January 26 - February 12, 2004
Belize is a place that you have to know about to want to visit. That is not a negative comment, just a reflection on the fame, or lack thereof, of its attractions. It is just too tiny (about the size of New Jersey or Israel with a population of under 250,000) and too non-famous to decide to come here from far away. It might help if you had a connection, were once a colonial servant, or worked for a NGO. Our closest to any of these was that many years ago, when we had a Fiat Sports car that needed lots of nursing, we took it to Bradley's Auto Repair in Red Bank, NJ. Bill Bradley, the owner, (not the Senator) was a fine mechanic, charged very reasonable prices, and, came from Belize.
We came to Belize because it was the logical way for us to get to Guatemala. While in Mexico we had actually been pretty close to the Guatemalan border twice: once in San Cristobal de las Casas and again in Palenque. But we wanted to see the northern Yucatan, particularly Campeche and Chitzen Itza before going to Guatemala. Once we had seen them we headed almost due south, with stops at the shore temple of Tulum and the quiet atmosphere of Laguna Bacalar, to the nearest border, that of Belize.
Crossing the border was pretty easy but a disappointment for all who wanted to earn money by offering many and varied but equally unnecessary services such as escorting us through customs. We were having none of it. Still in Mexico, one man, for instance, wanted us to give him 50 pesos (5 dollars) for carrying our expired car permit from one side of the road to the other. We declined, Gerry did the work, and in a few minutes we had a "Comprobante de Retorno Auto Americano" that showed we had taken it out of the country with one day to spare.
Across the border in Belize, immigration and customs formalities were accomplished with politeness and dispatch. The border official even told us where to go — about 500 yds ahead — for car insurance. We'd expected to pay $1/day, and that turned out to be the case if you bought for a month. We got insurance for a month even though we expected to stay only two weeks in Belize, since the price was the same either way.
We spent our first three nights in Orange Walk, the closest town of any size to the Mexican Border. That means it was actually big enough to have some beds for rent although the choice of restaurants was very limited. Orange Walk was our base for visits to two Mayan sites, Lamanai, the most famous in Belize, and is a local place, smaller, and hardly excavated, but still interesting. From Orange Walk it was an easy drive to Belize City, which most people visit only as a gateway to the off-shore resorts, or if they are on a cruise ship, as a gateway to Lamanai. After we had spent a night in Belize City we concluded that the conventual wisdom about what to visit was pretty good wisdom.
From Belize City we drove west to the capital, Belmopan. It is a planned city that is only slowly growing into its capital city role. Sadly for Belmopan, it was conceived in the sixties and so has been saddled with about the ugliest concrete monstrosity the sixties ever produced. Concrete is ugly anwhere, but here in tropical, humid, Belize its ugliness is enhanced by liberal highlights of mildew. The architect should be condemned to a lifetime of scrubbing the mildew off the building!
We also had lunch at the Bull Frog Inn, said by Lonely Planet to be the best restaurant in town. It is to good cooking as Belmopan buildings are to good architecture.
From Belmopan it is less than a short hop west to San Ignacio, the tourist-town par excelence in Belize. That means there are plenty of beds, plenty of restaurants, and, of course, plenty of tourists. San Ignacio owes this status to the fact it is up in the hills and thus cooler. It is also a gateway to caving, river trips, and several Mayan sites. One of them, Cahal Pech, is just an easy kilometer walk from the center. Another, Xunantunich, is also easy to get to, at about 7 km. The last, El Pilaris only about 20 km away but comparatively difficult to reach as one must take a ferry and then 10 km of very poor road. We enjoyed four days in town; Gerry went to Cahal Pech and Xunantunich while Jan relaxed and read
Our last stop of any length in Belize was Placencia, there being a town and bay of that name. We backtracked — that is went east — for a few days on the beach and went on to Guatemala, passing through San Ignacio and stopping for a meal there.