Our second destination had the ominous-sounding name of Shark-Ray Alley. Trust me, the name is well given. Before I'd even put on my mask, a number of six-foot-long nurse sharks were circling the boat. Reassured that we were indeed expected to swim with these masters of the deep, I slipped into the water with vows of keeping my distance, only to have our guide dive to the bottom and, in a move previously known as a bear hug, his arms around the largest of the sharks. I almost swallowed my snorkel when the two of them swam over to me for a close-up look at the shark's double row of razor-sharp teeth and a chance to feel its skin, tough as any leather and gritty as sandpaper.
Night life in San Pedro flows along in a lazy rhythm: sunset cocktails for thirsty divers and fishermen, dinner at a leisurely pace (no one seems to move fast here, including the waiters). The entertainment highlight of the week—known far and wide as Chicken Drop Bingo—takes place on Wednesday evenings at the Spindrift Resort Hotel's Pier Lounge. From 7 p.m. till the chickens give out, participants may buy a square on a board that is numbered from one to one hundred twenty. When all squares have been sold and any stray dogs collared, a chicken is released on the board. The jackpot—a hundred bucks Belize— goes tom the person who bet two dollars Belize (equal to one dollar U.S.) on the square where the chicken relieves itself.
The next day, I took a seven-minute boat ride to Cayo Espanto, yet another private island resort, this one with four nearly perfect one- and two-bedroom villas, each perched on the water's edge with its own pier and pool and incredible views of water and reef. If the world needed a place for guys to cast for bonefish while their wives or girlfriends were having a seaside massage and seaweed herbal wrap, then this is it.
The food is also extraordinary. I had a lunch of Asian slaw salad on rice paper with shrimp grilled between strips of fresh sugarcane. Dessert was cheesecake egg rolls with fresh papaya dipping sauce. Too exotic for your taste?No problem. Fill out a questionnaire listing your favorite foods and the chef, Jason Espat, will cook them for you.
Other than you, the stars and your sweetheart, there's zero night life on the tiny island, but that's rather the point. And for those days when one private island isn't enough, one of Cayo Espanto's boatmen will take you to Caye Chapel for golf.
NO TRIP TO BELIZE IS COMPLETE without a journey to at least one of the country's astonishing inland lodges. Wanting to visit several different areas, I rented a four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser and headed for the jungle. My first stop was Chan Chich Lodge, a small jungle lodge in the 225,000-acre Gallon Jug Estate, the majority of which is designated as an environmental preserve. A few moments after my arrival, a lodge guide, Ricardo Romero, told me that he'd just seen a jaguar only a hundred yards from the lodge. He'd been watching a group of coatimundi—a jungle animal that looks like a cross between an anteater and a raccoon—when a cat jumped out of the bush.
"The coatis leaped for the trees," Rick told me, "but the jaguar caught one in his mouth, turned and ran away."
Hurrying back to the spot, we found the trampled ground where the brief battle had taken place and set off on the jaguar's trail. The biggest cats in the western hemisphere, jaguars are an extremely endangered species, and though Chan Chich is considered one of the most likely places to see a jaguar in the wild, the cats are elusive and sightings number fewer than a hundred a year. I knew I'd never have a better chance, but after moving slowly and quietly several hundred yards down the trail the jaguar had taken, we had to admit the big cat was gone.
After a wonderful night's sleep serenaded by the distant roaring of a band of howler monkeys, I set out for Chaa Creek Resort & Spa and Inland Expeditions, perched high on the banks of the Macal River. When Chaa Creek's owners, Mick and Lucy Fleming, came to Belize in 1977, their first job was picking coffee beans for sixty dollars a week. Figuring they couldn't do worse on their own, they bought a farm several miles up the river from the mountain town of San Ignacio.
"The river was our lifeline," Mick told me late one night over cocktails. "At eleven p.m. one night when Lucy went into labor a month early, I had to paddle her to town by moonlight."
The hotel now has twenty-one thatched roof cottage rooms overlooking the river valley, ten fully screened casitas in its Macal River Jungle Camp, a fine outdoor bar and restaurant, and a four-star spa. Despite all the new creature comforts, Mick and Lucy's place remains dedicated to adventure: cross-country mountain biking, caving expeditions with subterranean boating past ancient Mayan artifacts, and whitewater canoe trips in class III and IV rapids that will put you in touch with the howler monkey inside of you.
Finally I stopped at Blancaneaux, an extraordinary lodge owned and frequented by film director Francis Ford Coppola. Beside a long series of waterfalls on the Privassion River, Blancaneaux looks like the world's most exotic tropical movie set. In the cool mountain air of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve area, the cabanas and villas are shaded by pine, surrounded by tropical gardens and overlook a waterfall. A pizza oven imported from Italy turns out the best pies this side of Naples, perfect with a bottle of the owner's award-winning wines from the Coppola-Niebaum Winery, in Napa Valley.
The massive Mayan ruins of Caracol are just an hour's drive away, but after checking into Coppola's personal villa, I was so taken with its comfort and grace that I could barely be stirred from my rooms. In front of the villa and overlooking the waterfalls is a low wooden chair set on a huge granite boulder that I'd begun to think of as Coppola's Rock. Sitting there on my last morning at Blancaneaux, I watched the sun rise through mountain mists and tried but failed to think of anything wrong with this wonderful country.