January 29, 1985 Tuesday

HERE's what we did one day in Belize. We got up late for breakfast on Ambergris Cay, a sandy island 20 miles offshore, out by the barrier reef.

After a farewell swim in the sapphire blue Caribbean, we packed, were driven the half mile to the airport and took the 20-minute flight to Belize City's Municipal Airport, where Gerald Garbutt of Royal Rentals waited for us with our rented car.

We had a Lebanese-and-Caribbean lunch at the Villa (one serving of hummus, another of lobster), drove due west from the city out along the road leading to Guatemala, turned off onto a terrible rock road up into the hills and drove 16 miles to Blancaneaux Lodge in Pine Mountain Ridge. After unpacking in our thatched-roof cabin on the slope above Prevassion Creek, surrounded by the pine-covered tallest mountains in the country, we put on our swimsuits, rock-scrambled for a quarter-mile along the creek past foamy rapids and deep green pools, and went skinny-dipping under the afternoon sun.

Much of what we like about Belize was encapsulated in that single day. It is so small and yet so varied that you can swim in the ocean in the morning and in a mountain stream in the afternoon. Its tourist industry is so tiny and new that the owner of the car rental company delivers your car, and yet the country is so modern that there are half a dozen scheduled and charter airlines operating within it. And while the country is small, its population is even smaller; a scant 150,000 people from every race and every continent. Most people, when we say we're going to Belize, ask, ""Where in Africa is that?" Nowhere in Africa.

The former British Honduras, which became the independent land of Belize only three years ago, it is at the north-east corner of Central America, tucked in just under Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, with 170 miles of coastline along the western edge of the Caribbean Sea. You could think of it as a Caribbean island unaccountably attached to the shoulder of Central America. The only English-speaking nation in Central America, Belize is the only former British colony there and is stable and democratic and welcoming. Dense mysterious rain forest and jungle gives way to flat farmland _ sugar in the north, citrus crops in the south _ and pastures were little white birds stand proudly on the backs of the grazing cattle.

Decent accommodations can be found in most of the country, but you will never be in a tourist ghetto, cut off from the life around you. And then there's the barrier reef, second longest in the world. Averaging about 20 miles offshore, the reef extends the entire length of the coast, protecting it from the main force of the sea and making Belize one of the finest places in the world for sailing enthusiasts; with the reef to cut the swells and a steady offshore breeze, you never want to tack toward home. The reef itself, dotted with hundreds of islands, is a magnet for snorkelers and divers, with intricate coral structures that house a staggering variety of animal and plant life. For the angler, such game fish as bonefish, tarpon, snook and grouper abound; the local commercial fishermen harvest these, as well as lobster, shrimp, conch and crab.

Inland, there are the ruined cities and temples of the Maya. Until recently, the civilizations of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica have been best known through digs in neighboring Mexico and Guatemala, but in the last decade or so a great number of ancient Mayan sites have been found and mapped in Belize. One, Caracol, as yet completely unexplored, is estimated by Archaeologists to be even larger than Tikal in Guatemala, long considered the largest of all Mayan settlements. But other sites, such as Altun Ha and Xunantunich, with its 130-foot high temple, still the tallest manmade structure in the nation, have been cleared. They are being maintained against the encroaching jungle and are easily reached. It is in sites like this, and not in the tidied-up temples with little signs and guideposts, that you feel the weight of time and come to believe in the reality of those ancient people.

For the traveller, Belize Municipal Airport, is right in town. The formal capital, built virtually at sea level on the coast at the mouth of Haulover Creek, it was devastated by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Since then a new capital, called Belmopan after the Maya Mopan tribe, has been built 50 miles inland, but to date only 4000 inhabitants occupy Belmopan's drab ""planned" city, while 10 times that number still crowd into Belize City's dilapidated frame structures.

Belize City is a lively, untidy town, whose charm can be found in its bustling polyglot people; in the ramshackle remains of carpenter-Gothic villas from more prosperous colonial times; in the glimpse of blue Caribbean at the end of a bougainvillea-festooned alleyway. (It's a low skyline; in the whole country, there isn't one elevator.) There are a total of three roads in all of Belize, none of them very good. About the best is the newly completed Northern Highway between Belize City and the Mexican border. It passes so close to Altun Ha that several years ago the archeologists were appalled to find a road repair crew using thousand-year-old blocks for roadfill. Farther north, around Orange Walk Town, you pass through the neat domain of the German Mennonite farmers who, in the last quarter of a century, have become the heart of Belize's small dairy industry. Sugar is also very important here, and on the right day you'll suddenly find yourself passing miles of parked trucks and wagons piled high with sugarcane.

The Western Highway connects Belize City with the Guatemalan border. You pass the new capital, Belmopan, and beyond that the landscape changes; marsh and savannah are replaced by dense jungle and hills. Farther on again, jungle gives way to tropical pine forest. This is Mountain Pine Ridge, a land of rushing streams, wild orchids, puma and ocelot and great fantastic limestone caves, some of which are treasure troves of Mayan artifacts. The third road heads south from Belmopan, is called the Hummingbird Highway and is highly treacherous.

Twenty-seven miles south of Belmopan is a lovely and surprising wayside restaurant called Jungle Gardens, owned by a young American woman, Mary Cariddi. Simple but good food and drink, fine conversation and a menagerie including a deer and a coati mundi in addition to the dog and cat.

Belize's largest offshore island and its most popular tourist destination is Ambergris Cay. The most developed part of the island is the fishing village of San Pedro at its southern end, although "'developed" is an odd term for a place almost empty of cars, where the one-room bank is open three mornings a week and placid dogs sleep at high noon on the white sand of the main street. The reef lies half a mile out, but for the less ambitious the beaches are clean and white, the sun shines 300 days a year and there are just enough bars to make for a pleasant evening's pub crawl. (Go to Fido's and buy a rum and grapefruit juice for Rick the piano player. Everybody goes to Rick's place).

Now how long can it last? Belize, with all its natural amenities, is a vacation spot of rare variety and pleasures. In years to come, Kentucky Fried Chicken shops and mass-produced "native handicrafts" will undoubtedly become part of the scene, but not yet.