By DWIGHT GARNER
“IF the world had any ends,” Aldous Huxley wrote in 1934, Belize — then known as British Honduras— “would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.”
Almost 75 years later, Belize still feels remote. It's roughly the size of Massachusetts, yet it has only a handful of traffic lights. The two-lane road that spans the length of the country is not, in many places, paved. If Huxley were around to be a consumer of American pop culture, however, he'd find that Belize — or at least the strip of it that runs along the Caribbean Sea — has been discovered.
The Fox-TV reality series “Temptation Island” taped its first season on Belize's Ambergris Caye. Francis Ford Coppola, an arbiter of hip for his generation the way Sofia Coppola is for hers, has opened resorts there. And there is a telling moment in a recent chick-lit novel, Tara McCarthy's “Wouldn't Miss It for the World,” in which an ugly American stands at a tiki bar in Belize and yelps: “Panty rippers for everyone!” — referring to a cocktail that blends pineapple juice with coconut rum.
I underlined that passage and showed it to my wife, Cree. “Uh-oh,” she said.
Belize's still largely untrampled beach areas are filling with tourists for good reason. The country has the largest continuous barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, one that's lined with hundreds of beautiful small islands, or cayes. The scuba-diving and snorkeling are world-class.
But there is a different Belize that we — my wife and I and our 7- and 9-year-old children, Harriet and Penn — set out to find: its lush interior, thick with rain forests, Mayan ruins, tiny villages, intense wildlife and (most happily, for the kids) intricate cave systems that can be explored by floating on inner tubes, while dodging bats.
We weren't disappointed when we visited early in May. Moving through Belize's backcountry feels like travel, not tourism, and the country is fiercely intent on keeping it that way. National parks and nature preserves make up almost half of Belize's 8,800 square miles. You can truly become lost here, in ways both good and bad.
WE land in Belize City on a hot morning, climb into a rental car — a battered black 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander — and head west toward our first destination, an eco and adventure lodge called Ian Anderson's Caves Branch. There is plenty to see along the way.
One observes, immediately, that there is real poverty in Belize. Leaving the airport, we drive past streets lined with shacks, shanties and small concrete houses; dead cars squatted on cinder blocks.
The poet Derek Walcott, a Nobel laureate born in St. Lucia, is right to deplore the way outsiders view these kinds of scenes in the Caribbean: “Photogenic poverty! Postcard sadnesses!” But this makes them no less real and, at times, no less wrenching. Our children, staring from the window, are quieter than they have been in a long time.
Belize's population is fewer than 300,000 and, just a few miles outside of Belize City, we realize we're in the middle of nowhere, or very close to it. The landscape quickly becomes intensely green, freckled occasionally by dusty shacks and distant fires. Hit the search button on the car radio there, and the electronic numbers will race around and around until you put a stop to them.
Civilization, when it arrives on Belize's back roads, is in the form of “cool spots”— what Belizeans like to call their outdoor bars and restaurants, most with dirt or concrete floors. It's there, on a sweltering day in a friendly cool spot, where we are first struck by Belize's headache-making contradictions.
“Hey, O.K., you want one of these?” the shirtless bartender asks. He is holding a small chilled bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout — a Belizean favorite, it turns out, and known as “short, dark and lovelies.” (Guinness? In the tropics?) This is not the only Anglicism we immediately encounter. Queen Elizabeth II stares from Belize's paper currency. English is its official language. And can that really be the name of the brand of cigarettes the men are smoking? Yes, it is: Colonial Lights.
Belize may be in Central America, tucked under the Yucatan Peninsula between Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the south and west, but it was a British colony for more than 100 years, fully achieving its independence only in 1981. The population here is a heady mix — you will hear Creole, Spanish and Garifuna spoken in this polyglot country — but more than a few traces of that colonial era survive, a fact that only adds to your sense that Belize has a mild to moderate case of cultural schizophrenia.
This condition plays out in Belize's native cuisine — or rather in its mystifying lack of one. Lunch at this cool spot is rice and beans (or RICE-n-beans in the Belizean pronunciation) along with stewed chicken, which is more-or-less the national dish, and one we'll be eating variations of for an entire week. It's a good thing the kids take to it immediately.
Fresh, local food is (the British are pretty much to blame here) hard to find in Belize. Its coast may stretch some 240 miles, but good luck finding fish that hasn't been frozen. Orange groves are everywhere, and giant trucks piled with oranges roar frighteningly past on the tiny roads. But we find only grim concentrate to drink for breakfast, or to mix with the local rum.
