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Having traveled to Central America at various times in the past, my husband Chris and I thought we knew what to expect when we were planning a trip to Belize this summer. However, we soon learned upon arrival that Belize is an experience unto itself, creating a wonderful blend of Latin America, the Caribbean and its own unique flavor.

Our trip planning was based around a desire to experience the jungles, wildlife and Mayan ruins located in and around western Belize and northeastern Guatemala.

VISIT TO CENTER

Belize is a country unique in Central America in that it is a primarily English-speaking country, having been colonized by the British and previously named British Honduras. It gained full independence in 1981, though it remains part of the United Kingdom with the Queen of England as the head of state and Belizean currency continuing to bear her likeness.

Belize is also unique in Central American due to its low population density (roughly 170,000 people), and despite its relatively small size as a country (170 miles north to south by about 70 miles east to west), this gives plenty of room for conservation and ecotourism.

In fact, 43 percent of the country is protected by the government for conservation, and ecotourism ranks as the primary industry and source of employment.

Belize is divided into six districts with each one having its unique culture and geography.

Although the most common destination for Americans in Belize is the coastal region with an emphasis on scuba diving, beaches and deep sea fishing, our family, which includes our children, Noah, 13, and Sofie, 10, focused on the central western district of Cayo for our travels.

This is the area known for dense jungle, wildlife viewing opportunities, caves and access to the highest concentration of Mayan ruins in Mesoamerica.

REMAINS IN CAVE

For lodging, our travel agent and friend, Monica Leuenberger of Avenues of the World Travel, recommended an ecofriendly resort called Ka'ana (from the Mayan word for "heaven"), which was located close to San Ignacio, about 8 miles from the border with Guatemala.

The Ka'ana Boutique Resort and Spa was one of several small resorts in the area, and we found the staff and grounds to be outstanding and comfortable, and gave us a real feel for Belizean culture, with local foods, a fresh garden supplying the kitchen and staff proud of their Belizean heritage and willing to assist in making our experience a true taste of the country.

With the assistance of hotel staff, we had various day excursions to explore the surrounding countryside during our weeklong stay, each within a drive of 1 1/2 hours or less. We were able to reach the caves at Actun Tunichil Mukhal (ATM) after a 1-mile hike through the dense jungle, with several roaring creek crossings.

Once we reached the cave entrance, we plunged into a brisk mountain stream that flowed through the cave. Travel through the cave required swimming upstream, all the while surrounded by magnificent stalagmites and stalactites, until we were able to climb up a 15-foot rock face that opened into a great dry room called the "Cathedral."

This area was roughly the size of two football fields and was littered with the remains of the ceremonies of the ancient Maya from more than 1,000 years ago.

We viewed clay pots used in ceremonies, as well as multiple skeletal remains from religious human sacrifices that were intended to appease the gods. This gave us a good perspective of Mayan culture as our next journeys would be to the Mayan cities of Xunantunich and Tikal.

SENSE OF CULTURE

Xunantunich is located only 15 minutes from Ka'ana, but had to be accessed by a hand-cranked ferry over the Macal River that flows from Guatemala.

The smaller of the two cities, Xunantunich, is an outstanding example of Mayan architecture and the complexity of their civilization. It is surrounded by dense jungle and we were able to see and hear howler monkeys surrounding the temples, and view green iguanas basking along the Macal River.

The setting of the massive temples rising from such a landscape is stunning, especially when one considers that only one third of this ruin has been excavated.

Had our excursions to Mayan cities ended here we would have been content, but only upon seeing the great ancient Mayan metropolis of Tikal, were we able to get a sense of the magnitude of this culture.

PYRAMIDS IN JUNGLE

To reach Tikal, we entered Guatemala from the city of Benque Viejo and traveled 1 1/2 hours on relatively rough roads and had the opportunity to view multiple members of the well-armed Guatemalan Army.

It was only after we returned to the relative safety of Belize that we learned there had been a recent incident where about 30 people were assassinated by beheading due to Mexican drug violence spilling over into the nearby city of Flores, about 20 miles from Tikal.

We were pleased to learn about this only after our visit as this information most certainly would have changed our plans to visit Tikal, but then we would have missed out on an amazing spectacle of cultural and architectural triumph.

Tikal was built and occupied between 500 BC and 900 AD and rose to become the dominant center of Mayan commerce, religion, astronomy, and military might.

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The city itself consists of a 9-square-mile area with multiple pyramids rising hundreds of feet above the jungle canopy, the highest of which is Temple IV at 229 feet.

In the days before computer animation, this site was featured in the 1977 Star Wars Episode IV, "A New Hope," as a location for the Rebel Base, with Han Solo's Millennium Falcon superimposed onto this Mayan wonder.

DEADLY BALL GAME

Tikal also features a massive site for the deadly Mayan ball game, reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum in terms of ferocity and the life or death outcomes of play.

Like Xunantunich, Tikal is surrounded by jungle and much still has not been excavated. The surroundings gave us an opportunity to view wildlife including toucans, spider monkeys, crocodiles, the Jesus Christ lizard, and innumerable species of fascinating insects.

The enormity of Tikal in and of itself is somewhat overwhelming, but to consider that all of this was built without the use of steel, animal labor, modern mathematics, or any type of machinery is truly hard to fathom.

Each temple took at least 50 years, 25,000 Ceiba trees, and 250,000 square feet of limestone to build, and given that life expectancy was about 30 years, multiple generations worked on each temple.

Our walking tour of Tikal took 5 hours at a brisk pace, and we were able to see less than one-quarter of the site.

HARMONY AND PEACE

While the caves, ruins and jungle were the highlights for our trip, we also enjoyed more relaxing experiences such as floating the Macal River in inner tubes, going to San Ignacio on market day, playing tennis at the court of the Hotel San Ignacio (which appeared to be home for multiple varieties of snakes, scorpions, iguanas and lizards), enjoying the pool at Ka'ana, and taking walks in the surrounding fields and forests, which are home to the more than 350 species of birds found in Belize.

Initially we had also planned on additional activities such as cave tubing and zip lining, but we found that enjoying the Belizean attitude of relaxation and low stress was a bit more tempting.

Perhaps the feature that most stands out in Belize in the feeling of harmony and peace that we felt while there. Though multiple-ethnic backgrounds, including African, indigenous Mayan, mestizo, Amish, Chinese, and European, all seem to be proud to identify themselves as Belizean, and we saw no evidence of segregation, discrimination or racial disharmony.

Belize is home to multiple languages but appears to be unified by Creole, which was somewhat understandable to us and the Belizeans seem to slip effortlessly in and out of various dialects and languages.

In retrospect, I am glad we did not get to "do it all" during this trip because it gives us an excuse to return to this beautiful country.

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