Travelogs & Reflections > Therese's Travelog > Belize Travelog



Tuesday, August 2, 2005

We were supposed to go to Guatemala today but my cold settled in my chest during the night and prevented me from getting any restorative sleep, and by morning, I was feeling pretty bleak. We decided to take a recovery day and hang out at the Trek Stop one more day. I walked through the medicinal garden with John, the owner, and Flora, the cook, and we concocted a medicine for my chest congestion from the leaves of avocado, ortiga and oregano. Later when I went to pick more to make the remedy myself I discovered that the stems of ortiga have thorns that sting and really burn the skin. I was much more wary on my second attempt to harvest the leaves. 


We all enjoyed hanging for the day. Peter, Paul and Steve played several rounds of disc golf and are now, all three, on the record board for their age groups! Eugene, Oregon, is on the map in western Belize! 


Monday, August 1, 2005

While in the San Ignacio area, you simply must experience spelunking, or cave exploration. There are several tours of local limestone caves but we decided to take the canoe tour of the cave at Barton Creek so we could visit Jim, one of the people we met when we first arrived in town a few days earlier, and his restaurant, The Outpost, at the site. Eva’s restaurant is the place to inquire about tours and we were immediately hooked up with Louis, our tour guide. On the way, we picked up his son and nephews, a little younger than Peter and Paul, and headed out to Barton Creek. It’s about an hour ride on a dirt, gravel road, and in a couple of places it doesn’t even look like a road, but our driver’s old trusty Toyota truck steadily chugged along. We passed spectacular verdant scenery, farm land and miles of orange groves (we found out that the orange plantation and its grand hacienda on the hill overlooking the vast expanse of land, encompassing 2,000 acres, were for sale! any takers??) but mostly untamed jungle. We crossed a shallow creek and finally arrived at the oasis of The Outpost at the mouth of the cave.


Once settled in our canoes (Steve maneuvered one canoe with Paul while Peter and I were in the front canoe with Louis), we headed down the creek to the mouth of the cave. At the mouth of the cave was a sleeping boa constrictor, apparently taking a couple of day nap after feasting on a satisfying catch. I had a momentary moment of anticipated claustrophobic panic as our guide kept reiterating that there would be no natural light as we explored the cave and contemplated bailing out of the tour but Peter’s disappointment spurred me on and I actually found the experience very relaxing and awe-inspiring, even spiritual. You are surrounded by these massive, glorious, often glittering formations of stalagcytes (growing from the ground) and stalaccytes (growing from the ceiling) in these cathedral-like chambers rising 1,000 feet above you. It looks as though the walls are imbedded with diamonds (created by sulfur) and gold (created by iron dioxide), and we are pirates having discovered the mother-lode! (This analogy is not so far-fetched as British pirates are part of Belize’s history. In the 1600s, they used to lure ships onto the treacherous reefs off the coast of Belize and loot the ships of their precious cargo. As the lucrativenss of this enterprise began to dwindle, these pirates and other British entrepreneurs turned to harvesting the jungle of mahogany and other fine wood.)


Throughout the cave are pockets where blind fruit bats reside. We peered into one of these close-up to see its inhabitants. The poor bat was very agitated to have this searing light pouring into its home (though blind, they are very sensitive to the heat from the lamp). We moved on and left our brief acquantaince to regather his composure from this unexpected intrusion.


There were a couple of places on our ride where we had to duck through jagged teeth of limestone to make it into the next chamber. During our first squeeze, the guide suggested I close my eyes to avoid a panic attack but when we turned around and went back through these passages, I was so acclimated I kept my eyes open to experience the full effect without a trace of panic. Overcoming this fear was gratifying for all, including our guide, my family and me! I’m so glad I got to experience this magical place with them.


At The Outpost is a cool swimming hole with a rope swing and Peter and Paul swung with delight into the pool. It looked like so much fun Steve and I joined them for several refreshing plunges into the cool creek water. Jim’s little girl was a regular jungle girl and performed jungle stunts for us, swinging back and forth on the rope several times, pushing off from the rocky ledge and finally jumping with a dramatic splash! She brought out her kitten and rabbit pets to show us, delighted to have company in this remote setting.


