Text and Photos By Tom Bol

first appeared in Kayak Touring 06

Every January I start longing for the upcoming paddling season. I become irritable, and eat far too many Krispy Kreme donuts. Doctors call this phenomenon SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. I have another name for it: SPAD—seasonal paddler's affective disorder. To cure this malady, I have to go somewhere warm, with tropical paddling and guaranteed sunshine. Belize is the perfect antidote.

A few weeks later, with jungle night sounds ringing in my ears, I strain to listen intently as Bernaldo describes a recent encounter. "Dean was coming back here late at night. There was a big jaguar standing right there in the middle of the road," Bernaldo says, pointing to a depression in the dirt road near the cabana where I will soon be retiring to sleep. "Jaguars are everywhere here. Don't worry, though, they never bother people."

Those words are in the back of my mind as I walk down the path to my quaint jungle cabana. An ceaseless insect chorus hums in the humid night air, and howler monkeys banter in the distance. A warm flower-scented breeze blows through the rain-forest canopy. Jet lag and the fear of jaguars slowly lose their grip on my body and island time takes over. Finally, the realization hits—I'm in Belize for the next nine days. I couldn't be happier and can't wait to start paddling its warm azure waters. My first experience in the waters of Belize is quite different, however.

"Jaguars are everywhere here. Don't worry, though, they never bother people."

"Make sure your headlamp is working, and don't have anything in your hands that can't get wet," Bernaldo patiently explains as we turn on our headlamps. "There are a few small rapids, so just keep your feet in front of you to push off any rocks, and enjoy the ride."

Twenty hours after leaving the cold, snowy mountains of Colorado, I'm sitting in an inner tube floating through jungle and limestone caves once used by the Maya for sacrificial offerings. The clear blue river slowly winds out of the cloud-shrouded Maya Mountains, making a patially subterranean journey before reaching the ocean. Our group lazily drifts in the current and enters the vine-covered mouth of an ominous-looking cave. I feel like I'm in an Indiana Jones movie. At one point we turn off our lights to see how dark it is and I can't see my hand two inches in front of my face.

After floating through three consecutive caves, one of which it a giant bat roost, we emerge into the pristine jungle, a colorful contrast to the blackness of the caves. Unlike some other Central American countries, Belize has done an excellent job of protecting its natural environment. Bordered by Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south, and the Caribbean Sea to the east, Belize is about the size of Massachusetts. Approximately half of the tiny nation has been set aside as parks, preserves, and refuges. Eighty percent of its original rain forests have been preserved. Combined with a population of just 250,000—the lowest in Central America—Belize remains pristine, a superb destination for exploring virgin rain forests and paddling idyllic atolls.

As much as I enjoy exploring the jungle, I'm excited about getting in a kayak and logging some ocean miles. The next day we arrive in Dangriga, a small coastal town famous for its Garifuna population, and our departure point for the islands. We board a sleek white powerboat, pile our gear into the holds, and set off for the 35-mile trip to Southwest Caye on Glover's Reef. Named for the English buccaneer John Glover, who marauded Spanish galleons here in the 1700s, this will be our dwelling for the next five days.

"Welcome to Glover's Reef," our head guide, Alex, announces as soon as we land on the beach. "Pick any tent you like and relax in the hammocks or go for a swim. Lunch is in half an hour."

I can already feel my SPAD fading away. For the next few days my only stress is deciding which boat I want to paddle (there are a variety of kayaks lined up on the beach from which to choose), where I want to snorkel, and not getting hit by a falling coconut while hammock surfing. Life is tough.

Glover's Reef is an atoll, by definition a coral island that forms a ring around a lagoon. Over time the sea pulverizes the coral, resulting in dreamy white-sand beaches surrounded by transparent sapphire waters, a virtual tropical paradise. From the air, atolls look like circular turquoise patches pasted on a deep blue canvas. Most atolls are found in the South Pacific, but Belize has three of the four atolls found in the western hemisphere.