<divclass=”” style=”padding-bottom:7px”> Lydia’s Guesthouse Placencia
27th January 2013
N16° 31.241′ W88° 22.155’
Were we glad to get out of Guatemala City! Without being unkind, it really is a horrid place. If it had some interesting places to visit, some attractive old buildings, a park or two to stroll around these might just make up for the exhaust smoke clogged streets, the broken sidewalks, the generally
unkempt feel to the place. To be fair we were holed up in our hotel in the older part of the city for four days waiting for the guys at the Land Rover service centre to finish what needed to be done. This meant we didn’t get to see anything more than Zona 1 where the hotel was located and whose sole offerings of interest to a visitor were the rather sad railway museum and the Casa Mima museum, a Victorian era house containing many artefacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The remainder of the time we haunted the Macdonalds and Burger King fast food joints (‘cos they’re cheap and our stay in this scruffy metrolpolis was costing us over budget!). We also
spent more time than we would have thought possible holed up in our hotel room watching CNN – the US version – and being taken aback by the somewhat sad programme content, its gabbling female presenters, plus the adverts which either urged one to take this pill or that, to join one of dozens of weight reduction schemes, or to sign up for a second loan on one’s property which was now worth less than the outstanding balance on the mortgage! The programme content seemed
to be super glued to Lance Armstrong and his pathetic attempt to atone for all his lies of the past and to the bewildering take on America’s inability to work out how to deal with escalating gun crime. It sure made us glad we were not American citizens……
Meantime, the workshop at Transequipos who were doing the work needed on Jambo were slooooowly getting it done. As it turned out the radiator did have a leak which had to be fixed, we did need rear brake pads (not surprisingly after all the hills and stop/starts for the infuriating speed humps all over the show), and they had to do a full lube service changing all the oils including the diffs, gear box and transfer box. The cost of the oils alone make one wonder if they make them from platinum……..I worked out afterwards that for what this all cost we could have bought a 2nd
hand runabout motor scooter. Some things at Land Rover never seem to change.
So it was with great relief that we piled back into a shiny clean Jambo at Transequipos, bade goodbye to the ever charming and helpful Ewald Kaehler and pointed Jambo’s nose eastwards. Before getting clear of the city’s fumes and clutter we stopped off at one of the Walmart supermarkets out in the suburbs to stock up on food and booze, and hopefully to buy the correct little propane stove top to fit our Camping Gaz click on cylinders. We were not that impressed by the Walmart we visited. It had virtually no outdoors products and certainly no camping stove bits and its general layout was far from easy to navigate around. Its check out set up was by South African standards at least very slow and inefficient which for a mega outfit like Walmart didn’t seem to fit the image. Maybe they are more on the ball in the US – we’ll see.
The reason for wanting a little gas stove was that our MSR multi fuel stove had been giving us endless headaches, refusing to work reliably unless I took it apart and cleaned out the entire fuel system every time we wanted to use it. If I didn’t do this it flatly refused to work. Even after working through the maintenance notes that came with the stove and diligently checking every single part for the cause of it blocking up and not allowing the fuel to flow properly, I still could not get the damned thing to do what it was designed for. It has to be one of the most unreliable products I have ever had the misfortune to have shelled out good money for. This was the reason why we wanted to increase our arsenal of cooking equipment and buy a back up camping gas stove. One of the overlanders we had met earlier was familiar with the MSR stove we had and suggested we buy
kerosene and rather run it on that. As compared with lead free gasoline on which we were now running our stove kerosene would provide more heat per litre and should be cheaper to buy than gasoline. Later we bought a litre of kerosene from one of the few service stations that seemed to sell it, I changed the stove’s jet to the one designed for this fuel and after a good clean up tried
to fire it up. Result? Zilch. Not a drop of kerosene would go through to the jet yet the whole system had been checked and recheckd for blockages. Before throwing the bloody thing in the refuse bin I put the old gasoline jet back, refilled with gasoline and hey presto it fired up. But for how long will it run before it again needs yet another clean out? It certainly is not dirty gasoline; every time we fill the stove’s tank with new fuel I always filter it through a fine paper filter. Frankly, I’m sick of this useless bit of expensive and much vaunted junk. It’s too complicated, has too many parts needing
cleaning or replacement and in our case at least does NOT deliver. We just need good old camping Gaz or maybe, if and when we can find one, a dual burner Coleman gasoline stove which several overlanders we have met use and swear by. But I think we’ll have to wait to get into the US before we can get one of these, and by then it will be almost too late.