Sunday, July 31, 2005

We had to catch the early bus out of Placencia on Friday to ensure that we made all our bus connections through Dangriga and Belmopan, the capital of Belize, enroute to our next destination, San Ignacio in western Belize close to the border of Guatemala. Though we arrived in San Ignacio by noon, we were all exhausted and famished. We ordered quesadillas at a restaurant near the center of town and were very disappointed that they were Americanized with a dousing of mustard of all condiments! Yuck! But, we were in luck; there was an authentic French bakery nearby, run by a French man and his family, and we buried the taste of our mustard-smothered quesadillas with apple turnovers, oatmeal raisin cookies and a walnut brownie! Yum! In just our short time in and around the marketplace, we met Marco, an American who retired from the military to Belize, the French bakery owner, and Jim, who had moved with his family to Belize just 8 months ago from southeast Florida and now owns and operates a restaurant at Barton Creek called The Outpost. Marco gave us suggestions on lodging, and Jim gave us the scoop on hooking up with a local guide to see the caves of Barton Creek.


By the time we lugged our packs and all our gear around to several hotels and finally selected one, we were exhausted. It seems that we are always looking for accommodations in the heat of the afternoon! We re-emerged in the cool of the early evening to check out Martha’s restaurant, recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. After waiting over an hour for our food and seeing other tables that had arrived later get served, I finally asked about the status of our food. The waiter politely said, “right now.” We still waited another half hour and found out later that Belizeans, though very friendly and easy-going, are also fiercely independent and do NOT like to be rushed. If you put any pressure on them at all, they will simply not serve you and “right now” means “when I get around to it.” This would have been useful to know in this circumstance, but oh well, sometimes you learn the hard way, and well, we were getting desperate for our food!


Steve awoke to a bizarre and seemingly contagious infection on his hand. Once again we were seeking a medical consultation. Apparently, he brushed up against some coral while snorkeling that caused blistering and swelling in his hand and is now on prednisone! Fortunately, we were able to resolve this medical emergency fairly expeditiously and were soon off to Trek Stop, a hostel just west of San Ignacio. The hostel is run by John and Judy, formerly of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The place consists of cabins, a communal shelter with a kitchen, dartboard, and computer terminal, solar-heated showers, a set of composting toilets, a restaurant, interactive museum about Belizean natural history, butterfly and medicinal gardens, and a 9-hole disc golf course, all carved out of the jungle! It was great fun to try the 9-hole course as we often golf the disc golf course at Westmoreland Park in Eugene near our home. Peter set a new record for his age group and I’m 3 strokes away from unseating the champion in my age group for the women. After hearing about the poisonous snakes in the area from John, however, I wasn’t too keen about traipsing through the jungle in search of my stray discs but fortunately, we weren’t too far off course and didn’t lose a single disc!


I was feeling a little run-down from a cold so found myself a cool hammock and took a nap. When I still wasn’t feeling too great later in the afternoon, I bought myself a jungle remedy with jackass bitter, a native plant that helps bolster the immune system. After a few doses and a decent sleep, through the night, I felt remarkably better! That’s jackass bitter, folks, and my kids think it’s funny that I take every opportunity to talk about it. Paul says I’m developing a “loose tongue.” Well we have faced just a few stressful situations so I say I’m entitled to my mutterings, plus people around here call it like it is—I mean, shit is “sheeeeet!”


We saw our first Mayan ruins of the trip today. What an impressive complex! We took a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River and hiked the 1.5 miles to the ruins. The site was inhabited in 100 BC and fully developed by 600 AD. Its heyday was between 600 and 900 AD and was abandoned by 1000 AD, when the Mayan civilization in general began to decline due to over-population, an inability to sustain these burgeoning communities, and warring factions. These edifices stand astoundingly intact for their age and are immensely impressive, towering over the canopy of the surrounding jungle in majestic grandeur. All the buildings were built according to precise geometric principles; the stairs that lead to the upper chambers on opposing faces are remarkably symmetrical. Peter and Paul ascended all the remaining smaller buildings while Steve and I stole some shade under a tree and admired their youthful vigor despite the extreme tropical heat! We met another American family who had just moved to Belize a month ago to teach at a Christian school in Punta Gorda, further south from Placencia.


