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  • Writer's pictureBil

Beautiful Belize

Sunset over the lagoon

The Caribbean country of contrasts: sunny tropical beaches and steamy rainforests; crispy-hot fryjacks and iced coffee; Mayas and Mennonites; spoken English and creole patois.

From the moment you step outside of the airport you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. Taxi drivers and tour operators immediately accost every foreigner emerging through the doors, though not as aggressively as some places we have been. The heat and humidity that slam many travelers are most welcome to us Floridians, after chattering though a chilly airport terminal.

Our 2-hour flight touched down 2 hours late Tuesday, April 12th in the largest city in the country, Belize City, owing to a flat tire on the plane in Miami! After clearing customs, we proceeded to Mayan Air for our short hop south to Placencia. It seemed that we missed our appointed flight due the delay, but getting straight answers was elusive. The attendant told Susie several times he would get us on the next plane, and there were several other folks that seemed in the same situation. About 45 minutes later they waved us over, and 11 people walked onto the tarmac to the waiting single-engine Cessna 208B EX. All seats were filled including the (co-pilots?) seat next to the pilot. 867 Pratt & Whitney horses pulled us into the air – and we were off!

Oceanside in Placencia

Always amazing to fly at low altitude over tropical waters, and this was no exception. Gorgeous views of multiple shades of blue – from the palest powder blue in the shallows, to azure and dark indigo past the reef. Multiple idyllic looking isles, most of the smaller ones untouched, with towns & villages on some larger islands, with beautiful palm trees and mangrove-lined shorelines.

Touching down about an hour later at the tiny airport in Placencia we were met by Kyree, for whom we were going to pet-sit the next week. Tossing our bags in her Toyota pickup, she headed north towards her place in Maya Beach – about 20 minutes from Placencia village. Kyree had a cute little two-bedroom, two-story apartment on a canal, just off the lagoon. And we were greeting by Theo, her gorgeous black lab, who was just as excited to meet us as we were! Beatrice the tabby cat was a bit more reserved, (as most cats are!) but warmed up quickly.

Kyree is a psychotherapist who has practiced with disadvantaged people in the California Bay Area for many years. She has had a very interesting life, and we felt a bonding with her immediately. We would be taking care of her pets here in Belize while she visited friends in the US. After taking Theo for an evening walk, Kyree took us a short way up the road to the Maya Beach Bistro on the beach for a delicious seafood dinner. The curried snapper was wonderful.

Bookstore in The Village

Placencia (locals call it "the village") is a cute little town that really reminded us of Key West or Bimini 30 years ago. With 16 miles of palm-lined sandy beaches on the ocean side and the shallow lagoon inhabited by manatees and crocodiles on the west side, one road snakes through the village, populated by about 750 souls. Colorful souvenir shops, cafes, food stalls and produce stands are interspersed with hair salons, tour companies, real estate offices and the phone/internet company. Various side streets and walkways lead off to a sweet boardwalk along the beach, and more shops and cafes on the lagoon side.

Our nomadic lifestyle is not conducive to picking up the lovely local handicrafts and clothes, but we still enjoy seeing the different products of various cultures, and watching items being created. Talented artists exist in every corner of the planet, expressing themselves in ways we have never considered before.

The next day we got more acquainted with Theo while Kyree finished preparations for her flight the following day and was flabbergasted when her Covid test came back positive! Ugh. While she tried to figure out next steps, we moved into the adjacent apartment that happened to be empty. Now what? Kyree was about to cancel everything but decided to get one more test the next morning. Good thing she did because this time it came back negative! Yay! Back on track. Off to the airport, and the frigid north for her. Haha.

There was another nice resort (Singing Sands) close by, so we would walk Theo up there and have coffee and sometime breakfast, visiting with Jennifer the baker (from AZ) @Buzzard Bird Coffee or sitting on the beach under the palms. Theo was happy just to hang with us and loved the attention from passers-by.

Some days we would drive 20 minutes into the village to get groceries at the one main store. Almost everything is much higher than the US – fuel, groceries, hardware, clothing etc., and selections are smaller. Our grocery bill was typically about double that at home. Prices in nice restaurants varied – same as US in fancier tourist areas – and less in street-side eateries. Good food and bargains at many food stalls selling Belizean and Latin dishes like pupusas, stew chicken, tamales and of course – rice & beans!

