“Be careful when walking these woods in the dark,” Alex tells me. “This forest is infested with spirits.”
The night is thick with humidity and moonlight, the bonfire crackling high notes into the open air, hosting the mysteries of darkness. It’s my first night in Belize, and I roast marshmallows with two Mayan security guards from my remarkable five-star jungle lodge. Salty sweat drops wash over my forehead, cheeks, chest, and the hallow behind my knees. The heat is intense and suffocating, but I’m overflowing with aliveness. One of the men points a flashlight at my feet: “Don’t step on the trail of the leaf-cutter ants,” he alerts me as I see a battalion of thousands of ants trailing next to me. “They’ve been walking the Earth for millions of years, and you don’t want to disrupt their flow.” I find this profoundly beautiful, so raw, simple and respectful. I also wonder what else might live in my vicinity. It doesn’t take long for me to find out.
“Be careful when walking these woods in the dark,” Alex warns me. “This forest is infested with spirits.” Like a moth to a flame, I’m irresistibly attracted to what sounds like the preface to an unforgettable thriller. “Tell me more,” I eagerly request, chomping down gooey chunks of roasted sugar.
Earlier in the day, while flying above Central America staring at the clouds floating in blue, I pulled up my travel journal and wrote: “My intention for this trip is to experience magic.” Magic unfolds not just in the glittering natural beauty around me and the kindness of strangers, but also in the literal ramifications of the word itself.
Alex hands me a couple more marshmallows, and as I pierce them in the skewer, he goes back in time. At around age six or seven, while playing soccer in his small Mayan village, someone kicked the ball far into the jungle. He ventured into the woods to find it and soon realized he was lost. As the canopies closed in, blocking the sunlight, a two-foot-tall goblin approached him. “I was instantly paralyzed in fear,” he remembers. The creature had four fingers in each hand, and his feet faced backward. “When it was just 20 feet away from me, I passed out,” Alex flashes back, his eyebrows arched high towards his forehead.
He woke up after being unconscious for 24 hours, burning with a fever. By his bedside, his grandmother, a skilled healer, administered herbal remedies, recited prayers, and chanted healing incantations. She told him that when the villagers rescued him, he was in a trance, talking nonsense. Duende had tried to take possession of his body.
In my native Brazil, Curupira is the local version of Duende. With flames burning in his head, he’s the guardian of the Amazon rainforest and punishes illegal hunters and woodchoppers with all kinds of trickery. His backward feet throw the enemy off the trail until they’re disoriented and lost in the forest.
Prevalent in Mayan, Creole, and Mestizo Belizean cultures, Duende is also a protector of the jungle and a trickster entity. The men tell me that if you’re lucky and fall into Duende’s graces, you can be transported to a wondrous hidden place deep in the heart of the woods, only accessible in their presence. However, from a young age, local children learn that these entities should not be messed with.
Samuel discloses that he also had a close encounter with Duende but doesn’t go into details. “When we were children, it was common to see the smaller kids playing by the side of the mountain, talking to themselves,” he recalls. “When asked who they were playing with, they would say: ‘With my tiny funny-looking friend.’” As with many supernatural stories I’ve heard, only a few chosen humans can see creatures from other realms.
Duende’s latest apparition was just last year near the resort.
When we eat sugar, insulin levels go up in the part of our brain associated with rewards, increasing dopamine release and making us feel good. By now, with massive doses of marshmallows and magical realism flowing in my bloodstream, I forget the troubles I’ll have trying to fall asleep later that night. I’m craving a paranormal high. “What else lives around here?” I ask with curiosity. “La Llorona,” they say.
At age five, Samuel saw La Llorona, “the Wailing One,” grab his little sister’s hands and walk her into the jungle. Terrified, he cried for help. The adults heard him and ran in the child’s direction. The woman dressed in white disappeared.
I’m vaguely familiar with La Llorona, as she’s also a character in Brazilian and Mexican folktales. A crying woman whose children were stolen from her and murdered. In some versions, she’s the perpetrator of such crimes. In Belize, she lost her children in the jungle. As a spirit, she tries to capture other kids to ease her grief.
La Llorona is also portrayed as a dangerous seductress who drives men into lunacy. Samuel tells me that a man in his small village has never fully recovered from an encounter with her decades ago. “He went mad,” he says, shaking his head sideways in sorrow. His companion nods in agreement. “What does she do to men?” I inquire. “She takes them to a thorny bush and does all sorts of things to him, traumatizing him,” I learn. With the fire still crackling, I wonder about the nature of those acts. Beatings? Mental torture? Sexual perversion?
They tell me that the workers from the neighboring resort across the Macal River never return home alone at the end of their shift. They wait for one another to clock their time, then together they peddle the canoe and hike the small trail to the parking lot on this side of the river, where they hop on their motorcycles. Recently, around two in the morning, those workers heard La Llorona’s wails. “It’s just too dangerous to be alone in these woods,” warns Alex. Samuel gives him a look of agreement.
The arrival of electricity and the disappearance of spirits
The men inform me that with the advent of electricity in their village during the 1970s, there was a significant decrease in reported sightings of supernatural entities. According to them, the spirits get trapped in the electric currents and don’t make as many entrances in our human realm.
