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Relishing Belize: Ruins, Rainforest and Reef

By Belkis Kambach

Belize greets its visitors with the promise of unforgettable adventure rivaled by no other country. Where else, in the span of a single day, can you walk among ancient Mayan ruins, trek through a lush rainforest jungle and explore the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere?

Wildlife is the heart of Belize, and Belizians place high priority on preservation. In the eighties, this tiny country, roughly the size of Wales, pioneered eco-tourism long before the term was coined, and today the ideals of green tourism are rigorously upheld.

Dabbling its toes in the Caribbean coast of the Central American isthmus, southeast of the Yucatán Peninsula nestled between Mexico and Guatemala, this small Central American-Caribbean nation has more in common with its island neighbors than with its fiery Central American nextdoor neighbors.

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English-speaking (with a Caribbean lilt), Creole-dominated andwith a coup-free history, this pocket-size eco-heaven has an atmosphere so laid-back it's almost comatose -- if it weren’t for the Belizian mosquitoes.

Belize shares a colorful and diverse culture and languages with a friendly populace of barely 200,000, consisting of a harmonious mix of Mestizos, Indians, Creoles, Mayans, Garifuna, Spanish, Mennonite, Lebanese, Chinese, and Brits (left over from the country's days as British Honduras). Due to its racial harmony and religious tolerance, all have blended

successfully in this melting pot and adventurer's paradise. Best of all, this peaceful neighbor is barely a two-hour travel from three major U.S. Gateways.

For its size, beautiful, unspoiled Belize is also unique in the number of different wildlife habitats and species within its borders. A diverse topography reflected in its vegetation, with landscapes mixing mountains, savannas, wetlands, coastal lagoons, lush tropical rain forests rich with wildlife reserves where intrepid travelers can enjoy a seaside jungle paradise.

Most travelers flock to Belize for the excellent fishing or scuba diving. However, the Cayo District, part of Belize's inland frontier an intoxicating melange of lovely Maya ruins, untouched rain forest and primitive villages, brought us here.

One thing seems certain, we came home with vivid memories of wildlife, ruins, rainforest and reef. We knew it would be difficult leaving Belize, its wildlife, warm and hardy people, its lush landscape and its love for its precious environment. But, we also knew that, unlike its neighboring countries, this paradise wouldn’t be lost.

ATTRACTIONS

  • Mayan Ruins

Besides being a naturalist’s paradise, Belize is also an archeologist’s dream come true. Belize was once home to more than a million Mayans, and thousands of years later, over 600 jungle-veined ruins remain as testament to the inventive Mayan civilization.

Easy and fun to explore, they loom out of untouched jungle floors. Mayans were pyramid builders, constructing breathtaking temple aligned to the movement of celestial bodies. Although they remained technically a Stone Age culture, they developed sophisticated mathematics (inventing the number zero), advanced understanding of astronomy, and calendars whose precision were surpassed only in the 20th century.

Their history can be traced for over 4000 years, but by the 14th century their civilization was in serious decline. Their stone legacies can be found all across the region, and you can even meet a few of the modern-day Mayans who still populate Belize.

During our stay we visited two Mayan sites: Altun Ha, cloaked by rainforests, a ceremonial center founded in 200 B.C. and is home of the largest jade head of the Sun God ever found. A hand-cranked wooden ferry carried us across the Mopan River to Xunantunich (Stone Maiden), Belize's archaeological pride and most visited Mayan site. It is set on a leveled hilltop near the river close to the Guatemalan border.

Here the jungle has been hacked back, and the restored ruins are set amid cropped lawns. The site is impressive -- the 1,000-year-old central pyramid is the second-tallest structure in Belize. The site flourished as a ceremonial center for many of the country's estimated one million Mayans and is thought to have been abandoned after an earthquake damaged it around 900 AD. The ruins have not been extensively restored, and archaeologists have stripped away the loamy jungle floor to expose stone foundations, where the imprint of an ancient civilization is irrefutable.

