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Eco-Luxe in Belize

Comfortable jungle lodges are giving nature lovers another reason to visit this Central American country.

March 08, 1998|MICHAEL PARRISH | Parrish, a freelance writer, is a former business reporter for The Times

TOLEDO DISTRICT, Belize — "It's a mystery to me why they're so friendly in here," says Ray Harberd as half a dozen big, iridescent Blue Morpho butterflies flap around his head, land briefly on his shoulder, then settle back among slowly quivering clumps of cousins resting just an inch under his hand.

In the wild, they are as skittish as tropical fish, as I remember from my last visit--almost 30 years ago--to this rain forest in Central America's only English-speaking nation.

It's January and we're on a lush jungle hillside near Belize's southern tip, in a one-story concrete building with netting for windows. It's the breeding facility, where caterpillars are reared in small round boxes and butterflies brush by. Harberd is giving the personal tour that he furnishes all visitors to Fallen Stones Butterfly Ranch and Jungle Lodge.

My friend and traveling companion, Kristin White, and I have come to Belize to be afoot in the jungle, to take stock of the exotic plants and animals that flourish in this small countryfacing the Caribbean just below Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It also turns out that Kris has a thing about caves, and in a limestone-rich land, they are plentiful. I'm also interested in seeing some of the newer ecological resorts known locally as jungle lodges, many of them far more comfortable than the basic lodgings of 30 years ago.

We plan to travel quite a lot using public transportation, mostly sturdy former U.S. school buses. They're perfectly safe and run on schedule, but you can't take one, for example, through the jungle to see Mayan ruins. Next visit, we're already planning to have a rental car lined up at Belize City's Philip Goldson International Airport.

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Eco-tourism has exploded worldwide, but few countries offer the opulent natural resources of Belize, the former British Honduras. For U.S. visitors, there's the added advantage of familiar languages--English and, almost everywhere, Spanish--as well as right-hand driving on generally decent roads, a stable government, unusual racial harmony, conveniently exchanged currency and a pretty high degree of personal safety.

Belize isn't cheap. The country has a fairly high living standard, and it instituted an unpopular 15% value-added tax two years ago, causing some tour operators to head for other countries. But this means less crowded sightseeing. Belize's total population of 200,000, about that of Huntington Beach, is scattered over a country the size of Massachusetts.

The country's flora and fauna, the caves, Mayan ruins, rivers, cays (pronounced "keys"), jungle and pine forest exist on a grand scale, however. There are wild orchids, hibiscus, 15 varieties of hummingbirds, black and spotted jaguar, tapirs, toucans and 500 other bird species, howler monkeys, manatees, iguanas, storks, coatimundis and--along the world's second-longest barrier reef after Australia's--a great aquarium of sea creatures.

Be warned: There isn't a golf course in the country. Most of Belize hits the sack around 9 p.m., particularly in the jungle lodges. Biting flies, mosquitoes and humidity must be contended with (See Practical Matters, this page). And even the well-named Belize First magazine admits that fancy dining is hard to find. But we eco-tourists haven't come to Belize searching for five-star restaurants.

Our first stop is Punta Gorda, in the extreme south, a drowsy little border burg that is mostly Garifuna--also known as the Black Caribs--a people descended from Africans and South American Indians. Here we find a good local guide (through Grace's restaurant in Punta Gorda), who steers us in his Isuzu Trooper over 15 miles of paved highway, then 22 miles of rough dirt track, to the butterfly ranch.

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In the rain forest around Punta Gorda, the wettest and most luxuriant in the country, are the Kekchi Mayan villages of San Antonio and San Pedro Colombia (the Toledo Ecotourism Assn., in Punta Gorda, can arrange overnight stays with village families). There's also Blue Creek Cave and Mayan ruins, including Nim Li Punit, Uxbenka and Lubaantun, which was a significant ceremonial and business center dating from about AD 700 to 900.

On the way to the ranch, we stop at Lubaantun ("the place of fallen stones," in one Maya dialect). Santiago Coc, son of a Kekchi mother and Mopan Maya father, is the guide and caretaker of the site for the Belize Department of Archeology, and he gives a knowledgeable tour of the grounds as part of his job (though he'll accept, and deserves, a tip at the end).

Though much meticulously placed rock work can be seen, the pyramids and ball courts have been only partially excavated. Several areas are jumbles of building stone.

The 42-acre butterfly ranch is on a sensational spot, the highest point for five miles around, with lofty views above the Maya Mountains Forest Reserve.

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