Of Reefs and Ruins: Whether on Its Forested Mainland or in Its Coral Cayes, Belize Is a Tropical Retreat Ripe for Tourism


by Kenneth Brower

THE NATURAL fabric of Belize is as rich and variegated as any natural fabric on earth. Belize —the old British Honduras, independent since 1981— sits at the southeastern corner of the Yucatán Peninsula, a brand-new little country composed almost entirely of the two most fecund and diverse ecosystems on the planet: tropical forest and coral reef.

Seventy percent of Belize is forested, and more than 40 percent of the country’s primary forest still stands. In Costa Rica, a neighboring nation famous for its enlightened programs of rain-forest preservation, only 15 percent of the original forest remains. Belize is the smallest country in Central America, yet more jaguars survive there than in any of its neighbor states. Belizean forests are a refuge for tapirs, ocelots, anteaters, iguanas, crocodiles, cougars, howler monkeys, and polychromatic tropical birds in 533 varieties. What strikes a visitor from the west, flying in over the overpopulated, fraying terrain of southern Mexico, is the sudden, unmitigated greenness of Belize’s jungles. What strikes a visitor from the south, flying in over the trammeled, troubled landscapes of El Salvador and Guatemala, is that same green. What strikes the visitor arriving from the north or east is the white filigrees of surf along Belize’s reefs and coral cayes. Belize boasts the longest barrier reef this side of Australia.

Belize’s humanity is nearly as diverse as its nature. What Belize calls Creoles—Afro-Belizeans, descendants of slaves who worked the sugar plantations—predominate along the coast. Inland are three different Maya tribes, mestizos of several sorts, expatriate Americans, Guatemalan refugees, Mennonite farmers. There are Chinese in Belize, Lebanese, East Indians. On the southern coast live the Garifuna, the descendants of slave-ship Africans who intermarried with Carib Indians. Belizean humanity is various without being numerous. The country is slightly larger than Massachusetts, yet has just 180,000 inhabitants—and thus the unmitigated green. One hears everything in Belize—Spanish, German, Maya, the Garifunas’ Afro-Carib tongue—but English is spoken by the majority of the populace. The monolingual North American traveler has no trouble getting around. Even the currency is easy. One U.S. dollar gets you two dollars Belize.

In the past few years tourism has begun to rival sugarcane as an earner of foreign exchange for Belize, yet in no sense is the country overrun. It feels like a place where the wave of tourists is about to hit but hasn’t yet. This intimation first struck me on the bus ride from the airport to Belize City. It owed partly to the new tarmac and terminal at the airport, partly to the new villas under construction in the roadside mangroves, and mostly to my sense that there should be more tourists here. Given the greenness, the Mayan ruins in the interior, the absence of guerrillas and death squads, and the English spoken here, more gringos with cameras should have been aboard that bus.

My hotel in Belize City, the Chateau Caribbean, was an old seafront Victorian, partitioned and painted the palest apricot. Scenes from The Dogs of War were filmed here. The interior has a pleasant decrepitude—just the right ambience, Hollywood apparently figured, for a tale about white mercenaries and post-colonial corruption. (There are bigger, fancier places to stay, like the Fort George, next door, and any number of cheaper places— guesthouses where you can get a room for $15 Belize.) A lateen sail passed outside my window: Creole fishing boat going out. Frigate birds were patrolling the seafront on their fixed black seven-foot wingspans. Black vultures were squabbling over something on the seawall.

I spent the afternoon walking around Belize City. A quarter of the country’s population lives in this town. Belize City was once the capital, but in 1961 Hurricane Hattie flattened the place, and the government relocated inland, at Belmopan. Several foreign embassies declined, sensibly, to follow their hosts to the heat of the Belmopan savanna. Many Belizean officials feel the same way about Belmopan—Belize’s Brasilia—and they daily commute the fifty miles from Belize City to the imitation Mayan temple of their legislature. The former capital is a town of white clapboard and tin roofs, frigate birds and pelicans, coconut palms and bougainvillaea, a few hard characters (at least one guidebook warns visitors not even to talk to strangers who approach), a couple of crazies, lots of Creole kids in school uniforms.

