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Published: March 23rd 2019
Following a collectivo into Chetumal town, another (subsequent to heated discussion and reduction in fare) to the Mexican border town of Santa Elena and a dusty mile or so walk to immigration, 9.30 a.m. the following morning saw us handing over a wad of pesos. This is a thing - an exit tax that is usually included in your airfare (if you flew in)... although our ultra-budget Interjet flight didn't: at least the airline responded rapidly to inform us of this when contacted by email. A note here: even if it was included for your flight you (may well) still need an itemised receipt as proof of its inclusion, most airlines will provide this if requested.
Lutz, now deriving great pleasure, when he can be bothered, in attaining a better deal than that achieved by ourselves, informed that he and Caro had stripped naked - by way of a diverting tactic - and skipped across the border unmolested. Hmmm...
Anyway, having exited Mexico and exchanged - rather adroitly I might add - our remaining Pesos for Belizean dollars (knowing the day's current ForEx rate and having already calculated and memorized various conversion rates to two
decimal places I negotiated like a mathematical savant.. a feat that maybe attained an additional dollar or two) we entered no-man's-land to be greeted by a most concerned taxi driver. He warned us to proceed no further on foot: there had just been a huge shoot-out on the Belizean side of the border, there would be no minibuses, but he could drive us to and across the border in safety. Did he think we were born yesterday? We thanked him for his advice but, to his amazement, plodded onwards. Belizean immigration was rapid and smooth. Customs had no interest in our packs, although for Belizeans heading homeward it was a very different matter. It appeared many had been on a supermarket run to Mexico (Chetumal) and the number of toilet rolls and tubes of toothpaste heading southwards were receiving close scrutiny.
Now officially in Belize we were once again collared by a taxi driver - a supposedly collectivo taxi - who quoted something silly for the ride into Corozal, stating that there would be no minibuses for a considerable time. We brushed him off similarly and ambled up to two local ladies awaiting a collectivo minibus. They'd
overheard our interaction and simply shook their heads before relating that he'd offered them the same loonacy. Incredibly, given his rebuttals thus far, he approached us all once again, with the same crazy price. Lady number one, with the most scrumptious Caribbean lilt, told him amidst a spew of expletives (in English, good old Commonwealth) where he could stick his ride and then, to his rapidly retreating back, added "shame on you".
Contrary to the taxi driver's prediction, five minutes later, in rolled a collectivo minibus. The driver was an exceptionally burly individual but he was dwarfed by his man riding shot-gun - this guy was huge. Without discourse the ladies hopped in through the sliding side door and we duly did the same. Before pulling off the driver turned from his seat and nodded towards the still loitering taxi. "Thirty dollars" he enquired? The ladies roared with laughter; yes, exactly. We hit the tarmac road to see a massive queue of vehicles backed up on the opposite border approach and then 50 yards of void dotted with dozens of little yellow cones amidst some dark slicks and an almighty assemblage of police vehicles. "Huge shoot-out" announced
our driver, held us up a bit. At Corozal we pulled up outside the bus terminal and the driver leaned backwards between the two front seats to slide the side door open with the aid of an immense wooden truncheon. We alighted, I handed over a 5B note and was immediately given my 1B change. Two Belizean dollars is the correct fare and that's all these menacing-looking guys were after. Even before entering we knew we were going to mentally struggle with Belizean prices, but our spirits and respect for the locals had just been buoyed (taxi drivers, even if they are telling half truths, don't count).
Our targeted destination was somewhat outwith the backpackers' norm, it being a quiet little fishing enclave on the mainland's northeastern tip called Sarteneja. As far as we could discern it was also almost the cheapest place to stay anywhere in Belize, although, according to Lonely Planet, getting there was not (cheap): their transportation advice being limited to the "Thunderbolt", a motorboat service that runs as far as the Belizean Cayes. This you can catch direct from Chetumal in Mexico for mega bucks, or from our current location of Corozal for
merely serious bucks. It turns out - and here we screwed up - that there is a direct bus from Corozal that costs little more than two bucks. In our defense no maps show these tiny coastal roads (nor is there any mention made of the necessary river-crossing winched ferries - oh the memories of "Exhibit A": us; the goldfish bowl that is Bangladesh
) and we had presumed that all links have to first travel south to Orange Walk before once again ascending to Sarteneja in the north, regardless of whether the buses were described as "direct" (one bus?) or "indirect" (a switch to a second bus?). Still, any bus combination costs a fraction of the Thunderbolt.