Xunantunich’s tallest building - El Castillo - rises an impressive 131 feet out of the jungle. As we climbed the steep stone stairs leading to the top of the massive pyramid, we viewed dense jungle stretching to all horizons. Behind us, lush vegetation swallowed all but the highest peaks of the ruins, and a green carpet dotted with lighter patches of small farms and villages was spread all the way into Guatemala. Dominating the site is a wooded hill that had once been the central pyramid.

We were curious about infamous Mayan history and their human sacrifices, which sometimes involved tying the unfortunate victims into a ball and rolling them down these temple steps. Morbidly, we pushed our guide Peter for details about these sacrifices and Mayan lore. We were now as close as we could ever be to the ancient Mayans who once dominated Central America.

  • Rainforest

Half of little Belize is covered by dense jungle, and eighty percent of its rainforest remains under government protection, much of it unexplored. These tropical forests provide habitats for a wide range of animals including jaguar, puma, ocelot, armadillo, tapir and crocodile.

The country is also home to 4,000 species of tropical flowers, including 250 kinds of orchids. It harbors over 500 species of birds that soar through Belize’s vine trailed jungles: Fruit-Loop style keel-billed toucans (Belize’s national bird); jabiru stork, the largest flying bird in the Americas; the rare agami heron; hummingbirds; neon-green-painted parrots; an abundance of macaws, heron and snowy egret that delight sharp-eyed eco-travelers.

Getting there on a Tropic Air eight-passenger single engine turbo prop (45 minute flight) from Belize City to Gallon Jug turned out to be the best part. Our U.S.-trained pilot first skimmed the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea to the northwest region, then maneuvered down a thin landing strip carved from the jungle, ending abruptly at a farm.

The plane rolled to stop at a shack that serves as passenger terminal, control tower, coffee farm and taxi stop. An awaiting minibus and two employees greeted us and led a dirt road procession into Chan Chich, a dream lodge run by a handsome, well-informed American expat, Tom Harding from San Diego, who ditched a career as a carpenter for a life in the jungle.

Spending two days at Chan Chich, we were able to enjoy the sights and sounds of the jungle. There are 380,000 acres of jungle sanctuary here, of which 129,000 acres belong to the innovative Belizian Belikan Beer King, Barry Bowen, and the adjoining protected properties to The Nature Conservancy. This sprawling territory of protected rainforest, lagoons, rivers, swamps and open bushland with lush gardens is a bird-watchers heaven, attracting flocks of migrating birds. We weren't disappointed.

 

Our primary goal here was to see jaguars and other wildlife. Gilberto Vazquez, our local guide, took us over 9 1/2 miles of trails to see our feathered friends settle down. Toucans, macaws and hundreds of other bird species flit about. If we're very, very lucky, Gilberto said we might spy a jaguar, puma, jagarundi, margay or even the rare spotted ocelot.

" Keep an eye on fer-de-lance and alligators," he said. "They haven't eaten a guest -- yet!" Here a rutted path usually means tapir -- or mountain cow -- are nearby, and a white-tail deer usually means jaguars are close, contemplating dinner. "We may not see them, but they’re here; worse, they know we’re here."

Also, making their home in the jungle are peccaries (a kind of wild pig), coatimundi, gibnut, howler monkeys and insects -- especially insects. These were annoyingly present throughout our hike to the bat cave, where some 120 of the furry creatures slept peacefully. We also spotted wavy green lines crossing the trail; a closer look at these undulating paths revealed millions of leafcutter ants methodically carrying bits of leaves back to their massive nests. We were forewarned, but less fortunate hikers from Boston grabbed at a tree for a handhold and were greeted by a shower of very angry, biting ants. While we saw nothing more of the larger beasts that morning, we did enjoy a visual feast of flora and fauna: cattle egrets, keel-billed toucans and howler monkeys lapping over us with improbable grace, always hugging the heights of trees. Spider monkeys bounced with gusto through the canopy overhead, and when we looked up, they appeared as fascinated with us as we were with them. Gazing down from the treetops, they pitched leftover fruits at us like professional baseball players.After the tour, we were ready for a siesta. Taking the trail that led to our bungalow, a dozen ocelated turkeys greeted us at the entrance. We set claim to our hammocks, swinging in the shade sipping fresh coladas while sharing the porch with a few other guests -- the resort’s resident lizards.

