A HALF-DOZEN taxis, an assortment of dilapidated refugees from the early 1970s, were lined up to escape the heat by parking under the shade trees surrounding pleasant Central Park, in the heart of Belize City. ``Cabbie?'' I called out. A man lounging with several others against a neat wooden fence darted toward an ancient Chrysler Imperial and threw open the rear door.
``Fort George Hotel?'' I asked. He nodded. ``How much?'' ``Fo' dolla.'' ``Belize dollars?'' ``Yeah, mon.'' ``OK.'' The fare and currency settled - a prudent approach to taking a cab in Belize - I stepped in.
We pulled into a line of slow-moving traffic of equally ancient cars, dusty trucks, an occasional modern auto, and a flow of bicycles dodging cars, pedestrians, street vendors, and a traffic cop on the corner who is probably the only one in the entire nation.
Simply to make conversation, I said: ``You don't get many tourists.''
``Dat right, mon,'' he said. ``Nobody know we here. Dat because we de only country what change our name and forgot to tell de world.''
His accent was odd, but, like virtually everyone in Belize, he spoke English, the official language of the small Central American country - formerly known as British Honduras.
Belize has a history of political stability, both under the British and since the nation gained its independence in 1981. But the country has never exploited its three great tourist potentials:
The dozens of cays, pronounced ``keys,'' or charming tropical islands scattered along the world's longest, most spectacular coral barrier reef outside Australia. Some are small, uninhabited gems, but there are several with charming, and usually expensive, resorts overlooking white sand beaches and the crystal waters of the region. A growing army of scuba divers and snorkelers has discovered the fantastic beauty of the reefs, where visibility sometimes extends an astounding 200 feet underwater. Fishing enthusiasts see the reefs as a unique tropical paradise for every species of game fish that thrives in the Caribbean waters. And aficionados of the tropics delight in the undeveloped nature of the islands.
The rich flora and fauna. Some 500 species of birds live in the coastal savannas, mangrove swamps, and jungles that lie thick across the mountainous north and south. Giant tapirs, huge iguanas, crocodiles, howler and spider monkeys, ocelots, peccaries, anteaters, and the most handsome of New World cats, the jaguar, are among animals that thrive in the country's jungles.
A superb collection of these indigenous animals, and many of the exotic birds, are found in the Belize zoo. It was founded five years ago by a determined American animal lover, Sharon Matola, and is in the savannas some 50 miles from Belize City.
Numerous Mayan ruins, hundreds of which have never even been explored, testifying to the glory of meso-American culture. It reached its zenith in Belize from about AD 100 to AD 1000. Two of the most spectacular are Zunantunich, in the southern part of the country near Guatemala, and Altun Ha, north of Belize City. Both are accessible by car. The highest man-made structure ever erected in Belize is still the 1,000-year-old main temple at Zunantunich.
Archaeologists working at ruins in Lamanai welcome visitors, who can reach the site only by hiring a power boat in the village of Orange Walk for a 1-hour cruise down the New River to the ruins. En route they will pass Shipyard, one of the two farm settlements operated by industrious Mennonites, and be treated to an endless display of tropical birds.
Belize is some six days' drive from Texas. Most visitors from the United States fly in, landing at Belize City. Its population of some 40,000 is more than a fourth of the sparsely settled nation's mixture of Europeans, Creoles, Garnigus, Mestizo Indians, Mayans, Chinese, Mennonites, Lebanese, and East Indians.
Belize City was founded in a mangrove swamp by a mixture of brigands, pirates, adventurers, and lumber barons who enjoyed its relative inaccessibility to governments imposing laws and taxes. The fact that it is only 18 inches above sea level made sewage disposal a major problem. Nineteenth-century British engineers came up with one solution -- open canals. Today, as Belize struggles to put its sewage underground, wags say the effort is eliminating half of its British heritage: law and odor.
Coddled tourists will find little in Belize City to excite them. It has no elegant shopping, picturesque open markets, glamorous night life, or luxury hotels. Belizean artisans, however, offer for sale miniature wooden dolphins, birds, and boats. Also on the market are examples of exquisite gold, silver, and black coral jewelry, often with a Mayan motif, made by jewelers huddled in tiny, ill-equipped shops.
Though Belize City has aspects of a tropical Appalachia, the absence of slums indicates relatively decent living standards for a Central American country. Visitors tend to focus on hotel dining rooms for meals, but there are several satisfying restaurants in the city, including Macy's, the Barracks, Mom's, and, at nearby Gracie Rock, Mrs. Young's. Forgo the Chinese dishes. They tend to be examples of how bad Chinese cooking can be. Try local dishes. They always include rice and beans, plus eggs for breakfast, and fish or meat for dinner.
There are only a handful of first-rate hotels in the country. In Belize City, these include the nation's largest, the 41-room Fort George, which boasts one of the half-dozen swimming pools in the nation, and two pleasant neighbors, the Villa and the Ch^ateau. The nine-room Mopan Hotel, which looks like a weatherbeaten refugee from New England, is run by Tom and Jean Shaw, ardent conservationists with an encyclopedic knowledge of the country's wildlife. Their hotel is an unofficial headquarters for bird lovers from around the world.
Small and attractive resorts are found on a half-dozen cays, including Ambergris, Caulker, Long, and the cays of the Turneffe Islands.
One of the most charming of the interior mountain resorts is Chaa Creek. Guests live in palm-thatched huts decorated with Mayan weavings. The resort provides dugout canoe trips down jungle rivers, hiking and horseback, and visits to Mayan ruins and to a number of huge limestone caves.
Belize has a warmth unusual among Caribbean and Central American countries where tourists are usually tolerated only as dollar-bearing intruders. But visitors are expected to fend for themselves in where to go and what to see. Group tours are almost nonexistent. Accredited local travel services can be extremely helpful.
Belize's backwater charm may be threatened, however, by a new motion picture, ``The Mosquito Coast,'' starring Harrison Ford. The movie, based on a book by Paul Theroux, has been filmed in Belize. Who knows, after it is released Belize could become the newest star on the tourist circuit. Practical information.
Belize is served by TACA, SAN-SAHSA, and Challenge airlines. Cays are reachable by charter boat or domestic airlines. The mainland has a network of highways, usually in fair to bad condition. Car rentals are available in Belize City. The water is generally potable, but the fastidious can find bottled water in several large, well-stocked supermarkets in Belize City.