A mecca for hard-core scuba divers and laid-back beach types, this tiny Central American country on the Caribbean has even more to offer—vast ancient ruins, stunning native crafts and a wealth of exotic flora and fauna—for those who venture off the beaten path
Author Joe Keohane Photography Al Argueta
DAY ONE | You wake up in your villa at Blancaneaux Lodge, set high in the mountains of western Belize, just in time to meet the man bringing coffee, fruit, fry jack (fried bread) and jam to your door. The grounds of this remote resort, owned by renaissance man Francis Ford Coppola, are all sunshine and bird cries, lush greenery and craggy cliffs overhanging a lazy river. You take your breakfast in a hammock on the screened porch, then get dressed and head to the main lodge to meet Jorge de Leon, your ace guide for the day.
As you barrel down the red dirt road in a four-wheel drive, Jorge—nicknamed “The Lion” in his native San Ignacio—tells you about his grandfather, the chiclero. Back before the dawn of synthetic chicle, the harvesting of sap for use in gum was big business in Belize, and the chiclero made money in vast quantities and spent it with ferocious abandon. Even today there’s a Belizean saying invoked by a seller when a buyer blanches at a steep price: “That’s nothing for a chiclero.”
You stop at a military checkpoint, then proceed to the Rio Frio Cave. Belize is riddled with caves, many of which contain human remains. The Maya would perform ritual sacrifices in these places because they believed they were portals to the underworld, through which the Sun God, in the form of a jaguar, would travel at dusk. The Rio Frio Cave is open-ended, so it wasn’t used for sacrifices—but it was used, as evidenced by the Mayan pottery fragments scattered around.
The crown jewel of the Cayo region is Caracol, a sprawling ruin that once was one of the most powerful cities in the Mayan world. At its peak there were maybe 150,000 people living here, roughly half the present population of Belize, and the whole city was clad in plaster. It was mysteriously abandoned 1,200 years ago and rediscovered by a logger in 1937.
As you explore, a hummingbird mistakes your orange backpack for a giant flower; a howler monkey erupts in a nearby copse, scaring you out of your wits. Skirting a coal-black fire ant hill with great care, you encounter what’s left of a middle-class Mayan residence. Under it is a tomb in which archeologists made an extraordinary discovery: skeletons with flattened foreheads and jade inlaid in their teeth. In other Mayan cities, such status symbols were reserved for the nobility, who would bind infants’ foreheads so they would be flat like the Jaguar God’s. (One king, in fact, went by the name “Jade-Mouth Jaguar,” which rivals the modern world’s very best hip-hop pseudonyms.) But in Caracol, the middle class was allowed a portion of bling as well. Though this suggests a rather enlightened leadership, it also caused problems for less generous kings, who feared that if their people found out what was happening here, they would revolt.
The centerpiece of the site is Caana, the erstwhile royal residence—which, at 140 feet, is still Belize’s tallest structure. As you approach it along a wooded path, Jorge tells you, “Fix your eyes to the ground and don’t look up until I tell you to.” You look up. “Head down!” When you get to the clearing, Jorge gives you the all-clear, and you behold a massive pyramid towering above a manicured lawn ringed with jungle. You start climbing the stairs, which is a challenge because they’re so tall and steep. This is by design, so that the king’s visitors would have to crawl up on all fours, in deference, and invaders could be easily repelled. At the top you stand, winded. The view, like the trek up, is breathtaking. You can see clear to Guatemala.
Legs howling, you return to the lodge, change and spend an hour bobbing around the cliffside U-shaped hot pool with a bottle of Belikin beer, the ubiquitous national brew. After that, dinner is at the property’s Guatemalan eatery, housed in a plain, screened wooden structure (there is also an Italian restaurant). The food is simple and good: bean stew, grilled chicken with salsa fresca and a dessert of bananas cooked in butter and cinnamon.
It’s been a long day, but you feel you’d be remiss not to get a nightcap at the bar, which has the original ceiling fan from the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. You sit beneath it and call for a whiskey. Fortunately, unlike Martin Sheen in the film, you manage to hold it together long enough to finish the drink and retire, intact, to bed.