“Shark, there’s a shark! Get out of the water!”
Ellis’s deep voice booms above the stillness of the afternoon. A seabird launches from the water, as if it understands the warning. Despite an almost perfect blue sky, several clouds turn to black and pass in front of the sun, casting dark shadows across the sea’s surface. Panicking, I glance around, pulling off my mask. I’m the only swimmer left in the water. Where. Is. That. Fin?
The first rule when being approached by a shark? Do not panic. Rule number two? Leave the water in a swift but smooth manner. In a split second, both impossible-to-follow rules have gone out the window, and I manically splash and swim my way towards the speedboat.
Desperately, I grab the side of the boat and hurriedly hoist my legs up, my bottom suspended in the swelling tide. Gritting my teeth, I try to heave myself up and into the boat, gasping in salty sea air. Where is Ellis? Why isn’t he helping me? Why didn’t I swim to the ladder? My knuckles whiten with the strength of my grip. Eyes glazed from memories of bloodthirsty scenes from Jaws, I kick my legs up and fling myself up and over, collapsing in a heap on the deck.
As I look up, I know the joke’s on me. Lying back with a beer and a beaming smile, Ellis lets out a gruff chuckle. “Cheers, Hels,” he nods his bottle towards me. “Only kiddin’, man!”
Utter ‘Belize’ to anyone who’s travelled here and watch as a Cheshire Cat grin spreads across their face. It’s not just the bewildering Belize Barrier Reef — one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, running for 190 miles along the coast — and its gin-clear seas, where, on my first day, I snorkel alongside shivers of nurse sharks, giant stingrays, an aged duo of turtles and swarms of parrotfish.
It’s also the tangle of rainforest which smothers more than half of the central American country, the extraordinary Mayan ruins, the fresh barbecued lobster, and the laid-back lifestyle and joie de vivre that’s as heartwarming as the local’s chilli sauce I douse over every meal.
The only nation in Central America with English as the official language, it’s the Caribbean without the all-inclusives. And for those on the cayes — of which there are more than 200 — it’s all about the good life, from larks on the beach to the reef, rice ’n’ beans and rum. Plenty of rum.
“Can I get you a corkscrew?” Ellis winks as I board my home for the next three nights: the lagoon catamaran, Aubisque. He hands me the iced cocktail (rum and pineapple with a shaving of nutmeg) as I step down, barefoot, onto the deck and shuffle beside the dining table.
“Without the nutmeg, it’s called a panty ripper,” laughs Cliff, our skipper, handing over a fantastic plate of conch ceviche, thick with coriander, lime and black pepper.
“OK, so here’s the plan.” Ellis perches himself next to my husband Adam, unfolds a map, and smooths down the edges while I shovel up chunks of conch with tortillas. “We’ll head north and anchor close to some mangroves to shelter from
the winds tonight,” he taps his finger at a speck of land. “Then, we’re going home — to my home, Caye Caulker. I’ll show you a good night out,” he beams, revealing his perfect set of teeth. “Finally, we’ll stop by Tobacco Caye — it’s so chilled there, man.”
Cliff, Ellis and the rest of the Belize Luxury Sailing team have a sweet, sweet life. And they’ve got it prepped down to a T — from breakfasts of banana pancakes to barbecued seafood dinners, and an enduring love of the ocean that’s as infectious as Cliff’s excitable laugh.
It’s mid-afternoon as we approach our stop for the night: a tranquil lagoon enclosed by several small cayes, where the afternoon’s shadows crawl across the bobbing waves. I’m lounging near Aubisque’s bow, nursing another rum and pineapple, the sun searing down on the azure waters, the smell of suncream sticky in the air. I screw up my eyes against the sea’s glare and spot a lone dolphin breach the water and glide towards the cat before it disappears into the depths.
Cliff pulls out the two-man kayak and Adam and I hop in, stroking our oars in half-hearted unison. Not that it really matters — the current carries us to a nearby channel and a tiny, deserted beach pops up behind a muddle of shrubbery and creeping mangroves. We float until the vessel stops abruptly on the sandy shore, jump out and spend the next half hour skimming stones and white shells. Specks of rain halt us in our tracks, however, and we leap back into the kayak for a five-minute slog back to Aubisque as the sea’s placid surface transforms with a thundering downpour.
“It’s crazy! The weather changes in a second in Belize,” says Cliff over a dinner of barbecued lobster, steeped in garlic and lime butter.
“But the rain quickly blows out and the sun’ll come straight back out. Apart from during hurricane season, August to October. Then it’s a whole different matter,” says Ellis.
