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Belize in January

Author: Paul
Date of Trip: January 2008

Belize January 2008
Prologue

This will be our second trip to Belize. For such a tiny country there are many activities for outdoor type people to do. We would be going back to do some specific things we missed on our first trip two years ago.

Again, we would fly into Cancun Mexico, rent a car, drive down to Belize, spend most of our time wandering around then drive back to Mexico. We would also be spending a few days in the Tulum area of the Mayan Riviera on the return trip. It is our favourite beach area and we planned to relax before heading back to the cold north.

Over the past couple of weeks we had finalized our list of what we wanted to do and see, with a rough idea of the route we would take; it was all very fluid. Since we did not have any specific plans on where we would be staying or what accommodations we would find, some of our canoe camping gear ended up in the luggage. Some was never used but it was still nice to have — just in case.

Belize is a third world country. North Americans have been going here for years but tourism is just getting started. There are a few high end resorts that cater to the “sit on the beach” crowd but most areas are just as they were thirty years ago; dirt poor. Many accommodations and eating establishments (notice I didn’t say “dining”) can be termed “gritty”. Petty crime is common in some areas, mostly opportunity. If articles are left in plain view as in the back of an SUV, someone who has had so little for so long will be tempted. Belize City is the crime capital. We avoided that place. Don’t get the wrong impression from this; take appropriate precautions, don’t flaunt your wealth, stay away from inappropriate places and all should be good.

Currency. At the time of this trip exchange rates were 10.5MP (Mexican Peso) and 2BZ (Belize Dollar) for 1USD (United States Dollar). Canadian and US dollars were basically equal. We brought American dollars in cash and travellers cheques. No matter what some guide books say about Canadian dollars being easy to exchange; they’re not.

The car. The details for a car rental were left to me. One reason for renting in Cancun and then driving down was the cost; a rental in Belize was almost twice that of the Mexico rates. There are only a handful of rental companies in Cancun that will allow a car to leave the country; America Car Rental was the cheapest. Maybe because I can be so frugal, I opted for the second smallest car available. There wasn’t anything wrong with it except for maybe the air conditioner labouring in the high heat but larger wheels would have come in handy on more than one occasion. It was a Dodge Verna, nothing more than a re-badged Hyundai.

Tipping. No, it’s not a city in China, tipping is recognition for good service. Cash is still the favoured method but we try to bring some kind of article(s) as a supplement. This year it just happened to be knives. For some reason, I ended up with five good quality, lock back, folding knives through various incentives at work. These went to various guides and caretakers, along with the monetary tip. A new folding dry bag went to a guide on one of the water related tours. All of them were appreciated very much.

Thursday January 17

Our flight day. It is a late flight at 1500 so we leave home in the morning and drive to Toronto. A hotel room has been reserved for the night of our return and the vehicle is left there and we take the shuttle to the airport.

Check in with Sky Service is the usual — one long line for three flights. We shuffle our way forward with the rest of the crowd, check the bags and make our way through security to the departure lounge.

On boarding we are pleasantly surprised. The plane is only at 25% capacity. Since there are a bunch of screaming toddlers sitting in front of us and a couple of kids behind kicking our seat backs, as soon as the seatbelt sign blinks out we head for the back and claim a row of empty seats for ourselves.

The flight is uneventful and we land in Cancun at 19:10 local time. Once again I am struck by that familiar smell when we step outdoors; the smell of tropical vegetation mixed with the slight salt tang in the air. This year it seems to be a bit less pronounced than before and when we look around we can see why. With the recent expansion of the terminals, much that was once jungle has been bulldozed and paved. Progress I guess. Customs is cleared and we find our rental contact outside waiting for us as planned. He drives us to the office, sign the papers and we are on our way.

Tonight we have a room in Puerto Morelos, about a thirty minute drive down highway 307. The hotel is about two kilometres outside of town off a gravel road. The road is typical Mexican, full of potholes! We find the hotel without any problem, we were only lost once! We get the last room available and it is a good set up; bed hanging on four ropes, big shower and hammocks in the small private courtyard.

Supper is at our favourite “authentic” restaurant, located in a back alley off the main street. Previously we would be the only gringos at the place but tonight that is all there is. We move a table from the heated kitchen area to the alley (literally) and have a good meal of fresh fish. A picture of our last visit is passed around by the staff, which seems to impress them that we came back.

A quick stop for some rum and beer and we head for bed. We are very tired.

Friday January 18

By 0630 I am walking the beach, letting Dallas have some extra sleep. The beach is rough, large chunks of coral would make swimming a challenge. A large freighter is run aground just south of the hotel and there is a tug making loud noises trying to push it to deeper water. It never moves an inch. To the north an old ferry is capsized, rusting away in the salt water and air.

We have some conversations with the other guests in the dining area / playroom but not before Dallas has a few minutes on the adult sized swing hanging from the roof timbers.

Breakfast is fairly quick and then we pack up and head south. The tank is topped up at the corner and we are on our way.

