Belize is getting more popular with tourists, but still has plenty of backroads to explore.
By Dwight Garner
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Sunday, December 09, 2007

'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.

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 intricate cave systems that can be explored by floating on inner tubes while dodging bats.

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.

We land in Belize City on a hot morning in early May, 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.

Belize's population is fewer than 300,000 and, just a few miles outside Belize City, we realize we're in the middle of nowhere. The landscape becomes very green, freckled occasionally by dusty shacks and distant fires.

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 contradictions.

"Hey, OK, 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." This is not the only Anglicism we immediately encounter. Queen Elizabeth II stares from Belize's paper currency. English is its official language.

Belize might be in Central America, tucked under the Yucatαn 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 — but Belize has a mild to moderate case of cultural schizophrenia.

This condition plays out in native cuisine — or rather the mystifying lack of one. Lunch at this cool spot is rice and beans along with stewed chicken, which is more or less the national dish, and one we'll be eating variations of for an entire week.

Fresh, local food is hard to find in Belize. Its coast might 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.

I quickly come to understand why Marie Sharp is a national hero. It's hard to imagine 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. (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 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.

Our need to cool off 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. 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 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."

The crowd Anderson 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.

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.

After a late night, we realize it's hard to sleep. The jungle noises commence well before sunrise, a combination of howler monkeys, frogs, toads, toucans and cicadas.

But because 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. From a tree overhead, a playful howler monkey tosses a piece of hard fruit at us. We must restrain the kids from retaliating.

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.


If you go ...

American and Continental fly between Austin and Belize City. 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.

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. Check with your travel agent.