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Belize is the tropical vacation version of a perfect meal: light appetizer, indulgent main course, decadent dessert and booze … a lot of booze. Its ethos is a conglomeration of all things equatorial, Caribbean, sabbatical and liberating. The best of everything sublime and dreamy with a heavy-handed dash of adventure and exploration. It’s beautiful, slow paced, convenient, easy to navigate and charismatic. If you can stomach the puns (“Unbelizeable!”), it might just be your new favorite escape.
Now here’s my beef with Belize: most people rarely venture away from the postcard-depicted all-inclusive package deals to acquaint themselves with the authentic vivacity this small country holds within its borders. The two most visited spots are Ambergris Caye and the Blue Hole. Both are beautiful no doubt, but Belize offers so many more extraordinary gems, gritty and delicate, that it's worth stepping off the well-trodden tourist trail to experience them. Your new path might involve a bus trip or two seated next to someone cradling a molting chicken in her lap while reggae blasts over the speakers, but that’s all part of the fun.
Our adventure, like most to Belize, started just outside of Belize City, where the airport is located. Belize City has quite the reputation for violent crime and carries a government travel advisory so, although I’m certain there are plenty of worthwhile mentions, we hired a car and headed straight for our first stop of Placencia on the Caribbean southern tip, a laid-back fishing village with a wealth of soul, palm-lined beaches and cuisine that still makes my mouth water on reflection. All this a 35-minute flight or 3-5 hour car ride from Belize City.
Placencia is a fascinatingly exotic blend of ex-pat run businesses, local Garifuna culture, 16 miles of sublime beaches and a gateway to the patchwork of southern reefs and cayes that could take you months to explore if you were so inclined.
This growing village is on the cusp of rapidly moving from undiscovered to mainstream, but still retains that Old-World charm that feels like you stumbled across a secret spot worth writing home about. Watching local fisherman reel in the daily catch while you sip a Caipirinha at a colorful beach bar exemplifies the juxtaposition of the two blending worlds.
From an accommodations standpoint, the offerings range from barefoot to well-heeled. Whatever your taste, the option exists. Francis Ford Coppola owns the acclaimed Turtle Inn and new resorts for every inclination spring up yearly, but our hearts were set on an immersive beachfront Airbnb experience in the center of town. The back door opened to a coconut grove and lapping waves, chickens and cats roamed the yard, and our roof leaked in the rain … we moved the bed slightly to avoid wet drumbeats on our foreheads and slept soundly to the rhythmic sound of drops puddling on our floor instead. In our world, that’s pure perfection.
The main drag is a sidewalk that meanders through the village and offers a smorgasbord exploration of gardens, folks relaxing on their front steps in the afternoon heat and all the town's main eateries and bars. What it also offers is a glimpse into the waste-disposal problem. Trash piles build up behind houses like mini landfills until they are set on fire in the only efficient, and toxic, form of elimination.
Rumfish was our nightly go-to for excellent food, a solid wine list and specialty drinks that will have you happily singing in the rain on the way home. We supplemented this rather top-shelf selection with lunch fare from footwear-optional establishments and a constant flow of rum cocktails.
Now for the fun part. Snorkeling, scuba diving, free diving, kite surfing, fly fishing, deep-sea fishing, sailing, paddle boarding, boating … all at your fingertips in Placencia. The beautiful blue waters and surrounding cayes look like paradise found and excursions to swim with nurse sharks, turtles and whale sharks in season (March-June) abound. We hired a boat to Silk Caye, where we took up residence for an afternoon and daydreamed about what it would be like to trade in our current lives for a Robinson Crusoe-esque existence on a slice of white sand in the Caribbean.
On the other side of Placencia is the lagoon, a shallow mangrove-lined series of waterways that are home to crocodiles, birds, turtles and endangered manatees. Unfortunately, the cruise-ship industry has had a negative environmental impact on the local habitat and wildlife. A few years ago, manatees were so abundant you couldn’t not see one. We merely glimpsed the fleeting back of one as it vanished into the murk, making the issue that much more clear. Dredging for big ship access and construction just isn’t habitat positive.
