San Ignacio, Belize

Another day, another bus ride further into the jungle. San Ignacio, heart of the Cayo District, doesn’t have a bus station, so the bus lets off in the cute little town center. We then caught a cab up the steep hill to our resort. We’d decided to splash out on a bit fancier digs this time, and stayed at Cahal Pech, which had a sweeping view of the surrounding jungle, beautiful lawns full of flowering bushes and trails winding around little cabins, an outdoor dining porch and bar, and several pools, one of which had this incredibly bizarre-looking pterodactyl looming over it. I eventually asked the bartender what the deal was with the pterodactyl and he said there was no real point, it just set them apart, and this way the kids in town could say they wanted to go swimming at “the pterodactyl place.” Fair enough.

We checked in, and then immediately headed out to view some Mayan ruins. Our hotel was a mere block away from the Cahal Pech ruins, which are Mayan ruins dating from about 1200 BCE and only excavated in the ’90s. We walked all around in the blazing sun.

After wearing out the ruins, we walked down the big hill to another resort where there was an iguana sanctuary. The day had actually started off overcast and cool, and I was wearing a cotton T-shirt, which was a huge mistake. By the time we finished at the ruins, it was sopping wet, and by the time we got down to the resort, I was basically wearing a boiling hot, sopping wet blanket. I had raging heat rash all around my neck. This resort was much fancier than ours, with a nice, marble lobby, lots of respectable older people enjoying fruity cocktails on the deck, and primly obsequious staff. I felt like a disgusting spectacle. I also really felt like I was going to pass out. I went into the bathroom, whipped my shirt off, wrung it out, and took a cold water bath in the sink, all the while praying no one would come in. Then, I stood around shirtless and panting until I felt a bit better. Luckily, no one came in.

Then, it was time to see the iguanas! Our guide was a young man who was at *that* age; the tour was rife with innuendo, and we learned more about the iguanas’ mating habits (or latent sexuality) than anything else. On the way to the iguana hut, our guide pointed out various tropical plants: the “tourist tree” because of the way its white trunk shredded into red strips; some sort of large seed pods that were called something to do with balls; and, most entertainingly, a tree whose berries were referred to as “butt plugs” because, our innocent guide explained, they make you constipated.

The habitat was for green iguanas, which are friendly and docile and endangered; this as opposed to the gray, spiny tailed iguanas we’d previously observed in the wild, and which are not to be tangled with. The small greenhouse was crawling with apparently sixty iguanas. They lounged on every available surface; you had to be very careful where you stepped or leaned. We met “nice Noel” who had the misfortune of being pretty easy-going, and thus was the go-to iguana for being held and passed around and flipped upside down and taken to schools and events for children to hold and pass around and dangle. He took all this in stride.

We also saw an enormous male iguana whose name I forget who had made it absolutely clear that unlike beta Noel, he was not to be held or even approached by humankind or any male iguanas. He lounged on a platform with about six female iguanas piled around him, which was a lifestyle our guide naturally had a lot to say about.

We got to feed the iguanas leafy branches, which they were completely down for, and then we went into a separate room and had baby iguanas tossed all over us (their tiny nails felt pretty great digging into my heat rash). And then the tour was done.

E and I walked back up the huge hill and spent the rest of the day swimming and drinking and eating. The next day, we went on a cave tour that was so bananas, it deserves its own post.

Belmopan, Belize

After two days in Caye Caulker, E and I decided to head on into the jungle. We took a water taxi to Belize City, then a cab to the bus station, then a chicken bus to Belmopan. The bus was packed solid and boiling hot, but fortunately the bus ride went by relatively quickly. The landscape we passed was tropical farmland — lots of hot, exhausted horses with cattle egrets on their heads, crumbling pastel farmhouses, and the occasional large open-air bar/restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

Eventually we rolled into Belmopan and a taxi driver accosted us in the bus station (in open defiance of the signs that insisted they stay out front) and took us to our requested hotel. He very much wanted to secure our business for any jaunt we might care to take while in town, and so he came on in the hotel with us and wanted to wait while we settled ourselves, or take us to lunch and then to wherever we cared to go. This sort of thing exhausts me about traveling. We finally got rid of him after he spent some time making sure the very nice young girl behind the desk knew exactly who he was and that we weren’t permitted to be driven anywhere by anyone else.

I do have sympathy. It was quite obvious from the state of Belmopan that economic opportunities were few and far between. And for all this guy’s pushiness, there were fewer touts in Belize than there have been absolutely anywhere I’ve ever traveled. In fact, it was a problem at times, because both E and I just assumed that wherever we showed up, we’d be able to turn around and find fifty people jostling to take us somewhere, as had been the case in every other developing country we’d backpacked in. But in fact, it was not the case, and a lot of times, we ended up schlepping it.

