May 11, 2006

Bouncing Around Belize
Placencia, Belize

Yesterday I spent the day taking a wild, whirlwind tour of Belize in a rental car from Mexico (illegally brought across the border with the help of a few pesos) with a cute, spontaneous couple from Halifax, Canada.

As I was getting ready to jump out of my hotel in Orange Walk Town and onto a bus headed south, I encountered Kyle and Aretta (her parents are Polish) checking out and getting ready to head off to their car. We had gotten to know each other briefly the night before, and upon seeing me again in the morning (and discovering our similar direction), promptly invited me squeeze into their tiny (yet comfortable) rental.

The same day that I arrived in Belize, Aretta and Kyle departed from Playa del Carmen to check out the coastal Mayan city of Tulum, but just kept driving south. With next to no clothing or supplies, the two ended up in Orange Walk for the night.

I tossed my backpack in the car, they grabbed a roadmap from a nearby gas station, and we were off! What an interesting surprise it was when I arrived to find that Belizeans drive on the right side of the road. Having only obtained their independence from British control about 20 years ago (Belize use to be called British Honduras up until '81), I found it curious that the British manner of driving never caught on here.

We casually zoomed south, stopping for a few photos and oddities along the roadside—it was always entertaining when the brakes were slammed and the car thrown into reverse to investigate or photograph something. A few shared travel stories later, we found ourselves in Belize City.

Belize City is a pretty big town in size, but most of the buildings only reach the two or three stories in height, giving the town a sort of sprawling suburb feel. We sized up the town as we darted about the city streets, stopping to check out the Swing Bridge (built in 1923, and the only known working bridge of its type). I wasn't particularly drawn to the town, but I'm not sure if I would go as far as to say "the city should be flushed," like another traveler I encountered.

Back in Orange Walk I had told the Canadians that I was interested in going to Hopkins, a tiny village on the southern coast of the country, but somewhere along the road leading away from Belize City we decided to head for a small town called Placencia (even further down the coast).

We missed our turnoff (probably because it wasn't a paved road) and ended up in Belmopan. My guidebook boasts this entertaining remark about the city:

Travelers arriving in Belize's capital are faced with that most basic of all existential questions: What am I doing here? Thankfully, the town provides a ready answer: changing buses. Founded in 1961 after Hurricane Hattie wiped out much of Belize City, the idea (hey—let's all pack up and move to the middle of nowhere with a bunch of public servants) hasn't really caught on yet.

Our detour through Belmopan turned out to be fortunate event though, as it lead the three of us past Blue Hole National Park, just south of the city.

The Blue Hole—the focus of the park—is a 100ft deep cenote tucked into the jungle. Having the foresight to pack snorkel gear in the car, the three of us enjoyed a chilly (but needed) dip in the hazy blue water.

The sun was growing low, and after a failed attempt to visit a waterfall—thwarted by a flooded road that Kyle actually contemplated crossing in our tiny car—we started making haste towards Placencia. We were less than a thumb's distance away on the map when the brakes were hit on the rental again. This time it wasn't a photo op, but two female backpackers waiting for a bus (that they had missed) outside of a nature park (read: scary jungle).

Aretta and I had our doubts how we could possibly fit two more people (plus their 55+ liter backpacks) into our little car, but somehow we managed. And with that, our car became an inch lower, and all that more interesting.

After playing cat and mouse with a school bus—nearly all the buses that move travelers and locals around in Belize are vehicles no longer deemed roadworthy by some school district in the United States—we pulled ahead and took a (wrong) turn onto a dirt road, flanked by farms filled with thousands of banana trees. It was easy to shoot off onto the wrong road (as we found out)—all the roads in this remote area are dirt, and without signage.

Placencia

With a population that's counted in the hundreds, Placencia is perched at the southern tip of a long, narrow, sandy peninsula. It's really out of the way, and doesn't seem too see any but the most aggressive travelers seeking refuse from tourists.

We arrived after sunset, and in the middle of a blackout (common in this part of the country). Flashlights in hand, we walked through the sand—almost no place to stay has road access—to a guesthouse known to the young Dutch girls from a stay a few days earlier. I ended up sharing a room with the girls from Holland, while my adventurous Canadian friends grabbed a private room for themselves.

The "road" that we used to drive into town is actually a new addition to Placencia. Prior to the construction of the dirt path, the only way to get here was by boat. Cutting right down the middle of the village is The Sidewalk, a concrete footpath that the folks over at the Guinness Book of World Records claim is the narrowest main-street in the world.

The sand that makes up the beaches and surrounds the homes here is quite peculiar, and looks like coarse, brown sugar has been spread across the surface of the entire city. I like it here, but I've found something that's gotten me excited, and I'm going to let it take me away from Placencia, and Belize, tomorrow morning.

…I'm going to the Bay Islands in Honduras to become a PADI-certified scuba diver.

Comments:

Matt

May 12th, 2006

Excellent - I hear the diving off the Bay Islands is some of the finest. I've also heard great stuff about the barrier reef off the coast of Belize, so you could always head back to check that out after you get certified… Sweet deal!

Katie

May 13th, 2006

Have fun! I'm impressed. I couldn't even snorkel, claustrophobic…

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