Susie & Theo drinking coffee on the beach

We found ourselves at Wendy’s (no – not that one) several times, after being introduced to fryjacks at breakfast! Deep fried dough, usually in a triangular shape, served piping-hot and all puffed up! This popular Belizean dish is eaten plain, with jelly, or stuffed with – you name it. Refried beans, scrambled eggs, beans & rice, etc. Yum!

Real estate and housing are considerably less expensive in Belize than the US, but prices have been rising fast the last 2 years. A tiny 1 room cottage with ¼ acre right on the lagoon was $225,000. Oceanside lots were $125k to $300k. Prefab Mennonite homes are an economical alternative to scratch-built custom homes.

In 2010, about 40% of the population of Belize was Catholic, 32% Protestant, 15% no religion and the rest were several other faiths. Easter weekend in Belize is more of a family holiday than a religious event, with people going to the coast or gathering at home. Many stores in the village were closed through Tuesday, although general traffic was not much increased in the village. Major horse and bicycle races were staged throughout the country.

Maya King Waterfall

On Easter Sunday day we took a road trip to Maya King Falls, driving north up the peninsula and then west into the edge of the mountains. Flat coastal land covered with palms, mangrove and pines turned to some hardwoods and then a large orange grove as we approached the mountains. Passing under a large canopy of bamboo, we were close to the parking area, and ready for the short walk to the falls.

The small stream tumbles down the mountain in two cascades, with pools of cool water at the bottom of each. There were about 20 folks at each pool – maybe an even mix of locals and tourists. We enjoyed a quick swim, but a bit cool for us to lounge around in! This was the dry season, so the flow and cascades were lower than usual, but still beautiful. A skinny green snake near the deck provided a distraction for a while. Belize has a few venomous snakes, but all are easily identified as pit vipers, other than the coral snakes, so no worries there.

We took a “detour” on the way home and drove farther north on the Southern Highway a ways and then east down to Hopkins on the ocean. This place was really hopping! The streets were jammed with people driving and walking, carrying picnic baskets and coolers, all the bars and eateries were filled and music was everywhere. There is a large expat community in Hopkins but almost everyone we saw were locals. We parked and walked to one café, but it was so crowded we jumped back in the truck to return to Maya Beach, stopping to walk out on the old steel bridge over the Sittee River and view all the folks enjoying the cool water, swimming, tubing and enjoying family time. Back on the peninsula we got a so-so meal at Finger Foodz in Seine Bight, near our place.

Tuesday, I had a date to go inshore fishing with local guide Leslie, looking for snook, tarpon & permit. Leaving the dock at 7am we followed the coastline heading SxSW, ducking through sheltered mangrove channels when possible. It was an easy cruise with the wind, passing Harvest Caye with its iconic lighthouse and cruise ship port. 45 minutes later Leslie turned his 60hp Yamaha to guide us up the Monkey River, into the interior jungle.
One Tarpon Landed - and Released

About 1 mile up the river he cut the engine and began poling us against the sluggish green-tinted current. Tide was still rising which he said was better for tarpon, so I started casting a large mirrolure-type plug towards likely spots. Without the engine noise the peaceful morning was punctuated with various bird calls: raucous parrots, musical calls and a whistling something-or-other that we have heard near the apartment.

15 minutes later I saw a flash near my lure as a nice tarpon lunged for it, getting a solid hookup. It was a good fight with several nice jumps before I brought it alongside. Leslie removed the lure and handed it to me for a couple quick photos, before returning it to the water, ensuring it could swim before releasing. (tarpon are not edible). Yay! Good start! The rest of the river yielded only 1 more tarpon strike that I missed and 1 barracuda. We saw three other fishing boats, one guided and two locals, and many tour boats.

As we moved up the river I began hearing a noise in the distance that at first sounded like machinery. As it got louder Leslie asked what I thought it was, and then I replied maybe a large pack of dogs. He said it was black howler monkeys and they were really making some noise for a while.

