Barbara & Stu's Excellent Vacations Great trips we have taken

After seeing a brief item about the congregation of whale sharks off the coast of Belize, I decided that this would be exactly the thrilling dive experience to lure us back in the water. We hadn’t done any scuba diving since Indonesia in 2001 and I’d been checking out dive locations for inspiration, hoping to find someplace interesting close to home. Further research indicated that the best opportunity to view the sharks would be during the full moon days in the months of March through May. Due to a packed social schedule, we were limited to April, which turned out to be a very good time to go, except that the lunar cycle forced us to visit during Easter week, a travel period we typically avoid (for good reason as we discovered). Every year vast schools of snapper congregate in the Gladden Spit to spawn in an orgiastic frenzy releasing millions of eggs. Whale sharks, with their clearly sophisticated palate, swoop in to feast on snapper caviar. The whale shark is the biggest fish in the ocean, growing to lengths of 50-60 ft. It is not the largest ocean creature though, a distinction that belongs to the blue whale, a sea mammal that is the most mammoth animal in or out of the water. Whale sharks are filter feeders, straining small organisms through their gills. Despite their size, they project a gentle air, sporting a bemused smile when their cavernous mouths are closed. We’d seen a whale shark in the exceptional aquarium in Osaka and always dreamed of meeting one face to face.

We flew to Belize City via Houston, connecting there for a short hop to Placencia on the southeast coast. We used an agency to make our trip bookings, and we’d chosen Seahorse Divers because we perceived that they run a business for serious divers and would offer us the best opportunity to encounter the whale sharks. It was a basic operation and just fine for experienced divers, but we wouldn’t recommend it for novices. Their equipment wasn’t very new or well maintained either so you’d be better off bringing your own. We boarded a small boat late morning the day after we arrived with 6 other divers and took about a 1-1/2 hour ride out to the Gladden Spit, a protected marine preserve. A team of marine marshals patrol the area to collect the reserve fees and to make sure that visitors obey the rules. The number of boats allowed onto the Spit at one time is limited, so we parked awhile in the inner reef to wait our turn and have some lunch. When we had clearance we geared up to avoid attempting it on the high chop beyond the reef.

The Gladden Spit is open ocean, no pretty coral reefs and no bottom in sight. Our group descended and began swimming through the big blue, seeking spawning snappers. After about 20 minutes of swimming, we found a huge school of resting snappers and hovered above them. The whale sharks apparently mistake divers’ bubbles for spawn, so the divemasters were swirling their regulators around to generate a lot of bubbles. To our disappointment, no whale sharks appeared and we returned to the boat a bit dejected. One of our dive companions told us that they had not seen any sharks the day before but that our best chance would be the second dive since there is typically more activity closer to dusk. We spent our surface interval back on the reef. It was after 5 pm when we descended for the second dive. Again, we swam briskly for about 20 mins. before locating the snappers. This time the snappers were in full mating fury, the fish were thrashing and the eggs were flying. I turned my head just in time to see a whale shark gliding by on my right. Suddenly a ghostly white grin emerged from the deep, coming up right in the middle of our pod of extremely excited divers. While we were still awestruck by the first, a second glided up from below and the sharks crisscrossed in a graceful pas de deux. A steep fine is imposed on anyone who touches, chases, rides or in any way harasses the animals. We fully support this, but it was so hard not to reach out and stroke them when they came so tantalizingly near. We counted at least 3 whale sharks, lingering to admire them until we had to surface. The sun set as we motored back to shore, thrilled to the core. The following day was almost a mirror of the first, no sharks on the first dive and 2 or 3 (no one was sure) on the second. You can snorkel on the reef during surface intervals but we chose to relax and warm up in the sun. We were scheduled to dive for 3 days (we thought we should maximize our number of chances to see the whale sharks) but we were so satisfied with the first two days that we decided to just hang out at our hotel the 3rd day, swimming, reading and relaxing.

