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Budget Belize

"The first two or three years we were open, we actively discouraged families," confesses Anderson, a Vancouver native. "We didn't think the tours we offered were appropriate for kids. We started seeing how wrong we were. The kids were far superior at going out and doing the trips than the parents."

Consider the Black Hole Drop. Timothy scampers like a jungle cat along the rising, rain-slicked trail while Maria and I wheeze through the two miles of dense forest to Actun Loch Tunich, where climbing ropes snake over the lip of a 280-foot-deep sinkhole. It's white-knuckle time as we rappel off the overhang while howler monkeys hoot, but we're rewarded with a bird's-eye view of the sheer-sided void. By the time we've slid down the ropes and onto the chasm's floor, Timothy is already pointing up toward the rim.

"Do you think we can do it again?"

Only if a Sherpa pack-hauls me to the top, kid.

We lie low the next day, paddling our tubes along a gurgling subterranean river and spelunking in caverns where ancient Mayans performed bloodletting rituals. Above us, the mountains unfurl southward into an emerald wilderness that holds jaguars, tapirs, and... yes, kinkajous.

$176 RENTAL CAR AT THE RUINS—AND BEYOND

The 1,300-year-old Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, a hilltop complex of pyramids and plazas, are enticingly nearby—a 90-minute drive west, close to the Guatemalan border. No bus adventure this time; the connections would be impossible, so I've arranged for the delivery of a rented four-wheel-drive Suzuki, a worthwhile two-day indulgence. To reach Xunantunich (admission $10 total), we take a free hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River, then clamber up the 130-foot-tall El Castillo for a 360-degree view of villages and jungle. Tonight: on to the kinkajous!

$118 CATCHING Z'S AT THE ZOO

Established for animals that became semi-tame after being filmed in a documentary, the Belize Zoo, 30 miles west of Belize City, is now home to more than 100 indigenous birds, mammals, and reptiles. Our one-room cabin sits on stilts in the zoo's Tropical Education Center, overlooking a water hole that attracts egrets and caimans. After a dinner of stewed chicken at the center's dining hall—our two meals here came to $33—we grab flashlights and follow our guide along meandering paths through the verdant grounds. Though modest in size, the zoo has earned an excellent reputation for its conservation efforts and well-kept, natural-setting enclosures. On the night safari, we drape a boa constrictor over our shoulders and pet a spider monkey's leathery prehensile tail. But the kinkajous leap against their wire-mesh cage, bare their teeth, and hiss ferociously.

"And they seemed so cute and cuddly in pictures..." my son says.

A female tapir's eerie cry floats through the trees; a growling duel erupts between two jaguars. "Sometimes the cats get loose," our guide says. It's too dark to see if he's smiling.

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