Belize: Ancient and azure appeal
SAN IGNACIO, Belize - The same turquoise waters that lure tourists to Caribbean destinations slosh around Belize's island chain. But tiny Belize has a major advantage in reeling in the holidaymakers - spectacular Maya ruins tucked away in lush jungle. The nation is home to more prehistoric buildings than modern-day ones, according to its Institute of Archaeology.
That ancient appeal draws in backpackers eager for adventure as well as divers ready to explore its bustling reefs or its famed Blue Hole. Belize has all the ingredients for a surf and turf vacation - at least for those who don't mind the odd giant cockroach or neon-green frog that may invade their jungle dwellings.
Caves, skeletons, and a swim
Evidence of human sacrifice in Maya times litters the floors of the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves, where the skeletons are welded in place by limestone sediment. Maya pottery is also frozen in time there, with archaeologists opting to leave most artifacts as they were centuries ago. To get to the caves, visitors are led down a gentle jungle trail that includes several river crossings. Next comes an invigorating swim across a frigid pool of water at the cave's mouth (which is patrolled by a resident vine snake). Water winds throughout the cave, and visitors have to squeeze through impossible-looking openings to reach the archaeological trove. But don't expect to plaster social media with photos documenting the adventure. Clumsy tourists - including one who left a camera-sized hole in the skull of a sacrificed child - led to a ban on cameras at the site.
Pyramid in the jungle
Just a fraction of Caracol, a once powerful Maya city-state, has been unearthed by archaeologists. Once home to 150,000 inhabitants (nearly twice the population of Belize's current industrial center, Belize City), the site was lost until a logger stumbled upon it in the 1930s while in search of mahogany. Nearly a century later, 90 percent of it still belongs to the jungle. Shards of ancient pottery are scattered around the complex, which includes astronomical buildings, ball courts, palaces, and a 141-foot-tall pyramid that remains the tallest man-made structure in Belize. The guttural intonations of howler monkeys and eerie bird screeches provide the soundtrack for those wandering through the extensive archaeological site.
Palace, ball court, and 'Place of the Ticks'
Even from its perch high on a hill, Cahal Pech lives in the shadow of its more impressive neighbors, Caracol, Xunantunich ////[See "headline" on Nx],//// and Tikal. Cahal Pech - which unflatteringly means "Place of the Ticks" in Yucatec and Mopan Mayan - sits on the outskirts of San Ignacio, a popular base for those exploring Maya ruins. Under the cover of an encroaching jungle, visitors can get a glimpse of how the upper crust lived in Maya times through the site's palace structures. The site is also home to a nice example of a Maya ball court.
Barrier reef and Blue Hole
Caye Caulker is a sandy strip of land surrounded by an abundance of sea life. The more laid-back alternative to San Pedro (immortalized by the 1987 Madonna hit "La Isla Bonita") provides a base for the thriftier tourist looking to explore Belize's nearby barrier reef. The island is crowded with tour companies that ferry visitors to reef hot spots, such as the intimidating Shark Ray Alley. Nurse sharks and stingrays were originally drawn to the area by fishermen cleaning their catch, but now it's tour boats that chum the waters. The fish expectantly gather around any boat that arrives. Other underwater highlights include an enormous loggerhead turtle, blind in one eye, that hovers around a conch fishermen's boat, and a rainbow of tropical fish. Eerie night snorkeling affords an opportunity to watch the fish scurry to find a home in the reef before darkness falls. When things do turn truly nocturnal, snorkelers equipped with underwater LEDs can spot squid, octopus, lobster, and crabs. Scuba divers can also catch a ride to Belize's Blue Hole, an underwater sinkhole that's 1,000 feet wide and 412 feet deep.
Iguanas scurry all over San Ignacio thanks in part to the efforts of the Iguana Project, which hatches and releases the critters, whose eggs are regularly gobbled up by predators in the wild. A guided tour of the facility where they're kept allows tourists to get up-close-and-personal with the scaly beasts. Among the highlights is the iguana nursery, where willing participants can be covered in a brood of 4-to-6-month-old bright-green iguanas. Belizeans are prohibited from keeping the lizards as pets, but Iguana Project guide Jorge Lopez says locals will eat green iguanas for dinner. And he insists they taste like chicken. The project works to boost the lizard's population by releasing 100 to 150 iguanas a year.