Diversity is hallmark of Caribbean country

February 19, 2014 

An olive green moray eel with blue eyes comes out of hiding during a tour-led dive.

CARLOS TOURS/COURTESY PHOTO

We had a great trip to Belize last month. It was beautiful and diverse in its people, animals, birds, sea life, vegetation and geology.

We stayed on a small island off the coast called Caye Caulker, and as we flew there, I gazed at the clear, warm aqua waters and knew it was the Caribbean I had longed to see.

Our cabana was painted in bright yellow and blue, and it had a long dock that pointed east.

After we met up with Vicki and Dave, friends who had arrived earlier, we headed out to explore the island.

Palm trees waved at us as we made our way along the white, sandy shore that was lined with simple resorts. Folks passed us as they rode old-fashioned bikes or drove golf carts. We looked out at the sea and could make out waves breaking in the distance on the Belize Barrier Reef, part of the longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere.

Mark and Jeannette, the friends who invited us on the trip, arrived later that afternoon, so we gathered for rum cocktails before we went out to dinner. The village was filled with restaurants and bars, all with outside signs touting local food: conch seviche, lobster, various fish, fried chicken, beans and rice, vegetables and fruit, and — of course — rum.

How could we go wrong? Dining in open-air restaurants and wearing shorts and tank tops in January was so freeing.

We experienced two snorkel trips. One took us on a rough hour-long boat ride to Turneffe Atoll, southeast of Caye Caulker, where the water suddenly quieted. The other was to the Hoi Chan Marine Reserve just northeast of Caye Caulker.

As soon as I slid into those warm waters and looked down, I was transported to quiet scenes of waving coral and compelling creatures. Our guides led us through the underwater world that they knew like the backs of their hands.

I found the brain coral amusing and the purple fan coral gracious. We swam with manta rays and sea turtles amid bright coral, where colorful fish of every stripe made their homes.

I was surprised when our guide, Carlos, lured an olive green moray eel with blue eyes out of hiding. In the marine reserve, a group of nurse sharks hovered, and Carlos held one upside down and let us stroke its belly.

Magical!

On another day, we took a pleasant water taxi ride to Belize City on the mainland, where we met our guide, Richard. He drove us to the Altun Ha Mayan ruins to the north, and he explained the history and current events of Belize during the drive.

The ruins were in the depth of the jungle, so simple yet stunning in their layout. We walked about and up to the top of several ruins, and we imagined the Mayan lifestyle.

Anthropologists there have only scratched the surface of what lies beneath the jungle.

From there, we drove to the famous Belize Zoo, where Richard guided us with in-depth knowledge of all the animals. My favorite was the tapir (pronounced taper) that looks a bit like a small hippo with an elephant-like snout. Tapirs are the national animal, and we were lucky to see a mother tapir nurse her baby.

The scarlet macaw, so handsome in its blue and red feathers, posed with us. He’s their national bird.

We also had a chance to say hello to Sharon Matola, the zoo’s founder.

A person could spend years in Belize and not see all that it has to offer. I’m just glad we got to experience a fraction of its splendor.

A Time to Talk columnist Mary Magee can be reached by email at marymagee@harbornet.com.

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