Monday, 20 May 2013


I am not sure if it possible to be completely taken with a country after a mere 11 days of travel but if it is then Belize is the one for me.
When I say that I had no pre-conceptions or notions of what to expect of Belize I mean it. We had only decided a couple of weeks before that our route would take us from Mexico to Guatemala via Belize and not the other way around so I hadn't really had a chance to read up on the country - I knew absolutely nothing, so imagine my confusion when I went to the bank just over the border and found a much younger and attractive Queen Elizabeth II smiling back at me!

Let's do us all a favour and summarise the key facts:
  • Belize is small - only 180 miles long and 80 miles wide
  • It is bordered by Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south and the Caribbean Sea for the entire eastern coast - contributing to the very laid back lifestyle
  • Unlike the rest of Central America, English is the official language although Spanish and Kriol are commonly spoken
  • The reason for this is that the conquering Spanish did not settle in Belize due to its lack of gold and very defiant indigenous Mayan population, so it was pretty much left to itself until the English colonised it in the 18th century when they exploited the country for its timber reserves
  • The English brought slaves with them and once abolished it was the newly freed people along with the Mayan's that shaped the country into what it is today - one chilled out place boi
  • The Belizean flag sums it all up and has both a black man and a white / Hispanic man standing either side of a tree in unity - one love!
With the short history lesson out of the way, let's pick up where we last ended.
We left Tulum for the Mexican border town of Chetumal and I didn't even think to sit back and savour what was to be both our last comfortable bus seat and air-conditioned first class bus.
Because we had done no research I fully expected to change buses at the Chetumal bus terminal and carry on the journey over the border via immigration and into Belize.
This was not in fact the case.
Instead, we had to catch a cab to the New Market (new in 1940) and board one of the many waiting chicken buses. Public transport for most of Central America is the chicken bus, a retired North American school bus used for shifting both people and livestock around. The buses are operated by 2 people - the racing driver and the 'helper' who takes care of ticket payment and arranging passenger luggage at the back of the bus via the skill we all call 'chucking it'.
As for the comfy seats and air con? We were back to basic travel now - no such thing as a comfortable seat and put the windows down if you're hot.

If I was initially clueless about Belize I knew I would be probably ok as soon as we got onto the chicken bus. The driver was on the bus DIY entertainment system trying out the quality of a pirate copy of Iron Man 3 (just in the cinemas now) and once that got the ok he put on the DVD for the trip - music videos of a lot of big booty shaking hoes with a bit of classic reggae in between at full volume.

Within 20 minutes of leaving we arrived at the border and this just added to my growing excitement of getting to this new country. Firstly we had to pay the Mexican's the equivalent of $30 each just for the pleasure of leaving (cheeky mofo's) whereas then passing into Belizean territory we got a "Hello", "Enjoy your stay" and a lovely brightly coloured tourist map with pretty pictures on it!

Back on the rickety bus over the dusty rough roads we made our way inland to the frontier feeling town of Orange Walk. The name sounds much nicer than the reality of the place we found ourselves in.
Leaving the bus and immediately feeling the heat wrap us up in its warm welcoming embrace I wished that we had pre-booked a room so as to avoid an aimless wander around the streets but this gave rise to our first and certainly not last contact with a very helpful local.
The first hotel that we tried was full but the receptionist gave us a complete run down of who else was full and who had rooms available; and so we ended up at Akihito - a Japanese owned hotel run by a Taiwanese conspiracy theorist. (He told me to enter false details on the form so that the government couldn't have the data)
There isn't really much of a need to describe Orange Walk Town for you because it didn't have any discernible features; it was hot, dusty, there were a lot of drunks in the streets and a high number of Chinese restaurants.
It shouldn't really come as a surprise when you consider the rest of the world but every supermarket and store in Belize is run by the Chinese / Taiwanese. I wondered how the Belizean man on the street felt about this and to quote Peter, our guide later in the trip:
"Yeah da Taiwanese own all da shops but dey also cook some damn fine fried chicken so it's good man"

Back to Orange Walk; we came here with the sole mission of seeing yet another Mayan ruin - Lamanai ('Submerged Crocodile' in Yucatec Maya). On reflection I am not sure why we are touring them all but we will visit another in Guatemala in a couple of days time!
After a little shopping around we decided on the tour supplied by the Lamanai Riverside Retreat, purely because they were located by Orange Walk's best feature, the river, and we could sit under an umbrella and sup on a bottle of Belizean Belikin beer.

