Wednesday...Must be Belize

Published: June 12th 2017
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Geo: 17.4977, -88.1867

As the only English-speaking country in Latin America, I have always been curious about Belize. It's known for its ocean reef and language, and that's about all I knew. It was British Honduras before it became independent in the 1960's.

Because of the reef, no cruise ships visiting the port can actually enter the city. Rather, all the ships anchor off shore and people are tendered into town on smaller boats. We were eating breakfast outside as we pulled into "port," passing two other ships already anchored. It was all very impressive, but we couldn't even really see any of the city, other than a faint blur on the horizon.

We'd booked a tour through the ship to visit the Mayan ruins of Lamanai (or Submerged Crocodile), and that meant we had to catch the first tender off of the boat. We didn't mind, as we avoided the crowds, and the tour was supposed to last seven hours and we were hoping for at least a little extra time to see the city. We could have visited Mayan ruins at either of our Mexican ports on this cruise, as well, but after some reading, it appeared the ones in Belize are more extensive, better preserved (fewer visitors), and you are allowed to climb them (not sure that is all good), unlike in Mexico or Guatemala.

After an hour or so aboard a very old former Greyhound bus (now serving in its third or fourth life), we saw what little there was of Belize City and traveled north on the country's only highway to a river-side complex where we were to ride a high-speed boat to reach the ruins farther up river. The entire country of Belize has five traffic lights, all in Belize City, and of which only three are currently working. The city was not much to see, and it turns out it is no longer even the capital. After Hurricane Hattie in the early 60's, they built a new capital in the jungle about 80 miles inland. It's called Belmopan; I'd never heard of it, and it sounds like a killer Trivial Pursuit question.

Our small group of about 15 boarded the boat and we started another hour-long journey up the New River. It was amazingly pristine and has the unique distinction of flowing south to north. It is entirely spring-fed, and with no industry and very limited population, it is perfectly clean. We stopped to view wildlife along the way, including some monkeys and countless different types of birds. The boat would roar to full speed, and every 10 minutes or so, he'd cut the engine as we came upon small (mostly hand-dug) canoes, with locals out fishing in the river. If we had passed them at speed, I'm sure our wake would have flooded their canoes. I also found it interesting that Belize has a sizable Mennonite population, who resettled here to avoid persecution in the U.S. and Mexico. We passed several large Mennonite farms along the river, and I'll attach one picture of a boat we passed with a family fishing.

The boat docked us directly at the ancient city of Lamanai, which is only one of many Mayan site in the country. Only about 30 percent of the city has been excavated and reclaimed from the jungle, but what was available to see was postcard-perfect. While the heat was oppressive -- and it was only April! -- it was an amazing tour, weaving in and out of the jungle, and our tour guide was quite good. All three of us made it to the top of the tallest pyramid on-site. I'm not sure the pictures do it justice, as it was so incredibly steep, and the steps are very far apart; it was more of a scramble than a climb. There was a single rope down the middle, which was supposed to provide safety for people going both up and down. Still, with no authorities anywhere to be seen, it was a little chaotic, and even scary. We were certain that people must have been seriously injured here in the past, and our tour guide later confirmed that.

Another interesting tidbit -- and surprise to me -- was the strong Mormon link to Belize. They believe that Jesus visited Lamanai after the resurrection, and before he visited the Indians in North America. The Mayan sites in Belize are evidently a pilgrimage site of sorts for Mormons, and would help explain why Delta Airlines offers nonstop service from Salt Lake to the tiny city of Belize.

By the time we toured the city, returned downriver, had lunch, and then bussed our way back to Belize City, we only had about 30 minutes before the ship departed, which left no real time for any shopping or additional sightseeing. Still, I think we can confidently say that we "did" Belize.

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