Exploring Belize; December 2014

Our family has a tradition of going on an adventure holiday reunion together every other Christmas.  This year we decided to go someplace tropical, and to be a bit bold; Belize, a small Latin American country on the Caribbean coast, south of Mexico.

DFW Airport

Saturday 12/27; The flights from Seattle weren’t synchronized with those to Belize.  I’d found out that there was a hotel right in the airport.  What could be more convenient?  So I’d booked a room in the Hyatt Regency in Terminal C.

We landed at Terminal D.  In Baggage Claim, we found a sign advising that we use the nearby courtesy phone to call the hotel for a shuttle.  But no number was posted by the courtesy phone for the hotel.  On the airport diagram, we saw that the terminals were next to each other; so we set out to walk across.

We bumbled around in a huge garage, chilled by the 36 F. (2 C.) temperature; who’d have guessed Texas gets cold at night?  We couldn’t find a way further, so we returned to Terminal C to get advice and catch a shuttle.  It was only the parking shuttle; so, on the other side of the freeway and other obstacles which the airport diagram had glossed over, we trudged thru another freezing garage, dragging our luggage up and down flights of stairs to the hotel entrance.

We’d overlooked the time difference between Seattle and Dallas.  It was 11 PM by the time we were checked in, and the hotel restaurant had closed.  We found adequate boxed suppers in the coffee shop, brought them back to our 20th floor room and set up a dining table with a view.

Arriving in Belize

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 3.01.47 PMSunday 12/28; After a nice tho not free breakfast in the Hyatt, we met Alice and Jenn at gate D-17 for the flight to Belize City.  We found a young couple in our seats.  They asked if we would trade seats; but I had bought seats behind Alice and Jenn, so we declined.

Regardless of this exchange, the young man was quite friendly; he’d been to Belize before, and he answered all our questions.  He was a lawyer, escorting his girlfriend and her mother to Belize for a four-day “date.”  He hoped eventually to start a guide business on Caulker Caye and move there.

Landing at the small airport, we climbed down roll-away stairs and crossed the hot pavement to the terminal.  We saw Anna and Brian coming out of their plane while we were waiting in line to enter the building.  After customs, the driver for Maya Mountain Lodge met us on the street corner.  He was a history buff; we learned more about the country from him.

In 1961, Belize City was destroyed by a hurricane (a rare event, because the barrier reef with its mangrove forests usually protects the coast from storms).  The British moved the capital inland and rebuilt the city; however, some refugees declined to return, and formed a village nearby instead.

Before its independence in the 1980s, Belize was British Honduras, a crown colony.  However, until recently most of the population was Catholic, due to a period of Spanish suzerainty.  A variety of Protestant faiths dominates now.  In particular, Mennonites have come to dominate agriculture.  Chinese immigrants, despite representing only two percent of the population, have come to dominate the retail business.  I thought that Belizeans didn’t sound very enterprising.  We asked what work Belizeans typically do.  Our driver thought about this, and answered “They sell cars.”

I noticed that, once we left town, the yellow line down the middle of the road disappeared.  Each little town defends itself from traffic with speed bumps of extraordinary size.  Our driver called them “sleeping policemen.”  Pat even saw a few signs by speed-bumps that showed a policeman lying on his back.  Later I learned that, when the Queen comes to visit, road crews remove the speed bumps.  After she leaves, they put them back.

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 3.00.54 PMOutside of Santa Elena, we turned south on a side road, then onto the steep dirt driveway of Maya Mountain Lodge.  Pat and I were ushered into our clean and simple cottage.  It had a steep palm-thatched roof with an exposed peeled-log frame.  Even during heavy rain, it didn’t leak.  Red Spanish-style tiles covered the cement floor.  The cottage had four windows with wooden shutters and yellow curtains, but no glass.  The main room had a compact fluorescent light bulb on the ceiling, with a basket around it for style.  It flickered and made sizzling and popping sounds.  The bathroom facilities consisted of a toilet, a shower with hot and cold water, and a sink with cold only.  A plastic pitcher of drinking water stood on the dresser.  Now and then a gecko clucked contentedly from somewhere outside.

After dinner in the lodge we were treated to a Garifuna drum and dance performance by a family whom Bart, one of the resort owners, knew.  The Garifuna originated as Africans who were brought to the Caribbean in slave ships but escaped.  The infectious African rhythms were interrupted by a power failure.  “That’s what the candles on the tables are for,” Bart said cheerfully; the show went on.  In a few minutes the lights came on again.

