THE BEAUTY OF BELIZE: A Tropical Paradise Made for Montanans

By Hunter D'Antuono
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The Montana winter is a long one. The only thing paler than my skin come spring is the snow still causing slide-offs on the Bozeman pass. Every once in a while, a Montanan just needs to head south. 

Belize is appealing to many Big Sky Country dwellers for good reason. Livingston anglers will be delighted with the abundant fly-fishing opportunities for bonefish in the Caribbean Sea. While the Yellowstone muddies in May with spring runoff, the waters off of Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye remain a transparent turquoise blue. Late spring also is a fine time to visit this little country. The winter’s high tourist traffic is long gone and the summer monsoon has yet begun. Under British control up until 1981, the official language of Belize is English and American currency is readily accepted. Locked in at 1:2 exchange rate, one’s hard earned dollars are significantly stretched. And tickets are relatively cheap from Bozeman. 

On Caye Caulker, a 5 mile by less than 1-mile-wide sandbar on the sea, one becomes rapidly acquainted with the island’s few faces. Livingston resident Rod Kurtz, who visited Caye Caulker earlier this spring, described it as if “Livingston and Key West had a love child.”  

Belize, a country of about 300,000 people, but only about a 17th the size of Montana, makes it close knit. We even ran into some familiar Livingston faces on Caye Caulker.  

No surf breaks on the beach there, thanks to the protective qualities of the Belize Barrier Reef a couple miles offshore — the second largest barrier reef in the world. Cruiser bikes and golf carts — the island’s only forms of ground transportation — weave around pedestrians and scores of lounging street dogs against a colorful tapestry of brightly painted cabanas and line-drying laundry. 

Akin to Livingston, Caye Caulker has a high number of watering holes per capita. The northern tip of the island, known as “The Split” is the perfect spot to grab a drink and watch the sun as it transforms into an orange orb and dissolves into the sea. 

Like Montana, Belize crafts its own beer. But unlike the Treasure State, where we are awash in literally hundreds of different unique brews, in this tiny country options are a bit more limited. One’s primary options are Belikin, Belikin Premium, Belikin Lighthouse and Belikin Stout, and the last three often seemed in limited supply at many beachside bars. Of course, one can always switch it up with a plethora of fruity concoctions, including the ever-present rum punch. Cheers. 

Inland the country is riddled with the impressive ruins of the ancient Maya. Refreshing rocky-bottomed rivers snake through the mountainous jungles where Livingstonites will be reminded of home by the number of tubers floating downstream. 

But swaths of the river are subterranean, flowing through caves full of sparkling rock formations and sleeping bats. 

Our tour guide, Floyd, clad in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey and speaking a mile a minute in his thick Creole accent, told us we were floating into Xibalba – the ancient Mayan’s version of Hell. The Mayans believed the dark, moist caves were ruled by their gods of death and served as the portal to the underworld. As we reentered the sunshine after floating 40 feet under the mountain for some time, Floyd was pleased to inform us that we’d officially “made it through Hell and back.”   

Of course, this southern version of paradise comes with a small price — the humidity. Once something gets wet, it stays wet. Far away is the dry Montana air that  can wick the moisture even out of the fluffiest bath towel in under an hour. A shirt hung in sun and steady sea breeze for 12 hours still feels damp, but that could just be because my hands were perpetually sweaty. 

Thus, hydration is key (especially in light of the abundance of rum punch). That’s where the sweet electrolyte infused water of coconuts comes in. The machete is the multi-tool of Central America and the resident Rastafarians will expertly whack open coconuts for a couple of dollars.  

The seawater temperature, which hovers in the low 80s this time of year, is just a few degrees cooler than the air, providing some relief. But the heat is soon forgotten after donning a snorkel and literally coming face to face with stingrays, nurse sharks, barracudas and moray eels swimming in the corals.  

The last leg of  the trip brought us to Hopkins, a small, secluded coastal village in southern Belize where traditional Garifuna drumming pulses through the night. There are few ways to get there — flying by Cessna, renting a private vehicle or hiring a taxi. Those all seemed like pricier options, especially near the end of the trip, so we decided to take the infamous chicken bus — four hours of perspiring humanity crammed elbow to elbow into an elementary school style bus over the stomach lurching bends of Belize’s scenic Hummingbird Highway. The last night of the trip found us on a pontoon boat in a massive mangrove lagoon. The locals encouraged us to jump into the seemingly unappealing, dark brackish water. Magic ensued. Bioluminescent plankton turned the water into clouds of mesmerizing neon blue as our hand and feet agitated the otherwise stagnant pool.

Montana will be back Belize, again and again. You better “Belize” it.