Although breakfast wouldn't be ready for a while, I went to the cantina anyway and lounged in the hammock, watching horses graze.
Morning meals usually included eggs, tortillas, fruit and coffee served around 8 a.m. An hour later, we headed for the small corral, where our sure-footed horses, a mix of quarter horse and regional stock, were already groomed and saddled.
We rode through rain forest, the foothills of the Maya Mountains and a pine savanna, which was recently devastated by an infestation of southern pine beetle. All that was left of the evergreens were tall, bare trunks, a surreal forest of telephone poles.
Hernandez, a gentle 36-year-old Guatemalan, spoke English well and smiled often. He was an excellent nature guide, educating us about the local flora and fauna. He whacked a white poisonwood tree with his machete to show us its seeping milky sap and cautioned us against touching the black poisonwood tree, which contains a clear sap that causes painful blistering, swelling and itching on contact. The antidote is a topically applied tea of water boiled with tourist-tree bark.
AT lunchtime, we tied our horses to trees and hiked seriously steep inclines to remote waterfalls. There, Hernandez set up our picnic spread, usually made up of leftovers from the previous night's simple meal of chicken, shrimp, pasta, fruits and veggies and dessert. Sometimes we swam; other times we chatted on the rocky banks. After so much physical exertion in the tropical heat, nibbling in the cool mist of a waterfall was exhilarating.
But the truly singular experience -- better than any waterfall or gallop beneath giant palm fronds -- were the Maya ruins of Blancaneaux Cave.
During the late morning on Day 2, Hernandez took us to a clearing in the forest and dismounted. "We're stopping here," he said. "Take out your flashlights."
I did as he said but wondered: Flashlights for what? The sun was shining.
Then Hernandez removed a rope from his saddlebag and tied it to the base of a tree.
"Who wants to go first?" he asked.
That's when I saw the large hole in the forest floor.
No one volunteered, so Hernandez grabbed the rope and rappelled down into a cave about 10 feet underground.
I followed, learning the hard way that a short distance can take a long time when you don't know what you're doing. With my hands clinging to the rope, feet dangling in the air, I swung left and -- whap! -- hit the slimy limestone wall.
Eventually I found a few footholds and lowered myself into the cave -- but not before I hit the wall again, tearing the skin off one elbow and bruising a knee. Injuries aside, it was yet another thrilling first on this trip. My companions followed.
Hernandez led us through the cave, a winding but wide tunnel of stalactites and stalagmites. The air was thick and stagnant, and my heart pounded hard from a combination of claustrophobia, humidity and awe. Hernandez pointed out ledges where the Maya elite presided over ceremonies and discussed civic matters. He guided us through passageways that separated rooms, all the while sharing bits of Maya history, which I found the most interesting of all.
Maya originated around 2600 BC, rose to prominence around AD 250 and declined in AD 900. They were an advanced civilization, even by our standards, developing astronomy, complex mathematical systems, accurate calendars and ceremonial architecture that have survived looting and the elements.
Using hieroglyphics, they were also the first people of the New World to keep historical records. It struck me that their civilization was virtually as complex and resourceful as modern civilization, and they accomplished this with few of the resources of today -- not even metal tools.
In the push of everyday life, there's little time to pause for this kind of reflection, to look down at the giants' shoulders beneath our feet.
That's what Blancaneaux Cave -- and other parts of my riding tour -- did for me. Since I returned home, I haven't looked at my calendar without thinking of the Maya. And I doubt I'll taste pumpkin pie again without thinking of Belize.