This appeared today in Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper.
Belize's diverse pleasures
Saturday, January 11, 2003
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
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
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.