It was the second stop on our Caribbean cruise, an unknown destination. The first stop Cozumel had been beautiful but the allure of the Belizean jungle took the family by surprise. The entire family had wanted the 4S’s…sand, sun, snorkeling and seafood but saw that there was something much more intriguing on this little remote island. We cancelled the remaining part of our cruise, extended our trip in Belize and caught a flight back to Ft. Lauderdale seven days later, giving us the chance to spend more time with wild cats and Mayan mythology. I had been to this charming little country on a two hour stop over during a Caribbean cruise many years earlier and had vowed to return and discover more. I was happy to have convinced all fourteen, yes 14, other family members to stay on.

Vacation planning with parents, three siblings, and their spouses is not an easy task, especially if each family lives in a different continent. Each person has his or her own idea of a good time and choosing the perfect holiday is tricky, so a cruise seemed the ideal option; each person can do his or her own activity and meet back neatly dressed for a formal sit down dinner. I had advocated vacationing in Belize but was overruled; “Belize…where is that?” was the general reaction. By the time we reached the Belizean shores the adults had had enough of beaches and the sea, after all we Indians can take only so much of sun. I enticed everyone by telling them a few mysterious Mayan legends and with the promise of spotting a jaguar at a jungle reserve. But the clincher that enabled us to extend our stay, especially for the NRI nieces and nephews, was that Belize has the best snorkeling and diving sites in the western hemisphere. Luckily we had gone in May, which was not peak season and our cruise director helped us in getting the necessary bookings. (Apparently staying on in a destination while on a cruise is not uncommon)

Belize is actually in Central America and not the Caribbean. An adventurer’s paradise, it is a peaceful, English-speaking country, situated between Mexico and Guatemala and while it has the advantages of the region’s azure waters and talcum powdered sands, it is not the typical Caribbean island with an abundance of duty-free shopping and gambling hot spots. It offers an array of adventure opportunities. It is possible that in a single day, one can snorkel in the Barrier Reef and have a challenging trek in the tropical forest in the evening. It is for nature lovers, history enthusiasts, trekking buffs, and those who love to laze on the beach…..here the marketing cliché, “something for everyone” holds true.

We had many tour options, too much to do in such little time but I had done my homework and planned snorkeling in Ambergis Cayes, Caracol for the Mayan ruins, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary for jaguar spotting, and to tickle my taste buds, a trip to Placencia.

Wildlife and Trekking
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the best undisturbed nature centers in the country and easily one of the most beautiful. This is the main reason why I wanted to return to Belize, I wanted to experience luxuriant jungles and to get closer to God’s land creatures in addition to its sea creatures.

In 1986 the government of Belize set a 155 square mile region aside as a preserve for the largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar, it is the only such reserve in the world. The area is alive with wildlife, including the margay, ocelot, puma, jaguarundi, tapir, deer, iguana, kinkajou, and armadillo (to name just a few), hundreds of bird species, and some unusual reptiles, including the red-eyed tree frog. I could not fulfill my promise of spotting a jaguar as the large cats only hunt at night, but the sighting of large jaguar paw prints was quite exciting.
The peccary(pig-like animals) is said to be the jaguar’s preferred diet. Maya legend has it that the jaguar learned to climb trees to get away from the peccary because, as large and feared as the jaguar is, a group peccaries can tear the great cat apart. The jaguar prefers to search from its tree branch for a single peccary.

This is a 2.5 hour drive form Belize city or alternately the flights to nearby Dangriga from Belize City take 20 minutes.
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary
The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary which is located 33 miles northwest of Belize City also provides an opportunity to view some of Belize’s magnificent wildlife. Established for the protection of resident and migrant birds, the sanctuary consists of a network of inland lagoons, swamps and waterways and during the dry season, thousands of birds congregate here, stock up on food and rest safely on their spring migration back to the north.

The variety of habitats in the Crooked Tree area provides food and homes for a diversity of fauna. Boat-billed Herons, Chestnut-bellied Herons and Bare-throated Tiger-Herons are in abundance. Two species of ducks, the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and the Muscovy, nest in trees along the swamps. Over the open water, you will find many birds feeding on the plentiful food resources the lagoons provide. Snail kites, egrets, 5 different types of Kingfishers, Ospreys and Black-collared Hawks are only a few of the birds that can be seen. Black Creek, with its large trees, provides a home for Black Howler Monkeys, Morelet’s Crocodiles, Coatimundi and several species of turtles and iguanas.

The Belize sanctuary has the largest nesting population of the Jabiru Storks, one of the largest flying birds in the world with a wingspan of 10-12 feet.

Beaches and Water Adventure
The Cayes (pronounced keys)
The magazine photos of just two lone beach recliners under a tiki hut and daiquiris all on pure white sand overlooking the expansive turquoise blue sea…this is what most of the Cayes has to offer.

