Backpacking Belize & Guatemala

Posted from Puntarenas, Provincia de Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Celebrating Garifuna Settlement Day in Belize City, 2002

This e-mail is LONG. Print it out and read it on the bus or something. I’d hate for you to get fired for reading it at work. :) Then you might have to travel or see the world or something. We wouldn’t want that, would we?

I finally left Mexico on the 18th of November and entered Belize thru the Mexican bordertown of Chetumal. After seven weeks in Mexico as a tourist, I was ready to get off the beaten track and camp a bit, do some sports, and see a little less white skin (i.e. tourists). :)

But let me recap on Mexico. It’s a wicked country. My favorite cities were La Paz, Guadalajara, and Oaxaca. My favorite beach was Zipolite, and the best parties were had in Mexico City with Mariana and her friends, as well as the parties that Barbara, Patty, and Ana took me to for the Halloween weekend, and in Oaxaca where they just occurred spontaneously. As for the cuisine, I didn´t really get a chance to try different plates since I ate mostly from street vendors and bought food at grocery stores. Some excellent Mexican fare includes a cold cerveza with a squeezed lime in the bottle and some salt on the rim, or a plate of quesadillas with tomatoes and onions. Or try a licuado, which you can find everywhere. You could also crack open a coconut and flavor the meat with lime, salt, and cayenne pepper. It´s good. Mexicans eat everything and anything with chile pepper, and limes.

As I entered Central America, I was faced with tackling 5 countries in 26 days. See, I’m meeting my buddy David in Costa Rica on the 14th of December. He’s joining me for a Latin experience of Christmas and New Year’s.

My first country was Belize, and it’s a mix of British, Caribbean, Latin, and Mayan lifestyles. It’s also very small, maybe about a quarter of a million people. I did the country in only four days. Would you believe I wasn’t looking forward to speaking English again? Belize was a British colony until 1981 so English is its official language. At the end of 16th century and into the 17th century, British and Scottish pirates had the run of the Belizean coast, attacking Spanish ships carrying treasure from their Central American colonies back to the motherland. At some point though, the British government took an agreement with Spain to end the piracy and the pirates were forced to turn to logging (Belize was a logwood goldmine). Spain had always claimed Belize as its possession, and Great Britain played mama to them until 1798 when the mighty Spanish armada was defeated off the coast. Though the Maya had always been present in northern Central America, this was further strengthened by the War of the Castes (1847), a battle between the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the oppressive Mexican government. Refugees fled south into Belize, and many stayed there.

I’m no expert, so if you’re depending on a history lesson, seek out other resources, like:

A History of Belize

I did promise you a bit of detail about Palenque, the ancient Mayan site. Since I skipped Tikal, and as you will find out in my next update, I skipped Copan too (for the sake of the Mosquito Coast), I feel I owe myself, and I owe you guys some detail on the Mayan empire. What I have learned about the Mayan people was that they were great astronomers and mathematicians. They even created a calendar that worked. These achievements are documented in stele, and artifacts found at Mayan sites like Palenque, Tikal, and Copan. The city of Palenque was a considered an important one in the Mayan world. It was apparently considered so because of its complex architecture, and the trade links that the Mayans in this area developed with others on the Yucatan Peninsula and with other cultures that existed further into Central America and southwestern Mexico.

The site is buried in the jungle, and is fun to explore. One little path that went up a steep hill into the forest ended at a ruin in the middle of the woods. As I mentioned in a previous update, this region of Mexico has the heaviest precipitation. It rained three or four different times in the two hours we were there (short showers). It provides an unbeatable atmosphere while you visit a place that has been abandoned for more than a thousand years. Palenque was constructed before the wheel was invented and prior to the development of metal tools. The Maya also domesticated the dog and the turkey!

The Mayans occupied territory stretching from Chiapas and Yucatan south to the western area of Honduras and were considered the greatest civilization of the original cultures of Mesoamerica. They lived in the highlands and the lowlands and communicated using But the collapse of the Maya as a dominant civilization has never been determined, whether it be natural causes, conflict with other cultures, or for cultural reasons. Over 6 million of them exist today, scattered over much of eastern Mexico and northern Central America. They are beginning to realize their history, and learn about it, to better prepare themselves for the future of their culture.

