Thwack! I slam the edge of my cleaver on the coconut’s shell — the same coconut I just spent a painful amount of time husking. “Hard as you can,” Mr. Eugene encourages, and I grip the coconut a little tighter and bring the cleaver down a little harder. THWACK! The coconut cracks; its warm water drips over my hands and into the plastic bucket.

“Is that bad?” I panic, water gushing over my fingers as I look to Eugene for reassurance. “That’s good, hit it again.” Thwack. The water stops. I’ve hit the off switch. Thwack. Nothing. Thwack, thwack, thwack. Finally, the hairy coconut breaks in half to reveal a core as clean and white as untouched snow. Everyone cheers. Victory is mine.

I take a seat in the open-air kitchen; the sound of plantain chips bubbling in oil over the crackling wood fire only makes me hotter. I wipe the sweat pooling on my upper lip and take a swig of rum punch. Eugene smirks, “Lunch isn’t ready yet.”

We’re at Palmento Grove Garifuna Eco-Cultural & Fishing Institute. It’s our first full day in Hopkins, Belize (located halfway between Belize City in the north and Placencia on the southern coast), and I’m already blown away by its beauty and the people who call this colourful seaside community home.

Palmento Grove sits on its own private heritage site, Kalipuna Island, surrounded by a calm lagoon and dense mangroves. Eugene Martinez and his daughter Uwahnie Martinez are our hosts for the day, teaching us all about their Garifuna culture and history. We learn about their West African ancestors — a once enslaved people shipwrecked on the shores of St. Vincent — their resiliency, and their gift of language. UNESCO has even recognized the “Garifuna language, dance and music of Belize as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

Hudut, a traditional Garifuna dish of crispy fried fish in a herbed coconut milk broth served with mashed plantains (fufu), is on today’s lunch menu. We’re not only guests but also chefs tasked with helping to prepare the meal. Besides the freshly caught red snapper, some vegetables, salt, pepper and Old Bay seasoning (Eugene’s favourite), each component of the hudut is grown on Kalipuna Island and made from scratch, using tools that wouldn’t last long with impatient “cooks” like myself.

It’s quite an endeavour, but the end result couldn’t be more worthwhile. When we finally sit down to enjoy our meal, it’s a fish stew unlike any I’ve tasted before, with deep layers of flavour. I sop up every last bit with my fufu, its subtle sweetness and tang balancing the heat of the fragrant stew.

“We use water, we use land. We use heat, we use cold,” Eugene tells us. “Human beings have always existed with the harmony of opposites. It’s in that space where we survive.” We go back for seconds and sigh when our bowls are empty. But there is a distinct feeling of fullness that lingers when you have an experience like this. To learn about someone’s culture directly from them, to listen to their stories, eat their food and be welcomed into their home — this is the best kind of souvenir.

That evening, we retire our aprons and walk barefoot along the beach to Chef Rob’s Gourmet Café. The beloved restaurant is a five-minute jaunt from our coastal-cool suites at The Lodge at Jaguar Reef, but I purposely go slower to take in the vast Caribbean Sea stretching out before us. Soon, we will be treated to its bounty during a multi-course tasting menu at the chef’s counter.

Chef Rob Pronk, a Dutch expat who moved to Belize in the 90s and never looked back, bounces around the burners, cracking jokes while sautéing, blending, and tending to several hot pots and pans on the gas range. When I ask what Belize food is to him, he stops his constant movement and replies, “Twenty years ago, I would have said it was rice and beans, and stewed chicken, but it’s so much more. It’s Creole, Central American, Maya, Garifuna — a melting pot of all these influences.”

Belize may be small (with a population just over 400,000), but it’s brimming with a richness developed by the many ethnic groups who live here. To be in Belize is to be in many places at once, and I want to take in as much as I can. But for now, I practically crawl back to the lodge, tired, messy and ready for bed.

The next morning, I rise with the sun. We have a two-hour drive ahead of us to the Toledo District, where we’ll join EcoTourism Belize’s Maya Cultural Visit. I’m not sure what to expect, but I’m told once again to pack my appetite. When we arrive, bones still vibrating from the bumpy road, we are greeted with the calming, earthy scent of burning sage mixed with smoke rising from a nearby fire hearth.