There are more than 400 Cayes marking the Caribbean Sea all easily accessible to the Barrier Reef, second largest after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The abundance of these small islands ensures privacy for eager sunbathers and snorkelers. We spent three days of our time on the Cayes since the six children in the group were all water lovers. Each day we tried a different sized boat to go explore and snorkel the reef. The smallest motor boat only held six people but was the most fun; the fish could be seen right from the boat itself. Unfortunately Shweta, my niece, suddenly got seasick. But after her vomiting in the sea, shoals of fish came to the surface for a taste of her morning breakfast. It was a sight to see…beautiful colorful fish of all sizes, shapes and colours all coming to the surface groups at a time.

Many tour operated larger boats have music, drinks and dancing in the sun, we enjoyed a big party in the middle of the sea, well deserved after our long swim with underwater denizens. The breadth of the reef allows you to mingle with the creatures from nearly every point and there are a few points where you can swim with stingrays and sharks.

Our resort was in Ambergris Caye which is the largest and the most visited tourist destination in all of Belize. Its shoreline runs the entire 25 mile length of the island and this has made its San Pedro Town the dive and water sports capital of Central America.

Placencia
I went alone to explore Placencia, a quaint little town, to learn about Garifuna cuisine which is known for its eclectic mix of spices from various regions. The Garifuna are a cultural and racial fusion of African slaves, Carib Indians, and a sprinkling of Europeans that have a culture of their own. Their authentic cuisine can only be found in this particular town. There were several interesting restaurants sampling Garifuna and Creole cuisine and music. I chose Robert’s Grove to have an early lunch and was not disappointed. A local delicacy known as Tapado, a a rich fish-and-seafood stew with green and ripe plantains, yams, tomato and herbs, simmered in coconut milk. After sampling this dish I became a tapado addict and would ask for it in every restaurant in Belize. Before my flight back I took my chances at a small shack by the waterfront and ate Hudutu, another tasty fish and coconut dish.
Placencia also home to white sand beaches, Mayan ruins, and pristine rainforests is about a scenic three hour drive from Belize City but I recommend the convenient 40 minute morning flight from Belize City.

Mayan Ruins
The mysterious Mayan civilization is visible throughout all parts of the country and a must see to get a feel for the culture and history of the land. There are several sites worth exploring.

Caracol
Caracol is the largest Mayan site in the country with more than 35,000 buildings over 78 square km. Cahal Pech and Xunantunich, along with dozens of smaller sites are all within close proximity. These ruins look imposing as one wonders how the Mayans created such structures and civilizations years ago. The largest pyramid, the Canaa, rises 140 feet and is the tallest man made structure in all of Belize.

Caracol was thought to be little more than a Maya ceremonial center until more extensive excavation efforts proved the importance and expanse of the city. In 1986, a round elaborately carved altar stone was uncovered which described a victory by Caracol over Tikal, once considered to be the most powerful Maya metropolis. This discovery filled an important missing piece of Maya History and positioned Caracol as the “supreme” Maya city.

The site is located in The Cayo district. Not long ago, this mountainous region on Belize’s western border was too remote for travel, now it is the second largest tourist destination and rightly so. San Ignacio is the hub of the Cayo district and an excellent base for exploring western Belize. This small quaint Belizean town is a place you will want to linger in, the type of town you would like to stay on to write a book or paint. Evenings are pleasant and the streets are lined with funky bars and restaurants. Hannah’s is once such eatery and was a great value for money. After occupying four of the eight tables, each one of us ordered different types of food including burritos, burgers, Burmese, Belizean stewed chicken, and even an Indian chicken curry!

Altun Ha
Altun Ha is not Belize’s most spectacular ruin site but it is one of the most accessible, only 45 kms north of Belize City. It is also the most thoroughly excavated. The first inhabitants settled before 300 BC, and their descendants finally abandoned the site after AD 1000. At its height during the Classic period the city was home to 10,000 people.
If time is limited, then I recommend this site. There are several all-inclusive tours from Belize City.

For us, the extended trip was 7 days well spent, packed with activity with intermittent lazy beach days. This is a no-glitz country but with its vast expanses of rain forest, diverse collection of birds and animals, long stretch of coral reef and plentiful Maya ruins, Belize offers a combination of adventure and relaxation that is uniquely its own.

FACT FILE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Travelers can get to Belize by land, sea or air. Overland, travelers might enter Belize from Guatemala or Mexico. Boats also bring travelers from Honduras and Guatemala, in addition to cruise liners. Air carriers service Belize from the United States and El Salvador.

WHERE TO STAY:
There is a host of accommodations ranging from budget to luxury. Check www.travelbelize.org or www.belizehotels.org for more info.
Cayo District –www.chaacreek.com (luxury jungle lodges)
Ambergris Caye— www.pelicanreefvillas.com

WHEN TO GO:
The dry season, which is mid December through April, is the ideal time to visit.

EAT:
All type of cuisine is available. Try the local Creole and Garifuna food–A mixture of African, European and Spanish.

SHOP:
The best place to shop is Ambergris Caye where you will find souvenirs, local art and clothing and jewelry bargains.

Published in Marie Claire, March 2010