Mother Nature stars on Caribbean trip

A Swim With Dolphins adventure in Cozumel, Mexico, ends with a kiss for a dolphin and Kathy Van Mullekom.

A trip to four ports on a seven-day cruise in the Western Caribbean is a lesson in lean versus luxury living.

In Roatan, Honduras, laundry hangs to dry under the protection of stilt-built, stark-looking houses because it's always raining — 100 inches a year — and few people can afford a clothes dryer.

In Cozumel, Mexico, pretty houses painted pastel colors dot the roadways while sunbathers frequent beautiful beaches.

Belize is somewhere between economically, thanks to retirees flocking there for upscale homes priced around $250,000.

In Mexico, Costa Maya is pretty, too, but only along the shoreline where cruise liners dock so tourists can see sights such as ancient Mayan ruins.


Even so, each port offers beauty among its wildlife and plants, showing how Mother Nature shares her bounty while ignoring the differences in living standards.

Here's what we saw and experienced on our Royal Caribbean International trip, which left from Tampa, Fla.:

Roatan, Honduras:Gumbalimba Park is a 20-acre, beachfront park that features something for all ages, especially anyone who likes close-up interaction with exotic animals – jump-on-your-shoulder monkeys, hovering metallic-green hummingbirds, free-roaming iguanas, free-flying exotic birds and other animals native to the jungle-like environment. A hanging bridge takes you across a lake and past tropical outdoor plants that grow as houseplants in the U.S. You also see the park's namesake, the gumbalimba tree, with its red, exfoliating bark and deep-green leaves. Once you finish walking the park, you can enjoy the pool, relax on the beach or eat at a cafe. Learn more about the park at .

Belize:A 22-mile boat ride up the 180-mile New River takes you past manatees and, if you are lucky, a show-off dolphin or two that leap and dive around your vessel, much to everyone's delight. The boat was open, allowing rain and water to splash everyone, but the guide's entertaining narrative kept everyone tuned to the sights. You disembark at the New River Lagoon, where you can enjoy lunch and laugh at the antics of monkeys in nearby trees. The lagoon also showcases Belize's national flower, the black orchid. From there, a one-hour bumpy bus ride — roads are not good in Roatan or Belize — to the Mayan ruins of Lamanai fills the afternoon. Remnants of stone buildings, some mere rubble and others reaching several stories skyward, date back to 1500 B.C. It's a seven-hour excursion that sounds long, but the time actually passes quickly.

Costa Maya, Mexico:Another bus trip to Mayan ruins meant a ride along better but still bumpy roads. These ruins, however, feature their own kind of mystery. Shrouded in a dense jungle-like atmosphere, the ruins host moss and small trees growing out of the handmade bricks you can just envision the Mayan people making for their temples and garden edges. Everyone on a Mayan ruin excursion talks in low voices, almost out of a respect for the way of life that still seems to permeate the site, and the quietness of the moment allows you to hear the sounds of birds flitting through the jungle.

Back at the shoreline where cruise ships dock, modern times welcome you — swim-up bars around the rim of a large, waist-deep public pool, a dolphin show and shopping at open-air stores where shop owners invite you to visit.

Cozumel, Mexico:A third day of Mayan ruins was possible but not desirable. Chankanaab Beach Park, just minutes away from the pier, was a much better choice. The first order of business was a swim with the dolphins. Whereas some dolphin swims can be nothing more than petting the creature's silky-smooth skin as he passes by, this outing was far better. For 45 minutes, our guide shared interesting tidbits about dolphins — they shed their skin every two hours — and taught us commands the dolphin would respond to. Standing in Caribbean-blue water up to our chests, we hung on to the dockside while the dolphin swam back and forth, leaping and diving as she glided effortlessly through the water. Photographers on the dock captured individual images of us as we posed several times with the dolphin. I came home with an $84 DVD of images I'll cherish forever. Next time, I'll swim with the dolphins.

Afterward, we strolled through the beach park's botanical garden, walked on the beach and took in a sea lion show. Lunch in a restaurant fronting the Dolphin Discovery area was tasty and priced right, less than $20 for two generous club sandwiches and drinks. Learn more about Swim with Dolphins at .


Mayan ruins, such as these in Belize, are popular excursions on Western Caribbean cruises.

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