Wed, Oct 24, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Split between jungle and resort

Belize's Caribbean coast boasts the largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere and a strip of resorts; beyond that, there is wild jungle, caves and expansive national parks

By DWIGHT GARNER  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

On the way to Mayan ruins in Belize's interior.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"If the world had any ends," Aldous Huxley wrote in 1934, Belize - then known as British Honduras - "would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited."

Almost 75 years later, Belize still feels remote. It's roughly the size of Massachusetts, yet it has only a handful of traffic lights. The two-lane road that spans the length of the country is not, in many places, paved. If Huxley were around to be a consumer of American pop culture, however, he'd find that Belize - or at least the strip of it that runs along the Caribbean Sea - has been discovered.

The Fox reality series Temptation Island taped its first season on Belize's Ambergris Caye. Francis Ford Coppola has opened resorts there. And there is a telling moment in Tara McCarthy's Wouldn't Miss It for the World, in which an ugly American stands at a tiki bar in Belize and yelps: "Panty rippers for everyone!" - referring to a cocktail that blends pineapple juice with coconut rum.

I underlined that passage and showed it to my wife, Cree. "Uh-oh," she said.

Belize's still largely untrampled beach areas are filling with tourists for good reason. The country has the largest continuous barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, one that's lined with hundreds of beautiful small islands, or cayes. The scuba-diving and snorkeling are world-class.

But there is a different Belize that we - my wife and I and our 7- and 9-year-old children, Harriet and Penn - set out to find: its lush interior, thick with rain forests, Mayan ruins, tiny villages, intense wildlife and intricate cave systems that can be explored by floating on inner tubes while dodging bats.

We weren't disappointed when we visited early in May. Moving through Belize's backcountry feels like travel, not tourism, and the country is fiercely intent on keeping it that way. National parks and nature preserves make up almost half of Belize's 14,000km2. You can truly become lost here, in ways both good and bad.

We land in Belize City on a hot morning, climb into a rental car - a battered black 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander - and head west toward our first destination, an eco and adventure lodge called Ian Anderson's Caves Branch. There is plenty to see along the way.

One observes immediately that there is real poverty in Belize. Leaving the airport, we drive past streets lined with shacks, shanties and small concrete houses; dead cars squatted on cinder blocks.

The poet Derek Walcott, a Nobel laureate born in St Lucia, is right to deplore the way outsiders view these kinds of scenes in the Caribbean: Photogenic poverty! Postcard sadnesses! But this makes them no less real and, at times, no less wrenching. Our children, staring from the window, are quieter than they have been in a long time.

Belize's population is fewer than 300,000 and, just a few kilometers outside of Belize City, we realize we're in the middle of nowhere, or very close to it. The landscape quickly becomes intensely green, freckled occasionally by dusty shacks and distant fires. Hit the search button on the car radio there, and the electronic numbers will race around and around until you put a stop to them.

Civilization, when it arrives on Belize's back roads, is in the form of "cool spots" - what Belizeans like to call their outdoor bars and restaurants, most with dirt or concrete floors. It's there, on a sweltering day in a friendly cool spot, where we are first struck by Belize's headache-making contradictions.

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