Little Black Book...Exploring Belize
In the beginning...
Oddly enough my trip to Belize began at a little creperie in Annapolis Maryland. Spring was just beginning and in a fit of restlessness and perhaps a little cabin fever, my best friend and I decided to drive down to visit an old friend in D.C. He had just gotten back from Belize and was full of praise for the country, the food and the people. Since he is a naturally enthusiastic traveler I wasn't too swayed, he could make a trip to the grocery store sound enviable.
But the next day as the three of us leaned against the wharf posts eating our chocolate crepes he pointed out that I had no trips planned, why not try Belize. After all I was always complaining about the cold, why not go somewhere warm? On the long car ride home I mulled it over. Why not?
So when winter threatened again, I started to plan. Though it is a small country, Belize has a little bit of everything; jungle, beaches and some cool towns. In response to some input from my enthusiastic travel friend I opted to avoid the southern tip of the country, which meant passing up some great beaches but also avoiding most of the tourists. And so, as another cold New England winter set in I climbed out onto the hot tarmac outside Belize City.
My San Ignacio Favorites
- Barton Creek Cave Canoeing: An easy morning trip, the caves are beautiful. You can book a tour in San Ignacio or arrange something through your hotel.
- Chaa Creek, Macal River Camp: Great spot for enjoying nature, the little camps are simple, well built and comfortable and the couple who run it are really sweet (plus the wife is an awesome cook). $55 a night includes breakfast and dinner. http://www.chaacreek.com/accomodations/casitas/
- Xunantunich: 8 miles west of San Ignacio Town, this is a great historical site that includes over 25 temples. It is fairly shady and an easy hike but since it is so large be sure to bring extra water, and a guide.
- Cahal Pech: It's name means "place of ticks" but don't let that throw you. It is just outside San Ignacio at the top of a steep hill (not too far but an uncomfortable hike on a hot day...believe me I speak from experience). It is a small site but still fascinating and fun for a half day trip.
San Ignacio....Jungle and Canoes
Just few days later warm to the core and already falling for this little country, my friend and I stepped off the bus in San Ignacio. The bus stop burst with color, a row of ice cream shops and restaurants facing the plaza park, the whole town built into a hill beneath the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech.
We wandered up the dusty crisscrossing streets with our backpacks, looking for a place to stay. The one we had marked in our guide book was full but next door a group of women stood chatting in a whitewashed alley filled with laundry. They spotted our packs and called us over, shooing us up the stairs to a simple, but clean room. Walking through the white sheets I couldn't help feeling like we were in Italy rather than Belize.
Keeping with our Italian theme we ate at a little Italian restaurant called Amor Mio, where the owner got up from his coffee, took our order then sat back down to his conversation with an old friend a couple of tables over. We ate slowly, watching the people come and go, the bicycle carts selling snacks in the lengthening shadows of their big umbrellas and children running up to each arriving bus with bags of homemade plantain chips to sell.
A funny little man walked over, eating an ice cream cone. He must have seen us watching him, because he stopped, glanced back at us with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and walked over to our table. Leaning on the porch railing he struck up a playful conversation, him eating his ice cream, us sipping our hot coffee. When we finished he said goodnight and went on his way.
The owner Nigel laughed at the next table and told us he was the town's "rum philosopher"; harmless and sweet in moderation.
My Orange Walk Favorites
- Hotel de la Fuente, Orange Walk: We splurged a little on this place but it was worth it after the long bus ride. Nice location, clean rooms and run by a really sweet family. http://www.hoteldelafuente.com/
- Lamani: It's name means "submerged crocodile" in Mayan. It remained occupied until 1650, probably because of its remoteness and thriving river trade. We took a guided river tour up to the site and back and I'd definitely recommend it. You get to see some great local wildlife and get a history lesson too.
- Lamanai Riverside Retreat Bar: We stopped here on the way back from canoeing on the Belize River. A nice spot to stop for lunch or a drink.
