Belize (March 2000)
Belize. During our 2-week, Indiana Jones-like adventure and odyssey in this tropical paradise, we hear three mottos expressed for the nation: "You better Belize it," "Unbelizeable" and "Belize: Land of a Thousand Adventures." The 3 of us soon discover, during our trip, that these are apt descriptors of a stay in Belize.
A friend and I start off driving to the Orlando airport on a Friday night, and walk the downtown before turning in.
It is our way of evaluating the city.
As I have heard, the city has taken important steps to become more walkable and vibrant at night. The city, for the first time in a long time, is alive with exciting street life at night-especially in the area of Lake Eola and Church Street Station. The next morning, we fly to Miami to meet the third in our party. American Airlines only has one flight to Belize from Miami each day, and our flight is overbooked by 12 passengers. At first, I refuse to have a day taken away from the Belize trip when the airline offers $500 travel voucher for those who agreed to wait a day to fly. But after not finding enough volunteers and upping the voucher to $1,000, my friends are able to convince me to be bought. After all, we can spend a day enjoying Miami, as well as have the airline either pay for most of our Belize trip, or have them pay for our making an exotic trip in the future. We are the last three to volunteer.
We visit the Biltmore hotel, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, and that night, South Beach. South Beach is as impressive as I had heard it was for many years: A glorious amount of vibrant street life that reminds one of a fabulous day in a healthy European city.
The next morning, the airline seats 2 of us in First Class, which is my first taste of how the Leisure Class flies. Our seats are large and supple leather. We are seated with a wine glass of champagne. We are given a prosciutto with garbanzo and cucumber salad, juice, white wine, a bread basket with "assorted warm breads," garlic sautéed shrimp with fresh garlic and butter on annatto rice sprinkled with diced peppers, and a brownie, warmed nuts, cheese and fruit for dessert.
It doesn't get any better than this...
As the "commoners" pass by us on their way to the "coach" section, my friend leans over and tells me the "peasants" are filing by us with "accusing" eyes. They pull a curtain to shield our eyes from the "great unwashed" in coach, which makes them seem like cattle. It was a two-hour flight from Miami to Belize.
Upon arrival, we pick up our 4-wheel drive brand new Suzuki Sammuri. The tough 4-wheel drive vehicle turns out to be a necessity, since the few major "highways" in Belize are badly rutted dirt roads filled with large rocks-and because of the dry conditions, very dusty. Every time we travel to a site-be it by land or sea-we experience a long, bumpy, bone-jarring trip. Part of the challenge is that in addition to these "highways" being in the worst condition of any road I have ever been on, Belize does not seem to have more than 2 or 3 road signs in the entire nation, and when you DO spot one, it is tiny in size and does not appear to be an official sign (see photo above of one of the "major highways" of Belize). As a result, we miss many turns, despite a map and one of my friends, who claims he has "never been lost a day in my life" serving as navigator. (The map turns out to have very poor scale and does not show many of the roads-or shows roads that do not exist.) In addition, nearly every road seems to be involved in major construction, yet there are hardly any construction warning signs, either. A very different experience than what we have in the U.S. In Belize, even the good roads are bad.
We drive on the Western Highway from Belize City on the east coast to our first destination near the western border of Belize. Along the way, we stop at the 50-acre Guanacaste National Park, which is only mildly interesting with its rather safe and only mildly tropical loop trail. During our hike, we see an enormous "Mot Mot Tree".
Much of the development along this highway indicates a grinding poverty-many run-down shacks and a great deal of trash lying around.
Our first lodging on the west near San Ignacio-a town of 9,000 in the heart of Cayo country-is duPlooy's, which features a very enjoyable tropical setting, with many palm and fruit trees and flowering plants were on the grounds. Electricity is delivered by a gas generator, since the lodge is not served by electric lines. From 10 pm to 6 am, lights go out since the generator shuts down. We do not find this to be a problem, since our days of Belizean adventure are always exhausting and it is easy to fall asleep before 10 (personally, I am out like a light the minute my head hits the pillow). Each morning at duPlooy's, just before 6 am, we awake to the calls of tropical birds. Within minutes, the calls grow into a very loud cacophony of what seems like hundreds of birds. Each morning, we are treated to bird-watching on the lodge wood deck, which includes complimentary coffee and tea. The birds include frequent hummingbirds and tangers. We also usually see a large iguana sitting on a nearby tree branch. At night there, the lack of artificial lighting creates an explosion of stars in the night sky. Spectacular.
