Landing in Belize City signalled the start of the second major leg of our trip; a four and a half month jaunt through Central and South America which could take in thirteen different countries … or perhaps even more, we’ll see!
Also, we had Sarah, our friend from school, joining us for a bit to explore Belize.
Having heard that Belize City wasn’t the greatest (or safest) place to hang around, once we met Sarah at the airport, we jumped straight on to a water taxi and headed for Caye Caulker, one of Belize’s many small islands. We’d booked a few nights at Tree Tops guest house where we met the enigmatic and interesting Doris. A short and rather heavily set lady, Doris had a dry self-deprecating humour that only made her all the more endearing.
Caye Caulker itself is a decent place to hang out, busy enough to support a variety of restaurants and the occasional bar, but not so busy as to feel inauthentic. We wandered along the main street, enjoying the lack of cars and the relaxed vibe, stopping off at the bar by The Split – the break in the island caused by hurricane Hattie in 1961 – now a lively spot and the best place for swimming. The only issue this section of Caribbean coast has is a prevalence of sea grass, which is a floating seaweed type plant that is washed ashore by the prevailing winds. It’s not harmful in itself, it just slightly detracts from what would otherwise be impeccable beaches.
Belize’s other main attraction is its reef; the second largest barrier reef in the world after Australia’s. We spotted a snorkelling trip run by Ragamuffin Tours that involved sailing out to the reef. I was excited by the idea of being on an actual sailing boat – we hadn’t been on any so far on the trip – so we opted for this one. I suppose the fact that it was run by a crew of dreadlocked, reggae loving rastafarians may have also played into my pushing for this particular choice.
I stand by it though; the tour was awesome. Not only did we really sail the boat (some chugged out there on an engine despite being capable of sailing), the marine life on the reef was incredible. Our first stop was ‘Shark and Ray Alley’ where, unsurprisingly, we got to see sharks and rays… It was a bit unnerving at first, as the water was absolutely teeming with sharks, but Captain Shane explained that these were nurse sharks and they had little or no interest in nibbling on us for lunch. So, GoPro in hand, we hopped in.
Within minutes, the rays had also shown up and the whole scene was alive with activity. I got gradually more confident getting closer to the animals and managed to get a few decent shots. The only thing that was a little disappointing – which we didn’t realise when we booked it – was that the tours bait the sharks at this location. Good for tourists, not so great for the wildlife, although we would concede that they did mimic the nurse sharks’ natural behaviour somewhat by hiding the bait inside empty conch shells.
Moving on, we were treated to two more stops both with fabulous visibility and some of the best coral Helena and I had seen, particularly soft coral. We even got to do a little swim through the reef at about 7 metres down which was hiding place to a huge number of fish.
The boat ride back was also a lot of fun. The boys broke out a five gallon bottle of rum punch. This is no exaggeration! It was literally one of those water butts you find on dispensers all over the place, but filled with rum punch. ‘This all has to be finished by the time we get back to shore,’ announced Shane, sharing out the punch liberally. I was happy to have a glass or two, but I was more interested in sailing (such a child!) and was very pleased when the guys were happy to let me take the helm. One hand on the rudder, the other holding the rum punch, this was definitely the Caribbean life!
Oh, I almost forgot – we saw a manatee!!
We could have stayed on Caye Caulker for longer, but we decided to move on, picking San Ignacio in the centre of the country as our next destination. After a rather disappointing one night stay at a riverside location – where the owner seemed to think we were strange because we had an issue with the fact that the door to our room wouldn’t stay shut – we found some lovely accommodation in the town and made plans. We had a fun afternoon getting up close and personal with the green iguanas at a sanctuary housed by one of the large hotels, and then searched out ‘Sweet Ting’, a bakery that we’d spotted in the guide book which served not only the most delicious, but also the most outrageously gigantic portions of cake we’d seen in a long time.
San Ignacio is also only thirty or so minutes from the border with Guatemala, and just beyond you find Tikal. Described as ‘the mother of all maya ruins’, we took the opportunity to pay it a visit. Helena and I had visited Chichen Itza in Mexico in 2011 and Sarah had just been prior to coming to Belize. A visit to that iconic ruin is spoiled somewhat by the sheer number of souvenir sellers that line the main entrance and are prolific throughout the entire site. The curse of being named as one of the wonders of the world perhaps? Not so with Tikal. It’s much quieter, with fewer visitors, and no souvenir stalls that I can remember, only the occasional stand dotted around selling much needed refreshments.
Here, you are in the jungle. The trees swarm about the remains of the temples, waging a constant war against archaeologists who are trying to balance preserving the site, with preserving the ecosystems that have regrown around and amongst it. The result is a magnificent combination of natural beauty and historic civilisation, where a four hour tour will have you stumbling across vast structures that moments before were entirely hidden from view. We had a hilarious guide too, Nixon, who was tiny, exuded continuous and genuine awe at the size and architecture of the site, and had a fabulous little giggle that he did after each piece of information he gave us.
For our final stop, we headed back to the coast. Placencia is effectively an island, similar to Caye Caulker, but it has a tiny strip of land joining it to the mainland so you can get a local bus all the way there. It was another good place to hang out and chill for a bit with a few decent restaurants and coffee shops and bars on the beach and that sold intoxicatingly cheap cocktails . It was peculiarly quiet though as we were visiting in low season but this didn’t bother us much as we spent our time relaxing, reading books, and recharging. Soon it would be time for Sarah to head back to the UK and for us to tackle the likes of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador with the most minimal of Spanish!