It was indeed a relief to finally get clear of Guatemala City and we then found ourselves on Ruta 9, a good if tortuous main road which initially dropped us from the 1500 metres altitude of the capital down to well below 1000. And then it was time to turn off the highway at El Rancho and head back in a northerly direction to rejoin the Ruta 17 on which we had earlier travelled after coming into Guatemala from Honduras via Agua Caliente and Zacapa. The reduction in big truck traffic was a relief on this quieter route and were soon bombing along happily at a steady 80-90 kms/hr and putting the kms behind us en route towards our next major destination of significance – Tikal, the largest Maya ruins in central America. But they were still out of reach for a day’s drive, even several days as we were to soon find. Guatemala does not have a great road network joining its towns
and places of interest. More correctly, it has the “roads” which look OK on the map or on the GPS. But when it comes to actually drive on them… well then you can forget any more gears than 1st or 2nd. And yes, you’ll more than likely need 4×4 traction too!
So we made our next stop the famous pools at Semuc Champey tucked into the hills some 10 kms to the south of the little town of Lanquin. It was quite a drive from the capital – around 270 kms – but fortunately almost all of it except for the last 12 kms or so was on good tar roads. Those last 12 took us down into a valley on a pretty rough track which in these parts serves as a “road” along which the locals conduct cars (a local was gingerly driving his low slung Lexus sedan along it!), trucks, heavily loaded 25 seat busses and of course the ubiquitous double cab pickups that are best suited to these conditions. On the steeper inclines of this twisty route our 4×4 traction was
certainly welcome, the rocky surface being quite slick in places from the damp climate. How they get 2 wheel drive, never mind front wheel drive cars along this backwoods strip is beyond me but they do!
We didn’t go straight to the pools at Semuc Champey but looked around in nearby Lanquin for a place to sleep. The first we tried, the inviting looking Zephyr Lodge all constructed in timber and palm frond roofs turned out to be full. So they directed us to the El Retiro hostel (N15 34.883 W89 58.549) at the edge of the town built in similar fashion on the steep slopes leading down to the rushing Lanquin river. There we took the last couple of beds available in one of their dorms mixing in with youngsters from many other parts of the world. It was on the damp side and chilly at the hostel – we were definitely back in a temperate climate – and the hostel’s quaint makuti roofed sauna beside the river seemed to be a popular spot. We didn’t participate but the youngsters certainly did. The staff were all young locals although we found out the owner (who didn’t appear) was Dutch. The result was a somewhat curt and disinterested reception on arrival and far from speedy service when it came to serving up breakfast in the morning. Absent owner/s = drop in standards all round in our view as in places where the owner is present one can see and feel
a palpable difference. Anyway, El Retiro was OK for one night.
