Belize in a Conch Shell

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Belize, Central America
By Marcelo Montebon

After spending ten days in Costa Rica during my sister’s wedding I decided to hop over to Belize for some solo exploration. When I arrived at the airport outside of Belize City I rented a late model Isuzu Trooper with 4 wheel drive and headed out into the great unknown. I had heard so many stories about the beauty of Belize, how people speak English, it’s safe and so on. Much to my surprise, when I drove through Belize City it looked like a South Dallas ghetto. Once I got outside of town where it seemed a little less crowded and safer, I stopped at a convenience store to get some drinks and a map. The girl there had some kind of Jamaican sounding accent, and the look on her face seemed to say to me what are you doing here? This certainly wasn’t the Caribbean paradise I had seen on the travel channel. It was time to get out of town and find it.

On the map I was able to locate the main highway. It basically went North, South, and West from Belize City. There weren’t many alternatives to that main road system. So I cultivated a plan to go west the first day, south the second, and north the third. Easy enough, right? So I headed out west toward Guatemala where the Mayan ruins hide in the jungle. Belize is a small country so it didn’t take long to get there, maybe a couple hours if I remember correctly, and the road was paved as I had hoped. I reached the town of San Ignacio close to the west border and looked for some grub. The only safe looking place I found was a little house that had a sign hanging out front saying Chinese Food. I guess you could say it was real home style cooking. I went inside and sat in the living room then ordered a typical Chinese dish. It was pretty darn good.

Ancient Mayan Site
Ancient Mayan Site

With a nice home cooked lunch in my stomach I followed the sign off the main highway to a jungle hotel. I hadn’t planned ahead for any reservations on this trip and just assumed it would be as easy to get a room for the night as it was in the states, luckily I had no problems. I got all my stuff organized, and decided to head out for some exploration. I reached the Xunantunich ruins close to Guatemala and met a guide named Pedro. Pedro said I had to pay $5 dollars Belize (about 2.50 US) to get across the river on his makeshift boat, or I could pay $10 and he would throw in a personal tour. I agreed to take the tour and see what he had to say about this place. He was very passionate about the history of these Mayan ruins, and mentioned he was of Mayan descent himself. He showed me around and told me stories such as that of ancient games where the loser was executed. When we reached the top of the pyramid I sat and wondered to myself what the connection was with these pyramids and those in other parts of the world. As we wrapped up the tour, I asked Pedro if it was possible to cross the Guatemala border to check it out and do some shopping. He said sure, and he could be my guide there as well. He gave me the option of going now during the day and shopping, or waiting until after dark to go bar hopping. Hmm, well I haven’t had a beer since yesterday, so the answer was obvious. I arranged to pick him up after dusk at the same spot we met earlier.

After cleaning up, I returned to Xunantunich. When I stopped on the side of the road Pedro approached the vehicle but he was also with another man, which immediately made me cautious. I rolled down the window and Pedro said “Hola senior, I hope you don’t mind but I brought a friend with me. He just arrived from Honduras and doesn’t speak much English”. This was a scary moment! It was dark and there was nobody else around, I was definitely concerned. I looked over Pedro’s friend for a few long seconds and my gut feeling was this guy is harmless, shy, and more out of his element than I am. So I said to Pedro hop on in, let’s fiesta.

When we got to the border, the customs guys were very suspicious of why we wanted to cross over after dark. They didn’t give Pedro and his friend any problems, but harassed me a bit. Pedro stuck up for me and after many negotiations in Spanish, that I only partially understood, Pedro said if you give him twenty dollars he will let you cross. I thought that was ridiculous, but I figured I may never have a chance to come to this country again, so I busted out the twenty. Once across we walked around a bit and I immediately noticed a dreadful smell. It was like a mixture of raw sewage and garbage. The houses were like shacks and seemingly unlivable. I was a bit culture shocked. We went into a dive bar for some local beers called Gallo. A round for the three of us was cheaper than one beer in the U.S. They had a stage that was lit up but no action going on, and not many patrons. I asked Pedro what the deal was and he said that sometimes they have music and girls that dance. Well I’ve been to clubs where girls dance, and then I’ve been to clubs where you watch girls dance. I had a feeling this was the latter since there weren’t any girls in there to dance with, but I wasn’t completely sure. Finally a girl came out and danced on stage for a few songs validating my suspicions. I guess she was the only girl in the place because after three songs it was back to music and conversation until we departed.

We found a local restaurant where the food was cheap and tasty. The Gallos kept on coming. I couldn’t help but notice that our waitress was very pretty and friendly. Pedro let me know that she did more than just serve food. I was appalled, it seemed like such a nice family restaurant and environment, but then again I guess things are different in the third world. I wasn’t interested in the extra services so we moved on. As we walked around, Pedro translated back and forth between his friend and me, although I did attempt some broken Spanish. We passed another shady bar with neon lights that had a girl waiting at the door saying she wanted the gringo. Pedro said something in Spanish relaying to her that I wasn’t interested. He mentioned to me that he had visited her before which I thought was strange since he also said he was married and had kids. I felt quite uncomfortable and was wondering if there was anything else to this place besides sex and poverty. At that moment, Pedro must have sensed my mood and suggested there was a much nicer place in Belize where we could hang out and have drinks. Belize wasn’t quite a first world country but it did seem much more clean and conservative than this Guatemalan border town. We crossed the border back into Belize where the trooper was parked and drove to a local bar near Pedro’s hometown. This bar was far nicer than anywhere else we had been during the night. We hung out and drank some Belikin brews (local Belize beer), which was also a big improvement over Guatemala. Many stories were exchanged and beers drank as the night wound down.

