Naturally Wonderful Belize Adventure: The country formerly known as British Honduras offers more than the usual Caribbean sand and sea. It has a barrier reef, rain forests, Mayan ruins and also a sense of humor.

December 22, 1996|By Ginger Dingus | Ginger Dingus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

You have got to love a country where they name their towns Gallon Jug, Doublehead Cabbage and Never Delay, and where they call the flowers "hot lips," "Polly redhead" and "stinking toe."

Add the world's second largest barrier reef, lush rain forests teeming with exotic flora and fauna and a generous share of ancient Mayan ruins to that easygoing sense of humor.

It's no wonder active travelers are putting Belize at the top of their "must see" lists.

Belize, formerly British Honduras and now a member of the British Commonwealth, is on the Caribbean, or east, coast of the Yucatan peninsula. This compact country measures roughly 65 miles wide and 180 miles long, and one is always within a day's drive of the Caribbean coast.

The warm, turquoise waters of the Caribbean, in fact, are what first attracted adventure seekers to Belize. In the 1970s, scuba divers and sport fishermen began arriving at the cays (pronounced keys) for a chance to experience the incredible abundance and variety of tropical fish and coral formations found along the 185-mile long reef (second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef).

Diving and fishing off the cays still have their following, but travelers are discovering that mainland Belize offers a fascinating wealth of activities.

"The good thing about Belize is that you can still find real adventure. It's unspoiled," said Javier Gutierrez, the local guide who led our group of 15, organized by Backroads of Berkeley, Calif., on a walking tour through the inland mountains and rain forests.

We met Javier and our two American Backroads leaders at the Belize City airport. We, a mixed bag of couples and singles ranging from 30-something yuppies to 60-something retirees, hopped in a van for a hot, bumpy, three-hour drive west to the Maya Mountains.

Although relatively short, the distance proved deceptive. "It always takes longer than you expect," Javier cautioned. "None of our roads, except the main ones, are paved."

Relaxing with Jaguar Juice

Arriving at the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, we eased ourselves into the laid-back Belizean lifestyle with a glass of Jaguar Juice. This rum and pineapple refresher welcomed us to Blancaneaux Lodge, our first stop, and until a few years ago the private retreat of owner and film director Francis Ford Coppola. The tranquil, isolated setting led from a gently rippling river through manicured flower gardens up to a hillside dotted with thatch-roofed cabanas and villas, each decorated with local materials.

Alternating between cool pine forest and steamy broadleaf jungle, the protected Mountain Pine Ridge and neighboring Hidden Valley Reserve beckoned us to lace up our hiking boots and explore the secluded trails. From high in the hills, shimmering waterfalls tumbled down sheer limestone cliffs, forming pristine pools in jungly basins below. After a day's trek through the rain forest, the lure of a dip under the dazzling Butterfly Falls proved irresistible.

The bird-watchers in our group uncovered a paradise with more than 200 species in this region alone. They watched rare king vultures gracefully circle nests perched precariously on the rocks beside King Vulture Falls. A lucky few got to see a pair of endangered orange-breasted falcons.

Given time, it would have been possible to spot other wildlife -- the puma, ocelot, tapir or elusive jaguar.

Ancient Mayan sites

Together with natural wonders, the jungles support equally intriguing human-made wonders. Of the 15 Mayan sites open to visitors, we opted for Caracol, rapidly emerging as the most significant. Discovered in 1937 by a resident harvesting gum from the sapodilla trees, Caracol stands at the end of a 30-mile dirt road, impassable in the rainy season.

In its heyday around 400 A.D., it housed an estimated population of 180,000. The site, now undergoing active excavation, contains an incredible 4,000 structures and covers some 55 square miles.

A strenuous climb up the steep stone stairs of the 139-foot-high Caana, or Sky Place, gave us a panoramic view and an indication why Mayan royalty rarely descended from their lofty living quarters to the plaza below.

As a reward for walking in the footsteps of the Mayas in the sticky heat, Javier took us to the Rio Frio Cave. Centuries ago, Mayan priests held rituals within its dark, cavernous limestone halls. Today, the brave cool off with a ritual splash in its namesake, the icy river running through it.

The next day, we drove out of the mountains and down to the lowlands to visit the Belize Zoo. There, the fun-loving nature of the Belizeans became readily apparent. Instead of routine identification signs, tongue-in-cheek greetings introduced the zoo's 100 native inhabitants:

"Don't look at me and say 'anteater,' " warned the tapir, preferring her common name of mountain cow.

"Want to hear something that will curl your toes?" quipped a sleek ocelot.

The zoo provided an excellent look at a wide range of creatures we, unfortunately, missed seeing in the wild.

Howler monkeys

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