Belize An Eco-Escape in Paradise
"Watch your step!" Omar Deras, my cave-tubing guide from Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort, yells as we begin our descent.
At our feet is a cliff. And beyond that sprawls a hypnotic, green patchwork emerald rain forest sliced by a serpentine strip of water. And I'm ready for it. Even though the hike here has been relatively easy, the oversize inner tube I'm carrying has fought me every step of the way. It has bounced off assorted trail obstacles tree branches, rocks, Omar. But now, we are stumbling our way down the final stretch to the Nohoch Che'en (Caves Branch River) that runs through central Belize. True to its name, the river meanders through spectacularly beautiful small canyons and caves, and I look forward to it with both eagerness and melancholy: eagerness because of the adventure and melancholy because it will be the final outing of my week in Belize, Central America's outpost of green adventure. As I put my tube in the water, I realize that the promise of this river closely parallels a trip I've already made this week a meandering journey through a place that is ecocentric and green.
It's not hard to find ample, pristine green space in Belize. Forty percent of the country is dedicated to either natural parks or reserves. It's like a giant adventure park for the naturally inspired. Active archeological digs, Mayan temples, rain forest jaguar reserves and mountain-fed rivers draw visitors to this rugged inland region. For those on a marine mission, the Western Hemisphere's longest barrier reef encompasses a stunning string of coral atolls pearls gracing a sensuous Latin-Caribbean neck. The mood here is tranquilo, but that's not for lack of something to do. When you have a free minute in Belize, the tough job is picking out a single selection from the multitude of possibilities.
Want proof? Let's start at the beginning.
SEA AND SUN I start my week of eco in the capital of Belize City, from which I catch a 30-minute flight to the coastal town of Dangriga. There I'm met by Eddie Usher, owner of the PADI Dive Resort Isla Marisol ("Island of Sea and Sun" in español). But I'm not at the resort yet. A 40-minute boat ride later, we reach Southwest Caye, one of five islands that make up Glover's Reef Atoll, far south in the Belizean Caribbean.
Chad Katzenberger, resort manager and dive instructor, gives me a brief tour of the island and the low-key resort of 12 cabanas, a bar, restaurant and dive center. He explains to us the basics of this isolated and self-sustaining outpost on the sea: conserving water, reusing towels and relying upon fans instead of air conditioning. Even the coconut palms are the result of the resort's stewardship; Eddie rebuilt the island's historic coconut plantation after it was struck by a yellowing disease that threatened palms throughout the Caribbean.
The sounds of birdsong and waves seem to applaud what's going on at the resort. I decide I will really enjoy staying here. Heck, I would really enjoy living here. After dashing off to my cabana to unpack gear, I meet my fellow guests at the restaurant for dinner.
Being eco-friendly certainly doesn't mean austere meals. Miss Feliciana, Isla Marisol's Belizean cook, serves up impossibly fresh fish and chicken, organic steamed vegetables, black beans and just-baked bread. Fresh juices made with oranges, limes and papayas flow freely, and an assortment of wickedly wonderful Belizean hot sauces lines the center of the table. A slice of coconut pie caps off the sense of guiltless decadence. Then, as night comes on, I join my new friends for a Belikin beer at the dock bar. A freshening breeze carries our worries away while we marvel at a starry night as alive as Vincent van Gogh's vision, untainted by artificial light.
The next morning, after a quick bite, I grab my gear and trek through the maze of coconut palms to reach the docked dive boat. A few minutes later, Kitty Katzenberger, our divemaster, proclaims our arrival at Barracuda Point and explains that the full-moon cycle this time of year brings lots of fish species in larger numbers: Creole wrasse, dog snapper and Nassau grouper, just to name a few. We descend to the reef top at 45 feet, and immediately I spot a huge green moray eel undulating through the reef. Easing in for what I am sure will be a brief encounter, I get a surprise. The moray seems intrigued by me; I've got a new dive buddy. Then another denizen slowly passes through a hawksbill turtle calmly on its way to the surface. I approach slowly, thrilled to discover that it, too, does not seem to be threatened in the least. But this is just the prelude to the longest train of Creole wrasse I have ever seen. Brightly splashed indigo-fuchsia with yellow highlights and reddish eyes, they weave in a giant, underwater conga line through the lush sponges and sea fans. "Healthy" seems an understatement for the condition of this reef.
During the surface interval, a machete-wielding staff member opens a young coconut for its water, while the crumbs from Feliciana's homemade cookies slowly decorate my wetsuit. I take in the green on the shore; the simple life truly is the best.
