When I planned my trip to Belize, the country formerly called British Honduras, in Central America, I had to decide between snorkeling in crystal clear Caribbean water to the east, or exploring lush rainforest jungles in the west.
Let’s swing in the jungle. Belize isn’t cutting down its rainforest. They’re doing business by protecting natural tourist attractions. Smart.
Over four days, I paddled a canoe on the Macal River, visited a Maya village and ancient pyramids of Xunantunich, went zip-lining at Calico Jack’s Village (more on that later – there was an incident), shopped at a madhouse Saturday market, and pretty much ate my brains out. The food in Belize is pretty darn fabulous.
I was a guest at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, one of the Belize’s sparkling gems — in fact, it’s won the country’s Hotel of the Year award and houses the Restaurant of the Year from 2016. I’ve stayed in many upscale hotels because of my job, but I never saw one combine luxury and fun like this one. The maids leave little messages made from flower petals on the bed. Each day, I’d rearrange the petals to spell something different. You get your laughs where you can.
San Ignacio, about a two-hour drive from the airport in Belize City, is the country’s second-largest city, with about 20,000 residents. Yes, it’s a small, young country. It gained its independence from England in 1981. English is the official language of Belize. Money is easy to figure, too. Two Belize dollars equal one U.S. dollar. So it’s like everything is half price.
Queen Elizabeth visited Belize in 1994 and stayed at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel. Since Belize is still part of the British Commonwealth, she is officially Queen of Belize, too. Her room was down the hall from mine. Her Majesty had dinner in the hotel’s Running W Steakhouse, named after the family's cattle ranch.
I'll have what she's having
I had dinner one night with Paulita Figueroa, one of the four sisters who own and operate, hands-on, the hotel. Figueroa was the Queen’s waitress back in 1994. I asked, “What did Queenie have for dinner?” I’ll have what she had, like in When Harry Met Sally.”
Her Royal Highness had a traditional Belizean dinner of hearts of palm, medallions of beef tenderloin, steamed chocho, fresh corn tamalitos, and soursop ice cream.
I have no idea what 60 percent of those things are … “You know, just give me Bob’s Special.”
A few years ago, a Canadian construction worker named Bob had dinner at the hotel and ordered the Maya Steak, a grilled dish with beans and cabbage. Later, he wandered in the kitchen and said, “The steak was wonderful, but it’d be a whole lot better if you lost the beans and cabbage and replaced them with curly fries and gravy.”
It’s been on the menu ever since – Bob’s Special.
Other celebrities who’ve been to the hotel: Houston’s own Olympic hero Simone Biles, whose mother is from Belize. Simone has dual citizenship, Belize and U.S. Harry Belafonte, one of my heroes, has stayed at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel. Michael Bolton, too.
Out back of the hotel, beyond the sparking pool and near the tennis court stadium, the San Ignacio Resort Hotel has its Green Iguana Sanctuary Project, a home for injured animals. They look like miniature Godzillas. The operator – it’s his full time job – asked if I wanted to hold one. Nope, I’m good.
A fully loaded casino is next door. The hotel arranges days trips and tours. I took one to a Maya Village where I learned how to make tortillas from scratch – starting with whole corn on the cob. My arms were sore that night. I think the woman who showed me how to make cornmeal could crush a Volkswagen with her bare hands.
Then I paddled a canoe (well, I helped) for seven miles, and that was easier than making tortillas. There’s golf and cave exploring, a whole lot to do and fun to be had in San Ignacio.
The Saturday morning farmers market/flea market has everything you need, plus souvenirs for back home. The fresh fruit and vegetable are startling. Belize is one of those places where you spit out a watermelon seed, and six months later there’s six watermelons waiting to be sliced for a family picnic.
When the concierge asked if everything was okay with my room, I said, “This is probably going to sound odd, but that’s the most unbelievable shower I’ve ever had in my life. I was way past Prune Stage 7 and didn’t want to come out.”
The concierge smiled and said, “It’s not odd, everybody says that. They say they want to do that with their bathrooms at home.”
The shower is built for two (for the lucky) and has multiple showerheads built into the wall shooting hot water from different heights and angles. It’s like standing in a car wash with no car. The water pressure is enough to put out house fires.
One of the “musts” of a visit to Belize, for those with a bit of adventure, is zip-lining at Calico Jack’s in the Village of El Progresso. I had never heard of zip-lining. You mean like when you put sandwiches in a plastic bag and seal the top? No, this is when they strap you in a harness and hook you to a metal cable stretched from tree to tree in the jungle. And you go hurtling from platform to platform like Tarzan swinging on a vine. Except much faster and, for a city slicker like me, much scarier.
Calico Jack’s has 15 zip lines, arranged like a golf course. Each ride is a different length at a different height with different little surprises. Did I mention that it was pouring down rain in the rainforest the day I went zip-lining? The guide said, “Rain makes you go faster than usual.” I didn’t need to hear that.
The guide gave me gloves and a helmet and instructions that ended with, “Just step off the platform and hang on tight. Don’t look down. You don’t want to see the last few people who didn’t make it.” I actually asked, “Have people fallen off this thing? How hurt do they get?”
He said, “We don’t know. The jaguars and birds get to the bodies first and eat them, bones and all.”
Everybody’s a comedian, even in the jungle. Nobody’s ever fallen off, don’t worry. The harness locks onto the lines so there’s no safety issue. By the third zip line, even a scaredy cat like me got the hang of it. I was flying through the air like a trapeze artist.
Zip-lining at Calico Jack’s isn’t a baby ferris wheel in a supermarket parking lot. It’s a blast, a thrill ride with all the frills. The first step off Platform No. 1 is a doozy … and that’s when the incident occurred.
Lock and load
A woman named Stephanie Elena, the marketing manager at San Ignacio Resort Hotel, came along for my zip-lining adventure. As I stepped off the first platform, and felt gravity take over, Stephanie shrieked to the guide, “He’s not locked in!
Un-Belize-able! It was a prank. Good thing it was raining and my pants were already drenched, otherwise I would have had some explaining to do.
I had a little conversation with Stephanie on the way back to the hotel. The topic was comedic timing. What she did to me, not good timing. I’m not sure she heard me through her laughter, though. It was pretty funny, I have to admit. She got me.
Naturally, I will get my revenge. Poor thing, she won’t even see it coming.