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Budget Belize

They had $1,500, plus airfare, to spend on a tropical vacation. Here's how Christopher R. Cox and family put every cent to work on an action-packed getaway

By Christopher Cox

When it comes to Christmas presents, my parents believe that cash is always in good taste. Parents being parents, last year they amended their generous $1,500 gift with a Santa clause: Use the money for a family vacation during spring break. To sweeten the pot, Stocking Number Two held an IOU for three plane tickets. All my wife, Maria, our then nine-year-old-son, Timothy, and I had to add was the destination.

Because our last trip had been to frigid Montreal, I lobbied for a sun-kissed spot—one with warm water, robust jungle, and a bit of adventure. In other words, a place like Belize, the Massachusetts-sized nation with the world's second-longest barrier reef and its first jaguar preserve. Ecotourism is front and center in the former British Honduras; the country, which gained independence in 1981, even has toucans and tapirs on its currency.

"Dad," my animal-obsessed son asked, "can we see a kinkajou?"

Sure. That critter might be on the money, too.

With our budget in mind, we organized an affordable turf-and-surf itinerary: three nights in a rain forest lodge and three more on a barrier island. Maria scored the best Internet find of all: a sleepover at the Belize Zoo for $35, with a night safari for an additional $50. Operation Belize Navidad was on.

$32 THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS, PLUS TAXI AND EMPANADAS

A two-hour-flight south from Miami, Belize is a land where even the taxi drivers are accomplished naturalists. "That's a boat-tailed grackle," our hack announces, when we catch a bit of birdcall as we tool along in his 1988 Buick from the airport in Ladyville to the central bus station in coastal Belize City, which, with a population of 60,000, is by far the country's largest city. We won't need a rental car at the lodge, located 60 miles away in the western Cayo District, and we want to avoid a three-figure transportation tab. Instead, we opt for total cultural immersion: an order of piping-hot curried-chicken empanadas and passage aboard a recycled American school bus filled with Mayan peasants, Mennonite farmers (members of the religious sect emigrated from Mexico in the 1950's and now dominate Belize's dairy industry), and a trophy-toting girls' softball team.

"It's safer than church," a dreadlocked Rasta assures us as we roll inland on good roads, then offers Maria a swig of a foul-looking "herbal" infusion, which she politely declines. Timothy, on the other hand, can't resist using $5 of his allowance money to buy a handwoven basket from his seatmate, Angelina, a shy 12-year-old girl returning with her wares from the market in Belmopan, the nation's tiny capital, to her Mayan village.

$800 THREE NIGHTS IN THE ALL-INCLUSIVE WILD

Thirty minutes outside Belmopan, the bus discharges us in a river valley filled with grapefruit and orange orchards and flanked by limestone hills. A quarter-mile off the Hummingbird Highway, Ian Anderson has created his Caves Branch Jungle Lodge in Survivor style: thatched bungalows, tiki torches, open-air showers, and an activities menu offering kayaking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and cave tubing (you don a headlamp and float on inner tubes along underground rivers). Our three-night package includes all meals and two full-day outings, with no additional charge for Timothy.

"The first two or three years we were open, we actively discouraged families," confesses Anderson, a Vancouver native. "We didn't think the tours we offered were appropriate for kids. We started seeing how wrong we were. The kids were far superior at going out and doing the trips than the parents."

Consider the Black Hole Drop. Timothy scampers like a jungle cat along the rising, rain-slicked trail while Maria and I wheeze through the two miles of dense forest to Actun Loch Tunich, where climbing ropes snake over the lip of a 280-foot-deep sinkhole. It's white-knuckle time as we rappel off the overhang while howler monkeys hoot, but we're rewarded with a bird's-eye view of the sheer-sided void. By the time we've slid down the ropes and onto the chasm's floor, Timothy is already pointing up toward the rim.

"Do you think we can do it again?"

Only if a Sherpa pack-hauls me to the top, kid.

We lie low the next day, paddling our tubes along a gurgling subterranean river and spelunking in caverns where ancient Mayans performed bloodletting rituals. Above us, the mountains unfurl southward into an emerald wilderness that holds jaguars, tapirs, and... yes, kinkajous.

