(As before, blue links are informational and I receive zero financial benefit from them. Any pictures which aren’t The CEO’s are linked to their sources, and please don’t steal his.)
Monday, Nov. 21 – We’re up early and breakfasting on the veranda in the open air before we take our beach things to the rental car and head downtown to Belize City. Bookworm successfully navigates us through the one-way streets (and one intersection where the stoplights are nonfunctional) to the Museum of Belize. Louis pooh-poohed this institution last night, but he doesn’t know us.
You know how some people love the beach so much that they go every vacation? And how some people make the trip to Disneyland every few years? (Actually, I have a college friend who loves Disney World so much that she and her family go every year… and now she’s a travel consultant for Disney. I haven’t used her services, but if you’re thinking of visiting any Disney facility anywhere in the world, I know Holly would arrange something awesome for you: Holly’s Holidays.) Then there are people who vacation somewhere new each time, people who only go skiing, people who visit the same resort in the Poconos every year.
Us? We’re Museum People. Wherever we go, we find the museum(s).
So this morning, we park Big Red on a city street across from the museum and right near the Baptist church school, having on the way passed the Catholic school, the Apostolic Pentecostal school, the Methodist mission school, and the Assembly of God school; the windows are open and we can hear what’s going on in class. (Gaze and Taz are missing two days of school this week, and they’re not sorry!) As we walk to the entrance, we see a sign that states the museum’s hours… and they’re closed on Monday.
The security guard hears us wondering what we’re going to do, and motions to us. “Come on in,” he says. Really? Apparently so. The guy at the front desk tells us that we’re welcome. The CEO asks about the jade head from Altun Ha, and the desk guy explains that it’s kept in a vault within a vault within a vault in the central bank building behind the museum, which itself used to be a prison, and is not available for viewing. “They got it out for people to see it for half a day in 2012, you know, when the Mayan calendar was supposed to end. But bang, put it right back away safe.”
The museum is small, built of stone, and you can clearly see where the cells used to be. There’s an exhibit of Belizean stamps, and a small exhibit of glass and ceramic containers from Colonial times. There is an intense exhibit on slavery in Belize, during the days when it was British Honduras and shipped fine mahogany all over the world. Upstairs, there is a display of Mayan jade ear ornaments and necklaces, and a case containing the skeleton of the elderly man found in a tomb at Altun Ha with the jade head. Here, the head is clearly a replica and not nearly as well done as the replica in the exhibit at Altun Ha; I hope that the skeleton is a replica as well and the real bones have been buried with dignity. There are some really beautiful examples of Mayan pottery as well. All in all, the small museum our host dismissed as not worth the time keeps us engaged for just under two hours.
Then we grab our beach bags from Big Red and walk past two more schools (Anglican and another Catholic) toward the water taxi. The ferry ride takes 45 minutes to Caye Caulker, and although the sky is clouding up, we walk down the island hoping to see if we can find a place to eat the sandwiches we brought. It begins to rain just as we’re passing one of the businesses that advertise snorkeling tours, and we step in to inquire, grateful for the shelter. It’s after noon, and the tour for the day left at 10:30, but they have slots for Tuesday.
We have a tour lined up for Tuesday, to visit the Mayan ruins at Lamanai. Wednesday, then? Wednesday. We take the contact information for Hicaco Tours and walk on.
The rain stops, though everything is still very wet. Behind a sandwich shop that seems to be closed (we’re here at the very end of hurricane season, before the high vacation season starts in December), we find a picnic table and devour our lunch. Gradually the sun comes out and we walk on toward “the split,” the place where a hurricane washed away part of the island in the early 1960s, leaving those who lived or owned property on the northern bit without a good way to reach the southern bit, where the water taxi docks. “They thought about building a bridge,” the guy at the boat tour place told us, “but they figured that another hurricane would just wipe it out again.” I would have thought that a pontoon bridge might be sensible, since the area to be bridged is not large, but apparently the idea has been dismissed.
At the split, we visit the only public restrooms on the island. They’re hard to find and cramped, poorly lit. (This seems like a terribly tourist-unfriendly idea to me: Waikiki has public restrooms. Virginia Beach, Nags Head, Daytona: all have public-access buildings with showers and toilets and stalls where visitors not staying in hotels right near the beach might change into their swimsuits. True, those are all American beaches, but Bondi and Manly, near Sydney, also have public loos.)