Trying to purchase local ingredients in Belize, in fact, can make you feel like you're making an illegal drug buy. This point is made, comically, in Richard Wilk's book “Home Cooking in the Global Village,” about Belize's foodways. “You have to know the right person,” he writes. “You have to be patient; there is no rushing the process.”
I quickly come to understand why Marie Sharp is a national hero. It's hard to image Belizean cuisine without a few shakes of her ubiquitous brand of carrot-and-habanero hot sauce, a small white bottle of which decorates nearly every restaurant table. It is the best hot sauce I've tasted; mellow, not palate killing, but flavorful and very much there. (If you take only one thing away from this article, make it this: order a bottle online.)
Ian Anderson's Caves Branch is a few hours' drive from Belize City, nestled along the lovely and aptly named Hummingbird Highway. We arrive in midafternoon, and our first impression is, frankly, not good. The place seems deserted. What's more, it's very hot, and because it is the dry season, the river that snakes through the lodge's property has vanished, leaving only a dusty, stone-filled riverbed.
Our need to cool off, and quickly, leads us to a miraculous discovery. A mile or so from the lodge, a pokey trail leads down to a small natural freshwater pool, or cenote, known as the Blue Hole. It is easily one of the most beautiful spots I've ever seen: a turquoise swimming hole fed by a cool underground river and surrounded by limestone cliffs and deep jungle. It is empty, and we spend a blissful hour splashing around alone.
Refreshed, we recognize Anderson's for the singular place it is. The warning posted on its Web site turns out to be accurate: “Ian Anderson's Caves Branch ... is neither a ‘sightseeing' business nor a ‘resort'! ...If you are looking for a jungle resort that is sanitized from its surroundings ... then we are not it.”
It is also nice to discover that this Ian Anderson is not the one who is Jethro Tull's lead singer.
Because Mr. Anderson is dedicated to adventurous and sustainable tourism, e.g. eco-tourism, and because he hires first-class guides, the crowd he attracts is hardy, inquisitive, international and a lot of fun.
Meals are communal, and the rooms range from inexpensive huts to quite luxurious treehouse suites, which are hillside rooms that have trees growing through the center. At our children's urging, we elect to stay in one of the latter; they want to be able to tell their friends they've slept in a tree. And, O.K., so do we.
The options for exploring are numerous, the guides explain in the evening. There are jungle treks and trips to Mayan ruins, river kayaking survival expeditions, and rappelling and spelunking.
We opt for a floating cave tour and spend the next day on inner tubes, drifting in the dark cool water for what seems like miles with miner's lamps strapped to our foreheads. It's a surreal experience. Bats hang within reach overhead; the guides point out cave markings and large cave spiders. It is a memorable day, made more memorable by jumping (in our wet clothes and following a guide's lead) off a 25-foot cliff into a deep natural pool.
After a late night talking, drinking rum drinks and playing cards with other guests, we realize that Belize's jungles are not good places to nurse a hangover. It's hard to sleep. The jungle noises commence well before sunrise, a combination of howler monkeys, frogs, toads, toucans and cicadas that, together, make a sound we've never heard before; their symphonic attack sounds screechingly close to some of the electronic feedback on Lou Reed's “Metal Machine Music.”
But since we're up early, we decide to go for a long hike, and that dry riverbed turns into a bonus. We use it for our improvised trail, and follow it into the jungle. There's remarkable wildlife, including giant king vultures, their red and yellow heads atop imposing white, black and grey body plumage. From a tree overhead, a playful howler monkey tosses a piece of hard fruit at us. We must restrain the kids from retaliating.
It's disappointing to have to leave Caves Branch after two days, but we are booked for two nights near Placencia, a popular beach town farther south at the end of a long, narrow peninsula. Placencia, it turns out, has a laid-back end-of-the-line Key West vibe. American country music spills from the bars, and beer is cheap and plentiful. Vendors hawk “You Better Belize It” T-shirts. Bootleg copies of week-old American movies are for sale in shop doorways.
We stay for two nights in a nearby town called Maya Beach, in an A-frame beach hut at a hotel called the Green Parrot. We take the opportunity to hire a guide and go snorkeling 22 miles out in the Caribbean around a small uninhabited caye.
