The Caves of Belize

Article excerpt

Explorations on the Edge of Ecotourism

Leafy cohune palms blocked out the tropical sun, cooling the air around the thatched roof cabanas that made up Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Adventure Co. and Jungle Lodge. As I walked down the drive, a small yellow and black bird fluttered past me and settled on a drooping frond. To my left, I could hear the Caves Branch River trickling through the jungle's thickness.

But the peace of the surroundings did not extend into the wooden, open-air lodge, where guests were beginning to help themselves to the evening's buffet dinner. When I stepped up onto the patio, little did I know that I was walking into a brewing conflict over the future of tourism in Belize.

I had hoped to chat with the owner, Canadian-born Ian Anderson, over the meal to learn about the issues he faced as one of the country's most successful ecotourism entrepreneurs. But he had other problems on his mind. Every few minutes, he would excuse himself and duck into the kitchen, leaving the wooden saloon-style doors swinging behind him. From the patio, I could hear him speaking intently into his mobile phone.

It didn't take long to learn the cause of the commotion. The Belize government had just shut down the guide operation at the nearby Jaguar Paw Resort, another expatriate-owned outfit that offers tours through some of Belize's most dazzling tourist attractions--its crystal caves. Several local operators had complained that the owners at Jaguar Paw were restricting public access to the network of pristine caves situated near their private complex, and things had begun to get violent. Anderson, afraid that he was next on the list, was frantically calling around to hire security guards and dogs to head off any potential unrest.

I had arrived in Belize two weeks before to learn about this tiny country of 250,000 inhabitants that in the last few years had become one of the world's top ecotourism destinations. Earlier that day, I had taken the water taxi from Ambergris Caye, an overbuilt tropical island 60 kilometers east of Belize City, which had been so inundated with tourists that it was the farthest thing from "eco"-tourism I could have imagined. I hoped to find a little more calm and relaxation inland, where, according to my guidebook, tourism was developing at a more leisurely pace. At Caves Branch, however, I found relaxation but not necessarily calm.

Ian Anderson, who once worked in the hotel industry, was among the first people to recognize the tourism potential of Belize's caves. In the early 1990s, he organized a handful of tours and built a lodge and some cabanas on a lush jungle site in the Caves Branch valley in the center of the country. Today, much of the surrounding landscape has been cleared to make way for neat rows of citrus trees, and the oranges grow in such profusion that locals are allowed to pick them for free to prevent the crop from going to waste. Enclosing the valley are the foothills of the Maya Mountains, their slopes carpeted with the jagged chaos of trees that have never been clear-cut, at least with the tools of modern man.

Tourists began visiting Caves Branch soon after Anderson set up shop, hearing about his operation mostly through word-of-mouth. But it took him nearly a decade to turn a profit. Today the pace has definitely picked up, especially since early March, when one of Anderson's cave tours was featured on a steamy episode of Temptation Island, a Fox Television "reality TV" show in the United States.

By then, the troubles had already begun. Local resistance to the Caves Branch outfit, and to other private cave tours in the area, has intensified in recent years. Critics complain that tourist operations owned by expatriates are squelching indigenous efforts at ecotourism, by denying local people access to the caves so they, too, can make money from them. The income generated by tourist visits to the caves is by no means small change: guests at Caves Branch-70 percent of whom are from North America-pay anywhere from $70 to $95 for a day's cave visit. …