The following morning we headed to the rendezvous point and began our day long tour to Lamanai, consisting of a 2 hour wildlife boat cruise followed by a tour of the ruins and lunch.
Coming along for the ride with ourselves and Carlos the guide was Matt and Adam, a father and son from Atlanta, Georgia who just flew in for the day from Belize's Caribbean islands, as you do. $150 return flight that takes 15 minutes one way whereas it took us 2 buses and a boat over a combined total of 5 hours!!
Kimberly (aged 70), her own cushion and husband Bob (aged 65), from California also joined us and something about her immediately rubbed me up the wrong way. It was probably the dodgy looking face lift and the fact that she got into the boat and said to me and AJ, "Morning ladies".
Yes the hair was down but I hadn't shaved and I am not a butch lesbian!!
I set her straight by saying "and man" but she dismissed me with a wave of the hand.

The boat trip along the New River to the ruins was an enjoyable affair - we saw crocs, snail hawks, black kites, kingfishers, iguanas, miniature bats roosting on a tree trunk, various fauna such as orchid and devils gut cacti, but the pick of the spots would have to be the expectant Spider Monkey who came aboard the boat to collect his daily banana.
We also passed by another of Belize's cultural surprises - a farm belonging to one of the numerous Mennonite communities.
Mennonites are essentially Amish (they are not but for this blog they are) and according to Wikipedia there were over 10,000 in Belize in 2008. Like the Amish they are self sufficient, they live a basic lifestyle and you can see them trading their wares with the locals in their funny hats, dungarees and beards all over the country. You can't trust Wiki but it says that the Mennonites birth rate is 42 per 1,000 whereas for the rest of Belize it is 30 per 1,000 - so who knows what the country will be like in the long term future - given that there are a lot of American's that are also settling here.

I digress.
Once we arrived at the ruins we were thankful that the tour was over within 45 minutes. Yes the ruins hidden in the jungles were nice and climbing the 3rd largest pyramid in the Mayan world was sweaty but enjoyable work but the sheer number of mosquitoes feasting on us made it all intolerable.
The site was only discovered in 1917 and amongst the many items found was an offering of jade, pearl and crystals all in jars atop a pool of liquid mercury!

Over a traditional Belizean lunch of rice, beans, curried chicken and fried plantains we got to know Kimberly and Bob a little better and they were now traveling through their 105th country and had been all over the world - plus having to pay $4,000 to get out of an Afghan jail because they exceeded their visas by 1 day!!
Just as we were about the leave Kim pulled Arancha to one side and like a random old granny let her in to her biggest traveling secret:
"Panty liners; they are a ladies godsend and will help you with excess wee drip and your sweaty bits"
We were given 20 minutes to relax before leaving and Bob of Bob and Kim set his stopwatch to make sure that he wouldn't miss the boat.
Kimberly also timed our journey on the way back - for some unknown reason.

That evening back in Orange Walk we were surprised to find that the entire town was crowded into the central square to celebrate Mother's Day (a different date for the rest of the world than the UK). I think only in Belize are some mothers called up to the front to see who can down a bottle of beer first.
I also had one woman tell me that I was handsome but with her gold teeth she looked like Jaws out of James Bond's Moonraker so I couldn't reply in kind.

We left Orange Walk Town and boarded the bus still unsure as to where we were actually headed to next so we left it up to chance and whatever information we could gather at our first bus change in the former capital of Belize City.
Of the possible destinations 2 of them appeared to be a trifle difficult to get to and given the temperatures we just couldn't be arsed with it, so we decided on Dangrega, the gateway to the southern Cayes (islands).

Belize City was once the capital city and was almost entirely destroyed in 1961 by a hurricane. In 1970 the government was moved to the new capital of Belmopan and we managed to pass through both the former and current capital cities in one trip without looking around either - apparently they are both crap anyway.

Our next stop in Belize, Dangrega was a very low key by the sea sort of place. Everything is still a little old school here so being a Sunday nothing was open as everybody spends the day with family. We made our way to the coastline and passed through the many wooden shacks that still adorn the streets of Belize some of which were belting out either Bob Marley (seriously, he is everywhere here and it totally fits the vibe) or Punta as we were now in the land of the Garifuna people.
(Arancha's new nickname is Gari in honour of this)