Woodpeckers tapped rotted trees, blue morpho butterflies flitted, perhaps sponsored by Kodak as they didn’t allow a photo to be taken of their glorious wings. I spent hours watching the lizards, trying to remember their shapes and coloring, so I could look them up in the immense books kept in the lodge library. After dinner, we went on the day’s third nature walk in search of the tiny red eye tree frog. We turned our faces to the sky and listened to the sounds of the Belizean jungle serenaded by howlers and peeping tree frogs. Sleep came easily after the pleasantly exhausting day and magical night. We were in bed early, greedy for sleep, despite feeling that the entire jaguar population was making ambitious dinner plans. The next morning, we woke early to nature’s alarm clock. Grackles chattered us awake, a grunting chorus, until it became throaty Howler monkeys. On our thatched patio we watched the sun burst over the emerald horizon and then moved from the balcony for huevos rancheros, Belizian eggs (eggs scrambled with onion, bell peppers and tomatoes), fry jacks and an endless juice supply from just-picked fruit. With no fear, we wandered into the rainforest on an early 6 a.m. walk where we encountered groups of spider monkeys, cute as they were loud, each hanging by one hairy arm from trees. Our guide, Gilberto, led us over barely-formed dirt roads, a sort of rainforest medicine trail where we were introduced to medicinal plants used by healers. The liana vine can be used for water and the bark of the tapaculo tree (called "plug up your butt" by children), is boiled and ingested to cure diarrhea.

Many trails in Belize work in partnership with the New York Botanical Garden and the American Cancer Society to find cures for cancer. So far, over 2000 plants have been researched, and a dozen or so are showing promise. Be wary of Che-chem (local poison ivy) and a tree whose razor-sharp thorns inject a potent toxin into the blood (the give-and-take tree). The only known cure is the tree’s own sap.

  • Coral Reef

Nineteen miles offshore lies the 180-mile long Belize Barrier Reef, the world's second largest expanse of coral after Australia's and the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, a snorkeling and diving heaven teeming with life. Even Jacques Cousteau praised the park's reefs 30 years ago.

To the west of the reef are numerous cayes basking in warm water usually not over 16 feet deep. The most popular with travelers is Ambergris Caye, some 36 miles north of Belize City, the largest (25 miles long) of the country's cayes --ragged islands dotting Belize's coast along the Caribbean Sea and Belize’s diving capital.

We popped over from the mainland to get a taste of the great reef, landing in colorful San Pedro, the island’s main and only town. Ramon's Village is home of San Pedro's best beach. Since Ambergris Cay has more hotels than any other part of Belize, visitors often use it as their base for day trips and longer excursions.

Being one of the region’s premier dive spots, it offers underwater experiences beyond compare. The exceptional nature of Belize is even more pronounced offshore, with a host of excursions offered to diving and snorkeling spots, including: Blue Hole, Glover’s Reef and Turneffe Islands, three of the only four coral atolls on this side of the world. The Blue Hole, 300 to 400 feet deep, is an almost perfect circle of sapphire water ringed by aquamarine shallows.

Once avoided by native Caribbean fishermen, these mysterious, seemingly bottomless pools were originally dry caves and caverns on islands of limestone. Big Blue in Belize's Lighthouse Reef is among today's favorite attractions for divers.

As the edge of the barrier reef travels south along the coast of Belize, it separates itself further from the mainland. The result is a broad expanse of coral reef with channels going from 90 to 110 feet that rise abruptly into shoals and caves. The reef acts as a wall, breaking the force of tropical storms as they approach the mainland.

As rays of light pierce the water, it seemed as if the creatures of the "night shift" -- octopus, eel, squirrel fish -- made way for the angelfish, butterfly fish and the other living jewels that adorn the daytime reef together with the huge colonies of animals that have the unique ability to suck the minerals out of sea water to create reefs. Coral.