Cruising back down the river to the open sea Leslie turned north, stopping near the coast for a quick lunch of chicken, rice and beans. Continuing northward, we stopped at several places among the mangroves, casting for snook on a falling tide. I hooked several small barracuda and some jacks but ended up coming back snook-less. ☹ At our last stop there were several boats of locals throwing cast nets for bait fish, and one guy had 3 or 4 tiny snook amongst the smaller bait fish.

Public buses run frequently between major cities

We had four open days between our pet-sits in Placencia and Ambergris Caye, and decided to visit San Ignăcio, a small town on the edge of the mountains to the west, bordering on Guatemala. Small vans charged $100 per person for 2 – the public bus cost us $15 each – saving enough to pay for a couple nights of lodging.

Thursday rolled around, finding us up early and standing by the main road, waiting to flag down Richie’s north-bound public bus. When we boarded it was already full of riders from Placencia, so we were standing, hanging onto the luggage racks for the first 30 minutes.
All the public buses are old Bluebird school buses, painted bright colors for that particular company. The gauges on the dashboard worked as well as the driver’s gold & diamond watch – perpetually stuck at 5:47. His mobile phone worked fine as he chatted away with friends or the bus’s “conductor”. No A/C, but the few windows that worked were open, and the temperature was just fine for us.

Approximately 90 minutes later we stopped on the outskirts of Belmopan, the capital city of Belize. “Everyone going to San Ignacio – get off now!” Out we went, and across the road to a green & white bus with “Benque” painted on the cardboard route placard on the dashboard. Not as crowded so we had seats for the remainder of the journey.

Local Beauties Outside the Market

San Ignacio is the 2nd largest town in Belize at 26,151, situated at the juncture of the Macal and Mopan rivers. It has a nice mixture of residents: Mestizo, Kriol (Belizean Creoles), Mopan Maya, Chinese, Mennonites, and Spanish-speaking people from Guatemala & Mexico. This ensures a variety of restaurants, and we enjoyed some delicious meals, mostly outdoor cafes and food stalls at the market. Martha’s, Cenaida's and Hodes were our favs. There is a small “amphitheater” at the center of town, rather than a traditional Spanish-style square. All manner of shops and businesses lined the narrow cobblestone streets radiating out from the center.

Susie looked hard to find a vacancy but located a room at Midas Belize just north of town on the Macal River. The land was formerly pasture for cattle, passed down from father (Daniel) to a son (Michael) and his daughter, Maria. She was in the office when we checked in and explained how they gradually developed the land to build a few cottages, cabanas, and pool through the years. She named it MiDaS, as in a combination of Michael and his Grandfather Daniel Silva.

They had a nice restaurant and a full bar at the pool. Many locals would come for the day to eat, drink & enjoy the pool. It was usually busy during the day. We paid about $110 per night. Many places around town were $300!

El Castillo at Xunantunich

The Maya civilization was one of the most dominant indigenous societies of Mesoamerica, from central Mexico down through Central America. Emerging over 3,000 BC, the various Maya subgroups developed and flourished, peaking around 250 AD and disappearing about six centuries later. Maya farmers developed a wide range of crops using irrigation and ridged-field systems. Priest-astronomers devised complicated calendars and mathematical formulae to predict favorable growing seasons, aided by various rituals and sacrifices. Belize contains sites of the earliest Maya settlements, and amazing ruins from the classical period, and several are close to San Ignacio.

Sunday morning – time for a trip to Xunantunich! After walking into town for breakfast at Martha’s, we then caught a bus going SW towards Benque. Spotting the river on the right 20 minutes later, we shouted for the driver let us off. A few pop-up stalls along the road marked the location of the hand-cranked ferry, and we walked aboard along with a dozen other folks and one small Toyota. The old metal hull quickly crossed the narrow Mopan River with a few cranks on the windlass, and we started up the 1-mile road to the Maya ruins. Several other groups and families were heading that way – many carrying food and drinks in coolers, bags or crocks.

