Motoring out of Corozol, we were in high spirits. We were restocked, we’d made it through the border without issue, we were back in an English speaking country [which meant Ike could actually do some of the conversing!], and the car issues were either resolved or slated to be resolved. Heading to Sarteneja from Corozol via boat is easy: it’s across the bay and only a half hour ride. Via car though, it’s several hours and you have two options: down to Orange Walk on the ‘nicer’ road and then all the way back up on a bumpy road, or you can take the direct route over an older road. We opted for the older road [naturally!] (and per the recommendation of the hostel owner). There are two small rivers you need to cross on the way, letting us board our first ferries since leaving Vancouver Island in British Columbia! These were a bit different, considering they were hand-cranked. To be fair, the crossings were a bit smaller too. Technically, passengers are required to disembark from the vehicles while the driver onboards them, so Bethany joined a middle-aged gentleman alongside the ferry while I drove on. The ferrymen were pretty no-nonsense, starting off as soon as the last car was on, not bothering to tell the passengers to hop on. Bethany was paying attention and got on as soon as she could, but the middle-aged guy wasn’t as diligent and had to do a little hop to make it onto the ferry before he got left behind.
“Is it very difficult?” I asked the ferrymen. “Oh, it’s not so bad! Here! Give it a try!” I obliged him, and really, it wasn’t that bad! I let him know as much, remarking how smooth it was too [no doubt thanks to the copious amounts of grease applied to the crank]. “Oh sure, but it can be tiring by the end of the day.” he replied. Knowing it was open 24 hours, I ventured, “8 hour shifts then?” “12” came the reply. “Surely it’s not that busy through, right?” I exclaimed, thinking of the other route on the road that wasn’t as rugged. “No, most days it’s back and forth without stop” he said, having a seat as Bethany came over and started cranking as well. The least we owed these guys was a couple minutes respite we figured, so we continued to heave and ho as we pulled the ferry and it’s four cars across the river. I relinquished my duty to one of the ferryman [admittedly with some happiness, as my arms were already getting tired, although the ferryman assured us they only hurt for the first day of doing it] so the cars could back up to help lift the ferry front higher into the air to ensure better docking. Disembarking took us over a very large bump, but then it was only a few short miles to the second ferry. [This time we skipped volunteering to assist]
Turning onto the ‘high’ road to Sarteneja [the low road floods during rainy season] we began the 20-some mile trek back that would take around 90 minutes. It’s hard to get an idea of what the plan was for the road: the potholes are consistent, deep, and can be quite large. The road is dirt, but sections are semi-paved, but appears to almost be a bedrock covering. That would make the most sense if true, because it’s haphazardly applied asphalt if not, often-times petering out to little trails [instead of just having a clear demarcation of ending], frequently uneven and even more rugged than the dirt sections of road. We were happy to approach the end of it though, as it had become increasingly rugged and difficult to find any real path that avoided the potholes. The GPS showed us within just a few kilometers of our destination when we both started to hear a squeaking sound that was without a doubt a new sound. Or at least a loud sound now. It had been gradually building up over the last fifteen minutes every time we cleared a pothole with our rear tires. Given how much crap we have in the back though, we both had assumed it was just some bit of gear rolling around, but it now became clear that no, this was the car itself groaning. Being so close to our destination, we didn’t want to pull over, both of us with a subconscious assumption that pulling over and validating the issue before we got there would prevent us from finishing the drive, instead willing the issue to remain abated until we arrived. As we pulled up to Backpacker’s Paradise, we turned off the car and got out with a creeping sense of dread. The first place we both knew to look was the same place the man had told us was in need of immediate repair when we were getting our tires rotated. Sure enough, looking under the vehicle our eyes found this staring straight back at us:
Ice gripped my stomach. Sure, we’d made it out here in one piece and hadn’t broken down alongside the road, but now we were here; here being a small fishing village of maybe two-thousand people, with the only road leading out the very road that had shattered and broken Sweetcakes in the first place. Our gloomy demeanor swelled for a few minutes as we walked our way into the office and then crashed into the extremely positive and upbeat nature of Natalie, the woman behind the counter. As we completed our check-in process, we ventured to ask Natalie if there happened to be a mechanic in town, as our vehicle was in need of some help. “Sure, yeah! No problem” she replied. We tremulously told her ‘thanks’ but that we didn’t wanna deal with it until tomorrow as it was already late and we both needed some rum. As Natalie showed us around, she pointed out all of the fruit trees on the property and told us to feel free to make use of any of them as we needed. Sweet and sour oranges, bananas, mangoes, lemongrass, coconut, sapote all were available to us, the citrus were ripe and waiting for a hand to pull it down. Bethany and I wasted no time grabbing a couple of oranges to flesh out our rum drinks. The community room’s hammocks and kitchen invited us to call it home that evening, and we tried to forget our unease behind delicious food and drink, eventually calling it a night in the tent right next to the building [half the price to sleep outside than in]. Natalie even found the last two mangoes of the season and shared them with us – best mangoes we’ve ever had! We were the only guests at the hostel that night.