We chose to stay at The Turtle Inn, one of the properties owned by Francis Ford Coppola, because it appeared to be the most intimate and adult place in the area. We were looking for a "peaceful bungalow on the beach" experience, romantically dining by the glow of the colossal moon, lulled to sleep by the rhythmic crash of the waves. We got the bungalow and it was exquisite, elegantly, though incongruously, decorated in Asian rather than local style. It was the peace and quiet that was sorely lacking. There was no air conditioning, but there were fresh sea breezes. The bungalows had large screened windows and porches as well as ceiling fans that provided ample ventilation, especially in the evenings. It had never occurred to us when we booked that all those spacious bungalows would be ideal for accommodating groups of very noisy people, and since everyone had to keep all of their windows open, you had no choice but to eavesdrop on your neighbors. Perhaps we might not have minded as much if the conversations were worth listening to and if they didn’t blast us out of sleep several times every night. The resort was packed, undoubtedly due to the holiday, and we were one of only 3 couples in the place, engulfed by families and groups, like rowboats dwarfed by ocean liners. At dinner the decibel level would probably rival a landing strip or, at minimum, a jackhammer. If you’re into a group tour, children’s playground, rowdy spring-break type of atmosphere, you’d be content. The food was good but not exceptional, though vegetables are grown on the property for the hotel and were very fresh. We especially enjoyed the tomato salad and locally caught fish.

A young Thai woman provided spa treatments and I had the best Thai massage of my life - 90 mins. of bliss. I'd been getting headaches every day and the base of my skull was actually sore when touched. She worked out all my kinks and I didn't have another headache or any skull soreness for the rest of the trip. I also had a luxurious body scrub to counteract some of the effects of the sun exposure, even though we’d been using an SPF 30 sunscreen.

We wanted extra time between diving and flying so we spent 2 days exploring the rainforest reserves in the area. We took a half day boat trip to Monkey River in the company of two other couples. After a pleasant ride through a mangrove-studded lagoon spotting flocks of sea birds, we disembarked in Monkey River village and ordered lunch at a funky café for later. We picked up a local guide and set out down river. We drifted along as the guide pointed out black howler monkeys and indolent iguanas lounging in the trees lining the riverbanks. The guide was very impressed with his own accomplishments and we probably learned as much, if not more, about him as we learned about the area. Our boat captain dropped us at a trailhead and we took a short, easy hike on a well-defined dirt trail through dense foliage. The mosquitoes were as whiny, vicious and bloodsucking as a posse of high school alpha queens. We were bitten despite long clothing coverage and liberal application of DEET. The guide expounded on the medicinal properties of the native plants and identified birds and other critters. Our favorite sightings were a pretty nesting hummingbird and a huge hairy tarantula atop a bulging white egg sac, as if the spider had chased away Little Miss Muffett and settled down on her tuffet. Our typically Belizean lunch of chicken, rice and beans, which we copiously doused with hot sauce, was simple but good. We searched for manatees in the lagoon on the boat trip back to shore but didn’t spot any.

The next day we piled into a mini-van with three other couples and took a long drive to The Cockscomb Wildlife Basin, also referred to locally as the Jaguar Preserve. Our driver/guide was charming, keeping up a running patter about the area as we passed through lush plantations of bananas and mangos and rapidly developing seaside developments. There were blessedly few mosquitoes, which was fortunate because we spent several hours in the preserve hiking the trails, picnicking, lazily tubing down a crystal clear river and plunging into a refreshing pool beneath a waterfall. We didn’t really expect to see any jaguars, and we didn’t, but we did spot a large fox and many interesting birds, including 2 species of trogons.

