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By Ted Alan Stedman

Pulse-quickening adventures, pleasuring exhaustion, a menagerie of things wild and exotic, cuisine fit for a bon vivant. It sounds like an active traveler’s recipe for smug satisfaction, but how else to describe my recent Caribbean vacation in Southern Belize? Indulgences came fast and easy in this underdeveloped, seldom visited tropical fantasyland where I was Indiana Jones by day, James Beard by night.

I’d already sampled Belize’s more populated, developed northern region a few years earlier. Call it the "surf ‘n turf" circuit, the country’s signature do-it-all travel junket that combines the beach bumming and scuba diving Utopias of Ambergris Caye, Cay Caulker and Turnefee Islands with a reconnoitering of mainland districts such as Orange Walk, Corozal and Cayo.

But Southern Belize’s quaint and utterly authentic Toledo District was proof I hadn’t done it all. Bordered by Guatemala and the most pristine sections of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, Toledo is what some call the "real Belize." Seven major parks and island reserves. Substantial ruins, rivers, caves and waterfalls. Earthy subsistence-based villages looking like they germinated from the jungle. And all with practically no other travelers in sight.

I settled in at Machaca Hill Lodge, something of an eco-sanctuary that’s surrounded by the 11,000-acre Laughing Falcon Reserve. You want to get intimate with all things wild, go no further than any of the private cabanas. Feeling like elegant treehouses, they’re perched on the steep hillside and put you face-to-face with the bustling forest canopy. Believe me, this jungle is alive. I’d awake to the impressive cries of howler monkeys before dawn each morning. From my deck I’d sip coffee as the sun rose, absorbed by the monkey business while watching colorful toucans and whizzing hummingbirds.

You can be perfectly content by simply hanging out on the reserve. I sampled the expansive nature trails, kayaked the Rio Grande River, put in some pool time and checked out the world-class birding from the lodge’s airy balconies.

But other eco destinations are right out the door, like the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, an 847-acre protected zone home to a flotilla of crittersthat include manatee. I boarded a skiff and motored among 135 small mangrove islands and over gorgeous turquoise-colored reefs. With a couple friends we fulfilled temporary castaway fantasies on uninhabited Snake Caye, then snorkeled a nearby reef home to thriving Technicolor fish and rotund lobster.

When the days dissolved into night, I’d unwind on the outdoor balcony with wines expertly paired with local cuisine. What to order? The decision’s easy when you consider that early British explorers dismissed Belize as "worthless" due in part to its shallow ship-wrecking reefs which were "infested" with lobster. My meals of succulent two-pound marine crustaceans and crisp Chilean sauvignon blanc could stand head-to-head with the ritziest joints anywhere.

History and culture go hand-in-hand in Toledo, and Mayan ruins should be essential to any visit. Nim Li Punit gets my "most picturesque" vote, perched on a hilly ridge and taking in magnificent views of the southern coastal plains. The grounds rival any botanical garden I’ve ever seen, and of course the ruins speak to you about ancient ceremonies and Mayan lore. At Lubaantun, the largest complex in Southern Belize, we learned about the site’s famous and controversial eight-inch clear crystal skull "supposedly" discovered here in 1926. If you like a good mystery, this one’s worth checking out.

We jumped at the chance to explore Blue Creek and Hoken Ha Cave, a proposition requiring a guide for anyone wanting to enter the liquefied chasm. But when we made the cave entrance the others came down with a case of the spooks — something about swimming in total darkness for 100-foot stretches with a headlamp and having bats overhead. With my guide Iexplored about a quarter-mile in, pausing at an underground waterfall where we turned off our headlamps to experience the most inky darkness imaginable. My nervousness turned to exhilaration -– the kind you remember for a lifetime.

How cool is that?

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By ski, bike, kayak, safari vehicle and on foot, Ted Alan Stedman has
journeyed in six continents and hopes to soon close in on number seven:
Antarctica. The Denver-based writer is a former ski journalist for the
Rocky Mountain News, and these days is a regular contributor to Sport Diver, Islands, Sunset, Outside and Outdoor Photographer magazines.

Tagged: Caribbean

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