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Belize Report

posted Apr 4, 2010, 11:11 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Apr 13, 2010, 6:14 PM ]
Hi there. This is a continuation of my unfinished post that can be found here.

The Belizian border wasn't too far from Chetumal, so I arrived there pretty early in the day. The border crossing was fairly easy, and the border guards were all friendly. One insisted that I try some kind of corn drink that a woman outside was selling. It was just like drinking corn on the cob - I had never seen anything like that in Mexico. 

South of the border, the roads were pretty flat, and I got to the small city of Corozal in time for lunch. I found a nice little food stand on the water, where I got a couple good burritos. Corozal was the first place I could experience the Belizian culture, and I wish I had something better to say about it than that it was just... strange... Corozal is a popular place for retired American gringos, there are LOTS of Chinese, Garifuna (African descent), and Hispanics. The Americans seem to only speak English, the Chinese speak Chinese and very little English, the Garifuna speak Creole and English, and the Hispanics speak Spanish and a little English. It is almost four totally distinct cultures living "around" each other, but seemingly without a whole lot of interaction between the different groups. Corozol was a nice enough town though, and it's a place where I wouldn't have minded spending a night if the timing had worked out for it.

After finishing my lunch, I got back on the road with the goal of arriving at Orange Walk by night. Along the way, a guy walking down the street stopped me to say that the road I was on only went to a little village, and that I should turn around and take the road that headed west that I had just passed. What he was saying didn't really match up with what I saw on my map, but I thought maybe since the road was just going to a small village it wasn't on there. After going a mile or so down the "correct" road, a sign told me that I had entered a town on the road I wanted to avoid, because it was the long way to Orange Walk. Sigh. It was only a few miles farther this way though, and backtracking would have added about the same distance, so I kept going the "long" way. I couldn't understand why someone would go out of his way to give me the wrong information, or if he was really just clueless but trying to help. Throughout Belize, my impression was that no one knew how to get anywhere, and in some cases they didn't even know if a road even existed or not.

I made it to Orange Walk that night as I had hoped, and stayed at the Aki-something hotel, which was right on the main road. It cost a little more than I would have liked, especially considering the small room and shared bathrooms. That night, wanting to experience some Belizian cuisine, I went across the street to a Chinese restaurant and got a big plate of Chicken Chow Mein for about $4US. It was awesome. Chinese restaurants are everywhere in Belize, and it seems that most stores are also owned by Chinese families. I never would have expected this.

The next day I left the hotel and headed toward Belize City. At around noon, I stopped for lunch at a food stand and got a good, grilled burger. There was a small bar attached to the stand, and a covered area with tables. Toto's "Africa" was playing on satellite radio. While I was waiting for my burger, I looked at my map for route through Belize. All of a sudden, a perfect route jumped right out at me. I'd get to go through a bird sancuary, Mayan ruins, a couple Menonite villages, some remote dirt roads in Western Belize, and a "Baboon" sancuary. I would pass the zoo, I'd go through Belize City and Dangriga, and I'd take the mountainous route to Blue Hole and beyond to San Ignacio. I was psyched! I quickly ate my hamburger and with my new awesome route as motivation, backtracked a few miles to the road to Crooked Tree, home of a bird sanctuary and the first stop on my way west through the country. My map showed a dirt road going beyond Crooked Tree to a small town on the river, and I knew there were boats that frequently went down the river between Orange Walk and the ruins of Lanmanai. I'd just wait on the shore and flag down a passing boat. 

I stopped at the bird sanctuary first to get some information. The guy there said there was actually no road to that river, and that just like the roads on the map he handed me, they are all "proposed" and don't actually exist, but that I could camp there for whatever the fee was, or I could get a boat to take me through some swamps and down a small river to the river I wanted to get to. He quickly changed his mind and said that it was too dangerous that way, and they discourage people from doing it. Feeling aggrivated already, I decided to head further into Crooked tree, and try my luck asking someone else for directions. The town is a maze of dirt roads, so I rode in the direction I thought would be good, and asked someone on a bike where the road to the next town was. He looked at the map, shrugged, said he didn't know and rode off. Feeling slightly more annoyed and wondering how someone couldn't know the only road to the only town beyond Crooked Tree, I pulled into the yard of a family who, according to a sign on the road, led tours throughout Belize. Perfect! If anyone can help, it would be them! Well, I'm not going to waste my time going into all the details of how this played out, but in the end I spent two hours talking to the father and then his son, and didn't get a single question answered. The son said there is a road, but it is so hard to get to I would need to pay a guide to find it. (He was the guide). I obviously wasn't going to pay him to take me 6 miles down the road, and he wasn't going to give me the information I needed to get there myself, so feeling like there was some kind of conspiracy keeping me from getting there, I went back the way I came, knowing that I'd never get to ride the great route I had found.

