"Tropical the island Breeze, all of nature wild and free, this is where I long to be, la isla Bonita…"
Madonna already sang it over 20 years ago: ‘I used to dream of San Pedro…’. San Pedro is the town on Ambergris Caye, better known as La Isla Bonita from Madonna’s hit-single.
But that was in the 80-s when San Pedro probably still was the paradise she sang about. Since then it has been invaded by US tourists, many of which have bought a piece of land and/or built a house. The palms are still there and though there are no real beaches, the water is clear and the fish abundant in the corals reef just off the coast.
All of this new money has made the prices too high for the locals and at the same time has attracted a lot of shady people as we had already met in Belize City, who offer to ‘help’ you at every street corner.
Many of these call themselves ‘Rastafari’, but as they do everything that a true Rastafari would not (eat anything that basically was alive and walking or swimming at some point for example), it seems more an excuse for being lazy, which is just on the other side of the thin line separating it from ‘relaxed’.
They also supply al possible drugs possible, which in return has attracted a less joyful crowd of young US teens visiting the island.
It is difficult to find a decent place for a decent price, but Pedro’s Inn offered both including a swimming pool which of course is the best place to be during some of the short but torrential rains! Still, a tiny 2 person-room without bathroom costs B$ 20 (USD10) and eating out was expensive as well, so our budget went through the roof…
Here are some impressions:
Go Slow on Caye Caulker: this is where we want to be…
We quickly had enough of the busy San Pedro, and hopped on another boat which dropped us off on the next Island: Cay Caulker. It is much smaller, only a few km long and between 100m & 400m wide. At many places on the island you can stand in the middle and see the sea on both sides
Everybody is either walking or cycling and the Island’s motto is “Go Slow”.
This is truly the paradise that Madonna was singing about, likely resembling San Pedro from the 80-s.
But for B$25 per room (USD 12,50 for 4 persons together, not counting the in-house gecko which served as a ecological mosquito–trap), we were not complaining.
Besides, we had a front-row seat to the football matches and the sea was less than 100m away on both sides…
Here are some more pix of our ‘area’ and of some other, more expensive hotels on Cay Caulker:
Chilling at The Spit
There is a small channel, separating the inhabited Southern Part from the uninhabited Northern part, called ‘The Spit” and there is the only real beach. Accompanied by the beats of the nearby Lazy Lizard pub you can snorkel or relax.
The people living here seemed more friendly and truly relaxed, not the pushy fake ‘relax, man, we just want your money’-attitude from San Pedro.
Playing with Stingrays
Then of course: back to the hammock office and deciding which catch of the day we would eat…
Goodbye to my sister and niece, together alone again
To avoid the hassle and unfriendly crowds in Belize City, we decided it would be better if Margriet & Dawn used one of the small planes to get to the International airport. Besides, it would give them one more evening and night with us!
We stayed another few days on the Island as we had to await for Jorge to come back from vacation, as our bikes were still stored at his place in Belize City.
But that was no hard thing to do, it was nice to have some extra time on the ‘Go Slow’ island, catching up with some work, swimming more and preparing mentally for the next part on the bike: down South through Belize towards Guatemala!
A final look at Caye Caulker: as always:
click to enlarge automagically, see the photos section for more pix of Belize and the islands!
Where other restaurant owners would be busy around lunch-time, Mr Marin took his time to read his newspaper in his restaurant on ‘Go Slow’ Caye Caulker, Belize.
It was great to see my only sister Margriet and her daughter/my niece Dawn again, as it had been over a year since we had said goodbye in The Netherlands. She always wanted to go to Belize and as she was tied to my niece’s vacation schedule, we were lucky that we could plan a few weeks together.
Her entry into Belize was not so easy as the airport personnel was so rude and aggressive that she was crying when she came out of the airport building. On top of that their luggage was delayed, so we had to spend an extra night in Jorge’s place.
Some of the animals had very little space, others had more, but all were surrounded by a thick jungle, so you could feel like an explorer, meeting al 5 cats of Belize, the largest eagle in the world and much more..
To the West: Ruins, Horses and Parrots’ Nests in San Ignacio
After the luggage finally arrived, we said our thanks and goodbyes to Jorge, who had patiently helped us out, and boarded a bus West. All ‘public’ buses are privately owned and they are all refurbished USA school buses. This means tights spaces, no luxury and loads of diesel fumes.
The fun thing is to see the diversity of people inside the buses: the Creoles, the Mennonites, the Mayas, the Guatemalans and the tourists all travel together for a few dollars. The Western Highway leads past the capital of Belmopan towards the main town of San Ignacio, just 20km from the Guatemalan border.
it is a well-known tourist spot, located in the hills and many foreign-owned eco-lodges are located here, in the midst of jungle, ruins and caves, while the famous Maya site of Tikal, Guatemala is only a few hours away.
