For the active and adventurous traveler, Belize is a tropical playground. Although it's a small country (about the size of Massachusetts), this Caribbean gem offers a diverse array of things do to and see. From sea kayaking along the small coastal islands (called cayes) to snorkeling and scuba diving the amazing barrier reef to exploring limestone caves in the mountains, you could stay all winter and still not see it all.

Explore Mayan Ruins
A grand view in the city

Of the many Mayan ruins in Belize, Caracol is the biggest and most magnificent. Set on a 1,500-foot-high plateau in a relatively isolated wilderness near the Guatemala border, Caracol is remote enough to discourage the crowds you'll find at more accessible sites.

It wasn't always that way. In the Late Classic Mayan period, from 1,100 to 1,450 years ago, Caracol was larger and more densely populated (with possibly over 150,000 inhabitants at its peak) than the more famous Guatemalan city of Tikal. Archaeologists estimate that
only 10 percent of the site has been mapped.

You'll break a sweat (if you're not sweating already from the heat and humidity of the rainforest) scrambling up and down the steep stone steps of the pyramids and other structures. We climbed up and over a short, steep hill before realizing it was actually an unexcavated pyramid. Cool.

You can take a self-guided walking tour of the ruins or sign up for a guided trip, which can be arranged through most of the eco-lodges such as the Lodge at Chaa Creek (Tel. 501-92-2037, www.chaacreek.com).

Other options to consider...

We hired a local taxi driver to take us out to Caracol for the day, which is less expensive than the bus tours. You won't have any trouble finding a taxi; we were swarmed by taxi drivers in San Ignacio when we got off the bus from Belize City.

Kayak or Canoe The Macal River
Kayak or Canoe

Descending this jungle-lined river in the Cayo District of far western Belize is both exciting and relaxing. You can whitewater canoe in the upper reaches or take a mellow canoe trip lower down river near San Ignacio. Rent canoes at one of the eco-resorts nearby, although I'd recommend hiring a guide because he'll point out a lot more wildlife than you probably would notice on your own.

On a trip down the river last winter, our friendly local guide, Hilberto, pointed out big orange and brown iguanas lounging in treetops along the river, along with a profusion of tropical birds. My favorite was the striking, large yellow-tailed Montezuma Oropendola.

We arranged our trip and rental at the Lodge at Chaa Creek (Tel. 501-92-2037, www.chaacreek.com).

Other things to consider...

For hard-core canoeists, check out the annual La Ruta Maya River Challenge in March, the most competitive sports event in Belize. Paddle from foothills of the Maya Mountains via the Macal River to Belize City on the coast.

 

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The Barrier Reef : Dive, Snorkel, or Kayak
Belize's coastline is protected from the open sea by the longest barrier reef in the Americas and by an island chain comprised of many small islands (cayes). Sign up for a day of scuba diving the famous Great Blue Hole on Lighthouse Reef... or choose a tamer but still thrilling day snorkeling along the reef. Off of the northern Belize coast, Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye are the two most accessible and developed cayes, from which you can easily take day trips out to the reef.

We spent a day snorkeling amidst stunning tropical fish, sea turtles, and nurse sharks in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark Ray Alley, and a beautiful coral garden. (We arranged this outing with Carlos Tours, located on the Sandbox Restaurant property, which is just footsteps from the water taxi terminal on Caye Caulker. Carlos Tours (carlosaya@gmail.com.


Another day, we rented kayaks on the beach and paddled north through mangrove forests abundant with birds. We spotted green herons, night-crested herons, frigate birds, belted kingfishers, and more. Life is pretty laid back on Caye Caulker, and generally you just walk up to one of the several concessionaires along the beach and reserve a paddle the same day. Most of these outfitters don't have websites, but EZ Boy Tours, which offers kayaking as well as scuba and snorkeling tours, can be reached in advance by telephone at 501-206-0349 or via email at ezboytours@hotmail.com.

 

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