Highway 307 is the only route we will be on in Mexico. It runs from Cancun to Chetumal, right on the border with Belize. It is a four lane divided thoroughfare for about one hundred kilometres, then narrows to two. It is a good highway. Signs are plentiful as are gas stations. Pay attention to the warnings for the upcoming “topes”. If you hit these bumps at any speed you will be in danger of doing serious damage to the car, tires or both.

This is the “Mayan Riviera” and the destination for tourists by the busload. Look to the left or seaward and the luxury resort fronts line the road. These are not run of the mill Holiday Inns or Best Westerns. These are the ultimate in pampering and luxury. Entrances have security twenty four seven, admittance is by reservation only. Across the road to the right is where the locals live in wood shacks with tin roofs.

This is jungle country; both sides of the road are green and lush with birds flying about.

Next stop is Tulum Pueblo, which is right on the highway. We are looking for naptha or white gas for the camp stove, which we know is not available in Belize. Last trip we had to use diesel fuel which I blame for messing up the stove. There is none in Tulum either.

Tulum is still the backpacker’s haven. Young and old people from all over the world flock here for its laid back atmosphere and broad white sand beaches. Beach bums and dropouts of society are commonplace.

Lunch is at some restaurant fronting the main street, and then we are on the road again.

Now is when the driving gets interesting. Highway 307 in this area is straight as an arrow and just about as narrow as one also. There are no shoulders, a couple inches of grass and the trees sprout straight up, sometimes touching over the faded center line.

The majority of tourist traffic is now behind us and we share the road with all sorts of vehicles; a Mexican farmer taking his crop of oranges to market, lumbering along at half the speed limit in a grossly overloaded, worn out pick up with bald tires and spewing smoke from the exhaust. Or maybe a transport rig pulling two large trailers. They even have signs on the back warning overtaking drivers of what to expect. These are fun to pass; they seem like they are a mile long and wander over the center line frequently. But most vehicles are just like ours, small cars with a couple of people going someplace or another. We stand out though because we only push to about 10KPH over the limit; we don’t relish the idea of spending time in a Mexican jail.

Plans must be afoot for this road; shoulders are being cleared by gangs of men with machetes and in a few spots gravel has been placed in a semblance of a future extra lane. But we like it best when it is just the old, narrow road with the vegetation canopy.

The kilometres fly by and the road changes back to four lanes as we approach Chetumal, just across the border from Belize. Last trip this was a major construction zone and we were lost a few times but now all is complete with the access to the border well marked.

Now we know the ropes. Where to stop for the tiny kiosk to get our Mexican tourist card stamped (and take our money), where to purchase insurance for Belize (take some more money!), where to get the vehicle fumigated (more money again!) so none of those pesky Mexican parasites will infect Belizean farms. Then the ritual of the stamps. Passport stamp. Rental vehicle stamp. Extended stay with vehicle stamp. Vehicle insurance stamp. I’m not really sure what use they will be, they are so blurred and the signatures so incomprehensible I don’t know if anyone could read them. Anyways we make it through without mishap. Just one more checkpoint a couple kilometres down the road by the local constabulary to check for a valid driver’s licence and the town of Corazol is just ahead.

Dallas has our guidebooks out checking for hotels and cabanas and she directs me to one that will fit our budget. It is right downtown with on street parking so we head for the next on the list, Hotel Maya. We take it. It is old but clean and $40USD.

This is only a transition stop so not all the luggage is brought out, just what we will need for tomorrow. We freshen up in the shower and go looking for someplace to eat. Our choice is a no name restaurant just off the main street. Supper and beer for the two of us is $18BZ. This is one of those gritty places, don’t pay attention to the washrooms and don’t think of what the kitchen looks like. But it is good food and lots of it.

The tank is filled at a local Texaco station for $80BZ. Gas is expensive here.

Back at the hotel we sit on the patio and drink Belikin beer while I update my journal and Dallas does a quick watercolour of some trees in the front yard. It is a good night but we retire early.

Saturday January 19

Only two days into our vacation and I am already starting an early morning routine that will become commonplace for the duration. I wake near 0600 and sneak quietly out of the room so Dallas will be able to sleep uninterrupted. I wander a bit and end up at the park across the street and just sit on the large breakwater and watch. Many people are on their way to work or shopping, peddling along on bicycles or passengers on the many local busses. The sun rises, slowly warming the windy air; it’s going to be a hot one. There is only so much to see in the park but I check out every corner; the ditch bringing detritus from town, the dead rat floating in a still pool and the back yards of the few houses along the fence.

Shortly it is time for breakfast and we search for a restaurant recommended by the hotel owner. We can’t find it. Maybe because the locals have such a casual attitude about giving direction; “just go up the street a bit and turn left at the big house” could mean the house next door or a couple miles away. And there is a definite lack of street signs. Anyway, we wander a bit and check out all three hardware stores for the white gas to no avail. It just doesn’t seem to exist. Breakfast is at a newer restaurant in the heart of downtown. The young owner is obviously very proud of his accomplishments and goes into great detail of all his meals.