After our first night at duPlooy's, we drive to Caracol Mayan Ruins, which, given the length of the trip along a VERY rough dirt road, is a long, arduous trek taking 2.5 hours, each way, to drive.
A goof I make while driving south to Caracol: unbeknownst to any of is in the vehicle, we come to an entrance gate for a large mountain pine ridge reserve. The two vehicles that had been choking us with dust during our seemingly endless drive into the jungle are stopped at the gate to speak with the gatekeeper. Thinking this is an opportunity to escape the dust, I drive past the gate, gatekeeper and vehicles without stopping, only to learn later that we were supposed to stop so that the gatekeeper could record our entrance. Fortunately, we are not apprehended and thrown into a Belizean jail.
The condition of the road is odd, due to the fact that it is the only main "road" to the Caracol Mayan Ruins, which is a very popular visitor destination. The ruins contain the highest human-built peak (the Caana structure) in Belize, which require a tiring hike up steep and large steps (139 feet tall). Incredibly, some of the original sapote wood door lintels still remain in some of the structures. In 562 A.D., Lord Water of Caracol was victorious over the warlords of Tikal, which allowed the city of Caracol to rein for the next century. At its prime, 187,000 people lived in Caracol, which contained at least 4,000 structures across 55 square miles. It was only discovered in 1937 by a logger after being hidden in the jungle for several centuries.
After the Ruins, we visit Rio Frio Cave, which is a HUGE, ENORMOUS cavern with stalactites and vines hanging down from the ceiling way up overhead, and an entrance at both ends of the cave (See photo at left. To get an idea of the size of the cave entrance, find the person sitting next to the water in the foreground.). Water comes in from one end and exits out the other-running a distance of about a half mile through the cave, thereby forming the largest known river cave in Belize. The cave contains monster-sized boulders.
After the cave, we head down the highway again, and soon have our path crossed by a very large black and yellow-speckled snake (see the "major highway" photo above). We slam on the brakes and leap out of the car. One of my friends gets in front of it and taunts it, while I run in behind and shout, "I need scale!!!!" to this friend so that he would get close enough to give me scale in the photo I take of the snake. "I need scale!!!" soon becomes a sort of motto for us as we continue to see big things that need a person nearby. We have no other way to give a sense of features we are seeing in this land of imposing, surprising sizes.
Our next stop along the Carocal road is Rio on Pools, which is a long series of waterfalls and pools of water that is a popular place for people to swim and do rock climbing. Pools features cool, frothing waters on slippery granite, and several waterfalls.
On the following morning, we drive to the famous Tikal Mayan Ruins just across the Guatemalan border for a full day excursion. It takes us a full hour to get through the Guatemalan checkpoint (it only took us 15 minutes to get back into Belize on the way back). First, to get into Guatemala, we park to go through the Belize customs. Immediately upon getting out of our car, we are swarmed by a large, eager horde of "money changers" (locals with large wads of cash in their fist anxious to "help" us exchange our money for Guatemalan money). Then, we need to contend with paying several "fees/taxes" for various things (fee for crossing the bridge, conservation fee, vehicle fee, fee for wearing a blue shirt, etc.), and fill out several forms. It seems as if several of the Customs staff people were new to the job and did not know what to do. At one point, we are told to pay a fee at the "bank" nearby and come back with a receipt. My friend pays the fee but is given back an equivalent amount of Guatemalan money, and the "clerk" does not know about giving a receipt. When my friend explains this to the earlier Customs staffer, they return to the bank and discover that the "clerk" is actually a money changer! (I speculate at the time that the REAL bank clerk was bound and gagged by the money changer and put into a back room.) While this debacle is taking place, we notice that the Guatemalan crossing guard is toting a submachine gun...
Upon entering Guatemala, we quickly notice that the poverty seems noticeably more severe than in Belize. There are several horses, sheep, goats, pigs and cattle on the road (a "main" road leading to Tikal). The Tikal Ruins are the most dramatic ruins we see during our 2 weeks (see photo above). Tikal was the greatest capital of the ancient Mayan world, and was founded about 600 B.C. Its peak population was about 50,000 people about 1,000 years after it was founded. During the Classic Period, it was one of the two largest cities in the Western Hemisphere (along with Teotihuacan in Mexico). Several very large stone structures and monuments. Tremendous views of the El Peten rainforest (millions of acres in size) from the tops of the structures. Again, we notice that a park ranger at Tikal is carrying a submachine gun. We spot a number of racoon-like coatimundi. They are dark brown and larger/thinner than racoons, but apparently similar in behavior and diet. (omnivorous).
