Still goin' up North with Dave

Published: February 7th 2009
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Happy New Year to all my favorite people! The holidays were a whirlwind of new friends and adventures, and I can’t wait to share them all with you! I have been very busy making new friends and being a part of my new community! I have been training to be on the volunteer fire department, tutoring math in the small village north of here, housesitting, singing karaoke, and hosting and attending many board game nights. (It's been raining quite a bit!) Lots of my new friends are business owners down here too, so a lot of time is spent contemplating the many ideas and options for people and products down here. It's a good time to see so many blank slates and so many creative ambitious people trying to chalk them up! I hope to blog about the specific fun places I've been visiting or amazing wildlife that's spotted, and in between I'll introduce you to some of the characters in my life and the incredible people I get to share it all with!

We had been planning on doing some Belizean exploration with our good friend Dave, a Brit/Belizean who has our same sense of fun and adventure, and he wanted to go up North - totally new territory for Aly and Z and myself! Our timing worked perfectly that we were also joined by our favorite stowaway, Derick! Derick had arrived in Placencia about a week prior on a 1954 57 foot wooden cabin cruiser that had journeyed from Lake Erie to Belize over the last 14 months. Derick had met the owners, Mac and Ruth, in Florida while on vacation, and had decided to take his vacation on a detour and hop on their boat with them! What was supposed to add 5 days to his trip ended up stretching into 5 weeks - three at sea and two more in Belize! (If you could have seen the look on our faces when this stowaway stranger announced he was from Wisco!@#$@! - can you believe the small planet we live on!?!?) And so the motley crew was assembled!

The five of us piled into the cab of Dave’s truck and headed up the bumpy peninsula road to the tunes of Brit electro hits, my favorite! Our first stop was in the tiny village of Caves Branch to visit St. Hermann’s Cave. After a quick look at the trail map and a change into hiking shoes, we enjoyed the small display of snakes in Gatorade bottles, then hit the trails! The beginning of the trail was a wide manicured pathway that plunged into the thick rainforest then immediately presented a fork in the road…its no surprise that we were all tempted by the arrow pointing up a natural rock staircase on sign that said “Out Look.” No one on the team wanted to back down, and we all went through the trouble of changing our shoes, so we began an upward march. The forest was glowing with green and vines had taken over in this neighborhood! The trek was mostly uphill, and the rocky stairs were well constructed but numerous! The trail blazers had left small trees in all the right places for climbing assistance or fun swing-around-the-corners. We were all panting and sweating by the time we reached the last 100 steps, and we turned the last corner to find…a wooden tower with more steps! It was not too sturdy, so we took turns climbing up, and when we were all 5 at the top, we had to sit and smile very still-like! The view was of first of many this week, and the green stretched on as far as the eyes could see in every direction. We took a short break up top, then hiked about a mile back down the mountain to the cave entrance.

The entrance was about 10 steps off the trail, and then the pathway twisted down into the darkness. We ran down the steps in excitement, and flipped on our headlamps and MagLites as the absolute black enveloped us. A crystal clear river flowed to our left and the cave pathway was wide and inviting. The ceilings rose and fell with the stalagtites and the smooth swirling walls were obviously carved by the river when flooded. Seeing geology in action like that is awesome yet frightening! The awe that the element of water could carve and create such playful patterns is second only to the fear that the river water has filled this cave and moved fast enough to carve these designs! As we so casually walked deeper into the cave, I silently hoped for no flash floods! There was obviously new river sediment settled high above the pathway, and a multitude of metallic gray rocks shimmering in my flashlight glow. The pathway was fairly level until we approached a huge cathedral opening where the river grew wide and long, like a small lake. A group of immense boulders had settled here, and our pathway turned and went up the steep cavern sides. It was on this steep staircase that I saw the first sign of life in this cave, a small grasshopper with ridiculously long legs jumped in front of me. I’ve seen enough Planet Earth to know that they guy had probably evolved to this dark lifestyle, which means no eyes and heightened alternate senses. Small as he may be, those traits are pretty creepy! As the pathway meandered around, the ceiling began to slope downward again until it was at our height, and there was a “Do Not Enter w/o a Guide” sign. Convenient for us at this point, there was a stalagmite that had formed a circular bench perfect for lounging deep in this cave! After talking and laughing in the absolute darkness for a while, we retraced our steps back to the exit. The cave entrance was glowing with the lush jungle and the ancient vines forming a curtain of green. Beyond that, the jungle rain had started pounding the foliage and forging new streams. Of course none of us had any rain gear, so we decided to relax at the caves step entrance and see if the rain might pass or at least subside. But, this being the rainforest, it soon became obvious that we could waiting a looong time, so we put on our rainy day smiles and stepped out into the waterfall! This is the way the rainforest is meant to be seen! We had come up the trail on the Low Trail, so to complete the loop we headed right on the High Trail. Of course we were not thinking that this meant we would be going uphill again! I slipped and scratched my way up tree root staircases and small washouts. Lucky it was only about 300m back to the visitors center, and by now we were all starving, so we hopped in the truck and set out for food!

