From snorkelling with barracudas to yoga at sunrise, leave reality behind and explore the hidden secrets of Belize
Hundred of islands are scattered throughout the Caribbean, all offering a slice of seaside paradise. But what if casinos offering non-stop action and bars showcasing frequent celebrity sightings aren’t quite your speed? Belize—Central America’s only English-speaking nation—offers an enticing off-the-grid alternative.
Although Belize draws legions of cruise ships to its shores, none of these behemoths visit its remote coral atolls. Adventurous heavyweights like Jacques-Yves Cousteau did, along with infamous pirates such as John Glover. And forget about Hemingway-esque bars pouring Papa’s favourite cocktails. Off the grid, you’ll be sipping local Belikin beer, while swinging in a hammock to the sound of waves crashing ashore. And the closest you’ll get to a nightclub is joining locals from the Garifuna culture in traditional drumming and dancing, with feet in the sand.
Here are seven amazing ways I got off the grid in Belize...
1. Fly though the jungle on a zipline
Janet GyenesI start my off-the-grid adventure at Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City. Here, my boarding pass (handwritten, no less) gets me on a 15-minute flight to Dangriga. The coastal community in southern Belize is the heart of the country’s Garifuna people, whose language, dance and music have been recognized by UNESCO for “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” Then it’s a short drive to Bocawina Rainforest Resort, an off-the-grid ecolodge hidden among the 7,100-acre Mayflower Bocawina National Park. The resort actually predates the park, so it got to stay.
You can go screaming through the jungle by zipline at night, but I prefer to fly by day... with a chorus of cicadas cheering me on as I leap off each platform into the wild beyond. Fair warning: partway through the course there’s an “ice cream drop.” Instead of soaring across to the next platform, you rappel down in one heart-stopping swoop (with the help of a guide who’s at the bottom), then walk to the next zipline, knees wobbling and heart pumping.
2. Stalk wild cats and tarantulas on a night hike
Janet GyenesThe Antelope Trail in Mayflower Bocawina National Park slices through a swath of rubber trees and palms. To the untrained eye, it’s just darkness, but a local park guide, Blasio, tells our trio where to train our headlamps. At our feet is a mob of leaf-cutter ants, waving flag-like leaves. It’s like a well-organized political rally in the jungle. We watch a kinkajou (a.k.a. honey bear), who watches us for awhile, before retreating higher up in the rubber tree. In the grass, we make out the feathered form of nocturnal birds, surrounded by iridescent beads of “dew” that turn out to be the glistening eyes of wolf spiders. We’re on the lookout for Belize’s big cats, such as jaguars and pumas, but the only terrifying creature we see is a hairy-legged tarantula. It’s enough of a walk on the wild side for me.
3. Snorkel with lionfish, eagle rays and barracudas
Janet GyenesThe next day, I trade jungle for sea, arriving at the basecamp of Southwest Caye (run by Island Expeditions, an adventure tour company headquartered in Pemberton, B.C.) on Glover’s Reef. Here, it’s all about unplugged living, day and night. Named for pirate John Glover who plundered in these parts, the reef is one of three remote coral atolls in the Belize Barrier Reef, the second-largest reef system in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I spend the next two nights here sleeping on a comfy cot inside a tent, reading by the flicking flame of a kerosene lantern. During the day, our small group snorkels the patch reefs, spotting both slivery barracudas and, of course, eagle rays that glide so effortlessly through the water. One afternoon, as I float face-down, a flash of silver slices by me. Mario, one of our snorkel guides, has thrust his spear into the belly of a beast—a Pacific red lionfish. Snorkels protruding from our mouths, our group collectively gawks at this interloper, an invasive species that’s the scourge of these otherwise pristine waters. Still alive, the painterly fish with feathery fins slips off the spear. Mario takes a gulp of air and dives underwater to recapture his prey. I later learn that conservation-minded Belizeans are trying to eradicate the predatory lionfish by creating a domestic market for its meat. But this guy won’t make it to our dinner table tonight.