On the drive back to our lodge, we stop at Hidden Valley (also known as 1,000-foot) Falls, a spectacular 1,600-foot falls plunging into a large, forested, misty haze-shrouded valley (7th-highest falls in the world. See photo to left.).
Our next day is much-anticipated. We are told by someone at the lodge that due to our adventurous interests, a "must" adventure for us is to embark on an all-day exploration within the recently discovered and little-explored "Actun Tunichil Muknal" caves. The caves were used by the ancient Mayan civilization for an enormous number of ceremonies and offerings to their gods. The caves were recently re-discovered 10 centuries later.
From our parked vehicle in an agricultural area, we walk through a tropical jungle, often slogging through crystal clear rivers. We are told by our guide that the area contains 76 known species of snake – nine of which are poisonous. We stop at a large termite mound wrapped around a tree trunk and the guide suggests we try eating one, which, of course, I agree to do. Not a bad taste. At the cave entrance, a very large, dead black snake is found.
Once inside the caves, we are treated to a fantastic, 4-hour experience along a route that stretches 5,300 meters and 147 meters deep. A river flows through the caves system, forming pools along the way. It is 75 degrees year round, and much of it is clean enough to drink. The water is impressively clear, as we note with the battery-powered lights we wear on our helmets.
Immediately upon entry, the visitor to this ancient, hidden-away Mayan cave system is treated to an Indiana Jones-like obstacle. An unforgettable, rather disconcerting swim through the river guarding the cave entrance is required to reach the mysterious, dark, vast cave rooms within the system. But the seemingly deadly entry technique sends chills of excitement through my body. Surely, what awaits inside has been seen by only the most skilled, determined and adventurous.
And so spectacular that visitors are willing to risk their lives to have a look.
The lights are a necessity, since the cave system quickly creates an ink black blindness soon after entering. (I wonder how difficult it was for the Mayans entering the caves several centuries ago for ceremonies. A long walk carrying large pieces of pottery and torches while slogging through a lot of water and tight rock corridors. What happened when the torches went out?).
We see an enormous amount of pottery and extremely large cavern "rooms"-many of which were used for Mayan ceremonies. At the end of our journey in the caves, we climb a wooden ladder and are shown two ancient Mayan skeletons-one (Skeleton #13 out of 14 sacrificial victims found in Actun Tunichil Muknal) a prone young Mayan woman who was about 20 when she died. It is an eerie sight. She lies spread-eagled on her back, her left leg bent out at an unnatural angle and her right arm draped above her head. There are several speculations as to how she got that way: Was she dead and carried to the site? Was she raped? Was she sitting up when she died, only to have her skeleton slide down to a lying position after the forces of water and erosion influenced the bones? Today, centuries later, the skeleton is encrusted by a layer of brown calcite.
The next day features a trip to the Blue Hole National Park. First, we hike along a tropical trail. We inspect St. Herman's Cave-another dramatically large, very dark, cavernous cave with an entrance at both ends. The actual Blue Hole is a very deep blue, almost sapphire-colored sinkhole that gives us a very refreshing opportunity to swim after the hot hike.
We also sample the Belize Zoo-very well known as a well executed, naturalistic zoo. At first, we have no interest in going, but decide to have a look on this day due to some spare time. Frankly, despite our distaste of zoos generally (due to how depressing they are), we are pleasantly surprised by the quality in such an underdeveloped country. Most animals are kept in a relatively spacious, wire mesh-enclosed wooded patch, and are able to hide from visitors if they so choose. Most enclosures have signs that say something like "I'm a great black hawk, but guys who take shots at me are Great Big Turkeys!" Overall, the zoo is better than most (or all) of the American zoos I have seen. We then venture into Belize City for our water taxi trip to Caye Caulker. As advertised, Belize City is rather unpleasant. Very noisy, grimy, dirty, aggressive vehicle driving, honking horns, and narrow sidewalks. We pay a visit to the infamous "swing bridge," which is said to be infested with drug dealers and crime at night. (The bridge is thought to be the only manually operated swing bridge in the world today.) We have no opportunities to gun down drug lords during the day, however.
