San Jose Mercury 9/16/01
Tiny Country packed in mystery and adventure.
ABOARD THE TEMPTRESS: Bewitched by Belize
By Antoinette May
We wanted it all romance, certainly, but also variety. Variety was essential, plenty of choices to share--hopefully. Or, if necessary, to escape to individually. We also wanted adventure, something exotic--more than exotic.
We wanted a destination that was just a bit wild, wild but also accessible. We found it all in Belize aboard the 63-passenger 174-foot M/V Temptress Voyager.
The ship offered an appealing combination: rainforest and barrier reef to explore by day and comfortable cabins at night.
If you can't pinpoint Belize on your mental map--don't fret. You've lots of company and a delicious surprise.
This tiny nibble between the borders of Mexico on the north, Honduras to the south and Guatemala to the west is a country that welcomes a new breed of tourist--one who happily goes on safari knowing that the only trophies will be memories.
The country now known as Belize was a highly advanced Mayan culture center, its population, in 700 AD, ten times the current 170,000 census. Why they chose to migrate north in 1000 AD, no one knows. Europeans arriving some six hundred years later found only ruins.
Before long the area became the haunt of pirates and slavers, then the refuge of Confederate gun- runners. The smallest country on the continent, Belize--formerly British Honduras--rests its appeal squarely on the three R's: rainforest, ruins and reef (the longest coral barrier in the New World).
Our adventure began at the country's gateway, Belize City a crazy quilt of tin-roofed shacks on stilts hung with bright potted flowers and fish nets, clapboard bungalows trimmed in gingerbread interspersed with a few colonial mansions.
My friend gallery hopped while I bought love charms from the local curandero. or medicine woman. We rendezvoused for mango cocktails at the Fort George Radisson before boarding. Soon the ramshackle chic of Belize City was fading from view. We were underway.
The coastal waters of Belize are mysterious. Forests are low, mangroves grow right to the water's edge, gradually reclaiming land from the sea. The air is thick, humid, the sky flat and vast. Is that why Belize seems always to be hiding something?
What lies behind the forest veil, we wondered as one of those incredible sunsets
gave way to a feast of stars.
We eased into our adventure gradually. The first day was spent at Lime Caye, one of the tiny islands (cayes--pronounced keys) that dot Belize's coastal waters.
Yes, sand can really be that white--the white of talcum powder. Yes, the sea can really be the color of jade--the jade of a priceless Chinese pendant.
Lime Caye is one of those delightful "do nothing" places. You do nothing but relax there. An assortment of soft drinks and snacks were available, full scale lunch waited on the Temptress just a five-minute Zodiac ride away. Diving and snorkeling are a visual feast, so, for that matter is swimming. Even if you're not a swimmer, you need only slip into the crystal water and wait for the fish to come to you. It's an incredible experience to feel them.
Should you tire of fish and fish stories, you can lie on a hammock and listen to the gentle lapping of the water as you read a good old fashioned bodice ripper. (Will the planter's daughter be ravished by the pirate crew or will their handsome captain reserve her for himself?) You have to bring your own novel, but kayaks, scuba and snorkeling gear are provided by the ship at no cost
The following morning we'd reached the coast of Guatemala. After breakfast we boarded our Zodiacs again. This time to cruise up the Rio Dulce. Thirty miles wide at first, the river narrows to permit stunning views of egrets sunning themselves along the shore and waving exchanges with families living in small cottages along the banks.
Our destination was the fort of Castillo de San Felipe. Built in 1652 for protection against the French, English and Dutch pirates who roamed the Caribbean in search of Spanish gold, the fort seems never to have served its purpose very well. It was captured by pirates three times, sacked and burned, then damaged by earthquake. Multi-storied with a cozy, intimate dungeon—
the fort was later used for a prison--the building has strong vibes and great views.
The next day offered an even more spectacular time trip. A hike through dense forest brought us to Quirigua. a Mayan city dating from 795 AD. Small but lovely, the ceremonial site is famous for its elaborate sculptures, among the largest carved monuments in the Maya world. A peaceful paean to stars and gods.
Not so! On-sight archaeologists say they tell passionate tales of court intrigues, tangled alliances, weddings and betrayals.
Returning to Belizean waters it would have been hard to imagine anything very political happening at Placencia, our next port of call. Five totally distinct cultural groups— Creole, Mestizo, Mayan, Mennonite and Garifuna--co-exist peacefully in the tiny village that centers around a mile-long sidewalk of boards set atop the sand. The Garifuna are descendants of African slaves and Caribbean Indians who fled to Belize more than 300 years ago. It was they who danced for us that night at Seine Bight, an even tinier village, where we were guests at a Caribbean feast.
There were more languorous cayes--West Snake and lovely Laughing Bird--and yet another adventure. For our last outing we boarded rubber dinghies to penetrate deep into the jungle. Inaccessible except by sea, the Monkey River is rich in wildlife. Howler monkeys hoot and holler from tree tops, iguanas laze in the sun. Crocodiles and jaguars lurk somewhere. .
.. . .watching surely.
The seven days went by too fast. Food was plentiful and good, the bar open, but most agreed that the real feast was the sea and jungle experience. At night we besieged Conrad, our resident naturalist-social director, with questions, learned punta dancing from the crew, were entertained by villagers who came aboard to sing, dance and play for us.
But mostly we star gazed. There were millions of them. More than enough to wish on.
Antoinette May, a Palo Alto, CA based biographer is author of "YUCATAN: A Guide To The Land of Maya Mysteries" and "Mexico For Lovers."
1) Raptures of the deep
2) The Temptress caye hopped
3) A birdie with a yellow bill—jungle style
Getting there: American Airlines flies daily from San Jose to Belize City via Miami. Round-trip coach fares start at $750.
Visas: US citizens don't need a visa for travel to Belize.
Cruising: Temptress Adventure Cruises begin at $2095 per person. Phone Cruise West at 1-800-888-9378.
Lodging: In Belize City, the Radisson Fort George Hotel has charming rooms over looking the sea from $104 a day; phone 1-800-333-3333. Fort Street Restaurant and Guest House has clean, comfortable rooms from $40. Phone 011-501-2-30116.