Belize offers natural beauty without the crowds
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Contra Costa Times

Belize memories float to mind like dream fragments. A few times I have caught myself thinking - did I really go there?

This Central American country is such a mythological setting - Botticelli's Venus rising on a clam shell out of the sea would not be out of place.

I could imagine a slinky jaguar stepping out of the twining jungle that meets the sand. Flowers here are vibrant pinks and oranges - we tucked them behind our ears, goddesslike. Underwater, there's another garden of languorously swishing fish, cobalt blue and bright yellow among tuberous coral and fingery sea anemone.

Between you and all this sensual beauty, there is no mass of people blocking a full-on experience. Belize is a tiny nation, population 276,000. Tourists are more eco-traveler than luxe or the party-hearty crowd.

And though it's very unlikely you'll see a jaguar - they're good at distancing themselves - it's tantalizing to know they're there.

As I lay in bed in my screened casita in the jungle, I hoped to hear a low growl or two. But no - I slept soundly, waking to lilting bird calls. Chan Chich Lodge is deep in the jungle, which became evident as our small plane flew there on the 45-minute flight from Belize City.

Chan Chich Lodge has 12 thatched-roof casitas tucked in among Maya burial mounds of a city occupied from 750 B.C. to A.D. 850. The ruins and excavations are intertwined with nine miles of meticulously maintained hiking trails - we even saw workers raking them as we set off on a 6 a.m. hike.

That was the hike when our guide pointed out the spider monkey family swinging through the canopy on their morning commute, mother, father and then baby sailing from branch to branch in the canopy above us. We passed the king's tomb on that hike - excavated and robbed long ago - but you can go in and take a look. Two other hikers and I chose not to after our guide told us one couple met a jaguar as they entered.


The jungle around here pulses with life - common houseplants such as philodendrons grow to giant versions of themselves, and bougainvillea pop with purpleness.

The healthy jungle ecosystem is famed among birders worldwide for harboring 356 species. As we hiked, wrens warbled as if they were priming a pump and flashes of color flitted overhead. At lunch and dinner on the guest-area deck, we watched brightly colored ocellated turkeys strut past. These turkeys - an endangered species in Central America - are abundant here.

I did not see a jaguar, nor did I see a whale shark when my group traveled back to Belize's beachy side. April is the season when these giant sharks are a draw for divers, who, with luck, will be able to swim alongside the world's largest fish, which can grow as big as 60 feet and eat plankton and small fish, but are mild-mannered with humans.

One day we went out on a deep sea excursion to try to see the whale sharks, the snorkel boat following the divers' boat. One diver got within 20 feet of a whale shark but couldn't afford the pressure of dropping farther. We snorkelers paddled around on top and saw nothing but divers below - not all that thrilling, and even less thrilling because the water was very choppy and we were turning a bit green.

But another sailing day was perfection. My friends and I boarded a chartered 47-foot catamaran run by the Moorings and set sail with our own captain and chef, heading for outlying cayes (pronounced "keys"). A few hours out into the brilliant blue we came upon two tiny spits of land - just little sandbars with a few palm trees. Twin Cayes is a national research station, and the waters around it are protected, so you can snorkel or dive among coral live with thriving colorful fish. It was an otherworldly experience, sailing for an hour or so to this tiny magical place. Later we sailed to Laughing Bird Caye - designated a World Heritage Site. Two park rangers live here. We snorkeled to our heart's content.

Many Belizians have a quiet graciousness and are attentive to visitors' needs. This makes for a pleasant visit, and then there's the ease of being in a country where everyone speaks English. Belize was British Honduras until 1981.

We experienced that graciousness at Jaguar Reef Lodge, a laid-back pleasant resort of thatched roof casitas right on the beach. The place was inviting - the restaurant looking out on the nearby sea, the staff friendly, and snorkeling equipment and sea kayaks lined up and ready for the taking. A couple of friends and I did just that at 6 a.m. one day, paddling around in the calm, waveless waters as we watched the sunrise.

Another stop, Inn at Robert's Grove in Placencia, had more upscale rooms with mahogany cupboards and was also right on the beach of waveless, bath temperature water.

When it came time to leave Belize, my friends and I were not in a hurry to say goodbye to this paradise.