Soaking Up the Good Life at Belize's Maruba Spa

RAIN FOREST RETREAT

April 14, 1996|By Katti Gray

I lay there, mummified, wrapped in layers of aluminum foil and steaming, herb-soaked towels. I couldn't move. Not my legs, not my arms, not even a hand to wipe my sweating face.

I was prone on a wooden table in a thatched-roof, adobe hut reserved for pampering the bodies that pass through Maruba Resort, a spa in the rain forest of northern Belize.

My heart was racing, my blood boiling, thumping in my ears. I fought an urge to freak completely out and demand that Elena Garcia, the young attendant who had bound me, kindly remove the constraints before I suffocated.

"Elena," I whispered, so as not to disturb the strains of American Indian flute music coming from the tape playing in the room. "My left hand is numb."

Elena, a Belizean woman-child of 18, unwrapped a bit of towel. I wiggled my fingers back into circulation. She tucked them back in.

"How much longer?" I asked.

Elena smiled. No reply.

"How far am I into it?" I was more emphatic.

"Not far," she said. "You have 32 minutes to go, but you will be so beautiful, so sexy."

Elena dabbed my face and smiled again, I guess, to soothe and sell me on the merits of this herbal wrap.

"OK," I relented, drawing a deep, calming breath and reminding myself that this was part of the spa experience.

Retreat ... Relax ... Restore ... is the motto at Maruba, a destination I set out for last year. I vowed at the start of the year to break new ground in my life. I was, after all, to celebrate a benchmark birthday (35). Perhaps I'd get a mortgage. At least, I'd embark on a first-ever vacation alone.

So I ended up at Maruba, on the outskirts of Maskall Village, an hourlong ride over 28 rough miles from Belize City, the capital of this Central American nation on the Caribbean Sea. Maruba's owners, a doctor and his family from suburban Chicago, run the place. They've dubbed it an "eco-spa" for the body, and for adventurous spirits intent on learning something of the ancient Mayans, who established empires here 3,500 years ago.

Almost all of what's concocted for the body's exterior and stomach is grown on the 1,000 acres Maruba occupies, extracted from the nearby bush or bought from the local people, the owners say.

"Why not use the real thing instead of getting it from somewhere else, diluted," said Si Si Nicholson, one of the proprietors. "I didn't see why, in a country like Belize, we'd have to import all the products when there is so much to work with here."

This I liked. Maruba would let me luxuriate without betraying my working-class roots too terribly.

To be certain, it hardly fit the image of spas I'd seen pictured in magazines. The resort is comprised of 30 cabanas, just one with a television and videocassette recorder. Its motif is African and Mayan, with some art deco added for flourish. There are carvings of soapstone and wood, and ceremonial masks and blazing red hibiscus petals are everywhere, even as garnish for the coconut shells filled with libations for guests.

White towels, turbans and bathrobes are nonexistent. The terry cloth is decidedly green, in keeping with the decor and the owners' quest to remind visitors of the link between the operation and its environs. Part of the spa itself is a working farm, with caged animals, a pet ocelot and a wild boar.

At Maruba, one can choose a deprivation diet of vegetables, fruits, juices -- tamarind, watermelon and banana were the more exotic blends -- fish and lean meats. Or, you can do as I did en route to gaining 3 pounds during my six-day stay, and select Spanish omelets, refried beans and Belizean tortillas rolled thick like biscuits and spread with mango chutney.

The rum punch was the best. And I'd no inkling that banana strudel could be so fresh and fluffy. For balance, I did eat such dishes as cho-cho, a local specialty of cassava and okra, grilled snapper and ratatouille.

My belly full, I retired to my room most evenings, burning incense to ward off mosquitoes and letting crickets lull me to sleep. Most days the rooster's cry woke me for a schedule of swimming, sunning, countryside exploration and body treatments.

The one that sent my heart pumping involved towels boiled in a lime, allspice, orange and pimento mix. I did eventually relax, possibly exhausted from all the sweating, maybe succumbing to the mood music and the horses whinnying in the adjoining pasture. Indeed, when the towels and foil were peeled away, I was primed for a nap.

Other offerings are listed on the "health and rejuvenation" menu: full-body or aromatherapy massages, seaweed body wraps, sea sulfur or clay body packs, sand scrubs, facials, manicures, pedicures, the African honey bee pat. An outdoor mineral bath that conducts its own heat was available around-the-clock, in my case, helping to relieve the 23 mosquito bites I counted across my flesh by Day 3.

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