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PERSONAL JOURNEYS

A Memorable Place

Deep in tropical caves, signs of the Maya

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By Jeff Richman

SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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My wife, Aimee, doesn't like caves. She is afraid of bats, squeezing through tight places, climbing on steep and slippery objects and walking barefoot. In January, we embarked on a trip to Belize in Central America to escape the snow of Baltimore and to enjoy a week of sunshine, warmth, beautiful reefs, Mayan ruins and rain forest.

In planning the trip, I neglected to mention the caves I wanted to see. After visiting Tikal in neighboring Guatemala, hiking in the rain forest and visiting waterfalls, I begged Aimee to join me on a guided cave tour.

Less than an hour from San Ignacio, our guide led a group of seven tourists on an hourlong hike through the jungle. From the moment we entered the cave, we were cold and wet, because we had to swim at certain points along the way.

The guide led us into underground rivers with no more light than the lamps on our helmets could provide, and eventually brought us to a dry place where we climbed among rocks.

Several openings were barely big enough for a person to fit through. We reached a point where the guide asked us to go barefoot so that we would not damage the 1,200-year-old pottery that was strewn around the cave rooms. We were now very far from daylight. In a cavern, among the giant stalactites and stalagmites, were remains of Mayan food offerings and human sacrifice.

The complete skeleton and other body parts we saw on the ground before us were mesmerizing. In A.D. 800, the Maya had managed to find their way through more than a half-mile of caves to give offerings to the gods of the underworld so that their drought would end.

Instead, the era of the Maya ended, with only some overgrown temples and these artifacts to remind us of their civilization. I imagined their journey through these caves with only the light of a torch to guide them.

We briefly doused our headlamps to experience what true darkness looks like. In the absence of light, there was nothing but the occasional sound of a bat. With lights back on, we carefully walked in single file back toward the underground river and mouth of the cave, careful not to touch any of the artifacts.

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I was cold when I re-entered the water, but all I could think of was how enchanting a skeleton could be.

My wife still doesn't care for caves, dark places, cold water, bats or tight places. But she was as amazed as I was by the experience. Four days later, she swam with the sharks along the second largest barrier reef in the world.

Jeff Richman lives in Pikesville.

My Best Shot

F. Lester Simon, Towson

We are fortunate to spend our winters on the west coast of Florida between Sarasota and Bradenton. One evening, I took my camera, long lens and tripod to the beach to photograph the sunset. It was a stroke of luck when about that time a small fishing boat came by on its way back home -- or more precisely, on its way to the little fishing village of Cortez.

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Readers Recommend

Catalonia, Spain

Victoria Hecht, Baltimore

Port Lligat means "tide in harbor" in Catalan. In 1930, Salvador Dali bought a one-story shack there with no electricity or running water. People thought the artist was crazy. The area was accessible only by boat; its sole inhabitants a mere dozen or so taciturn fisherman. During the next four decades, Dali added to the home and filled it with art and objects collected from his travels. Today, the artist's house (far left) leaves little doubt about Dali's keen eye for seeing potential where others did not.

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My son and I took a trip to Sydney recently. The famous Sydney Harbour Bridge has a 360-degree view of the world's most beautiful harbor by day, and the magic of Sydney lights by night. Guides give a thorough briefing on safety before a thrilling climb to the top of the bridge some 426 feet above sea level. The climb was an experience that exceeded our expectations.

Let Us Hear From You

We want to know about your travels, your experiences, your pictures. Here's how to participate in this page:

* My Best Shot -- Send us a terrific travel photo with a description of when and where you took it. (Cash value: $50.)

* A Memorable Place -- In 500 words or less, tell us about a travel experience that changed you; about the nostalgia a certain place evokes; about a favorite beach, the mountains, a city cafe. Include a photo. (Cash value: $150.)

* Readers Recommend -- Briefly tell us about places you've recently visited that you'd recommend to other readers. (50 words or less; photos are welcome.)

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Because of the volume of responses, photos and manuscripts cannot be individually acknowledged or returned. Submissions from all categories may be used for Readers Recommend, and upon submission become the property of The Sun.

Send by fax to 410-783-2519, or write to: Travel Department, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278, or e-mail to Travel@baltsun.com. Be sure to include your name and phone number.


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