The view from atop El Castillo

A Short, But Full, Trip to Belize

Belize has been on the bucket list for quite some time. The initial infatuation with this small Central American country mostly revolved around SCUBA diving in the Great Blue Hole. As it turns out, the Great Blue Hole will have to wait for the next visit, but there was so much more to do and see, and several surprises along the way!

– Beaches, Tropical Rainforests, and Amazing History –

Belize is located in Central America, bordered by Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean Sea. The geography varies between swampy coastal areas, mountainous rainforests, the world’s second-largest barrier reef, and tremendously varied flora and fauna.

At the last minute, the focus in travel planning was shifted from SCUBA diving to seeing the interior of the country (though there was a little beach time in the end). This shift in focus was a positive change as SCUBA diving is SCUBA diving, but people, culture, and history are what makes travel important.
This was a “seat of your pants” kind of trip. Little planning went into it, and there were very few expectations. There were no preconceived notions of what to do and see upon arrival in Belize.

Perhaps the best decision, and one that is rare for me actually, was to reserve a rental vehicle. I usually avoid renting cars while traveling, but this decision allowed much more exploration than might have otherwise happened. Belize is sparsely populated and largely undeveloped. No metro system here!

The base of operations for most of the trip was Jaguar Creek, which is located near Belmopan, the capital and third largest city in Belize. The term “city” is used loosely since it only has about 16,000 residents.

Why Belmopan? It is just about as close to the center of the country as possible. This location allowed for greater freedom of movement and helped to see as much as possible in a limited time.

Despite its natural beauty, Jaguar Creek was primarily a place to rest and relax between excursions. There wasn’t much else to do there beyond that. A true “eco-resort.” But if you want a place to truly relax and get away from the hustle of city life, this is it!

There were mild “internet withdrawal” symptoms as this place is largely off the grid, especially while in the cabanas. But not to worry. Both the Blue Hole (not to be confused with “The Great Blue Hole”) and St. Herman’s Cave were a short hike through some of the fantastic Belizean rain forests, so even without venturing far away, there are things to do and see.

The Belize Audubon Society manages St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park, so” take only photos, and leave only footprints.” Over 200 species of birds are found here as well as ocelot, jaguarundi (a form of puma), and jaguar.

– Barton Creek Archeological Site –

One of the surprising things encountered was a large and thriving Mennonite population in Belize. While driving out to the Barton Creek Archeological Site, I initially saw a teenage boy and girl dressed in typical Mennonite clothing just standing at a road intersection. At first, I didn’t even realize what I had seen. Then came the occasional horse and buggy, then a full-fledged Mennonite community. After a theological split among Mennonites in Canada, a segment of this community relocated to Mexico in 1922. A splinter group later emigrated to Belize (when it was known as British Honduras) in the late 1950s.

Twice on my way to the archaeological site I almost turned around. I wasn’t sure about fording the creek and crossing the sketchy bridge along the way, but I am glad I took the chances and pressed on. Barton Creek cave is located near San Ignacio in Cayo District. Tourists here can go cave tubing, can see the Mayan relics, and this was one of the most beautiful areas of Belize I was fortunate to see. As a bonus, I had a great burrito and pressed on to my next destination.

– Xunantunich Mayan Ruins –

After a very brief diversion into Guatemala, I circled back to see Xunantunich. This fantastic site of Mayan Ruins was a highlight of the Belizean visit, second only to the people.

Xunantunich, which means Sculpture of Lady or Stone Lady, refers to the ghost believed by many locals to inhabit this site. The original name of Xunantunich is not known.

El Castillo, which dates to around 800 AD, is the second tallest man-made structure in Belize. There is a ball court at Xunantunich where they once played for keeps. According to archaeologists, after the game, one of the two players was beheaded. It is not clear if it was the winner or loser who was beheaded, but I will assume that for the quality of play, it must have been the loser.

This knowledge, along with the near-constant sound of the howler monkeys, was haunting.

– The Beach at Hopkins Village –

One of the great things about Belize is that it has the lowest population density in Central America. For much of an entire morning, there was not another person on the beach.

Sparse population aside, the real highlight of the visit was the people. There is an interesting confluence of cultures in Belize. The Garinagu (or Garifuna, if singular) people are warm, friendly, and the way they speak English is almost musical. The Maya, of course, have an amazingly rich history here, with profound tragedy weaved throughout, having been nearly wiped out by European diseases and warfare. The blending of Garinagu and Maya with the Creoles, Mestizos, and previously mentioned Mennonites (ok, they don’t blend that much) make for a fascinating, eclectic society.

– Dangriga and Other Surprises –

As mentioned earlier, there were many surprises on this trip. Most of this is hardly relevant, just surprising.

In rapid succession, and no particular order, here are a few last observations…..

  • Dangriga — the largest town in southern Belize, with an Old West feel. Few paved streets, but richly influential in Garifuna culture and punta music.
  • Also, in Dangriga, there was a “Jan Kunu”, or Garifuna dance festival celebrating the new year.
  • The speed bumps in Belize can be treacherous! Seriously, some of them seem a couple of feet high, sometimes poorly marked, and occasionally appear on highways for no apparent reason (at least not apparent to me).
  • Chinese population. In addition to the previously mentioned ethnic groups, there is a huge (at least with respect to the total national population) the Chinese population in Belize. No judgment call here, just something I found surprising.
  • The wooden planks on the boardwalks in the rainforest felt like rubber underfoot because they were constantly waterlogged.
  • No shopping malls — not a single one in the entire country, though they are building one in Belize City. There was a Big Bang Theory episode where Dr. Sheldon Cooper said he was going to buy things he needed at shopping malls as he traversed the country. “It’s called living off the land.” he said. This was my plan as I packed very light. No luck.
  • While there may be some, I didn’t see a single fast-food franchise — no McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, nothing.
  • The movie “The Dogs of War” (United Artists, 1980) was filmed in Belize, standing in for the fictional, standard African “Third World” dictatorship of “Zangaro.”
  • Belize is part of the British Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth is their head of state, and her likeness appears on their currency.
  • Finally, monkey roadkill. Never saw that before.

This was the first trip to Belize, but I doubt it will be the last.

Tony Davis is a professional writer, adventure travel junkie, and author of God Loves You: Some Restrictions May Apply (and Many Other Christian Dilemmas)

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