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A Drive Through Belize

Frédéric Lagrange Schoolkids along the Hummingbird Highway

Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

As it turns out, this is a wedding, and we have walked into the reception. As it also turns out, we have to attend this reception if we want to eat supper. My stuffed shrimp bears a striking resemblance to a Stouffer's frozen dinner. Ron chooses rabbit, the "house specialty." There are exactly two bites of meat on the bone. For dessert, Ron is encouraged to order a slice of "rich chocolate cake with fudge sauce." He is served a doughnut with syrup on it.

Day 2: Maruba Resort to Blancaneaux Lodge 110 miles
I wake, inexplicably, at exactly 10 A.M., my body actually sore from yesterday's driving. After breakfast, we hit the road (more accurately, the road hits us, forming a nice crack in the windshield) for Altun Ha (Water of the Rock), a site dating back to 600 B.C. that contains hundreds of structures, including the large Temple of the Masonry Altars. We bump along the Old Northern Highway, tracing the path we should have taken from Belize City in the first place, and laugh about how much longer it takes to get to Altun Ha than the 20 minutes we were told the drive would be. An hour passes and we have gone only 10 miles. The sign for Altun Ha should be coming up any minute. Another 20 minutes pass and there it is, a sign that says Altun Ha! It takes us a few moments to process the fact that the arrow is pointing in the direction we just came from. Amazingly, horrifyingly, and yet unsurprisingly, we missed it altogether. Wasn't there supposed to be a sign?Is it possible that the sign was merely a pair of initials etched into a tree?

We have a brief argument about whether or not to turn back. On the one hand, going to Belize and skipping Altun Ha is a bit like traveling to India and not visiting the Taj Mahal. On the other hand, it is now midday and our tight itinerary leaves little room for detours; we're expected on the opposite side of Belize by nightfall. Ron comes up with the rationale that if we had a better vehicle (such as, perhaps, a Bobcat tractor), it would make sense to turn around and find these elusive ruins. But as it is, we'll bypass the Taj Mahal and blame the Jimmy. Anyway, we still have the baboon sanctuary to see. Who needs ancient ruins where there are living primates?

The sanctuary is home to 1,000 black howler monkeys (known here as baboons), a large tree-dwelling species that is endangered in Belize. According to my research, this is a volunteer conservation program established in 1985 to protect the monkeys, which are among one of the few viable populations of their kind in Central America. There are guided tours, a museum, and even a lodge. Sadly, my research did not include finding out which days of the week the sanctuary is open. It's a Sunday, and there's no one around. The dark path leading into the forest does not look like a place for solo trekking. We've been in Belize for 24 hours and have so far managed to miss two major tourist destinations. Ron points out that, embarrassing as this is, at least we haven't gotten a flat tire. I mention that the day is young.

We sheepishly proceed west on the Western Highway, which we're 30 percent sure will take us to our next destination, the Blancaneaux Lodge in the Cayo district. For the next four hours we go from mediocre road, to bad road, to worse road. We listen to the radio, a staticky mishmash of reggae and Celine Dion and local politics. We buy gas for $5 a gallon. We cover about 50 miles and then we reach the Cayo district, which abuts Guatemala. It is unspoiled here—serious rain-forest territory, site of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve as well as Big Rock Falls and 1,000 Foot Falls. We get out to stretch at the latter, also called Hidden Valley Falls, and watch the long ribbon of water cascade into the creek below. Back on the Western Highway, we turn off at the village of Georgeville, then continue for another 45 minutes on the teeth-rattlingly bumpy Pine Ridge Road to Blancaneaux Lodge, one of a handful of such properties in the reserve.

Blancaneaux is everything Maruba isn't. Owned by Francis Ford Coppola, the lodge is a collection of tasteful, understated villas and cabanas. Granted, the wine selection, though excellent, is not vast (it's entirely from Coppola's California winery), but the food is good, especially the grilled chicken with red beans and rice, which Ron feels almost makes up for his meal at Maruba.

Day 3: Blancaneaux Lodge to Placencia 96 miles
I would be happy to stay at Blancaneaux for the rest of the week—the staff offers spa treatments and picnic lunches for day hikes to the waterfalls—but Ron, being a landlocked Midwesterner, is desperate to get to the beach town of Placencia. We climb into the Jimmy and head back east through Belmopan, Belize's capital, before making our way onto the Hummingbird Highway. This is a lush, winding route that connects Belmopan and the eastern city of Dangriga. Butterflies are everywhere, and it's also, hands down, the best name for a road that I've ever heard. In the village of St. Margaret, we stop at the Over the Top Café, a charmingly rustic place on a bluff that serves Belikin (Belize's local beer), ice cream, and other snacks and provides an opportunity to actually sit down and admire the landscape without having to keep an eye on the road at all times. This, it occurs to me, is one of the drawbacks of driving in Belize. As picturesque as the scenery is and as delightful as it is seen up close, the roads—even the paved highways—are so challenging that it's hard to combine sightseeing with responsible driving.

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