Belize’s motto is Sub umbra floreo (“Under the shade I flourish”), but it should be go slow. On your way somewhere on a bus? “Go slow, mon,” says the conductor when you get out. Tapping your foot because your order’s late? “Go slow,” says the random Rastafarian wandering past. Lying on the beach, thinking about the past, and worrying about the future? “Go slow,” says the enormous dog who’s just come over. OK, maybe not that last bit, but this tiny Central American country does indeed take it very, very slow. Belize neighbors Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, but really it belongs a couple of hundred miles out in the Caribbean Sea. English is the main language here, and spoken with that island twang we in the UK adore. A part of the empire until September 1981, the Republic of Belize is officially younger than me. It’s population of 340,000 or so is spread out across steaming flatlands, rain-drenched Mayan mountains, and islands scattered along its coastline in slips and golden slivers. You can walk across Belize City in twenty minutes. You can walk across Belmopan, the capital, in half that.
We don’t spend much time in either, and if you come here, you probably won’t do so for the cities. The best that Belize has to offer lies in the countryside- and there’s about 8000 square miles of it. Mayan ruins like Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, and Caracol draw big crowds, but fewer than similar locations in Guatemala. The coast boasts some of the world’s most beautiful and unspoiled reefs. But I’m not here for any of that. I’m here for the wildlife.
Nature in the tropics is frenetic, over-fecund, clambering over itself and everything else around. Strangler vines wrap themselves around trees like bark-skinned boas and suffocate them over the years. Macaws hop from branch to branch to get as good a look at you as you do of them. Howler monkeys bellow their ownership of the jungle, and fear nothing – not humans, not other monkeys, not even those elusive kings of the Mayan jungle, the jaguars.
Ecotourism is big in Belize, and even the zoo takes preservation, not display, as its central mission. Located near Belmopan, it’s more of a nature reserve for beasts who cannot yet be returned to the wild. Their panther, Lucky Boy, was found starving in someone’s house; now he pads around on colossal paws and glares at tourists foolish enough to get too close. Spider monkeys swing overhead, and crocodiles lurk in the green waters under the pedestrian bridges. You can get up close with most of the less dangerous animals, because they’re all tame. Keep an eye out for Fuego the friendly tapir; he’ll snatch your heart, and then your lunch.
We make our way to the iguana sanctuary in San Ignacio. Green iguanas are endemic to Belize, and please allow me to assure you that they can get absolutely colossal. The sanctuary collects eggs from the jungly vicinity, raises them, gets the females pregnant, and releases them into the wild. Our guide, Nigel, assures us that they’re entirely friendly to humans – but not to each other. Soon enough, within a minute of wandering into their enclosure, I’ve got one on my shoulder, another clambering up my arm, and a third one scootching over for a better look. One young female takes a particular liking and perches on my shoulder. Her little toes like toothpicks on my skin. She nuzzles my cheek, then my neck, and decides she’s going to stay awhile.
Nigel points upwards. There’s some sort of dragon on the roof. Or maybe it’s a dinosaur. At any rate it’s got a dewlap like a small tent and spikes longer than my fingers on its back. The male iguanas start bobbing their heads furiously, which is their way of telling each other to go away.
‘That’s Goliath,’ he says. ‘One of our males. He’s here for the ladies.’
I look at my friend on my shoulder. She has eyes only for me. I am pleased.
Aside from Goliath, there’s also Stargazer – born with a brain disorder that makes him look up at the sky constantly and wobble when he walks. He’ll never be released. Nor, for that matter, will one young iguana with a horrifically bent spine – another genetic condition. Overseeing them all is Oscar the Grouch, the alpha male. No one touches Oscar. He’s half the size of Goliath but twice the size of anyone else in the shelter. The two adversaries eye each other through the mesh, but of all the males, Oscar alone isn’t signalling for Goliath to go away. Either he knows the mesh will keep him out, or he reckons he can take him.
If there is any animal on earth that likes to go slow – except for, maybe, sloths – it’s iguanas. The females like to hang out in pairs and threes, more often than not on top of each other. When they take a liking to you, they’re content to just hang out, leaning over to sniff you every now and then. When you stroke them – they’re soft and dry and a little rough – they close their eyes and lean into it, just like little splay-legged dogs.
