Remote possibilities in Belize
By Dwight Garner | The New York Times | November 18, 2007
"If the world had any ends," Aldous Huxley wrote in 1934, Belize then known as British Honduras "would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited."
Almost 75 years later, Belize still feels remote. It's roughly the size of Massachusetts, yet it has only a handful of traffic lights. The two-lane road that spans the length of the country is not, in many places, paved. If Huxley were around to be a consumer of American pop culture, however, he'd find that Belize or at least the strip of it that runs along the Caribbean Sea has been discovered.
The Fox reality series Temptation Island taped its first season on Belize's Ambergris Caye. Francis Ford Coppola, an arbiter of hip for his generation the way Sofia Coppola is for hers, has opened resorts there. And there is a telling moment in a recent chick-lit novel, Tara McCarthy's Wouldn't Miss It for the World, in which an ugly American stands at a tiki bar in Belize and yelps: "Panty rippers for everyone!" referring to a cocktail that blends pineapple juice with coconut rum.
I underlined that passage and showed it to my wife, Cree. "Uh-oh," she said.
Belize's still largely untrampled beach areas are filling with tourists for good reason. The country has the largest continuous barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, one that's lined with hundreds of beautiful small islands, or cayes. The scuba-diving and snorkeling are world-class.
But there is a different Belize that we my wife and I and our 7- and 9-year-old children, Harriet and Penn set out to find: its lush interior thick with rain forests, Mayan ruins, tiny villages, intense wildlife and (most happily, for the kids) intricate cave systems that can be explored by floating on inner tubes (while dodging bats).
We weren't disappointed when we visited early in May. Moving through Belize's backcountry feels like travel, not tourism, and the country is fiercely intent on keeping it that way. National parks and nature preserves make up almost half of Belize's 8,800 square miles. You can truly become lost here, in ways both good and bad.
We land in Belize City on a hot morning, climb into a rental car a battered black 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander and head west toward our first destination, an eco and adventure lodge called Ian Anderson's Caves Branch.
Leaving the airport, we drive past streets lined with shacks, shanties and small concrete houses; dead cars squat on cinder blocks. The poet Derek Walcott, a Nobel laureate born in St. Lucia, is right to deplore the way outsiders view these kinds of scenes in the Caribbean: "Photogenic poverty! Postcard sadnesses!" But this makes them no less real and, at times, no less wrenching. Our children, staring from the window, are quieter than they have been in a long time.
Belize's population is fewer than 300,000 and, just a few miles outside of Belize City, we realize we're in the middle of nowhere, or very close to it. The landscape quickly becomes intensely green, freckled occasionally by dusty shacks and distant fires. Hit the search button on the car radio here, and the electronic numbers will race around and around until you put a stop to them.
Civilization, when it arrives on Belize's back roads, is in the form of "cool spots" what Belizeans like to call their outdoor bars and restaurants, most with dirt or concrete floors. It's there, on a sweltering day in a friendly cool spot, where we are first struck by Belize's headache-making contradictions.
"Hey, OK, you want one of these?" the shirtless bartender asks. He is holding a small chilled bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout a Belizean favorite, known as "short, dark and lovelies." It is not the only Anglicism. Queen Elizabeth II stares from Belize's paper currency. English is its official language. And the men are smoking Colonial Lights.
Belize tucked between Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the south and west was a British colony for more than 100 years, fully achieving its independence only in 1981. The population is a heady mix; you will hear Creole, Spanish and Garifuna in addition to English. Lunch at this cool spot is rice and beans along with stewed chicken, a dish we'll be eating variations of for an entire week. Fresh, local food is (the British are pretty much to blame here) hard to find in Belize. Its coast may stretch some 240 miles, but good luck finding fish that hasn't been frozen. Orange groves are everywhere, and giant trucks piled with oranges roar frighteningly past on the tiny roads. But we find only grim concentrate to drink for breakfast, or to mix with the local rum.
Purchasing local ingredients can feel like an illegal drug buy. Richard Wilk writes in his book Home Cooking in the Global Village: "You have to know the right person. You have to be patient; there is no rushing the process."
I quickly come to understand why Marie Sharp is a national hero. Bottles of her carrot-and-habanero hot sauce decorate nearly every restaurant table. It is the best hot sauce I've tasted; mellow, not palate killing, but flavorful and very much there.
