The time had come to leave Guatemala, and as we headed to Belize, December arrived to herald the advent of a new stage in our travels.
After getting up for a 3am start the day before for our trip to Tikal, we were afforded the luxury of an extra couple of hours kip, as the bus to Belize didn’t set off until 5am! Consequently we were a bit bleary-eyed as we reached the border a couple of hours later, and it felt very strange to hear the border officials speaking in English as we passed through passport control into the sixth country of our journey. As the bus set off again, straight away it felt like a completely different country: different houses, different language, and a different feel.
After a couple more hours driving through green countryside we reached Belize City. Now this is a place that comes with a daunting reputation, and most travellers head straight through it and catch a boat to the island of Caye Caulker. We were also ready to take it easy on a sunny island in the Caribbean, so we decided to do the same, and half an hour later we were on a boat. After a quick skip across the water we were dragging our bags along the sandy road on Caye Caulker, feeling the sun on our backs and feeling like we’d entered a different world again. This was more Caribbean than Central America; most of the population is black and there’s a lilt in the voices and a swagger and a stroll in the step. One man was walking up the road, half shouting and half singing “Melt in the mouth…, and not in the hand…” as he sold something from his cart. We didn’t quite catch the rest of his refrain, or work out what he was selling, but this sing-song-sales-pitch was to be an almost constant accompaniment to our time on the island, as he worked his way up and down the main road. Well, main road might be overstating it a little: more of a sandy track running parallel to the sea, with only golf buggies, bikes and occasional delivery vehicles meandering their way along.
We booked into a pleasant hotel, where our room (a hut on stilts) was only a hop, skip and a jump from the sea. We then went shopping and found Heinz Baked Beans and decent milk in the shops, and when we got back to the room the movie ‘Elf’ was on in English, so we watched a cheesy Christmas film while eating Baked Beans and mashed potatoes – cue two happy girls. Sometimes it’s nice to find a place that feels a little bit like home, albeit a bit more tropical than we’re used to back home in December!
Hugo, Kiah, Jamie and Tilly playing at the Split
The next day we met up with Jane and her son Jamie, who we’d met in San Cristobal, Mexico about a month earlier – social media makes all kinds of meetings possible nowadays. We met up at ‘The Split’ which is a famous spot on Caye Caulker that divides it into north and south islands. There’s a local story that a hurricane created the rift but while it might have started a small channel, it seems that the locals then dredged it to create a passage to allow boats to cross the island. Whatever the truth is, the split is now a popular place for snorkelling, hanging out, drinking and watching the sunset at the Lazy Lizard bar. Over the next couple of days we would do a quite a bit of snorkelling, some hanging out and a fair bit of drinking, but that picture-perfect sunset would elude us for now.
Caye Caulker is in many ways an ideal size for an island – small enough to find your way round and to meet people, but big enough to have a decent selection of shops, bars and hotels. It also felt small enough and safe enough for the girls to have some freedom and they had great fun exploring on their hired bikes, nipping to the shops and visiting Jamie at his hotel.
One day we all hired bikes and tried to cycle round the southern tip of the island but had to abandon it when we cycled into a cloud of midgies- this was quite horrendous, and we were wiping bugs off our skin for about an hour afterwards!
We also bumped into some other old friends that we’d met along the way, including the Barnsley bicyclers and a Dutch couple who had been on our trip to Tikal. Jane had also made a few friends on the island , including Fernando, Aurora and Hugo, an interesting Portuguese/Angolan/French family who were living on the island, and the girls loved playing with Hugo.
Hence we had quite a social group and the next few days passed very pleasantly, with eating, swimming, meandering and chatting taking care of the days.
We found a cool ice-cream place that provided a daily treat for the girls, and it was next to a place that did good coffee – it’s surprisingly easy to while away the time when basic needs are being met!
The evenings inevitably led to the split and it was easy to see how people ended up staying here longer than they anticipated; it’s easy to get into a routine, but after a few days we were ready to move on. It’s a great party place for a few days but then you start to notice the tensions that run through the island. Before we left though, we had to go snorkelling…
Belize has a coral reef running parallel to its shoreline and it lies just a short boat ride away from Caye Caulker, and this was one of the main reasons to come to the island. We’d had to wait an extra day for weather and sea conditions to be favourable, and even then it rained on the way out to the reef and for our first stop: however, as soon as you put your eyes and mask below the surface it was all worth it. This first stop was imaginatively called the ‘Coral Garden’, but it was beautiful – tropical fish darting in and out of the different types of coral, all in a glorious technicolor that the overcast day couldn’t ruin. The next stop was even better.
Again, competition must have been fierce amongst the local poets when it came to naming the spot – it was a channel full of rays and sharks, so (and you’ll never guess) it was known as ‘shark and ray alley’. Again though, it was marvellous – if you don’t feel at least a tingle of excitement when you’re in the water and only a couple of feet away from a majestic shark or stingray, then snorkelling really isn’t for you.
The final stop was the Hol Chan Nature Reserve and here were more fantastic fish, and some sublime turtles effortlessly paddling their way through the water. All in all, it added up to a brilliant day, though we did get a little seasick on the journey back to shore, something even the free rum punch couldn’t knock out of us.
