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.

THE BALTIMORE 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

We did, however, encounter black howler monkeys in their natural habitat. Within the confines of the Community Baboon Sanctuary, troops of howlers roared, cavorted and swung through their favorite trees while we walked over the fields below. This protected, 20-square-mile range originated as a voluntary undertaking by 100 local farmers and, at last count, housed 1,800 of the endangered monkeys, known locally as baboons.

We ended the walking portion of our adventure by probing for the secrets of the Mayas at Altun Ha, once a bustling trading center near the Caribbean. Then we hiked to a waiting speedboat going downriver and heading out to sea and the magnificent Belize Barrier Reef.

The boat docked at Ambergris Cay, the largest and most developed of the string of islands scattered inside the reef and the closest access to a spectacular underwater world.

Eager to snorkel

We checked into Victoria House, a beachfront resort with a choice of thatch-roofed casitas or airy modern rooms set amid stately coconut palms. Within minutes, we were all back on the boat, eager to try snorkeling -- novices and experts alike.

We anchored at Hot Chan Marine Reserve, a 5-square-mile water park where, through snorkel masks, we saw a vast garden of swaying corals and an array of brilliantly hued fish of every size and description. Two saucer-shaped stingrays glided past. A sea turtle emerged. Those choosing to scuba plunged down a dramatic wall of sheer coral at the reef's outer edge.

Having spent a week viewing wildlife from below and above the water, hiking through mountains and rain forests, and exploring Mayan ruins, we decided a bit of rest and relaxation was in order before the flight back home.

On the sandy beach of Ambergris Cay, it was time to pull up a lounge chair, lie back and listen to the breeze rustle through the palms and the waves break over the reef.

If you go...

Getting there: Miami, Houston and New Orleans are each about two hours by air from Belize City. TACA has nonstop service from all three. American flies nonstop from Miami. Continental flies from Houston. Tropic Air provides 20-minute service between Belize City and Ambergris Cay. Passports, but not visas, are required for U.S. citizens.

When to go: Belize has a subtropical climate with two seasons, rainy (mid-May to November) and dry (November through April). Travel in the dry period is preferable, especially because most interior roads are unpaved.

Belize walk: Backroads offers five- to 11-day inn-to-inn (or camping) walks in Central and South America, Canada, the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe. The eight-day Belize trip costs $2,298 and includes most meals, hotels, admission fees, transfer to Ambergris Cay, van support and the services of two tour leaders and two local guides. Airfare to Belize is extra. Contact Backroads at (800) 462-2848. Other tours include Temptress Voyager, a casual 63-passenger ship offering six-night Belize cruises, (800) 336-8423, and International Expeditions, (800) 633-4734.

More information: Belize Tourist Board, 421 Seventh Ave., Suite 701, New York, N.Y. 10001; (800) 624-0686.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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