I had seen it 9 years ago when I first visited Guatemala and would have loved to see how it had changed. But due to the expensive (single entry!) visa for Ivana and the exit taxes we would all have to pay, we decided to skip Tikal in favour of some local sights.
No other visitors had hiked up the steep hill and we could explore the ruins alone and Margriet & Dawn enjoyed it tremendously.
CouchSurfing and horse riding around the Parrot’s Nest
The Parrot’s Nest is a great place to relax, float on the river, watch the giant lizards and butterflies and to awake at the sound of toucans chatting away.
We rode through thick jungle, up steep hills, past hidden ruins and friendly people.
Back to the North: Lamanai Ruins via Croc-land and Biscayne
We had to get back to Belize City before we could take another us up the Northern Highway. Ivana & I had seen a place named Croc land, which seemed like a fun place: some crocodiles and the largest swimming pool of Belize ((without crocs :)).
First we camped in another place we had scouted out: a small grocery store that had a camping space and a shower! Dawn spent time playing with the kids and we had our very first ‘Rice & Beans’ in Belize.
The swimming pool in Croc Land was indeed very nice, and we enjoyed it, but upon further inspection it turned out that Croc-Land not only housed a few dozen Crocodiles in horrible circumstances but also other animals including a mountain lion and even a jaguar, hidden away in a far corner; going mad in a concrete cage without shade. This place should be shut down immediately…
Back in time on the New River
I wanted to show them at least one more bigger Maya site and we decided to go to Lamanai. This old Maya centre is located next to one of the largest rivers in Belize and though it boasts some very impressive grand buildings, the boat tour to get there is just as fun.
He slowly passed some Spider Monkeys, to give them a chance to grab some bananas off the boat and then went at full speed through some of the other curves of the river before showing us around the historical sites. It was hot and the bugs were attacking, but still a great day out.
Orange Walk to Sarteneja.
We returned too late to get to our next destination, so we decided to skip Corozal as planned and stayed another night in Orange Walk, enjoying Guatemalan tamales & Salvadorian pupusas off the street.
We stayed 2 nights while swimming in the warm Corozal bay. ahh, the hard life of the Bike Travellers
Coming up: Belize with Family, part 2 (final): La Isla Bonita
Remember when Madonna sang about the place with the Tropical Breeze, this was where she wanted to be?
Next stop: San Pedro, “La Isla Bonita”…
He had sold his land to two European ‘Gringos’, for them to build a little ecologically-friendly backpacker’s place.
Under one condition though, he could still come and collected the ‘nances’, the small little yellow fruits that fell from the tree during the night-time, so he could make and sell his wine.
The old guy was proudly selling his small bucket of home made tamales, a corn-paste filled with meat (usually chicken, including bones, so take care) or vegetable, steamed and delivered in oily banana leaves.
His wife made the tamales as home and together with this grandson, he tried to sell all of them on the side of the Central park, Orange Walk, Belize.
After crossing the bridge that separated Mexico from Belize, we still had to do some formalities. I could just ride my bike into the office and get a free stamp, valid for 4 weeks, but Ivana had to pay.
Sometimes being an Argentine helps dodging costs: for some unknown reason she does not have to pay for visa for for example turkey & India, whereas I do. But in order to enter Belize, she needed to pay B$100, 100 Belize Dollars, equalling USD $50! It must have something to do with the old ties to the Argentine archenemies, the Brits (Islas Malvinas, anyone?).
We also had to state where we wanted to exit Belize, which we had not expected. As there are only 3 options and we did not want to exit the way we just came in, we had to choose between the land border close to Tikal, Guatemala and the Southern sea-port of Punta Gorda. We opted for the latter and so the basics of our time and route through Belize were fixed more than we would have liked to: maximum 4 weeks, in through the North, out through the South.
We continued on a flat road through muggy mosquito-filled fields and even met another cyclist headed North, who showed us his bike with mono-wheel trailer. he said it was very strong, but while demonstrating how to get on the bike, it came off, which did not seem too secure to us..
Some miles later, we rolled through neatly trimmed lawns –seems the Brits left another legacy here- topped with old and worn houses into the fisherman’s town of Corozal. We liked the relaxed and friendly place, enjoyed some nice hand-made ice-cream and went to look for a cheap place to stay.
The cheapest rooms were in this non-touristic town where still more than B$25, which was more than our daily budget. We started to believe the scary stories of costly Belize that other travellers had told us.