A tour guide with initiative

Monday 12/29; Our first official adventure was an expedition into Guatemala to visit Tikal, a partly excavated Mayan city.  Shawnee drove us to the Guatemala border.  We joined a long line that entered a long building for a long wait to pass thru Belizean immigration, Guatemalan immigration and Guatemalan customs.  Each station stamped our passports, charged us money, or both.  The cost; BZ$34 (US$17).  Alice went to use the restroom and found that there was a US$1 charge even for this.  Later, our guide briefed us on the sights and history of the area.  He mentioned that a referendum would soon be held in both Guatemala and Belize on whether the two countries should be unified into one.

Carlos, our Guatemalan driver, met us on the other side.  We got in a “Tourismo” van with Carlos and he turned the key; nothing happened.  He muttered darkly in Spanish, adding for our benefit, “These are not our cars.”  He tilted back the front seats to get at the engine (the seat backs lay in Pat and my laps).  The trouble was the battery.  He adjusted something, put the seats down, and started the van.

Shortly after we left the border, we paused at a military checkpoint manned by three soldiers holding machine guns.  They chatted briefly with Carlos and waved us on.  A mile further down the road, we stopped again, this time to pick up a young medical student named Mario.  It turned out that Carlos was just the driver.  Guiding us and managing the trip required a second person.

lakeNow we headed for Tikal.  But first, Mario took us to a lake where women stood waist-deep at crude wooden platforms rubbing clothes against flat stones while their children played in the water.  Here, Mario announced that anyone who wanted to could go zip-lining for an additional US$35.  Two teenagers said they wanted to.  “I feel like we’ve been hijacked,” I told Anna.

IMG_5884Our next stop was a gift shop.  (Click any photo to enlarge it.)  Mario said we would be there for only “A Guatemalan five minutes” (about 45 normal minutes).  We were offered free samples of raw chicle, a base for chewing gum (it’s chewy like gum and slightly bitter).  We were also served free Guatemalan coffee, which was excellent and very strong.  We used the restrooms; these consisted of a row of dark closets with a toilet in each one, and a shared sink at the end with two small, heavily used cloth towels.  (This is typical of restrooms in this area.)  I skipped the towels and used my hand sanitizer.  We ordered lunches from the restaurant next door to eat on our way back.

Then we proceeded to the entrance to Tikal National Park and the zip-line concession.  Since we were stuck there anyway, two more people joined the zip-liners.  While they howled with delight up in the trees, Mario led the other eight of us down a muddy side-road thru mosquito-infested jungle to look for monkeys and birds.  We didn’t see any, even tho Mario illegally imitated a howler monkey call for our benefit.  He led us back to the zip-line concession and disappeared.  An hour after we’d arrived, we reconvened at the van.  Now it dawned on the zip-liners that they’d delayed our lunch, which had already been delayed by clothes-washing women and jade-hawking salesmen.  They grumbled hungrily.



Anna and Pat at Temple 1.

Those who’d brought snacks sustained the rest as we drove into the hills to the Tikal ruins.  Now Mario and driver Carlos wanted to make up the time they’d wasted.   We walked part-way to the ruins; then Mario materialized an open truck with wooden seats to speed our journey.  There weren’t enough seats, so Brian and a zip-liner stood.  The zip-liner, with two water bottles and no backpack, leaned against the railing of the jostling truck with her hands full.  I could see that the first pothole would send her over the side.  I held one of her bottles, and she used that hand to keep herself in the truck.

We alighted near the foot of a really impressive pyramid, Temple 1.  (The temples are numbered in the order in which they were discovered.)  It was much steeper and taller than I’d expected.  Mario told us that the body of a man over six feet tall, whose DNA was not Mayan, had been found buried beneath it.  Mario explained that, unlike Egyptian pyramids, Mayan pyramids don’t contain bodies; they are tombstones rather than tombs.  (But next day a different guide contradicted this.)

We hiked rooty, slippery back trails to the main plaza to avoid the crowds.  Mario told us that Mayans had quarried the limestone for Temple 1 in a nearby pit.  They had baked some of the limestone, making it impermeable; and had lined the pit with it to form a lake.  There were many such quarried lakes; the Mayans had connected them with canals.  Construction of a temple consumed tens of thousands of trees.

A long, hard rain set in; it was a deluge like few I’ve seen, a sky-waterfall that quickly soaked thru to my underwear.  I stuffed my camera into my soaking-wet shirt for what good it might do.  Later I found that my iPad in my backpack was damp, even tho it was sealed in a ziplock bag.  But both gadgets still worked.  Happy day!

We came to a square field of grass and small trees, which we entered thru one of three ball courts.  A row of temples with steps formed the left side of the field; the temple in the middle of the row was somewhat larger than the others.  A pyramid stood opposite the courts.  A mound stood on the right, perhaps covering another building.

