Saturday, 9 August 2014

Belize and Guatemala: Revisited

Where do I even begin? Sitting back here in one of my favourite places in the world, my last couple of weeks in Central America seem so long ago now, the previous months in Mexico, Cuba and Costa Rica half a lifetime away. Thinking back to all the amazing and inspirational people that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and sharing time with, it seems impossible to think that all that fitted into just six small months.

My last few weeks barely above the equator were spent in Belize and Guatemala, a combination of revisiting places I’d been earlier in the year and loved, and discovering places I hadn’t had time to visit the first time round. This time too I was fortunate enough to be able to share the experience with Evan, who flew down from Canada to join me on my adventure. After a few days waiting around in Dangriga I made my way up to Belize City to meet Evan from his flight at the rather foreboding Novelo’s bus station. Belize City, especially the area surrounding the bus terminal, isn't a particularly nice place so I left it until the last possible moment to go there, arriving just a short time before him. Luck was on our side that afternoon and a flawlessly timed taxi and water taxi connection later we found ourselves pulling up to the dock on Caye Caulker around mid afternoon. Now you may remember that this wasn’t one of my favourite places on my last visit, but Caye Caulker really is a must-see when it comes to getting an overall picture of the coastal area of Belize, especially if you want to go kiting. In fact I have to admit I liked the place far better second time around. Maybe it was because it was the start of low season and virtually deserted and I wasn’t arriving there having just been dragged away, kicking and screaming, from somewhere I didn’t want to leave, but I liked it. To be fair, the island really is a picture book paradise – crystal clear turquoise water, white sand, wooden cabanas and the second largest reef in the world – it’s hard not to like it.

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Our time on Caye Caulker was mostly spent walking (the whole length of the island takes barely 20 minutes from one end to the other), kiting (or rather spectating in my case!), watching the World Cup, drinking smoothies, getting sunburnt and eating lobster. We’d decided not to make any plans for our time in Belize, instead making the decision each day as to whether we’d seen enough of the place we were in and then choosing where to go next. After day two on Caye Caulker we’d pretty much exhausted all our options so we decided to catch the (rather expensive) water taxi to San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye, for the day. From what I'd heard, San Pedro wasn’t somewhere that had ever appealed to me, but I was curious to see just how bad it was. I wasn’t disappointed. It reminded me of a run down British seaside town off season. Many years ago I remember visiting Great Yarmouth in the winter, with the hoardings up on its seafront shops, closed down for the winter, the weather grey and drizzly, the residents in hibernation. San Pedro was the same, only warmer. After some breakfast at the aptly named ‘Caroline’s cafe’ and realising there was little to see on foot, we decided to hire a golf buggy - the only means of transport on the island - to explore. Sadly, what we found though wasn’t any more inspiring than the beachfront. We drove through the town from end to end - or at least as far as the toll bridge in one direction, deciding that whatever lay beyond probably wasn’t worth the fee - and found little but suburbs full of beaten up houses, a deserted looking commercial port and a few tourist shops complete with tourist prices. All in all a thoroughly depressing place that we weren’t sorry to leave.

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The following day we decided to head inland rather than down the coast and caught a bus across to San Ignacio in the Cayo District. It was the first of many chicken bus journeys that over the months I have grown to tolerate and even enjoy, but that simply made Evan feel very ill if they lasted more than an hour or two. Unfortunately though, in Belize there are few other options unless you can afford to fly between places, so buses it was and we made it to San Ignacio by late afternoon. I was pleased to find that Hi-Et had rooms, even that they recognised me from my previous visit, although this time we went upmarket and took a room with a private bathroom rather than sharing a single bed for US$12.50! San Ignacio is a funny little place, a last stop town for people heading across the border to Guatemala and an obvious base for people wanting to visit Mayan ruins and the ATM caves. We fell into both categories, deciding to spend a day visiting Cahal Pech and exploring the town before heading to Guatemala the following day. It was great to be able to revisit the various food places in the town – the Chinese restaurant with the great salt and pepper fish where a Rasta guy bothered us incessantly until Evan gave in and bought a soap seed necklace he didn’t want just to get rid of him. Last time it was a second-hand shoe saleman peddling his wares at our table as we tried to eat. Then there was Cenaida’s where we had some wonderful fresh fish; in fact we visited there three times on one particular day - a visit for lunch, another for dinner and smoothies in between! Then of course Pop’s for breakfast and Ko-Ox Hanna for their wonderful iced coffee made with ice cream.