A very short dirve up the Southern Highway was a giant palapa with luau lights and an inviting Belikin sign that read La Cabana. We changed into dry shirts and sat ourselves at the large plastic table in the middle of the open air dining room. The boys ordered tall ice cream milkshakes and the ladies fell off the wagon and ordered Bloody Marys. We were all smiles with a roof over our heads, cold beverages, and orders of various nachos all around! And when we spotted the sign behind the bar, “Not Liable for Bugs in Drinks,” we knew this was a place to tell all our friends to visit!

After a few rounds, we made our way into Belize City and Dave gave us the Grand Tour. The Grand Tour of Belize City takes about 10 minutes, and it was mostly pointing out the best place to get sweet bike accessories or the cheapest garnaches! (Garnaches are the local tostadas, usually topped with beans, cheese and a sauce. Good ones in the city run about three for a dollar!) We opted for a casual taco stand dinner in BTL park, and each indulged in a variety of tamales, tacos, quesadillas, and the aforementioned garnaches! This particular stand was famous for its juices, so I enjoyed a thirst-quenching watermelon juice, and Derick and Aly both proclaimed the orange juice to be the best ever! That night we were lucky to find decent accommodations downtown at the Belcove Inn, and the next morning we were all up early ready to hit the road again.

For a quick breakfast, we popped into the small restaurant next door to our hotel and were surprised to find more than half of the customers drinking beers before 8am! The hotel and restaurant were both on the River, a main transportation artery of the city. Therefore, this was a perfect morning stop for beers, eggs, and fry jacks! We sat down and the waiter came over, looked at us quizzically, and asked what we would like. We looked back at him with the same curiosity and asked if we could please have a menu? He asked us again, “Well, what would you like?” So we went around the table and listed all our favorite breakfast items - the result being five variable platters of eggs, beans, cheese, fry jacks, fruits, sausage and of course bacon, please! No problem! After filling ourselves full of Belizian breakfast goodies, we hit the Northern Highway and headed towards Dave’s farm.

On our way out of the city, we stopped at the large grocery store chain, Brodies, to pick up provisions for a couple days of picnicking. We had heard a lot of praise for the selections at this mega-store, but nothing prepared us for the sensory overload of being in a REAL grocery store again! We were running left and right yelling out - “Oh my gosh! A frozen food section!”; “Hey, over here! I found Goat Cheese!”; and “WHOA, Aly, you won’t belize it….Veggie Burgers!” It was so unbelievably difficult to focus, and took all of our willpower to not stuff our baskets with those coveted and much missed culinary delights. But we were able to buy many things for our cooler and grill out at the farm, and ate like kings and queens from the pickup bed of Dave’s truck!

A quick 45 minute drive out of the city and we pulled into Dave’s driveway. The front of the lot has been cleared (minus the fruit trees, a few trumpet trees, and the palmetto oasis) and the rest of it is still thick gnarly jungle! We had the honorable project of helping Dave measure out the property lines on the southern border, so we strapped on our jungle pants, each grabbed a machete, and dove into the job! We had a 100 foot tape, so we each stood 20 feet apart, and Dave notched a tree every 100 feet as we marched down the length of the property. There was one vine in particular that held our attention, literally. It looked exactly like the spider plants that had grown so gratuitously in my house, except that they had the stickiness of Velcro and each leaf was over a meter long! Every five minutes my legs would be bound and tied to each other by the sticky vine leaves and I would have to stop and untangle myself from its web! We finished our measurement task in no time, and when we reached the corner of the property, Dave disappeared into the thick green jungle and told us to wait there. Three minutes later, he emerged from the forest with a trio of exotic pink orchids! Aly and I immediately crowned him Orchid Hunter of the Year, and proclaimed ourselves his two new apprentices. On the walk back to the truck, we farmed a few more orchids at various stages of growth, colors, and sizes. We are currently trying to root them in coconut husks and keep them alive!

When we got back to the cleared front lot, we poured ourselves some rewarding cocktails, and started a fire in the grill pit. We gorged on our spread of fancy crackers and cheeses (Triscuits and Wisconsin gouda, exotic), and grilled up burgers, sausages, corn on the cob, and of course the veggie burgers! But before we could finish eating, Dave was already focused on the next activity, and asked us if we would be interested in a super-sized bonfire or seven. As we stood there shoving cheese in our mouths, Dave ran over to light the first of seven HUGE brush piles with his Bic lighter. Once he had a flaming palm branch, he carried it over to the piles in succession, and before long his entire front yard was one huge burning bush! We were loving the show until we realized, Crap, I think we are burning down the rainforest! It was horrifying and hilarious all at the same time. Since there are minimal, if any, safety precautions in this country, it was not surprising that we left the property while there was still some smoldering on the forest edges…hey, we needed to get to our next destination before the sun sets!

