Belize is one of my favorite countries, and remains one of my favorite adventures of all time. We traveled from the UNESCO barrier reef system to the border or Guatemala and all points in between. When you visit the ancient Maya sites, there are no guard rails or ropes to keep you from touching or climbing on EVERYthing.
We had two excursions into the tropical rainforest jungle of Belize, which offered windows into the world of the ancient Maya. Last year, when we were in Arizona, we visited the Tuzigoot National Monument, which lies in the Verde River floodplain in Cottonwood. Tuzigoot was built by the Sinagua people between 1125 and 1400 CE.; in Apache, it means “crooked water.” But in Belize, we have visited structures thousands of years older. It’s so hard to grasp.
On Easter Sunday, we traveled a short distance to the Mayflower Bocawina National Park. Arwyn once again was our driver, and our guide along the Southern Highway. In terms of parks, it’s rather compact (11 square miles), but it packs a big wallop. We chose the mostly vertical 2.9K hike up to Antelope Falls, where we ditched our hiking gear and bags, changed in the middle of the forest into bathing suits (there’s nothing as exhilarating as stripping to the skin under cover of giant palms and praying that nobody comes along), and swam in the cool swimming hole formed by the Antelope Falls waterfall. It would’ve been nicer had we had the swimming hole to ourselves, but we enjoyed ourselves all the same. Two small Maya pyramids and nine other structures that were occupied in the late 9th and early 10th centuries are located here. The whole park, for the most part, seemed to have only 10 or 15 people … beyond the swimming, we rarely ran across other humans. On the way home from Bocawina, Arwyn stopped along the Southern Highway, surrounded by Valencia Orange groves, to let us pick a couple of oranges (it’s how we learned to select them). The groves, we learned, are owned by a man in Florida who most often just lets them fall to the ground. The crop from most of the groves is turned into concentrate and makes it way to Florida, where it’s labelled “Florida orange juice.” Tsk, tsk. But they were some pretty good damn oranges, however they’re labelled.
Our next journey into the jungle was on Tuesday, when Santos took us up into the Maya Mountains, to the Maya archaeological site Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-nan-two-neesh). It’s about a mile from the Guatemalan border, and Santos told us the neighboring countries didn’t always have good relations. Santos, by the way, was remarkable. At one point in his life he leased farmland in the Maya Mountains, selling cacao beans to Hershey’s in PA. Cool, right? We rode a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River to reach the ruins. Xunantunich is estimated to have been occupied as early as 1,000 BC, making it two millennia older than that of Tuzigoot. There are three main plazas at the site, with the dominant structure being El Castillo (there’s a photo of my family there). El Castillo rises 130 feet high, with NO guard rails on the way up or down, and is the highest structure in Belize. From the top, on a clear day, you can see for about 11 miles; most days you can see the Guatemalan border, just a mile away. There are a couple of plaster friezes at the site. It’s amazing that we got to (a) actually climb El Castillo and (b) got to touch the friezes. We told the mini me that once the Belizean government caught up with tourism, these things would likely be roped off and no longer accessible to visitors. We learned that the bedrock forms the foundation of many of the structures, but the variety of stones brought in were carried by hand, not cards, meaning the primitive/formative Maya were extremely strong (short) people. In the side-show, you’ll see photos of the ruins, where mounds of earth and grass cover parts of the structures. Before they were excavated (and they’re still in the process; it’s very expensive and slow-going), all but the top levels of El Castillo were covered. Beneath the earth is perfectly formed and preserved stone. Cool, huh?
Simple things, like the way our Mayan guide, Edri, would refer to the people who built El Castillo as “the formative Maya” stick in my mind. Or the way our guide Santos, who took us along the Hummingbird Highway and up into the Mayan Mountains, talked about how “the primitive people followed the animals; when the animals ran, so did the people,” in reference to the destruction incurred at the hands of Hurricane Hattie in 1961 and not standing on the shore watching the ocean, wondering what was happening.