- Ice Break: Great little ice cream place. Yummy home made ice cream, and it's air conditioned,
Orange Walk...Mayan Ruins and River Tours
The more we explored the more we realized that everything in Belize had a twist, especially the food, and especially in Orange Walk where the large populations of Chinese immigrants and Mennonites give their own little slant to the culture.
The unique vibe was most tangible in the evenings as all the vendors pushed their bicycle carts out to the plaza in the center of town, their faces rainbow lit by the light reflecting off their bright striped umbrellas, sheltering them like tiny circus tents under the old black street lamps. We watched as the street transformed; windows pushed open and bar stools set out in front of them, forming impromptu restaurants.
We stopped at one such window, buying tostadas and coke, bringing them over to the cement benches that ringed the plaza. Savoring each messy bite in the electric lights that kept the dusk eternal.
We didn't spend much time in Orange Walk and most of it on a the Belize River and exploring the Lamanai ruins. We stopped frequently as our river tour wound through the snakelike river, our guide Daniel pointing out iguanas in the trees (the males bright orange for mating season and easy to spot), graceful white egrets and far too many crocodiles to be comfortable with.
By the time we made it to the ruins it was noon, and hot. But Lamanai is shaded and close to the water, which accounts for it's name meaning "submerged crocodile" in Mayan.
The ruins of the city are amazing, the high temple reaching 33 meters into the air, a steep staircase ascending up its center, baby howler monkeys swinging in the trees beside it. The jaguar temple and the ball court, with it's mysterious center stone hollowed out and containing one bottle of spices and another of mercury, remnants of some long forgotten ritual. A reminder of how quickly things are lost and their significance forgotten.
My Caye Caulker Favorites
- Sandro's Piccola Cucina: Some of the best pasta I've ever had in my life and a host just as great as the food.
- Ragamuffin Tours: Friendly staff and reasonably priced. We spent a wonderful day snorkeling on one of their sailboats with a jolly crew and a hefty amount of rum punch on the sail home.
- Glenda's Restaurant: A nice place for a quiet breakfast, set back away from the bustle of front street.
- Frenchies Diving Services: Friendly, patient staff. A great option for inexperienced or experienced divers.
- For more info check out http://www.cayecaulkerbelize.net/
Caye Caulker...Snorkeling, Diving and Sun
After exploring our share of ruins, the Belmopan zoo and several small towns we ended our trip with a week on Caye Caulker. It was on our way to the island's water taxi that we met "Sir Charles."
"Hallo." He smiled brightly and gestured widely, "are you in love with Belize yet?" We nodded, laughed and kept walking, but he followed us, shaking his grey bearded head in disappointment. "it is apparent that you do not yet love Belize, only enjoy it." So he proceeded to lead us over to the bar, pull out three chairs and give us a history lesson on his beloved country (for the price of a beer, naturally). When our taxi arrived he sent us off with a flourish and we settled into the boat, watching the water stretch out between us, still smiling at his roguish grin.
Caye Caulker is a narrow island, small and dusty, and if it were a man it would be Sir Charles; easy, affable, fun and just a little bit tipsy and contrived...at least on first acquaintance.
After dropping our packs off at the little bungalow we'd rented for the week we walked until the sun dropped towards the sea, watching the meandering line of tourists make their way past us to the Lazy Lizard Bar, a small ramshackle place on the edge of the split (the small channel that divides the island in two).
Our house came with bikes, so we put them to good use on the dusty back streets, exploring the tiny island. Following advice from our Canadian camp mates at the Chaa Creek River Camp outside San Ignacio we went to Sandro's Piccola Cucina for pasta and Glenda's Restaurant for breakfast.
The days passed quickly, our skin darkened, our tummies softened from a regular diet of pasta, fruit and cake (there is a "cake cart" that makes rounds on front street) and soon the steady beat of the small waves against the weather worn docks became the only clock we lived by.
When our last day came we wandered back through the streets to the water taxi, throwing our packs into the bright pile of mourning tourists, all of us reluctant to leave.