Story and photography by Barbara Penny Angelakis
Perhaps it is a cliché to say that the Caribbean is heaven on earth. But to someone lying on a fine white sandy beach under a swaying palm tree, while balmy breezes gently stroke their skin, as they stare mesmerized into the aqua–green-turquoise waters that dissolve magically into a clear sapphire blue sky… they might disagree. This gift of nature, regardless of how cataclysmic was its creation, is simply spectacular! And, nowhere are the gifts more apparent then in the island of Ambergris Caye in the tiny English-speaking Central American country of Belize.
A 20 minute plane ride in a low flying 14-seater – a ride not for the faint-hearted - shuttled us from Belize airport to the speck in the sea that is Ambergris Caye. The airport is in San Pedro, where golf carts rule the road. We followed our luggage as it was shepherded away and unceremoniously heaped on the back of a cart by a smiling young man. We climbed aboard and held on with both hands for dear life, as he executed a wheelie on the unpaved road, and we were whisked – o.k. joggled - away to our hotel… in this case, Ramon’s Village. (www.ramons.com) Ramon’s Village is far from a luxury property but it exudes so much charm, and it occupies such a perfect location, that its lack of amenities is forgiven. Thatched roof huts snake around in an area carved from the beach and just yards from the waters edge. It’s within 5 minutes walking distance from town and is perfect for those that like the “action”. Although the accommodations are somewhat spartan, the restaurant serves the freshest fruits and vegetables and the fish tastes as if it just walked out of the sea and hopped onto your plate. The staff is friendly and eager to please and the owner, Ramon himself, keeps a sharp eye out for his guest’s comfort.
Ramon’s Village also offers a first rate dive shop and school on the property. Infinitely patient good-natured guides are equipped to handle any level, from willing participant to expert, in either snorkel or scuba diving. Belize is considered to have the second best Barrier Reef in the world next only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The waters are so crystal clear that you can see bottom even from the plane’s altitude so imagine what is visible when your face is under water.
Our boat captain and dive director Turiano piloted us to Hol Chan, a shallow spot in the sea. Here we could safely practice with the snorkel equipment we had been fitted, back in the dive shop and don the life vests he insists everyone in the boat should wear. Always conscious of our safety, Turiano and his first mate Medel carried flotation devises into the water in order to link the inexperienced swimmers together. For the practiced snorkelers(sic) in our group, the shallow area was a short swim away from the reef for which Belize is famous. Afterwards, Turiano took us to an area were a Loggerhead turtle hung-out. He shut the engine and called to the turtle. Like the old man of the sea, the leviathan, having sensed the boats vibrations and knowing he’s in for a free meal… or responding to Turiano’s call, whichever you wish to believe… meandered over. His huge body floated effortlessly in the buoyant waters and his big polka dot gold and brown head poked out of the water to claim his meal. From the boat, squeals and clicking cameras accompanied his emergence. Mr. Loggerhead waved his flipper when the meal was over, away he swam, and away we went, to Shark Ray Alley where nurse sharks, stingrays and all manner of fish abound.
Turiano again shut the engine and called the animals by smacking the water and offering tidbits of chum. Our boat was soon surrounded by fish of all colors and sizes, including the large sharks. Medel caught a stingray and gently cradled it in his arms - ever mindful of the stinger – so we could pet it. The stingray did not seem to mind and allowed our tentative touches, and when he/she/it had had enough, off it glided. Incidentally, it was soft and velvety but a bit slimy. All-in-all it was an awesome day and recommended for even the most timid amongst our readers, and for the experienced snorkel or scuba diver, a not to be missed adventure.
But I digress… back to Ambergris Caye and its more luxurious properties like Victoria House. This luxury hotel is a mere 20 minute ride, but a world apart, from San Pedro town. It is a perfect blend of a Belize flavored resort with world class amenities, including the indoor/outdoor superior restaurant, Palmilla, overseen by Chef Jose Luis Ortega. While some had the seafood and portobello mushroom special, I enjoyed a succulent pork loin roast with pomegranate sauce just topping the sliced meat and accompanied by locally grown vegetables that tasted like vegetables are supposed to taste... delicious. (www.victoria-house.com)
Hotels in Belize are not rated but there are plans under discussion to put into place a classification system. Until then, you will have to select according to price, keeping in mind the maxim “you get what you pay for”. Good sources to contact are (www.travelbelize.org), (www.ambergriscaye.com) or (www.belizetourism.org) for expert advice on where to stay according to what you are looking for, but be aware that Ambergris Caye is a popular destination and some of the finer resorts like Victoria House are booked months in advance.