Finally we came upon a nice classic-looking hotel, named the sea-breeze hotel. We asked owner Gwynn if we could camp in his yard but he insisted we camp within the gate and under shelter of his sea-view bar instead. A while later he even offered us to stay for free in the spare room that was normally used by the cook, thanks Gwynn!
Later it turned out that it was not only the most economical place in town (B$40 or USD $20 for a room which could fit 3 or even 4 persons), but also most recommended by Lonely Planet and we planned to come back later with my sister.
Some more pix of Corozal:
Day 381: 27th July 2009, Corozal – Carmelita, 60km
There are only 3 real roads in Belize, aptly named: The Northern Highway, The Western Highway and the southern Highway, all ending/starting in centrally located Belize City. Even so, there was almost no traffic on the Northern Highway that we were on, and we followed the gentle lines of the landscape without much bother of diesel-powered machines.
Though the official language is English, a large part of the population (the Maya) still only speaks Spanish and the ones that do speak English (mostly the dark-skinned Creole and Garifuni population) have their own pidgin variation of it, which would pass no teacher’s test.
Then there are the Mennonites, who speak their own tongue (with elements of German as well as Dutch) and are important part of the population as they create about 45% of the nation’s food supply; dressed as if they were starring in the video clip of Weird Al’s Amish Paradise or stepping out of a 16th Century Dutch master’s painting.
We found that bananas were still affordable here (8 for a B$) and discovered a new treat: ideals. Frozen bags of hyper-sweet lemonade in different flavours, well worth the 25cts the small shops charged.
Some Mayan kids at the ideal shop, enjoying their own goods as much as we did:
We passed around the larger city of Orange Walk and ended our day in a small town of Carmelita. The shops and restaurants were closed, save one, but the 2 dark-skinned guys were so unfriendly that we rather went hungry than giving them business. When asking for a place to camp, a nice young guy named Junior insisted we would join him to his family’s house, and thus we went.
We cooked our emergency spaghettis and pitched our tent inside a small building next to their home, to ward off the hordes of mosquitoes. The night was incredibly hot and we did not sleep much. Outside one of the poor dogs was doing a constant and sad ‘silly walk’ as a result of a wrongfully executed injection.
The chip-sealed road did not change much all the way into Belize City. We passed some small towns, old houses that were mostly looking like they could collapse any day, while the lawns were trimmed neatly as for a garden contest. It was a strange mix of poverty and a spacious country.
We were surprised that though Belize offers all kinds of fruit and food possible, none of it is being sold on the side of the road, as happens everywhere in Mexico.
The shops –and many restaurants- in the towns are mostly Chinese owned; the tasty pupusas on the streets are made and sold by Salvadorians, the handicrafts by Guatemalans, the food produced by the Mennonites and the ‘eco-resorts’ owned by imported Europeans and US-Americans. The ‘Belizeans’ seem to prefer to just swing around in their hammocks instead.
None of the rich mix of fruits and vegetables that is still somehow produced in Belize seem to make it to the local shops though and the restaurants mainly serve a variation (‘fry’ chicken, ‘fry’ beef or ‘fry’ fish) of ‘Rice & beans’.
Belize City, not so relaxed
We were warned that though most of Belize country is quite relaxed, Belize City is where all the criminals of the country seem to congregate. Though it was not as bad as foretold, it was definitely annoying to walk and cycle in a city that will turn everybody into a racist within moments.
All the shops seem to be owned by Chinese who try to make an honest living and are generally friendly. The streets in front of the shops are filled with young black males though, many of them either stoned or drunk (this is during day time) and most (!) of them trying to take my sunglasses, bicycle, money and whatever they could get their hands and eyes on. At least they did not use any violence, but simply ‘asked’ for it.
‘Hey man, lemme try those shades man’, while already reaching with both hands for my sunglasses which I was, well, wearing.
‘Gimme that bike man, it looks expensive my friend’, ‘Gimme some money man..’; ‘MMhheuuyww, yyeahh, hhmm?’ and similar Creole expressions.
Others tried to touch/grasp/take us and the few things we were carrying without saying much, which is just as annoying.
We were staying with a friendly CouchSurfing host named Jorge, a dermatologist, originally from Nicaragua. He took us to a nice area of town in the evening, but the moment we got our of our car, we were immediately approached and harassed by yet another ‘relaxed’ dude and apparently this was ‘normal’.
When walking back to his house the next night we felt not just annoyed, but threatened when two young guys on bicycles circled around us and then tried to block our way on the sidewalk without saying anything. Fortunately we were already in front of Jorge’s house by then, and could slip through his front gate without confronting them.