A ball court is an alley between two slanted walls.  Stone markers indicate the middle and perhaps the end zones.  A vertical stone hoop is set high on one or both walls.  (The hoops of these courts had been removed.) High-ranking fans could watch from atop the walls.

Tikal main plazaIn the Mayan ball game, according to Mario, teams of three or six players each contended for a heavy solid-rubber ball, moving it thru the opponents’ back court or thru the hoop.  The hoop was hardly wider than the ball, making the latter a difficult feat and an automatic win.  The players could use only their legs, knees, shoulders, elbows and possibly heads to touch the ball; and they wore kapok-stuffed padding on these areas.  The losing team (usually prisoners of war who’d been forced to play) was beheaded in the center temple (which was taller than the others), and the heads rolled down the stairs.  Small altars for beheading were stationed in the plaza, as a concession to noble losers who would have been humiliated to climb up to the temple before the masses.  (Next day, a different guide said the details of the game were uncertain, but that human sacrifice was involved.)

We moved on to explore more plazas, harassed by copious showers.  As a finale, we climbed to a nice view of Temple 1 and its plaza.

Racing the sun

We were back at the gift shop for “lunch” at 5 PM, and then piled back into the van.  As the sun got lower, Carlos drove faster, honking at other vehicles to get out of his way; there was a rule that we had to be off the road by sunset.  We dropped Mario off at his village, passed thru the checkpoint and alighted to walk thru the border crossing.  This time our crossing went quickly because it was so late.  Shawnee brought us the rest of the way to Maya Mountain.  I asked her about the unification referendum.  She said that it was the latest in a long series of incidents in Guatemala’s quest to assimilate Belize.  “Nobody here wants that,” she laughed.

Later we told Bart, an owner of Maya Mountain, about Mario’s performance.  He apologized and said it wasn’t right–particularly the zip-line side trip.  He guessed that Mario got a kickback from the zipline concession; we suspect he got one from the gift shop too.  Guatemala’s laws require that he use Guatemalan guides (and that guests eat Guatemalan food, not bring box lunches).  He has little control over guides; the driver, Carlos, had contracted with Mario.


Tuesday 12/30; Pat, Anna, Brian and I visited two more ruins today, with Halberto from Pacz Tours.  He was a much more professional guide.  All the same, I was getting used to drivers taking circuitous routes thru town, perhaps to check on their houses; tooting gently when coming up behind a bicyclist or pedestrian; and calling out to friends they saw along the way.

Pat, Brian and Anna at the ferry.

Pat, Brian and Anna at the ferry.

The first ruin was Xunantunich, a “late classical” city, abandoned in 1100 AD.  We reached it by a hand-cranked river ferry, a cable-guided float that held four cars or perhaps a couple more.  The ferry is a free service of the park, which the Institute of Archeology manages.

We drove partway up a hill, parking at the Visitor Center.  We walked to the crest of the hill, which the ancient city-builders had leveled.  We saw a large plaza similar to that at Tikal, including two ball courts.  Here the Mayans used to play a game possibly leading to executions, tho Halberto said the details of the game were uncertain.  This plaza included an artificial mountain to represent the real peaks near more mountainous cities.  Behind it lay a smaller plaza where the royal family of the city-state lived in privacy.  Some buildings were incomplete; others had been rebuilt, incorporating new stone in places.  Many were simply mounds of earth, often covered with trees.  Our guide told us that some had been excavated, examined and then reburied to protect them from damage.  I had brought a small plastic bag; when a shower began, I put my camera in it.

IMG_5980We climbed the large pyramid in the main plaza.  It was built of blocks of limestone, stained by moss and lichen; these framed walls of thin bricks and steep faces of stony rubble.  The rough-hewn steps were tall and shallow.  Although its interior was mostly fill, the structure was complex.  Corridors and rooms were narrow, their roofs supported with angular arches; some roofs had collapsed and had been removed.  Now and then we paused to look at a frieze of heads of deities, some howler monkeys in the treetops, and bedrooms and apartments.  Halberto said that skeletons had been found in some walled-off bedrooms; the Mayans liked to have the dead nearby.  The new-looking frieze was a replica, covering and protecting the real frieze.

The top of the pyramid was a row of tall blocks with narrow gaps between them.  A narrow stone platform without guard-rails surrounded them.  We were 200 feet high, plus the elevation of the hill on which the city had been built.  The view from here of the city’s remains and the surrounding forests, fields and mountains was impressive.

Cahal Pech

Pat at Cahal Pech.

