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On my first full day in Belize, I climbed Mayan pyramids under a blazing sun — and then cooled off by swimming to a mountain cascade.

Three days later, I relaxed in a rainbow hammock in an over-the-water shanty on a tiny island along a barrier reef, miles off the Caribbean coast.

And two days after that, I gorged myself on an enormous Indonesian spread at a thatch-roofed five-star resort owned by Hollywood's Coppola family.

Welcome to choose-your-own-adventure, Belize-style.

It's a small Central American country with a laid-back Caribbean vibe and a wild interior, where indigenous influences thrive, Bob Marley is still in heavy rotation and English is the official language. (Fully independent since 1981, Belize remains a Commonwealth realm — we missed an inauspicious visit by Prince William and Kate Middleton by two weeks.)

Two airlines added nonstop four-hour flights from Minneapolis to Belize City in 2020, and with coronavirus rules in the rearview, the country is poised for a busy season in 2023. But Belize is also, refreshingly, the least populous country in Central America. The largest crowd I saw when I visited last winter was in its cramped central airport. Once we were free from customs, I pulled our rental SUV onto a barren highway surrounded only by wetlands and signs warning of "Tapir Crossing."

My companion and I wanted to sample a little of everything: the jungle, the islands and the beach. To pack all that into a week, we traveled independently, but most visitors rely on their resort to guide them to the attractions. Although getting around on Belize's quiet highways was mostly pleasant (more on that later), when I told travelers and tourism workers I was driving, I was often met with bemusement.

I also found that Belize has a wide selection of luxury lodging as well as dirt-cheap options, but the middle range is largely missing — so if you were looking to hatch a business plan in paradise, you're welcome. We booked a mix of high- and low-cost accommodations, so it all evened out.

The top of El Castillo, a step pyramid at Xunantunich, features a restored Mayan frieze.
The top of El Castillo, a step pyramid at Xunantunich, features a restored Mayan frieze.

Simon Peter Groebner, Star Tribune

Ruins, falls and caves

In the western Cayo District, we checked into Ka'ana Resort,an all-inclusive ecolodge outside the bustling small city of San Ignacio. On a manicured estate under towering trees, our condo above the pool was decorated in mahogany. Dinner was served in a "Bachelor"-esque courtyard: a richly spiced, blackened yellowfin tuna for me, followed by ice cream made with a daily fruit from the grounds. Better yet was the traditional Belizean breakfast featuring fry jacks: puffy triangles of fried bread to be filled with refried beans, eggs and whatever else is on your plate.

Ka'ana was a fine base for exploring, starting with a morning trip to the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich. On the banks of the Mopan River, we drove aboard a "ferry," really a hand-cranked platform that slowly crosses the stream. Once on the other side, we hiked into a clearing, where we found ourselves in the middle of a Mayan temple city from the first millennium.

The heart of the site is El Castillo, a step pyramid rising 130 feet above the ground. Climbing to the top, we had a sprawling view of the forest canopy, reaching across the nearby border with Guatemala. A vividly restored stucco frieze depicts masks, deities, a throne and the moon. By noon on a Sunday, Xunantunich had become a gathering place for Belizeans picnicking and hanging out in this casual-yet-sacred space.

The 150-foot Big Rock Falls in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve.
The 150-foot Big Rock Falls in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve.

Simon Peter Groebner, Star Tribune

It was getting hot, so we headed an hour into the highlands of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Somewhere beyond the single paved road, we descended a steep wooden staircase to the 150-foot Big Rock Falls — the classic beer-sign image of a mountain waterfall. I bellyflopped over some rapids and attempted to swim closer to the cascade, but the current was too powerful, so I was jettisoned down the creek in front of visiting Australians and Jamaicans. It was worth a try.

We moved on to nearby 1000 Foot Falls — actually 1,600 feet, a contender for Central America's highest. That's when I discovered the insanity of Belize's backroads. The lonely "road" to the falls was rocky and harrowing, pushing my Mitsubishi 4x4 to its limits, and we were rewarded at the end with only a distant overlook of the spout. It's all part of Belize's underdeveloped charm, but it made me understand why many people leave the driving to guides.

Hungry, I was relieved to discover we were not far from Blancaneaux Lodge, one of two luxury "hideaways" in Belize owned by the family of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. As fans of everything from "Apocalypse Now" to daughter Sofia's "Lost in Translation," we had to drop into the gated estate for dinner. In true "Godfather" fashion, we tucked into a killer Italian meal (filet mignon verde for me) at their Montagna Ristorante. Fine Italian cuisine on a thatch-roofed balcony in the jungle? It felt incongruous, but the next time I'm in Cayo, I'd stay at Blancaneaux.

Paddlers emerged from Barton Creek Cave at the end of a tour.
Paddlers emerged from Barton Creek Cave at the end of a tour.