On our wondrous battered old American school bus (still bearing some of its sky blue re-paint) heading to Orange Walk there was a pale-skinned man wearing a straw hat, a blue collared shirt and whose trousers were supported by braces. Wow, we commented, he could be Amish. Errmmm, actually he was, well... Mennonite - so we were to learn. Having lived in central Pennsylvania in recent years we are very familiar with Amish communities. Indeed an Amish gentleman re-cushioned (excellently) Ali's grandma's ancient old fire-side chairs that now
represent the only furniture we own. What we didn't know was that Belize is home to many Mennonite communities, among these... that at Orange Walk. I guess the town's name might well have been a hint, it being unlikely to have Protestant connotations.
We did actually know that Belize is an old British colony and still part of the Commonwealth, and that English is the primary language spoken, although Kriol, Garifuna and Spanish are also widespread. Nevertheless, it still came as a surprise to see a very young Elizabeth gracing all of the Belizean notes. And, why then, is it that the Belizeans drive on the wrong (right-hand-side) of the road?
The roads in the far north are largely unsealed and the journey through sugarcane country, though pretty, was dusty and jarring in the extreme; it was great to be on a real bus once again.
Already Belize's diverse ethnic mix was readily apparent and there is a very notable and welcoming Caribbean vibe.
There is only one known place to stay up in these parts and old hands, that we'd met, had recommended it wholeheartedly: Backpackers Paradise
Established and developed by French ex-pat Nathalie and her (name now expunged from the on-site old, old Lonely Planet
guide book) husband (Christian) - both supposedly chefs of some note they cooked in-house. Now, separated, she doesn't. Nevertheless, the compound comprising quaint cabanas dotted about the semi-cleared jungle is still something fairly special, not least because of her beloved horses that roam freely amongst all: you may well wake to a horse considering you through your (well mosquito-netted) window. Yet...... In the three years since the most recent LP edition of Central America on a shoestring (and here I find myself shaking my head - again - at their shameless continued usage of the stringer) was researched Backpackers
has almost doubled its prices (actually, disastrously - ahead of myself - Belizean accomodation costs appear to have soared everywhere... from their already heady station). Shit... I'd been boasting of this bargain find and now Nathalie had labelled me a fraud.
Wandering the dusty lane into town the situation worsened, prices in the semi-barren supermarket were horrendous. Bread was literally the only comestible product comparable to Mexican pricing, eggs were merely double what we'd come to expect (thankfully Backpackers
does have a communal kitchen and we are partial to eggs on toast), but most other commodities would be considered expensive in Knightsbridge. As for the beer.... The beer (Belkin) is sold in miniscule bottles - really, they would make Trump's clasping hand appear impressive - at jaw-dropping prices. We would go beerless. Thank the boozy gods for our foresight in importing alcohol.... and coffee for that matter.
Sarteneja (for some reason we struggled terribly with its pronounciation, until we left) itself is tiny, a little grid of mud roads dotted with mainly ramshackle dwellings and (almost exclusively coast-fronting) an isolated smattering of plush new builds (most likely holiday homes).
Among these random erections are a number of restaurants, although many of these - certainly those non-tourist-targeted examples (yes, there might be as many as a dozen or so tourists present in town, seemingly all French) - are merely peoples homes and whether they are open/intend to open is less than clear. The "best" restaurant (according to Nathalie) - clearly labelled - remained stubbornly closed during our stay. Thankfully Brisas Fast Food
saved us from a further slide towards skeletal status. Never judge by
a name (even when it has "fast food" in its title), nor by appearance for that matter (as Brisas
is no looker), because it is a gem. Four plastic tables sit on its porch and on a white board are listed the dishes available. Be warned, the list shortens as darkness descends. The tables may not be constantly occupied but there is a steady stream of vehicles pulling up for take-aways. The young lady proprietor is wonderful, almost as wonderful as her chicken empanadas (these sell-out quickly): tear them in half, add a spoonful of chopped onions and a liberal dousing of her subtle chilli sauce. On our first visit we ordered six, subsequently always a dozen. These might then be followed by panuchos (fried tortillas filled with frijole paste, chicken, vegetables, local cheese and a mayo-like cream) or gachos, or tostadas; but, upon their discovery, definitely her heavenly burritos. To wash all these down do not miss out on the Tam Bran juice (tamarindo); this, as the name suggests, is made with tamarind paste that produces a beautifully refreshing, slightly sour long drink. The Horahca, a milky rice drink, Ali liked as a dessert. And then you have the
price: the food is cheaper, actually cheaper, than anywhere in Mexico. Over four days, eggs-on-toast aside, we ate no where else. On our last night the lady thanked us for all our custom and exchanged a huge hug with Ali. I was not offered a hug, but was given one final empanada to munch on during the moon-lit walk back to Backpackers
Each morning, just prior to the arrival of dawn, the cacophony begins. Haruki Murakami had his "wind-up birds", the jungle around Sarteneja has "rusty trampoline birds" and boy do these birds bounce.