Pat at Cahal Pech.

In the afternoon we went to Cahal Pech, an older, “early classical” site, abandoned in 400 AD.  The buildings here were at most 60 feet high, and only half of them had been exposed and rebuilt; still it was very beautiful, shaded by trees growing in the plazas and even on top of some buildings.

Santa Elena

IMG_6027After we returned to Maya Mountain, I looked for a trail that I’d heard about.  But all I found was a short sidewalk to the little round swimming pool.  So I decided to walk to town with the excuse of shopping for a shower cap for Pat, who’d lost hers.

I set off down a narrow, roughly-asphalted road past patches of jungle and small hilly farms.  I hadn’t gotten far when Helen, the resort’s purchasing agent, came by in an SUV and offered me a lift.  She is an Air Force widow, nurse and teacher.  Having sampled many parts of the world, she had decided to quit shoveling snow at her home in the California mountains and move to Belize.  For ten years she’d taught preschool and kindergarten in a mostly-expatriate school before coming to Maya Mountain.

Santa ElenaHelen dropped me off at a shop that she thought might have shower caps, and went to the “Chinese store” across the street.  The ladies behind the counter discussed my request in Spanish, turned to me and shook their heads.  So I crossed the street to meet Helen, and she found a package of three Canadian shower caps stretched over hoops.  The package was unwieldy, so I returned with Helen to the resort, put it in our cottage, and once again headed down to Santa Elena.

A cab driver paused to offer his services; I thanked him but said I wanted to walk.  Soon I had reason to reconsider.  I saw that ours was a relatively good neighborhood.  Closer to town, the houses were more run-down.  Cut brush, bits of fiberglass roofing and garbage were heaped near the road.  I turned onto the busy main street, making my way past a colorful, shabby chaos of little “super” stores, DVD player repair shops, car washes, smoky restaurants, loud bars, a boarded-up house, dubious hotels, a tiny barbershop.  Bart had told us that many of the “tourists” who pass thru the town are actually migrating Latin Americans.  They come from further south, often walking, on their way to the United States to look for jobs.

I saw locals sitting, working and moving about, but few Caucasians.  A man sitting on a motorbike finished a bag of chips and absently dropped the bag.  A young man pushed a bicycle, not braving the traffic.  Mysterious dribbling sounds came from some buildings, and loud Latino rock from others; generators droned everywhere.  I smelled barbecue smoke, gasoline fumes and sewage.  At the side of the street was a deep open drain and no sidewalk; I had to scan the traffic to get around parked cars.  I got as far as the Hawksworth single-lane suspension bridge that connects Santa Elena to San Ignacio.  Under the bridge I found a little oasis, a riverside park.

A social activist

Wednesday 12/31; While the rest of the family went on tours, I got ready for river kayaking, wrote in my journal, and had a long visit with Bart.  He’s become quite an activist for organic food and alternative medicine.  Out of discouragement with the quality and lack of control over chemicals in fruits and vegetables imported from Mexico, he had gotten in touch with local farmers.  Some knew how to farm organically, but not how to market their produce; they just sold it mixed in with non-organic food.  Two months ago, he had organized them into an association and started regular seminars, teaching them about expatriates’ food concerns and how to meet them.  As a result, he’s already gained improved access to local organic produce and has been able to expand his menu.  The association is working toward gaining organic certification and developing a label.  Bart is also on the board of a group seeking to develop San Ignacio as an alternative medicine treatment and teaching destination, including native Belizean techniques.

Mopan River kayaking

In the afternoon I joined some members of a Mississippi/Colorado family whom I’d met earlier to float seven miles of the Mopan River, from the Guatemalan border to San Ignacio.  The others were Becky, her daughter Susan, Susan’s son John-Thomas, our guide Henry, and his 10-year-old daughter Destiny.  Susan was anxious; she was recovering from a broken back, shoulder and arm.  Henry said he’d tow her down the river if she got tired.

“There are three things to watch out for,” Henry told us.  “First, branches hanging over the water.  Second, branches sticking up out of the water.  And third, branches that appear out of nowhere and try to get you.”  We soon learned that he was right.

We rode in self-bailing single-person inflatable kayaks (Henry’s was a double and not self-bailing).  My boat was about six feet long, almond-shaped, with a flat bottom, footrest, backrest and knee straps.  Water sloshed in and out of openings in the bottom.  It was swimming-pool warm, and I was wearing a swimming suit, so this was okay.  I had a double-bladed paddle, similar to the kind we use for sea-kayaking.

