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A Drive Through Belize

Frédéric Lagrange Schoolkids along the Hummingbird Highway

Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

At Dangriga, we turn onto yet another lunar surface, which leads to Placencia. Here, again, the signage is astonishingly subtle. After about 15 minutes, the road forks, and to reach Placencia we have to bear right onto Lunar Surface Two. We nearly bypass this turn, partly because we seem to have resumed an argument about who's fault it is that we missed both Altun Ha and the baboon sanctuary, and partly because I'm busy trying to locate my sunglasses, which were knocked off my face when we hit a particularly nasty pothole.

Placencia is a 12-mile-long peninsula that narrows into a point at a touristy village with the same name. Most of the region is still being developed. Cranes and cement trucks amble along the road, there for the condominiums that will soon line Placencia Lagoon. Ron and I are booked at the Placencia Hotel, a "new" establishment that's still under construction. Our seaside villa features not only the sounds of the surf but the rustling of painters touching up the trim. The design of the Maruba resort was cheesy, though in a sexy way, but the Placencia Hotel, with its endless pastels, Formica furniture, and giant turquoise paintings of manatees, takes the cake (or syrup-covered doughnut).

Days 4 and 5: Placencia
The town of Placencia, however, is a joy. We go snorkeling off Laughing Bird Cay, about an hour's boat ride from the hotel, and finally get to see some wildlife, in the form of angelfish, colorful coral and sponges, and even lemon sharks, which we're assured are harmless to humans, despite being nearly six feet long. As I bob in the water, I imagine the cocktail banter: "I went on a road trip in Belize and swam with sharks!"

The next day, we take the hotel's sea kayaks out and paddle around the lagoon for a few hours in the rain. There are supposedly manatees in the waters off Placencia and, like a child, I call out for them repeatedly until Ron threatens to capsize my kayak. That evening, we eat at the Inn at Robert's Grove, a popular hotel with a beachfront restaurant and a candlelit dock jutting out into the sea. But our best meal in Belize is at Wendy's Restaurant, a local spot that specializes in seafood as well as Spanish and Creole cuisine. Owned by a spectacularly beautiful Guatemalan woman named Wendy Lemus, its extensive menu includes burritos, fajitas, and seaweed milk shakes. As was the case with the second-best meal of the trip, which we ate at a roadside barbecue stand on the Western Highway, we discover that in Belize, simpler (and cheaper) is better.

There's an airstrip in Placencia where, every time we clatter by it in the Jimmy, I look at the people getting off the puddle jumpers from Belize City and think, So that's how you're supposed to get here. Driving in Belize may be smoother than in any other Central American country, but most visitors still wisely opt for air transportation and hotel vans with drivers who presumably know how to find certain Mayan ruins.

On the other hand, the road less traveled has its perks, even if it potentially causes spinal misalignment. For one thing, I am now one of the few people on earth who knows that Altun Ha does not in fact exist (that's my story and I'm sticking to it). I also snorkeled with lemon sharks and ate some amazing roadside barbecue. Back home on the smooth pavement of California, nothing short of the highway patrol can get me to pull over. Sometimes we need a little motivation to slow down and truly experience the terrain. If you do this in Belize, just don't forget your rations—and bring along a decent map.

Meghan Daum is the author of The Quality of Life Report. An op-ed columnist for the L.A. Times, she has also written for Vogue, GQ, and Harper's.

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