I press my forehead to the car’s window and watch as heavy raindrops worm their way down the glass, while beyond the vehicle, the aggressive downpour streams down corrugated roofs and people dash about, dodging huge puddles and hoisting up umbrellas that deflate under the ensuing rainstorm.
It’s mid-afternoon when I wake up in the back of the car. The rain has blown its course and bright, blue skies are breaking through cloud. Adam and I are heading into the Cayo District on the west coast, bordering Guatemala, known for its waterfalls, huge cave systems, Mayan ruins and verdant forest — and where zip-lining through the canopy is all the rage for tourists.
We drive through tiny villages with names like Blackmaneddy and Teakettle following the Western Highway. “There’s all kinda crazy village names in Belize,” says our driver, Shen-Li. “You’ve got Yo Creek, Roaring Creek and Spanish Loco. Then there’s Duck Run and Double Head Cabbage.”
But we’re heading for the more soberly named Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve — created to manage the native Belizean pine forests — and the eco-retreat of Gaia Riverlodge.
It’s a bumpy ride along muddy, red-sand roads, and up and over potholes. But you can’t be privy to such knockout views without a tad of discomfort. Perched on the edge of a valley, it overlooks the astonishing Five Sisters waterfalls: five gushing cascades that tumble into clear pools — the resort’s naturally-made swimming pool, no less.
Tomorrow, we can explore the ancient Mayan site of Caracol, deep in the Chiquibul Rainforest, or cross into Guatemala via the border town of Melchor De Mencos and on to the famous archaeological site of Tikal. Then there’s always cave tubing and zip-lining and galloping through the rainforest on horseback, ticking off Mayan plazas and ceremonial sites.
As I stretch on the doorstep of my casita the following morning — all Belizean hardwoods, bay leaf-thatched roof and richly varnished mahogany interiors — thick, low cloud drapes the tips of the pine trees in a ghostly blanket. And a reddish bird pecks around the dewy grass as though it’s misplaced something.
“Looks like lots of rain today,” says a passing gardener. Not yet defeated by the weather, Adam and I hop on bikes and pedal away from Gaia and along the orange dirt road we arrived on the night before. Skirting puddles and wheeling up bumpy gradients, we pass a wonky wooden sign emblazoned with Big Rock Waterfall and hastily turn off the road towards a makeshift set of stairs. Dumping the bikes, we carefully manoeuvre down the rickety steps, pushing through brambles and prickly branches. We follow the mighty rumble of water, feet rolling and crunching over the uneven camber, and round a corner. I shade my eyes to stare at the falls. Spray catches my eyelashes, hummingbirds flit past on gusts of wind, and before long, we’re throwing ourselves into the pool below the falls.
Later that evening, I pull up a chair, order a cosmopolitan and wrap up from the evening chill in the retreat’s bar, pondering my one and only issue with Belize.
“I’ve got a problem with Belize’s beaches,” I reveal to the bartender as he drops a handful of ice into a cocktail shaker.
You see, where the waves ebb the beach on almost every stretch of sand, there’s almost always a thick coating of seaweed, making direct access into the sea a pretty unpleasant experience. Instead, small jetties run from beach to sea on most cayes where you can run and jump into the wonderfully clear waters. So don’t be fooled by adverts showing stunning Belize beaches — more than likely they will have photoshopped out the seaweed.
Like any good bar man, he listens intently, hands me my cocktail and tips his head.
“If you want my advice, head to Placencia. It’s got some of the best beaches in the country. And very little seagrass. But remember man, it’s what’s in the water that counts.”
Mind made up, we leave Mountain Pine Ridge the following morning and make the six-hour drive back to the coast to this narrow spit of land that juts into the Caribbean. Our trusty bartender was right. Cruising along the coast, the seaweed smothering many of the beaches I’d seen was absent. And nowhere was this more apparent than at Turtle Inn — our retreat for the night and one of Francis Ford Coppola’s central American resorts — sitting tidily on a pristine white sand beach where drooping palms sway over the sea. It’s a gorgeous place, with water so sparkly it’ll make you want to dive in every morning. Villas are decked out in dark woods and carved handicrafts – it’s Bali meets Belize – and the outdoor showers are pretty special. I could spend weeks here, just lazing by the pool, tucking into garlicky seafood and lolling in hammocks.
White spumes of small breakers roll onto shore and I toss my head impatiently into my snorkel and flip off directly from the shore. Between March and June, around the time of the full moon, whale sharks roam these waters, though today I’m alone with a swarm of rainbow fish. Out of the shadows, an enormous ray drifts into view — perhaps six feet across — and spins around me as though looking me up and down. I’m tempted to grasp his tail and let him pull me along.
I swim back to shore and prop myself up with cushions on the terrace of my seafront cottage. The sun’s rays begin to fade. Lights from the surrounding resort shine through the dark while offshore yachts appear smudged by the dwindling light. I squint at the waves — is that a fin just a few feet away? Belize, my friend, I have well and truly fallen for you.
This piece has been adapted from my original piece published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)