Day 2: Belize
We were up around 7:30 to start our day. After a refreshing cold-water shower we paid and left one of the best hotels of our trip. We asked for some information on the buses but the receptionist didn’t speak English very well and pointed us in the general direction. We headed out toward the station and passed a bunch of police officers eating at a taco stand. We looked in the giant meat pot the Mexican was scooping food from and after some coaxing by an officer, decided to try some local street food. Nom Nom. It was delicious.
We walked down some abandoned alleyway and eventually made our way through a food market selling vegetables and more taco meat. We were tempted for more but didn’t want to miss our bus. We looked around for the actual station and then found some foreigners standing on the street corner. That must be the bus stop. I asked the lady who was from Canada and sure enough, we found the ‘station’.
This was confirmed by a Belizean man who always had a smile on his face, even when mentioning that the bus was 30 minutes late. Which meant we didn’t have to wait too long until it arrived. As soon as it did, we packed onto the bus all excited to get a move on. It was interesting to be back on a school bus, which is the type of buses they used for public transportation (the old Blue Bird buses painted in random colors). As we got comfortable, we noticed our bus driver also sitting down and getting comfortable, but outside the bus. What was he doing? Ah, of course… a shoeshine! He seemed so proud to have his shoes shined as all the passengers watched him from the bus windows just 5 feet away.
Once his babies were spit-shined, he got back on and our bus roared to life. We were on our way to Belize!
Before we knew it, we were at the border crossing and had to leave the bus to go through immigration. On the Mexican side, we simply had to show our passports through the window of the guard station, mention that we were not coming back in and get a stamp to leave (we already paid our entrance fee with our plane ticket).
Then we got on the bus to the Belize border where we had to disembark again and go through their immigration. The Belize immigration office was quite nice with a visitors information desk right at the entrance. The young man behind the desk was busy making fishing lures. I interrupted his routine for some advice on how to best spend our one day in Belize City. He gave us several options but suggested going to Caye Caulker which would be the best place to spend the night for a relaxed backpacker environment. Sounded good. Immigration was painless, showing our passports and getting an entrance stamp. Not a very impressive stamp but by far not the less impressive stamp (El Salvador). The locals seemed to get a more extensive check through customs where they searched their bags. We were just waved through, though I don’t think we stood out as tourists… We waited for the locals to finish up as the Canadian lady told us about all the great shopping for “name brands they have back home” that we could get in the duty free border zone on the way back (which also had casinos). She was so excited about it, we felt bad telling her we weren’t coming back!
Soon we were back on the bus and headed to Belize City, 3+ hours away. The bus ride was kind of fun, looking out at the calm countryside dotted with steel paneled shacks. Strangely we saw a lot of Chinese and Indian shops and businesses. This was one of the last places I expected to see Chinese characters. We stopped at several bus stations where people lined up to pack on board. Within a few stops, I had to also squeeze onto Bill’s seat to avoid the body masses encroaching into my area. It was interesting to listen to the Belizean English which had Jamaican hints throughout. As we got out of the countryside and started getting deeper into the heart of Belize City, our hopes for a beautiful fun coastal village slowly transformed into pure terror and fear for our lives.
The city looked like we were in the middle of an urban ghetto. Every store was barred up and there were, what seemed to be, homeless and wandering randoms at every street corner. When we stepped out of the enclosed guarded bus station, we saw a stand for some street food. Let’s try the local fare!
Worst food decision of the whole trip.
A grizzled black guy asked us if we wanted some real healthy food. How could we refuse? We were pretty hungry as we hadn’t eaten since those tacos, so we ordered two servings of the chicken bean rice which was… well, a chicken leg, black beans, white rice, and about four pieces of cold mac and cheese (we got the last scraps in the pan). There were plenty of flies buzzing around as well. I wish I took a picture.
As Bill and I contemplated eating the meal we had in our hands, a toothless local who witnessed us purchase our meal came up to chat. He was in the middle of his own chicken rice which he graciously shared with us as he spoke.
“This your first time in Belize?” rice grains flying everywhere.
“Ohhh… we can take a walk… and … err.. I’ll show you the sights!”
More like lead us to an isolated alleyway for a brutal gang mugging.
“I think we are going to take a cab.” He was quite persistent, but suddenly a black Suburban rolled up blasting Rasta tunes. The driver stopped and asked us if we wanted a taxi. Though I was pretty sure this wasn’t a licensed cab, we got in choosing the lesser of two evils. The cab driver who spoke fluent English took us to the marine dock where the ferries for the islands departed. He was quite friendly and told us about how dangerous it was to walk around even during the day. I 100% believed him. Little did we know, we were only a few blocks away from the terminal. It was a pretty expensive ride for such a short distance (USD 5 for a less than 2 min ride). Our cab driver also asked for more money after he dropped us off, simply because we “have a lot of money”. I guess that’s valid. Bill stopped by an ATM to cash up as I stood guard. We got our ferry tickets to Caye Caulker. We now understood why the visitor center recommended NOT staying in Belize City.
After we got our round-trip tickets we had some time to kill before the next boat arrived, so we headed out for some brief sightseeing. We saw the very unique hand cranked bridge and walked about a block in before feeling we saw enough. This was suppose to be the touristy area but it definitely didn’t feel that way. We bought local beers, Belikin, from an Indian shop and Cuban cigars from another Indian seller. We took a few pictures and headed back to the terminal. Within our single-block walk back, one of two people we passed asked for money.
