Saturday 20 August 2011

I Don't Belize It!

Belize it or not, despite my last entry appearing barely two weeks ago, I've traversed three countries in the interim: exiting Guatemala, travelling through Belize, and finishing up on The Bay Islands in Honduras. This quick interchange through nations isn't something I've been used to on this trip - it took over a month to cover only half of Mexico and I ended up staying in Guatemala for nearly seven weeks. In comparison, I only spent four nights in Belize (although this didn't stop me from using the same terrible pun in the title and first line of this blog - I apologise for this now...).

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
The money in Belize also provides a further insight into the distinct differences between this special little country and its neighbouring nations. Regardless of value, the use of the dollar hints at the closer political and social ties with North America, but the strangest thing for me was seeing the portrait that adorns every Belizean note and coin; the Queen's head - exactly the same as the UK (actually a much younger version of the old gal - the locals were very shocked to hear that 'Her Highness' is actually well into her 80's). It was oddly comforting to see our familiar figurehead again, and this small detail reveals the primary reason for Belize's obvious 'distance' from the rest of Central America. The Spaniards may have had control of all other CAm nations during colonial times, but the British managed to hold power in Belize (and with an iron grip - 'British Honduras' only gained independence in late 1981, changing to Belize in the process). As a result, the Latin influences that permeate the rest of Central America - leaving their mark on everything; the language, cuisine, music, lifestyle - are conspicuously absent in Belize. Instead, English is the official language here (although most inhabitants speak amongst themselves in a form of Creole). You may assume that travelling in an English-speaking country would be a welcome relief after all the Spanish communication required in Mexico and Guatemala. However, with the preference for Creole I often found it harder to understand the locals here, and found myself pining for a return to Spanish.

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
My first (and only real) stop in the country was Caye Caulker. The coastline of Belize is peppered with Cayes - small islands (pronounced 'keys') - and Caye Caulker is the most popular. Only a couple of miles long and 1/4 mile wide, that doesn't stop it accommodating every type of traveller: from frugal backpackers to 'money is no object' all inclusive package holiday US vacationers. Fortunately, the development of the island infrastructure has been relatively restrained and intelligently executed; providing all the necessities - hotels, shops, internet cafes, restaurants, bars - while still retaining its laid back charm (possibly assisted by the impressive quantities of marijuana consumed by the rasta-locals).

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
After three nights in Caye Caulker I started making tracks towards Honduras. First stage of my convoluted journey was a short boat trip to Belize City - quite possibly the dodgiest dwelling I've been to on the travels so far. Not a pretty place and home to plenty of shifty characters. I was a little nervous about spending any time here, especially alone, even if it was only for a trip from the ferry port to the bus station. Once I'd arrived at the National Bus Terminal (more of a wooden bus shack) and realised I had a good 45 minute wait, this uneasiness increased somewhat. Suddenly, a random old man appeared at my side, declaring, "You can't get no tickets here", expanding after he noticed my dumb look, "You gotta buy on the bus". Often when travelling, there is a certain level of alarm when someone approaches you for no obvious reason (even in a helpful manner) - 'What's their motivation for this approach?', 'What exactly do they want'. To be honest, a frequent suspicion is that they want money. This may sound like a hugely negative and presumptuous attitude, but it's something that happens very regularly, especially in the poorest areas. As such, I was slightly apprehensive about entering into any sort of exchange with this guy, even more so when his next statements were, "I'm waiting here because I gotto go court" and "My wife died down south two days ago, but I can't afford to get there".

"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
Placencia is an odd place; obviously earmarked as the next hotspot for Western expats, scores of huge mansions are currently under construction just north of town - many situated just off the beach and with man-made waterways flowing between the buildings. After this, you enter a shanty town of sorts that's occupied by many of the locals. The contrast is sharp and forced and I can't really see how the two communities will be able to integrate and empathise with one another. Closer to the dock, there are numerous hotels, shops and charming little cafes (mostly run by expats) but a distinct lack of any tourists. It was like a ghost town when I arrived - granted, it was the hottest part of the day and not particularly high season, but with all the tourist infrastructure you'd expect to see at least a couple of sunburnt foreigners. Possibly this is all just great foresight and advanced preparation and you'll soon be hearing about Placencia as the newest must-visit holiday destination... watch this space!

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
Lago de Atitlan is a picturesque lake (about 130km in surface area) surrounded by small towns and towering volcanoes. Panajachel is the largest settlement on the lake and a bit of a tourist trap. As such, I headed straight over to San Pedro La Laguna instead - a much smaller lakeside village known for being very cheap and very chilled-out, perfect! It turns out this 'chill-factor' is largely a result of the prolific level of marijuana consumption by tourists and locals alike - something they don't mention in the guide book....

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....

Zephyr Lodge
From the moment we arrived - trekking up a random hill at 11pm, blindly heading towards music and lights in the distance, only to be greeted by a party in full swing (literally, people were swinging from the rafters) - we knew we'd stumbled into somewhere special. The morning confirmed this suspicion: the lodge is perched on top of a hill, allowing 360 degree views over the surrounding valleys - lush, green, and beautiful - and the river that dissects them. The owners have secured one of the best hotel spots in the world, and managed to construct tastefully-designed accommodations that blend into the surrounding environment while still providing beds for over 50 bodies. The night-time party atmosphere is fuelled by the well-stocked onsite bar and restaurant, but everything is located far enough away from the main village so as not to disturb the locals.

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.

Semuc Champey
The nearby 'Grutas de Lanquin' provide even more entertainment. A water-filled cave system reaching several kilometres into the earth, the rivers inside are so deep that everyone has to swim - holding candles above their heads to light the way. There were about 20 of us on this visit; the multiple candles caused a golden shimmer across the water and cast a ghostly glow onto the solid walls and bemused faces of the candle-carriers. Looking back down the line of half-submerged bodies, it felt like some sort of ancient, pagan procession as we slowly made our way through the caves - swimming, climbing internal waterfalls and jumping from ledges into deep puddles of freezing water.

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).

We certainly got our moneys worth as well: the tour lasted almost five hours, with unlimited time at the end to explore more on your own. It was during these lone wanderings that I encountered dozens of Howler Monkeys - swinging through the trees just above my head. I developed a bit of a simian obsession during my trip through South East Asia in 2008/9 and I still love watching these enchanting animals in the wild. This was something unique to Tikal; it wasn't possibile to see monkeys at most of the other ruin sites I previously visited in Mexico.

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...

Until then...

(More photos below - click any photo to enlarge)

Caye Caulker

Sunrise on Caye Caulker

Sunrise on Caye Caulker

My feet on Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan


Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey

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


  1. Another lovely blog. The photos are pure heaven, I cannot see how you are going to manage with normal life ever again! Lots of love, Mum xxxx

  2. Super fabulous blog James. You make me very jealous. I'm glad to see that the mild obsession with spiders and monkeys hasn't waned. Also lovely lovely tourist-free photos! Good job. Han XXX