You Better Belize It!

Last week, I got moist in a large river and moister in a larger lake before travelling the height of Guatemala in search of some forested relics. This week belongs to Belize, as I spent the week travelling through a miniature corner of the Caribbean – patting sharks and consuming crustaceans along the way.

Day 64 – Flores, Guatemala to San Ignacio, Belize

Belize. What is the extent of your knowledge? I’m guessing a similar amount to I, which isn’t a great deal. Apart from the fact that they speak English as a result of, involuntarily, being a part of the not-so-great British Empire, I wouldn’t be able to tell you much else. Well, I had a week in the compact country to increase my expertise on all things Belizean – what a wonderful time to be alive.

I caught the dawn bus from Guatemala to the border, along with every other tourist from Flores it seemed, and a full ninety minutes exchanging pleasantries with travellers in the coiling border queue ensued. Having passed through passport control with little in the way of interrogation, at least by Uzbek standards (as all crossings are now judged by), I picked up my first Belizean dollar and, to my surprise and horror, found Queen Elizabeth II’s youthful representation extolled on the front of every note. Where the hell am I?

My first stay was in the provincial town of San Ignacio, a mere hop, skip and jump from the Guatemalan frontier, and it quickly became clear that Belize is a nation unlike any other in Central America. From being immersed in colonial Spanish states for over two months, it was quite the culture shock to find an utterly disparate realm just a few kilometres down the abundantly potholed road. I swiftly set my bags down in the hostel and went out on the explore…

Day 65 – San Ignacio, Belize

San Ignacio only holds around twenty thousand people, slightly bigger than my home town of Carmarthen, but it is also the second largest municipality in the entire country – gives you an idea as to the size of the nation. My initial impression of the locals was incredibly warm and welcoming, mainly as a result of the compliment I received for my pork pie hat by the man guiding the traffic outside the hostel. Your headwear was equally as exquisite by the way.

I was on my way to Xunantunich (don’t ask me to pronounce it), an ancient Mayan archaeological site (yes, another one) that lies just one kilometre from the Guate border. And it was on top of its central temple, El Castillo (which is staggeringly still the second tallest building in Belize), that I bumped into a British fellow who was driving from Ushuaia in Southern Argentina to Prudhoe Bay in Northern Alaska – Belize being almost exactly in the middle. He quit his banking job, bought a van, and set off on his two-year escapade. I didn’t catch your name fella’, but you’ve certainly given me an idea…

Anyhow, the ruins were well preserved and quiet enough to meander through unclogged (with news of an American cruise group on the way, I made sure to hasten my gait). I have become quite the Mayan ruin snob over the last month and can spot a newly-built representation of a ruin at fifty paces – Xunantunich, thankfully, didn’t fall foul of this deception. It was a highly enjoyable excursion, that concluded with a round of street-made garnaches – fried corn tortillas topped with refried beans (of course), shredded cabbage and cheese. The language, currency and history of Belize may be connected to the UK but, thank the lord, the food is not.

Day 66 – San Ignacio, Belize to Caye Caulker, Belize

Whilst English is the official language of the nation, Creole (or Kriol) is far more widely spoken by the locals. My guidebook sums it up nicely as “a language that teases but just escapes the comprehension of a native speaker of English.” Quite infuriatingly so. It also almost led to a misunderstanding as to which bus I needed to get to Belize City – where my boat was waiting to carry my backpack and I to the island nirvana of Caye (pronounced ‘key’) Caulker.

After an hour bouncing and bobbing over the Caribbean Sea, I was ashore. This was more like it. As soon as I set foot from the timber jetty I was greeted by a white sandy shore, transparent ocean, hammocks hung between listing palm trees, coconut salespeople, and bikes… bikes everywhere. In fact, the largest vehicles on the island are golf carts – no cars, vans or trucks allowed. I checked into my dorm before watching a rather dramatic sunset with some fellow hostel goers. I’m looking forward to this…

Day 67 – Caye Caulker, Belize

Having been on the move almost non-stop for the last fortnight, I deemed this location paradisiacal enough to take a day off and ‘go slow’ (as per the island’s mantra). It was an overcast day, which was ideal for my planned stroll around the circumference of the Caye. It measures a mere eight kilometres from head-to-toe, and just a mile in width, so a couple of hours was more than enough to visit the nature reserve, football field, basketball court, post office, both cemeteries and the infamous ‘Split’.

