With its Maya ruins, teeming reefs and picture-postcard beaches, this little country punches well above its weight
Sharks circled all around me and, a few metres off,a barracuda the size of a torpedo hovered, teeth bared. As I swam, a worrying snippet from a conversation of the day before echoed through my head: “I saw a fella lose his whole uppa’ arm t’a barracuda…”
What was I doing out here? I could be sipping a cocktail in front of a tranquil Belize sunset, head gently nodding along to some reggae; Caribbean calm. Instead I was socialising with sea monsters.
I reached the boat and pulled myself in. A strong, black hand grabbed my pasty arm and I sat quivering under the baking sun. “D’ya enjoy ya snorklin’?” laughed Felix, the boatman. “Scared by de sharks?”
Well, yes. Even though snorkelling with sharks, barracudas and stingrays in Caye Caulker island’s famous shark and ray alley poses almost no danger, such knowledge does little to calm the nerves when eye-to-eye with these sleek predators.
Still, within half-an-hour of climbing back into the boat, I had that cocktail in my hand, and that’s part of the beauty of Belize. Everything is so close. The jaguar-filled wilderness is always near to a nice soothing beer, a pool or a shady beach.
I’d been drawn to Belize by its reputation for breathtaking coastline, but also by a sense of urgency regarding how long it was likely to stay that way.
The country as we know it now was established by British buccaneers, who buried loot on the 1,001 cayes that dot the emerald coast. Their descendants, Baymen woodcutters, would continue to explore the land, hacking out settlements in the steaming, uninhabited swamp and jungle. Imperial Spain sent armies and armadas to oust them from the territory – given to Madrid by the Pope – but they were repelled at every attempt.
Modern Belizeans still stand in opposition to the host of Spanish-speaking countries around them. Most Belizeans speak English and look to the Caribbean and the USA for cultural fraternity.
But things are changing. As Belize gets poorer and its neighbours get richer, the country’s unique culture is becoming increasingly diluted. Spanish is now the lingua franca where Belize meets Mexico and Guatemala. The pristine reefs, atolls and rainforests are threatened too – by careless development and oil concessions – while the Belize Barrier Reef system was placed on the Word Heritage threatened sites list by Unesco three years ago. Belize is one of the countries to see before it changes forever, and it’s also a place where a well-spent pound can really make a difference.
I’d begun in the scrub forests of the north – just across the border from the bustling and bus-infested coast of Mexico’s Riviera Maya. After the crowds and corporate branding, I’d been amazed by the emptiness and tranquillity of Belize. It’s a third the size of Britain, yet there’s so much space. You could see a car coming a mile away on the long white roads that wound around the coast to the Shipstern Nature Reserve; we’d had to cross rivers on one-car, hand-winch-powered barges, manned by Belizeans who seemed as effortlessly cool as a reggae rhythm section.
Shipstern itself spread around a birding tower and along a coral coast, from which there were views out over wildlife-rich forests and a sea that sparkled like opal. I’d spent a couple of magical, rainforest days in Chan Chich, a jungle resort in the heart of a Maya ruin, busy with grazing white-tailed deer, cackling red-throated piping-guans and raucous parrots, and with rooms as chic and comfortable as a Miami Beach boutique hotel.
Then after a rush through the poetically-named-but-prosaic town of Orange Walk, I’d headed down to Belize City. In one of his ‘in yer face’ gangland documentaries, Ross Kemp calls the city “the sixth most likely place on the planet for someone to die of a gunshot wound”. But it had seemed (perhaps deceptively) sleepy to me, as I lunched on fresh lobster and Belikin beer, whisking through on my way to the docks and the boat to Caye Caulker – where now, after surviving the rays and barracudas, I docked again...
I clambered out and shuffled along the sandy street into a waterfront bar. The sun was low in the sky and burnishing the bougainvilleas and clapboard creams of Caye Caulker’s houses. By the time my icy mojito arrived, the sun was slipping gently through yellows and deep reds into a cobalt sea and I was lulled into island calm.
The next day brought me back to the mainland and more adventure. Eduardo of Belize Travel Services met me at Belize City’s pocket-sized boat terminal far too early in the day, with a big, cheery grin, a Kriol accent tinged with Castilian and a bear hug. It took us less than ten minutes to leave urbanity – allowing for a brief hold-up at the country’s only traffic light – and within an hour we were in another Belize, one of Maya faces and towns with Spanish names: Esperanza, Santa Elena, San Ignacio – the country’s second city, with a population of 20,000.
We passed straight through and onto a dirt road, headed for the border. For half an hour there were Maya villages, with laughing kids and shuffling old ladies in bright huipil (traditional Maya blouses). Then the villages ended and the pick-up shuddered over potholes into the Petén – the biggest and wildest spread of rainforest between the USA and Panama. As our passage disturbed clouds of basking butterflies, we didn’t see another vehicle for over an hour, just the odd toucan gliding across the road.
The Petén is littered with Maya ruins: low hills swathed in a tangle of lianas, or excavated temples jutting from the forest like broken teeth. They were mysteriously abandoned 700 years before the Spanish reached the Americas. The most famous is Tikal, just across the border in Guatemala, reachable by smooth asphalt and noisy with tourists. We were en route to Caracol, just this side of the Belize border and a city almost twice Tikal’s size. Yet ours was the only car in the grassy clearing that served as a parking lot.