From Placencia, we flew to Belize City and were transported by fast boat to the outer cayes to dive from Turneffe Island Resort for 3 days. We arrived in the early evening, checked in and had an orientation lecture shortly afterward. There was an interesting mix of divers, snorkelers and fishermen at the lodge. We occupied a lovely cabana on the beach, large and simply furnished, and above all peaceful. As at most dedicated dive resorts activities, including meal times, were strictly scheduled, but there was plenty of free time for relaxing. The food was the best we had on the trip, nothing too fancy, just expertly prepared, delicious home-style cooking well varied. Meals were served family style and people generally switched tables from meal to meal to socialize with others. The staff was uniformly excellent, socially skilled and helpful. This is a perfect place for beginning divers as the dive masters are thorough and vigilant, though very experienced divers might find them a tad over solicitous. We have to admit that the diving was largely disappointing after the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but we still enjoyed it. The reefs were not as colorful as we expected and we weren’t sure whether we misremembered how Caribbean reefs look or if reefs have been substantially damaged since we last dove these waters. There were loads of game fish - bonefish, tarpon and permit, which explains the unbridled glee of the fisherfolk - and some colorful reef fish, though not as many as we anticipated. We saw some very large Atlantic stingrays, a handful of elegant spotted eagle rays, a couple of very small turtles, and quite a few spiny lobsters and moray eels. Among the more interesting finds was a bizarrely shaped toadfish peering out from beneath a rock ledge. We expected the Elbow to be an exceptional dive, but we were unlucky that day and did not see much. We’d been hoping that some sharks would come out to play.

On our last day of diving we took a long boat ride to Lighthouse Caye to dive the famous Blue Hole. It's a sink hole created from a submerged volcano, 400+ ft. deep. We dove to 130 ft. to inspect underwater caves dripping with stalactites. A group of 10 black-tipped reef sharks cruised by beneath us as we slowly ascended, and we encountered some giant groupers and a bunch of other interesting fish on the way up and during our extended safety stop in the shallow water circling the rim. It was a very cool dive. After an excellent picnic lunch on Half Moon Caye and a visit to a bird sanctuary sheltering nesting red-footed boobies and frigate birds, we dove a wall at Half Moon Caye. It did not live up to its reputation in our opinion, but it was a nice enough dive. Cute worm-like garden eels shyly popped up from the white sand bottom to check us out. I’d just bought a new 5mm Henderson Hyperstretch wetsuit for the trip since my old one was shredded in places, and it was the best suit I ever had. Unbelievably easy to pull on and off, almost a custom fit and it kept me comfortable most of the time, though I still got chilled at times even with all that insulation and water temp ranging from 75 - 82 degrees F. I highly recommend these, though if you go to 5 mm from a well-compressed 3mm as I did you will probably have to wear more weight than usual - I couldn’t believe how buoyant it was.

We’d been very lucky with weather. It was very pleasant while we were in Placencia, but the heat and humidity began building near the end of our sojourn there and during our stay at Turneffe, until one evening a violent storm blanketed the country. The lightning was so spectacular that after dinner we sat on our porch watching it, like a festive fireworks display, for more than an hour. The storm cooled and dehumidified the atmosphere just in time for us to enjoy lovely moderate weather during our travels inland.

We boated back to Belize City and a fellow from the Lamanai Outpost Lodge picked us up at the dock. We collected an elderly couple from an airport motel and drove about an hour to a river jetty where we boarded a small motorboat. Our boat guide stopped frequently so we could admire birds along the way - herons, kingfishers, egrets, jacanas, cormorants, kites and much more. It was such a pleasant way to travel. An attractive young woman greeted us at the lodge dock and escorted us to our thatched-roof cabana. We settled in quickly and headed straight to lunch. The open-air dining pavilion had a lovely view of the river and surrounding landscape and housed a bar lounge, library, gift shop and the administrative offices. The Menu for each meal is posted on a chalkboard and an adjacent board details activities for the day and who is signed up for them. We had arranged for several activities in advance and consulted the schedule for our itinerary. The assignments are flexible and you can move things around if you wish as well as book additional activities for a fee. The meals were not quite as good as Turneffe, but were still delicious. Although there were specific features we preferred in each of the other places we stayed, Lamanai was our overall favorite.

