By Elissa Gilbert
We set out from the island of Caye Caulker in Belize in our small boat, turning off the motor and poling slowly through the mangroves. At first we saw manatees, those ungainly mermaids, simply as distant gray lumps. But finally one chose to swim to our side and hung there beside us, only its nostrils poking above the water. We stayed until our guide insisted we leave to go snorkel with stingrays and nurse sharks; a dolphin swam ahead of us leading the way. Such is a morning in Belize.
Formerly British Honduras, everybody speaks English in Belize. The Belizean dollar converts at a fixed rate, two Belizean to one U.S. dollar, but many places accept U.S. money, so even that easy conversion is unnecessary. The land is a mix of jungle and beach that in large parts feels more like a Caribbean island than a neighbor of Mexico and Guatemala.
But it shares a common Mayan heritage with those countries — archeological sites dot the countryside. A few are easy day trips from Belize City and may be overrun with tourists on cruise ship excursions, but other sites are less crowded and more rewarding. Ball courts, pyramids and temples stand like gray-white stone ghosts of a more powerful and prosperous past. The two tallest buildings in Belize today are still Mayan temples. Even a minor site like Cahal Pech (“Place of the Ticks”) has seven courtyards and more than 34 buildings.
Arriving at Xunantunich requires riding a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River. A flock of parrots filled the sky as I climbed the tower for a view over the jungle into Guatemala. The pyramid here is famous for the stucco frieze encircling it. Archeologists think the Mayan middle class lived in the buildings nearby.
“Lamanai” means “submerged crocodile” and our trip up the New River there featured a baby crocodile sunning itself on a log. A family of black howler monkeys with frisky babies greeted us raucously in the picnic area. We carefully picked our way past a swarm of bees to the ruins of the “High Temple,” with its steep staircase, but the “Mask Temple,” with giant faces bulging from its walls, made the biggest impression. The figure’s mouth is half-open, as if sculpted mid-sentence. Nearby stelae tell an intricately carved story if only you knew how to read it. Other ruins here date to the Spanish period, but the temples were not static either—styles changed and the masks periodically were added or covered up. There’s 3,000 years of history in this stone.
Caracol is one of the largest and most remote sites. Among the most powerful cities in its day, monuments there record a victory over better-known Tikal. More than 150,000 Mayans lived here at its peak around 700 A.D. Its plazas, ball courts and astronomical observatory attest to its power. One of its buildings, the Canaa, is still the tallest man-made structure in Belize. Large causeways head out of town toward the neighboring communities. Trees grow in the ball courts now.
We broke up our visits to the sites with trips to locations known for their wildlife. A boat ride through the inland lagoons and swamps of Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary brought us close to egrets, cormorants and little blue herons. The white body and dark head of the endangered Jabiru stork made it easy to spot. It’s one of the largest flying birds in the Americas, with a wingspan up to 9 feet across, and Belize has a large population. And we saw cattle egret, some of them on the backs of the cows wading through shoulder-high water; the village here still makes its living from cattle.
We saw other native birds at the Belize Zoo: toucans with red-tipped beaks, dark-crowned curassows, and brightly colored parrots and macaws. The zoo also houses the country’s national animal, the tapir. They spray urine when nervous, and I had to leap back to avoid an unwelcome shower. Large and small jungle cats paced or snoozed behind the fences, resting in the shade of the foliage: jaguars, ocelots, margays, jaguarundi. I’d never heard of the tayra (bushdog) before visiting here. Spider monkeys leaped between treetops and black howlers—well, they howled.
To relax after our busy sightseeing schedule, we took a ferry to Caye Caulker (you can also fly). Less developed than nearby Ambergris Caye, it offered the respite of a sandy main street lined with tour boat operators. There are standard excursions, but my small group negotiated a custom trip with more time for manatee watching than snorkeling; the guides fed us watermelon on the way there and brought chum to attract the sharks at Shark Ray Alley.
With only three main streets named Front, Middle and Back, getting lost on the Caye was not an option. But getting lost in my thoughts as I spent the days lying in a hammock was the perfect escape.