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Dispatch: Belize

Kayaks off the coast.Kayaks off the coast. Image: GETTY

With one foot rooted in Central America’s jungles and the other treading the cool Caribbean Sea, Belize offers the best of both worlds, says Chris Moss

Central America’s second smallest country (after El Salvador) evolved out of a coastal plain and swamplands colonized for cutting logwoods for dye and exploiting timber. As British Honduras, it developed a connection with the UK and Caribbean that made for a distinct mixture of cultures, including Kriols of African descent, Garifuna of mixed Amerindian and African descent, and three Mayan groups.

Travelers who might have been to Mexico or Guatemala immediately notice this is a very different country both in look and feel. Tourism has drawn in North American and European expats, especially on the offshore cayes (islands) close to the barrier reef and in some of the mainland beach resorts. Diving is a particular highlight, as the reef boasts extraordinary biodiversity and environments for scuba and snorkel divers at all levels. Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker are the most developed, but there are many lesser-known islands and islets.

Onshore, the pace of life is slow, and the sights and attractions take a different form. Along the Caribbean coast, towns such as Hopkins and Placencia are tranquil and laid-back, while further inland, high-end lodges such as Blancaneaux Lodge in the Cayo district — owned by the Coppola filmmaking family — and the Kanantik Reef & Jungle Resort, on the edge of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, make an out-there experience seem rather easy. Birders will find plenty to watch, and there are tapirs, coatis, deer, pumas and jaguars in the forests.

Belize is small, making it easy to see one or two cayes and take in the capital Belize City, a patch of jungle and one of the better Mayan sites, such as Caracol, all inside a week.

GIMME 5: MUST SEES

1. The cayes: These small islands off the shore of Belize are tranquil, safe and ideal for an indulgent spa and foodie break, or as a base for short rides out to the reefs — there’s also good sport fishing off the cayes. If you want amenities and adventure, head for Ambergris Caye, where you can bird watch, walk nature trails or have a go at parasailing, windsurfing, kayaking or catamaraning. You can also catch a boat or plane to nearby Caye Chapel, a par-72, 18-hole golf course on its own island.

2. The reefs: The coral reefs and atolls off Belize are alive with fish, turtles and whale sharks dropping by between March and June. Snorkelers will have time to be close to manta rays and nurse sharks, while scuba divers can go out to the far edge of the reef to hammerheads, blacktips and the unusual yellow sharks.

3. Hopkins: The little coastal village of Hopkins on Belize’s eastern coast is ideal for soaking up some sea breezes and authentic Garifuna culture, with a range of accommodation options, from basic beach shacks to luxury dive retreats. Visit the Lebeha Drumming Center to join a class or catch a performance, or take a day trip to the nearby town of Dangriga to see the intriguing Garifuna Museum.

4. Cayo District: This sprawling region lures wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers and also anyone interested in Mayan ruins. San Ignacio is the capital of this mountainous, forested area, home to several upscale as well as more accessible jungle lodges.

5. The south: Often overlooked by tourists, this wild, uncluttered region is home to both Maya and Garifuna communities; visitors can broaden their culinary skills with a Mayan cooking course, hear rousing Garifuna drumming performances or simply get away from it all at a peaceful, rural retreat.

ACCOMMODATION

The more developed resorts in Belize, notably Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker and Placencia, have the whole range of accommodation, from luxury hotels and villas to modestly appointed hostels and beach shacks. Prices tend to be more competitive here, too.

New additions to the established scene are few, as San Pedro, the most popular resort, is already bursting with options. That said, the opening, in late 2012, of the high-end El Secreto on Ambergris Caye shows there’s increased demand for genuine luxury on the cayes.

The jungle resorts are also raising their game and the 2006 opening of the 17-room, 16-acre
Ka’ana Belize resort, offering five-star comforts as well as zip-lining and jaguar tracking, was something of a landmark in inland adventure-focused luxury.

