When most people think of Belize, what comes to mind are images of coconut trees, toothpaste blue water and remote atolls. That’s all true. But if you drive inland, towards the Guatemalan border, civilization thins out, steep mountain peaks are hidden in mist and the jungle encroaches on the road. After a few days on the coast and three hours of some of the most picturesque driving anywhere in the world, we emerged at San Ignacio, a bustling little town on the Belmopan River, with two one-way bridges, one into town, the other out. Just beyond town, but a world away, is the jungle hideaway known as Ka’ana.
Ka’ana is a boutique resort, but rather than catering to those who like to sit by a pool all day with umbrella drinks, it encourages its guests to leave every day. Don’t get us wrong, there is a pool, and if you want an umbrella drink, it can be arranged. But Belize is a country ripe for adventure, and Ka’ana wants to be your (very luxurious) base camp. Guests have the choice of individual cabanas or larger villas. Both options are well-appointed, though how well appointed depends on how much you want to spend: the villas come with a helipad and private butler to meet your every need, 24/7, from a midnight snack to childcare. We opted for a slightly less ostentatious cabana, which came with an outdoor shower, private backyard, vaulted ceiling, original local artwork and a vine-covered front porch with an inviting hammock. Decor is decidedly serene and minimalist — tropical modernism, we’d call it — and after our long journey from the coast, we were tempted to spend our days reading in our cabana. But there is simply too much to do in Belize to sit still for long.
Several airlines fly direct from the U.S. to Belize City weekly. Once in-country, Tropic Air is the way to get around. The small airline runs a fleet of efficient and tidy Cessnas from Belize City to various airfields around the country. Prices are reasonable and flights are short, but book early because most planes don’t hold more than 14 passengers and they do fill up.
WHERE [ELSE] TO STAY
In the jungle, we stayed at Ka’ana. But on the coast, we stayed at Chabil Mar, a luxury boutique resort consisting of 19 well-appointed villas and ample eating and drinking opportunities. Should you decide to venture out, Chabil Mar is walking distance to Placencia, a fishing village that has maintained its pre-tourism charm.
Splash Dive Center is the best known dive operator on the South Coast of Belize. A PADI 5-Star dive center, Splash runs a tight ship with clean, well-maintained boats, a friendly and professional staff and great surface intervals. It also happens to be across the road from Chabil Mar, making for a short walk to the boat in the morning.
Our Crystal Cave adventure was organized through Ka’ana, which tailors individual excursions for its guests. The outings are set up for couples and small groups only and utilize a pool of proven, reliable guides. Crystal Cave is not for the faint of heart or the claustrophobic. A more accessible option is Actun Tunichil Muknal.
Ka’ana is ideally situated in a part of Belize rich in Mayan cultural history and raw natural beauty, which made choosing what to do a challenge. We got help from the events coordinator, who asked us about our interests and how adventurous we were. It was settled: a day of cave exploring and another exploring a nearby Mayan archaeological site, an adventure individually tailored to our wants and needs. While many resorts are happy to book tours for you, you often end up on a crowded bus with tourists from other hotels. At Ka’ana, it’s only you and your guide. Everything from transport to lunch is arranged. All you have do is show up at the front entrance ready to go in the morning.
We opted for a full day crawling around underground in Mountain Cow Cave (also known as Crystal Cave), a 600-foot-deep cave in the jungle an hour’s drive from Ka’ana. It was filthy, exhausting business: hiking through the jungle, dodging poisonous snakes, rappelling into the cave entrance, skinning our knees and crawling through narrow passages by headlamp for five hours. In other words, a perfect day out. By the time we were dropped at the hotel, we were starving and ready for a shower.
After scrubbing the dried clay out of every orifice, we made our way to dinner, which, again, is a tailored affair. Want it by the pond? No problem. In the bar? Sure thing. Of course there’s room service and the dining room, too, but we decided to eat by the fire outside. A table for two was set by a roaring fire pit, which felt surprisingly good on a cool evening in the jungle.
The next morning brought bad news. Recent rains caused the nearby Belmopan River to rise so that passage to the Xunantunich ruins, the site of our second adventure, was impossible. But we were in luck. Not 20 minutes away, on a hill above San Ignacio, sits a small Mayan site known as Cahal Pech and a guide was waiting to take us. This “small” archaeological site was perfectly sized for a morning’s wandering and, after some historical explanation, we were allowed to stroll among the buildings and climb the pyramids. It was a quiet place, almost intimate in feel; we were glad to have skipped the larger, more famous ruins. We were also glad for an easier day out — sore muscles from our caving adventure cried out for a more sedate afternoon and possibly a massage.
Ka’ana’s philosophy is to get you out adventuring during the day and then pamper you at night. They take the latter as serious as the former. Aside from the cuisine and exquisite cocktails on offer, a small spa sits near the saltwater swimming pool, and I booked a massage that afternoon. After an hour on the table and a cup of all-spice leaf tea, I was rubbery and content and spent the remainder of the day lazing by the pool, drink in hand and watching the resident iguanas bake in the sun.
Sadly, just when we were getting used to the Ka’ana lifestyle it was time to leave. An early Tropic Air flight was waiting at a nearby airfield and we wistfully loaded our bags into a van for the drive. The morning was cool, a light rain was falling and fog settled over the jungle. I secretly hoped that our flight would be cancelled and we’d be forced to stay one more day. In my mind I had the day planned — some laps in the pool followed by tea, and a good book in the hammock, which would lead to a nap. But it was not to be. The Tropic Air Cessna was waiting on the grass airfield when we arrived.
As I reached into my pocket for my ticket, I realized I still had the key to our cabana. How to return it now with a plane to catch? Just then, I overheard a couple who had arrived on the last flight say they were heading to Ka’ana. I asked them if they could return our key. “Of course,” the man said, “how was Ka’ana?”
“Sublime”, I said.