I was born and raised in Belize City. My backyard was the beautiful Caribbean Sea and lush jungles. As a kid, I remember taking picnic trips to deserted islands, and diving for conch to make fresh ceviche. Going on horseback rides in the jungle or boating up rivers was always a thrill. When I got older and got into the tourism industry, I realized that despite my fun childhood family trips I hadn’t scratched the surface of what Belize has to offer. And so my goal to explore the country began, and still continues to this day.
My father was born in Honduras. When my grandfather became the ambassador in Belize, he moved his family, along with my then young father, to Belize. So in many ways, my father grew up as a Belizean. Later, when he went to study in Mexico, he met my mother, and so a new family was born. I was the first generation to actually be born in the country. I tell this personal story, because it illustrates the norm, or rather lack of a norm, of Belizean culture – an interesting mix of people with one thing in common, Belize. I’ve met all manner of colorful characters in my path.
Charles from Punta Gorda, off East Indian descent, is a local entrepreneur with a local cable company, hardware store and guesthouse. He is a quiet hardworking man, who keeps his accounting all on paper and has managed to make a mark in the generally sleepy town of Punta Gorda. He talked to me about his business, telling me how he would offer more soap opera and talk show channels as women were the majority of his viewers. He also mentioned that someday he would bequeath all he had to his sons, saying that he worked hard to ensure his family’s future.
Bob from PG arrived in Belize as a British soldier, and made a home for himself in San Ignacio. He opened Eva’s restaurant along with his Belizean wife, which has become a popular place to hang out and eat for anyone passing through the town. He told me stories of San Ignacio’s past, when there were no roads from the coast and getting there took several days. He said it was like the Wild West, where it was not uncommon to see someone who had a bit too much to drink passed out on a horse strolling away from a dusty bar.
Charlie is a British woman who moved to the small island of Caye Caulker, she married a local, and they formed a successful tour company. She has a bubbly character and is always smiling. Coincidentally her in law is Bert, a colorful Rastafarian who is more popularly know as “Ras Creek” and one of the most interesting personalities I’ve met. He does tours on his boat “Heritage Cruz” which is decorated in bright colors, orange hammocks and a thatched roof lounge. He has a 5 gallon jug water pump with the words “Jah is Water” written across it.
In Placencia, I met a man who I will not name, who claimed to be a member of the Illuminati secret society. He told me of how he had befriended an aging man when he was a student. Then one day, out of the blue, the old man called him to his death bed. There he bestowed him his membership; as the old man gave him his Illuminati ring everyone in the room bowed down to him. He even showed me the ring with the All Seeing Eye, a symbol for the society which is also depicted in the back of the US one dollar bill. When trekking though the country, the one thing that stands out as much as the raw natural beauty is the culture, and how wonderfully diverse it is. Keep an open ear and the stories will wash in.
Best Things to See & Do?
I have done and seen many of the things visitors to the country dream of doing and seeing. I have dived the Blue Hole and with giant whale sharks, explored caves packed with Mayan artifacts, repelled down 400 foot cliffs, waded through saltwater flats hunting elusive permit fish, have seen rare exotic birds, climbed to the top of ancient Mayan temples and still there are corners of the country which I have yet to explore. My life even flashed before my eyes once kayaking down white water rapids in the upper Macal River when I tipped over and got stuck in a whirlpool. Scary! As a photographer I’ve tried to capture the beauty that I’ve seen, and sometimes, just occasionally, it becomes art. I won’t do a list of the “top 10” best things to see or do, as this is a personal experience for everyone. The only thing I can do is mention some of the personal experiences I’ve had trekking around Belize.
Experiences on Land
One of my memorable experiences was exploring the wild jungles of the Orange Walk district. Before starting on my journey, the only thing I knew of this district was Orange Walk Town. Little did I expect the wonderful natural beauty that lay in its back country. I turned off the highway after which it was all off road. One of my first stops was the New River Lagoon. This lake has much to explore, but one of my favorite things about it was how its calm water mirrored the sky, creating a dreamy landscape. I continued further west getting into the Programme for Belize and Chan Chich, one of the largest and most remote protected forests in Belize. In Chan Chich, I slept beside the remains of a Mayan ruin with wild dears parading in front of my room. The sounds of the jungle are mesmerizing, the wildlife is amazing, with something new on every tree and under every leaf.
Another great experience was in the Jaguar Preserve, known for its large concentration of jaguars. I had embarked on a difficult hike to a lookout called Ben’s Bluff, a grueling 2 hour hike on steep rugged terrain. After catching my breadth for a couple minutes the fantastic landscape came into focus. The birds-eye view over the Maya Mountain Range was worth every step, looking over the forest canopy into a horizon of jutting mountains. On the way down I stopped by a waterfall and took a refreshing dip in its cool waters. The sound of water has a way of relaxing the mind like few other things can. A sign by the waterfall read “take only pictures, leave only footprints” a good motto to follow.
