Ecotourism in Style
Traveling the world with our family of six, I always expect the best but count it a blessing when things actually go right. Our group can be a bit complicated to manage, but over the years Linda and I have learned to keep the agenda flexible. We try to strike a balance between leisure and activity, and in general, with four boys, it’s best to err on the side of activity.
We hit the sweet spot in the balancing act on our family vacation in Belize last spring. Each of us enjoyed different aspects of the trip, none of us disliked anything, and our six different experiences melded into a wonderful whole.
We spent a day touring the ancient Mayan city of Lamanai, deep in the interior forest. We flew to a dirt landing strip among sugar cane fields, then traveled 25 miles by boat up the New River to the ruins, viewing exotic birds and interesting reptiles along the way (crocodiles and turtles—a special treat for our eight-year-old!).
Only a fraction of the 700 structures at Lamanai have been excavated by archaeologists as yet. The work is being done with great care, and the project will take many years to complete. Lamanai is one of dozens of ancient sites now being studied and preserved in Belize. The visit is spellbinding: The site is not crowded, and the other tours we encountered seemed to be as competently conducted as ours was. We scaled the Jaguar Temple when invited by Nate, our guide, the teenagers happily jogging up and down the steep steps in their Fivefingers.
At one point Nate picked a pale green leaf from a shrub beside the trail. He tore it into small pieces and gave one to each of us. “Smell this and tell me what it is,” he asked. Cinnamon, said one of us. Licorice, said another. One of the kids thought it might be orange. I was certain I smelled clove. “It is Allspice!” said Nate with some glee. “Everyone perceives it differently. Do you see why it is so named?”
A devoted student of history, culture, and botany, Nate is a perfect example of the young Belizeans who embody the country’s commitment to ecotourism initiatives. With that impromptu tutorial, Allspice (properly Pimenta dioica) became my mental symbol for the multifaceted appeal of this country.
We stayed in a private villa at El Pescador resort. After a pleasant 10-minute boat ride along the coast to the resort, we were greeted by Steve Spiro, El Pescador’s genial ambassador and father of resort co-owner Ali Flota. Clasping his outstretched hand, we instantly felt at home. While at El Pescador we found the staff unfailingly polite, service was understated and impeccable, and the only sound to be heard was the murmur of waves.
If you elect to eat at the hotel, guests and owners take the evening meal together, laughing and sharing stories of the day’s adventures.
It was an additional pleasure to discover that our hosts, who have owned El Pescador since 1997, hail from the Brandywine Valley. We formed an instant bond and found we had close friends in common. Sitting under the palm trees at a candle-lit dinner table on this distant island, one couldn’t help but reflect on how small our world really is. I’ve never enjoyed a hotel stay more than this one.
The northern hemisphere’s greatest barrier reef runs the length of Belize and anywhere you go along the coast you can see it. Most times it appears as a chalk-line of breaking surf leveling the turquoise sea a little way out toward the horizon. On windy days, when the slow rollers from the deep Caribbean curl and break upon the coral, the white plumes of mist are like wings of great seabirds alighting on an ancient green branch.
I could have gazed at it for hours, but the boys couldn’t wait to put on masks and fins and go in for a closer look. We all visited the reef several times during our stay, and were rewarded with kaleidoscopic scenes of teeming fish flashing silently in cathedral light, darting around undulating fans and multilayered outcroppings of limestone and coral. We swam near sea turtles, rays, and even nurse sharks.
I went out once at sunrise in search of the elusive bonefish that haunt the flats. As I stood on the prow of the skiff with fly rod at the ready, my guide eased the boat through the shallow water with a pole fashioned from a straight branch. Looking up occasionally, I could see fine spray rising above the reef a mile out. I cast the fly dozens of times and found my share of the beautiful fish, almost invisible underwater yet bright as quicksilver when brought to the hand and released. A day spent like this seems to pass in about ten minutes.
Between bonefish I caught several fat mutton snappers and gave them to my guide for his family meal that evening. Of course, the chef at El Pescador is happy to prepare your catch to order. Snapper and grouper (and Caribbean lobster when in season) are also mainstays at the local restaurants.
One day we went by boat to Bacalar Chico National Park, and through a narrow channel dug by the Mayans 3,500 years ago that today demarcates the border between Belize and Mexico.
In the lagoon the boat drifted over bottomless underwater caves from which fresh water welled up to mix with the sea water. The park is part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site and is accessible only by boat. While we were there we saw no other visitors. The caretaker who met us at the landing of the San Juan Ranger Station spoke in a halting, deep rumble as he showed us the artifacts and displays of the museum, seemingly bemused at the sound of voices in the small rooms.
This rocky point is one of the few places on earth where a reef meets the land, and so on our return trip we had to detour outside the reef for a short while. The rhythm of the waves lengthened in the open sea and frigate birds soared overhead. We threaded back through a complex channel in the reef to beach the boat for a superb lunch of braised chicken, plantains, and beans and rice on the beach. We stopped twice on the way back to the hotel to swim among the amazing fish.
Coming home to Delaware I felt as though we were returning from a place apart from the conventions and concerns of the modern world—and yet Belize’s commitment to green initiatives is very advanced.
The journey clicked for us. If you are intrigued by the possibility of discovering a relatively unspoiled place where friendly people and an enlightened government are committed to preserving nature, history, and a way of life, then you might consider giving Belize a try. You could have an “Allspice” experience of your own.
From the point we arrived in Belize on American Airlines, El Pescador resort had arranged everything—tickets on TropicAir for the 20-minute flight to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, and a representative to meet us and transfer our bags to the town dock where the hotel launch was waiting.
Capricorn, on the beach just outside San Pedro, and Wild Mango’s in town were favorite family restaurants. Both had extensive menus featuring creative treatments of local fish, Caribbean spices and vegetables, and good wine lists.