It is a 50-minute boat ride to Caye Caulker, an island off the coast near Belize City popular with divers and snorkelers, but less "touristy" than Ambergris Caye. The caye is five square miles in size. The village is 4 streets wide and 10 streets long - all of which are sand (Caye Caulker Main Street at right). Approximately 800 people reside on Caye Caulker.
For dinner our first night, based on a guidebook recommendation, we try "The Sandbox" restaurant, featuring tropical sand for a floor. It is on the beach and very crowded. I order the Fish with Spicy Banana Chutney and Cilantro, which turns out to be delightful.
While we were in Belize, I fell in love with the tropical taste of cilantro, which is used on nearly all the foods in Belize, in part because it grows like a weed in the country.
In Caye Caulker, we stay at Shirley's Guest House, which is secluded, peaceful, right on the beach, and next door to the airport-this would later prove handy (the airport was protested when it was first proposed, as the residents feared it would draw too many tourists). Each of the rooms contain Mennonite mahogany furnishings. It is a lengthy walk, however, to dives and restaurants from the lodge, however, but it is nevertheless a pleasant lodge very well set up to handle divers. (Our primarily reason for visiting the Caye is for the diving.)
On our first day, we dive Esmelda Reef (near Hol Chan Marine Reserve), where we see spotted eagle rays, and a colorful collection of Caribbean coral reef fish. The 5-square mile Reserve was created in 1987 and is Mayan for "Little Channel", which describes how the site was formed by a natural break in the reef. On the same dive trip, we dive The Wreck near the famous Shark and Ray Alley. As the name suggests, the dive is full of nurse sharks and manta rays. The photo below gives you an idea of what we experienced.
While standing on the deck of the shipwreck (which went down at the turn of the century), I have one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Twice, for over 2 minutes, I hold and cradle a 5-foot long nurse shark in my arms and stroke her/his back and belly. The sharks really seemed to enjoy being held. I am also able to stroke a very large, green moray eel-very slimy, smooth skin texture. We also enjoy the experience of HUGE groupers swimming around us (close enough for us to grab). It makes me feel truly alive.
The next day, we engage in a "3-tank dive" (3 dives) with Aqua Dives. At first, it seems like an exhausting idea to perform 3 dives in a day that requires lengthy boat rides, but it turns out to be an extremely relaxing, low-energy series of dives. Low-energy, yet very thrilling and colorful.
Before heading to Belize, I have decided that I would NOT try a dive at The Great Blue Hole (see photo at left) in the Lighthouse Reef area. The Blue Hole is a 480-foot deep sinkhole (1,045 feet across) and is the largest ocean sinkhole in the world. The hole is in the middle of 75 square miles of shallow, blue-green water. Except for 2 narrow passages, the hole is completely ringed by living coral. It was made famous by Jacques Cousteau in 1972 when he explored it with his Calypso crew. I decide beforehand not to dive it even though divers from around the world travel to this famous site. Mostly, it is considered a "thrill" dive, as it does not contain a lot of reef or marine life. The Blue Hole lies within an atoll-a ring of coral isles surrounding a lagoon. My thought is this: I have no experience diving something that was so deep. "Could I manage to avoid going too deep? Would it be dangerous? Would there be anything interesting to see?"
Fortunately, we were convinced that it is a good dive, and includes other good dives that we want to try anyway (my friend, at first, decided he would just snorkel it, since he was just a beginner diver who had never gone deeper than 60 feet, but on our way there, he becomes convinced that he will attempt the 140-foot dive after hearing the other divers on the boat rave about it). As is usually the case, we do not even notice how deep we are until we look at our gauges. It turns out to be surrealistic, eerie and spooky as we descend into the black void, but very relaxing and exciting as we swim through the stalactites (more than 3 feet in diameter and up to 20 feet long) along the wall of the hole. The wall of the hole crests at about 50 feet and continues as a vertical cliff to a depth of about 95 feet, where it starts receding at a 55-degree angle. We are only able to stay at the 140-foot maximum depth for 8 minutes (maximum no-decompression bottom time due to nitrogen/oxygen problems divers usually face at that depth), but while down there, we see Black-tip and Bull Sharks swimming in circles below us at about 160 feet deep. I am not surprised to later discover that November 1991 edition of Outside Magazine ranked the Blue Hole as one of the 4 best dives in the world. It is a dive of a lifetime.