Among the world's oldest ecosystems, reefs are home to more than a thousand different species of plants and animals that bring to vivid life a multicolored wonderland to the underwater visitor that wades himself into these translucent Belizian waters.

Feeling we should get a taste for the island's snorkel-appeal, we signed up for a snorkeling expedition to Hol Chan Marine Park, east of Ambergris Cay. The highlight for novices here is the chance to swim with sharks, literally. At Shark Alley there is a natural opening from the inside of the reef to the outside. Historically, this is an area where fishermen would clean their catch, naturally attracting stingrays and nurse sharks, much like Sting Ray City on Grand Cayman.

Putting our masks to proper use we bobbed the ocean surface and spent a day snorkeling over the reef. The resort’s dive boat carries you to islands so small no map charts them. Once the boat pulls up at Shark Alley you can see sharks under the boat as they are conditioned to the sound of the engine -- meaning merienda time! Arriving at the site the interaction with these creatures is fantastic.

One of the dive guides jumped in and very slowly dived under and grabbed a nurse shark (with two hands around the head) bringing it to the surface. He rolled it over so we could scratch its belly. This caused it to remain in a catatonic state.

We saw more of these sharks at the bottom swimming very slowly in all directions, and we dove down to take photos. We snorkeled alongside the nurse sharks, named such because they have no teeth. We also swam along the great rock wall under the watchful eye of our dive master, the coral stretching endlessly beneath us like a vast organic city. Here underwater visibility can be an astonishing 197 feet.

No-fishing rules have given rise to a truly incredible population of amazingly obese fish. They can be found in staggering numbers, sometimes in schools consisting of 300-plus fish, but more often in schools ranging from half a dozen to a dozen.

The variety and complexity of coral architecture is as astonishing as it is fragile. The merest brush with a flipper can destroy centuries of growth. Giant stingrays, stoplight parrot fish, boquinete (hogfish), redband parrot, hermit crabs, coral Orejon (elkhorn coral), common sea fan, Rabirrubia (yellowtail), yellow jack snapper and dozens of brightly colored tropical fish danced gracefully along the coral reef.

Some species included French angelfish, angelically shaped indeed and with a yellow dab on every scale; the fairy basslet, two inches long, half indigo, half orange, divided laterally halfway along the body; and the yellow goatfish, maybe a foot long, their bodies striped like shirts but outlined all around by an ethereal yellow fringe. A school of bright blue tangs splashed the scene with color. There may be historic value in a ruin, but the exhilaration of a healthy, living reef is beyond words.

Although everything in Ambergris Caye, including the sand airstrip, is within walking distance, the rest of the island is accessible only by golf cart, water taxi or fishing boat -- which has the tendency of turning even the simplest outing into an adventure. Making the right decision, we boarded the local water taxi that whisked us to dinner -- a 20 minute ride to the north end of the island under a sky overflowing with stars while saltwater sprayed our faces. At night, exhausted both by swimming and by memorizing the fish, we slept heavily under the palms with the tropical rain thundering our thatch roof. The wonderful duality of Ambergris Cay is that you can swim with the sharks in the morning, wander barefoot through the sandy streets at noon and dine in splendor at night.Caving, Canoeing and More in Cayo

On the final leg of our journey we flew Maya Island Air from Ambergris Caye to Municipal (17 minute flight on a nine-seater Britten Norman BNZ -- a scary aircraft) and drove to the Cayo District of Western Belize.

In Cayo, we joined four other travelers in the back of a mini van for a kidney-jarring ride over some pretty rough roads. Belize is for the natural traveler who appreciates both culture and beauty and is willing to expend a little effort in seeing it. It may seem a difficult place to travel, with only two paved roads in the whole country. Along the way we saw few signs of human life along the river: just Mayan women washing clothes in the river and very tanned Mennonite villagers selling watermelons. The jungle around is spectacular, edged with green leaves sporting orange Latispathas, bromeliads, breadfruit and mangoes.

Ready to rest our kidneys, we paddled down Barton Creek where a farmer discovered a cave filled with Mayan pottery nearly 2,000 years old. Canoeing proved an excellent way of seeing the caves, gliding us through the dark caverns that remain almost as the ancient Mayans left them. Wedging our way deeper, we discover the cave ends in a vaulted chamber.

