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Destination: Belize

It's a Jungle Out There, So Relax : Encircled by lush rain forest, a spa that rejuvenates

June 02, 1996|KATTI GRAY | NEWSDAY

MASKALL, Belize — I lay there, mummified, wrapped in layers of aluminum foil and steaming herb-soaked towels. I couldn't move. Not my legs, not my arms, not even a hand to wipe my sweating face.

I was prone on a wooden table in a thatched-roof, adobe hut reserved for pampering bodies that pass through Maruba Resort, a spa in the rain forest of northern Belize. My heart was racing, my blood boiling, thumping in my ears. I fought an urge to freak completely out and demand that Elena Garcia, the young attendant who had bound me, kindly remove the constraints before I suffocated.

"Elena," I whispered, so as not to disturb the strains of American Indian flute music she'd popped in the tape deck. "My left hand is numb."

Elena, an 18-year-old Belizean, unwrapped a bit of towel. I wiggled my fingers back into circulation. She tucked them back in.

"How much longer?" I asked.

Elena smiled. No reply.

"How far am I into it?" I was more emphatic.

"Not far," she said. "You have 32 minutes to go, but you will be so beautiful, so sexy."

Elena dabbed my face and smiled again, I guess, to soothe and sell me on the merits of this herbal wrap.

"OK," I relented, drawing a deep, calming breath and reminding myself that this was part of the spa experience.

Retreat. . . . Relax. . . . Restore. . . . is the motto at Maruba, a destination I set out for last spring. I vowed at the start of the year to break new ground in my life. At least, I'd embark on a first-ever vacation alone.

So I ended up at Maruba, on the outskirts of Maskall village, an hourlong ride over 28 rough miles from Belize City, the capitol of this Central American nation on the Caribbean Sea. Maruba's owners, a doctor and his family from suburban Chicago, along with an adult son and daughter, run the place. They've dubbed it an "eco-spa" for the body and for spirits intent on learning something of the ancient Maya who established empires here 3,500 years ago.

Most all of what's concocted for the body's exterior and stomach is grown on the 1,000 acres Maruba occupies, extracted from the nearby bush or bought from the local people, the owners say.

To be certain, it hardly fit the image of spas I'd seen pictured in magazines. The resort is made up of 30 cabanas, just one with a television and VCR. Its motif is African, Mayan, with some Art Deco added for flourish.

White towels, turbans and bathrobes are nonexistent. The terry cloth is decidedly green, in keeping with the decor (mahogany and leopard-print linens in my room) and the owners' quest to remind visitors of the link between the operation and its environs.

At Maruba, one can choose a deprivation diet of veggies, fruits, juices--tamarind, watermelon and banana were the more exotic blends--fish, lean meats. Or, as I did en route to gaining three pounds during my six-day stay, you can select Spanish omelets, refried beans and Belizean tortillas rolled thick like biscuits and spread with mango chutney. The rum punch was the best. And I'd no inkling that banana strudel could be so fresh and fluffy.

My belly full, I retired to my room most evenings, burning incense to ward off mosquitoes and letting crickets lull me to sleep. Most days the rooster's cry woke me for a schedule of swimming, sunning, countryside exploration and body treatments.

The one that sent my heart pumping involved towels boiled in a lime, allspice, orange and pimento mix. I did eventually relax, possibly exhausted from all the sweating.

Other offerings are listed on the "health and rejuvenation" menu: full-body or aromatherapy massages, seaweed body wraps, sea sulfur or clay body packs, sand scrubs, facials, manicures, pedicures, the African honey bee pat. An outdoor mineral bath that conducts its own heat was available around-the-clock, in my case, helping to relieve the 23 mosquito bites I counted across my flesh by Day 3.

What I loved most and found most priceless was Maruba's bid to let guests explore the rain forests, flush with vegetation and history, wild jaguars and howling monkeys. The waterways that lead to some Mayan ruins are lined with mangroves, populated by crocodiles, red-billed hawks and peculiar, long-legged birds named northern jacanas that appear to walk on water when really they're darting quickly across lily pads.

Being outdoors was my outlet when more conventional exercise failed. I had opted against horseback riding at Maruba and feared injury in what the resort billed as aerobics class. Turns out the barefoot instructor had no real training, and I refused, as she did, to do jumping jacks on concrete surrounding Maruba's swimming pool.

I journeyed from Maruba to San Pedro on one of the cays that attract most of Belize's tourists, including a sizable chunk of scuba divers. And I pined some for Maruba, my spa experience.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK: Belize Release Me

Getting there: American, TACA and Continental offer connecting service, with one change of planes, to Belize City. Round-trip, advance-purchase fares start at about $715.

Spa packages at the Maruba Resort in Belize are $410 for a double room, $470 for a single for a three-day/two-night stay. The six-day/five-night package is $1,153 double, $1,300 single. Prices include daily breakfast, lunch and a five-course dinner, several spa treatments, jungle hikes, horseback rides, trips to Mayan ruins and such. A 26-day weight-control package is $4,147, including spa treatments, exercise and three reduced-calorie meals daily. Additional body treatments, facials, manicures and pedicures range from $18 to $65.

For spa reservations, contact Belize It Tours in Houston (713) 799-2031.

--K.G.

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