A journey to ‘Mother Nature’s Best-Kept Secret’

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11920394492378.jpg’, ‘Photo by Drake Baer’, ‘A goatfish hides among coral.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119203946528107.jpg’, ‘Photo by Drake Baer’, ‘A spotted eel ventures out of his coral home.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119203948224025.jpg’, ‘Photo by Drake Baer’, ‘A nurse shark rests on the sandy bottom. ‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119203940330183.jpg’, ‘Photo by Drake Baer’, ‘Scurvy of the Heritage Cruze holds an exhibition jar of sea horses. The Heritage Cruze crew makes an effort to help the sea horse population.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11920394314501.jpg’, ‘Photo by Drake Baer’, ‘Scurvy of the Heritage Cruze feeds a frigate bird while touring around Caye Coulker.‘);

Belize bills itself as “Mother Nature’s Best-Kept Secret.” The slogan hints at the economic malaise the country has experienced since its inception, while also referring to its No. 1 selling point: an incredible bounty of wildlife, including the second-largest barrier reef on the planet.

I was lucky enough to visit during the meteor shower, and the sky was clear enough to see the gently-tousled cotton-candy strains of the Milky Way, as shooting stars fell across the heavens.

The total in-air time to Belize City is about the same as heading to Seattle or San Francisco, four-and-a-half hours or so, but the inevitable layover in Houston or Dallas will add on to that time, as well as the water-taxi ride out to the islands. In my experience, it amounts to about 12 hours of traveling. There is always a chance of luggage being misplaced—so the savvy traveler will bring swimsuit and mask on the carry-on.

The mainland offers Mayan ruins and a thick tropical rainforest, famous for its snakes and the elusive, almost mythical jaguar. One British dive-partner of mine, Josh, described an adventure he had while camping in the bush. One night, his guide took him and another out into jungle, making jaguar calls—with the warning that it sometimes worked. As Josh returned, he heard a growl and met an emerald gaze. It was a moment he wouldn’t forget.

If you’re like my family and me, you’re coming for the water. Head on out to the Cayes, from the Spanish cayo, for island fun. Ambergis Caye is home to San Pedro, a relatively populous city for this area, with a big party scene, think Cancun. For a more relaxed vibe, its southerly neighbor Caye Caulker can supply much in the way of rum punch and related activities.

Until humans finally evolve to have gills—an issue I’ve been pressing for quite some time now—the best way to get deep is to use everyone’s favorite underwater breathing apparatus, SCUBA. I was certified to be a PADI open-water diver by the good folks at Forest City Scuba, so when I arrived in Belize, I was able to tackle the water head—and fin-on. Just be sure to equalize on your way down.

The sense of freedom in the water is otherworldly. Dropping down 60 feet to rub shoulders with a squadron of nurse shark is breathtaking. Yellow-eyed jacks, large grouper, a variety of coral, and an explosion of tropical fish all await in the warm waters.

The Blue Hole, near Lighthouse Reef, offers a rare experience: the descent into nearly full darkness, as surface sunlight dissipates further into the primordial hollow. But in Belize, when you stare into the abyss, reef sharks stare back at you. The journey to 120 feet below the surface is exhilarating as the ancient stalactites surrounding the ancient collapsed cavern.

Aside from the Blue Hole, many other dive sites surround Belize. I was lucky enough to encounter a trio of sea turtles, a collection of eels, including one green moray that swam beside us for what seemed like 100 yards, as well as the beautiful, graceful spotted eagle ray.

Although Belize is ancient, ruins and all, the country was founded in 1981, when Britain relinquished what was then British Honduras. Belize has the highest unemployment rate in Central America, and also the highest poverty rate, with a third of the population living in poverty. However, the country’s GDP per capita annual growth rate is at 2.3 percent, one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere, according to UNICEF. The growth may serve to relieve a struggling economy, but is not universally welcome.

Kathy Dalton, a transplant from Colorado, became co-owner of Belize Diving Services in October 1996. Since then, the population of the island has risen notably, from 800 to 2,000 residents. Buildings of three stories or more are new to the island and unwelcome to the natives, she said.

“I fear in 10 years it will be another San Pedro, where you can’t even breathe,” she said, referring to the bustling tourist spot to the north.

When I returned from Belize, my girlfriend thought I had dropped some weight. There is perhaps no better way to diet than to eat nothing but fresh-caught fish and fruits.

Head to Amor Y Cafe for lovingly-prepared breakfast foods, including a fantastic iced coffee, with coffee ice cubes, that the Parisian purist will love.

Habanaros and Agave, two newer restaurants on the island, offer interesting, and very well-prepared, culinary creations. But for authentic island fare, head to Fran’s. A gazebo, a smattering of picnic tables on the beach, grills, and the incomparably friendly Fran. $12.50 American for a beautiful, garlic-butter lobster fillet is unbeatable. One Italian man sitting next to us ate two.

A tension lies among development, tourism, and money coming into the island and the well-being of the ecosystem. In 1998, the Belizean government created the Caye Caulker Forest and Marine Reserves, a conservation move pushed for by the locals. However, business continues to grow.

The Johnny Appleseed of Caye Caulker conservation is Ras Creck, an amiable Rasta who ties his Heritage Cruze boat at the Lazy Lizard bar on the north end of the island. In a joyously lethargic tour of the island, Ras will pontificate about the history of the island.

This man claims to have found the Shark Ray Alley, what he originally called the Shark-Ray village, to which snorkeling companies bring their clients. The island also has a wild seahorse population, which has been threatened by business. Ras has become their ranger, relocating any seahorses that may have wandered into danger to a small reserve he set up.

“They get stressed by all the boats, so I move them here,” he said, expressing a sentiment felt by seahorses and humans alike.

from the Oct. 10, 2007, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!