Published: March 7th 2012March 7th 2012
“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it” – Rudyard Kipling
I am currently sitting in a mall (urgh) in the deeply depressing town of La Ceiba on the coast of Northern Honduras waiting until we can take the Utila Princess (fondly known as the Vomit Comet) out across the choppy waters of the Bay of Honduras to Islas de la Bahia – the country’s top destination and apparently the best place in the Western hemisphere for diving.I’m trying to keep my expectations down but whale sharks (largest fish in the world) have made an appearance here some two months early in their feeding , mating and migration cycles and I am hoping beyond hope that I get the opportunity to dive with these behemoths of the sub-aqua world.
Since my last update, I have crossed 3 international borders getting from Guatemala to Belize, back into Guatemala and finally into Honduras.This blog is all about beautiful Belize.
As Sandy and I are now are in the full Central American swing (and my Spanish is adequate to get by on), we decided to take on the public transport services of the region to get from Santa Elena in Northern Guatemala all the way to Belize City on the Caribbean Coast.
Stage 1 of the journey involved a collectivo to the border in which the driver managed to squeeze in literally 100% more people than could be seated.It veered along the dusty roads, stopping to cram more individuals in, even when I was convinced this was a physical impossibility.At one point in a minivan that should have seated 9 people, there were 18 of us contorted against the windows and door.The perspiration was literally dripping off me, trickling down the backs of my legs and when we finally extricated ourselves from this mobile sauna, a tsunami of sweat roared out of the vehicle as well.Sandy didn’t suffer too much on the journey as she was in the front 2 seats and the only thing she had to worry about was the old woman wielding a pair of large sharp scissors throughout the 2 hour journey..still, not pleasant!
Having crossed the border easily without paying the‘unofficial’ departure tax through some skilful chit-chat in Spanish from me and a readjustment of our vest tops (seriously, the guys are too busy smiling and looking at our breasts than to try and make us pay the corrupt bribe…if anything, I’m beginning to think my puppies should be charging them!) we entered Belize.A short shared taxi to the nearest town – Benque Viejo and then onto our first chicken bus for the arduous journey to Belize City – some 3 ½ hrs away.Chicken buses are notorious throughout Central America…they are the sold off school buses of America, transformed in this part of the world into a fleet of gas guzzling, exhaust spewing, colourful, jangly monsters often heard pumping ragga.Leg room is minimal, seats are plastic covered so you sweat profusely and end up with a wet arse, the air conditioning is non-existent and they are full of locals going about their business.
Here in Belize, we have stepped into the Creole and Garifuna world where the majority of the people are a rainbow of beautiful brown.It’s totally tropical and Caribbean….a world away from its adjacent neighbour.However, on the one lane Western Highway direct into the city we seemed to stop every 100m or so to let off or on additional passengers – rotund, plantain munching women and lithe, muscular men carrying all manner of accoutrements.The engine rumbled, the exhaust backfired and clouds of black smog blew through the bus and the pace…oh sweet jesus, it was slow – imagine taking a 207 bus from London all the way to Manchester. The pace was not helped by a random police drugs check where we were hailed down in the middle of nowhere and everyone was ordered off the bus while the soldier made a paltry examination of some bags and the interior – no doubt anything he found when straight into his pocket.Our driver for this journey was a giant hulk of a man giving a running commentary to us about the eccentric passengers.He made that tortuous trip for us and gave us knowing looks whilst the policeman went about his business!
We arrived in the dusty backwater of Belize City – a collection of ramshackle wooden buildings with galvanised-iron roofs – many on raised platforms, testament to when flooding used to be a regular occurrence here.As night had set in we took a taxi to the guesthouse we had earmarked…. We had been travelling for 10 hours and were hot, hungry and tired and try to avoid walking at night with our gear.For $30Belize dollars ($15US) a night we had a filthy room to share which smelt of cats piss and communal cold-water showers which I certainly didn’t want to be walking around bare-foot in.Belize is a very poor country it seems and yet costs are exorbitantly high.Food, drink…basic essentials are much higher than Guatemala and I cannot imagine how the locals survive.The city was a deeply depressing place with armed policeman outside every bank and we had arrived in the middle of its Arts Festival – a paltry affair in the main square where fried chicken and hot dogs were the only (overpriced) food on offer until we found slices of pizza for an excessive $5 Belize each.
