Small wonder

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A  J o u r n e y  t h r o u g h  B e l i z e

Condé Nast Traveller, November 2009

All I had heard before I landed at P S W Goldson International airport was that I should be prepared for Belize’s homely and slightly dotty flavour. It was a Caribbean nation, but proud of its knee-socks and long-shorts British colonial past.

Few signs of dottiness marked the airport. It bore a straightlaced resemblance to an unusually spruce NHS hospital, scrubbed, swept and waxed, its walls painted in that liverish beige that is so difficult to associate with bouncing health. A matronly notice above the x-ray machines warned facetious visitors that “Persons making inappropriate comments concerning hijacking, carriage of weapons or explosives may be prosecuted.”

A few minutes later, leaving Ladyville on the Western Highway, I saw another sign at the roadside. It displayed a picture of a beetle and a caption that said, “Don’t be a litter bug,” an expression I hadn’t heard since school.

Several miles later the taxi passed a lean-to café shading a few Belizeans on its verandah. On a sandwich board it advertised the excellence of its cow-heel soup. We had arrived at the outskirts of Hattieville, an improvised-looking township named after the hurricane that devastated Belize City in 1961.

At Hattieville’s main crossroads there was a police checkpoint. The driver unwound his window. Instead of being asked for our documents, we found a plastic bucket thrust courteously under our noses. The serious-faced officer was soliciting donations for the Hattieville policemen’s Christmas party.

I was beginning to get the point. Usually indifferent to forward planning, I realised I might have been right this time to submit to a well prepared itinerary. Another reason for doing so, perversely, was that though Belize was small, a fraction under twice the size of Yorkshire, it apparently possessed such an astonishing array of landscapes and habitats – tropical pine and broadleaf forests, riverine and grassland savannas, inland and coastal lagoons, the world’s second largest barrier reef – that Belizean publicists claimed it was one of the planet’s greatest open-air natural history museums. To experience even a small cross-section of this abundance seemed to call for a minimum of preparation.

My jumping-off point was in the western highlands where they back up to the Guatemalan border, a 2½-hour drive up from the Caribbean coast through dusty, tedious savanna and lowland rainforest. The highway was empty, spotted with villages that nodded to the past, when the land was occupied in the seventeenth century by “Baymen” – British buccaneers from the Bay of Honduras, charmed by its logwood profits and ease. The territory was annexed as British Honduras in 1787, and a legendary sea battle saw the indignant Spanish off a decade later, though the heavily touted and blood-drenched heroism of both Baymen and their loyal African slaves is, in truth, just another proof that history is a fable agreed upon.

Out of 300 years of British influence evolved that rarest of creatures in central America, a non-violent polity – and also a highly eccentric one-off. Take cow-heel: jellied, stewed or made into soup, cow heel is a historical delicacy otherwise restricted to Lancashire and the port of Liverpool. Another trace of outlandishness is in the villages that flank the Western Highway: mingled among the expected Spanish names are many that chime with the bluff language of English sailors: Cotton Tree, Teakettle, Baking Pot, Spanish Lookout.

There was also something curious about these settlements: they were makeshift but tidy, impermanent-looking, and undeniably British. The British colonist was always an exile, improvising and dreaming of going home. Nestled at the roadside with the forest to their back, with their clapboard houses and chapels and neat lawns and sleepy-Sunday-afternoon atmosphere, these villages reach out as you pass and touch you with the unmistakable atmosphere of that specially English idyll, the suburbs.

Blancaneaux Lodge, well concealed in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, banished any feeling of nostalgia on arrival, though it replaced it by something just as odd, an almost surreal perfection of style. The lodge, developed in the early 1990s by the film director Francis Ford Coppola from a hunting lodge previously owned by a wealthy Frenchman, is both a deliberate refuge – it has the privacy, security and simplicity of a sanctuary – and an architected utopia.

The former owner had tired of the property when the mountains around it were declared a conservation area and he could no longer blast away at leisure at the jaguars, pumas and tapirs in the forest. Now the lodge rolls luxuriously along the bank of the Privassion river, which alternately rushes and dawdles through the valley (and powers the Coppola-installed hydro-electric plant). It is landscaped for privacy: from your own hardwood and cohune-palm-thatched veranda you cannot see, or be seen from, another villa.

