If you're looking for a vacation that offers fun and adventure, you better Belize it!
Here, you can hike through rainforests rich in wildlife, float through underground river and cave systems, canoe green rivers as iguanas sun on limestone cliffs, climb ancient Maya ruins or snorkel with shy stingrays.
In Central American, on the Caribbean, Belize lies south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and east of Guatemala.
We're on our way to the Jaguar Paw Resort in the centre of a lush rainforest. Our guide, Luis, outfits us with small miners' lights on headbands and large black rubber inner tubes that remind us of childhood days at the swimming hole.
We make the short trek through the jungle to the edge of the river. An enormous half-moon-shaped cave entrance looms in the distance. A 6-foot drop of sheer rock separates us from the gentle river leading into the cave. The first in our party makes a huge splash jumping in. We all cheer. The next two ladies have soft landings. It's my turn, but I hesitate.
Luis senses my nervousness and guides me to the knotted rope. I place my feet in notches carved out of the rock. So far, I'm doing great, going down the bank hand-over-hand, holding the knots. I cling to the last knot.
"Now lean back and let go. You'll fall back into your inner tube," says Luis. The word "fall" alarms me. "Just lean into my arms," he says, gently placing me in my inner tube. I bob in the refreshing water.
My friend teases, "Don't you get special treatment!"
Being slight, I'm easily carried along by the tranquil current into the cave's darkness. I turn on my headlamp and paddle ahead, eager to savour the mystical feeling of this space. Caves were ceremonial places for the ancient Maya, and I sense why. I keep ahead of my chattering companions, who look like huge fireflies in the distance.
Suspended in the silky green water, I feel tiny water droplets that might otherwise form limestone stalactites land on my head.
Glowing sunlight is visible ahead. We exit the first cave and traverse a set of playful rapids as Luis calls "bottoms up" and the river gives us a gentle massage. The second cave is deeper and darker, with higher ceilings and a waterfall. We hook our feet onto the inner tube ahead to make a human train, and Luis pulls us.
Later he instructs us to turn out our lights, and we get the giggles like a bunch of 10-year-olds.
We spend about two hours tubing in the caves, and leave feeling rejuvenated. History and culture buffs shouldn't miss Caracol in the Cayo district, the most splendid Mayan site. Once a powerful rival to Tikal, the large excavated site contains temples and ball courts. Huge ceiba and mahogany trees flank the temples and former archaeologists' camp. Of all Belize's Mayan sites, this is the most impressive.
Ambergris Cay, a short flight away, seems a fitting place to end our adventure. Deserted by day, when most tourists are snorkelling or diving, by night the town, with its dirt streets, golf carts and countless small, funky cafés, resembles a frontier outpost from a science fiction movie.
I schedule a morning of snorkelling at Hol Chan Marine Park and Shark Ray Alley. Though a cold front passing over the island causes 2-foot waves, this has no effect on the amazing sea life below.
Our launch driver lures schools of colourful grouper and an exotic stingray.
He hand-feeds this gentle giant and encourages me to stroke it.
It feels spongy, and I'm mesmerized as it glides in underwater flight like a huge, whimsical butterfly.
Did I experience natural wonders and unforgettable adventure during my stay? Belize it!