After lunch, Elizabeth Graham, one of the archaeologists working at the nearby Mayan ruins, introduced herself and invited us to ask her or her colleagues any questions we might have about the site. We ambled down to the dock and stretched out on a pair of very comfortable lounge chairs to read until it was time to change and meet our guide and a young family (mom, dad, pre-teen boy) from upstate New York for a medicinal jungle walk. Although the guide focused on the vegetation, it was impossible not to notice the wildlife, lots of birds and a troupe of black howlers swinging from the trees. He also related the tale of an abandoned brick sugar mill built during British Colonial times.

The following day the only activity we had planned was an evening spotlight boat tour, so we hiked some of the trails ourselves after breakfast and were pleased to discover many interesting birds, such as a Barred Woodcreeper, Hummingbirds, Ruddy Doves, Slate-tailed Trogon, Seed Finches and others that we were unable to identify, plus interesting bugs and butterflies. We took a refreshing swim in the river before lunch. In the afternoon we took out a canoe for about an hour then lazily swayed in mesh hammocks reading. It was just the two of us with our guide on the spotlight tour and it was amazing. Birds that would fly off during the day if you approached within 30 ft., would just sit there as our boat idled right next to them and the driver shone a bright light in their faces. We couldn’t catalog all the birds we saw, but among them were Green Kingfishers, adorable Red-breasted Pygmy Kingfishers, a Grey-necked Wood Rail, Green Herons and wide-eyed Northern Potoos, which resemble owls. The crocodiles were much more timid, noiselessly submerging whenever we drew near. We had plenty to talk about over a late dinner after the tour.

In the morning we finally visited the Mayan ruins at Lamanai, one of the main reasons we chose to stay at this lodge, the second being the river activities. Lamanai means submerged crocodile and the site is home to a variety of pyramidal temples dating from the pre-Classic (100 BC - 450 AD) to late Classic (625 - 1550 AD) periods. A man and two women from Costa Rica joined us for the tour. We motored to the site by boat and started in a small museum at the entrance with a handsome collection of ceramics and stoneware recovered from the site.

The first temple on our tour of the grounds was the Mask Temple. Begun during the pre-classic era, this temple is the one most identified with Lamanai due to a well-preserved and impressive stone mask representing the Sun God prominently displayed at the base of the pyramid. Our guide explained how animal sacrifices, primarily crocodiles and manatees, were included in religious rituals while pointing out an altar. Stelae encrypted with ancient icons were stationed throughout the site. He advised us that Liz Graham has proposed a new interpretation of a key stela that challenges current theories. As we headed to the High Temple, our guide heard the unmistakable call of a Keel-billed Toucan. We followed the call down a secondary trail and were rewarded with a clear view of it on a near distant tree. The toucan’s brilliant yellow throat and enormous green and yellow bill accented its glossy black body feathers, punctuated with a vivid spot of vermillion at the base of its tail.

The magnificent High Temple, towering at 33 meters, was used for astronomy and communication. Beacons atop the pyramid could be perceived at outposts throughout the area. 8 of 15 masks originally ornamenting the temple were found along with three altars. Although the bones of 8 children were unearthed at the site, it’s hypothesized that they were not ritual human sacrifices, but were killed because they were diseased. We climbed the steep stone steps to the top of the temple to catch the wide-ranging view. A small ball court adjoined the courtyard. We stopped to examine a flat, hollow inscribed stone. Jade and liquid mercury had been discovered in its inner cavity, though we received no explanation for the possible use of the mercury.

The monumental stela at the Stela Temple had been replaced for safekeeping with a fiberglass replica. We wandered through the shells of former residences and administrative buildings, stopping to enjoy the antics of an extended black howler monkey family foraging in the trees. Our next stop, the Jaguar Temple, featured two geometrical stylized jaguar masks. Rounding back to the site’s entry, we followed a Pale-billed Woodpecker as it flew from tree to tree loudly pounding the trunks with its powerful beak in search of insects. A tiny, delicate black orchid, the national flower of Belize, sprouted in the moss at the base of a copal tree.