The Japanese detailing of its riverside paths and garden produced, I found, a tranquillising nirvana of the eye, and at night the open veranda, defended against  mosquitoes by a thin white line of scented candles on the blaustrade, set out by tiptoeing staff each afternoon, disclosed a sky so unpolluted by light from human sources that it might have been snowing a heaven full of stars.

Goofily self-righteous people always want to remind you that there are no shortcuts to paradise, but in the morning, after half an hour watching hummingbirds feed on the ginger flowers on my coffee table and a swim in the Privassion, the body began to share the eyes’ nirvana. I was oddly relieved to be brought back to earth by the sight of a small mouse skipping across the bedroom floor.

Coppola writes that the day he discovered Blancaneaux, he was so delighted by it that he jumped in the waterfall fully clothed and lost his glasses. Perhaps the film maker responsible for the finest movie interpretation of hubris in the last 25 years, in the Godfather trilogy, has also found an answer to the simple human need to escape from too much reality. My only criticism was the price of Blancaneaux’s excursions: that afternoon I was driven a few miles to Barton Creek to canoe into a flooded cave, which was as gloomy and soaring and impressive as a cathedral and easily allowed any visitor to imagine how 1200 years ago the Mayans had entered it as if into the underworld, appealing to the rain-god Chac by sacrificing small children, as drought caused by over-clearance of the forests and overconsumption weighed on them (human-agented climate change is nothing new). Visually stimulating and interesting, for a solo client this trip cost two hundred and thirty-five dollars (US).

The next day I flew north over the not very luxuriant rainforest to Gallon Jug. Presented with visible swagger – the private airstrip, the 3000-acre cattle station cleared from the rainforest – this was the empire of Barry Bowen, a 7th-generation Bayman, CEO of Coca-Cola Belize and the proprietor of Belize’s Belikin brewery.

At one point in the past Bowen had owned a sixth of the entire country, before he gave up two-thirds of his landholdings to conservation and settled down with a 140,000-acre private jungle estate. Gallon Jug’s atmosphere was the same as the big livestock stations I stayed on as a boy in Australia: vast to the horizon, the cattle mostly invisible, almost serenely devoid of life. Bowen’s property, bounded by its lip of private forest, took in several unexcavated Mayan settlements, now covered in the jungle’s compost; in the central plaza of one he had built Chan Chich Lodge. Chan Chich was a layout of thatched casitas surrounded by grassy pyramids; the rooms were not outstandingly comfortable, and the problem with them seemed to have something in common with Bowen’s personality. He was outspoken on Belizean politics and particularly pugnacious towards local environmentalists. Like his political views, Chan Chich Lodge seemed to be run on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. The meals were overpriced, my room was formulaic, with a cold tiled floor (and a jungle of sustainable hardwood to hand?), a droning watercooler, Splenda and no sugar and mouldy teabags by the kettle. The best moment at Chan Chich was the afternoon I spent on horseback, riding among the sleeping humps of a sprawling Mayan settlement deep in the forest and reflecting that here might not be a bad place after all to leave one’s bones, under a millennium of leaf mould and the spell of filtered jungle sun.

From Chan Chich I drove a dog’s leg east to the New River, where conserved forest turns to Mennonite farmland and savanna. (Since the 1960s Anabaptist Mennonites, “the unobtrusive ones”, have imprinted the north American prairies on large areas of Belize. They now produce nearly half the country’s agricultural output.)

I stopped at Indian Church, a village next to an ancient Mayan city named Lamanai. I was booked for two nights at the Lamanai Outpost Lodge, overlooking the long, glassy surface, like an elongated mirror, of the New River lagoon. The urbanidad – a specifically Spanish sort of good manners and humour – of Blanca and Lillian who ran the lodge (the first place I had stayed that was run by Belizeans) promoted an easy amiability in the staff and most guests. Ten minutes after I arrived I was introduced to Ruben Arévalo, one of the lodge’s guides.

“You would like to see some birds, Mr Julian?”