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Rather than just go to Tikal for the day, we decided that we had enough time to see a little more of Guatemala and so we set off for Flores, a tiny island on Lake Peten. Shunning the expensive and unnecessary direct bus option again, we took a local taxi to the border (the BZ$5 one rather than the chancer who asked for US$25!) and walked across, making sure not to miss immigration this time. We then had a pretty good ride to Flores from the other side of the border crossing in a collectivo van to Santa Elena, followed by a taxi across the causeway to the island. Surprisingly, the potholed road between the border and Ixlu which accounted for the incredibly slow and painful journey last time has been mostly resurfaced and bar a few sections, was a vast and welcome improvement. I’m glad we decided to go to Flores as it turned out to be a quaint, pretty little town and home to by far the best and cheapest smoothies we found on the entire trip. On arrival we followed the recommendation of the taxi driver and stayed in a nice little hotel (US$16 a night!) with a balcony overlooking the lake.

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To make the most of the day and to beat the sweltering heat, the following morning we found ourselves on the road at 4.30am headed for Tikal. Although we complained about the early start, once we started climbing up those temples we were very glad we were doing so in the relative cool of the morning. Despite having been there already, the place is awe-inspiring and a second visit was no hardship at all, in fact I saw even more this time than I did the first time I was there. Forget the Grand Plaza with its iconic temples, my favourite place is still the top of Temple IV and its views out over the forest canopy with the tops of the other temples poking through the treetops, a scene made famous in Star Wars episode 4. There’s something strangely contemplative sitting there so high up above the jungle and I was glad I was able to share that experience with Evan. We sat up there for a long time with the place virtually to ourselves until the heat of the sun became too intense, at which point we headed off in search of refreshment.

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On leaving Flores, we headed south on the morning bus to Rio Dulce, just a few hours away. We were undecided whether to stay in Rio Dulce or continue onwards to Livingston the same day, also whether to make the journey by bus or boat, so when we arrived we made our way to a bar overlooking the water for a cold drink and to pause for thought. Whilst debating our options, a bartender overheard our conversation and promptly called the launch to come and pick us up from the bar’s jetty! As it turned out, the ride down the river to Livingston was one of the highlights of the trip. The river winds north east through the most incredible jungle, dense towering forest on each riverbank, so much so that from the boat you have to crane your neck to see the sky. Imagine the beautiful National Geographic shots you see of small boats running along the Amazon and you won’t be far off. It really was one of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen and I’m so glad we chose to make the journey by boat.

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I had a feeling as soon as I arrived that Livingston would quickly become one of my favourite places. Call it the Hopkins of Guatemala. A little more touristy perhaps, but a similar vibe, Livingston is a small Garifuna town accessible only by water. Upon arrival, the boat skipper tried in vain to herd everyone on the boat towards his hostel with promises of free tequila, but we decided to go and look at some of the other options first. The first place we enquired at wanted a ridiculous 560 quetzals a night (US$71), but at Casa Rosada immediately next door we got a nice little cabana for just 160 quetzals (US$20) complete with use of the hammocks on a private jetty stretching out over the water. Feeling lazy, we also ordered dinner there even though we could have eaten far more cheaply elsewhere – hey, sometimes you’ve got to splurge, right? It turned out to be the right decision because we had the best steak that night that I’ve had in a very long time. Lying in the hammocks after the sun had gone down, drinking yet another smoothie was one of those moments where you feel that life really isn’t that bad. Several times during the course of this trip I’ve had those moments where I’ve wondered how on earth I’ve been lucky enough to be doing whatever I've been doing and this was one of them. It’s a feeling that I’ve heard many people talk about along the way, but only one person’s conclusion really stuck in my mind and that was that there is no luck about it. The reason I, and all those other people, were there doing what we were doing is because we got off our backsides and made it happen and that there is little stopping most people living in the western world from making the same choices and sacrifices and doing the same if they chose to. I guess they're right.