We are packed and on the road by 0900. Leaving town is ok but we somehow take a wrong road and end up on a “cane road” through fields of sugar cane. It is very rough so we turn around and ask directions. Soon we are heading in the correct direction to Burrell Boom and the turn off for Bermudian Landing where we plan to spend the night.

Signage is very poor. Some are missing completely, just the empty sign post remains or they are so faded by the beating sun that we have to stop and stand directly underneath to read them.

The Community Baboon Sanctuary is easy to spot and we pull in expecting crowds of people. It is virtually empty. No problem for us. When we open the car doors we are hit with a blast of heat and humidity. A couple of tour guides wave us over to their table in the shade and we sit and talk for a while. We book two tours; one for late afternoon and one at night. Then we get a cabana ($65BZ) and order supper from one of the local families who live next door. The cabana is only a few feet from the jungle. And this is jungle like we have never seen it; thick, damp and smelling sweetly of decay.

We unpack some clothes and sit on the porch, keeping to the shade whenever possible. One of the guides had told us that it was 98 degrees F with 100% humidity. Any small effort leaves us dripping persperation. We chat with the guides some more and then have a quick nap.

At 1630 we meet our guide for the afternoon tour; Fallet Young. He is one of the founders of the sanctuary and has been involved from the beginning over twenty years ago. He explains the organization and what has been accomplished to preserve the black howler monkeys. Like North America, the demise of many species here is a direct result of loss of habitat, the farmers need for expansion and destruction of the jungle. Baboon is a mistake left over from the early British days. The walk is pleasant, the temperature has cooled somewhat and Fallet does not rush. We wind our way through trails and over small bridges, Fallet calling occasionally to no avail; no monkeys make an appearance. After circling the trails for an hour Dallas spots some black movement in the trees on the edge of the sanctuary, almost in someone’s back yard. We head that way and discover a troop of eight.

They are not shy, having been acclimatized to people by many tours. Dallas gets to “shake hands” with one on the ground as he looks for a handout. Another is on a branch just overhead and when I extend my arm he climbs down and perches on my shoulder. His hands are amazing, soft as a woman’s who never does dishes; I expected calluses from swinging in the trees. I am a bit leery of him though he seems gentle; I had a good look at the one inch incisors he was using to tear leaves.

Fallet guides us back to camp and we find the hostess has prepared our supper which she serves at a picnic table. Chicken, rice, pasta and vegetables for both of us comes to $8BZ.

There is some time to relax and journal a bit before our night hike at 1930. We dress for what we expect; long pants tucked into socks, hiking boots, our paddling shirts and hats and plenty of Deet.

The jungle is black and noisy. Leaves rustle constantly and birds or bats are flitting about. Moisture landing on broad leaves makes a distinct splat, reminiscent of rain but it is not. An owl hoots somewhere to our left. The humidity makes the air feel thick even though we have good vision in the beams of the flashlights. Mosquitoes buzz loudly, they are very bad. Even Fallet, who says he is used to them, takes some of our proffered repellent. Our trail twists, turns and branches till I know I am hopelessly lost, I could never get out of here on our own. Fallet stops occasionally and points out many of the different trees and ferns and the varied uses, from houses to medicine, that the Maya would make from them.

The owl hooting moves from left to center to right. I have no idea if it has moved or our trail is taking us in circles. We sit and rest for a few minutes at an old tent site. Sounds of animals are everywhere but we just can’t see anything. After a couple hours we head back, a little disappointed at not spotting any animals.

Fallet joins us the steps of our cabana, sharing our beer and talking about Belize. We are very interested in the upcoming election and spend an hour or so talking politics. At some point, Fallet, who has an uncanny ear for movement, shines his flashlight out at an opossum, some large bats and a night bird. The monkeys start howling shortly after we sit down, just over the next rise. Now we know why they are called howler monkeys. If we had not been told I would have thought the noise was emanating from a couple of large male jaguars in a fight to the death. They are LOUD! I guess we didn’t have to spend a couple hours in the jungle to see wildlife but we are glad we did.

Before we know it, it is 23:30. Fallet leaves for home and we shower and hit the beds.

Sunday January 20

I’m up again before 0600 and settle in on the porch to journal and make coffee. The camp stove is out and full of kerosene which we are using as a last resort. Dallas rises early and we sit together, me journaling, she sketching. It is cloudy and cool, a pleasant break from yesterdays heat.

The car is packed and we are on the road to Hopkins at 0800. The road is good and familiar; this is the Hummingbird Highway, cutting through the Maya Mountains from the interior flatlands to the narrow coastal plain. The sights are wonderful. The mountains are a deep green with mist hanging in the valleys and orchards crawling up the hillsides.

One stop we have been talking about for two years is the Hattiville Prison. After passing here before our running joke when doing anything even slightly wrong was “you’re going to end up in Hattiville”. The gift shop is packed with mostly wood articles all made by the inmates. We purchase a nice container as a souvenir.

