Buzzing about Belize

Trip Start Sep 02, 2006
Trip End Sep 01, 2007

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Well I skeddaled from learning Spanish to a sort of English speaking country - Belize.

English speaking is slightly a stretch as more than half of the population predominantly speak Spanish and the majority of the rest speak Creole. Though they can speak normal English too.

Creole is a dialect of English with a strong twist of Caribbean rasta. I could understand most of it but I definitely won´t be speaking it fluently anytime soon.

After a ridiculous early start from Flores and the 4 hour bus journey taking...7 hours...I got to Belize City with a fistful of notes proudly showing the Queen´s head. I knew that Belize is part of the Commonwealth however it still gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling seeing (a very young) Queen of England staring back at me.

As I was meeting my friend Kate at the airport of a small island called Caye Caulker in negative 15 minutes I skedaddled on the next water taxi. Now this thing could shift with it´s 3 massive engines. You could just tell by the big grin that the captain loved his big boy´s job and I loved him doing his best Mr T impression with each of his fingers proudly being decorated with a huge gold ring.

Fortunately, Kate had been delayed by a couple of hours so we did not miss each other. Mind you it would have been easy to miss her plane as it was teeny weeny. It only held - 3 passengers - one of whom was about 350 lbs and (nearly literally) had to be shoe-horned into the plane, as at first they could not get the door shut because of his ample girth.

We stayed at Caye Caulker - a backpackers haven, though by no means that cheap. Probably 50% more expensive than Guatemala. It is probably mostly a backpackers haven as it is ssssoooo laid back. There are no cars on Caye Caulker only golf carts and bicycles, however the locals still like to jokingly put up ´Go Slow´signs and if you are walking fast they might tell you to slow down and chill.
The place is beautiful with ridiculously clear sea and coconut trees leaning over the white sand. It is not a beach resort though as the stretches of sand are mostly short and narrow.

Bicycles were a great way to cruise explore the island so we hired them a few times and I took the opportunity to ride along the airport´s runway as heck I will never get the chance to do that again.

The island is definitely a place to chill with not a huge amount to do. The best things to do (not surprisingly) revolving around water. The snorkelling is great there, as is the scuba diving.

Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world - after the Great Barrier reef - and this makes for world class snorkelling. 

Armed with this tidbit of knowledge we took a snorkelling trip out on a sail boat and got to swim amongst coral gardens and with sting rays and nearly a shark. Not a scary shark though just a nurse shark which are big girls and do not bite - instead they suck. Mind you one guy before us had a scary experience as a nurse shark tried to suck some food out of his swimming short´s pocket and was extremely reluctant to let go.

The trip was great and was topped off by conch ceviches (raw seafood cooked cold in lime juice) and as much rum punch as you could drink. I filled up my 1 litre water bottle and did a pretty good job of finishing it.

Apart from relaxing and Kate enjoying being away from the multiple inches of snow in Michigan we took a trip into the mainland to go cave tubing at Barton Caves.

Fortunately it was not between Monday and Thursday as that is when the cruise ships come in and descend on the place in hordes.

Floating sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly down an underground river flash light in hand and gazing at the cave´s formations was pretty cool. There were a labyrinth of caves - though we only went through a couple. The others have an interesting history as they were the site of Mayan ceremonial rituals. Some people think that they are still being used by the Mayans for these type of rituals, though they are meant to have stopped the ritual sacrifices!

Kate spent (I hope) an enjoyable 6 days in Belize and a day after she disappeared across the horizon on the water taxi another friend - Emily - flew in. This time on a relatively gigantean 12 seater plane.

It was more of a fleeting visit than Kate´s and we only stayed for another couple of days but managed to fit in the obligatory snorkelling trip. This time with a local conservation legend - Ras Creek - and his tricked out rasta boat.

He really knows his stuff and took us to a place where there were more sting rays than you could shake a stick at. At one point I could not put my flippers down as there was 3 or 4 of them swimming under me.

Then to look at local seahorses which are at risk to extinction as they are being poached to send to China for medicinal purposes.

Saying goodbye to the islands of Belize we headed towards to Guatemala on a chicken bus jammed full of locals so much so that Emily had to sit on the dashboard of the bus.

We stopped off at the border town of San Ignacio mainly to do our guidebooks´s Number 3 of the Top 5 Adventure activities in Belize, Guatemala and Southern Mexico.

Namely go adventure caving in Actun Tunihil Muknal (ATM) caves.

This involved swimming, wading, squeezing, ducking, contorting and scrambling through caverns in search of Mayan ritual ceremonial areas. Plus watching Emily falling over a couple of times while attempting this. All good fun really...though the guide seemed to take a decided distaste to me. A feeling that by the end of the trip was mutual.

In these caves the Mayans used to perform various rituals including offerings to the gods and human sacrificies. There were numerous pots scatttered around the cavern floors. All at least in part broken as after providing the offerings the pots were broken to release spirits. 

The human sacrifice thing was eerily interesting with probably half a dozen remains being evident in the area we were allowed to be in. This included a whole female skeleton.