At any rate, we took turns having showers, which was unbelievably wonderful. We had had our main travel day on possibly the hottest day ever — it was so hot that even the Belizeans could talk of little else. The whole country spent the day slumped on whatever surface was nearest them, repeating over and over to anyone who happened by, “Dear God, it is so hot.”

After hosing off, we took a short (hot) walk over to what passed for a busy street in Belmopan and found a very cute outdoor bar where we both ordered the daily special, which was a delicious fried fish the size of a baby.

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After that, we were finally ready to get down to tourism business. The thing to do in Belmopan is to go to the Blue Hole National Park, which has a lovely cave fed pool you can swim in. We got instructions on how to get there from the girl at the front desk (just get on a bus and tell the driver to let you off there). She suggested we walk back to the bus station, but luckily another worker from the hotel was leaving at the same time, and offered to drop us off, which was fortunate as the walk was actually super long and we would surely have perished.

Belize bus stations are hot and crowded. They have a lot of wooden benches, but few people sit on them. Instead, would-be passengers hover anxiously behind large iron gates that are only swung open when a bus arrives. When that happens, it becomes an every man for himself free-for-all in which the ancient and the infantile alike are trampled heartlessly underfoot in the crush. I assumed there was no real point to this (as I’d traveled in China where people did this just ’cause), but we later found out that the buses often arrive nearly full and seats are first come, first serve. If you don’t get a seat, it’s another hour waiting in the hot sticky bus station, and no guarantee the next bus will have space.

E and I were lucky every time, though; we always managed to get a seat. Including today. A friendly guy sitting next to me (who I assumed from his probing questions about our trip was a creepy jerk, until he got off his stop without any attempt to come along with us; alas the necessary paranoia of the solo female traveler) told me all about the Blue Hole and which part of the park we needed to go to, and how much it would cost, and finally that it closed at 4:00pm. It was at this point 2:50pm.

“Just enough time for a refreshing swim,” he said unconvincingly.

By the time the driver pulled over on the shoulder of the highway in the middle of nowhere and told me and E to get off, it was about 3:15. The park turned out to be just around a bend in the road, and the guy in the ticket booth gave us a discount as it was so close to closing time. It was a short hop down the trail to the blue hole.

And the blue hole was wonderful. The water was icy cold and clear and full of slim white fish that darted up and away from you, and it was also full of a large German family, a smaller family, and about six or seven youths. Soon, though, everyone left except for the smaller family — a little boy, a French man, and two Canadian women. One of them told us to swim over to the rock wall and look down, which we hadn’t thought to do, so we did as we were told, and saw that below us was an endlessly deep plunge along the rock wall, disappearing below ground. It felt incredibly strange and more than a little creepy to hover over it.

We talked to these people a bit, and they turned out to be a family that had moved to Belize six months ago, had bought a ton of land cheap, and were now building a house, and their friend visiting them for vacation. They were very nice and then they left, and E and I had the place to ourselves.

We splashed around until just 4, and then we obediently left the park. The ticket guy was just leaving his hut, and we asked him if there was anywhere nearby we could catch a cab or a bus.

“Hmm,” he said, looking as if no one had ever asked him such a puzzler before. “If you go up the road just a bit, there’s a bus stop. And the bus should be along in about fifteen minutes.”

We thanked him and walked back to where we’d gotten off the bus, and waited across the highway in the weeds. And waited. And waited. Cars and trucks and vans passed (honking) but no bus. We waited some more. It started to get dark. We began to get nervous.

highway

And then a van (not pictured) pulled off the road and the woman from the family we’d just met called out the window to ask us if we needed a ride. We gratefully accepted. They told us that the buses heading in that direction were actually small white vans that wouldn’t stop unless they had room (see above for the only picture E happened to snap while we waited, in which she very likely captured the full “bus” that didn’t stop). This gracious, delightful family drove us all the way back to Belmopan and to our hotel. There, we discovered that the ceiling of our room had begun to leak (more like stream), so the confused boy who’d taken over at the front desk upgraded us to a “suite” across the hall. It turned out that a guest in the room above ours had leaned on the sink so hard that it broke off the wall. (!!)

We went back to the same bar for a dinner of loaded nachos and beers, and a lot of attention from the friendly server who wanted us to attend a party the bar was throwing on Sunday. We told him we were leaving for San Ignacio the next morning.

“Ah,” he said, looking so genuinely crestfallen that we almost agreed to stay. “This is how everyone is — they arrive in Belmopan, take one look, and off to San Ignacio.”

