Belize: Central America’s Hidden Gem

Posted on Mar 7, 2010

I recently packed my bags again for the tropics – this time my destination was Belize.  It’s a country I’ve been wanting to visit for many years, so I was thrilled to finalize my plans to travel there with my husband.  The allure of Belize makes perfect sense to me.  Where else can a traveler do so much in such a small country?  Belize offers numerous, colorful coastal towns boasting white sand, pretty water and some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world.  Catch a ride inland and in less than two hours, you’ll find yourself immersed in a tropical jungle providing an endless of array of activities for the more adventurous traveler.

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In addition to being a short flight from the East Coast, Belize is the only English speaking country in Central America.  These two facts make it a breeze to visit!  I also found the people to be incredibly friendly and helpful.  They are proud of their beautiful nation and eager to share its treasures with visitors.

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I began my week in bustling Ambergris Caye on the Caribbean coast.   If you want to snorkel or dive, this is the place to be.  Belize boasts the 2nd longest barrier reef in the world (the only one bigger is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia), and it’s unbelievably accessible.  A five minute boat ride from shore puts you at the edge of the reef, and sealife is abundant.  I’ve snorkeled quite a bit in the past but decided I couldn’t visit Belize without trying scuba diving for the first time.  It is the ideal place to learn.  We started out in water only knee-deep and before I knew it, I was swimming alongside spotted eagle rays, tarpon, nurse sharks and too many colorful fish to name.

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Victoria House offers the most luxurious accommodations on Ambergris Caye, and it’s easy to understand why the resort’s reputation is so wonderful once you’ve stayed there. The rooms, grounds, staff, service and food were fantastic.

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I was particularly fond of the beach area at the resort, which was dotted with numerous palm trees and was raked regularly.  Visitors should know that Ambergris Caye doesn’t have big stretches of sand, but the water is gorgeous and Victoria House’s beach area was the nicest on the island.

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After enjoying a few days of fun on the coast, we traveled two hours west for the next part of our trip – a jungle adventure.  Along the way, we stopped at the Belize Zoo, which sits on 29 acres and currently exhibits over 125 animals all native to Belize.  I was fascinated by the exotic creatures living there in such a natural setting, and was particularly fond of “Junior,” the zoo’s most famous jaguar resident.

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Our choice of accommodations in the jungle was Chaa Creek, arguably the most luxurious and well managed lodge in the country.  It’s part of a 365-acre nature reserve set along the banks of the Macal River in the foothills of the Maya Mountains.  The owners, Mick and Lucy Fleming, have painstakingly built ChaaCreek from the ground up over the past 30 years.  Every aspect of the resort has been carefully thought out and well executed.

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The room options are varied and full of charm.  There are 23 palm-thatched cottage rooms from which to choose, all of which are beautifully decorated with local furniture and artwork.  I loved the treetop suites, particularly because they offer jacuzzis situated on balconies overlooking the river.

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In addition to the wonderful accommodations, Chaa Creek ‘s food, service and spa exceeded expectations.  The Flemings have recently added an infinity pool, where guests can relax in the sun andwatch the abundant tropical birds which can be found all over the reserve.  I enjoyed breakfast one morning alongside a flock of toucans eating the berries of a palm tree nearby.

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But one doesn’t come to Chaa Creek just for the rooms and food.  The reserve and surrounding area offers an vast array of activities for visitors of all ages.  A dedicated concierge stays very busy throughout the day as he explains all of the different options to the newly arriving guests and then coordinates their excursions.  Hiking, canoeing, bird-watching, visiting Mayan ruins, cave tubing, horseback riding, and mountain biking are just a few of the endless possibilities.

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My husband and I chose to visit Xunantunich, a Mayan ruin site, for our first excursion.  It was absolutely fantastic!  There were no crowds, and the structures were truly amazing.  The highlight was a climb to the top of El Castillo, where we were rewarded with lovely views of the countryside from the top of the main temple.

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On our last day in Belize, I went on the adventure of a lifetime (or at least my lifetime!).  Because I was going to be crawling inside a big, dark cave for several hours, it took a little persuasion for me to agree to visit Actun Tunichil Muknal (more commonly referred to as the “ATM”), one of the  most impressive caves in the Maya region.  But I’m so glad I put my hesitation aside!

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Our  guide drove us to the edge of a jungle 90 minutes away from Chaa Creek, where we began our one mile hike to the cave.  After crossing three rivers by foot, we arrived at the cave, which honestly looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.  All total, we explored the inside of ATM for over three hours, climbing huge rocks, squeezing into tight spaces, and wading through the water.  It was an experience I will never forget.

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This excursion is not for the faint of heart.  Upon arrival at the cave, you have to swim to get inside.  The water was over my head, and the encroaching darkness was definitely a little intimidating.  Once we got inside and turned on our headlamps, however, I was speechless.  The vast caverns and rock formations were stunningly beautiful.  Even more impressive were the hundreds of Mayan artifacts which literally littered the cave.  ATM was used as a ceremonial site by the Mayans for over 700 years, and most everything left behind remains in its original location.  Vessels of all sizes, fire pits, and the occasional human remains can be found in the cave.  The highlight of the tour is located in a dry chamber deep inside the cave, where the skeleton of a young woman is embedded in the rock.  This famed crystallized maiden, who was sacrificed to the gods,  provides a fascinating glimpse of life during Mayan times.

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If you like the idea of visiting a tropical paradise with both beaches and jungles, as well as warm and inviting people, then Belize may be your ideal destination.  Another big benefit is the relatively low cost of traveling there, especially when compared to the high season rates currently being charged on most of the other Caribbean islands during the winter.