There are a few reasons I rushed through Belize. It's the smallest country in Central America for a start (about the same size as Wales) but also the most expensive. The Belizean dollar always sits at 2 to 1 with the US dollar, and prices are about the same proportionately - a dorm bed here costs at least US$10, whereas you'll often spend US$3 in Guatemala and never more than US$5. I quickly realised that Belize would have to be a short term destination if I wanted to stay on budget.
|Hostel doorstep on Caye Caulker|
Another legacy left by the British is the genetic make-up of the population - especially where I was travelling, along the coast. Many of the people here are descended from Africans who were originally transported to the region as slaves. It was a real culture shock to be suddenly surrounded by tall, black people after the comparatively midget Maya population in Mexico.
The coastal regions of Belize feel more like a Caribbean island than the edge of Latin America: dread-locked Rastafarians wander the streets, adorned in green, yellow and red, some tending BBQ's offering Jerk Chicken, Rice & Beans, others just enjoying reggae at unhealthy volumes for extended periods of time (i.e. all day). Throw in an endless supply of rum and coke and you've got a real beachside Caribbean paradise, and all only a 2 hour drive from the Guatemalan border. Although these vibes don't quite reach every corner of the country - the south west, for example, retains a largely Mayan population, complete with ancient ruins and mountainous terrain - the dominant feel is definitely Caribbean. I've never before been welcomed to a country by a border guard declaring, "Enjoy yourself, man".
Although I did undoubtedly follow these instructions, I still felt a desire to return to the more Spanish CAm cultures - in which I'd been existing for the previous 2 1/2 months and as such felt like 'home'. I missed the Latin flavours and definitely felt a little guilty speaking no Spanish, especially after all the effort I'd invested in learning the language during my time in Guatemala. I didn't want to lose my new found linguistic skills (of which I still only have a tentative hold) and this, coupled with the increase in price and my need to actually get moving on this trip, fuelled my rapid progress through Belize.
|Chilled hostel on Caye Caulker|
The lack of any real beach is compensated by the abundance of marine life along the reef, just off the coast. On a half-day snorkelling trip, we were not only treated to a sparkling, coral-filled underwater kingdom, but also waded about in the shoulder-height shimmering Caribbean sea as four fully-grown Nurse Sharks and scores of giant Manta Rays glided around and between our legs - an experience that can't be repeated in many other places.
I'd been hanging out with another English guy, Alex, since Guatemala; each afternoon we greeted the returning fishermen on the dock, and each evening we feasted on incredibly succulent 'as-fresh-as-it-gets' home-cooked fish.
However, I conspired to make my time on the Caye a little less pleasant by venturing out on a badly-judged and ill-informed run around the island at sunset. Turns out it's not actually possible to circumnavigate the whole island and if you try you just end up in a mosquito-infested swamp: not a fun place to be at dusk, topless, without insect repellent. End result: around 100 incredibly irritating mosquito bites (although this did provide an extra excuse to drink more rum and spend more time lying in hammocks).
|Sunrise on Caye Caulker|
"Here we go", I thought; the sorry routine, closely followed by a request for money.... but that request never came. Instead, this guy just sat with me and talked: about the country; the culture; colonisation; independence; crime problems. Before I knew it my bus had arrived (I actually didn't notice - my new friend had to notify me and then proceeded to escort me to the boarding area). Once I was safely aboard, he waved goodbye - with no awkwardness, no enquiries about money, no problems - and wandered off into town (presumably to court...).
It may not seem like much, but this was one of the loveliest random local encounters I've ever had while travelling - so genuine, interesting, helpful and unexpected. Even lovelier for the fact that I was alone, in a dangerous place, with everything I currently own, and not really sure what I was doing. My time with this OAP in shining armour was a great comfort and an important reminder that there are people everywhere, even in the world's most dangerous spots, that genuinely want to converse with and be of assistance to foreigners. Obviously it's foolish to be too complacent and over-trusting, but at the same time there's no reason to be overly suspicious of everyone (as many travellers - including myself - sometimes are). It's wise to use your common sense and avoid situations that clearly put you at risk, but don't move around with your guard constantly up. Do so and you'll miss out on experiences, encounters and conversations that will be among the most important and memorable of your trip.
