Published: June 10th 2010June 10th 2010
(Day 797 on the road)
I am not sure what to make of Belize. It seems to be a very complicated country somehow: An ex British colony (independent only since 1981), member of the Commonwealth, the only country in Central America that speaks English (and also the only that does not have access to the Pacific Ocean), a good amount of Spanish-induced slavery, a strong Maya culture to this day, high levels of violent crime, often battled by natural disasters that have prompted the capital to be moved inland (to Belmopan), an amazing array of wildlife, the second largest barrier reef in the world.
As with many countries I visit on this trip, I had very little idea what to expect. One thing I did expect however were fairly reasonable prices given the poverty in the country and the level of prices in neighbouring countries. Not so however. To my big surprise, Belize is anything but cheap. Crossing the border from Guatemala, prices almost double as soon as we set foot into the country; for many products and services that are geared towards travellers it is save to say that prices are often at least three times more expensive.
A day trip to see a cave or a few waterfalls for over 100 US dollars? A snorkeling trip to a reef just a mile offshore for 20 US dollars? Really? In a country that has a GDP per capita of just 6.700 US dollars
(adjusted for purchasing power parity of course)? These prices here in Belize are similar to the prices in the US, which as a GDP per capita of 64.000 US dollars, ten times higher than Belize. I can seriously get a cheaper dorm bed in a much better equipped hostel in downtown London or Berlin than here in Belize, and I am 100% certain that the cost of operating a hostel in any European city are significantly higher than over here (rent, tax, insurance, energy, water, etc). Crazy!
Of course there is no point in moaning as that won't change anything. But the question remains: Just why is Belize so overpriced, considering it is a poor third world country with matching low average incomes of less than 6000 US dollars per year (US: 37.500 US dollars)
A few things come to mind: Maybe the country's tourism industry is so heavily geared towards the over
600.000 cruise ship tourists that come here every year - an amazing number when you consider that Belize has a population of only less than 3000.000. Or the fact that the country seems much better run than its neighbours has something to do with it (higher taxes, less corruption etc). Or maybe that 90% of tourists to Belize are US citizens on a two week vacation who come here partly since everybody in Belize speaks English and who don't mind spending ridiculous amounts of money in such a poor country.
Our hostel owner during our first two nights in the country (in San Ignacio near the Guatemala border) summed it up pretty nicely I guess: We asked him why prices are so high here, and he said it is basically what US tourists are willing to pay. Supply and demand at its best I would say.
But not for me on my budget, especially when you can see countless caves, waterfalls and Maya ruins just across the border for a tenth of the price. So what we have decided is to speed things up a little in Belize and rather spend more time in neighbouring countries, where the
same amount to money takes us a lot further. We will make sure to take in the (affordable) main highlights of the country but not to linger for long.
On the topic of money, once you have accepted the inflated prices here, one other thing needs to be considered: The Belize currency is called the Belize dollar and is pegged to the US dollar at a rate of 2:1, so one US$ equals 2 B$. Both currency are used interchangeably in the country, so you might pay in Belize dollars and get US dollars as change. So far, so good.
What's really confusing however is that prices are quoted randomly in either Belize or US dollar, depending on how the seller feels and on how much the business is geared towards US tourists. So more often than not we were thinking that we were getting a decent deal, only to find out that the price was given in US dollars, doubling the cost of the item in question. And since both currencies are just referred to as "dollar", there is no way of knowing which one is meant each time - endless confusion is the result. Imagine this
for a moment in your country: "Oh, do you mean European Euros or XYZ Euros?" How stupid!
But enough moaning and whining! We had entered Belize near San Ignacio on the country's western border, and after a day of getting acclimatized we headed east towards the Caribbean coast. The sights and things to do around San Ignacio sounded great, but every single one of them was only reachable on organised tours starting at 80 US dollars or so for a day trip, so we skipped all of that. Instead we headed to Blue Hole National Park, where we spent a wonderful afternoon exploring St. Herman's Cave.
The tour guide lobby has put up a sign that the cave can only really be explored with a guide, but of course that was rubbish. There is one entry to the cave and one exit a mile or so down, and whilst there are certainly a few side arms, finding the right way is not too difficult, especially since somebody has left strips of plastic on the floor to guide the way. Easy! Tracking an underground river at first and later the plastic bands, we spent a good hour or so
in the dark, but seeing the light at the other end was nice nonetheless. There were also some supposedly Maya pottery, but they looked so fake and placed the we somehow doubted their authenticity. The afternoon was rounded off nicely with a refreshing swim in the nearby Blue Hole cinote (=sink hole).
After an overnight stop in Dangriga (famous for its Garifuna culture and a supposedly nice and relaxed place, but essentially just a dusty town with a dirty beach and no attractions) and another one in Belize city (again, nothing worthy of mentioning here, except being assaulted by a youth gang who became aggressive after we refused to give them money), we headed out to Caye Caulker, the most famous island in Belize and just a mile away from Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
It didn't take us long to adjust to slow island life, and even though it was supposedly high season, the island was blissfully quiet, with the vast majority of tourists here being American vacationers. We spent four leisurely days on the small island (population: 1200 people) - relaxing, snorkeling, swimming, canoeing, reading. It was
very nice indeed; if only there were less sea grass in the water and less rubbish lying around everywhere. But one can't have it all.
On Caye Caulker, a long time aspiration of mine finally came true: Swimming and snorkeling with rays! Unfortunately these turned out to be no manta rays as I initially thought in my ignorance (thanks for pointing this out Peter
). In any case, these amazing creatures are typically extremely shy - even if you spot one (as I have a few times diving and snorkeling in Asia, most memorably on Pulau Weh in Sumatra, Indonesia
), they are normally gone within the blink of an eye. Not so here however! One area out on the Caye Caulker's coral reef is just teeming with rays, and they are so used to snorkelers that they just don't seem to mind you at all!
The funniest thing to observe with these amazing animals is their technique on covering themselves with sand: They lie flat on the sandy ocean bed, then wiggle their "wings" to sprinkle sand upon their body, and finally lay completely still, with only their eyes and gills still visible. There is an amazing video here
of a ray (unsuccessfully) trying to bury itself; there simply wasn't enough sand for the poor creature - at one point the sand even comes out of its gills. In the end, another ray shows up and they leisurely swim away. Amazing!
Next stop: Palencia (Belize). Also have a look at my pictures at http://pictures.beiske.com