Please Belize Me
By K.C. Summers
Shadows flicker on the cave walls as I first walk, then slip and finally slide on my rear down the mud-slick passageway, down toward the center of the Earth. I squeeze past boulders, climb rebar ladders and grasp knotted rope lines in an attempt to stay upright. Then I round a bend and stop, speechless. Illuminated in the dim glow of my headlamp are scores of large ceramic pots, scattered on the dirt floor and lined up on high ledges -- some clay-colored, most burnished deep brown, many more than two feet in diameter. They lie just as they were set down by the Mayans centuries ago in this little-known cavern in the mountains of western Belize.
Two days later, I'm snorkeling off the coast of Ambergris Caye, nearly spitting out my mouthpiece in amazement. I've swum the waters of half a dozen Caribbean islands, but never before have I seen such a vast array of marine life in one place. Rainbow parrotfish and yellowtail snappers, blue-spotted damsels and striped sergeant majors, four-foot nurse sharks and playful stingrays -- I feel like an extra in a Discovery Channel special.
In Belize, you're speechless a lot. Get used to it.
This Central American country tucked between Mexico and Guatemala has long been popular with the backpack set. It's known mainly for its its spectacular barrier reef -- at 185 miles, the longest in the Western Hemisphere -- and a lifestyle so laid-back that it's practically prone. But now more and more U.S. travelers are discovering the country's inland activities as well. Belize's lush tropical rain forests are home to a host of soft adventure options -- jungle trekking, birding, canoeing, rafting, horseback riding and exploring ancient Mayan ruins. With a peaceful, stable government, a friendly English-speaking populace and a favorable exchange rate, this former British colony (it won independence in 1981) makes an excellent Caribbean alternative for travelers who want a little history and adventure with their sun.
I want to experience both surf and turf, so a friend and I have planned to spend a couple of days at a jungle lodge in the country's western reaches, then head east to explore the fabled Ambergris Caye for three more days. This way, I figure, we'll have plenty of time to sample all the myriad attractions the country has to offer.
I am so wrong.
Banana Velvet Brigade
The bad news about the Mopan River Resort is that it takes 12 hours to get there from Washington. The good news is that when you finally walk in the door, you're handed a Banana Velvet. This concoction of rum, bananas, coconut cream, orange juice and pineapple juice loosens many a tongue during cocktail hour each night at this all-inclusive hotel in the Cayo district of western Belize.
Ordinarily I'm not partial to all-inclusives, but this one offers good value compared with going ŕ la carte, and its location near the Guatemalan border means that a day trip to the Mayan ruins at Tikal is possible. Plus, the place is gorgeous. It's set on 10 verdant, manicured acres on the Mopan River, with 12 luxury cabanas amid flower gardens and coconut palms. A swimming pool with waterfall, 20-foot birdwatching tower and artfully displayed Mayan artifacts add to the effect.
The village of Benque Viejo ("Old Bank"), by contrast, is rustic and rural, with painted concrete houses, chickens wandering dirt roads and beautiful, glossy-haired children splashing in the river. The resort is reachable only by boat, so we pile onto a wooden flat-bottom raft for the five-minute ride downstream. The Mopan is a great-looking river, slow-moving and impossibly, impenetrably green, overhung with trees and vines, its banks dotted with villagers' wooden canoes and the odd iguana. It's what you always imagined a river in the jungle would look like.
All-inclusive lodgings tend to attract a, shall we say, unadventurous crowd, but Belize seems to attract a friskier class of visitor. Everyone we talk to is interesting and up for adventure: Robert, a former Smithsonian curator; James, a network engineer from Ohio who's just spent a week bare-boating up the coast; Molly, a Debra Messing lookalike from Dubuque who's come here with her Kevin Bacon-lookalike boyfriend to get married in the resort's lovely chapel; Grady and Nancy, a retired Foreign Service couple who fell in love with the region when they were posted in the Yucutan, and want to explore further; and Arnold, a mild-mannered Canadian who's taking several months to explore Central America. He's thinking of retiring in the region and tells us earnestly, "Most people just exist. I want to live."
