Two hours south of the southernmost Mexican border (Chetumal) lies an unbelievably diverse mixture of cultures, cuisines, geography and languages. Belize is situated between Mexico on its north, Guatemala on its south and west and the Caribbean ocean on its east. This geographic locale makes it a rich melting pot of ethnicities, life styles and an interesting blending of cultures to form an open and inviting arena to tourists, archaeologists, students, backpackers and expatriates from U.S., Europe, Canada and all over.
Belize has a population of 315,000 and covers 8,867 square miles, including 266 square miles of Islands. Guatemalans from the south, Mexicans from the north, shipped wrecked ex-slaves from the Caribbean ocean, mixing with native Carib and Arawak tribes (Garifuna), native Mayans, English, Lebanese, Chinese, East Indian and Mennonites are the backbone of this interesting multiethnic culture. This blending produces the Mestizos (Mayan and Spanish) and the Creoles (African and English) and many other non-named combinations. English is the primary language, followed by Spanish, Creole, Garifuna and Mayan.
We received an invitation to see this unique country in 2010. Landing on the tarmac in Belize City was followed by a brief welcome and quick shuttling over to the local airline, Tropic Air, for the first leg of our journey. A short and comfortable flight (20 minutes) in a single engine “puddle jumper” and we were descending over mango trees heading into the town of Dangriga.
Our first night was spent in Hopkins, an hour and fifteen minutes outside of Dangriga in the upscale beachside Jaguar Reef Lodge.Beautifully designed and finely appointed; this Lodge has been artistically created, from the intricate shower tiles and sconces to the private hot tubs under the stars. Their large open air dining room overlooking the Caribbean gave us our first taste of Garifuna dancing and drumming, an amazing display of hand work coordinated with traditional African dancing, while enjoying their buffet style regional cuisine.
Every year in the town of Dangriga, the garifuna people celebrate their arrival in 1832 on the shores of Belize with a reenactment of the shipwrecked African slaves, followed by traditional African drumming, dancing and festivities. Even though rain dampened the event, the clouds parted periodically to permit the parade down their Main Street and experience pockets of the explosive but trance like drumming of the locals.
Our second leg of this journey began with a typical Garifuna lunch at the Pelican beach resort, a palm tree dotted landscape, a spectacular view of the Caribbean and refreshing breezes, combined with a laid back attitude paved the way for a night of pleasant dreams.
The following day we interviewed the local herbalist, midwife, spiritualist and doll maker, Mrs. Sabal, an energetic woman with more than a hint of white beard on her chin and a sparkle in her eye. She related many interesting stories and interactions with her dolls, ideas coming through dreams and the impetus for her uniquely designed two trunk/headed doll that flips over to become a completely different persona. As she says “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 the loss of teeth. My thought was how the beauty changes from the exterior, earlier on in life, to the interior as one ages and acceptance is part of the process.” Thus, her making of a doll reflecting life’s physical and philosophical changes their recognition and their acceptance as part of one’s aging process.
Experiencing the Garifuna drummers had been both of our wishes, as Yndiana had seen them before in the islands and me, being a part time African drummer, was curious about their drums, rhythms and hand work. We were both amazed at their speed, agility, passion and perfect timing with the beautiful and colorfully dressed Garifuna women. Later on that day, Yndie and her uncanny timing landed her in the middle of a drumming and dancing revival setting on the banks of the inlet where the reenactment was performed. Rhythms flowed, people danced and clapped, some entered trances, one passed out…
The following morning we were on the road, headed to Sabals Casava Farm, where we were introduced to the gathering of cassava, cleaning, processing, cooking and packaging of the final product, all done 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, combining the old west with narrow streets and tropical wooden shops. Here one meets Guatemalan travelers, archaeologists, Peace Corps workers, U.S. retirees and tourists, bird watching (600 species), biking, hiking, canoeing the Macal River and visiting the Blue Morpho butterfly rearing facility. As we entered town under a light tropical mist for our interview with the noted Belizean archaeologist, Jaime Awe PhD, we were charmed with the outdoor market and the Guatemalan vendors. A delicious lunch with Dr. Awe at the stately San Ignacio Resort, an interesting interview discussing his latest archaeological endeavor and a bottle of Belikin beer and we were off to the jungle ruins of Xunantunich (“maiden of the rock”).
Xunantunich, a major Mayan ceremonial site is the second tallest Mayan structure in Belize (130 feet), perched on a hill over-looking the Mopan River. Easily climbable with staggered stair ways, we had scaled the largest pyramid, El Castillo within 10 minutes and were honored with a breathtaking view of the horizon, Guatemala and the Belizean Cayo district. After an awe inspiring two hours with the ruins we were off to Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle Lodge for three nights of sleeping with nature and exploring via tubes, the caves of ancient Mayan Ceremonial centers. Ian’s lodge, located in the heart of the jungle on a hillside overlooking a winding river has accommodations for every spirited person, be it palapa/thatched style with outdoor showers or overhanging cabins with great views, king size beds 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.
