Belize is completely different to the other Central American countries I’ve travelled through on this trip. It’s my 77th country (not that I’m counting!) and I was really looking forward to exploring it.
While El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico all have their own distinct identities, they still have a lot in common. Belize however stands apart and not just because its official language is English. It looks different and feels different. Due to ongoing territorial disputes with Guatemala, it identifies more with the Caribbean than with Central America, even though the majority of the inhabitants speak Spanish as their first language.
Belize was once heavily populated with Mayan tribes, then the Spanish arrived and weren’t too interested in the region which enabled English and Scottish pirates to run amok. These pirates eventually became loggers on the mainland and Belize became British Honduras, a British colony until 1981.
I had ten days to get from the northern border all the way to the south of Belize where I was due to do my third Workaway volunteering stint. Here’s a brief rundown of my adventures along the way.
A morning beer in Corozal
I hopped off the border shuttle bus (going all the way from Mexico to Guatemala!) in tiny seaside Corozal. Check in at my Orange Walk hotel wasn’t until 2pm, so the plan was a wander and a coffee before continuing on, which somehow turned into a couple of rowdy beers and nearly joining a trivia team in a expat bar on the seafront.
I truly thought that at 10.30am, Scottys Bar and Grill would be serving coffee. This was my introduction into the heavy bar’n’beach culture among Belize expats! One British guy reckoned Caye Caulker was the absolute bees knees because you ‘can walk into a bar without wearing a shirt and still get served’.
Orange Walk and Lamanai Mayan ruins – one night
Having managed to extricate myself from the lunchtime trivia game, not before getting a handwritten note slipped into my hand by a very drunk American expat, I caught the next bus to Orange Walk.
A small market town surrounded by sugarcane plantations, Orange Walk is chiefly of interest to travellers doing a day tour to Lamanai Mayan ruins. Amazingly Belize once supported over one million Mayans, while today’s population is only around 390,000. I’ve definitely had enough of ruins now but the tour appealed because of the 90 minute river trip to get there, with the promise of seeing crocodiles!
The tour didn’t disappoint. We saw two giant iguanas in the treetops just minutes into the trip, then lots of birds and a baby (‘just hatched from the egg’) crocodile. Our guide told us that crocodiles lay up to 100 eggs at a time, but only a handful survive due to predators, mainly larger birds. On the way back we found an enormous crocodile sunning itself on the bank.
The highlight of the ruins was seeing a family of howler monkeys playing in the trees and a stunning view from the top of the 125ft aptly named High Temple.
Sarteneja – two nights
Back from the river tour I immediately caught the bus up to Sarteneja, a small coastal village, which boasts the only view of a sunset across water in the country.
Activities here include snorkel tours, cycling out to a nature reserve or visiting a Mennonite community. I opted to be super lazy and find a deserted patch of beach where I enjoyed a swim and a slice of cassava pudding, sold to me by a passing lady on a bicycle. I may also have enjoyed one or three of the local beers…
San Pedro, Ambergris Caye – two nights
An thrilling hour or so speedboat taxi ride delivered me to San Pedro on Amergris Caye (25 miles long and 1/2 mile wide!). Most Belize visitors make a beeline to either Amergris or Caye Caulker to enjoy not only snorkeling or diving in the worlds second largest barrier reef, but also the relaxed Caribbean island vibe. San Pedro town is tiny but frantic, with golf carts the chosen mode of transport to get around town or to access the resorts strung out along the Caribbean.
During my stay I hired a bike to explore 5 miles north of town, battling along a sandy seaweed path and admiring the gardens of posh resorts and private beach houses which come right up to the shoreline. All beaches are public access in Belize, so it’s completely acceptable to wave merrily and cycle past people relaxing on the deck of their private cabanas whilst being brought fresh coconuts by uniformed waiters!
I also coughed up US$50 for a 3-stop snorkeling tour, seeing an impressive bit of coral, huge nurse sharks and a conch shell cemetery, where fishermen dump empty conch shells. Swimming with nurse sharks bigger than me was pretty cool, but the highlight was the coral reef with such amazing colours and sea flowers. Back on dry land I couldn’t resist a lobster burrito, which has to be one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten.
San Ignacio – two nights
A short ferry ride delivered me to Belize City, the capital city until it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1961 when it moved inland to Belmopan. Resisting the urge to buy a conch fritter (regretting it later!) I caught a three hour bus to San Ignacio, due west towards the Guatemala border, my base for the ATM cave tour.
Despite the whopping US$90 price tag, as soon as I read about this experience I knew I had to do it. A 45 minute hike with three river crossings (one up to your neck in water), a swim through icy water into the cave mouth, then wading through dark, narrow, water filled tunnels deep into Actun Tunichil Muknal, only discovered in 1989. And if that’s not enough excitement, there’s a scramble up into a high celinged cavern strewn with Mayan pottery, skulls of human sacrifices and a dramatic calcite-encrusted skeleton dating to AD 900. You’re not allowed to take cameras into the caves, but click here for some more information and official photos. After that experience, anything else is a bit tame!
A morning at St Hermans Cave National Park
Disappointingly most national parks are quite far from the highway and public bus route (I definitely need to hire a motorcycle next time), so when I realised St Hermans was right on the main road, plus en route from San Ignacio to my next overnight stop, I added it to the schedule.
Leaving my rucksack at the visitors centre I sweated my way along a 2 hour circular uphill hike, swatting away persistent mosquitoes, enjoying a slice of real Belizean jungle, as well as an exploration of 200 yds of St Hermans cave (don’t forget your flashlight!). The morning was topped off with a refreshing swim in the blue hole, a collasped underground limestone cave.
Hopkins – two nights
This was my last stop in Belize before beginning a two week Workaway at the country’s first Earthship in southern Toledo district. If you’ve never heard of volunteering through Workaway, check out my previous two stints in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Hopkins is a tiny two street town with a spectacular coastline, about two thirds down the country. As Belize beaches go, it’s the usual seaweed infested slither of sand with a fringe of palm trees (beware those coconuts!) but I enjoyed a quiet day on the beach, reading, swimming, eating a picnic and not spending any money. Even the drunk guy in my dorm room who urinated over everyone’s flipflops in the middle of the night didn’t ruin my day!
And now it’s time to head to my Workaway in the very south of Belize, where traditional Mayan villages and some dense jungle dominate the landscape. I’ve got two weeks left in Belize before crossing by boat to Guatemala.