“Here’s what the car looks like…” I told Natalie, showing her a picture of the broken rear control arm under the vehicle. “Oh, so you need to weld it, yea?” she said upon seeing the picture. “That’s no problem. Julio does that all the time!” Bethany and I became cautiously optimistic after hearing this.
“So how long has the hostel been here?” I asked Natalie. “Oh, about 10 years.” “And how long have you worked here.” “About 10 years.” “Wait…so…is this your hostel?” “Yeah!” Over the next few minutes I learned that Natalie, moved to Belize to work at the Shipstern biological reserve next door after she got her Master’s degree. [“I had no idea where Belize was when I applied to the internship. I thought it was in Asia!”] From there she decided she wanted to open her own hostel, buying land next to the reserve and starting from scratch. [“I got lost in the jungle…”]
“So..I need coconut water with the rice and beans for Belize style rice and beans, right?” I asked Lenny, the manager who helps Natalie. “No no no, coconut milk, not water! Come on in, I’ll give you some powder for it we have.” Halfway to a real Belizean breakfast! Bethany next asked me to try and find some eggs while she boiled the rice and beans. I started walking into town, the light from the morning sun behind me.
“Welcome to Sarteneja!” the map on the edge of town proudly proclaimed. Happy to have a map to help me find a shop to buy eggs from, I looked for the ‘YOU ARE HERE’ red dot. No luck. Ok, well, let’s see if I can figure out where I am. Looking around, I notice the Backpacker’s Paradise hostel marked on it, and from there can find the intersection on the edge of town I must be standing at. I can see on the map that the road to my right is south street, and the road to my left is Tulip. Looking up to my left, the road doesn’t have a sign with the name. Looking over my shoulder to my right, I can see that the road does have a sign….and it reads ‘Tulip’. Thoroughly confused at this point, I decide to pretend the map is correct and take off towards where it says a store should be. Two blocks later, there’s no store and I’m walking back to square one. Looking at the map again, I decide to say ‘Screw it’ and just take off down the main road figuring I’ll find something at some point. Continuing my stroll, I saw a meat shop off to the right. Rolling on over, I notice that their wares are painted on the outside of the small swing-out doors on the house adjunct they sell from. Eggs were not painted on. I went on up anyway, and poked my head inside and just looked around to see if there were eggs anyway. No dice. Back to the road. A bit further I see a larger one story building that has two doors thrown open with a woman standing outside looking in. Despite having no signage whatsoever, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to look, and lo and behold, here we go!
Belize is an English speaking country, but everyone speaks two or three languages, augmenting their English with Spanish and/or Creole, and the truly multi-cultural also speak an indigenous Mayan language. Hearing the woman ahead of me use Spanish, I followed suit for the eggs, and happily walked home with a little baggie with them tucked inside. Belizean breakfast complete!
Hopping on the bikes, Bethany, Natalie, and I rode into town to track down Julio, the mechanic. Swinging by his place, we notice there aren’t any vehicles there. Natalie asks for Julio, but the older woman [his mother, we learn] let’s us know he isn’t around. She takes off to find someone with his phone number, and as we’re tracking that person down we learn he’d just left to butcher a pig. #centralamerica
We make our way back to the hostel, give Julio a call, and wait for him to show up.
A long, low whistle escapes Julio’s lips as he looks at the underside of Sweetcakes. “That’s a big problem, yeah. Going to need to drop the gas tank to fix that properly.” This actually heartened Bethany and I, as we’d stumbled across an online forum with a thread regarding the exact same issue we had and read that dropping the gas tank was pretty much a necessity. Julio told us Sarteneja didn’t have any place that sold flat iron and that he’d need his buddy [conveniently also named Julio] to drive him up to ‘Little Belize’, a small Mennonite community, to pick it up. The job would take at least a day to complete, but as we hashed out prices we realized he was charging less to do the full day’s work than he was charging for the materials and the drive to pick them up.
