Ultimate Adventures in Belize

Funny, the web site doesn’t mentioned dengue fever. Or bot flies, with their playful, burrowing larvae that can thrive under your skin. Or the Africanized bees that chased us a quarter-mile down one of Belize’s wild rivers, stinging several of us. Online we admired fetching portraits of jaguars and toucans, but no candids of the fire ants that sent George diving headfirst out of his raft.

All of us tried in vain to extract the remnants of inch-long tiger thorns (another surprise) that were imbedded in Brad’s skull. We finally gave up, poured Jack Daniels on his wounds and headed deeper into Belize’s Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, where approximately 150 jaguars lurked.

An aging Connecticut Yankee family like ours — mother, father and teenage son — in search of a “mid-life” vacation is easy prey for the “Ultimate Adventure,” an ecotourism smorgasbord of jungle trekking, wild river rafting, caving, ocean kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, Mayan ruins and contemporary native cultures. The tour promised ten non-stop days in Belize, a Central American country the size (and shape) of Vermont, with less than half the people. This was not our parents’ vacation. After a five-hour forced march into the heart of darkness — the web site said three to four — lugging fifty-pound packs in our sopping boots, we weren’t exactly sure it was ours either.

But the cooling waters of the South Stann Creek swept away our collective mid-trip crisis. We rolled in its gentle waters. Listened to a symphony of exotic birds. Searched for animal tracks along sandbars. Quite recently the river (it was about 50-feet wide) had been crawling with tapirs: Belize’s national animal, large cow-like creatures with elongated snouts. We also found one jaguar print. As darkness fell, Jim and Donna, lively educators from Maine, whipped up a lounge-quality rum punch. Those of us with functioning innards inhaled dinner: whole chickens, parboiled and grilled over the campfire, cold slaw, mashed potatoes and plantain cake.

Afterwards we listened as Terry, one of our guides, read lyric descriptions of the seemingly surreal fecundity and diversity of the biosphere that enveloped us. Atop a scant veneer of topsoil, this tropical riot of flora sustains itself by recycling its debris almost instantly into nutrients. Terry’s reading was just one of many illuminating intellectual interludes interspersed between our physical trials. Previously, for example, we had matriculated at “Coconut College” in our bathing suits on Southern Long Caye, as guides King and Kaiya — using a machete for a pointer — took us through the life cycle of this useful resource. On Southwest Caye, another mini-island outside the barrier reef and 30 miles from the mainland, Dick, our resident host and marine biologist, discoursed on the natural history of coral reefs, which are in trouble in Belize and worldwide.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle we began flowing with the river, two in each canoe-shaped raft. A pair of scarlet macaws repeatedly crisscrossed the sky above, while two varieties of kingfishers entertained at eye level. Montazuma oropendolas pitched forward precipitously in a large ceiba tree, calling back and forth like drunken sailors. As birds flitted about, Pedro and Gregorio, Belizean guides of Mayan ancestry, identified them and gave brief biographies.

Belize is home to a remarkable 570 avian species, and bird-watching is one of the many ecotourism components that has fueled a rapid rise in visitors here over the past two decades. Tourists are now as important to Belize’s economy as agriculture, accounting for 15 percent of all economic activity. Thankfully, the former British colony has successfully attracted increasing numbers of guests largely by being itself — without resorting to the precipitous large-scale development that has scarred some other Caribbean destinations. The country touts its existing natural wonders, including a network of beaches and cayes paralleling its 180-mile long barrier reef, the second largest in the world. Half of the mainland is tropical forest, and half of this ecological legacy is protected.

In recent years new historical and ecological attractions have been developed or expanded, making Belize even less of a well-kept secret. These include a number of the country’s thousand-plus limestone caves and Mayan ruins. The most accessible Mayan site is the thirteen-story-high Xunantunich (“Maiden of the Rock”). Recent archaeological excavations and the addition of an engaging visitor center make this monument to Mayan culture a wonderful half-day trip. Remarkably, this 1,100-year-old stone ediface is still one of the tallest structures in Belize, whose population today (250,000) is a fraction of what it was during the heyday of Mayan civilization.

The Belize Zoo, set on 29 acres and just 40 minutes from Belize City, houses a must-see collection of all the creatures that you don’t have a snowball’s chance of seeing in the wild: jaguars, pumas, five-foot-tall jabiru storks, tapirs, ornate hawks, ocelots and more, all for $7.50 American.

At trip’s end it was hard to pick “the ultimate” out of all our excellent adventures. The jungle was a trip, for sure. Snorkeling with all those preposterously colorful fish is always otherworldly. Another strong entry is motor boating to Dangriga, escorted by a school of dolphins, and skirting close to tiny Man O’ War Caye, where more than two hundred Magnificent Frigate Birds and Brown-Footed Boobies were mating, rioting and nesting in a swirling mass of color and sound.

In the end, however, it is the last excursion on the last full day that is most memorable: “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre.” After a short hike we strapped on our miner’s hats and headlights, stowed our cameras in the dry bag and swam in, clothes, boots and all, dog paddling right into the Mayan underworld, back in time more than a thousand years.

After swimming and wading (mostly the latter) for a quarter-mile or so, we made dry land, took off our boots and proceeded in stocking feet daintily past an array of ancient clay pots, bowls and jars, many in remarkable condition. As the occasional bat flew by, we came upon the first of the sacrificial remains of Mayan people who lived and died more than a millenium ago, apparently during a time of drought. Archaeologists theorize that the human sacrifices were to appease the Mayan rain god Chac.