Seeking refreshment in the heat of the afternoon, we decided to take an inner tube float down the Mopan River. John drove us to our put-in site and came and picked us up three or so hours later after traversing Clarissa Falls (no, we’re not talking “Fear Factor” here; it’s just a harmless short 3-foot falls!). Ironically, the afternoon clouded over and we got some rain during our expedition and were actually chilly on the river in the middle of the tropics! Now that was a dramatic switch from the sweltering conditions of the morning! 


Along the riparian zone, we saw many different species of iguanas, other lizards, egrets, heron, a river otter, and these strange nests that had infested a large tree (we were later told that these are termite nests). Not knowing exactly what Clarissa Falls looked like, there were a few times that we wondered if we had missed it and were on our way to Belmopan! In addition, as we approached the falls but couldn’t yet see the drop-off, our imaginations envisioned a treacherous descent despite John’s description of the falls being very navigable! Peter kept us in stitches reciting various lines and scenes from the movie, “Without a Paddle.” On our drive back, John pointed out the strangling fig trees that are overtaking many of the native trees in the area and we enjoyed the verdant pastoral terrain, silhouetted against clearing storm clouds. We were ready for our solar-heated showers when we returned to Trek Stop.


Thursday, July 28, 2005

We made it to Laughing Bird Caye today! What a Shangri-La! The caye is a small island in the middle of sea that is also a national park. Palm trees, hibiscus, and a small palapa shelter and bathroom decorate the island but the lure of this national park is the stark white sands leading to the pristine Caribbean waters and surrounding reef. You are literally drawn to the water and we snorkeled in and out of the reef for several hours. I was on the alert for lemon sharks as we were told that they are plentiful in these waters but while we were in the water, we only saw all kinds of tropical fish. Ironically as soon as we got out, a group of people flocked just on the other side of the boats from where we had been snorkeling; lemon sharks were marauding the shallow waters and giving us a remarkably good view of them from the safety of the beach! These sleek creatures speed through the water with the greatest of ease; feeder fish stay attached to them like mini-propellers. It was an amazing spectacle.


Snorkeling is a spiritual experience; you feel like you become a part of this underwater world. I kept finding Paul heading out to sea in playful pursuit of a school of fish or while exploring the endless reef and had to reel him in a couple of times. We finally enacted the buddy system and held hands and developed our own communication about the amazing sights we were seeing. As we were heading to shore, we passed through a warm belt of water filled with small silver fish. It was as if we were swimming through some sort of crystalline structure; the patterns that these tiny fish form reminded me of water as it freezes into ice and billions of shimmering atomic bonds. 


The waters outside the protected harbor near Placencia were still quite rough but it made for a very exciting ride to Laughing Bird Caye and back. We crashed through 10 foot swells and were completely drenched by the resultant splashes. It was totally exhilarating; I was yee-hawing through it all. While waiting in line for lunch, a woman who had been on our boat commented on my “hearty laugh” that reminded her of a friend of hers. I thought those of you who know me would find this amusing. O.K., so I’m Portuguese and loud!


The children don’t want to leave Placencia. This little village slipped us all into an easy Caribbean way of life. Peter and Paul are now running around like natives without shoes and have friends throughout the village. Paul learned fishing techniques from a local who likes to fish at the point, and Dana, the woman who works for the outfit that led our tour to Laughing Bird Caye today, offered to give him the kind of line he needs to fish tonight. They have played with Julia, the hotel owner’s niece, these past several days and consider all the guests and locals affiliated with the hotel their friends. We now know that at 5 p.m. John the bakerman has fresh bread and cinnamon rolls for sale, and a Mexican family sells fresh fruit at a farmers market near the local soccer field every day and we can always get fresh pineapple, mangos, and bananas there. We also know that you shouldn’t try to conduct any business between the hours of noon and 3 p.m. as this is siesta time and it’s just too damn hot to work! That’s when we retreat to our hammock palapa at our hotel and lounge with a book or take a nap. Yesterday, I went to the hairdresser, a Mexican woman in town, and later encountered her and her toddler son at the small market. We also looked up a woman who is the aunt of a friend we met at Gales Point, and I have seen her at various places around town too. Yes, we’ve certainly adopted the rhythm of this little village by the sea and will miss it and its inhabitants as we head west into the jungle!


