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Published: August 9th 2016
Greetings from Belize! Country number 73 and still counting. A completely different travel experience to say the least, and it has taken me a few days to adjust. Well, to be honest, I think I’m still forming my opinions about the country – I have enjoyed these last few days, though I can’t say I’ve particularly liked them. I know this sounds like a paradox, but what I’m trying to say is I’ve learnt a lot about this area of the world in the past few days, about myself, about travelling, and if that is the reason why I travel, then this has happened and I have enjoyed it. It has not been the nicest of few days though, and I will try to relate more below, though as mentioned, I am still putting together my impressions and opinions of this country, so it may be a bit early to come to any conclusions. I also get the feeling that these impressions and opinions are only of Belize City and around, and not of Belize, but I guess the next few days will confirm this better.
Anyway, for now at least, I am currently in the lovely
Lazy Lizard, Caye Caulker
little sleepy town of Orange Walk, in the Northern district of the country. I love some of the names in Belize, they remind me that I’m not only in an English-speaking country again, but I’m also in the Caribbean region of the world, with place names having come from an era of swashbuckling pirates, ships called galleons, and yo-ho-ho and lots of rum. Besides Orange Walk, I have passed through or by places such as Burrell Boom, Haulover Creek, Hattieville and Crooked Tree to name but a few. Looking at a map of Belize, there are so many more: Gallon Jug, Deep River, Mango Creek and Baldy Beacon. Ooh-arrr!!
So I arrived here in Belize three days ago, on Saturday afternoon. A tourist shuttle came to La Casa de Don David in the lovely Northern Guatemalan village of El Remate, on the eastern shore of Lake Peten Itza, to pick me up, along with around 12 other travellers from Flores, and shuttle us all off over the border and down into Belize City. The journey was fine, taking around five hours or so, with an hour’s stop clearing immigration: half-an-hour of which was down to the full bag-searching of
an Egyptian guy travelling with us. There was much joking afterwards as to why it was the Egyptian guy who got stopped and searched…! A few hours later, we were driving through Belize’s largest “city”, aptly named Belize City, with a population of 63,700, and towards the ferry terminal where most tourists are whisked off directly to the island resorts of Caye Caulker or San Pedro (of Madonna fame, when she dreamt last night of the place…!).
I, however, had other plans – which were to use Belize City as a base for three nights in order to explore the surrounding areas. Originally I’d planned to spend two nights there, and move on myself to Caye Caulker and San Pedro, spending two nights in each. But the hotel where I’d made a reservation in the former emailed me just after Hurricane Earl to say that they had been badly affected by it, and would not be able to accommodate me, or any other guests, for the time being. If this was the case, I thought it might be easier to make an alternative route through Belize, which I had really wanted to do anyway, and avoid the typical tourist
trail across the islands. This confirmed it, and I am currently taking the backwater, but equally stunning and interesting I believe, route north towards Mexico.
So I stopped in Belize City for three nights. I checked into the Belcove Hotel, a beautifully-situated hotel on the main waterway running through the centre of town, called Haulover Creek. The setting was superb, but that was about it. I was quite stunned at the apathy of the service from the ‘lovely’ lady on the reception, and totally dismayed with the room I was given. I asked for a quiet room, and was told that “none of the rooms are quiet”. I was quite sure that the rooms on the first floor above were quieter, as they would see less foot traffic through its corridor, but my room was on the main thoroughfare between the reception and the small pier at the back, where guests can sit and watch the boats go by. The whole place felt really cramped, and something just didn’t feel right for me – I trust my instincts a lot while I travel. I also had the feeling that, being only a few paces from the reception area, where
there was already a sense of people hanging around and chatting, that I wouldn’t be getting much sleep – there was also a public telephone right outside my room, where a local guy was already having a loud conversation. Fortunately a short walk revealed to me a hotel which gave me a much better feeling, the Sea Breeze Guest House, which I promptly checked into, unfortunately forfeiting my first night’s stay at the Belcove which I’d already paid. However, this was a sacrifice worth making I felt, as although the service at the Sea Breeze seemed equally nonchalant at the time, it also oozed calm and tranquillity, the room was relatively spacious, and it had a much better vibe. Still not sure why the service at the Belcove was so apathetic, as if guests who gave money to the hotel to, well, make them operate, were a bother to them, and I shall be making my feelings on the place known on TripAdvisor upon my return home.