When nearing the coastal plain, the highway bridges become narrow; down to one lane. These are remnants of an old rail line that operated here to take sugar cane to market. It was abandoned in the early 1900’s. Hopkins and the access road in have not changed in two years. The road is still rough and the town is still gritty. Hopkins is what I imagine Cancun was like thirty years ago; a large crescent bay with sand beaches and a population that mostly makes a living from the sea or land. Large scale development could be right around the corner. We go back to Whispering Seas Hotel and take a cabana. This one is concrete.

The day is spent relaxing at the beach, swimming, relaxing with a nap, swimming and just laying about.

Marcello the owner does not remember us from two years ago; I guess we all look the same to him. Supper is in the large building just behind our cabana, thankfully nobody changes the CD when it stops, we could hardly talk over the blaring music. There are four other gringos at the bar and we join them for a couple of rums. We talk about many things and we share a few pictures of home that we brought with us. One picture is from this hotel two years ago, me and a local boy. We show it to Slim our bartender and she gets very excited; it is her nephew Kieran. She hunts him down and drags him over to meet us. Dallas does most of the talking and we promise to meet at breakfast to share some of the schoolbooks she has brought down. More rum with the crowd follows and we retire quite late.

Monday January 31

It is cool with dark clouds moving in from the east when I walk the beach at 0600. It was a poor sleep. After packing we have breakfast and Kieran arrives in his school uniform. He looks about nine years old but is actually thirteen in grade eight. Dallas gives him the books and he is off to school and we are off to Placencia.

The plan is to take the turnoff to Dangriga and then head south from there. After only a couple hundred metres on this secondary road, we turn around and head back. It is far too rough with large potholes. We were the only vehicle on the road and then we passed a couple of men on bicycles with rifles slung over their shoulders! We didn’t know what to expect up ahead.

We travel further south on the good highway and then turn east to Placencia. This road is gravel also but a bit better shape than the last one. Potholes abound and we weave the car from side to side in an effort to miss the larger ones. The rains must have missed this area because the dust from other vehicles is choking. Sometimes we have to pull over and wait for the dust to settle so we can see more than ten feet. Soon we turn south and are on the peninsula. The road deteriorates some more. Our maximum speed is now no more than 30KPH. Glimpses of the ocean can be seen to our left and the lagoon to the right. All vegetation near the road is covered in a fine layer of red dust. No matter the condition of the road, we are still passed by every vehicle that overtakes us; from busses to cars to transports. At one point we come across a tractor trailer rig on its side, it failed to negotiate a curve. There are supposed to be two towns on the road before we get to Placencia but we only see one; Seine Bight. The town is gritty and the people surly looking. The peninsula narrows in one place to no more than one hundred feet across, we can see water plainly at both sides. Development here is booming; dredging operations are creating subdivisions on the lagoon side because there is no more shore available on the ocean side. Million dollar homes are under construction, each one with man made water access right to the door.

The busy Placencia Airport comes into view, the runway running across the whole peninsula, the road bisecting it at one end. We stop and look as directed so we don’t become a hazard to incoming planes.

We pull into Placencia at 1100, gas up at the first station and then drive the main street till it dead ends at the wharf.

A friendly young lady at a close by tourist information place explains how Placencia is laid out with the “sidewalk” and gives us a couple of maps so we can find our way. As usual when we are in any new place we promptly get lost and end up at The Tradewinds Cabanas located on the south east corner of the peninsula. We lucked into a terrific place and take the only one available. It is a bit bigger than what we are used to but has a kitchen so we can make some meals if we want.

Lunch is at the Purple Space Monkey on the main street. It seems to be the place for the party crowd.

A few words about the town layout. Placencia is on the southern tip of a narrow peninsula, the only road in or out is on the west or lagoon side of the peninsula. Between the road and lagoon there is only enough room for a single row of houses or businesses. On the east or ocean side of the road there is more land available, all packed with buildings of some sort. A sidewalk runs from the south end of town; the wharf end, snaking its way north to rejoin the main road at some point. This sidewalk is the dividing line between the back of businesses on the east side of the road and others on the ocean side. Sometimes there are extra buildings between making for four deep, some just fronting on the sidewalk. The sidewalk is a major pedestrian thoroughfare, no vehicles are allowed; besides it is only four feet wide. Shops, restaurants and tour outfits abound. Streetlights try to keep out all the shadows at night but some are not working so it can be dim in many areas. Exploring the town only takes a few hours so we have lots of time for relaxing and swimming. Groceries are purchased along with rum and beer (we have a fridge!) and we have a very good time today just relaxing.

