After a rigorous hike through the Belizean jungle, my husband and 13-year-old son strapped themselves into safety belts and were hooked up to ropes by wilderness guides. Then they stepped backward off a rocky cliff and rappelled 300 feet through the rain forest canopy into a sinkhole. A few miles away, my 15-year-old daughter and I donned headlamps and hopped into inner tubes, paddling with a guide deep into a network of caves used by Mayan priests centuries ago.
We climbed up slippery rocks to find crystal-studded caverns and remnants of fires, sacrificial offerings, wall etchings, and footprints of people, probably priests, who anthropologists believe ventured into these caves more than 1,000 years ago. A few days later, the adults in our family took another kind of plunge, scuba diving 140 feet into the Blue Hole, a collapsed cavern off the coast of Belize that was submerged in the last Ice Age. Swimming past a series of huge stalactites, each 25 to 50 feet long, we saw huge black-tip and bull sharks cruising silently just 30 feet away in the darkness.
In Belize, we found what we were looking for: thrilling reef diving and jungle ecotourism. We also found a friendly, laid-back atmosphere, with small, reasonably priced hotels rather than the high-rise resorts of places like Canc?n. The English-speaking former British colony is less than a two-hour flight from Miami. It's a small and poor country, with just 230,000 inhabitants--a mere fraction of the estimated 2 million Mayans who may have lived in the area at the height of that civilization, from 300 to 900 A.D. But the country has many riches--its magnificent coral reef, the second-longest in the world, and its thousands of Mayan ruins and ceremonial caves.
We started our trip at the Caves Branch Jungle Lodge, just outside the sleepy capital, Belmopan. It's in the heart of the country's jungle region, the Cayo district of Western Belize. We had perused the lodge's Web site (cavesbranch.com) and read rave reviews from former visitors. Owner Ian Anderson, 48, a Canadian who visited Belize 11 years ago and decided to make it his home, has created a special spot on the Caves Branch river. Campsites, dormitory-style quarters, and thatched-roof cabanas are set among foliage-packed, meandering paths lit with kerosene torches. During the day, guests are out rappelling, hiking through the jungle, or exploring some of the 63 caves that Anderson and his rescue-trained guides have scoped out over the years. At night, guests swap stories about their adventures.
For us, the biggest rush came from diving the Blue Hole. Scientists believe it was formed 11,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, when the sea's level rose, flooding the ancient caves and collapsing the roof. What's left is a 415-foot-deep, quarter-mile-wide hole with sheer vertical walls, accessible to experienced divers only. Divers descend 140 feet to see stalactites that once hung from air-filled caverns. You can remain at that depth only eight minutes, so my husband and I swam with our 12-person group, hand-in-hand--neither of us wanted to become disoriented and sink to the bottom of that hole, something that has been known to happen.
If you prefer less adventure, you can stay at Francis Ford Coppola's beautiful Blancaneaux Lodge in the Pine Ridge district (blancaneaux.com) and drink his California wines at night after exploring the Xunantunich Mayan ruins by day. You can cross into Guatemala to visit Tikal, considered by many to be the most spectacular ruins in Central America. Bird-watchers can spot 140 species on early-morning walks through the Cayo district. And beach lovers will enjoy San Pedro, the main town on Ambergris Caye, where you can rent golf carts to drive through the town in search of that evening's seafood dinner--or catch your own on a fishing trip. For such a small country, Belize offers a surprising variety of experiences. By Geri Smith