It is possible to stand in the midst of a rainforest in Belize, surrounded by dripping trees and the cries of howler monkeys, and think that you’re in a particularly unspoiled corner of Costa Rica. Or maybe Brazil, before that country’s air was choked with smoke from burning trees and the ugly scars of clear-cuts. Possibly because of its small population of 200,000 scattered among 8,876 square miles of coastline, mountains and dense forests, Belize has escaped the headlong development that has marred so much of Latin America’s natural beauty. Even its largest metropolis, Belize City, is home to no more than 60,000 people.
Like Costa Rica, Belize is an ecotraveler’s dream destination because so much of it is unspoiled by deforestation (50 percent of the original rainforests remain) and high-volume tourist construction. Sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala, English-speaking Belize resembles neither. Belize’s coast is much as it was in its 19th century incarnation as British Honduras—pristine beaches and coral reefs dotted with small fishing villages, and river inlets crowded with mangrove trees. Jutting down from the Yucatan Peninsula and descending almost to the Guatemalan border are a sprinkling of jewel-like cayes with picturesque names like Half Moon, Ambergris and Laughing Bird. Some of the smaller, uninhabitated cayes are no more than a few acres of sand and palm trees, resembling the classic desert island of cartoon fame.
E spent a week in Belize on board the Temptress, a 174-foot U.S.-built cabin cruiser outfitted to take 62 passengers on nature cruises along the coast south of Belize City. The city itself looks bruised and battered by the assault of too many hurricanes; even its newer buildings are weathered. Our first encounter with the real Belize occurred on a sidetrip into the gorgeous Southern Lagoon, reached through the bar of the Manatee River (so named because it is home to the world’s largest congregation of them). Our destination was the immense Ben Lomond Cave, whose dignified stalagtited caverns are home to thousands of screeching fruit-eating bats. Along the way, our taciturn guide, John, explained the uses of the local plants, from the calabash tree (good for coughs) to the gnarly Waha, whose wood formed straps on native dugout canoes.
On the first of several river tours undertaken aboard Zodiac rafts, we explored the mouth of central Belize’s Sittee River, near the country’s Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, home to elusive jaguars. From the boats, we saw the beginnings of a fledgling tourist industry, with many newly-built houses owned by Americans and Europeans lining the river’s banks. Most of the residents were away, so the kingfishers, toucans and many kinds of heron had free reign. The rivers are also home to crocodiles, but these proved elusive.
For a destination that combines traditional sun and sand activities (it has one of the nicest beaches in Belize) and abundant wildlife, many savvy travelers head for the southern port of Placencia, already home to a thriving community of expatriate Americans. Hippies, bikers and retirees mingle in this pleasant village with a bohemian edge (it was founded by English buccaneers!) and abundant nightlife. Accommodations are generally inexpensive and range from the informal mobile homes of Sonny’s Place to the more elegant cabanas at the Rum Point Inn.
Belize is an incredible divers’ paradise, possessed of a 200-mile barrier reef, the longest in the world and still relatively undamaged. Visibility in the clear Caribbean waters can reach 150 feet. There is unparalleled diving and snorkeling from many of the cayes in Belize, with perhaps the most famous spot being The Blue Hole on Lighthouse Reef, 50 miles east of Belize City. This 12,000-year-old circular limestone sinkhole, explored by Jacques Cousteau in 1984, is 300 feet across and 412 feet deep. Divers can go down 130 feet and examine the stalagmite and stalactite formations. The six-hour trip to the Blue Hole from Belize City costs about $75.
Perhaps the highlight of our week in Belize was a quick visit to the 18-square-mile Community Baboon Sanctuary north of Belize City. The primates in question are not baboons at all, but some 1,200 black howler monkeys (so named for their distinctive call, which can travel two miles) whose habitat has been protected through the tireless efforts of primatologist Dr. Robert Horwich. Since 1985, more than 150 landowners have signed pledges agreeing to maintain aerial pathways for the arboreal monkeys on their property, protect forest along riverbanks and preserve food trees. The dense forest habitat—encountered so close to modern Belize City—is just one more of the reasons this tiny country is a special ecotourism destination.