For our second dive, Kitty opts for a drift on Southwest Caye. As if seconding her decision, the sun comes out, making visibility seem endless. The topography is studded with interesting crevices and overhangs, the colors draped from reef top to reef top like a Macy's window display. Far from the turbulent surface, the scene before my mask seems more an ultraclear HD screen than an actual dive. I find myself gliding past gorgeous purple sea fans and red rope sponges, Bolshoi-ing around large barrel sponges and flirting with fairy basslets, which are sprinkled like confetti over the coral. Finally, when my computer absolutely insists, I surface.
FISH STORY SUPER-SIZED The next day, everyone has Gladden Spit on the brain and Eddie gladly obliges. He prefers visiting this area in late afternoon, since that is when the snapper rise from the deep and begin their mating rituals. In an attempt to attract whale sharks, the divemasters ask us to form a circle, pooling together our exhaust bubbles, so they will rise in one white cloud to the surface. The idea is to mimic the appearance of snapper spawning. Whale sharks supposedly are attracted to this and tend to swim in among the bubbles.
After 45 minutes of faithfully bubbling away, I am having my doubts. A pod of bottlenose dolphins swims into the circle, cheering our spirits. But exciting as Flipper is, he's not what we came for.
On the second dive, we descend to 40 feet and keep to the edge of the drop-off a prime place to spot "Mr. Big" and stare over the edge to roughly 120 feet, where the cubera snapper are schooling in huge numbers. We crane to view in every direction, willing the expected to happen.
Then a burst of regulator gurgles heralds a sighting. I whip around, trying to locate the direction of the sound. And there it is: Emerging from the blue like some organic, polka-dotted submarine is the object of our desire a full-grown, mature whale shark. The apparent lack of effort in its motion belies the true speed of this behemoth. I watch it pass and look into an eye as old as the sea. As the enormous tail glides from view, my heart is pounding so hard, I wonder if our big visitor can hear it. Nature has a way of overwhelming you when it puts on a first-class show.
PRIVATE ISLAND Although difficult, I eventually leave my Southwest Caye comfort zone and steer for the middle atoll, known as the Turneffe Islands Atoll. Routing back through Belize City, I meet up with Paul German, the ebullient resort manager for PADI Dive Resort Turneffe Island Lodge (TIL), on the southeastern edge of the atoll. The boat transfers take about an hour and a half to get to the island. Paul's wife, Kelly, greets us dock side. In no time, the friendly Belizean staff has me and the other arriving guests nestled in charming, well-appointed cottages that seem to fit the island environment like a favorite pair of flip-flops.
Each cottage incorporates plenty of windows to keep things cool; solar-heated, reverse-osmosis fresh water; and toilets that flush with seawater, like those on a boat. Turneffe Island Lodge has a long history in Belize, beginning as one of the region's earliest fishing lodges and, more recently, becoming one of the foremost eco-friendly fishing and diving lodges in Belize. It's great to be here, and even better knowing that I am staying gently on the land.
As Paul puts it: "We have gone to great lengths to preserve the natural environs, while isolating you on a private island with modern amenities. By the end of the stay, everyone leaves as close friends."
For our first plunge off Turneffe, we head for Triple Anchors. The reef slopes with large coral heads scattered about and is livened up with an assortment of sponge and soft-coral growth. One of the namesake anchors of unknown vintage rests almost unrecognizable under years of encrusting growth.
But this dive is more about the critters than the profile. I soon focus on one of my favorite tropical fish that I rarely get to spend time with: an indigo hamlet. He is an elusive charmer, sporting his iridescent-blue stripes and playing coy with my camera. No hand signal that I know of exists for an indigo hamlet, so I just point excitedly. My companions simply wave back; many more critters are within a few fin kicks, including a tiger grouper getting cleaned by neon gobies. As my bottom time ticks toward zero, I glance up and notice the mooring line is still easily in sight covering territory has not been an issue here.
I'm still thinking about the dive as I rinse my gear; I wonder what there could be topside to rival the natural splendor of the sea. Then I spot a family of ospreys that has taken up residence atop a cabana's thatched roof. As the day draws to an end, the adults hunt and the juvenile sits apprehensively on its nest, awaiting supper with the last rays of the sun setting its eyes alight. It looks at me, and I am riveted by the "wow" of the moment.
HOLE IN THE OCEAN Once a week, TIL visits Belize's famous Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye Natural Monument. We're the first operation to reach the site; a plus, as the earliest arrivals are greeted by the clearest water. As we stop in the shallows, my mind struggles to understand how the purple sea fans wave right below us, while a stone's throw away it looks like a Herculean hole punch was exercised on the reef.