Indeed, my instincts did not let me down, as I enjoyed three good nights’ sleep at the Sea Breeze, despite it still being a relative dump, and lacking value for money (I
think most places in Belize City are the same: extortionate prices, for dismal lodgings – I was paying more here in comparative dives than in some of the best places I’d stayed in in Guatemala). The lady on reception started smiling on my second day there, and the owner, Kalam, also warmed up and began being friendly and helpful quite quickly. After the first night, the water was also running in the bathroom faster than a dribble, and my feelings for the place seemed to improve the longer I was there. There were not too many other guests there, and it was in a safer area of the city (safer, but not altogether safe - I was told that I could walk the street to the left of the hotel, but not the one to the right…). Amazingly enough, the next day, in Caye Caulker, and sitting on the table adjacent to mine having lunch, I met a Canadian guy who checked into the very same room as me at the first hotel, the Belcove, after I left, and was able to successfully tell me the contents of the litter bin I’d left behind: a crisp packet and an empty
bottle of water! He confirmed it was a dump, and my instincts proved me correct when he mentioned the next morning there was a lot of early chatting coming from the reception area which woke him up and kept him awake – that would not have sat too well with me. Very glad to have moved.
So, after having finally sorted out my accommodation, I made Belize City my base for doing two day trips from. Before switching hotels, I had briefly walked around the city’s Fort George district, the safer part which contained a number of lovely little colonial buildings as well as the “Tourist Village”, open only on cruise ship days. Unfortunately, Belize had cancelled all cruise ships for a week in the wake of Hurricane Earl, so none of it was open: no souvenir-shopping for me then. (Its first cruise ship had just arrived, however, the morning that I left – I saw its grandeur moored about a kilometre off-shore, and the Fort George area was coming alive with people, souvenir-sellers and the like, getting ready for the arrival – I was a little dismayed at not being able to stay around to see the spectacle
of hundreds of innocent American tourists setting foot on Belizean soil). There were a couple of other places in Belize City that I could have visited, but I really didn’t get a good vibe from the city at all, and the Lonely Planet’s description of its “gritty Caribbean urbanism” was extremely accurate. I believe that by now, after 73 countries, I have developed a keen sense of which people are dodgy and which people are not. These sensors felt seriously disorientated in Belize City: some people who looked dodgy were actually quite helpful, and some people who looked quite amenable were actually rather dodgy. On my first day I walked past a shady looking character who looked quite drunk or stoned, and approached a nicer looking gentleman asking him if he could direct me to a taxi driver. My heart sank when he pointed to the former guy, but there was really no getting out of it then. He performed the action of untying the piece of string which held the boot closed and putting my bags into it, in extreme slow motion. Come to think of it, most things that happened in Belize City, even Belize, seem to happen
Belize City Street Scene
They seem to have those US Yellow Buses in Belize too...!
in slow motion, and it took me a couple of days to adjust to this, after the efficiency and quick pace of the tourism service received for two weeks in Guatemala. It took about 10 minutes in total to travel the 500 metres I needed to go, so I could have walked it in the time, but the driver seemed friendly and decent enough in the end, and no-one so far in this country has attempted to over-charge me – that’s actually a positive point for Belize City! On two other separate occasions, I was approached by two different women, who both were dressed nicely and initially seemed decent enough. The first asked me for a dollar, please honey, just a dollar, nothing else. The second said hi, and then asked me if I was here alone, at which I abruptly ended the conversation and left her to it – not sure where that conversation would have led me. And these were not the only dodgies in the city by far. For once, and different to my experiences in Guatemala City, I believe the Lonely Planet is quite correct in saying it’s a menacing place, not one in which many
Belize City's main shopping street. (Sorry - I couldn't resist taking a photo. I'm sure I'm not the only one...!)
travellers hang around. I certainly felt an element of anger and aggression in the air on the one hand, but also of fear and suspicion on the other, probably as a result of the former. Apathy and indifference also existed there, particularly in hotels, shops and restaurants, which is quite surprising. I have so far spoken to three people here in Orange Walk, who upon asking where I’ve just come from and my telling them Belize City for three nights, they all looked at me incredulously, seemingly wondering why I would do that, and possibly also that I have lived to tell the tale. In fact, Belize City has a high crime and murder rate, mostly as a result of its gang and drug violence, but also petty theft and crime amongst tourists. In all, it is quite a relief to have arrived in Orange Walk, I feel I can breathe out a bit here, but I’m also glad to have spent three nights in Belize City: as mentioned, I have learnt lots from it.
