Don't let its small size deceive you: with several thousand miles of beaches, the Western Hemisphere's largest barrier reef, and some of the richest rainforest in all of the Americas, Belize offers a staggering abundance of eco-friendly activities. Over the course of a recent weeklong trip to the country, I encountered everything from howler monkeys to Mayan spirits, from nurse sharks to Punta Rockers, to, most unusual of all, one very enthusiastic birder. To help guide you through the country's many options, I've chronicled my favorite adventures below. These are listed in the order I experienced them, because I strongly recommend visiting Belize as I did, from inland out -- that way, after rough days in the jungle, you can end your trip repairing on the beach.
Hidden Valley Inn (tel. 866/443-3364; www.hiddenvalleyinn.com), in the Mountain Pine Ridge region on the western side of Belize, is an eco-resort buried deep in the middle of the jungle; not surprisingly, its surroundings teem with creatures both big and small. To take full advantage of the scenery, Hidden Valley has a professional birder on staff to escort guests around the property's extensive network of trails. The Butterfly Falls Trail, though considered to be one of the resort's less intensive hikes, was close to an hour of solid trudging, and left me feeling truly wrecked -- but "wrecked" in an invigorated sort of way. What helped is that I was rewarded with a view of the trail's spectacular falls, and with a guide whose passion for his country's feathered fauna was so ardent, he actually flapped his arms to attract exotic critters and wasn't shy about making all sorts of strange bird calls. All in all, the hike offered a truly eye-opening look at aviary life in the jungle, as well as a glimpse into the curious techniques of birding.
First, a disclaimer: On my canoe trip through Barton Creek Cave, someone else did the paddling. That said, this particular cave tour in Belize's western Cayo district is one of the country's least strenuous, regardless of who's paddling. (A contender for the most strenuous is Ian Anderson's Caves Branch, also in the Cayo District; it involves a hike upstream to the cave's entrance, as well as some rappelling and rock climbing.) My workout here consisted solely of clutching my flashlight, admiring the Mayan artifacts, and trying to avoid the million or so stalactites and stalagmites jutting out from the cave's ceiling and sides. Now and then, I also switched off my light for a few moments to get the full, spooky effect of drifting through the dark-not recommended in the tightest parts of the cave, of course.
Although the tour here lasted about two hours, I encountered only two other escorted groups along the way. I took this to be a positive sign, because the government is cracking down on unescorted tour groups in order to preserve the site. Of the sanctioned tour groups that visit the cave, one of the better ones is Yute Expeditions (tel. 501/824-2076; www.inlandbelize.com).
Hoofing It Through Caracol
At Caracol (www.caracol.org), the largest of Belize's Mayan ruin sites, deep within the Chiquibil Forest Reserve on the western side of the country, what impressed me most was the site's remoteness. Although on my map the trip to Caracol looked like it should've taken 10 minutes, an hour-long journey along some very rocky dirt roads made me realize that the destination is quite literally off the beaten path. The isolation is a good thing: the Mayans chose this site for its mystical energy, and Caracol's seclusion allows visitors to imagine what drew the Mayans to the site in the first place. The stillness was further accentuated by a pine beetle infestation that ravaged this area a few years ago; bare trees still dot the landscape, eerily complimenting the surrounding ruins.
Also impressive was the wildlife here: After climbing up Caana -- at 136 feet (41m) Caana is the largest pyramid at the site -- I was up high enough to spot two of Belize's most notoriously elusive animals, the toucan and the howler monkey. Mystical indeed.
Drumming in Hopkins Village
Frommer's Belize recommends Hopkins Village in the southern coast for its "true taste of and some direct contact with Garifuna culture," and on that front the village definitely didn't disappoint. During my visit here, I caught a performance at the local drumming school, where I received a thorough education in Punta Rock and paranda music, and had a chance to mingle with some friendly Garifuna locals. (The Garifuna, descended from a mix of Amerindian and African people, make up about 7% of Belize's population. Creoles, Mestizos, and Mayas round out most of the country's remaining population.)
Just down the street from the drumming school, and a good base for the area, is Hamanasi (tel. 877/552-3483; www.hamanasi.com), a resort that boasts superb diving facilities, top-notch service, and a decidedly eco-friendly approach. Still, one of the biggest letdowns of my whole tour was a day trip taken through Hamansi to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (www.belizeaudubon.org), Belize's only jaguar preserve. Even with expectations set very low, having been warned that only one out of 17,000 visitors spots an actual jaguar here, I found little to enjoy on the hike. This was supposed to be a wildlife sanctuary, but, aside from the mosquitoes, there was only one real animal sighting -- a squirrel. If you decide to visit this aptly-named "mosquito coast" region, I'd recommend leaving the jaguar spotting for the zoo (there's one nearby in Belize City), and instead taking advantage of the superior diving and snorkeling in the area.
Swimming on the Cayes
Shark-Ray Alley and Hol Chan Marine Reserve, off the coasts of Caye Caulker and San Pedro, are two of Belize's most popular tourist attractions, so I won't dwell too much on my experience cozying up to the nurse sharks and stingrays there. Suffice it to say that you can spend as little as $35 per person to snorkel with the big fish, but the shallow waters aren't suitable for diving. The guides at Ragamuffin Tours in Caye Caulker (tel. 501/226-0348; www.raggamuffintours.com) were particularly good at humoring my shrieks and screams, though one guide took far too much advantage of both my squeamishness and the fish. At one point, he attempted to drape a stingray around his body, only to inform my group after I had hyperventilated that the ray was missing its stinger.
After days of roughing it in the jungle, though, the best part of visiting Caye Caulker was simply relaxing on the beach and relishing in the island's motto -- Go Slow. This was also my chance to tuck into some of the best food of the trip. Habaneros in Caye Caulker (tel. 501/226-0487) served up a Brazilian pork chop tastier than anything I've ever eaten in Brazil, and it arrived with an especially delicious plate of the much-sampled, unofficial national dish of Belize -- coconut rice and beans. One final disclaimer: I have a certain bias for this dinner. It came the night before my visit to Shark-Ray Alley, so I took care to enjoy it as I would my last.
A valid passport is required for entry into Belize. See the Belize Tourism Board website for further information (www.travelbelize.org).
Once part of the ancient Mayan empire, and colonized by the British in the 17th century, Belize is the youngest nation in Central America -- the country gained independence from Britain in 1981. Named British Honduras until 1973, Belize is also the only country in Central America where English is the official language. (Spanish, Creole, and other languages are spoken as well.) At presstime, the exchange rate here was approximately 2 Belize dollars to the U.S. dollar. U.S. dollars are accepted widely, however, so you may not find it necessary to change money.
During summer, Belize's temperature is approximately 80-85°F; during winter, temperatures range from about 70-80°F. High (dry) season runs from late November to late April. The low (rainy) season lasts from June to mid-November, but the amount of rainfall varies widely according to the region (it's much drier in the north). The best airfare and hotel deals can be had during this rainy season, so this is the best time to visit if you love a bargain and don't mind experiencing some short-lived afternoon showers.
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