CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH

Belize

Central America's perfect, penny-pinching blend of island beaches, virgin rain forest, and Maya mysteries

By Matthew R. Link,

English-speaking and just a tad larger than New Jersey, lush Belize looks like a Caribbean island accidentally washed ashore on the Central American mainland. Its pace is molasses--slow, its populace smiling and easygoing--and its politics not perfect but relatively open and stable. With reggae rhythms, coconut palm-lined beaches, and breathtaking scuba diving (on the world's second-largest barrier reef), it's easy to mistake it for any of the more famous tradewind-kissed island "paradises" out to sea further east. But there's a key difference: Belize has none of the megaresorts, casinos, and sprawling development that have ruined so much of the Caribbean, looking instead to low-key cultural tours and ecotourism. The lack of large, glitzy resorts and hotel chains means an abundance of inexpensive, laid-back mom-and-pop guesthouses, and the low per capita income means an abundance of affordable restaurants and other services. The Belizean dollar is stable and pegged at 50: to the U.S. greenback (no need even to waste commission fees on changing money; almost any tourist establishment will take U.S. dollars and give you change in Belizean dollars at a rate of two to one). For the budget-minded looking for a relatively close and multifaceted tropical vacation with Maya culture to boot, friendly Belize is one of the cheapest places on earth.

Why multifaceted? Because there's plenty of life beyond the reef and beaches: Belize's interior is a 65-percent uninhabited wonderland of deep jungle rain forest, exotic native species, and myriad Maya temples. The country's populace is an English-speaking rainbow mix of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish, Maya, and even German Mennonite, in a sea of Spanish-speaking neighbors like Honduras and Guatemala (a mere two decades ago, Belize was British Honduras, one of the last British colonies in the Western Hemisphere).

Most visitors opt for "surf-and-turf": a few days of inland adventure (usually in the lush Cayo district), then some R&R on one of the offshore islets called "cayes" (pronounced "keys"). Belize City is mostly for passing through, having little of interest - not to mention a somewhat dicey reputation.

Belize was hit by Hurricane Iris in October of 2001, devastating the once popular backpacker beach village of Placencia on the country's southeastern shore. Luckily, the remainder of Belize's verdant and wild beauty was left for the most part unscathed.

Your basic costs

The most popular way of getting around - for tourists and locals alike - is "puddle jumping" on small aircraft, since Belize is home to only four paved roads (and just four traffic lights, which in any case are usually out of order or simply ignored) and boat rides can be wet and bumpy. Most flights use Belize City as their hub; Tropic Air (26-2012, tropicair.com) and Mayan Island Air (23-1140, ambergriscaye.com/islandair) both operate short flights throughout the country. Round-trip airfare from Belize City to the cayes, for example, costs you $52.

Most accommodations in Belize are on the simple side, with ceiling fans and no TVs, but their prices are nothing short of astounding. All offer much cheaper rates in low season (roughly Easter through Thanksgiving - which includes the autumn rain-and-hurricane season). You can try your hand at bargaining hoteliers down below their asking rates in low season, but winter usually means everything is booked up, so planning ahead is crucial. One very special accommodation option is the Maya Homestay Network (72-2470) in the southern Toledo district, where you can stay with a Maya family and learn local cooking and traditions for as little as $5 per person per night (plus a $5 registration fee) and meals for $2 each.

The Cayo district: the jungle interior

Ultrabudget travelers or those just passing through stay in town - otherwise, most tourists opt for the more comfortable jungle lodges around the area. If you're in San Ignacio, try the cheekily named Hi-Et (12 West St., 92-2828), in an old-fashioned plantation-style building with wraparound porches. Five basic but bright rooms with double beds, shared baths, and fans are located directly above the friendly host family's living room and cost a mere $12.50 per person for a double.