Meanwhile under our cabana lived a most alluring iguana (Lou and Lo would be delighted to know that Spanish Andy no longer uses a hard "u" in pronouncing said lizard). We know this little lady was alluring because her string of suitors was impressive indeed. Mr big was her first beau although she did play hard to get: he'd sit at the angle of the hut waiting to, literally, pounce on her as she emerged from one of her two entry points. And I'm not surprised that she was rather coy as he was not only three-times her size but
he also insisted on biting her neck to maintain a reasonable purchase during the subsequent (rather one-sided) exchanges. In the lizard world size really does appear to matter (in poking order) as her string of rapists steadily decreased in stature. Ultimately the males were little bigger than she and could actually squeeze into her sanctuary unannounced. By now I'm sure the gents had little to gain from their efforts, save a few fleeting moments of pash...
The sea here is a lovely shade of... turquoise, but equally it is incredibly shallow and thus the coastal fringe has a turbulence-resultant muddy hue. There are no beaches as such and entry to the sea necessitates a leap-of-faith step into, and steps through, a seemingly endless foot of sludgy sediment. Are there stonefish or other prickly undesirable beasties lurking, who knows? Because of this most enter the water from one of the many rickety piers that, even at their ends, some twenty-odd metres out, the depth is still little more than three or four feet. Whilst this limits the sea's appeal to us it is still heaven for the local children and every evening you see families delighting in splashing
about together off their extremities.
Sad to say, and incredible given the price of food, obesity is rife in Belize: the ladies of Belmopan, the capital, had to crab walk up the aisle of the bus. Actually that does remind me of another Belizean plus: meat pies ("who ate all the pies"). The last time we witnessed such a fondness for crumbly lard-infused scrumptiousness was in Melbourne. Here in Belize, essentially home made variants are proffered by dreadlocked dudes or, equally, by teenage girls on the street or, as acquired by us, at bus stations or indeed by transient vendors upon buses. They may be a tad light on the meat but they invariably bear a delicious sauce and are rather good.
Belize is not a big country and terrestrial transport costs are reasonable. We left the north not to head to the eastern Cayes - the one destination every tourist visits (actually this was an easy miss as they are now little more than crass touristic resorts, with decent sunsets) - nor to the sexy garifuna enclaves of Hopkins or further south, but to the western exit point of San Ignacio. We were
loving every interaction, every journey, in what little we had experienced of the country; the people have a buzz, a vitality. We did not want to leave, but the price of beer....
Once again we passed through Orange Walk and once again we failed to capture on film two adjacent restaurants: the first named "Excellent Restaurant" and its abutting neighbour "OK Restaurant".
Belize city, that we merely switched buses in, appeared pleasant enough: low-rise, pretty nondescript. However, there was no time for an investigation (or even a meat pie) because as soon as we dismounted a forceful young lady conductress ushered us towards an imminently departing San Ignacio bus. In approaching we noted the "express" label on the window and declined. But, the lady reasoned, it is only 1B more than the local bus and is far quicker, plus it was leaving now. We explained that we were in no hurry and that we'd wait for the local. Somewhat perplexed she pointed to the bus alongside: "that's the local and it is also about to depart"...
San Ignacio had sounded nice and we had always intended to visit and exit from
there, we just hadn't figured on arriving there after only four days in the country. As I minded the packs Ali did a trawl of hostels, all were expensive. I say expensive, bizarrely they were (as we'd later discover) comparable to those in much of Guatemala.
Nevertheless, as I sat I was approached by a gangsta rapper. OK, he wasn't a gangsta rapper, but he wouldn't have looked out of place on any Baltimore corner. He announced that he was the manager of a hotel. Yes, it was a cheap hotel. I said we'd certainly consider it, but my wife was off having a look-see. Ten minutes later Ali returned saying that she'd finally found a decent-ish (not too scabby), reasonably priced place called Central 'otel
. Of course it was his. It was deserted, ramshackle, but clean-ish... and it was cheap; plus it had a rather nice large balcony from which to view the gringo circus below. Quizzing our proprietor for information I regaled the sorry state of beer prices up in the northern wilderness: where could we acquire a reasonably priced beverage? His answer of 4B in the gringo haunts strung out below, or.... a mere
3.2 from a shop saw our hearts sink... Beer was no cheaper here. And did I mention how small they were? These are Central London, Copenhagen, State College tarifs. How on earth do the locals afford these rates?
