The coral gardens of Belize’s Cockroach Caye

Ecology, history, diving and Belikin beer: Bob Berwyn enjoys an all-inclusive vacation in Belize

A pair of empty conch shells rests on the tip of a kayak in a lagoon near Ambergris Caye. Photograph by Leigh WaddenAltun Ha, 30 miles north of Belize City, was a trade centre during the Mayan era, 200 BC to 900 AD. Photograph by Bob BerwynAn ancient skull rests deep in a cave at Aktun Tunichil Muknal. Photograph by Bob BerwynBob Berwyn in the shallows off Cockroach Caye, learning about the mangrove-coral ecology that is sustained in part by hurricanes. Photograph by Leigh Wadden

Rarely do tropical island-dwellers praise hurricanes, so Leigh and I listen when Carlos Miller explains how the periodic storms help sustain the mangrove-coral ecosystem of Cockroach Caye, Belize.

We’re standing near a makeshift Robinson Crusoe shack on Turneffe Atoll, one of the tiny specks of land off the shore of Belize. Chunks of foil-wrapped chicken sizzle fragrantly on a wood fire.

Miller shows us the sweaty, salty leaves of a red mangrove. He explains how the hurricanes flush sand off the reef and into the trees, where the root pillars trap it to build new land, helping both parts of the ecosystem. Bigger hurricanes can destroy mangrove stands. But over time, the cycle of storms leads to renewal and growth, not just destruction. A succession of mangrove species, fuelled in part by the storms, helps sustain the delicate balance between the reef and the oceanic mangrove forests, Miller explains.

Caribbean reef decline has been traced mainly to over-fishing. Algae-eating fish are disappearing. Without the predators, the algae outgrow and smother coral. In some parts of the region, run-off from beachside development related to tourism is damaging nearby reefs. Other causes of damage include pollution from agricultural and industrial sources, and sediment from deforestation.

Turneffe Atoll remains one of the most pristine and diverse marine preserves in the Caribbean. For now, the mangrove shoals around Cockroach Caye still function as the marine nursery for the western hemisphere’s largest coral reef, where Miller guides snorkellers and divers—and he wants to keep it that way.

Today, he’s cooking for six. Leigh and I share the boat with an enthusiastic Austrian family who are wrapping up a long backpack-style loop through Central America.

Miller’s friendly face breaks into an affirmative grin as we scoop up the last of the salsa and offer a cleanup day in exchange for a free night on the island. At both morning dive stops we see thriving and diverse coral colonies, with no sign of disease or decline.

After lunch we explore one more undersea garden, six of us spread out across acres and acres of sea with nobody else in sight. Late-afternoon sunlight shimmers through a school of translucent squid hovering in a fantasyland of purple, green and gold coral. Leigh and I float hand in hand. The gentle currents rock and drift us gently through the slots and outcrops, in synch with endless schools of fish.

As we head northwest back toward Caye Caulker, a school of bottlenose dolphins plunges through our wake. Even though we’re running late, Miller cuts the engine and urges us to jump in for an impromptu swim. As soon as our ears are underwater, we hear the squealing sea mammals, gently inviting us to dive and spin with them. Beams of sunlight filter through plankton-rich water, and the dolphins swirl closer around us in a trippy Jacques Cousteau moment before they disappear below. After dark, we trail our fingers through phosphorescent streaks of plankton.

We’re well into a whirlwind getaway, base-camped in San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye. It’s the hub of Belizean shore tourism, with a classic palm-fringed beachfront strip where bikes and golf carts rule. The town is one of the main starting points for exploring the great Mesoamerican Reef, second only in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Our first reef excursion is close to San Pedro. Both casual snorkellers and serious divers find it all here. Dozens of outfitters line San Pedro’s piers, all offering treks to popular spots. We sign up for one of the standard tours. The first stop is Hol Chan, a break in the reef where we spot a flotilla of patrolling barracudas and a sea turtle majestically riding the current, along with armadas of neon-colored reef-nibblers, straight out of Finding Nemo. At Shark Ray Alley, the guides chum the water to draw a school of nurse sharks and rays to the boat.

Traffic at both sites is high during peak season. At times we feel like we’re playing footsie with scuba divers below and rubbing shoulders with passengers from several other boats anchored nearby. But the density and variety of marine life makes it worthwhile. As the swimmers disperse, Leigh and I are wide-eyed at the sight of a neon moray eel. We marvel at how close we can get to a golden curtain of fish, all swaying as one with the current.