A little more than half way between there and Belize City, I stopped at a store to get some snacks and drinks. An intelligent Garifuna woman was there with her young children, and said that any of those people should have been able to tell he how to get to that town. When I showed her the rest of the route I had wanted to take, she said the road through Western Belize is very dangerous due to the fact it is so close to the Guatemalan border, and popular with drug runners. OK, so as frustrating as my afternoon had been, it was for the best that I didn't make it out that way. She also told me that Belize City was very dangerous, and there were parts of it that she wouldn't go into.

I made it just to the outskirts of Belize city by night, and stopped at a few hotels before finding one that was reasonably priced. Luckily for me, there was a Chinese restaurant right next door and I got my second order of Chicken Chow Mein in Belize.

My plan was to ride the rest of the way into the city the next morning, and take a day off there to see the city and take care of some chores. All I can say is that Belize City was horrifying (I'm exaggerating a little, but not much). I rode by two of the guesthouses that I had considered staying at, but didn't even stop to look inside or get prices. I also didn't see anything else even remotely appealing in the city that would give me a reason to stay. Deciding to leave the city was one of the easiest decisions of the trip, but finding my way out of the city became the problem...

I decided I could still do part of the great route I had found the day before, so I headed off the Western Highway, and up to Bermudian Landing and the "Baboon" sanctuary. (I'm using quotes around "Baboon" since there really aren't Baboons there, they're actually Howler Monkeys, but the locals call them Baboons anyway). On my map, just beyond Bermudian Landing the road seemed to end at one side of a river, and continue on the other side back down to the Western Highway. It seemed likely enough that there would be some way across since taking the roads would be a LONG way around. There was a lot going on in Bermudian Landing, and I learned that everyone was there for what I think was the longest canoe race in Central America. Further up the road I came to the river, where people were finishing for the day and taking their canoes out of the water. Since there was no bridge or ferry in sight this was perfect! I'd just have to give someone some beer money to take me to the other side. Unfortunately, everyone had paddled about 50 miles that day, and no one was interested in taking me and my gear across. After doing a little exploring, I found one of the local's canoes that was tied to a tree. Unfortunately, it was on the wrong side of the river... I talked to some people at a nearby house, and they went back to the river with me. They said that I could use the canoe - I'd just have to swim across to get it. OK, no big deal - but the canoe racers had told me about a crocodile just downstream from there! After being assured by the two guys that crocodiles there don't bother people, and that they go turtle diving there all the time, I stripped down to my riding shorts, swam across to the other side, got the canoe, paddled back across, loaded my bike and trailer into it, paddled back across, then carried my bike and trailer up the hill on the other side. 

There was a huge farm on the other side that was run by just two guys. The guys on the other side had tried to get the farmer's attention by using a high pitched "yelp" that I couldn't have done if I had tried. The farmer didn't hear that, but he didn't miss the sound of his three dogs telling me to get off their territory. After they quieted down, he said I could camp there and even use his kitchen to cook my dinner. He was cooking his own, and shared some fried bananas and cream with me. Really good stuff. His name was Carlos (I think) and he was a compact, energetic Guatemalan who was always moving around or doing something, or talking very loudly (maybe to help me understand his Spanish). The other farmer, Moses, was also there.

The next day I had a great ride on the dirt access road between the farm and the highway. I had planned on a short day, which gave me time to visit the Belize Zoo (which is kind of in the middle of nowhere). The zoo was really nice, with a big collection of native animals, all of which had been rescued, or born there. All the signs had pretty creative, poetic descriptions of the animals. After that I was back on the road, this time heading south on the remote and unpaved Coastal Highway. It was the first unpaved highway I had been on since Canada, and it was awesome. There were some great views, and since there is a longer, but paved alternate, there was very little traffic. There were some sections with deep enough sand that I'd have to push, but for the most part the riding was pretty good. I still didn't make it to Dangriga by nightfall (I didn't really expect to anyway), so I rode until it started getting dark and camped on a farm in a place that wasn't visible from the road.