Poor little Belmopan. In fact, E and I agreed that stopping over a night there was probably a mistake given the short duration of our trip. Still, everyone we met there was nice as could be, and if we’d had a longer time in Belize, we might have explored a bit more.

Caye Caulker

On the last night of my work meetup, my BFF, E, met up with me, and we struck out from San Pedro the next morning to spend a week exploring Belize. We hadn’t done any planning in advance, so I suggested we first go stay on Caye Caulker for a day or two and soak up some island time.

We took a water taxi over, found a room, and then, it being so hot we couldn’t think of anything but getting under water as quickly as possible, we headed up to the Split for margs and swimming in that order. The split has this deep churning neon turquoise water all around the docks, but no one was swimming in it, which we thought odd, but soon realized was due to the strength of the current, which nearly carried us out to sea. We struggled around in it for awhile, always stopping before we were in risk of humiliating ourselves (it’s not the being carried out to sea that concerns; it’s the having to exert a very great deal of effort not to be carried out to sea in front of the staring eyes of many, many sunbathers who are all weighing whether or not someone is going to be required to dive in and drag you out), and made some friends. I have a pretty noticeable tattoo on my left forearm of three colored chevrons. It’s not meant to be military; it’s just supposed to be a random geometrical design. But it looks military, and everyone in Belize kept calling me ‘sergeant’ which was embarrassing.

Incidentally, all of these photos are by E; I took basically no photos on this trip.

After we wore that out and the sun had started to sink a bit, we explored the island, which is small and colorful and full of chihuahuas and pit bulls and families zooming around in golf carts and men sprawled out under the trees who say things like, “Slow down, ladies, you goin get a speedin’ ticket.” The main drag is lined with restaurants and bars and shops selling tours, and it dead ends at a bright yellow and orange hotel next to a small overgrown cemetery. Up and down each coast of the island are neon-colored hotels with large verandas and neatly swept private seating areas in front of the docks.

Our evening sort of started out like this:

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And then quickly moved along to more of this:

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Which led to some of this:

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And eventually progressed to this:

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After which, things quickly went downhill (relatives and coworkers might wish to skip down five paragraphs or so).

E and I have a little problem in that every time we get together, we are so extremely excited to hang out with each other again that we (completely accidentally) go out of the gates way, way too hard, after which we are extremely remorseful and behave ourselves the entire rest of the time, and swear up and down that it will never happen again. Then, the next time we get together we have a big hearty laugh about how ridiculously we behaved the last time we hung out, and we sure will not be making that mistake this time, and then…yeah.

How it happened this time was, we went to dinner at Wish Willy’s because I wanted more of the delicious fish I had had. And it was just as delicious, but this time, the proprietor, Willy(?), who is a perennially stoned man with a big mass of braids and a very relaxed approach to life, decided to park himself at our table and talk to us all night, and to present us with many, many shots of very nice rum.

Now, at some point in life, all women have to learn that just because a man is putting a never-ending series of drinks in front of you does not mean you should just go ahead and drink them all. And I fully intend to learn this myself any day now.

After this, things are a bit of a blur, but I do remember the three of us skipping merrily through the streets of Caye Caulker holding hands and possibly singing, and then spending some time at a bar which was full of swings instead of benches, and then E and I making our way back to our hotel via the extreme scenic route. And then being very, very sick. Now that we’re in our mature 30s, I can at least say that we were in bed by about 11:00pm, which makes the amount of damage we were able to do beforehand all the more impressive.

Next morning, we were in no hurry to get moving, but eventually, we dragged ourselves up and showered, and went out in search of breakfast.

But on the way, I unfortunately had cause to stop into the office and request maid service with many apologies (all my fault). The giant, round manager in T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops was sprawled out behind his desk, and a small, silent, scowling guy was hunched in a chair by the door, so I had an extra witness as I apologized profusely and blushed and stammered through an explanation that I had exceeded my personal limits the night before, rum-wise, and had become ill rather inconveniently just outside the bathroom, and so perhaps it would be best if some cleaning supplies could just be dropped off in our room so that I could deal with it myself.

After a moment of shocked silence, the manager waved his hand in front of his face. “No worries,” he said, grandly. “This is your vacation, we will take care of everything.”

“No, but I just–”

“–You do whatever you like, lady. Enjoy yourself. We are here to serve you.”

I stammered another apology and beat it, and as I left, the previously silent man in the chair by the door winked at me and said, “You have a good day now, sergeant.”

Which is all to say that I am so happy to represent American women wherever I travel, and to contradict the unfortunate stereotypes re: us by always conducting myself with dignity, grace, and cultural sensitivity.

