Great article in the Telegraph....
By Nigel Tisdall, travel writer
Belize boasts sweeping sands, Mayan sites, rainforest walks and an intriguing history CREDIT: AP
You’ll be hiking for 45 minutes, crossing a river three times, then swimming through a cave,” warns the letter on my bed.
The staff at the Ka’ana Resort near San Ignacio may be full of sound advice (“pack bug spray, be prepared to get wet and muddy”) but they give nothing away about the sensational experience that awaits on a day trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal.
Lost in the northern foothills of Belize’s Maya Mountains, this colossal cave was once used by the Mayans for sacred ceremonies including human sacrifice, and is today known, inevitably, as ATM. Three miles long, it dispenses splash rather than cash, and only 120 visitors are allowed in per day.
Venturing into Actun Tunichil Muknal CREDIT: ALAMY
After I have donned a safety helmet and head-torch, Elias, my Belizean guide, invites me to plunge into the cooling river, haul myself along by a rope, then follow him into the forests.
Another leap into the water is required to enter the cave, after which follows an hour of swimming, clambering and slithering through raging torrents and massive formations of stalactites and stalagmites to reach a lofty chamber where, 1,200 years ago, Mayan priests would conduct their rituals.
All this would be thrilling enough (the return journey passes through “Decapitation Alley”, where you are up to your neck in water with just a small gap in the rocks for your head to squeeze through) but what makes ATM such a world-class day out is what lies preserved within it.
The 'Crystal Maiden', a calcified Mayan skeleton in Actun Tunichil Muknal CREDIT: ALAMY
The climax of our underworld journey is a mounting trail of calcified ceramic pots, bones, skulls and, eventually, complete skeletons in horrific positions. It’s a gut-gripping sight that is made all the more forceful thanks to a ban on photography introduced after a sightseer dropped their camera on to a skull.
In many other countries, a phenomenal archaeological site like this would be full of hectoring signs and watchful security guards, but here in easy-Belizey everything runs on trust. The guides are respectful and safety-conscious and there’s not a single souvenir stall in sight.
Belize's beaches, mangroves and – in the distance – Maya Mountains CREDIT: ALAMY
Tuning into the legacies of the Maya world is a chief reason to visit the only English-speaking country in Central America. Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize gained independence in 1981 after 119 years of colonial rule – and the memories linger on.
The Queen’s head still smiles out from the local dollars, and the British Army continues to train in the country’s dense jungles. Belize City, the former capital, has a Victoria Street and a Princess Margaret Drive, along with the odd red postbox and the squat, brick St John’s Cathedral with its marble memorials to earlier visitors felled by yellow fever.
Belize is quiet in comparison to Mexico and Guatemala CREDIT: ALAMY
One joy of travelling here is how empty Belize seems. While neighbouring Mexico and Guatemala are famously populous and exuberant, here the roads are quiet, the beaches relaxed, the archaeological sites often blissfully free of crowds.
Bordering the Caribbean Sea, the country does have its moments of sound and colour – drumming is popular and all the police stations are painted bright yellow and green.
Just 380,000 people inhabit an area similar in size to Wales, and they are a most engaging jumble of cultures, including Maya, Mestizo, Creole, Garifuna, East Indian, Chinese and Mennonite. That’s very different from the heyday of the Mayan era in the third to 10th centuries when more than a million people lived here, with the ensuing deforestation and pressure on resources thought to be one reason for the demise of this great civilisation.
Caracol, a large ancient Maya archaeological site CREDIT: ALAMY
There is plenty to ponder from that mysterious era, with more than 600 Mayan sites identified across Belize, including Caracol in the Cayo District where the 141ft-high Caana pyramid remains the tallest building in the country.
Many of these have yet to be fully explored, as was made clear last April at Xunantunich, a vast ceremonial acropolis a few miles south-west of San Ignacio, when one of the largest royal tombs in the country was found along with two valuable panels inscribed with hieroglyphics.