It was a day out which was both educational and physically demanding, therefore in my mind a good day.

My other memories of Belize were:

(1) Doing my early morning exercises on our accommodation´s jetty and gazing out at the sun rising and birds flying around.

(2) Dickies clothes and boots are made in Belize. There is a muckle factory just outside Belize City which I passed a few times.

(3) The local rum - One Barrel - was voted the best rum in the Caribbean and unsuprisingly it is really, really good.

(4) On our trip to go cave tubing we got a bit of a guided nature tour and I found out that mother nature often puts the antidote of a poison next to the poison carrier. Clever woman. An example being the tree Poisonwood usually has its antidote - Gum Elemi - next to it.

Also we got told about a tree whose bark you should chew if you get bitten by a snake. Apparently it will slow down your heart rate to give you time to seek help. Something I would definitely be needing as my heart rate would quickly reach mach 10. I flipping hate snakes...

(5) Belize City is meant to be dodgy but felt safe to me. It used to be dangerous as 200 Belizean bad boys were deported from the US in 1998 and started a crime wave. The Belizean authorities did not take too kindly to this and rounded up most of the hoodlums, except for a few gangleaders who went into hiding and were given the opportunity to give themselves up. They told them in no uncertain terms where they could deposit that offer and said ´Come and get us´. So they did and were all killed, apparently much to the disgust of Amnesty International.

(6) Getting stung by a local kid who after I asked and took a photo of him asked for a Fanta. Cheeky little scamp but the photo is wicked so I didn´t mind.

(7) Belize has the largest selection of Fanta that I have ever seen. My personal favourite being ginger.

(8) When scuba diving I saw a couple of turtles and even swam with one of them for about 30 seconds. They really are like the ones in ´Finding Nemo´ and you can imagine them saying ´dude´ as they cruise upside down around the corals.

Belize´s most famous scuba diving spot is Blue Hole however it was seriously expensive - $330 for 3 dives - and with it being so deep I decided the resulting short dive was not worth it. Instead I went to Turnfee North and it was superb as I got to swim with a turtle which is more than I got to do in Turtle Island (Koh Tao) in Thailand.

(9) On Caye Caulker there is a great restuarant run by a guy called Wish Willy. Spookily enough even though he was born in Belize he was raised in Chicago and worked as a chef in the same building that I worked in for nearly 6 years!

You eat outside in his front garden and the excellence of his cooking is only surpassed by his swearing prowess.

(10) We stayed in beach cabins constructed on high stilts. These were funky and fun but by no means luxury as highlighted by a girl knocking on our door late at night. Her and her friend had a couple of unwanted guests - lizards - which I scurried around their cabin persuading them to leave. These girls clearly did not want the lizards anywhere near for protection...they had put up their tent on top of the bed and one of the girls was couring in it when their knight in shining armour arrived to save them.

(11) When snorkelling with sting rays there was literally 20 or so of them and yes the ´Crocodile Hunters´ untimely demise did cross my mind, however that was a freak accident and I was much more scared of the 3 foot barracuda which was prowling the area.

This anxiety increased when after gleefully taking multiple photos with my shiny camera our guide said that I should be careful as the barracuda might mistake it for a fish and attack. Now he tells me...

(12) On our tubing trip we unexpectedly got thrown in a trip to Mayan ruins - Altun Ha. I like free.

(13) On Caye Caulker I got the most tanned I have ever been. I nearly could have been mistaken for one of the locals...well maybe not.

(14) I got to see pelicans for the first time and lots of them to boot. I  would therefore have to agree with the poem that "What a wonderful bird is the Pelican, Whose beak can hold more than it´s belly can".

(15) On my second snorkelling trip I got to eat fresh lobster caught off the side of the boat and stir fried for lunch. Now that is what I call fresh...and delicious.

(16) In San Ignacio there are loads of Yanks. Why they are there I have no idea. As far as I can see it´s just a non-descript frontier town. I must have missed something.

(17) At the border, Emily looking into her bag and out flew a cockroach. Followed by a yelp from the aforementioned lady and a crunch as one of the locals squished it. It appears though I may have failed in my duties of killing it in the beach cabin 2 nights earlier...

Not my fault it was really speedy and I thought it was just going to hide under the bed.

(18) At the border crossing we or rather I made a boob. We took out loads of Belizean $ as in Guatemala I had found most of the ATMs to be empty of money and as it was Saturday the banks would be closed by the time we got there. I had expected to easily and fairly exchange them into Guatemalan Quetzales or US$ at the border. As this was what happended when I crossed the other way. WRONG.

The money exchangers were giving a terrible rate. They wanted to make a 25% profit. Sods. As I knew there was a bank attached to the other side of the Guatemalan border I told them thanks but no thanks and proudly strutted across the border. Clever move? NO -  the bank would not change Belizean dollars even though it was attached to the Belizean border crossing! They would take US$ but not Belizean $.

Lesson learned - people love US$ and it´s perceived stability so change money into US$ before crossing border or take the money home and change it there.
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