Next morning after breakfast we drove the short distance along the still rough track to Semuc Champey. After paying our entry fee and parking Jambo in the muddy car park we changed into our hiking footwear and set off along the very slippery trail to the pools. It’s a popular spot and understandably so as it is an extremely unusual geological yet very scenic spot. Water flows down
the river over what is known as karst (a type of carbonate) rock which the river over time fashions into weird and wonderful shapes but here at Semuc Champey it does something else too. Part of the river’s flow has found its way under the rocks for a short distance whilst the remainder of the flow is channelled over the top of the rocks via pools and little steps in the soft karst. The pools on the top are of a bright greenish blue colour and if one wishes one can swim in them. We didn’t but the water was certainly warmer than it looked. After taking pictures of the pools we headed up the decidedly hazardous and rough trail to the lookout several hundred metres above the pools. Hazardous as it was both steep and extremely slippery from the rain that had fallen on the muddy surface. Much of the mud had been carried on other visitor’s boots and shoes onto the smooth wooden treads of the staircases constructed up the steep sides of the valley in which the pools lie. In some places there were no steps, just boulders and the remains of rock steps all covered in
their extremely dangerous slick of leaves, mud and water. Why no one has been injured here is surprising. And the people at the entrance gate do not warn visitors about the state of the trails nor are there any signs doing so or suggestions about wearing the right footwear. That said it was an alluring place tucked away in the depths of the forest. The closest thing we have seen that compares with it are the rivers in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina which in some parts run over similar karst rock. After eating our picnic lunch in the car park off the front fenders of Jambo and before leaving Semuc Champey we succumbed to the persistent little girls strategically positioned along the access road and in the car park offering little silver paper wrapped rounds of local chocolate. As it turned out when we tried it on the return run to Lanquin it wasn’t all that palatable – very coarse in texture and extremely bitter, but in our own very small way we had contributed to the local economy!
We had thought of trying Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin again to see if on our second night there they might have a bed for us. But due to the highly belligerent and offensive behaviour of a local who parked his truck on the narrow single track to the lodge from the village and refused to move it so we could get past we never got there. We went back to El Retiro, they did have dorm beds again, but we decided that as it seemed we might have enough time left in the afternoon and early evening to make it to another known stop over place along our route we would keep going. We knew the track back to the main road was roughish for 12 kms and that the route on from there would be gravel for quite a distance. The unknown factor was how good (or bad) the surface
would be from there and for how far, and therefore how long it might take us to get to Finca Ixobel, our next intended overnight stop. As so often happens one gets fooled by the map and the GPS which cannot give any info on the nature of route, only the distances, and one can easily overestimate achievable average speeds accordingly. Sure enough the 40 odd kms along the first rough and twisty Ruta 5 was really slow going – mostly 2nd gear with the very occasional change to a heady rush at 50 kms/hr in 3rd! But it then started to improve, became wider and a mite smoother and eventually turned into glorious, new and smooth tar with hardly another vehicle to be seen. Except just before hitting the tar and coming down from the nasty rough stuff we encountered a young Californian couple on their shiny and spotless Kawasaki motorbikes who were heading in the opposite direction towards Lanquin. Having just come off the nice smooth tar and encountering the still smooth gravel they had stopped briefly to lower their tyre pressures. Little did they know what lay in wait for them! We tried to let them down gently but doubted they would have made Lanquin that night and would have had to have bush camped off that horrible track somewhere in the
mountains. As for their shiny bikes and the mud…..
Our beautiful new Ruta 5 then came to a junction where one could choose between heading more or less due north on a gravel surface, or turn to the east and stay on the tar to take us hopefully all the way to the big main road that parallels the border with Belize in the far east of Guatemala. As the smooth tar beckoned, we had little daylight left, and Finca Ixobel lay on the main road we turned east. The tar road allowed us to really wind Jambo up to a heady 100 kms plus in places for the next 80 kms or so, but as the daylight finally started to wane just short of Ruta CA 13, the main highway north, we hit major road construction and it was back to grindingly slow speeds mixing it with the graders, Cats and big trucks hauling rocks and gravel for the new road still to be completed. When we finally got to the junction with CA 13 it was dark, I was bushed, and we still had close to 60 kms to cover to get to Finca Ixobel (N16 18.200 W89 25.227) just short of the town of Poptun. But at least it was a tarred surface, albeit scarred and well littered with speed bumps along the way with a nice mix of heavy trucks, some unlit at the rear, grinding up the inclines. Imagine this – you have been behind the wheel for some four hours already much of it on a very demanding mountain goat track, it’s now dark, there are the hazards of unmarked speed bumps and unlit trucks, never mind people and animals, and now you find your two essential auxiliary spot lamps which greatly light up the way ahead have packed up! So tempers were frayed amongst the crew when it came to looking for the sign on the unlit main road that would point us down the track to the finca where we could hopefully get some dinner and a much needed bed. This is what overland travel in this neck of the woods sometimes consists of. Anyone interested? No, it’s not always that bad and a good night’s sleep usually revives the soul and the body as it did very successfully at Finca Ixobel.