In the center, rocks ring small altars untouched for a millennia or longer. Peter, our guide, had us turn off our head-lamps, and we were enveloped by total darkness and a silence broken only by our breath. Paddling under a gothic cavern ceiling adorned with jagged stalactites, we became objects of curiosity for dozens of bats.

After lunch, we went up the trail to Cave's Branch River where we clambered over rocks and slogged through undergrowth along the 45-minute climb to the cave. Cesar, our Guatemalan guide, identified various trees and taught us how to eat termites -- a minty taste, by the way. Finally, we crested the summit to view the cave. Reaching the top drenched in sweat, we all jumped into the Class II rapids for an afternoon of cave tubing, which churned us like berries in a Krups blender.

The current carved its way through the bedrock forming different levels of pools and natural dive platforms. These inner-tubes allowed us to cool off on a leisurely half-hour drift down the jungly Branch River and tube through caves along the river. Cesar led the way, and we were filled with awe and honor when he announced we would be the first non-Mayans ever sacrificed here. After dawn-to-dusk climbing, leaping, crawling, tubing and swimming, we decided to pass the next day more peacefully.

 

UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONS

  • Visit Guanaland to adopt a Belizian iguana. Belize is inhabited by a great variety of lizards from skinny two-inch miniature gecko to chameleon-like anole. Perhaps the most popular here is the tiny godzilla like critter with crested head and back, the Basilisk Lizard. Locals call it Jesus Christ because it has the power to walk on water. Five iguana farm projects in Belize alone are trying to save the green iguana in Belize.
    Guanaland

    The San Ignacio Resort Hotel
    P.O. Box 33 San Ignacio, Cayo District Belize, C.A.
    Tel: 501-92-2034/ 2125, Fax: 2134
    sanignaciobelize.com
    sanighot@btl.net
    Adopt for $20

  • The Belize Zoo near Cayo provides a home for different species of native wildlife. 29 acres of tropical savanna is home to over 125 animals which were either orphaned or born here. This is a great stop to make up for any animal sighting you missed in the jungles.
    Belize Zoo

    Tel: 501-081-3004
    BelizeZoo.org
    belizezoo@btl.net

  • Tropical Wings

    Tropical Wings is Belize’s largest Butterfly farm and is well worth a stop.

    thetrekstop.com/trophead.htm
    susa@btl.net
    Entrance is $5.00 Bz. ($2.50US) for adults; children 4 to 12 half-price.

TOURING

ALTERNATIVES

Learning

  • The Belize Audubon Society
    belizeaudubon.org
     
    Environmental education promotes appreciation of the beauty and value of nature. They believe education of the people of Belize is the most vital step towards widespread conservation.
  • The Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance's Field School
    bvar.org
  • Council-International Study Programs
    633 Third Avenue 20th Floor New York, NY 10017
    Tel: 1-800-40-STUDY, Fax: 212-822-2779
    studyinfo@ciee.org
    ciee.org
  • Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
    P.O. Box 187 Belmopan, Belize, Central America
    Tel: 501-823180 Fax: 501-823235
    info@watershedbelize.org
    watershedbelize.org 

    A non-government membership organization that serves as a model for private land stewardship. The Sanctuary is 1,070 acres of tropical forest and savanna, bordered by the Sibun River which flows from the Maya Mountains through the coastal savanna on its path to the Caribbean Sea.

Teaching English

  • University of Belize
    Main Campus
    University Drive
    Belmopan, Belize
    President - Dr. Angel Cal
    Tel: 501-82-3680
    Fax: 501-82-3930
    acal@rlc.ub.edu.bz