At 9 am the group was boarding a converted school bus and we were off to the jungle, beginning our River Cave Expedition. As we hopped off the bus we were given back packs with hard hats and a single cave light for our head, as visibility is nil further in the cave. Once at the cave entrance, we put on our lights and plopped ourselves into our inner tubes, and were instructed to paddle backwards against the exiting current till reaching a certain point where we could then walk the rest of the distance. After what seemed a long period of time we disengaged from our tubes and with our bilingual guide Arnold, began on foot our Mayan historical tour, viewing crystal formations over 5 million years old, ceremonial centers, relics, pottery shards and ashes from a thousand years ago, many still in their original places. After two hours of exploring deep into the caves interior, viewing stalagmites and stalactites, we had lunch and headed back, walking and tubing until the light of the cave entrance appeared. We then trekked through orange groves, boarded our bus and headed back to the Lodge.
This had been a memorable day and one we will repeat. Our guide’s historical and archaeological knowledge, along with their expertise at maneuvering our group backwards through a rather forceful current in inner tubes, pays tribute to their excellent training. After a serene night’s sleep, breakfast on the open air balcony, a chat with owner Ian Anderson, we were headed to Belize City to catch a flight, beginning the last leg of our trip.
Within minutes of our arrival at the small regional airstrip in Belize, we had boarded Tropic Air and 20 minutes later were descending into the town of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. A short drive to the dock and we were met by Coco Beach Resort’s launch and within minutes we’re skimming over calm pristine aquamarine waters en route to our resort for the next two days. As the launch decelerated and we glided up to Coco Beach’s pier, we were greeted by palm trees, finely manicured vegetation and an inviting Resort sitting on a white sanded beach.
Beautifully laid out in a horseshoe pattern facing the ocean and surrounding two swimming pools, a swim up bar and multiple sunning decks, this upscale Resort was designed for the ultimate in de-stressing the body and resting the mind. Inside, our room was bordering on opulent, wide hallways, marbled floors, large tiled bathrooms, spacious living, dining and kitchen area, modern kitchen appliances and tasteful artwork rounded out this delightful suite. Adjacent to this was their sister Resort, designed on a more economical scale but providing many of the same amenities. Water sports, fishing, hanging out or cruising into town on golf carts for a leisurely dinner make this a serious consideration for one visiting San Pedro.
Five am, time for Yndie to get up, as she’s going diving in the famous Blue Hole, 50 miles off the coast of Belize City. Centuries ago a cave collapsed leaving a nearly perfectly circular hole 1,000 feet in diameter and 412 feet deep, visible from outer space and popularized by the late Jacques Cousteau in the 70’s. This dive is on the wish list of any serious diver and Yndie had the honor of exploring this treasure and checking it off of her list.
San Pedro is the cobblestoned, golf cart riding, laid back town found on Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest island and the birthplace of Belize’s tourism. The expression, “No shoes, No shorts, No Problem,” epitomizes the Ambergris Caye attitude. The Cayes are small sandy islands formed on the surface of coral reefs and protected by the barrier reefs, varying in size, and privately owned by some. Upscale dining in San Pedro can be found at the Red Ginger, where we had wonderfully prepared grouper with their signature sauce and a dollop of goat cheese on top.
After a delightful evening we had a moonlight boat ride back to Coco Beach and early the next morning we were on our way to Belize City to catch a bus, destination, the Belizean/Mexican border town of Chetumal. Thanks to a bit of confusion on my part, we ended up at the wrong bus terminal, assuming we would be taking a modern, ultra comfortable, airconditioned bus for the 2-2 1/2 hour ride. After buying our express tickets, we patiently waited for the “big white bus,” preparing for two hour snooze the moment we hit those seats. Well the “big white bus” rolled into the terminal area and to our surprise, it wasn’t that white or that big. We made a quick mental shift, hopped on the bus and thoroughly enjoyed our ride through the countryside, small towns, passing outdoor markets and getting a “feel” for the real Belize.
Our time spent in Belize was extraordinary and eye opening for me, as I had always thought of it as a fishing and beachcombing destination. It’s diversity of geography; Cayes, coast, jungle and mountains, its multiethnic background, archaeological sites (many still undiscovered/uncovered), well paved main roads and mainly its kind and helpful people has easily seduced us into returning and spending a much longer period of time next year. We’ve but only touched on the beauty and diversity of this country 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), Pelican Beach Resort, Jaguar Reef Lodge/Almond Beach Resort (Ian Anderson, Louis Diaz, and Coco Beach Resort for such an unique press trip.
By Bill Milligan