Tuesday January 22

Up at 0600 again and walk the beach so as not to wake Dallas. No one is about except me; the sun isn’t even up yet. I walk to the far end of the crescent then sit to watch the sunrise. This beach is all coarse sand and my feet are sore by the time I am half way back; must remember to wear some footwear tomorrow. After a breakfast of fresh fruits and coffee our schedule this morning is just hanging around the cabana swimming, taking sun, reading and relaxing. Sometime in the early afternoon we walk to town; all of 200M, to check email and exchange our books at the Purple Space Monkey’s library. A straight exchange of one book for one is $5BZ. Town is very hot; it is surprising how much cooler the beach area is.

As a treat to ourselves and also because we want to experience it, we book a night on French Louis Caye for Thursday. FLC is a small private island that we will have for just the two of us and the caretaker / cook. A bit of a splurge, it is $390USD per night but all meals are included and prepared by the cook.

Back at the cabana we make a late lunch of egg salad sandwiches and get back into relaxing. The afternoon is spent just like the morning only we have a couple of beers and 1 Barrel Rum.

Evening finds us walking the sidewalk looking for a place to have supper. We settle on Omar’s after reading the blackboard menu. We have grilled red snapper, rice, refried beans and large glasses of freshly made lime juice for $42BZ.

Bed is early tonight after we read a few more pages of our new books, just standing at the bar in our cabana. Sometime during the night the wind picks up and brings rain. I am woken by the sound and get up to close the shutters on the windward side. Other than that it is a good sleep.

Wednesday January 23

Up at 0600 again to walk the beach and watch the sun rise.

The whole day is spent at the cabana taking sun, swimming and relaxing. At some time in the morning we change cabanas because the one we are in is booked for tonight. Our new one is the same as the last except it does not have a kitchen. Near sundown we walk to the wharf and watch the local fishermen clean conch and fish from their daily catch. They have stories of how the catch has slowly declined in recent years. They blame over fishing.

In the evening we wander downtown and end up at the Purple Space Monkey again for their karaoke night. The rum is flowing freely for all the patrons so there is a wide variety of entrants, some good, some not so good. We have a good time though I wouldn’t get up no matter how Dallas asked.

Thursday January 24

More of the same morning routine; up at 0600 and walk the beach for an hour then back to the cabana for coffee. Breakfast is at Wendy’s restaurant (no, not THAT one!) and then we pack for the trip to FLC. Our extra luggage is stored at the Tradewind’s office and we wait on the beach for our pick up boat. The sea has a slight chop but it is bright and hot, we slather on sunblock for the trip out but it doesn’t really matter because the boat has an awning. Ronny is our boat operator and owner of the island but not the caretaker. He slows the boat and points out the sights on the way out; the lighthouse and coral shallows. The trip out is about eight miles and takes forty minutes. Ronny slows and circles the complete island so we can take pictures as we approach.

After docking we meet our host / caretaker / guide and cook; Alberto. He helps us carry our luggage to our quarters and then takes us on a tour of the island. Our quarters are tiny and rustic, sharing a small building with the kitchen. Washrooms with toilet and shower are just a few feet away. The island itself is less than two acres, more than half taken up by mangrove trees and sharp rock. The only beach is not fit for swimming because of coral. Hammocks and a few palapas are interspersed among the palm trees. It is idyllic. We are very pleased.

The morning and afternoon is spent wandering the island, swimming off the dock (wear reef boots), lazing in the hammocks and talking to Alberto. We can have as much or as little privacy as we want; Alberto will go to his tent if we wish to be by ourselves. An afternoon rain sweeps in and we take cover under one of the palapas but it only lasts a few minutes before the sun is once again beating down.

Before we know it, Alberto is starting preparations for supper. A large pile of island wood is fired and let to burn down to coals. This is scooped up in a shovel and placed in a home made grill. The grill is an old propane tank made into a grill in Ronnie’s shop.

As supper is grilling we are visited by several hermit crabs. Alberto spots them and waves us over to see. They scurry about, looking for scraps of food and new shells.

One finds the pile of cast off shells that Alberto has saved and crawls about, feeling for one just the right size so he can replace the one he is wearing. The sun is now setting and we have a chance to see this sight unhindered by land.

On one of my short excursions to the far side of the island to get rid of one of those good Belikin beers I discover something that I must share with Dallas. I go back and lead her amongst the palms and bushes, pointing at the ground with my flashlight as if I am looking for something. When we reach a clearing I turn off the light as Dallas asks “what am I looking for?” My answer is just a whisper, “look up”. Her breath is taken away. The stars. The stars. The stars. We have both seen stars in the clear skies of northern Ontario that we thought were amazing but never anything like this. The black sky is so crowded with these distant suns that we cannot make out the Big Dipper. We cannot make out anything except the belt of Orion. The spectacle is more than amazing. Dallas and I sit on the porch and make conversation with Alberto while he cooks our meal. He is very easy to talk to. He tells us the story of the island and how it survived the hurricane in ’05. Every man made object was lost; cabana, docks, washroom and palapas all disappeared never to be seen again. No insurance coverage either. Ronny is slowly building everything back, equal to or better than the way it was.

We have an excellent supper of fish, chicken, sausage and rice sitting on the porch in front of the kitchen, Alberto eats with us.