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The next day, rather than hanging around as we'd first planned, we jumped on a boat to Puerto Barrios. With at least three more places we wanted to visit on our way back up the Belizean coast we didn’t want to leave ourselves short of time. In Puerto Barrios we briefly debated hopping on a bus to Honduras and even trying to make it all the way to the leather markets of Esteli in Nicaragua to buy some custom made cowboy boots, but then sense kicked in and we instead boarded a boat bound for Belize.

Here, a word of advice. If you ever plan to copy this trip, or indeed take a trip in a small boat anywhere in this area of the world, buy a cushion right at the start. In fact buy two, one to sit on and one to tie to the base of your spine. Boat seats are hard and unforgiving and they hurt when you spend any length of time sitting on them while crashing through six foot waves. Luckily we were the only two passengers; the rest of the boat was full of boxes of kitchen cleaner, so we could at least sit at the back on this occasion which slightly lessens the blow. The ride back to Belize wasn’t as bad as the one between Honduras and Belize, but still it was pretty rough and a couple of hours after we left we arrived in Punta Gorda soaking wet, battered and bruised, but still smiling.

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Punta Gorda unfortunately was the antithesis of Livingston and in hindsight we both wished we’d either stayed in Livingston another night or got the first bus out of there as soon as we'd arrived. Perhaps the town has more charm in high season (I highly doubt it) but I was genuinely surprised to find it to be such a miserable, desolate and uninspiring place. Punta Gorda was grim. The people were grim, the buildings grim, nothing about it was welcoming. That was, until a young lad cycled past us and handed us a flyer for a new restaurant that had just opened along the waterfront. Later on, having walked a circuit of the town and determined that there was nowhere else to eat that had any appeal, we set off in search of the place. The map on the flyer led us down a dingy, unlit, muddy road heading towards the outskirts of the town and for the very first time anywhere we’d been we questioned our safety. We were actually still discussing whether or not we were walking into a trap when we arrived at Asha’s Culture Kitchen. A brand new wooden building on stilts over the water complete with resident crabs crawling up through the floorboards, we were greeted warmly by the owner and were pleasantly surprised to find a very good menu that included lots of fresh fish and plenty of side options rather than just the usual rice and beans, which was becoming a little tiring. I opted for Lionfish fingers, doing my bit for the preservation of the reef, and Evan had the Barracuda. I have to say, both meals were excellent and I wish the place every success. If you ever find yourself in Punta Gorda, god forbid, then this is the only place worth visiting. On the way home we decided ice cream was in order and stopped at the ice cream parlour. Our culinary luck was obviously out by this point though, as we watched the server recycle used plastic disposable spoons, taking them from a large tub of water where they’d obviously been sitting for some time. Concealing our horror, we decided to pretend we hadn’t seen what he’d done and ate our ice cream anyway. A move that proved the wrong decision as we both had bouts of stomach trouble not long after.

Next stop was Placencia via a boat from Independence to save a couple of hours on a bus. A pleasant enough journey and no real hardship to make, Evan was still suffering the ill effects of something he’d eaten and was feeling pretty rough so our first stop when we arrived was for coffee. Here we met a friendly English/Belizean couple who gave us a run down of the local accommodation options, making our search much easier. Given it was Lobsterfest weekend, we opted for Lydia’s Guesthouse at the northern end of the boardwalk, away from the noise and bustle. A cute little yellow and white wooden building, this was probably the best room we had during the whole trip. It was a shared bathroom, but the only other residents for the majority of the time we were there were a group of three friendly young American lads so it wasn’t really a problem. For the next few nights we checked out the town, watched some more football and generally relaxed, ate and drank coffee. I’d been looking forward to seeing Placencia and I was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn't as developed as I'd imagined it to be. A narrow peninsula sandwiched between mangroves and the sea, I guess there’s only so far things can spread. However, it didn’t feel crowded or overdeveloped (although a little touristy for my liking) and we met some nice ex-pats there, in particular at the coffee shop ‘2 Can B Sweet’ and at the ‘Pickled Parrot’ bar.

