You know the old saying, “Another day another country”…….well, that is what it has felt like lately! We are trying not to rush it, but seven months down the track, we are wondering how we are going to fit in Mexico, Cuba, (some parts of) Europe and Asia. But, as the other old saying goes, “Where there’s a will there’s a way!” And both Alex and I have wills of steel!
Belize is the only country in Central America whose official language is English, although Spanish is certainly the second, and on the Guatemalan and Mexican borders they are usually bi-lingual. As soon as we crossed the border, the whole vibe changed….to slow, VERY SLOW ACTUALLY! I had no sooner crossed the dotted line than I was being told to, “Slow don mon! Dis iss Be-lissssssssssssssssssssse!” ( This is Belize) Ombi go slow? I make no promises, but I´ll give it a go!
The first thing one notices about Belize is the architecture. The wooden houses are painted so brightly, which is so typical of the Caribbean. The only thing missing was the beach and those postcard type views for which it is famous for. The second thing one notices is how slow everything seems to go, including most of all the people!
Belize is not only a tiny country, but it also has a tiny population of around 282, 600 people. It is a very multi-cultural nation, of which 25% are Creoles (descendants of British loggers, colonists and African slaves). They speak quite a unique form of English that, after trying to decipher does not actually sound like English at all! Then amongst others, there are Mestizos (people of mixed Spanish and Amerindian descent), people of Mayan origin, Mennonites and Chinese! Quite un-belizeable really!
Our first stop over the border was a place called San Ignacio. We managed to get there on a local bus, despite some con artist attempting to divert us to a taxi, as supposedly it was only fractionally more expensive. Sure, we wasted a little time hanging about, but we soon discovered that there WAS a local bus for much cheaper. We only had to walk some 15 minutes in the heat to get to it! Upon our arrival in San Ignacio, it was more walking until we found a hotel that passed the Ombi and Alex test.
We ended up in a lovely, cosy little place, called The Plaza Hotel, run by a gorgeous elderly couple called Selpha and Roberto, who looked after us like their kids, even giving us drinks when we would come back from a long walk. We spent a couple of days just walking around, visiting the local market, trying out the local food, and visiting Cahal Pech, a small Mayan ruin. The reality is that having just seen Tikal, it would have been hard to impress us, but it was still a lovely one kilometre walk out of town, and the site was still interesting in its own right. I always find Mayan sites so full of energy, and they are such great places to take the time to regroup and slow down. When we said goodbye, Selpha gave me a big hug and said that we felt like family and that she would miss us both. I think she enjoyed that we both took the time to chat with her and her husband. Old and young, rich and poor, Muslim or Jewish – remember that we are all people and that listening to people´s stories imparts a plethora of knowledge.
Belize City was next. Yes, it was as I remembered it, but perhaps a little more crowded. Lots of poverty too. We quickly made our way from the bus station to the centre of town, where we started the search for a place to sleep. We ended up at Freddie´s Place, run by Mrs Grifiths. It was in both a pretty and safe part of town, very close to the water´s edge.
Now, the water´s edge, yes the port, that has certainly changed! As Alex and I walked along the shore we noticed several cruise ships off in the distance. So, OK Belize is an up and coming tourist destination. But what we saw next blew us out of the water (no pun intended!)……..The Tourist Village! Yes, I repeat, the Tourist Village. This is a place on the waterfront that is basically a Belizian Disneyland, geared for tourists who want to buy diamonds and tacky-shirts at ridiculous prices. There are no Belizians in the Tourist Village, and as we walked around I kept asking myself what kind of image of Belize these people were taking home with them? And the locals of the tourists! This was so not Belize! As I looked around horrified, I was handed a brochure on a pharmacy in the village. It read, ¨Cheapest medication….viagra and diet pills¨. That seemed to say a lot about what they thought about the cruise ship set! Get me out of here, I screamed to Alex!
Close by, however, we did visit the Pirate Museum, which was very interesting indeed. Lots of true tales about the ¨Pirates of the Caribbean¨. They were a cheeky lot, the majority coming from England. Scoundrels the pommies, aren´t they!
Our next destination was Caye Caulker. Heard of it? It is the caye right next to Ambergris Caye (also known as San Pedro), as made famous in Madonna´s song, ¨La Isla Bonita¨. Caye Caulker is only a 50-minute ferry ride from Belize City. As we neared the dock, I cast my mind back…I had not remembered it as being so very beautiful! It was the thing that dreams are made of! Crystal clear water, iridescent blue sky, no trash, more of those brightly painted wooden houses on the water´s edge, white sand and coconut trees swaying in the breeze. We were living the postcard!