Within a short drive of San Ignacio, rain forest lodges are made up of quiet, stand-alone cabins with two double beds and private bath, as well as inexpensive restaurants on the premises. My favorite is the Black Rock River Lodge (92-2341, blackrocklodge.com), ten miles outside San Ignacio and perched on an ancient Maya site within its own steep, dramatic valley of limestone cliffs visible above a rain forest river below the property. Spacious cabanas with shared baths are $25 per person per night, and for $8, John, the friendly manager, will whip you up an American breakfast with unlimited coffee and juice. A little closer to town is Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916). Its simple but comfortable thatched-roof bungalows sit aside the Mopan River, where you can swim and play in inner tubes. Your own private bungalow with bath is $20 per person ($32.50 in winter's high season), and the vivacious host, Chena Galvez, serves a hot and filling breakfast including fruits and local "fried jack" biscuits for only $4.50.

For in-town chow, the best-known travelers' tavern in San Ignacio is Eva's Restaurant & Bar (22 Burns Ave., 92-2267), where local characters enjoy the chairs on the sidewalk and a wall of notices announces shared rides and cheap excursions. The food's so-so (entrees from $5) and the service iffy, but the atmosphere's a gem. Another budget traveler favorite is Martha's Kitchen (10 West St., 92-3647), serving up T-bone steaks with veggies and fries for $7.50 and stewed beef or pork with fried plantains for $3.50.

Three thousand years ago, Belize was a thriving home to more than one million Maya, and Cayo is where you'll find a good selection of ruins from their great civilization. Two fascinating and popular sites are Cahal Pech and Xunantunich ($2.50 entrance fee each). Cahal Pech was once a royal residence and is perched on a hill right above San Ignacio, while Xunantunich is the country's most visited Maya site, eight miles west of town and accessible via a hand-cranked ferry across a small river, then a milelong road to the site. The panoramic views from the top will make your head spin. San Ignacio is also used as a base to visit the impressive Tikal ruins in neighboring Guatemala, about a two-hour drive away; Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916) offers a full-day trip from San Ignacio for $50 per person (minimum two), including lunch.

The area's other great draws include eco-adventures like rain forest horseback riding (typically $40 for a day) and exploring Maya caves filled with ancient pottery ($25 for a three-hour tour). Most of these excursions have standard prices and can be arranged through lodges, except for the extraordinary full-day adventure innertubing through river caves offered by the terrific, deep-jungle Jaguar Paw Resort (888/775-8645, jaguarpaw.com) for $70, including lunch.

On the way back from Cayo along the Western Highway to Belize City (between Milepost 29 and 30), stop by the fun Belize Zoo (81-3004). Hilariously clever placards explain the land's unique fauna, and this may be your only chance to see disappearing wildlife like the black howler monkey (with a cry as loud as an elephant's), tapirs, ocelots, crocodiles, scarlet macaws, and rare black jaguars. And it's all for a cool $7.50 for adults, $3.75 for kids.

The offshore isles: first, Ambergris Caye

Right on the water, the three-story Rubie's Hotel (26-2063, fax 26-2434), at the south end of Barrier Reef Drive, has been a budget anchor of Ambergris for 20 years, offering 24 basic but pleasant double rooms with private baths and fans for $12.50 per person ($15 in high season), including three with shared bath for $7.50 ($10 in high season). A short walk south of "downtown" San Pedro is the Exotic Caye Beach Resort (800/201-9389, belizeisfun.com) with a pool and bar, plus four small hotel doubles for $25 ($35 in winter) as well as large condos featuring balconies, lofts, separate bedrooms, air-conditioning, and full kitchens that rent for $60 per person ($87.50 in winter).

Munching out in Ambergris can cost mere pennies: Celi's Deli (26-2014) just next to the San Pedro Holiday Hotel on Barrier Reef Drive, has an amazingly inexpensive menu of take-out food like 58: chicken tacos, 50: beef meat pies, and $1.15 slabs of rum cake; you're welcome to eat them on the hotel's oceanside back terrace. A popular town eatery called Elvi's Kitchen (26-2176) features wooden benches, a smiling waitstaff dressed in bow ties, and a thatched roof built around a tree. Rice, beans, and a quarter of a stewed chicken go for $6.90, while a huge plate of "Maya chicken" (served in banana leaves with fried plantains) is $10.

