In Belize, I fell down a cliff into Tiger Creek, 20 yards from an 800-foot waterfall, ruined my new camera, nearly lost my lucky hat and endured pounding rain and roads as bumpy as political budget talks. Yet, I can't wait to go back.
I've had a long and enduring love affair with Latin America. To each new country, I give my whole heart. But there have been problems. I can't understand a single word anyone says.
I have tried to learn Spanish, have even mastered a few questions that, to my ear, sound pretty authentic. But the minute someone answers back, I panic and end up looking like the idiot gringo I am.
In Belize, because the official language is English, I could actually converse with locals. Instead of just exchanging smiles, I could share jokes, learn about their families and move the relationship beyond my normal ceiling of "Hola! Como Estas! Muy bien. Y tu?" It was magical, leading me to wonder, "Why in the heck haven't I been to Belize before?"
This little country wedged between Mexico and Guatemala has everything a tourist destination could ever need: miles and miles of beaches, the second largest barrier reef in the world, 450 islands and Mayan ruins that are still being discovered.
Caracol, where I had intended to bring in the end of the Mayan calendar (long story, don't ask), covers more than 30 square miles, much of which is still being excavated. At one time, this now jungle-covered city had more people than Belize City has today.
Majestic Caana (Sky Palace), one of 35,000 structures at Caracol, is still the largest building in the country, although the only residents today are a few security guards, some itinerant archaeologists and two troops of howler monkeys whose hoots are the spitting image of the soundtrack to Jurassic Park. Only a few feet from one of the troops, I captured their ongoing argument on video and would have added it to the bottom of this story except, as I said, the camera ended up submerged in Tiger Creek.
For years, no one even knew Caracol existed. Many of Belize's Mayan ruins had been discovered by 1937 when a logger looking for mahogany stumbled upon this city, one of the largest in Maya civilization. It's just that this mighty city was covered with vines and trees and other flora of the rainforests that make up nearly 60 percent of this Central American country.
When not monitoring feuds with howler monkeys, I stayed in one of 12 cottages at Hidden Valley Inn, a 7,290-acre private nature reserve, not far from Caracol. This intimate lodge in Mountain Pine Ridge has 90 miles of hiking trails, 12 waterfalls, 81 species of wild orchids, four species of jungle cats (although they're nearly as hard to spot as Caracol was for so many years) and rare raptors. One night at dinner, I had the privilege of dining with a volunteer studying a rare nest of solitary eagles, one of many (Hidden Valley also supports the Peregrine Fund) on-site research projects. Another perk is Hidden Valley's small coffee plantation. Not only was my morning java Fair Trade, but also locally-grown.
And it's not just diversity of flora and fauna that makes Belize so enchanting. It's a veritable fondue pot of cultures from Kriol, Maya and Mestizo to Amish and Mennonite, all of whom work amiably together to keep this little country humming. I saw giant truckloads of oranges, most of which would end up in Florida to make juice. I saw a barefoot Mennonite girl run, two steps at a time, to the top of the 140-foot Sky Palace. I saw lemon sharks, barracuda and a monstrous school of blue tang. I swam three-feet above a three-foot loggerhead turtle.
But, most importantly, I met dozens of friendly, warm, English-speaking Belizeans. One night, in fact, the owner of my Placencia hotel invited me to a party with his friends, opening the curtain to a precious part of Belizean culture most travelers miss. That Friday night, underdog Belize had miraculously made it to the semifinals of the Copa Centroamericana soccer tournament against Honduras, the first time the tiny nation qualified to play for the CONCACAF gold cup.
Evan Hall, the owner of Nirvana Inn, invited me to cheer on the home team by the light of a TV hooked up outside under a coconut tree. Whenever I needed another drink, he and his buddies reached up, plucked a coconut off the tree and mixed a little coconut water with Jack Daniels. The grill was piled high with fresh shrimp and lobster they'd caught earlier that morning.
So, yeah, Belize claimed my camera and my pride (luckily, no one saw my plummet down the cliff after the rain-soaked railing gave way), but it's biggest claim is undoubtedly my completely-smitten heart.