About an hour up the road, we turned left onto a small causeway that led us to Crooked Tree village and bird sanctuary. The causeway was a tiny dirt road that had lagoon water lapping up on both sides of the road, and some of the lower parts were flooded all the way across. We drove slowly, commenting the entire time that if it rained more than a half an inch that night, there was no getting off this island in the morning! We followed one of the only roads along the edge of the lagoon and found a small lodge with the water so close it was practically lapping up the front steps. We checked into a couple rooms and the proprietors were telling us that just the week before, the hotel had been underwater and the water line was at chest height! Since it was a small remote location, the hotel restaurant didn’t have enough provisions to feed us that night and they directed us to Carrie’s Kitchen. We followed their truck through fields, across a few lawns, turned left at the stray dog, and pulled in front of a small wooden house with a few tables set in a screened porch. We ordered a smattering of 50 cent garnaches, one dollar burritos and tacos, and plates of the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted in my life! It was the most golden crispy breading and each bite of chicken juicy and delicious! After stuffing ourselves, we somehow were able to navigate back to our hotel and spent the evening enjoying the spacious deck and expansive stars and moon! The skies and stars of Belize continue to impress me! Because of the small population and the remoteness of most of the villages, the stars here are outrageous!

The next morning we hit the road early to start our journey to the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. It is the oldest of all of the Belizean ruins, as well as the most remote. Most of the tourist treks arrive at this ruin site via a 2 hour boat ride through the jungle! But since we had a truck and all our picinic supplies, we thought it would be an even better adventure to try and drive there. Most of the roads the entire way were unpaved, and swarmed with Mennonite families in their horse and buggys. The Mennonites are the German Amish communities that have settled and farm much of Belize. The women wear the formal long flowery dresses with bonnets and the men all in navy overalls and ivory wide brim hats. Their farms produce most of the milk and cheese here, but they were the most unfriendly (i.e. wouldn’t return our waves!) of all the locals. After a few hours of being snubbed by the fancy hat wearers, we finally turned down a jungle road and pulled into the entrance of Lamanai. This site was first built and inhabited in 1500 B.C. and was the one of the longest occupied sites in the ancient world - it was occupied by many different tribes and peoples for over 3,000 years - until 1650 A.D.!!!! There were three major temples that we climbed, the Jaguar, the Mask, and the High Temple. At the top of the High Temple, you were above the massive towering jungle tree line and able to see the awesome lagoon and river running next to you as well as the tops of those Cohune palms and Trumpet trees and far as the eye could see! The site was massive, and there were many unearthed ruins around still. The Acropolis hiking trail rounded about what looked to be a huge hill in the jungle with a steep drop off on the other side. Closer inspection shows you tumbling square rocks and a specific pyramid formation and then you realize the pathway is actually walking you around the upper plaza of an ancient temple! We ran into quite a few cruise tour groups, but did our best to take our own slow pace and have a lot of time alone exploring the awesome nooks of the temples and site!

We headed back into Belize City that night, and stayed at a super disgusting roach motel, but at least it was across the street from the Travellers Distillery, where they make Belize’s famous One Barrel rum! They had only bottle service, and you were to order a bottle of the rum in any of their 4 sizes. We got a half liter of rum for under $10USD and spent another $4 ordering the mixers, then had a blast playing bartender! I have to say, that was by far the cheapest table service I’ve ever enjoyed! Our last morning we were able to stop at a friend's new land that used to be home to a very popular roadside bar and grill with a view to write home about! It was a blast to explore this abandoned property, as it had multiple lodges, kitchen areas, bars, and bright flowering landscaping! (Just a bit overgrown with vines and weeds that we took care of with our machetes!) After spending our morning there, Dave dropped us off at the Belmopan bus station thinking that would be our easiest way to catch a bus back south to Placencia. We got there right as the bus arrived, and thought, Wow, perfect timing! As the bus started to fill, many children and women were pushing and shoving and us being the kind visitors to this country, we let them all in front of us without reservations. That is until we realized now the bus was full and we were forced back into the small cement room with a caged front to wait for another hour until the next bus came! Next time we would be smarter, so an hour later as we were all caged animals trying to squeeze through the tiny cage opening to the bus, Aly and I were not ashamed to push and shove and even though we were at the front of the pack, we barely got on and i had to elbow a 250lb woman in a bright green dress to get the job done! We had our our typical overloaded too many people too many stops standing room only bus ride for hours, and now that we had started an hour late, we were running the risk of missing the last water taxi across the lagoon to get home! We were sweating it out the last 30 minutes, until we resolved that we were indeed going to miss the last taxi, and we were just going to have to improvise. Lucky for us, a guy was waiting with his boat and charged us a fair price to take us the 15 minute ride across, even though it was dusk to almost completely dark out! We were so grateful to be home!!

I hope you enjoyed the lengthy story about the unique diverse experiences I was able to fit into 4 days!!! I started writing this as a travel narrative, so I promise the following blogs won't be quite so long and detailed! 😊 But I will be sure to keep including lots of pictures! I miss you all and hope some are coming to visit soon!!?!? Keep warm in that Winter Wonderland!

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7th February 2009

welcome back!!!
Yahoooo!!! Stephanie is back to blogging! Thanks again for sharing and know it brings a smile to my face when i get the notice of a new blog! :)
14th September 2009

wow, we had a good time didnt we, will be cool to head back up that way some time, need to replenish orchid stocks!

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