The hearth’s low concrete edges look almost out of place once we’re inside the traditional Kekchi Maya home made out of local timber, wood slats and palm leaves. Avelina, one of the three Maya women hosting us for the afternoon, catches me staring at it and, as if she’s read my mind, explains that it’s not concrete, it’s made out of ashes from the fire that form a concrete-like paste when wet. Nothing goes to waste here.

The fire hearth will play a central part in our day, just as it’s played a central role in Maya life for generations. After all, the Maya have been in Belize since 2,500 bce. While things obviously look different than they did back then, the three groups of Maya living in Belize today — Yucatec, Mopan and Kekchi — have worked hard to keep the ties to their ancestors and cultural heritage intact. I’m told that the many ancient Maya temples and settlements scattered over the country should be referred to as “Maya sites, not Mayan ruins.”

We take turns grinding roasted cacao beans into a chocolatey paste and dried corn into thick flour on Avelina’s precious family mano, a traditional Maya grinding stone. Moving the heavy stone requires both strength and stamina. I’m admittedly terrible at it and prefer flattening the pre-made doughy masa into round tortillas, although I’m not very good at that either.

My tortillas are bumpy, their edges uneven. I’m nervous to lay the delicate dough on the hearth’s hot comal out of fear I’ll rip the tortilla, but Avelina gently encourages me to try. It’s not about getting it right. Once I let that go, my tortilla looks and tastes pretty darn good.

By the time we leave, my fingers have pressed into sticky masa, cracked cacao beans, and weaved jippi jappa (a palm-like rainforest plant). They’ve touched so many things, not perfectly, but always with an open hand.

So, when we leave the coast and head into the depths of the jungle near San Ignacio, I’m feeling brave. As our SUV kicks into four-wheel drive and trundles down a steep and muddy “road,” I wonder what awaits below. The air is thick with mist, and the sky barely visible beyond the rainforest’s green ceiling until we reach a clearing and a still, murky river.

“Welcome to my backyard!” Robert Melendez booms, a six-foot-something, self-proclaimed jungle man and owner of Jungle Splash Eco-Tours. “The great Macal River,” he points to the water, where a thatched-roof pontoon boat gently bobs. The MacGyvered houseboat will be our above-water home for the afternoon while Robert takes us down the river, pointing out every cliff face and spotting wildlife like crocodiles and camouflaged iguanas from hundreds of metres away.

I jump when an unexpected crack of thunder echoes over the Maya Mountains, startling the sky enough to start pouring down. “I love thunderstorms,” Robert smiles. “When I hear thunder, I grab my horse and ride bareback up the mountain.”

We dock beside a rushing waterfall and break for lunch, which has been slowly smoking on the pontoon’s charcoal barbecue. It’s a hearty lunch of grilled meat, baked beans and “jungle potatoes.” Robert chuckles, “There’s a little rain in there. Sky juice, we call it.” Then, a cheeky smile spreads across his face, “Ready to climb a waterfall?” I gulp down my last bite.

It’s known as the sandpaper waterfall for its unique, grippy surface, but there is a caveat: “You can only go where the water flows,” Robert explains. Any spot without water is extremely slippery because of algae that thrive in the sunlight. It’s the minerals beneath the water’s surface that make it sticky.

My internal safety monitor isn’t sold. “How do we get down?” I ask before we begin to climb, barefoot.“We jump!” Robert jokes (I think). “It’s only 145 feet down.” I look at the waterfall that can’t be more than a few feet taller than him and wonder how that’s possible. As we climb, I realize the sandpaper waterfall is more like a giant, natural staircase made up of several waterfalls, with tiny pools of crystal clear water at the landing of each one we scale.

It is the most exhilarating and terrifying thing I’ve done, but Robert makes sure that each step we take won’t be our last. The higher we climb, the more beautiful it gets, and I feel like our small group must be the only one in the world who’s been here. When I left Toronto, I had no idea I was capable of something like this.

I didn’t know it yet, but in the days that follow, I will muster up more courage to swim with nurse sharks, stingrays and curious sea turtles beneath the open turquoise waters of San Pedro’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a protected, “leave nothing, take nothing” area of fascinating coral reef. Over the course of seven spectacular days in Belize, I will explore land and sea. I’ll find hot sand and refreshing waterfalls. I will leave nothing behind, but I will take everything with me.