The following day we were up and out early – the stench of cats piss had worn through my incense burning and the liberal splashes of Olbas Oil we had doused the curtains, sheets and pillows with.In boiling sun, we lugged our rucksacks (which bizarrely seem to vary in weight from day to day!) to the landing stage of the Caye Calker Water Taxi. For one hour we sped East, leaving the mainland behind and heading out to the island of Caye Caulker(http://www.gocayecaulker.com/
).I hate to admit this but Sandy and I were expecting a tropical paradise – little Koh Chang meets the turquoise waters of Tulum.Sure, the cobalt waters were there but this is an island that has almost overgrown itself.I can imagine this used to be a beautiful, relaxed place but tourists have come in droves and although it’s still got an laid-back island feel, there are way too many agencies and guesthouses- all offering visitors that” Caribbean ting”at highly inflated prices. We were hustled straight off the boat by a kid working for his uncle at the Tropical Oasis guesthouse and having checked out a number of other accommodation options and been stunned by the costs for what was on offer, we eventually succumbed and got our own cabana at a much more reasonable price$30 Belize instead of $150.
We spent 3 nights on Caye Calker as the beach was a disappointing patch of sand at the northern end of the island and elsewhere, the remnants of past hurricanes had left their debris at the water’s edge.The island is geared towards diving and snorkelling and we opted for the latter as doing the infamous Blue Hole was beyond my price range (over $200US for 3 tank dives).I’ve dived the Blue Hole in Egypt and I just thought nope – for 8 minutes bottom time at 40m, I’d rather save my $ and wait for other opportunities.I don’t regret that as we had a fantastic day out on the seas with Raggamuffin Tours (http://raggamuffintours.com/
).$50US each took us on one of their small sailboats north of the island out into the Hol Chan Marine Reserve(http://www.holchanbelize.org/
) where we had 3 sites to snorkel at.The most memorable was Shark Ray Alley – a place where fisherman used to clean their gear and so fish were attracted to the blood and guts in the water. The tradition has continued as the snorkelling tours still feed the fish to attract them (which I totally disagree with) but it brings in the huge Eagle rays, 10 foot Nurse sharks and shoals of yellow-fin tuna.I was in the water like a flash – duck diving down and swimming with these incredible animals.They are so tame now, the rays swim up to you and if you hold your arms out they glide into them looking for food.
The reef colours and the myriad of fish were just beautiful….in fact the colours of the island both above and below the surface are the thing I will remember the most.Bright, colourful, and vibrant – all under a cloudless blue sky and fringed with mangroves and coconut palms.However, we decided we wanted more isolation, less development than Caye Caulker had to offer so we headed back to the mainland on a boat journey where I realised halfway through that most of the passengers were hand-cuffed to each other.It turned out a load of arrests had been made on the island (don’t ask what for) and the prisoners were being taken to the jail in Belize City.Hmmmm.
A long chicken bus journey took us South East along the Hummingbird Highway flanked by the mighty Maya Mountains on our right.All around, lush tropical forest, banana plantations and orange groves served to make the journey a verdantly green one.There seems to be little development outside of the main cities, which are themselves pretty low key.Having missed the Dandriga stop (the town was so low key), we ended up continuing along the Southern Highway too far until we realised.The driver dropped us off at Big Creek (not big, and no creek visible) where we waited and waited for a chicken bus to pass us in the return direction.Eventually, one showed and we trundled back up the Highway and made it to Dandriga, the chief town of the Stan Creek district and based bang on the seashore.Clapboard houses in blocks and a population of mainly Black Carib – the Garifuna – live here.Their story is a fascinating one… they were captured by the Spanish in Nigeria and bound for America to work as slaves but were shipwrecked in the Eastern Caribbean.Survivors took refuge on St Vincent and became the predominant race there.However, British colonial authorities would not allow a free black society so the population was hunted down and transported into Honduras, many dying along the way.Slowly, in the early 19th
century small numbers moved up the coast into Belize and settled there.
Dandriga itself was a not an enticing place and we were just using it as a night stop en route to magical Tobacco Caye (http://wikitravel.org/en/Tobacco_Caye
)-a minuscule island (some 5 acres only although if it is not careful it will spoil itself too) , 12 miles off the mainland by boat.Here we got to grips with the real Belize and the people of the island.Starting with Munch, our boat captain and who it seems is the Island’s main weed dealer (his nomenclature being a bit of a giveaway).His regular trips to and from the mainland mean he is a constant source of supply for the locals who spend all day, every day getting stoned.The air is perfumed with the smoke of big fat reefers! Life for the locals on Tobacco Caye involves rising with the sun, having a smoke, fishing, having a smoke, cleaning the sand of debris from the coconut palms, having a smoke, washing some clothes,having a smoke, eating lunch, having a smoke, some more fishing, having a smoke, sitting around, having a smoke, eating dinner, having a smoke, drinks in the Reef End Bar and some Garifuna Drumming, having a smoke, watching the stars, having a smoke, sleeping .You get the picture?Weed to these guys is their oxygen.They don’t drink so much.It’s all about da ganja man…..!