C’est la vie we figured. We looked at the calendar and guessed that based on what we wanted to do, and when Julio could work on stuff, we didn’t really have anything to do until Monday. A vast weekend of freshly juiced oranges, rum, and hammock swinging awaited us.
Just as getting into Sarteneja was a pain, so too is getting out to Caye [pronounced: “Key”] Caulker a bit difficult. There were two options: 1) take the water taxis: much quicker but much more expensive. 2) Bus to Belize City and then taxi out, but back down that awful road. Belize’s public bus system is pretty extensive, and comprised of a fleet of Blue Bird buses. If you’re under 40, you may recall that the same company that makes American School buses. After their life is over in the USA, they get booted to the south. Which is fine, but if you’re over 5’2”, it’s not exactly the most comfortable. Imagining my prior experiences on those buses, with the bumpy road on top of it, I said we should go ahead and pay through the nose to take the boat.
Nat’s dogs decided that they were going to give us a fine escort on the way to the pier the following morning. Not content to simply make sure we made it safely, they felt compelled to range out and around, investigating the other dogs and in general causing havoc along the way. Anyone that wassleeping prior to us coming by was quickly awoken by intense barking by the other dogs. They went so far as to accompany us to the pier and wait with us while we waited for the boat.
While we waited, we struck up a conversation with the other groups there, all non-Belizean. There was a Canadian couple who had stopped over for the night after coming down from Corozol, who let us know the boat cost the same regardless of the distance you were riding it. There were also two Brits, Steve and Ryan, who were on a long backpacking trip and were presently volunteering at WildTracks animal sanctuary near Sarteneja.
“Yeah, I got set up with two baby monkeys. I just spend time making sure they eat, playing with them, keeping them busy.” Steve informed us. “Yeah, and since they’re supposed to become increasingly independent, when they’re adults you spend less time with them. Which is how I ended up with 17.” Ryan echoed. A look passed between them and both seemed to acknowledge that Ryan was getting the raw end of the deal. That sentiment was doubly enforced when Ryan showed us his finger where one of the adult monkeys had bit down and gone right on through the fingernail. “Got off quite lucky, to be honest.” he said nonchalantly, as I struggled valiantly to keep my breakfast in my stomach. How’d we beat the Brits in the Revolutionary War again?
The ride to San Pedro on Ambergis Caye was uneventful but bumpy. Walking across the town from one dock to another, we found our other boat and killed some time at a smoothie shop, talking with a Brit who lived in Canada for a decade about how great Saskatchewan is. Amen Brother!
Caye Caulker is billed as the chill, backpacker-y alternative to Ambergis Caye. Stepping off the boat, we couldn’t imagine how it must be over along the coast in San Pedro, as it was plenty touristy here too.
“Is Elma home?” We inquired as we made our way back into the Sandy Lane hostel area. “Yeah, just go all the way back to that white house with the green trim” we were told. As we approached that house, we asked again, and two men who hithero had been obscured by shadow under the house spoke up and told us to go inside. We stepped into the kitchen, a pressure cooker hissing every few seconds with escaping steam and an LED light periodically flashing on the rice cooker. Elma was the proprietor of the establishment and let us know we could have a private room with double bed and shared bathroom for $20 BZE [$10 US]. We happily took it and dropped our stuff off.
Caye Caulker doesn’t have much public beach-front, instead most of it is associated with either a hotel or private business that launches their boat from the piers, making it difficult to find a place to hang out under the blue sky that afternoon. As Bethany and I were kicking around the idea of finding a place to start putting back happy hour drinks, we instead saw a place with a decent amount of beach space near the end of the town that was closed on Monday. Many places in Caye Caulker were, so we decided to be true bums and wander into one of the several convenience stores and pick up a bottle of 1 Barrel rum [Belize’s finest, coming in at $7US/bottle] and a container of pineapple juice. Ripping off the top of the juice, we quickly rehydrated after the earlier swimming we’d done, and promptly refilled the container back to full with the rum. Classy? No. Delicious? Yes. The sun was setting behind us, but the seats were comfortable, the drinking good, and the sky still pretty.
