belize: a natural choice
Time by the sea is without question part of any Belizean vacation itinerary. From its mainland shores to its myriad offshore cayes, travelers will find white-sand beaches draped in sun; Caribbean waters that beg those strolling along its shores to put on their mask, snorkel and fins and to dive in; and fly-fishing opportunities in the flats or from a poled skiff. In fact, it’s the sea that put Belize solidly on the adventure tourist map. The barrier reef, which is located right offshore from this Central American country and runs from Mexico south to Honduras, is the hemisphere’s largest, and, along with Belizean mid-ocean atolls, provides world-class diving and fishing.
With its bevy of resorts, Ambergris Caye, part of the northern islands group and a short flight from Belize City, caters to divers from around the world. However, more experienced divers, anglers and get-away-from-it-all island lovers head by boat or charter aircraft for stay-put vacations among the outer atolls that lie beyond the barrier reef.
DIVE IN: Among the Northern Cayes, Turneffe Island is the largest of Belize’s three atolls and the largest in the Caribbean Sea. Both diving and fishing here are excellent. The extensive mangrove and saltwater flats are perfect territory for stalking permit, bonefish, snook and tarpon. Most fishing is done with fly rods, either waking in the flats or from a poled skiff. Turneffe Island also boasts scores of world-class wall, coral and sponge gardens, not to mention drift dive sites. The most famous dive site is the Elbow, a jutting coral point with steep drop-offs, huge sponges and ample fish life.
Also in this corner of the Caribbean Sea—50 miles from Belize City—is Lighthouse Reef Atoll, boasting some 50 miles of wall and reef diving and truly a Holy Grail for scuba divers. The super-star attraction is the Blue Hole, a perfectly round sinkhole that plunges down more than 400 ft., with huge stalagtites appearing at 130 ft., as well as reef sharks and an occasional bull shark. Many divers find equally dazzling the coral-wall dives on the Half Moon Caye Wall and North Caye Wall—two of the world’s best. Half Moon Caye National Monument, a combined idyllic island and nature reserve, is the principal nesting ground for the red-footed booby as well as hawksbill and loggerhead turtles.
STAY AWHILE: A top accommodation choice in the Northern Cayes is the 20-unit Turneffe Island Resort on little Caye Bokel, 30 miles from Belize City, and occupying 12 acres of beautiful palm-lined beachfront and mangroves. The resort has a pool, but most guests choose it because it lies within minutes of nearly 200 dive sites, with shallow areas for photography or snorkeling. There’s plenty of opportunity for spotting nurse sharks, rays, reef fish and dolphins in the flats a few hundred miles from the dock. Guests stay in one of eight beach-floor deluxe rooms, four second-floor superior rooms or eight stand-alone private villas.
Resort packages run from $2,490 (three nights), $2,990 (four nights), and $3,990 (seven nights); packages include roundtrip transfers from Belize City, accommodations, all meals, and activities such as sailing, kayaking and Hobie Cat use. Additionally, specific activity packages can be added on such as diving (from $400), fishing (from $750) and snorkeling (from $150); activity packages are priced pp for length of stay. All packages of four or seven days, incidentally, include a day excursion to the Blue Hole. The resort has two weekly arrival and departure dates: Saturday and Wednesday.
sky-high island life in peru & bolivia
Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia at the dizzying height of 12,500 ft. above sea level—making it the world’s highest navigable lake—Lake Titicaca ranks with Iguassu Falls as one of those absolutely must-see natural sites in Latin America. Its vast waters, covering 3,200 sq. miles and framed by the snowcapped Andes, are peppered with rocky islands and peninsulas, home to a host of traditional Uro, Aymara and Inca communities.