After a short respite while supper settles a bit and Alberto washes the dishes, we get ready for snorkelling at night. Alberto sets us up with mask, snorkel and fins, waterproof flashlights and a PFD for Dallas. We start at the east side dock and swim straight out for a couple hundred feet before turning and following the profile of the island. This was simply incredible! Many different fish are about in the colourful coral. They seem to be stunned by the light and become docile. I went so far as to pick up a barracuda and another fish (can’t remember its name) in the palm of my hand. Sea cucumbers pull back into their lair when approached. Small squid squirt out tiny clouds of ink as we pass. A sting ray floats past on the ocean floor just out of reach. Plant growth waves back and forth in the swells. We wave our hands in the light and see phosphorescent organisms. Before we know it, we are tired and head back to the dock.

Alberto retires while Dallas and I shower. We sit together on the porch, share a drink of rum and talk about the sights we have just seen. We are still pumped from the experience. Sometime later, we too retire.

Friday January 15

I’m up again at 0600 to wander about the island and swim off the dock. Coffee is on at 0700, we swim and sit down to a breakfast of fried Jacks, bacon, scrambled eggs, fresh sliced pineapple and the best refried beans I have ever tasted, all washed down with fresh squeezed orange juice.

We swim, sketch and journal away the whole morning. A rainstorm sweeps in quickly while we are sitting under one of the palapas and we watch the weather and water change. The sun is blotted out as the rain moves in from the north and the waves pick up to huge whitecaps. Within minutes the islands to the east, no more than a mile away, are hidden by squalls. Another few minutes it is all over and the sun is once again beating down.

All too soon, Ronnie pulls in with the new guests and we start the return trip back to Placencia. The sea is still choppy so I pull two PFD’s out of the storage locker and keep them close to our seats, just in case. Within a quarter mile all three of us are soaked. The boat is taking a bit of a pounding, almost leaving the water as it crests a few of the larger waves. I would estimate that they are about six to seven feet. Ronnie is excellent with the boat; judicious use of the throttle and tiller and we slide up and down the waves, almost sideways but always heading for shore. Instead of bringing us back to the cabana, we head up the lagoon to Ronnie’s office. Development in the lagoon is going full speed; large shovels and earthmovers are dredging out muck and piling in long jetty type works for new houses. The natural landscape will be changing to retaining walls and manicured lawns. Ronny explains that the development is now in the lagoon because the ocean side is packed and much too expensive. We chat with him a few minutes about what this will do to local economy and the native people who live here. He replies “it’s progress I guess, just look it up in the dictionary for what it says”.

After picking up our spare luggage and packing the car we set out for Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve. The road out seems a bit better but in reality is still the same bumpy ride it was a few days ago. At the turnoff to the preserve we stop at the small building and purchase tickets for $10BZ each. These will let us in the preserve. The lady at the counter warns us that if we plan to stay overnight there is no place to eat or purchase supplies. A small groceteria is just down the road and we pick up some eggs and canned beans to supplement what we already have.

The access road worries me a bit. Rain has been heavy lately, leaves, branches and sometimes whole trees lay across the road and small washouts abound on all the hills. The tiny car scrapes bottom on the road and trees as we descend into the basin. This is also a worry; if the hills are muddy on the return we may have traction problems. This is where a vehicle with more ground clearance and bigger tires would be nice.

After six miles of this jungle road we come to the main complex of sanctuary buildings. The place is almost deserted. The staff is just about to pack up and leave, we will be the only ones here to spend the night save one staff member. He shows us our room in what I call the bunkhouse, a long wood building with perhaps ten rooms of three sets of bunk beds each. We take the room closest to the washroom. Humidity has taken its toll on the building, it sags in the middle and some floor boards are rotten, we know here not to step just by looking at the gaps. We are shown the communal kitchen and how to use the propane stove then he leaves us on our own.

Afternoon and early evening are spent exploring the grounds and the first few yards of the many hiking trails. Dusk comes early here because of the large trees blocking the sun. We sit on the bunkhouse steps and watch all the wildlife; a hawk like bird watching for prey in the yard, birds of orange, purple and black flying about and bats with their distinctive wing motion after insects. There is also a large vulture like bird in a tree at the edge of the clearing that never moves the whole time we are there. Leaf cutter, or wee wee ants as the locals call them, have made trails at one end of the clearing. Thousands of ants in single file march out and back in ordered lines, outward bound searching for food, inward bound carrying pieces of green larger than they are.

As dusk turns to twilight and then evening, the forest comes alive. Night sounds abound. Leaves rustle a few feet from where we sit. Birds call and monkeys howl in the distance. Noises increase as darkness falls, especially in the nearby undergrowth. We both realize that night and imagination will increase the size of any nocturnal sounds but we both decide to vacate the steps and sit back on the bench under the veranda.

