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Joined: May 2005
Posts: 3,955
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Ancient Splendor

Belize beckons visitors to its hidden jungles, Mayan ruins and posh rentals.

By Gary Peterson

It was dark and still, and a mist was coating the canoe. Anyone would have been sure there was nothing else around. But when the boat's front light came on, the Belizean jungle exploded to life: Insects crowded into the beam and bats-invisible in the black-darted in after them; fish rushed to the surface, even thudding against the canoe, as they scrambled for a late-night snack.

My wife, Shannon, and I, charged by guide Antonio's stories of seeing ocelots and tapirs on the shore, were sure we'd spot something we'd only seen in zoos. Alas, all we saw were an opossum and a frog.

Still, the night ride along the Golden Stream highlighted an adventure with Belize Lodge & Excursions.

Start of Something Great
Our journey had begun two nights earlier when BLE guide Nathaniel picked us up at Punta Gorda's tiny airfield. Soon, we were en route to Indian Creek, BLE's main lodge. After pulling off the bumpy, unpaved stretch of highway, we were greeted with smiles and damp washcloths to freshen our faces. Then we followed as our bags were lugged up the hill along hand-laid slabs of stone to our bungalow.

It was dark, but we walked immediately to the deck to get a view of the pond that sat below. In the morning, birdsongs joined the sun in nudging us awake. The daylight gave a better view of the bungalow's hardwood ambience we were to enjoy for two days.

But outside was where we wanted to be. Plants flowered effortlessly; it was like staying in the middle of a botanical garden. And we were taken away by the sound of the wind jostling our cabin's thatched roof and coconuts dropping to earth.

Among the Mayans

There are several options for daytrips from Indian Creek, including hiking and biking on the immense property, part of a 13,000-acre nature preserve that's being restored to rainforest. We chose another activity-visiting two Mayan archaeological sites.

We traveled through humble Mayan villages and near the Maya Mountains to reach the first site-Lubaantun. The ruins are of a major trading center and bear testimony to the skill of Mayan stoneworkers. The site also offers serendipitous discoveries, such as a large rubber tree branch on the ground oozing the familiar sticky substance or a giant bird-of-paradise advancing the rainforest's efforts to reclaim lost territory.

The second Mayan site was Nim Li Punit, which sits on a hillside with a view of the distant Caribbean, and which Nathaniel helped excavate. The ceremonial site yielded the second-largest stone carving from the Mayan Empire, along with several other smaller carvings.

In between our archaeological explorations, we picnicked along Blue Creek and ventured to Hokeb Ha Cave. There, we enjoyed a slice of everyday Mayan life. Children played in the water upstream, and repeated whacking sounds downstream were evidence of out-of-sight women doing laundry in the river. A cute little girl also laid out a blanket on the riverbank to display crafts such as baskets and necklaces that she and her mother had made. She shyly asked us to buy something. (We bought a necklace and a basket on our return hike.)

Hokeb Ha, a maw in an ancient limestone wall, is where Blue Creek emerges after traveling underground through a cave system for five miles. The river pools deep enough at the entrance to swim in and teases with possible discoveries deeper inside. Hiking to and from the cave-over boulders covered with water during the rainy season-can be a veritable wildlife expedition, with kinkajous (cat-sized marsupials), agoutis (rabbit-size rodents) and others in residence. Smaller sightings, though, such as a line of leaf-cutter ants marching across the trail, are enough to lend a feeling of exotica.

Into the Jungle
After our time at Indian Creek, we climbed into a canoe with Antonio and headed for Jungle Camp-our next lodge. The lodge is accessible only by water, and we passed through deep wilderness to reach it. Birds abounded but did all they could to stay well ahead of the canoe and out of sight. Our only non-feathered spotting-although jaguars and more call this jungle home-was an iguana sunning itself in a treetop.

Jungle Camp is a lonely outpost that embraces its remoteness, letting guests luxuriate in seclusion. It's a polished-wood paradise, with cabins standing 16 feet above the jungle floor. Each cabin was a dark, inviting hideaway with a veranda overlooking Golden Stream. Ours was the perfect place to relax while a passing shower added rhythm to a late morning.

Twice we headed out on the lodge's hiking trails as the sun was coming up. Antonio led the way and pointed out birds at incredible distances. Once, he spotted Belize's national bird, the toucan, through a break in the upper-story growth. It was sitting in a giant tree silhouetted against a hazy sky. I didn't see the bird until Antonio handed me binoculars and told me where to look.

Other sightings weren't nearly as challenging; hummingbirds flew so close on several occasions they sounded like bumblebees. We didn't see any other wildlife, but we did hear the guttural calls of howler monkeys as we returned to the lodge after our first day's hike.

Out to Sea

On its way to the Caribbean, Golden Stream morphs from a wild introvert trying to keep a secret into an excitable host rushing to meet a friend. The river gets wider and deeper, and the shoreline shifts from jungle to mangrove. We followed its meander in a curve-hugging boat piloted by Breeze-a name that suits him-until the wide open sea abruptly appeared.

After running across the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, we pulled along the pier at Moho Cay Lodge.

Down the cay's eastern and western sides are cabins with decks perched over the island's edge. When the water is calm, the cay is silent except for gulls, and frigate birds on a mangrove stand west of the island.

