Tyler and I had taken a vacation to Belize a while back; one of those all-inclusive deals. We booked a hotel on a private island for week, all meals included, just a few cabanas in the middle of nowhere. Paradise? So we thought. The island was very small and had been recently developed: 5 cabanas and a larger cabin for dining were built. Other than that: nothing. Just mangroves lining the shore and the open ocean.
It took us about 24 hours before we were bored to tears.
We devoured the few books we brought with us, we kayaked around the island (a lot!), we ate (a lot!), we splashed around (a little – as the temperatures did not cooperate with our trip). By the time the week was up we were both scrambling to get onto the boat that would take us back to mainland and our plane home.
The point of this little story is that, although we had technically visited Belize in the past we had not really experienced a moment in the actual country, with the exception of the teeny weeny little island we had spent our time on.
So we entered Belize for the second time to experience it for the first time.
We were finally leaving Mexico after spending almost half of a year in the country that had become a home in its own right. We had found a comfort zone in all the little things in Mexico: currency, tacos, grocery stores, gorditas, gas stations, taquitos, agua purificadas. Leaving Mexico felt a bit like leaving home again.
We were, however, entering a country that would give us a tiny little lapse in struggling through our terrible Spanish. A small English speaking oasis tucked into the sea of Spanish speaking territories.
After an easy border crossing we headed out towards the little village of Sarteneja. We setup camp on the beach down from the marina, had a couple beers, chatted with a few locals and watched basically the same sunset we’d seen during our stay in Chetumal, Mexico.
The next morning we visited an animal rescue and sanctuary nearby offering helping hands to not only monkeys but also MANATEES. They were kind enough to fit us in for a tour of the facilities followed by a completely delightful encounter with the cutest baby manatee in the world. The sanctuary is staffed almost 100% by volunteers who spend their time harvesting sea-grass to feed the manatees as well as caring for the huge number of monkeys on their property. In the wild, manatees form very strong familial bonds and an adolescent will remain with it’s mother for up to 3 years. Physical contact is a requirement for this species. To account for this volunteers take hour long shifts with the manatees in the water. We watched as she happily swam around the girl standing in her tank, rolling over to show her belly for scratches. That has to be about the best job in the world.
The next day we headed out again a bit further South to visit the ruins of Lamanai. We were both fairly ruined-out by this point, but it was still worth a stop. We spent the afternoon camped on the nearby river enjoying the view and the breeze. Tyler ended up chatting up some local fishermen that had just pulled in from a day of spear fishing tilapia on the river, from the looks of it it had been a good day. They were super nice, happy to share, and quickly offered us more fish then the two of us could eat. Fresh grilled tilapia for dinner.
We’d decided to try some back roads to get to the Belize Zoo. As it turned out the road we chose went through some wildlife refuge areas and we were promptly turned back by the rangers since we didn’t have the proper permits. Apparently it happens more then you’d think…we tried a little sweet talk, we tried to buy a permit there…no and nope. We would have had to buy the permit in Orange Walk hours back up the road. As a last resort we tried a little bribery but he wasn’t budging. Back from whence we came.
When we eventually made it to the Belize Zoo it was for sure worth a stop. Almost all of the animals are rescued, meaning this zoo is a bit more of a sanctuary than a traditional zoo. All the animals are also indigenous species to Belize, and this is about the only opportunity to get this up-close and personal with many of this stunning creatures.
Our next stop was one of the many National Parks scattered through the country. For a country so small, there are a surprising number of protected lands within Belize offering hiking, waterfalls, camping…
We spent some days hiking the areas, slogging our way up slippery hiking trails to waterfalls and pools that would offer short-lived relief before heading back down the trail again. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated more in my life, but I can’t complain about the scenery!
We made it down to Placencia to find camp at an extremely popular iOverlander spot. This hotel opens their doors to travelers like us, offering not only a safe spot to sleep but also allows access to their beautiful beachfront property and pool. All they ask is that you eat a meal a day in their restaurant. Done. We spent the next few days lounging at the pool and enjoying a little vacation from full-time travel.
The town of Placencia is an ex-pat haven. It appears a common practice to visit this area and just decide to plant roots. Where there are hoards of ex-pats there is usually good pizza!
The road, or more accurately our deadline of getting down to Costa Rica by the end of June, had us pulling ourselves out of our little paradise and getting back on the road – this time towards the famed Hummingbird Highway.
This truly was a magical stretch of road through central Belize. Rollings hills and pastures as far as the eye can see. The drive is also broken up with one delicious little food-stop after another. German bakery? Check! Dairy with phenomenal ice cream and cheese? Check! Marie Sharps Hot Sauce Factory? Check! Juice Factory? Check!
Needless to say it was a good day.
We worked our way up to our final National Park stay in Belize, Mountain Pine Ridge. As we drove into the area, and gained several thousand feet of elevation, the entire landscape began to change. Pine trees replaced palm, the endless sea of jungle canopy replaced with rock and dirt trails. We spent the next several days exploring the area, working our way from waterfalls to slow-moving rivers that are practically designed to be soaked in.
Our final stop in Belize was San Ignacio a town near the Guatemalan border. The journey here took us through Spanish Lookout, one of the many Mennonite communities that are scattered through the country. When you think of Belize about the last thing you think is Mennonites, but sure enough a large population migrated to Belize from Mexico in 1958 and here they thrived.
The Mennonites within Belize supply the entire country, almost without competition, with dairy and meat products. This has the added benefit of the meat and dairy products being REALLY good! While the food in Mexico is delicious, it was hard to find a good steak, or a good burger, and most definitely hard to find any really good dairy products. The Mennonite towns in Belize were like a little dairy haven for us. We tossed down what could have been one of the best burgers of my life before eating WAY too much ice cream. Totally worth it.
We spent one of our final nights at a beautiful recreation area within the Mennonite community. Perfectly quiet, no sounds but the chirping of frogs around the lake.
The days getting ready for the next border crossing were spent visiting the Xunatunich ruins, taking care of a little truck maintenance, and making a couple new friends in the border town.
Our time in Belize was brief. The postage-stamp size of the nation, at least in comparison to Mexico, was a welcome change, allowing us to tour the entire country in just a couple of weeks. In all honesty, the heat in this tiny country was hard for us to handle. At the time of our visit (late April/early May), the extreme heat and humidity made the days and nights almost intolerable, at least for two Coloradans who prefer their climate cool and bone-dry. Despite the climate, the abundant national parks, endless waterfalls and rare wildlife viewing made this country a delightful excursion. And did we mention they have really good ice cream?!