A very plain supper of pasta and canned tuna is prepared in the communal kitchen. The place is huge; it can probably seat sixty students and looks empty with just the two of us there. The only company we have are the large mice or small rats that scamper about the floor and through the kitchen. The beans we purchased that afternoon were totally inedible and end up in the garbage.

After supper dishes are cleaned we sit on the porch again, mosquito coils smouldering at our feet, and listen to the night again.

Saturday January 26

Both of us are up early. The air is damp and fog wreaths the trees. Coffee is made on the veranda steps and we have a breakfast of power bars and grapefruit. Dallas goes for a walk and calls me to her after just a minute or so. She has spotted two large wild pigs rooting in the vegetation. We think these can be dangerous so we keep our distance and do not disturb them. They are female, I think, because they lack tusks. We dress for our morning hike and what we expect of the conditions; quick dry nylon shirt and pants, hiking boots with socks over pant cuffs and insect repellent. Humidity is high; all our clothes in the suitcases are damp.

Ours is still the only car in the parking lot; we will have the whole preserve to ourselves.

The trail starts off fairly wide; it is after all an old logging road, but narrows to just a few feet. Slick mud and roots abound. Humidity must be close to 100%. All our clothes stick to us in a matter of minutes. This area had been logged out sometime in the seventies but growth is once again thick. Moisture is falling from the upper branches and leaves, animals are making noises as they travel about and birds cry incessantly. It is jungle once again. Dallas is in the front and pauses when something large rustles through the underbrush, neither of can see what is making the noise. Just a few feet further up the trail we spot a large jaguar print, fresh in the mud, larger than the palm of my hand. It is fascinating but we don’t know whether to be scared or not.

We continue on the trail, now getting steep and more difficult. The park has placed many signs here so we are never worried about getting lost. Eventually we can hear a river or brook to our left and soon discover a small waterfall and pool. Being so hot and humid we do not waste any time to strip down and swim naked in the cool refreshing water.

The trails continue but we do not go any further. Another trail with a downed airplane is our other diversion before we leave. Just before we spot the plane a helicopter beats a noisy path overhead. I cannot help it as I am drawn back by memory to my military days of helicopter deployment and also a particular movie of an alien who hunts humans in jungle for sport. These next few minutes are uncannily eerie.

After completing our hike we one again drive north on the Hummingbird Highway. Another stop at the Top Of The Hill restaurant for a nice lunch finds us only a short distance from Ian Anderson’s Jungle Lodge. We decide to stay for the night and book a caving tour for tomorrow. This is an upscale resort with pricy tree house cabanas and some not so pricy ones overlooking Caves Branch River. Ian has a real gold mine here and is quite the showman when he speaks to the after dinner crowd. Most of the clientele think they are in a jungle environment and are awed by Ian’s talk about dangerous snakes, scorpions and animals. To Dallas and me, the whole place has a manicured and fashionable look and feel.

Our cabana is one of the old ones but it does have an attached toilet. The outdoor, palm thatched shower is down a gravel trail to the side. Even the shower is made to look more rustic than it is.

Supper is buffet style and quite good. We do not stay up late.

Sunday January 27

Breakfast is early with another couple from Texas. Afterwards we group with the others that are on the same cave tour, there are only six of us with one guide. A short bus ride down the highway then half an hour bouncing through acres of orange orchard brings us to the river. We will be tubing upstream for a few kilometres but find it hard making headway because of the high water. At the cave entrance we don our headlamps and get set to go underground. The water is cool and running fast is some places; it is hard going so we get out of our tubes often and walk. Inside, the cave is pitch black and swarming with bats. Our guide explains the difference between stalagmites and stalactites; I can’t remember which is which now. At one point we stop and let some red eyed catfish nibble our fingers.

The tubes are left on a sandbar as we clamber our way up and over slippery and steep ledges to an inner chamber of Mayan ceremony. Shards of pottery are strewn about, claimed to be ancient Mayan, but looking very conveniently placed for tourists to see.

Lunch is prepared on a sheet at a damp sandbar. The next chamber has a Mayan relief carving and our guide tries to build drama, highlighting the face in his headlamp beam. It is quite awesome to know that this carving is more than two thousand years old. Tubing out of the cave is much faster than getting in; water is moving fast and we are getting cold. At some point all headlamps are turned off and we glide along in the dark. It is kind of scary not knowing exactly where we are going, relying on the current to keep us away from the sharp rock walls. A few times we bump into gravel bars or rocks, our bums taking the brunt of the hits. Eventually we see light ahead and emerge unscathed. Dallas and I keep going after the planned take out and run a few bigger rapids in our tubes. Some of the others follow but do not make it past a narrows in the rocks and flip their tubes. We gather as a group on shore and walk back to the bus for another surprise — it won’t start! The guide just keeps turning the key, electronics clicking away, and the others stand around seemingly waiting for a rescue so I think I better take some kind of action. After tapping the Bendix drive, solenoid and some other unknown electronic gizmos, the starter finally kicks in when I grasp the gear shift and put the darn thing in neutral. The guide / driver calls me “mechanico” but I have not done anything worthy of the name. The rest of the drive back to Ian’s is uneventful. A quick change from our wet clothing and once more we are on the road, heading back to Corozal.

