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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 1999

Sights above and below watermark


By KYOKO ITOH

Diving enthusiasts have no doubt heard of Belize, a sliver of land bordered by Mexico in the north and Guatemala to the west, for its spectacular barrier reef. The Caribbean reefs, located on the eastern side of the island, offers endless walls and undulating coral ridges. It stretches a few hundred kilometers and comes second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The country's charm, however, is not limited to below the watermark. The myriad variety of landscapes, numerous Mayan sites and tropical flora, fauna and exotic wildlife make this tiny English-speaking country irresistible to visitors.

Like many divers and snorkelers, we stayed at Ambergris Caye, Belize's largest and most developed offshore island. The northern end is nuzzled against the Yucatan Peninsula, and the island is surrounded by dozens of premier dive sites.

The town of San Pedro, located at the southern end of the island, boasts numerous hotels and restaurants and is the hub of activity. It is a small, peaceful town, with nothing much to do except relax and enjoy the beautiful view of the sea. Cars seldom pass by even on the busiest main streets of hard-packed white sand. In fact, golf carts are the primary means of transportation.

Home to countless colorful corals, sponges and reef fish, the underwater world around Ambergris Caye is a delight to explore. While Hol Chan Marine Reserve offers one of the world's best snorkeling sites, diving through deep canyons, complicated narrow tunnels and caves at any nearby diving spot is a breathtaking experience.

The only tough part for us was the short boat trip to the site, where the waves and strong winds shook the small boat. Underwater, however, everything was calm, with generally mild currents and up to 30-meter visibility.

The most exciting dive of all, however, was a day-trip to the acclaimed Blue Hole, located in Lighthouse Reef, about a three-hour boat ride from San Pedro. Our journey started at around 6 a.m. With a larger boat, excellent weather and the occasional flying fish jumping alongside our boat, it was pure paradise.

Made famous by Jacques Cousteau, Blue Hole is a circular, deep depression some 300 meters in diameter and 120 meters in depth. Living coral rims the mammoth hole, except for two narrow passages to the east and north. The deep blue color of the hole is a striking contrast to the light green of the surrounding water. It is said that people sometimes mistake the almost perfect circular hole for an island when viewed from above.

The hole, in fact, is a giant underwater cavern that dates back to the Ice Age, when substantial amounts of sea water were frozen in glaciers. Limestone from the Lighthouse Reef was exposed due to a much lower sea level then. The enormous subterranean cavern seen today was originally created when the rain gradually eroded through the limestone.

At about 40 meters, the dive is a deep one. Our divemaster warned us not to panic should "nitrogen narcosis" occur. "It only feels like having a few glasses of tequila," he said. "We advise you to enjoy it."

Inside, the hole was nothing short of spectacular. Immense and mysterious stalactites emerged as I slowly descended along the wall. Only dim bits of sunlight reached inside the hole, which seemed to be filtered with a magnificent deep blue color. Unlike the vibrant, colorful world typical of the tropical sea that surrounds the hole, all was silent, with hardly a glimmer of noticeable marine life, except the sharks that stealthily cruised underneath.

The Blue Hole is not the only attraction of the Lighthouse Reef, though. There are numerous other excellent dive sites including Belize's first national park, Half Moon Natural Monument, located at the southeast corner of the reef.

On the 18-hectare island of Half Moon Caye, one can experience one of Belize's most incredible encounters with wildlife: the endangered red-footed booby. This is the only island in the western Caribbean that supports a nesting colony of the comical-looking seabirds with their red feet and white plumage. In addition, resident and migratory bird species have been recorded to exceed 90 species on this island, including pelicans, egrets and storks.

Red-footed boobies are best observed from a high platform built in the middle of the island, which gives an amazing tree-top view. These rare birds can be found hanging out in the island's colorful zericote trees, their preferred nesting site, where the birds' white plumage offers a vivid contrast to the light green leaves and orange flowers of the trees and the endless blue of the sea which extends in the distance. Breeding birds number around 4,000 on Half Moon Caye, where they are so numerous it is almost easy to forget they are endangered.

For a river and jungle adventure spiced with Mayan culture, the Orange Walk District in mainland Belize is worth a detour. Located several hour's boat and bus ride from San Pedro, this trip is another one that requires an early morning departure.

The boat tour began on a westward course on the Caribbean for about an hour, then proceeds northwest along Northern River. Most of the river was extremely narrow, due to overgrown mangroves spread alongside the river. The guide, however, explained that these tropical maritime trees were once maintained every few years by the English, and the tradition is still continued today by the villagers.

The mangroves generously support numerous other life forms, such as exotic orchids and countless other tropical plants, as well as termites whose immense, black mud nests hang in their branches.

Indeed, the whole river teemed with life. Well-camouflaged tiny bats blended into tree bark, while small birds walked on the floating leaves of white water lilies that grew wildly alongside the bank. Lurking underneath the water are well-camouflaged crocodiles, although we did not happen upon any.

The land portion of the tour took place mainly along the Old Northern Highway. The bus passed several small villages of Mayan descendants, who live in modest houses thatched with bay palm leaves. We headed south along New River, another narrow one, to Lamanai, our final destination.

Surprisingly, there was a large Mennonite settlement also located on the bank of New River. The first group of these Europeans, similar in many ways to the Amish, moved from Mexico after fleeing Russia during the Russian Revolution, and have lived in Belize since 1958.

Lamanai, which means "submerged crocodile," is Belize's longest occupied Mayan site. Most of this ancient city is covered with jungle today, so stamina is required to get to some of the recovered ruins.

The first stop here was a small archaeological museum nestled in the humid jungle. Occasionally, huge grasshoppers leaped from the bush and butterflies danced in the air. An armadillo appeared, but quickly shied away, leaving us to marvel at the aroma of allspice trees and the enormous mahogany, Belize's national tree.

Later we visited a temple, at the foot of which stood an enormous curved mask of the sun god. Facing the ancient ruin in the thick jungle is nothing short of overwhelming. As we looked at the temple, awesome calls of the black howler monkeys, another endangered species native to Belize, could be heard in the nearby trees.

The tour also included a stop at an ancient Mayan ball court, similar to the one at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula but much smaller. The game's rules still remain a mystery, with the exception of two elements: Neither hands nor legs were used in handling the ball; and the captain of the team (either of the losers or winners) was decapitated after the game. Incidentally, liquid mercury was also discovered at the court, but once again, its use still remains unknown.

As small as the country may be, Belize offers much to see and experience. Most impressively, it manages to keep its wondrous nature, rich in wildlife and archaeological interest, unspoiled from development. This kind of ecotourism offers dramatic experiences you will never forget.



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