Eco-Luxe in Belize

Parrish, a freelance writer, is a former business reporter for The Times

"It's a mystery to me why they're so friendly in here," says Ray Harberd as half a dozen big, iridescent Blue Morpho butterflies flap around his head, land briefly on his shoulder, then settle back among slowly quivering clumps of cousins resting just an inch under his hand.

In the wild, they are as skittish as tropical fish, as I remember from my last visit--almost 30 years ago--to this rain forest in Central America's only English-speaking nation.

It's January and we're on a lush jungle hillside near Belize's southern tip, in a one-story concrete building with netting for windows. It's the breeding facility, where caterpillars are reared in small round boxes and butterflies brush by. Harberd is giving the personal tour that he furnishes all visitors to Fallen Stones Butterfly Ranch and Jungle Lodge.

My friend and traveling companion, Kristin White, and I have come to Belize to be afoot in the jungle, to take stock of the exotic plants and animals that flourish in this small countryfacing the Caribbean just below Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It also turns out that Kris has a thing about caves, and in a limestone-rich land, they are plentiful. I'm also interested in seeing some of the newer ecological resorts known locally as jungle lodges, many of them far more comfortable than the basic lodgings of 30 years ago.

We plan to travel quite a lot using public transportation, mostly sturdy former U.S. school buses. They're perfectly safe and run on schedule, but you can't take one, for example, through the jungle to see Mayan ruins. Next visit, we're already planning to have a rental car lined up at Belize City's Philip Goldson International Airport.

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Eco-tourism has exploded worldwide, but few countries offer the opulent natural resources of Belize, the former British Honduras. For U.S. visitors, there's the added advantage of familiar languages--English and, almost everywhere, Spanish--as well as right-hand driving on generally decent roads, a stable government, unusual racial harmony, conveniently exchanged currency and a pretty high degree of personal safety.

Belize isn't cheap. The country has a fairly high living standard, and it instituted an unpopular 15% value-added tax two years ago, causing some tour operators to head for other countries. But this means less crowded sightseeing. Belize's total population of 200,000, about that of Huntington Beach, is scattered over a country the size of Massachusetts.

The country's flora and fauna, the caves, Mayan ruins, rivers, cays (pronounced "keys"), jungle and pine forest exist on a grand scale, however. There are wild orchids, hibiscus, 15 varieties of hummingbirds, black and spotted jaguar, tapirs, toucans and 500 other bird species, howler monkeys, manatees, iguanas, storks, coatimundis and--along the world's second-longest barrier reef after Australia's--a great aquarium of sea creatures.

Be warned: There isn't a golf course in the country. Most of Belize hits the sack around 9 p.m., particularly in the jungle lodges. Biting flies, mosquitoes and humidity must be contended with (See Practical Matters, this page). And even the well-named Belize First magazine admits that fancy dining is hard to find. But we eco-tourists haven't come to Belize searching for five-star restaurants.

Our first stop is Punta Gorda, in the extreme south, a drowsy little border burg that is mostly Garifuna--also known as the Black Caribs--a people descended from Africans and South American Indians. Here we find a good local guide (through Grace's restaurant in Punta Gorda), who steers us in his Isuzu Trooper over 15 miles of paved highway, then 22 miles of rough dirt track, to the butterfly ranch.

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In the rain forest around Punta Gorda, the wettest and most luxuriant in the country, are the Kekchi Mayan villages of San Antonio and San Pedro Colombia (the Toledo Ecotourism Assn., in Punta Gorda, can arrange overnight stays with village families). There's also Blue Creek Cave and Mayan ruins, including Nim Li Punit, Uxbenka and Lubaantun, which was a significant ceremonial and business center dating from about AD 700 to 900.

On the way to the ranch, we stop at Lubaantun ("the place of fallen stones," in one Maya dialect). Santiago Coc, son of a Kekchi mother and Mopan Maya father, is the guide and caretaker of the site for the Belize Department of Archeology, and he gives a knowledgeable tour of the grounds as part of his job (though he'll accept, and deserves, a tip at the end).

Though much meticulously placed rock work can be seen, the pyramids and ball courts have been only partially excavated. Several areas are jumbles of building stone.

The 42-acre butterfly ranch is on a sensational spot, the highest point for five miles around, with lofty views above the Maya Mountains Forest Reserve.

