Monday, 20 February 2012

un-Belize-able

Having recovered our passports and spent an unanticipated night in Chetumal, it was with great anticipation that we caught the water taxi over to the island of Caye Ambergris, and the city of San Pedro. The plan was to get some beach time, but it turned out that the whole coast on our side of the island was taken up with docks, jetties and moorings, and all the associated bits and pieces that make “beach time” not so practical. Nonetheless, the island was very cool. Not content with simply serving ice cream, D and E’s serves up frozen custard that put Kevin straight into heaven. The view from the deck of our hotel looked straight out into the Caribbean.

A typical taxi, San Pedro style

Sadly, due to our extra night in Mexico we could not stay long and the next morning it was onto a boat to Belize City – the largest city in Belize, but home to only 70 thousand people. We had thought Cuba a culture shock but BC, with its scarcely paved streets, open sewers, ramshackle homes and just total 3rd-world-ness was mind blowing. This was all weirdly contrasted with the abundance of North American products available in the supermarkets which made decent snack foods easy to find for the first time since leaving Mexico City. We had a long way to travel that day, so caught a bus straight down south. Lonely Planet didn’t warn us about the quality of local buses in Belize – in Mexico the buses had a range of quality, but here it was all genuine ex-US-school-buses (aka chicken buses). Needless to say, the four-hour trip wasn’t very pleasant. Next was a short boat-ride over to Placencia, just in time for their 2-day annual arts festival.

We arrived in Placencia close to 6 tired, a bit sore from the bus, and quite hungry – I hadn’t had a proper breakfast and had only had snack food because of all the transfers we had had. Unfortunately, we were also faced with the daunting prospect of finding accommodation for the night. We had tried to email for a reservation earlier to no avail, but weren’t too worried because there were a lot of fairly cheap hotels. We hadn’t counted on just how many people had descended on the town for the arts festival. It takes only ten minutes to walk from one end of the town to the other, but finding any accommodation for less than $US125 a night took over half an hour, and we only found our place because Kevin was lucky enough to run into a local who knew of somewhere that still had a vacancy. It took a bit of searching to find a restaurant that served food we could eat (rice and beans is common, but almost always involves animal fat). We wondered what the vegetarian equivalent to ‘being so hungry you could eat a horse’ is, but finally found somewhere and crashed out soon afterwards.

We woke the next day excited to check out the arts festival. Sadly, it was spectacular only by Belize’s standards (the country’s total population is only 300,000, after all). There were a lot of stalls of handmade jewellery, wood and coral carving, painting, and other handcrafts, nothing that interested us enough to buy other than insect repellent handmade from local ingredients. We learned that cashew wine isn’t very tasty, even just a taste leaves a bad flavour in your mouth and a bad feeling in the stomach. There was also African drumming, folk music, and... possibly other types of music, but that was all we heard. In Mexico the dancing music only got started around 10, so we headed out then hoping to dance, but the only music left was pop from a bar. There was supposed to be a sidewalk art competition, but the cement was still drying in one section of the sidewalk and it looked like rain as we were leaving though the contest still had not begun. Placencia’s atmosphere, cool breezes, and good food at a place open until 5pm did make for a relaxing day, anyway. One oddity of the town: Islands for sale. Yep, for just US$150K you could be the proud owner of a 2 acre island.... somewhere.

Yes, that is a clich├ęd realty sign, for the whole island.

We headed out the next day to Back-a-Bush, near San Miguel, quite likely to be the place most off the main tourist trail of our whole journey (it’s not in our Central America version of Lonely Planet and is only in the most recent edition of the Belize book). To get to Back-a-Bush, you get off the bus at Silver Creek on the Southern Highway.

The bustling metropolis of Silver Creek

On Sundays there are no local buses running from there, so our hosts picked us up and drove us along a dirt road for 20 minutes to their haven in the bush (surprise, surprise). Back-a-Bush is a farm with a guesthouse, run by a lovely Dutch couple who moved there 7 years ago. They bought the land from a Mayan man who had farmed there in the traditional way and have mostly kept the land the way he had it. Plants they grow include: coffee, cacao (flesh around cacao beans is surprisingly tasty), breadnuts (relative of breadfruit), chaya (local greens), orange, allspice, ginger, and lemongrass (the latter three make for a very delicious tea). They also had horses, chickens, geese, black-bellied whistling ducks, and also non-whistling ducks. Food-wise, they’re pretty set – almost everything they eat that they don’t grow themselves they get from their neighbours. Kevin was getting cat-deprived, so was quite pleased they had two, one of them a lap-cat, as well as 5 or 6 dogs. They don’t need to buy cat food, as living where they do the cats can easily hunt enough rodents and geckos to feed themselves.