“It really was a surprise find,” says Dr John Morris, director of Belize’s Institute of Archaeology, who hopes to make the tomb viewable to visitors by the summer. In the meantime there is much to marvel at, including a massive stele depicting a ruler wearing a splendid headdress of quetzal feathers, two ball courts and a steep-sided pyramid with views to Guatemala from its 130ft summit.
One of Belize's many deserted islands CREDIT: ALAMY
Such casual discoveries seem typical of a country packed with treasures but still relatively unknown to British travellers. One reason for this neglect is that it requires some determination to get here. There are no direct flights from Britain, but connections to Belize City were significantly improved in November with the introduction of new schedules travelling via Miami which now make it unnecessary to overnight in the United States.
As well as adventures inland, Belize offers the chance to wallow, swim and gawp on the second longest barrier reef in world. Stretching 185 miles, this dazzling necklace of more than 200 atolls and cayes (small, low-lying coral islands) is home to vivid marine life including turtles, eagle rays, whale sharks and curiosities such as the Christmas tree worm.
Ambergris Caye is Belize's largest island CREDIT: ALAMY
The most popular destination is Ambergris Caye, a 25-mile-long island in the north that attracts more than 40 per cent of visitors, mostly from North America. Here, protected sites such as the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Alley, where schools of nurse sharks gather, lie just a 10-minute boat ride away.
The snorkelling here is terrific although it does get busy with trippers, while the island capital, San Pedro, is so small and congested it offers one of the most bizarre sights in modern tourism: golf-cart traffic jams.
Life is much quieter on the smaller cayes, which often have just a single resort where guests are encircled by sea, birds and mangroves. Beneath the waves lie magical gardens rich with tropical fish and coral, while up above is a dome of stars unpolluted by modern lights. South Water Caye, which sits right on the reef near Dangriga and is inside a marine reserve, was once a retreat for the Catholic Sisters of Mercy.
Now its southern end is home to an unpretentious resort, Pelican Beach, which shuns television and air conditioning in favour of sea breezes, freshly grilled lobster and family board games after dinner.
You can snorkel from the shore and take boat trips to dive the underwater cliffs, admire the frigate birds at Man O’ War Caye, and call into Carrie Bow Caye, where the Smithsonian Institution runs a field station.
St George’s Caye Resort offers spectacular views
Some may find this small-island living claustrophobic, and the absence of nightlife, luxury comforts and alternative places to drink and dine is not for everyone. Others relish this Crusoe moment with its simplicity and isolation and the chance to feel close to nature as you swing in a hammock slung between the palms.
One thing is certain: you can’t help but step back from our hectic world. “I turned off my phone the moment we arrived,” a guest at St George’s Caye Resort tells me proudly, “and it’s staying off until I leave.” A 25-minute speedboat ride from Belize City, this small, adults-only resort is popular with divers and sits in the middle of St George’s Caye, a mile-long sliver of sand and coconut trees that has played a starring role in our long-running love affair with Belize.
Back in the 1650s, English buccaneers established one of the first settlements here, and in 1798 a decisive naval battle was fought that saw off the invading Spanish forces for good. The victory is now commemorated with a national holiday every September, St George’s Caye Day, featuring fairs, beauty pageants and a regatta.
The sweeping sand and swaying palms of Pelican Beach CREDIT: ALAMY
Today the only mementos of those wild and piratical times are a forlorn cemetery and a solitary 10ft cannon pointing east. If there are serious threats, they now come from the sky rather than Madrid – last August Hurricane Earl stormed through Belize like an angry boxer, causing floods, power cuts and widespread destruction.
On St George’s Caye, the islanders have been working hard to repair the damage done to its docks, seawalls and holiday homes which bear wistful names such as “Contentment” and “Restawile”.
Walking along the shore, past the pelicans and cormorants drying their feathers in the gentle breeze, I feel moved to help these people, for it is obvious that while nature clearly rules here, the Belizeans are not the sort who give up.
“We’ve gotta keep this island beautiful,” one builder explains as he mends a white picket fence. It’s a tenacious spirit that comes naturally to this small and flamboyant Caribbean country, where you can be sure of a friendly welcome yet travel still feels like discovery.