The next day I had a short ride the rest of the way into Dangriga. I had heard that this town had the same Garifuna culture as Belize City, but that it was much more relaxed and safe. Instead of taking a day off there, I'd just spend the afternoon there taking care of my chores. I found "Val's Hostel" shortly after arriving, which apparently has a really good reputation. Personally, I think Val has a little bit of OCD. There are signs everywhere telling you what you can and can't do, where you can and can't put your towels, that you can't sit on someone else's bed, that you can't move the fans, etc. I tested one of the beds in the dorm by pressing on it with my hand, and she immediately removed the hand imprint from the sheet. Hostels are usually VERY laid back, so this was all a little unusual. No biggie though, it was clean, comfortable and there were some other travelers there to talk to. One of them had always wanted to do a trip like mine, so we talked for quite a while about that.

I had been wearing the same clothes for about a week, so washing them was a priority. Val's was originally just a laundry service, then she added internet, and guest rooms, so I wouldn't have to go far. I had a little over a pound of laundry to do, and she charges $1US per pound, reasonable enough. Then she told me she has a four pound minimum. I was used to paying $1US in Mexico to have my clothes washed and dried, so paying $4 was pretty outrageous. It's not that $3 was such a big deal, but it was a ridiculous policy, and since I hadn't payed that much to have my clothes cleaned since Jasper, I decided to find another place. She wouldn't tell me where else to go of course, and this led to my next adventure...

I headed into town looking for a laundromat and stopped at a food stand to see what the woman was selling and if she could tell me where to get my laundry done. She was Garifuna and presumably Creole was her first language, but since Creole is also known as "broken english" she spoke some of that too. I'll call her the Hot Dog lady (HL) and her friend the Loud Lady (LL). Here's how the encounter went:

Me: Hi. What do you sell here?
HL: Hot dogs.
Me: OK, I'll come back later. I'm looking for a laundromat, do you know where I can find one?
HL: They're $2 each. (Belizian)
Me: OK. Do you know where I can find a laundromat?
HL: Blank stare
LL: (Loudly) He wants change for $100!!!
HL: I don't have that much.
Me: Huh? No, I need to clean my clothes. (gesturing towards my shirt)
LL: (Loudly) He needs to change his clothes!!!
HL: I don't know where you can change your clothes.
Me: What?? No, - I - need - to - wash - my - clothes.
HL: (Giving up, brought me around the corner to someone who's English was slightly less broken)

The guy's name was George, and he assured me that he was a fisherman, and not a bum. What a relief. He said he could take me down the street to where two woman could hand wash my clothes - it's much better than a machine he said. We headed down the road for about a block and to the poorest looking house on the street. In the typical Belizian architecture, it was on stilts a few feet of the ground, and there was some evidence that a long time ago, the house had been painted white. There were two large ladies inside, and we agreed that $2US was a reasonable price. 

Day 6 in Belize. In my cleaner-than-ever clothes, I headed out of Dangriga to the Hummingbird Highway. This road cut through the mountains and had some of the steepest hills of the trip. One one of the first, it was so steep and I had to pedal so hard in my low gear, that my front tire was nearly coming off the road. I stopped for drinks and snacks at one point, and while I was eating an old woman came outside to talk. Her family owned the store and the house above it. She spoke very good English, Spanish, and I was surprised to hear her speak Chinese to two Asian woman who were entering the store. She said I should find a wife and have kids so they can look after me when I get older, and quoted something from the Bible saying as much.

In the afternoon I arrived at one of the two Blue Hole's in Belize. The other one must be the good one... The Blue Hole I was at is where an underground river surfaces and forms a small clear pond. Cool enough, but I was scratching my head wondering why I paid to see it. I headed back out into the park, and decided to do a short hike through the jungle. The hike was great, and I could leave without regretting that I had paid the entrance fee. Just down the road was another entrance to the park, and I was told I could camp there behind someone's house. Since camping is one of the services offered by the park, I didn't understand why I'd be in someone's back yard, but I went there anyway. I had to pay $5BZ to get into that entrance and to camp, and I learned that the old campground was no longer in use, and the house was occupied by one of the young park rangers. There was no water there, so I had to hike into the jungle, to the entrance of a cave that had a river running through it. Wicked cool. I don't think I was supposed to, but I couldn't resist hiking into the cave for as long as there was a trail of reflectors. I had my flashlight and headlamp just to be safe.

