The kingdom of the crystal skull
Even at risk of incurring death by Mayan curse, it is tempting to laugh cynically. The Skull of Doom was a fraud. It was almost certainly one of several that a dubious antiques dealer, Eugene Boban, secretly commissioned from German craftsmen in the 19th century. Boban sold a number of these skulls, on the pretence that they were of ancient Mayan or Aztec origin: one ended up in the Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC, and one in the British Museum. These days, both museums have their skulls labelled as fakes. Mitchell-Hedges, the old charlatan, did not find his skull at Lubaantun. He still had the receipt from when he bought it at Sotheby’s.
How many of Mitchell-Hedges’s adventures were real, and how many only existed in his imagination, is unknown. But he did come to Belize, hacking through jungles, meeting Mayan villagers and exploring deserted, tropical archipelagos, and he did excavate the ruins at Lubaantun. Clutching a dusty copy of his Belizean travelogue, Land of Wonder and Fear, I set out on the Hummingbird Highway to follow the route of his real-life adventure.
Meeting Captain Buck
Belize, formerly British Honduras, is a small country crammed with diversity. Ecosystems range from mountainous pine forests to reefs, savannahs to jungles. These support a plethora of flora and fauna, including 540 species of bird and 124 species of mammal. The human population is diverse too. Mayan teenagers in hoodies shop in the Ah Fang Taiwanese supermarket. Bearded Amish and Mennonite men drive their horse-carts past the Bismilla Lebanese café. South Asian youths play pool in a roadside shack. Creoles and Canadians dance the night away to Garifuna music, the unique blend of African and Amerindian cultures created when, in 1635, escaped African slaves from a Spanish ship allied with the native Caribs on St Vincent, and later spread to Belize. Even in remote villages, most people will happily chat away to you in perfect English. Belize is the only Anglophone country in Central America, making it easy and pleasurable to explore, and to meet new friends along the way.
It is not long before we reach the colourful seaside town of Dangriga. My plan, scribbled on a scrap of paper, sounds more like Moby-Dick than Raiders of the Lost Ark: I should go to the Riverside Café and look for one Captain Buck. No disappointment is in store for, aside from having both legs and being Creole, Captain Buck looks the part of Captain Ahab. He is a grizzled old seadog in a booth near the bar, tucking into the local delicacy of crispy pastries – known as fry jack, and served with everything. The Captain isn’t much of a talker. He nods towards his motorboat, moored just outside.
It is a searingly bright Caribbean day, and the sea glitters as if filled with sequins. Ten minutes out of the harbour, a shiny grey fin breaks the surface. Captain Buck veers the boat over towards it. For a fleeting second, four or five bottlenose dolphins curve out of the surf by the bow, before plunging back into the depths.
Buck fires the motor again to Man-O’- War Caye, a tiny island that seems from the distance to have some sort of pestilence buzzing above it. But the specks in the air are not flies. They are hundreds of magnificent frigatebirds, swooping and gliding over their nesting spot. Captain Buck takes the boat so close that we are enveloped in their flock: the males puffing up scarlet throats, the females circling the trees. An inquisitive pelican paddles up to the boat to see if we have fish to spare.