Check Me Out!
Check Me Out!

The next morning I woke and checked out of the hotel. Before I left I asked the hotel owners, who were obviously from America, about their situation in Belize. He said they came to visit and loved it. So they invested in this hotel, got the kids in home school, and moved to Belize. I was curious about what they said and it got me thinking as I drove on to Belmopan the capital of Belize. Belmopan seemed to be more of a civilized town and actually had a really nice Chinese restaurant that I treated myself to. It wasn’t the typical menu but my stomach was feeling a little adventurous. I ordered up the Spicy Conch Chow Mein. Conch is a snail-like ocean critter that lives in a large shell underwater, the same types of shells that people put up to their ear to hear ocean sounds. I’ve eaten it many times before in Florida where I grew up. When I got the food it was outstanding, but spicier than I anticipated. Loaded with red peppers no doubt. I couldn’t resist adding a few drops of habanero sauce that I had acquired a taste for in Costa Rica. This combination of spices made for a smoking lunch that I normally would have held back on with my typically weak stomach. After a full belly I headed southeast on the main highway towards Placencia. A location I picked out on the map and Pedro had confirmed as a nice resort area.

Going south I ran into a little bit of construction, if you can call it that. Actually it was more like the paved highway turned into muddy bumpy 4WDR road. I thought this can’t last long, but it did. Then I came upon the Great Blue Hole Park. This was great! I’ve heard such glorious things about the Great Blue Hole, but I thought it was supposed to be in the ocean? It turns out this was a circular hole shaped spring that was very deep and wide, but not the famous blue hole that divers come here for, which is actually in the ocean. In fact to me it looked more green than blue, but interesting all the less. As I continued driving down the never-ending dirt highway that habanero sauce I put on the conch chowder was beginning make its presence known. My stomach was burning like a Central American volcano, and turning like the spin cycle on a washing machine. The dreaded travelers diarrhea had finally hit me at a most inopportune time. I was miles from civilization on a dirt road that is supposed to be a highway and no bathroom in site, not good! This sort of thing is only supposed to happen when you are at home sick after a heavy night of drinking and eating jalapeño poppers. I checked the map and found a very small town down the road about 30 miles. They had to have a gas station, so I pressed on. Finally I arrived and it wasn’t much of a town at all, but they did have an Esso station, and a bathroom! ChaChing! Just what I was looking for! I casually strolled into the gas station and made a sharp detour towards the bathroom. After stinking the place up I made a quick exit outta there praying I didn’t need to make a return trip.

As I neared the coast I came to the turnoff for the southbound highway, also dirt. I headed south trying to find the correct turn to go to Placencia. It went quite far and I was unsure if I had past the road or not since some roads had no signs to tell you what it was. I saw a pretty young native girl probably in her twenty’s at an intersection with a suitcase. I stopped to ask her directions and she said I had past my turn and needed to go back a few miles. She asked if I could give her a ride down the road to the place I needed to turnoff, so she could save a little money on bus fare. She seemed harmless so I said ok, and just then a guy jumped out from the bushes startling me. She said “this is my brother is it okay if he rides too?” I felt a wave of deja vu come over me. I didn’t have time to logically analyze the situation so I left it up to my intuition. The girl was certainly calm and had a genuinely friendly aura about her. On second look the guy, he was really more of a boy, teenager I guess, and he had a smile that radiated a mischievous innocence. There was no way he could be a gangster or guerilla rebel. I invited them into the vehicle. We chatted until she showed me where the turn was, and then I dropped them off. After I got down the road a little ways I was a little paranoid and decided to stop and look in the back to make sure my bags and loose items were still there. It was then that I noticed that the girl had actually forgotten her suitcase. I felt terrible. I was worried about her brother in the back seat stealing something of mine when I actually took off with her luggage. Whatever she had in there was probably a lot more valuable to her than my stuff was to me. I drove back and fortunately they were still there so I was able to give her the suitcase back.

Having all of that business was squared away, I finally headed to the coast to see the ocean. As I got closer I came across a section of road that was flooded. There was practically a pond where the road was supposed to be. I’d say this covered at least 50 yards or meters of the road. It seemed calm enough, and I figured there is suppose to be a road here so it can’t be that deep. I put the trooper in 4WDR and pressed on in a straight line toward the other side of the road. Whew, I was fortunate that the water wasn’t too deep or problematic. It could be hours before another vehicle came down that desolate road. As I got to the coast, the road turned south again down the peninsula. On one side of the road was the Caribbean Sea, and the other was the bay separating the mainland. In some sections the road was only about 30 feet wide. Crabs ran from one side of the road to another daring me to run them over. As I approached the end of the peninsula I began to see some hotels. When I came across Rum Point I knew that was the one. It just had a certain ring to it. I stopped and booked a night including snorkeling the next day. The water was beautiful with reefs right off shore. I probably could have just swam out from the beach right there to snorkel, but I was tired and it was getting late so I decided to wait for tomorrow.