“Just keep running into you, don’t we?!” We heard over the waves, shattering the reverie we’d built up with the soft hum and hiss of the ocean and the buzz of the rum. A huge grin split my face as I looked over and saw Sean striding over to us holding a fishing reel and looking thoroughly pleased. We learned T was out on a snorkeling trip but Sean had spent the afternoon giving fishing a shot. [only bonefish so far he told us]
We agreed to meet up for dinner and happy hour a bit later. Returning to our books, it was only a minute before we heard someone speak up from behind us. “Ok guys! I’m here!” Confused, we turned around, and saw a guy getting off his bicycle with a couple of tupperware boxes. “I’m here guys!” “Oh, sorry, we’re meeting our friend for dinner.” “Yeah? So? Have a meat pie. Guys, there’s no ambulance on the island. I can’t be responsible if you don’t eat something and collapse from hunger!” Bravo sir, bravo. Still trying to ignore him, our resistance faded as soon as he said he had oatmeal cookies. Then we were holding them, as well as banana bread, and coconut cake. Well done indeed. Five minutes later another man on a bike was selling homemade cinnamon rolls. “Sorry, we just bought coconut bread and oatmeal cookies!” we apologized. “It’s alright man, I’l be here tomorrow. Here, smell!” and he shoved a cinnamon roll right under Bethany’s nose. Mmmmmm.
Bambooze [fantastic name] had high recommendations, seats that were swings, and a happy hour that was 2 drinks for $7 BZE. We caught up over panty rippers and curry, and started the conversation back up the next morning as we bumped into each other again at breakfast. T and Sean had informed us about a House of Fryjacks place that was right next door to us. Fryjacks, to the uninitiated, are God’s gift to food. Essentially a deep-fried tortilla, the best versions are the stuffed ones, which take the idea but kick it up to divine levels by filling them with scrambled eggs, cheese, meat, beans. It’s like a breakfast burrito, only it leaves you feeling happy instead of depressed.
The weather had started to turn, as we’d expected, so we were on the fence on if we’d try and do some touristy things, opting to play it by ear. The weather also seemed unable to make up it’s mind, so we spent the day reading, walking around the island, and eating like kings.
That evening, we found an abondoned-ish dock, walked out to the end, and watched the sunset. Seeing large clouds coming up from the east, we walked to the other side of the island to watch a storm make it’s way past. As we enjoyed watching it, we realized that it appeared to actually be coming towards us. Finally, we stood up to make our way back to the hostel, and 2 minutes into the walk the wind started rushing as the front moved overhead. Crap. The sprinkles started a few seconds later, and everyone began trotting instead of walking, but we knew the outcome of this game already. Seconds later, the wind was howling, the whooshing of the wind through the trees helped cover the sound of the rain that was now pouring out of the sky. We were back to our room a couple minutes later, but it didn’t matter, we were soaked.
Drying out, we started watching The Wolf of Wall Street [“Exactly like what working at Epic was like”, I quipped] and waiting for our bellies to have room for the next meal. I had been adamantly insisting that I wanted bad Chinese food from one of the Taiwanese restaurants, and made good on it. Except instead of bad Chinese food, it was incredible and authentic food that was the best I’d had since China.
We passed time waiting in a restaurant as the weather was uncooperative and we still had a few hours until the boat took us back to San Pedro [and from there to Sarteneja] We originally planned to take the 2:15 boat to San Pedro [30 minute ride] before the 3pm trip back to Sarteneja. Given that the 3pm was a once a day trip, and the weather was fairly rough, we opted to head back early to San Pedro. The ride back was very different from the ride out. Coming out we were on a large boat, filled with tons of people, reggae music blaring, open top shading some of the sun. The ride back was in a much smaller boat, windows shut against the wind and rain, the few people on board rocking sullen faces. We passed the remaining time in San Pedro at a deli out of the rain (sampling their meat pies).
As we sat on the boat to return to Sarteneja, we were happy to see Steve and Ryan boarding, happy to know they’d made it back in time. “This is the one going to Sarteneja, right?” they asked. “Yeah, this is it!” Bethany replied. “No, only to Corozol” said one of the workers on board as he wound rope around his arm. “Oh he’s joking!” Bethany cried, then turning to look at him, the smile slid from her face. “The weather is too bad. We can’t go to Sarteneja.” Said one of them. “Why, are you going to Sarteneja?” asked another. Four hands went up into the air. “ALL of you are going there? Sorry, but the chop is too bad.” Our options were either wait another day and hope the weather was good enough to get back then [no guarantee] or go all the way to Corozol, and then pray there was a a bus [not likely] or pay for a taxi for the 2 hour ride all the way back. The four of us looked at each other, resignation creeping across our faces. We all decided to chance it and figure it out in Corozol. “Can you check when we go by Sarteneja and see if we can stop?” Bethany asked them. “Sure, but don’t expect to stop.” came the reply. “Cross your fingers” another said.