On our last day, we ride the water taxi back to Caye Caulker, Miller’s stomping ground. We enjoy the mellow barefoot mood on the sandy main street. A squall moves in, and the beachfront vendors hustle to pack away rainbow-hued sarongs and strings of beads. For our last dinner we meet Miller at the Happy Lobster, curious to hear more of his take on the tourist trade.

Ecotourism stems from the mindset of tourists as much as the number of recycling bins, Miller reminds us. That means when we travel, we must show gratitude and respect for the privilege of sharing other environments, cultures, landscapes and food.

This attitude can pay off with access to amazing sights like the Aktun Tunichil cave system, which we visited on our first day.

Ten centuries ago, Mayan priests used the cave to appeal to a god for a balance between rain and sun. Danny, our guide, explains that deep in the labyrinth, the Mayans prayed to Chac, and leads us into a crystalline underworld through a maze of watery tunnels.

The keyhole-shaped entrance to the cavern is draped with thick vines. Moss-covered boulders line the banks of the pool where we must swim to get inside the cave. We find our footing on a narrow ledge, a hundred feet past the entrance, and manoeuvre through a maze of stalactite-draped passages and sparkling caverns.

In the openings, 1,000-year-old pots and bones are arranged around small sacrificial areas, including whole vessels, each with a small piercing in the rim where a Mayan priest once made an opening for the spirits believed to reside within. At first, the remains appear jumbled. But the ritual use of pottery may have included aligning the pots to mirror heavenly constellations, Danny explains.

Archaeological evidence suggests that, along with symbolic offerings, dire times called for human sacrifice. Priests opened the chests of their victims to tear out a beating heart. Entire skeletons are covered with a thin layer of sparkly limestone, beautiful but grim. Other sacrificial victims were somehow tied to the cave walls and left to die in a certain position meant to show intent to the gods, Danny says, as we view the skeletal remains of the Crystal Maiden.

Mainland Belize also has a rich collection of Mayan ruins. Some date back to 600 BC, and some were inhabited up to 900 AD. Our guide power-walks us through the old fortress and temples, making sure we stay just ahead of the throngs of bus passengers streaming in from the cruise ships. It feels a little like a race, but we find a few spots where it’s quiet and we feel how the Mayans used the man-made mountains as lookouts to scour the jungle canopy for campfires or other signs of intrusion.

From the summit of the highest temple, it all seems so clear and orderly; the neat plazas and paths, giant steps leading up to perfectly proportioned plateaus. But it’s also a reminder that every edifice, every civilisation, is subject to decay and decline.

Fact file: Belize

According to the CIA’s world fact book, Belize is slightly smaller than Massachusetts, at about 22,966 square kilometres. Most of the mainland consists of a limestone bench covered with jungle scrub, rising to mountainous terrain on the western border with Guatemala. Mexico’s Yucatan region is to the north, with Honduras to the southeast.

Belize became part of the colony of British Honduras in 1854 and didn’t gain independence until 1981, a move delayed by territorial disputes with Guatemala.

US dollars are commonly accepted at a fixed two-to-one exchange rate. The language is English. As it is a Commonwealth country, Belize currency features portraits of the Queen.

Belize City isn’t touted by the guidebooks, but we stayed for two nights in the downtown Hotel Mopan, using the city as a jumping-off point for the cave tour at Aktun Tunichil Muknal.
www.hotelmopan.com
We enjoyed the scruffy but safe vibe of the port town, right down to quaffing beers alongside local fishermen and hookers at a canal-side red-light bar.

Plus, it’s the only place we’ve been solicited for real estate by a sincere-sounding sidewalk salesman: “Pssst, you wanna buy 20 acres near the airport?”

Since most coastal travel in Belize is by boat, the ferry terminal in the city is a central station of sorts, advertising connections via boats, planes and buses to many regional destinations. The well-stocked convenience store in the terminal will have anything you might have forgotten, from bottle-openers and batteries to ice-cold Belikin beers.

Aktun Tunichil Muknal is a two-hour drive, then a 45-minute hike from Belize City, in the Maya Mountain back country. Several tour companies run trips from the nearby town of San Ignacio, but PacZ tours picked us up at our hotel in Belize City and offered first-class service and a friendly guide.
For cave tour info and reservations: pacztours@btl.net.

Check out a travel blog on the cave here:
www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g29’969-d300696-r’3045320-Actun_Tunichil_Muknal-Cayo.html

The reef is a highlight of any Belize visit. We were thrilled by the low-key, personal and environmentally-oriented snorkelling tour to Turneffe Atoll with Carlos Miller, based on Caye Caulker.