The hotel lady gave me a stand alone cement hut room a couple hundred feet from the water. There were several open-air windows protected only by screens, no drapes or blinds for privacy. In the bathroom I pulled the shower curtain and there were poisonous dart frogs sticking to the sides of the shower, three of them! I’m not exactly sure if they were poisonous, but they were very colorful and looked just like those killer frogs you see on National Geographic. Since they seemed to be passive I jumped in and stayed in the corner ready to make a quick exit if they got jumpy. They never moved. After the shower I was getting some fresh clothes out of my bag I had laid down on the bed and noticed a couple of large fire ants on the pillow. These weren’t the little ants you see in the kitchen devouring a half eaten doughnut that was left out, but huge red jungle ants with big pinchers. I put my bag on the floor assuming they came from there then I removed the blanket to shake it out and found dozens more crawling around under the sheets. Feeling nauseous I lifted the corner of the mattress up and found a whole nest of those jokers. There were hundreds scurrying around just waiting for me to go to sleep so they can bite my ass. This will just not do. I went to the office and told the lady about it but she seemed unconcerned as she handed me a can of raid so I could exterminate them. I said, “no no no,” I’m not sleeping in there with oversized ants, or on a bed soaked with raid, please give me another room. So she gave me another hut, but when I entered there were three huge spiders on the wall, I hate spiders. Again I went back and finally she gave me a closed air-conditioned room that cost slightly more but was for the most part free of insects.

Later that night I enjoyed a nice seafood cuisine at a local restaurant on the docks. Then it started pouring rain and didn’t stop all night. I was a bit concerned about this since I had snorkeling scheduled for the morning and that 4WDR road would just be all the worse after a downpour. In the morning I checked and the snorkeling had been canceled for the day since it was still raining. Instead of waiting around I decided to get out of Placencia before the roads got worse. Driving out I reached the spot where the standing water was before. Now it was a flowing river of water about three times as long as previously. I knew with the rain this would only get worse and my plane was flying out the next afternoon. On the weather channel they always say, “never drive through moving water no matter how shallow it looks”. With that in mind I put it in 4WDR and plowed through the gushing brown water. It was slow going and seemed to take forever to cross. The water was much deeper than before but I managed to make it through, barely.

Once I got past that rough spot I knew I had the whole day to drive around and make my way to the northern part of the country. I got back to the main dirt highway and headed for the turnoff to the town of Dangriga. This was not exactly a charming town, but I’ve gotten used to it. In fact I did not feel safe stopping here so I just drove through town, turned around and went back the way I came. Somehow I found an alternative road that went north to Belize City. It was mostly paved, a nice change of pace. As I traveled down the road I saw a large bird up in the sky and noticed it was a toucan. That enormous beak was unmistakable. Wow, that was really cool to see Toucan Sam in the wild.

I passed country houses on stilts, then drove through Belize City again and headed north to Corozal. I was driving in beautiful mountainous jungle, the other day, as I went north, it looked more like a drive up an undeveloped section of A1A on the Florida coast. Corazal was a small town on the ocean and seemed nicer than Orange Walk just south. I found a cheap hotel across the road from the beach. It was a nice quiet scene. I drove a short ways up the coast to the Mexico border. I contemplated trying to cross over but knew that I would not be able to drive the rental across, and it would probably be a hassle just like it was in Guatemala. I decided I would just end my trip with a nice relaxing evening at the hotel watching some local TV; there wasn’t much else to do in this town anyway. Early in the evening a powerful storm rolled in off the coast and slammed us with strong winds and rain. I was glad I didn’t stay another night at Placencia where I would certainly be gambling on making to the airport in time. From here the road was all paved to Belize City and I knew I could get there in a couple hours.

The next morning I left for the airport early enough to make some stops and have a leisurely pace. In the middle of nowhere, I pulled off the side of the road to take a leak. When I got back in the trooper the wheels were spinning out, I was stuck. On the side of the road was this chalky looking mud that was real thin but slick as ice. Fortunately I still had one wheel on the pavement so I tried again in 4WDR and was able to pull out of it. Another close call just hours before my flight took off. Finally I made it to the airport, paid my taxes, and headed back home. On the flight I pondered my 3 adventurous days in Belize. I felt like I really got off the beaten path having not seen a fast food restaurant or chain store the entire 3 days. But somehow I couldn’t help feeling that I really missed the best part, the cays (islands). I don’t regret my choice of exploring the mainland; it was a great adventure. But I have no doubt that I will be back here someday on a longer trip to see the real Great Blue hole, and do some first class scuba diving.

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