Anywhoo, having completely destroyed my reputation in Caye Caulker within twelve hours of setting foot on it, I rewarded myself with an enormous quesadilla and a great deal of coffee, and then E and I found some shore-side chairs to collapse in for a while, and watched a man throw coconuts off a pier for his pit bulls to retrieve.

Miraculously, we started to feel better — so much so, that we thought we might be able to do some snorkeling. It was late afternoon by this time, so most of the tours were done, but we did manage to find one guy who was going out, Carlos. He took us and two Canadian girls (who I gathered were getting a late start for similar reasons) out on his little boat, and we went out to the reef and snorkeled for hours and hours. It was pretty fantastic. There was basically nobody out but us, it being late and also pretty choppy out. It was so choppy that as you snorkeled along, you’d see the trench between a wave pulling down right in front of you, and the silt was kicked up a bit, but visibility was still really great.

Carlos gave us a bit of a tour, but then after that, he let us snorkel until we wore it out. We went to three different spots in the reef, including Shark Ray Alley, where I had the extremely bizarre experience of being “hugged” by a stingray — one rose up out of the water and just completely enveloped me. Carlos had been going around petting and bear-hugging all the sharks and rays (which I don’t think is really allowed, but whatever) and feeding them fish heads, and I guess this one was looking for more food. I reacted about how I do whenever I’m bear-hugged by a stranger with no preliminaries, by swearing and flailing around. I hope I didn’t offend the ray or anything; I was just surprised.

After we’d snorkeled to our heart’s content, Carlos gave us a tour around Caye Caulker, pointing out the various buildings and the wildlife, and a sinkhole, and explaining aspects of the island’s unique ecosystem (pelicans shit in the trees, which drips down to the water and feeds the baby fish), and about the caves that run all underneath the islands (it’s like Swiss cheese, some people set out to explore them all once, but they died and no one’s tried it since).

That evening, E and I watched the sunset and then went to dinner, and managed not to disgrace ourselves.

Snorkeling In Belize

Our group outing for the week was a snorkeling trip. My coworker, Denise, who planned our entire trip because she’s awesome, had reserved for us a super fancy-schmancy boat. I think that the first time anyone invites you on a boat trip, most people picture some sort of yacht and end up in a rusted out rowboat, so over the years, you learn to curb your expectations, boat-wise. But this boat was a very excellent boat, with a big comfortable deck and mats and beanbags to sprawl out on.

We rolled up to the first snorkel spot towering above everybody else in their little dinghies, like we were rappers or something. The snorkeling was excellent, as well — at least, I think it was. This was actually my first time snorkeling so I have no basis for comparison. The great thing about snorkeling is the crystal clear turquoise water, the beautiful rainbow-colored fish, the warmth on your back (I knew to wear a shirt), and the luxury of just bobbing effortlessly along while a subterranean world unfolds before you.

Less great things about snorkeling include the occasional mouth full of salt water, the grubby mouth piece tasting of ocean and fish, routinely getting slapped across the face with other people’s flippers, trying very hard not to wallow up against a fragile, protected coral reef, and the smell that eventually builds up in your snorkel mask.

We broke up into two groups and swam around the reef with our guides, who explained about the various fishes and types of coral, and tried to tease some moray eels out to where we could see them. The reef was really crowded that day — a turtle resembled a starlet in the midst of a swarm of masked, flippered paparazzi. And at one point, a fleet of scuba-diving men cruised directly underneath me, which was rather surreal.

My favorite fish were the yellow-head wrasse (while not as colorful as some fish, the schools of them were adorable) and the stoplight parrotfish (the latter fish I saw on my second snorkeling trip, and it was so gorgeous that I actually gasped…and got a lungful of seawater as a wave went over me at that moment).

We then got back on our boat and headed over to Shark Ray Alley, a section of the reef so named because fishing boats have always dumped their scraps overboard there, with the result that the area is thronging with nurse sharks and rays who don’t mind swimming right up to boats and people. We anchored and our guides got busy throwing rotten fish and crab carcasses into the water for the nurse sharks to snap up with a distincive popping sound their little suction cup mouths make. The rest of us dropped in undetected (mostly, that is; when it was my turn to get in, all the sharks bumrushed me) off the other side of the boat and swam around behind them to watch them feast. These photos are again from my coworker, Victoria, who came equipped with an underwater GoPro and selfie stick.

After that, we had another boat ride over to Caye Caulker for lunch, but on the way there, our guide brought out a never-ending parade of fresh sushi, individual coconut-rum pies, and ceviche to be washed down with Panty Rippers and Horny Monkeys, and by the time we landed, we were fairly stuffed.