We finally ate our meals as we waited for the ferry. Like the city center, it was cold and tasteless.
The ferry was just a bit late. It was actually a fast boat with over 440 hp. The ride didn’t take too long either, less than an hour. We weren’t sure what to expect on the island, but it couldn’t be much worse than Belize City.
On our approach, we saw palm trees, docks, small hotels, and people lounging around (in a vacation, not homeless way) and immediately felt better. Now to find a place to stay. It was still light out and pleasant to walk around to explore. After stopping at several overpriced ‘luxury’ options which still had rooms, we finally found a shack of a building with reasonable pricing, WiFi, and a beachfront location. At this point we already walked for around 30 minutes, so we didn’t mind the paper thin doors or the shared bathroom. We threw our rucksacks on the beds and headed out to find a dive shop that would let us dive the Blue Hole we heard so much about.
No luck. All four dive shops we approached either didn’t dive the blue hole, or just did it today and wont go for another day at least. Since we only had one day on the island, we were out of luck. Plus I forgot to bring my diving license and Bill isn’t certified, so we would have difficulty finding a way to the 40m deep dive site. We were however determined to check out the reef while we were there. There was a plethora of shops offering snorkeling trips, all similar packages to one of three main spots. We found a place that would offer to let us dive with a ‘discovery’ tour which was basically a hand-holding dive no more than 3m deep right off the dock. I’d rather chum myself to a hammerhead.
We thought of our options and decided to eat first so we could weigh the pros and cons of each tour. While we were walking around, an older restaurant owner who tried to lure us with his fresh lobster was actually very friendly and keen to help us find the best diving experience. He said there are definitely boats going to the blue hole, you just had to know who to talk to. He was on the case. He called some friend who was at the local soccer game so he told us to check back later. We walked with him and chatted as he got a beer from the Indian grocery store. We noticed he didn’t leave the store premises while drinking the beer and when I pointed it out, he said “oh yeah you tourists are fine, they wont do anything to you, but just to be safe I don’t want to break the law, you know?” He went on to talk about how San Pedro (the more developed neighbor island) was where he developed a gram a day coke habit and partied so hard he couldn’t control himself anymore, which is why he decided to move to Caye Caulker with his wife to settle down and find some peace. “I mean it was nonstop over there, anything you want anytime you want, you had it all”… Bill and I looked at each other. What are we doing on Caye Caulker?
We passed by an unassuming house with “Juni’s Tours” painted on the outside of the deck, but didn’t see anyone and we were about to move on when a local saw us standing there and yelled out “Hey Juni!”. A small leathery skinned local with bleach white hair came out and leaned on his balcony railing. We asked if he had tours for tomorrow. He didn’t have the salesman spiel that the other outfits gave. Instead he just stood there surveying us and eventually said in a quiet confident demeanor, “I have a tour…”
“Be here at 7 tomorrow morning” as if we already agreed to go. We obviously wanted some info before making a decision.
“Where do you go?”
“I make 2 or 3 stops.”
“… ok… what kind of marine life can we expect to see?”
“*pause* …You will see when you see. But I can tell you this, if you do not have a great time, you don’t have to pay. I don’t want your money.”
“Interesting proposition! We may have to take you up on that offer” We had a hearty laugh. He stared at us with an emotionless and disapproving glare. Our laughter came to an abrupt end.
“Well, can we get back to you?”
“Okay, but I only have 2 places left. I don’t take more than 6 people.”
We had dinner at our new friend’s restaurant, which offered a buffet with fire-pit roasted pig, Belizean fare of beans, rice, chicken, and some salads. Cuba Libres in hand, we talked over the options, but I think we were both already set on the mysterious Juni.
After our meal, we walked across the road and called out to Juni’s. He did not seem happy to see us and told us to come back later. So we walked around the unexplored side of the island. Notable sites included a small seafront cemetery and some nice beach views.
About an hour later, Juni was ready for us. Another guest of his was on his balcony who told us to come up. Juni asked us to come in and directed us to sit down. He then studied us and told me to take off my right shoe. I did just that, not exactly sure what he wanted.
“Are you going to swim with that sock?”
“Uh, no… ” I took off my sock as he handed me a fin.
“Try this”. It fit well. “You are #32.”
Then Bill got a number too. He told us to be there tomorrow at a quarter to seven. When we asked if breakfast or lunch were included, he just laughed. “Ha ha, I do not FEED you! Ha ha I give you fruit. Maybe a banana. The fruit will give you the energy.” So I guess we’d better get breakfast tomorrow.
We now had a whole evening to party it up on the extremely crazy island of Caye Caulker. *cricket* *cricket*
We picked up a couple of Belikin beers and headed to the bar at the end of the island. Bill was considering swimming across the channel to the dark island on the other side, but thought better of it. I asked the bartender if we could swim there and was surprised when she answered yes. It use to be apart of the same island before the hurricane a year ago cut Caye Caulker in two, severing the electricity on the other side.
Since everything was dead anyway, we decided to get some rest so we’d be energized for the day to come. We couldn’t resist breaking open some fresh coconuts for a healthy snack on the way back. A German couple was intrigued by our ape like survival tactics and joined in. Many tourists walked by smirking and making comments, until a local kid on a bike stopped to explain how to smash the coconut on its ‘head’ to get a clean break. We were soon swimming in coconut milk.
That is island life mon.
With our stomachs full of coconut milk and our minds full of anticipation for what lay ahead, we fell asleep almost immediately.