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Sure, the island life is a sweet one. But don't leave Belize without taking a short drive from the coast and discovering a different world:

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1. Go low: The ATM cave The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave was a Mayan place of sacrifice and worship about 2,000 years ago. It's largely untouched, and only a handful of guides are licensed to take small groups in. We trek for half an hour in the jungle, cross a river three times, swim into the cave, climb rock walls, squeeze through tight spaces and wade through neck-deep water crossing slippery rocks at every turn, with nothing more than a headlamp and helpful guide.

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We come across dozens of untouched artifacts that were used in sacrifice rituals, like these pots - complete with the hole that allowed spirits to escape, according to Mayan beliefs.

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Straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, the relic at the journey's end is worth it: a complete skeleton, known as the crystal maiden, who sparkles from centuries of calcification.

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2. Go high: Climb the high temple The options are plentiful if you’re looking for Mayan ruins in Belize. My favourite was Lamanai.

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The trip begins with a 60-minute boat ride along a twisting river, where we came incredibly close to crocodiles, unusual flora and spider monkeys.

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We're delivered right to the foot of the Mayan site, which features staggering structures that date back 3,000 years.

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I channeled my inner Lara Croft, clutched the rope, and scaled the High Temple.

noah vardon The Globe and Mail

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The view from the top was priceless: 360 degrees of temples, palm tree canopy, and jungle. You can't help but think of a Mayan, praying to the gods here 3000 years ago. (They built this high temple to be closer to the heavens.)

noah vardon The Globe and Mail

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The calendar used by the Mayans. (And no, 2012 isn't the end of the world - just the end of a cycle.)

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3. Go urban: Head to San Ignacio This is a walkable city with charming outdoor restaurants, inexpensive shoe stores (handy, after trekking in the jungle) and many cultures coming together, with strong Mennonite, Chinese and Lebanese pockets. Green hills, vines with bright purple blooms on every wall.

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After six days at sea, Martha’s Guesthouse - an upscale bed and breakfast in the heart of San Ignacio - was a welcomed respite.

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We stayed and swung in the hammock on our patio that overlooked the city.

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This is one of the friends I made in the city: Two-year-old Devara eats a guava, while her mom - Casey, another new friend - gave me a manicure.

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4. Go wild: Crooked Tree lagoon The wetlands at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, about 50 kilometres outside Belize City, feel like an entirely different country. We stayed at Bird's Eye View Lodge, built on the expansive lagoon's edge. This is the view from our room.

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Cashews are big business in Crooked Tree: I ate cashew jam, drank cashew wine, and - obviously - ate bagfuls of cashews. A word to the wise: when cashews are still on the tree, they're filled with toxic acid. Only after roasting are they edible (and delicious.)

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I saw dozens of bird species (there are more than 300 in Crooked Tree alone), including the snail kites...

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..Osprey..

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..Blue Herons...

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... And black-collared hawks.

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