TTG – Features – Delving deeper into Belize’s eco-tourism activities

The slight chill in the air gives goosebumps as we wade waist-deep in an underground river, eyes wide as we gaze at the gloriously glittering stalactites and stalagmites. “You want to see without a light?” asks our guide, causing our ragtag group of amateur cavers to gasp nervously. “Let’s turn off our headlights,” he says, and we obey obediently until, click, the last light goes out.

I try desperately to see – in vain. It’s pitch black and all I can hear is the soft murmur of the stream. I expect claustrophobia, but instead a strong sense of peace and tranquility washes over me, as if I’ve been meditating all day rather than just hiking and rock climbing for almost three hours.

This must be the magical effect of the Actun Tunichil Muknal, better known as the ATM Cave, a vast geological wonder in Belize that was used as a sacred burial site by the ancient Maya. Now a museum, it houses Mayan artifacts and the skeletal remains of human sacrifices, including the most intact of all, the Crystal Maiden.

This mystical excursion might be on the adventurous side, but those who dare are rewarded with a unique, ethereal experience – a fitting introduction to small but mighty Belize.

The entrance to the ATM Cave, which houses ancient Mayan artifacts

The entrance to the ATM Cave, which houses ancient Mayan artifacts

Protect and preserve

When it comes to the outdoors, this is South American Nation packs a punch. On land, 61.1% is unused Rainforest spreads across the country while its Coast has around 200 miles of pristine barrier Reef – the second largest after Australia – and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. So it’s really important why conservation is high on the agenda.

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“Sustainability is something that’s ingrained in our societal DNA,” says Debbie Gilharry-Arana, travel specialist at the Belize Tourism Board. “We have always been a destination that protects our natural resources. More than 40% of our landmass is protected as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and reserves; so we were at the forefront even before Covid.”

One of the newest eco-initiatives is the Wit Concrete site in Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve, 20 miles east of Belize City. For a glimpse, we drive from our rainforest oasis Hidden Valley Inn to our new base on Caye Caulker, a tiny, laid-back island where you’re encouraged to “go slow” and walk around barefoot. Even our hotel is called Barefoot Caye Caulker.

Wit Concrete is a 375 foot World War II ship formerly used for sugar transport which was sunk and reborn as a home for marine life and a new major attraction for diving enthusiasts.

The Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association leads the project. CEO Valdemar Andrade says: “By deciding to go to Turneffe, Guests are not only on vacation, they contribute to it to preserve marine biodiversity and preserve one of the greatest places on earth.”

The Xunantunich archaeological site features buildings dating back to 400 AD

The Xunantunich archaeological site features buildings dating back to 400 AD

Unfortunately the rough seas ruined our chances of visiting the site. But we could still follow the fins of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who went diving in Belize earlier this year and hailed the country’s commitment to protect 30% of its marine environment by 2030.

The next day we set out with Ragga Sailing Adventures to explore the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Along the way we learn that every tourist boat has to check in at the marine station for inspection. If you were a large ship that happened to anchor on the reef you would be fined £400,000.

As with the ATM cave, snorkeling here feels like an otherworldly experience. No wonder Hol Chan is considered one of the best places to do so, as not only do we encounter three different species of snapper, hogfish and barracuda, but also green sea turtles, the friendliest nurse sharks and acres of beautiful, pristine coral gardens.

The Hidden Valley Inn is located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve

The Hidden Valley Inn is located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve

view from above

The highlight for me wasn’t in the water, but in the air. Out towards Lighthouse Reef Atoll is the enigmatic Great Blue Hole, a massive limestone chasm 1,000 feet wide and 400 feet deep visible from space. Our flyover tour soars high and low above in gentle afts, guaranteeing the best views of the natural phenomenon that adorns the barrier reef like a sapphire brooch. Divers are also drawn for its amazingly clear waters, which allow for maximum views of the myriad cave formations and marine life.

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Back on land there is much to explore, but a visit to Belize would not be complete without paying tribute to the ancient civilization that preceded it – the Mayans.

One of the greatest examples of their rule can be explored at the Xunantunich archaeological site. Originally built on a limestone ridge in AD 400, over the centuries it has grown into a sprawling complex with six plazas and 25 temples, the tallest of which is the 40-meter-tall El Castillo, or Castle. It’s worth climbing the steep steps to take a closer look at the intricately carved friezes on each side, said to represent astrological symbols. On the platform I enjoy the incomparable view and look to Guatemala in the distance. I feel like I’m on top of the world.

When the breeze blows, goosebumps tingle in my arms and the familiar feeling of absolute serenity washes over me. I think I know what it is now. It must be Mayan magic.

Book it: Journey Latin America offers a 6 night Belize vacation with 2 nights B&B at Hidden Valley Inn and 3 nights B&B at Barefoot on Caye Caulker from £1,580 per person. The price includes international flights, transfers and excursions.

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