Travelling on cheap tickets really requires some stamina, which I needed to tap into when trying to get some sleep on a dirty floor in Houston airports. I don’t see why airports that often have connecting flights don’t have somewhere to stay inside the airport! I managed about 5 hours on and off, and was counting down the minutes ’til my last flight left.
As soon as I arrived in Belize I got a taxi to the ferry terminal. The taxi driver was very nice, and ever since I haven’t really had anyone that ISN’T extremely friendly and open. The weather, on the other hand, is very humid and hot. The midday sun can probably send most skins into sunburn mode. They speak this weird dialect of English that’s quite difficult to understand if spoken fast (eg store signs say “more fuh ya dalla!”)
Belize city itself isn’t a very nice place. It’s dusty and a little crazy. Stalls are everywhere selling fruit and water, cars don’t follow any kind of traffic regulations and people just seem to be hanging around the concrete outside their shops. People shout across the street to others they know, men honk at anyone they either know or want to hit on. Most of the people who live here are darker-skinned Belizeans, the Mayans or Mopans (Belize has about 12 ethnic groups!) live further south.
I got a ferry to an island called caye caulker (pronounced key cauker). It’s an island known for it’s laid-back atmosphere where locals drive around on golf carts as all roads are made of sands, the local rastas try their best to hit on white women and there’s amazing snorkelling and diving. Not a bad place to start really. I arrived and checked in for my dive the next day. I found out that it is currently whale shark season slightly further south, but they only really surface a week before and after the full moon which id just missed. Shame!!
This dive spot is called the blue hole, which is a hole about 130m deep but in the wall between 40 and 50 meters deep there are these stalactites, remnants from when it used to still be above sea level. It took us about 2 hours to get out there. I have to confess that I was a little nervous about going down to 43m as i’d only been down to 30 before, and beyond this its quite common to get something called nitrogen narcosis, which is often described as feeling drunk underwater. It isn’t life-threatening in any way, depending on what you do when you feel ‘great’, as this is usually what makes people braver than they are and try to conquer deeper depths than they should.
I didn’t have a problem at all, which was great. It was quite rushed because, due to the depth, you can only go for about 8 minutes until you have to make certain safety stops (called decompression stops) and then you run a bigger risk of your air running out. Near the top of the blue hole there were quite a lot (10 or so) grey reef sharks swimming around too, which was a total bonus. The stalactites were stunning!!
As great as the dive was, however, it highlighted the major problem with BSAC – some people were still training for their advanced, I even spoke to a girl who did it as her 5th dive. EVER. Most divers didn’t even have their own dive computer!! I would not have been comfortable with that if I were them.
Moving on, we did 2 more dives after – at half moon caye and the aquarium. The former was an AMAZING dive – I saw 3 turtles, one of which was ridiculously old and huge, as well as stingrays. From the boat we’d seen dolphins too, and apparently I missed a glimpse of a hammerhead shark. The final dive wasn’t as impressive as the 2nd in terms of big marine life, but it was a really interesting coral wall that just went on and on into the deep.
The next day I had signed up for a snorkelling trip with a company called ragamuffin. Some of the people I went diving with were also on the trip (3 Australian girls, and 2 Americans though with their wives this time), which was a lot of fun. The guides were great too, really knew their stuff. I wasn’t sure about doing the snorkelling as well as diving, but the snorkelling takes you into a marine reserve that’s been protected for about 25 years. My highlight of the trip, hands down, was snorkelling with manatees. They were SO beautiful and surreal – there was a breeding pair. And i wasn’t even expecting that on the trip! Worth every penny. We also saw eagle rays, cuttlefish, moray eels, stingrays, nursing sharks, turtles… You name it! Though the animals in the parks were reasonably tame.
In the evening I grabbed some dinner with the Australian girls who were also on both trips, and had a record latest bed time at 11pm!
On thursday it turned out I’d chosen the worst day to travel. First of all, I am experiencing some money issues as bank machines don’t seem to accept maestro anywhere and im forced to take money out with my credit card, which means extra charges!