Wednesday, July 27, 2005

We’re in Placencia now, a little beach village in southern Belize, waiting for the wind to subside so we can explore the second largest barrier reef in the world. Our hotel, the Westwind, is right on the beach and we have found refreshment swimming and hanging out in the hammocks in the palapa, the Adirondack chairs facing the ocean or the hotel’s lobby that also faces the ocean.  At present the wind is stirring up the ocean and compromising visibility for snorkeling and making it rough to get out to some of the outer islands. But, that’s O.K. we’re content to soak in the relaxation and wile away the afternoons in our hammocks. Plus, we’ve got WiFi and can update the website and get caught up on email!


Main Street in Placencia is a sidewalk lined with guest houses, gift shops and restaurants. No bicycles are allowed on the narrow path. At the end of the spit is a dock from which most of the boat tours depart. It’s quiet here now; their busy season is December through Easter. We have enjoyed ambling along the paths and seeking refuge in the hammocks and cool breezes near the ocean.


Monday, July 25, 2005

We met Danna right outside Emmett and Jill’s place the next morning at 8 a.m. and waded in to meet him at his boat. You can practically walk across the lagoon it’s so shallow! It was a great day for sailing and we immediately launched out into the lagoon. Danna’s grandson came along for the ride. Dexterously, Danna assembled our fishing lines, steered the boat and kept us entertained with stories about the area. Peter was the fisherman of the day with 2 jacks and 1 barracuda, and I caught a jack and helped Danna reel in another barracuda. (Danna, who guarantees fish, was disappointed with our catch but his wife fried up the fish for us so we could sample the catch of the day.) Danna took us to the manatee hole. We saw evidence of manatees all around us as they stirred up the silt from the bottom of the lagoon and occasionally saw manatee heads break the surface but though we were very quiet, did not get a glimpse of their full expanse. A shy creature, this endangered species is a cross between a seal and a whale and Gales Point boasts the largest population in the region. According to Jill, the area attracts marine biologists from around the world because this is the best place to actually see manatees. On our way back, we all had a chance to “fly” in the swing on the boat. We were ravenous when we returned to shore 4 hours later but this time had ordered lunch at Mrs. G’s and enjoyed Creole BBQ’d chicken and rice that was actually browned on the BBQ too. We lingered on the porch talking with friends as long as we could but then had to return to our place to collect our belongings and catch the bus to Dangriga to head south. It was a sad goodbye as we had grown fond of our newfound friends in this sleepy Creole village. On our way to the bus, we stopped and said goodbye to several other friends and exchanged addresses. Danna arranged for us to catch a ride with a friend further out to be sure we caught the bus. Sometimes on Sundays, the bus doesn’t go all the way to Gentle’s. While waiting for the bus, we took pictures of a swarm of butterflies mating in the tree across the street. Hopefully, my friend Eric Wold, member of the North American Butterfly Association, can help me identify the species!


Sunday, July 24, 2005

We finally made it to Belize! It seemed we were always about 10 minutes behind the express bus but we made it by second class bus along the dirt coastal route, the Manatee Highway, to our destination, Gales Point in southern Belize, at about 7:30 p.m. that night. It seems cooler in Belize and there’s a steady breeze. We were referred to Gales Point by Bibbs, local Eugene musician and friend of our dear friends, the Kline’s. Bibbs learned to drum and lived near Gales Point. As we approached the village at the end of a long spit, folks on the bus became aware that we needed a place to stay and a very lively Kriole conversation ensued that was difficult to follow but in the end, it was decided that we should follow “Jill,” another passenger on the bus, and she would take care of us. We deboarded at Gentle’s Cool, one of the few local hang-outs in the town and were immediately besieged by a swarm of flying bugs. I dove into my pack and unearthed the bug lotion and we desperately started lathering it over all exposed skin. With that crisis under control, my next single-minded mission was to acquire dinner for the family as we had last eaten at 11 a.m. that morning. Unfortunately, the restaurant had already served dinner but they had some tortillas and Spam and that’s what we gratefully devoured for dinner. While waiting for our dinner, I met another guest at Gentle’s place who greeted us and upon introducing myself as Therese, responded “I am too!” Her name was Terese as well and she and her husband, sister and brother-in-law have early ties with Belize and visit Gales Point nearly every year from Brooklyn, New York. We enjoyed hearing her relate her tales of Gales Point, fishing with a local guide, Danna. Jill, who is originally from Cincinnati but now lives in Gales Point with her husband, Emmett (also a musician and friend of Bibbs), daughter and foster son, waited for us as we ate our dinner and then offered us the “sugar shack” on her property, a small typical Gales Point dwelling along the lagoon. The two-story structure on stilts was equipped with a bunk bed, double bed and mosquito nets and a toilet just outside the door, two funky showers on the property and plenty of coconuts and hammocks.


