It’s not exactly the news you want to hear, an hour before boarding your flight. We’d spent the last two days driving from Portland to LA to fly out to Belize, so that we could renew our visa exemptions and spend a couple of weeks relaxing by the beach. And now we sat staring at our laptop in LAX, being abruptly discharged of our blissful ignorance of world events, discovering that Hurricane Earl had just hit Belize.
“It was only Category 1” said Jonno “so it shouldn’t be too bad. We’ll just play it by ear.” Jonno had organised the Belize trip as a birthday surprise for Angie, and spent the flight over filling her in on all the adventures ahead – which were many!
We landed in Belize city to the thick, tropical humidity. As our taxi weaved its way through the bumpy, narrow roads towards the bus terminal, we looked anxiously out the window to assess the damage. There was a lot of water still pooling, and a mass of trees and vegetation strewn on the ground. The odd house had lost a roof and we passed a couple of buildings that seemed to have been blown entirely sideways – but otherwise, it didn’t seem too bad.
“Da road to San Ignacio be shut, man” the taxi driver said in his creole accented English, as we chatted about our onward plans. “I check for you, eh? Maybe it open now.” After a flurry of phone calls chasing phone numbers and information – he finally had good news for us that the river had receded beneath the bridge and the buses were headed out west again towards San Ignacio, on the Guatemalan border.
Jonno had spent 4 months living in San Antonio, a small village half an hour south east of San Ignacio nearly 15 years ago, working with Raleigh International and a crew of disadvantaged youths from the UK as well as the locals to build a new school building. We based ourselves in San Ignacio, and caught the local bus out to San Antonio first thing the next morning. Jonno spent the ride gazing out the window, noting all the changes and development that had taken place in the last 15 years.
Much to the credit of the Raleigh team’s construction efforts, the school building was in great shape, even after the hurricane. The local community had repainted it – much to Jonno’s dismay (as it had previously been painted with art, handprints and names from all those who’d helped build it) – and they’d added an extra classroom of questionable standard to the end of the building.
We wandered the town to the old haunts, in search of old friends and colleagues from Jonno’s time there. We found a trusted guide – 8 year old Miguel – who directed us towards Antonio’s house, who had been intimately involved in the project. Antonio and Jonno were thrilled to see each other, and sat enjoying fresh limeade made by Antonio’s wife, filling each other in on all the news since they last saw each other.
As all the caves, waterfalls and ruins near San Ignacio were still closed after the hurricane, we headed directly towards our next destination: Caye Caulker. A very chilled out island off the coast of Belize, we spent a relaxing couple of days eating lobster ceviche, snorkelling and swimming at the beach. A welcome change to the last few months of hiking!
Before we knew it, we were jumping on board the Ragga Empress – a 38 foot catamaran that would take us sailing down 80 miles of the second largest barrier reef in the world. Over the next few days, we snorkelled, fished and swam our way down the reef, serenaded by our charismatic guide Shane’s singing, and his sidekick Shaq’s daily calls for rounds of Rum Punch (that seemed to arrive earlier and earlier each day)…
The highlights were snorkelling with a manatee – the herbivorous ‘sea cow’, sunset swimming on our own, miniature desert islands, spear fishing for lobsters and lion fish (exotic, and destructive), and fishing off the back of the boat – where our friend Grant caught an enormous barracuda (which we sampled a fresh sushi less than half an hour after it had been drowned in rum)!
Placencia – which had all the markings of a lazy beachside town, where we could let the day quietly pass while we alternated between our hammocks and the beach. The only detractor was our steroid-bloated, overly-opinionated, ex-marine, Trump-supporting, private military Texan roommate who’s philosophy in life was ‘only the strong will survive’ and who’s answer to everything seemed to be “more guns”, and if all else failed, “more knives”.
With a few days to spare, we then headed back out to San Ignacio, so that we could visit the famous caves nearby, that had been closed when we were first there. We were so glad we did! The annual September festivities that marked Belize’s establishment as a nation had begun early, and we were treated to an evening of local performances in the town square. The weekend markets were also back to their full glory, and we filled our bellies on all the delicious local fare, and stocked up on scrumptious fruit and veggies with excitement of having a full kitchen at our hostel to cook meals, after a couple of months cooking out of the back of our van or on our MSR stove.
We took day trips to the local Cahal Pech ruins, where there is evidence of continuous habitation from as early as 1200 BC – and to Monkey Falls, where we could sit beneath the deliciously cool waterfall and swim in the gorgeous green rock pool beneath for hours.
We also took a tour to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, which had been a significant Mayan site for centuries and is now unbelievably full of artefacts, including innumerable ceramic pots that were offered to the Gods alongside potentially more significant offerings including remains of monkeys, and several human skeletons that were sacrificed to the gods. The Mayans believed that caves were the gateway to the underworld and the zone between life and death, and priests would take offerings from the people there to appease the gods. In particular, offerings seem to have been made to gain relief from a centuries-long drought that afflicted the Belize region. Tens of human skeletons have been found throughout the ATM cave complex, indicating that the people were getting very desperate indeed!
Unfortunately, some years ago a tourist dropped their camera on top of one of the skeletons and smashed the 1,000 year old skull, and so today cameras are banned – but the organisation who took us through did provide generic photos to jog our memories.
Before we knew it, we were back on the bus and bumping our way towards Belize City to fly back to LA, to get back on the road again and head towards the Sierra Nevada mountain range with our next adventure in sight – the Sierra High Route.