Another memorable experience I had was exploring the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. Belize has many caves because of its karst limestone terrain. Many of the caves are great, but this one definitely stands out. The entrance to the cave is shaped like an hourglass, appropriate since entering it is like stepping back in time. You swim through the entrance, making your way through narrow crevices and huge echoing chambers and sometimes moving along chest high in water. Then you make it up a steep ledge to enter the ceremonial chambers used by the Maya. There are so many artifacts all over the ground that you have to walk barefoot and in a single file. Mayan pots and human skulls are scattered all over. Finally we entered a very small chamber though a tight crevice. There on the floor was the skeleton of a female sacrificial victim, her calcite encrusted bones glimmering in the light. She’s called the Crystal Maiden. This cave is an amazing trip through beautiful geology into the Mayan past.
Experiences on Sea
Some of my greatest experiences on Belize’s Caribbean Sea have been underwater. One of the most famous dive sites in the country is the Blue Hole, on Lighthouse Reef Atoll. This cave collapsed sometime during the Ice Age when ocean levels rose, forming the present sinkhole which is over 400 feet deep. From above you see an almost perfect circle of dark blue water, giving it its name. I descended to about 140 feet. Looking up I saw the rays of sunlight shining down the hole. Down below I saw the deep blue water turning to black. And there I was suspended, floating as if in mid air, with the relaxing sound of my regulator marking my every breath. In front of me were massive stalactites, formed millions of years ago and now stuck deep underwater. It’s an amazing dive, one of many great experiences I’ve had underwater.
Above the water Belize has over 200 islands. Most are just specks of mangroves, but there are some beautiful deserted islands dotted by a handful of coconut trees. One of my favorites is Silk Caye, off the southern coastal village of Placencia. As we speed ahead in our boat, the dot on the horizon turns into an island. The boat docked in the shallow water around the island; we jumped into the knee-high water and walked to the beach. It’s just amazing to stand on a tiny island that you can walk across from end to end in 5 minutes, surrounded by a seemingly endless sea. The white sand beach washed by cool blue waters just begged me to walk in. After some sun, the coconut trees entice me with some cool shade. As the guide prepares a barbeque, I watch some other travelers find their little private corners on the island, enjoying the breeze, the sun and the sea. I’ve been to many beautiful islands in Belize, but this one stands out for me.
Whenever I’m next to the water, whether it’s on the coast or on an island I thoroughly enjoy catching sunrises and sunsets. During the day the sun is too bright to look anywhere near it, but in the morning and afternoon it tames itself enough that you can look directly at this massive fiery ball. I enjoy the magnificent colors, the contrasts with the clouds and the silhouettes formed with the surrounding landscape. Placencia is one my favorite places for them. In the morning the sea is usually dead calm, so as the sun rises from the horizon the water mirrors the cacophony of colors in the sky forming a dreamy landscape. In the evening, you can catch the sunsets over the Placencia Lagoon. Just beyond the lagoon you can see the Maya Mountains. Sitting back with a cool breeze sweeping over the water, it’s a wonderful site to see the tired sun melt behind a those mountains with its last rays glimmering in the water’s surface. Every sunrise and sunset is different, and it’s always fun to go out and see what each day will bring.
A Game of Dominoes
I will end my little expose with a game of dominoes. Once I was in Dangriga, a primarily Garifuna town in the southern coast. Garifuna are a people that stemmed from escaped African slaves and through their struggles and history have created a unique culture of their own. They are also great dominoes players. I was walking down the street past a local hang out spot with several men playing dominoes. Considering myself to be an avid player, as I play a lot with my friends, I asked to play. Even though I was a stranger, and it looked like everyone there knew each other, they welcomed me into the game. It’s a 4 man game and every round the looser steps out, and the next in line steps in. I was surrounded by mostly older Garifunas; in their culture they believe age brings great wisdom and older men are very much respected. I waited a few rounds until it was my turn to play. I sat down and quickly learned that I had overestimated my skills. In dominoes you must count the numbers to weight probabilities – but I did this slow and these guys played hellishly fast. And before I realized it, I was out, on the first round! These guys were good. So I analyzed my strategy, waited my turn again, and when I sat down again I manage to stay in for several rounds, even winning 2 of them! It was a wonderful experience. A few weeks later when I sat down with my friends back in Belize City to play dominoes I told them to bring their best game to the table, as I had played with the old Garifuna masters of Dangriga.
Contributed by Alex Gamero