In 1961, the island was almost three times its current size. That was until Hurricane Hattie struck and formed a narrow waterway splitting the island in two. The locals, upon finding this new waterway rather useful for their dugout canoes, hand dredged it yet further and ‘The Split’ was born. Nowadays, The Lazy Lizard bar sits on one side of The Split, affording backpackers like myself the perfect location to grab a few Belikin whilst dipping our somnolent soles in the Caribbean. Just slightly more idyllic than Barry Island.

Day 68 – Caye Caulker, Belize

There’s a good chance that if you’re on your way to Caye Caulker, you’re going to want to do some form of subaquatic activity – either scuba diving in Jacques Cousteau’s Great Blue Hole or snorkelling in Shark Ray Alley slightly closer to shore (that location doesn’t sound ominous at all). After all, when was the last time you heard of a stingray harming a human? Never. I flipped a coin and ended up with the nearer, and far cheaper, option…

On the way out to the reef, we fed a school of giant tarpon (getting a little gnaw on the knuckles in the process) as well as searched for the infamous Belizean manatee, but to no avail. We were then handed our snorkelling apparatus, a plastic cup of spiced rum and told to not to worry about the sharks, they were virtually harmless – it was the stingrays that’d get ‘ya. Ah.

Well, it was like feeding time at the Tory Party Conference when we arrived – both sharks and rays alike were awaiting our nourishing gifts – and in we dove. Trying to keep the nimble rays face-on, whilst avoiding the protruding fins of nurse sharks was quite the challenge, and one that I never considered would be an obstacle in my life, but here we are. The more rum we consumed, the more entertaining the dives became until we deemed it best to head back to the island and continue the Caribbean revelry at the Lizard. Ochan!

Day 69 – Caye Caulker, Belize to Bacalar, Mexico

Ochan is Creole for ‘cheers’, and it was heard far too often last night. Despite the temptation to jump out of a helicopter into the Blue Hole and end my hangover once and for all, I couldn’t leave the island without trying its most infamous culinary delight: Caye Caulker Lobster. Maggie’s Sunset Kitchen was recommended to me almost two months ago by an Irish couple I met in Panama, and my goodness was it worth the wait. Not being something I would usually pluck from the menu, it was a life-changing revelation and one that set me right for the next leg of my trip.

So, it was time to say goodbye to the Caye, board a boat back to Belize City and await a chicken bus to the Mexican border. This was actually far more straightforward than I had anticipated, well at least until I was ungraciously kicked off the ramshackle vehicle a good mile before the border and vaguely pointed in the general direction of the country I was attempting to enter.

It was mid-afternoon, and the sun was beating down with its usual savagery. The last thing I needed was another mile of no-mans-land, carrying a backpack that increased in weight with every dithering step. Upon my eventual arrival in Méjico, I discovered that buses from the border finished hours ago and I would require a taxi to reach the closest town of Chetumal (which I was lucky enough to split with a fellow Brit). From there, a further bus was needed to reach my final destination of Bacalar – and as quickly as the Britishisms of Belize had appeared, they just as quickly disappeared, and I was back in my Spanish solacement. Me alegro de volver a verte!

Day 70 – Bacalar, Mexico

Mexico. Nation number eight, and my last on this journey. Despite the end drawing near, I still had a full ten days in a country that I was only just starting to comprehend the size of. Eight times bigger than the UK, and the thirteenth largest country in the world, I would need to get a move on if I was to get to the capital on time, some 1,333km away.

I woke up in the lakeside town of Bacalar, but this was no ordinary run-of-the-mill lagoon, it was famous for being the lake of “seven hues”. Although, today it was more like one shade of grey, as it reflected the despondent skies above. And it wasn’t just the lake that was rather drab, the whole town appeared flat as if this was not the sort of weather it was accustomed to. Well, with Wales on the horizon, I suppose I better start getting used to it…

J

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