Belize is Central America’s only country whose official language is English, rather than Spanish. The relatively young country’s colonial history features the British, the Spanish, and even a territorial claim by Guatemala in the 1980s, however its independence was finally won in 1991. More culturally diverse than most other Central American countries, there are Latin, Mayan and Caribbean influences evident in Belize’s food, in its environment, and in the languages spoken. Belize is known primarily for both its lush jungles and its idyllic Caribbean islands with their perfect coral reefs. The majority of the tourism is concentrated in two of the country’s five districts: the Cayo District for its jungles and the Belize District for its islands.
The Cayo District is characterised by luscious forest landscapes. After crossing the border from Guatemala, the western town of San Ignacio is the ideal resting place for two nights, a perfect starting point for exploring the countryside and all it has to offer. San Ignacio is a quiet town with little of interest to show, but its busy, pedestrianised Burns Avenue is lined with tour companies running excursions to nearby rainforest destinations. Probably the region’s most well known attraction, and certainly the one that I would most recommend visiting, is the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal, more commonly known by its shortened name ATM Cave for the sake of those who find the Mayan difficult to pronounce.
ATM Cave offers visitors an opportunity to see an underground ancient Mayan burial site, and the journey there is as much part of the attraction as the cavern itself. Taking a tour with Mayawalk, one of the many operators based on Burns Avenue, the drive into the jungle takes less than an hour. From there, it’s a short 45 minute hike to the entrance of the cave, wading across a winding, waist-deep river three times along the way. No bags or other items apart from water are taken on the walk, since they are not allowed inside the cave. The entrance to the cave is flooded, and intrepid visitors must swim through the tall, hourglass-shaped opening in the rock to the platform inside.
Once inside, wet tourists wearing helmets and headlamps stand in the relatively cool 18 degree air, enjoying a respite from the sun’s 30 degrees outside. What follows next is an hour long walk downward into the earth, a mile in, sometimes walking on bare rock and sometimes through water variously ankle-deep to chest-deep. There are points at which swimming is easier than walking, and one place where the gap in the rock narrows so much that only a person’s neck can fit through it – called “the guillotine”.
The water is cool but manageable, and though the cave totally lacks natural light the abundance of headlamps illuminate it brightly, revealing shining stalactites and stalagmites along the way. Eventually, after an hour of downhill walking and swimming, we reached a cliff flanked by boulders. Clambering up the boulders to the clifftop leads to an enormous, open cavern: the main chamber and Mayan burial site. Here tour groups are asked to remove their shoes in order to avoid damage to the objects on display, and our guide took us on a tour around the chamber pointing out ancient pottery and other artefacts, the most impressive of which is a calcified full skeleton from a human sacrifice, estimated to date from approximately 1200 AD, preserved deep within the Earth. T-shirts and shorts are worn inside the cave out of respect for the sanctity of the site in Mayan religion, and they dry off quickly in the air of the chamber.
The walk back through the water and out of the cave takes a further hour, bringing the time spent underground to three hours. The heat is pleasant upon emerging into the sunlight, and on the hike back to the parking area our clothes dried quickly again despite the trail’s river crossings. The sun shone brightly and warmly through the gaps in the trees as we walked, excitedly discussing the amazing things we had seen in the cave.
Trekking through a green jungle, wading across rivers and exploring caves one day while boarding a boat across a turquoise lagoon to an idyllic island the next can only be done somewhere like diminutive Belize, where the distances are short and the landscape is varied. On the other side of the country, a ferry from the colourful, Caribbean-style Belize City with its pastel buildings and sandy streets takes passengers to the islands of Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. While Ambergris Caye – otherwise known by its only town’s name, San Pedro – is the upmarket paradise whose coast is ringed with luxurious hotels sung about by Madonna in La Isla Bonita, Caye Caulker is best known for snorkelling, diving and backpacker parties. We were bound for Caye Caulker, and the crossing took 40 minutes. On the crowded ferry, two alarmingly sunburnt, pale missionaries sat facing me. The two boys looked no older than 20, and wore white shirtsleeves with ties and black slacks. Large golden crosses hung around their necks and they carried cases bursting with small black bibles. Both of their painful-looking, tomato-coloured faces bobbed up and down on the journey as their heads bounced, fighting sleep. We left them on the boat bound for San Pedro when we disembarked on its smaller cousin Caye Caulker.
Caye Caulker is a white sand island with streets of sand lined with brightly painted wooden buildings. There are no cars or other vehicles, and the streets are reserved for pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds and animals. The island was split in the middle by a hurricane in the 1960s, and the trench was later dug deeper and wider by locals to create an East-West waterway between its two parts. This waterway is still widening, and is now referred to as The Split. The northern half of the island is a largely uninhabited mangrove forest, and tourism is concentrated south of the Split. This tiny, laid back Caribbean island has only three streets: Front Street on the East coast, Back Street on the West, and Middle Street in between.
At the Split, beautiful twenty-somethings lounge at the open-air Lazy Lizard bar, drinking nuclear-cloured cocktails while sunning themselves on the decking and swimming in the clear water. There is no real beach, but the decking and the walls along the water’s edge provide space to sit in the sun. There are even picnic tables with straw parasols in the water to sit and drink at. The Lazy Lizard’s music ranges from reggae to pop, and the relaxed, Caribbean vibe creates the perfect environment to watch oil-painting sunsets of blood orange and royal blue as the sun creeps close to the glittering sea. After dark, the island grooves to more reggae sounds and locals come out to dance with the tourists.
Authentic in its inauthenticity, Caye Caulker offers English breakfasts, aloe vera massages for sunburnt foreigners, and double strength drinks at dance bars with hammocks swinging outside. A youngster on a voyage of self-discovery can feel right at home here.
During the daytime, boats sail out from Ragga Muffin to the reef and beyond it to the Blue Hole – Belize’s deep, circular hole in the ocean floor, popular with scuba divers. Stopped at Shark Ray Alley, a part of the marine reserve heavily populated with nurse sharks and sting rays, daring passengers jump off the boats and snorkel in the water, rubbing shoulders with sharp-toothed predators who seem to ignore them.
Further along the reef, snorkelling in the perfectly clear water offers explosions of colour as pink, amber and golden fish dart among an endless rainbow of coral in the translucent turquoise sea. This is better than snorkelling in Thailand or even the Great Barrier Reef – the underwater discoveries in Belize are the best I’ve seen.
At the end of the day, the boats speed back to land, passengers dangling their legs off the sides to cool in the spray while celebrating the day with a beer. My pale Celtic skin turned bright red and painful in the sun despite my efforts to cover it up. Then it’s back to the Split to watch the sun descend again, a ball of raging light disappearing into the blue, splashing pink and orange across the sky.
Caye Caulker is a place overtaken by tourism, which, along with fishing, supports its economy. To a visitor, it is the perfect holiday destination: a mixture of decadence, hedonism, relaxation and natural beauty. Quiet Belize offers more than most places I’ve visited, and tourism might be the thing that ensures the young country’s survival. Anyone can find something they enjoy here. Whether addicted to adrenaline or craving a hammock to sip coconut water in, the rainforest and islands are paradise to all.