05/11/2012 06:58 am ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

Chasing Birds And Sharks In Belize

When the subject of my daughter's high school spring break came up earlier this year, the family discussion turned to getting away for a week -- someplace easy to get to, fairly inexpensive and beachy. Hawaii was the frontrunner, but we decided we wanted something more exotic. It was that impulse that led us to Belize, the tiny Central American nation just below Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on the western most part of the Caribbean.

About the only thing we knew about Belize was that it was a destination for scuba divers, snorkelers and fishers. After some research, we looked west to Belize's interior and eventually embarked on one of our most memorable adventures, driving three hours from Belize City's International Airport to a 7,200 acre private reserve in the Mountain Pine Ridge area of the Cayo District, not far from the Guatemalan border.

Over four days, we hiked through dense tropical jungle on well-maintained trails to spectacular waterfalls, swam in crystal clear pools beneath the falls, explored caves both on foot and in canoes, watched huge Turkey and King Vultures glide over 1,000-foot escarpments, and scampered up the sides of the mystery- and jungle-enshrouded Caracol Mayan ruins. At times, as we bumped along rutted dirt roads in our guide's SUV or swam in waterfall pools, gazing straight up sheer stone walls covered in dense jungle vines, we felt as if we were in an Indiana Jones movie.

Even so, we were far from roughing it, thanks to our accommodations, a small laid back but elegant find called the Hidden Valley Inn, nestled in the middle of the huge reserve, where we enjoyed excellent meals prepared with fresh ingredients, fresh roasted Belizean coffee every morning, and great individual service from the staff and guides. The inn has 12 cottages, each featuring fireplaces, handcrafted mahogany furnishings and tasteful décor, a look and feel mirrored in the main lodge where the dining room, cozy bar and comfortable lounge are located. Upon arrival, we each received a 10-minute hand massage, a welcome surprise after three hours in a car, the last one on unpaved dirt roads.

The Inn prides itself on conservation, noting its support of a number of organizations and hosting biologists and researchers. The Inn, in fact, is an international magnet to serious amateur bird watchers and ornithologists, who come to the area to seek out dozens of species. Each guest room includes a list of all the birds in the area, a log sheet to for guests to keep track of their discoveries.

Besides the reserve's birds, other wildlife include jaguars and puma, although these mostly nocturnal creatures are rarely sighted. On one hike, we noticed automatic cameras mounted on trees along select trails, triggered as the cats roam past at night.

Although we're not serious birders, we were nonetheless impressed by our guide Fredy's passion and knowledge of the birds in the reserve. One morning, as Fredy drove us along a dirt road to a trail head for a hike, he stopped his SUV abruptly and instructed us to get out and follow him into the woods. He pointed to a high point in one of the trees for a view of a rare and magnificent 18-inch-tall Stygian Owl, who looked back at us through our binoculars with huge unblinking yellow eyes while gripping the tree branch with huge talons.

The entire reserve and its 90 miles of trails are well-mapped with an abundance of clear sign posts. We were issues a walkie talkie every time we ventured out on foot or bicycle, allowing us constant contact with the staff. During one hike, when my wife almost stepped on a three-foot coffee brown snake, I called up the front desk, and tried to keep my voice analytical and non-shaky - just an interested naturalist making a routine inquiry -- as I described the snake's size and coloring. Minutes later, Freddy, who had monitored the call, drove up on the dirt road near our trail, and assured us that the snake was non-poisonous (that's all I wanted to know).

Security concerns came up when we traveled with Rick, another expert guide, to visit the ancient Maya citadel of Caracol, a several-hour drive from Hidden Valley. At the site, we were greeted by three Belizian army troops, dressed in military fatigues and armed with automatic rifles. Rick explained that several years ago, Guatemalan bandits, coming over the border less than three miles away, had robbed a group of tourists. After that, the Belizian government ordered the military escorts, and there have been no further incidents.

Re-assured, we went on to climb and explore several of the Mayan structures, my first close-up encounter with Maya culture and history. I have been to the Egyptian pyramids several times, and they certainly have their powerful aura. But I found the Caracol ruins especially compelling and mysterious -- large, well-built structures plopped down in the middle of dense jungle, constructed by a great civilization whose story is shrouded by the lack of written records.

As we explored the ruins, we were treated to more wildlife. A group of playful Howler monkeys swung in the trees around the ruins and flocks of Montezuma Oropendola, large and noisy birds known for their bright yellow tails and their communities of hanging nests where they sleep upside down.

Our exotic yet pampered stay in Hidden Valley finally ended and Rick drive us back to Belize City, where we caught a small 12-seater airplane for Ambergris Caye. We spent several days scuba diving and snorkeling on the island because that's what you do on Ambergris Caye. We saw Nurse Sharks, turtles, stingrays and conchs and drank cheap beer on the streets of San Pedro.

Belize had a casual sort of charm.