Caye Caulker is a tie-dyed fantasia of Caribbean tourism, with car-free white streets gleaming beneath a pitiless sun. We crawled along attempting to explore while our cover-up clothing became quickly as sopping wet as our suits had been, and the exposed tops of our feet started to smoke. It was so hot, the vendors hawking cowrie-shell figurines and cornrow braiding couldn’t even be bothered to call out to us.

Eventually we arrived at our lunch destination, Wish Willy’s, a relaxed backyard restaurant with a bunch of card tables spread out in the yard around a house. We were fed piles of delicious grilled meats, seafood, and veggies cooked by the proprietor (Willy?) on a nearby grill.

After that, we walked up to the Split, which is a waterway dividing the island in two. The Lazy Lizard bar dominates the Split, with docks for sunbathing and a lagoon with bar tables for standing in up to your waist while children splash around you. We drank in the shade until it was time to get back on our boat and head back to the Sundiver, where Willy had been anxiously awaiting us with a newly replenished stock of coconut rum.

San Pedro, Belize

Back in April, I spent two weeks in Belize. The first week was a meetup with my coworkers, and it was on the island of San Pedro, which is one of the two main tourist islands off of Ambergris Caye (the other being Caye Caulker). We had a small lodge (Sundiver Lodge) to ourselves — nine of us were there, plus the staff.

It was a bit of a job getting to the island. After flying into the one-horse airport, we had the option of taking a 20 minute flight or a three-hour water taxi over to San Pedro. Almost everyone went for the flight, but Jerry and I went for the water taxi, because reasons.

After living in the desert for two years, the humidity hit me the second I stepped off the plane. The air felt like a warm wet blanket all around me. We stopped by the duty-free to stock up on liquor and wine and then took a taxi through Belize City to the docks. Belize City is full of sherbert-colored buildings, palm trees, construction, and school children in white polyester uniforms.

At the docks, we bought our tickets and had a beer before joining a long line of sweating locals and tourists and hustling down into the water taxi interior. The water taxi journey was fairly endless, but at long last, we arrived in downtown San Pedro, which consists of a Main Street, with many bars with patios overlooking the beach and docks down one side, and shops and restaurants down the other.

Finally, after one more water taxi ride to the Sundiver, we arrived at our very own dock! Incidentally, the water taxi system on San Pedro seems to run rather on island time. If you’re going from downtown to one of the resorts, there’s a pretty regular schedule, but if you’re traveling the other way around, it’s sort of on you to attract enough attention to yourself to get a water taxi to come by your dock. Several nights, I watched the staff from our resort run to the end of the pier in the evenings and jump madly up and down, waving their arms, only to be ignored by a passing water taxi and settle down to wait for the next one.

That first evening, we arrived after dark and found our coworkers relaxing by the pool, drinking rum punch made by the bartender, Willy, who would be our constant companion over the next week. In fact, so constant were we that by about our fourth day there, Willy asked us if we maybe didn’t want to get the hell out and see some more of the island given that we hadn’t yet left once.

But we were officially there to work, and we got into a pretty consistent daily routine. After a breakfast of homemade tortillas and fresh fruit, we’d put in a few hours on our project in the main room. Around 10:00 a.m., we’d hear Willy out in the cabana bar, firing up the reggae covers of American pop hits (reggae Celine Dion, anyone?) and looking longingly in our direction. (It was understandably difficult to explain that we had really come to such a place to do some work.)

Still, we resisted answering the siren song of the blender until after lunch, when we’d take a swim (or nap), drink, and ceviche break for a couple of hours. Willy made us delicious mojitos and pina coladas, and one day when we had drunk all the coconut juice, he scaled a palm tree and then spent an hour in the blazing sun hacking at coconuts with a machete, to make us drinks with the coconut water. Those drinks were disgusting, but of course, we drank them anyway.

Then, showers and back to work for the afternoon until dinner at 8 or so (all of our meals were prepared and served by the staff, and it was a huge time saver not to have to figure out every meal). After dinner, we’d hang out with Willy at the bar, and he would typically challenge us to entertain him with some “karaoke” (singing along to his phone) or some sort of guessing game. And then bed, and do it all over again in the morning.

The Belizean cayes are sheltered from the ocean by a great barrier reef. This makes for excellent snorkeling and diving, but it does not make for good beaches, as there isn’t any shore erosion to create them. Which is why we spent most of our time hanging out poolside.

We did manage to tear ourselves away from the pool to go on one outing, however, which I will write about next post.

I failed to take pretty much any photographs at all, so (almost all of) these are all borrowed from my much more diligent coworker, Victoria.