15 May 2013
After the sheer enormity that was Mexico, comprehending the size of Belize was almost absurd. If we were to drive the distances we drove per day in Mexico here, we would be out of Belize in two days…and we would have driven all the possible roads. What we had expected to be a problematic border crossing turned out to be a walk in the park…that is, once we got out of Mexico. A lack of Spanish vocabulary on our part, and a total lack of willingness to help on the Mexican Customs official’s part resulted in a very hot 25 minutes of backwards and forwards until we finally figured that we had already paid the tourist fee he was requesting. On the Belizean side, it was a relief to speak English to the officials. Once in the country, it was like driving onto another planet. The ever-busy, tourist-saturated, loud and somewhat obnoxious buzz that was Mexico, abruptly ended and a sleepy and desolate Belize stretched out before us…very lazily I might add! Corozal Town must be one of the most lifeless and dusty towns we had ever encountered…sure it was a Sunday afternoon, but still. It was however also one of the most picturesque ocean views imaginable. The Caribbean ocean had really come into its true turquoise self and it was gorgeous.
From this small town we drove to a truly sleepy town on the coast called Sarteneja. It has a total of only 2000 people and, except for building and repairing sailboats, we don’t really know what most of them do for a living. We stayed at the Backpacker’s Paradise where we hung around for a day or two trying to escape the heat and the insects. Our host, Nathalie, has a little restaurant there and she fried us a mean bonefish (don’t quote me, it’s the fish with red flecks and porcupine-like needles that are destroying the Belizean barrier reef) which was a lot tastier than what you would imagine after seeing a photo.
After Sarteneja we headed south and ended up going far more south than we anticipated due to complete absence of any camping spots. We drove all the way to Hopkins in one day, which is pretty much as far south as we were planning to go in Belize. Here the ocean was more of a pale powder blue than a turquoise, but unlike Corozal town and Sarteneja, there was beach and we could swim in the luke warm, sapphire waters. What makes Hopkins great however are the people that live there, called the Garifuna. This is a mixed race consisting of freed African slaves and Carib and Arawak native people who migrated to the Caribbean islands. After being dumped on the island of Roatan in 1787 by British ships, the Garifuna have since spread all along the coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. This would be the dark skinned witch-lady in Pirates of the Caribbean that Keira Knightley and the rest of Captain Jack’s crew goes to for help at the end of the first movie (?). Ironically, in 2005 these Garifuna people sent a letter to the Walt Disney Company who was, at that stage preparing to film the sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean. In the letter they objected that the scripts’ for the movies portrayed the Carib islanders as cannibals, arguing that there wasn’t evidence that proved that the Caribs regularly ate people..although roasting of a prisoner was part of some warrior rituals. Disney shrugged off the complaint explaining that cannibalism was too integral to the plot for them to change! I’m pretty sure the laid-back Garifuna peoples went home, roasted a chicken, added some rice and beans and forgot about it…
After staying at Hopkins for a day or two, we headed south a whole 60km to Placencia. This, even small coastal town has long been described the Caye you can drive to. The “Cayes” in Belize, refer to the 450 or so small islands scattered off the shore. This is where the big money lies for tourism in Belize and it is understandable as it is the second largest barrier reef in the world and provide among the most pristine coral reefs and off-course the amazing Blue Hole for diving and snorkeling. In fact, these cayes are so beautiful that Madonna wrote her famous song “La Isla Bonita – the beautiful island” about one of them. Here you also find whole islands dedicated to making your every wish come true. Cayo Espanto for example invites you to fill out a preferences survey and the chefs on the island then create interesting dishes according to your personal taste. This all while you are probable getting a head to toe massage and forcing that Pina Colada down. All for a mere BZ$2590 per night (for Rands x 4; for U$ devide by 2)…who’s in?
Anyway, Placencia lies at the tip of a 27 mile peninsula and by the looks of the mansions along the road as you drive there, it might as well be a private island. In stark contrast with these mansions however are areas with ramshackle huts only meters away, which is one of the reasons that crime in the area is such a problem. It was a quaint and frustrating, exhaustingly warm little town with a large amount of tourists all melting slowly. We desperately looked for a place to camp, but after two to three hours, gave up and instead had a true Belizean dish of spicy chicken and coconut rice with beans at Omar’s Creole Grub before we headed back in the direction of Hopkins. Instead of staying at the same place we did in Hopkins, we thought we would try the only other campsite available in Belize at Sittee River. It is a guesthouse on the (you guessed it..) Sittee river which guest of one of the cheaper Cayes, Glover’s Caye, stay at before departing for the island. They mention in the write-up that you should watch for the sandflies (miggie in Afrikaans; no-see-um in American; jejunum in Spanish), but they truly do not highlight to magnitude of the problem. Let’s just say it was a night I wouldn’t want to repeat, no matter what you pay me! We were bitten from head to toe and looked like we had chicken pox for the next two weeks. Needless to say, we got out of there much earlier than we usually do (on the road by 7am) and headed for the Guatemalan border.
Belize was a very small and colorful country and you must really take care not to drive out of it by accident. We enjoyed the people, colorful in a much different way, and the fact that we didn’t have to look like idiots when trying to ask something because everybody spoke English. The cayes and reef we’ll leave to a next adventure….