Today’s travelers arrive at Lake Titicaca by air from Lima, overland from Arequipa, and by bus and rail from Cusco to Puno, right on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Puno might not be the most beautiful of spots, but it’s known as the folklore capital of Peru, and from here, visitors can access the very stylish Titilaka Lodge, occupying a private peninsula outside of town. Here, 18 rooms—the all-inclusive cost for a 3-night stay is $1,175 pp dbl—offer amenities such as soaking tubs, floor heating and stunning lake views. The lodge’s main focus, however, is on connecting guests with the surrounding communities, and indeed it operates a full roster of active tours—mountain biking, hiking, kayaking—and half- or full-day Experience excursions to the traditional islands of Titicaca. Here’s the scoop on some “must” experiences while staying at Titilaka:
Uros Islands: This is one of the most popular expeditions visitors to Puno make. The hotel offers a half-day excursion in its two-plus-nights comprehensive package. The experience includes meeting and interacting with the Aymara-speaking residents of these unbelievable “floating” islands, literally handmade from totora reeds and anchored to the shallow flats. While there, visitors will learn that the homes, churches and schools are also built entirely of reeds, which, in fact, are also used for cooking, health remedies and souvenirs. Go figure!
Taquile Island: Located an hour’s ride from the Titilaka pier, this island is a living museum. Its colorfully dressed, Quechua-speaking islanders are famous for hand-woven textiles that have been officially cited by UNESCO as national treasures. In the island’s tight-knit communal way of life, men knit, women weave and children herd the animals. Indeed, the experience includes time with a weaving family, lunch in a local farmhouse, and hiking island paths to ancient terraces and ceremonial sites.
Amantani Island: This island is more rustic than Taquile and is also home to farmers, fishermen and weavers. Visitors hike past fields of cows, sheep and alpacas to pre-Inca ruins that cling to the island’s two peaks and to the six villages inhabited by about 800 people. The quintessential visit here is a homestay in one of the communities.
Island of the Sun: Clients can enjoy a 2-country excursion, combining Peru with Bolivia. They’ll drive into Bolivia, first visiting Copacabana, an important pilgrimage town whose cathedral houses the statue of the black Virgin of La Candalaria (the Cathedral museum is interesting, as is the Museum of the Poncho). Visitors then board a boat for the hour-long ride to the Island of the Sun, with a full day of hiking on this hilly, vehicle-free island. Sights to see include the Garden of the Incas, the labyrinthine temple of Chincana, the Sacred Fountain of Eternal Youth, and the underground museum site of Inti Wata. Also included is a boat ride to visit Pilko Kaina’s Inca Palace, before sailing back to Copacabana for the return ride to the hotel.
Island of the Sun is really worth a longer visit, perhaps in conjunction with more extensive travel in Bolivia. It takes time to explore this large island of traditional Aymara communities, pre-Columbian ruins, amazing views, great hiking in the company of llamas and alpacas, and indeed lots of sun. For visitors who do want to stay longer, recommend the hilltop Posada del Inca, a serene property powered by solar energy and working hand-in-hand with the local community to help retain traditions. The hotel has 20 simply furnished rooms with private bath, space heater and electric blanket (it gets cold at night); the restaurant serves local dishes and there’s an oxygen bar. Clients reach the hotel on foot or by llama via a flight of steep stairs followed by an uphill path.
Hail the Whale Sharks in Belize
The southerly resort area of Placencia is a take-off point for Gladden Spit, world-renowned for diving with massive whale sharks. Sightings at this site are fairly common from late-March to early-July, and to a far lesser extent from August to October and in December and January. Since the sharks tend to feed and cruise close to the surface, snorkelers and divers alike can enjoy the spectacle; however, waters can be rough, so scuba divers really have the best and safest seat in the house.
Hotel Hopping in Peru
Beyond the divine Titilaka Lodge, which, by the way, is part of the Relais & Chateaux collection, we recommend a few other properties while visiting
• The 46-room Casa Andina Private Collection, with its own private rail station so clients coming from Cusco can disembark right at the hotel. casa-andina.com
• The 123-room Puno Hotel Libertador, located on Isla Esteves but connected to the mainland by a causeway. libertador.com/pe
• The 62-room Sonesta Posadas del Inca, hugging the lakeshore with splendid views. sonesta.com/laketiticaca
All these properties have staff and tour desks that can arrange visits to Lake Titicaca’s islands.
Belize Tourism Board: travelbelize.org or traveltrade.travelbelize.org/travel-trade
Bolivia Vice Ministry of Tourism: bolivia.travel
Posada del Inca: posadadelincabolivia.com
Titilaka Lodge: titilaka.com or relaischateaux.com/en/travel-agent
Turneffe Island Resort: (800) 874-0118; turnefferesort.com