Monday, September 5, 2011

Quick Trip to Unspoiled Tropical Paradise -- Belize

Former Pirate haven still has lots of treasures for those who want to be pampered

Ambergris Caye
A short flight south will get you to a little known treasure that boasts the second largest barrier reef in the world, lush tropical jungles, and abundant opportunities for adventure travel. And to make it even better, this eco paradise is the only country in Central America where the official language is English. This shouldn’t be a surprise since nearby Belize was once a British colony.

At one time, Belize was home to pirates who sought refuge from the Spanish fleet. After raiding gold-laden Spanish galleons, the pirates would dart through the sharp coral reefs and hide up the country’s many jungle rivers. Now Belize welcomes tourists with white sand beaches, exquisite Conch ceviche, and ancient Maya ruins.

Life in Belize is laid back and relaxed. In fact, everything is easy here. Everyone speaks English and you can use your US dollars for all purchases. While the Belizean dollar still has the Queen of England on it, all the stores, restaurants and hotels take U.S. currency. Most things are priced in Belize dollars (except hotels), but it’s easy to figure out your bill because the exchange rate is simply two to one. So just divide all prices by two to get the price in US dollars. Regardless of whether you pay with Belize dollars or U.S. dollars, they’ll give you your change in Belize dollars.

Travel is simple here as well. The main roads are well paved and little traveled – the entire population of this small politically stable country is only 300,000, so there’s little traffic.

Once you land in Belize City you can easily drive to Maya ruins or jungle adventure tours in under two hours. In fact, the whole country is only some 70 miles wide by 180 miles long. Major archaeological gems like Lamanai (Submerged Crocodile), Caracol (The Snail) or Xunantunich (Maiden of the Rock) feature soaring Maya pyramids, stone temples, and carved friezes. All can be easily visited on a day trip organized by your hotel or tour operator.

Or you can quickly fly to most locations on the country’s small airline Tropic Air.  A short 20-minute hop will get you to San Pedro town on Ambergris Caye with its fabulous seafood restaurants and posh beach resorts. This is the island made famous by Madonna. Even Leonardo di Caprio has bought land here. Superb snorkelling, diving and deep sea fishing tours on the barrier reef can easily be arranged. Or just lay back and gaze at the lovely turquoise waters of the Caribbean on one of the island’s lovely white sand beaches.

But if lying on a beach with a cold Pina colada isn’t your thing, take a quick flight south to visit the lush tropical jungles around the town of Punta Gorda. Tropic Air will take you there in roughly one hour for around $120 US.

Here, deep in the rainforest, we stayed at the Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge, a real treasure, where your every wish is catered to by attentive, English-speaking staff who can plan a guided tour of a chocolate plantation, a private picnic on a sandy beach, or a snorkelling tour to see Eagle Rays and colorful coral.

The lodge’s trained guides will take you on jungle hikes or river cruises to see howler monkeys, numerous tropical birds, or even freshwater crocodiles. On a cave tour to the Hokeb Ha cavern you’ll see colourful stalactites and a sacrificial altar once used by the ancient Maya.

Night tours with special night-vision aids and low impact, red-filtered spotlights will have you searching for the elusive jaguar, ocelots and the tiny kinkajou, a timid tree dweller that looks like a cross between a koala and Yoda.

Machaca Hill Lodge
Machaca Hill Lodge has 12 private suites perched like tree houses on the side of a lush green mountain. Each has a screened fresh-air veranda and a luxurious tiled spa-style bath overlooking the jungle treetops. Book a massage and you’ll be drifting off while looking out at the jungle canopy caressed by soft music and a soothing waterfall.

The all inclusive package features exquisite meals made with local foods, most of which are grown organically, served with your choice of over 80 distinctive wines from some of the finest vineyards around the world. After dinner you can enjoy entertainment by local Maya performers and one of the resort’s choice Cuban cigars from their private collection. Every day, high tea and pre dinner hors d’oeuvres will waken your taste buds.

Belize, however, is best known for its eco-tourism and it offers a veritable treasure chest of protected jungle parks, marine reserves, and wildlife sanctuaries. In fact, over 40 per cent of Belize benefits from some form of protection and has been described as a “living zoo”. The jungles are teeming with rare animals, exotic flora, and over 600 species of spectacular tropical birds, including flying jewels like the iridescent hummingbirds, Emerald Toucanets, and Scarlet Macaws.

The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Belize is a one of the top bird-watching sites in Belize. This famous wetland is home to the rare, giant Jabiru stork, just one of hundreds of resident and migrant bird species that you can search for.

Another famous site is the Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve. Located in southern Belize it is the home of the Scarlet Macaw, as well as the elusive Belizean jaguar.

Then there is Belize’s Barrier Reef, the second largest after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Extending 186 miles from the Mexican border in the north almost all the way to the Guatemalan border in the south, it boasts seven marine reserves – all of which have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. This reef is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, home to close to 500 species of fish and numerous coral species.

The shallow turquoise waters inside the reef provide a calm and well-lit environment for all members of the family, young and old, to enjoy snorkeling over the colorful coral. At the very popular Shark Ray Alley, snorkelers can even swim with large, but safe, nurse sharks and watch huge Eagle and smaller Sting Rays glide under them. Glass-bottomed boat tours are also available for less experienced swimmers.

