ORANGE WALK, Belize -- Nature in Belize is intense. Like most people who find their way here, I was responding to that call of the wild: the growl of the jaguars roaming Mayan ruins in the dense jungle of the interior and the waves breaking over the hemisphere’s largest coral reef.
Tucked between Mexico and Guatemala on the Caribbean coast, Belize provides two very different experiences, and in one week I explored both — the mystery of ancient cities in the jungle and the astounding beauty of 70 species of corals on the reef.
No one can forget the roar of howler monkeys swinging in the tropical canopy or the sight of the largest fish in the world, the whale shark, which is as long as a school bus.
First on my agenda was the jungle.
A white-hot sun bore down on the small boat as we rode upriver through the thick rain forest of northern Belize.
We were headed to the ancient Maya city of Lamanai. It’s a place of dark secrets, not the least of which was the cause of its demise. The city, which once had a population of 50,000, was buried by dirt and foliage for four centuries until archaeologists started an excavation in the 1970s.
Only five buildings have been uncovered. More than 730 buildings remain hidden in the firm grip of the jungle, an entire city never seen by modern eyes.
We could have driven the 38 miles on a teeth-rattling dirt road from the nearest town of Orange Walk, but it’s only 26 miles by boat. Most people take the river.
Our boat slowly cruised up the New River past crocodiles resting on the muddy banks, seemingly immobilized by the tropical heat. One of them came to life and slid into the water, his ridged tail propelling him swiftly across the surface, his eyes locked on the boat. Just when I thought he was going to come aboard, he dropped like a stone to the river bottom.
The commotion startled a roseate spoonbill, which flew across the river to a high branch, its 4-foot hot-pink wingspan and spatula-shaped bill a sight to behold. A red jacana’s long toes allowed the bird to spread its weight and run across the water on lily pads. Bats napping on the shady side of a tree trunk below stalks of banana orchids didn’t budge.
As the boat slowly rounded the next bend, we were in for another surprise, a half-dozen naked Mennonite farmers cooling off in the river, their pale skin — except for sun-reddened forearms, necks and faces — clearly visible in the shallow water. Straw hats, blue work shirts and overalls were piled on a pier.
Not shy, they waved enthusiastically. I automatically waved back, but my eyes were busy scanning the water for submerged crocs. The Mayan word “Lamanai,” by the way, means “submerged crocodile.”
Two hours into the jungle, we finally tied up at a pier, and walked up the hillside toward the ancient city. The dense canopy of trees filtered the sunlight down to an eerie twilight.
A hairy tarantula, as wide as a man’s splayed hand, scurried across the dirt and into a burrowed hole. A troop of endangered black howler monkeys followed us, swinging from the treetops. Suddenly the unearthly quiet was pierced by a monkey’s fierce roar, a blood-curdling howl that can be heard for 20 miles.
The monkey, I thought, was warning us away, but we soon saw the High Temple through the mahogany and strangler fig trees.
The three of us, the guide and a friend, automatically halted as we stepped from the jungle and stood transfixed in front of the temple. A breeze brought the heady fragrance of allspice, bay leaves and the seeping resin of the copal tree, which was made into an intensely aromatic incense burned at the temple long ago. With no other people on the paths, it was easy to imagine the ancient civilization that lived in this jungle.
At 108 feet, the High Temple is the tallest of the city’s four temples. From the top, you can see the 28-mile-long New River Lagoon, the largest body of fresh water in the country, and the Maya Mountains in the distance.
Nearby was the Mask Temple with nine-foot stucco masks flanking the entrance. It is one of the country’s most significant ceremonial monuments.
Continuously occupied for 3,000 years until the Spanish came in the 1500s, the city had eight major plazas, each surrounded by large buildings, and a port on the lagoon. A huge platform about 270 feet by 330 feet once supported several large buildings standing about 84 feet tall.
Belizeans like to joke that their history is right under their feet, which is true. Pieces of painted pottery and obsidian, which the Maya used for tools, are everywhere on the walkways, and more appears after every big storm.
Ancient people have left the remnants of their civilizations scattered throughout Central America.
About 1,500 years ago, more than 1million Maya are believed to have lived in Belize, roughly four times the country’s population today. Archaeologists have uncovered more than 35 major sites, many more smaller ones and hundreds more that are still mostly hidden by the jungle: evidence of a complex and enigmatic civilization’s development through the centuries.
Consider this: The country’s largest manmade structure is not a high-rise building in Belize City but the Canaa (Sky Place) pyramid in Caracol, an ancient Maya city built deep in the Chiquibul Forest near the Guatemalan border. More than 200,000 people lived there at its peak.
So what happened to the people of Lamanai?
Scientists now believe it wasn’t disease or Spanish conquest that brought down this great civilization. The current theory is that the Maya did themselves in by cutting down trees, slashing and burning, wiping out animal habitats, and devastating the land around them. It is a warning from the ancient past that we might heed.