We hopped the boat back to the lodge for lunch, and then swam in the river until it was time for our afternoon lecture on the Mayan calendar, an optional activity that we’d scheduled. Kim, a tall, strikingly attractive blonde, green-eyed Belizean led us to a classroom and presented a very informative, entertaining and professional slide show, accompanied by workbooks. We’d encountered Kim previously at the office and around the grounds and enjoyed her genial, easy-going manner. During our lesson we also appreciated her intelligence and quick wit. While we’d appreciated the genius of the Maya due to earlier visits to Mexico, we had no idea how extraordinary the calendar truly was, especially in its ability to track astronomical phenomena, such as solar and lunar eclipses, not only forward in time, but backwards as well. Although the Mayan civilization is traced back to 100 BC, the calendar dates back to 3000 BC. There actually was a quiz at the end of the lecture. I rated as "Mayan Ruler", Stu scored "Peasant", but because there was a big point difference between peasant and ruler and he was in-between, Stu suggested that there should be some interim designation, so we declared him a "Mayan Lawyer". We gave Kim our birthdates and she presented us with index cards later with our Mayan equivalents.

That evening before dinner we took a sunset cruise on the river in a flatbed boat equipped with comfy chairs and a cooler of beer and soft drinks. We terrorized crocodiles all along the river, scuttling them underwater. The water was so clear that you could see them perfectly as they swam away beneath the surface. We easily sighted an enormous Jabiru Stork nest high in a tree and drifted patiently hoping to view the parents winging home to feed their homely chicks.

We hooked up with Liz at the bar before dinner and met some of her colleagues over drinks. She’s been coming to Belize for years to explore Mayan archaeology and lectures at University College London. She answered our questions about Mayan burial practices, a subject that especially interests us due to our travels in Peru and Indonesia. She also told us about a wonderful local cooperative that she helped start just up the road in Indian Village. Native craftspeople fashion and sell jewelry to the public and benefit from the profits without middlemen. Kim and one of her friends joined us as well and we had a great time. When we got home we Googled Liz and found that she has published several books on Mesoamerican Archaeology and is quite an authority.

We arose literally at the crack of dawn the next morning for a sunrise canoe ride. Our guide and his associate took one canoe and we climbed in another. We could have split up and allowed the guides to paddle us around, but we preferred to propel ourselves. It was gorgeous. The chilly air kissed the tepid water producing a wispy blanket of low mist on the river. As the sun ascended, its tender rays illuminated the evocative scenery with a prismatic glow. We silently glided along narrow canals bordered by trees and high brush. Birds of every feather flew, perched, strutted and waded along our course, including a White-Fronted Parrot, Black-Crowned Herons, Boat-Billed Herons and Kingfishers. On our way to breakfast after cleaning up, we discovered a Basilisk Lizard basking in our garden. There are lots of interesting lizards in the area but the Basilisk is especially charismatic with a tall crest on its head that lends it the appearance of a miniature dinosaur.

After breakfast we had just enough time to stroll up the road to Indian Village to browse in the crafts shop and pick up gifts for the folks back home before we were driven to a nearby air strip for our flight back to Belize City in a small plane. I volunteered to sit up front with the pilot and had a glorious view of the Lamanai ruins and the densely forested countryside from the air.

A guide from Blancaneaux Lodge, Turtle Inn’s sister property, picked us up at the airport and drove us to Mountain Pine Ridge in the Cayo district. They didn't have the type of cabana we'd booked and prepaid, and at first assigned us lesser accommodations. When we reached the room we questioned them and were sent off to lunch while they figured out what to do with us. Coppola installed wood-fired ovens in his resorts and thanks to that and the garden fresh tomatoes, we shared the best pizza we’ve eaten outside Italy. They ended up upgrading us to an opulent 2-bedroom 2-bathroom villa with a gorgeous open air living/dining room that featured a balcony with a comfy couch, chairs, table and a large net hammock, decorated in local style. We had a view of the river and a waterfall that lulled us to sleep at night. The first thing I did was book a massage and body scrub for later in the week. It turned out that the husband of the masseuse at Turtle Inn administered the spa treatments at Blancaneaux, so I was in for another round of sybaritic bliss. I wish we could have taken the pair of them home with us. We took a walk around the property to familiarize ourselves with the layout and then spent the rest of the time before dinner lounging in our luxurious digs and reading.