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holy crap, whistling ducks

From Back-a-Bush, we took a guided tour to Tiger Cave, (un?)surprisingly found by a local when he was tracking a jaguar (the Spanish word for jaguar is tigre). We reached the cave after an hour and a half’s hike in high humidity, along a ‘trail’ (this involved road, bush and the occasional corn field) where our guide pointed our numerous jaguar prints.

Tiger Cave: 3kms thataway!

Here Kitty Kitty

The cave was truly magnificent: 15 – 20m high for most of it, and it took us an hour to get to where we would’ve had to crawl to continue. Even though jaguars rarely attack humans and are more nocturnal than diurnal, we were still quite glad to have our experienced local guide (complete with machete) with us, considering all the paw prints and hearing a jaguar when we listened closely inside the cave. Navigating our way through the cave was fairly tricky: it was rocky, muddy, had rocks that looked like mud and mud that looked like rocks, pools of water, a few passages only about 2 feet high and a river. I managed to get my pants muddy, ripped the knee, cut my hand and bruised my bum. None-the-less, it was an incredible experience.



Time for an interlude on Belizean culture. The country is officially English-speaking, as it’s still part of the Commonwealth and has only been an independent nation since 1981. Due to this and other factors, it feels far more like being on a Caribbean island than being in the rest of Central America. Out of Belize City, everyone walks slowly; the food is mostly fried; and there’s a lot of reggae-influenced music. USD and Belizean dollars are accepted equally everywhere we went (2 BZD = 1 USD). Apart from the main two highways and maybe the four biggest cities, all the other roads aren’t paved. The locals told us that the roads get repaired every five years – just before the elections. We arrived only weeks away from the election, and saw one or both of the two main parties’ colours on every telephone pole. 

According to our hosts at Back-a-Bush, voter turnout is only as high as it is due to outright bribery: if you vote for one of the main parties you get $100, and if you vote for the other you get a month of cell phone credit. Everyone we met (with the exception of one die hard PUP supporter) seemed very pessimistic about the elections making any real difference - like any 3rd-world country, politics are marked by corruption scandals, and (like every country in the world) broken electoral promises. Some of the locals did get very excited about the election – we heard a procession of honking cars go through a town of less than 600 people at 10pm – but this seems to be only a small number. Although English is the main language, a lot of others are widely spoken. Our guide for the Tiger Cave spoke English, Spanish, Creole, Garifuna (spoken by a people with a mix of African and South American ancestry and culture), Mopan, and Q’eqchi (the latter two are Mayan languages).

For our last stop, we headed back to Belize city. After another long, hot, bumpy bus ride, we got late into the city and went hunting for the only vegetarian-serving restaurant shown in Lonely Planet. The roads tend not to be signposted, and the layout is pretty poor (Google maps was NO help here) so we had trouble finding the place. A stop at a net cafe later and we found where it was, only for it to be shut and no hours listed. Back to the net cafe and found another place, which – after walking to where it was shown to be on the only maps available – turned out to be non-existent, and then after a third visit to the net cafe finally found one on a road whose name we recognised and thought to be open – essentially back near our hotel. After walking all the way to where it was shown to be on the maps (maps! *shakes fist*) turns out it was within metres of where we had started. Very frustrating. When we finally got there, the food was horribly bland and just simply not-very-good. Vegetarians beware – Belize City is going to be challenging.

Next on our list of things in Belize to do were the Baboon (aka Black Howler Monkey) Sanctuary and the zoo. Sadly, the former proved to be quite hard to access, and getting to both in one day would’ve been very hard. I normally don’t like going to zoos, but the Belize Zoo is possibly unique in that almost all the animals are rescued from unscrupulous collectors, with the rest being born there, orphaned or injured in parts of the country where habitat destruction is such that they wouldn’t have a good chance of surviving, and a few given to them from other zoos. All the animals are species native to Belize and live in natural surroundings, with only a few in enclosures I thought a bit small. Interesting animals we saw included tapirs (snuffly creatures that could be a cross between a baby hippopotamus and an anteater), all of the five native species of cats (pumas, jaguars, ocelots, jaguarundi – essentially small ocelots, and margay), terrible-smelling pig things (pacas), howler monkeys, scarlet macaws (very noisy!), tayra (‘bush dog’/jungle weasel), coatimundis (small anteater-like creatures with long tails), agoutis (large guinea pigs, aka jaguar food), very large ‘king’ vultures, and harpy eagles. An amazing range, certainly.

video
tapirs are snotty

video
Apparently they make great pets. Anyone know an exotic animal smuggler?
Who was studying who?
I can has jaguar?
We caught our last chicken bus home, had a much easier time finding a very tasty dinner (hooray for thorough preparedness!) and the next morning we caught a bus (running 2 hours late) across the border to Guatemala.

Country 3: complete; country 4: engaged.


-Juliet

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