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On the bus ride out of Placencia we noticed just how much was being built further out of town...or rather how much had been started and appeared to have stalled. We had decided to get the bus to the Hopkins turn off and hitch from there. We had contemplated just hitching the whole way, but as the bus was leaving when we were it seemed silly not to get on it. Much as we’d tried we couldn’t find a cost effective way to get up the coast by boat. As it happened we arrived at the junction at virtually the same time as a local taxi heading back into Hopkins so we jumped in. It felt a little strange driving down that road again given the manner of my last entry into the town and to be honest when we first arrived at the junction with the main road I wasn’t really feeling it. A little disappointed that maybe the Hopkins magic had been a temporary, fleeting thing that I had been privileged to experience on my first visit, an initial walk around the town didn’t really change my mind. The place seemed suddenly unremarkable and it made me sad. We decided to stay at the Dodo again and my disappointment was added to when I found out that Giovanni was no longer there and that the place was being run by a new manager. Taking a spectacularly shoddy private room with an en suite (of sorts) we agreed to two nights initially but my hopes weren’t high. I’d tried not to hype up the place pre-arrival because I wanted Evan to form his own opinions of Hopkins, but sitting looking at the curtain nailed to the wall (are curtain rails not available in Belize?!), the shredded shower curtain and the broken toilet seat, I did start to question whether this was a budget option too far.

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Nonetheless, I was going to make the best of it and suggested that we go and find Tina’s and see if they had gibnut on the menu for lunch, something that was met with a look of disgust. From then on things started to improve, the magic in the town started to weave its spell again. The food at Tina’s was great (yes, they had gibnut). It was better than great, in fact it became our go-to place at every opportunity. After lunch and a wander through town in the opposite direction we hit the treetop bar at the Dodo and met some truly lovely people; an Irish couple - Karen and Simon, a couple of Americans, a few other random travellers and the new manager, Marlon, all with their stories to tell. We spent the whole evening there in the bar - aside from a return excursion to Tina’s for dinner - talking about everything from music to travels to all the other random things a bunch of strangers-now-friends chat about. At the end of the evening when we finally headed to bed, after several failed announcements that that was our intention before getting caught up in the conversation again, Hopkins was very much back in my favours. Evidently it had started to work its charm on Evan too - as we settled down for the night he said ‘I like this place, it has something about it’. I just smiled.

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The next day we rented beach cruisers and headed out to the southern end of town, out to the marina and stopped in along the way to talk to the Remax real estate guy. We had a lot of questions in our heads about land ownership in Belize and the implications and pitfalls and he managed to answer pretty much all of them. In fact it was almost spooky how at every turn we met people who could answer our questions from firsthand experience and no matter how hard we tried to find them, there seemed to be very few downfalls or complications. Later in the afternoon after meeting the Irish guys at Innies for lunch (Bundiga – a delicious Garifuna fish stew with made with coconut and dumplings made from green bananas, no flour at all...look it up!) we decided to go back and look at a couple of the plots of land we’d seen on paper. One was a plot a row back from the waterfront on the market for US$35k, the other a house built puzzlingly close to the water’s edge on the market for US$360k. It was interesting to see the damage caused to the waterfront property from the brutal effects of the weather in the few short years since it had been built and really gave food for thought. Our heads full of ideas and possibilities, we headed back to the Dodo bar. Hopkins was getting well and truly under our skin.

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Day three (or maybe it was day four, I can’t remember, but it happens when you enter the Hopkins zone) we hung out around town and in the evening we went with Simon and Karen to the ‘posh’ end of town to meet friends of friends of theirs who run a dive shop. We met at an ‘expensive burger place’ as the taxi driver put it that did indeed serve a very good burger and thick hand cut fries. It was an enjoyable evening and yet another insight into how things work for ex-pats in Belize. Yet again, no-one had anything bad to say about the place, people seem to truly love it there. After dinner I remembered that the taxi driver who brought us into town had said there was Garifuna drumming on in town that night and wanting Evan to be able to experience that, we headed for Tina’s where we were told it would be. Luckily we were still in plenty of time to catch the second half of it.

