San Ignacio and Placencia
On four rented wheels we blazed our way through Belize onwards towards San Ignacio. The lay of the land became more alive and beautiful as we made our way out west. Little villages popped up out of lush, green forests and small mountain peaks began growing as Guatemala approached. We learned more about our new travel couple increasingly as the time passed by. Our cooperative efforts of making sense of the paper/hand drawn map of the roads that was given to us by the rental company further built some traveling bond. Sam worked with green organics in San Fransisco, quite a lucrative business from the sounds of it, while Kristina tended to customers desires at an authentic Mexican food restaurant.
Belize is a relatively small country and is roughly the size of Massachusetts. Just about 2 hours after leaving the coast we were already within striking distance of it’s border with Guatemala. We rolled across a small wooden bridge that looked like it was cut out of a Southern Living magazine and entered San Ignacio around dusk to grab a bite in town. Belize has a lock down on skype and blocks all calls going out of the country, but I managed squeeze in a domestic call to an eco campground nearby. We pulled into the parking lot of the campgrounds and picked our cabins right before the most intense thunderstorm I had ever witnessed swallowed the entire sky. Lightening lit up the entire universe while thunder claps that seemed to have been made by Zeus himself smashed down on the leafy green world around us. A tree fell on top of the rental car when our new travel couple moved it for protection. The dirt road turned into a temporary class 5 rapid while the sky opened it’s water valve onto the earth mat below. I’m convinced a lightening bolt hit our roof because the loudest metallic crunch I have ever heard was created within feet of our eardrums. We ran for the kitchen area and faded the night away with rum, cigars, and stories. The owner came and gave us a brief history of his tropical campground, complete with self composting toilets, rain water showers, and solar powered lighting. He gave education tours to schools and used to work as part of the archeological crew uncovering the ruins nearby that we were seeking the following day.
To get to the ruins you can drive your car onto a floating dock that is operated by hand to ford your party to the other side. A young man began hand cranking the bridge as soon as we put the Nissan in park and we slowly made our way across the muddy water. Being early, and also in the middle of the off season, we pretty much had the entire site to ourselves. Belize is speckled with about a dozen uncovered sites and probably many more still unearthed, but are not visited often. We noticed our hostel owner in a picture of the team that helped uncover the massive site. All but one of the temples were accessible by visitors and the view from the very top of the main castle was beautiful, as expected.
Elissa’s family friends had invited us to use their private house in Placencia for as long as our hearts desired, so we started heading down the Hummingbird Highway back towards the coast. We couldn’t reach them with our contact information, but we knew it would all work out in some weird, Caribbean fashion. The highway took us deep into the mountains and valleys of Belize through farmlands, tiny hillside villages, orange and citrus farms, banana plantations, and tropical jungles. Palm and Ceiba trees were planted firmly in the ground among fields of white cattle munching on vibrant green fields. We all did a double take when we saw a horse drawn carriage carrying a cohort of watermelons driven by a textbook definition Amish man. It was a taste of home for me because upstate NY is filled with Amish, but it was more than surreal seeing them in Belize. They were referred to as Menonites and moved into Belize in the 50’s to begin cultivating the land. Menonites grow most of the produce that feeds Belize, believe it or not, and began appearing stationed at roadside stands selling fruit and veggies just like they do back home. The highway weaved through the green pastures while the sun radiated it’s warm yellow rays through the tropical air. The Hummingbird is definitely the most beautiful drive in Belize, in my opinion, and should be sought out by anyone traveling through. A short stop over in Hopkins for a late lunch brought us into a tiny fishing village that was sleepier than a dog on a hot day in July. Bicycles prevailed here and would leisurely ride in the middle of the road with two or sometimes three people sharing one. We stopped in front of a small roadside restaurant to see if we could get some seafood fare cooked up on the spot. Fish and chips were served up at an island pace while the sun gave up on the day and retreated beyond the hills. With only one way in we headed out on the same bumpy, tire-packed dirt and cobble road.
We immediately knew when we were on the road to Placencia by the general condition of the road suddenly improving. Gigantic houses and skeletons of compounds in construction rose from the sand before huge luxury hotels inundated the peninsula. This part of Belize was considered to be paradise, and it appeared that way by the first dose of real estate we encountered miles before entering the creole town. A tiny garifuna village sat stationed between the prime, outer reality boom and the little Placencia center. When we drove through it was filled with men, women, and children walking all over the road in the hot, sticky night.
We parked ourselves in a backpackers hostel when we got into town and hunkered down for the night. The next day we sought out the care takers of the house we were offered to see if the deal was still on. After a few phone calls and asking locals on golf carts where the old Rum Point Inn was we eventually found the hidden, jungly driveway entrance to our casita. The caretaker was a man named John from South Africa who reminded me of a gritty, weathered pirate with a lot of secrets and not much patience for those with a curiosity. When we asked him about how he knew Peter, the owner of the house, he simply replied “Well, I don’t really know the guy much”. This was odd considering Peter owned the house for about 20 years and John lived there for about half of that time. I tend to believe it was because he didn’t know us much and information like that is not offered after a short meeting. This was an ongoing theme that was felt in Belize, for me anyway.
