Excerpted from Rambles Around the Cayes and Coast, July/August 2004

I didn't get to spend as much time in Cayo as I wanted to. Cayo District, and specifically the area around San Ignacio Town, is nearly everybody's favorite part of mainland Belize. As well it should be.

It's the land of M&Ms, with a delightful mix of Mestizos, Mayas and Mennonites and the beautiful Macal and Mopan rivers. The Mountain Pine Ridge is cool and green. The Maya sites of Caracol, Cahal Pech, Xunantunich and El Pilar are wonderful, and you're only a hop, skip and a bus ride to Tikal. The caving isn't an M, except for Actun Tunichil Muknal, but it's amazing, too.

We spent one night at Banana Bank Lodge. John and Carolyn Carr are engaging hosts, as always, and the air conditioning in the new chateau units is welcome after a hot day of traveling. The Carrs told me adding A/C has expanded their base of guests, so that visitors who wouldn't normally stay in a jungle lodge stop off for a few nights of cool relaxation on the banks of the Belize River. By the way, the new bridge over the river is complete and should be open soon. So now you can easily drive to Banana Bank without either waiting for the hand-pulled ferry or crossing the river by boat.

I spent part of an enjoyable morning in Carolyn's atelier. Her paintings (available on-line and in galleries and shops in Belize as lithographs, giclees or enhanced giclees) offer a remarkable window into Belize, especially the old Belize of open markets, turtle shell bands and Zebra brand "fish." Much of this Belize is quickly disappearing. Carolyn now is working on a large painting of the horse races at Burrell Boom. I'm reminded that at one time (but no longer) horse races were held regularly at Banana Bank.

The atmosphere at Banana Bank is homey rather than tony. You dine on simple but filling home cooking, family-style. Dinner might be lasagna and a simple salad. Many guests come here for the riding -- more than 50 horses, mostly quarter horses, are available for riding trips on the ranch's 4,000 acres.

At Banana Bank, you will also see Tika, a jaguar from Guatemala the Carrs have kept since 1982, along with various exotic birds, a spider monkey and, while we were there, a brockett deer fawn.

Banana Bank guests now have access to a swimming pool, at the Belize Jungle Dome guesthouse (info at www.greendragonbelize.com) built by a young European couple who bought a piece of land from the Carrs. They also offer rooms.

Banana Bank Lodge & Jungle Equestrian Adventure: Box 48, Belmopan, tel. 501-820-2020, fax 820-2026; www.bananabank.com, e-mail [email protected]. Rates US$100 to $135 double, breakfast included. Lunch is US$10 and dinner, US$15.

We also overnighted at one of my favorite lodges in Belize -- Ek'Tun Lodge, on the Macal River 12 miles upstream from San Ignacio. Owner Phyllis Lane is the feisty, opinionated lady who has created a most interesting place to stay, though it isn't for everyone. To get to the lodge, you have to cross the Macal by boat. There are only two cabañas, rustic but nicely done with traditional thatch roofs. Lighting (except in the main lodge) is by kerosene lamps. Guests need be able to walk actively, as you'll be trekking up and down hills and rough trails. Since I was last at Ek'Tun, an orphaned howler monkey has come aboard. The monkey -- it has no name as Phyllis thinks naming it would be inappropriate -- has the run of the lodge now. At times it seems that it runs the lodge. The lodge has a beautiful setting, and a refreshing dip in the swimming pool, carved out of a native limestone, is one of the great treats in western Belize.

Ek'Tun Lodge: Tel. 501-820-3002; www.ektunbelize.com, e-mail [email protected]. (E-mailing is the preferred way to reach Phyllis.) Rates: US$226 double, including breakfast and dinner.

A special treat for me in Cayo was getting to meet Ray Auxillou in person. Previously, I had only known him via the Internet. Ray is one of the great characters of Belize. The author of several novels and books on Belize, with a colorful history as a tourism pioneer on Caye Caulker and a host of enthusiasms from finance to ultralight flying, Ray has a strong opinion on everything and everybody. How an irascible old codger like Ray ended up a beautiful family and a a lovely wife is hard to understand. He now has a place in Hillview, near Santa Elena, which he plans to run as hostel beginning in early 2005. The hostel is called Falconview, with rates tentatively set at just US$7 a person.

On a more touristy note, I revisited the gift shop at Caesar's Place, at Mile 60 on the Western Highway before you get to San Ignacio. I have to say that this is by far the best gift shop in Belize. Julian Sherrard has the widest selection -- really a huge inventory -- and the lowest prices of anywhere in Belize. If you want handicrafts, from zericote wood carvings to handmade hardwood boxes to Belizean junque and Guatemalan stuff, this is the place to load up. One of the better ideas I've seen recently in souvenirs from Belize are the cutting boards made from a selection of tropical hardwoods. They're unusual, practical and beautiful. They come in several sizes. I think I paid around US$25 for ones I brought back.

I also spent a little time in the Spanish Lookout area. Most of my family hadn't been there before and were interested to see all the "American-style" corn fields, chicken farms, feed stores and other businesses. I did some comparison shopping for Mennonite prefab houses at Linda Vista, Plett's, Midwest and other lumber yards and builders. In general I thought the quality of construction was decent, given the relatively low price (US$10 to $25 a square foot, depending on the size and degree of finish, which if you like can include wiring, plumbing, sinks and other fixtures.) Framing and floors are of Santa Maria and other hardwoods. You can buy "off the shelf" or have the house built to your custom specs, usually with your choice of roofing materials (zinc, asphalt shingles or metal) and wood or glass louvred windows. They'll deliver to your lot and set it up on posts. The work is done quickly, and you can usually have a house built and set up on your lot in six weeks or so. The Mennonite builders in Little Belize also do prefab houses. Of course, concrete is the preferred building material if you have the time and money.

--Lan Sluder

Lan Sluder/Belize First