Belize City (population 60,000) sucks. Crack addicts, muggers, deranged loafers, unprovoked verbal abuse of the anti-whitey variety. A spoonful of water from its rancid canals, if strategically distributed, would wipe out the People’s Republic of China. Belize City’s got the lot.

You take a long, hard look at Belize City (from a reinforced hotel window if you’re wise) and you think uncharitable things.

Then you leave. Everyone does. And you hit the rest of Belize, which is beautiful.

This small, English-speaking Central American nation stretches for 250 km or so south from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The Peten rain forests of Guatemala flank Belize’s western borders. Belize’s human population is tiny and much of the country is still covered in tropical forest, peppered with ancient Mayan remains, jaguar reserves, “baboon” sanctuaries (baboon is Belizean for howler monkey), tropical pine-forested mountain ranges, cave systems. In short, the works.

For most people, the first port of call after fleeing Belize City is the barrier reef. This is the longest and finest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere extending virtually the whole length of Belize, some 15-40 km from the coast.

Ecotourism’s big in Belize, particularly among North Americans and savvy Europeans. Many skip mainland Belize, heading instead for the Cays (pronounced “keys,” meaning islands) on the inland side of the reef. Roughly 30 of Belize’s 450 or so cays have some form of tourist development. You pay your money and take your pick.

There are budget digs on Cay Caulker. It’s crowded, cheerful, easily traversed by golf cart (if you don’t mind looking ridiculous), but the only place to swim is where Hurricane Hattie split Caulker in two, creating a deepish channel.

Then there are exclusive one-resort-per-cay places. These probably correspond more readily to popular perceptions of what constitutes tropical paradise.

Caulker matched our wallet, though, and that’s where we went. Along with the more expensive Ambergris Cay, Caulker is the main hub for caye excursions. You can take sailing trips out among the reefs. (Don’t forget sun block or you’ll come back looking like an enraged tomato.)

Fish feeding goes on at certain points, notably Hol Chan marine reserve. This is as close to swimming in one of those “big fish” aquarium tanks as you are likely to get in the wild. Angel sharks, groupers (chunky customers, the groupers) rays, jacks, barracuda, they’re all there.

“Will I see them?” isn’t the question. “How many will I see?” is. If you are lucky, a remora (one of those sucker fishes that adhere to sharks) will decide to attach itself to you. You might even see an extraordinary little fish that resembles a fried chicken leg, which uses its elbows to pull itself across the sand. If you are scuba diving at the time, hilarity-provoked drowning is a danger, particularly if it allows you a glimpse of its puckered blue lips.

One can also take day trips out to the atolls that lie beyond the barrier reef. Lighthouse Cay and Blue Hole are the sort of places good divers hope to go to when they die. Blue Hole is, well, a blue hole, very deep, formed by the collapse of an undersea cave roof. Jacques Cousteau loved it.

Besides underwater attractions, Half Moon Cay has a wonderful variety of birds to observe: 4,000 red-footed boobies nest here; nearly 100 other bird species have been identified, as well as iguanas and sea turtles.

There are wreck dives and drop-offs the length of the barrier reef.

Back on the mainland, there is the manatee sanctuary of Gales Point. It can be reached by bus from Belize City, or, infinitely better, by boat — a very fine ride through lagoons and the Burdon mangrove canal.

Belize village names are explicitly descriptive. There’s Suckboot Swamp, Go To Hell and a lot more in a similar vein. The frank appraisal extends to geographical features too: Mount Baldy. Gales Point was named for the gales, but it wasn’t the hurricane season when we were there and the huge lagoon that surrounds the Gales Point Peninsula was still and calm.

Gales Point villagers have formed an ecotourism collective, the Gales Point Progressive Co-operative. This administers the surrounding manatee sanctuary and also offers bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The system is equitable; guests are assigned to different villager’s homes on a rotation basis to ensure everyone gets a fair bite of the ecotourist revenue cake.

Nice folk at Gales Point. You can accompany local guides to try and spot hawksbill turtles nesting. Hawksbills are the prettiest turtles, an evolutionary development that has ensured the species a place of pride — when stuffed, on Japanese walls. Living hawksbills are a never-to-beforgotten sight when encountered underwater.

When it comes to choosing nesting sites, though, they really make an ecotourist’s life difficult. Steep, narrow sand spits, clogged in roots, snarled under in flotsam and jetsam — these are the favored spots for egg laying. In short, it is a hellish trip, conducted after dark on the seaward side of Gales Point’s lagoon, wading waist-deep (at best) through pounding surf for miles.

A less strenuous option at Gales Point is hiring a dory and paddling around the linking lagoons, either with or without a local guide (better with). This is a world of forests, caves and water. Manatees are shy, but they’re there. Watching their soft wuffly noses breaking water while their extraordinary bodies loll beneath is something rather special.

How long should you stay? Weeks might be a start. Gales Point has a pub, good food, good company, the ultimate in eco-friendly sewage systems. (You do your business on a toilet suspended over the inshore side of the lagoon and about 50 large catfish immediately fight for the right to recycle it.)

Belize was a major part of the Mayan empire, so there are ruined Mayan cities and archaeological sites aplenty. The best Mayan experience to my mind, though, involves sitting on an inner tube and drifting down jungle rivers and through the cave systems. To the Mayans, the caves were the underworld. We spent five hours on inner tubes, miner’s lights strapped to our foreheads, and five hours were never better spent.

We went through three cave systems and just when things were getting dark, we’d be shot out through a cave mouth into bright sunlight, thick trees on each side and toucans in the canopy. Indiana Jones never had it so good. There was a fer-de-lance snake coiled around a stalagmite, a side cave held a shelled armadillo plus jaguar droppings. Mayan pottery, ancient stairs and cave carvings.

And all the while the gurgling river, pulling us every which way.

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