On February 27th, after two months (twice the time we thought we’d spend there) and about 8,000 miles, we finally left Mexico (sob) and crossed the border into Belize. Belize is a former British colony that only gained its independence in 1981. It is still part of the British Commonwealth and thus has the Queen’s image on all its money. Other than that, we couldn’t find much British about it. You get a strong sense of independent pride from the people you meet, regardless of whether they are Spanish, Mayan or Garifuna. Just when we were starting to think in Spanish, we had to switch back to English as that is the main language of Belize.
Crossing the border was pretty straight forward, but Charlotte had to be fumigated, an experience that was a little unnerving. This guy walked around her with a big respirator on, spraying a nasty smelling concoction all over her underbelly.
Importing ourselves and a car into Belize was a breeze. We were done with all the formalities in just over an hour and only had to drive through a final checkpoint. That’s when they told us Vaca Murta had to go – into the dumpster! NOoooo! He had been our good luck charm all through Mexico ever since we’d strapped him on Charlotte’s nose back in Baja. We’d found him, along with the rest of his body, lying in the desert and it just seemed appropriate that he join us. I figured he’d last a day or two but he’s hung with us for 7,000 miles. Although he has lost considerable weight (both jaw bones and lengths of his horns) he has continually brought smiles, points and thumbs up jesters from the fun-loving Mexicans. He couldn’t go to the dumpster! We begged to the stoic faced guards to no avail. Then, pushing our luck, we demanded to speak to the Big Boss. If you don’t A-S-K you don’t G-E-T. After 45 minutes of fussing around and feeling quite foolish, low and behold they issued Vaca his own paperwork (a passport of sorts) and off we went to see Belize together!
Our first stop was Belize City where we picked up my daughter Emily at the airport. We hadn’t seen her in almost a year as she has been living in Australia. She has now moved to Austin, Texas, so it was a relatively short distance for her to travel to see us. Em is a diver, and Belize is one of the top diving destinations in the world, so we planned our week with her around two dive trips and a few other tourist type attractions. Belize would be more of a tourist vacation for us instead of a continuing traveler’s sojourn. However, not to rule out the local flavor, we treated Emily to her first Belize meal at a very local joint called Marva’s in downtown Belize City.
Marva in her kitchen.
Typical Belizean street food. Stewed pork and chicken, rice and beans, potato salad and a fried plantain on the side. Yummmm.
Off on our first dive trip to the barrier reef out of Belize City. Emily made two dives this day.
We stopped at this tiny island for lunch.
Emily’s dive partner, Eli. He worked for the dive company and told us about his wife and two year old daughter and how the two grandmas fussed over the little girl. You could tell he had a very loving family.
In she goes…
Being the desert rats we are, we opted for snorkeling and staying on the surface. Put on some sunglasses to look at that pasty white tourist! Not having an underwater camera we can’t share with you the amazing life we saw. It is truly another world under the sea, full of color and strange other-world looking plants and creatures. Kat and I saw zillions of colorful fish, a turtle, a sting ray and some of the most bizarre plant and coral formations imaginable. Emily saw way more, including a shark. Some of you are on Facebook with her and have probably seen and heard much more.
After our first day’s dive out of Belize City, we hopped an evening ferry to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. We spent the night there and caught a big dive boat the next morning at 5:30am for an all day trip to the Blue Hole and surrounding area where we would do three dives/snorkels.
It was a 2 1/2 hour boat ride out to the famous dive area called the Blue Hole, a 450 foot deep “hole” in otherwise shallow water way out in the middle of the ocean. This picture doesn’t begin to capture how cool it looked. It must be amazing from an airplane. It used to be a mountain cave above ground and has stalactites and other cave-like features to view if you dive it. Kat and I snorkeled the rim while Emily dove to 135 feet here! (Her deepest dive yet!)
Like the day before, for our lunch break the dive boat dropped us off on another tiny island. After eating we checked out the Red-Footed Booby bird colony on the island, but the birds weren’t showing off their red feet to us!
The sea is pretty cool to look at both from above and below, but these two really prefer their feet on dry ground.
After our diving expeditions we set out in Charlotte for the southern part of the country to check out the local Garifuna culture. The Garifuna people are a cultural hybrid of escaped Africans from shipwrecked slave ships, who mixed with the Indians of the Caribbean islands. They speak Creole, a kind of broken English, and are the kindest, happiest people we met in Belize. Our favorite town was Hopkins where we met Kim and her family/friends. She had just opened this little restaurant on the beach and was struggling to make a go of it. She had worked as a chef for ten years out on the island of Caye Caulker (near where we went diving) before coming home to Hopkins and her family’s property to become a private entrepreneur. We ate every meal here and enjoyed chatting with her about her life. She told us the Chinese have been buying up large tracks of land in this area and opening big stores that put the little local shops out of business. Sound familiar? Kind of like Walmart on a third-world scale.