Heart of the Underworld
Chechem Ha cave, eight miles from Mopan in the Maya Mountains, is not listed in many guidebooks, and with luck it will stay that way. It was discovered 15 years ago by a local teenager whose dog headed into a hole at the top of a mountain and led his master to incredible sights. Today William Morales, 32, leads visitors through the cave he found, retracing his steps as he tries to explain the emotions he felt that day.
"This is not a killer hike unless we want to make it that way," Morales says solemnly. So we take it slow, zigzagging around the mountain for about a mile, Morales pointing out the sights: a mimosa plant that curls up when you touch it, a mahogany tree, a chartreuse cedar fern, a foot-high termite mound, an exquisite blue morpho butterfly. We stop to marvel at a huge strangler fig that is slowly but surely killing off a hapless palm tree.
And the flowers! Wild begonias with leaves the size of hubcaps line the path, and there are huge stands of delicate maidenhair ferns -- the kind I pay $12.49 a pot for at Johnson's Flower Center. Morales stops to pick a bitterfruit berry. "See these little red seed pods? They work like bug spray. Hold a piece like this and squeeze it. Good if mosquitoes are following you."
As we approach the cave, at 1,600 feet, Morales talks about the day he discovered it. "When I first saw that big hole going down, I didn't know what to think. Then I went inside and started finding pieces of pottery. Then all of a sudden I found big ceramics.
"I looked behind me. . . . I felt like there was somebody still there. The way everything was all arranged, all displayed . . . it was like a nightmare. You sweat cold and you get goosebumps all over."
The Maya believed that caves had strong connections to the underworld, and they came here to perform religious rituals and purification ceremonies, including blood-letting. Some pots were used to hold offerings; others were burial urns. Inside the cave, their pottery is everywhere. Some pots are placed upside down, broken into from the bottom; others stand upright with fitted lids. For the most part they're unadorned, but one features a bas-relief of a monkey.
Moving on, we pass a 100,000-year-old stalactite, climb down a narrow chute and find ourselves in a chamber about 80 feet high. In the middle of this room is an altar -- a ring of stones surrounding a stone monument. The ceiling is blackened from long-ago fires.
"This was their cathedral," Morales says. "The deeper you go, the closer to the gods of the underworld you are. We've made it to the heart of the underworld."
That afternoon, we join a few other Mopan guests at the riverbank for a kayaking expedition to a small rapids downriver, where the resort van will pick us up. Much adventure, wildlife sightings, etc., are promised. We don helmets and life preservers and set off, the four or five other kayakers gliding gracefully downstream. My companion and I, however, prove incapable of moving in a straight line. It's as if some magnetic force is pulling us toward the banks. Finally we wisely surrender to it and go back and have a Banana Velvet instead.
A little swimming, a little birding, a little front-porch-sitting, and we're back in shape for Tikal the next day. Crossing the border into Guatemala is an adventure in itself, involving a two-hour drive on rutted dirt roads, passport checks, visa and exit fees and much waiting around as you make your way through the various levels of bureaucracy.
It's worth the inconvenience, though, to see the lost city of Tikal, inside the 222-square-mile Tikal National Park. The scale is overwhelming, with five pyramids rising from the forest floor, the tallest 144 feet high -- but the countless unrestored structures deep in the jungle are equally compelling. Soon we learn to spot the rocky hills that are really pyramids waiting to be uncovered. We tramp from temple to temple, and when we climb to the top of one, we're rewarded with an incredible view of the jungle.
One of the oldest Mayan sites, Tikal was established about 200 B.C., became an important commercial and religious center and thrived for more than 1,800 years before mysteriously disappearing. It's poignant to look at these overgrown monuments and imagine the people and city that once thrived here.
Hiking around Tikal turns into a day of plant, animal and bird discovery. Brazen coatimundis, cute little raccoon-like mammals whose sharp claws will rip you to shreds to get at your picnic lunch, lurk everywhere. Howler and spider monkeys swing from branches overhead. But the birds make the biggest impression. Lineated woodpeckers, parrots, yellow toucans, scarlet macaws, iridescent ocillated turkeys, blue herons and purple galinots are just a few of the specimens we spot.
Back at the resort that night, comparing adventures during cocktail hour, we realize we're nowhere near ready to leave this little corner of the Cayo district. I need to perfect my kayaking technique, I haven't yet seen a cougar, and I whine to anyone who will listen about missing the cave-tubing expedition scheduled for the next day. There is much of the jungle still to be explored, and two days here is not nearly enough.
