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Published: August 20th 2009
It sounds like I made it up, but no, the hokey pokey water taxi to mango creek
is the name of the boat trip that was the final leg of our journey from Granada, Nicaragua to Placencia, Belize. There was a bus ride on offer for less money than the boat, but with a name like the above there's only one choice really! It took three days to reach Placencia, much of the way using the bus company Tica Bus and backtracking through most of the Central American countries we've visited so far. Long days in the bus over nighting in sorry looking transit hotel rooms provided by Tica Bus. The type of rooms you enter feeling sticky and tired, and leave in the morning feeling worse. The highlight being the twin room where Lynn woke in the night and switched on the wall light to discover a cockroach sharing my bed sheet with me. Soon after the electricity failed and the fan stopped. It was too hot to sleep which makes you itch anyway, but now with every sensation of prickly heat I couldn't help imagining more of them in the bed with me for what few hours
remained of the night.
Tica Bus seem to have their terminals in the most dangerous looking areas of the Central American capital cities. We were relived to find out that in Managua, Nicaragua their hotel was located not next to but actually inside the bus terminal. We were glad for that as we didn't want any unnecessary walking around in Managua after the experience of arriving there late at night a few weeks earlier. I noticed that even though all their clients are tucked up inside the building, TicaBus still feel the need to post armed guards on all the street exits, which says it all about that particular neighborhood in Managua.
People told us that Belize had more of a Caribbean influence than Central American, but I couldn't believe just how much until I saw it for myself. Fresh off the boat from Guatemala the first Belizean I spoke with was the customs official, he was so laid back he could barely be bothered to open his eyes to stamp my passport. Out of his office and on to the street Punta Gorda looked like no Central American port town we've ever seen. No rubbish, no buses belching
out diesel fumes, and no hassle. Just the Caribbean sea, the breeze and the sound of reggae music seeping out of the few establishments open that Sunday morning. I could have stayed right where the boat tipped us out.
But we took another bus to mango creek, and then the hokey pokey water taxi. Once that dropped us off in Placencia village the pace slowed still further. From the way it appears it might be a civil crime to walk quickly in Placencia. It's as if the people have a swing door on their backs and inside are two mega sized duracell batteries, only one has been permanently removed. Pretty soon me and Lynn were doing the same, walking at the speed of an ant and exchanging smiles and lazy nods of greeting with passers by. I don't think there's any other way it could be, you'd look pretty weird marching around in a hurry with a scowl on your face in Placencia. Lynn walked into the only petrol station in Placencia to buy a phone card one day and the cashier was asleep on the counter. I like the unshakable logic of it........if you're tired....... go to sleep!. I'd
love to see the statistics per capita of cardiac arrests in the UK versus Belize.
Me and Lynn spent too long in Granada and were glad to be gone by the time we left. At first I'd perceived the city as having real Latin character to it. But that idea was compromised a little once I realised that all the businesses in Granada seem to be owned by American ex pats. American real estate giants 'Remax' even have offices in the town square of Granada.
Secondly afternoons in Granada were as hot as a marshmallow tossed into the pit of Hades. On some breezeless days we felt ill and convinced ourselves we must still be carrying some kind of bug from the time we got food poisoning in Mexico, but looking back I think it was just heat fatigue.
Finally, as Granada is well and truly on on the tourist trail it naturally attracts people trying to make a living out of the tourists. And basically, the whole spectrum of need and want every time we left the hotel was beginning to depress me. I'm ashamed to admit it but selfishly I was sick of seeing it, and also
frustrated at the injustice of it all. It's not that they're bad people, they're not, they've just been born poor in a poor country.
So I took the tourist way out, I took the plastic out of my wallet and the next day we were on our way to the sunny Caribbean.
Trudging up the street away from the jetty in the mid afternoon heat with the backpacks on I noticed all sound behind us had stopped. I looked back and the street was empty, the other backpackers that had shared the boat with us to Placencia had disappeared off into the various guesthouses along the way. I was wondering why after nearly three days in a bus had Lynn booked had us into accommodation so far away from the main strip, but when we eventually got there it all became clear.
We stayed at the Manatee Inn, a large beach house with a wrap around wooden balcony. I'm still without a camera but there are photos of the Manatee Inn and the beach in Placencia on their site. There were no other guests staying there and the owners gave us a lovely room at the end of
the building that caught the breeze coming in off the Caribbean. I had no idea before we arrived but it's low season in Belize at the moment. All this seems to mean is it can rain sometimes and there are thunderstorms, but only ever during the night. Days are sunny and warm every day. The wind does whip up some days which churns up the sea and makes it a little choppy for swimming, but you're glad of that breeze when you're trying to sleep at night or swaying in a hammock outside your room with a rum and coke on hot afternoons.