Seidy and her daughter, sister and friends

Xunantunich was a ceremonial center for the Maya in the Belize Valley region when it was at it’s peak, with a population estimated at 200,000. Xunantunich means “maiden in the rock”, a modern name given after people in the 19th century saw a female ghost, dressed in white haunt the area and disappear into solid rock.

We did not see any apparitions but did enjoy walking through the grassy plazas and climbing some of the temple remains. Beautiful jungle vistas are afforded anyone brave enough to climb El Castillo, the 2nd tallest structure in Belize at 130’. I could clearly see the jungles of Guatemala to the west, and the village of Benque to the south. Guides are available to explain the history and geography of the area but we opted to do it solo this time.

Susie met a lovely group of local women, Seidy and her daughter, sister and friends, and we had a nice time talking about many different things. Seidy is a preschool teacher in the area. While chatting, we were entertained by a troop of spider monkeys swinging through the trees. They were better behaved than most monkeys we have met, staying up in the trees!

Swimming into the cave

Taking a journey into the Mayan underworld at Actun Tunichil Muknal, or the "Cave of the Stone Sepulchre", is to explore one of the world’s most sacred caves. This underground labyrinth is a museum of Maya artifacts and rituals as well as a magnificent example of caving geology.

Exploring the “ATM Cave” involves swimming, wading, clambering up and down rock formations, and squeezing through very narrow passages, sometimes while almost submerged. NOT for those prone to claustrophobia and would never be allowed in the US! Haha. Sign me up! (Susie said NO THANKS!)

The Mayawalk tour bus picked me up right outside of Midas and we were on our way, while our guides gave an overview of what to expect. Absolutely NO cameras, phones, etc. 45 minutes later we made a short stop at a market for water, etc., and then another 45 minutes down a bumpy dirt road, between rows of mahogany trees. Passing through the gates of the Tapir Mountain Reserve we pull into the parking lot and spilt up into two groups of eight – the maximum allowed for each certified guide.

Hector was our guide, a very knowledgeable and humorous guy of Maya descent, who is very passionate about the history of the Mayas. He outfitted us with compact life jackets and helmets with lights, and led us off into the jungle. We made an easy 40 minute hike to the cave entrance, crossing Roaring Creek (it wasn’t) 3 times – once up to our chest – hanging onto a rope. At the cave entrance we switched on our helmet lights and swam 15’ across a clear-green pool with small minnows. Once inside we walked along relatively dry paths, some that were like stream beds running with water, and wading up to our necks in other places, squeezing through narrow crevices and trekking through large caverns.

Some passage were pretty tight

Hector pointed out the various rock formations and the colors formed on the rocks from certain minerals, along with flowstone, stalactites & stalagmites. Some cavern ceilings had a series of circular holes in them as if a large drill had bored the holes. These were formed over thousands of years as groups of bats would cluster together to sleep on the ceiling, and their exhalations drifted upwards and ate away at the rock!

When we reached “the Cathedral” we had to remove our shoes and proceed with only socks (required) to preserve the sensitive limestone floor. Now we began to see some of the Maya artifacts, likely part of rituals to encourage rainfall. As we proceeded further into the cave, the remains seemed to indicate the rituals becoming more urgent as the drought continued: progressing from offerings of food to offerings of human blood, to the ultimate sacrifice.

About 13 skeletal remains have been found, but the exact number is difficult to determine due to bone migration from water flow. Our tour culminated in the ceremonial chamber housing the skeleton of the “Crystal Maiden” along with stoneware and ceramics.

There were no wooden or cement walkways, no floodlights, no big placards describing every scene. Total darkness when we turned off our lights. Hector helped us over some of the larger rocks, advising where to place feet and grip. One sheer cliff had an old aluminum extension ladder lashed in place. There were a couple of places where our heads would only fit if we held our chin a certain way and the limestone grazed our necks – one of the guys called it “decapitating rock”!

I have been in a lot of caves, but that was definitely one of the coolest! We emerged about 3 hours later and ambled back to the van, ready to get out of our wet clothes, and grab some chicken, rice’n’beans and rum punch. Super fun. I highly recommend it next time you’re in Belize!

Well, we have certainly enjoyed our short time in San Ignacio but now must return to the coast.

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