My scientific mind filled with academicism is fully activated. As a metaphor for progress, electricity is the culprit for the disappearance of a supernatural world order. It’s the power that disconnects us from nature, instinct and pure survival mode. Electricity brings light and modern advances to villages, but darkens ancient knowings, hinders intuitive powers, modifies traditions and reasonings that have been shaped and observed for thousands of years, well before we knew about atoms, neutrons and protons. Electricity, and therefore progress, destroys the lens of magic.
The paradox of science and magic
I embrace the paradox: I believe in science and yet I don’t dismiss the existence of forces that elude our complete understanding. Stories about ghosts, spirits, demons and divine entities have been around since the beginning of times. Who am I to judge those men with my empirical Westernized cynicism? I myself have never seen a ghost, but I’ve experienced activities that Newtonian laws can’t explain. And just like those local Belizeans, I’ve learned from a young age that you must be careful when dealing with powers you can’t explain.
The bonfire collapses into a pile of crimson embers and I know it’s time to head to my casita-style room. I say goodbye to Alex and Samuel, thanking them for a lovely and insightful evening. The gilded silver moon lights up my walk with wavelengths of beauty and mystery. On my palate, the marshmallows’ sweetness mingles with the eerie undertones of the unexplainable. My skin feels charged and I react quickly to any off-beat sound. My heart accelerates. It’s irrational, but I can’t help it: I’m afraid.
Growing up in a violent town, I wasn’t scared of people breaking into my home in the middle of the night. I was, however, terrified of ghosts. In my room, I turn on the lamps on each side of my bed to feel safer. As the men said, electricity keeps the spirits away, but what if there’s something lurking in the midst of the dark jungle, beyond the glass doors of my balcony, watching my steps? I imagine seeing little bright humanoid eyes glowing in the distance. I shiver, feeling ridiculous and laughing at myself.
I turn off the lights but can’t sleep. When I finally do, I have gruesome, horrifying nightmares: people, animals and demons try to kill me and I’m unable to move to save myself. They eat my flesh while sarcastically laughing at my face. I wake up in the dead of the night, sweating rivers, my heart racing for my life.
The Guatemalan worry doll
I feel relieved when I wake up again, this time with a woodpecker pecking at my window. Daylight arrives with doses of courage. After breakfast, I tour the spectacular ATM Cave. It’s considered one of the entries to the ancient Mayan underworld. It’s also a sacred Mayan burial site that hosted atrocious human sacrifices centuries ago, the remains available for modern-day tourist consumption. My tour guide discloses he’s experienced many spirit encounters in the dark edges of the cave, in the presence of other tourists. I have no interest in being an eye witness to the next one.
In the tour I become friends with a lovely Turkish family staying at my resort. Over lunch, we exchange notes about our adventures. We laugh while watching an iguana poop from the top of a tree near our table. I eat coconut rice with chicken and relay the ghost stories I heard by the fire last night, as well as the subsequent nightmares that followed. We laugh again. A couple of days later, I reunite with the family over dinner after their day trip to Guatemala. Their 12-year-old son presents me with a gift: a tiny Guatemalan worry doll, only two-inches long, dressed in traditional colorful Mayan wool clothing. “For better dreams,” he tells me.
According to legend, Guatemalan children tell their fears to the worry doll before going to bed, placing it under the pillow. Like an amulet, the doll grants them wisdom and sends their worries away.
I’m immediately transported to a passage in “Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype,” by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Specifically, to the ancient Russian fairy-tale of Vasalisa, a young woman who leaves home for the first time and carries a small magical doll in her pocket, a gift from her deceased mother. The doll tells Vasalisa how to overcome the rage of the forest witch and the treacheries of her horrible stepfamily. On a symbolic level, the doll represents the young woman’s intuition, her instinctive nature, the inner wisdom we all possess even when we sleep.
Tonight, still spooked, I tell the doll to get rid of my worries. I place it under my pillow, hoping it’ll reach its full protective potential. I turn off my lights and fall asleep, but the nightmares return and linger until the woodpecker wakes me up again before the sun enters my room. The doll failed her mission. Perhaps I should sleep with an army of worry dolls. Or not. The following night, I punish my amulet by hiding it in the drawer next to my bed. If the doll is my intuition, I’m naturally equipped with all the necessary powers. I just have to dig deeper in the hidden realms of my psyche and trust my inner guidance.
In the subsequent nights, as my Belize adventures continue, the nightmares fade. I even wake up to the thunderous growl of howler monkeys. Instead of fear, I feel awe and incredibly abundant. I’m alive and thriving in a place where mythical creatures and otherworldly beings are part of the natural fabric of life. I continue to embrace science, but this is a corner of the world where progress hasn’t sucked dry our natural propensity to experience magic. Like the leaf-cutter-ants, I’m the byproduct of an intelligence that has roamed the Universe for millions of years. Metaphorically, I carry my doll in my pocket as I step into my flow. And because of that, I know I’m the fire, the moon, the sky, the sugar, the jungle, the electricity, and all the magical portals that exist between heaven and the underworld.
Names changed for privacy