Belize – Swimming with sharks
After months of ice and snow my body ached for a few days of sunshine. Any opportunity to stand still and just sweat, while soaking in the sunshine, beckoned. One of my best friends from high school was hired as a lecturer at the University of Belize in Belmopan and announced she would like to entertain visitors. I immediately searched online, and found the ideal ticket on sale!
How does one see Belize in one week?
Well, with great planning and a reliable 4×4 or SUV, it’s possible to take in the highlights. History, ancient history, sun, sea, food, jungle and culture were just what the doctor ordered in the middle of winter.
Belize is the only English speaking country in Central America, with Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south, and Honduras to the far south. On the eastern coast is the turquoise Caribbean Sea with a spectacular Barrier Reef; second largest in the world. This area is also punctuated by large and small islands (the Cayes, pronounced “keys”) where expats, retirees and locals enjoy year round beach life, soaking up the sun, snorkeling and diving. Exploring Belize includes countless jungle adventures inland, re-visiting the ancient past at Mayan ruins, seaside towns for a taste of Garifuna culture or snorkeling at the reef and many coral gardens off-shore near the islands.
Belize has a small population of 375,000 and is the least populated of all Central American countries. However the population is quite diverse: Garifuna (people of African and Carib descent), Mayans (descendants of people who built and inhabited large cities in Central America for over 2000 years before Europeans arrived), Mestizos (mixture of Spanish and indigenous people), Creoles (mixture of European and African), Mennonites (Christian groups belonging to the church communities of Anabaptist denominations), with significant numbers of East Indians, Syrians & Lebanese, Chinese, Mexicans, Guatemalans, El Salvadorians, and a large European/ American/ Canadian expat community.
Most people are friendly and greet everyone with a ready smile, except the Mennonites who don’t make eye contact. This country has more churches and Christian groups than any other country I’ve visited. This is in contrast to its reputation for numerous homicides and violent crime (one of the top 10 in the world for violent crime). It’s easy to forget the crime however, because of the natural beauty and friendliness of the people. I explored without fear and had a fun filled and exciting trip…
I did online searches and watched a few travel blogs on YouTube to prepare my list of top 10 places to see in advance. I also prepared scratch maps for each location – never one to willingly use GPS. I believe it undermines brain development in the area for map reading.
Day 1 which was really half day, had to be maximized. I grilled a Belizian sitting in my row on the aircraft for ideas on the best ferry boat to take out to Caye Caulker island off the coast of Belize City and the safest place to leave a rental car near the ferry boat. She warned against walking around Belize City since crime rates were higher there than in other places. Armed with new information and verifying my scratch maps, I was ready for the road.
As we disembarked from the aircraft and walked across the tarmac, the hot humid air hit me. Off came the layers. My friend collected me at Philip S. E. Goldson Airport in Belize City with a driver.
“Let’s take picture in front of the terminal…and another over there. Make sure the name shows,” I urged.
She knew me well. Even after many decades of travel, I was still determined to photograph my every move while I traveled.
“I don’t know when I can come back, so I NEED to capture the moment!” I said.
“Yes Jennylynd. Some things never change.”
And we were off to a great start.
We stopped at the University campus in Belize City and a pastry shop on the way out of the city. This narrow shop had baked goods on shelves against one wall with the shelves protected by plastic strip curtains like one would see at a cold storage facility. However little shop was hot so I wasn’t sure what the protection was for. Mostly sweet snacks were on sale, but I got some meat pies and crispy corn tortillas to experiment. Two curios looking pastry alligators with icing sugar teeth and eyes peeped from behind the curtains.
Large billboards and the radio stations promoted La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge, a famous canoe race along the Macal and Belize Rivers, starting in San Ignacio and ending at Belize City for their holiday weekend which followed in March.
We entered the nation’s capital, Belmopan during rush hour from Humming Bird Highway onto Forest Avenue where I saw the only traffic light in the whole of Belize! Roads in Belize were known to be basic, quickly changing from paved to gravel/dirt roads. Belmopan had a few government buildings at Independence Square. Foreign Embassies, the main University of Belize campus, and housing for those who worked in these services. One could get necessities at the few shops in town, but choices are limited.
That night we did a quick pub hop checking out two local pubs, but most places were closed on a Monday night.
History of Belize
The next morning I visited two local Belmopan museums and the Belmopan Farmers’ Market.
Goldson House, a museum and learning center to highlight and examine the life and contributions of Belizean National Hero, Philip Stanley Wilberforce Goldson.
And the George Price Museum and conference center which celebrates the life of Belize’s beloved statesman and first prime minister after independence. I many have been the only visitor at the museums that day because the curators paid great attention in showing me around. Belmopan is not a tourist destination.
