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Belize It: Ecotourism in Belize
Susan Klann

The screenprinted t-shirts at the international airport in Belize City are faithful to this Central American nationapostrophes spectacular natural and man-made wonders: rainforests and barrier reefs teeming with life; towering Mayan temples; deserted mangrove and palm cayes dotting the turquoise Caribbean; thatched-roof huts nestled in the verdant Maya Mountains. Underscoring Belizeapostrophes commitment to preserving these riches through ecotourism are bumperstickers and signs warning, "Betta no litta."

While other countries have destroyed vast tracts of their rainforests to promote farming or logging, Belizeapostrophes rainforests, pine forests, mangrove swamps and offshore reef systems remain largely intact. The tiny country--about the size of Massachusetts--boasts extensive national parks and reserves, including the worldapostrophes only jaguar reserve.

Belize offers a nearly unbeatable array of adventures, particularly for families with children. Be sure to take binoculars and underwater cameras for everyone. Expect adventure, because the infrastructure of Belize and its general amenities are rough. If you want to stay put in a comfortable resort and sample the fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving at popular cayes such as Ambergris, you can avoid the countryapostrophes rough edges--but you will miss out on its most compelling beauty and character.

We organized our trip around two areas: The Placencia Peninsula, which features the best beaches in Belize and easy access to marine activities, and the western town of San Ignacio and the nearby Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, from which you can explore Mayan ruins, caves and rivers.

Placencia

The four-hour drive south from Belize City to Placencia quickly immerses travelers in the countryapostrophes natural beauty. The rough road bisects lagoons, citrus orchards and savannas, and winds along the scalloped edges of the cloud-capped Mayan Mountains. Belize is laced with beautiful rivers that help to attract the countryapostrophes 520 species of birds. We spotted toucans, fork-tailed flycatchers, roadside hawks and laughing falcons. An English birdwatching group claimed to have seen 300 different species in just three weeks in Belize.

The coastal town of Dangriga, just before the turnoff to Placencia Peninsula, offers access to snorkeling, scuba diving and sport fishing. Like Placencia, it was settled by the Black Caribs known as Garifunas, escaped slaves who migrated to Belize around 1800. Their picturesque villages consist of tiny weathered wood houses set high on stilts to catch the sea breezes.

We spent our first week at the Nautical Inn resort at the edge of the Garifuna village of Seine Bight on the peninsula. Resorts here typically feature individual cabanas set on the beach amid palms with a common lodge for dining and socializing. Guests can choose daily among snorkeling or scuba diving trips to islands such as Laughing Bird or Queens Cayes.

A day trip to the 99,000-acre Jaguar Reserve in the Cockscomb Basin shouldnapostrophet be missed. Once at park headquarters, follow the trail signs for Benapostrophes Bluff and Waterfall paths, keeping an eye out for jaguar tracks. Take along swimming suits for a refreshing dip in the waterfall pool.

Many resorts arrange for local guides to take guests on a boat trip up Monkey River into the jungle. Youapostrophell see howler monkeys, crocodiles, birds, iguanas and bats along the banks of this wide, winding river. The jungle hike is a delight in the dry season (late-January to May), but at the end of December we slogged through muddy water up to our thighs while the guide slashed the path clear with his machete. The tour concludes with a lunch and tour of Monkey River Town, a sleepy village at the juncture of Monkey River and the Caribbean. Donapostrophet miss the townapostrophes caged gibnuts, the little rodents that earned the affectionate appellation "the Royal Rat" after Queen Elizabeth dined on them during an official visit.

Placencia is a haven for world-class sport fishing. The local guide (just ask for Egbert) got us into an exciting day of flyfishing for bonefish off the mangrove islands and on the flats. Non-stop action made for an unforgettable day in the shallow, translucent water, which fades nearly imperceptibly into the cloud-streaked sky. The Holy Grail of fishing--the elusive permit--even cooperated, if only for a second before breaking off.

Be sure to visit the village of Placencia at the tip of the peninsula. Known for having the "narrowest main street in the world"--actually, a narrow paved sidewalk--itapostrophes a peaceful spot with an extensive beach, relaxed restaurants and pastel houses on stilts. Watch for the hand-lettered sign pointing the way to "John the Baker Man", and sample his fresh cinnamon rolls and lemon tarts.

Mayan Ruins & Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve

After retracing our steps up the peninsula, we followed the Hummingbird Highway into the mountainous Cayo District. The paved road leads through upland countryside and mountains, with vistas of hills swathed in jungle, patchworks of citrus orchards, shimmering rivers and thatched roof villages. Along the way, visit Guancaste National Park for a short guided tour of rainforest species, including a giant guancaste tree hung with air plants. Also stop off at Blue Hole National Park, a lovely swimming spot just off the road. The Cayo District features many spectacular caves that you can tour in inner tubes or by foot. Try Caves Branch Adventures Jungle River Camp.

The town of San Ignacio climbs the banks of the Macal River and is a jumping off point from which to explore the districtapostrophes Mayan ruins and the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. During the dry season--the road was open by late December--you can visit the impressive Mayan ruin of Caracol, which once boasted a population of 150,000. Archaeologists are continuing to strip the jungle away from this Mayan stronghold, which eventually conquered Guatemalaapostrophes mighty Tikal (see sidebar).

The siteapostrophes jungle setting and isolation allow one to ponder, uninterrupted by tour groups or soft-drink vendors, the mysteries of the Mayan empire. Although the road through the forest reserve to Caracol is extremely rough, and negotiating the 30-mile route will exhaust two hours, it is well worth the effort. You may find yourself the sole visitor exploring an acropolis, climbing one of the stone temples or resting on the wall of a palace residence. The archeologists are in residence from February on. Birdlife abounds: We spotted colorful oscillated turkeys, crimson tanagers, trogans and puff birds.

Break up the return trip through the pine forest with a stop at the sparkling Rio Onapostrophes series of pools and cascading waterfalls, a favorite with children.

Numerous mountain lodges host guests in the Cayo District. A unique lodge designed to blend into its forest surroundings is Blanncano, owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola. Like many of the lodges, Mountain Pine Ridge Lodge conducts tours for its guests to the Rio On pools and cave; Caracol; and such sites as the spectacular waterfall known as Hidden Valley Falls.

An easy half-hour drive west from San Ignacio, nearly on the border with Guatemala, is the Mayan ruin of Xunantunich. A climb to the top of El Castillo, the tallest temple, leaves you breathlessly surveying a 360-degree vista of Belizeapostrophes exquisite countryside. The visitorapostrophes center shelters some of the carved stellae found at the site.

In touring Belize, you will help to underwrite the preservation of its rare rainforests, wildlife, and reef ecosystems. Tourists do not yet overrun Belize, but locals report a definite increase in tourism and the development it inevitably ushe