From diving coral reefs to getting up close and personal with tarantulas, Belize has plenty of ways to keep adrenaline junkies entertained
It was our first night in the jungle camp of Caves Branch that I felt the eight hairy legs of a tarantula crawl along my flesh. I froze as it made its way up my arm, and I could feel every tiny footfall reverberate through my body. Fortunately, all this took place under the watching eyes of Abel, our guide, after I stupidly volunteered for some tarantula time. It was to be the first of many such adrenaline rushes - Belize is that kind of place.
The country may be only the size of Wales, but under its rainforest floor sits one of the world's largest subterranean cave systems and its coastline is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world. The Belizean waters also have three of only four coral atolls in the entire Caribbean, plus the famous Blue Hole dive site. Manta rays, sharks and turtles are regular sightings and whale sharks also visit in April and May.
Nestling just under the Yucatán Peninsula on the Atlantic coast, its tropical mix of reef and rainforest make Belize an ideal adventure destination. Its size makes it very easy to get around, so you can easily break up the trip into different chunks, with 14-seater twin-prop planes an inexpensive and efficient way of hopping around the country.
The reef itself runs from Ambergris Caye in the North to its southern tip in the Gulf of Honduras. The turquoise waters around the cayes and atolls are some of the most diverse marine ecosystems on the planet. The Northern Cayes are perhaps the most developed tourist hubs, with Ambergris Caye leading the way and Caye Caulker offering a slightly more chilled-out, traveller atmosphere. You can also stay on the atolls and many of the smaller cayes for a real desert island experience. My personal recommendation would be to also charter a fully-crewed catamaran and spend a few days exploring the islands.
The snorkelling, like the diving, is world-class and Belize is also a hotspot for fly fishermen, drawn here by the alluring prospect of catching bonefish and permit in the shallow mangrove-fringed waters. Big game fishing for the likes of sailfish is also very popular.
On the mainland, the interesting travelling takes place on the southern coast around Placencia and Punta Gorda and inland in the Toledo and Cayo districts. It is here that the Maya Mountains and the Coxcomb Range are found, plus the Jaguar Reserve and a large proportion of the caves.
Many of the country's vast caves were used for ritual and human sacrifice and visiting them today is like parachuting into a live archaeological site, with human bones and clay pots still sitting where they were left thousands of years ago. The ancient Mayans believed that the caves were the entrance to the underworld and the meeting point between their world and Xibalba, the world of the gods. The remains of ancient cities are also to be found on hilltops throughout the country, particularly in the Maya mountains in the South.
As well as tubing down subterranean rivers, you can abseil 300 feet down into sinkholes in the forest floor. This is where the cave roofs have collapsed and you get the spectacularly eerie sight of pockets of vibrant green forest existing in cavernous cave holes.
One of the best spots to explore the caves and rainforest is Caves Branch, a jungle lodge with outdoor showers and individual cabins, and guides who run different trips into the heart of the rainforest. More upmarket options include Francis Ford Coppola's lodges.
Previously known as British Honduras, Belize only achieved its independence from the crown in 1981 and is the only English-speaking country in Central (or South) America, which certainly makes life easier for the lazy traveller. Prepare yourself for the spiders, but don't bother packing the phrasebook.