Belize. Its people, a rich melting pot of ethnicities, and its land of diverse geography, is a favorite destination for tourists, students, backpackers, archaeologists and expatriates, from North America and beyond. Historically, Belize’s indigenous population of Carib and Arawak tribes absorbed Guatemalans from the south; Mexican’s from the north and, most strikingly, the Garifuna, shipped wrecked Africans en route to captivity. In addition, Mayans, English, Lebanese, Chinese, East Indian and Mennonites have found their way to this archipelago, producing a diverse and tolerant population. English is the primary language, followed by Spanish, Creole, Garifuna and Mayan.
Belize has a population of 315,000, covers 8,897 square miles that includes 226 square miles of Islands. Yndiana and I started our visit with an official welcome on the tarmac in Belize City, before being quickly shuttled off to Tropic Air, the local airline, for a comfortable 20 minute flight, in a single engine puddle-jumper, to the town of Dangriga, with a eye catching descent over a grove of mango trees.
We spent our first night in Hopkins, at the upscale Jaguar Reef Lodge, an hour and fifteen minute drive from Dangriga. This finely appointed ocean-side lodge is beautiful and comfortable, with intricate shower tiles and elegant sconces and private hot tubs, under the stars. In the large open-air dining room overlooking the Caribbean, we enjoyed a buffet of regional cuisine and had our first taste of Garifuna dancing and drumming, an amazing display of drumming handwork coordinated with traditional African dancing.
We planned our trip to Belize to coincide with the official holiday, Settlement Day, on November 19, that commemorates the arrival of the Garifuna. The story begins in 1665 with the shipwreck of two British slave ships near the island of San Vicente. The slaves swam to freedom and settled on the island and, over time, mixed with the Caribe and Arawak, creating a rich and unique culture. This new population of black Caribes became known as Garifuna. But by 1823, the British had claimed sovereignty over the San Vincente and began to disperse its people. The Garifuna left for new lands, including Belize, where they’ve thrived ever since. UNESCO has recognized the Garifuna’s culture as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Under a light drizzle, we joined the Settlement Day festivities in Dangriga, with a parade and reenactment of the first settlers, all to the backdrop of the explosive and trance-like Garifuna drumming and dancing. Yndiana and I had been looking forward to hearing the drummers and were amazed at their speed, agility, passion and timely coordination with the colorfully dressed dancers. We were lucky enough to happen upon a drumming and dancing revival on the banks of the inlet, where the reenactment was performed and thoroughly embraced the music, the dancing, the food and history, and even watched as some dancers became entranced.
Our second leg of the journey commenced with a typical Garifuna lunch at the Pelican beach resort, a palm tree dotted landscape with a spectacular view of the Caribbean. The refreshing breeze and laidback attitude paved the way for a night of pleasant dreams.
The following day we met Mrs. Sabai, an herbalist, midwife, spiritualist and doll maker. An energetic woman with a sparkle in her eye and more than a hint of white beard on her chin, she told us wonderful stories, including how she came to make a two-headed doll.
“One night I was walking by the mirror, stopped and looked at myself and the changes my body had undergone through the years; the graying of the hair, the white beard and loss of teeth. My thought was how beauty changes from the exterior earlier in life, to the interior as one ages . . . Acceptance is part of the process.”
She showed us how her two-headed doll flips over to become a completely different persona, which reflects life’s physical and philosophical changes.
The following morning we visited Sabal’s Casava Farm where we were shown how cassava, the root vegetable, is gathered, cleaned, processed, cooked and packaged, all under one roof by this dear family. We want to thank the gracious Sabal family for taking the time to educate us.
Our next stop was San Ignacio, a two-hour journey on a well-paved road, through the jungle to a hillside town, with narrow streets and wooden shops; it was like the Wild West dropped into paradise. Here one meets Guatemalan travelers, archaeologists, Peace Corps workers, U.S. retirees and tourists. Bird watchers flock here to see upwards of six hundred species. One can bike, hike, canoe the Macal River or visit the Blue Morpho, a butterfly rearing facility. As we entered town under a light tropical mist for our interview with the noted Belizean archaeologist, Jaime Awe PhD, the outdoor market and Guatemalan vendors charmed us. We had a delicious lunch with Dr. Awe at the stately San Ignacio Resort, and an interesting discussion about his latest archaeological endeavor, over a bottle of Belikin beer.
Then we were off to the jungle ruins of Xunantunich, with means “maiden of the rock”, a major Mayan ceremonial site, and the second tallest Mayan structure in Belize. At 130 feet, perched on a hill over-looking the Mopan River, the ruins are easily climbable up a series of staggered stairways. In ten minutes we scaled the largest pyramid, El Castillo and were honored with a breathtaking view of the horizon, Guatemala and the Belizean Cayo district.