    V.P. - Academics
    Dr. Leopole Perriott
    Email: perriott@rlc.ub.edu.bz

    V.P. - Student affairs
    Dr. Martin Cuellar
    Email: mcuellar@rlc.ub.edu.bz

    Regional Language Center
    Director
    Mrs. Camela Palma

Volunteering

  • Whale Shark Research Group
    research@whaleshark.org
    whaleshark.org
     
    A non-profit organization with the objective to closely monitor the behavior and migration of the Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus). Their intent is to continually monitor, record and preserve the largest and possibly the oldest living fish for the purpose of studying the effects of global warming on migratory fish. Also, they strive to determine the effects of pollution to plankton feeding sea creatures.
  • The Belize Audubon Society
    P.O. Box 1001, 12 Fort Street Belize City, Belize Central America
    Tel: 501-2-35004 / Fax: 501-2-34985
    belizeaudubon.org/  
    base@btl.net
  • Amigos de las Americas
    393 S. Milwaukee Avenue, Wheeling, Illinois, 60025, United States
    Contact: Chuen Tam
    chicago@plaza.amigoslink.org  
    amigoslink.org

    An international, voluntary, nongovernmental, not-for-profit organization that, through service: provides leadership development opportunities for young people; promotes community health in Latin America; and facilitates cross-cultural understanding for the people of the Americas. Area of Focus: Community Service and Volunteering
  • Women's Affairs and Youth Development
    Ministry of Human Resources, Belmopan POB 174, Belize
    Tel: 501-8-22248/22684/22637/22347 / Fax: 501-8-23175
  • Young Men's Christian Association of Belize
    P.O. Box 1836, Belize City, Belize
    Tel: 501-2-33263, 31514 / Fax: 501-2-31330
    ymcabze@btl.net

LODGINGS

Much of Belize is still a bargain, but the average hotel in Belize has 12 rooms and therefore, you must reserve well in advance.

Belize City

Rainforest

  • Chan Chich Lodge
    P.O. Box #37 Belize City
    Tel: 501-2-34419, Fax: 501-2-34419
    chanchich.com
    info@chanchich.com

    Chan Chich, meaning "small bird" in Mayan, is a colony of 12 comfortable, well-appointed bungalows (24 guests max.) nestled on a remote stretch amidst a Mayan main plaza used in 300 AD for ceremonies exclusively for the elite. Chan Chich fulfills every fantasy of what a jungle lodge should look like, combining an exotic mix of Mayan, safari and wildlife design where red hibiscus and masses of hanging lobster claw (Heliconia rostrata) tumble and bloom and humming birds swoop from high jungle canopies.

Reef

  • Ramon's Village
    San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
    One Freedom Square Laurel, MS 39440-3325, USA\
    Tel: 601-649-1990, Fax: 601-649-1996
    ambergriscaye.com/ramons/index.html
    Also offers scuba instruction, dive guides, water craft rentals and fishing trips.
  • Mata Chica Beach Resort
    San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
    Tel:: 501- 21-3010, Fax: 501-21-3012
    matachica.com
    matachica@btl.net

    Accessible only by boat, Mata Chica offers 11 individual bungalows decorated with one-of-a-kind murals. Also available: a 42-foot, four-stateroom catamaran anchored offshore.

At the Ruins

EATS

Traditional Belizian staples are rice and beans, often served with chicken, pork, beef, fish, vegetables or rat (you read right). Exotic traditional Belizian foods include armadillo, venison and fried paca (a small brown-white-spotted rodent similar to a guinea pig) that outraged the Brits when served to their queen during her visit to Belize: newspaper headlines in the UK read: "Queen Fed Rat." If you want to try a royal rodent for dinner give paca a try, but not after you’ve already seen one alive. You may never be able to take a bite if you’ve seen one of these beauties walking around.

Restaurants serving tourists feature fresh fish, and the ones catering to Belizians serve chicken with rice and beans and fried yellow and green plantain chips or coconut milk to add tropical flavor. Belize serves up great drinks like coconut-infused rum punch and coladas, and one brand of beer, "Belikan".

  • Chateau Caribbean
    6 Marine Parade
    PO Box 947, Belize City
    Tel: 501-2-30800, Fax: 501-2-30900
    chateaucaribbean.com
    chateaucar@btl.net

    Try their coconut soup and tropical fruit lobster salad
  • Mambo
    Mata Chica Beach Resort's eclectic and exotic restaurant has an Italian chef-owner, so her homemade gnocchi is a signature dish. Also good are the lobster tails, and the fresh fish specials; many of the herbs and vegetables she grows on premises.

