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Belize: A Tropical Mecca for Craftsmen and Serious Souvenir Hunters

Updated on July 3, 2016

I have a new mistress. She’s smooth, firm and sexy. Her name is Ziricote. I am speaking of the Belizean hardwood. Any woodworker can relate to that sentiment. It’s like the first time you finish a piece of cherry wood with its subtle grain, the incredibly rich, creamy smoothness it sands to; instantly, you’re hooked. That is how I now feel about ziricote. I cannot wait to get my hands on this stuff also known as zericote or its scientific name, Cordia Dodecandra.

When finished well, this wood can play with light.
When finished well, this wood can play with light. | Source


This discovery was made on a recent trip to Belize. My intention was to spend a week there working on a few articles and scouting out a town I might retire to someday. But as I traveled down the east coast of Belize, I repeatedly encountered crafts employing this rich, often brainy-grained, brown and blonde wood. And when you ask about it the response isn’t, “yes, that would be ziricote”. It’s almost always, “Ah, yes! Ziricote! Yes. That is our wood!” Belizeans are justifiably proud of this natural resource. They are quite jealous of it too. It does not come cheap. In the US, a two inch thick, 5 inch wide, 6 feet long board can set you back up to $700. I’ll tell you why that might not be such a bad deal later.

The crafts in Belize are something you need to see. And the craftsmen are confident and happy to share the story behind every piece they make. Take the case of Edmond. He has a tent right next to the town clock in San Pedro, the main town on Ambergris Caye. I ran into him twice returning from the airport to the water taxi. I was pressed for time but risked missing my ride to look at his work. It was beautiful. Ranging from understated to ornate, he offers bowls, Mayan totems, walking sticks and more in a variety of species. No pine or red oak in the lot. I picked up an unfinished walking stick with a spiraling cove wrapping along the length of the stick. “How did you create this,” I asked.

“I do everything with the ‘mah-cheet’.”

It took me a moment to realize he meant "machete". He roughs out his work; rosewood, mahogany, poisonwood, ironwood - with a machete. This is followed by a rasp and file. Then the work is sanded.

“I have got to see this machete,” I told him. He informed me he doesn’t keep his good one here. He showed me a light machete with a blade that has been sharpened countless times. “Why not the good one?” I asked him. Edmond explained that he only works at home with his good tools. Otherwise, he tells me, his friends would steal his good mah-cheet. I looked at him incredulously. He shrugs and smiles a resigned smile. There is something about petty theft here. It seems a part of the culture. It isn’t even seen as more than a sleight. Well, it is a culture heavily influenced by pirates. It’s in the history books.

I continued to peruse his table. His bowls are shaped by a chainsaw, even the round ones. You can turn these against a micrometer and discover they are not actually round. But to the naked eye and in your hand, they are, and all roughed out with a chainsaw. “What is this bowl made from?” I wondered aloud. “Ah, (and there it is) that is Ziricote! That is our Belizean wood, my friend.”

I thank Edmund and tell him I’ll try to stop by before returning to the States. I hurry off to catch my boat.

One afternoon after a visit to San Pedro and I walked up the beach to Captain Morgan’s resort. A breeze from the water kept the sun from burning. Passing stands of coconut trees, villas and resorts, I happened across a traveling woodcarver. His name is Joe Daniels, and like other merchants on Ambergris Caye, he walks the beach from San Pedro to the north end resorts and back again carrying his work in a sack. He has bowls, totems and sailboats. His sailboats, using a clever design trick, break down for packing quite easily.

Here, Joe Daniels shows off one of his hand-carved ziricote bowls and a mayan image made from rosewood.  Look at the finish.  It is hand-rubbed bee's wax.  He roughed it out with a chainsaw!
Here, Joe Daniels shows off one of his hand-carved ziricote bowls and a mayan image made from rosewood. Look at the finish. It is hand-rubbed bee's wax. He roughed it out with a chainsaw! | Source

I have seen my share of street vendors and hustlers over the years. The worst may be Tangier, Morocco. They will try to sell anything. If shy of trinkets, they will simply put out their hand. They are obsequious or pushy and demanding. Why they are is not lost on me. They are desperately poor. While you’ll find your share of these types in Belize City, on the Cayes it is different. Joe and the Mayan ladies that sell their amazing fabrics are not overly solicitous nor are they pushy. They are business people. They offer their product, not much sales pitch needed. If you are interested, you make a deal with pleasant conversation and if you wish, the backstory of your piece. They’re fun to talk to.

Wonder the streets of San Pedro and you’ll find several shops with more incredibly beautiful pieces made from ironwood, poisonwood, rosewood, mahogany and of course, their very own ziricote. You will also find paintings and fabric work of endless variety. You can spend hours in these little shops if you have a love of crafts.

Mayan women travel longs distances every day, under incredible loads.  They carry amazing blankets like the ones over their shoulders and do business where ever they find it.
Mayan women travel longs distances every day, under incredible loads. They carry amazing blankets like the ones over their shoulders and do business where ever they find it. | Source

For the casual traveler, Belize, especially San Pedro, offers access to some very high quality souvenirs at extremely reasonable prices. A piece Joe might spend three days cutting, shaping, gauging, sanding and polishing will set you back $150 BZ or $75 US. And you will come home with a piece that will command a prominent place on your mantel or table. Somehow the word souvenir doesn’t quite fit these pieces. They are art. Period.