You think we were having a rough time briefly? This was nothing compared to the trauma Carole, the owner of Finca Ixobel had gone through some 30 years previously. Back then in the uncertain and unstable days of Guatemalan militarism her husband had been shot and killed by the army without warning or apparent reason, his body left on a rubbish heap some distance from their farm.
This I learnt, not from Carole but from one of her staff. He suggested that this awful event had come about because Carole’s husband that day had been wearing clothes similar to army fatigues and the military patrol that he encountered whilst driving to his child’s school took him as a terrorist. It
reminds one that central America has in the past seen much violence, torture and blood letting. Somehow the likes of Carole who have had to endure its aftermath have survived and continue their lives. But when talking to her in general, not about those awful days, the scars on her memory do show through the understandably tough everyday veneer she now lives behind. But Carole, you
sure have a nice place to stay, your staff are great, and your catering is tops! We enjoyed the tasty and varied meals there as did the other visitors from other parts of the world spending a day or
two unwinding at Finca Ixobel. The rustic farm makes for a nice walk around its hectares, to its natural swimming pool and bush bar. Those who like to ride can do so on one of several horses available, or one can join one of the many trips that they can arrange ranging from visits to impressive looking nearby caves to sailing trips on a Polynesian catamaran out to the Caribbean islands offshore. At 120 Quetzales pn for a room and with excellent food on offer at reasonable
prices we highly recommend Finca Ixobel to other overlanders.
My enjoyment at being able to unwind and relax at Finca Ixobel was however short lived. On popping the bonnet on Jambo to check oil and coolant levels the morning after our arrival I was more than a mite dismayed to find that the car had lost some coolant. This time it needed about half a litre to bring it back to the required level and this after having the apparent cause of a leaking radiator fixed by Transequipos just 450 or so kms to the south. I assumed (as it turned out overoptimistically) that perhaps the workshop had not refilled the cooling system fully. There was no indication anywhere in the cooling system that I could see that there was a leak, but the coolant was getting out somewhere. The half litre I added was 50% water and 50% antifreeze and I fervently hoped that would be the last time for a long time that topping up would be required. But it was not to be.
Before leaving Finca Ixobel we chatted briefly with a German couple overlanding to the south on their motorbikes who hinted at possible problems for us when it came to applying for a second US visa which we would need in order to enter Alaska and later re-enter the States. Our first one would be valid for 90 days but this would only cover our estimated 2 month stay in the US going north and would likely expire whilst we were still heading north in Canada towards Alaska. The Germans seemed to think one could not apply for a second visa from either of the neighbouring countries to the USA – Mexico or Canada. This was the first time we had heard this and it differed from all the info we had gathered to date and particularly from the phone conversation we had had with the US embassy whilst we were in San Jose in Costa Rica. We hope the Germans are misinformed. If not,
we have some significant re-planning to do….
Back on the CA 13 it was all points north again for the 150 km run up to Tikal and its famous and much talked about Maya ruins. At the main entrance gate to the National Park established around the ruins site we were asked to pay 150 Quetzales per person for entry for one day and also handed a ticket on which the time and date was written. This we had to hand in on arrival at the
ruins site where the guards would check our arrival time there to make sure we had not exceeded the 45 kms/hr speed limit which they strictly enforce for the sake of the animals in the park that might cross the access road! Quite a neat idea except that you could speed along and then before arriving at the ruins and out of sight of the guards stop on the road for the required time…..
We checked out what we thought was the only campsite but it wasn’t very nice. Then we spotted the Jaguar Inn (N17 13.520 W89 36.702) across the road where we could also camp for Q50 pppn. The receptionist on duty started by telling us we must pay $1 to use their wifi which was “just for hotel guests”. But then he told us the wifi was no good as it was very slow! And it was, and no, I later got the wifi password from another staff member without paying. That sort of thing makes one suspicious…We tucked ourselves into a grassy if slightly damp corner of their car park and soon had our rear canopy up.