Tuesday in Belmopan was also market day and a good opportunity to interact with the varied population groups as they traded their wares. All groups of the population were represented at this outdoor market and I purchased fresh fruits and vegetables with glee. Even tried some chicken dukunu, a dish made with yellow corn meal stuff with a chicken leg in sauce and steamed in corn husks… Looked great to me, but my friend looked it suspiciously as I offered the extra one I’d bought.
Later that day we drove south to Hopkins and Dangriga to learn about the country’s African history and culture.
Just an hour south of Belmopan, is a town called Dangriga, known for its unique culture and history. We travelled south through rolling hillsides and past small villages like Armenia, where neat little homes and schools dotted the countryside. This was a well paved road compared to some gravel roads in other parts of the country. We also went past a few large factories where Mayan workers were ferried in and out, standing en masse at the back of pick up trucks. Some of the worker bunk houses resembled slave quarters. One could not help but feel sorry for the poor wretches who had to live under these conditions daily to make few dollars, so people like us could get cheap citrus drinks etc.
We went past the road leading to Dangriga and headed a little further south to Hopkins, famous for it’s beach and seafood. An internet source recommended Ms Tina’s Garifuna food on the beach, so this was the first stop. The aquamarine water was inviting and so was the Darada- fried fish served in a coconut sauce with green banana dumplings. This was washed down with watermelon juice and a quick dip in the sea… a refreshing break in the midday sun.
Entering the coastal town of Dangriga in Belize, I felt like I was entering West Africa. The Garifuna people in this region are descendants of Malians who had settled in St. Vincent in the Caribbean centuries ago. Prior to European colonization, Mali in West Africa used to be very wealthy country with trade throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. And before Columbus arrived to the so called “new world” in 1492, West Africans (and others) had already “arrived” in ships – either planned or by chance because of the natural currents in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Africans mixed with the Caribs and Arawaks living in the island now called St Vincent, to form a group of indigenous people called the Garifuna. When British arrived and tried to enslave them, they resisted. The British decided to round up everyone and ship them out to Belize and also Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras where they lived on their own terms.
The story that all black people on this side of the planet are descendants of slaves is NOT TRUE!
Unfortunately a lie told often enough becomes the truth.
A visit to the Garifuna museum was a wonderful awakening for me. The museum is woefully under-funded and not easy to find, however it is well curated and worth the visit. The museum shares the premises with a primary school in the district.
Garifuna Settlement Day is a public holiday in Belize, celebrated each year on November 19. The holiday was created by Belizean civil rights activist, Thomas Vincent Ramos, in 1941. It was recognized as a public holiday in the southern districts of Belize in 1943, and declared a national holiday in 1977.
A Walk in Ancient History
One of the highlights of my trip to Belize was a visit to the ancient Mayan ruins of Xunantunich.
Xunantunich is an Ancient Mayan archaeological site in western Belize, about 70 miles (110 km) west of Belize City, in the Cayo District. Xunantunich is located atop a ridge above the Mopan River, very close to the Guatemalan border – just 1 km to the west. It served as a Maya civic ceremonial center in the Late and Terminal Classic periods.
We took a hand cranked car ferry across the Mopan River, and I had a chance to crank the cable. It was easier than I anticipated and we moved swiftly across the river in less than 10 minutes. The ferry platform could easily hold 4 cars, but we had it to ourselves. Howler monkeys greeted us as we walked into the main site through a dark forested area. The sound was eerie, almost haunting, as the name Xunantunich which refers to a woman dressed in white who was supposed to have haunted the archaeologists who uncovered the ruins.
A walk up the hill led us to the Mayan complex with many buildings gleaming in the bright sunshine that day. The tallest building, nicknamed El Castillo is a challenge for most tourist to climb to the top. I headed directly across the wide courtyard and started the climb up the steps to the summit. At the sides of El Castillo were stucco carvings of Mayan Gods. Luckily a railing was placed in the wall at the back to assist visitors with the climb. I avoided possible vertigo by never looking backwards for one second. The view at the top was spectacular – 360 degrees – plains and rolling hills of Belize and across the border into Guatemala.
I met a lone iguana sunning at the top of El Castillo that afternoon looking over to Guatemala, as a heavy wind blew constantly at that great height. I asked him to kindly stay where he was so I would not fall over the edge in fright. It was a really long way to the ground. I was the only person at the summit that afternoon, as other tourists chose to visit the many other step pyramids on site.
The Compact Ancient City
About 10 minutes from Xunantunich are the ruins of a Mayan City now called Cahal Pech – translated “Place of the Ticks”. Cahal Pech is built around seven large plazas, and visitors can explore more than 30 structures, including one building where a royal burial chamber was discovered with items like a beautiful jade and shell mask. Cahal Pech is perched on the highest hill overlooking the touristy Western town of San Ignacio.
