Expo the launch point for exploring natural beauty of Belize

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Eladio PopAt the Belize Tourism Expo (Betex) in Belize City this spring, Denise Ockley, Betex committee chairwoman, ended her speech by saying, "My husband and I came for the weather, but we stayed for the people."

I came to Belize for the Betex trade fair but can say the locals were the highlight of this trip, which took me on a whirlwind sampler of much of the country.

My group's first stop was Ambergris Caye, boasting beautiful beaches, crystal-blue water, moderate prices and a pretty good nightlife scene.

Here, the Xanadu Island Resort offers thatched-roof bungalow suites with expected amenities like flat-screen TVs, WiFi and a large pool surrounded by ferns and palms. Xanadu holds Green Globe Certification, which recognizes sustainable practices.

For a wildly different experience, we next went to Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Jungle Lodge. Transfer from the airport was via an old bus in need of a Merry Pranksters paint job. We pushed through the brush, a dry riverbed and an orange grove before finally disembarking and taking up inner tubes.

Guides paddled with us through the caves and pointed out Mayan artifacts, three species of bats and even, despite a frightening appearance, a friendly whip scorpion.

The crown jewel of the trip was a short flight away to Punta Gorda and the Belcampo Lodge, which boasts exquisite decor, location, food and accommodations.

Combining sustainability with the pleasures of fly-fishing, yoga and spa treatments, it's easy to see why this agriculturismo is the escape that approaches perfection.

On a tranquil river cruise on the Rio Grande, Belcampo's general manager, Mara Jernigan, spoke of making the property a sustainable getaway: Belcampo's farms provide all food for its guests and are expanding to produce cacao and rum.

And then, there was the chocolate -- the raw kind. We met Eladio Pop, whose Agouti Cacao Farm supplies Cadbury and smaller chocolatiers. Swinging a machete from side to side to clear a path for us, Pop frequently stopped for demonstrations, such as how one plant stops a bleeding wound, and another relieves a headache.

We tasted fresh cacao straight from the tree, then lunched at Pop's home, where he explained how the Mayans prepared cacao centuries ago.

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