Belize's diverse pleasures
by: Richard Siklos, Toronto's Globe and Mail
SAN PEDRO, BELIZE -- Travellers to the Central American haven of Belize can expect certain things: a Caribbean beach culture built around the world's second-largest barrier reef, an abundant jungle full of ecotourism attractions, ancient ruins and wildlife and a gentle, welcoming populace.
But Belize also has its store of surprises: for instance, black-clad Mennonites leading horse-drawn wagons, a plethora of Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants and the sudden appearance during cocktail hour of hulking U.S. Special Forces commandos.
All the diverse, random touches add up to a destination of easy adventures and pleasant surprise in a land that doesn't seem to know what it ought to be when it grows up. The appeal for visitors to Belize is precisely its combination of jungle and beach motifs and its proximity to North America. That's what my fiancée, Laine, and I were attracted to as we planned a week-long jaunt between the inland jungle or cayo region and the island beach resorts off the country's Caribbean shoreline.
A British colony until 1981, Belize is an easy place to visit, with English the primary language and the U.S. dollar widely accepted. We opted to go to the cayo first, and off the plane in Belize City were picked up in a well-worn SUV for a 90-minute drive to a resort called Crystal Paradise near the town of Ignacio.
Started a dozen years ago by the Tut family, Crystal Paradise offered a reasonably priced, clean and fairly spartan launch pad from which to explore the area. While the grounds of this paradise were somewhat underwhelming, for anyone seeking authentic Belizean hospitality on a budget, you could do little better than a few days in the Tuts' care. Delicious, generous meals were eaten under a thatched palapa at long tables in a camp-like setting. A bar operated on the honour system, and the large Tut family had plenty of time to discuss birds, history, flora and fauna or any of life's mysteries with guests. Crystal Paradise was an escape from urban life, lacking a TV, radio, and newspapers. "If something important happens," Jeronie Tut explained, "someone will eventually tell me about it."
The real charm of the resort was the easy excursions. The Mayan ruins at Tikal, about two hours away in Guatemala, are a popular destination, as are Belize's own ruins at Caracol and Xunantunich. Weary from our flight, we decided to explore the local attractions first. Jeronie took us canoeing through Barton Creek Cave. We then drove to nearby Big Rock Falls to splash around in crystalline waters beneath a 60-metre waterfall that wound downstream in a series of rocky pools, each like its own mini-Jacuzzi.
It was near the caves that we encountered Mennonite farmers sweltering along a dirt road; apparently a wandering band of German Mennonites had settled here in the sixties. And it was along the highway to Crystal Paradise and in the nearby town of San Ignacio that we noticed a preponderance of Asian signs and restaurants, evidence of the country's welcoming immigration policy. (Its population stands at a mere 240,000.)
The tropical climate is very homey to Southeast Asian settlers. It also explained, in a roundabout way, how the movie director and wine entrepreneur Francis Ford Coppola came to refurbish and open the bucolic Blancaneaux Lodge, our next destination. Coppola became quite enthralled with Belize in the early 1980s and when he came across the abandoned Blancaneaux Lodge in Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve it reminded him of the sets he had built to film Apocalypse Now. He bought the place.
During an evening of lounging in the luxurious Blancaneaux's Jaguar Bar, a dozen men appeared in camouflage. They were a unit of U.S. Special Forces who had been living in the "triple cover canopy" a couple of "clicks" downriver as part of a training exercise. After my fiancée suggested we buy them a round of drinks, we had newfound pals for the evening and margarita-fuelled discussions of the authenticity of Blackhawk Down,the hunt for Osama bin Laden and life in Fort Bragg, N.C.
After four days in the cayo,we decided to fly to the beach in a Cessna. It was a bit of a splurge, but spared us the bumpy road and provided a perch from which we could appreciate this lush country that is two-thirds covered in rain forest. In about 20 minutes, the scenery had changed from mountain pines to coconut palms followed by the industrial sprawl and rice farms of Belize City, near the coast. Soon we were over pale blue waters en route to Ambergris Caye, the most popular beach and diving location in a country that has very little by way of beach.