A dark path led from the visitor huts to Caracol itself – cutting through the heart of the forest. It was as silent as an empty church around us, the peace broken occasionally by the eerie fluttering of an unseen bird, the buzzsaw whirr of calling cicadas or the shattering alarm-call caw of disturbed parakeets. Light flickered among the shadows as an undetected wind rustled the leaves in the canopy far above.
And then our dark hallway emerged into a vast atrium of light – an open courtyard as big as an Olympic stadium, flanked with towering ziggurat shapes, stands of long and low buildings like upturned galleys and, sitting sentinel over all, Caana –a colossal pyramid that seemed to grow in stature as I approached it. Eduardo (who’d been here many times) and I stood and looked at the temple in awe, silent in front of its majesty.
Caracol seemed grateful of our homage. Over the next hour, it revealed its secrets. As I sat high on one of the temples, a family of rare emerald toucanets plucked berries from a tree; a shudder in the nearby canopy revealed a troop of Central American spider monkeys. I drifted into a sort of trance, where time seemed to stand still and yet move so fast. Before I knew it, we were returning to San Ignacio under a bowl of black night shimmering with stars.
The following rainforest days brought me closer still to Maya Belize. I clambered over temples in Lamanai, next to the winding crocodile-filled New River Lagoon, for a sunset view over forests that stretched almost unbroken to Guatemala on one horizon and Mexico on another. I was wrapped in herbs and healing plants by a giggling female shaman, then cleansed of my spiritual blockages and impurities. And I had a terrifying experience in the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves.
The caves are one of Belize’s biggest tourist draws. I’d dismissed them in my mind before visiting. I was all cool nonchalance as I sweated through the jungle with a gaggle of tourists from a resort down on the coast, then jaded and uninterested as we waded up the river into the cave mouth itself and along a pitch-black, river-gouged passageway that led to the vast and stalagmite-filled burial chamber.
“Only priests were allowed in here,” Eduardo told me as we huddled together in the dark on a ledge immediately outside the tight tunnel that led to this inner sanctum. Great, I thought. Let’s get going. I’ve seen caves far less spoiled than this before…
And as the thought entered my mind, a shockwave of pure panic hit me. In a blink I became ashen-faced and terrified, for no reason. I bowed my head instinctively in fear and then, consciously, in shame. Perhaps it was claustrophobia (though I’ve never suffered from it before) or the intense darkness – but whatever the explanation for my reaction, the cave seemed imbued with a powerful presence. It was as if I’d been reprimanded. And when I finally plucked up the courage to enter the inner chamber, I did so with humility.
Inside was a glittering temple to the gods of the earth. Human bones melted into a shimmering crystal floor, giant earthenware pots over 1,000 years old were coated in a sparkling carpet of calcified jewel, and the ceilings and floors dripped with twinkling flowstones and eerie speleological shapes – a shrouded man, a crouching woman, a swooping eagle...
In my brief planning for Belize, I had left what I hoped would be the best for last: the Blue Hole – a gargantuan, perfectly round fissure in the country’s fringing barrier reef. It looks like an inky pupil set in a brilliant blue iris, flecked with hazel and green. It’s one of those views that haunts you, a vista to capture on camera and hoard on a hard disc.
The next day I was on the early boat back to Belize City, and then up in a helicopter in the gilt light of the tropical dawn, flying low over the marshy flats of coastal Belize to the atolls and islands beyond. The swamps, reed beds and river deltas brought a mix of browns and greens that flowed together like spilt watercolour; snowy egrets were scattered across the scene like confetti.
Then the sea deepened into blue satin thrown with jewels – islands of emerald fringed with pearl, the silver sliver of a yacht, a flock of ruby-red scarlet ibis. Just below, said the pilot, was Spanish Lookout Caye – where the British Baymen who founded modern Belize had watched for galleons out of Cartagena and Veracruz that were intent on reclaiming the settlement for Spain.
We flew over St George’s Caye where, in September 1798, a few hundred from Belize City, their armed slaves and three sloops from Jamaica had beaten off a Spanish Armada of 30 vessels under the command of Dublin-born governor of Yucatan, Arturo O’Neill de Tyrone y O’Kelly. Then the sea turned inky deep again before lightening into a filigree of atolls and shallow reefs.
“Look below,” crackled the pilot, “there’s a pod of dolphins playing.” Next I saw my first manatee, with tiny calf, languorously swimming over eel grass in an empty bay. There was a lonely hut on stilts in a stand of mangroves. A labyrinth of lagoons. “This is the Turneffe atoll, where Blackbeard hid from the Spanish with his 14 wives and pirate crew.” Somewhere down there was said to be Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach’s chest, one of the biggest hoards of undiscovered pirate treasure in the world.
Finally we reached the far eastern fringes of Belize – the remote and wild Lighthouse Reef, an archipelago of tiny islands in shallow turquoise seas. The helicopter swooped down over a bay of white sand on Half Moon Caye, and out towards the Blue Hole in the middle of the reef.
We hovered while snorkellers jumped from a dive boat that seemed poised to fall into the abyss. A ray glided gracefully over the sand nearby and bubbles from unseen divers drifted up from the dark depths of the Blue Hole itself. Then the helicopter ascended to reveal the reef spreading to the horizon north and south. Out to the east all was dark ocean. The scene looked so vast, untouched and untroubled – a slice of our world that is still Eden. For now.
The author travelled with Belize Travel Services on a two-week tailormade itinerary