On top of which, the buses decided to go on a nationwide strike, as the new government’s PM is messing around with people’s allocated bus fares. The drivers blockaded the road by parking some buses and heavy rocks across it until the PM signed some document. This kind of stuff seems to happen every time a new government comes into power. Not knowing if I would make it out of Belize city I decided to start waiting until around midday, when things were expected to start clearing up. I didn’t have to wait so long in the end and caught a bus – basically a very old american schoolbus with siemens slightly different paint – to Belize zoo. It is said to be the finest zoo south of the US, and I have to say, i was extremely impressed. The animals were all from Belize, trying to showcase what Belize’s endemic wildlife is like, all the animals have sizeable enclosures, very reasonable when looking at some of their body sizes like the coatmundi or he tayra. The information had a very nice local twist on it, and the atmosphere was very pleasant.
Leaving the zoo I only had to wait 20 minutes to be able to pull over a bus heading to Belmopan, the country’s official capital. From the bus it looks slightly less crowded and more pleasant than Belize city, though I wouldn’t like to stay in either for particularly long. There I only had to wait for 1 hour and was able to take a bus to my next stop – the Maya Center, about 2.5 hours south of Belmopan. I wanted to stay here because it is the entrance to the cockscomb basin, a huge area of protected rainforest.
The Maya Center is the entrance to the reserve, where women make local crafts, all very beautiful, but other than that there isn’t much to do. I knew I wasn’t going to make it into the reserve so I stayed in a little place next door with locals who apparently do great guided hikes (though i didn’t have that kind of money). There were some really cute children who I spent the rest of the afternoon playing with.
In the evening I got a nice surprise – the building not too far away from my room also serves as a church and they had a service when I was there. First I thought some band was rehearsing because it was very funky Latin american music with a cool beat to it, but on closer inspection it was the priest who was singing! Each country their own hymns, right? The service ended up going on for about 2 hours. I wonder if it’s a daily thing?
During the night there was some heavy thunder and lightning but I couldn’t tell if there was any rain. In the morning, though, there were some short rain spells and I thought – typical! The rest of the day saw some occasional short showers, but nothing too serious, and being under the rainforest canopy meant that very little actually reached me.
One of the reasons the reserve has managed to stay as well-protected as it has is that from the main road it’s about 10km down a dusty, red-sanded road. You can take a taxi but for financial reasons I decided to walk it – only took me about 1 hour and 45 minutes. This might seem like a long time (which it was!) but I enjoyed every minute of it – mainly because it reminded me so vividly of when I was in Guyana 4 years ago. The colour of the road, the sights and sounds of the rainforest, the feel of the occasional breeze of cold air…
When I got to the visitors center I was dying for water and my shirt was completely soaked with sweat. There are many self-guided hikes that you can do, which is great for independent travellers. I decided to do a shorter one called the ‘Wari loop’ on which I saw various small creatures along with a crocodile, turtles, herons and blue morph butterflies, but I didn’t see any of the big animals Belize is known for. I then continued to do a hike to a waterfall – when I finally reached the ‘fall I thought I would possibly spontaneously combust due to heat so the swim was very welcome! The walk down too was so much easier compared to up! I splashed out on a taxi back to the maya center to catch a bus to my next desitation. 2 buses and 3.5 hours later I reached San Ignacio, on the western coast.
San Ignacio is very different from all other Belizean cities. It’s very laid-back, calm and hassle-free. It’s much more geared towards budget backpackers, and it’s a great base for various trips to the many Maya ruins that are dotted around this area… if you have the money that is! Comparatively, Belize really is more expensive that the other countries in Central America, so you have to pick and choose what you want to see. I’m still relaxing here for today, and plan to see some caves tomorrow.
Map of my 3 places in Belize
Sunset from Caye Caulker
Sharks at one of the snorkelling reserves
Belize city from the bus
The walk into Cockscomb basin