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Budget Belize

When it comes to Christmas presents, my parents believe that cash is always in good taste. Parents being parents, last year they amended their generous $1,500 gift with a Santa clause: Use the money for a family vacation during spring break. To sweeten the pot, Stocking Number Two held an IOU for three plane tickets. All my wife, Maria, our then nine-year-old-son, Timothy, and I had to add was the destination.

Because our last trip had been to frigid Montreal, I lobbied for a sun-kissed spot—one with warm water, robust jungle, and a bit of adventure. In other words, a place like Belize, the Massachusetts-sized nation with the world's second-longest barrier reef and its first jaguar preserve. Ecotourism is front and center in the former British Honduras; the country, which gained independence in 1981, even has toucans and tapirs on its currency.

"Dad," my animal-obsessed son asked, "can we see a kinkajou?"

Sure. That critter might be on the money, too.

With our budget in mind, we organized an affordable turf-and-surf itinerary: three nights in a rain forest lodge and three more on a barrier island. Maria scored the best Internet find of all: a sleepover at the Belize Zoo for $35, with a night safari for an additional $50. Operation Belize Navidad was on.

$32 THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS, PLUS TAXI AND EMPANADAS

A two-hour-flight south from Miami, Belize is a land where even the taxi drivers are accomplished naturalists. "That's a boat-tailed grackle," our hack announces, when we catch a bit of birdcall as we tool along in his 1988 Buick from the airport in Ladyville to the central bus station in coastal Belize City, which, with a population of 60,000, is by far the country's largest city. We won't need a rental car at the lodge, located 60 miles away in the western Cayo District, and we want to avoid a three-figure transportation tab. Instead, we opt for total cultural immersion: an order of piping-hot curried-chicken empanadas and passage aboard a recycled American school bus filled with Mayan peasants, Mennonite farmers (members of the religious sect emigrated from Mexico in the 1950's and now dominate Belize's dairy industry), and a trophy-toting girls' softball team.

"It's safer than church," a dreadlocked Rasta assures us as we roll inland on good roads, then offers Maria a swig of a foul-looking "herbal" infusion, which she politely declines. Timothy, on the other hand, can't resist using $5 of his allowance money to buy a handwoven basket from his seatmate, Angelina, a shy 12-year-old girl returning with her wares from the market in Belmopan, the nation's tiny capital, to her Mayan village.

$800 THREE NIGHTS IN THE ALL-INCLUSIVE WILD

Thirty minutes outside Belmopan, the bus discharges us in a river valley filled with grapefruit and orange orchards and flanked by limestone hills. A quarter-mile off the Hummingbird Highway, Ian Anderson has created his Caves Branch Jungle Lodge in Survivor style: thatched bungalows, tiki torches, open-air showers, and an activities menu offering kayaking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and cave tubing (you don a headlamp and float on inner tubes along underground rivers). Our three-night package includes all meals and two full-day outings, with no additional charge for Timothy.

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