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In and around the Cayo.

WHEN MICK FLEMING took over an abandoned farm in the hills of western Belize some 14 years ago, he unknowingly planted the seed for a kind of low-key "ecotourism" that has since grown into one of the country's most important industries. "I moved here from East Africa, where jungle lodges are a long tradition," explains the tall, tan British native, standing in the lush garden of his Chaa Creek Cottages resort. "My wife and I couldn't make a go of it as farmers and yet we still had a constant stream of friends from overseas dropping in. Sometimes it was difficult simply finding enough food to feed us all."

Faced with an oversupply of visitors and a dearth of produce, Fleming and his American-born spouse, Lucy, turned their farm into the sort of comfortable, cabana-style retreat one associates with Kenya or Tanzania. In the forest clearing where cows once grazed, the couple erected thatch-roof, stucco bungalows, an open-air dining room, and a wood-paneled bar. One side of the compound is bordered by the steep banks of the winding Macal River and its Chaa Creek tributary, the other by the Ix Chel Farm and Tropical Research Center.

"A lot of people aren't sure what to expect when they first visit the Cayo District [Belize's interior province]," says Neil Rogers, another English expatriate who helps manage the Flemings' business specializing in "adventure" tours throughout the area. "They soon realize there's more to see and do here than they can possibly squeeze at the plants and

Simply marveling at the plants and animals can occupy much of one's time in the verdant hills that straddle the Belize-Guatemala frontier. Nearly 200 species of birds, for example, have been sighted by Chaa Creek visitors, along with such exotic animals as the jaguar, ocelot, coatimundi and basilisk (a large, prehistoric-looking reptile). Trees along the jungle trails and waterways are adorned with dozens of varieties of orchid and bromeliad. Towering overhead are enormous tropical fruit trees and hardwoods, including the prized mahogany that attracted the region's first Anglo settlers two centuries ago.

Like Mick and Lucy Fleming, residents of Belize's sparsely-populated interior have historically lived off the land, first through logging or rubber and chicle tapping, and more recently via cultivated agriculture. Today the Cayo's rich, forested valleys are giving way to corn fields and livestock pastures as the country's land-hungry Mennonites and refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala build new homesteads. Fortunately, plenty of pristine wilderness remains, much of it now protected by the government. Officials in the capital of Belmopan, gateway city to the Cayo, have struck a balance between the interests of farmers and resort operators, both essential to the fragile economy. There is hope that the expansion of agriculture will enable Belize to feed itself for the first time and that "cottage resorts" will draw tourists away from crowded Ambergris Caye.

Indeed, hundreds of foreigners now flock to the dozens of homey lodges that dot the countryside on either side of the Western Highway, the district's main artery. From their cottages, visitors can set out by foot, horseback, canoe, kayak, raft or auto to explore the region's many trails, rivers, Mayan ruins, caves, waterfalls, and other attractions. Some of the lodges tucked into the folds of these mountains are actually working farms or ranches, while others are simply devoted to gracious but rustic hospitality.

Besides Chaa Creek Cottages, other established operations with good reputations among travelers include Maya Mountain Lodge, located on the Cristo Rey road and specializing in nature trips; Casa Cielo, a 150-acre horse ranch on the Mountain Pine Ridge road that caters to equestrians of all abilities; El Indio Perdido, a farm along the Mopan River to which you are ferried on a cable; and Nabitunich, a homestead near the towering Xunantunich ruins where you can simply relax with a Belizean family and watch the water roll by.

Although Ix Chel Farm and Research Center does not rent rooms, virtually any of the area's lodges can easily arrange a day trip to this botanical laboratory and its informative. Panti Medicine Trail. Ix chel is a short walk from Chaa Creek Cottages and duPlooy's Resort. The self-guided tour (with explanatory booklet) is $5 per person; a guided tour by director Rosita Arvigo is $50 or $30 by an assistant. The farm also sells one-ounce packages of herbal tonics, including Bellyache Tea and Party Punch, made from plants gathered along the nearby Macal and Belize Rivers.

While the moist, broad-leaf jungle surrounding Ix Chel and Chaa Creek is the kind of sight one would expect to encounter in Central America, it is unnerving for many Cayo travelers to find pine forests growing on the slopes of the nearby Maya Mountains, which form the central backbone of Belize. For as far as the eye can see, tall pines reach to the tropical sky. The sandy terrain is carpeted with rust-colored needles interspersed with short grasses and colorful wildflowers. In some areas, clusters of oak trees also grip the fragile topsoil.

