Central America: It's a jungle out there

Lost luggage, wrong hotel... They got off to a bad start

We booked our flights to Atlanta and then on to Mexico early last year, long before 11 September. The latest international incident had got our family seriously thinking about a white Christmas in Norway instead, but our pale winter complexions, coupled with the lure of adventure in the jungles of Belize, spurred us on.

We booked our flights to Atlanta and then on to Mexico early last year, long before 11 September. The latest international incident had got our family seriously thinking about a white Christmas in Norway instead, but our pale winter complexions, coupled with the lure of adventure in the jungles of Belize, spurred us on.

The children were on full security alert at the airport, staring at anyone with a remotely Middle Eastern appearance and a beard. There was none of the joie de vivre of a Christmas Day flight. Obviously, we arrived safely, but what happened next tested the humour reserves of a family that is used to the kind of things that go wrong when you book a "challenging" trip independently.

The hotel transfer coach took us to the Radisson. The Christmas dinner on offer and the indoor and heated outdoor pools got the children excited. Handing over our voucher, we were told that we were at the wrong Radisson. Seventy dollars, 35 miles and 50 minutes later we arrived at a deserted Radisson on the outskirts of the city and, guess what, we were the only guests, the restaurant was closed, there was no room service and the pool was outdoors – unheated. We dined on Doritos and a jar of salsa from a nearby petrol station, the only place open, and settled down to watch People's Court on cable. Merry Christmas. It got worse when a bag failed to arrive in Cancun containing all our 15-year-old's clothes. We made an unscheduled trip to Cancun to stock up on shorts and much hated T-shirts at Wal-Mart and Sears.

After dark we arrived at Paamul, a 70-mile drive south of Cancun, for our two-night beach stopover, only to be told that they had no record of our internet booking. We had to try to reason with the non-English speaking evening staff, because it was the only accommodation in Paamul. We succeeded and got our very basic beachfront cabanas (the look on the children's faces said it all: "We have travelled all this way and lost stuff for this?").

Waking up to overcast skies and a cool wind, we wondered whether the trip was going to be a disaster. But, hallelujah, the sun came out and gave us a couple of days in which to go snorkelling and get the basis of a tan. The next stop was Akumal, 30 miles further south. This is probably the Hamptons of the Yucatan, with prices to match, but the laid-back feel and stunning snorkelling at the beautiful Yalku lagoon, where it is like bathing in a giant aquarium with giant turtles swimming around you, made us realise that this could be a holiday to remember.

Two nights there left us wanting more, but the Hemingways gather no moss and it was up at 5am for the four-and-a-half-hour drive down to Xcalak. We had read that Xcalak was a tropical paradise on the remotest coastline of the Yucatan, but driving into the village was a shock. This was like the end of civilisation, a Mad Max scenario of hurricane-ravaged shacks, a flotsam-and-jetsam beach (the oceans rightfully throw back all the rubbish we put in them and most of it seemed to have washed up here). This was as raw as travel gets and if ever there was a good educational argument to throw at our children's teachers for taking them out of school, Xcalak was it.

After a bumpy five miles down a beachside track we found Sinduda Villas, the home of Bob and Margo Reheis, two Americans who chose this remotest of places to run their clean and tidy villa. It's amazing what a difference a rake, shovel and awareness of your environment can make. Consequently, our New Year's Eve was one to remember: Bob showed us the wildlife, the pink roseate spoonbills, the electric blue Yucatan jays, the evil-looking black vultures and the magnificent frigatebirds, with their albatross-size wingspans. The full moon rose in a crystal-clear sky: Bob set up his telescope and got even this lifelong non-star gazer asking for a go.

A punishing 5am start on New Year's Day for the drive down to Belize. Reggae music blasted out from the immigration post, the customs boss who was supposed to sign the forms that would let our Mexican vehicle pass through was asleep in his Chevy and couldn't be roused. Using all the charm we could muster, making our cute four-year-old – whose hair looks like dreads – the centre of attention and waving a letter from the car rental company that said they allowed us to drive into Belize, we got through.

The difference was amazing. We swapped samba and Latin rhythms in a setting of Mayan features for a Caribbean jumble of reggae, dancehall and rap accessorised with American sportswear and huge spliffs. The drive south took us past lush farmland and brightly painted houses on stilts, alongside slow-moving, silt-laden rivers on which you can take trips into the jungle to the many ancient ruins, spotting crocs, howler monkeys and funny looking birds on the way.

A hundred miles down the well maintained highway is Belize City, boasting fantastic colonial-style wooden structures and crippled by poverty. We went shopping and picked up a few locally recorded compilations of the latest "dancehall" sounds and a great assortment of 1980s T-shirts. Our thirst for consumerism slaked, we stuffed a few clothes into our backpacks, paid a petrol-station security guard to look after our minibus and took an exhilarating ride in a high-speed water taxi to Caye Caulker. Packed like sardines beneath a scorching sun we sped over clear blue water and enormous coral outcrops past palm-fringed islands. Just like the Australian Barrier Reef, but only half the distance from home. At Caye Caulker we swam with nurse sharks and six-foot stingrays (our boatman picked them up and cuddled them!). But the beaches were littered with party debris. We were glad to get back to Belize City and happily paid over the odds to get cleaned up in a decent hotel.

Another early start to drive inland along the Western Highway. Breakfast was taken at Belmopan from an Elvis lookalike who was serving up barbecue chicken at the bus station – and he was the least strange-looking individual among the

The Facts

Getting there

Wayne Hemingway and family flew from Gatwick to Cancun via Atlanta with Delta Airlines (0800 414767; www.delta.com). Return flights on that route cost £586. South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience. co.uk) offers flights on Iberia from Heathrow via Madrid and Miami for £485.

A minibus from Caribetur (00 52 983 883 5058; www.caribetur.com) costs £80 per day to rent. Get a letter and all documents, including a copy of the vehicle registration, for cross-border travel.

Being there

Basic cabanas at Paamul Paradise Carib ( www.playaguide.com/paamul) cost from $70 (£50) per night. Akumal Apartments (00 52 984 875 9088; www.akumalvillas.com) rents villas sleeping 10 from $2,500 (£1,785) per week. Sinduda Villas (00 52 983 831 0006; www.sindudavillas.com) at Xcalak offer rooms from $52 (£37) per night

Further equipment

Cave swimming can be arranged through Hidden Worlds (00 52 984 877 8535; www.hiddenworlds.com.mx). An hour's guided snorkel tour costs $25 (£18).

Useful equipment to take with you includes torches, sleeping bags,compass and a satellite phone, available from Cellhire (0800 610 610; www.cellhire.co.uk) for £15 per week.

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