Landing in the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye was stark contrast to the peaceful cayo. Situated close to the world's second-longest barrier reef, Ambergris is a long thin island with a Daytona Spring Break meets shantytown feel. The beach on Ambergris is nice enough but not great by Caribbean standards. Its allure is water sports and diving.
We checked into the Tides Beach Resort at the northern end of San Pedro, a clean, well-run place on the beach run by the family of Elmer Patojo, reputedly the top dive master on the island. Unfortunately, the water was unusually rough during our stay, but when we did get to the reef we were deposited among a startling assortment of fish, frolicking manta rays and nurse sharks.
An intended night of fine dining on our last night in Belize inadvertently ended up being the most adventurous activity of our trip, as we took the Patojoses' recommendation to dine at Capricorn Resort, on the northern part of the island. It also illustrates how Belize is a tourist destination that has not quite grown up. Getting to Capricorn and various other resorts at the north end of Ambergris requires either a water taxi ride or a golf-cart sojourn across the hand-pulled ferry bridging the river that splits the island.
Badly misreading the distances on a tourist map, we dressed up for dinner and decided to walk to Capricorn, taking the last ferry of the evening as darkness set in. The ferry operators skeptically quizzed us about where we were going and whether we had flashlights (no), but we foolishly ignored them and ended up slogging -- for five kilometres -- through pitch black along the roadway, and then vast wild stretches of rocky beach, until we finally stumbled into Capricorn. There, the amused hostess, Annabel Burdes, bought us a drink while her husband Clarence cooked a fine meal in the back.
Amazingly, the return trip by water taxi was not much easier. Annabel gave us green garbage bags to put on and then the taxi was thrown around by the surf and bombarded by waves and spray for 20 straight minutes until it limped into San Pedro. Soaking wet and exhausted, we were nonetheless charmed again by Belize's unexpected possibilities.
Comments from the AmbergrisCaye.com message board
posted 01-12-2003 09:45 AM
Great article. The last paragraph made me laugh out loud since I've experienced the water taxi ride dressed in garbage bags myself!
My experience was on my first visit to AC. One of our first nights, we made reservations at Mata Chica. I had heard wonderful things and planned for a special night, so I foolishly tried to get more dressed up. I even blew dry my hair and used a curling iron. My make-up was just right and I put on the nicest clothes that I had packed.
When we boarded the boat, the driver offered garbage bags to us, and I didn't think I needed it. I wanted to look good, and black plastic just didn't match my outfit. We weren't in the boat for more than a few minutes when the waves starting spraying in our faces. Not a mist... a true "refreshing" splash like someone threw a bucket of water at us, again and again. Immediately, all of us on the boat starting laughing and continued to laugh the entire ride. When we arrived at the restaurant, we were given towels and dry t-shirts.
Several nights later, we hadn't had enough, so we booked again for dinner on the North end of the island (Capricorns). This time, I took the bag when offered without hesitation. A party of four sat behind us, and explained that is was one of their birthdays. The birthday girl was wearing a beautiful, floral silk dress and ask me if I thought there was any chance for it getting wet since silk stains badly! I explained and pressed her to take a bag, but she was proud like I had been and rejected the functional black garbage bag.
I'm so glad I brought my waterproof camera that night. Those pictures of them soaked to the bone and us peaking out of the small hole in our garbage bags are some of my absolute favorite memories. I'm giggling now, remembering! Though it may sound inconvenient to some of you reading this, it was the catalyst to a fun and light hearted dinner both times. Oh... and the food was excellent, too!
So... who still has the little boats? I may have to experience this again, just for the fun of it. The last time I went to Mata Chica, they provided their own transportation via a much larger and dry boat. I'm sure this is greatly appreciated by their guests, though there is a small part of me the wishes that everyone got to experience this for themselves. It would make them look at garbage bags in a new light!
You can always tell the experienced water taxi passengers. They get on first and grab the seats on the side with the least spray.
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