Here are some great sites with information on Maya archaeological sites in Belize:
From North Carolina, it took us four plane hops and a taxi ride to finally arrive in our destination of Hopkins, Belize: Raleigh-Durham to National in DC; DC to Miami FL; Miami to Belize City; Belize City to Dangriga. That was an adventure in itself, not to mention our first bout of bravery: getting on the 14-seater Tropic Air Cessna in Belize City.
Unlike the big American Airlines birds that took 45 minutes to board, then wait in line to taxi down a long runway, the Tropic Air crew walked into the small Belize City airport and called out, “If you’re on Tropic Air flight 541, come on.” We followed them out onto the tarmac, walked up three tiny stairs, hooked our seatbelts and before we could put our sunglasses back on the pilot was going. No time to panic or worry about the gerbils running the engine or the plane being held together with chewing gum and rubber bands. We were airborne, and on our way to adventure. Our landing was nothing less than exciting. With the short double-driveway length runway, the wheels touched down and the pilot drifted us. The mini me thought it was as awesome as the drifting in The Fast and the Furious. In this case, I agree.
But it was spectacular. The small airplane flew low so we could see the countryside during our 15 minute flight that would’ve taken two hours by taxi. Belize has a tropical rainforest, and the jungle extends from the mountains in the west all the way to the Caribbean in the east. Sort of like here in North Carolina, if you follow the highways from Murphy to Manteo, you’ve gone from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the serene sands of the Crystal Coast of the Atlantic Ocean. There’s a stretch of about three miles of natural savannah between Silk Grass and Hopkins, but the tropical jungle picks back up again on the coastline with the palm, coconut and mangrove trees.
Hopkins, our operations center
In the Lonely Planet’s guide for Belize, Hopkins is listed as one of the Top 25 Experiences. I agree. It’s a “low-key Garifuna town where life hasn’t changed much in decades.” Located in the Stann Creek District, Hopkins is a town we’d go back to again and again. It’s small (about 1.5 mile stretch), rustic nature spoke to us, and over the eight days of our vacation, we were as familiar with many of the locals as they were with us. The beaches are beautiful, though the cove where we stayed (Parrot’s Cove Lodge) had lots of sea grass washing up on the shoreline and dangling in the waist-high water.
We traveled on Holy Friday, which was very low-key. The streets of Hopkins were blocked for a time while the different church congregations congregated down the main street following a man carrying a cross. It was quite a lovely reenactment. Saturday morning we used the Lodge’s bright yellow bicycles to ride two miles into town to have breakfast at Thongs Café. Since I’m not a dairy/cheese eater, I decided the bacon and eggs would be a great way to get protein during the day. The eggs were fresh, from the chickens we could see running around the yards in front of us. The bacon was uncured, and seemed more like a slice of ham. The mini me had French toast every day, and the mister had the Thongs French Toast (same as our son’s, but with sliced bananas and toasted coconut). We all had the fruit salad everyday, which was thick slabs of fresh, local pineapple, papaya, Valencia oranges, and bananas.
We used Saturday to acclimate to the humidity (though it was no hotter than May in NC, it was still rather chilly when we left home) and to get used to the two time-change. Belize is in Central time, but they don’t observe daylight savings time. We found a grocery store and bought a loaf of bread, oatmeal, Ovaltine biscuits, peanut butter, grape jelly, chips, Oreos, local Guatemalan coffee, and dry creamer. The eggs were in loose crates, so there was no way we could transport them, and the dairy was unpasteurized, which meant that lingering in town and riding the 35 minutes down the bumpiest road I have ever been on would spoil it. By the way, the local grocery stores are owned by Chinese residents, an interesting little bit of information. I was going to buy fruit at the local fruit stand, but everything looked different. I had to ask somebody at the Lodge how to select fruit. The Valencia oranges were green and bumpy, and covered in mold. Yet, that meant they were ready. The papayas were truly ugly, and the pineapple had a finer pattern than the broader Dole diamond shapes in our NC groceries.