I haven’t related my two day trips from Belize City yet though, and I will do so now.
So first up, I took
Haulover Creek, Belize City
a return water taxi to nearby Caye Caulker, one of the main tourist destinations in Belize, and the first place people generally travel to after having been shuttled to the ferry terminal in Belize City. I spent a happy four hours there, wandering its undeveloped dust streets, passing by the many relaxed cafes and restaurants, and enjoying an ice cream here, a coke there, and a spot of lunch in the meantime. What was really striking about my visit there, though, was the extent of the impact, well, devastation and destruction really, of Hurricane Earl. So far in Belize, I’ve seen the same uprooted trees and damaged electricity cables and lines as in Guatemala, but also more destruction to its buildings and houses: many more dwellings here are built of wood and corrugated iron, than the concrete and brick buildings back in Guatemala, so inevitably the destruction is going to be worse. Caye Caulker, though, is a tiny strip of an island off the coast of mainland Belize, and Hurricane Earl really had hit it the hardest I’ve seen so far. Many of its hotels and restaurants on the sea front, but particularly in the northern most exposed part of
the island (where my previously booked hotel was situated) were completely wrecked: roofs ripped off, wooden walls and flooring ripped up. There were a number of beach huts which had completely blown over, and every single one of the town’s piers and docks was either partially or completely destroyed. Power lines were down all over the place, and trees were uprooted throughout. The winds reached a sustained 80mph there apparently (I'd read in a later news report it was a sustained 60mph where I was in Guatemala...!), which must no doubt have caused a storm surge coming in from the sea, as well as extremely destructive waves. I felt a bit voyeuristic in taking photos of the damage, but most of the people seemed just to be getting on with things, clearing things up, putting things right again. People didn’t seem upset, and perhaps it’s the place’s legendary chilled-out vibe which enabled the people to get through such a catastrophe. But my goodness, what devastation and destruction. I was glad to be getting the water taxi again back to Belize City, until, of course, I arrived in Belize City, and instantly felt the aggressive vibe press down on me again…
The second day was interesting, and I’m glad I did it, but there were also elements of some kind of pent up aggression or anger there. I took a bus inland to the country’s capital city, Belmopan. Belmopan is tiny, with a population of only 17,600, but it contains most of the country’s government buildings and headquarters, as well as a few foreign embassies. The decision was made in 1971 to create a central capital city there, as a result of the 1961 Hurricane Hattie, which all but flattened Belize City apparently and killed 275 people (it really is a miracle that no-one in Belize or Guatemala was killed by Hurricane Earl; I believe nine had previously lost their lives in it as it passed over the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and there were a further 45 reported deaths in Mexico due to mudslides after it had passed over there…!). Today, whilst Belize City remains the beating heart of the country, Belmopan is its political and administrative centre. I thus just wondered what the place was like. After an hour walking around its pleasant enough planned central square, and Maya Temple-shaped National Assembly building, I thought it
was nice enough, and moved on again – nothing special, but it was interesting to see. My visit did involve a rather strange incident with a British man outside the British Embassy. Whilst walking past it, I thought it’d be nice to take a photo for the album of the place, when this red-faced bearded bloke from the North of England saw me from inside its glass-covered entranceway, and hurriedly tried to exit the building towards me. He couldn’t as the door was locked, which looked comically farcical as he stressfully kept trying to open it to no avail, but eventually after getting it open, practically ran to me, and in a forceful voice which betrayed a sense of nervousness, told me he’s going to have to observe me deleting the photo I had just taken. Understandable, so I did. I didn’t quite understand why he had got himself in such a tiz-wazz though, so I attempted to help him relax by striking up a conversation with him. “So, where are you from?” I said. He said “Well, I’m from here now”. I could see him trying to gain an air of superiority over me, which I thought was ridiculous,
"Let's make Belize a place we can be proud to call home!!"
him being a British citizen as much as I, so I said “Ah really? You sound quite British to me”. This didn’t warm him to me, and he flustered himself off again back into his glass-covered cabin. I mean really – he’s not exactly working in the British Embassy in Iraq or Afghanistan, probably his first posting abroad, and it was probably the highlight of his day. I declined at calling out “it was nice to meet you” as he stormed off, probably just as well really. After this, I tucked into a delicious all-day English breakfast cooked up at the nearby “Corker’s Restaurant” run by an expat British couple. And again, although the British lady was friendly, I found the overall service there quite apathetic and indifferent.
