La Ruta Tropical

Belize

    Photo: Tony Rath

During a single day in Belize, you can dive the world's second-longest barrier reef and hike through luxuriant rainforest and lofty Mayan ruins. But why rush? No one else does in this tiny country, where most inland roads are rocky jungle trails, and local "traffic" is more likely to be a sprinting Jesus Christ lizard than another car. Belize, formerly British Honduras, is wild and rugged, a wedge of subtropical Eden with Guatemala at its back, the Caribbean Sea spread before it, and some 200 tiny islands, many of them uninhabited, just offshore. As more travelers venture to Belize's reefs and rainforests, a surprising number of new lodges are opening to welcome them.

The Western Jungle
Western Belize, a far-flung wilderness of broadleaf jungle, slash pine woods, and cool, forest-clad mountains, is where you'll find the most jungle lodges. Newest of the luxury digs is Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort (doubles, $155, breakfast included; 800-335-8645), opened in January 1996 on 215 acres of rainforest about an hour's drive from Belize City. Its 17 rooms are outfitted with air-conditioning and down pillows, and its grounds are complete with satellite TV and swimming pool—rare in these wilds. Head for Caves Branch River, an easy walk from the lodge, where you can swim in see-through waters and cruise in a small boat through a honeycomb of caves. There are eight miles of nature trails, guided river tubing ($60 per person), and all-day hikes into numerous underground caverns near the lodge.
New this year at Chaa Creek Lodge (doubles, $115; 011-501-92-2037), two hours from Belize City, is the Macal River Camp ($45 per person, including breakfast and dinner), a ten-tent camp buried in jungle high above the river along a bluff, half a mile from the main lodge. It's plenty private here and not too rough: Tents are spacious, the cots comfy, the kitchen fashioned with an open hearth. Activities include river rafting, canoeing, swimming, horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, day trips to the Mayan ruins at Caracol (about two and a half hours away via a dirt road; $260 for one to four people), and exploring the Rainforest Medicine Trail next door to Chaa Creek. Or check out Chaa Creek's new (since 1995) Natural History Centre and Blue Morpho Butterfly Breeding Centre. There's also a Butterfly House, built for the scientist who started the breeding center but now open to guests, with solar electricity and kitchen ($115, double occupancy).

In western Belize's Mountain Pine Ridge area, a two-hour trip from Belize City down a marle-and-dirt road off the Western Highway, are two luxury lodges. More established is the Hidden Valley Inn (doubles, $122 through mid-December, including breakfast; $181 after mid-December, including breakfast and dinner; 800-334-7942), with handsome stucco cottages and a main house set beneath a mantle of mountain pines. Other exclusive digs can be found at Francis Ford Coppola's Blancaneaux Lodge (doubles, $115 through mid-December, $160 mid-December through mid-May; 92-3878), which has its own airstrip and hydroelectric plant, and a pizza oven flown in specially from Italy.

Northern Outposts
New this year in northern Belize is Pretty See Jungle Ranch ($125-$150 for two, $35 per person for meals; 31-2005), an easy 45-minute drive from Belize City. Spidery rivers run through the 1,360-acre spread, and a crocodile pond swarms with toothy creatures and colonies of boat-billed herons, keeled-billed toucans, and thousands of parrots. Accommodations consist of three large cabins, all with four-poster beds and two with Jacuzzis, surrounded by plush green pasture and high bush. You can take a canoe trip along the five miles of rivers that lace the property, a guided jungle hike ($15 per hour) or horseback ride (half-day, $50; full day, $75), or island-hop via Mexican skiff ($60 per person) over to Ambergris Caye, barely 20 miles away.

Lamanai Outpost Lodge (doubles, $105; 23-3578) in northern Belize is more remote. You can get there by road, but it's usually reached by a one-hour pontoon boat ride (included in package prices, otherwise it's $75) along the New River from the Mennonite village of Shipyard, past long-nosed bats dozing in hollow tree trunks and women scrubbing their clothes along the riverbank. (A newly carved airstrip at Lamanai brings chartered flights from Belize City, but the arrival is not nearly as atmospheric.) The outpost's simple wood and palm-thatch cabanas are next door to 3,500-year-old Lamanai, a Mayan maze of wildly adorned temples and hundreds of other structures. Explore the ruins (guided tours, $22 per person), then take a guided orchid, birding, or medicinal plant tour (about $17). After dark, don't miss the Spotlight River Safari ($29), during which the guide trains his big light on all the crocodile eyes.

Reefs, Cayes, and Cloud Forests
Down in the cloud forests of southern Belize, newly revamped Fallen Stones Butterfly Ranch and Jungle Lodge (doubles, $105, breakfast included; 72-2167) is set on a mountaintop, its simple screened cabins overlooking a broad expanse of emerald valleys. Hiking here is exceptional; sign up for the three-hour guided hike through thick bush to the Río Grande river, where canoes await to take you to the primitive Mayan village of San Pedro, Colombia (full-day trip; $15 per person). There's an edge-of-the-world feel at Fallen Stones, possibly because the closest town, Punta Gorda, is 45 minutes away ("town" being a loose term—it's little more than an outpost).

Other accommodations in Southern Belize: Jaguar Reef Lodge (doubles, $75 through October; $120 November through mid-May; 92-3452), a stylish eco-retreat of beachfront duplexes fashioned from Belizean hardwood. Opened in late 1995, it's one of the few places in Belize with instant access to both reef and rainforest. Join a dive (two-tank dive, $70) or kayak trip, or a guided hike to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary ($42), following logging trails through the dense glade past waterfalls, red-eyed tree frogs, and glistening fungi resembling seashells. Back at Jaguar Reef Lodge, take a mountain-bike ride (bikes provided at no charge) to the nearby Garifuna village of Hopkins, watching for the jaguars that prowl the forests.

New lodges seem to open every month on Ambergris Caye, largest and most developed of the Belize cayes—and the fastest-growing place in the country. Among the new expatriate-run digs on Ambergris: Coconuts Caribbean Hotel (doubles, $75 through mid-November, $105 mid-November through April, continental breakfast included; 800-324-6974) with 12 comfortable rooms facing sea and sand; and Belizean Reef Suites (one-bedroom suites for up to four guests, $100 through mid-November, $125 mid-November through April; 26-2582). In the works for future lodgers: a $250 million resort and casino, sure to change the low-key Ambergris lifestyle— in other words, get there fast.

Snorkelers will love Ambergris Caye and its clear, shallow waters. The best snorkel stops: Hol Chan Marine Reserve, where channel walls are layered with moray eels; Mexican Rocks, a galaxy of flamboyant coral formations; and Shark-Ray Alley sandbar, whose eight-foot-deep waters are thronged by docile stingrays and nurse sharks.

Scuba divers should head out to Lighthouse Reef Resort (one-week minimum stay; weekly packages from $1,350 per person, double occupancy, including meals, dives, and round-trip flight from Belize City; 800-423-3114). This is the only lodge within the seriously remote Lighthouse Reef atoll, known for its wonderful walls, wrecks, and the Blue Hole, whose dim, eerie recesses harbor albino sharks and other strange sinkhole sealife. Roomy beachfront cabanas are strewn along a powdery stretch of sand.

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