The next morning we joined a small group to visit the Mayan ruins of Caracol, which means snail shell. Only about 25% of the site is excavated yet the exposed ruins are vastly impressive, consisting of many plazas and surrounding structures. The guide claimed that this was the largest Mayan center during its heyday in the Classic period with as many as 150-200,000 inhabitants. The El Caana pyramid is the tallest man-made structure in Belize at 45 meters (approx. 140 ft.) high. Smoke signals from the highest towers were used for communication within the Mayan realm and a ritual plaza was used for important astrological observances. Two stone sarcophagi at the top of the High Temple accommodated a pair of male dignitaries in each, and the wife of the mighty ruler, Lord Water, was buried under a round stone altar between the twin tombs. Our guide pointed out ball courts, residences, masks, friezes, stelae and other typical elements, explaining some of the iconography. As grand as Tikal is, we enjoyed Caracol the most of the Mayan sites we toured during this trip.

We had a nice picnic lunch at the site, enjoying the company of our guide, and 2 congenial couples, one from Canada and one from southern California. On our way back to the lodge, we stopped to poke around in the Rio Frio cave and then descended to a rushing river with small waterfalls, where we splashed around in the refreshing water, massaged our backs in river eddies and took an exhilarating ride over the rocks on a natural water slide.

We arose very early the following day and had a quick breakfast before boarding a van with six other travelers, 4 lively Britons and an Australian couple living in New York, for an excursion to Guatemala to tour Tikal. We weren’t held up by crowds passing through immigration at the border thanks to our early arrival. We saw neatly uniformed schoolchildren crossing the border into Belize. Our Guatemalan guide later told us that Belize has a deal with Guatemala to provide education at its fine schools to children living in this border town. We picked up our guide at his humble home on our way to the ruins and got to greet his wife and a couple of his children.

Not only are the ruins at Tikal splendid, but it's a great place for wildlife. We saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys, another toucan, and lots of birds, including wild turkeys with the most beautifully colored feathers. They were more like peacocks than our drab North American turkeys.

Tikal was active during the late Classic period and covers 16 square kilometers. During this time Caracol and Tikal struggled for dominance. Caracol won the battle and ruled for years, but Tikal eventually triumphed. Our guide pointed out the features of a stela inscribed with the imposing figure of the ruler Chitam wearing a Quetzal feather headdress and jaguar skin. It was common practice for men to bleed sensitive parts of their bodies during ritual sacrifices, such as the earlobes, tongue, fingertips and tip of the penis. The blood was then burned. A round stone altar nearby depicted four prisoners on its sides and one on top. Humans were decapitated on such altars during sacrificial ceremonies. Virgin maidens were drugged with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and then their chests were cut open and their hearts were extracted and burned. Not a terrific incentive for abstinence.

In the first plaza we visited, twin pyramids with steps aligned to the four cardinal points were erected to commemorate katuns, 20-year periods important in the Mayan calendar. The guide theorized that birds, and not humans, were decapitated on the 9 altars in this location. Capacious reservoirs fed via hand-made causeways supplied water to the site. In the Nine Door Palace, individuals involved in religious ceremonies purified themselves. The octagonal design with a central axis assured greater stability during earthquakes. We mounted a couple of high pyramids to enjoy the aerial view of the site, making our way though plazas ringed by structures. Residences of the nobility were clustered in the central Acropolis, where the nobles were also interred. Like the Peruvian Cabeza Larga of the southern Ica and Paracas cultures, the nobility deformed the heads of infants to forge cone-shaped skulls.