It actually took us a little longer than usual to find a place to stay this time, and it was getting a little late. As we were walking down the main (dirt!) drag, a trio said hello, and then we heard a, ¨Hey, are you an Aussie mate!¨ As it works out Jimmy was a fellow Melburnian, who told us about a place they were staying at called, ¨Ignacio´s¨, which was right on the beach, at one end of the town. It was tranquil enough to be away from the action but close enough to be near it. We had a great few days hanging out with Jimmy, his gorgeous Canadian gal Jacobi, and Kevin, their friend from the USA. Ignacio´s even had a BBQ where we cooked up some good tucker! Jimmy, you are the master BBQ man and your veggie parcels in alfoil rock! Subsequently, I made them almost every night of our almost one week stay on the island. Along with food, I need to mention coffee, and yes, we found a great little spot that we frequented for our daily cup, or two. Lee and her daughter Jess, own and run the Caribbean Colors Art Gallery, www.caribbean-colors.com where they also offer some yummy savoury and sweet snacks, as well as, obviously, great coffee! As the logo on the publicity board outside their place reads, ¨Life is short – so stay awake!¨ I liked that one!
But alack and alas, there is life beyond good food and coffee….and on Caye Caulker it came in the form of snorkelling and diving. We had four adventure packed days, with all trips offering something unique and spectacular. As we ran around from beach to snorkel to the diving trip, I was told many a time to, “Slow don mon!” Various individuals seemed genuinely perplexed at the pace at which I was moving! I know, I know….diss iss Belisssssse! Our first trip was a half day outing to the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve, where we snorkelled. We went out by motorboat with Salvador (Salva) Arce, who was a terrific guide, and we saw lots in the clear blue waters – rays, sharks, lots of coloured fish, and phenomenal coral formations. Contact Salva on firstname.lastname@example.org
The next day we were out with Raggamuffin Tours, which is owned and run by a charismatic English lass called Charlie, and her equally charming husband, Jimmy (not to mention their gorgeous little boy, Malik). With their easy-going natures, down to earth approach (excellent tours as well guys!) and great guides, no wonder they pull in the crowds! This time we did a full day of snorkelling and we went out on a sailboat! What a truly memorable experience. I mean, sailboats are what the Caribbean is all about. I felt like I was part of a movie. Here we saw more spectacular coral formations, relatives of Nemo, sharks and rays. And this is not all they offer folks! Check out their website, www.raggamuffintours.com
Next day, it was diving with Frenchie´s, www.frenchiesdivingbelize.com This diving school and centre is headed by Abel, who also has a team of highly qualified and efficient instructors. We went diving on a reef very close to the island, which was spectacular! Although Alex and I only qualified a couple of months ago in Honduras, our guide was so professional and thorough that we both immediately felt comfortable, and our experience was brilliant. I think diving is a little like riding a bike, once you learn it, you never forget it! The underwater world is mesmerising! This was our first fun dive (as in, not part of our course) and it truly was fun! All we had to do was follow the instructor, admire the beauty of this spectacular reef, and enjoy our surroundings! Tough aint it! It is the second largest barrier reef in the world, after Australia´s, of course. The coral formations were breathtaking, as was the marine life. Sometimes it´s hard to take it all in! Look, breathe, enjoy, be careful! I think diving has certainly reeled me in! OK, pun intended this time.
Although, a little tired at this point, our last day on the island was spent diving on the Turneffe Atoll. This time we did it with Valentino and his crew at the Big Fish Dive Centre, www.bigfishdive.com Here we enjoyed more coral, fish, rays, and wall diving, where the drops were steep, and the views phenomenal. But it never gets boring! It´s an amazing world down there, and much of it is spent reflecting and just trying to sponge in all that you see. It also gives me a chance (one of the very few!) to be still and quiet.
So, lots of sunshine, blue skies, coffee, good food, snorkelling and dives later……..we were ready to say goodbye to Caye Caulker. We did not make it to San Pedro this time, being told that it was like Caye Caulker, only more expensive and with more people. No thanks! We would rather leave with fond memories!
We had to catch the ferry back to Belize City, and then an ongoing bus north to Chetumal, just across the Mexican border. We sat on that bus tired (I wonder why!), and a little sunburnt, but very happy and excited. Happy with what we had been able to just experience, and excited about what we were about to……………Mexico and Cuba, here we come!
Photos: 1.- Alex crossing the border into Belize. 2.- Ombi & Malik. 3.- Local sign, Belize City. 4.- Ombi doin´her thang at the Tourist Village, Belize City. 5.- Caye Caulker front yard. 6.- Ozzie barbie mate, Caye Caulker 7.- Nurse shark, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Caye Caulker. 8.- The sailing boat we went on with Raggamuffin Tours. 9.- Abel & Ombi at Frenchie´s Diving. 10- Ombi the clown fish (photo title compliments of the photographer). 11.- Pelican watching the sunset, Caye Caulker.