On the Caye
"This place reminds me of Key West 30 years ago," a newcomer comments as he steps out of the little prop plane at the San Pedro airport, on Ambergris (pronounced Am-BER-griss) Caye (pronounced key). It's a Jimmy Buffett kind of town, with hard-packed sand streets, lots of semi-comatose dogs lying around, a surfeit of bars ranging from slick to seedy, and an exceedingly amiable citizenry, most wearing flipflops. Everyone uses golf carts to get around. Just a nice feel to the place.
We've booked into a secluded resort a few miles up the coast -- a big mistake, since we soon get bored way out there and end up spending $40 apiece each day going back and forth to San Pedro for lunch and dinner. But we don't know that yet. Our first night, we dine at our resort, which is featuring Mexican Night. This involves an overpriced buffet of uninspired food and a pot-bellied mariachi singing "Teen Angel" soulfully in Spanish. That's 1 for the resort, 0 for the gringos.
So during our three days on the island, we become regulars on the water taxi circuit, joining resort workers, locals and visitors on the amusement park-style speedboat rides going back and forth to San Pedro. Schedules can be a little erratic. One afternoon, as we're coming back from lunch, the captain stops in mid-ocean to watch an epic sea battle: a frigate bird and a cormorant fighting over an eel. We watch, fascinated, as the cormorant, swimming with the heavy eel in its beak, tries to keep the airborne frigate from snatching its dinner. Finally the frigate wins, wheeling away in triumph.
In San Pedro, there are galleries to browse, hotels to scope out for future visits, bars and restaurants to sample. The locals rave about Capricorn, which offers gourmet food in a romantic setting and requires reservations well in advance. But this sounds like the sort of thing we came to Belize to escape from, so we end up in places like like Cholo's, where we sit on plastic chairs under a palm tree in the sand and drink $1.50 rum-and-Cokes. We love the coconut pie at Caliente's, where you sit on a first-floor bacony overlooking the beach, and the conch ceviche at Celi's, an island institution.
But our favorite spot is JamBel Jerk Pit, which serves Jamaican-Belizean fusion. Its rooftop dining room is decked out in colored lights and plastic lawn furniture, and we devour our curried fish and grilled lobster happily as hiphop music wafts up from the carryout shacks across the street.
Shark Ray Alley
On Ambergris, it's all about what's underwater. So our first morning here, we sign up for a snorkel trip to Hol Chan Park and Shark Ray Alley, about a 15-minute speedboat ride away.
As I watch the psychedelic parade of marine life passing before my face mask, I think that my time at Hol Chan is the most amazing snorkeling experience of my life. But then we get to the watery neighborhood known as Shark Ray Alley, where nurse sharks and stingrays like to hang out. For whatever reason, they allow us to pet and caress them. I feel we've made a connection, although I know their friendliness has a lot to do with the chum that the aptly named Genie, our magician-like, gold-chain-wearing captain, throws out.
Later I ask Genie to help me identify some of the fish we've seen. He rattles off several dozen names -- if I had a life list for fish, it would be in the triple digits. He's most excited about the four spotted eagle rays we saw swimming together, not a common sight. Then he shakes his head. "Didn't see no trumpetfish. They're my favorite. I always look for them."
No problem. There's always tomorrow.
Mopan River Resort's Banana Velvet
(Makes about two blenders full)
2 ripe bananas
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup Pineapple Squash (a juice concentrate) and 2 cups water, or 3 cups concentrated pineapple juice
1/2 cup coconut cream (sweet syrupy stuff in a can, manufactured for cocktails)
Belizean One Barrel rum, or any good dark rum
Combine the liquid ingredients and shake well. Fill blender halfway with mixture and set the rest aside. Add one banana and ice to fill blender. Blend till frothy, and add to a glass with the desired amount of rum.
K.C. Summers will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.
GETTING THERE: There are no nonstop flights to Belize from Washington. American connects in Miami, Continental and Northwest in Houston, and US Airways in Charlotte, N.C. American is quoting a round-trip fare of $502 from Reagan National. US Airways has a fare of $463 from Dulles.