SHOPPING

There's no better way to revive memories than with a few well-chosen hand-carved slate or Ziricote wood carvings from Belize. Mary Sharp’s hot sauces are also notable and worth finding. Tip: prices are less expensive out of Belize City.

GETTING THERE

American Airlines (800) 433-7300 aa.com offers daily air service to Belize City. Belize is a two-hour direct flight from Miami, Houston, or New Orleans. A $20BZ ($10US) tax and a airport security fee of $2.50BZ ($1.25US) are charged when departing by air from the International Airport to any destination, foreign or domestic.

GETTING AROUND

By Plane

Belize has two paved roads and no rail network, so it depends heavily on tiny prop planes that fly frequently to air strips around the country. Tropic Air (800) 422-3435 and Maya Island Air (800) 521-1247. Fly to the domestic airports in Belize City, Gallon Jug, San Pedro.

By Car

Car Rentals
Cars can be rented in Belize City. But with the road situation (even worse in rainy season), it’s not the best way to get around.

WEATHER

With a subtropical climate, Belize’s temperature averages 79 degrees but can range from 50-95 degrees. Weather is hot and humid, but comfortably offset by tropical sea breezes. July through November marks hurricane season. Rainfall is a whopping 13 feet per year, most of it falling between June and November. The best time to travel is the dry season between December and May.

Humidity, averaging 85 percent, makes packing anything more than T-shirts, shorts, and a raincoat superfluous. Although the tendency is to dress for temperature, long-sleeve shirts and long pants provide better protection against the sun and the almost ever-present mosquitoes. Take rain gear no matter when you go.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

Mosquitoes rule the jungles of Belize through sheer number. Found in every continent in the world with the exception of Antarctica, the 2,500 species identified to date all must have time shares in Belize.

Having endured the usual itchy tribulations in many of our journeys, we had the foresight to bring and liberally apply insect repellent from hair to toenails, none of which worked in Belize. The pests found all our blood vessels and drank liberally of our blood. These wicked ones proved impervious to the strongest repellents we brought with us. DEET insect repellent might be the only thing to work in these jungles. The mosquitoes kept us constantly slapping ourselves on legs and arms in a demented parody of a Garifuna dance.

It is truly hard to understand these complicated vampires. Forget for a minute the mated female is the one that bites, the itching, bumps and irritation, they are by far the deadliest critters on the planet, spreading such maladies as malaria, yellow fever and dengue.

While no inoculations are required for travel to Belize, travelers to jungle areas should consider anti-malaria measures. Malaria and Dengue Fever are both found here, though they're fairly uncommon. Anti-malarials are recommended for jungle stays (the reasonable alternative -- which we prefer -- is to make sure you're not bitten: cover up at dawn and dusk, and use plenty repellent). To find a truly effective weapon against these bloodsuckers, try www.mosquito.org for the word on the latest repellents.

VISAS AND OTHER OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS

A valid passport is required for all visitors. For U.S. citizens, a visa is not required.

RESOURCES

Books

  • Ecotourism in Action, by Meb Cutlack
  • Hey Dad, by Emory King (available locally) is an anecdotal account of Belizean life written by an American expatriate.
  • The Maya, by Michael D Coe
  • A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, by Linda Shele and David Freidel.
  • Time Among the Maya by Ronald Wright.
  • The movie Mosquito Coast, based on the book by Paul Theroux, was partially filmed on the river that runs through Belize City.

Guidebooks

  • Central America on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet )
  • Central America Handbook, The Rough Guide

Cookbooks

  • U Toucan Cook Belizean. Available locally.

Web Sites

ambergriscaye.com

belizezoo.org/

belizenet.com

Tourism Offices and Embassies

  • Belize Embassy
    2535 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008,
    Tel: 202-332-9636

Belize

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medications. If visiting Belize, for example, there is malaria risk in all parts of the country except
" By Kent E St. John Senior Travel Editor If you think Playa de Carmen is played out and Belize has

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