LONG CAYE, Belize When you walk into the cabana you see two narrow beds, a plank floor and a ceiling made of palms. The windows have shutters but no glass or screens. Your first impression is "Scout Camp."
But by the next day you are thinking "Heaven." You've realized why people come to Belize. They come here so they can fall asleep to the sound of waves and wake up to the sun shining pink on the mangrove trees.
Tourists come to Belize for the diving, too, of course. The world's second largest barrier reef can be found off the coast. The Caribbean ocean is turquoise, here, and the breeze is warm and soft.
Tourists also come for the jungle. It's replete with exotic birds and animals and Mayan ruins. And there are more reasons to visit. For one: Belize is a place of good cooks and abundant produce.
Marie Sharp's Hot Sauce is the most famous local product. She seems to have inspired every Belizean to come up with a signature sauce or dessert or soup.
At dinner the night we arrived, my husband and I discovered a pepper potato soup. Later, we sampled a squash we'd never seen before as well as some tomato jam and a uniquely delicious fish taco. Even the oatmeal cookies tasted a bit exotic, spicier maybe.
Belize is especially easy to visit because everyone speaks English. And it is especially intriguing because of the second languages Creole, Garifuna, several Mayan dialects, Spanish, Chinese and the various cultures those languages represent.
We spent the main part of our vacation beyond the barrier reef. We stayed on a tiny privately owned island called Long Caye, in the Glover's Reef Atoll. (Only after we made our reservations did we discover that the island belongs to a Utah company, Slickrock Adventures, out of Moab.)
The atoll, which is a lagoon dotted with small islands and surrounded by coral, is named for a British pirate, John Glover, who sailed these waters in the 17th century. He was the scourge of Spain. Today the atoll that bears his name has been set aside as a 127-square-mile marine reserve.
After we left Long Caye we heard some New Englanders talking about a more well-known island, Ambergris Caye. These travelers said they'd vacationed in Belize for years but now were finding Ambergris a bit crowded. Hesitatingly, we recommended Long Caye.
We hesitated because we had just finished a very "green" vacation on Long Caye. We loved it. But would they?
We figured anyone would like the cabanas and the view. But what would posh people think about the composting toilets? The sand floor in the dining hall? We dared not mention Zoey, the pet rabbit who decided to stake his territory one morning by peeing on my yoga mat. (I had been unaware of Zoey's approach, lost in the serenity of yoga while watching a pelican dive for his breakfast.)
We did tell the Ambergris tourists that we loved washing with water from a rain barrel washing in a roofless, thatch-walled shower, surrounded by sunshine and birdsong. (Of course the folks who were at Long Caye the week before we were, when it rained a lot, were less enthusiastic. They longed for a dry towel.)
And we told them about the snorkeling. We can go on and on about the water around Long Caye, describing lobsters and eels and sharks and all the colorful species from the yellow grunts to the parrotfish.
There's a dive school on the island where you can get certified for open water. But if you don't dive, no worries. There are equal delights for snorkelers, sea kayakers, wind-surfers and wave surfers.
The island is run like a summer camp minus the arts and crafts and with yummy food. (A tub of oranges sits next to an industrial press so you can squeeze your own juice whenever the craving strikes.) You get lessons on how to use the various kayaks and windsurfers. After you are trained, you can paddle or surf whenever you wish. In addition, there are guided trips so you can snorkel a new reef every day.
Or you can just put on your fins and snorkel around the island. You'll see fewer fish than if you paddled out to the coral, but I got my best view a barracuda just yards offshore. Another guest saw three nurse sharks offshore, as well.
Every night on Long Caye we had a nature lecture about coral, or plate tectonics or sea life. One day we paddled sea kayaks to a nearby island, owned by the Wildlife Conservation Society, where researchers from around the world come to study coral.
Hammocks abound on Long Caye, as do books. The library features fiction, nature guides and histories.
A women's history offered some insight into local culture. According to sociologist Irma McClaurin, who published "Women of Belize" in 1996, Belizean men often make a will that leaves their property to their mothers even if they have a wife and children. If a man dies without a will, his mother may end up with his stuff anyway. Apparently many Belizean couples never marry, and if they do the courts may assume a young mother will find another man and doesn't need anything from the father of her children.
Later, we contrasted McClaurin's research with comments made by tour guides and hotel staff. We overheard a political debate on the streets of Belize City. We had a long conversation with a beautician who was 26 and pregnant with her seventh child.
People are proud of their literacy rate (more than 90 percent) and of the number of Belizeans who turn out to vote (more than 70 percent). Everyone we met believed in education. We had two guides, one of Mayan heritage and one of Spanish, who each had three daughters and were working several jobs to send their girls to private schools and then, eventually, on to college.
After Long Caye, we went back to the mainland to stay at Maya Mountain Lodge in the midst of the jungle. Here, we heard critters scuttling over the tin roof of our cabana. During the day, out on a tour, we came across trees full of howler monkeys. We saw toucans and laughing falcons. We saw so many termite nests that we learned to identify them easily.
The dining hall at Maya Mountain Lodge is a covered patio, and you can watch a little agouti dashing about in the leaves as you eat. Dinner at the lodge comes in five huge courses, making it difficult, but not impossible, to save room for the berry-covered desserts.
Maya Mountain was our base camp for several archaeological tours. We took two intriguing half-day tours, one to a recently discovered pottery cave at Chech-Hem-Ha, the other to Xunantunich.
Clambering around the cave with our guide, we saw whole pots, 2,000 years old, in a variety of styles, as well as a Mayan ceremonial chamber and, of course, stalactites and stalagmites. We saw no one else on the trail or in the cave. The whole experience was otherworldly.
As for Xunantunich, which means Stone Lady, even though it is the most visited ruin in Belize, it is still accessed by a hand-cranked ferry that can take only one car at a time across the river. This Mayan city was at its peak from 600 to 900 A.D.
Belizeans began excavating it around 1908, according to our guide, who added, "The British claimed to 'discover' it in 1938." Although the wooden structures where the common people lived have disappeared, you can still see where the lake once was and you can see the stelae and climb to the top of the largest pyramid. You can begin to appreciate the sophistication of the Mayan culture.
Having stayed on an island and at a jungle retreat, I'd recommend both. If you don't have time to see Belize City, that's fine.
The main reason for going to Belize City is because it is full of taxi drivers and shopkeepers and hair braiders who have children to feed. They need tourists which might account for the sense of desperation we felt on the streets, as one person after another asked to be our tour guide.There are some nice hotels in Belize City, to be sure. When we were there, a religious convention and a group of educators were in town. The conventioneers seemed to be enjoying themselves but they talked of even better times ahead, when their meetings would be over and they could head off to the ruins and the reef.