Now we were armed with a way to reduce our meal costs. We only ate lunch out once, where I had the best grouper sandwich in the history of ever. Otherwise, we packed lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, dried fruit and nabs (which we packed in from the states), water, chips, and Ovaltine biscuits. Four of our days, we had adventures that departed between 7:30 – 8:00 am, so we didn’t have time to ride down to Thongs Café, so we had oatmeal.
We had dinner at four different restaurants: Chef Robs (always wonderful), Barracudas Bar and Grill (I do not recommend it … the boys enjoyed their meals, and my very expensive grouper was rubbery like calamari and just, bad), Jaguar Reef (the only restaurant open on Easter Sunday, and while very “Americanized,” it was perfect for a nice Easter dinner when we were starving), and Love on the Rocks (the mister’s favorite meal) our last evening. The concept of Love on the Rocks is not unlike The Melting Pot in the states, where you cook your meal at your table. LotR uses lava rocks cut into squares, and heated to 700 degrees F. The meat is seasoned wonderfully, and you cook it at your table in like 5 minutes. I had shrimp kabobs and the mister had red snapper and shrimp. But holy hell, the food is HOT. You know, like hot like lava.
Breakfast, as I mentioned earlier, was either in the kitchenette in our suite, or at Thongs. When I reflect back on our trip in the years to come, I will always smile when remembering Thongs Café. It was our grounding point; we could sit on the porch under the palm-thatched roof, with the mild breezes cooling us after our hot bike rides, talking and laughing and planning the day, synching our technology so we could touch base with home. It was our one luxury, and one I cannot recommend highly enough. Once we figured out how to buy the fruit, we added big chunks of fruit to our oatmeal.
Lunches were on the go and were mostly tried and true PBJs. You can’t go wrong with that. Though, we ate at Thongs one day (grouper sandwich for me, papaya smoothie for the mister, French toast for our son), and at Benny’s Kitchen another. Benny’s kitchen was in San Jose Succotz, and we ate a late lunch there after visiting the Xunantunich Mayan ruins. That was actually my favorite meal, and it was a simple rice and beans (cooked together; beans and rice are cooked separately, we learned) and stewed chicken with fried plantains. I had a fruit punch Fanta and the mister had a Biliken Beer. Our mini me had water, and finished off my Fanta. OMG.
I’m posting photos with this post of the countryside in Belize, with images taken from our treks between Belize City to Dangriga; the city of Hopkins; along the Southern Highway from Dangriga to Hopkins; along the Hummingbird Highway on the way from Hopkins to San Jose Succotz; and points in between.
– – > Stay tuned for jaunts into the jungle and out to the Cayes.
THIS JUST IN
So, we just read that the areas where we stayed (Stann Creek District) are at high risk for malaria and Dengue fever … and river blindness for swimming in natural streams and ponds, according to the CDC. Shit. Our doctors said no, you don’t need any special shots for Belize. Do we go now, after the fact, to get shots?
I could probably pinpoint my fascination with Central and South America to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s glory days in the mid-80s, with Commando and Predator. Oh, I was hooked. The hot, humid temperatures … the thick jungles … the flaring muscles and tempers! Hell, it was pretty close to summertime in my native North Carolina. Well, minus the hopped up muscles. But it never occurred to me that I’d actually go there.
In January, I was able to accompany the mister to Grand Cayman on a business trip. This was no parasailing, pina colada-swigging, screaming children at the Nickelodeon hotel vacation. No, this was paradise all the way. What a grand way to experience the Caribbean Sea for the first time: no pressure, relaxing, beautiful weather, romantic. We loved the snorkeling and the clear water. The tradewinds in the tropics hold the temperatures at a comfortable level, and the steady breeze keeps your hair out of your eyes (or in it, depending on which way you’re going). I’ve lived in North Carolina, and gone to those beaches, for thirty five years. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the waters in North Carolina are warm, and the waves choppy and active (just as we like it). But the water is always green and murky. Plus, there are no coral reefs, no brightly colored tropical fish, and if there are sharks in the area, you’re screwed because you don’t see them coming. But in the Caribbean … sigh. There’s no sneaking up there.
