Belize offers travelers a variety of experiences from the jungle to the beach
The howler monkey with her baby lazily laid on the branches high above us. They weren’t moving. It looked like I wasn’t going to see one up close that day. I was standing beneath the shade of the tree tilting my head upward peering through the broad leaves at the black face of the sleepy mother as the baby played hide and seek behind the trunk of the tree for about 20 minutes.
However, the tour guide Geraldine Fremin, was an expert. She got a banana and coaxed the mother down the tree calling to her in a series of grunts and howls, the sounds the monkeys use to talk to each other. The mother slowly and cautiously made her way down the tree to a branch in front of me where she ate her banana and modeled perfect images right out of National Geographic.
Geraldine has been with the local women-run nonprofit sanctuary, the Community Baboon Sanctuary, what the local Creole people call the black howler monkeys, protecting the monkeys for 18-years. Started in 1981, the sanctuary has been a model for saving the nearly extinct monkeys, that were estimated to be around a population of 400 at the time, and for private/public partnerships working toward sustainable tourism. The population increased to an estimated 4,500 monkeys by 2003, she said. The sanctuary is currently in the process of surveying the monkey population to get an updated monkey census.
This was one of the many incredible experiences I had in Belize. A country that is a hidden gem for travelers of all kinds. It has everything: outdoor adventure and nature, cultural to culinary experiences, archeological and historic sites, beaches and jungles, and even some nightlife on San Pedro on Ambergris Caye for partiers.
A variety of boutique luxury hotels and resorts have sprung up along the beaches, in the middle of the jungles, and in the middle of busting towns in the Central American country to meet traveler’s preferences for comfort.
Vacationers who want a quick escape from the United States and away from crowded resorts at other Caribbean and Latin American destinations: Belize is it. Right now, it’s a relatively unknown bargain tropical getaway.
However, it won’t be that way for much longer.
The US State Department’s warning for Belize earlier this year has it pretty much wrong about the country, according to locals and American expats who have opened boutique resorts. Crime is contained for the most part to Belize City, which suffers from high crime, drugs, human trafficking run by the Bloods and Crips, gangs from Los Angeles and a high prevalence of HIV.
Belize has had a difficult time growing into its own identity as tourism continues to grow as an economic force in the country. The country has lagged behind its counterpart Costa Rica, which hosts the most diverse ecosystem in the world offering visitors 13 different rainforests and 4 percent of the world’s animals. Belize comes in a close second with 9 of the 13 types of forests in the world and nearly as many wild animals.
However, Belize has been held back by disputes between politicians in Guatemala and the United Kingdom delaying its independence and joining the Commonwealth until 1981. Guatemalan officials refused to recognize Belize as a country until 1992. Border disputes between Belize and Guatemala continue to this day. Political corruption and a huge foreign debt have also played a part in the country’s struggle to gain travelers’ attention. That is rapidly all changing.
A decade had nearly passed since I first visited Belize on a cruise ship that docked off the coast of Belize City, the country’s former capital city, for the day. The city was all I experienced of the country. So, while I had been to Belize, I really hadn’t been to Belize.
Few travelers spend any time in Belize City. They are usually whisked off to the jungle outside of San Ignacio, the capital city of the Cayo District; to the cayes just off mainland Belize, or to the resorts lining the white sand beaches in the southern part of the country.
Major multinational corporations’ investors to privately-owned tourism and hospitality developers are discovering Belize and pumping huge sums of money into the country. Boutique to big resorts are sprouting like weeds along the shores lined with long small strips of white sand beaches one after the other, especially in Hopkins, in the southern part of the country, that is changing its landscape. These privately-owned travel and hospitality companies are working to improve the infrastructure for tourists along with foreign governments funded projects.
Gentrification is spreading as construction is booming. The new resorts are driving prices up, shifting the way of life for the locals driving them out of their homes where they’ve lived for generations while at the same time providing better opportunities and livelihoods.
In the jungle, Mayan ruins are living archeological sites. Archeologists have been unearthing the ruins of Caracol for several decades and are increasingly beckoning to traveler’s brave enough to withstand the dirt and gravel roads that even challenge tractors. One tractor that was grating the road ended up getting stuck in the mud as my tour van bumped and rocked past it. This too might be a thing of the past as plans to pave roads to these ancient sites will allow many more visitors to flock to this hidden gem of a country in the distant future.
Beyond the city, the people are warm, friendly, and welcoming.
