Learning about Belize

What did I know about this former British colony? Embarrassingly, it turns out not much:

  • There is a Blue Hole;
  • They have the second largest reef in the world (Australia’s Great Barrier Reef takes top spot); and
  • I could eat grilled chicken almost anytime, anywhere.

That’s it and it was time to find out more.

Boat jetty

A (very) short history of Belize

The great Mayan civilisation prospered throughout Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico’s north through to the lowlands of Guatemala and Honduras. During it’s hey-day between 600-900AD it was estimated that over 1 million Mayans lived in Belize.

The Spanish made contact in the early 1500s, but never gained effective control and so it was the English that had the first European settlement in 1638, logging valuable wood like mahogany. It took another two hundred years in 1840 for Belize to be formally become a “Colony of British Honduras”. The process for independence began a hundred years later in 1964 with a fully self governed and ministerial system. Pressure continued to mount and on September 21, 1981, full independence was achieved.

Exploring Belize

As Nevin O Winter writes at the turn of the 20th century:

“It was with romantic feelings that I sailed along the coast of British Honduras, past the numerous little coral reefs, called cays, and into the beautiful harbour of Belize. For many years these shores were the rendezvous of organized bands of pirates, who practically ruled the Caribbean seas during a good part of the seventeenth century. Each wooded island and cay has its legend of buried treasure, but no one has ever been able to locate a single cache although expeditions in search of this fabled treasure-trove are still organized and as often fail.”

With those romantic feelings, Rich and I were off to find our version of hidden treasure.

Balcony view over the ocean with palm trees

Caye Caulker – snorkelling a new underwater world

Not quite the delightful sailing of Mr Winter’s description. More like sticky humans stuck together on a 40 minute water cat ride from Belize City, but all was forgotten as soon we got to shore.

I say that, but truly it was all forgotten when we got to Paradise Two with the added benefit of eccentric Jason to lift our spirits. We dumped our bags and had a welcoming rum punch meeting new additions to the tour group. It was then on for young and old drinking Panty Rippers and all manner of blue curacao coloured cocktails, plus some great tasting seafood.

Dinner table with people sitting around and one man lying over the table bench

Crab curry meal

Caye Caulker is one of many islands accessible by a short boat ride away from Belize City. We only had 2.5 days and therefore stayed on Caulker. We would love to spend more time exploring the bustling city of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Jacques Cousteau-famed Lighthouse Reef and the Blue Hole, and try some off shore snorkelling on Tobacco Caye.

But like most travels, you cannot get to every destination. You just have to leave some space in your passport to come back:) Our new passports just arrived, so no excuses now!

The next day, our merry band of travellers snorkelled Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

underwater shot of fish and a stingray

Common signage on Caulker, calls for a ‘Go Slow’ way of life. The marine life must have seen this sign as they are equally relaxed. Swimming slowly not caring about the human activity in the water. Sharks, turtles, dolphins, rays and fish take their time exploring. Seemingly engaged in a philosophical discussion about the purpose of non-gilled creatures like us.

Underwater photo of a Dolphin

Reef sharks underwater photo

Feeling super zen if tired after the snorkelling trip, Jess and I kept our commitment to go to the donation-based rooftop sunset yoga session. An amazing practice with locals and tourists, it was one of my favourite moments on land. Even if the pesky mossies attack whilst you are in Savasana.

We kept the spirit of the go-slow vibe of the island alive at Frans. Feasting on grilled chicken and other Creole favourites, it was washed down with rum punch of course. Yes the service is slow, but with great company who cares!

hammocks blowing in the wind

The winds pick up and we see a falling coconut nearly miss the cake cart seller. Note to self, I may need to go back to wearing head-gear on a regular basis.

The next day was an easy day spent exploring the island. Starting the day right with a beans, egg, cheese, ham fry jack with fresh watermelon juice we walked the three main streets of the island. Looping back to our hostel we sample excellent coffee and complimentary donuts at Ice and Beans.

Sign for Fryjacks restaurant in Belize

Finding hammocks and a picnic bench we took it easy before seeking a sunset drink at Lazy Lizard. At the time we were there in February it was still unlicensed (sadly due to an ongoing dispute). So we got creative and bought our own rum and mixers for the earth’s daily light show.

Sunset over a jetty

Time to farewell this beautiful island and get onto the mainland.

ATM Caves, St Ignacio

One of the Top 10 sacred caves by National Geographic, exploring this must-see underworld was a memorable adventure.

The caves came to public prominence when they were open in 1997 by the Director of Belize’s Institute of Archaeology Dr Jaime Awe. He felt there was a need for communities, not just archaeologists to be privy to such historical finds.

It truly is a magical day tour. Driving about 45 minutes out of town to the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, you start with a jungle walk and river crossings before you reach the mouth of the cave.

rocky filled river
Courtesy of Maya Walk Tours

Looking like a keyhole you wonder what secrets will be unlocked as you wade through.

Keyhole shaped cave entrance
Courtesy Maya Walks Tours

It takes you back 1100 years where 16 sacrificial remains have been discovered. To truly understand how the Mayans got there, you follow their ceremonial path wading through neck deep water with a head torch. Clambering over boulders and squeezing through tight spots until it opens up into this grandness.

People photogrpahed in the cathedral like opening of a cave. Large stalactites and stalagmites surround.
Courtesy Maya Walks Tours

One of the best guided tours I have been on. There are only a few registered guides able to take tourists into the cave. Those who share a passion for continued learning about the Mayan people and archaeology. They also understand and take all appropriate safety precautions in the cave.

You don’t get lost per se, but you do find you lose all sense of time. Your eyes adjust to the low-lit spaces. Your socked-feet lightly follow a path lined with pottery remains from the sacrificial ceremonies. The three hours you are in the cave fly by.

Ancient pottery artefacts from the Mayan period
Courtesy Maya Walks Tours

We had a choice of river tubing or the ATM caves and I’m glad we opted for the caves. It really is a unique experience.

Crystallised skeleton
Courtesy Maya Walks Tours

My final note on Belize – Lovers of hot-sauce rejoice!

Crossing the border, you feel you may have inadvertently signed an agreement to give a “fair shake of the sauce bottle” filled with capsaicin and coming in all colours.

Plates of conch fritters, ceviche, and hot sauce
Conch fritters and Belize Heat – Yes please!

A ‘wall of pain’ can be found at pretty much any mini mart!

Shelf filled with colourful bottles of hot sauce

After 5 days it was sad to depart this colourful culture who are defining a new future, but remembering and preserving their past.

Armed with modern day maps and the allure of wanderlust treasures, we will rendezvous in a new place with the next merry band of travellers.

Reference

Winter, Nevin O. 1909. “Guatemala and Her People of Today”

Burning my mouth to Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory

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Belize – Caves, cayes and capsaicin
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