A gift from nature
Central American country an unspoiled paradise
By KENNETH BAGNELL, SPECIAL TO SUN MEDIA
Every place, a writer once said, is a unique place if it be truly known.
That's easily true of Belize, where my wife and I passed the better part of a week not long ago.
It's on the coast of Central America, bordered by Guatamala, Mexico and the Caribbean sea. It's a small country, so that a long day's drive might pretty well take you north to south, through hamlets with names out of a colonial past -- Sandhill, Ladyville and Middlesex.
But what assures Belize a permanent place in memory is the remarkable gift nature gave it. It has countless islands and the longest barrier reef in the hemisphere, stretching about 257 km.
Belize is a natural paradise -- a habitat for almost 600 species of birds and more than 4,000 forms of plant life. On meandering rivers, ageless mangroves shelter iguanas, and crocodiles laze in afternoon sun.
We settled in at the Fort George, a Radisson hotel in Belize City on a B&B plan. We had a ground floor room with patio, all shaded by lush vines and coconut palms, from where at 6 p.m., almost on cue, exotic birds (orioles and kisadees I was told) twittered their welcome to evening.
We might have just stayed around the hotel, with its two pools and fine colonial furnishings, but that would be an obvious mistake.
Fort George Manager Jim Scott puts it this way: "Belize is for travellers even more than tourists."
Scott should know, the Michigan native went to Belize with the Peace Corp in the late 1980s, and liked it so much he stayed.
So we signed up for guided trips, each turning out well, with a handful of serious visitors.
The first took us over the narrow Belize River aboard a small boat with guide Mario Gonzalez. Slipping past mangroves, the experienced Gonzalez often spotted exotic life from a hundred metres. He cut the motor as we drew close enough to see an iguana, lying almost invisible on grey branches or crocodiles slumbering beside spider lilies.
"Keep your eyes open and your hands out of the water," the always-witty Gonzalez said.
After a roadside lunch of a Belize staple, rice and beans, we headed further north to some of the most treasured ruins in Central America, the remains of a Mayan town, Altun Ha. The Mayans -- an Amerindian people said to have flourished on the land since 1,500 BC -- left testimony to their civilization in stone edifices in Belize, Guatamala and Mexico.
At Altun Ha, the most impressive is a temple, which during excavation revealed the remains of an elderly person, and a 15-cm carving said to be the largest piece of jade recovered from a Mayan site. Other digs revealed more and set the stage for further work.
"The more you restore," said Mario, "the more you have to restore in the future."
IT'S A JUNGLE OUT THERE
In the early 1980s, American biologist Sharon Matola founded the Belize Zoo, providing a home for hundreds of displaced or mistreated animals. Here, they don't live in cages, but flourish in natural surroundings. We spent much of an afternoon with guide Dana Clancy, strolling among 120 species of Belizean wildlife, including spider monkeys, jabiru storks and jaguaroundi. Once we paused while Clancy spoke to a colourful parrot she clearly knew:
"How are you today?
"See you next time."
"Fine by me."
He could have been speaking to us.