We took advantage of a placid afternoon and waded around the cay, looking for shells and seeking out wildlife. Crabs jetted away from our intruding footfalls, and fish darted away when we came near. Little lizards scurried about, and shy iguanas made an appearance during the sunny morning of our last day.

Our favorite was a hermit crab that repeatedly took stock of its territory-about a 3-foot arc radiating from its hiding place under a fallen log.

Wading was just a start, as Moho Cay's popularity lies in its offshore activities. Breeze, who is in charge of BLE's construction projects, makes his home on Moho Cay and guides snorkeling trips from the isle.

One of his favorite destinations is the nearby Snake Cays, a group of four islets. One has a small beach good for taking a terrestrial break from the life aquatic. Breeze's boating trips also include tours of neighboring cays and Belize's coastline.

The water remains the constant upon returning to Moho Cay. Evening comes soon, and the stars shine while the gurgling and rippling of the tranquil sea are a lullaby, inspiring a slumber whose dreams are the ones BLE guests will want to relive for years to come.

Planning Your Trip
For more information about Belize Lodge & Excursion's all-inclusive packages, contact (888) 292-2462 or For travel arrangements, call your AAA Travel agent. To learn more about Belize and BLE, see Peterson's Web Bonus on H&A

Belize Beginner
My journey to Belize followed a trail blazed by Linda Lickteig, Home & Away's production manager. Linda ventured south a few months before me as part of her annual getaway to someplace different.

Although she spent her time in a another part of the country, Linda had experiences similar to mine. She was struck by the friendliness of the locals and how at ease they made her feel. In fact, it didn't take long for Linda and her two friends to find themselves meeting up with familiar faces during nightlife getaways on Ambergris Cay, the island on which they stayed.

Daytrips got the women to the mainland to see Belize City and Mayan ruins, where they were drawn in by the tiny country's beauty and history. Still, it was the people who left a lasting impression on the trio.

Linda said it was fascinating talking with Belizeans about how their lives had changed since tourism became the going concern on Ambergris Cay-Belize's largest island and top tourism draw. Scuba diving is king, but Linda and her crew stayed shallow and snorkeled.
They were content to soak up the Caribbean sun and hospitality, and they're ready to return.

So am I.

I will have a Belikin -- put it on klcman's tab.
Joined: May 2005
Posts: 3,955
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(Web bonus referenced above)

The Future Is Now

Belize Lodge & Excursion's burgeoning resort might be the shape of things to come in the former British Honduras.

By Gary Peterson

The country is young-achieving its independence from the United Kingdom in 1981-but seems to be coming to the understanding that tourism is its future. Ambergris Cay is gaining in popularity, and cruise ships are stopping in numbers at Belize City, but they are the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

With relatively untouched wilderness, important Mayan sites and the second-largest barrier reef in the world, Belize has the virtues to make it a major destination. And it is well-positioned to draw Americans: The official language is English, Belize City is less than three hours from Dallas, and the dollar enjoys a two-for-one exchange rate.

Access can be a problem: Most roads have two lanes and no shoulders, and intracountry air travel is limited to flights on small planes. Still, the danger of providing access is destroying what is bringing the tourists.

Blazing a Trail
BLE is a model. It established a private nature preserve to ensure the rainforest will endure, began rainforest restoration, worked to prevent poaching and partnered with other organizations to create larger stretches of protected wilderness. BLE also has supported sensitive interpretation and responsible sharing of the region's natural history. And BLE has embraced the ancient human history of the area, mimicking Mayan stonework and art in its lodges.

The company's connection to the Maya is complemented by its employment of locals, which helps support villages that depend greatly upon subsistence farming.

By staffing its lodges with local Mayans, BLE has tapped into the hospitable soul of southern Belize. They are a sweet people, hard-working and attentive, all of which serve BLE well.

Guests are greeted warmly upon arrival and at each meal. And there is a genuine concern for guests' comfort. The attitude is in tune with BLE's approach. For instance, my wife- who has several food allergies-was asked right away at Indian Creek Lodge about her dietary restrictions.

The chef adapted on the fly, ditching the tomato-based cocktail sauce that evening in favor of a delicious French dressing-based concoction. She also received a special picnic lunch the next day to meet her needs.

None of the Mayan staff seem fazed by catering to guests in pampered settings, even though they hail from comparatively depressed communities.

Able Ambassadors
The native staff members are comfortable in their own skin. They carry themselves with a sense that they have all they need and don't see any need for improvement. It's a quality that makes guests look closer at the simple Mayan way of life.

BLE's Mayan staff also are eager share the treasures of their homeland. And they are always curious about whether guests are making their first trip to Belize. (They seem genuinely surprised when it is a guest's first trip to the country.) Most have never ventured beyond Belize and aren't particularly curious about the United States.

They are focused on making sure their guests' Belizean experience is second to none.

All the Amenities
BLE gave the same care given to building its staff to building its lodges. The goal was exclusivity, luxury and privacy amid the wild. At each lodge, the furniture is handmade, including soft, comfortable beds. At Indian Creek and Jungle Camp, the cabins are fully screened to combat the tropic's insects. (Mosquitoes aren't an issue on Moho Cay.) And all cabins have ceiling fans to help keep guests cool.

What it all means is that guests can travel to remote settings and brag about it, knowing there is no better way to see such a place.

I will have a Belikin -- put it on klcman's tab.

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