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Vacationing where the wild things are

Which is scarier to you: the prospect of spotting a jaguar in the jungle or a hairy tarantula?

You see, I'd much rather catch a glimpse of a large cat that could eat me for lunch than happen upon a relatively harmless arachnid. Which could be why, after a recent trip to Belize, I've decided that adventure tourism may not be for me. I love all of nature, except for anything with an exoskeleton, which is a problem when one is trekking through a tropical rain forest.

Let me back up a bit and extol the virtues of Belize. It is a birdwatcher's paradise, where at any turn you might encounter a great blue heron, a vermilion flycatcher or a white hawk. And if you're very lucky, you'll see a keel-billed toucan perched just outside your tiki hut eating the fresh papaya put out as a lure.

Belize is a Central American nation that sports Queen Elizabeth II on its money as reigning head of state, meaning, helpfully, that almost everyone speaks English — of a sort.

On the country's Caribbean side is Placencia, an oasis of quiet beachfront, where the rum is cheaper than the Coke that goes in it. This fact is particularly important when, during the dry season, it rains for two out of your seven-day beaching-snorkling vacation and happy-hour becomes "happy day."

Traveling to the west of the country along one of its major roads (meaning paved — of a sort), you can explore its wondrous caves — though you must remember to bring a flashlight, which I didn't. A two-hour foray into Guatemala gets you to the great Maya city of Tikal. Built from 500 B.C. to 900 A.D, with its magnificent ancient temples reaching astounding heights, it is a jaw-dropping sight. But watch out for the spider monkeys who seem to relish pooping from the trees on the heads of passing tourists — they just missed.

Now, back to our tale. Everything was going fine until, on a snorkeling excursion in Placencia, a traveler with a proper British accent and a warped sense of adventure had a story to tell. Mr. Intrepid described how he and his wife had just hiked from Guatemala to Belize over three days in the jungle.

Every night their guides would attach hammocks to trees as their sleeping accommodation. One night, our traveler needed to relieve himself. It was pitch black, so one of his guides went along with a flashlight to lead him to a safe spot. As they walked, the flashlight caught numerous pairs of glowing purple eyes. "What are those?" he asked the guide. "Tarantulas" was the reply.

OMG!

With that image cemented in my brain, I arrived a day or so later at Clarissa Falls, a lodging near the border with Guatemala.

The guidebook describes Clarissa Falls as "a very restful place right by a set of rapids on the Mopan River." The sleeping cottages are characterized as simple and clean, with private baths. Sounds perfect for the budget traveler.

What was not disclosed is that your "cottage" is little more than a screened porch with a thatched roof. Except for the bathroom, there are no actual walls, and the screening isn't as tightly executed as one might like.

I was warned that the chirping sound I would hear coming from the thatch at night were the resident geckos. But as I tried to sleep I heard other kinds of scurrying and shushing noises. Was it coming from inside or outside? All I could think of were the purple eyes I would see if I scoured the room with my now-handy flashlight.

What if something skitters across my face?

And so passed two terrifying nights.

I commend Belize to people who don't harbor an outsized fear of mutant-size eight- and six-legged creatures who breathe through holes in their bodies. That wouldn't be me.

That said, the rum is really cheap.

Vacationing where the wild things are 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 4:30am]

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