Motavalli, Jim, E Magazine
This Tiny Country Retains Much Of Its Natural Charm
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 211,000 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. …