My Sources…

A map of Palenque

One woman’s love for the Mayan culture

The E-Museum at Minnesota State University [link no longer works as at November 19, 2012]

(your best bet for a complete and detailed explanation of the Maya)

Back to Belize… I had also been forewarned that it was expensive, more so than Mexico, and the other Central American countries. The Belize dollar is fixed at a value of US$0.50. A good cheap meal on this budget is a can of tuna, a can of corn niblets, and some mayonnaise, makes a great tuna salad! My budget is very tight, a little more than CDN$160/US$100 a week, so going to Belize was more of a stubborn desire than anything else. I had a great deal of wise advice on the country from two great sources, thanks to David and Dominique!

My original itinerary was to hit the cays and do some snorkeling. Belize sits astride the second-longest barrier reef in the world. But spontaneity has been key on my trip and on the bus ride in to Belize City, the ticket agent said there was a big party in Dangriga for the Garifuna Settlement Day (November 19th). I decided to make that my next stop. The Garifuna are an Afro-Caribbean people who were exiled by the British to the island of Roatan (Bay Islands – Honduras) in the late 18th century from their home in St. Vintcent. From Roatan, they immigrated to the Caribbean coasts of Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Belize City is cool. It reminds me of a ghost town, but with people in it. The city doesn’t sleep. hahaha…Many of the buildings are made of wood and are stacked two and three high like apartment buildings. Some are stained gray from the wind and the rain. There are canals that run through the city and out to the ocean. Word is that these carry sewage, but I didn’t smell any bad odors to indicate that…When I arrived, a friendly lad struck up a conversation with me. Taught me a bit of Creole. He never had the opportunity to finish school though but he still had street smarts, real smarts, the whole lot… I think he’s got some serious potential. Anyways, he took me right to the guesthouse I was seeking, and we had a great conversation along the way. Says he has a girlfriend who lives in Brooklyn and she visits Belize 2-3 times a year. Doesn’t have an email, but corresponds with her the old-fashioned way. Let’s give this kid some contacts. Write to Akeem Tilley for me at his grandmother’s address and leave him yours… He’d be tickled pink to get a postcard from Canada, the U.S., Europe, or Australia.

Here it is:

Akeem Tilley
27 Mirage Road
Ladyville, Belize District

After my night in the North Front Street Guesthouse (no entry after 11pm – BTB rules), I explored the city (ask for Abraham -I have his email- at the friendly Bellevue Hotel on Southern Foreshore road, he might let you use the shower on the side for free if you’re nice). Found a monument to 40 soldiers with the British Honduras Territorial Force who died during the Great War. I got a heads up from a couple of other backpackers waiting for the bus to Dangriga that there was a party here in the city too. There I saw women in traditional Garifuna dress preparing huddut (sp?). They crush plantains in a big wooden bowl with something like a muddle. Added to the mixture are onions, salt and other spices. They serve it up as a dish with coconut milk, fish, and a Belizean vegetable. Can’t remember the name. It didn’t look too appealing to my unaccustomed palate, so I declined to taste it… :) The Garifuna women aren’t too partial to photos, but I was lucky enough to run into Akeem again so he took a couple of photos for me, and found a local who let me have a swig of his Belizean brandy. :) It’s strong! Cool kid…

I arrived in Dangriga Town in the early evening of the 19th. It was raining out and I was searching for a cheap place to sleep. A local sold me his floor for $5. Wow. What a deal. I almost fell through it. The house was bare of furniture, and the bathroom was completely unusable. The toilet was lying on its side, and the shower floor was covered with muck. I slept with army ants and spiders on old dirty pillows on the floor, and there was no electricity. What I paid for was a roof over my head and a lock on my door. He also assured me that my stuff was safe. :) Dangriga Town was dirty and we probably didn’t see it on its best day. When we arrived everyone had already been drunk for 24 hours celebrating the holiday. It was a street party, with groups of people congregating at houses playing music, or those that had an impromptu band playing. I didn’t stay long in Dangriga and made my way south the following morning.

Though I wasn’t impressed with Dangriga , you should give it a chance, and a read a really interesting account of the celebrations here:

My next objective was to explore Belize’s natural beauty and I didn’t want to do it with other tourists around. I had the Mayan village of Blue Creek in mind. My origin was Punta Gorda, 27 miles southeast of Blue Creek Village, and at 3:30 in the afternoon, I only had one way of getting there. Hitchhiking. Three hours, three pickup trucks, an SUV, a schoolbus, a dump truck, and the highly uncomfortable and worrying hitch between a tractor and trailor later, I arrived.

It was well worth the trip.

Hey David. Remember that yellow-jawed tommygoff you told me saw in Stann Creek when you visited in the 60’s?? There’s another name for it. A fer-de-lance! One of the most poisonous and dangerous snakes in the world. Good thing I didn’t think it was a bird and go looking for it! Mom… I saw a ruddy crake. Got a picture of that in your birdbook?

