The Traveler's Journal  
Travel Articles by David Bear
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Two small resorts in Belize deliver more than they promise


PLACENCIA, Belize -- As the single-engine Cessna reached cruising altitude 3,000 feet above the Mountain Pine Ridge, we could see both borders of Belize.

Turtle Inn
Near the coastal settlement of Placencia, Belize, Turtle Inn was renovated after Hurricane Iris caused extensive damage in 2001.


To the west, maybe 25 miles across the files of forested ridges that hunched along the horizon, lay Guatemala.

In the other direction, over the last ridge, the land flattened into broad plains that spread in a canvas of gray and green swirls for 35 miles to the sparkle of the Caribbean coastline, a natural flow interrupted only occasionally by geometric patches of cultivation and the ribbon of the country's single north-south paved road.

Javier, our pilot and owner of the plane, pointed below to where the famous Thousand Foot Falls, Central America's highest cascade, trickled off the ridge. "Actually, it's more than 1,500 feet high," he shouted over the drone of the engine.

That's like the rest of Belize -- somehow delivering more than it promises.

I had last been in Belize 22 years ago in November 1982 for the celebration of the nation's first anniversary of independence. It was quick trip, with visits to a small eco-resort in the hills near Guatemala and to Ambergris Caye, a sandy peninsula that is actually the southern tip of the Mexican Yucatan, and two nights in Belize City, the country's main settlement. Back then, few people had heard about Belize.

Even today, despite being the United States' closest continental neighbor after Canada and Mexico, Belize remains relatively unknown north of the border. Before peacefully distancing itself from Queen Elizabeth's realm in 1981, it had been known as British Honduras.

Its history is something of a story itself.

Although ancient Mayans had settled these mountains, by the time the first Europeans arrived, the massive metropolises they had built had been completely engulfed by jungle. Lacking the natural resources and richer soils of its Central American neighbors, this Massachusetts-sized sliver of eastern Yucatan was of little interest to Spanish conquerors. The dense mangrove swamps that lined its Caribbean coastline and the slow, meandering rivers that drained its interior offered English buccaneers many places to hide after harassing Spanish ships. Eventually, the territory eventually became a British protectorate, to the consternation of Guatemala, which claimed it as its eastern state. Its only real settlement, Belize City, became the most western outpost of Britain's Caribbean realm.

Back then, I'd liked what I had seen of the fledgling country. Although it was a relatively poor Third World nation, Belize hadn't endured the stark economic polarization of its neighbors that resulted from Spanish colonialism, as well as the macho militarism that had torn those nations apart. Belize's peaceful, literate, largely English-speaking population of 250,000 seemed to share a common optimism about their mutual prospects. Although some citizens were better off, no one was that rich nor that poor, and everyone somehow got by.

And while the countryside was not universally stunning, it did have many natural advantages and quirky charms. Because so much of it had been relatively untouched for centuries, Belize had few physical scars and lots and lots of undeveloped wilderness. In fact, the country had many more creatures than creature comforts, a situation few people there seem to mind.


My first visit was enjoyable, but I'd never had a chance to appreciate Belize from an elevated perspective.

Last November, Sari, my wife, and I had been looking for someplace to celebrate our anniversary and to use up some of our US Airways Dividend Miles. After some deliberations and juggling of dates, we found ourselves with just enough mileage for two round trips from Pittsburgh to Belize City, via Charlotte. We enjoyed the free and easy five-hour journey which put us in the country just after noon on a hot, sunny afternoon.

Our plan was to spend a week at two small resorts owned by Francis Ford Coppola in Belize, the Blancaneaux Lodge on the Mountain Pine Ridge and Turtle Inn, near the coastal settlement of Placencia. Because renting a car in Belize is expensive and its roads are very sketchy, a driver met us at the airport in Belize City for the 21*2-hour trip to Blancaneaux Lodge.

In 1981, entranced by the country's unvarnished charms, the film director/entertainment entrepreneur had bought the old hunting lodge set above the Privassion River in the wilderness of the Mountain Pine Ridge, a range of foothills of the Maya Mountains along the Guatemalan border. After using the lodge for several years as a personal escape for his family and friends, Coppola decided to develop the property as an upscale but primitive eco-lodge.

