Two young Swedes, Lars and Anke, were looking for a sunny spot in the Caribbean. But the only flight they could find from Houston with seats available was to Belize--a place they had never heard of. A day later, strolling along the sole--unpaved--street in Caye Caulker, a tiny snorkeling resort, Lars was struggling to orient himself. "Who does this belong to," he asked, surveying the palm trees and wooden houses on stilts, "Guatemala or Mexico?"
Neither. Belize, formerly British Honduras, is an independent, English-speaking country in Central America. It has none of the high-rise hotels of Cancun, none of the casinos of Nassau. In fact, Belize has little development at all. What it does have is lots of jungle and coral reefs.
And that's what Belize is selling. In these days of recession and ecological awareness, Belizeans are betting that many tourists will choose to rough it on the cheap, trekking out to see howler monkeys in a rain forest or nonchalant sharks off the coral reefs. With only 200,000 people in a country the size of Massachusetts, Belize has plenty of nature to explore.
It takes a traveler with a taste for the outback. Continental, American, Taca, and Tan Sasha airlines offer flights from Houston, New Orleans, or Miami into Belize City, a sweltering port alive with the sounds of Creole English. With its dilapidated clapboard shacks and drainage canals, Belize City is the kind of enclave where a Graham Greene character might drink away the hours.
If so, he could do worse than try Belize's tasty Belikin beer, accompanied by stewed sea turtle, red snapper, lobster, or gibnut (a savory rodent). Lunch at Macy's Cafe goes for about $5. Four Fort Street, housed in a Nantucket-style mansion, transforms the native fare into haute cuisine. Entrees start at $14.
Many tourists skip the funky port and bolt straight from the airport to San Pedro, a snorkeling haven on Ambergris Caye. A 15-minute, $15 flight from Belize City, San Pedro is Belize's only developed resort. With little of the razzmatazz of Cancun or Acapulco, it has comfortable hotels, such as the Sun Breeze and San Pedro Holiday.
Comforts aside, the real reason to visit San Pedro is to snorkel around Belize's magnificent coral reefs. Just rent some gear and go down to the docks. Boaters will take you to the reefs for $5 to $7 per person. The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is close by. But too many snorkelers have stirred up the sand there, killing the once-colorful reef, and turning the seascape into something resembling the West Texas desert.
SAN SIMIAN. Caye Caulker, smaller than San Pedro, is a one-hour water-taxi ride from Belize City. Popular with the Euro-backpack crowd, it has only the basics: $10-a-night hotels, fried-fish restaurants, and dozens of unspoiled reefs.
While many tourists visit Belize for the snorkeling, a growing number are venturing inland to the rain forest. One of the most popular destinations is the howler monkey sanctuary in Bermudian Landing. There, more than 1,000 monkeys swing through the jungle canopies, chattering noisily. Unfortunately, when I tried to visit it in December, the road had been washed out.
A cushier spot is Chan Chich. Built near an ancient Mayan complex, Chan Chich has 12 comfortable bungalows, an airstrip, and a four-star restaurant. Lodging costs $80 a night. By day, tourists can hike through the jungle in search of toucans, jaguars, and monkeys.
All kinds of entrepreneurs offer river trips to Mayan ruins, visits to what's called the world's only jaguar preserve, and more. U.S. travel agencies can arrange trips. You can also get information from the Belize Tourist Board (011-501-2-77213) and the Belize Audubon Society (011-501-2-77369).
Tourists who want to improvise should visit Mom's Restaurant on Handyside Street in Belize City, a clearinghouse for tours and jungle forays. They say Mom's serves up a tasty gibnut. But I stuck with the rice and beans.