By late afternoon the monkeys’ howls became more urgent, and it was time to go.
The next day, we drove a half-day south to the coast and the fishing village of Placencia.
On a glorious afternoon, we found a beautiful beach with no one but us. A kayaking trip turned up lots of sea birds, a few friendly manatees, and no people — just us in one of the most beautiful natural settings in the Caribbean.
Looking east we could spot waves breaking over the second largest coral reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Looking down into a Caribbean Sea as clear as a classic martini, I could see starfish on the sandy floor.
To the west, the sun set behind the mangrove-fringed Placencia Lagoon and the distant smoky-blue Maya Mountains and Victoria Peak.
It’s obvious why filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola built his Turtle Inn resort here.
Let everyone else go 100 miles north to Ambergris Caye, the largest island in Belize and its No.1 tourist destination. The island’s population has swelled to 12,000, not including all the American expats and retirees who have built multi-million-dollar homes along the island’s beaches and have bought up new beachside condos.
Placencia, however, a village at the tip of the 16-mile long Placencia Peninsula, still retains the character of a sleepy fishing village with a population of barely 1,000, many of whom live in colorful stilt cottages and earn their livings from fishing or diving and have family histories that go back before colonial days.
While San Pedro, the largest town on Ambergris, is chardonnay and champagne, golf carts and designer clothes, Placencia is Belikin beer and Caribbean rum, fly rods and snorkel fins. Big, dusty trucks and SUVs are the vehicles of choice.
Actors and CEOs come to Placencia but the real stars are some of the world’s most highly regarded fishing guides, who are attractions in themselves for the stories they tell at local thatched-roof watering holes.
Placencia is a haven for every level of fly fisherman. Experts aim for salt-water fly fishing’s grand slam: permit, bonefish, tarpon and snook.
Called the “Permit Capital of the World,” the town attracts anglers who travel thousands of miles just to stalk this prized game fish. There are also plenty of wahoo, sailfish, marlin and kingfish. And it’s a favorite spot for fly fishermen who go after the elusive bonefish, the “gray ghosts of the sea.”
Divers are drawn here just for the chance of swimming alongside a 50-foot, 50,000-pound whale shark, the world’s biggest fish. In March, the village celebrates the gentle giant with Whale Shark Day.
But the main attraction is the Belize Barrier Reef, part of the Mesoamerican Reef system stretching nearly 700 miles from the northern tip of Mexico and along the coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.
The reef is close to shore, from 50 feet to 20 miles, making it easily accessible for divers and snorkelers, who can see 70 varieties of coral including branching fire, rose lace and blushing star. The reef supports more than 500 species of fish.
Charles Darwin called it “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies” when he visited nearly 170 years ago, and the more that scientists have learned about it over the decades, the more remarkable it seems. Each year, 200,000 divers and snorkelers take to the Belizean waters to see firsthand what Darwin was talking about.
For such a small place, there are a dozen excellent beachfront resorts in Placencia including the friendly Robert’s Grove Beach Resort and the elegant Placencia Hotel. But to really experience beach life, and Belize, I like Coppola’s resort.
Divers, anglers and those who just was peace and quiet drift into his luxurious Bali-style Turtle Inn, a collection of thatched-roof cottages right on a white-sand beach. They relax in the spa and dine at the resort’s three restaurants.
Guests often stay here and then take a helicopter to Coppola’s other Belize resort, Blancaneaux Lodge, in the Maya Mountains.
The Oscar-winning director of films including The Godfather and Apocalypse Now often stays in the resort’s Family Pavilion, a three-bedroom, seaside Balinese cottage with thatched roof. His nephew Nicolas Cage brings his family and friends.
During my visit, an English rock band — pale, skinny and wearing tiny European-style swimwear — spent an afternoon by one of the pools. I never found out the name of the band, but I hoped they put on a few pounds at Coppola’s Mare restaurant, which has a Neapolitan brick oven for making pizzas. Of course, the food has to be washed down with wine from Coppola’s California vineyards.
Coppola and his wife Eleanor first came to Belize in the early 1980s and built Blancaneaux Lodge as a family getaway. He opened the 20-room Blancaneaux Lodge resort in 1993. He built the 25-room Turtle Inn, a complex of one-bedroom and two-bedroom thatched-roof cottages, with Balinese carved-wood doors, elaborate woodwork and furniture, in 2003.
Coppola’s inn, and the town, have been known only by a lucky few. But not for long.
A rutted, dirt road helped keep Placencia isolated from the rest of the country. Many people found it easier and faster just to travel by boat. But that’s changed since the main road that runs the length of the peninsula was paved two years ago.
It’s only a matter of time before the condos go up. Better visit Belize sooner than later.