Belize is much more then just a pretty beach. We left Ambergris Caye behind and headed south to Punto Gorda in the Toledo district, known for its adventure opportunities. Here we were introduced to lush tropical forests reminiscent of the Amazon Jungle river basin. Our hotel Machaca Hills is situated on a hillside overlooking the Rio Grande River. The main lodge’s broad porch was strategically placed at the height of the canopy and is used for dining as well as bird and monkey watching … and listening. The cacophony of certain bird species and Howler monkey alike can be shocking. Who said nature was quiet and peaceful? A recent addition to the hotels infrastructure is a 4-person self operated tram that descends to the Rio Grand River only seen in the distance as the river flowing past the property is obscured from the canopy by dense tropical foliage. Machaca Hills is set on an 11,000 acre nature reserve established to promote sustainable use of the environment. Less than a quarter of the reserve is given over for visitor activities. All the needs of the kitchen are provided by an organic farm on the property. Machaca Hills offers an ala carte menu of activities to keep even the most avid nature lover busy, including canoeing or kayaking, cave swimming, Maya site touring, birding, biking, hiking, fishing, snorkeling, or just sitting looking at the spectacular view. (www.machacahill.com)
Only the main roads in Belize are paved and once you leave the major cities, the road system is uncertain. This was the case in reaching The Lodge at Big Falls, a sweet little eco-resort that feels as personal as a Bed & Breakfast (www.thelodgeatbigfalls.com). The turn off the highway is poorly marked and the road to the property could knock your socks off, but once reached the pristine main building will restore your soul, if not your teeth. The individual cabanas are sparsely furnished and amenities are minimal but there is a warm welcome from Rob and Marta Hirons, who runs a kitchen that turns out locally grown products in unique and delightful ways.
The highlight of my outdoor adventure in Punta Gorda was a cave swim at Blue Creek. A well-worn path leads into the thick jungle foliage that provides welcome shade from the bright sun. The day we visited, the path was covered with slippery leaves from a recent downpour that cooled the air but made walking precarious. After a while, the path turned rocky and joined with large boulders as it began to climb. Now, hands and feet were needed to help secure footing. A helping hand first from our tourist guide Terence Woodye and then from Maya guide William, who was familiar with every stone and tree, was gratefully accepted. Regardless of carrying a heavy plastic bag filled with life jackets for the group, William held my hand firmly until we reached the “big climb”. The big climb consisted of propelling oneself up a vertical rock wall with a tree and hanging vines as the only support… where was Tarzan when you needed him? But, William knew every foot and handhold and with his encouragement we each managed to haul ourselves up and we were at the cave. Below us, we could see the aqua colored water flowing swiftly along, above us a waterfall added to the picture-perfect scene, while before us stood the massive cave, dark and mysterious, with deep crevices reaching skyward and inviting pools of water disappearing into the darkness. After donning life jackets over our bathing suits and strapping caving lights to our foreheads, we slipped into the cool mountain water. I must confess that I got no further than the entrance, but watched the rest of our party disappear into the caves interior. The thought of the return trek was adventure enough for me and I was content to rest in the cool water.
OK, so now I know that Belize is much more then just a pretty beach… and a rain forest! Another short flight returns us to Belize City where we boarded a van for our ride west to the central inland Cayo District and our next adventure; a visit to the Mayan ceremonial center of Xunantunich (Zu-nahn-too-nitch). In the Mayan language Xunantunich translates to Maiden of the Rock. It is just one of the literally hundreds of full or partially excavated sites in and around Belize, which some believe was the heart of the Mayan world. The Maya were remarkable builders and created a sophisticated social order in the jungles of Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras more then 2000 years ago.
A charming hand-cranked ferry transported us and our vehicle across a small span leading to the site, and while we waited our turn, we were invited to spend time with the resident 3 foot long Iguanas… or not. Another 2 minutes of driving and we arrived at the parking lot, craft and souvenir stands, a museum, and our first look at the manner in which the Maya constructed their temple sites. If natural elevation was not available, they created a man made mountain upon which they then build their temple complexes. In order to be closer to their Gods or to have an advantage over unfriendly visitors, or both, is still in dispute. After considering that the highest pyramid at Xunantunich, El Castillo, is 130 feet high and 250 feet above the river valley below, I opt for the first alternative. It is an impressive site and you can clearly still see the frieze that was carved more then a thousand years ago on the east and west sides of El Castillo. The ball court is also remarkable as it was positioned over intersecting ley lines that cross in the middle of the field. You can locate the energy grid with a divining rod made from a Y shaped fallen branch of a tree. I took a turn holding the branch as our guide Ricky instructed and bingo, the rod flipped down indicating an energy source below. It was very exciting and took my mind off the intense heat of the day. For Mayan site information visit (www.belizeexplorer.com)
Our hotel in San Ignacio, Cayo District, was The Lodge at Chaa Creek and you will find the review in the Hotels and Resorts segment.
For those readers interested in eco-resorts, put Belize on top of the list. These resorts can range from very basic to luxury accommodation. Rarely do you find electronic devices in the rooms such as radio or TV but sometimes there is wireless internet access… when it works. The immaculate rooms often consist of individual casitas with thatched roofs, large comfy beds, verandahs and ceiling fans plus the ubiquitous hammock for you to hook up, jump in, and relax. All manner of outdoor activities and are available including visits to Mayan ruins.
For a truly rustic back-to-nature experience be sure to visit duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge in San Ignacio, Cayo District (www.duplooys.com).
When Ken and Judy duPlooy arrived in Belize with their 5 young girls in 1988, they purchased a farm and set about determined to repopulate the land that had been slash and burn cleared in the traditional style of the Maya. In just a few short years the jungle returned and all manner of trees, birds and animals now make the Lodge their home. The only Botanic Gardens in Belize was created at duPlooy’s and is open to the public.
So Belize turned out to be more than just a pretty beach or a rain forest or a mountain retreat or a history buff’s delight. It’s all that and more, with every manner of conceivable activity available … or to do nothing and just enjoy the natural world around you.
© July 2009 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.