Infuriatingly I discovered on checking the coolant level when we had got settled at the Jaguar Inn’s campsite that it had again gone down about 2 inches. So the car was definitely losing water somewhere. This was seriously bad news as not only had we spent four days in the unpleasant capital city spending a great deal of money on having this fixed along with a partial service, but we would soon be in the USA and Canada where there would be little if any service or spares support for diesel Defenders like ours. We were also now some distance from Guatemala City and the agents Transequipos who had worked on the car. I could not use Skype to phone Transequipos so had to resort to calling them on the satellite phone from the middle of the ruins site. I spoke quickly with Ewald Kaehler and explained the problem and that I was far from happy with the outcome and asked him to consider how he was going to resolve it. To his credit he later confirmed that he would send up one of his mechanics along with the necessary tools and spare parts to endeavour to sort this leaking coolant problem out once and for all. Initially, I understood that the mechanic would be flying up but Ewald later told me that he was driving up and of course this would take him all of 10 hours!
We had started out late just after 2pm to go round these famous ruins (our entrance ticket was only valid for one day) but even though it was quite a walk from the gate to the first of the buildings we got to see a good part of what Tikal has to offer. The Grand Plaza is perhaps the most impressive and the several huge temples, one soaring to over 70 metres into the sky above the surrounding jungle, are simply stunning. Unlike not far off Copan in Honduras Tikal is much more complete and less of it just a pile of fallen stones. Best of all was the lack of other visitors it being off season for the ruins, so we had many of the building complexes at Tikal all to ourselves. Listening to the
birds in the trees we tried to speculate on what Tikal must have been like in its heyday some 1500 years ago and to have been there whilst they were building its very different and often massive structures. One of them alone took over 100 years to complete. Taking an average life expectancy in those times of say 35 years into account that equates to probably 3 generations of Maya people
being involved with the erection of this one building alone….
Whilst wandering around Tikal we were treated to an “orchestra” of howling, grunting and roaring by a nearby troop of howler monkeys which live in the jungle that surrounds the site. How such a relatively small animal (they are about the size of a small chimpanzee) can produce such a deep,
reverberating, long range roar as they do when the males vociferously challenge one another over territory is amazing. Somehow they project the many sounds they can manufacture over considerable distances whilst sitting high on the branches of their “home” tree. They don’t move around much and live in quite large family groups. We were told that if one approaches the tree or trees in which they may be sitting they may decide to “bomb” the onlookers, not out of
aggression but simply to let those below know where they are!
Sure enough, just after lunch on our second day at Tikal, Angel the Transequipos SA mechanic, arrived from Guatemala City in a Discovery along with his wife and two children. I give Ewald and his team full marks for this level of back up service it being a drive of over 500 kms one way. Frustratingly however, in spite of a thorough external inspection of the Jambo’s engine, and
another pressure test of the cooling system, absolutely no reason for the coolant loss could be established. The repair to the radiator where Transequipos had found a small hole checked out fine too except that the workshop had not cut back a little of the plastic shroud to prevent it from
rubbing up against the radiator matrix. But I knew that since leaving the Guatemala workshop after the repairs and service that the car had needed topping up twice once with about half a litre and on the second occasion with less. This was a worry. I could continue if this problem persisted with topping up with water and small quantities of antifreeze which we carry as part of our spares so long as the loss of liquid did not suddenly become a torrent to the extent that we would have to stop somewhere on the road north. So after taking his family around the Tikal ruins and my lending Discovery and headed back south leaving me to think, what now? I had whilst Angel was still with us decided to add the remainder of the PermaSeal to the coolant in the hope that this might at least provide a temporary fix for our problem. Later, whilst thinking through the possibilities I wondered if it was possible for the leak to be in the cylinder head’s water passages specifically on the exhaust side of the head where it would be less likely to contaminate the engine oil which till now had shown no signs of the presence of water. But there again, if this was the case one would expect such a leak to cause blowback into the cooling system and for the coolant to overheat. It was a worrying mystery but with Angel on his way back to Guatemala after a good night’s sleep we had little option but to soldier on checking the coolant level at frequent intervals, hopefully without seeing further signs of coolant loss or other nasty symptoms.
