Belize, Please!

The wife and I (love saying that) just got back from Belize a couple nights ago. Though I’m sorry to report that there are no pictures of monkeys or speared fish, the honeymoon was a blast, everything we hoped for. Seeing as how this will be long entry, a rehashing of my travel diary, I’ll get right down to it.

Day 1 – The first test of my marital fidelity occurred no later than the plane flight to Central America. As we made our descent into Belize International Airport, with Ana sleeping soundly, a flight attendant passed out customs and declaration forms, which he and the captain instructed us to fill out. Eager to take care of my first husbandly duty, I set to work completing forms for both the missus and myself. Ana awoke a few minutes later and groggily said, “What are you doing?” Filling out the customs forms, hon, I said. “You don’t need to do that. We’re Americans. We just show them our U.S. passports and they let us through.” With a skeptical nod, I continued writing. “What are you doing?” Ana repeated, now fully awake and irritated. “WHY AREN’T YOU LISTENING TO ME?!” That got me to put down the pencil. And for the rest of the flight, I just stared at the forms in conflicted paralysis.

When we arrived at the customs booths, and the agent stamped our passports and asked for the forms, I gazed at Ana lovingly and said, “See, dear, this is how much I love you.” Ana sweetly told the agent, “Oh, gee, we didn’t know we had to fill those out.” “See,” I continued, “I love you enough to ignore airport customs and international security regulations.” “Uh, huh,” Ana said. “Thanks.”

The first resort we stayed at was Blancaneaux Lodge, which was situated between the Pine Ridge Forest and the Rain Forest (or “Broad Leaf Forest,” as the locals insist) in Western Belize. Blancaneaux is owned and operated by Francis Ford Coppola–who, between the winemaking and hoteliering, doesn’t appear to have much time for directing these days. The Pine Forest we drove through wasn’t exactly picturesque, as a few years ago the country had an infestation of the Pine Bark Beetle, which reduced most to the trees to barren stumps. We’d heard that Coppola fell in love with the area because it reminded him fondly of setting that he shot “Appocalypse Now” in; but driving past the scalped pines, the area looked less like jungle heaven I’d read about in Zoetrope, and more like a napalmed village.

Miraculously, when we drove into Blancaneaux, everything changed. Suddenly, we were in a lush, almost manicured, paradise. Our riverfront cottage was set into a hillside overlooking a river and waterfall. Other cottages and villas (including Coppola’s borderline mansion) dotted the hillside, and stone pathways curved all through the lush landscape. Nearly everyone staying at the resort was on their honeymoon, and we chatted it up with couples from Chicago, New York, and San Diego (including one shoe company CEO who taught me how to use the word “gnarly” in conversation). Dinner on Day 1, as on every subsequent night, was at the hotel restaurant, where an extremely attentive staff served delicious (if pricey) Italian food and wine from (where else?) the Coppola vineyards.

Day 2 – The rooms at Blancaneux have no TVs, AC, or phones, so our wake-up calls involved a large conch shell, which would blush a pinkish color and chip softly, “Dees is your seven o’clock wake-up.” This took me by surprise on our first morning, and because I didn’t know what to do, the conch just continued whispering to us. Finally, after about ten tries, somebody just knocked on our door and said the trip to see Mayan ruins would be leaving soon.

We hiked through the broad-leaf forest to the site of Caracol, the largest of Belize’s Mayan settlements. There we explored the enormous residential structures, which kind of reminded me of those archology structures from Sim City — you know, the futuristic ones that take off into space when you win. Anyway, we saw all sorts of creatures at the ruins, including scorpions, giant spiders, and, happily, howler monkeys (in treetops in the distance). There was also flora and fauna, like the strangler fig tree, avocados the size of human heads, and the gumbo limbo “tourist tree,” which is red and peeling — sort of like Ana towards the end of our trip. On the drive back from the ruins we stopped at two more interesting sites — the giant Rio Frio Cave and the Rio On Pools, a gushing waterfall and river formation.

Day 3 – The conch shell woke us at 5:30am for a “sunrise” horseback ride. But by the time we saddled up on our horses, Katie and Lucy, the sun was already pretty much risen, and it became more of a sunup ride. The horses were amazing; despite the fact that Ana and I had never ridden, they were on autopilot, and save for the few times where they took pit stops to munch on palm trees, we didn’t use the reins at all. On the ride we saw all sorts of birds, including green parrots, Maccaws, and a family of vultures sunning themselves. Our guide, Jason, had offered us helmets before we left, but basically implied that we’d be ninnies if we used ’em. It was only when Lucy and Katie began sliding down muddy slopes and literally scaling rocky faces that we began to have second thoughts about the head gear. On one particularly steep climb, Jason told me to lean foreword. It was at just that moment that Katie bucked her head and nailed me in the glasses, which I thought was very unsportsmanlike.