Having our momentary fill of sun-ripened pineapple, rum drinks and sandy toes, we detoured into the jungle for the second part of our adventure. A few bus rides later we made it to our very green and very humid destination, San Ignacio. The town is an eclectic mix of hostels, eateries, open squares and art galleries. It’s the colorful, vibrant heart of the Cayo District, filled with fresh-fare markets and a crossroads for travelers coming through the area. Our destination was just outside of town and had been hand-picked by one word that brought a wave of childhood nostalgia and held the promise of magic straight out of Peter Pan: a treehouse.
What it also contained was the snake to my Indiana Jones. My nemesis. Charlie.
Charlie, described endearingly by the owners of Parrot Nest Lodge as if referencing an old friend, is the palm-sized wolf spider you might see occupying wall space in the cabins and bathrooms. Let me clarify, Charlie is the common name for ALL the various wolf spiders you WILL see. Then again, that’s part of the package when you’re in the jungle of Belize.
And in the jungle you are. A few miles out of San Ignacio in a village called Bullet Tree Falls.
Two tree houses perched in 100-foot Guanacaste trees and seven rustic cabins set on the banks of the Mopan river running around $55-$100 a night are the specs you’ll find in a guidebook. But it’s the spirit of Parrot Nest Lodge that made us contemplate becoming jungle-dwelling ex-pats. Leaving behind everything you know and starting fresh and simple is a common theme here in Belize, as evidenced by the ever-growing community of transplants from across the world.
The ubiquitous humid breeze fit the hippy-esque vibe, as it makes sense that free spirits would have wild, unruly hair styled only by moisture-laden air rather than any sort of modern beauty tool. What also makes sense are the communal tables in the open-air lounge and abundant hammocks overlooking the riverbank. Really making this spot hard to leave are the fireflies, a pet guinea pig, the family dogs and cats who we came to know by name (Nina, Kimba, Pally and Ninjo) and the sound of rain on the roof of our cabin. It will rain. You’re in a jungle.
Bring a flashlight or a good headlamp. The better to see Charlie with. Also, the paths are dark and jungly at night and either your imagination or a stubbed toe will get the best of you. I’d love to instill a fear of jaguars, but they prefer the deeper jungle … a few miles away. Here it’s mostly coati, agouti and various birds.
Parched? Grab a soda out of the community fridge and write it down on the honor system. It’s the same sheet of paper to sign up for dinner and breakfast. Both good options. The home cooking was tasty and mealtime was when we’d swap stories with other travelers over a beer and decide on the next day’s plan of action.
Daytime lounging in jungle heat will inevitably lead to a dip in the river. We grabbed a few old inner tubes, asked for basic directions and headed out for a float. Turned out directions weren’t necessary, as the resident dogs tagged along and swam the entire way back like professional river guides. A few fish bites to the bum were a small price to pay for our own private canine lead tour in emerald green waters surrounded by jungle noises.
When lounging and floating turns mundane, you bring out the big guns of local adventures. Caracol and Tikal are the nearby Mayan ruins reminding us that we are mere blips on the timeline of civilization. Horseback riding, river tubing and of course caves round off the smorgasbord, but one of these grottos will nestle deep into your memory for life: Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM for short.
Walking into a cave can be intimidating enough. Here, we swam in while tiny fish nibbled our skin and our guide explained Mayan sacrificial rituals where the intended victims saw daylight for the last time in that exact spot. If there has ever been a place to ruminate on existential matters, this is it.
If you’re game for the 45-minute jungle hike complete with three river crossings and the doggy paddle entry, then get ready to take your pick of what impresses you most. It could be the history of the Mayan people and their desperation for an end to drought that led them into the depths of the cave with offerings and human sacrifices over a thousand years ago; maybe the near physical presence of pottery, carvings, stonework and calcified human remains; or possibly it’s the spectacular natural formations that define the interior of the cave.
