When you think of Belize, the visceral image that comes to mind is mile upon mile of pristine beaches. You think of well-mannered attendants delivering boat drinks while a tropical sun warms the soul. What you don’t think about -- at least, what I hadn’t considered -- is the rugged, mountainous terrain and the canopy jungle that blankets two-thirds of the country.
The morning after our mojitos, Sergio and I leave San Pedro on a seven a.m. flight for Belize City, where Philip Burns of Yute Expeditions meets us. Philip is another local, and his job is to not only take tourists where they need to go but also give them a crash course in Belize History 101. Highly educated and knowledgeable, he knows the origins of every plant and tree in Belize, as well as the historical progression of the native Mayan culture. Philip, who is a Mayan descendant, speaks eloquently about how the Mayans first settled the area more than 4,000 years ago.
“Most people associate Mayan ruins with Cancún and other areas of Mexico on the Yucatán peninsula,” he says. “The Mayan population was just as big, if not bigger, here in Belize.”
As he speaks, and as we make the hour-long drive into Belize’s interior, the entire countryside begins to transform. Gone are any hints of a beach paradise. The topography, as well as the flora, magically transforms into mountains and jungles that are home to more than 4,000 species of flowering plants, 700 species of trees, and 250 species of orchids. It’s as though we are in a foreign country within a foreign country.
Our destination is the ruins of Xunantunich, eight miles west of San Ignacio in the Cayo district, just a stone’s throw from the Belize-Guatemala border. Soon after we cross the Mopan River, the colossal 120-foot-tall man-made El Castillo pyramid rises on the horizon like a hulking beast. Intricately ornamented and detailed, El Castillo invites visitors to climb to the top of it, where they can take in a panoramic view of the Mopan River valley and of neighboring Guatemala.
I hike around for most of the day, exhausting muscles that have long been dormant as I try to envision what it must have been like to be a part of Mayan civilization. At dusk, as we make our way back down the mountain and into the valley below, Sergio, Philip, and I drive to the storied San Ignacio Resort Hotel, long the mainstay of royalty and dignitaries -- Queen Elizabeth II is counted among former guests. The resort exudes old-world charm, right down to the natural atmosphere. We sit on the patio with a slew of appetizers, and birds of every family congregate on the three-story trumpet tree. It is a relaxing setting to be sure, which makes me ready for a nap. The Blue Hole will have to wait another day.
Across the street from the San Ignacio Resort Hotel is our lodging for the night, the Ka’ana Boutique Resort & Spa. Owned by two Irish brothers, Ka’ana is the ultimate in luxury. The resort blends in with its jungle backdrop, and each individual cabin has all the creature comforts of a five-star hotel, including an LCD flat-screen TV, an iPod docking station, and wireless Internet. But the most alluring part about Ka’ana is the bed. The jungle never seems as peaceful and relaxing as it does beneath 500-threadcount sheets.
We hop a Tropic Air flight out of the jungle and back to the coast. I figure Sergio is taking me back to San Pedro for my Blue Hole dive. Instead, we touch down in Placencia, a half-moon bay of white-sand beaches and palm groves. If San Pedro is the activity hub of Belize, Placencia is its antithesis. Sure, there are all sorts of things to do, but Placencia is the most serene, most relaxing of all the towns.
“Of course, you can find anything you want around the country, including many places to power down and relax,” says Kim Simplis Barrow, the First Lady of Belize, who joins us in Placencia. “But this is where I like to come for my vacation.” The posh Chabil Mar Villas resort makes me forget why I wanted to come to Belize in the first place, since the oceanfront setting and secluded villas perpetuate a laissez-faire approach to vacationing.
I have so come to appreciate the culture and people of Belize from the whirlwind tour of the country that I use every minute I have with the First Lady to learn more about the future of Belize. The master plan for tourism and growth ensures that this country won’t be a spring-break capital anytime soon. And the locals are more than happy about sustained development.
“We want to keep the country’s aesthetic in place,” the First Lady says with a motion toward the sea. “We want to make sure that when visitors are down here, they’ll get a sense of our national pride. We don’t want to lose our soul to the skyscraper.”
I take one more long, lingering look at the Caribbean Sea as gentle waves roll on the sand. Then, I bid farewell to Kim and Sergio and board a Tropic Air flight to Belize City, where I get on a jet and head back home.
After an exciting and deliberate trip to Belize and after meeting so many friendly locals and experiencing the grand resources at their disposal, I never so much as sniffed a scuba mask, let alone the Blue Hole. And you know what? I didn’t have to.
Se Habla Inglés
Remember: Although located in Central America, Belize is a former British colony, so English is the primary language spoken throughout the country. Feel free to leave your English-to-Spanish dictionary at home.