In Depth

Beguiling Belize: unique adventures in Central America

Mayan ruins, mountainous jungles and marine escapades abound in this fascinating Anglophone corner of the Yucatan Peninsula

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I am soaring above the sun-drenched lagoons of northeastern Belize in a prop plane so small that when the pilot reclines his seat, my knees are crushed behind him. I didn’t think it could be, but this is one of the most melancholy moments of my time in this job.

As the waters pass below, punctuated only by the occasional shrubby sandbank or wooden fishing boat, my mood falls further, because, with each passing landmark, our plane gets closer to Belize International Airport. There, I will board a connecting flight back to the UK.

We are going home after a week of exploring every corner of this astonishing, unique country and, by the time I’d squeezed myself onto this Tropic Air flight, I had seen enough stupendous sights, eaten enough sublime food and met enough genuinely wonderful people that I never want to leave.

Eight days earlier we had disembarked our Delta flight from Atlanta onto the tarmac at the same airport, sighing in ecstasy at the extraordinary heat that welcomed us. After being whisked into a minivan, we hit the road and headed for our first stop - Ka’ana Resort - on the opposite side of the country, deep in the rainforest near the border with Guatemala.

We passed multicoloured villages and forested hills of deep, intense green as the surrounding jungle grew more dense with each passing mile. As signs of human life became ever more sparse, and the gaps between towns grew lengthier, the sight of granite-jawed, bug-eyed Mayan rock carvings and temples left to crumble became increasingly more striking.

Deep in the Yucatan, the sense that were stepping into a territory entirely unknown to outside settlers until just centuries ago was palpable. It was less akin to a ghost town than an entire ghost peninsula, one where coming face-to-face with the tangible remnants of the Mayan Empire was at once breathtaking, moving and more than a little eerie.

Just south of the quiet pitstop town of San Ignacio, we pulled into the driveway of Ka’ana Resort, the name of which stems from the Mayan term for “heavenly place”. Just a mile or two from Guatemalan territory, Ka’ana is a 17-room luxury resort offering seclusion that few other hotels could match. The site is surrounded on all sides by miles of thick, impenetrable jungle from which only the faint sounds of howler monkeys emanated.

Ka’ana is a vast complex of villas, connected by cobblestone paths winding between 100ft-tall trees draped with romantic two-person swings. Gorgeously lush flower arrangements flanked the walkways and my private villa was a wonderfully rustic, high-ceiling bedroom dotted with wooden embellishments.

Under whirring ceiling fans sat my gigantic bed, framed by a towering headboard of thatched wood and light beige walls to counteract the dense foliage blocking much of the sunlight outside. The bathrooms are spacious, with large walk-in showers and a range of floral, natural shampoos.

After a afternoon spent in the communal pool - occasionally stepping out to use a phone placed nearby for the sole purpose of ordering an array of exotic cocktails - we got up the following morning and headed to the on-site La Ceiba Restaurant.

There, I discovered the deep and fiery reverence that the people of this country have for hot sauce. Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Afternoon tea? Expect at every meal to be presented with a variety of vibrant red hot sauces with which to drench it in, including my Belizean breakfast burrito stuffed with chorizo and scrambled egg.

Upon saying our goodbyes to Ka’ana, we were rather shocked upon being told that our mammoth minibus, itself resembling a small civilian tank, was not sufficiently durable to take on the journey to our excursion destination for the day. Instead, we slunk outside to discover an eight-seater monster truck to transport us to the ancient Mayan ruins of Caracol.

Bleary-eyed from last night’s pool cocktails and - in my case at least - still sweating profusely from “Marie Sharp’s Comatose Heat Level” sauce, we clambered into our seats and spent the next three hours traversing the Belizean jungle on a dirt path masquerading as a major thoroughfare. Eventually, we stepped out of the vehicle and laid eyes upon one of the most extraordinary sights I have ever seen; the ruins of Caracol.

Our knowledge of the foundation, existence and destruction of Caracol is littered with gaps. The largest Maya city ever excavated in Belize - far larger than the more famous Tikal complex in neighbouring Guatemala - Caracol is a vast, 2000km² compound of enormous stepped temples and other angular buildings, some strikingly pristine, some crumbling to dust and others barely visible behind creeping vines and weeds.

Thought to be over 3,000 years old and left almost completely untouched for centuries, we arrived at the foot of the monumental Caana (“Sky Palace”) which looms high over the other temples in the complex, and stared in awe at the colossal staircase that lay before us.

Out here there were no tourist kiosks, no snapping camera shutters and barely a single soul in sight, save for the armed guards atop the summits of each temple. And so, as the only people in the entire city, we stepped forth to climb the knee-high stairs from which ancient kings had addressed their subjects, and down which dismembered bodies had once tumbled and blood had run thick.

From the top, the views of the surrounding Chiquibul forest reserve are stunning, with tree canopies stretching all the way to the horizon below a blinding sun that dips in and out of the clouds. We traipsed along the avenues that once connected these mighty structures, taking time to once again imagine the spectre of death and destruction that hangs over the settlement in the form of mass graves, dusty tombs and Mayan stelae face carvings.

Caracol is not some evocative “lost city of gold”, stumbled upon by 16th Century Conquistadors, but was in fact discovered concealed under a series of mud mounds in 1937. The relatively brief time that has passed since then has only allowed for a part-excavation of the site; many more temples and shrines lie just below the soil, and with them secrets that might help us better understand this ruined citadel.