4. Kayak to Glover’s Reef Research Station
Janet GyenesThe speck of land way off in the distance looks like a mirage. Maybe that’s because the water that my kayak blade is slicing through is so clear it seems surreal. Mike—one of our group’s guides from Glover’s basecamp—skims alongside, his sunshine yellow kayak a magic carpet floating in the realm where sea meets sky. But 45 minutes later, the illusion becomes real as I paddle up to a paradisiacal outpost, Glover’s Reef Research Station on the eastern edge of the atoll. A two-storey wooden building and other small structures are the terrestrial base for its water-bound research activities, such as monitoring coral reef ecology and Nassau grouper spawning, along with tagging and tracking hawksbill and green sea turtles. Our group dines on a hearty picnic lunch in a shady spot under a thatched roof at the end of the jetty. Brown pelicans chow down too, plummeting into the sea and filling their gullets with fish. While my lunch settles, I explore the cay and climb the observation tower for otherworldly views of this pristine ecosystem.
5. Practice yoga at sunrise
Janet GyenesThe sun rises like a shot at Half Moon Caye, the basecamp on Lighthouse Reef atoll where I spend the last four days of my off-the-grid adventure. A small clutch of us stand in a circle on yoga mats, taking our first cleansing breaths of the day before the temperature climbs. “You can do a headstand if you want,” says Christine Hess, our yoga guide. She hails from Pemberton, B.C. and takes us through an easy routine each morning in a sandy spot surrounded by palms. One limber woman obliges, her legs perfectly parallel, while the rest of us work on holding our poses or simply staying upright. Silence here is especially golden: all I can hear are the ever-present gusts of wind that send palm fronds dancing and frigatebirds aloft, their massive wings eternally outstretched.
6. Visit a rare colony of 3,000 red-footed boobies
Janet GyenesA team from the Belize Audubon Society is based on the reef, along with itinerant groups (like ours) staying in the dozen tents at basecamp. They’re here to monitor and protect Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, which is located at the southeast corner of Lighthouse Reef. There’s a rudimentary gift shop and visitors centre where guests can get the lowdown on the turtles that lay their eggs in the sand and the colony of 3,000 red-footed boobies that nest in the orange-blossomed Ziricote trees. As I stroll the sandy pathway through the littoral forest, I can hear the cacophony of birds and smell the fresh funk of guano that has whitewashed the surrounding trees. Climbing up the observation platform puts me face to face with a fluffy white chick sitting in its nest, mamma carefully watching from behind. Hundreds of others birds are making a racket while happily—if not loudly—co-existing with the 2,000 black frigatebirds that nest here too. Known for spending hours in the air, it’s strange to watch these high-flying creatures practice their mating ritual by inflating their red balloon-like gular sacs while perched in the tree tops.
7. Go hand-line fishing and eat your catch for dinner
Janet GyenesHandline fishing is as low tech as it gets. Huddled together on bench seats in a small open boat, we cruise outside the reef’s “no take,” or protected area, with a pair of guides. When Roo cuts the engine, Daton dives overboard and finally emerges with a hefty conch shell he tosses into the boat. He ducks underwater again and liberates another gleaming shell from the sea floor. Roo gets to work, cutting the conch’s muscle from its shell and slicing it up for bait. He takes a chunk and shows me how to twist the tiny, barbed hook through it twice, tosses my line over a coral head and hands it to me. All that’s required now is patience and some jigging action. Before long, everyone has had a turn (two or three in many cases) exclaiming, “I got one!” before pulling in their line by hand and wrapping it back onto its spool. It’s both meditative and exhilarating to see what comes out of the water. Before dinner, one enterprising fisher seeks out a razor-sharp knife from the basecamp kitchen and preps some sushi on the spot. We enjoy eating our catch of the day, washing it down with a cold Belikin, as the sun’s rays sink into the sea, casting a golden flow on this off-the-grid idyll.