Belize is remote, calm and buzzing with life

MORNINGS IN THE JUNGLE tend to be noisy. At 6 a.m. today, one bird was burbling like a pump being primed, the toucans had a thing or two to say, the woodpeckers sounded like carpenters at work and assorted harmonizers sang while soloists added their voices to the jungle choir.

And I didn't think all that noise would help us in our failed attempt to spot a jaguar.

Gilberto Vazquez, our guide here at the Chan Chich Lodge in Belize, had a keen eye.

"Look -- there's a woodcreeper," he'd say, pointing at a bunch of scrub and leaves on the ground, which was all I saw. But when he spotted the spider monkeys, my eyes caught the little rascals swinging their spindly arms high above us on their morning commute high in the trees. Some did a Superman leap-and-fly from one branch to another. The baby came last, with a hop and a swing on the leaves.

All this wildlife action -- including the crocodiles spotted by two night hikers with a guide the night before -- is in a beautiful remote setting. And it is remote -- yesterday we flew for 30 minutes in a small plane over deep, thick jungle. There's more jungle to the north of us and Guatemalan jungle just two miles away.

Still, despite its isolation, those were the best huevos rancheros I've ever had for breakfast, and last night's shrimp ceviche was superb. Nobody complained about the mojitos, either.

I love my cabana with its slate bathroom floors, granite countertops, and the most comfy bed and shuttered screens on the all-around windows.

The lodge's grounds are beautifully maintained, bursting with bougainvillea and palm trees, and there are nine miles of hiking trails that get raked all the time. Plus there's a swimming pool -- it's been about 95 degrees here. It's a restful place, although the birds certainly do a lot of chattering.

This is a prime birding spot with 356 species. The resident charmers are the ocellated turkeys, their tails in a spread of bright feathers. This bird is nearly extinct in South America, but here they strut around flipping their feathers with nary a thought about their cousins' demise.

This is sacred land -- the site of a Maya city, occupied from about A.D. 150 to 450. Walking around the resort, you see the site of their ballgame sports court, and where the king was buried in a mound -- unfortunately cleaned out by tomb raiders, though some jade trinkets were later found. There are burial mounds all over the resort, and other Maya ruins a drive or a horseback ride away.

I've been in Belize only a few days, but now I'm wondering why I haven't been here before. It's so easy -- everyone speaks English, they take American dollars and my flight from Dallas was three hours.

Besides, it was time to flee Northern California's long, chilly spring. I'm not the only one who had that idea. Who should my neighbors in the next cabana be but the owners of Dodge Ridge ski area in the Sierra, Frank and Sally Helm, taking a breather at the end of snow season. The Helms say they are loving Chan Chich Lodge, having just come up from busier and celebrity-gathering Placencia.

"I love the quiet of it," Sally Helm said, looking relaxed and refreshed after a swim.

Even though I'd like to spend a few days here in a hammock, we're moving on to the Jaguar Reef, where snorkeling and diving will be the name of the game. It's whale shark season here in Belize, and they tell me you can get right up close to these giant sharks and get all cuddly. They're playful, I'm told. I'm wondering how an animal that size can eat enough plankton to maintain its strength and be playful too -- seems like a stronger dose of protein, such as my leg, would better serve its metabolism.

But since I didn't get to see a jaguar here, I'm willing to trust whatever I'm told about the whale sharks.

Time to swim with the big fish.

Anne Chalfant is the Times travel editor. She can be reached at 925-943-8192 or at [email protected]