The next morning, we set out to see the Manatee Lodge at the tip of the spit. As it turned out it was two doors down from Jill and Emmett’s place. We stopped by the restaurant, a quaint palapa, and inquired about breakfast and were told it would be ready in 15 minutes or so. We went out to the gazebo at the end of the dock and looked out over the expanse of lagoon on both sides of the spit with a stunning Belizean scape covered in jungle as a backdrop. Before we knew it, we were called to breakfast. We arrived to four beautiful breakfast platters of eggs, bacon, fruit, and fried bread and biscuits. We were to discover that at all the restaurants at Gales Point, you eat what they serve and normally it is exquisite Creole food.


With our bellies full, we set out in search of Bibbs’ friends, Irvin Vernon, one of the elders of the village, Louise, and Moses. Along the way we picked up a few friends, Paulina, age 8, and her sister, Danika, maybe 2, and visited with folks sitting on their porch. We found Danna and arranged to go fishing with him the next day and met more villagers and more musician friends of Bibbs hanging out at Danna’s boat shop. Brandon was a bamboo artisan. Kevin, Moses’ son, goes to university in Belize City and runs the manatee research center at Gales Point. We also met Ronald who told us to catch him on our way back; he had something for us and sure enough on the way back he did indeed find us and bestowed upon us a horse eye necklace that wards evil away and woven bracelets. We eventually found the people we were looking for as well. Louise and her husband, James, gave us a tour of their new house and gave us a couple of bottles of cashew wine. Moses, who is a guide and farmer, showed us photos of his jungle expeditions and his trip to Vermont many years ago to study organic farming. He also gave us pineapple and grapefruit and showed us how he makes coconut oil. In the meantime, Peter and Paul joined several local kids at a nearby field and played a couple of games of baseball and basketball in the heat of the afternoon. I provided catcher services to both teams and later photographed the basketball action. Little Paulina and Danika followed me everywhere. Paulina mimicked me in my catcher pose and took over for a few pitches once she got the hang of it. I was amused by Danika's reaction when she discovered a pile of poop on the ground near all the action. She looked down, wrinkled up her little nose, and, without hesitation, said, "Sheeet!" Red-faced from exertion in this humid, hot climate, we headed back to Gentle’s Cool in search of water and lunch. Terese and her husband, Cecil, and her sister and her husband were having lunch as well (Mrs. G served a jack fish coconut cream soup that was excellent and we shared our pineapple and grapefruit and sampled mamma fruit.) and we passed the afternoon in conversation on Gentle’s porch, a steady breeze keeping the bugs at bay and ventilating us well on that hot Belizean afternoon. Peter, Paul and Joshua, the nephew of Mrs. G’s daughter, Alita, from Belize City, went back to the sugar shack to get Peter’s skateboard so he could show Joshua some tricks on the porch but they eventually abandoned the lesson after Joshua nearly broke his neck a few times trying some of the stunts out and went out swimming in the lagoon, which according to Terese, etal, is water rich in minerals and contains healing properties. I accompanied them, eager for some afternoon refreshment. The lagoon is very shallow nearly across its entire width so there’s not much swimming but the kids frolicked happily. Joshua showed them the “hole,” a phenomena created by an underwater hot spring; as you fall into the hole, it is literally bottomless but the hot water pushes you up! The kids had hours of fun pretending to be walking along and “falling” into the hole. Walking back to our place in our wet clothes, we were like mosquito magnets; I saw Paul get eaten alive on his back. It was awful.


That evening Moses and Danna came by to visit and showed Peter and Paul how to husk a coconut and we drank coconut milk and chewed on ripe coconut. Danna says he eats a young coconut every day and says it is his elixir of youth!