We saw many apartments with stone slab beds… even imagined I smelled food cooking in one of the apartments, or maybe I was just hungry! This complex was more compact than Xunantunich and had a lived in feel to it. Cahal Pech was first founded around 1,000 years BC with large temples and palaces. Around the year 800, the citizens of Cahal Pech abandoned the city for unknown reasons, which was strange because other nearby Mayan sites were thriving for several more centuries.
The day ended with a fine Jamaican style meal at Scotchy’s, a Jamaican restaurant in Belmopan, with outdoor thatched roofed dining huts in a yard surrounded by lush shrubs.
Alone with Nature
A visit to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Western Belize is a must for any serious traveller. There, you would find many waterfalls, hiking trails, caves to explore, rivers and natural pools for swimming and more Mayan ruins.
San Ignacio is the big tourist town in the Cayo district and one can sign up for tours at any of the companies there to explore the region. I decided to do my own tour since I had a rental SUV. Setting out early one morning, I followed a turn off Western Highway with a sign that said Barton Creek, a Mennonite farming district. I was determined to visit Big Rock Falls, Rio On Pools, and Rio Frio Caves… and more if time permitted.
The paved road quickly changed to a rock and gravel road for a big shake-up drive. After shaking for what felt like a full hour going down into deep potholes, I finally reached the entrance to Pine Ridge Reserve. The park ranger took my name and vehicle registration number, then I was on my own. With scanty directions I found the trail leading to Big Rock Falls, a 150ft waterfall. I dropped yellow flower petals along the trail in order to remember the way back out. Then came the steep narrow wooden staircase to head down to the river. Thankfully there was a rickety wooden railing to hang on to. One flight of stairs, then another, then another, and not a soul in sight… In the blazing midday sun, I could hear the waterfall as I approached. A sweet smell of tropical pine and flowers filled the air… and finally reach the river and saw large pools made in between flat pools… then the Big Rock Falls around the bend.
Rio On Pools was a serene spot off the rocky road, up a dirt trail and down some steps. Massive flat rocks hosted large pools in between for a delicious dip in the cool water. It was a welcome relief in the midday sun.
A visit to Rio Frio Cave took me through a half abandoned military station with the feel of a ghost town in the middle of the forest. Many of the old wooden houses along the dirt road were abandoned and derelict. I saw one person who looked like a park ranger and asked if I was on the right dirt road on the way to Rio Frio Caves. He said I should follow the small signs… yes they were small, and easy to miss if you didn’t make the right turn through the base. The forest was really thick and dark at this point with signs for many trails and caves heading into the bush.
Finally at the end of the dirt road I found Rio Frio Cave. The entrance was like a massive cathedral with stalagmites and stalactites… grey and glistening… What an awesome sight… and a little river rushed through the base of the cave continuing on through the forest.
Blue Hole, Caves, and Roaring River
About 20 minutes south of Belmopan along the Hummingbird Highway is St Herman’s Cave and a natural swimming pool called Blue Hole in the same park. We took the short drive to Blue Hole National park and saw two bus loads of school children walking slowly down the trail to the Cave. It was a school day and they were out in full force. We made a quick decision to enter the cave before them and get a head start or be delayed for a long time behind little trampling fee. Carry a little flash light, we were able to flash light on tiny reflectors which followed the path through the cave. Most of the rock was smooth with very few stalagmites and stalactites showing the river that ran through the cave must have smoothened out the rocks in recent years. According to the park rangers, one could walk for two hours through the caves with a guide and emerge at another side of the park. We didn’t quite relish cave walking, however and after 0 minutes of being in the almost dark cave, we turned back, by passing the school children who had entered for the trek. The Cavern was large high ceilings and ledges and a river could be seen running through one side.
A few miles down the road was Blue Hole which the park was named after. A short hike on the trail revealed a large basin which actually reflected blue light as the sun peeped through from the dense vegetation. Fish of all different sizes were seen swimming in the basin and it’s said a deep cave at the back of the basin could be entered with the right swimming gear. The water was ice cold and I was joined by family from Calgary for a swim, some of the many Canadians spotted in Belize on vacation during the winter. By the time the school bus reached, we were on our way out to the next park, Guanacaste National Park in Belmopan.
All the parks and National sites close at 4:00 pm or 5:00 pm, so there as no time to dally if one wanted to visit several places in one day. Park rangers at Guanacaste Park were quite friendly and pointed howler monkeys as we walked down the bath to the swimming area. Roaring River with huge flat rocks and tiny waterfalls, met the Belize river at the junction of Guanacaste Park. I waved to a passing tour guide in a kayak and he offered to give me a quick tour around this part of the river. It was interesting to feel the 10 degree difference in water temperature of the cold Roaring Rive which emerged from Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, and the Belize River which travelled through many towns as far San Ignacio.