Hopkins is definitely much quieter in the low season, but there was still a steady flow of people coming through the Dodo and still infinite numbers of friendly locals always ready to chat and welcome you to the town. The drummers were no exception. These guys had charisma by the bucket load, circulating during the break, explaining how the drums were made and showing a genuine interest in where we were all from and welcoming us to Hopkins. Belize is consistently the only place in Central America where I have rarely felt that interest is feigned for the benefit of extracting your money. Subsequently, everyone there seemed to stay longer than they had originally anticipated, all commenting that Hopkins just had something about it that made them want to stay.

The following day we decided to rent a trail bike and get out into the surrounding area a bit more and check out some of those tracks you always pass on a bus and never see. Renting a bike was another very simple process that cost exactly what the price on the board outside promised rather than the usual double by the time you've added insurance waivers, etc, and in just a few minutes we had ourselves a bike and were heading off towards Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, a little way south along the main highway. We decided to go via Sittee River to check out the land at the southern end of town. A bumpy, unmade road with what seemed like hundreds of speed bumps made from either concrete or old rope, it wasn't long before I started to feel much the same way as I do when I get it into my head that riding a horse for several hours is a good idea. Riding pillion hurts after a couple of hours and wanting to make the most of our days hire, we spent many more than a couple of hours on that bike, 200km worth to be precise. After a nice ride out to Cockscomb down a long, winding track, we decided that rather than hike around the park, we'd carry on and find a place for breakfast. Or rather lunch by this time, which ended up being some very good jerk chicken from a little side of the road stand at the junction with Silk Grass. Incidentally, the same junction that Max and I had ended up at on our failed attempt to walk from Dangriga on my previous visit to Belize. Later, on our way back from Dangriga to Hopkins I had the chance to find out exactly how far we did walk that day - 23km!

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For the rest of the day we headed out along the Hummingbird Highway towards Belmopan, through the high walls of tropical forest on either side of the road and then, after a brief visit to Dangriga, we headed back to Hopkins via the Sittee River road to refuel. By this time neither of us really wanted to get back on the bike again and every speed bump felt like climbing a mountain. I wasn't sorry when we dropped the bike off and went to find some well earned dinner.

It was quiet in the bar that night, our Irish friends had finally broken the spell and left that morning. We had a pleasant evening though, ever full of surprises, as a man who walked into the bar with his pet raccoon on his shoulder proved. Hopkins certainly more than lived up to my expectations a second time round and still seemed to be capturing the hearts of everyone fortunate enough to discover it. We debated the possibility of staying one last night there, even the taxi driver who ran us out to the junction the following day suggested ways we'd be able to get to Belize City in time for our flight the following morning, but we were on our way and city bound. I honestly have never found a place I love quite as much as Hopkins and I know I'll be back there again sometime soon.

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Back in Belize City, we took a taxi to a guesthouse that we'd found online and liked the look of because of its colourful descriptions of its rooms and it was nice enough. We were in a relatively safe suburb as far as Belize City goes, but still the taxi driver felt it necessary to warn us not to be wandering around outside after dark. He also pointed us in the direction of a park nearby where he said we'd find food. Later, deciding that a calculated risk was in order to be able to eat, we found the park was actually a pleasant enough place, nothing like the gangland waste ground that rumour would have you believe. With an outdoor stage - complete with entertainment provided by a bible summer camp group, although not entertaining for the reasons probably intended - and a number of very good food stands, we picked our way around, grazing here and there on very good Jamaican jerk chicken, cheesy fries and Filipino asado siaopao steamed pork buns. For a city that we hadn't been looking forward to spending even a night in, Belize continued to surprise and enthral us to the end.

When I arrived in Nicaragua I thought that maybe Belize had met its match at last, but although a worthy runner up, I think it'll be a long time before I find a place I love quite as much as I love that country. I know it won't be long before I'm back there again. I also can't think of anyone I'd rather have spent my time there with, so thanks too to Evan for sharing the adventure with me.

Now I'm back in Canada for the summer, first in Toronto catching up with some of the people I love most in the world, and now back in Big Bay up on the Bruce Peninsula amongst people I consider my second family. I warned them I'd be back and it feels really good to be here again. As for what's next, at this moment in time I really don't know. Watch this space...

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