The fer-de-lance

The ruddy crake

Anyhow, I met this Mayan dude and his family. Sylvano. He let me camp on his property, and while I was sleeping, he sprayed garlic around my tent to keep the snakes away. His wife makes the best tortillas (from scratch on an open fire). I wish I had had some butter and maple syrup. I would never have left his property to go visit the Blue Creek Cave.

I’m glad I did though. I hiked up through a semi-dry creek bed for an hour and a half trying to find it. It would have been easier with a guide but not as much fun! I climbed over and under fallen trees, I crossed rushing water on stepping-stones, and was met with a scene from a movie.

The mouth of a gaping cave greeted me, stalactites, stalagmites, the whole shebang! The Blue Creek was emerging from within the cave, and as it flowed out, formed several waterfalls that were simply gorgeous. I climbed over enormous boulders and skirted slippery green moss to reach my goal – the pool of water inside the cave. At first I was scared to go swimming inside of it. Remember my fear of unknown waters? And it was COLD too. I could see the bottom, but it wasn’t sandy. It was made of rock (limestone, I suppose). It was covered with sediment, making it unsure footing. I could see underwater grottos. Who knew what lived in them? I set a goal to swim one-by-one to three different points in the cave. Each one would give me a different vantage point from where I could see the interior. I could have swum all the way inside, but I had visions of being trapped within by falling rocks if I made so much as one wrong move, like something out of Goonies.

I was the only one around for about 3 hours. Hanging out in a cave in the middle of the jungle watching butterflies play and the sun hide behind clouds. Yeah, pretty tranquil. Solitude seekers, come here. (Ask for Sylvano Sho) at the general store as you approach the bridge over Blue Creek. I have his email address, let me know if you want it. By the time you get there, his new home might be finished. The old one was destroyed in Hurricane Harris (2001). I tried to help plaster the walls, but I think I should stick to travelling and working on my website. :)

Livingston, Guatemala is where my trip took a completely different turn, literally! My original plan was to head into Guatemala via the Rio Dulce, and then head north to Tikal to watch the monkeys play on the ruins of an ancient Mayan site. I was going to head to Antigua and do some volcano hiking and then explore the largest city in Central America, the dirty, dangerous, and foreboding Guat City.

So what happened instead? That weekend in Livingston, an isolated town on the Caribbean coast which has few cars and is only accessible by boat, I encountered four people who had only just met each other the night before. Marius, a computer programmer from Norway; Stefan, a Swiss dude in the first weeks of his year-long around-the-world voyage; and Kiley and Joan, two American girls who had just spent three months studying in Belize. They were going to take a 38 foot sailboat for five days to Utila, a scuba-diving paradise in the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras.

They insisted I come with them, and since the trip was way out of my budget, they (and me) were able to wangle a discount out of the captain so I could afford to go. I agreed to contribute the supply of alcohol to return the favor. No problem there!

I also met a local named Natty in Livingston, Guatemala. Real philosophical gent. He’s a writer and he writes about life. He observes the people, listens to their conversations, and sees how they interact. He extended to me his views on life in Livingston. We talked about the prevalence of HIV in the Caribbean coastal towns of Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. We also chatted about music, and he said something that I found very wise. If you can dance, then you can play music. You’ve already got the natural rhythm, you don’t need anymore. Interesting, huh…?

I had my own idyllic moment observing life in Livingston. It was a quiet spot at the bottom of the main street. I sat for a few moments, peeling an orange, and grooving to some Latin music with a Caribbean beat. A little boy with a kite running back and forth in the road trying to catch the breeze. A couple of local women washing their clothes in concrete basins of water. Moments like these that make it all worth it.

Oh yeah! Can’t forget the Garifuna music! That weekend was the prelude to Livingston’s bicentennial (200 years) anniversary of the arrival of the Garifuna people. Included in their celebrations was a Miss Garifuna contest. The music was really fun and had a great beat to it. The way they dance is kind of funny-looking though. For lack of a better word, they sort of flap their arms almost like the Ragu Chicken commercial, and they shake their hips. It’s called the PUNTA.

More about the Garifuna… brought to you by:

National Geographic

So, what happened with the sailboat trip? You’ll find out in my next update, this is getting too long…

David C. & Dominique B., thanks for the great advice on Belize. As you can see, I followed some of it. :)

Kiley, Joan, Marius, & Stefan: Tons of high-fives for pushing the captain to get me on the sailboat to Utila!

Michael – The advice about the nightclub in Panama City for New Year’s sounds great, but I need to know the name!

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