Please Belize Me
Sunday, March 28, 2004
Shadows flicker on the cave walls as I first walk, then slip and finally slide on my rear down the mud-slick passageway, down toward the center of the Earth. I squeeze past boulders, climb rebar ladders and grasp knotted rope lines in an attempt to stay upright. Then I round a bend and stop, speechless. Illuminated in the dim glow of my headlamp are scores of large ceramic pots, scattered on the dirt floor and lined up on high ledges -- some clay-colored, most burnished deep brown, many more than two feet in diameter. They lie just as they were set down by the Mayans centuries ago in this little-known cavern in the mountains of western Belize.
Two days later, I'm snorkeling off the coast of Ambergris Caye, nearly spitting out my mouthpiece in amazement. I've swum the waters of half a dozen Caribbean islands, but never before have I seen such a vast array of marine life in one place. Rainbow parrotfish and yellowtail snappers, blue-spotted damsels and striped sergeant majors, four-foot nurse sharks and playful stingrays -- I feel like an extra in a Discovery Channel special.
In Belize, you're speechless a lot. Get used to it.
This Central American country tucked between Mexico and Guatemala has long been popular with the backpack set. It's known mainly for its its spectacular barrier reef -- at 185 miles, the longest in the Western Hemisphere -- and a lifestyle so laid-back that it's practically prone. But now more and more U.S. travelers are discovering the country's inland activities as well. Belize's lush tropical rain forests are home to a host of soft adventure options -- jungle trekking, birding, canoeing, rafting, horseback riding and exploring ancient Mayan ruins. With a peaceful, stable government, a friendly English-speaking populace and a favorable exchange rate, this former British colony (it won independence in 1981) makes an excellent Caribbean alternative for travelers who want a little history and adventure with their sun.
I want to experience both surf and turf, so a friend and I have planned to spend a couple of days at a jungle lodge in the country's western reaches, then head east to explore the fabled Ambergris Caye for three more days. This way, I figure, we'll have plenty of time to sample all the myriad attractions the country has to offer.
I am so wrong.
Banana Velvet Brigade
The bad news about the Mopan River Resort is that it takes 12 hours to get there from Washington. The good news is that when you finally walk in the door, you're handed a Banana Velvet. This concoction of rum, bananas, coconut cream, orange juice and pineapple juice loosens many a tongue during cocktail hour each night at this all-inclusive hotel in the Cayo district of western Belize.
Ordinarily I'm not partial to all-inclusives, but this one offers good value compared with going à la carte, and its location near the Guatemalan border means that a day trip to the Mayan ruins at Tikal is possible. Plus, the place is gorgeous. It's set on 10 verdant, manicured acres on the Mopan River, with 12 luxury cabanas amid flower gardens and coconut palms. A swimming pool with waterfall, 20-foot birdwatching tower and artfully displayed Mayan artifacts add to the effect.
The village of Benque Viejo ("Old Bank"), by contrast, is rustic and rural, with painted concrete houses, chickens wandering dirt roads and beautiful, glossy-haired children splashing in the river. The resort is reachable only by boat, so we pile onto a wooden flat-bottom raft for the five-minute ride downstream. The Mopan is a great-looking river, slow-moving and impossibly, impenetrably green, overhung with trees and vines, its banks dotted with villagers' wooden canoes and the odd iguana. It's what you always imagined a river in the jungle would look like.
All-inclusive lodgings tend to attract a, shall we say, unadventurous crowd, but Belize seems to attract a friskier class of visitor. Everyone we talk to is interesting and up for adventure: Robert, a former Smithsonian curator; James, a network engineer from Ohio who's just spent a week bare-boating up the coast; Molly, a Debra Messing lookalike from Dubuque who's come here with her Kevin Bacon-lookalike boyfriend to get married in the resort's lovely chapel; Grady and Nancy, a retired Foreign Service couple who fell in love with the region when they were posted in the Yucutan, and want to explore further; and Arnold, a mild-mannered Canadian who's taking several months to explore Central America. He's thinking of retiring in the region and tells us earnestly, "Most people just exist. I want to live."
Heart of the Underworld
Chechem Ha cave, eight miles from Mopan in the Maya Mountains, is not listed in many guidebooks, and with luck it will stay that way. It was discovered 15 years ago by a local teenager whose dog headed into a hole at the top of a mountain and led his master to incredible sights. Today William Morales, 32, leads visitors through the cave he found, retracing his steps as he tries to explain the emotions he felt that day.
"This is not a killer hike unless we want to make it that way," Morales says solemnly. So we take it slow, zigzagging around the mountain for about a mile, Morales pointing out the sights: a mimosa plant that curls up when you touch it, a mahogany tree, a chartreuse cedar fern, a foot-high termite mound, an exquisite blue morpho butterfly. We stop to marvel at a huge strangler fig that is slowly but surely killing off a hapless palm tree.