We came across Ruthie's Cabanas and Ruthie herself gave us the grand tour once she tore herself away from her chair on the beach and so we spent the night in a cabana (shack) right on the beach, had Ruthie do our laundry and that evening sat down in her kitchen to tuck into some home cooked rice, beans, curried pork (I swear it was goat), potato salad and chilli salad.
You would think that all that was enough to make Ruthie's Cabanas a memorable stopover but the evening was only just starting:
  • I rolled over on the bed to see a used condom on the floor - lovely
  • At 3am in the morning I woke up to what I thought was Arancha's sleepy hand tickling my stomach. I groggily looked down and saw that her hand was away from me and I could still feel something which was when I then discovered to my horror that I had a cockroach of considerable size walking up my belly towards my face!! I can proudly say that I did not scream but after Arancha helped me dispose of the critter every wisp of air that touched one hair on my body saw me jumping up to check
As you can imagine I was pleased to be leaving Ruthie's the next day but not just because of the roach; we were on the look out for a boat to take us to paradise.
Timing it perfectly we got to the correct coastal inlet as a little motor boat was just about to leave for Tobacco Caye, so along with an eastern European couple we jumped aboard and set out across the open ocean for the 30 minute journey which left us two and only us saturated.

Tobacco Caye - simply the most idyllic location I have yet had the fortune to reside upon. As we curved round the larger Man O War Caye we got our first view of Tobacco and I will have to say that it was a picture postcard - a small island on its own in a blue lagoon covered in palms and a few wooden huts.
Tobacco Caye is the size of about 3 football pitches and sits above part of the world's 2nd largest coral reef over crystal clear waters and is surrounded by thousands of shells - those huge ones that you see in old people's houses. I have never seen so many and shame on me because all I could think about was how much money was sitting there.
Mainly because we were marooned and were limited on choice we decided to treat ourselves and stay at the nicest place on offer and so began 2 all inclusive (meals) days of bliss idling our days away on the deck with hammock and sun chair that sat over the ocean watching the 4 foot southern rays glide by within touching distance as well as snorkelling.
During our thrice daily snorkel sessions we spotted all sorts of sea life amongst the dazzling coral such as squid, tropical fish, sting rays, southern rays, barracuda and hermit crabs.
Whilst on the island we had the good fortune to be staying next to a really interesting French / Brazilian couple who we will definitely be meeting up with in Brazil for Carnival. They were on the penultimate country of an epic 40 country world trip and when it comes to professional travel blogging these are the guys to come to. They are literally on the verge of making this wonderful way of life a profession and currently have articles published in their newspapers back home and visitors to their website numbering 20,000.
For anyone considering a world trip, this is the website for you:

I have talked about the dubbed Hollywood films that we have watched on the various buses traveling through Mexico and during these myself and Arancha have speculated about whether the actors who are the voice overs are stars in their own right ie. Brad Pitt's Spanish voice is used for every Brad Pitt film etc?
Well guess what - they are!
In one of those odd backpacker conversations we discovered that Alexis (of the Brazilian couple) was in fact a French voice over 'actor' in Brazil. He also told us that growing up in France there was a voice over star who died and when his next role came up and it was a different person doing the voice for George Clooney (let's just say it was him) there was an outcry because that wasn't George Clooney's 'voice'.
He also told me that when he first heard Sly Stallone's real voice after years of the French version he thought it was fake. Ha ha.

After 2 days of bliss and 2 fabulous sunsets, of which there would've have been more if they weren't fully booked we left our island getaway and made for yet another caye, Placencia.
Due to the mass development that threatens to overwhelm parts of Belize Placencia is now the caye that you can drive to thanks to the creation of a thin strip of land to lay a road upon its surface.
As we made our way through the building sites and exclusive housing estates for the rich American ex-pats we feared the worst but once in Placencia we were able to breath a sigh of relief. If there is to be an example of how to develop a sleepy seaside community to cope with an influx of tourism then this place is the shining example.
Where there would have been rickety wooden shacks there are now new colourful wooden shacks and where there would have been a sandy path there is now a simple wooden decked pathway adorned with helpful and tastefully coloured signs.
Our sole purpose for coming to Placencia was to snorkel with the spawning whale sharks and even though we knew that we were 2 weeks early for the full moon (the prime action day) we hoped that maybe there had been some sightings and the possibility of a trip out for a swim.

As is the standard way we had nothing booked in terms of accommodation but that really isn't an issue in helpful Belize.
A really cool Rasta guy who we would see everyday during our stay caught sight of us and told us about his friend who had a spare room in a house that he was renting and would we like to take a look?
Not one to miss out on a possible deal we agreed to take a look and 5 minutes later a huge American bloke turned up and introduced himself as Jeff Smith. It turns out that Jeff Smith was ex US army and had just returned from competing a security contract in Afghanistan. He was renting a great house close to the beach for 8 months because he was a tax exile and had no intentions of returning to the US until he had been away for long enough to be counted as living overseas.
If it wasn't for the room being a sauna and the size of a semi detached box room we may have taken it purely for how interesting a night on the beer with Jeff Smith could have been; imagine the stories, but there was also a part of me that was worried that big Jeff could still flip out with PTSD and put a rifle to our heads and take us hostage!
We thanked Jeff and told him we would look elsewhere and soon found a private and less sweaty room for the same price.
We spent the afternoon gathering info at all of the tour and dive shops and unfortunately for us it had been a slow whale shark season to date so we gave up on the idea of hanging around for a couple of weeks and there still being no certainty of a sighting - after all there is always a chance in Honduras!