Five metres into the forest, Ruben had already pointed out tarantula holes, leafcutter-ant tracks, minute shards of Mayan-carved obsidian and pot fragments, two kinds of flycatcher and three kinds of warbler. By the walk’s end, as we (I should say he because I never saw a bird before he did) returned spotting a Roadside hawk, a pair of Red-crowned parrots, and an F16-shaped projectile zooming low over the canopy that was a Montezuma oropendola, I had started a conversion.

I accepted Ruben’s offer to go out again, after dark with a spotlight in one of the safari boats. We skimmed over perfect reflections of overhanging trees as if over nothing, and Ruben pointed out Grey-necked wood rails, the Northern potoo they call the “stick-bird”, herons, pauraques, fishing bats, and a tiny hummingbird nest’s that looked like a shaggy thimble. As we motored back to the dock, there was a movement and bubbling to our right and a Morelet’s crocodile submerged in the reeds.

The next morning I was up at six to catch the best time at the Lamanai site. The length of the 1500-year-old city’s unbroken occupation – the last two Mayan families were relocated in 1974 – and its temples’ size make it one of the most significant in central America. I found more interest in birds than stones: I was rewarded by the sight of a rare and aloof Blue-crowned motmot that, believing itself hidden, allowed itself to be observed in Ruben’s scope, resting grandly and alone on a branch, for several minutes.

Later I had to share Ruben. My arrival had nearly coincided with a visit by the board of the Massachusetts Audubon Society – the ducal aristocracy of the birding world who, among other activities, channel millions of dollars into conservation in Belize. As it turned out, these threateningly august East Coasters were everything you might not expect: enthusiastic, sociable, casual, tolerant, and addicted to 1970s British sitcoms (a long, loving examination of the characters in Are You Being Served? took place later at the boat jetty). They were also endearingly amateur in their after-dinner tally of species they had identified – “I’m seeing a Semipalmated sandpiper… did we? Okay, we’ll go with that.”

I managed to get out with Ruben twice more. He had the Indian eagle eyes of fable, and could identify a bird in thick foliage at 250 metres. At the second dawn, when we walked the savanna on the lagoon’s far side for a couple of hours, he showed me more than 50 species, among them the endangered Yellow-headed parrot and a Vermilion flyctacher, purple-red and brilliant on a branch in the early sun. (There were jaguar tracks too in the fresh sand by the creek.) I had assumed that birdwatching, with its rain capes and want-lists and pale, squinting enthusiasts, was on a par with the geography field trips I’d had to undergo at school, horrendous and boring. It had not occurred to me that it might be associated with the poetry of the night or the pleasure of early sunlight and the goose-bumping air of dawn. These are ancient connections, that the Mayans have not entirely lost. Ruben gave the impression of synthesising everything good about the Mayan character – urbanidad, knowledge, patience – and what was still good in the West: its confidence, its belief in learning and egalitarian attitudes. But he refused to look at the camera when, with permission, I photographed him.

We lost track of time on the savanna. I missed my flight to the coast and arrived at Ambergris Caye, skating low over the milky turquoise water of the islands, later than I had intended. In the afternoon glare San Pedro town’s rickety grid of souvenir shops and general stores was stripped of some of its beach-shack charm. Madonna may have fallen in love with San Pedro; it was difficult to see it as a backdrop for romance. It was a bit too brazen. What it had was a resurgent dottiness, expressed in the fat-tyred golf carts that are its main form of transport and its cheeky-cheesy advertising (Sea-rious Adventures, Wine de Vine, Pirate Pizza – “Yo ho ho and a pizza to go”).

It also had a long hinterland of hotels and resorts, many a speedboat ride from the tumult of the town. This was Belize’s newly glamourised playground, buoyed by its relative unspoiltness and desirability for the scuba-diving, snorkelling, honeymooning northern hemisphere. Today tourism is Belize’s rain – its economy depends on it – and it is also to be solicited by sacrifices, in the shape of development.

