Belize is tiny. Everything is on a small scale - except, perhaps, the expansiveness of the wonderfully warm people.
It was no surprise then to find that Belize City’s airport seems somehow to have been cunningly fashioned from somebody's back garden. Susan and I were there to head, on board a suitably tiny plane, for the heartland of this stunningly diverse country that, within such confines, ranges from mountains, through dense jungle and swampy creeks, to the translucent waters of the barrier reef.
From the Gallon Jug airstrip we drove deep into the jungle to our lodge at Chan Chich. Our cabaña was an oasis of calm, like a ground-level tree house, sheltered from the burning sun by a canopy of huge, billowing palm leaves. The silence punctuated only by the howling of the monkeys, the clacking of the toucans, and the growling of whatever your imagination allowed you to believe was out there.
We spent three days wending our way through the jungle, sometimes on foot, sometimes horseback, scrambling up the grass-covered walls of buried Mayan temples. And each day we returned to the lodge's wildlife blackboard, eagerly scribbling the names of freshly sighted fauna out there in the undergrowth.
Animal sightings were plentiful and spectacular. Anteaters, coatimundi, bat falcons, keel-billed toucans, cockroaches the size of football boots, more than I could ever remember. But I'll draw a line under my big cat sighting. Not a big big cat, but a small big cat. Ocelot. Not quite a jaguar, but big enough for me, especially as there was barely a paw’s length between us. It was over very quickly. I saw it, it saw me, we both pissed off to anonymity. But it was the first ocelot spotted in some four months apparently and I duly claimed my trophy.
Onwards to Chaa Creek Cottages, an exquisite wonderland, a hillside haven of undiluted serenity. From luxurious cabañas for the pampered travel writer, to simple log cabins for the young-at-heart, Chaa Creek caters for everyone, even those in search of a rub-down at their state-of-the-art spa. This place is so New Age, when I asked for a detoxifying glycolic herbal linen wrap in seaweed and spirito di fango, I wasn't sure if I was ordering a massage or lunch.
Refreshed and replenished, my muscles glistening with baby oil and raw power, I canoed down river to San Ignacio, accompanied only by Susan, some huge green parrots, and a flight of brilliant blue kingfishers that seemed to guide our way. Ten miles downstream, through gently nudging rapids, and not another canoe in sight.
From Chaa Creek we continued to Francis Ford Coppola’s breathtaking Blancaneaux Lodge way up in the clear air of the Mountain Pine Ridge. This is the part of Belize to go caving. Down on Barton Creek, drifting deeper and deeper into the cave, our headlamps only encouraging the local fruit-bats to use our heads as target practice, we canoed to the point of no return. Our guide, Gilberto, asked me if I fancied leaving the canoe to scramble up the cave's slimy walls, dodging stalagmites and stalactites as we went. I said yes. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I number my few days at Blancaneaux Lodge among the most peaceful I've known. Swaying back and forth in the hammock on the stoop outside our cabaña, the sound of water rippling, sometimes thundering, from the waterfall just a dozen or so steps away, I gave silent thanks to Francis Ford Coppola for providing me with the singular gift of tranquillity. From ‘Coppolodge’ to the coast, along the endearingly named Hummingbird Highway. Past settlements called Tea Kettle, Over The Top and Middlesex (yes, really), we arrived at Jaguar Reef Lodge, an enticing confection of white-washed, thatched cabañas strewn along the beach just south of the tiny Garifuna fishing village of Hopkins.
We trod a carpet of palm-fringed, soft, golden sand, with nothing but the Caribbean between us and the Cayes, the tiny islets that dot the horizon and line the barrier reef way out at sea. This is snorkelling country. Our speedboat slowed just short of a skinny sliver of paradise called Tobacco Caye. Over we went, snorkelled and masked, to be eyeballed by angel fish, parrot fish, barracuda, stingrays, sharks of all different sizes. Strange and beautiful. An underworld that even Coppola couldn’t create.
Belize remains steadfastly rooted in an ageless time warp, part Wild West, part hippie hang-out. Little seems to have changed since it was a tiny pink patch called British Honduras in the atlas of my childhood, and if it manages to develop tourism without disturbing its very special spiritual karma, and without building resorts with the word ‘Club’ somewhere in the name, I’ll be delighted and amazed.
Belize is a well-kept secret. Get there soon, before McDonald's beats you to it, and writers like me give the game away.
By Peter Moss, Journalist.