Paradise Part III

On to Belize – British Colony up until 1981, still has the Queen’s head on the bank notes today. We put into the delightful little town of San Ignacio, not far from the border, where we checked in to the Pacz Guesthouse. It was a treat to go ask for a room in English again, the official language of Belize. The people here are lovely. Ah…a touch of old Blighty here in Central America! First up an English Cooked breakfast on our first morning. It was on the menu at Martha’s Café and we couldn’t resist it – first decent breakfast in 8 months of travel!!! That rough road from Guatemala broke the rear cross strap on my pannier rail. It fractured before in Costa Rica and now the weld job failed on the crappy road to the border. The lovely folk in the guesthouse drew us a map of how to find Art’s Machine Shop, where next morning, a guy called George welded up the pannier rail. He did a proper job too, fitting a lining reinforcement made of that ubiquitous building steel rod (‘re-bar’ I think its called and used all across Latin America, to be seen sticking out the top of nearly every building) and welding it all up. He even sprayed it with an enamel primer. Job well done!

From San Ignacio we rode to the coast along the sweetly named ‘Hummingbird Highway’ a decent grey ribbon of tarmac that wound down from the capital Belmopan to the coast near Dangringa. From here we rode south a short way taking the turn off for a place called Placencia, where we planned to stop for a few days. A fast red dirt road successfully proof tested yesterdays welding on my bike as we rattled and bumped our way through lush green jungle to the sea and out onto the long spit of land that ended at Placencia. A roadside halt for a drink lead to a chance encounter with Bob & Maricia McMahon, a retired American couple, who pulled up in their Isuzu pick up truck with an offer of a decent place to stay at a very reasonable rate. Of late, the accommodation on this trip has been better and better and soon we were ensconced in a dream like beachfront apartment surrounded by serene stately palm trees. There was a smiley hammock on the cool tiled veranda and our own private strand and jetty out front. Bob had a satellite wireless Internet link and they allowed us use of snorkelling gear while we were there – ah… paradise part III! We stayed here for 4 nights and 4 very lazy days. Short forays down the red dirt took us into Placencia for grocery shopping and a mooch around. Placencia was in the Guinness Book of Records for having the narrowest Main Street in the world – in most places it is only 2 feet wide (although there is now a short section of paved highway that runs around the back of the town). The main street was a concrete ribbon that meandered lazily across the sand with a scattering of brightly painted wooden houses and buildings dotted around in no particular order. It is one of the most chilled out places on Earth, with really friendly locals and again it was a delight to rabbit with people for a while in English. We did our main shopping in ‘Wallens Supermarket’ a rambling wooden shack with a lovely small town grocery store feel to it. We stocked up on pasta, ‘One-Barrel’ rum and the best beer of the trip, Belize’s own Belikin Beer (has a soft malty taste, just perfect in the hot climate). For bread, just shuffle into a maze of sandy streets to another shack, the one with the lopsided, hand-daubed sign that reads ‘John the Bakerman’. Inside was a cavern of golden freshly baked loaves and cinnamon rolls, all cooling in the shade that fairly set the mouth watering. They were closed for their afternoon nap (it’s not a siesta here) and the guy gave me the keys to unlock the door, help myself to whatever bread we wanted and just put the money in the tin, sorting out my own change.

