Unspoiled spot boasts largest barrier reef
in Western Hemisphere
Lighthouse Reef's crystal-clear waters allow ample viewing of marine life.
By Michael Perlstein
NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
AMBERGRIS CAYE, Belize, June 15 _ In spite of stunning natural wonders, Belize remains relatively undeveloped and unspoiled. The country boasts the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, wildlife tours featuring jungle creatures, numerous Mayan ruins, and several low-key resorts.
WHEN OUR single-engine Cessna landed on a narrow airstrip here, my first sight was a man in khaki shorts holding up his hand to stop a few pedestrians and bicyclists as the plane passed. He looked like a school crossing guard, only without the orange reflective vest.
I gulped. As I exited the plane, I brushed away a few mosquitoes. This is Belize? This is the so-called tropical paradise where I lured my bride to spend a weeklong honeymoon?
Summer outdoor guide
•Bike Colorado's Rockies
•Sail Seattle's sound
•Dive Alaska's waters
•Snorkel Belize's reef
•Climb Borneo's Kinabalu
•Slay the beast in Nunavut
•Hike almost anywhere
My skepticism grew when our van driver deposited us at our hotel. The floor of the lobby was crunchy with sand, our luxury cabana had a thatched palm roof and a mosquito net hung over our bed.
Was this a honeymoon or a wilderness survival test? A little of both, as it turned out. But once we established an effective mosquito strategy, learned to avoid the tap water and settled into the unhurried pace of this tiny Central American hideaway, we were on our way to a remarkable, if rustic, escape from the wedding hoopla we left behind.
CARIBBEAN SWEET SPOT
Belize, formerly British Honduras, sits on a sweet spot of the Caribbean Sea. It boasts direct access to some of the world's best fishing and diving along the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. In the heart of the once-flourishing Mayan Empire, it overflows with mysterious ruins. Amazingly, these natural tourist draws have not resulted in a stampede of development, leaving the country relatively unspoiled compared with its more tourism-savvy neighbors: Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south.
Considered a cultural crossroads where Latin America meets the Caribbean, Belize has about 250,000 people spread out over a diverse tropical landscape that is roughly the dimensions of Massachusetts turned on its side. About three-fourths of the country is remote jungle or undeveloped rain forest.
Our initial stop was Ambergris Caye (pronounced "key"), the most developed in a string of islands that dot the eastern coast. Many parts of the island are so narrow, you can see the turquoise waters of the Caribbean on both sides of you. On land, you have three main activities: eating, drinking and lying in a hammock strung between coconut palms. Offshore, you have fishing, diving and snorkeling.
After a day testing the hammocks, Patty and I signed up for an easy half-day snorkeling trip and were soon swimming among schools of bright tropical fish, spotting massive moray eels hidden in the coral reef and wondering why the scuba divers just 15 feet below us would bother with all that gear in such crystal clear water.
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Alberto, our guide, left us pretty much on our own until it was time to visit "shark-ray alley." We headed to shallower waters, where Alberto speared two small fish to attract the sharks. Little did we know that he would use the bait to attract sharks while we were still in the water. As it turned out, the lazy brown nurse sharks were hardly a threat. The sting rays were the ones that swarmed us, grabbing food directly from Alberto's hand.
"Just don't touch the tail," Alberto said as he disappeared into a cluster of sting rays, their tails whipping around his body.
By the time we left Ambergris Caye for the mainland, we were ready for all the wilderness Belize has to offer. The travel brochures featured a virtual Noah's Ark of exotic creatures, including toucans, wild boars, crocodiles, howler monkeys, and the country's trademark species: the endangered and elusive jaguar.
THE JUNGLE SPA
After flying back to the mainland, we hopped in a new sport-utility vehicle and headed for the Maruba Resort and Jungle Spa, an exotic-sounding place I found on the Internet.
During the one-hour drive, we passed a few small towns with raised wooden shacks, many surrounded by shrimp farms, banana trees or mango stands. But as we neared the resort, the landscape became increasingly lush and wild, with fingers of rivers and lakes appearing among towering palms and twisted, vine-covered trees.
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Then we hit a clearing: Maruba. Acres of actual jungle were cleared away to create this jungle-themed resort that is a combination of New Age spa and nature camp.
The room (the "Junior Jungle Suite") had a goosedown bed plumped into a 4-foot mound, scented candles and incenselike mosquito coils, carved hardwood furniture, elaborately tiled floors and mahogany ceiling fans. On the walls were decorative silk prints, wooden animal carvings and, dominating one wall, a crocodile skull. Sprinkled everywhere was Maruba's signature amenity: pink hibiscus petals.
The resort served as a jumping-off point for a variety of tours in the region known as Orange Walk. Our first outing took us by road and river to Lamanai ("Submerged Crocodile"), a barely excavated area of Mayan pyramids dating to 1500 B.C. Along the way, our guide Ricardo offered his wisdom on Mayan history, herbal healing, bird-watching and ecology.
"Tourists like Belize because we still have all our natural resources," he said with obvious pride. "We still have our jungles. We still have our rain forests. We're very serious about ecology and protecting our endangered species."
Ricardo pointed out well-camouflaged crocodiles, long-tailed hummingbirds, great blue herons and a family of howler monkeys. I still can't figure out how, from our speeding boat, he spotted a red iguana perched in the treetops.
Lamanai is a must-see (but bring insect repellent). There are several pyramids and temples along the rugged hiking trails, and the enormous carved head of the Mayan sun god is an eerie artifact. The most memorable sight is from atop the 112-foot Temple of the Mask, where anyone willing to make the climb is treated to a panoramic view high above the jungle canopy. (The remoteness of the site makes the tacky gift shop seem even more out of place.)
Another side trip is to Altun Ha _ "Water of the Rock" _ a well-excavated Mayan site that was thought to be a trading and religious center from 250-900 A.D. Unfortunately, the treasure trove of jade objects found here is scattered in various museums, most of them outside Belize. But Altun Ha's four pyramids, situated around a wide-open plaza, provided a peaceful setting for pondering the civilization that made all those sophisticated astronomy-based calendars, then inexplicably disappeared.
For the remainder of our stay at Maruba, we bypassed the guided tours and used the resort's bicycles to make forays into the nearby towns of Lucky Strike, St. Ann Village and Maskall.
We ended our stay in Belize City. With a population of about 60,000, it is the only area of the country considered urban. There isn't much in the way of historic sites or tourist attractions, but the old section of town features overgrown tropical gardens, a colorful marina filled with small sailboats, and some grand colonial-style houses left over from the days of British rule.