Later in the day Ana got her first massage. Prasert, a skinny masseuse from Thailand, entered our room, promptly straddled my new wife, and began applying peppermint oils in places that I don’t care to mention here. Still, Ana was very happy and proclaimed it “the best massage in her life.” At dinner, she informed me that she’d scheduled one for me the next day. (I won’t get into that — except to say that, without provocation, Prasert punched me three times in the ass. It was funny for a minute or two, but since when did bruising the kiester become a part of the massage ritual?)

Day 4 – After spending a lazy morning eating a long breakfast, trying to swim in the river (and nearly getting swept away), and exploring the grounds, we decided to take a trip to another cave in the afternoon. Getting to the Barton Creek Cave involved driving through a Mennonite community (in Belize — who knew? They have Amish, too!). The road is only kept up by the Mennonites, who use horse-drawn graders to smooth it out. But, unfortunately for us, it doesn’t appear that they do this more than once a decade, and won’t allow the government to step in and help. Thus our guide, David, had to navigate potholes the size of China. When we got to a river, which blocked the road, Ana said, “Oh well, guess we gotta turn back.” Nope. David promptly gunned the car through the river, which went about three feet high around us, and then, a couple minutes later, went through a second river. I was giddy about all this, and squealed with glee, “It’s just like an SUV commercial!

The cave itself was breathtaking. It stretched for about 10 kilometers, with a river running right through it. I suppose it would’ve been nice to row further than one-half a kilometer, but, given that we were in rickety canoes, and there were bats screeching overhead, and all we had to protect us from the darkness were some jumbo flashlights, I think we did OK. The point that we officially decided to turn around was when we came upon some Mayan skulls, sitting on a ledge. David explained that these dated back hundreds of years, to Mayan burial rituals, but Ana and the other girl with us had seen enough.

Day 5 – Our transfer from the rain forest to the beach involved a four-hour car ride with an affable tour guide named Hugh. Though Hugh was talkative and funny (like an overweight Bill Cosby who speaks Creole), and the Belizean countryside was breathtaking, and we saw more orange groves than one human being can possibly comprehend, the ride was bumpy. Really bumpy. Parts of the road were paved, sure, but it quickly became apparent to us why the guidebooks said that it was much easier to get around Belize on small airplane.

When we arrived at Turtle Inn, it was immediately apparent that the shiatsu car ride was a small price to pay. The resort was like nothing I’d ever seen before — except in travel brochures and movies, I suppose, but I’m not even sure about that. The beach was a perfectly manicured natural oasis, with palm trees angled just so, large lanterns hanging from the trees at nighttime, and giant villas situated literally ten steps from the ocean. What made the resort all the more astounding was that everything here, on the peninsula of Placencia, had been leveled by a hurricane three years before. Apparently, all of Turtle Inn had been rebuilt since.

Day 6 – We decided to take a break from activities and tours for a couple days, and Ana and I began to devour books. Ana quickly finished off the new Jennifer Weiner novel, as well as the first installment in the Shopoholic series. I myself took up The Devil in White City and How to Be Good. The only problem was that as we became engrossed in these books, we paid no attention to the sun beating overhead. We spent all day under the bright Equator-line sol, and went paddling in a kayak and snorkeling in the resort’s waterfront. You can connect the dots. It was only around 4pm, with our fellow honeymooners expressing concern for the deep maroon color that Ana had adopted, that we thought, hmm, maybe a good time to get in the shade.

Sure enough, by that evening we were both sporting burns, loud and proud — mine on my back, and Ana’s basically all over. As we tried to go to sleep, we found there was a cute little songbird in our room, which chirped periodically. This might have seemed annoying under other circumstances, but with my burn, I wasn’t getting asleep anyway, so it was nice to have the company.

Day 7 – Seeing as how we didn’t do a whole lot this day, other than apply aloe vera and lidocaine to one another, I’ll take a second to talk about the Turtle Inn rooms. While Blancaneux was a little rustic and comfortable, Turtle Inn was pure luxury. The rooms were decorated with beautiful Indonesian tapestries, carved wood doorways, and assorted other Asian-style flourishes. There was an outdoor shower fed by a bamboo shoot, and an indoor shower that wafted with the smells of the yummy glycerin soaps, shampoos, and conditioners, all of which were filled daily in little carved stone containers. Despite being on the beach, there was still plenty of wildlife about; I’ve already mentioned the bird, but there also turtles (natch!) and a giant Iguana named Izzy, which lived in the tree outside our first room.