$176 RENTAL CAR AT THE RUINS—AND BEYOND

The 1,300-year-old Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, a hilltop complex of pyramids and plazas, are enticingly nearby—a 90-minute drive west, close to the Guatemalan border. No bus adventure this time; the connections would be impossible, so I've arranged for the delivery of a rented four-wheel-drive Suzuki, a worthwhile two-day indulgence. To reach Xunantunich (admission $10 total), we take a free hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River, then clamber up the 130-foot-tall El Castillo for a 360-degree view of villages and jungle. Tonight: on to the kinkajous!

$118 CATCHING Z'S AT THE ZOO

Established for animals that became semi-tame after being filmed in a documentary, the Belize Zoo, 30 miles west of Belize City, is now home to more than 100 indigenous birds, mammals, and reptiles. Our one-room cabin sits on stilts in the zoo's Tropical Education Center, overlooking a water hole that attracts egrets and caimans. After a dinner of stewed chicken at the center's dining hall—our two meals here came to $33—we grab flashlights and follow our guide along meandering paths through the verdant grounds. Though modest in size, the zoo has earned an excellent reputation for its conservation efforts and well-kept, natural-setting enclosures. On the night safari, we drape a boa constrictor over our shoulders and pet a spider monkey's leathery prehensile tail. But the kinkajous leap against their wire-mesh cage, bare their teeth, and hiss ferociously.

"And they seemed so cute and cuddly in pictures..." my son says.

A female tapir's eerie cry floats through the trees; a growling duel erupts between two jaguars. "Sometimes the cats get loose," our guide says. It's too dark to see if he's smiling.

$329 THE LIFE AQUATIC

The next morning we drive east to Belize City to return the vehicle, then head for the port's busy marine terminal, where, for $44 round-trip, a speedboat ferries us 20 miles offshore to Caye Caulker, a narrow mangrove island with three sandy streets and a handful of cars. Ambergris Caye, 10 miles farther north, has the high-end resorts, while Caulker retains its fishing fleet and rough-hewn wooden houses. Here, everybody's on a first-name basis. Jessie, who owns our $60-a-night cabana with its hammock-draped porch, recommends Juni as the guide for a $105 sail-and-snorkeling tour of the reef. We find the burly old man, bare-chested and tan as 12-year-old rum, on the veranda of his raised house.

"Meet me at 10:15 tomorrow morning," Juni says. "Bring water, sun cream, and a good mood."

After feasting on warm cinnamon rolls at Glenda's, a down-home breakfast spot in a backstreet house, we board the Trinity, Juni's island-built sloop. With a steady hand on his custom mahogany tiller, he sails smartly up the island, leaving kite boarders in his wake. As we near Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the 66-year-old mariner recalls nursing a speargun-injured shark back to health, and even helping to birth its pups. A tall tale, I think, yet when we anchor to snorkel, a pair of nurse sharks materializes as soon as Juni enters the water. For the next hour, the six-foot creatures tag along, sidling up and nudging our guide, rolling over to have their pale stomachs scratched while we explore the teeming coral reef.

"They're friends of his," Timothy says when we surface.

It's true. Green-spotted eagle rays, five-foot barracudas, and skillet-sized parrot fish seem to consider him family. When more than a dozen motorboats crowded with snorkelers arrive from Ambergris, Juni hoists his homemade sails and heads back.

"I like to be with the fish," he says.

I like it, too, but I also like island downtime: popping conch fritters at Rasta Pasta; savoring a post-sunset Belikin beer while lying in a hammock at I&I Reggae Bar. Admittedly, neither of these activities is particularly geared to nine-year-olds, but Timothy is as blissed out as Maria and I are.

$66 DAMN-THE-BUDGET SNORKELING

On our last full day we can't resist another trip, this time by powerboat with E-Z Boy Tours to South Channel and Shark-Ray Alley, three-quarters of a mile offshore. Forget the spending cap; full speed ahead. The brain coral, stingrays, and Crayola-hued wrasses and damselfish are worth a bit of red ink.

When we come ashore, I spot a billowing blue sail on the horizon: it's the Trinity, bound for home. Tomorrow Juni will again swim with sharks. And I'll be back in Massachusetts, sitting in rush-hour gridlock and wondering where in the tropics $1,500 might take us next year.

$1,711 TOTAL (INCLUDING ISLAND MEALS, INCIDENTALS, AND TAXI TO THE AIRPORT)

Christopher R. Cox is a Boston-based journalist. He often writes for Travel + Leisure and Men's Journal.