To add to our woes the MSR camping stove had continued to play up requiring me to strip out its jet and flame adjuster and clean it all every time we wanted to use the damned thing. We had given up on trying to run it on kerosene, given the kerosene in our bottle to the maintenance guy at Finca Ixobel, replaced the jet with the gasoline one and gone back to trying to get it to perform on that fuel. For reasons unknown it decided to perform perfectly at Tikal; let’s hope it continues to do so. I only persist with it because to date we have been unable to track down any supplies of gas canisters or stove tops for our gas equipment.
Next morning we packed up and holding thumbs on the coolant issue headed back down the road out of Tikal and its surrounding park. We hit the pumps at the last service station before the Belize border some 60 kms away knowing that the cost of diesel in Belize would be higher than in Guatemala. Keeping a few Quetzales back for border crossing costs we spent the rest on diesel and a bit more unleaded gasoline for the stove hoping it would continue to cooperate.
Before crossing the border we decided on the advice of others that a visit to Yaxha, another Maya ruins site buried deep in the Guatemalan jungle, would be a worthwhile detour. Indeed it was. Yaxha might not be as extensive in area as Tikal but it is located in a much quieter, less touristy and more scenic location, looking out over the jungle canopy to Laguna de Yaxha. We wandered for over an hour around its well spread mix of ancient acropolises (is that the right word?), temples and pyramids, a couple of which one can access by wooden steps up their sides for great views out over the surrounding jungle to the lake and beyond. One of the local guides was explaining to his client that before the jungle grew up to its present height it would have been possible to see the tops of Tikal’s temples over 30 kms away. It was quite a walk to cover the entire circular route around the site ending up passing the shores of the lake before climbing back to the car park where it started to rain lightly as we ate our picnic lunch. Just a couple of cars were there and a guide – a
lot less hectic than Tikal and very much worth the few kms off the main road to reach it.
Crossing the border from Guatemala to Belize couldn’t have been simpler, quicker or pleasanter. A few dollars to cross the border river bridge (not quite sure what this was really for!), hand in our temporary vehicle permit to the Guatemalans, $5 for a quick spray of the car (which was pretty filthy still with a nice coating of Guatemalan mud) and a polite conversation with the Belize immigration and customs in English to do the paperwork to get us in. English is the official language of Belize, a remnant of its British colonial past, but Spanish, Creole and several local dialects are also spoken. Then a final visit to the local vehicle insurance office to buy mandatory 3rd party cover for Jambo as our American policy arranged with Maria Alessie in Rotterdam excludes Belize along with a couple of other central and south American countries. As a patter of light rain fell we stuck the insurance disc on the windscreen and headed into little Belize.
Little, because unlike its large neighbours, Belize measures just 300 kms long by about 100 wide. Not only small it has an immediately noticeable Caribbean feel to it both from the lilting speech of the locals as well as the very laid back and easy going pace of the place. Driving away from the border the main road seemed almost like an English cross country road with its twists and turns and green, lush verges. We liked the feel of the place immediately even if the weather was a bit English too with the drizzle! After a couple of short exploratory runs up and down the road around
nearby San Ignacio we settled on The Trek Stop (N17 05.457 W89 07.331)as a place to spend the night. Danie, the calm and likeable manageress welcomed us and offered one of their simple but very adequate wooden cabins in the trees for 48 Belize dollars (about R250) for the night. The Belize dollar is pegged to the US one at a rate of 0.50 USD to the Belize dollar which makes life
simpler. One can pay in either currency in Belize but one has to be clear about which one is being quoted as we found out in another place we had looked at earlier for our first night. Initially we were given the price in Belizian dollars, decided to stay, and were then told no, the price quoted was in USD and therefore twice as much as we had been informed. Sorry folks, we’re out of here…..
