Belize See And Do
Belize has an enviable endowment of navigable caves. Some of the best are just outside the capital city of Belmopan, along the aptly named Caves Branch River. Others include the so-called Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (a Mayan reliquary where you'll see pottery, skulls, and crystallized skeletons), and the caves at Jaguar Pawwhere a guided float through the darkness and silence is the inner tubeborne equivalent of taking tranquilizers. But ensure in advance that you're not visiting this last complex on a cruise-ship day, when not only the local caves but also the usually serene rain forest zip lines swarm with furloughed passengers. For more information on caving, go to www.travelbelize.org/cave_index.html.
Maya Center Village
This 128,000-acre forest reserve was created to protect the endangered jaguarand several of his cohorts: puma, jaguarundi, ocelot, and margay. Not that you should expect many (or frankly, any) run-ins. Cockscomb's feline residents are notoriously elusive. By contrast, their avian counterparts (around 300 species including toucans and scarlet macaws) are not only on frequent view from the reserve's trails and natural pools, but known to put on a good show. An airborne toucan alone is worth the nominal price of admission: For $2.50, you can rent an inner tube that will let you behold much of the basin from South Stann Creek. You can also kayak and hike your way through the areaand if you're feeling particularly ambitious, you can climb the 3,675-foot Victoria Peak (Belize's second highest).
Open daily 8 am to 4:30 pm.
Belize abuts 185 miles of the Americas' longest barrier reef, and the local diving and snorkeling are accordingly jaw-dropping. Many resorts run training programs that range from one-day familiarization courses to four-day PADI programs. Must-do dives include the Elbow (Turneffe Islands), Hol Chan Marine Reserve (off Ambergris Caye)where the notorious Shark Ray Alley is typically swarming with nurse sharks and southern stingraysand Half Moon Caye, home to the famed Blue Hole (at Lighthouse Reef). If your resort doesn't have its own dive shop, consider this one: the Belize Academy of Diving (Ambergris Caye; 501-226-2873; www.belize-academy-of-diving.com).
Occupying the southern half of the Yucatán's Caribbean coast, Belize was part of the Mayan heartland for centuries. The most visited ancient site is Altun Ha, about 30 miles north of Belize City, where several pyramids have been excavated and restored, but much of the city remains gorgeously entangled in the jungle.
The approachby boat up the New River and into an adjoining, jungle-hemmed lagoonis one of the most compelling aspects of a visit to Lamanai (also in Northern Belize). El Castillo, once the Mayan world's tallest building, continues to offer prime jungle and lagoon views from the top.
In Western Belize, the massive site of Caracol covers 35 square miles in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve (www.caracol.org). However impressive the ball court and carved glyphs, the scene-stealer is 143-foot-high Caana ("Sky Palace"), now the tallest Mayan pyramid in the country.
In the Cayo district of the Mayan Highlands near the Guatemalan border lies Xunantunich, an easily accessible hilltop site, with fantastic views from the top of its 130-foot El Castillo pyramid (be aware this El Castillo is different from the one in Lamanai).
Arguably the Mayan magnum opus, Guatemala's Tikal is close enough to the border that you can easily go for the day. (Or stay the night at nearby La Lancha, Francis Ford Coppola's newest property; www.lalancha.com.) The five huge temples (and countless other ruins) that make up the complex are surrounded by a 143-square-mile national park, where Technicolor flybys and simian theatrics round out the experience, lest you not be sufficiently dazzled by the neighborhood's millennium-old high-rises.