The dive unravels the mystery. At about 115 feet, I can see cavernlike depressions in the walls replete with enormous stalactites. At first glance, it appears to be a well-created Disney set, but it's not hard to imagine when the entire hole was a massive cavern, long before the roof collapsed untold millennia ago. The Blue Hole is a sinkhole, like those that stud my home state of Florida, only on an enormous and underwater scale.
Part of the fun of the day trip to Lighthouse Reef Atoll is the stop at beautiful Half Moon Caye for a delicious picnic lunch under the swaying palms. The island is preserved by the National Audubon Society and is an important nesting region for frigatebirds and red-footed boobies. I hike along the island trail and climb a tower for a bird's-eye view of the nesting zone. The brilliant, crimson-inflated throats of the male frigates looked like enormous red berries in the distance. It's all so fascinating that I forget I'm on a surface interval.
Ready for another dive, we head out to nearby Half Moon Caye Wall. This is obviously a hot spot, since both Peter Hughes' Sun Dancer II and the Belize Aggressor III live-aboards are moored up when we arrive.
We waste no time getting in the water. The wall is a raucous explosion of pristine growth. Nassau grouper hide in ambushes in the colorful seascape while jack swirl overhead. Thanks to the good visibility, even at a distance I can see other divers waving frantically for me to swim toward them. At first, I spy nothing. Then I notice a bizarre and rarely seen creature: a spotted batfish! It seems to brazenly stand its ground while a horde of 15 bubble-blowers hovers over its formerly peaceful patch of sand. As each diver has his or her fill and fins off, I stay to get eyeball to eyeball with my new friend. After losing the stare-down, I offer up my begrudging respect and reluctantly head for the surface.
Belize is a compact country. It seems every great spot is just around the corner from another. So far, my trip has concentrated on the islands. I decide to transfer back to the mainland.
FULL CIRCLE Away from the Belize City bustle, I check into The Great House in the Tourism Village, an aptly named colonial-period hotel with the feel of old Belize. It's part of the historical zone and makes for a cozy home base from which to explore. I arrange the cave-tubing adventure with Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort.
Within minutes of leaving the city, the wilderness once again reigns supreme. Even where humans have left their mark, the jungle encroaches like the patient stalk of a big cat. It's not hard to imagine this place as it was before the Mayans first trod its paths.
And isn't that the purpose of environmental stewardship? I think about this as I slip into the water next to my inner tube on the Nohoch Che'en. The mountain water is cool enough for an initial jolt, but from there it is a plush ride through the raw, sculpted beauty of the heart of Belize.
I let out a whoop as my tube enters a river cave. My own delight echoes back.
Special thanks to the Belize Tourism Board (travelbelize.org), Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort (hamanasi.com), Isla Marisol Resort (islamarisolresort.com), Sea Sports Belize (seasportsbelize.com), The Great House (greathousebelize.com), Tropic Air (tropicair.com) and Turneffe Island Lodge (turneffelodge.com).
Deco Stops While in Belize City, take a walking tour of the Fort George historical sites including the colonial prison turned national museum, where you can find a permanent display of Mayan culture. Find the swing bridge overlooking the neatly tied-up armada of lobsterman sailboats that exude classic-Caribbean working-dock charm, or chat with the locals and bargain for handicrafts near the Tourism Village. Take a half-day trip to the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha only 31 miles from Belize City, and one of the largest and most-extensively excavated. Enlist the services of PADI Five-Star IDC Sea Sports Belize (John and Linda Searle) for dive training on local reefs or for a tour of the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary to view West Indian manatees. Visit the Community Baboon Sanctuary, a unique conservation effort bringing together eight villages to protect the population and habitat of Belize's black howler monkeys, affectionately called "baboons" by the locals. Explore the watery reserve of Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary area by paddle power in a rented canoe or kayak. Opt to motor through on a guided tour or hike the system of boardwalks to view the flora and fauna.