In the evenings we were treated to spectacular thunder & lightning storms way out to sea, heralding the progress of Hurricane Ivan. We are aware that we travel these Caribbean lands now in their hurricane season and have been monitoring local news plus a few hurricane-watch websites. In the past month, hurricanes Charlie and Frances have hit Cuba and Florida, causing devastation in their path. These were both grade 4 storms and now Ivan was on the loose – a terrible grade 5 beast with winds gusting at over 200mph and 15 foot storm surge tides predicted. Definitely not weather we wanted to experience here on a spit of sand a few hundred yards wide and nowhere more than 3 or 4 feet above sea level! Forecasts predicted it would strike Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Cuba and then poor old Florida. Still, it made for spectacular skyscapes at sea, especially early in the morning when the clouds would be backlit by the sunrise. One of our reasons for coming to Placencia was to take a trip out to see some Manatees. These are huge placid aquatic mammals, like a little walrus with a stubby trunky nose and a beautiful rounded tail fin (rather than flippers). They live around some of the lagoons near Placencia, where they graze on sea grasses. We spent a hot morning drifting in the lagoon searching for these shy but graceful animals. First we spotted some areas of flat calm water, dead giveaways that a manatee had just dived down to the bottom for some grass. A nostril blast gave us the slightest glimpse of a blubbery nose poking out for air. Bernardo, our pilot, took us closer using an oar to paddle the motor launch. Now we could see ghostly grey outlines beneath the water as the manatees circled the boat. In the mid-distance a tailfin rose in a silent wave before plunging down into the depths. Finally, our best look…a little grey head emerged at the stern of the boat to peer curiously at us for a few minutes. Satisfied that we meant no harm he went under, the scallop shaped tail raised from the water for a second in a farewell wave. At Placencia, even paradise had its demons. Sand Flies! The bite from these almost invisible, horrible little beasts is nasty in that it doesn’t really show until a day or two after you are bitten and then it itches like nothing on Earth. As usual with insects, they preferred my slightly more succulent (or should that be sweaty?) flesh to Maggie’s. By the time we left I had 107 bites mainly on my feet and lower legs (yes, I am that sad & pitiful that I counted them!).

From Placencia we rode north back up the Hummingbird Highway and onto flat boring roads that lead us on towards Mexico. We took the advice of almost everyone we met in Belize and avoided Belize City heading on to Drumcree, sorry…Freudian slip there…I meant Orange Walk. Orange Walk has to be one of the strangest towns we’ve visited on the entire trip. Named after a line of Orange trees that were planted along the main street, rather than for any 12th July Protestant parading, it was a fairly grotty place to begin with full of run down buildings in various states of collapse. Dusty streets lead to a plaza wherein stood a weird statue of a woman with her dress open, breast-feeding a baby. The population was strange too, an unlikely mix of almost equal parts Mayan, Mestizo, Chinese and Mennonites. Yes, Mennonites. This latter group were mostly pinky white people, the men uniformly turned out in dress shirts with rolled-up sleeves, trousers hitched up with braces and straw cowboy hats. The women were dressed even more strangely, wearing full-length sombre coloured dresses with pleated bodices and hair tied up in buns, hidden under cloth bonnets. They looked like background extras from a cheap budget western movie. We kept looking around to see where the wagon train was parked! They were mostly an unfriendly, unsmiling lot, often staring quite openly and to my mind rudely at us, as if suspicious of any strangers in their midst. Weird scene! Weirder still…we dined in a Chinese restaurant, best of a bad bunch but with what turned out to be excellent food on offer. The restaurant was next door to the shabby and rather dubiously named ‘Hotel Mi Amor’. Red love hearts around the door proclaimed the primary purpose of this establishment. But how about this for a sign in a restaurant? “No Foreplay Allowed”!!! I kid you not…

The main drawback to visiting Belize is that it is expensive. First we were told at the border that we had to have insurance for the bikes, Bz$18 a day per bike (US$9 or ₤5 Sterling), available at the border with Guatemala. We later found in Placencia that we could have had 30 days insurance for Bz$50 per bike, so our advice would be wait until you arrive in a town to arrange insurance rather than pay at the border! Accommodation was fairly priced and food was OK too, but excursions and trips out to do anything cost a lot of money. Snorkelling trips to the Cayes off the coast started at US$25 per person for 4 hours and at Orange Walk we fancied a river trip up to see some Mayan ruins at Lamanai, but at US$40 each we said no thanks (it’s not even like the ruins are comparable to a Copan or a Tikal). Finally on leaving the country we were informed we would have to pay a departure tax of Bz$75 for the 2 of us (Bz$30 each + taxes) which rattled us a little and had us leaving the country with a slightly sour aftertaste. But to be honest, for all that, we still enjoyed Belize. Lovely friendly, easygoing people and such a refreshing change to speak our native tongue again after so long in Spanish lands. And so, now it is on to Mexico, into the Yucatan with a wary eye out to sea to watch what Hurricane Ivan is up to.

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