Feeling a lot better about the rest of my solo journey through Belize, I headed 4 hours south to the coastal town of Placencia; arriving in the early afternoon with plenty of time to kill before the following day's ferry to Honduras.
|Low-key Police Station on Caye Caulker|
For me, and a rag-tag dozen or so other travellers, it was just a necessary stopover for the morning ferry departure. We were across the border (my first ever international sea crossing!) and docked on the Northern coast of Honduras by early afternoon the next day. It was still far from the end of the journey though: a further 2 hour taxi ride, 5 hour bus trip, another stopover in La Ceiba. and one more early morning ferry crossing were required to finally reach The Bay Islands. By the time I touched down on Utila, the total time elapsed since leaving Caye Caulker worked out at 52 hours: quite a trek!
Still, I was glad to have done it - it's great to be able to continue enjoying the exquisite Caribbean sea, and The Bay Islands are known for being the cheapest place in the world to learn to Scuba Dive. I've actually just completed my PADI Open Water course, but will save my magical experiences in this new-found underwater kingdom for the next blog.
Wrapping up Guatemala
So far I've only discussed my quick 5 day swing through Belize, and there's been no mention of my last two 'post-Xela' weeks in Guatemala. I realise this blog has already reached a 'healthy' length, so this would be a good point for a tea break :) and keep things brief from here on.
Luckily, my final couple of weeks in Guatemala were fairly lethargic, and only three distinct locations were explored after my 5 wonderful weeks in Xela - Lago de Atitlan, Lanquin and Flores.
|San Pedro La Laguna|
It was very pleasant to spend a few days lounging in hammocks, kayaking around the lake, and knocking back rum and cokes at 3 for 1 pound every evening. I met a fun group at the hostel too - a couple of English girls and an Aussie couple - and we ended up travelling the rest of Guatemala together.
Our penultimate stop was Lanquin, which may be my favourite place of the whole trip so far (I can't say for sure though - there are too many options!). This was a little unexpected; as far as I was aware beforehand, Lanquin was just somewhere to stay for a couple of nights in order to reach the famed Guatemalan water attractions at Semuc Champey. The hostel we stayed at - Zephyr Lodge - made it so much more, though....
During our extended stay here we spent one day at Semuc Champey. This is the place that everyone tells you you have to visit during your time in Guatemala... and they're not wrong. Semuc is a 300m long natural limestone bridge that traverses the raging waters of the Rio Cahabon; which flow under the bridge, before appearing and churning again, at the other end. All this occurs in a beautiful, secluded, forested setting. The bridge has created a series of perfect pools that contain cool, calm, swimmable water; shifting from azure blue, to turquoise, and finally to emerald green as it flows between the pools - a refreshing paradise in the middle of nowhere.
The end point in Guatemala for all of us was Flores - a tiny town floating on a small island in the middle of a lake (only reachable via the bridge from the mainland). Most travellers spend one night here in order to reach the nearby Mayan ruins of Tikal in time for their 6am opening. We were no exception to this rule, and were up at 4.30am on our first morning, ready for a guided tour around the complex. I've spoken before about my natural dislike of tour groups, but this time it was worth taking a guide. The buildings at Tikal number over 3000 and are spread across a huge area (16 sq. km). Our guide knew the best route to take in order to see all the main structures, and at the best time of the day (i.e. fewer other tourists).
The ruins themselves are also superior (in my humble opinion) to many of the Mexican options. The sheer size and scale of the structures (many reaching up above 60m), but also the surrounding jungle environment. The main plazas and temple sites have been largely cleared of vegetation, but the long trails between the ruins have been left at the mercy of the dense jungle: thick with trees, vines and wildlife. All this combines to create a wonderful, lost-world atmosphere, and somewhere I could quite happily wander around for a few days.
From Flores, me and my new-found travelling buddies went our separate ways - they headed north to Mexico, while I went east to Belize (where this blog began - feel free to scroll back up and read again.... :). As I mentioned before, I'm now in my 4th Central American nation, Honduras, and have just finished learning to dive on The Bay Islands. I have many praises to sing about this place already, but I'll save all that for the next entry...
(More photos below - click any photo to enlarge)
|Sunrise on Caye Caulker|
|Sunrise on Caye Caulker|
|My feet on Lake Atitlan|
|Jumping into Semuc Champey|
|Sunset over the lake at Flores|
|Spider at Tikal|
|Wildlife at Tikal|
|Monkeys at Tikal!|
|Monkeys at Tikal|
|Monkeys at Tikal|