John led us to an round house with a circus tent-like concrete roof that kind of resembled a space ship. There was an air outlet at the top of the dome for heat ventilation and the walls were screened in stucco with the same pattern hollowed throughout each square unit. The house looked like it hadn’t been used in months so we dove into a 3 hour cleaning frenzy sweeping out the dust, sand, and paint chips that had sweated off the ceiling. The place transformed into home with a 30 second walk to our own private beach on a deserted hotel/inn of the past. There were about 12 other buildings in the compound that hadn’t housed any inhabitants in a very long time. We immediately ran to the grocery store and sought out refreshments to battle the morbidly humid, hot Placencia air.
I quickly found out this part of Belize, as well as other parts of the Caribbean, seemed to be filled with people who had something that remained hidden. Perhaps that was why they moved here, to get as far away from home as possible and hide out in a land that takes in whatever character that decides to put the suitcase down and call it home. Belize was full of an eclectic mix of locals, foreigners, and businessmen all holding back any information about their past and focusing only on their day-to-day. Alcohol seems to be more prevalent the closer you find yourself to the water and the small bars near the beach seemed to have customers at any given time of the day. It was low season here, and people seemed to have completely abandoned the idea of opening up stores for the tourists that still come when the droves are away. We attempted to set up a small fishing/snorkeling excursion with a private boat owner who instead blew us off for drinking several days in a row. We had an awful chat with a local bar owner about backpackers vs. cruise ship travelers that almost sent us reeling. A small dock was under construction to bring small cruise ships into Placencia. This action had residents torn, with some touting the benefits of the new tourism access while others saw through the potential benefit of the monetary side of the project and into the reality of what this new industry would bring to the village. Cruise ships are known to damage reefs they anchor in, pollute, and cater to an interesting clientele that never really get to know and contribute to an area by stepping off a ship for a few hours. *steps off soapbox
One day we discovered there was an underwater coral garden right outside of our front door shortly after our snorkels got wet. Huge orange starfish were scattered about the sea grass while just beyond a shallow ridge corals, fish, and lobsters lurked about. Nights were passed making frozen watermelon, pineapple, orange, and rum drinks while Cuban cigars were thoroughly enjoyed on the rooftop lookout tower under the blanket of heat lightening. Heat lightening quickly turned into THE most intense thunderstorm we had ever witnessed, trumping the pitiful little squall in the jungle a few days prior. Lightening bolts lit up the entire world, striking the beach in front of us, while we watched and shouted from within the protection of our screened in porch. Thunder was deafeningly loud and rolled around the ocean and atmosphere minutes after each bolt found land. I took a few photos that appeared to have been taken in broad daylight of a warm summer day the exact moment when the bolts were touching down.
Days were spent playing in the water and rooting through town to find delicious food options that Belize is not short of. Creole cooking is full of coconut rice, oil, barbecue, and seafood. All of these ingredients hit home runs in my food fantasy league. King Henry’s was a favorite for roadside barbecue plates while Omar’s seem to call us in for breakfast. Sam and Kristina wanted to cap their adventure off with 2 nights in a comfortable hotel so they booked nearby that offered free kayaks, beachfront living, and a fully equipped kitchen. We took the kayaks out to a small island about 40 minutes away for our own private reef adventure. The coral here was comparable to the reefs we paid for the week prior and gave us quite a show. I always forget how much I love to kayak until the paddle is welded into the grips of my hands. I spent a whole summer training in the Atlantic in Maine and the memories come flooding back whenever I’m in a straight, narrow craft pointed towards our distant destination. We came back into a beautiful sunset, docked up, and spent our last night in town.
The following morning, with our Cuban son soundtrack playing in the car, we left Placencia headed back towards the city. Sam and Kristina’s vacation was over, much to our dismay, and it was time to go home. They dropped us off in the hub of Belmopan at the bus station and we parted ways with our travel compadres. Reality set back in. Our private house was gone and our rental car disappeared in the dust out of the parking lot. We boarded onto our first 1980’s bluebird school bus since grade school and made tracks back on the hummingbird towards San Ignacio with reggae pumping out of the worn out speakers. Life felt pretty hot, pretty sweaty, and pretty good.
We spent two nights in San Ignacio to get back in the groove of living and traveling cheaply. One downside of teaming up with short term vacationers is that money is spent in a completely different manner. Coming into the country we knew that it wasn’t a cheap place for backpackers but we ripped through a bigger portion of our budget than we had hoped.
I remember walking around the town looking for a lighter and being offered drugs more times in 5 minutes than I’d care to remember. This was considerably odd because getting caught with even a joint on you in Belize was punishable by a strict fine of 10,000.00 USD. This stance on drugs was bothersome to me considering this was one of the kidnap capitals of Central America. This sobering fact that was brought from words to real life while watching the news in a Chinese food take out place. A small girl of 13 that was missing had been found dead near her community while her father painfully spoke about the lack of enforcement for laws regarding kidnapping, rape, and murder in the country. We had a big border to cross ahead of us, and we were both a little intimidated about Guatemala from all the stern warnings we had heard from cautious travelers, especially after this story. I think we had run across a larger than normal percentage that had a taste of the sour side of traveling in 3rd world countries. We heard story after story of armed robberies, dangerous bus stations, and expensive travel in the Mayan land. The morning we left we took a cab from the bus station right to the fronterra, avoided changing cash prior to entering (the best move for travelers by far), and walked into Guatemala.