Our next dive on this day is Half Moon Caye Wall, which is over 1,000 feet deep (we only descend to 65 feet). The reef features a spectacular spur and groove system-many of the grooves are quite narrow. We swim through a great many canyon walls and cross tunnels ("Gover's Grottos") that are so narrow that we sometimes scrape our tanks on the rocks/reefs. We see lots of bright purple fish on the dive.
Our final dive this day is The Aquarium near Long Caye, which, true to its name, is full of colorful fish and barracuda. This reef is off the northwestern corner of Long Caye. It features well-defined, long coral ridges and sandy canyons. We lunch at Blue Hole National Monument, a small island near Lighthouse Reef. Our lunch spot is breathtaking...idyllic...postcard gorgeous beyond belief. Sugar white sands, several shades of deep blue and turquoise crystal clear waters near the island, a few nearby and elegant sailboats, gently waving tropical palm trees (see photo below left). It seemed like a deserted Gilligan's Island. The island is one of the most visually exhilarating sights I experience on Belize. While there, we enjoy climbing an observation tower that put us into the tree tops, were, only a few feet from us, a huge number of frigate and red-footed booby birds and their babies are perched in this bird sanctuary.
The next day, I eat banana pancakes and fry jacks at a restaurant on the beach (again with sand for floors) at La Sirenta restaurant. We then fly from Caye Caulker to Belize City. The view below of the ocean, reefs, and cayes is stunning.
Upon our return to the mainland, we visit the 3,000-acre Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. There, we see an enormous number of wading birds in the shallow Northern Lagoon (a bird sanctuary), and are treated to watching a large group of children enjoying a party at the lodge we find to eat lunch (earlier, we had drove around unsuccessfully to find a restaurant or grocery in this poverty-stricken town of 700). Later that day, despite having a 4x4 (which is now a fairly new and roomy Jeep Cherokee-the third person in our adventure group had since flown back to Miami), we get stuck in the soft mud that cleverly disguised itself under grass along a little-used jeep trail we drive to see more of the Sanctuary. Fortunately, we are able to fairly quickly free ourselves using some nearby wood fence planks.
Mountain Pine Ridge
We set out for the Mountain Pine Ridge area without lodging reservations, and were very fortunate to discover Pine Ridge Lodge, which is a luxurious yet affordable lodge in the middle of Mountain Pine Ridge-isolated from civilization. The lodge features superb meals, is very quiet, in the middle of several caves and creeks with drinkable water (we are treated to hearing the creeks babbling from our rooms at night), and waterfalls. We are fortunate in that the 2 of us are able to stay in our own separate cabin for the price of one. Our extremely helpful, informative hosts attended to ALL of our needs. Each room-including the group dining room-has kerosene lamps, since there is no electricity and the lamps are the only way to see at night. This creates a very peaceful, romantic ambiance. The lodge grounds are filled with flowering orchids and several other flowering plants-many planted for hummingbirds, of which we see several while there.
On the first morning there, I walk two 15-minute hikes on nearby loop trails along the babbling brooks. I inspect the 85-foot tall Santos Falls on one of these trails that morning. An interesting aspect of this lodge is that it is surrounded by the lodge grounds of Francis Ford Coppola, the famous Apocalypse Now! film director (the Blancaneaux Lodge). We are unable to resist going to the Blancaneaux to enjoy a Belikin Beer and noticing a very well-manicured croquet court next to the lodge (very odd in a thick tropical forest). We also notice that the public airport just happens to be constructed recently at a spot next to the entrance of Coppola's lodge. How convenient! And because we could not resist, we return to Rio on Pools for more swimming and exploring.
Each morning at Pine Ridge Lodge, we enjoy a complimentary breakfast of fresh juice, sliced fruit, a warm bun, jelly and tea. We make a trip to Big Rock Falls, which is found near the lodge. We have heard that one can get behind the falls and stand behind them without getting wet, but after about 45 minutes of hard work trying to fight a powerful current and spray ("CAN YOU REACH OUT AND GRAB THAT BOULDER IN FRONT OF US, MIKE???"), we determine it was not possible to get to the falls. It turns out that our hosts at the lodge had only HEARD this was possible, but have never accomplished it themselves.
