just like the most secure place I may think about.

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Trying up from inside a collapse Elijio Panti Nationwide Park © Aquila Flores / Lonely Planet

After we emerged within 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 need to present people who we, the Maya, are nonetheless right here.” He pointed at his t-shirt and backpack. “We costume in trendy garments, however that doesn’t imply we’re not Maya.”

Elijio Panti Nationwide Park recovered

Elijio Panti Nationwide Park was established in 2001, and right now, it stands as a cultural image for the hundreds of indigenous individuals who name this nook of Belize residence. However 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 Division, misplaced its joint stake, and for 10 years, the 13,006-acre park languished by the hands of poachers, looters and loggers. “It was unhappy,” recalled Maria Garcia, the society’s chairwoman, and a niece of Don Elijio Panti. “This forest is our life. Now we have grown with it. It’s a part of us.”

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

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Mountaineering below Elijio Panti Nationwide 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 obtained a personal tour from Abdon Tzib, who grew up in neighboring San Antonio. Tzib is considered one of 4 rangers who work on a volunteer foundation, clearing trails and patrolling an space the dimensions of Manhattan. Strolling below a pristine cover of sapodilla timber, he pronounced the park’s full title – Noj Kax Meen Elijio Panti Nationwide Park – and defined that it was a reference to a Yucatec Maya time period that means “the grandmother forest of healers.”

Tzib doesn’t take into account 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 might supposedly assist with girls’s menstrual cramps. “That’s a very good plant to have round,” he commented. He named so many crops, I misplaced depend. I trailed behind as he plunged confidently into thickets of vines and leaves, zeroing in on the precise 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 method to therapeutic

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 function in my life right now. 5 years after my restoration, I’m extra concerned with studying about different cultures’ attitudes to illness, and the situations that result in it, than the particulars of my previous analysis. 

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

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

Magaña informed me his sufferers typically complained that they have been victims of an enemy’s curse. He was fast to problem such reasoning: “Not all the things that occurs to you is black magic,” he warned them. “Typically, we create our personal issues. If we don’t settle for that we’re struggling, how are we going to get higher?”


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Belize’s Hummingbird Freeway is without doubt one of the most scenic drives on the earth © Aquila Flores / Lonely Planet

From the medication 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 within the jungle measured up in opposition to the tough realities of extra invasive therapies like chemotherapy. (Testicular most cancers like mine has a 95% survival charge, 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. Just 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. 

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Homes in Dangriga, Belize © Robert Harding / Alamy

In contrast to the highlands of Cayo, coastal Belize was muggy and scorching. I stood sweating within the ready room, quizzing the nurse about residence treatments like noni juice and soursop tea, which many Belizeans (not simply Mayas) take into account to be pure antidotes to most cancers. He shrugged. “If it really works, it really works. However with focused remedy, we are able to say ‘x’ quantity of chemo can have ‘x’ outcome. We are able to again that up scientifically.”

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

My journey with most cancers

I believed again to the summer time of 2016, that frightful, whirlwind week after I found the lump in my scrotum, scheduled an appointment with a urologist and was booked for surgical procedure the next day. I discovered my most cancers early earlier than it may do any actual injury. I used to be additionally fortunate sufficient to have entry to first rate 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 let you know, that’s simply as essential as the medication itself.

Lonely Planet’s Greatest in Journey 2022

Belize is on our 2022 Greatest in Journey listing. For extra tales from among the world’s most enjoyable locations click here.

Security suggestions and restrictions throughout a pandemic can change quickly. Lonely Planet recommends that vacationers at all times verify with native authorities for up-to-date steerage earlier than traveling during Covid-19.

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