The Mountain Pine Ridge--in Belize the term "ridge" refers to forest type--is an unusual natural phenomenon covering nearly 300 square miles. Located about 20 miles southeast of San Ignacio, the area is a Central American anomaly. Soils and subsurface rocks are of a type found here and in the Brazilian highlands but no place else in the Americas. Its elevation keeps the Mountain Pine Ridge cooler and drier than other parts of Belize. Its many old logging roads are ideal for horses, mountain bikes and hikers. Along the edges of the ridge are limestone caves, tumbling rivers, hardwood forests and sharp escarpments with sweeping views.

Hidden Valley Falls, also known as Thousand-Foot Falls, is one of the ridge's main attractions. The tallest waterfall in Central America, it plunges almost a quarter of a mile over a granite precipice. The plunge is so deep that the bottom of the waterfall becomes lost in dense green foliage. A four-mile track leads from the overlook to the base of the waterfall. The trail is very rugged and a round-trip may take all day, but the reward is a large basin at the base of the cataract that is perfect for bathing.

Some five miles past the nearby village of Augustine, visitors enter one of Belize's best-known cave districts. Several small caverns lie within 100 yards of the roadway and a well-marked, self-guided nature trail makes its way to the largest in the group: the Rio Frio Cave. The trail offers a glimpse of native trees bearing such whimsical names as give-and-take, boy job, poisonwood and gumbo-limbo. The Rio Frio is Belize's biggest river cave, extending for a half-mile through a solid mountain.

The more northerly of the two routes leading into (and out of) the pine ridge passes through the village of San Antonio. This is one of the few communities in Belize where the modern version of the Mayan language is still widely spoken, in this instance, the Mopan dialect. It is in a picturesque valley where beautifully terraced fields of beans and corn have been carved out of leafy jungle. Two attractions worth visiting in San Antonio are the Pacbitun archaeological site and the Garcia Sisters Museum.

Pacbitun ("stones set in the earth") is one of the oldest middle Pre-Classic Mayan sites in the country, first occupied in 1000 BC and abandoned around 900 AD. Archaeological findings by Canada's Trent University have included a number of Mayan stelae and ceremonial ball courts, as well as ancient musical instruments shaped like ocarinas that were made out of carved and moulded pottery. There are at least 24 major temple pyramids here, the highest standing 60 feet tall. Two thousand years ago Pacbitun was apparently a wealthy trading center, with fancy houses and raised irrigation causeways, one of them over a kilometer long.

Just north of San Antonio is the Garcia Sisters Museum, a combination of crafts shop, herbal pharmacy and shrine. The five Garcia sisters make and sell slate-carvings that depict traditional Mayan masks and figures. Although this art form has been practiced for years in neighboring Guatemala, this is believed to be the only stand in Belize to sell such carvings. The women were taught this craft by their father, Aureliano, who still creates much of what is sold here. Their uncle is Don Eligio Panti, the famous Mayan healer. One of the nieces, Aurora, has been studying under Panti and now sells medicinal plants and potions at the museum. At one end of the museum's building is a round structure, shaped like a traditional Indian hut, where explanations of the various Mayan masks and symbols are displayed in poster form. There are also large pieces of carved slates that emulate ancient sacred stelae and altar stones.

Going south from the pine ridge, about 30 miles from Augustine, is the enormous Mayan ruin of Caracol, only recently excavated. It is now known to be even larger than Guatemala's nearby Tikal. Two much more accessible Mayan ruins in the Cayo District are Xunantunich, dominated by a high stone temple called El Castillo, and Cahal Pech, about a mile west of San Ignacio.

Long overshadowed by the popular offshore barrier reef, the diverse attractions of Belize's interior are finally getting the attention they deserve. The cool, lush upland hills are steeped in the history and culture of the ancient Maya, whose descendents have kept alive many centuries-old traditions. Whether one's interests run toward Mayan medicine and archaeology or jungle hikes and river rafting, the interior offers something for everyone. And as farmer-cuminnkeeper Mick Fleming is fond of pointing out, "the Cayo is still a damn fine place to simply get away from it all and relax."

Richard Mahler is a freelance writer and co-author, with Steele Wotkyns, of Belize: A Natural Destination, John Muir Publications, Santa Fe, N.M.
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Title Annotation:Belize
Author:Mahler, Richard
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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