After taking in the ruins, we juddered and careened our way through the Belizian wilderness for a further four hours, stopping off at the spectacular Rio Frio cave and the Rio On Pools waterfall complex, where bathing in the temperate flowing water is a must.

By the time we arrived at Naia Resort and Spa on the slender, palm-lined Placencia Peninsula on the country’s Caribbean coast, darkness had so totally enveloped the area - and tiredness had so comprehensively enveloped our troupe - that I had little option but to call for an on-site golf cart to ferry me from reception straight to my private villa.

I awoke the following morning to an extraordinary discovery; a ultra-modern villa suite featuring a super king-size bed, smart TV, kitchenette, two-person bath and glass doors, all laid out below a roomy, cavernous ceiling. But the piece de resistance became evident when I peered out back to see my own personal waterfall shower in a private secluded courtyard for an au naturel cleansing experience complemented by the balmy mornings of the Belizean coast.

After making use of the Belizean coffee beans provided by the resort for maybe the best in-room hotel coffee I’ve ever had, I flung my floor-to-ceiling curtains open to discover that just a few yards of sun-baked golden sand separated me from the lapping waves of Caribbean Sea. A brief walk down the beach soaking in the morning sunshine brought me to the entirely outdoor restaurant area, where a hefty serving of huevos rancheros went down a treat with another helping of smoky habanero hot sauce.

With our stomachs lined, we headed into the nearby Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve for a day of intensive hiking - other easier options are available in the reserve - which saw us scale densely-forested mountain peaks either side of a swim in a natural rockpool at the Tiger Fern double waterfall, before returning to the hotel for an action-packed show of traditional garifuna drumming and dancing to accompany a dinner of fresh, locally-caught fish.

With just two days to go until our departure from this magical country, we took a hopper flight north on Tropic Air, bouncing our way up the country’s meandering coastline with stops every five minutes or so, before arriving at our final destination; Caye Caulker. The tiny island has become a haven for holidaymakers the world over as a result of its extraordinary seafood, welcoming locals and laid-back vibe.

I stared out in amazement from our golf cart taxi as we traversed the island from the airport to our hotel; if the dense jungles of the mainland had felt a world away from my home in Europe, Caye Caulker felt like yet another world away from the rest of Belize. Gone were the Mayan ruins, the jaguar-stuffed wildlife reserves and Spanish-indigenous Mestizo culture, and in their place was something altogether more Caribbean - a world of hammocks, palm trees, shimmering turquoise water.

On the shore were shacks selling rum cocktails, conch shells and locally-made clothing, their vendors communicating loudly in a complex Belizean creole that could be heard on all corners of this slim strip of sandy coral in the ocean.

Our home for the final stretch of our trip would be the Iguana Reef Inn at the far north of the island; a more affordable choice than the resorts of the mainland but no less welcoming, comfortable or exciting.

The resort features a large communal swimming pool and spectacular oceanfront deck fitted with a bar, deckchairs and “palapas” - thatch-roofed wooden huts offering respite from the harshest sun we had yet experienced in Belize. Taking advantage of the late afternoon happy hour as the sun dipped toward the horizon, we sat on the edge of the decking with our Belikin beers and peered off the edge at vibrant tropical fish, alien-looking seaweed and even the occasional stingray.

The following morning, we walked the two minutes from the east coast of the island to the west to catch a catamaran with Raggamuffin Tours, who were to take us out for a day’s sailing to sample some of the finest snorkelling opportunities in the western hemisphere. The shallows of the so-called Belize Barrier Reef are crystal clear and teeming with wildlife ranging from microscopic crabs to car-sized manatees. The more experienced snorkelers among the group dove straight in, while others were briefed by the Raggamuffin team before slipping into the water only to immediately come face-to-face with a loggerhead turtle grazing on the seabed.

We glided through the shallows chasing manatees and crossing paths with spotted eagle rays, overwhelmed at the sheer number of animals in the vicinity, before:

“Sir! Please stay back or else you’ll headbutt one of our sharks!”

Exclamations that flip a switch in your brain and completely take you out of the moment are rare, but this was one of them. Startled, I looked up through the turquoise water at our guide perched on the edge of our boat - and the man sat next to him emptying a bucket of severed fish heads into the water - and responded with an inaudible mumble through my snorkel that was meant to represent me asking “what?”.

Suddenly, a swarm of feverishly excited nurse sharks had completed enveloped me and the others in our group, swirling around us and nipping at the food while barely even registering our presence. We could reach out and stroke them, feed them and take a moment to absorb this strange, beautiful spectacle.

The mood among our troupe, sat in the departure lounge of Belize International Airport the next day, was solemn. We had all been thoroughly enraptured by the sights and sounds of Belize, a country in which a full week had simply raced by.

The prospect of returning home was a genuinely depressing one. But shortly after take-off, our plane performed a wide 180 degree turn to head northeast, offering me one last panorama of Belize, from the blue oceans below us to the mountain peaks on its western border.

For a brief moment, I had an unexpected and perfect opportunity to say goodbye to a country I would not forget in a hurry.

For more information on Belize, visit: TravelBelize.org

Prices for Naia Resort & Spa start from US $325.

Standard rooms (Balam Suite) at Ka’ana Resort start from USD $299 before taxes. Rate is inclusive of continental breakfast and based on double occupancy.

Rates for Iguana Reef start from $179 - $489 USD + 9% hotel tax nightly.

For more information on Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary click here.

For more information on Yute Expeditions (Transfers & Tours) click here.

For more information on Ajaw Chocolate & Crafts (Chocolate tour - $12.00 US pp) click here.

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