Apart from the sticky mud at the Trek Stop which clung insistently to our shoes we enjoyed a nice dinner there and slept well in our little cabin. Apart from a lone young English girl from Ipswich in England we were the only guests.
The drive eastwards took us through some quaint hamlets mostly containing little timber houses, often raised above the ground on stilts or piles with names like Unitedville, Teakettle Village and Camelote. Further along the Western Highway we came to the somewhat unprepossessing capital of Belmopan which was established as the new capital of Belize after the old one at Belize City on the coast had been severely clobbered by hurricane Hattie in 1961. Surprisingly, Belmopan has just 15,000 people living in it according to the latest statistics; this must make it one of the smallest capital cities in the world. But then all of Belize’s main population centres are on the small side. Dangriga, Belize’s largest town contains just under 20,000 people….
On the edge of Belmopan we branched off the Western Highway to head southwards on the prettily named Hummingbird Highway. This was because we had no wish to travel to Belize City on the coast which most travellers advised one to bypass, but rather to head for the towns along the coast to the south like Hopkins and Placencia. The Hummingbird Highway was almost devoid of traffic and mostly a very smooth ride with just single lanes river bridges to slow up for. By central American standards there is really no “traffic” in Belize to speak of, and we found ourselves on a lovely stretch which wound its way through the hills and rain forest that are found in the western and higher parts of the country. It is also home to hundreds of hectares of orange groves which one
finds strung out along both sides of the road. Overhead it was still cloudy and we met some light rain from time to time. We hoped that would change to sunshine once we hit the coast. But the temperature was a very civilised 25 C or so which was fine and no feeling of the humidity we had experienced down south and of which we were quite glad to see the back of!
Then it was another turn to the south onto the Southern Highway about 10kms out from Dangriga to take us to the coast. We decided to have a first look for places to stay in the little town of Hopkins which entails a diversion down what was once a tarred road off the Southern Highway but which today is almost all a type of murram. Like these roads in parts of east Africa this makes a reasonable non sealed road surface on which to drive except when it’s wet from rain. Then one
must drive with caution as it can turn into a skating rink. But we made it to Hopkins OK and had a look around for either a campsite or maybe a place with reasonable cabins on the beach facing the Caribbean. Belize is surprisingly expensive – the main reason given being that many of its consumer goods are not produced locally but imported – and we were quite surprised by the prices
quoted in Hopkins for camping or cabins. And it wasn’t that appealing to us as a town anyway. So after looking at a couple of possibles we said no, let’s push on southwards to Placencia which wasn’t originally a part of our plans as we had got it into our heads that it was a bit upmarket and touristy and not a place we would much enjoy.
After the longish drive along the flat coastal plain from Hopkins down the Southern Highway which continues on southwards to Punta Gorda, we turned off onto Placencia Road and headed to the coast. This road eventually emerged at the northern end of the long and narrow 20 km isthmus at the bottom of which lies the little town or big village of Placencia – an absolute jewel of a spot.
But before getting to Placencia itself we started to get worried as we came upon signs of massive and very upmarket property development on either side of the road. Huge mansions, some complete others not, either facing west across the lagoon towards the inland mountains or out to sea over the Caribbean, lots of real estate signs, numerous speed humps in the road in anticipation of the invasion of people – all telling us this is where the serious money in Belize is so be prepared to shell out big time for accommodation. This part of the isthmus is known as Maya Beach and was definitely not “our scene”! But gradually as we continued following the road south, Caribbean on the left and lagoon on the right, the layout changed and the big megabuck mansions slowly started to give way to older, more traditional looking Belize style houses made of timber with less manicured plots. After the interesting bush strip of Placencia’s “airport” where traffic looping around one end of the runway is urged to give way to aircraft we came to Placencia which lies right at the southern tip of this intriguing strip of sand and mangroves.