And if fly fishing is your thing, the salt flats inside Belize’s barrier reef are one of the world’s best locations for Bonefish, Permit and Tarpon. In fact, Belize has more Bonefish, a popular sport fish, than anywhere else in the world, especially now that the government has imposed a strict catch-and-release policy on sport fishing that has seen numbers increase.

This year Belize is destined to become a popular destination. It still has a large Maya population and they, as well as the rest of the world, are awaiting the winter solstice of 2012, much rumoured by Hollywood as “the end of the world” according to the Maya calendar.

But Dr. Awe, one of Belize’s foremost archaeologists and of Maya descent himself, laughs off suggestions that the Maya feared 2012 would herald in the Apocalypse, as suggested by the popular film 2012.

“Hollywood drama has very little to do with the reality of what the Maya Calendar and Long Count calculations are all about,” says Dr. Awe. “This represents the ending of one cosmological cycle and the beginning of another. So Belize will be celebrating New Year’s 2012 with much excitement. Imagine a New Year’s party that comes only once every 52,000 years,” Dr. Awe predicted.

So if the adventure seeker in you would like to follow in the pirates’ footsteps and party, Belize offers treasures for the whole family in a tiny package that is easily accessible from Miami and easy to explore once you arrive. Just about every activity from archaeology and bird watching to scuba diving and zip lining can be accommodated in this ecological paradise.

And in addition to the warm sunny climate, Belize’s English-speaking people are warm and welcoming as well.

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Going to Belize, Central America

Getting there: American airlines has daily flights to Belize landing at the Philip Goldson International Airport in Ladyville, 10 miles from Belize City.

Major rental car agencies are located at the airport.

Connecting flights on local airlines can be caught to smaller towns throughout Belize on Tropic Air ( or Maya Island Air (

Information: is the official website of the Belize Tourism Board. They also have an office at the Philip Goldson International Airport.

When to go: High season in Belize is late November to late April, which is their dry season. The weather in Belize is subtropical, like that of southern Florida, with average daytime temperatures around 80°F. Rainy season is from June to mid-November and hurricane season is from July to October. Generally, the southern part of Belize gets the most rain, while the north is drier.

Where to eat (On Ambergris Caye)

Wild Mango’s, on the beachfront in downtown San Pedro at the south end of Barrier Reef Drive, is a small laid back restaurant with a covered deck and one of the largest selections of ceviche anywhere. I had the delicious bacon-wrapped shrimp grilled with a rum glaze. Dinner mains from US$14-US$26, but lunch menu items like tacos and sandwiches are lower. Phone: 226-2859

Elvi’s Kitchen, on the main street Pescador Drive in the heart of San Pedro, features a beach sand floor and local dishes like Jalapeno Conch fingers and spicy ceviche. Be sure to try Elvi’s homemade hot sauce. Mains from US$8-US$25.

Portofino Resort, on the north end of Ambergris Caye, with boat access only to town, offers romantic, elegant dining on a raised deck overlooking the Caribbean and specializes in Euro-Caribbean Fusion Cuisine, a mix of French, Italian and local cooking, including Blue Caribbean Spider Crab rolled in a snapper fillet and Coconut Caribbean Shrimp and Scallop Newburg.

Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge, nestled in the hills in southern Belize, provides luxury accommodation in 12 private suites overlooking the jungle tree canopy. All inclusive packages range from $485 to $565 per person per night and include accommodation, all meals, high tea, pre dinner hors d’oeuvres, full day and complimentary activities, park and entrance fees, laundry services, and all beverages (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) with the exception of premium brand beverages.

Chaa Creek, on the banks of the Macal River in the foothills of the Maya Mountains near the Guatemala border, has 23 palm thatched cottage rooms set on a private 365-acre nature reserve and offers eco-adventures for the entire family, including horseback riding, canoeing, bird watching and tours of Maya ruins.
Rates vary depending on type of accommodation chosen and range from $150 to roughly $550 per person per night, breakfast included.

Phoenix Resort, in San Pedro town on Ambergris Caye, is a modern and luxurious beachfront resort with 30 spacious condominium suites. The resort has partnered with local dive and snorkelling shops to provide tours to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. Rates range from $295 to $385 for double occupancy in a one-bedroom beach view suite to $725 for a three-bedroom beach view suite.

Don’t Miss
Community Baboon Sanctuary and its resident Howler monkeys
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave with its famous Crystal Maiden skeleton
Blue Hole dive site, a circular hole 1,000 feet in diameter and 412 feet deep. Popularized by a Jacques Cousteau television special in the 1970s this has become the most famous dive site in all of Belize.
Fly fishing the saltwater flats off Ambergris Caye with Go Fish Belize

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About the Author:
Dan Cooper is a freelance travel writer and photographer who has travelled extensively throughout Central and South America.

His trip was partially subsidized by the Belize Tourism Board.

High resolution digital photographs are available. A few lo-res samples are attached. Please contact Dan Cooper for additional high res photos.

Dan Cooper
18 Barbara Cr.
Toronto, ON
416 422-4488

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