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A Drive Through Belize

Frédéric Lagrange Schoolkids along the Hummingbird Highway

Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

Sometimes you find that a road less traveled holds true to Robert Frost's promise: it does make all the difference. Other times, you discover that the road is less traveled because it's a bad road. Belize, a tiny country with a ribbon of beaches running along the Caribbean Sea, is not a place you visit for its infrastructure. But the country is one of the few places that's as jungly as it is sandy, and despite its accessibility, it still retains a palpably exotic air. My curiosity about Belize's wildlife (more than 500 species of birds and the world's largest jaguar population) and its ancient Mayan ruins led me to travel there last fall. I planned to crisscross the country by car—rather than flying on eight-seater airplanes.

You see, I'd heard that Belize has some of the best roads in Central America. And even though the country was under British occupation for more than 150 years, back when it was called British Honduras, Belizeans drive on the right side of the road. Also, English is the nation's official language, which I presumed meant that signs would be readable and directions easy to ask for.

Eager to trade the clogged freeways of Southern California for a road trip through Belize's rain forest and down its coast, I packed three bathing suits and insect repellent. I also brought along a driving buddy, my old friend Ron, a rugged Midwesterner who can maneuver large farm equipment and who insisted that my pampered, urban, Saab-driving ways would render me useless on rocky Central American highways.

Day 1: Belize City to Maruba Resort Jungle Spa 100 miles
At the airport in Belize City, we rent a cell phone and a Suzuki Jimmy, a small jeep whose shock absorption on these roads is along the lines of a mail truck's. That was perhaps my first mistake. By mile five, I'm praying we can avoid getting a flat tire (it's no surprise that nearly every billboard we see is an advertisement for tires). We merge onto the Northern Highway and by mile 10 I'm wishing I'd worn a sturdier bra. If these are the best roads in Central America, I can only imagine what the highways must be like in Guatemala.

Don't get me wrong, this is a paved road. All of the five major highways in Belize are paved, yet they come with a generous supply of speed bumps, potholes, and local drivers who make a sport of passing on curves as though they're en route to the emergency room, only to pull over at a barbecue stand a mile ahead. But getting to just about any destination here requires taking access roads that make the surface of the moon look like a freshly Zambonied ice rink.

It doesn't help that we've only been in Belize a few hours and I've already managed to take us in the wrong direction. We were ostensibly on our way to the Maruba Resort Jungle Spa, about 33 miles north of Belize City—but somehow we've missed it. To our dismay, we now must take the Old Northern Highway, traveling south by southeast—30 miles in exactly the direction we came from.

The road is treacherous, and Ron, who hours earlier had mocked my supposed fear of the outdoors, is convinced we'll pop a tire at any moment and end up spending the night in the Jimmy without adequate "rations." He has a point. Night has fallen, there's no cell phone signal, and a constant swarm of insects veils our headlights. The only thing more primitive than the villages we passed an hour ago is my map, a colorful children's cartoon with more drawings of animals than names of towns. I'd assumed we could pick up a better map at the airport or rental car office, but every time I asked for one, a friendly Belizean would look at mine and say, "You won't find a better one than that. Where'd you get it, anyway?"

Just when Ron has begun to plan the intervals during which one of us will sleep while the other stands guard against jaguars, we see a pair of gates in the distance, flanked by two men and two giant tiki torches. Eureka! (Unless this is a mirage.) Sweaty and exhausted, we climb out of the Jimmy and are greeted by an attractive woman in a sarong, who ushers us into the reception area. With its thatched roof and vehemently "tropical" design, the place would be all very native and primal, except that the guests are dressed in formal (although, for the women, alarmingly skimpy) clothing and we're all illuminated by a black light. Any trace of white fabric is glowing fluorescently, including the lint on my shorts.

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