TOURISM IN Belize began offshore, on the country’s reefs and cayes. “The Belize coral reef ecosystem is unique in the Western Hemisphere on account of its size, its array of reef types and the luxuriance of corals thriving in such a pristine condition,” according to Coral Reefs of the World, the bible in these matters. The center of tourism in Belize is Ambergris Caye, the northernmost caye in the country. There are more than twenty hotels and an airstrip on Ambergris. Hol Chan Marine Reserve, five square miles of protected area at the southern end of the caye, is one of the finer marine parks in the Caribbean. Hol Chan Cut is a fine dive spot. The snorkeling and glass-bottom-boating are good, and the marlin fishing out of Ambergris is said to be excellent.

There is a nice range of accommodations in the cayes. At the upper end are a number of the resorts on Ambergris Caye; Blue Marlin Lodge, on South Water Caye; and Manta Resort, at the southern tip of Glover’s Reef. Less expensive are Caye Caulker (on some maps Caye Corker) and Caye Chapel. The Caye Caulker clientele, attracted by the simple guesthouses on the island, tends to be young and economical and to travel with backpacks. Caye Chapel is a playground of the British military stationed in Belize and has a single hotel, the Pyramid.

Only recently have travelers turned their attention to the Belizean mainland. This is odd, as the mainland is so rich. Along the Belizean shore grows some of the finest mangrove forest in the New World. The mangroves give way to a coastal plain extending many miles inland before Belize begins gently rising into the Maya Mountains and Cockscomb Range. The coastal plain is a country of low, hurricane-zone forest broken by savannas and interrupted by chains of large landlocked lagoons. The savannas are the country of the Jabiru stork, largest of American flying birds. The lagoons are inhabited by jacanas, which walk on floating vegetation on gigantic feet; by snail kites, noble-looking raptors that have resigned themselves to a subsistence on snails; by boat-billed herons, which go into paroxysms of quacking and bill-clopping when a boat nears their nesting trees; by coots, cormorants, anhingas. Lagoon fauna is best seen at Crooked Tree Sanctuary. Inland of lagoon, savanna, and hurricane zone begins the green of Belize’s moist tropical forest.

The wave of tourists cannot soon become a tsunami, in the opinion of tour people I asked, because Belize lacks the necessary infrastructure. There are several handfuls of places to stay on the mainland—the Pelican Beach Hotel, an old beachside colonial building in the Stann Greek District; Toucan Inn, a displaced English pub on Big Creek, at the mouth of Placencia Lagoon; Rum Point, on the Placencia Peninsula; Nature’s Way guesthouse, at Punta Gorda; and a few dozen more—but not enough to handle hordes.

One of my favorite places is the Chaa Creek Cottages, near the town of San Ignacio, in the Cayo District. The cottages at Chaa Creek overlook the Macal River and iguanas dozing on streamside branches. Disturbed, an iguana will roll off the branch and drop fifteen or twenty feet into the Macal. Chaa Creek’s owner and builder, Mick Fleming, spent his early career in Africa, and the cottages owe a debt to that continent: whitewashed mud walls, conical thatch roofs. The interiors are Central American: red-tile floors, Guatemalan wool blankets in bright patterns, kerosene lanterns by the headboards, etched gourds and Guatemalan hangings on the walls. Bird watchers need not leave the deck outside the Chaa Creek bar. The trees there are as colorful as Christmas trees, only in broad leaf, and with ornaments come alive—collared araçaris, keel-billed toucans, parrots, motmots, euphonias, hummingbirds— each crown a palimpsest, new birds continually passing through.

From Chaa Creek, I drove a short distance to the Mopan Maya village of Succotz, on the Mopan River, for a visit to the Mayan ruin of Xunantunich (Shoo-nahn-toon-EECH). To reach the ruin, one crosses the Mopan on a handcranked ferry. The little two-car barge moves so gently that the traveler is halfway across before he realizes his voyage has begun. The ferry is an ark for bats, and if you stamp on the planks of the prow, a few will skim off over the river.