We leave them crowding into the sun. Our last common ancestor lived before the dinosaurs, but maybe we’re not so different after all. I’m off east, to the coast – to a little island 45 minutes away from Belize City called Caye Caulker. And when I get there, I intend to do a lot of lying around in the sun with my friends, too.
We’re in Caye Caulker for three days, and of course, we go snorkelling. It is, after all, the Caribbean, and the reefs around here are some of the best in the world. It’s twenty-five minutes aboard the speedboat Scuba Bert to the first dive, and though the sky is sheeted with cloud, the water is warm. There’s me and two Swiss linguists named Julia. One of them blonde and the other a brunette, so I call them ‘Julia White’ and ‘Julia Brown’ and Julia White tosses her head back at that and laughs at the sky. Our guide is Zach – a self-identifying environmentalist, as at home in the sea as a seal, who insists on calling me Simba. He gives us a little spiel: Be careful, don’t touch the coral, if you need help ask. Above all, don’t feed the animals. Get too close and they can bite or sting or stab your through the heart like happened to Steve Irwin. And if they don’t do any of that, you’re still wrecking the ecosystem when you interact with them. Sharks get used to being fed and stop doing their job – clearing up the dead and the weak and the old, making room on the reef for new life. The coral recedes. The reef becomes a submerged desert.
I slip on the flippers – I’ve never worn a pair before – and Zach tells me I should use a floater. It’s just a giant swimming pool, I tell myself. I won a medal for backstroke when I was eight. How hard could this be, right? I swing my legs over the side and drop in. Everything’s fine. I paddle around with the swaying seagrass just a few feet below me. It’s not hard with the flippers. I decide I like flippers. Actually, I like snorkelling. This is easy.
I swallow, and it all goes wrong.
First the water begins to fill in my goggles. I look up to clear them out and my snorkel dips beneath the waterline. I try to breathe through my nose, but of course I can’t, with my goggles clamped over it. The salt stinging my eyes now, and then it is in my mouth and after an instant there is nothing in my mouth but salt water. I splash around and gasp but no matter how hard I kick every little swell of the sea looms over me and washes over my head and pushes me under. Apparently the whole thing about having your life flash before you when you drown is your brain desperately flailing for any information that might be of any help. My brain’s less like Google, though, and more like a well meaning dog. It potters around the vaults of my memory and reminds me that in 2012 two people died doing this. One of them was 54. One of them was an Italian woman. Possibly not the same person. Does that help, master?
No. No, it doesn’t. Bad brain.
Well, this is it. I’m drowning. Crap.
And then Zach is next to me, his lilting Belizean voice cutting through the spray.
‘Hey mon,’ he says. ‘Hey Simba, take it easy. Go slow. Go slow.’
‘I gotta go back,’ I bleat. ‘I can’t do it.’
‘Sure you can, mon. Sure. Come on. Chill. Breathe deep. Just go slow.’
I grab his shoulder. Maybe if he sees just how wretched I am he’ll fold and take me back. But he doesn’t. He just bobs there next to me, like some sort of tourist-whisperer, and coaxes me along.
‘Ey look at that! A shark!’
He drags me gently by the floater. I must look ridiculous, I think. Like some pale, hairy whale. If Ahab were nearby, he’d go nuts. And I’m right – except, not quite in the way I think. Because after a few moments, the panic fades. It gets easier to breathe through the snorkel. Julia White tells me to slow my kicking and lower my legs, and suddenly I’m scooting along like I belong there. The sun comes out. After a while I take a deep breath and clamp my mouth over my snorkel and look down. It takes me a couple of seconds to orient myself.
I’ve seen reefs on TV; I’ve read obsessively about sharks; I’ve imagined what it would be like to see a whopping great ray gliding along in the blue deep. But none of that even remotely prepared me for snorkelling on a beautiful day. First, there’s the noise – the constant sloshing and plopping in your ear. The same thing that panicked me a few minutes ago, now seems like some wordless lullaby. Then, there’s the water itself. The ocean eats islands and grinds down mountains; a current whips me five meters in a few seconds, all 126 kg of me, as if I were a dead leaf. Rarely do I feel like a leaf.