Two years ago, Harberd opened a jungle lodge on top of the hill, built and staffed by locals from the Mayan villages. The comfortable, secluded thatch-roofed cabins, fully bug-screened and with hot-water showers, have porches with private views of the rain forest canopy below. The lodge can handle 18 to 22 people at a time. The dining room and separate lounge and bar are showplaces for local woods.

That night, our chef, a courteous but not entirely shy young Mayan woman, comes out after dinner to ensure that we liked our beef in yogurt sauce, Potatoes Anna, feta cheese salad, vegetable soup, bread baked on the premises and lemon mousse with cream, all delicious.

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Our next stop is the beach at the curious town of Placencia, less than a hundred miles from Fallen Stones, a couple of hours on the local bus that we took. In Placencia, the main street is a sidewalk, about two feet wide, that runs along the sand between restaurants, saloons, gift shops and small hotels.

This is a T-shirt and shorts sort of place. We spend a particularly pleasant evening in conversation with visiting international tourists and Belizeans at the Cozy Corner Beach Bar and Restaurant, though there are good places to eat and drink, and to stay up late, elsewhere in the small town.

We stay that night at Kitty's Place, by most accounts the best and most interesting lodging, though it's a 1 1/2-mile hike down the road from town center. (Kitty rents bicycles.) Kitty Fox, formerly of Colorado, has reigned over the clean cabanas and picturesque, colonial-style restaurant and bar for the past decade. Fox also offers skin-diving expeditions, tours of nearby cays, tours down the Monkey River and about anything else legal that you want to do.

For our purposes, Placencia is close to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the jaguar preserve. Kitty's, as well as the Pelican Beach Resort, in Dangriga, can get you there, too, either by yourself or sharing transport and guide fees with other visitors. It's a ways off the main road, so plan to spend a day. Better yet, arrange with the Belize Audubon Society to stay overnight in the simple dormitories in the sanctuary. Don't let your hopes soar too high about seeing the nocturnal, and very smart, jaguar, however. One Placencia resident we ran into thinks she saw about four inches of a jaguar tail one night.

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"You've got no chance of seeing a jaguar by day," Kitty says flatly. "Maybe paw prints if you stay overnight at the Audubon dorms." What you're more likely to see trotting by at night is the Baird's tapir--known locally as the mountain cow--a nonthreatening relative of the horse that can weigh in at 600 pounds, or any of hundreds of tropical plants and animals.

Doubting that we would have time to make the necessary arrangements with the Audubon Society, which is based in Belize City, we head to the alluring beach--and the sand flies--for which we were unprepared.

No matter what you're told about bugs, slather on the repellent early and often.

We move on. The entire country is geared to nature-loving, but if there's a white hot center of eco-tourism, it's the Cayo District in western Belize. We get there, traveling overland along the occasionally bone-jarring but charming Hummingbird Highway. To fly from Placencia to Belize City, then out west, would have taken about the same time as the bus trip--five hours, if you count waiting around at airstrips. And we would have missed the region's absurdly green hills and valleys, the tiny villages (Steadfast Community, Silk Grass Village), the old one-lane bridges, the Belly Full Inn restaurant, orange groves and bright-colored Caribbean-style houses along the way.

At Georgeville, on the outskirts of San Ignacio, we happen upon a local guide who takes us up into the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, to Blancaneaux Lodge, the old hunting resort bought in 1981 and remade by movie maker Francis Ford Coppola. We arrange with the guide to show us around when we return the next day.

A half-a-dozen high-end lodges are scattered around the Cayo District, and most any of them would make good bases from which to see the district's profusion of rivers, caves, falls, bathing pools, ruins and nature trails. The Five Sisters Lodge faces a dramatic expanse of low waterfalls and river pools: ergo five sisters.

Chaa Creek Cottages, one of the better known jungle lodges, is a big, open place on the Macal River, with 20 thatched cottages and 300 privately held acres. It offers a varied menu of ecologically oriented activities and is next door to Ix Chel Farm, a research facility that offers tours of its Rain Forest Medicine Trail. The trail is a showcase for traditional plants used in healing by Belize's last Mayan shaman, who died in 1996 at age 103.