Probably all of the above combined with the fact that you’ve been swimming, walking and climbing in a cave that would require a 10-page liability waiver stateside, while coming close enough to priceless archeological jackpots to make a museum curator weak in the knees. But that’s the magic here. This isn’t some Pirates of the Caribbean Disney tour. This is the real deal. This is you as Indiana Jones exploring something remarkable. No cameras are allowed in the cave, so staying present is a bonus side effect. That’s not a difficult task when you are standing next to a shimmering calcite crystal-coated skeleton of a child, hunched in her final position, left in the dark in exchange for rain. We absorbed the gravity of that sentiment when our group turned off their headlamps to experience the engulfing blackness. Three seconds is more than enough to feel it tighten its grip on the primal life blood that beats through your veins with one purpose: to keep you alive.
On the way out, we took the shortcut via underground stream and swam through rock formations, turning our heads sideways not to get stuck. Goonies never seemed more real.
The ATM experience costs $110 with PACZ tours, the guys with the best guides around, but missing it would cost your life’s-greatest-moments Rolodex a lot more.
By the time the fireflies came out, we were back at the lodge. After an experience like that, you’re entitled to walk in with a bit of swagger, as if you just upstaged Shackleton, and share your terra incognita story at the dinner table. I imagine that’s played out about as many times as there are mosquito bites on the legs of any guy who forgets bug repellent.
We spent New Year’s Eve in San Ignacio, and hungry for an authentic experience, accepted an invite from our new friends and PACZ tour owners to their annual festivities. In the residential area of town, they amassed several massive barbecues, covered tents in case of rain and a speaker system to rival any club in Ibiza. Locals poured in, danced, drank and ate some of the best grilled chicken we’ve ever had. When the night ended, we retreated to our cabin by the river, where Mayan spirits spoke to us in hushed tones. True story. I thought about faulting the local brew, but it turned out we were situated on an old Mayan burial ground, and I wasn’t the first to hear whispers.
From San Ignacio, we craved the beach again and headed back toward Belize City, where you can catch a scenic flight on a small plane to Ambergris Caye. After the peaceful seclusion of the jungle, the bustling, touristy town felt a bit overwhelming, so we hopped a ferry to Caye Caulker instead, more of a backpackers' paradise with sandy streets and less buzz.
This caye we liked so much that we settled in for four nights and used it as our home base for exploring the outlying reefs and dive sites. Accommodations are fairly basic, but a few nicer hotels and bungalows will appeal to even the more discerning traveler. Food options are equally basic and mostly cater to a younger crowd who aren't in the market for a high-end meal, but exceptions to that rule exist and good eats can definitely be found. As always, the local spots deliver the most authentic and satisfying choices. I’ve found in my travels that when pizza is offered in tropical destinations it is, with rare exceptions, crap. Words to live by.
The best part of Caye Caulker is the laid-back island vibe. No one is in a hurry to do anything or be anywhere. Days are spent at the Split, a popular swimming area that divides two sections of the island, roaming the sandy streets in search of cocktails and jumping aboard excursions.
The biggest dive adventure in Belize is undoubtedly the famed Blue Hole. Considered one of the top bucket-list items for most divers, it’s a fantastic example of karst topography, the same natural formation that gives us cenotes on the mainland. Stalactites are readily visible and otherworldly in this submerged seascape. With that said, it’s a deep blue hole in which you descend to roughly 140 feet for five minutes of non-deco diving and then slowly make your way back up. Coral and the occasional napping shark can be spotted along the ledges.
What is, in my opinion, even more marvelous than the Blue Hole itself is the system of reefs and atolls that surround it. Lighthouse Reef, Half Moon Caye Wall and The Aquarium are the other dive sites most outfitters combine with the Blue Hole experience, and all are stunning in terms of biodiversity, biomass and reef health. Sponges the size of dinner tables, sea turtles and reef sharks dominate your view as schools of tropical fish engulf you like colorful swarming butterflies.
We stopped for lunch on Half Moon Caye amidst elegantly tall palms that swept the cerulean sky with their crowns and swayed indifferently in the soft breeze. Thousands of hermit crabs parade from one side of the caye to the other, patrolling the sand for edibles and shell upgrades. In a place like this, life’s needs become nothing more than a hammock and a cold drink.
As a matter of fact, at the heart of what makes Belize so extraordinary is exactly that: a the most simple version of perfection. Bells, whistles and amenities be damned when life slows down to a leisurely pace and warm sand cushions your steps toward tropical waters.
Photos: Kinga Philipps