“You’ll see tomorrow on Caye Caulker, where Hurricane Hattie gouged a channel across the island in 1961. We call it The Split. You’ll love it.”
He wasn’t joking, I think as we sail into Caye Caulker the following afternoon. The Split is beautifully clear with frothy, intensely blue water; and local haunt, Lazy Lizard, where we head to with its low-key reggae beats, rum cocktails and traveller-types blowing smoke spirals into the afternoon breeze.
I run and hurl myself into the Split, only to come up and spot a dog on the bow of a boat, its head held high, its fur tapered back in the wind. I pull myself out of the sea, and start wrangling the saltwater out of my hair. I order a rum punch. “Go slow, man — you’re moving too fast. If you wanna be a local, just stick to this one and only rule: No Shirt, No Shoes… No Problem,” smiles Ellis.
Just a mile-and-a-half long and a few hundred yards wide, Caye Caulker has a clutch of hotels, restaurants, bars and dive shops, housed in the pastel-shaded, low-rise buildings, where the phrase ‘no shirt, no shoes, no problem’ is the local motto. There are no cars — just bikes — and life is, as Ellis said, super slow. That is, until we head out for the night, knock back several drinks and wind up in the local reggae bar, waxing euphoric with locals and excitedly dancing to Ace of Base and Shabba Ranks’ Mr Loverman.
Several days later, I hear the unmistakable croon of Shabba once more, playing from a makeshift beachside bar on tiny Tobacco Caye, some miles south of Caye Caulker. It takes me five minutes to circle the entire island on foot, where travellers come to snorkel the reef, pad about the beaches and bed down in modest over-the-water huts for less than $30 a night.
“Can you take our picture?” A twentysomething Finnish girl, juggling her backpack, a beer and a headtorch, hands me her smartphone and pulls her friend in close for the shot.
“We’re just waiting for our ride.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“We came to Belize to stay on a deserted island for a week. We’ve packed water, mozzie spray, rice and yoga mats to sleep on. And rum. Wish us luck.”
With that, the duo — all harem pants, beads and bare feet — sling their bags over their shoulders and hurry over to the small speedboat that’s pulled up beside the jetty.
I never did find out how their Robinson-Crusoe style adventure panned out. Nor if they stuck it out for the full week. But I did think about them the following day as we bid farewell to Cliff, Ellis and Aubisque from the marina, and dashed towards a 4WD in the pouring rain — wishing for their sake they’d manage to collect and store some dry firewood.
I press my forehead to the car’s window and watch as heavy raindrops worm their way down the glass, while beyond the vehicle, the aggressive downpour streams down corrugated roofs and people dash about, dodging huge puddles and hoisting up umbrellas that deflate under the ensuing rainstorm.
It’s mid-afternoon when I wake up in the back of the car. The rain has blown its course and bright, blue skies are breaking through cloud. We’re heading into the Cayo District on the west coast, bordering Guatemala, known for its waterfalls, huge cave systems, Mayan ruins and verdant forest — and where zip-lining through the canopy is all the rage for tourists.
We drive through tiny villages with names like Blackmaneddy and Teakettle following the Western Highway. “There’s all kinda crazy village names in Belize,” says our driver, Shen-Li. “You’ve got Yo Creek, Roaring Creek and Spanish Loco. Then there’s Duck Run and Double Head Cabbage.”
But we’re heading for the more soberly named Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve — created to manage the native Belizean pine forests — and the eco-retreat of Gaia Riverlodge.
It’s a bumpy ride along muddy, red-sand roads, and up and over potholes. But you can’t be privy to such knockout views without a tad of discomfort. Perched on the edge of a valley, it overlooks the astonishing Five Sisters waterfalls: five gushing cascades that tumble into clear pools — the resort’s naturally-made swimming pool, no less.
Tomorrow, we can explore the ancient Mayan site of Caracol, deep in the Chiquibul Rainforest, or cross into Guatemala via the border town of Melchor De Mencos and on to the famous archaeological site of Tikal. Then there’s always cave tubing and zip-lining and galloping through the rainforest on horseback, ticking off Mayan plazas and ceremonial sites.
As I stretch on the doorstep of my casita the following morning — all Belizean hardwoods, bay leaf-thatched roof and richly varnished mahogany interiors — thick, low cloud drapes the tips of the pine trees in a ghostly blanket. And a reddish bird pecks around the dewy grass as though it’s misplaced something.