A clutch of thatch-roofed, raised platform casitas were erected on the steep hillside between the lodge and the river. Simple structures of polished wood with screened balconies, the casitas offer an expansive kind of privacy and sparse, organic elegance. The decoration motifs are Mayan, with lovely tapestries and carved wood masks. Other than the electric lights, ceiling fans and tiled bathrooms, the casitas have no modern amenities, no TV, radio or telephone. A hydroelectric facility was installed to use the roiling river to provide reasonably reliable power and plumbing. The grounds were lushly landscaped with palm and hibiscus, and extensive organic gardens were planted on the back lots to provide much of the produce used in Blancaneaux's kitchen.

Coppola's creative vision was to make guests feel as if they were being entertained on his own estate. Many of the recipes followed in the kitchen supposedly come from the cookbook of Coppola's mother; the wine list features only vintages from his California vineyards; and photographic portraits of his daughter are available in the gift shop. And the creative vision works. Although Coppola reportedly now comes to Belize only once or twice a year, there's a feeling about the place that he might pop in at any moment.

The enclave his gardeners have created is a well-faceted gem set amid the chaos of the Belizean bush. The grounds that lead down to the rocky, narrow river are both discreet and gaudy with colorful plants, in and out of which bright birds dart. The lodge's list of birds spotted locally numbers more than 150. Languid diversions include board games and a short list of spa treatments, but the narrow river is always the central attraction and play place, as guests clamber in its natural chutes and pools and sun themselves on its rocks.

However, we were less tempted to explore much beyond the lodge's environs. Although Blancaneaux is situated in 300 square miles of protected wilderness, it's not the sort of wilderness through which one wanders aimlessly. The pine trees of the Mountain Pine Ridge were decimated by a bark beetle infestation a few years ago. That threat has passed, and the forest is recovering, but the extensive stands of withered snags are testament to the virulence of the infestation.

The exposed sandy reddish terrain is blanketed with low, thorny vegetation that discourages casual perambulations, especially since there are few well-trodden trails. The only way to get around is on rutted tracks that go from dusty to slick with any rainfall, making any drive an ordeal and any bike ride an act of masochism.

Blancaneaux does offer a full menu of morning excursions and daytrips to various locations of interest, from the Mayan ruins at Tikal and Caracol to caving trips, birding excursions and horseback riding. However, since the tours are individually arranged and conducted, most were both quite costly and also entailed bumping along bad roads for hours. So we decided to spend most of our time just relaxing at the lodge.

Although we both wondered whether we could handle two days simply enjoying the tranquillity, the time flew by. Other than the six-hour excursion we took to the Mayan ruins of Caracol one day, we just hung out. We took short walks along the river trail past wild orchids and splashed in the Big Rock waterfall. We read the novels we'd brought, talked, played backgammon and looked forward to our next meal on the serene deck adjacent to the dining room. It proved a winning formula.

All too soon, we found ourselves on the lodge's rudimentary landing strip, climbing into Javier's plane.

We were taking this flight from Blancaneaux in the mountains to Placencia on the coast because getting around in Belize can be a serious challenge. The 40-minute journey, maybe 80 miles as the Cessna flew, would have been nearly three times as long by road. Since the best parts of that route would have been two narrow lanes of asphalt and the worst would have been the dusty, deeply wash-boarded ruts worn for miles across hard-packed sand, the overland trip would have taken us most of the day. Javier cost just $100 more than hiring a driver, and the convenience was more than worth the extra expense.

The commanding high view was a bonus.

As we swooped down to the coast, Placencia was easy to spot, situated at the end of a 16-mile-long sand peninsula so narrow the airport's single landing strip bisected it completely, forcing the area's only road to make a wide detour around its end. A sign advises drivers to yield to airplanes.

Reportedly founded by English buccaneers in the early 1600s, Placencia today is basically a Creole fishing village with a very laid-back, no-shoes ambience and amicable locals. A clutch of small beachside restaurants and simple guest houses flank a narrow concrete walkway that runs for a mile from the pier at the peninsula's tip. The beach runs parallel to the beach and serves as the village center. Simply called the Sidewalk, it has been certified as "the world's narrowest main street" by the Guinness Book of World Records. Other than that, there are a few scruffy dive shops, a service station, bus stop, post office and grocery store. That's about it for Placencia.

About five years ago, Coppola decided to expand his Belizean holdings and purchased the Turtle Inn Spa, an enclave set along a beautiful, 650-foot stretch of sandy beach between the airport and the village. (He also recently purchased a third lodge, La Lancha, across the border in Guatemala.)