Xunantunich is medium-sized, as Mayan sites go. It is not nearly so important as the ancient Belizean metropolis of Caracol, currently being excavated forty miles to the south. The Mayanists exhuming Caracol are convinced, as Mayanists are wont, that their city was the most important in Mayan civilization. They believe that Caracol prospered during the odd 150year period called the Hiatus. According to their interpretation of several old glyphs, Caracol succeeded in conquering the great city of Tikal, sixty-five miles away in Guatemala. No one makes this sort of claim for Xunantunich, but the site is the largest ceremonial center in the Belize River valley, and its main pyramid, “El Castillo,” remains the tallest manmade structure in Belize.

At Xunantunich I discovered how much I prefer ruins to reconstructions. Overgrown sections of dark, crumbling, unretouched old Mayan stairway, for me, were vastly more evocative than the “computer-enhanced” restoration, in pale new cement, of the astrological frieze that Mayanists think once adorned El Castillo. I like seeing my Mayan vestiges without the interpretation.

At the top of El Castillo, I began developing my own theories about the Maya. These pyramids—if not the Egyptian ones—are a basic human reaction to the rain forest, I decided, much as prehensile tails are a reaction in monkeys, and the climbing habit a reaction in vines. In the thick tropical forest of these Yucatán lowlands the pyramid was the only way to achieve vistas, to get above the claustrophobic canopy of trees. The Mayan social order was reinforced by the pyramid, maybe even flowed from it. Earlier, looking up from the pyramid’s base— the vantage of the Maya commoner—I had felt small and unimportant. Looking down now from El Castillo’s top— the vantage of the Maya priest—I felt mighty, in league with the wind and sky, brother to the hawk-eagle soaring to the northeast, monarch of all the hundreds of square miles I surveyed in Belize and Guatemala.

The twelve cabanas of Chan Chich Lodge sit near Belize’s border with Guatemala, in primary tropical forest, amid the temple mounds of a Mayan ruin. The lodge is a wonderful place. Miles of botanical trails, cleverly laid out and with intelligent commentary for self-guided tours, wander through the plazas of the ruin and then far out into the surrounding forest. Ocellated turkeys move among the cabanas of the lodge in early morning and at twilight, foraging the lawns and drumming. Oropendolas give their lunatic performances at midday, singing and spinning upside-down on high branches. Howler monkeys roar in the twilight hours, as Venus, the “Wasp Star” of the ancient Maya, begins to glitter in the west. Mottled owls call at night.

Among Mayanists there is a certain amount of consternation over the placement of the lodge in the middle of a Mayan ruin. In a hammock on my cabana deck, reading articles on Mayan archaeology, I tried to decide what I thought about this. Sitting inside the small Chan Chich pyramids, in the cool of looters’ trenches, I mulled the problem over.

The deep slot of a looters’ trench is a fine place for meditation. The trenches are dim but not dark, thanks to the chalky white limestone fill of which the pyramids are built. The looters’ trenches and tunnels are inhabited by leaf-nosed bats. The squeak of the bat radar is pitched above human hearing, but the soft wingbeats are audible. The meditator feels cool puffs of wind from the wings as the bats flutter past.

In the opinion of the Mayanists, Mayan ruins should be left to the Mayanists. In my opinion, as it developed in the looters’ trench in Chan Chich, a few Mayan ruins should be left to the rest of us.

“Some of the numbers the Maya reached in their fascination with time were very large,” Norman Hammond writes in Ancient Maya Civilization. “On one inscription at Quirigua a date 90 million years ago is recorded, and on another a period of 400 million years.” Time moves faster now than it did during the famous “Long Count” of the Maya calendar. In the preservation of its forests and wildlife, Belize no longer has Mayan eternities to play with.

“We don’t have a whole lot of time to set major areas of land aside,” Bruce Miller told me one night at Chan Chich. Miller, an environmental consultant to the government of Belize, is working hard to establish a biosphere reserve in the country. He and his wife, Carolyn, are the authors of the fine trail guide at Chan Chich. “We have more time in Belize than we do in other Central American countries,” Miller said. “We do at least have a little time to think.”

A little time, but not 400 million years. A short count has begun in the unspoiled forests of Belize. Best not wait too long.