After an awe inspiring two hours wandering around the ruins, we headed to Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle Lodge for the next three days. Ian’s lodge, located in the heart of the jungle on a hillside overlooking a winding river, has accommodations for every spirited person, from a palapa thatched shelter with outdoor showers, to a overhanging cabin with spectacular view, king size bed and all the amenities. Good hearty food served buffet style in an open environment afforded one a chance to interact with others from all parts of the world.
The next morning at nine, a group of us boarded a converted school bus and headed into the jungle for a River Cave Expedition. When we hopped off the bus, we were handed a backpack and hardhat, equipped with a headlight, as visibility is nil, once deep in the cave. We put on our lights and plopped ourselves into inner tubes and, as instructed, paddled backwards against the current. After what seemed like a long time paddling backward, Arnold, our bi-lingual guide, instructed us to us to disembark and led us deep into the cave.
We viewed crystal formations over five million years old, Mayan ceremonial centers, relics, pottery shards and ashes from a thousand years ago, many resting in their original places. For two hours we explored the cave studded with stalagmites and stalactites. After lunch we headed back, by tube and foot, and trekked through an orange grove to our waiting bus and back to the Lodge. This was a memorable day and one we hope to repeat. Arnold’s historical and archaeological knowledge, and the tours expertise at maneuvering our group backwards through a rather forceful current in inner tubes, pays tribute to excellent training. After a serene night’s sleep, breakfast on the open air balcony, a chat with owner Ian Anderson, we headed to Belize City to catch a flight for the last leg of our trip.
Within minutes of our arrival at Belize’s small regional airstrip, we boarded a Tropic Air flight for a quick 20-minute hop to San Pedro, located on Ambergris Caye. Cayes are small sandy islands that formed on the surface of coral reefs and are protected by the barrier reefs. They vary in size and some are privately owned. Ambergris Caye is Belize’s largest island and the birthplace of its tourism, epitomized by the expression, “No shoes, No shorts, No Problem.”
A short drive to a dock, and we boarded Coco Beach Resort’s launch and within minutes, were skimming over calm aquamarine water and then glided up to the resort, adorned with palm trees, finely manicured vegetation and an inviting complex, all situated on a white sandy beach, laid out in a horseshoe pattern facing the ocean, with two swimming pools, a swim up bar and multiple sunning decks.
Coca Beach is designed for the ultimate in de-stressing for body and mind. Our suite bordered on opulent, with wide hallways, marbled floors, large tiled bathrooms, and spacious living, including a dining and kitchen area stocked with modern appliances and adorned by tasteful artwork. There’s a sister resort adjacent to the property, on a more economical scale, but with many of the same amenities, including water sports, fishing, sunbathing or cruising into town on a golf cart for a leisurely dinner, which is what we did the next night.
But first, Yndiana is up and out at five am to go diving in the famous Blue Hole, 50 miles off the coast. Centuries ago, a cave collapsed, leaving a nearly perfect circular hole, 1,000 thousand feet in diameter and 412 feet deep. Visible from outer space and popularized by the late Jacques Cousteau, this dive is on the wish list of any serious diver.
We dined at the Red Ginger in San Pedro on perfectly prepared grouper with Red Ginger’s signature sauce adorned by a dollop of goat cheese, and topped off the perfect evening on a moonlight cruise back to Coco Beach Resort. Hard to beat.
Early the next morning we headed to Belize City to catch a bus to Chetumal, a town on the Mexican border. Thanks to a bit of confusion on my part, we ended up at the wrong bus terminal, but were relieved to discover that there were buses headed to Chetumal. We bought express tickets for the two and one half hour ride, and waited for the big white bus, anticipating a comfortable snooze. Well, the “big white bus” rolled in, and to our surprise, it wasn’t white or big. With a quick mental shift, we hopped on the local bus, and thoroughly enjoyed our ride through the countryside and small towns, getting a “feel” for the real Belize. This is the joy of travel. Flexibility is a must.
Our time spent in Belize was extraordinary and eye opening. I had always thought of it as a fishing and beachcombing destination. But the diversity of its geography, from Cayes to coast, jungle to mountains, and its multiethnic background and archaeological sites, with many still uncovered, proved fascinating and much to do for the traveler who doesn’t want to spend all their time on the beach. Its kind and helpful people have seduced us into wanting to make a repeat trip, and a longer one to boot. We’ve but only touched on the beauty and diversity of Belize, and its vastness remains to be explored at some point in the future.
We would like to thank Seleni Matus, the Belizean Tourism Board, Ian Anderson (Caves Branch Lodge and Cave exploration), and Pelican Beach Resort, Jaguar Reef Lodge/Almond Beach Resort (Ian Anderson, Louis Diaz, and Coco Beach Resort for such a unique press trip.
By Bill Milligan