Ambergris Caye is ringed by sandy beaches with so-so swimming (due to lots of sea grass), but the snorkeling and diving on the nearby reefs is extraordinary - with prices that are rock-bottom compared to most you'll find in the Caribbean. For instance, SEArious Adventures (26-2690) zooms you out to both the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley (where you can touch wild stingrays and toothless nurse sharks) for a half-day trip of snorkeling for a mere $20, while various full-day dive trips start at $40 - all including equipment and gear.

And then there's Caye Caulker

Built on a walkable grid of spacious dirt roads, most of Caye Caulker town lies just south of "the Split," a hurricane-carved channel. Adjoining the Split is a small sandy area where folks enjoy lounging in the bathtub-warm water. Caye Caulker's caught on with the young crowd, but you don't need to stay in a crowded hostel or sleep in a hammock (although the latter can be had for a laughable $5 a night if you ask around).

Trends Beachfront Hotel (22-2094, fax 22-2097, cayecaulker.com/trends.htm) is a baby blue and pink two-story hotel with eight comfortable rooms, all with both a double and a queen-size bed, fridge, ceiling fans, and large private baths. Double rates are $20 per person in summer, $30 in winter. Sandy Lane Guesthouse (22-2117) has individual cabanas with private bath, kitchenettes, and funky decor, sleeping three for an amazing $20; shared bungalows go for $7.50 per person. The very pleasant Lazy Iguana Bed and Breakfast (22-2350, lazyiguana.net) presents four tidy rooms in a four-story building in the southern part of the village, including 360-degree views from the roof deck and hammocks, as well as hearty breakfasts cooked by friendly Texan hosts Mo and Irene Miller. Rates are $37.50 per person in summer, $42.50 in winter.

Cheap eateries abound in Caye Caulker, but Syd's and Glenda's, both located in the inland part of the village, are where the islanders flock for cheap eats. Syd's is a white, rather spartan-looking affair, but dishes up yummy plates of three garnachas (mini-tostadas) for 50: or lobster burritos for $2 each. Glenda's is in a blue island-style home, with kitschy touches like a hanging beach towel depicting Leonardo's Last Supper. Here, chicken, rice, and beans (the local mainstay) are $3, and locally famous cinnamon rolls, 25: each.

Belizey does it

In some cases you may save money by opting for independent packages (airfare, transfers, and hotel, but no organized touring). America's top budget-friendly Belize specialist is Capricorn Leisure (800/426-6544, capricorn.net), which offers three nights in Cayo and four nights on Caye Caulker this winter with a three-day car rental and round-trip air from Miami for $708. Tara Tours (800/327-0080, taratours.com), meanwhile, is selling a $658 five-night package at the Spindrift Hotel in Ambergris Caye, including round-trip airfare from Miami. Marnella Tours (866/993-0033, marnellatours.com) has great three-night dive packages (with five dives, while staying at a beach resort) for around $700.

A somewhat cheaper but more grueling alternative: Take a charter flight to Cancon, Mexico, from a selection of U.S. cities for about $300 with Apple Vacations (available only through travel agents; applevacations.com) and $400 with Sun Trips (800/357-2400, suntrips.com), then undertake a ten-hour, two-bus road odyssey from Cancon. ADO GL buses (800/702-8000, adogl.com.mx) leave daily from Cancon to Chetumel, Mexico (five to six hours) for $20, with video movies to distract you from the lack of scenery. From Chetumel, you switch to a Novelo's bus (27-7372) at Nuevo Mercado for the four-hour drive to Belize City for $10; the last bus leaves at 5 p.m., so be sure to time it right and secure a safe hotel in Belize City for the night.

Get more tourism info at 800/624-0686 or at travelbelize.org, belize.com, belizefirst.com, belize.net, gocayecaulker.com, ambergriscaye.com, and cayecaulker.net.