Belize was a place on my Bucket List (the list of things to do and places to see before I die), so I was thrilled to finally be heading to that small Central American country and its very, very big Blue Hole.
The Great Blue Hole is the world-famous sinkhole located in the Caribbean Sea near Ambergris Caye, at Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Surrounded by a lush reef system – Belize has the second longest barrier reef in the world, second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – the hole is a densely deep blue circle in the midst of turquoise blue waters. Attempting to scuba dive in the Great Blue Hole is not for amateurs, for, as Jacques Cousteau confirmed in the 1970’s, it goes to a depth of 400 feet. For divers, this place is at the top of any must-do list, despite the fact that it is practically devoid of fish, sharks, or any other creatures. Instead, it is about the doing, for it is a very deep dive (135 feet) into an eerie place, where huge stalactites hang in a lonely line.
Traveling to Ambergris Caye and the Great Blue Hole from Los Angeles took a while, via American Airlines through Dallas, to Belize City, then on to a Tropic Air puddlejump flight to San Pedro on the caye, where I then headed to Matachica Beach Resort. A wonderfully relaxed tropical oasis, the resort offers beachfront thatched-roof casitas with private patios, hammocks, air conditioning, and indigenous Central American furnishings; and luxury villas with two bedrooms, two baths, living room, and kitchenette, with patio and a separate screened-in sun deck. Either accommodation is extremely comfortable, but don’t look for televisions or wireless Internet.
This is a true escape from reality, with sun, sand, and soft beds as the only distractions. (Both Internet access and televisions with DVD players are available in the main building’s library, if you have to be connected.)
Once settled in, I hooked up with the folks at Amigos del Mar Dive Shop, one of the island’s most reputable dive companies, in order to get my Great Blue Hole fix, as well as a chance to experience a number of the other well known spots around the reef. Riding out to the sites on Amigos’ well-equipped boats with snorkelers and divers from around the globe as the brilliant sunshine illuminated the clean, clear waters made the whole experience a Bucket List checkoff to remember. The sharks, rays, eels, and myriad tropical fish and beautiful reef formations we found under the warm water were just icing on the cake: Belize was everything I had hoped for, and I had only been there for a couple of days.
After enjoying Matachica for a few days, I moved on to Victoria House, the ultimate luxury hotel on Ambergris Caye. With its plantation-style architecture, massive swimming pool, white-sand beach, and gourmet restaurants, this is a special place, where the hotel’s attentive Belizean staff quickly caters to one’s every need. And if being plugged in to the outside world is a key to your having a relaxing time on vacation, Victoria House offers all the connections you need – CNN, WiFi, IPod docks.
For those who like a bit of home while away, Belize is just exotic enough to be different than America, yet just about everyone in this friendly country that’s about the size of Massachusetts speaks English. With a melting pot of various ethnic groups, including descendents of the original Mayan civilization that flourished here, as well as Spanish, British (Belize was once known as British Honduras), Mestizo, Kriols, Asian, and even Mennonites, there are certainly many other languages spoken in this ethnically diverse country, with Spanish being the most common.
Out on Ambergris Caye, there wasn’t much need to brush off my Spanish, as English really was the language of choice, but once I headed back onto the mainland to the gorgeously wild Cayo District in the far west of Belize, a modicum of Español was definitely helpful. Although at the brand new Ka’ana Boutique Resort, located near San Ignacio in the Maya Mountains rainforest, English is definitely the first language for Nick Davies, the affable general manager originally from Britain. Upon your arrival at the small hotel (boasting only 10 casitas and 5 rooms), Davies and his staff will greet you warmly, get you settled in, and then he’ll proudly show you the Ka’ana Wine Cellar for welcoming drinks.
It would be easy to just hang out at this lovely little resort, lounging by the pretty swimming pool while munching on Chef Manolo Castillo’s perfectly fried calamari and zucchini sticks and sipping on a fabulously blended Strawberry Colada, but that would defeat the purpose of coming so far. For Ka’ana is surrounded by incredible adventure opportunities, beginning with a massive Mayan ruin known as Xunantunich, which boasts a pyramid known as “El Castillo” thought to be constructed between 300-900 AD.
Take the hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River, then climb to the top of the pyramid for a vista that stretches from Guatemala to the west and across the Belizean rain forest to the east. There are stucco facades to explore, other ruins to wander through, and stele dating from 200 AD to admire; all in all, a fascinating trip, capped off with a visit to the assorted souvenir booths lined just across the river from the ferry stop, where locals sell carved masks, woven bags, and handmade jewelry.
Make sure to head to Jaguar Paw, too, where a sky-high zip line canopy tour awaits. Skitter across steel cables high in the trees, then rappel down to solid ground, where spider monkeys and iguanas watch with bemusement. Then slip on your bathing suit and water shoes, grab an inner tube, and head further into the rainforest with your guide, who will show you the Caves Branch River, where a network of pitch-black cave tunnels await. With headlamps lit, you’ll float through the maze of tunnels, where bats hang on the ceiling, stalactites and stalagmites give off weird shapes in the dark, and bright sunlight breaks though cracks in the stone. It’s an unforgettable river ride.
Actually, every minute of my Belizean experience was extraordinarily memorable, making the country’s offer to allow American citizens to retire there, provided you are over 45 and can show proof of $2,000 in income a month, something to think about. But then there’s that pesky Bucket List of mine, and so many other places to see and experience before I am done. But beautiful Belize may just call me back again, sooner or later; only time will tell.
Photos by Jenny Peters, except Blue Hole photo courtesy Belize Tourism and Ka’ana photo courtesy Ka’ana Boutique Resort.