All in all, nothing bad actually happened, while we walked and cycled around town several times, so I guess you could say that it is a ‘safe’ city. But the general atmosphere is negative and threatening and too many young black males seem to live of ‘being relaxed’ and are trying to make easy money.
At least we did not encounter any violence as was reported in the local newspapers, where armed robberies, rapes and muggings were daily stories even in a small city like this (with only about 70,000 people living there). Maybe it was not me who was being racist, but the ‘homeless people themselves are’, as the great Chris Rock once pointed out in yet another inventive display of his inverted logic, ‘as somehow there are no Chinese or Gay homeless people’…
It was time to pick up my sister and nice from the airport as they were going to stay 2 weeks with us. Let’s see if the rest of the country would be friendlier than this seedy city.
Amberina is a cook and saleswoman at the Palapas Square in downtown Cancun to tourists and locals alike. She makes about 15 different tortas: sandwiches, filled with meat and/or vegetables and some avocado, you can then add more veggies or spicy sauces to your liking.
The daily menu, which does not seem to vary in weeks, includes a refreshing drink, together it costs 20 pesos, about USD $1,50 for a nice lunch.
It was less than 10km from Cholula to Puebla and the cities are basically connected. With 1.5 million people the city is huge (3rd largest of the country), but the historic centre has remained largely intact and is very attractive.
We had been invited by CouchSurfing host Hiram and his family, who own and run a very popular Mexican restaurant together. Still he had time to do a quick city tour with us and gave us a lot of tips of where to go while he was at work.
The zocalo or main square is the courtyard of the huge Cathedral, with Mexico’s highest towers. Rich people see it regularly as it appears on the 500 pesos note (about USD$ 40, more value than most Mexicans see in one bank note).
But maybe the best part of Puebla is just strolling around the centre, through colourful streets lined with colonial houses, with patios and balconies.
Tourists and locals are enjoying themselves everywhere on the terraces and restaurants and in the many shops lining the streets.
Puebla has always been a Catholic stronghold and this has resulted in many religious celebrations, many of which have the benefit that a lively street market will take place, just a few blocks away from the zocalo.
We enjoyed the different foods for sale, the fair rides for kids, the artesanias, the music and the general positive atmosphere. Had I said before that everybody should visit Mexico? Just in case I’ll do it now: do not let biased political media scare you away from a wealth of culture, nature, gastronomy and friendliness, visit Mexico.
There, I said it.
Now, I invite you to take a look at some impressions of the market and the city. (Click for a larger version, these and more photos of Puebla are also in the photo section here).
Mexican treats in El Balcon
We arrived back late at ‘El Balcon’, the restaurant of Hiram’s family. Late at night it was still completely packed and several people were waiting outside. No, it is not (yet) in the Lonely Planet as it is (just) 7 blocks away from the centre, but the locals clearly know where to go. Even when they changed locations a while ago, the clients followed for the clear and honest food.
Hiram also took us up the Cerro de Guadeloupe, which is not only the place where the French were defeated on 5th may 1862 (hence all the street names all over Mexico named 5 de Mayo), but on clear days you can also see the silhouette of Izta, the mountain known as the sleeping woman.
He introduced us to his friend and fellow CouchSurfer Leandro. We did not have time to visit his place, but had some good discussions about life and saw some more hidden gems of the city together.
Hiram’s parents were worried about our trip and hugged us close and shed some tears when praying for our safe journey. We are not religious ourselves, but the care and love of people that were strangers 3 days before keeps on surprising and warming us. So maybe the prayers do help as we will take care, so we can meet more great people like them and maybe one day return the favour.
Back on the road again..
Fortunately we found the way around the steep hill when we left Puebla, sooner than we would have liked. If we’d hurry, we would maybe have time for one more activity before we really had to get to Cancun.
Our mums were already getting very worried that there would be nobody to pick them up when arriving in 2 weeks. But before we would leave the Mexican highlands to get back down to sea-level, there was one place far from it that I wanted to visit…
Hiram manages the family restaurant, together with his brothers, parents and uncle. ‘El Balcon’ is widely known by the local customers and they line up every weekend, not minding a long wait to be seated.
Hiram also plays guitar in his church and loves to travel, having backpacked through Europe with his friend Leandro. He is a wonderful CouchSurfing host as well
On the South Eastern outskirts of Mexico City, an area is known for the many ice cream makers.
They serve delicious handmade icecream, prepared and cooled by turning a metal bucket inside a wooden bucket filled with ice.
You want chile or tequila on your coconut ice cream? No problema…