The river was a chain of quiet pools separated by rapids.  They were novice-level rapids, typically one or two pour-overs followed by standing waves.  The inflatables slithered over the rocks as long as there was water pushing them.  Henry told us to follow him in a line into rapids, and to watch him for hand signals in case we got off-course.  For most rapids he’d tell us to go right, left or center.  The rapids were much more fun than the pools.

At the bottom of the third rapid, I saw an empty kayak and a paddle float by.  Susan had been swept out of her boat by an overhanging branch, despite paddling hard to get away from it.

Henry was getting her, and we were all wearing life vests; so this wasn’t an emergency.  John Thomas and I chased her boat and paddle.  He put the paddle in her boat and, for lack of rope, hung onto it with one leg so he could paddle.  Henry had brought Susan, who was hanging onto his boat, to a little cove.  He called to us to bring her boat; but we couldn’t move it upstream.  I tried to help by pushing John Thomas’ boat with mine; but its stern was so pointy that I couldn’t keep my position.

John Thomas rolled out of his boat, which Becky held, and swam, pushing Susan’s boat, toward her.  At the same time, Henry was bringing Susan downstream to us.  Susan ended up in the boat John Thomas had left, and John Thomas kept hers.  We drifted into the next pool, feeling pleased with ourselves.  River kayaking is a great ice-breaker.

Two rapids later, Henry and Destiny fell out of their kayak.  He soon got them going again.  “Did you visit with the fishes?” I asked Destiny.  She nodded and giggled.  I’m guessing that she’s an old river-hand.  I started turning my boat backward at the bottom of each rapid to see how the people behind me were doing.

The right side of the river had many houses with patios and balconies.  Traffic droned on the highway behind them.  The left side was mostly wilderness or pasture.  We passed under a pipe suspended from a single cable, like half of a suspension bridge.  We passed the ferry that my family had ridden to the ruins the day before; its cables were well over our heads.  As we descended, the pools got longer and the rapids gentler.  But the last one we shot, Clarissa Falls, was a big one–a nice finale.

Our supper was enhanced by a gift of coconut water from Bart; and by a second gift of a small bottle of rum from the guests at a nearby table.  Early in the evening, we retired to our cabin.  The New Years celebration in the dining room was restrained, if it happened at all.  However, Bart had told us that a man who was staying in Santa Elena had come and asked for a room because the town was celebrating so noisily.  As we went to bed, we heard music and firecrackers in the distance.  Then a rainstorm set in, and it seemed to put a damper on the celebration.

Botanical Garden

IMG_6377Thursday 1/1: We spent the morning at Belize Botanical Garden, which is west of San Ignacio.  Here were birds for the birders, and plants and landscaping for the rest of us.  Anna and Brian and I looked at native plants of every sort.  They included exotic blossoms, weird trees, and plants that grow on other plants.  We made our way thru rainforest to a lookout tower with a view of the valley.  We returned thru a stand of giant bamboo, and followed a medicine trail of plants with signage describing their usage.  One low, round-leafed bush was supposed to cure bed-wetting.  We went into a Mayan thatched hut built of materials from the valley.  The hard-packed earth floor had been made of a mixture of limestone and sand, resembling cement.

blossomWe met Pat, Alice and Jenn for lunch in the Hangover, a bar and restaurant that literally hangs over a bluff.  Our little open-air dining room, reached by a bridge, was in the treetops.  Pat, Alice and Jenn saw lots of birds, including the big-beaked toucan of Fruit Loops fame.

We returned to Maya Mountain to check out of our cottages.  Bart gave us a 50% discount on the Tikal trip.  Shawnee’s husband drove us to Belize City in time to catch the 4 PM water taxi to Caulker Caye.  The boat was a cabin cruiser about 60 feet long; three padded benches ran along the sides and middle of the cabin.  It was about half full.  The ride was hard, like driving fast over potholes.  Spray flew out copiously to each side.

Caye Caulker

IMG_6410We arrived an hour early, so nobody met us.  None of us had a working phone, and we didn’t know where our cottages were.  So we sat in a corner of a crumbling seaside basketball court and waited.  “Go slow,” a passer-by advised.  “We have two cemeteries and no hospital.”

A bandstand at one end had tattered Christmas decorations, including a pink-faced Santa and elves (most of the natives we saw were black).  A bunch of kids played pick-up basketball at the hoop on the far end.  The sun was setting amidst towering clouds, and a steady, strong wind came in over the west beach.  It didn’t make any surf, perhaps due to the seagrass I’d read about.  Also, the beach was protected by the reef (the Caribbean coast has the second-largest reef in the world).

The cottage that Pat and I stayed in.

The cottage that Pat and I stayed in.

