Belize by Jimny
Jungle to beach and back again – in a very tiny SUV.by Matthew Phenix
According to our reliably fallible sense of direction and a rumpled map that’s let us down more than any map should, we’re passing through the village of San Pedro Columbia, in the hilly southwest corner of Belize. We’re well off our planned route, trundling along a dirt road with no name on an impromptu mission to find the ancient Maya city of Lubaantun, established in the 8th century and home to 20,000 people in its prime. We’re close, we hope. Lubaantun (a word that means “place of fallen stones”) was the spot where, in the 1920s, a 17-year-old English girl, working with her adventurer/archaeologist father, reportedly stumbled upon the Skull of Doom, a 4,000-year-old crystal cranium that’s believed to have given its holder the power to kill people with his mind. As side trips go, that beats the world’s biggest ball of twine any day.
Some 700 people occupy San Pedro Columbia these days; it’s the country’s largest enclave of an indigenous Maya tribe known as the Kekchi. They smile and wave to us, a driver with a farmer’s tan and Birkenstocks and a passenger with a blond mop top and three cameras around his neck. Broad foreheads and strong noses call to mind the faces staring back from ancient paintings and sculptures discovered at dozens of sites like Lubaantun, and it’s not hard to imagine these villagers’ ancestors greeting the first Spanish conquistadors with similar warmth and curiosity.
We’re in the midst of a zigzagging seven-day road trip through Belize, one that brought us a stone’s throw from the Mexican border and will carry us all the way to the edge of Guatemala. This is a can’t-sit-still, Type A vacation, a brisk sampling of diverse venues — crocodile-occupied jungle river, sandy beach town, rainforest canopy — that delivers a rare sensory rush. There are 280,000 people in this country, and we’d like to meet all of them.
It’s a tough feat to recommend from a logistics standpoint. By Caribbean comparison, Belize has roughly the same population as Barbados, but at 8,867 square miles, it’s 53 times as large. The country is 180 miles end to end and 68 miles at its widest point, and more than 40 percent of it is protected land, including vast swaths of tropical wilderness, the imposing Maya mountain range and a river-carved coastal plain with 240 miles of shoreline. But Belize has something that makes an end-to-end adventure like ours eminently doable: roads — good ones, paved ones.
The country’s four main highways are smooth, picturesque and, for the most part, lightly traveled. They neatly link the four corners of Belize and allow road-trippers to cover bigger distances with relative haste, buying time to veer off a main road every so often and get in touch with their inner Indiana Jones, Capt. Morgan or George of the Jungle.
It’s an easy hour’s drive from the international airport near Belize City to Orange Walk Town, a settlement of 20,000 people about 30 miles from the Mexican village of Chetumal. From there, it’s a kidney-kicking two hours to the Lamanai Outpost Lodge. We cross the 86-mile New River and leave the Northern Highway behind, turning west onto a narrow road carved into the limestone and heading into an odd patchwork of impenetrable jungle and working farmland.
Traffic on this rough-hewn bush road consists of horse-drawn buggies and carriages driven by men and boys in overalls and straw hats and women and girls in dark dresses and bigger straw hats: Mennonites. Belize is home to some 10,000 members of this devoutly nonviolent Christian denomination from Europe. They’re an incongruous sight in a Central American nation, but in communities all over Belize, the Mennonites have become an essential part of the country’s social order. For one thing, they’re prolific farmers, producing a huge portion of Belize’s food. They’re also famously crafty grease monkeys, go-to guys when anything — farm equipment, appliances, cars — breaks down.
Breaking down, or just plain breaking, is on our minds right now, as a relentlessly bad road kicks our little 4x4 in its lug nuts. The modern Suzuki Jimny is a mildly updated version of a pint-size SUV sold in the United States during the 1980s as the Samurai. A blip on America’s automotive radar, the trucklet was, and is, a mainstay in countries like Belize, places where paved roads aren’t always the norm. It’s tough, it’s tenacious, and it’s cheap — but not too cheap, we’re hoping, as the wildly vibrating dashboard starts ejecting trim into our laps.
Indian Church Village (pop. 250) is the last settlement before the road narrows some more and rolling farmland gives way to a solid swath of vine-entangled jungle. The Lamanai Outpost Lodge sits out here, comprised of 17 thatch-roof cabanas scattered along the sloping western bank of the New River Lagoon. Opened two decades ago by Australian expat Mark Howells, the resort is well beyond merely blending with its surroundings; it’s become one with them, feeling as much a part of the natural landscape as the ceiba trees and the strangler figs.
A 30-minute hike reveals Lamanai Outpost’s namesake, one of the grandest Maya archaeological sites. Settled as early as 1500 B.C. and occupied into the 17th century, Lamanai is dominated by the 100-foot-tall High Temple. Atop a perilously steep flight of steps, the stone altar sits well above the trees, and from here, the jungle — luminous in a hundred shades of green and ringing with Tarzan sound effects — spreads out and meets the dark water of New River Lagoon.
The largest inland body of fresh water in Belize, the 24-mile lagoon attracts an ark-load of exotic fauna, including the keel-billed toucan, the Central American black howler monkey and the Morelet’s crocodile — Lamanai is, in fact, a corruption of the Maya phrase Lama’an’ayin, meaning “submerged crocodile.” Howells has taken a particular interest in the well-being of this elusive and endangered reptile, which numbers fewer than 1,000 in Belize. Along with University of Florida associate professor of wildlife ecology Dr. Frank Mazzotti, he’s working to ensure their survival. Civilians are invited to participate in the effort too; the lodge takes guests on nightly airboat forays into the wetlands to catch and measure the animals and implant microchip identification tags.