Craftsmen in the US who make creative use of the amazing Central American hardwoods can command a very dear price for their goods. If you consider that you could easily make $200 or more on a bowl, a boat or maybe some candle stands, the price of the wood discussed earlier becomes quite reasonable. But for the woodworker or carver, I must warn you, ideas of moving here and being a part of it all will tempt you at every turn.

If you want a chance to see some beautiful crafts and spend time in a very relaxed and friendly place, you should visit Belize. From the moment you arrive, something deep inside you changes. It would be simplistic to say that stress falls away. It would be more accurate to say that you are differently engaged. Perhaps it’s a combination of a new, tropical experience made easier to absorb by very friendly, English-speaking local people. As Joe Daniels put it, “Tell everyone to come. They will love my paradise.”

Source

Tips for traveling to Belize:

-Decide ahead of time if you prefer a beach, jungle or mountain climate for your stay. If it is beach, go to Ambergris. You’ll find the resorts quite reasonable. For the jungle, try Placencia. The capital, Belmopan, is in the hills.

-Go in the off-season. It will be rainy, but only for broken periods during the day. I traveled the entire country in the rainy season. I carried a nylon slicker (I don’t recommend the ones that look like pink trash bags). I used it three times for short walks to the office from my cabana on the beach.

-From Belize City on the mainland, you can rent a car for about $40 US per day and drive to any of the major cities. The country is about the size of New Jersey. But the roads are not all super highway. If you travel to the extreme south, expect to stay overnight before making the drive back. You can fly just about anywhere on domestic airlines for just a few bucks more. I did a day trip to Punta Gorda by air. It ran $140 US and with no need to stay in a hotel. Search Mayan Air and Tropic Air for flights.

-Dining is almost always a good deal. Even the very expensive restaurants with fine food right on the beach provide dinner for two for about what you’d pay at a Lone Star Steakhouse; maybe less. Most eateries, even on Ambergris (an island), are much more reasonable.

-INSECT REPELLANT! It works. On the Cayes they think the sand fly is the national bird.

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    • WriterJanis profile image

      Janis 3 years ago from California

      You are so right about the difference between Belize and Tangier.

    • Matt Jordan III profile image
      Author

      Matt Jordan 3 years ago from Gulf Coast

      Hi Janis. I have been away for the hubs for a while. I will be posting more about Belize soon.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 3 years ago from North Texas

      I understand English is spoken in Belize, and that there is no extradition -- a perfect place where money goes far. Surprised more people don't check it out. ;)

      Welcome to HubPages!

    • Matt Jordan III profile image
      Author

      Matt Jordan 3 years ago from Gulf Coast

      $$ does go far. But nearly as far as it did just a ferw years ago. I wish I had followed my instincts and jumped on Belize in 2006-2007. Same with Costa Rica.

    • Matt Jordan III profile image
      Author

      Matt Jordan 3 years ago from Gulf Coast

      (That was a brilliantly written reply. Let's try that again) Yes, your money does go far. But not nearly as far as it did just a few years ago. I wish I had followed my instincts and jumped on Belize in 2006-2007; the same with Costa Rica.

      I don't like pecking out messages on my iPhone.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

      I've traveled through much of South America, but have never been to Belize. The Ziricote wood sounds beautiful. I am often surprised by what craftsmen in Peru can produce with tools we would consider of poor quality. It sounds like a beautiful country and we hope to visit it someday. Thanks for your well-written article.

    • Matt Jordan III profile image
      Author

      Matt Jordan 3 years ago from Gulf Coast

      Thanks, Vespawoolf. Belize is very different. They aren't in the tourist paradise range yet. They have work to do. But I feel very much at home there.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 2 years ago from North Texas

      Came back to pin this to Awesome HubPages. Interesting and informative.

    • Scuba Keri profile image

      Scuba Keri 2 years ago from Burlington, Wisconsin

      I've been there twice, over those 2 years it became much more busy but the 2nd time I was able to travel much of the country and loved it all. The best food, of course, it at roadside stands. I saw an ironwood vase the first time I was there that I fell in love with but couldn't afford. The 2nd time I was so upset not to find one similar but I did find one man who carved me a similar vase in the blonde wood you mentioned, I think. It has greens, yellows, reds and blues that come out depending on the light. I love it but still looking for the 18"+ tall ironwood vase with flower petal like forms coming straight out at the top. If anyone sees one, find me! ;) and yes, you HAVE TO go to Belize but NEVER by cruise ship, you won't see much and only the worst, from what I hear.

    • Matt Jordan III profile image
      Author

      Matt Jordan 2 years ago from Gulf Coast

      Scuba Keri: You are right about the cruise ship excursions. The tours are too short and dock at Belize City. Not exactly a site-seeing Mecca.

    • profile image

      Kevin Berner,Michigan 5 months ago

      I went to Belize this last March.My only regret is that I waited so long to do it.What a gorgeous country.Spent some time on Gulf Caye.Bought two great wood carvings for only $30 US.Got a great shrimp dinner for $5 US.Went on a great snorkel dive.But what I remember most of all was how nice the Belize people were.Once you leave Belize the only thing you think about is returning again.

    • Matt Jordan III profile image
      Author

      Matt Jordan 5 months ago from Gulf Coast

      That says it in a nutshell, Kevin. I really liked the islands. I wish you could get a Corozal cost of living on Caye Caulker. What a life that would be!

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