We continued on to the Grand Plaza, an immense concourse with many temples, including the 9-level Temple 1 (150 ft. tall) and the 120 ft. Mask Temple (aka Temple 2). There were many altars, stela and masks including impressive masks of the Rain and Sun Gods. A sizable flock of Montezuma Oropendula birds with their woven hanging nests inhabited a sprawling tree in the plaza. We were free to explore the structures on our own for awhile, before the guide gathered us up and steered us to a restaurant near the entrance, where he’d submitted our lunch order when we arrived. It just started to rain as we reached cover. We wolfed down absolutely delicious grilled chicken with rice, beans, vegetables and hot sauce while our driver entertained us with amusing stories about his wife and family. Then we piled back in the van for the long drive back to the lodge.

Dinners were typically candlelit and intimate, but we were now acquainted with lots of folks from our excursions and spent time chatting with them. We tried one of Coppola’s specials, a fabulous penne with meatballs. They were the only meatballs we ever had that came close to comparing to my mother’s, who learned to cook from her formidable Italian mother and 3 old-fashioned aunts.

On our last day we followed a rough trail from the lodge to a waterfall, where we were advised we could swim after the sweaty hike. The trail ended at the river and the only approach to the pool by the waterfall appeared to be over slippery rocks in the river. We gingerly attempted it, concerned about Stu’s photo equipment, and were close to giving up, when I stepped on a very slick rock and shot into the river at a steep place where I couldn’t find a way to get back up. A very kind fellow admiring the waterfall from the other side of the river with some friends (the trail on that side lead right to the waterfall pool), helped me out of the river on his side since it was less steep there. I only fell once picking my way across a line of slippery rocks back to the other side to rejoin Stu. I got a bit banged up but not seriously injured. Unfortunately I was wearing my binoculars when I fell in and they were ruined. We hiked back to the lodge and swam in the river there, a much safer proposition. I was fortunate to have scheduled the massage for that afternoon since it worked out some of the soreness from my tumble.

We had all morning to relax at the resort and grab some lunch before checking out and being driven back to Belize City. The Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel was fine for a short stay and we took a swim in the pool to cool off after settling in. Each evening there was live music in the outdoor courtyard around the pool; jazz the first night and steel drum the next. It was a nice feature, though food and service at the restaurant was mediocre.

The next morning we joined a younger Canadian couple for a tour of the Belize Zoo and Altun Ha, another Mayan ruin with a personable female guide. We normally don't like zoos but it was a good opportunity to see the big cats up close since they're so tough to catch in the wild - black and spotted jaguars, puma, jaguarundi and ocelots as well as a very docile tapir. We'd seen a tapir in the Peruvian rainforest from a river blind but it was at a distance. We stopped for lunch at an exceedingly pretty fruit farm with very good food - the usual chicken, rice and beans.

Altun Ha’s position near the Caribbean made it an ideal trading post. No altars were unearthed but the Main Temple appeared to be an elite burial site where many jade and obsidian objects were found. Our guide explained the significance of the 13 doors in the temple, which represented the gateway to heaven. The 13 joints in the body were associated with the upper world and the 9 holes in the body, the underworld. Though evidence was found of ritual blood burning there were no remnants suggesting human sacrifice. The temple in the second plaza was dedicated to the worship of the Sun God. The largest Mayan jade artifact in Belize was discovered here, a 6-inch head of the Sun God. The sophisticated acoustics in the plaza allowed speech to be heard throughout. Nine steps and nine columns (symbolizing doors) at the base of the temple represented passage to the underworld. It was a small (1 square mile) but interesting site, thanks to the information that our guide provided.

While checking in at the airport we discovered that there was a direct flight home (one brief stop in Honduras but no change of plane) and there was room for us, getting us back hours before we expected to be home. It’s always nice to end a trip with a good flight home.