But more than any of that – there’s the life. Teeming, skittering, swaying in the swell. A thousand eyes on you constantly. Lidless fish eyes, big black tortoise eyes, compound eyes glimmering like trapped rainbows. A surging crowd of blue snappers hug the reef – there must be fifty, each the size of a small dog. Brain corals the colour of pollen, the size of a Volkswagen, built with jigsaw precision. Fan corals – now purple, now brown, swarming with Blue Chromies darting about like sparks of electricity.
We do four dives. We see eagle rays, pica-pica jellyfish, spanish lobsters the size of my feet, four-eyed butterflyfish, porcupine fish, and a thousand things I don’t know the names of. We come upon a huge ball of sharks, flopping around near a boat, their tails cracking on the sea surface. I look around for Zach to see what he thinks of this and but he is gone. We all wait a moment, and he emerges through a gap in the coral, ten feet down, grinning.
‘A cave!’ he says at the surface. ‘How you doing, Simba?’
‘I’m good,’ I say, except it comes out mmm mmbmmb, because I have my snorkel in my mouth. I take it out. For whatever reason my mouth is full of drool and my nose is running like the Ganges in monsoon season and my eyes feel like they’re on fire, but I don’t care. I give him a thumbs up.
‘You’re doing it, mon! See. You’re doing it!’
We swim around another reef. I see a sea urchin with spines that must have been at least three feet long. A barracuda tails us for a while, and decides we’re too big. Nurse sharks are everywhere; their catfishy faces so morose I have to resist the urge to go down and stroke them and say, ‘Aw, come on, buddy, life ain’t so bad.’ On the way back, an eagle ray swoops right past us, and Zach points at its shadow. The ray moves but the shadow does not and then I realize it isn’t a shadow, but a sea turtle chomping at the foliage, barely paying attention to the strange thing in red shorts floating barely three feet above it. I linger for a few minutes, holding eye contact, until Zach summons us back.
He’s prepped a platter of fruit – fresh orange, bananas, pineapple. I feel like I’ve drunk the entire goddamn ocean, and I’m a little seasick, but I can’t resist. We sit around in the sun and chat about our lives. Zach tells us about the Mayan gods, and his pride in his heritage. How he is teaching his kids the language, and how global warming bothers him. He falls silent for a moment and stares at Caye Caulker. From out here, it’s just a thin line of green on the horizon. Ten years ago, a hurricane cut the island in half. There’s furious construction all along the waterline – they’re expanding the beaches – and beyond, the concrete skeletons of new buildings rise above the palms. Between the rising water and rising buildings, this little slice of heaven is changing.
‘That was amazing,’ I say, trying the change the subject.
‘You did great!’ says Julia Brown.
Zach blinks and looks back at us and starts the engine, grinning.
‘Yeah, see mon?’ he says. ‘All you gotta do is go slow.’
We stayed at the Blue Wave Hotel (+501 206 0114, firstname.lastname@example.org). Nice rooms, reliable hot water, and nice comfy beds. You can get double-occupancy deals for US$84 per night, plus an extra US$15 for A/C – but in January, the evenings are lovely and cool and you really can manage without the extra charge.
We ate at Rainbow Grill and Bar (+501 226 0281), where the service is pretty quick, and the club sandwich one of the best I’ve ever eaten. They also do conch ceviche, if you’ve got a taste for the slightly exotic. Several places in Caye Caulker do lobster, and if that floats your fancy, you really can’t go wrong anywhere on the island. Sunrise Delights does really good sandwiches – the tuna salad is astonishingly fresh.
We also went snorkeling with Scuba Sensation (email@example.com; +501 667 4700, www.scubasensation.net), who you’ll find just by the pier at which the boat from Belize City arrives. Unlike a lot of other diving companies these guys insist on being eco-friendly, and their guides are not only very patient with newbies, but massively well informed too. Half-day outings last about four hours and cost US$65 per head. For those of you who are as blind as a bat – like me – Anwar Tours just down the road will rent you prescription goggles of between +8 and -8 for US$15 each. If you’re sore after all that swimming, I cannot recommend Healing Touch (+501 206 0330, www.healingtouchbelize.com) enough. The massueses really know what they’re doing, and that’s reflected in the fact that you sometimes have to book up to a day in advance.