The next couple of days passed us by and we didn't do a lot. We chilled on the beach, we swam in the sea to cool down, we visited the local bakery to buy fresh meat pies from James, we ate locally and had creole chicken from Omar and jerk and garlic beer BBQ shrimps from Del, plus we cooked our own meal one night and then found that some selfish prick had helped himself to our leftovers which were supposed to be for lunch and to make it worse he left the plate outside of our room!!
Overall, a nice 3 days apart from one incident:
Walking around to find a place to eat we came across a little doggy that had either just been run over or in a fight with another dog - it wasn't so much the obvious broken leg that disturbed us, it was the fact that one eye ball was completely hanging out!! It really turned my stomach and left AJ in a bit of a palava.
Don't worry readers, there were a number of locals on the scene and we could tell that somebody was being called to assist - my money was on Jeff Smith and his big gun!

We were somewhat over the beaches now so it was time to head west and inland to the forests and jungles. Our final town in Belize was San Ignacio which serves not only as the gateway to Guatemala but also the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve where you can undertake a number of activities such as river tubing, exploring caves and abseiling.
The chicken bus from Placencia to San Ignacio was packed and when I say packed I mean it; I was sharing a standard seat with a young Belizean couple and I reckon the sheer volume of bodies on the bus contributed to the radiator blowing just as we entered the outskirts of San Ignacio; but luckily for us we were only a short walk from the market place and town centre.
As we had missed out on the whale sharks we knew that we needed to partake in some sort of activity here to feel like we had given Belize a good go and after some price comparisons we decided to take a tour offered by the very chillaxed David and his Adventure Tours.
Once that was arranged Arancha went to the markets whilst I sat down at the river with the many families and let the fresh river waters wash over my dusty worn down feet.

We were expecting to spend the day in the Pine Forest Reserve with Dave but it was his sidekick Peter who took us out for our trip. Peter wasn't quite as Bob Marley as Dave but he was a funny guy and kept apologising for his hiccups that plagued him for the entire day.
It was really interesting listening to him talk about life and this and that and we were enthralled as he told us about the early life of his Mayan grandmother and African grandfather who came to Belize as a slave and ran off into the jungle to hide and set himself free.
The Reserve itself was an interesting place because in parts it resembled a savannah due to it being decimated by the pine bark beetle and fire that wiped out close to 90% of the trees!
Our day trip consisted of 3 parts:
  1. Rio Frio Cave - a huge cave that resembled standing inside St Paul's Cathedral
  2. Rio On Pools - naturally formed water pools with a river running through them and very slippery rocks linking them all that you can slide across
  3. Big Rock Waterfall - a 75 foot waterfall that crashes down into a pool that you can jump off of rocks into and fight the current to swim right up to and under the waterfall itself. Also, if you sat there for long enough the fish would come up and nibble on your dead skin.
Whilst at Big Rock I got talking to yet another American who was relocating to Belize and here is an account of our short but interesting chat:
  • He is an inventor from Maine who invented a water based paint and oil dissolver that is created entirely from plants and he sold the invention for a lot of cash
  • Obtaining citizenship for Belize is easy and cheap - you only need to remain in Belize for 1 year but can leave for a max of 14 days and the visa costs a total of $480
  • He is buying an acre of land for $40,000 in a self sufficient farming community - not quite Mennonite but not far off
  • There is a plant that can be grown in the country that you can pretty much live off - if times get really bad
  • He will buy a lot of his seed from some super seed company based in Florida - apparently they have seeds for 19 different types of banana and Dole have the rights to one of them!
Our final night in Belize was a simple but enjoyable affair - we ate burritos and watched the local music school concert. No lie, the kids had just finished playing 'Mamma Mia' on the recorder when the teacher announced that they were slowing it down now with a recorder rendition of that Westlife classic 'You Raise Me Up'. It brought a tear to the eyes!! Beaut! Not quite.

And that was that, our too brief a trip to Belize was at an end due to that fact that we really need to get a move on to get to South America before we blow the cash.
Belize - what a great place, fab happy smiley people and still untouched by tourism in so many ways; simply unbelizeable!!


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