Needle-nosed ballyhoo fish leap from the water, lured by the wake as Capt. Bobby Halliday motors off Ambergris Caye. The turquoise waters here are so clear you can see blades of sea grass and lobster traps more than 20 feet below the surface.
Halliday has been guiding fishing trips through these waters for years, making some customers so happy that they gave him the two 60 horsepower engines that power his boat, the Blanca Lilly. He slows to troll, and suddenly even more is visible below: Parrot fish. Angel fish. A 5-foot bull shark, silent as a shadow.
He rigs up our fishing poles in more than 30 feet of water, and we quickly land a pile of Spanish mackerel, yellowtail snapper and one hard-fighting barracuda. Halliday pries a mackerel from a hook, spilling blood on the deck.
When I step back, he laughs.
"That's when Bobby's having a good day, when there's blood in the boat," he says. Then he nods to my husband. "That's a good catch, man."
We'd pondered where to spend a winter vacation, eager to swap gray skies and chilly weather back home for blue water and fresh seafood. We'd been to several Caribbean islands, but we wanted something different.
Our research led to Belize, an English-speaking nation of 280,000 that seems undecided on whether to market itself as Central America or the Caribbean.
No wonder. It has the best of both — friendly, welcoming people grateful for every tourist, and brilliant, varied marine life that snorkelers and divers treasure.
The mainland is 180 miles long and no more than 68 miles wide, but Belize is best known for its cayes, or islands. There are more than 200, most of them inside a coral reef that is the world's second-longest (after Australia's Great Barrier Reef).
The most popular and developed island here is Ambergris Caye, home to the town of San Pedro, white beaches and a laid-back mood.
To get there, you fly to Belize City, then catch a boat or plane. The flight is short, but the view is unbeatable: Even from hundreds of feet up, through scratched plastic windows, you can see massive rays in the water below.
From the dusty airport, it's a quick water taxi or golf cart ride to the resorts, where the first impression is mixed. Though the water is a brilliant palette of blues, the beach is rimmed in weeds and flotsam.
But the trade-offs are worth it. Though Belize has ramshackle homes, rutted dirt roads and a less-than-immaculate shoreline, it has unspoiled Caribbean beauty at prices far below its northern neighbor, Mexico.
The beachfront is lined with pastel-colored houses and thatched-roof resorts, none more than three stories high. The water is too shallow for cruise ships. Nor are there Jet Skis to ruin the ambiance.
Though locals travel mainly by foot and bicycle, the best way to explore is by golf cart. The island has few cars and few roads.
But everywhere, there is construction — new condos and resorts, dredging and more. In 10 years, I wonder, what will it look like?
Snorkeling and diving are key attractions. At the Hol Chan Marine Preserve,I go under with my snorkeling gear and the first thing I spot is a green moray eel bobbing in a sphere of coral. Two giant tarpon and a spotted eagle ray glide by as we stare at hundreds of tropical fish. Then we swim through into a coral garden and out through a crack in the reef to the open sea.
The next stop is Shark Ray Alley, where — as promised — the first visible creatures are two nurse sharks. They quickly veer away, and underwater cameras start shooting the schools of fat, horse-eyed jacks.
Back on dry land, there are other attractions, some beautiful, some bizarre. On Wednesday nights, hundreds gather at the Pier Lounge bar for the one of the latter — the Chicken Drop.
Four white squares covered in red numbers are laid on the sand. A crowd gathers as we watch from above, sipping Belikin beers from a coveted balcony table at Caliente.
A hostess explains the game. Everyone has bought a number. If the chicken poops on your number, she says, you win $1,000. But you have to clean it up.
From a rattan basket, a tourist plucks a chicken. It takes a few steps, then freezes as the screaming begins. Children yell until they are hoarse. Grown men raise their beers, bellowing numbers.
The chicken stops. It is straddling two numbers on my husband's ticket: 72 and 25.
For what feels like minutes, the bird refuses to budge. The screaming continues until suddenly my husband yells, "Shhh! Be quiet! Let the chicken relax!"
For a second, there is silence. Then the crowd cracks up, the shouting resumes and the bird moves. Eventually he drops on No. 6, thrilling a tourist from Alaska.
It's easy to pass the days drinking Dirty Bananas by the pool, catching and grilling grouper, and snorkeling at hot spots like Mexico Rocks. But Belize has more to offer.
A 15-minute flight takes us back to Belize City, where a guide drives us deep into the Cayo District, to the Community Baboon Preserve.
Some 200 private landowners voluntarily protect 20 square miles of habitat for 2,000 rare black howler monkeys. Our guide hands out large switches to swat mosquitoes as we venture into the jungle to see them. There is a telltale roar, loud and guttural, and the crunching of leaves.
A family of five emerges overhead — two babies, a mother and two males. They come within 15 feet, peering curiously, awaiting a snack of cocoa leaves.
I ask permission, then pull from my backpack a sock monkey. It is my version of Travelocity's roaming gnome, always figuring prominently in vacation photos. The oldest male charges at me, brown eyes locked on the fake monkey. Instead of taking a picture of my toy here, I quickly stuff it in my backpack to avoid a confrontation. The real monkey stops, slowly relaxing but never taking his eyes from the bag.
He moves within inches of my hand, hardly a foot from my face — so close I can see myself in his eyes.
For 20 minutes, the backpack mesmerizes him. And he mesmerizes me.
Then it's back to the Hummingbird Highway, heading south from Belmopan to the Cave Branch River, where we hike 40 minutes with inner tubes slung over our shoulders. We walk through caves where ancient Mayans lived, under cohune palm fronds some 20 feet long, then don headlamps and jump into chilly water to float through a series of pitch-black underground rooms.
Ordinarily, hundreds of people float here together. But we happened to be there on Christmas Eve, so there were only three of us.
It's peaceful at first. Quiet. Then too quiet. I start thinking about the horror movies I've seen on Sci Fi. Particularly one featuring a toothy fish. "Snakehead Terror," it was called.
Something brushes my calf in the water, and I gasp. It could have been my husband's foot. I can't see him in the dark. Or it could have been ...
Mind and heart racing, I arch my body across the tube, off the water. For the rest of the float, I remind myself to breathe. Then, back in daylight, I relax.
Later, back at the van, we find two guides hoping for a lift back to Belize City. On the way, they ask if we saw the snakes.
A pair of boas have been spotted in the river, they tell me.