The dry season from November to May had stretched a bit into the beginning of July providing balmy breezy days at the coast for perfect beach weather and sunny and hot days in the jungle for hiking, rafting, and swimming. It wasn’t the sticky wetness I anticipated. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, except for a moment when it rained. The shower passed so fast I couldn’t get my camera out of my bag in time to take a picture.
My Belize adventure took me from the jungle where I explored caves from Rio Frio to a privately-owned underground cave that can be booked through the Mariposa Jungle Lodge to the cayes at St. George’s Caye Resort to the southern beaches of Belize Beaches and Dreams Resort.
The lodge’s proprietor Sharyn Brinker was my host during my travels throughout Belize earlier this summer along with its accommodation partners where I also stayed.
Just outside of San Ignacio, I slept to the sounds of the jungle in the Jaguar cottage at the lodge rejuvenating from my day’s adventures. In the jungle, there is plenty to do. I could laze about the pool and hike on the lodge’s trails, go bird watching at the bird tower, play horseshoes or a game of Frisbee on the new Frisbee court, take a trip into town, or go on one of the 19 full-day, half-day or en route tours offered exclusively by the lodge.
One day, I ventured into town with my guide Sandra Lanza, who locals simply call Tosh, the area’s first female taxi driver, who now owns the business, Tosh’s Cayo Suttle, with one of her daughters. That same day I shopped at the Saturday market, exploring Belize’s famous hot sauce at Marie Sharp’s Tourist Center and Culinary Class that also treats customers to a rum tasting tour at her shop; made traditional Mayan chocolate at AJAW Chocolate and Crafts; dined at Cenaida’s Belizean Food, a woman-owned restaurant, and petted endangered green iguanas at the Iguana Sanctuary.
During my journey to the jungle, I stopped at the Howler Monkey Sanctuary and Caved Branch for cave tubing. It was here where I floated down an underground river that flows from the headwaters deep beneath the foothills of the Mayan Mountains emerging at the sacred Mayan caves. We lunched at Cheers Restaurant in Belize, a woman-owned restaurant that is a popular resting point for travelers’ hour and a half to two-hour drive from the airport into the jungle.
The Belize Zoo is another option for the trip to or from the lodge, depending on travelers’ preferences.
At the beach, I snorkeled and experienced Garifuna culture and food, walked in the warm Caribbean waters along the sandy beaches and simply relaxed under the sun.
My first beach experience was a semi-unplugged private island experience at St. George’s Caye. It was the perfect escape sleeping in a beachfront cabana waking up and going to sleep to the sound of the Caribbean surf lapping at the white sand. Clocks weren’t provided in the rooms. It was very easy to lose track of time, especially since Belize seemed to be the Bermuda triangle for modern time telling technology. I never knew what the real time was without asking, which made my stay somewhat stressful when making it on time for excursions.
During the day I had my choice of adventures. I could partake in kayaks and paddle boards among other free non-motorized water sports off the island’s shores. Explore other cayes on the scheduled daily excursions listed on a board in the lounge. Book a diving or snorkeling excursion to the Blue Hole or out into the second largest coral reef in the world, made famous by French underwater explorer Jacque Cousteau, or other key spots in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. My other options were to go for a stroll around the island or relax on the beach or by the pool.
Meals were communal at the lounge where at the end of the day travelers could be found huddling over their computers or smartphones as it was the only place where WiFi was available at the resort. Drinking and dining as they shared their respective daily adventures.
In Hopkins, in southern Belize, I had the opportunity to learn about the Garifuna people through their cuisine and music in one of the few remaining Garifuna villages. In the village, I dined on gourmet food at the Beaches and Dreams Resort’s Barracuda Bar and Grill and neighboring Chef Rob’s Love on the Rocks at Parrot Cove Lodge. I swam in a pool overlooking the beach and sea in front of my room at the resort, walk along the beach enjoying the warm waters to wash over my feet, and watched the sunset into the Belizean jungle from the rooftop bar. If I had more time in Hopkins, I would have borrowed one of the resort’s bikes and ridden along the dirt road into town to explore the shops and local eateries.
A Magical Experience
Belize offers travelers an experience beyond the expected. I was amazed, charmed, and surprised that it hasn’t gotten more attention, but Belize isn’t going to stay in the shadows much longer.
The Central American country has much going for itself with its natural attractions and a government that sees the value in tourism and is putting money, even if it is other countries and companies’ money, into its infrastructure to give travelers a reason to discover Belize.
Originally published by Girls That Roam.