A child from Roaring River village showed me where I could slide down smooth rock on a natural slide into the river pools, and the shallow but powerful falls gave a great neck and shoulder massage.
As the saying goes, one can find a Trini everywhere in the world, and that night we wre fortunate to visit the home of a couple from Trinidad and Tobago. They had moved to Belize for work over 20 years before, and never left. Thy thoroughly enjoyed their relaxed lifestyle and for our lime we ate corn soup, bake and buljol, fry jacks, and marble sponge cake. We enjoyed chatting late into the night exchanging stories of mutual acquaintances from Back Home.
Swimming with Sharks and Sting Rays
Last Saturday we joined dozens of locals and tourists in visiting Caye Caulker, one of the many beautiful islands of the coast of Belize. With the warm Caribbean Sa, white sand beaches and the world’s second largest barrier reef, a visit to the islands in the Cayes is a must for any tourist trip to Belize. We got the San Pedro Express Water Taxi from Belize City and sat on to near El Capitan to get swept away by the wind as we sped for 45 minutes across the ocean to Caye Caulker. The view of the turquoise coloured water and clear blue sky was breath taking.
As soon as the boat docked, relaxed island life hit, as people strolled around the main street in swim suits and the only vehicles seen were golf carts. A short stroll up the beach, we joined the Cave Man snorkelling group for a tour of the barrier reef. This company has good reviews online and the guides certainly knew where to take us in the waters around the island to see the best fish.
We fed sardines to some large tarpon fish as they approached our boat and literally jumped out of the water to greedily snatched fish from our hands. Seagulls joined us on our little boat with the promise of a fish or two… They knew we were coming too and posed for photos. The coral garden with colourful angel fish, turtles, sea fans, conch and other was like an underwater dream as we danced with fish and the followed us all the way just in touching distance.
Our guide seemed to have a special relationship with a large moray eel. He teased him with crab from a conch shell and managed to get him to follow from his hiding place under rocks on the floor of the sea bed, all the way to the surface of the water as we watched with our goggles. He then pet the eel on his belly and the eel seemed to speak to him and nod. All of this played out under water to our amazement and I wished I had a fancy underwater camera to capture the amazing sea world.
We also visited Shark Ray Alley where the guide fed greedy nurse sharks some morsels of tiny fish. They pushed and shoved like little school boys at the side of the boat and we screamed in amazement. Many nurse sharks and sting rays swam around in this part of the reef and we were encouraged to go out and swim with them because they were “not dangerous”. A few of us went out to “test the waters”. The little sharks ignored us, but the sting rays were more social. They swam around us repeatedly. One brushed against my leg a few times and I squirmed a little at the slimy body, while screaming and holding my breath. Just another experience …
We enjoyed conch ceviche at the Rainbow Restaurant right on the beach and watched a fisherman repair lobster traps for the upcoming lobster season.
A small boat was used for the trip back to the mainland and it was crammed with passengers in the hold… This was a bit unnerving for the 45 minute ride back at a maddening pace, while crashing over a few big waves.
The last day of my visit to Belize was spent quietly driving around Spanish Lookout, the Mennonite district near San Ignacio in western Belize. This area looked like it was transplanted out of a ruralo district in United States or Canada and just plopped into Belize by mistake. The perfectly smooth roadways, large neatly constructed houses, manicured lawns and white picket fences looked nothing like the potholed, dirt roads, and wooden shacks just a mile outside. It was Sunday morning when we decided to drive around. The place looked like a ghost town. Every house was hut and no cars were in the area. Nothing moved but the crazing who stared at me when I approached their field to take a photo. The looked as if they would charge. Our conclusion was that everyone was at church that morning.
We drove along Western Highway to the border town of Benque El Viejo where the majority were probably Spanish speaking Guatemalans, after taking pictures of the border crossing, it was back to San Ignacio for lunch at Ko-Ox Ha Na (Let’s Go eat), a popular tourist restaurant. It was packed at the seams and served a few local favourites as well as American style meals. San Ignacio was definitely quiet on a Sunday compared to during the week. We headed back to
Belmopan to view the not so impressive government buildings in the nations capital – bare concrete brick walls with air conditioning units protruding haphazardly from the walls. It was obvious no attention had been placed on beautification of this part of the country.
However, this was a quiet ending to a wonderful week in Belize. When I joined throngs of tourists heading back north to Canada and the US, the airport was mayhem like a bus station with one flight after the next taking sun baked holiday makers to their icy homes.