Moving to the back from the middle due to water coming in through a bad seal, Bethany and I took the chop as well as we could. We briefly became optimistic as the chop seemed to decrease about an hour in, but that melted away pretty swiftly as we switched from taking the waves head-on to getting broadsided by them as the course shifted, the boat lurching left and right. Looking out the window, I kept seeing us tilt to the left, and would see the water lever rise precipitously high, coming almost level with the side of the boat, rogue sprays of water lashing the window. Ten minutes later, we lurched to the right, and we realized that the captain was giving the docking a shot. Hustling to the front, we began putting on our gear. The captain had to work pretty hard to compete with the waves, which we noticed were WAY higher than when we’d been swimming here just a few days prior. It took three men holding the ropes on the dock and the captain doing constant adjustments with the motors to keep it even decently level. “YOU GUYS READY?” one of the workers yelled over the engines and wind. “Yes!” the four of us yelled back, then were rushing up the steps and hopping out onto the dock, loud ‘Thank you!’s echoing from all of us. Ecstatic to be back, we didn’t mind the gusting wind or the rain falling down.
Our enthusiasm was tempered a bit as we found Julio’s place on the other side of town. Lacking a proper shop to do work in, he’d been unable to work on our vehicle due to the rain and the huge amount of current running through the welder. He assured us he’d be able to take a stab at it if the weather cleared up the next day though.
Getting back to Natalie’s, we unloaded our stuff, and asked for an actual room to get out of the rain. Next up was tossing the rum into the fridge as we plugged it in, and to hop in the shower.
Feeling human again, we introduced ourselves to the new guests at the hostel. We met a couple of British girls who were traveling around Central America for awhile, and an Australian man traveling solo. They had all been trying to get to Caye Caulker & Belize City, but because of the rain hadn’t been able to leave Sarteneja. Bright and early the next morning, Julio #2 (the one with the truck) pulled in with 3 backpackers in tow. Aaron & Abby (from Australia & Canada, respectively), and Paul, also from Australia. They had been trying to come to Sarteneja, but had been stuck in Corozal because of the rain. Damn rainy season! All were able to hitch a ride because Natalie’s mom was visiting from Switzerland and was also hung up by the bad weather. Later that morning, Lana from South Africa showed up. We all had a great time that night pounding rum, and even saw a toad the size of a softball (or larger). Crazy stuff in the jungle!
While we were out on Caye Caulker, Bethany developed a rash on her face and shoulders. A week later, and it’s still there. We don’t know if it’s a reaction to the malaria meds we started last week, or her sensitive skin reacting to the laundry detergent & soap from the hotel on the caye. Either way, no bueno.
Friday we decided to bike out to the Shipstern Nature Reserve a few miles up the road from the hostel. We toured their butterfly house, then hiked back to their 5 story tower and looked out over the jungle canopy.
We set off that night to camp at the education center near the Belize Zoo. We met a group of students and two professors from Penn State who were on a week long trip through Belize during their fall break. We also had our first tarantula sighting. Turns out we should be more afraid of the wasps. A giant blue and black wasp (1.5 inches long) was dragging a tarantula along the road. Eeep. Awhile back at Nerd Nite we had heard about a wasp that essentially paralyzed its prey, drug the prey into a hole, layed its eggs inside the prey, and used the prey’s body as nutrients for it and the young. Perhaps this is the fate of this tarantula? I kinda feel bad for the little guy (not really). Here’s a pic we found online of a similar situation:
Thoroughly creeped out, we made sure our tent was tightly zipped that night! The next morning was a pleasant visit to the Belize Zoo, which started in the ’80s as an animal rescue. This was by far the best zoo we have visited. All animals are native to Belize, and all are rescues. When possible, the animals are rehabilitated and released into the wild. Those that can’t have a home at the zoo. Here are a few pics.
Daily budget: $60 USD
Actual expenses: $72 USD
Difference: $12 or 19.5% [not including car work, which is tracked separately]
Average price for gas: $5.28/gal – but we only filled up once.
MPG, miles driven v. expected are getting cut because Belize is so small.
Biggest daily expenses ($/day):
#1: Food – $28 [lots of eating out and alcohol]
#2: Parking / taxis / tolls – $12 [exclusively boat rides to and from Caye Caulker]
#3: Lodging – $11