Belize City - Stepping off the plane into a wall of humid air feels like a dream. On our way into the city, we glide past rickshaws and painted brick, fruit stands and low palm trees jammed between houses on stilts. Some people peer out from shacks made of orange crates and corrugated metal.
A month ago we didn't even know where this place was. We wanted to go south, and the travel agent suggested Belize, so we took a look at the map. There it was, hanging off the eastern edge of Guatemala with its ass in the Caribbean, embraced by the longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere.
This reef is the main attraction for visitors to Belize. A short boat ride away from Belize City, the cayes (pronounced "keys"), hundreds of tiny islands popping up from the sea floor, create great diving opportunities.
From our home base on Caye Caulker, we take a short boat ride out into the surf for some snorkelling with a Rastafarian named Big Bob. A few kilometres out, one of his friends leaps from the gunwale without looking back, while the boat goes on without him. Our concerns are allayed an hour later when he swims back up to the anchored boat with a handful of fresh lobsters for lunch.
We duck under the salty water to feed some mostly tame stingrays. They swim pretty slowly, so we're able to drift beside them and tentatively drag our hands along their grey-blue bodies, shivering at the feel of their rubbery skin.
Caye Caulker proves a little too commercial for our taste, and after some island-hopping we settle on Tobacco Caye: population 18. We walk the length of the island in about four minutes and set up camp on the beach in between the ruins of a couple of wooden resort buildings destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
The island is so small that we manage to swim around it in an hour, gliding past surreal coral towers of green and orange and great blobs of brain coral. Flounders flap across the sea floor and barracudas hover above hermit crabs scurrying across the sandy bottom.
On our last day in Belize, we take a canoe trip down the Macal River from the inland village of San Ignacio. The two of us and our guide, Henry, set off in the morning under an empty blue sky. He says little unless we ask him about the jungle that looms on either side of the river, a nice change from the inane chatter that often meets travellers on the road.
We glide past iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks, watch toucans flit back and forth while fly-catchers and cormorants fly by to take a look at our canoe. Bats nestled into nooks in the rock are almost completely invisible to us, blending in with the rain-forest lichen.
Weeks later, as we settle back into our lives in Toronto, it feels strange to think we were once in that colourful, laid-back land It still seems like a dream. Months later, we see Big Bob on TV, sailing out to the reef with a lucky couple on a fantasy date episode of The Bachelor, confirmation that it was reality after all.