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Zip line canopy tours take you to the top of the Belizean rain forest.

y K.C. Summers
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Can a newly minted 50-year-old who's looking for adventure find happiness for a week in a Central American country the size of New Jersey? You'd better Belize it. With its rain forest canopies, Mayan ruins, stunning scenery and the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, the tiny nation tucked between Mexico and Guatemala is a great place to combine eco-thrills with fun-and-sun time.

Day 1: Fly to Belize City from any of Washington's three major airports. There are no nonstop flights from Washington, but American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways offer connecting flights. Total trip time: six to seven hours. At press time, round-trip fares for late January were about $687 on American, but you can do better by booking a package deal (see below).

There's no reason to hang around charmless Belize City if you don't have to, so after you land, head right to the rain forest. It's about a two-hour drive from the airport to the Cayo District, where many of the country's nicest eco-lodges are. There's no public transportation, but no worries: Most hotels will pick you up at the airport. Some offer that service free, but others charge $130 or more one way for up to four people; be sure to ask when comparing hotel rates.

Belizean jungle resorts come in all price points, from funky B&Bs to lavish spreads with private plunge pools and price tags to match. (Check out the Web site for Francis Ford Coppola's luxe Cayo District resort, Blancaneaux Lodge, at http://www.blancaneaux.com for a glimpse of the high life. Luxury cabanas start at $550 per night.) But there are plenty of intermediate properties to choose from. For example, Table Rock Belize (011-501-670-4910, http://www.tablerockbelize.com), a 100-acre reserve on the Macal River, gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor for its thatch-roofed cabanas set amid tropical gardens; double rooms are a reasonable $135 a night during the January high season, or $67.50 per person. (Morrow said she and her friends will double up in hotel rooms to save money, a wise strategy.)

At Chaa Creek (877-709-8708, http://www.chaacreek.com), a more upscale resort in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, a villa for four adults goes for $450 a night, or $112.50 per person. Note that there's a 9 percent hotel tax in Belize, and most resorts now add a vile 10 percent "service charge." Don't get me started.

By the way, when researching hotels for this or any other trip, don't forget to check package deals offered by airlines, hotels and tour operators. You can sometimes save quite a bit. For example, Adventure Life (800-344-6118, http://www.adventure-life.com), a Montana-based tour operator specializing in Central and South American eco-trips, offers a variety of air-hotel deals that beat the cost of booking the components separately, and the company will customize its packages to suit your schedule.

For Morrow's group of six or more, Adventure Life agent Marissa Jensen said she could modify an existing package to suit a six-night stay, starting with three days at Pook's Hill Lodge, a 300-acre property in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, and winding up at Ambergris Caye's stylish Victoria House hotel for three days of beach fun and relaxation. The cost for six nights' lodging, some meals, three excursions, ground and air transfers: $1,610 per person double.

International airfare is not included in that price, but the company can handle that, too, if you wish: Jensen quoted a rate of $635.45 per person, including taxes and fees. That's a good deal.

Got all that? Now where were we? Right, you've just arrived at your jungle lodge and you're pretty zonked. The interior of Belize isn't the fastest and easiest place to get to, so toast yourself with a glass of Belize's finest, the ubiquitous Belikin beer. You'll become quite fond of the stuff before the week is out.

Days 2 and 3: Settle in at your resort, but don't get too cozy, because you've got only two full days in the jungle and you'll want to fit in as many adventures as you can. Many Belize lodges offer kayaking, canoeing, hiking, birding, swimming and horseback riding on their grounds, as well as day trips to Mayan ruins, caves and waterfalls, so you've got some tough decisions to make. And you'll want to save some time to simply sit outside your cabana and listen to the jungle sounds.

Highly recommended for intrepid travelers: a visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal, the famous "ATM Cave" in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. You'll need to don a helmet and waterproof headlamp for this journey into the Mayan underworld as you wade, swim, hike and slither past ancient ceramics, stoneware and the skeletal remains of sacrifice victims. The less bold can take a cave tubing trip or a zip line canopy tour ($45 and $55, respectively, at Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort, 888-246-0264, http://www.jaguarpaw.com). Just beware of port days, when cruise ship hordes descend on the sites.

Whatever you do, save time for a visit to one of Belize's spectacular Mayan ruins. The Maya civilization flourished here from 2000 B.C. to about A.D. 900, and the ruins at Caracol and Xunantunich were once major ceremonial sites. Some resorts also offer day trips to Guatemala's Tikal, literally and figuratively the high point of any Central American visit. To give you an idea of costs, Chaa Creek charges $100 for groups of one to four people, plus a $5-per-person entry fee, to visit Xunantunich, and $275 per group, plus a $65-per-person entry fee, for Tikal.

As for dining, you don't have to worry about where to eat: The custom is to have breakfast and dinner at your resort. Some places include the cost of meals in the room rate; others charge a daily rate. At Table Rock, a breakfast-and-dinner package runs $29 a day if booked online. At Chaa Creek, breakfast is included in the room rate, a packed lunch is $12 and dinner is $32.

Days 4, 5 and 6: Time for some well-earned R&R. For the beach half of the trip, I recommend staying in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, a laid-back yet lively Caribbean island off Belize's northeast coast. It's a 15-minute flight from Belize City on Tropic or Maya Island airlines (about $35 one way from the municipal airport, $63 from the international airport); your Ambergris hotel can arrange the flight when you book your room. San Pedro has a variety of hotels, lots of cute restaurants and a thriving bar scene if you're so inclined.

Since you've done so well with your jungle costs, go ahead and splurge on lodging here. Two luxe options: Victoria House (800-247-5159, http://www.victoria-house.com), a boutique hotel in the heart of town with rooms starting at $180 a night; and Matachica (011-501-220-5010, http://www.matachica.com), five miles north of town, with private bungalows from $280, both per person double.

Spend your time in Ambergris exploring Belize's underwater world. A snorkeling trip to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and its Shark Ray Alley is de rigueur; it's an incredible underwater spectacle as you go snout to snout with eagle rays, giant sea turtles, nurse sharks and other finny friends. You have to hire a boat to visit the park, which is about four miles south of San Pedro; cost for a half-day trip starts at about $12.50 per person.

Day 7: Take a puddle-jumper back to Belize City and connect with your flight home.

The total cost for lodging and transportation? Well, it's difficult to compare a la carte vs. package deal costs, because the package prices I quoted here include some meals, guides and excursions. Roughly speaking, however, transportation and lodging will cost you $1,500 and up per person, depending on the hotels chosen. To that, add excursions ($150 and up), departure tax ($38), meals ($300), incidentals, souvenirs and gratuities, for a total starting at about $2,000 per person.