On a drive through Belize's interior, Meghan Daum learns that a Central American road trip calls for an adventurous spirit, a good map—and a sense of humor.

By Meghan Daum
September 28, 2012
Frédéric Lagrange Schoolkids along the Hummingbird Highway
| Credit: 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.

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.

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.

Getting There

There are nonstop flights from Dallas, Houston, and Miami to Belize City's Philip Goldson International Airport, where you can rent a car (Budget, National, etc.) and a cell phone. See travelbelize.org for more information.

When to Go

From November to April, the weather is perfect. Avoid the wet season, from June to October.

Where to Stay

Maruba Resort Jungle Spa
Mile 40.5, Old Northern Hwy., Maskall Village; 011-501/225-5555 or 713/799-2031; www.maruba-spa.com; doubles from $200.

Blancaneaux Lodge
Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Cayo District; 800/746-3743 or 011-501/824-3878; www.turtleinn.com; cabanas from $210.

Where to Eat

Over the Top Café
Hummingbird Hwy., in the village of St. Margaret; lunch for two $15.

Wendy's Restaurant & Bar
Placencia Village; 011-501/523-3335; dinner for two $40.

What to Do

Altun Ha
The bilingual guides at S&L Travel and Tours (011-501/ 227-7593; www.sltravelbelize.com; $50 per person) lead half-day trips from Belize City to the ruins.

Community Baboon Sanctuary
011-501/220-2181; www.howlermonkeys.org; open Monday through Saturday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.

Travel Advisory

Although Belize is safer than nearby Honduras and El Salvador, the U.S. Department of State reminds travelers to use caution: Don't travel alone, stay off rural roads after dark, and avoid carrying valuables. There are few public telephones along the highways, so be sure to pack a world phone or rent a cell phone at the airport in Belize City.

Community Baboon Sanctuary

The sanctuary is home to 1,000 black howler monkeys (known here as baboons), a large tree-dwelling species that is endangered in Belize. 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.

Wendy's Creole Restaurant & Bar

Menus were once nonexistent at this restaurant; fried chicken and snacks were sold deli-style when it opened in 2002. From there, Wendy's Creole Restaurant & Bar has grown into a full-service location with air-conditioning (a blessing in Belize,) a full menu, and 100 seats. Behind the scenes, several cooks work to create the more than 40 dishes available, including the popular Stuffed Fry Jacks, a breakfast favorite. Lunch specials include chirmole, a soup with boiled eggs, spices, and potatoes, and Creole lobster is available for dinner mid-June to mid-February.

Over the Top Café

Belize Boutique Resort & Spa

With 1,000 acres of private jungle reserve and a warm mineral spa, Belize Boutique Resort & Spa offers comfortable guestrooms, each uniquely decorated in “tribal chic” and filled with fresh hibiscus flowers. The on-site spa offers mood mud therapy and a Japanese hot tub, while more adventurous activities include learning about jungle remedies on a medicinal safari hike, touring Mayan ruins, and swimming with friendly nurse sharks and stingrays at Shark Ray Alley. Maruba Resort also provides horseback riding, sport fishing, and jungle river boat and canoe rides.

Blancaneaux Lodge

It was film director Francis Ford Coppola who put Belize on the jet-setter’s map almost two decades ago, when he transformed his 70-acre family retreat in the country’s western mountains into Blancaneaux Lodge. And although the family has opened a handful of lodges since then, this property—a collection of 10 cabanas, six villas, and a cottage set in the jungle of the Maya Mountains—remains the ne plus ultra of Belizean hospitality. Deep in the jungle, it’s the setting and the service that draw travelers from around the globe. The staff will prepare picnic lunches for day hikes to the waterfalls, and an at-the-ready crew of Thailand-trained spa staffers awaits back at the hotel. Though the restaurant’s wine selection isn’t vast, it’s surely elegant—the bottles are imported from Coppola’s California winery—while the straightforward menu does the trick after a day of adventure (order the grilled chicken with red beans and rice). Even now, Coppola’s first hideaway is still the place discerning adventure types are searching for.