Last year we took our son adventuring in Arizona for his spring break. We’d been to Arizona before, to Tucson and Tombstone; but last year we went to Phoenix, Sedona and the Grand Canyon. Since we loved the snorkeling so much, we knew this year we wanted to take him to the Caribbean. Only, we’re not interested in resort traveling. We like to get dirty and learn about a new culture; we like to break out the maps and follow the wind; we like, as our son calls it, to go adventuring. Costa Rica was our first choice, having been on my mind for nearly two decades after a colleague in advertising in the mid-90s raved about her eco-tour to Costa Rica. But our son was adamant: no Costa Rica. The things that fascinated me about Central America were the very things that worried him—namely, the “drug cartels and the kidnapping.” Granted, these are concerns in a great portion of the world, but not in Costa Rica. So when he suggested Belize, one country north on the Yucatan Peninsula, we did our research. Aside from John MacAfee hiding out in Belize with his bizarre evasion, it was foreign to us. But we liked it immediately.
Here are some basics:
- The currency is the Belize dollar (BZ$), which translate roughly to two BZ$ = one $US.
- While you do need a passport to get into and out of Belize, you do not need a Visa as an American. That’s because Belize was once under the British Empire (known at one time as British Honduras). Everyone, for the most part, speaks English (it’s the official language).
- The population is 333,200, whereas the number of annual visitors is over one million. Since most folks work with tourists, they’re pretty friendly and accepting of the industry.
- There are over 300 native orchid species and over 100 coral species. Even I could grow them in Belize.
- Belikin is the native (and only) beer of Belize. And it’s the bomb. By the way, they have Pineapple, Grape and Fruit Punch Fanta in Belize. Wake up America! We need these things locally.
- The roads in the south of Belize, where we stayed, are terrible. Once we turned off of the Southern Highway on our taxi trip from Dangriga to Hopkins, we had 5.9 miles of sheer rutted torture. They tell us that it’s roughly $1M for 1 mile of road. In 2010, 43% of the people lived below the poverty line and unemployment was around 13%. Do the math.
- There is an interesting mix of people living in Belize today. Officially, they can be broken down, roughly, into Mestizo (a blend of Spanish and Amerindian descent); Creoles (descendants of African slaves); Maya (many traditional Maya live in the south, where we traveled); Garifuna (descendants of shipwrecked African slaves from the 17th century); and Mennonites (yes, Mennonites, complete with their 16-th century clothing, bonnets, beards, blue eyes and blond hair). We also met a large number of ex-pats, which makes my imagination run rampant. Remember I mentioned my fascination with 80s-era Schwarzenegger?
- Talk to everyone. Our guides, taxi drivers, housekeepers, shopkeepers, waiters, and just folks we met while adventuring were proud of their country and their heritage. When I asked if they identified more as a Caribbean nation or a Central American one, they uniformly said: “we are Belizeans.”
We loved Belize. Everything about it. It was affordable, safe, adventurous, educational, monumental, timely (with the new phase of the Mayan calendar) … and priceless. To travel to a developing nation with our 15 year old child; to witness his curiosity explode as he took in the tropical rainforest and jungles, the UNESCO World Heritage barrier reef, the ancient Mayan temples, the waterfalls and the ancient Mayan trails; to know that he engaged in conversation with people from the different cultures as easily as he does his friends at school, without judgment and with earnest curiosity about their days. Who knows how much longer we’ll have access to these treasures? I am so thankful for a husband with an adventurous spirit and generous heart, and to a child who recognizes the differences … yet find common ground … with the people of Belize.
Stay tuned for more Beautiful Belize posts. I’ve got more planned. 🙂