It was good to spend time with my daughter again.
Hanging out with the Garifuna.
Kim’s brother cuts up a fresh fish with a machete while her sister-in-law Paulette supervises. That fish would become our dinner that evening.
Kim made us Hudut, a traditional Garifuna culinary specialty. It is coconut broth fish stew served with a huge mashed plantain ball which you mix with the broth. Delicious.
A happy woman in her own kitchen.
Gotta love the billing and accounting system.
Since only two can sleep in Charlotte we splurged for rooms all week for the three of us. This was the colorful Coconut Row Hotel in Hopkins.
While swimming in the Caribbean Sea in Hopkins, this little girl and her brother swam up and she started braiding Emily’s hair. She didn’t say much but sure was happy playing with blond hair.
Our next adventure was further south down the coast where we met up with Percy in Placencia. Percy took us on his boat even farther south to his home village of Monkey River Town.
Cruising through the mangrove swamps toward Monkey River Town.
Percy’s home town of Monkey River.
A man and his boat.
Percy was a total crack up. Completely full of himself, he has been a river guide up the Monkey River his whole life. He proclaims himself as “King of the Howlers” and guaranteed he would find Howler Monkeys for us. He also claimed to be a “bush medicine man” and showed us just about every plant in the forest and explained how it would cure this or that.
Giant bamboo forest.
Cool birds were everywhere. But of course, being the great birders we are, we didn’t write down the name.
After whacking this tree limb in two with his machete, Percy showed us how to find drinking water in the jungle.
Nope, we didn’t get the name of this one either!
Can you find the crocodile in this picture?
Percy delivered on his promise to find Howler Monkeys. This was the best shot we got of the dozens we saw/heard. They live way up in the jungle canopy and are hard to spot, but the racket they make is unmistakable. They are only two to three feet tall but make the noise of a freight train. It turns out that the Howler Monkey howl is the basis for the dinosaur roars in the movie Jurassic Park.
After leaving the southern coast we headed back north to put Emily back on the plane to Texas. But along the way we had one more adventure. We had to go cave tubing, the number one tourist must-do in Belize. We had earlier passed up the “please the masses” Butts Up tours out of Belize City, who float up to “4,000 people a day” (?) down the Caves Branch river near the city. Likewise, we’d checked out the über expensive Ian Anderson’s “private property” tours. Too snooty for us! Then we found Neko and his little Inland Tours cave trip at the Blue Hole near the village of Armenia and just down the road from hoity-toity Mr. Anderson. Neko is a refugee from Guatemala. Now 37, he came to Belize as a six year old child when he walked with his family for weeks through the jungle to escape his war-torn homeland. His family settled in the then wild jungle with other Guatemalan refugees and formed the village now known as Armenia. Neko explained to us that his people had given the town its name after the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark and the high ground “Armenia,” a place safe from the flood: ie; safe from the random killings of villagers by Guatemalan Government soldiers looking for Guerrilla fighters. After year of squatting on this land, the Belizean Government granted these refugee families each 20 acres and citizenship.
It was a ten minute walk through the jungle to the mouth of the cave.
Into the ground we strode…tubes at the ready.
Bobbing tourists. The cave trip was ultra cool. First we hiked about ten minutes into the cave following the river that flowed inside it. Then we put in and began floating back down, passing through narrow passages and through huge, cathedral-like rooms. At times Neko had us turn off our headlamps and experience total darkness. He encouraged us to listen to the voices of Mayan spirits that he said inhabited the cave. We passed by the entrance where we had entered the cave and continued downriver for another 20 minutes or so. We got out on a sand bar just before the river disappeared into a hole in a wall too small for us to pass through! Then the exercise began as we were instructed to walk back UP the river against the current in knee deep water. When the water got too deep, we got back in our tubes and paddled like mad upstream. At one particularly rapid spot a plastic bottle bobbed on a rope. We grabbed the rope and pulled ourselves up the creek. Kat and I loved this little undisclosed part of the cave ‘float” and encouraged Neko to advertise his tour as featuring this “extra” adventure. We asked him what he did when people couldn’t physically get themselves back up the river. He told us he looks each of his clients over and if his doesn’t think they can handle it, he won’t take them. I’m glad we made the cut considering our Mexican food and beer induced muffin tops and driver’s seat enlarged butts!
Leaving Armenia after the cave trip workout we stopped at this little roadside restaurant for some much needed nourishment. We met Dahlia, the owner/cook/waitress and bottle washer. She fixed us up with some traditional Belizean Fry Jacks with eggs, which quickly replaced any weight we may have lost in the cave.
After saying goodbye to Emily 🙁 we headed for the Guatemalan border where new adventures await. Hungry yet again we stopped at one last roadside stand for BBQ. Joseph and his son Jody served us homegrown pork ribs and chicken which fortified us for our ordeal crossing the border into Guatemala… stay tuned next time!