Simon Peter Groebner, Star Tribune

The next day I returned to those crazy roads for an expedition to Barton Creek Cave. Fording the creek was the relatively easy part of the drive. When I arrived unannounced at the cave — which opened onto a green lagoon by an empty tiki bar — a tour group had just ventured in. But later the guide, Alex, agreed to a solo tour.

I sat in the front of a canoe wearing a headlamp as Alex paddled into the cave, and I wasn't prepared for its scale. The vast tunnel extends about 5 miles under a vaulted cathedral ceiling, with about 1 mile accessible by canoe. The cave, of course, looms large in Mayan history. Alex recounted stories of human sacrifice in gory detail, and pointed out ledges where he said artifacts as well as the skulls and bones of victims were still resting. I switched off my light to experience the absolute darkness.

Island hideaway

On Tuesday, we descended the idyllic, 53-mile Hummingbird Highway to the sea, stopping only at a roadside chocolate stand. In the coastal town of Dangriga, we laid eyes on the blue Caribbean for the first time on the trip. We stashed the SUV in a designated spot and boarded a shuttle boat, which whisked us 11 miles across choppy waters to a tiny island known as Tobacco Caye.

The Belize Barrier Reef is part of the second-largest coral reef system in the world — a hotbed for snorkeling and diving, with remote island resorts that offer weeklong off-the-grid stays. The only short-term availability I could find was a budget gem: Tobacco Caye Paradise, featuring a half-dozen iconic, brightly covered cabanas perched off the tip of the isle. They may be the only over-water cabanas in Belize — and they were $80 a night, plus meal plan.

The rest of Tobacco Caye, which is about the size of a city block, is crammed with three more lodges, two bars and a research station staffed by college kids on the best study-abroad trip ever. But our violet-colored, one-room shanty overlooked the nearby breakwater and offered total privacy.

The patio of an over-water cabana at Tobacco Caye Paradise offers an private view of the Caribbean.
The patio of an over-water cabana at Tobacco Caye Paradise offers an private view of the Caribbean.

Simon Peter Groebner, Star Tribune

Our first night, we lay in hammocks and zoned out to constellations and meteors. The next day was a washout — I thought March was the dry season? — but listening to the rain pelt our metal roof while mist enshrouded the islet made for an excellent recharge. Later, I kayaked around the caye in 25 minutes.

Joe, the chef, served up three meals a day of Belizean meats and veggies, while the guests gathered to share their day's exploits. Everybody was a little bit eccentric and extremely happy to be there. Elliott from Canada was on a long-term stay, he said, to "reset my circadian rhythms." Caitlin from Oregon clutched a Belize field guide and enumerated the multicolored, otherworldly fish and coral she'd seen.

I woke at sunrise, strapped on my rented snorkeling gear and waded into the warm waters near the Reef's End. Almost immediately I confronted a stingray, fluttering gracefully from left to right. From there, I was thrust into a vivid underwater world, colored by mounds of giant, brainlike coral. A French tourist swimming nearby pointed out a spiky, venomous lionfish — stunning, but invasive. It hovered regally while motley smaller fish flitted about.

Last resort

After roughing it on the hostel-like caye, we decided to close out our trip in the complete comfort of Placencia — the laid-back resort capital of southern Belize. At Naia Resort & Spa, our preposterously large, new-construction villa featured an outdoor jungle shower and overlooked a broad white-sand beach. Mysteriously, the place was also something of a ghost town, with people on the beach outnumbered by gibnuts — large, cute, wild rodents that are also a local delicacy.

The upscale Naia Resort & Spa in Plancencia.
The upscale Naia Resort & Spa in Plancencia.

Simon Peter Groebner, Star Tribune

For dinner, we passed on gibnuts and turned again to the Coppolas, whose flagship Turtle Inn is on Placencia's main drag. The family is going for a tribute to the paradise of Bali, so in the open-air Mare restaurant I ordered a Dutch-Indonesian rijsttaffel (rice table), a dish I'd enjoyed in Holland and Brooklyn.

I was promptly humiliated as the server brought out almost two dozen unfinishable plates of sumptuous satays, spicy curries and sides. It's the only time I've had a dog beg for scraps at a five-star resort. We had a more modest, authentic seafood meal on our last night at nearby Maya Beach Bistro, often called the country's best.

On our last full day in Belize, to burn off that rijsttaffel, I borrowed a sit-on-top kayak at Naia and paddled a mile across bright beds of coral to False Caye, so named because the island is really a large stand of mangrove trees. I paddled into a sheltered bay of mangroves and parked, and had my favorite moment in all of Belize.

There, with all the luxury resorts and other tourists out of view, I simply sat in silence for a while on my own secret island.

If you go

Getting there: Delta and Sun Country fly nonstop from Minneapolis (MSP) to Belize City (BZE) from Dec. 17 to April 15.

Ka'ana Resort: San Ignacio;

Tobacco Caye Paradise: On Tobacco Caye;

Naia Resort & Spa: Placencia;