Ian Anderson's Caves Branch is a few hours' drive from Belize City, nestled along the lovely Hummingbird Highway. We arrive in mid-afternoon, and our first impression is, frankly, not good. The place seems deserted. What's more, it's very hot, and because it is the dry season, the river that snakes through the lodge's property has vanished, leaving only a dusty, stone-filled riverbed.
Our need to cool off, and quickly, leads us to a miraculous discovery. A mile or so from the lodge, a pokey trail leads down to a small natural freshwater pool, or cenote, known as the Blue Hole. It is one of the most beautiful spots I've ever seen, a turquoise swimming hole fed by a cool underground river and surrounded by limestone cliffs and deep jungle. It is empty, and we spend a blissful hour splashing around alone.
Refreshed, we recognize Anderson's for the singular place it is. The warning posted on its Web site turns out to be accurate: "Ian Anderson's Caves Branch is neither a 'sightseeing' business nor a 'resort'! If you are looking for a jungle resort that is sanitized from its surroundings then we are not it."
Anderson (not of Jethro Tull) is dedicated to adventurous and sustainable tourism, e.g. eco-tourism. He hires first-class guides and attracts a hardy, inquisitive, international crowd that is a lot of fun.
Meals are communal, and the rooms range from inexpensive huts to quite luxurious treehouse suites (hillside rooms with trees growing through them). There are jungle treks, trips to Mayan ruins, river kayaking survival expeditions, rappelling and spelunking. We opt for a floating cave tour and spend the next day on inner tubes, drifting in the dark cool water for what seems like miles with miner's lamps strapped to our foreheads. It's a surreal experience. Bats hang within reach overhead; the guides point out cave markings and large cave spiders. It is a memorable day, made more so by jumping (following a guide's lead) off a 25-foot cliff into a deep natural pool.
After a late night sipping rum drinks and playing cards with other guests, we realize that the jungle is not a good place to nurse a hangover. Noises commence well before sunrise, a combination of howler monkeys, frogs, toads, toucans and cicadas that, together, make a sound we've never heard before; their symphonic attack sounds screechingly close to some of the electronic feedback on Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.
But since we're up early, we decide to go for a long hike, and that dry riverbed turns into a bonus. We use it for our improvised trail, and follow it into the jungle. There's remarkable wildlife, including giant king vultures, their red and yellow heads atop imposing white, black and gray plumage. From a tree overhead, a playful howler monkey tosses a piece of hard fruit at us.
It's disappointing to have to leave Caves Branch after two days, but we are booked for two nights near Placencia, a popular beach town farther south at the end of a long, narrow peninsula.
Placencia has a laid-back, end-of-the-line vibe. American country music spills from bars; beer is cheap and plentiful. Vendors hawk "You Better Belize It" T-shirts. Bootleg copies of week-old American movies are for sale in shop doorways.
We stay in the nearby town of Maya Beach, in an A-frame beach hut at a hotel called the Green Parrot. We hire a guide and go snorkeling 22 miles out in the Caribbean around a small uninhabited caye. We see nurse sharks, barracuda and squid while acquiring sunburns of the kind that make you sit carefully even weeks later.
For dinner one evening, we drop in at the Coppola family's Turtle Inn. It's a quiet, intensely lovely resort, and the food fresh fish, finally! is very good indeed. We're happy to see this place but also happy to leave it. It feels packed with would-be hipsters, at least one wearing sunglasses at night.
Sometimes your happiest memories of a trip are the homiest, and the most unexpected. On our final night in Belize, at the Machaca Hill Lodge, a new resort in the Toledo District near the border with Guatemala, we sit on the veranda, taking in the views and drinking fresh watermelon-juice cocktails (our improvised answer to the lack of fresh orange juice). The sun is a red fireball in the distance, and we play old American board games from the resort's collection.
The sunset, the cocktails, the happy children, the wild howler monkeys that leap into view in the treetops only 20 feet or so away, and the pair of toucans that nestle in yet another nearby tree, make this an indelible moment.
There are reasons to worry for Belize. Because of global warming, some coral on its reefs is bleaching white. And a recent major oil discovery has some worrying about a land rush and a spoiling of its natural beauty.
But Belize can still feel like one of Huxley's end-of-the-world places, its charms hiding in plain sight.