Getting Back in Touch With Nature Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort, a PADI Five-Star IDC, has developed quite a reputation for promoting responsible and sustainable nature-based eco-tourism. Nestled among 21 acres of coastal forest on a 12-mile stretch of natural, southern Belize beachfront, the whole property and surrounding area teems with wild birds, abundant floras and exotic native orchids. Owners Dana and David Krauskopf take pride in their property's eco-friendliness: They are constantly improving its environmental footprint. In addition to low-impact (but boutique-romantic) building construction, the resort is currently participating in a pilot program coordinated by Conservation International, Belize Tourist Board and the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism. They even have a "Green Team" of energetic staff and village members to optimize low-impact tourism programs established with Rainforest Alliance and Friends of Nature, both of which are non-governmental organizations. The result is a lush resort. The Hamanasi dive operation is also situated to take advantage of beautiful Glover's Reef Atoll. They frequent Gladden Spit and have gathered amazing tales of whale-shark encounters. The dive team is very involved with the Marine Reserve in monitoring whale-shark activity during the snapper spawn. hamanasi.com
The Guide to Belize Average Water Temperature: 80°F What to Wear: 3-5 mm fullsuit Average Viz: 50-150 feet When to Go: year-round, but April-June seems to provide consistently great weather; March is best for the whale sharks off Gladden Spit
Must Do Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley: Between the depths of 4 to 30 feet, be prepared for close encounters with Southern stingrays, spotted eagle rays and very friendly nurse sharks. The reserve is easily reached via Caye Caulker, Ambergris Caye and even by speedboat from Belize City.
Must Dive Gladden Spit: A deep reef off the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, where, from April to June, dog and cubera snapper gather in huge numbers to spawn. Whale sharks frequent this spot during that time to feed on the eggs.
Southwest Caye Wall: Here, wedge-shape coral ridges are separated by wide, shallow sand channels and end with dramatic drop-offs. Graceful gorgonians, wire coral and some very attractive and photogenic sponges adorn the overhangs, which are ideally suited for dramatic and colorful photos.
Half Moon Caye Wall: Swim through the many sloping grooves with fabulous overhangs found along the coral rim. Peer out to the edge of the wall where fish hide under the massive coral formations.
Middle Caye Wall: Clear water and minimal currents allow you to see at least two terraces without making a dive below 100 feet. A large variety of marine life can be found in a small area because reef zones are seemingly condensed.
Blue Hole: A perfectly circular sinkhole that measures 1,000 feet across and 412 feet deep. The highlight is dropping down to 125 feet and gazing at the bizarre stalactites that drop 20 feet from the ceiling of wall caverns.
Must Have If you have any Belizean dollars left over, locate a wooden bowl carved from the unique Zericote tree (referred to as Chakopte in Mayan). The tree is a sustained species in Belize.
Rigged & Ready HydraLight ZipAway Duffel: As much intra-island travel involves small boats like Zodiac inflatables, stash your dry items in a waterproof duffel that folds and zips away for easy packing. seattlesportsco.com
Quad Headlamp: Perfect for tooling around caves or midjungle accommodations, Princeton Tec's Quad headlamp is waterproof up to 1 meter and lasts 150 hours. princetontec.com
Your Own Private Island Cayo espanto: As if the eco-wonderland of Belize doesn't already have enough superlatives, you can also run away to a private-island escape just off Ambergris Caye for the ultimate in pampering, indulgence and privacy. Before you arrive, you'll get a questionnaire about what you like. If you want a fridge full of sparkling water and lemonade, it will be waiting. Want to see the best of Belize's Maya ruins, jungle, animal life and dive sites? Your boat will be waiting on the dock at your leisure. Want fresh mahi-mahi and nachos for dinner on the beach, in your villa, on your dock? Just tell them what time. Want to be left alone to soak up the sun and warm breezes? It will be so. And for anything else you might want, each villa comes complete with a house butler. aprivateisland.com
Belize Listings Belize Tourism Board www.travelbelize.org
Dive Centers Aqua Dives Belize www.aquadives.com
Big Fish Dive Center www.bigfishdivebelize.com
Ecologic Divers www.ecologicdivers.com
Frenchies Diving www.frenchiesdivingbelize.com
Protech Belize Dive Centre www.protechdive.com
Sea Sports Belize www.seasportsbelize.com
Dive Resorts/HotelsAmigos Del Mar www.amigosdive.com
The Belize Acadamy of Diving www.belize-academy-of-diving.com
Blackbird Caye Resort www.blackbirdresort.com
Costa Maya Reef Resort www.costamayareef.com
Grand Caribe www.grandcaribe.bz
Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort www.hamanasi.com
Isla Marisol Resort www.islamarisolresort.com
Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort www.jaguarpaw.com
Las Terrazas www.lasterrazasbelize.com
Mayan Princess Suites www.mayanprincesshotel.com
Off the Wall Dive Center and Resort www.offthewallbelize.com
Radisson Fort George Hotel and Marina www.radisson.com/belizecitybz
Ramon's Village Resort www.ramons.com
Sunbreeze Hotel & Suites www.sunbreeze.net
The Great House www.greathousebelize.com
Turneffe Island Lodge www.turneffelodge.com
Live-aboardsBelize Aggressor III www.aggressor.com
Peter Hughes' Sun Dancer II www.peterhughes.com