Tropic Air bush plane at Dangriga Air Strip in Belize. (Dave Seminara)
Rico, the Belizean bush doctor I had come to see, was out making a delivery. But his sister, Yolanda, had an offer for me. She was running a homemade raffle, offering two-dollar chances to win a case of beer, a case of stout, a bottle of wine and two cases of soft drinks.
But when would I be back in the Roaring Creek neighborhood of Belmopan to find out if I won? As I waffled, Gilbert, my guide, who lives clear across the country, was handing over rumpled bills and signing his name in Yolanda's spiral notebook.
"You don't even know this woman," I said, fresh off the plane from Chicago and not yet in a no-worries, we're-in-Belize frame of mind. "What if she just takes all the money?"
"Belize is a small country," he said. "She can't cheat us because we'd be sure to run into her again sometime."
I forked over two Belizean dollars (worth $1 in the U.S.), and as I signed my name in the notebook, I realized Gilbert was right. With a population of just over 300,000, Belizeans have a strong incentive to treat each other right. But as I found out during a weeklong visit in December, little Belize punches above its weight -- travelers can spend a lifetime exploring this small country and never exhaust all the places it has to offer.
You've probably heard about Belize's 200-plus islands, called "cayes," and its world-class beaches, snorkeling and scuba diving. But there's also a bounty of options for intrepid travelers who are more into adventure and culture than beachcombing. You can take a wild ride on a Polaris utility vehicle to breathtaking ancient Mayan cities; get so close to black howler monkeys that you can smell what they had for breakfast; rough it with a Mayan family in a thatch hut; consult a Belizean bush doctor; soak up the scenery on one of Tropic Air's bush planes; sample the Royal Rat, a local delicacy; or just sit in a bar with an ice cold Belkin, Belize's tasty national brew, and listen to the locals speak their fascinating dialect,Belizean Kriol.
They Speak English. Only Better. Belize was a British Colony called British Honduras until 1973, and it achieved full independence in 1981. Unlike the rest of Central America, the locals speak English; just not the kind Americans are used to. When they talk to foreign visitors, Belizeans are kind enough to go easy on their distinctive dialect, but the real fun is listening to them talk to each other. The longer you stay in Belize, or the more bottles of Belkin you down, the more it all makes sense.
Mayan Heritage. The Mayans developed a sophisticated, complex and artistic society that reached its peak more than 1,000 years ago and then mysteriously declined. I've never been a huge fan of visiting archaeological sites, especially those where you have to stand behind a rope and gaze at crumbling structures from afar under a blazing sun, but visiting the shady, little-visited ancient Mayan cities of Caracol, Lubaantun and Cahal Pech in Belize gave me a newfound appreciation for archaeology and this ancient civilization.
Some of the ancient sites, like Cahal Pech and Altun Ha, are easy to get to, but others, like Caracol and Lubaantun, set amidst gorgeous, lush tropical jungle, are far enough off the beaten track that when you arrive, you have that awesome Indiana Jones-like feeling of discovery that makes the effort well worth it. For a real adventure, book a trip to Caracol on a Polaris utility vehicle through Mystic River, a superb, off-the-grid jungle resort located right on the Macal River outside San Ignacio.
For the full Mayan experience -- there are about 6 million Mayan descendants living in the region -- consider booking a Mayan home stay through the Toledo Ecotourism Association. You'll be eating humble meals with a local family and roughing it under a thatched roof with no indoor toilet or shower, but the insights you gain into their simple way of life could be life-changing.
Meet the Monkeys and Green Iguanas. In Belizean Kriol, black howler monkeys are called "baboons," and you can get up close and personal with plenty of them at the Community Baboon Sanctuary, a grassroots conservation area that is home to some 2,000 black howler monkeys. Guide Robert Planting is a character who will take you out into the jungle, where the monkeys respond to his calls, often climbing right onto his shoulders.
If you're more into reptiles, don't miss the Green Iguana Sanctuary at the first-class San Ignacio Resort Hotel, in San Ignacio -- home to some 40 green iguanas, including Gomez, a super-stud who mates eight times a day with members of his harem with not one, but two penises, and George, who is so randy they have to keep him on the roof.
Sample the Royal Rat. Or Save It. The gibnut is a large rodent, about the size of a small dog, that Belizeans, and Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame, swear is delicious. (Tastes like pork.) Belizeans are so proud of this delicacy that they even served it to Queen Elizabeth II when she visited in 1985; hence the nickname "royal rat." (Numerous Belizeans told me that the queen loved it and cleaned her plate.) If you want to try it, you might have to hunt one down yourself, as they are becoming scarce, but you can check out what they look like at Maya First, a non-profit in Western Belize that is trying to save the royal rat and also has a royal rat cam.
Bush Planes and Bush Doctors. To get a flavor of this lush, green tropical country, take an 8- or 14-seatTropic Air bush plane down to Placencia or Punta Gorda; they fly low and the journey is an adventure. And if you're into natural medicines, seek out Belizean bush doctors like Harry Guy of Jungle Remedies, on Orange Street in San Ignacio ([email protected], 663-0248), who sells natural cures for HIV/Aids, cancer, high blood pressure, impotence and more, or Eric "Rico" the Herb Man in Belmopan, who specializes in medicinal bitters. (650-7603)
And You Thought the USA Was Diverse? For a country the size of Massachusetts, Belize has a remarkable array of ethnic groups, including Creoles, Mestizos, Mayans, Garifuna, Chinese, Indians, and even Mennonites, both reformed and traditional. For a way-off-the-beaten track experience, visit the traditional Mennonite communities in Indian Creek or Pine Hill, whose inhabitants still farm the land using traditional instruments and get around via horse and buggy.
After a week in Belize, I left with a long list of places I didn't have time to visit and experiences, like zip-lining through the jungle, scuba diving in the cayes and canoeing down the Macal River, I didn't make time for, along with a host of memories and new friends I won't forget. When I return, I plan to seek out Yolanda, the raffle lady. If I won, I'm sure my beer, wine and soda will be there waiting for me.
IF YOU GO: Belize City is a 1 hour, 45 minute flight from Miami. There also are direct flights from Charlotte (US Air), Dallas (American), Atlanta, Los Angeles (Delta), Newark and Houston (United). You'll find the driest, most reliably sunny weather from now through May. You can use U.S. currency or Belizean dollars; the exchange rate is roughly two to one. If you'd like to stay at a quiet place close to the airport but outside bustling Belize City on your first night, try the Black Orchid Lodge, a small, moderately priced resort on the banks of the Belize Old River and just minutes from the Community Baboon Sanctuary. (From $150.)
Hopkins is a lively, low-key beach town in the ethnic Garifuna heartland. I stayed at the Coconut Row Guest House, a stylish little place right on a great beach with room rates as low as $99 in the high season. For a real off-the-grid jungle resort getaway, try Mystic River, a decadent little place with fabulous food and distinctive villas right on the Macal River, and don't miss their Caracol excursion. (From $125 per night.)