The very helpful and sweet Noble – a part Creole, part Garifuna resident introduced us to the eponymous Mr P and Miss April who together run the cheaper accommodation on the island – Fairweather’s - at $15US for a room each.Mr P was a white bearded Creole who has been on the island for 22 years, missing many teeth and surrounded most of the time by, you’ve guessed it, a cloud of marijuana smoke.Alongside his guesthouse lived a group of fishermen, the most memorable being Christian the Rasta – a Garifuna with not an ounch of body fat on him, abs and pecs you could cut yourself on and big fat dreads that were bleached by the sun.He too was always to be seen with a big fat grin on his face and a big fat joint in his mouth!
I have already mentioned Noble and then there was Barracuda Jack – from a little further up the island. He was a dark Garifuna who gutted fish with finesse.I had been snorkelling and got back to the jetty when some fishermen arrived with two huge barracuda they had just caught. These fish are evil looking creatures…swimming with them, you have to be quite careful as they are very territorial.They lurk ominously in the waters, sharp incisor teeth that can tear flesh – as I discovered first hand.I avoided the live barracuda, taking a wide berth around them in the water (and minding the lurking 4 huge sting rays in the sands) but once out the water, curious girl that I am, I had a good old poke about the dead ones.Of course, they are quite slimy and whilst trying to manoeuvre a 2 ½ foot one, my hands slipped near its mouth and one of its teeth sunk straight into my index finger.The blood flowed and Barracuda Jack laughed at me as he filleted and de-scaled…..
We eased into the pace of life on Tobacco Caye easily….it was paradise.Very few tourists, white sands tipped with coconut palms and a delightful fresh easterly breeze that blew through the island keeping temperatures down.On the West side, sheltered by the rickety wooden cabins the sun baked the sea and the bleached wooden jetties jutting out into the blue waters.Here the eagle and sting rays came to feed on scraps thrown by fishermen in the shallows.We hired snorkelling gear from Miss April and spent hours in the water looking at these giants of the ocean, gliding through the sandbanks like enormous winged birds.On the Northern tip of the island there was a stretch of live reef with multitudes of tropical fish feeding on the corals. Just beautiful.
Having not dived The Blue Hole, I was seducedinto diving here and went down beneath the surface just once with Eric, a local guide who looked like a black teddy bear with his curly beard.We shot out into the open ocean in the plastic bottomed boat, literally hurdling the waves and descended to 22 metres with fantastic visibility.Here the coral was much better than in the immediate vicinity of the island where sea grass seems to be the dominant life-form.Less fish in the depths but a gentle dive which made me hungry for more…
With no electricity until the generators come on at sunset for a few hours, time moves ever so slowly here.Entertainment is to be had from the sea and in the evening the boys (Christian, Noble, and Barracuda Jack) did some Garifuna drumming in the Reef End Bar on the end of the island.Their beating and singing disappearing into the dark night underneath a clear sky full of glittering stars.
Although we had brought supplies with us as there are no facilities on the island, Noble insisted on fishing and feeding us.Very naughtily he went lobster hunting and one night we dined in the dark outside under the coconut palms, on exquisitely succulent smoked lobster fresh from the sea, washed down with rum straight from the bottle.Eaten somewhat guiltily if I am honest, as lobster is not in season at the moment and fishing for it is not only illegal but comes with high fines.Our gourmet offering of spaghetti and tomato sauce from a tin the following night couldn’t really match his. Much as I enjoyed every delicious mouthful of the crustacean, I was much more comfortable supping on the barracuda and in-season conch.Their shells litters the edges of the island in piles, and are used for decoration at the base of palm trees.
Tobacco Caye – a place almost frozen in time - where the 20 or so permanent residents live within their means, dining on the menu of the sea and drinking rainwater for refreshment.Nearby are other cayes (islands) which are notorious for Colombian drug running but here on Tobacco, the hardest drug on the table is marijuana.Life is so slow placed here, without it, I am sure the locals would be at a loss with what to do with their lives.
We could have stayed longer but time is always of the essence and we have a fair bit of ground to cover to get to Panama for April.So after 4 days, it was back into Munch’s boat and a rollercoaster ride back to the mainland – leaping the waves like salmon.I think I may have ground my coccyx away after all the bumping…. The swell was big as the wind had picked up and blowing a fair gale, but the boat cut through the water and we got back to Dandriga alive, though a little wet.
So, next blog will pick up from here – and our very long and dodgy journey from Belize to Honduras which involved being abandoned at immigration by our malevolent driver.Don’t panic though – all is ok and we are safe and doing fine.
Our time on the islands was really “unbeliezable” – a highlight of the trip so far……Hope all is well, wherever you may be.