Whatever Coppola's plans were for Turtle Inn were, everything changed on Oct. 8, 2001, the day Hurricane Iris came roaring ashore right at Placencia. The damage was extensive both to the village and to the Turtle Inn.

Rather than being discouraged by the destruction, Coppola decided to have the inn completely rebuilt according to a vision of Balinese luxury, a project that was finished about 18 months ago. Now tucked among the palms along the beach, 16 thatch-roofed villas are clustered around a swimming pool and a high-thatch-roofed, open-walled dining room and bar.

Most of the villas are intended for couples, though several offer two bedrooms and baths. All feature luxurious bathrooms, which open onto private, walled courtyards planted with palm trees and a decadent outdoor shower that was basically a bamboo pipe coming out of the wall. Everything inside the spacious rooms was polished woodwork and carved panels. Louvered wooden shutters fit over the screened windows, and although there was no AC, the high ceiling fans kept the room comfortable, even in the heat of the day.

Like Blancaneaux, the Turtle Inn villas have no electronic entertainment, but with the beach just feet away from our front door, that wasn't a problem. Sea-kayaks were available in the dive shop. On our first afternoon, we paddled along the coast to the village, but after two hours in the intense sun, we weren't inclined to venture much further. On the way back, however, we were escorted by a pair of dolphins swimming maybe 75 yards to our right. Very cool.

We also made use of the inn's fleet of bicycles, but quickly determined that there really wasn't much of anywhere to go. The trip into the village was easy enough, but there wasn't much to see or do. Heading in the other direction past the airport, the road quickly became a rutted track that filled with dusty sand with every passing vehicle.

A half-dozen organized excursions are offered by Turtle Inn, all of which required a lengthy boat ride either out into the Caribbean or up the nearby Monkey River. One day, we decided to take a snorkeling trip out to Laughing Bird Caye. The small sand spit lay maybe 10 miles offshore, but it was barely halfway to the Barrier Reef, which is one of Belize's real natural treasures.

Our fellow snorkelers, two young honeymooning couples, made the ride out pleasant, but windy conditions that day had the sea roiling. That made the snorkeling choppy and clouded the waters with sand, obscuring the profusion of underwater life. It also made the ride back to shore very bumpy.

So we resolved to continue our vacation regimen of days jam-packed with books, backgammon and floating in the lazy pool or warm Caribbean. We were in bed early, and up in time to see the sunrise over the Caribbean right outside our front door.

We made acquaintance with several couples also staying at the inn, and as meals at its otherwise pleasant but somewhat pricey restaurant became repetitive, we ventured with them into the village twice for dinner. Our favorite restaurant was The Galley, a tiny establishment next to the village playground, where the owner cooked and his daughter waited tables. The food was not exceptional, but the ambience was very friendly and rich with authentic local color. While we ate on the front porch, local boys played soccer on the town's rough pitch next door. At one point, the owner came out and berated one kid for riding his bike on the newly seeded grass.

A half-dozen other small resorts dot the coast of the Placencia peninsula, which is widely reputed to be the best beach in Belize. Each of those resorts is an enclave unto itself, but all share the overall ambience, sort of a laid-back, no-problem kind of place and easy openness that reminded me of Jamaica's Negril beach but without the edginess.

On the morning of our departure, we lingered over breakfast, captivated at the sparkling sea that filled the horizon. With the airport only two minutes away, we had all the time in the world. We were as relaxed as either of us could ever remember.

Mission accomplished.

Belize ... if you go

All North American visitors to Belize are required to have a valid passport.

The Belize dollar is officially pegged at two to one against the U.S. dollar, but greenbacks are widely accepted, as are credit cards. But ATM cards are more problematic, since they only operate for accounts with banks that have branches in Belize.

Belize is not a cheap vacation. Because so much that is used there must be imported, it is Central America's most expensive destination, more in line with the pricier Caribbean Islands.

While English is the country's official language, Spanish is widely spoken.

For information: Belize Tourist Board, or 1-800-624-0686.

For information and reservations about either Blancaneaux Lodge or Turtle Inn, visit or call 1-800-746-3743.

For more information on Belize: or Informative books include Hidden Belize (Ulysses Press) and Adventure Guide to Belize (Hunter Travel Guides).

For information on Placencia tourism: or 1-501-523-4045.

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