The next morning, I decided to hike the other trails in the park. The ranger said it would take 2.5 hours, and I think I finished in less than 2. The trail was very cool - I'm a big fan of jungles. I hiked up to a lookout tower that had a decent view of the surrounding area, but I didn't make it out to the other cave in the park. I spent the rest of the day riding to San Ignacio, which along with the Cayes, is one of the tourist hotspots in Belize. I stayed at a campground named Mana Kai for $5US per night, for a total of three nights. Near Bermudian Landing, some people had told me about the ATM trip that I could take from San Ignacio, and that even though it was expensive, it was an amazing experience that shouldn't be missed. I reluctantly shelled out $75 for the trip, and since the guy at the tour company told me I was getting the best deal ever, I also signed up for a trip out to the Corocal ruins, and waterfall swim. Later I would hear him tell someone else the same thing, and I was jealous that I had overpaid. ;)

The ATM tour leaves first thing in the morning, and lasts all day. First there is a 45 minute ride to a trailhead, followed by a 45 minute hike through the jungle and across rivers. After that we had an early lunch at the cave entrance before heading in with helmets and headlamps for the next three hours. There is a river flowing out of the cave, and everyone had to swim in, one at a time. Once we were all inside the cave and back on solid ground, the leader led us through various passages and explained what we were seeing. He knew about everything inside and out of the cave, and unlike some of the other leaders we passed, was very professional and respectful of the sacredness of the cave, since it had been used in many rituals by the Mayans. While walking through the cave, we were almost always in water, sometimes it was ankle deep, and sometimes above our waists. At one point, just after the last natural light in the cave, the guide asked us to turn our lights off and form a human chain, while making as little noise as possible. After a few minutes we stopped and the guide started playing an instrument I couldn't recognize, but it was almost like a drum, with four different notes. After a minute of this he turned his light on and I was totally blown away to see that he was playing a stalactite!!! We all took a turn trying to play it ourselves, but weren't quite as good as he was. At the farthest point we went into the cave there was a "room" that was elevated about 10 feet from the water, which had scattered Mayan pots, some broken, and some looking like new. There were also the remains of human sacrifices, including the completely intact skeleton of a 16 year old girl at the farthest end of the room. Totally amazing experience. What $75??

The next day was the trip to Corocal. It was the first time I had a guide while seeing ruins, so it was good to get some history of the things I was seeing. After that we went to the Rio On falls just long enough to take pictures, and then went swimming for a while at Big Rock falls, which had some great cliffs for jumping off. It was a good day, but I could have lived without it, and with the $55US I dropped for the day.

Even though I had just had two days off, I had my usual maintenance stuff to do, laundry, bike work, etc. I also knew that another Pan Am rider was camped just outside of San Ignacio at a place called the Trek Stop. I rode there and met up with him in the morning. We spent quite a while talking, which delayed all the other stuff I had to do. My right shift lever had been getting sticky, so I decided to work on that. After having a few problems, I decided replacing the cable was the easiest solution, but I couldn't get the cable out of the shift lever! It was too late to continue using the same cable, so I had to ask the owner to drill out the cable end, as it was the only way to get the cable out. This did the trick, and not long after I had a new cable routed and it was shifting like new again.

The other cyclist there was named Baptiste. He started riding in Alaska at about the same time I did, but had already passed through Guatemala and was heading East into Belize while waiting for some supplies, before heading south into Honduras. Since I had already been through Belize and was heading west into Guatemala, riding together wasn't an option at that point. I had also met another cyclist the night before who had been touring for about three years. He's been all over the world, and doesn't seem to mind getting on a bus to miss the more boring sections of road, such as the stretch north of Belize. He wasn't sure if he was going to head south further into Belize, or West into Guatemala, and I never saw him again after Trek Stop.

The next morning I crossed into Guatemala!