The next day, we go to the 102,400-acre Cockscomb Basin Forest Sanctuary-the world's only jaguar preserve. We start the hike in a steady downpour (the first rain we have seen in our several days in Belize). Most of the half-day hike is steamy and very humid in the Basin Rainforest. The very tropical hike featured a large number of Cohune Palm trees (which contains large fronds and large, edible nuts that create a Southeast Asia/Vietnam sort of atmosphere). The fronds are used to make thatched roofs. The Basin gets about 180 inches of precipitation each year (Gainesville, Florida, by contrast, gets about 52 inches each year). As for history, the Basin was logged by the English in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Century, which removed all the large mahogany and cedar. It is therefore now a young rainforest which I find surprisingly dark on the forest floor, but there must have been a fair amount of sunlight filtering through, since I notice a relatively large amount of understory vegetation.
Placencia is a small town at the end of a long, narrow peninsula along the Belize coastline. Getting there involves another long drive on a bone-jarring, dusty, rutted road. Better to fly to Placencia than drive, we discover. Big sections of knotted rope are occasionally stretched across the road to serve as speed bumps. Placencia contains the "world's most narrow Main Street", which is a sidewalk running up the middle of the spine of lodges and restaurants and dive shops in the town (see photo to right).
Our first night there, I enjoy some delicious steamed conch at a Placencia restaurant. We are again fortunate to find affordable lodging on the beach-this time next to the dive boat docks at Tradewinds Lodge. Our mornings are delightful. Nice breeze and morning sun, and relaxing in a beach chair or hammock on our cabin deck.
Both of our dives were at South Laughing Bird Caye Reef, where we again see eagle rays, and also see a number of lobster. That night, I have a delicious red snapper dinner on the second floor balcony of the excellent Serenade Guest House restaurant. It is so good that we return the next night for a meal, where I enjoy a Steamed Grouper dish.
During our dusty, bone-jarring drives, we often notice that the citrus fruit trucks spill a number of fresh grapefruit on the side of the road. We snatch up some of these for breakfast. They are supremely fresh and seedless.
We decide to try another 3-tank dive. First, we dive the North Wall Reef at Silk Caye along the Barrier Reef (photo at bottom right is an example of a wall dive in Belize). Belize is a divers paradise in part because it has the largest reef in the western hemisphere-second in length only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The reef is a coral necklace 198 miles long that runs from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Guatemalan border. We also dive White Hole at Silk Caye. At these two dive sites, we see several lobster, large green moray eels, and queen and stoplight parrot fish (some of which had ramoras riding along on their sides). The highlight of the second dive is seeing a very large black grouper, a manta ray, and a large green moray eel together in the same location (it was a "Kodak Moment"). When we get back to the dock after the second dive, we are alarmed to find that our Jeep Cherokee is not where we left it near the dock. Turns out that it was towed away by the film crew that was doing some preliminary work for an "After the Storm" (Hemingway) movie to be filmed in Placencia in the near future. Lots of film crew busily running around, and movie lights for the set.
Again, the Cayes we dive near, and have lunch on, were simply gorgeous.
Lastly, we plunge into a night dive at Laughing Bird Caye Reef, which is, like my previous night dive at West Palm Beach in Florida, extremely enjoyable. The ride out for this dive, like so many dive trips and land vehicle trips in Belize, is unbelievably bouncy. Since it is at night and over water, this particular trip makes us feel like we are heading for the Invasion of Normandy during WWII. During the dive, we see a good number of lobster out in the open (they usually are hidden in reef holes during the day), sea cucumbers that look like large, black worms, and spiny puffer fish.
On our final full day in Belize, we kayak the Monkey River. It is a 5-hour paddle along very shallow, upstream water that mostly passes through agricultural areas (the photo at left shows me on the river just after suffering the humiliation of losing my paddle, which you can see floating in front of me). At times, we see evidence of the dreaded Environmental Atrocities Inc. company doing their work (ditch dredging, water pumping, etc.) this day. During the paddle, we see a large number of kingfisher birds, bats, and heard a number of tropical bird calls. At the end of our paddle, our lower legs are swarmed by "battleass" flies that have a bite that you do not feel, but you start seeing little beads of blood on your skin. The next day, and for a number of days afterwards, our legs and arms are covered with itchy red welts that appeared to be a bad case of measles. We use rubbing alcohol and aloe vera to relieve the itching.
Overall, we find the lodges are of a poorer quality in Placencia than in Caye Caulker. Placencia also has a poorer selection of restaurants, more poverty, and a lower quality selection of dives
We drive to Belize City from Placencia after the paddle, to get lodging near the airport for our flight back to Florida. The night drive is horrifying because it is on the main highway along the eastern coast of Belize, and like other main "highways" in Belize, there are no street lights or signs. The lack of street lights and the heavy clouds of dust reduce visibility to only a few feet, yet the road at night is filled with people on bicycles and walking, and most are wearing dark clothes and have no lights.