Blancaneaux Lodge: Opened in 1993, this 20-room luxury cabin-style resort in the Maya Mountains pioneered upscale accommodation in Belize. Set in luxuriant jungle, the lodge is in an ideal location for an adventure vacation, with excursions including canoeing into caves, trips to the Mountain Pine Ridge and horse riding. coppolaresorts.com/blancaneaux

El Secreto: A private seaside property with a striking central pavilion and just 13 villas on a quiet beach away from San Pedro. The thatched villas look rustic, but offer new technologies such as iPad-controlled air-con, while the smart Spa Villa has beach views and its own steam rooms, whirlpool and small infinity pool. elsecretobelize.com

The Lodge at Big Falls: This British-owned inland lodge sits on a river bend, surrounded by lush vegetation. The property comprises stylish wooden chalets with palm-thatched roofs and hammocks, a pool area with its own bar and a cozy restaurant. A little off the beaten track in Punta Gorda, but a good base for exploring the south. thelodgeatbigfalls.com  

ESSENTIALS

Selling Tips:

– Belize is little more than a two-hour flight from the US and is the only English-speaking country on the Central American mainland.

– Belize is small, and lends itself to a self-drive vacation or an escorted drive trip — you can see what the whole country has to offer inside
a week or 10 days.

– The country has seen no major revolutions or civil wars in recent years, unlike many of            its neighbors.

– It’s easy to combine Belize with Guatemala, with Honduras’s Copan Mayan site and with Mexico’s Mayan Riviera.

– Belize is home to the unique Garifuna culture, which melds African and South American native traditions and languages. Visit the Gulisi Garifuna Museum in Dangriga to learn about their history.

– The world-famous Blue Hole is off the Belize coast, measuring 1,000ft across and 412ft deep. Immense stalactites, dripstone sheets and columns, and awesome marine life make this a must-dive.

EYEWITNESS: COASTING ALONG

Hanging out in Hopkins, I was enjoying slow walks and bike rides along the village’s sandy roads. I’d met a few locals, tried the local beer and rum, and had caught a small gang of Garifuna guys playing their drums and performing a beautiful, strange dance with arms out and hips waggling.

I’d heard rumors about their food and so, when I saw a sign for Illies, offering ‘Garifuna food for special ok’shons’, I stopped to talk to the owner Claude. The restaurant served fish and Garifuna staples such as plantain mash and cassava bread, and I told Claude I’d be back tomorrow for lunch.

The following morning, out on a pre-breakfast walk on the beach, who should I meet but Claude, preparing his motor launch “to go and catch some sea bass for you”, he says. This was a classic Belizean experience: everything local, life lived at a slow Caribbean pace, and service with a smile.

I’d come into Belize from Guatemala, and traveled south to north along Belize’s only major coast road. The south is rugged and forest-clad, with Garifuna settlements and Mayan villages. It’s all about kicking back here, but by day I made short trips out to the Garifuna village of Barranco, the waterfall on the Rio Blanco, and the small Maya site of Lubaantun. The latter means ‘pile of stones’, and the site, while not as impressive as the sites of Guatemala and Honduras, is evocative, with palms bursting through the ruin and lots of edible tropical plants.

Hopkins, a small, rather idyllic village right on the beach was a natural place to stop on the drive north. I explored the area by bike and on foot, and set out on a laid-back excursion up the winding Sittee River — here I saw herons and kingfishers along the mangrove-lined banks. Everyone spoke English, but I also heard Spanish, the local Kriol language, some Mayan dialects and Garifuna, which at times sounds like Jamaican patois.

I wrapped up my trip on Ambergris Caye, in the resort town of San Pedro. A motorboat whisked me away from Belize City to an island where there was no noise and few cars but plenty to do. I took short walks to see birds, indulged in seafood and took trips out to Belize’s Barrier Reef.

I snorkeled at Shark-Ray Alley, which speaks for itself, and also enjoyed a few swims over the top of the reef. It’s extraordinarily rich in species and color, and with strong sunlight and clear water, the views are breathtaking. The reef is Belize’s obvious draw, but don’t spend all your time underwater. There’s plenty more to see than fishes.

PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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