Day Three dawns, and we're loading up the dusty but indefatigable Jimny. We’ll retrace the lumpy haul back to Orange Walk Town and head south toward our second stop, the beach burg of Placencia. Our route includes all four main roads: the Northern Highway toward Belize City, the Western Highway toward the capital city of Belmopan, the undulating Hummingbird Highway through dense rainforest and citrus groves, and the Southern Highway past sprawling banana farms to the Placencia Road turnoff.
There’s a lot of new construction along the northern end of the Placencia Peninsula, a big toe that dips into the Caribbean about 70 miles south of Belize City. There’s an unfinished resort, blocks of upscale condominiums, and a neighborhood of McMansions built on land created from dredged lagoon mud. Such development is a testament to the allure of the place, and someday it may transform one of the country’s sleepier quarters into a Cancún-style hot spot. For now, though, there’s still a good deal more nothing than something out here, and hammocks strung between palm trees still handily outnumber king suites with whirlpool tubs.
The easy way to get to Placencia is aboard a 30-minute puddle-jumper flight from Belize City. The hard way — our way — requires a couple of hours driving along a pitted path that feels a whole lot more off-road than road. But Placencia Town beckons like some kind of beach-hippie Shangri-La, and we put the spurs to the Jimny for the final push. Later, as we down a fish burger and a smoothie at the well-named Shak and watch a local fisherman unload the day’s haul as fishermen have done in this village for eons, we’ll quickly forgive and forget what it took to get here.
Just a mile north of town, a footbridge over a koi pond welcomes a fortunate few to Turtle Inn, a boutique resort created by film director Francis Ford Coppola and his wife, Eleanor. A beachy sister property to Blancaneaux, the Coppolas’ family retreat turned rainforest lodge, Turtle Inn sits on 650 feet of soft sand and encompasses 17 one-bedroom cottages, seven two-bedroom villas and a three-bedroom family pavilion with its own pool.
The couple bought the hotel as a turnkey operation back in 2000 but ran it for less than a year before Hurricane Iris’ 145 mph winds obliterated the place — and pretty much everything else along the southern coast of Belize. Seeing opportunity in the destruction, they reimagined the resort as a chic, Bali-inspired refuge. They brought over a Bali-based architect and began an arduous trans-Pacific shopping spree, filling Turtle Inn with Indonesian authenticity. The result is downright dazzling.
There’s no aspect of Turtle Inn that comes off insincere or ill-considered, no detail that doesn’t reflect the Coppolas’ ardent attention to detail. “Welcome to the movie set,” announces general manager Merri McKee. Just as the Chavón River in the Dominican Republic served as a cunning stand-in for Southeast Asia’s Nung in Apocalypse Now, the Coppolas’ Balinese dream in Belize is immersive. Carved doors and tapestries don’t just look like antiques; they are. And the blocks that form the resort’s footpaths are real black pumice stone transported from Indonesia by containership. The Coppolas brought over artisans too, including Balinese woodcarvers and stonecutters, who taught their crafts to local Belizeans who in turn applied these skills to every nook and cranny of the resort.
Placencia’s a hard habit to break, but day five has us back on the road. We nose south toward the Toledo District and Punta Gorda, a waterfront city of 5,000 that sits just 15 miles from the Guatemalan border. The Southern Highway is smooth and quick all the way, but this part of Belize remains well off the typical tourist tack. It’s the far reaches of a country of far reaches. Punta Gorda — or P.G., as it’s known locally — is working-class but welcoming to outsiders, a hush-hush home base for anglers angling for the bonefish-tarpon-permit grand slam and divers who’ve discovered the epic beauty of the Belize Barrier Reef’s southern extremity, 35 miles offshore.
At Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge, 15 minutes up the road from P.G., a dozen suites on stilts sit in the middle of 12,000 acres of pristine rainforest, amid treetops transited by rowdy troops of howler monkeys leaping and swinging from branch to branch. A few hundred feet down the hill snakes Belize’s Rio Grande, an emerald-tone beauty with its headwaters deep in the Maya Mountains. From Machaca’s dock, accessed via a small electric tram, it’s eight lazy miles to the Caribbean Sea.
Despite its eco-easy ambience, Machaca Hill was built and outfitted with a hard-core, cost-be-damned devotion to quality. Before arriving in Belize, general manager Brian Gardiner spent 20-some years running high-end African safaris, including Abercrombie & Kent operations in Kenya and Tanzania. It’s this experience that explains the Swarovski spotting scopes on the observation deck, a paddock full of Gary Fisher mountain bikes and the Costa del Mar sunglasses in the gift shop.
The rainforest is plenty dramatic during the day, but the main attraction at Machaca Hill happens when the lights go out. Nighttime in the tree canopy is seriously dark, and with just a screen between bed and bough, the rooms become a Maurice Sendak-worthy jamboree of nocturnal activity, reverberating with the hoot-hooting of blue-crowned motmots, the chattering of red-eyed tree frogs and the menacing howling — roaring, really — of the monkeys. It’s a back-to-nature getaway that would make a New Yorker feel right at home.
The sun rises on Day Seven, and we’re headed north again. Through the Jimny’s filthy windshield flickers a daylong instant replay of our weeklong rush down the length of Belize: Rainforest fades to beach town, beach town fades to jungle river, and jungle river fades to Belize City. When at last the Jimny rolls to a stop, there’s a groan and a hiss from under the hood that sounds for the world like a sigh of relief. The window crank falls off in my hand. We made it.
to view the route on Google Maps.http://www.caribbeantravelmag.com/articles/belize-jimny