But Blancaneaux has something else: style. The grounds are manicured, from the gateway to the stone-and-concrete parking lot to the croquet field and the lodge buildings themselves. Not a leaf falls that isn't picked up, as Kris notes with an upturned eyebrow.

The rooms and public spaces are rich with local hardwoods, stone and art--much of the art from nearby Guatemala--and the buildings were designed by Mexican architect Manolo Mestre. It's also the first place we stay that has real reading lights over the beds. We ran into only one other couple staying as guests. But even if the place were packed, the luxurious spaces would still have a sense of privacy. I liked the classiness of the rooms and grounds, a haven to return to after a day in the caves or on dusty trails. It would be a great place, frankly, for a love affair or honeymoon.

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On closer inspection, the pool and falls are largely created by concrete, though in an eco-sensitive cause. Water pressure from the small dam drives the lodge's electric generator, hidden downstream. The lodge is situated in a pine forest, not jungle, and the humidity isn't as apparent as elsewhere in Belize.

We have drinks, then dinner in the Jaguar Bar, which could easily make a movie set: essence of tropical hotel. Kris doesn't much care for her pizza, despite its Italian breeding. I devour a tasty pork braciola while we are oriented by a loquacious bartender. I sleep like an overstuffed tapir.

Several hummingbirds and I have a cup of coffee on the deck the next morning, then Kris and I meet our guide. The lodge keeps horses for trail-riding through the forest. And there's great swimming among the pools and waterfalls nearby. But this morning we push on for the Rio On and its famous pools.

This is what people rightly term paradise. As the Rio On ambles down a hillside into the forest, rocks form a randomly staggered set of private pools. No other soul is in sight this day. A short drive away, Kris finally gets inside a cave, and a spectacular one at that. The vaulting, double-mouthed Rio Frio Cave, with the Rio Frio running through it, is another ancient site of Mayan ceremonies.

Now, trees around the entranceway are labeled for visitors. And concrete and stone steps help one to safely navigate the cave. The ceremonies of a thousand years ago must be left to the imagination.

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GUIDEBOOK

Belize Basics

Getting there: There's connecting service only from LAX to Belize International on Continental (connecting in Houston) and Taca International (San Salvador). Round-trip fares begin at $670.

A good half-dozen car rental agencies have offices at the airport; reservations are recommended.

When to go: Dry season normally runs February through June, with May being the driest. But the rainy season can be fine, with only a shower or two daily, and lots of flowers.

Where to stay: Punta Gorda: The Hotel Pallavi (19 Main St., Punta Gorda, Belize, C.A.; telephone 011-501-7-22414) is clean, relatively new but very basic, with Grace Coleman's tidy cafe next door. Rates: $14 double.

Fallen Stones Butterfly Ranch and Jungle Lodge (P.O. Box 23, Punta Gorda, Belize, C.A.; tel./fax 011-501-7-22167) or book through the U.S.-based travel agency Close Encounters; tel. (888) 875-1822. Cabanas, doubles: $100; breakfast $7.50, lunch $12.50, dinner $22.50.

Placencia: Kitty's Place (Placencia, Belize, C.A.; tel. 011-501-6-23227, fax 011-501-6-23226). Cabanas, doubles, on the beach: $155.

Cayo District: Blancaneaux Lodge (Central Farm, P.O. Box B, Cayo District, Belize, C.A.; tel. [800] 746-3743 or 011-501-9-23878, fax 011-501-9-23919). Cabanas, doubles: $160; breakfast about $6, lunch about $7, dinner about $20.

Five Sisters Falls & Lodge (Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve, Belize, C.A.; tel./fax 011-501-91-2005). Private cabanas, doubles: $95; breakfast $6, packed lunch $5, lunch $7.50, dinner $15).

Chaa Creek Cottages (P.O. Box 53, San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize; tel. 011-501-9-22037, fax 011-501-9-22501). Double, cottage: $130; breakfast $8, packed lunch $7, lunch $10, dinner $22.

For more information: Consulate General of Belize, 5825 Sunset Blvd., Suite 206, Hollywood, CA 90028; tel. (213) 469-7343, fax (213) 469-7346.

Belize Tourist Board, 83 N. Front St., P.O. Box 325, Belize City, Belize; tel. (800) 624-0686 or 011-501-2-77213, fax 011-501-2-77490

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