In the clear water around the tiny atoll that looks disconcertingly like the popular island screen saver, we see nurse sharks, barracuda and squid while acquiring sunburns of the kind that make you sit carefully even weeks later. But we are as content, snorkeling, as the character in Denis Johnson's new novel, “Tree of Smoke,” who thinks to himself: “The experience came close to what the birds of the air must enjoy, drifting above a landscape, propelled by the action of their own limbs, actually flying.”
For dinner one evening, we drop in at the Coppola family's Turtle Inn. It's a quiet, intensely lovely resort, and the food — fresh fish, finally! — is very good indeed. We're happy to see this place but also happy to leave it. It feels packed with would-be hipsters, at least one wearing sunglasses at night, hoping for a glimpse of Sofia Coppola and the chance to force a screenplay under her arm.
Sometimes your happiest memories of a trip are the homiest, and the most unexpected. On our final night in Belize, at the Machaca Hill Lodge, a new resort in the Toledo District near the border with Guatemala, we sit on the veranda, taking in the views and drinking fresh watermelon-juice cocktails (our improvised answer to the lack of fresh orange juice). The sun is a red fireball in the distance, and we play board games from the resort's collection of old American games.
The sunset, the cocktails, the happy children, the wild howler monkeys that leap into view in the treetops only 20 feet or so away and the pair of toucans that nestle in yet another nearby tree make this an indelible moment.
There are reasons to worry for Belize. Thanks to global warming, some coral on its reefs is bleaching white. And a recent major oil discovery has some worrying about a land rush and a spoiling of its natural beauty.
But Belize can still feel like one of Huxley's end-of-the-world places, its charms hiding in plain sight.
Several airlines, including American, United, Continental and the Salvadoran carrier TACA, fly to Belize City from New York. Most require at least one change of planes, usually in Miami, Houston or, in the case of TACA, San Salvador. Based on a recent Internet search for a week-long trip in mid-November, the best combination of lowest fare and shortest travel time appeared to be a 9:35 a.m. American Airlines flight out of La Guardia Airport that was scheduled to arrive in Belize City at 2:55 p.m. and included an hour layover in Miami — for a total travel time of about six hours. The return trip leaves Belize City at 4:05 p.m. and arrives at LaGuardia at 11:25 p.m. That round-trip fare was quoted at $526. Within Belize, the major airlines for getting to the country's south — and for getting out to the cayes — are Tropic Air and Maya Island Air.
If you plan to drive much beyond Belize City, you will probably want a tough vehicle with four-wheel drive. Belize's roads can be very bumpy and rocky, so clearance and suspension are issues. At the Belize City airport, vehicles are available from Avis, Budget, Hertz and many local companies like Crystal Auto Rental.
WHERE TO STAY
Peak travel season in Belize is roughly from December through the end of April, the country's dry season. Rates will be higher then, and especially from mid-December through early January.
Going to Belize means flying into Belize City, which can be lovely but is also somewhat chaotic. You may want to travel to your final destination right away. If you do stay in Belize City, the Fort George area has terrific views of the busy port.
A slightly funky but still nice option is the Great House, a restored mansion a block from the water (13 Cork Street; 011-501-223-3400; www.greathousebelize.com
). Double rooms start at $150. The Radisson Fort George Hotel and Marina (2 Marine Parade; 888-201-1718 ; www.radisson.com/belizecitybz
) also has decent rooms and a view of the harbor, starting at $134.
An easy two-hour drive beyond Belize City is Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Adventure Co. and Jungle Lodge (Hummingbird Highway, mile 42 ½; www.cavesbranch.com
). It has a range of accommodations and prices, from treehouse suites at $195 a night to bunkhouses for just $15. Meals are family style, a bargain at $12 for breakfast or lunch. Dinner is $18. The locally made Lighthouse beer is excellent.
If you're heading for the beach in Placencia, it's worth spending more to stay at the Turtle Inn. (011-501-824-4914; www.turtleinn.com
). With 25 rooms ranging from $2,000 for the Francis Ford Coppola Family Pavilion to $355 for a garden-view cabana, this is a lovely place, though you may miss the gritty, hippie charm of Placencia itself.
Near Punta Gorda, in Belize's southern Toledo District, a lovely and remote option is the Machaca Hill Lodge (Big Hill Road; 011-501-722-0050; www.machacahill.com
). It has 12 elegant cabanas on a hillside with sweeping views. For double occupancy, a room during peak season is $210. A meal package, including breakfast, lunch, dinner and hors d'oeuvres, is $60 a day for adults and $30 for children.
DWIGHT GARNER is senior editor of The Times Book Review.