There is other accommodation around the Manatee but the houses were either all closed up for the season or if people were in them we rarely saw them. We rarely saw or heard anybody. You could walk to the beach and see no one all day, or maybe a few local kids swimming. Only two other guests Matt and Monica from Chicago came and went, other than that it was just me and Lynn for the fifteen nights we stayed there. The experience was like having your our own private beach house in the Caribbean for $35
a night. Viva low season!!
Eating can sometimes be a grim experience in (some) Central America countries. I don't know why they don't use more of the spices in their cooking that must grow here quite easily like they do in the rest of the tropical world. So we were hoping for some spicy Caribbean food in Belize and this turned out to be so. Placencia is not a resort it's a working village, and this means there are loads of affordable eating options. Some people put a few tables and chairs on their verandas and cook from their kitchens. They put a chalkboard out each morning with whatever is fresh that day, red snapper or sometimes lobster. Also hearty stews and fried chicken, but not like the deep fried carrion you buy from the takeaway in England after the pub shuts because you're drunk and it seems like a good idea, but homemade Caribbean fried chicken with real flavor. We thought we'd done OK one night finding lobster for $20 US, but then the next day we found 'Omar's Creole Grub'. He catches his own lobster and serves it in a Creole sauce for $12.50, that's about 7
blue fin tuna
he tasted great as sushi
or 8 English pounds.
Creole seems to be a cooking style, a language and a culture. Belizean culture in general is like looking through a kaleidoscope. English and Scottish pirates first came to Belize in the 17th century. Then came the Spanish to try and oust the pirates who we're robbing their merchant ships blind, after them came Black Caribbeans. Throw a few South Americans into the mix and it means today you see some visually unique faces, like the Rastaman walking towards you who when he gets close you see is almost more European looking than African.
Placencia is one of those places along the ride that I'd never even heard of until three days before we got there, but once there I could have stopped the clock and never left. If you're of a jealous disposition turn away now
From Placencia we booked a snorkeling trip to Silk Caye. We had to wait a couple of days until the company found us another couple wanting to do the trip so as to make it worth their while sending the boat out. They told us that in high season the same company send out three boats
a day packed with people. Silk Caye is a collection of three small islands (Cayes) surrounded by coral reef. I can only describe them all as like the desert island people use as a screen saver on their computers. A handful of palm trees surrounded by powder white coral sand and aqua marine sea. We stopped for a barbecue lunch and afterward lazed about on a natural sand shelf about a metre below the water where the sea lapped up gently against the fringe of the island. The sand was the consistency of flour and the water was a turquoise and deep blue colour against the pure white of the ocean bottom.
What was different about snorkeling Silk Caye to snorkeling and diving in other parts of the world we've been in the past was the amount of live soft corals here, including lots of vivid purple fan coral. It was more like the experience of swimming through a coral garden, a different experience to snorkeling on reefs with hard stony type corals. There was marine life I'd never seen before and also the guide hassled an irate lobster out of it's hiding place for us to see.
this place was special
the highlight was this. On the way back to land the guide stopped the boat to talk with some guys on a boat fishing for crab and lobster. They were throwing the unusable bits of crab and lobster overboard and we could see the large gray oval shapes of what I knew were stingrays gliding around under the water. The guide said get your fins and mask back on and we jumped in. There were giant Caribbean rays about a metre and a half in diameter with tails about two metres long, eagle rays which are covered in a leopard skin pattern and have faces similar to dolphins. There were also nurse sharks, giant sea turtles and other types of ray. I've seen smaller rays and sea turtles while diving in the Indian Ocean, but normally they are shy creatures and make off before humans get too close. But here all of this was happening in about three metres of water directly underneath us, we couldn't believe it, it was like the equivalent of an African safari seeing so much wildlife, only underwater. The rays were gliding past close enough to touch and after the excitement subsided I started to
remember that rays can be dangerous. A small stingray did kill naturalist Steve Irwin about two years ago by whipping the barbs on its tail through his breastplate and into his heart. There were about four different types of ray in the water and when we came to the surface I asked the guide which ones were dangerous? "All a dem man!!!"
he replied, big smile on his face. Only rich people can afford to sail in the Caribbean
well yes, and no. Raggamuffin Tours might be the only exception to that rule, there could be others but I've not heard about them. Raggamuffin offer a sailing trip for three days two nights all food and drinks included for $300 per person. It starts from Caye Caulker and ends in Placencia, so we had to take buses and a water taxi up to Caye Caulker. I'd never heard of Placencia before I got there but I already knew a lot about Caye Caulker. It gets a lot of paragraph inches here on travelblog.org and in guide books. It's another orientation point on the well trodden Central American backpacker circuit. Its a little more expensive than
Placaencia and has far more tourist traffic. We liked it, but not as much as Placencia which is even more laid back than Caye Caulker. There is no swimming beach there except for a small strip of sand called 'the split'. (Caye Caulker is surrounded by sea grass) We took a walk to the split one day and the people were all lay there packed together like Mancs and Scousers on a Tenerife beach. I wondered why it was they were all there when in Placencia there is a massive beach with better sand and virtually nobody on it, unless of course, the Lonely Planet guide book told them all to go to there.