Moving on from there, I took a bus back to Belize City, but got off about 20 miles into the journey at the Belize Zoo – one of the country’s top tourist attractions apparently. It was begun in the 1980s by an American lady named Sharon, and is more of a wildlife sanctuary than a zoo really – orphaned, injured, or rescued animals are given to the zoo, and they are
either rehabilitated there for a return to the wild if possible, or if not, they are looked after with a great amount of love and devotion. I could feel this sense of love for the animals whilst walking around, but unfortunately experienced another rude and uncalled-for encounter, with the very Sharon herself. Whilst admiring the zoo’s beautiful tapirs, I hadn’t realised I was standing on an area off-limits to visitors – it was not immediately obvious, there were no barriers or signs to the contrary, and I was just peacefully in my own world contemplating the unusual activities of the tapirs, when a rude and stern voice kept calling “Sir!”, “Sir!”. I couldn’t see where it was coming from, as the lady seemed to be hiding behind a tree, but eventually when I did, she told me off quite forcefully for not sticking to the path. This angered me greatly, and it was all I could do to control my reaction, by explaining to her that it was not obvious that I was in an area not on the path, that I wasn’t trying to do anything wrong, and that I am a paying customer and she should be treating
me with more respect. She seemed to calm down after that, but there was no apology forthcoming, and it put a serious damper on my visit there. I found out later that this was the founding owner, Sharon, and I left my very honest feedback when I left in the zoo’s visitors’ book, right under all the other lovely very positive comments – I hope she adjusts her relations with paying visitors accordingly in future (again, and not for the first time in Belize, I asked myself why the people who give money for a service, to keep someone in their job and their business going, are treated in such a way). The rest of my time there was wonderful, and I enjoyed taking some amazing close-up shots of jaguars, howler monkeys, toucans and grey foxes – all beautiful local animals which I have yet to see in the wild here. It was a wonderful place, despite the rudeness of the owner. Apathy and indifference also seemed to plague the ticket office, shop and café there unfortunately.
So, perhaps I’ve done a bit more in being able to explain what these last few days have been like. Enjoyable, but
I haven’t really liked them too much – very strange, but I feel it. Belize City was aggressive and angry, and there was not much of a welcome in any of its hotels, shops, restaurants or visitor attractions. I do feel it important to say that I met a few nice people there, some really friendly, some people who were just able to say “hi” and smile – they existed, and I encountered them. But my main impression is more negative, and I am quite glad to be moving on now.
Indeed, and as mentioned, there is a completely different atmosphere up here in Orange Walk. People are friendly, they smile, they have asked where I’m from, and I have had some nice interactions so far (including a few smiles to and from local Mennonite farmers who seem to be in abundance up here, and a friendly smile from two taxi drivers, who seemingly weren’t aware that I spoke Spanish when one said to another in Spanish, and in a nice tone may I add – “ah look, there’s a gringo!”). The streets are relaxed, and so far I have not felt anger, aggression, apathy or indifference – very
nice indeed! I have not seen any other tourists up here so far, which is also quite nice – it feels like I’m discovering new territory, and I do love to be on the off-the-beaten tourist track. I am glad to have spent a few days in Belize City and around, but I am also glad to have moved on.
So my plans are to spend two nights here in Orange Walk. I have checked into a lovely little riverside lodge, called the Lamanai Riverside Retreat. It has only three rustic cabins, and I’m in one of them: rustic and beautiful, in spacious grounds right by the New River which runs through the town, but also with air-conditioning and private bathroom. I’m told the river is home to crocodiles and manatees – it would be great to see some of these, preferably more of the latter! Tomorrow I plan a full-day river trip up the New River to the Mayan ruins of Lamanai, organised by this very lodge. After this, I head up to the north-eastern coast of Belize, to another off-the-beaten track place called Sarteneja, on the Caribbean coast, as stunning as San Pedro and Caye Caulker apparently,
but without the tourists. I’m booked into a jungle-based eco-lodge up there for two more nights, before spending one more night in the Belizean border town of Corozal, to then hopefully cross the border back into Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, at the weekend.
So until the next time, greetings this time from Belize, and I wish everyone all the best!
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