Brian somehow got in touch with our host, Basilio; and two golf carts appeared to take us to our place.   (Only five people can fit in most golf carts, including the driver.)  Here, four modest cottages surrounded a little cement pool.  Ours had a drinking-water dispenser that we were responsible to refill, a gas stove, refrigerator, microwave and TV.  Basilio warned us not to leave the gas open unlit, lest it blow up the house.  The floor was tiled, and the glassless windows were screened and louvered.  Our bedroom had a fan and an air conditioner/dehumidifier; the latter’s controls were labelled in Spanish, and I couldn’t make it work.  A special waste-basket was next to the toilet.  Toilet paper goes in here, not into the toilet, due to the island’s struggling septic system.  Most of Belize can’t flush its toilet paper.

We set off in search of dinner down the narrow dirt streets.  No cars are allowed, only golf carts and bicycles; this made strolling really nice.  The town seemed much cleaner and friendlier than had Santa Elena.  When the sun sets, no-see-ums invisibly chew any exposed skin, particularly one’s hands and fingers.  The locals call them sand flies.

Caulker Village at night

We ended up in Rose’s Grill And Bar, a thatched structure open on the sides, somewhat illuminated with Christmas lights.  It had a four-sided bar in the middle, with its own little thatched roof for style.  Picnic tables with padded benches surrounded it.  The place was crowded; the patrons were mostly tourists.  Loud Latino rock was playing.  A dog slipped in the doorless front entrance; a boy tried to shoo him out.  The dog hid under a table.  The grill was outside, facing the street; we chose our seafood from what the chef called his “menu,” a row of steel trays next to the grill.  Pat had a lobster to honor her mother Dorothy, who had loved them.

I ordered a mojito with my dinner.  But the waiter said that all the lime juice had been drunk up on New Years Eve; so I settled for a Belikin, the national beer.  Their motto; “The only beer worth drinking.”  Considering the scarcity of any other labels, they could shorten that to “The only beer.”  Service was extremely leisurely, and our drink orders were forgotten twice.  Generally, Belize is not for those in a hurry.


Friday 1/2; Basilio missed an 8 AM rendezvous to give us extra keys.  We walked east to the end of our street (there are no street signs, and houses have no numbers) and north up the beach for breakfast.  The upper beach was hard-packed sand and dirt, serving as another street.  The lower beach was heaped with dead seagrass and was used only to launch boats; we learned that a swimming beach at “the split,” a 30-foot wide channel that cuts between the north and south islands, was in walking distance.

bikeAs we approached “downtown,” we saw houses, hotels, bars, workshops, tour offices and Chinese stores jumbled together, many of them ramshackle or makeshift, a very few of them proudly immaculate and fenced off.  There was a Starbucks that Basilio had told us was a fake.  One store had a sign declaring “We have the biggest on the island!”  Muddy bicycles and three-wheelers rattled past.  Golf carts putted gently about, some towing trailers.  People didn’t drive consistently on the right or left, but wherever they saw an opening.  Dogs lay on their sides in the dust, oblivious to the traffic wending its way around them.  Occasionally a vendor of tamales or pastries peddled past on a tricycle cart, calling out his wares.  “Ceeenamon buns!  Feel the vibes, mon.  Feeeeeeel the vibes.  Make you younger than you’ve been in years!”

Breakfast was at Amor Y Cafe, a raised, roofed, open structure decorated with Christmas lights.  Our picnic table had a red checkered plastic cloth decorated with pictures of tropical fruit.  Breakfast was wholesome and good, tho Anna and I agreed that the coffee wasn’t up to Guatemalan standards.  Afterward we separated; I returned to the cottages with Brian and Anna.  Pat meandered and shopped, and got caught in another torrential rainstorm.  Now, she grumbled, two of her outfits were wet.  It was so humid that it was hard to get wet clothes dry again.

Pat and I went out later for lunch at Syd’s and shopping.  We took a back street toward home and saw real trucks; so Caulker Caye’s golf-cart myth was exploded.  But perhaps the downtown, east-side streets that tourists use are car-free.

The innkeeper

When we came back, Basilio was in the courtyard.  I asked him why he missed us in the morning. “It rained,” he explained.

He came in to look at the air conditioner.  Everything about it was working except the fan. He took off the front, started the air conditioner, stuck his arm inside it and spun the fan.  It started turning, and Basilio skillfully didn’t lose his hand.  He told us not to turn it off.

Next challenge; the kitchen light, for which I’d found no switch.  After a careful search, he proposed that it was on the living-room light circuit.  But that switch didn’t turn on the kitchen light either.  He took the cover off the light; no bulbs.

