October 26, 2014

Adventures in Belize

Perhaps my critics are right. I do spend too much time in luxury hotels. My idea of the perfect vacation is a well-stocked mini-bar that somebody else is paying for, plus glacial air-conditioning and a fun, easy schedule: some shopping, then a nap before dinner at the fanciest restaurant in town.

Well, not any more. I'm just back from Belize, and believe me, no one can accuse me of being a softie anymore. It's not that Belize is rough or primitive (although it is a little of both). It's adventurous. In fact, it's one of the world headquarters of "adventure travel." Most vacations are measured by the comfort of the hotel and the quality of the cuisine. A vacation in Belize is measured by other standards. The scariest landing strip. The biggest iguana. The most arduous jungle trek.

Belize sounds very remote, but it's really just a two-hour American Airlines flight from Miami. It's located east of Guatemala and faces the Caribbean. It used to be British Honduras, which means its 240,000 people speak English, sort of. But the British influence is not very strong. I didn't see pictures of the Queen anywhere, except on the money. In fact, that's the thing about Belize-it has no dominant culture. It's a whole lot of cultures, living together in more or less harmony. Maybe that's why Americans feel so at home here.

You see this most clearly at the airport in Belize City. The place is teeming with Belizians going somewhere; the roads are not too good, so people tend to fly everywhere in little tiny planes, rather like Alaska. They, the people, are black and white and every possible shade in between. But there are also many Latino Belizians, not to mention Maya, Garifuna and Chinese, who have moved here from Hong Kong and opened restaurants in every little hamlet.

And then there are the tourists. Don't worry about poor little Belize attracting tourists. With its famous fishing and diving, that isn't a problem. But the tourists Belize attracts are a unique lot. These people are travelers. The sort of travelers who have their passport numbers memorized. The young ones have backpacks and diving equipment, and write in journals; the middle-aged ones (mostly men in groups of three or four) had long tubes that I eventually realized held fancy fishing rods; and the older ones were clutching guide books to the Mayan ruins, studying up on the difference between the Classic period and the Post Classic. What the tourists all have in common is sandals. You've never seen so many different kinds of sandals, and from all over the world. It's like a national symbol. They should put a sandal on the Belizian flag.

But no time to linger at the airport, or anywhere near Belize City for that matter. It's always had a reputation as a leading tropical hellhole, and nobody goes there unless they have to. I have yet to see a flattering picture of it. Instead let's board one of those tiny planes for the trip south.

The first thing I noticed about the tiny plane was that there was a dog in it, sitting in back and looking a little apprehensive. I thought this was really unusual, as you rarely see dogs traveling by plane in Central America, particularly by themselves. I mentioned this to the pilot, who explained that the dog was headed down to Placencia, presumably on some sort of doggie business, and that he hoped we didn't mind but we had to stop in Belize City and pick up somebody. Fine, I said. Only when we were heading down the runway did it occur to me that we were already in Belize City.

Well, it turns out that Belize City has two airports. The second is located in an alley downtown; the trick when landing is to miss the power lines but stop before you hit the body shop. We did this, just barely, and a lawyer appeared from nowhere and hopped in. She was headed down to Dangriga to prosecute a murder case.

For all its appeal to the adventurous traveler, Belize has traditionally lacked an upscale place to stay. This is starting to change now; and I was, fortunately, headed for one of the most upscale. It's called the Kanantik Reef and Jungle Resort and it's brand-new, right on the beach, and manages to be both luxurious and primitive at the same time. Everything is included-meals, excursions, diving, even the local rum, which was pretty good; and believe me, I tried every brand. The theory is that you have adventures all day, then come back for a dip in the pool, cocktails and a gourmet dinner-often fresh fish caught by one of the guests-then you fall instantly asleep in your luxurious thatched hut with custom-made furniture, an incredibly comfortable bed with imported linens and European plumbing fixtures. No TV, no radio, just a brisk breeze from the Caribbean, making air-conditioning unnecessary and blowing away any stray mosquitoes.

Most people would come to Kanantik for the fishing and diving (Belize's famous barrier reef, the second largest in the world, is right offshore), but I felt strangely attracted to the jungle. Belize has all kinds of jungles, each with a different level of difficulty. The jungle at the Jaguar Preserve was child's play; anybody ambulatory could have perused its paths. But at Mama Noots (it's a place, not a person) it was a different story. Here there was a mountainside to climb, streams to ford, strange sounds from the foliage, and everywhere you looked, wild bananas. I quickly learned the trick to trekking through the jungle is to look down. I kept looking up, hoping for a toucan or a howler monkey, and fell down twice, much to the delight of my hiking party, who felt I was slowing them down.

It was hot, sweaty work, and no one was happier than I when we reached the famous waterfall that was our goal. I peeled off my shirt and dove in. A wave of refreshment enveloped my entire body, followed by little electric shock sensations. I looked down and saw a school of fish nibbling at me. My screams rang out through the jungle, terrifying the wildlife and my fellow hikers. Fortunately the fish weren't big enough to do any damage but still-it felt weird.

Belize is home to scores of Mayan cities, some cleared, some still undiscovered in the jungle. The next day I set out for Xunantunich (rhymes with "tuna sandwich") to study this ancient civilization for myself. What a fascinating people-they discovered the concept of zero. Their astronomical calculations were amazing, and all of them have turned out to be accurate. This is indeed unfortunate, as one of their calculations is that the world will end on Dec. 23, 2012-in other words, about two months before I plan to retire.

The big issue when you visit a pre-Columbian ruin is, of course, should you climb the pyramid? I decided I should, even though it was 130 feet high, so high you could see tiny people over the border in Guatemala. Getting up was the easy part. I just couldn't bring myself to get down. The steps were so narrow, the sides so steep. Luckily, some helpful Mayans were hanging out on top of the pyramid and they helped me get down safely.

On the way back to Kanantik a motorcycle gang rode by and the driver explained that they were Mennonites. There's a big Mennonite colony in central Belize. They raise chickens and build roads for the government. That's Belize for you-the land where dogs ride in planes, the tallest building in the country is a Mayan pyramid, and the tough guys are all Mennonites. It's one adventure after another. 

For more information on Belize, go to www.travelbelize.org/; for information on Kanantik, go to www.kanantik.com.

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