And that was that for Caye Caulker. It had been a fun few days, and we’d miss its laid-back charms, and the way the ladies would say “You’re Welll….Com” when you’d thank them for your coffee or meal, with a rhythm that seems inherent in the island. While it’s not without its problems, and it’s not quite paradise, it was another memory that would have us smiling in years to come. We never did get to find out what that man was selling though, or quite where it melted, but on our last night we finally got our sunset – a glorious riot of colour, painting everything in a warmth and glow that felt very Caribbean, with boats and a bird posing obligingly for a near perfect photo opportunity…
Caye Caulker sunset, from the Split
Not wanting to come all the way to Belize and only visit one place, we thought we’d spend the night at the zoo! Admittedly this decision was made much easier as Jane and Jamie were heading there, and we realised we could book a lodge for the six of us. Belize zoo is quite famous for its conservation and education work; all the animals are ones you could find in Belize, and many of them are rescued or orphaned. They are kept in enclosures designed to be as close as possible to a natural habitat, and they have amusing rhymes on the information boards for each animal! In short, it’s acknowledged as a model zoo, and they’re trying to teach the local population to appreciate the local wildlife that shares their country.
They also have some rustic but beautiful accommodation in a nature reserve on the other side of the highway. We stayed in a huge cabin with a fully-screened balcony, that looked out over a lake – and if you looked out carefully you could see small crocodiles and turtles swimming around. Dinner was included as part of the deal but was nothing to write home about – unless that is, you really wanted to let the folks back home know what caused the crippling stomach cramps later that night!
However we got to visit the zoo both during the day and on a special guided night visit. On the day visit we got to hold a snake, see lots of beautiful birds and experience the foul-smelling stench of two varieties of peccaries.
On the night visit we got to feed tapirs and touch a jaguar’s paw, on a torch-lit perambulation through the site. However the highlight was hearing the howler monkeys – boy, can these creatures make a racket! Our guide told us that they actually recorded howler monkeys for the dinosaur noises in Jurassic Park, and when you’ve heard the low, primeval roars up close you can appreciate how prehistoric, and slightly unnerving, it sounds.
The next day we said our goodbyes to Jane and Jamie, as we were heading in different directions. We’d had a lot of fun, and it was all down to a chance meeting at the indoor play in Burger King in Mexico! We then set off on a long journey back to Mexico – first back to Belize City, then to the border, and then to Chetumal. We didn’t see too much of Belize City, and the main thing of note was an enormous graveyard on, and around, the main road out west – at one point we went round a roundabout and even this had gravestones in the middle. It then took an absolute age to get beyond the city and its outskirts. It seems to be a Latin American rule that buses must stop every few yards whilst in a city, town or village. Often a bus will set off from the bus station, drive less than fifty yards, and then stop to pick someone up – and even occasionally to let someone get off! Quite why those people can’t make it all the way into the bus station to get the bus baffled us, but travelling the first couple of miles on most bus journeys would often take more than fifteen minutes.
Eventually though we got to the border and bade bye-bye to Belize: we’d had a great time but somehow it was one of the few countries that we were quite glad to be leaving. It had an edginess about it, and though we’d had no problems at all, and met mostly friendly people, there was a vague feeling of malevolence lurking somewhere under the surface.
Getting back to Mexico felt quite familiar in comparison, though our poor grasp of Spanish had almost wriggled out of our memories entirely, and it took a little while to get used to saying “Si” and looking dumbfounded again. Having had enough travelling for one day we decided to stay in the nearby city of Chetumal for the night. This was a mistake, as was our choice of lodging – the Hotel Ucum was not the charming hostelry our guidebook made it out to be. Chetumal itself wasn’t too endearing either, though perhaps we weren’t in the mood for a busy, grimy city with hardly anywhere to eat. When we eventually found a pizza place and ordered a pizza with pineapple on, there was an air of inevitability when it appeared with ham on it. This had happened to us three times now, though this was the first place that had tried to bring us the same pizza back, with the ham shambolically removed. They had hardly even bothered to disguise this fact, leaving great big gaps where the ham had been! We complained again, whereupon the girl made out she didn’t understand us, even though we were speaking in our finest Spanish! Eventually though we got a fresh, meat-free pizza, and having had quite enough fun for one day, returned to the salubrious surroundings of Hotel Ucum.
The next day we moved on to the lovely lake-side town of Bacalar. If Chetumal was a disappointment, Lake Bacalar was more of a delight.
We stayed at the very pleasant Casita Carolina, in a comfortable round hut with thatched roof and en-suite facilities. It was set in a large garden with the lake near enough to hear the gently lapping water. At least, we could hear it until the place next door cranked up its disco that night, proceeding to belt out awful pop music ’til sunrise!
That apart though, it was a great place to stay, and we met lots of interesting people. Having stayed in a fair few places over the years, we’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps the most important thing in any hostel is having a good communal area where people can sit and chat and meet other people. There were a couple of Americans staying who were thinking of buying somewhere and living out here, an English lad who was living in Mexico City, and two Dutch sisters with unpronounceable names who the girls took to straight away. We spent a very relaxing couple of days here, kayaking on the lake and enjoying the sunshine, and it felt like a great place to stay before we flew back to the cold climate of England.
However before we caught the plane, we just had time to stay at one of our favourite places again – Posada Yum Kin in Tulum, where we’d stayed two months ago. As soon as we walked in the door, Ricardo greeted us as if we’d never been away and gave us our old room again: it really did feel a little like we were already back home! We spent our final day doing some Christmas shopping – the main street had all its Christmas decorations up, as had every town we’d been in for the last month or so. Bizarrely though, the decorations here are more or less the same as at home, complete with snowmen and reindeer, even though it never snows here (or for that matter, in the middle-east).
We also found time to have a last swim, and watched a film with a Canadian family who were staying at the hotel – Padme was travelling with her two sons and her brother, and one of the lads was also called Kyah, though we may have spelt that incorrectly (guess our Kiah will have to get used to that too!!)
And with that, we were off on a long voyage back to Britain, via a bus to Cancun, plane to Atlanta, plane to Manchester, and a lift home from our friend Sally, arriving back at Pete’s parents house just over three months after we’d left. It was significantly colder than when we’d left, and much colder than where we’d just left, and Pete was feeling a little under the weather (wherever that weather was), but more of that next time…