We went for a wander. Several corners away was a "bottle shop" of the edgy type known and beloved to us around the world: fronted by weighty iron bars with a tiny orifice for transactions. This one was fronted by a wee wizened Chinese lady - another sizable ethnic group here in Belize - who was barely visible from behind her counter. Scattered in front and around the shop's margins were a number of prone drunks. Ha ha, we were in business, surely here we could sample a Belizean Belkin. The lady said 2B/bottle (still extortionate), but it had to be decanted into a plastic glass and drunk right there - just as the the pile of slumbant bodies about us had no doubt done, repeatedly. She poured us the hallowed nectar and then demanded 6B, not 4B? It seems our dreadful Spanish is better than our Chinese/Belizean English. But was it good? It was, although that only added
to our misery; there would be no more.
Hardly refreshed we returned to our 'otel to enquire about sights. Apparently atop the nearby hill, just past Cahal Pech (the oldest Mayan site in Belize) was a prime spot for sunset viewing. Great we said, we'll wander up there for that. Our host, eight mile (we didn't get his name), was shocked: "no, dat walk tis steep man, yo need ah taxi; 'jus five dollas". My apologies for an inept attempt at a Caribbean dialect. We weren't convinced, we walked, but gave ourselves plenty of time and duly arrived (Cahel Pech had already closed for the day, excusing us that cultural hiatus) some bloody forty minutes before sundown; the great hike had taken fifteen minutes.
Food wise, aside from Mexican cuisine, of which we've partaken in almost exclusively for the last three months, the budget options were.... Chinese restaurants. Hence a more than palatable chow mein for lunch and then... bizarrely... a burger and chips from another Chinese establishment for dinner (this was markedly cheaper, yet still - visually - as good as equivalents from gringo-orientated joints). It seemed garifuna chow was going to have
to wait until Livingstone (just over the water from Belize) in Guatemala.
And thus with a 40B exit fee paid our fleeting passage through Belize was over. It spanks very much of our truncated venture into India's tribal states To Nagaland and beyond...
but it was hard, with so much of Central America ahead of us, to justify a prolonged stay. Somehow I'm reminded of Travelbogs' HisDudeness's financial strife in Papua Traveling without money
(without the bold trailblazing I should add). We have a long road ahead and simply have to cut our cloth accordingly. Belize, the lesser seen parts of Belize, might be very fine; those known haunts - like the more tourist-infested areas of Thailand or indeed India - we feel fine about having missed...
So there you go, an extremely short entry for us. Although, as a normal entry encompasses at least a month it is still pretty verbose for a mere five days.
Limited I'm afraid as we experienced so little...
A reminder: $2B = $1US.
If you want to get a Belizean (chicken
Photo by Ltuz
bus) from Chetumal to Corozal these NOW (check, they're always moving) leave from the Nuevo Mercado bus stand. That said collectivos to/from the border are easy and still cheaper.
Sarteneja: Backpackers Paradise: camping (own tent) 20B/pp; dorm, 30B/pp; cabana prices depend on single or double+ occupancy (doubles for two = 55-66B); house = 80B. Water isn't free: 2.5B for 3 gallon refill, or 1B for 1L. Has a guest kitchen. In town, on the water front, Maya's Guest House has double rooms with shared bathroom for 30 or 40B. I suspect the local lady here would look after you very well.
The buses out of Sateneja leave at ungodly hours: four between 3.00am and 6.15am. The Thunderbolt (one a day - think it was 7a.m.) goes to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye and then onwards to Caye Caulker. The price is $25 US, maybe only for the first leg. Without doubt the cheapest way to Caye Caulker is to take the shuttle ferry from Belize City ($15 US one-way / $25 US return).
Belizean bus prices are reasonable (eg. Sarteneja - Orange Walk = 10B; Orange Walk - Belize City =
5B; Belize City - San Ignacio (9B local/10B express), but little else is. Alcohol (bring your own, we did) is some 8x (beer) and 3x (liquor) the cost compared to Mexican prices.
San Ignacio is tourist mediocrity, with hassling touts and little else. It's the border town with Guatemala and, personally, we'd never stop there again. If you do have to o/n there then the Chinese restaurants/ Mexican taco joints are the cheapest way to fill your belly.
Remember, if you do enter Belize there is a $20 US exit fee.
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