I say “first” because on Day 8, we were transferred to an even better room, only steps from the ocean. We were actually supposed to have a room on the beach when we checked in, but because of a booking snafu, we agreed to take a smaller room for the first few days, and a larger, beachfront room after that. As it turns out, our “villa” had two bedrooms, not to mention four showers, and an enormous porch with three seating areas. We almost wanted to take in drifters just to fill up all the wasted space.

The one really fun thing we did this day was bike into the town of Placencia. Well, Ana biked, along with another honeymooning couple. I was determined to rent a scooter, and despite the wife’s protests, went ahead and did so. No regrets. I got the Yamaha to top out at about 70 km/hr, which I think translates to the 55mph American automobile speed limit. Pretty cool, eh? Wish we’d registered for one of those.

Day 8 – Our big snorkeling day. We rode in a cigar boat with another honeymooning couple and two other women to Laughing Bird Caye, a tiny picturesque island near the barrier reef (snorkeling on the barrier reef, we were told, wasn’t quite as good). The water was as pristine blue, robbin’s egg blue, as anything I’ve seen before. Our snorkeling form, however, wasn’t quite so pretty. What with the underwater camera, goggles that continually fogged up, and a paranoid fear of grazing the fire coral, I was a flailing mess. But for some reason this didn’t faze the fish. Despite my kicking and jerking, they didn’t bolt away, but instead remained calmly in place long enough for me to get my bearings and take a peek.

We saw all sorts of creatures, including barracuda, parrotfish, angelfish, and a bunch of others whose name I’ve forgotten. The most interesting however were the lemon sharks, which arrived, thankfully, when we were out of the water having lunch. They came up to the shore, three or four feet from our feet, and began circling. One of the tour guides tossed them chicken scraps, and as each piece hit the water they broke from their circle format to lunge for it. The only unfortunate side-effect of this serendipitous visit was that Ana and another girl (the same sissy one from the cave trip) refused to go back in the water afterward. I mean, come on, honestly, what was there to be afraid of? Like a shark is really going to attack you! That’s just silly.

Day 9 – Our final full day in Belize was also our final guided tour, this time to Monkey River. A guide took us on a high-speed trip through mangroves. The mangrove alleys couldn’t have been more than a foot or two wider then the cigar boat, and as Jeremy the guide cornered left, then sharp right, then left again, I couldn’t help but say, somewhat mindlessly, “This is awesome. This is like Outrun!”

Monkey River, though interesting, was something of a disappointment — chiefly because it was my understanding that we’d see howler monkeys up close and personal, and we didn’t come any closer than 200 yards. However, upon entering the main channel of the river, we did hear them loud and clear. Their sound is sort of like what I imagine a T-rex might have sounded like at dinnertime — or at least what the ones in Jurrassic Park were like. When we heard the first noises, Jeremy pointed the boat in their direction, gunned it, and went aground in a seemingly dense part of the jungle. He said there would be mosquitoes, so I threw on a long sleeve shirt and long pants, and doused myself in bug spray. It was only then that I realized Ana had packed none of this precautionary clothing, despite the advice of fellow guests. She tried her best to cover up with a sarong and made sure her flip-flops were secure threaded between her toes.

Within minutes of entering the jungle, we were swarmed. It was like the mosquitoes had rung the dinner bell. There appeared to be hundreds of black dots covering every inch of Ana’s sarong. With each step, the thunderous growling of the monkeys grew louder, and the mosquito cloud thickened. We ducked under the canopy, picked up the pace, and attempted to tip-toe over the assorted spiders and crabs that stood in our way. Finally we got to where Jason was leading us, and he told us to sit tight. Now, normally I’m not an impatient guy, especially when the prospect of seeing monkeys is solid, but after five minutes of dancing madly in place, my hand swatting at everyone and everything, I was ready to bolt. Ana had of course made up her mind long before me, and when Jason reemerged sans monkey, we were out of the jungle faster than you can say malaria.

Day 10 – Our trip came to a close with a half-hour plane ride from Placencia to the International Airport. We’d learned our lesson from the car ride on Day 5, and though Ana was a little freaked out about getting onto a 6-seat airplane, it appeared to be a recent Cessna, and I told Ana it was a perfectly seaworthy vessel. (I mean airworthy. Airworthy, dear!)

A few connecting flights later we were back in good ol’ Philadelphia, safe and sound. As wonderful as the trip was, there’s nothing better than being back in the apartment, lying in bed next to my beautiful, peeling, bug-bitten wife, ready to begin the rest of our lives together.

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