Placencia is not sure if it is a big village or a small town. Whichever, it’s a charming, sleepy place with delightful residents who to a man and woman never fail to greet you as you walk around between their old wooden houses or along its concrete walkway just one metre wide complete with street lights. This lays claim to being the narrowest street in the world and holding that record in the
Guinness Book of Records. Sadly, it seems that it is well beaten by a much narrower one in Reutlingen in Germany. Even so it’s fun to stroll up and down Placencia’s one saying hi to the locals and listening to their lilting Caribbean mix of English and other languages known as Creole.
We hunted for a bed for quite a while after arriving but eventually settled into Lydia’s Guesthouse (N16 31.241 W88 22.155) standing just a stone’s throw back from the beach on the Caribbean side. Lydia gave us a room in one of her two timber houses which like many others in Belize are gaily painted in bright pastels, usually featuring blue, green or yellow. We had a little kitchen to use, a shared bathroom and wifi. Jambo was parked safely out back and we very soon settled into the slow, easy going lifestyle of Placencia’s pulse. We originally planned on staying maybe one or two nights and ended up staying for four; it has a way of sucking you in and not letting you go.
Placencia has been “discovered” though as is evident from the many paler faces one comes across wandering around, buying veggies in its little roadside stalls, having an alfresco lunch at Brenda’s outdoor lunch stall at the southernmost tip of the isthmus, or in some cases busy checking out the plots and homes for sale. Many of these outsiders are from the US or Canada who are attracted by the Caribbean climate (especially in the northern winter months), the slow pace of life, or maybe the very low property taxes and lack of capital gains tax. This influx and its increasing popularity have resulted also in making it known to the monied boating fraternity, many of whose gleaming craft
can be seen in the several marinas and new jetties being built around and near the village. With its little airport into and from which Cessna Caravans fly through much of the day and its connections by launch out to the Cays on its barrier reef (the longest in the northern hemisphere) Placencia is never again going to be like it was before independence from Britain back in 1981. Whether this
is a good or bad thing remains to be seen. When one hears of plans to build a sort of mini cruise ship terminal off the beach one wonders if in the years to come all will be well from a quality of life point of view. Sure, such things may well bring increased expenditure by visitors but will the extra dollars get shared around where they belong or end up just in the pockets of the favoured few. Time will tell but we hope that common sense and vision prevail for the sake of these lovely people who live here permanently and call Placencia home.
Whilst here we had some great local food – a local version of gambo from Brenda’s, and excellent sea food at Da Tatch on the beach and at Omar’s in the main street. We also much enjoyed the locally brewed Belikin beer. Although the sun struggled to appear from behind the grey stuff overhead for all of the four days of our stay we had a pleasant dip in the Caribbean, even donning goggles and fins for some exploratory snorkelling off the beach. We had diversions such as renting a couple of the local brightly painted pedal bikes for the day and getting some exercise riding along some of the road back towards swanky Maya Beach, along with pulling not one but two stuck cars out of the sand that surrounds most of the older properties in the village. We chatted to locals and
visitors alike and had a great time doing so at John the Bakerman waiting for another batch of bread from his old ovens and hearing about hurricanes and family history and what they thought about life in the internet age.
But sadly, very sadly we have to move on and say goodbye to this little English (or should I say Creole) speaking corner of Central America. Thank you Lydia, Brenda, John and James and all the other Placencians with whom we came in contact for such a great memory.
Starting with the original London-Sydney Marathon in 1968 driving 10,000 miles in 10 days the bug for overland travel (at a much slower pace!) bit hard. We’ve driven throughout much of southern and east Africa in a tD5 Defender, then changed to the recent Puma version and first drove Cape Agulhas in South Africa to North Cape, Norway in 2009/10. Now engaged on another long one from Ushuaia, Patagonia to Deadhorse, Alaska over 18 months. The two of us travel alone for much of the time but inevitably meet other overlanders along the way and much enjoy swopping stories, info, fun times and others.
We live in Cape Town, South Africa. Is there a nicer city to call home?