Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Belize . . . I Thought It Would Be Bigger

My honeymoon in the Bahamas is the closest I've come to Third World travel until this Halloween. Belize, formerly British Honduras, has been making a name for itself in tourism because it boasts the second largest barrier reef in the world and the famous Blue Hole for world-class snorkeling and diving.

When we arrived at Belize City on October 31 I was surprised because just as you might expect an actor you meet face to face to be taller, Belize City and the Bay of Honduras were smaller than they appeared on the maps. The bay is very shallow and cannot accommodate a cruise ship so we anchored five miles off shore and local boats were hired to shuttle passengers to and from the ship.

No building was taller than three stories—most were one or two—though brightly colored. A few were new as if being built for the budding tourist industry and Andrew and I opted to walk around the town by ourselves. The shops on the pier are modern, mostly Diamond International stores catering to the cruise ships, but once off the pier (and getting off is tricky as the area is fenced for protection) we ran a gauntlet to get through the crowd and into the town.

I don’t go for telemarketers or door to door sales people no matter what they’re selling, I don't like being pressured to buy something so making our way off the pier and finding ourselves surrounded by Belizeans offering anything and everything was a bit overwhelming. They very kindly and conveniently spoke English (national language from the British colonists) but to be pressed in a crowd of aggressive people in unfamiliar circumstances is uncomfortable at best and panic-ridden at worst.

“No I don’t want to hire a taxi.”

“No I don’t want a guide.”

“No I don’t want my hair braided.” How many offers did I have for braids? Wouldn’t that be something? I can just see the look on my kids’ faces if I walked in the door with corn rows.

Most of the people we saw were descendant from shipwrecked African slaves of British colonists. There are, of course, other ethnic groups in the country but the few people we happened to meet fit this description. Beyond the smiles and offers to guide us in their “air conditioned” taxis (rather optimistic—the only air conditioning I saw was broken windows—where do cars go to die? Belize) the people were not overly friendly. We stuck out like sore thumbs but never got anyone to smile or say hello voluntarily, they ignored us and went about their rush hour business.

At 8 am the streets were filled with cars careening around corners, bikes laden with goods on the back fenders and mothers walking their children to school. The children, dressed in crisp white cotton and holding hands in a chain, glanced at us be we were merely a curiosity or maybe an annoyance if we blocked their way. Click here for a short clip of a view from the main bridge.

The streets were dirty, with two-foot deep gutters bordering the sidewalks. Garbage lay between every building, in every grating, in every piece of vacant property and the air carried the smell of tropics mixed with decay. We passed various store fronts—mostly run-down tourist shops, groceries and hardware stores—where many of the locals were sweeping the front steps. Every so often I’d catch an intriguing whiff of one particularly spicy, musky odor—a deep incense or perfume. I’ve never smelled it before and couldn't figure out its source but as I walked I caught patches of air that carried it and the contrast struck me.

After nearly stepping on a dead rat mashed into the asphalt (yes, that's the picture, click on it and check it out closer, I'd never seen a dead smashed rat before) and making our way over the bridge and through a bit of the town we decided we’d had enough and headed back to the ship. Yea, I know, we wouldn't last two rounds on the Amazing Race. I think we're known as Los Whimpos.

But what made Belize worth the trip was yet to come. We ended up on a snorkeling tour out on the reef which left everything I’ve seen in Hawaii in the dust. Kind of a Finding Nemo frenzy if you will. Andrew was the last person back in the boat and they practically had to threaten to leave him there to get him to come in.

They then took us to Bannister Cay
, an island small enough to walk around in ten minutes surrounded by other tiny islands that break the waves. There’s a resort on the island and we were left to relax on the most pristine and lovely beach I’ve ever seen. I walked around the island picking up sea shells and found the biggest and best sea shells I’ve ever found in a matter of minutes. We made use of the kayaks, paddling around the cove and wondering if we’d put on enough sun block. Here's the clip.

We saw such a small part of the mainland it’s hard to make an adequate assessment but if I were you I’d skip Belize City altogether and just head for the water—and bring lots of sunblock.


J said...

Sounds amazing...and since I was not impressed with the snorkeling in Hawaii, I might enjoy it in Belize. What made it better, do you think? Fewer humans? More variety of fish? Did you feed them to encourage them to come close?

steve said...

We have been to the Bahamas. The people were a lot nicer, though a bit pushy in the straw market. But we would go back. No cruise ship. We flew in from Germany. I like your site and added you to my blog roll.

marina said...

hi, belize city is ugly and scary. when i arrived there at night (alone) i was told not to go anywhere or i'll get robbed. the really expensive hotel i stayed at was also a hotel that ran by the hour. however, once i got to key caulker it made it all worthwhile.
the blue blue blue ocean was unbelievable and swimming with nurse sharks, helped me forget the ugly city.
if you think that city was ugly, san jose costa rica, wins the prize.

jen said...

ahhh. i so love belize. i so love that you went. thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Feed the fish?? How utterly wrong and ecologically unsound!

Getting out of BC ASAP is the common advice given to all who take the tinme ot do their research.

scribbit said...

Who said anything about feeding fish? What post are you reading?

Anonymous said...

You've never seen a dead squashed rat? You've obviously never been to Chicago. Hee hee.

Julie said...

Feeding fish? Don't you hate it when people make comments without even reading what you said?

Hey sounds like a great trip to Tahiti. Luv your blog ;)

Beck said...

A friend has been to Belize repeatedly - he's training as a dive instructor. His life is exotic.

Anonymous said...

I am heading out shortly from Canada to spend some time on the Cayes with http://www.islandexpeditions.com They do trips to various parts of the barrier reef, and also some river stuff.

I have seen the Cayes from the air when flying to Houston From Costa Rica, and it sure looks pretty amazing. Even at 30,000 ffet, you can make out the cay and reef perimeters from the wihte of the break. Soon I will know more. SC

Heather said...

Thanks for sharing your story...I'm going to Belize for my honeymoon.