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Budget Belize

$329 THE LIFE AQUATIC

The next morning we drive east to Belize City to return the vehicle, then head for the port's busy marine terminal, where, for $44 round-trip, a speedboat ferries us 20 miles offshore to Caye Caulker, a narrow mangrove island with three sandy streets and a handful of cars. Ambergris Caye, 10 miles farther north, has the high-end resorts, while Caulker retains its fishing fleet and rough-hewn wooden houses. Here, everybody's on a first-name basis. Jessie, who owns our $60-a-night cabana with its hammock-draped porch, recommends Juni as the guide for a $105 sail-and-snorkeling tour of the reef. We find the burly old man, bare-chested and tan as 12-year-old rum, on the veranda of his raised house.

"Meet me at 10:15 tomorrow morning," Juni says. "Bring water, sun cream, and a good mood."

After feasting on warm cinnamon rolls at Glenda's, a down-home breakfast spot in a backstreet house, we board the Trinity, Juni's island-built sloop. With a steady hand on his custom mahogany tiller, he sails smartly up the island, leaving kite boarders in his wake. As we near Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the 66-year-old mariner recalls nursing a speargun-injured shark back to health, and even helping to birth its pups. A tall tale, I think, yet when we anchor to snorkel, a pair of nurse sharks materializes as soon as Juni enters the water. For the next hour, the six-foot creatures tag along, sidling up and nudging our guide, rolling over to have their pale stomachs scratched while we explore the teeming coral reef.

"They're friends of his," Timothy says when we surface.

It's true. Green-spotted eagle rays, five-foot barracudas, and skillet-sized parrot fish seem to consider him family. When more than a dozen motorboats crowded with snorkelers arrive from Ambergris, Juni hoists his homemade sails and heads back.

"I like to be with the fish," he says.

I like it, too, but I also like island downtime: popping conch fritters at Rasta Pasta; savoring a post-sunset Belikin beer while lying in a hammock at I&I Reggae Bar. Admittedly, neither of these activities is particularly geared to nine-year-olds, but Timothy is as blissed out as Maria and I are.

$66 DAMN-THE-BUDGET SNORKELING

On our last full day we can't resist another trip, this time by powerboat with E-Z Boy Tours to South Channel and Shark-Ray Alley, three-quarters of a mile offshore. Forget the spending cap; full speed ahead. The brain coral, stingrays, and Crayola-hued wrasses and damselfish are worth a bit of red ink.

When we come ashore, I spot a billowing blue sail on the horizon: it's the Trinity, bound for home. Tomorrow Juni will again swim with sharks. And I'll be back in Massachusetts, sitting in rush-hour gridlock and wondering where in the tropics $1,500 might take us next year.

$1,711 TOTAL (INCLUDING ISLAND MEALS, INCIDENTALS, AND TAXI TO THE AIRPORT)

Christopher R. Cox is a Boston-based journalist. He often writes for Travel + Leisure and Men's Journal.

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