Saturday 1/3; The stove in the kids’ cottage stopped working.  They brought a table and chairs, two place settings and a frying pan to our cottage.  Together we made a great French toast and fried egg breakfast.

After breakfast, the kids went birdwatching.  Basilio brought us extra keys, but most of them didn’t work.  He switched the kids’ gas line to a second propane canister, fixing their stove.  No kitchen lightbulbs were forthcoming.  The owners, a young Anglo couple, stopped by. They gave us two fluffy new beach towels, communicating that there would be a BZ$50 charge for any lost or damaged towels.  They installed little whiteboards with markers by each door and told us to write on them anything we needed.  My marker didn’t work.

In the afternoon we tried the pool.  It had no list of rules, no life-rings, and no fence to keep children out.  It was too cold for me, but Pat and Anna said it was very refreshing.

Caye Caulker by bicycle

I walked to the “Amigos Convenient Store” and rented a bicycle for BZ$7.50 for two hours.  It had a low seat, a coaster brake and no gears; but I could ride thru puddles, a great time-saver.  I rode up to the Split, a narrow channel that separates the north and south islands.  Docks, kayak rentals and outdoor restaurants are here.

IMG_6444I explored the west side of the island, which faces the mainland some 20 miles away.  The water was calm in the lee of the island.  This was a poor and industrial neighborhood.  I found no north/south roads on the west side that extended more than a block, tho some are shown on the map.  I found a power station; it was a fenced area signed “electrical hazard” and filled with tractor trailers in which gasoline generators droned.  Wires ran over the fence to the power lines above the street.  I found a beach where broken appliances had been thrown into the water.  The pretty sunset made an odd contrast with the foreground squalor.

I rode to our cottage to change clothes for the evening, and met Jenn in the courtyard.  She was going shopping for easily-digestible food like applesauce for Alice, Anna and Brian, who had contracted “Caye Caulker Crud.”  A cloudburst caught me on my way to the Convenient Store return the bike.  I tried to outrace it; but I took a wrong turn and got soaked.  The rain here is a roaring dump of water with little prelude.  People ran for cover; so the streets were empty for a moment.  I rode fast thru the puddles, half-blinded by raindrops on my glasses, splashing mud on the slacks I’d be wearing on the flight home.

The crud

We’d talked about meeting at Rose’s for dinner, without making a definite arrangement.  After hearing Jenn’s news I wasn’t surprised to find only Pat there.  We went to Habaneros, which my seat-mate on the flight from Dallas had recommended.  It was expensive, even by American standards.  The building was typical, a five-foot-high roofed platform, open on the sides.  (I’ve been told that buildings are built on posts here as protection from flood tides.)  I ordered garden-stuffed chicken breast and a glass of Merlot.  It looked good; but I suddenly felt averse to anything oily or rich.  Cramps set in; I’d caught the crud too.  I visited the men’s room; it was pitch dark, and the toilet had no seat.  My sunglasses slid out of my shirt pocket.  I put them on the windowsill, forgot them, and wandered back to our table.

We returned to Syd’s, where we’d had lunch yesterday, to look at tropical shirts.  The fellow who makes them, an older man of mixed race named Fernando, talked to us.  He is quite the tailor; he also makes school uniforms and yacht sails.  There were no shirts small enough for me.  He offered to alter a shirt for me, and I agreed.  It’s bold and will wake up the old folks at the Mount.

At the cottage, I discovered the shower no longer had hot water.  That night was not very nice.

Sunday 1/4; Next morning, the kids had recovered enough to go on a snorkeling tour, and Pat went too.  In a couple more hours I could have gone.  I made a late breakfast, read a bit, and laid down to catch up on my sleep.  Outside our door, workmen started using a power saw and hammering.  I gave it up and walked to town.

I checked Habaneros; it was closed, but the waitress who’d served us last night was working inside (no walls).  She told me to come back at six.  I checked Syd’s; it was also closed.  Last night, Fernando had said to go to his house in the courtyard behind the restaurant; but when I pushed the street gate into the courtyard it didn’t open.  I peered thru the slats and saw a padlock.  I went to the Chinese Market, bought comfort food, brought it home and ate it.

A repairman came to fix our hot water.  He said the element in the streaming water heater in the shower had burned out.  He went off to buy a new one.  He returned and put it in just as Pat came home from snorkeling, wanting a shower.  The kids’ hot water also stopped working, but we didn’t realize it until after the repairman had left.  Anna took a shower in our cottage.