Sailing from Caye Caulker the first over night stop was Rendezvous Caye, a postcard desert island with just a handful of tress and pure white sand. Nothing else, not even running water or toilets. You don't see a sunset out at sea on the Caribbean side of Belize as the sun sets behind you, but of course you get the full panorama of the setting sun if you're on island out at sea. And it was spectacular watching the protracted sunset you get in the
Caribbean (takes well over an hour for the sun to fully set) Watching the sun dip out of view and the sky darken to a deep blue and finally black, and then watching as the stars all come out. I noticed there was no moon and yet there was just enough starlight to see by. I don't think I've been anywhere in the world I've ever seen the full vista of the milky way so clearly as that night in the Caribbean, but we were out at sea with no artificial light sources for miles. Then someone noticed randomly flashing lights in the water, the lights were large shrimp that have a phosphorescent on/off glow, much like fire flies on land. I was totally amazed to see this in the ocean. I'm afraid it all went to my head and I hit the rum punch like a thirsty pirate. The rum punch the crew prepared each night was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
I did wonder with 17 people on board and the 3 crew how the group dynamics would work out on the boat over the three days. We know from a few group
type camping safaris we've been on in the past in Australia and Africa that that you need a good group of people for it all to go right. No bitchers or complainers who pay the lemonade tour price but expect champagne treatment, pampered rich college kids from either side of the Atlantic, people who retire into little cliques and don't mix, no wankers basically. I was relieved to find we had a good mix of people on the boat. And even better than that, the majority of people on the boat were hell bent on turning the voyage into a full on three day party.
The morning after the night before I woke up and people were smoking weed at breakfast. I'm not interested in weed and have not smoked it in years, but it seemed like the right thing to do so I smoked some anyway. Next I was on the jetty watching a perfect quarter of bright red water melon float by (someone's discarded breakfast). I was wondering at just how crimson the ruby red of the water melon was against the deep deep emerald of the sea, and this killed about forty minutes until I realised
I must be totally stoned from the weed. Snorkeling from the boat later that morning was very absorbing.
As well as snorkeling some people had a go at sailing and others at fishing. I caught nothing as usual but others caught barracuda which the crew cooked up at night, also someone caught a blue fin tuna. The captain filleted it there and then, cut the fillets into strips and we ate it raw with a lime based sauce like sushi. That's about as fresh as sushi can get and I could taste that in the fish, lovely.
There was just one problem with the Raggamuffin set up. There was a serious technical flaw with the tents they gave us to sleep in. (I couldn't put the fucking thing up, that's why it was flawed 😊 Ever the gentlemen I told Lynn there was no way I was interested in dealing with the tent on the second night, and to my shame she and another girl called Jess threw it up in no time whatsoever, and then they helped anybody else with the tents who needed it.
It didn't really matter anyway as that night I was rum-punched yet
A real character, an Alaskan fisherman, think of the series on the discovery channel 'The Deadliest Catch'
again and fell asleep half on a mat and half in the sand outside the tent. And in the end it didn't matter that people had put up their tents full stop because virtually no one had attached the fly sheets so when a freak tropical downpour happened just before dawn the tents filled up with about an inch or two of water. It sounds like a nightmare, but it wasn't, you dry off in minutes in the Caribbean and it all adds to the story anyway.
In Placencia we met up with the rest of the guys from the boat and the crew for a last meal on land and it was fun as always, but also this meal had a real end of party feel to it, everyone knowing that unfortunately it all has to end.
Everybody and the crew had mixed so well over the three days and got on together. What a laugh, so many good memories, it was one of the highlights of this or any other trip we've ever done, Lynn would agree.
Something I saw scrawled on a chalk board outside a bar in Caye Caulker sums Belize up for me,
Eric, with a plaster over one of his beer injuries
He managed to fall off the jetty into the water and onto the coral below on both nights.
the legend in chalk read.......... Happy Hour 3pm til........Everybody Happy
**Thanks to Shannon and Eric for the photos I've shown here of the sailing trip, and Matt and Monica for the pics of the snorkeling trip to Silk Caye.
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