The idyll Madonna had in mind on “La Isla Bonita” was more likely to be the sort created at a beachfront resort like Mata Chica, one of the most relaxed on the caye, with its elision of white beach and sparkling water and its Gauguin-colour-washed casitas in earshot of the tumbling masonry of the reef, and its skewered and grilled snapper fillet with salsa fresca eaten on an open veranda within five metres of the lapping Caribbean.

There are all kinds of romance, though, and when Oswald, a charming junior barman at the resort, who originated from San Ignacio up in the highlands near Blancaneaux as most of Mata Chica’s staff did, volunteered that in his home town, “Oh man, there’s a cool hour in the morning, when you can just sit on the veranda, and listen to the birds and think,” it was impossible not to think of the picture he conjured up as another sort, just as enfolding.

Belize – birdwatching

The birds of Belize, 573 species in a country only twice the size of Yorkshire, are a fabled attraction. Its richness makes the country ideal for beginners: as I discovered, with the right guide you can inflate a casual interest into a full blown passion. There is so much to see or, more correctly, be shown – without a guide you will not see a tenth of what you might – that you will be spoilt for pleasure. Belize’s multiplicity of habitats are the main reason: you can see interesting birds almost anywhere in the country, from the tanagers of the pine-forested highlands to the frigatebirds that patrol the cayes and reef.
Particularly impressive and/or big are the rakish Keel-billed toucan – Belize’s national bird – the Jabiru, Latin America’s tallest flying bird, and the secretive Great curassow that looks like a coiffed Regency starlet wrapped in a black shag-pile rug. But I preferred the woodpeckers and the unexpected, smaller species such as the flycatchers and tanagers that burst into shards of brilliant colour as the sun hits their feathers.
The best place to spot birds is where habitats change: you’ll see the occupants of both. At Lamanai (see the article) on the New River in northern Belize five habitats of forest, savanna and wetland converge; Ruben, my guide, claimed to have identified 389 species within a 3-kilometre radius of the Lamanai Outpost Lodge.
Birdwatching is for the converted, but if you ever thought you might be swayed, Belize is the place to find out. There are incidental discoveries: the fine pink dawns, the pleasure of indulging in a mild quest, the howler monkey you see staring scornfully at you and the agouti snuffling through the leaves with its young, the black orchid nestled at the base of a guanacaste tree. You need no special equipment to start, apart from the usual good shoes, insect repellent and pair of binoculars (and a pen and paper: within minutes, if you’re the slightest bit interested, you will want to be noting what you’ve seen). One early investment is definitely worth making: H Lee Jones’ and Dana Gardner’s superb field guide Birds of Belize (Christopher Helm, rrp £29.99).
By the time you are halfway through the trip there is also a powerful chance that your idea of a small investment will have expanded, without warning, to include the urgent purchase of a Swarovski spotting scope (they start around £600–£700), which you will want to mount on a high-quality lightweight tripod with a 3-way panhead, such as the Velbon Sherpa. Naturally.

Belize – travel tips

The irksome aspect of travel to Belize if you fly from the UK is having to transit through Miami airport, now the worst international airport in the world. Organisation is disgraceful, signposting non-existent, transit arrangements (like all US airports but worse here) diabolical and Kafkaesque. You will get through but allow plenty of time for your connection –  an overnight stay wouldn’t be too long – and be singleminded.
Packing: expect hot daytime temperatures, around 30ºC (86ºF), and humidity. Take cotton clothes, good shoes, a hat. Temperatures drop in the evening, so pack a sweater or fleece. Remember sunglasses, good insect repellent, sunscreen, torch, swimwear and snorkelling equpiment, and compact binoculars even if you’re not a birdwatcher.
Outside Belize City, Belmopan and San Pedro, cash in US or Belizean dollars ($BZ2 = $US1) is the norm. Don’t bother with sterling or sterling travellers’ cheques. At hotels and resorts you will be able to use major credit cards, and keep cash to dispense as tips to the staff – wages are low. Bank hours are generally 0900–1430, weekdays. If you’re going into the country, gifts for children – sweets, coloured pencils, small toys – are welcome.
Julian Evans’s trip was organised by The Ultimate Travel Company, 25–27 Vanston Place, London SW6 1AZ;  020 7386 4646;;

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