About thirty kilometres from town we overtake a political rally for the UDP and the upcoming election. Vehicles of every description are slowly heading north, people sitting or hanging out of windows, waving red flags and chanting slogans. The pace is no more than a crawl so I do a decidedly Belizean manoeuvre; pull out and drive on the wrong side of the road. This works for a short while until the rally spreads out and covers both lanes and shoulders. We do not have any choice but to slow down and move with the crowd. This last thirty kilometres is stressful, cars and trucks pass us and pull in without warning. Crowds are calling to us, asking which party we support. All we do is give a thumbs up but it is greeted with cheers. Would we dare do less in the midst of all this? Soon, the rally turns off the highway and we pull in to Corozal and another night at the Maya Hotel. A poor supper is partially eaten at Tony’s, and then we watch some TV and are asleep by 2230.

Monday January 28

Both of us are awake and up at 0600, on the road at 0700. The border crossing is a mere formality; it seems nobody cares when we leave. Highway 307 is almost deserted this early and we make good time.

The pyramid at Limones beckons so we stop and explore a bit. It seems out of place so close to a major road without any visitors at all.

Tulum Pueblo is reached at 1100. Lunch, internet and purchasing of supplies wastes an hour then before we know it we are back at our familiar stretch of the Mayan Riviera. We have been coming to this area since 2001 and know it quite well although it has changed in the last few years. Gone are the quaint stick shacks on the beach and all the backpackers milling about. Now there are hotels and large private houses where there used to be mangrove trees. We head south, looking at the hotels / cabanas, checking out those that seem suitable to us. Our residence for the next three nights is only about three lots past where we spent a memorable couple of weeks in 2002 but a world of difference in accommodations. This cabana has a concrete floor, nice tiled washroom with its own toilet and shower and plenty of concrete shelves.

The going rate is $150USD per night but we bargain hoping the lack of guests will have some kind of impact, we are the only ones here. We get it for $120 USD. We are both very pleased with our find.

The beach seems almost deserted, no crowds at all. We take sun and relax, enjoying a few cold Corona’s before they warm up, and the white talcum powder beach.

Walking the beach, swimming in the warm water and sitting about in the comfortable lounge chairs reading a book while sipping a beer or rum passes the time. What a life!

Posada Margherita, just down the beach is where we end up for supper. We have been guests here since before it was officially open so have a good idea of what to expect. We are just squeezed in to the last empty table. Reservations are now almost mandatory. Although the faces are not familiar, the routine of the menu is. The head chef visits our table, sits with us and tells us what is available. No prices are quoted. We concur with what he thinks we would like and order his suggestion of wine to wait for the meal. It is excellent, as usual. The complete meal with wine, appetizers and main course is $560MP, a bargain.

It is a good day and evening.

Tuesday January 29

I beat my usual time and am out walking the beach at 0530. I set up the stove and make coffee for when Dallas wakes at 0700. We swim in the early hot sun. A bit of a memory lapse here, we had forgotten that the nightly rate includes breakfast and are surprised when it is served on the table outside our cabana door. Pancakes, fruit, toast and coffee, all served elegantly on distinctive dishes.

More sunning and swimming. Near mid day we walk to the centro, what we like to call “the bump in the road” for lunch. It is very hot away from the cooling breeze so we cab back only to find we don’t know the name of our hotel! We just tell the cabbie to keep driving past Posada Margherita.

The afternoon is spent the same as the morning.

After dark we shower and dress for supper. Again we walk the beach all the way down to Hemingway’s. Again, reservations are encouraged. We wait thirty minutes, sitting on the wood walkway and sipping a beer, before a table is ready. Tonight it is a seafood menu; clams, mussels, squid, crab with pasta, wine and beer. Another bargain for $670MP.

Wednesday January 30

Another day like the last. Swim, sand and relax.

Thursday January 31

Our last day. Morning is spent swimming in the now large waves and taking sun. Dallas drives in to Tulum Pueblo for some last minute souvenir shopping while I stay back and suffer some more on the beach.

Before to long it is time to leave, we pack and drive to the rental office in Cancun, turn in the car and are driven to the airport.

By midnight we are back in Toronto.

Another great vacation has come to an end!

Epilogue

I guess a few words are in order about our planning. The internet is a wonderful tool but is not always available when on the road. Do some pre trip planning but be prepared for when things do not always go your way, and it will happen.

Get a good guidebook!! I cannot emphasize this enough. They may seem expensive but are well worth the price, usually in the range of $35C. We used Lonely Planet and Moon but there are many others. There are more hints, places to see, cheap lodging and restaurants than could possibly be used.

Although these books are written primarily for students and others who want to travel “on the cheap”, that was not the purpose of this trip. We wanted to see and experience different things off the beaten path. It may not be suitable for everyone.

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