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Beauty and barbarity in amazing Belize
December 10 2011 12:01AM
It’s a land of howler monkeys, coral reefs and ancient human sacrifice. And the Queen is on the banknotes
We left our jeep where the orange groves gave way to jungle. For 45 minutes we hiked past giant trees, scattering exotic birds and lizards, wading three times across the Roaring River until its gin-clear water tumbled from a fern-covered opening at the base of a limestone cliff.
There we donned lifejackets and helmets, lowered ourselves into the current and swam through the opening into a dark cave. Using torches, we picked our way upstream — swimming, wading chest-deep through half-submerged chambers, clambering over boulders and squeezing through narrow tunnels. It was not for the faint-hearted or unfit.
An hour later, and half a mile into the mountain, we reached the Actun Tunichil Muknal, or Cave of the Stone Sepulchre — and were amazed. Our torches lit a vast cavern with spectacular stalagmites and stalactites. Scattered across the smooth floors were the pots in which ancient Mayans brought offerings to their gods, and the remains of human sacrifices — the calcified bones of 14 adults, children and babies killed to propitiate Chaac, the God of Rain.
At the farthest and highest point of this great cathedral, spread-eagled on a sort of altar accessible only by ladder, was the skeleton of a teenage girl dubbed the “Crystal Maiden”. She had lain there undisturbed for more than 1,000 years until this natural tomb was rediscovered in the 1980s.
For my wife and I, Belize had previously evoked images of swamps and mosquitos, a Central American hellhole where British soldiers endured hardship training. How wrong we were. This tiny, sparsely populated gem of a country should revive a sense of wonder in the most jaded soul, excite the hardiest adventurer and delight those dismayed by the world’s relentless homogenisation. We spent two weeks snorkelling in turquoise sea, diving amid coral reefs, hiking and biking through jungle and bathing beneath hidden waterfalls. We swam with sharks and stingrays, caught weird and wonderful fish, tubed down subterranean rivers, zip-wired over forest canopies and explored the spectacular ruins of ancient Mayan cities.
Belize has a population smaller than Cardiff’s, in an area bigger than Wales. Two thirds of its surface is forest teeming with wildlife. Its Caribbean coast and ribbon of off-shore islands are protected by the second-longest barrier reef in the world after Australia’s. It has a pleasant year-round climate and a diverse but harmonious population of Mestizos, Kriols, Mayans and whites — not to mention Mennonite and Amish refugees from the US.
This being a former British colony, everyone speaks English and the Queen, looking impossibly youthful, is on the banknotes. The culture is a blend of Bob Marley and mañana. In such a natural cornucopia no one needs to work too hard. Old men strum guitars outside their brightly painted wooden homes. Everyone is welcoming. “It’s all easy, man,” they tell you. There are few paved roads and little traffic. There are no McDonald’s or Holiday Inns. Not one of the splendid private hotels and lodges in which we stayed had televisions in the rooms, and Belize is mercifully free of the “health and safety” ethos that seeks to eliminate all risk from our lives.
We found only two drawbacks, apart from the brief threat of a hurricane. There are a lot of biting insects, making bug sprays essential, and Belize is hard to reach without passing through Miami, one of the world’s most unwelcoming airports, where exhausted transatlantic passengers — even those in transit — queue to be questioned, photographed and fingerprinted by granite-faced US immigration officials.
By contrast, we were through the airport in Belize City in ten minutes. There was little to detain us in the city itself, beyond a cathedral built with bricks brought over as ballast in ships from Britain. Soon we were speeding westwards towards the Maya Mountains, past the tiny purpose-built capital of Belmopan, which was reputedly designed by civil servants in Croydon in the 1960s. We spent our first three nights in a thatched cabana on stilts at a charming jungle lodge called Pook’s Hill. This was not only our jumping-off point for the nearby Actun Tunichil Muknal. It was our introduction to the wilderness all around us.
We were woken at night by the chilling roars of black howler monkeys, and at dawn by a cacophony of birdsong. By day we spotted iguanas, tarantulas and rhinoceros beetles, marvelled at the towering mahogany and ceiba trees, struggled to photograph the brilliant butterflies and searched in vain for jaguars and tapirs. Belize’s vibrant jungles are home to animals (margays, ocelots, grisons, spiked helmet-headed basilisks) and birds (crested guans, motmots, bananaquits) that we had never even heard of. The vegetation is so lush that you can almost see it growing. There are plants that snap shut when touched, creepers that ensnare you with spikes, tree saplings that grow spikes on their trunks. My favourite was the strangler fig that seeds itself high in a tree’s thick foliage, drops roots to the ground, then proceeds slowly to wrap the trunk of its host in a lethal embrace.
From Pook’s Hill we moved to Hidden Valley Inn, a luxury retreat in a 7,200-acre reserve where cucumber sandwiches and coffee cake are served at teatime, guests are given two-way radios before they go biking in the pine forests and you are advised not to leave wet towels on your cottage floor lest they attract scorpions. You can even rent a private waterfall for the day, though the deep, clear pool below the Butterfly Falls on Clear Creek could scarcely be bettered as a swimming hole.
The Inn’s greatest attraction, however, is that it is halfway along a 50-mile track into the heart of the jungle and the most spectacular of Belize’s countless Mayan ruins. More than a millennium ago Caracol was a city with more than 140,000 inhabitants — nearly half Belize’s present population — until it was mysteriously abandoned in about AD900. We wandered, awestruck, around its magnificent, geometrically aligned plazas and palaces, and climbed the vertiginous steps of its pyramids and temples to enjoy breathtaking views across the jungle to distant mountains. There were no trinket shops or vendors, only a few armed guards protecting a scattering of tourists from the bandits who occasionally venture across from Guatemala.
Our second week was very different, but no less exhilarating. We spent it on Ambergris Caye, the largest of the offshore islands, a 15-minute flight from Belize City, for which you are not required to fasten your seat belts, let alone go through security. There we completed a three-day PADI diving course that largely ignored the official manual, much to our relief, and ended with a one-hour dive in the Hol Chan marine reserve — an underwater wonderworld of corals and exotic fish every bit as diverse in size, shape and colour as their animal counterparts in the mainland jungles. We found four-eye butterflyfish, horse-eye jacks, peacock flounders and sea cucumbers that seemed half animal, half vegetable. Large, evil-looking stingrays lay buried in the sandy bottom but let us stroke their rubbery wings.
We took a boat to Shark Ray Alley off the barrier reef, where chopped sardine attracted nurse sharks weighing up to 300lb. We were soon swimming alongside them, stroking their leathery skins and grabbing their fins to be pulled along.
San Pedro is the town on Ambergris Caye, a mix of shacks and mansions, fine seafood restaurants, humble kitchens serving rice and beans, smart hotels like our own Victoria House, set in eight immaculate beach-front acres, and backpackers’ hostels. Golf buggies and bikes are the standard transportation on San Pedro’s sandy lanes. The bars serve margaritas, daiquiris and rum punch. It evoked Hemingway’s Key West and, appropriately, we spent our last day fishing at sea.
We had moved up the island to Matachica, another beautiful beach hotel, accessible only by boat, its brightly coloured thatched cottages largely occupied, it seemed, by honeymooners. Friends picked us up from its private jetty and soon we were skimming across the clear water to the far side of the reef.
There, beneath a hot sun, we caught strawberry groupers, snappers and Spanish mackerel. We swam from a pearly white beach fringed with palm trees as our catch cooked on a barbeque. We washed down every last delicious morsel with a fine chilled Muscadet. It was the perfect end to the perfect holiday.