We went out to dinner at a beach bar, after swinging by Habaneros and getting my sunglasses.  We moved out of the restaurant to a beach table to escape the loud party next to us.  The moon was big, illuminating the gently-rippled sea out to the reef, where a lighthouse winked its green light.  Beyond it, the lights of a big, faintly-rumbling ship moved imperceptibly.  Christmas lights were wound around the trunks of the palm trees, and a cool steady breeze moved up the beach.

Monday 1/5; Alice had a second attack of the crud, but soon sprang back.  We considered the side salads that had come with our dinners last night with retroactive suspicion.

We said good-bye to Anna and Brian, who had an earlier flight.  I walked up to town and dropped off our Belize guide book and maps at the little bookstore.  Then I made a final effort to reach Fernando and claim my shirt.

The tailor

I discovered that the courtyard gate behind Syd’s opened outward; it had probably never been locked.  But I found no house entrances inside; only seating areas and the usual separate restroom building.  Two ladies in the restaurant kitchen directed me to the preschool on the next street, which was visible from the courtyard.  The preschool teacher sent me upstairs before leading the children in a song.  Accompanied by the singing, Fernando strolled across the yard.

His wrinkled face was the color of stained leather, contrasting oddly with his bristly silver mustache.  We went up wooden stairs to a long covered porch that was his workshop.  He had two sewing machines; a typical garment machine and a large industrial one (for sails, etc.).  He showed me some little school uniforms he was working on.  Then he went into his apartment to get my shirt.  Thru the open door I saw a tidy living room; a large painting of Saint Mary of Guadalupe hung on the far wall.  The shirt now fitted well and had no flapping belly.  He’d sewn his handwritten label inside it.  My cost; BZ$30 (about $15).

Leaving Belize

Back at the cottage, Alice came over to take a hot shower.  We ate all the food we could and abandoned the rest.  Basilio drove us to the ferry office in his golf cart, while Jenn held our tower of luggage steady against the windshield.  We stashed our bags there and sat on the bleachers of the basketball court, watching three kids playing pick-up at the basket above the bandstand.  A flat basketball makes a particularly defeated sound.  Alice napped on a bench.  Jenn bought Pat and me a coconut with a hole in the top and a straw.  It had a lot of juice; it’s a good thing she didn’t bring us two of them.

We retrieved our bags, checked them in and moved to the end of the dock, enjoying the cool breeze.  A rainstorm lurked beyond the reef, but it didn’t approach.  This time the ferry was totally full.  It faltered and stopped several times along the way to Belize City, making me imagine our plane zooming to Dallas over our heads as we lay becalmed.  But it always started again.  The ferry paused to drop somebody off at a tiny islet with one tree and a big unfinished cement building.

We had lunch at an Indian restaurant in the Belize City ferry terminal.  Nobody ate their side salads. A big taxi van carried us to the airport with no need to balance the luggage.  In Dallas-Fort Worth Airport we went thru the immigration and customs wickets, and hugged Alice and Jenn good-bye.

The final leg of our flight, home to Seattle, was going to be annoying.  American Airlines had changed our flight, assigned us seats far from each other, and then had offered seats together for a surcharge of $45 each.  Pat decided to ask the gate attendants if they would change our seats, tho I doubted it was worth the trouble.  As we stepped up to the counter, they paged us.  Unasked, they handed us new boarding passes for seats together, in first class.

I’d never flown first-class before.  I was expecting bigger seats and more legroom, of course; and free drinks and snacks.  But the seats had padded seat belts; and little metal trays folded out of the armrest.  Warm snack nuts were served in little heated ceramic dishes.  And my Dos Equis came in a real glass with a twist of lemon.

More pictures

Good things to pack for Belize

Lightweight ventilated rain jacket, and/or umbrella
Shade hat that won’t blow off and doesn’t mind rain
iPhone, etc.; a cell phone would be complicated; but WiFi is findable, so you can communicate via email
Surge protector, if you bring an iPhone, etc.
Water bottles
Plastic bags
Hand sanitizer
Artificial-fiber clothes (they dry better)
Pocket-size flashlight for use in restrooms
Boots or walking shoes with good tread for wet conditions
Insect repellent that’s 30% or more deet
Antibiotics for diarrhea (you can get them prescribed in advance)


2 thoughts on “Exploring Belize; December 2014

  1. Alice de Anguera

    Excellent write-up, Dad! I enjoyed reading about your adventures kayaking, biking the island, and meeting the tailor. When do I get to see that shirt? -Alice

  2. Jon

    Great travelogue, Paul. An entertaining and absorbing chronicle of one man’s triumph over corruption, pestilence and the elemental forces of nature. With a happy ending to boot. What more could one wish for?



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