“Looks like lots of rain today,” says a passing gardener. Not yet defeated by the weather, Adam and I hop on bikes and pedal away from Gaia and along the orange dirt road we arrived on the night before. Skirting puddles and wheeling up bumpy gradients, we pass a wonky wooden sign emblazoned with Big Rock Waterfall and hastily turn off the road towards a makeshift set of stairs. Dumping the bikes, we carefully manoeuvre down the rickety steps, pushing through brambles and prickly branches. We follow the mighty rumble of water, feet rolling and crunching over the uneven camber, and round a corner. I shade my eyes to stare at the falls. Spray catches my eyelashes, hummingbirds flit past on gusts of wind, and before long, we’re throwing ourselves into the pool below the falls.
Later that evening, I pull up a chair, order a cosmopolitan and wrap up from the evening chill in the retreat’s bar, pondering my one and only issue with Belize.
“I’ve got a problem with Belize’s beaches,” I reveal to the bartender as he drops a handful of ice into a cocktail shaker.
You see, where the waves ebb the beach on almost every stretch of sand, there’s almost always a thick coating of seaweed, making direct access into the sea a pretty unpleasant experience. Instead, small jetties run from beach to sea on most cayes where you can run and jump into the wonderfully clear waters. So don’t be fooled by adverts showing stunning Belize beaches — more than likely they will have photoshopped out the seaweed.
Like any good bar man, he listens intently, hands me my cocktail and tips his head.
“If you want my advice, head to Placencia. It’s got some of the best beaches in the country. And very little seagrass. But remember man, it’s what’s in the water that counts.”
Mind made up, we leave Mountain Pine Ridge the following morning and make the six-hour drive back to the coast to this narrow spit of land that juts into the Caribbean. Our trusty bartender was right. Cruising along the coast, the seaweed smothering many of the beaches I’d seen was absent. And nowhere was this more apparent than at Turtle Inn — our retreat for the night and one of Francis Ford Coppola’s central American resorts — sitting tidily on a pristine white sand beach where drooping palms sway over the sea.
White spumes of small breakers roll onto shore and I toss my head impatiently into my snorkel and flip off directly from the shore. Between March and June, around the time of the full moon, whale sharks roam these waters, though today I’m alone with a swarm of rainbow fish. Out of the shadows, an enormous ray drifts into view — perhaps six feet across — and spins around me as though looking me up and down. I’m tempted to grasp his tail and let him pull me along.
I swim back to shore and prop myself up with cushions on the terrace of my seafront cottage. The sun’s rays begin to fade. Lights from the surrounding resort shine through the dark while offshore yachts appear smudged by the dwindling light. I squint at the waves — is that a fin just a few feet away? Belize may not have the monopoly on fantastic beaches, but its laid-back lifestyle is hard to beat.
There are no direct flights to Belize from the UK. Many guides advise flying via the US, but this involves long queues at US airport security. Instead fly to Cancun, Mexico, and either book a flight from there into Belize, or catch a bus across the border. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly direct from Gatwick, Thomas Cook Airlines flies from Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester and Glasgow, while Thomson flies from Gatwick, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Tropic Air flies from Cancun to Belize City in 1h45m.
Average flight time: 9h.
The beauty of Belize is its small size and ease of getting around. Internal flights are a great way to see the country from above and can be booked on the day of your flight — this is an experience in itself with aircraft having space for 4-12 passengers. Fly with Tropic Air or Maya Island Air.
Car hire is also an option, and booking transfers with a company such as Darah Travels is easy: belizetravelservices.com
When to go
Dry season runs from February to April with temperatures around 30C and blue skies most days. If sailing, avoid June to November during the rainy season; hurricanes are possible August-October.
Need to know
Currency: Belizean dollars (B$). £1 = B$3.30. US dollars are widely used.
International dial code: 00 501.
Time difference: GMT-6.
The Rough Guide to Belize. RRP: £12.99.
Where to stay
Ambergris Caye: Ambergris Beach House. 100 Coconut Drive San Pedro.
Tobacco Caye: Tobacco Caye Paradise Cabins.
Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve: Gaïa Riverlodge.
Placencia: Turtle Inn.
How to do it
Absolute Belize specialises in crafting unique tailormade travel itineraries throughout Belize. It offers a seven-night ‘Green and Blue’ itinerary, combining jungle, the cayes and the barrier reef from £1,059 per person, excluding flights.
All-inclusive rates with Belize Sailing Vacations start at $995 (£634) per night for two people, including captain, chef, all meals, standard open bar (beer, rum, wine), kayaks, paddle boards, fishing and snorkel gear.
Belize Revealed, part of Central America Revealed owned by Mercator Travel, offers nine days from £1,800 per person, including flights, transfers, accommodation and excursions.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)