GETTING AROUND: The country's internal airlines and water taxis will get you anywhere you want to go, although if you really want to explore the interior, a rental car is recommended. From Belize City, Tropic Air and Maya Air fly to Ambergris Caye for $93 round trip (tip: pay almost half that amount by flying into and out of the smaller municipal airstrip). Or take a water taxi for about $14 one way. Once on Ambergris, you can walk or bike everywhere, or rent a golf cart, widely available.
WHEN TO GO: Prices are highest during dry season, generally December through May. Rainy season is traditionally June through November, and hurricane season generally runs from late summer to November.
WHERE TO STAY: The all-inclusive Mopan River Resort (Riverside North, Benque Viejo del Carmen, Cayo, 011-501-823-2047, www.mopanriverresort.com),
in the village of Benque Viejo near the Guatemalan border, makes a great base in western Belize. A week's stay in one of the 12 thatched-roof riverside cabanas starts at $998 and includes airport pickup and delivery, all meals and alcoholic beverages, kayaking and daily guided excursions to the area's many attractions (including Tikal). Tipping is not allowed. For a three-day stay, the price climbs to $200 per night. Also in western Belize, Francis Ford Coppola's Blancaneaux Lodge (Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, Central Farm, Cayo, 800-746-3743, www.blancaneaux.com)
is pricier, but gets high marks for its authentic Italian cooking and luxe amenities. Doubles start at $210 per night and include continental breakfast.
On Ambergris Caye, the town of San Pedro has a wide variety of lodgings, from the budget crowd's favorite, Ruby's (Barrier Reef Drive), with rooms from $35 a night, to the much-admired Victoria House (P.O. Box 22, Ambergris Caye, 800-247-5159, www.victoria-house.com),
a plantation-style beauty with 35 rooms. Doubles start at $170 per night. Farther north on the island, and not walkable from town, are more secluded resorts like Captain Morgan's ( 888-653-9090, www.ambergriscaye.com/captmorgan),
where TV's "Temptation Island" was filmed; doubles start at $240 per night. Journey's End (800-460-5665, www.ambergriscaye.com/journeysend)
is less luxe but also less pricey, with lagoon-side rooms starting at $120 per night, including free use of kayaks, canoes and Hobie cats.
WHERE TO EAT: In San Pedro, don't miss JamBel Jerk Pit, a casual rooftop restaurant at Barrier Reef Drive and Foreshore Street (there's another, yuppier, location next to the Coral Reef Hotel at Black Coral Street). The spicy Jamaican-Belizean cuisine includes such entrees as jerked fish fillet ($8.50) and coconut curry chicken ($6.50), and the Key lime pie is the real thing. Elvi's Kitchen (Pescador Drive and Ambergris Street) has a thatched roof, sand floors and a giant tree growing in the middle of the dining room; a delicious lunch of chicken eschabeche (grilled chicken with an oniony-garlicky broth) runs about $10. Caliente, in the Spindrift Hotel (Barrier Reef Drive), is a hopping joint with throbbing disco music and such dishes as ginger rum shrimp ($15) and Belizean ceré (chunks of fish cooked in coconut milk with green bananas, $12).
Three miles north of town (you'll need a golf cart or water taxi to get there), Capricorn is the island's current darling, praised for its inventive cuisine and intimate atmosphere, and reservations are a must. Sample entree: catch of the day with black bean garlic and corn salsa and an olive and pine nut garnish, $19. Next door, the well-regarded Rendezvous features Thai-French fusion, with such dishes as Thai hot and sour soup with shrimp, lemongrass, mushrooms and Kaffir lime leaf for $19.
RECOMMENDED READING: Richard Timothy Conroy's "Our Man in Belize" (St. Martin's Press) is a hilarious account of the author's experience as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in the then-remote outpost of British Honduras in the 1960s. Great for getting in the mood. Among the guidebooks, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Moon Handbook are the best of the bunch. Lan Sluder's "Adapter Kit: Belize" (Avalon, $17.95) is a terrific insider's guide, giving great insight into the country's people, culture and customs.
INFORMATION: Belize Tourism Board, 800-624-0686, www.travelbelize.org.
-- K.C. Summers
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