Life's a breeze in Belize
With its manatees and monkeys, this small mainland country is great for nature lovers, says Claire Wrathall.
There aren't many manatees left in the Caribbean - perhaps a thousand - and we weren't looking for them. But when our guide, Clive Garbutt, cut the motor of his small boat, everything fell quiet and there, sending ripples across the placid surface, was a wrinkled, whiskery snout followed by a pair of sad seal eyes. Then another smaller head came up for air - a calf! Then another, and another. We had happened on a herd.
Clive showed us how to spot the oval "footprint" these shy elephantine mammals leave in the water with the swish of their paddle tails, though it was clear and calm enough to make them out through the water, for they are substantial creatures that can grow up to 13ft, about the length of our suddenly fragile-seeming vessel.
Marine life, indeed wildlife, is the big draw in Belize, a country about the size of Wales tucked south of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and east of Guatemala. About a fifth of its mainland is designated nature reserve, sanctuary or conservation area, and offshore there's an archipelago of 200-odd cays, protected by the Mesoamerican Reef, second only to Australia's Great Barrier in length and the richness of the life it supports. This makes it much more of a destination for nature-lovers than its Caribbean-island neighbours.
But then Belize is part of Central America, even if culturally, especially along its 180-mile coast, it feels closer to the West Indies. English is the lingua franca. The Queen's head is still on the banknotes, though Belize gained independence in 1981.
The day we saw the manatees, we'd lunched on rice 'n' peas in the Creole fishing village of Monkey River Town, a remote settlement of pastel-coloured houses and sand streets.
It came with a choice of fish or chicken. "Real chicken, mind," said Clive, whose mother, Marva, does the cooking at the Sunset Inn, another of his ventures (along with eco tours and fishing expeditions). "Not the bamboo sort," which is what they call the giant iguanas you see hereabouts. People eat them? I said. "Some," he shrugged. "Not people from away, though," he added, meaning us. "And not in restaurants because it's illegal." And Belize is a mostly law-abiding country, which makes it a lot safer to travel in than its near neighbours.
Deep in Belize's southernmost Toledo District, Monkey River takes its name from the howler monkeys that live near its banks, whose roar is a sound so terrifying Steven Spielberg used it as the dinosaur call in Jurassic Park. We'd heard them long before we saw them as we puttered upstream early that morning into the dark heart of the Deep River Forest Reserve. There, as we'd trekked through the rainforest, we'd witnessed troupes of five or six, swinging through the tree canopy, some with young on their backs.
More splendid still were the clouds of butterflies, 2,000 species, among them iridescent electric-blue morphos the size of your hand. And 560 - at least according to Clive - species of bird, none more beautiful than the emerald toucanet. The 54 species of snake held less appeal, though I learned to love the golden-silk spiders, or at least their glittering fairytale webs, if not the broody tarantula we passed, guarding her silken sac of eggs. Too bad we never glimpsed a jaguar, though you almost never see them, even in the Jaguar Reserve at Cockscomb Basin, where you may spot, deer armadillo, tapir and coati mundi.
Ethnically, the country is almost as diverse, a multicultural society of Mestizos, Ladinos, Creoles, Garifuna, Chinese, Mennonites, Amish and indigenous Maya, the remains of whose ancient civilisation dot the country and constitute its chief cultural attractions.
At Caracol, for example, a ruined Mayan city that at its peak in AD 700 was home to perhaps 200,000 people, while the pyramid of Caana (which means "sky palace") is still the loftiest structure in the country. It hasn't quite the scale or splendour of Guatemala's Tikal, or the breathtaking beauty of Uxmal in the Yucatan. But it's remarkable, nevertheless, not least because modern Belize has nowhere near so large a town: Belize City, which you fly into, has a population of 50,000, and the country's capital, Belmopan, recorded just 8,130 people at the last census.
Founded in 1970, Belmopan didn't seem worth the detour as we sped past on the Hummingbird Highway - one of Belize's few fast surfaced roads - which links the capital with the coast, a route that takes you through miles of tidy orange groves.
Our destination was Placencia, a narrow peninsula with a fishing village turned boho resort of clapboard buildings, guesthouses, rum shacks, internet cafés and ice-cream parlours at its tip, and a good base from which to explore the south of the country. It's also the site of one of two hotels owned by the film director Francis Ford Coppola, whose love of the country grew out of an affection for jungle living he developed while making Apocalypse Now.
For all that, though, Placencia is agreeably uncommercialised, as is its airport, which amounts to nothing more than a runway, an office and a roadsign urging motorists to: "Give way to landing and departing aircraft.
"If Belmopan is the world's smallest capital, this surely ranks as its dinkiest airfield, but then it caters only to small planes. None of the Maya Island Air jet-props that serve it has more than 12 seats, and if you're the last on, you'll find yourself next to the pilot, with a best-yet view of the palm-fringed cays and sandy shallows, like patches of verdigris in a pale turquoise ocean that deepens to blue only when it reaches the reef. Peel your eyes, and you may even spot a herd of manatees.
Continental (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com)
and American Airlines (0845 7789 789; www.aa.com)
fly from Gatwick to Belize City via Houston and Miami respectively, with return flights from around £695.
For onward flights contact Maya Island Air (www.mayaislandair.com
). For details of Clive Garbutt's tours, from £17 per person, visit www.monkeyriverbelize.com.
The two hotels owned by Francis Ford Coppola (001 501 824 4912; www.lalanchavillage.com)
are lovely. Turtle Inn (garden cottages from around £136 per night) near Placencia consists of a dozen or so two-person "cottages" and villas on a palm-sheltered shore, while Blancaneaux Lodge (cabanas from £133) is high in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve: six thatched casitas and seven villas on stilts arranged along a steep valley. There are no televisions, DVD players, air con or telephones. But both hotels are beautifully decorated, the staff are terrific, the food is good, and the sense of escape complete.