January 5, 1980
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
BY CAREY FRENCH, IN BELIZE CITY
IT WAS A cross between a Sesame Street character and a small eel. Two
huge red lips smiling beatifically out of a face comically surmounted by
two bobbing eyebrows.
Swimming away from the coral outcrop, I thought it must be the result
of one too many Harvey Wallbangers. A barracuda, sting ray or even a
moray eel I was prepared for - but no one would ever believe such a
preposterous sighting. By then, however, I was too deep into the
Caribbean no big t'ing philosophy to really care.
A week knocking around the countryside of the central American country
of Belize - it used to be called British Honduras - topped by a week
snorkelling from the offshore cays, had left me in a state of mind where
I would have been hard put to get agitated about anything. And here I
was, lazing on the surface of a turquoise lagoon, a few yards from the
world's second largest barrier reef, beaming through my face mask at a
little fish which, judging by its expression, obviously considered me
pretty hilarious too.
The journey had been easy to arrange: a flight to Miami taking
advantage of the low charter rate and a two-hour flight across the Gulf
of Mexico on the daily Belize Airlines 707. The round trip from Toronto
cost a little less than $400. Good hotels are hard to come by in Belize
City, a squalid relic of Victorian England which never recovered from the
visit by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. But the Fort George Hotel offered a
comfortable, clean room for the night, an excellent dining room and a
well stocked bar.
The wise traveller does not linger in this port city, so the next
morning, piloting a rented Land Rover, I left for the interior. Heading
west, the road was good for the first 50 miles, but once past the new
capital of Belmopan (so new there are no hotels), I blessed my foresight
in selecting a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
A bumpy journey over roads which frequently became rivers ended at the
pretty town of San Ignacio, where a pleasant hotel of the same name
offered a spacious room overlooking the town and the surrounding jungle
for only $15 U.S. a night. It rained that evening and I was afraid that
the Mopan River would be too swollen the next day to reach my goal - the
mysterious hilltop Mayan ruin of Xunantunich which overlooks the
My fear proved groundless, and the next morning a diminutive native
nonchalantly hauled the Land Rover across the swift-running river on an
old ferry, connected by wire to either shore.
There are three major Mayan sites in Belize. Altun Ha (Water of the
Rock) is situated 30 miles north of Belize City and is the most
accessible, while work is just starting on Lubaantun, in the north of the
But for me, Xunantunich was the most impressive: strange grass-covered
mounds dotting a central plaza dominated by a brooding, stepped pyramid.
The Royal Ontario Museum has done most of the work here - bringing to
light an intricately carved astronomical frieze at the summit where Mayan
priests once stood - but now excavations are temporarily halted for lack
It was more than an hour before a uniformed Indian guide stepped from
the surrounding bush to collect my 50 cents and explain some of the
mysteries of the place. He had not had a visitor in days and was eager to
No one knows for sure why the Maya deserted this and other sites.
Theories include disease, peasant revolt, conquest and natural
calamities. What is known is that around the ninth century AD, the
civilization declined in the area; no longer were temples constructed,
nor was the history of the people recorded. To the north, in Yucatan,
strong military influences probably helped the civilization to linger on,
but the end was only postponed until the arrival of the Spanish
Belize is likely one of the few places where a stroll into the bush -
an inadvisable venture without a guide - can result in the discovery of
some priceless Mayan relic. The government takes a dim view of tourists
smuggling such articles out of the country, and the visitor should be
especially wary of purchasing anything that looks like an old sculpture
or piece of pottery from local entrepreneurs.
For a particular type of traveller, the very lack of development on
the mainland is its charm. A history buff can potter around ancient ruins
without stepping on ice cream wrappers or bumping into noisy day
trippers. He doesn't even have to place a hand over one eye - to block
out the intruding telephone pole - to imagine what the site looked like
1,000 years ago.
The nature lover can take a six-hour boat trip up the Belize River to
photograph spider monkeys and other jungle dwellers, or can drive
(four-wheel-drive a must) into the mountains to the Hidden Valley Falls,
where a river plunges 1,000 feet.
For about $2,000 a professional hunter will lay on vehicles,
machete-wielding trackers and weaponry for a jaguar hunt in the jungle.
But most visitors come to Belize for one thing only: the Barrier Reef.
The coastline of the mainland is largely a tangle of mangrove swamps, but
a few miles offshore are the cays, whose white sands and clear waters
once provided refuge inside the reef for West Indies raiders such as
Blackbeard and Benbow.
A traveller can spend as little as $6 a night at a hotel on Cay
Corker, known as the backpackers' paradise, since this is where most of
the North American hitchhiking community arrives at one time or another.
A plate of lobster on this island costs $3, and Bob Marley reigns
Glovers Reef, and historic St. Georges Cay, where British settlers and
their slaves fought off a Spanish invasion in 1798, both have small
resort communities and offer excellent diving.
Ambergris Cay, 36 miles north of Belize City, is the best developed,
though it has lost nothing of its island charm. Here a tourist can lodge
for as little as $6 a night in a room above a shop in the village of San
Pedro, or stay in a beachfront cabana, with all meals, for as much as $37
One of the best values for money on the cay is Ramon's Aqua Lodge. The
rate varies, from an off-season low of $25 a day to $37 during the height
of the season. Guests can stay in either beachfront cabanas or in equally
comfortable hotel rooms, and all meals are included. Fresh-caught
lobster, shrimp, turtle and other seafood make up the basic fare.
I found that most guests preferred to spend their evenings under the
palm trees - out of the line of fire of threatening clumps of coconuts -
listening to Ramon, part-owner of the lodge, describing scuba forays
around the reef.
The area is a diver's paradise. In a party of four, a scuba diver can
have an afternoon off the reef, with all equipment and an experienced
underwater guide, for about $50. Parties of 12 or more can take advantage
of a weekly package of $365 a person, which includes room and board, two
dives daily and two night dives, all equipment and an experienced
Alternatively, a snorkeller can explore the coral formations from a
glass-bottom boat for as little as $5 (in a group of six) for an
afternoon, while for the real budget hawk canoes are available from
islanders for as little as $2 a day.
And for the visitor who finds it hard to abandon the hectic pace of
the outside world, there is free advice: Slow down, man, it's no big
IF YOU GO
Do not check your baggage straight through from Canada to Belize.
Carrying your own luggage between planes at Miami will take more time,
but at least you can be sure your clothes will not remain in Florida - as
mine did - while you fly south. Officials of Belize Air Lines point out
that Miami airport is a maelstrom and advise booking luggage only as far
If you are connecting with a charter at Miami on the return journey -
charters are not available between Miami and Belize - be sure to allow at
least three hours between connections. Central American airlines are
When hiring a vehicle while on the mainland, rent from Elijah
Sutherland (he's in the book) in Belize City. The rate for a Land Rover
is about $50 a day with fuel. It's slightly more expensive than other
firms, but the vehicle will be in top condition. The same company will
arrange a Belize River boat trip.
The 36-mile flight to Ambergris Cay in a Maya Airways 10-seater costs
$12.50. Be sure to book at least half a day in advance.
If you are contemplating a trip inland, it is wise to purchase
anti-malaria tablets before leaving Canada. Malaria still exists in the
interior and tablets may be hard to come by in the cities.