As was the case on our trip from Miami to Belize City, American Airlines is overbooked on our return flight-by 15 passengers. However, the voucher price for volunteers only goes to $600. My friend is willing but I can only be bought for another $1,000, since I need a full day at home away from work to get things back in order after a 2-week trip. So we opt not to stay an extra day at the Belize City Hilton.
General Observations about Belize
Population of Belize was about 250,000 when we were there in 2000. We found that in general, the people of Belize are very friendly and pleasant, and operate under a laid back "Belize Time" (they are always late). "Belize Time" is described this way in a Guide published by Cornerstone Foundation in Belize:
...And it [Belize] is free, free of time and anxiety. Even the people here are "free" to be who they want to be. Most do not save money. They spend it. And many don't own anything that they did not pay cash for. They own nothing for their house because they built it bit by bit as they had the money. The people here do not owe anything to anybody. They are free, so free that even their "time" is different. Hikers are familiar with the idea of "losing track of time." Well here, this is compounded with what is known as ""Belizean Time." It is a time that moves in and out of time. It is occupying space without anxiety. It is observing more than impacting. It is willingness to accept the time and speed (of lack of) of others. It is a way of consciousness.
Part of this consciousness comes, perhaps, through a special specific observation act uncommon to Northern culture. "Wu wei" is an oriental way to express this act of "not doing" (as opposed to the only Northern explanation - lazy). Here it is a skill, an activity to cultivate. It is something that aligns the observer up with the world around them and gives them an extraordinary sense of awareness.
So forget a schedule. Get rid of the watch. Plan as little as possible and be flexible because the plans change. And to understand Belizean time is to not worry about it...Eat when you are hungry. Rest when you are tired. Take time to silently observe the people and the environment. Buses run every half hour so you'll get to where you are going.
There are more caves and waterfalls in Belize than I expect. I do not know until after I return home that Belize has the longest chain of caves in the Western Hemisphere.
Belize, despite being a tiny piece of land in Central America (the size of Massachusetts), is jam-packed with exotic adventure trips from a stretch of jungle-draped mountains along its western border with Guatemala to a dazzling barrier reef along much of its Caribbean coastline along its eastern border. In between, there are raging rivers (mostly gentle, dry-season streams when we are there, though), incredible Mayan ruins, miles of unexplored caves, and an excellent diversity of flora and fauna.
The coral reefs are filled with brilliant, multi-colored tropical fish swimming amongst gently swaying, vivid sea fans (and many other types) of colorful coral. The reefs are as complex as the Amazon jungle. Finger coral, brain coral, black coral, elkhorn, mountainous star, purple leaf and orange tube.
There are many horses roped to a tree to graze along the main roads-either it is a good place for grazing or a cheap way to keep the ROW grass clipped. At the end of nearly every day, we enjoy the national beer of Belize-Belikin Beer. It tastes very good, probably at least partly because we are so dry and exhausted after a tiring day of adventure in Belize earlier that day.
I was disturbed by the fact that often, at archeologically significant sites, there seems to be too much tourist access to fragile artifacts, unlike in America, where you would expect such things to be at least roped off. As a result, I expect that in the near future, these Ruins and Cave sites will be much-degraded. For example, even though I was trying to be conscientious, in the Macknal caves, I accidentally stepped on a pottery shard. It is clear that this happens a great deal-intentionally and unintentionally-no amount of vigilance by the guides will do much to protect the sites.
In many rivers and lakes, we observed large numbers of women and children washing clothes on rocks.
The poor condition of the roads was, in at least one way, helpful to the wonders of Belize, since it is fairly clear that there would be a substantial (and probably detrimental) increase in tourism and sprawl if it were easier to travel by car in Belize (despite the roads, however, there has been an 80 percent increase in visitors to Belize since the early 90s. Perhaps in large part due to the poor condition of the roads, there was an astounding lack of cars in Belize. Despite our being there during peak tourist season, we mostly saw large trucks and buses on the roads.
Overall, I found my adventure in Belize to be fabulous and unforgettable. Will I return to this land? You better Belize it...
This link shows photos from our trip. When the link brings you to the Picasa photo album page, select “slideshow” in the upper left.
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