Borders, Barges and Belkin. Our week in Belize.
Entering Belize was a little complicated; initially helpful border officials and the shift in national language from Spanish to English meant us progressing at lightning pace until it became time to clear the dog and his paperwork. Despite him being up-to-date on his latest jabs, we were repeatedly told we should have already cleared him “in Baja”, and that we must now pay a $100 fine. Despite it seeming insane that 6 months before, some 2000 miles away in Baja California, we were to have thought ahead and submitted something that stated we would possibly be bringing our dog to Belize, it was clear we were not to be passing without completion of this task.
To cut to the chase, we were waiting in the no-mans land between the Belizean and Mexican borders sans money, as the solitary cashpoint was not working and the ‘fine’ was obviously not payable by card. It turned out that the ‘Baja’ they had been talking about was ‘BAHA’, – the Belize Authority of Health and Agriculture and that the process we should have completed was this. Luckily enough for us, we travel with another couple most of the time, and they were able to drive off to the nearest town and withdraw money to then return, and surreptitiously feed a wad of cash back to me through the border fence.
By the time all of this was completed, we were now well into darkness. It is a rule we try hard to stick to that we arrive at wherever we are staying well before dark, to try to avoid any unpleasantness on the road, especially on our first day in a new country. Furthermore, to get to the campsite that we had planned on going too, there were a series of inlets and gentle rivers that from what we could make out needed to be passed on a hand crank barge, a one that we feared may not be operating at this time of night.
As we pulled up to the first of these, we were relieved to find that not only was there another couple of vehicles waiting but that the old man was still sitting at the ‘controls’ and we would be able to make our destination. Furthermore, between the sounds of the jungle, the warm Belizean night air, and the rickety wooden platform that we were driving the vehicles onto, our first night in Belize delivered the kind of adventure that we always look for, and our excitement at being in our first new country for nearly 6 months was truly compounded.
Waking up the next day, we decided to head out early to explore and try to grab some breakfast. Being a very sleepy Carribean town, the combination of ‘early’ and ‘breakfast’ was not to work out, with every eatery we could find in the town not opening until sometime in the mid afternoon. We did, however, get our first taste of small town Belize, and since the cultural contrast between the US and Mexico, our first palpable cultural contrast of the trip. The pastel paintwork of the rustic buildings, unpaved roads and community feel all offset the stunning blues and yellows of the Carribean beautifully, and we found ourselves instantly falling for a country that we had not expected much from.
Over the following days, we drove up through the highlands, through the small towns of Orange Walk and La Democracia, Dangriga and Hattieville. We took in nature and the stunning greens and oranges that made up the sparsely populated interior. We stopped at isolated bars, drank beer with the locals and slept in car parks. We took dirt roads down to river banks and played in the lush waters. We drove over rickety wooden bridges, through thunderstorms and over miles of dusty washboard road. Moreover, we got a real appreciation for just how lush and beautiful this country was.
Our next real stop was in the Garifuna town of Hopkins, where we camped up at a cool little beach hostel for a few days. We were loving the vibe of this town and spent our first evening sitting on the beach, shaking coconuts from the trees, machete-ing the tops off them, pouring in some white rum, and drinking them with the locals as a thunderstorm cracked over the Carribean.
Through the haze of the coconut drunk, we did not realise how prolific the sand flies were and woke up the next day, covered in a myriad of tiny, but horrifically itchy little bites. Reece especially had seen the brunt of this and ended up with feet that looked like they should be a relief map of the Andes:
The next day, we hobbled down into town to try and shift our hangovers with a little lunch. A little Lunch being the operative word, as our cash would only stretch to a shared Pizza with Belize’s crazy inflated tourist prices. We found a sweet little spot on the back of a beach and watched as the local kids played a spirited game of beach volleyball. The atmosphere was decidedly that of a chilled Caribbean Sunday afternoon, families were enjoying the sand, while groups of kids played games or listened to music from phone speakers. The waiter brought our pizza over, and thankfully, it looked large and delicious. Reece lifted the first slice to his starved lips and was immediately smacked, full face by a hoofed football. It knocked the pizza from his hand, smashed the RayBan’s from his face and sent him tumbling, dazed backwards in the sand. While the players ran over to apologise, and I admittedly was in fits of laughter, I hadn’t noticed the stray dog, edging over to try and get a free meal. Frankie was chilling on the cool sand under the table, and, as most of you know, he isn’t the biggest fan of dogs he doesn’t know, and has a bark on him to rival a dog twice his size. As we laughed, Frankie lunged out from under the table with a cacophonous bark, that made ourselves, and most of the people in the area jump out of our skin. The father at the table opposite us didn’t laugh or jump, but instead, in a single smooth motion, whipped around, unholstering his pistol as he did, the barrel resting on Frank before he had even finished his growl. My heart jumped, and time seemed to slow down as I almost awaited the shot, but luckily the man was clearly trained, and while his instincts were that the dog was attacking a person, he was calm and collected enough to see the situation for what it was, before doing anything rash.
There are moments when travelling that remind you that you are not at home. You feel so relaxed and so safe all of the time, until one split second, a near miss in the car, or a guy pulling a gun on your dog shatters that feeling, if only for a brief moment.
Our next stop was only a brief journey away, up in the Cockscomb Basin Nature Reserve for a spot of hiking, tubing, wildlife spotting and general exploring. Sadly, but understandably, the hound was not allowed out of the car, so our time was limited to short stops and jaunts up trails. Luckily this area is renowned, both for its biodiversity at the spectacular nature of the surroundings, and we were able to see incredible sights, like this downed plane, only a few minutes hike from the Cruiser.
Our last day of outdoor exploration and activities was to visit the caves and Cenotes of the Blue Hole National Park, another stunning example of the diversity and fascinating geography of this tiny nation. While our visit here was great, it, unfortunately, served us of a reminder of how much we were missing out on. Walking to look at the entrance to the cave was great, but as we watched others tube through it, or later, saw more adverts for the supposedly spectacular and huge ATM caves, we were yet again reminded that this was a country that without solid finances, you could only scratch the surface of.
We drove our final stretch, across the ‘Hummingbird Highway”, through the city of Belmopan and towards the Guatemalan Border to stop for a few days rest and work in the small mountain town of San Ignacio. Our little campground was quite centrally located, allowing us time to visit the town itself, the last town we would see in Belize. Although it is not like me to say, we actually enjoyed the energy of the town, it was bustling, but without hassling, relaxed, without being boring. The local vegetable market was full of awesome fresh produce, and the nightlife was fun and friendly, with hundreds of larger than life local characters, always wanting to share a story, or make a foreigner laugh.
We loved our brief time in Belize and would have stayed much longer had it not been for financial concerns. We would have loved to have done more, like spend time out on the Cayes and Islands that make up some of Belize’s more beautiful and iconic destinations, but despite our best effort to negotiate even with local boat owners and fishermen, we could not arrange passage for less than $200, so decided to save this for a time at which we would visit again, hopefully whilst a little bit more flush. Still, it was a country rich in diversity, both natural and cultural, and one with more than enough to keep us entertained, amazed and looking forward to a return visit.