The sun finally comes out, and it’s a beautiful day again. We keep seeing open-air kitchens and restaurants with odd hours along the two streets. Whatever they’re cooking (I’m guessing grilled chicken? seafood and plantains?) smells fabulous, but we can’t eat dinner here because the last ferry leaves at 5.
Bookworm and The CEO discover a low-tide area where empty conch shells are strewn about; they pick up three. One of them is a peculiarly greenish color outside, but its inside lip is a gorgeous pinky-orange, like sunset. Hardly anyone is on the beach here, just a few people sunbathing. We find a section of beach and put down our towels; I find several tiny spiral shells, perfect, and some scallop shells so pure and white they could be ceramic. The water is cold, and the sand is so fine it feels like mud underfoot. Farther out there are patches of seagrass. I’m not digging it. I avoid swimming in lakes for just this reason, gross stuff underfoot! We find some grass-free zones and swim around for an hour or two, before we get tired and decide to trudge back up to the split to change out of our suits.
At the ferry terminal, there’s a feisty little chihuahua wearing a nametag that says “Leo,” who amuses himself by sniffing everyone’s bags and shoes before returning to his repeated attempts to eviscerate his stuffed platypus. My feet hurt from walking around in flip-flops, and I’m definitely not well-hydrated, which is my fault for not buying enough water bottles.
Gaze leans against the bulkhead and falls asleep. Bookworm leans on her knees and does the same. Taz produces a paperback book from his backpack (good lord, the child can read anywhere), and The CEO reviews the pictures he took on the beach. Back in Belize City, we’re starving and stunned that all the restaurants near the water taxi entrance are closed now. You’d think they’d stay open and catch tourists taking the last ferry of the day back to the mainland.
We drive around the city looking for an open restaurant, but all the little mom-and-pop “fast food” shops doing brisk business selling garnaches and plates of stew chicken with rice and beans have closed up. It’s 6:30 pm, and the only option we find is a Chinese restaurant. We introduce the boys to the (American, probably) Chinese-restaurant custom of ordering several dishes to share, by asking for Chicken and Broccoli, Pepper Steak, Sweet and Sour Pork, and Vegetable Fried Rice. With it, we get Fantas and Coke and Sprite.
Fanta is everywhere here, in flavors we don’t get at home (pineapple, fruit punch, a weird root beer that tastes like licorice), which reminds me of my childhood. Taz has become fond of red Fantas. The other thing I notice is that the soft drinks are all made with real sugar, and they don’t have that weird whangy aftertaste that ruins nondiet sodas for me nowadays.
Tuesday, Nov. 20 – Lamanai day! The CEO has been thrilled about this jaunt since he booked it last week: an hourlong drive north from Belize City to the boat location in Orange Walk, then an hourlong boat trip through “crocodile-infested waters” to Lamanai and a tour, lunch included, then the boat trip and drive back to our guest house.
We start early. Ian the tour guide is a careful driver; we have to pause several times for uniformed students to exit school buses. There are government schools, Ian says, but most everyone sends their children to the church-run ones. On the way, we marvel at the various colors people have painted their houses here — mostly pastels, some vivid sherbety colors. It would look silly in Virginia, we agree, but in the tropics it’s delightful. Ian stops once, to buy plantain chips for the monkey we’ll get to feed on the trip, and we see a farm truck hauling Brahma-cross cattle. “For market in Guatemala,” Ian tells us. “We mostly eat chicken and seafood here, some pork, some beef.”
When we get to the boat dock at Lamanai Belize Tours, it’s cool under the trees, but we sunscreen up and bug-spray ourselves anyway. Our boat includes the five of us, a couple from Louisiana, and Ian, and we’re ready! We go a little ways upriver to see the spider monkey that hangs around (literally) in the same spot most of the time, and about half of us choose to feed him plantain chips. He poses for pictures.
Then we’re speeding back down the Rio Nuevo, which is particularly funny to us since the river we live near in Virginia is also called the New River. (Generally considered by geologists to be one of the five oldest rivers in the world, its name is contrary.) The vegetation ranges from small trees at the edge of the water to bushes to water lilies, and we see many waterbirds.
At Lamanai, “Submerged Crocodile,” we have to hurry the start of our tour because, Ian says, we’re attempting to get through before the cruise ship tours start. Our tour, with no set time to be back at the ship before it leaves port, will be more extensive than the one the cruisers get, but we’d better get going.
Ian tells us that this site was discovered when the people who lived near it started to wonder why there were hills there, when most of the land nearby is very flat. They started to dig, found stone, and realized it was an ancient Mayan site. This one was occupied for over 2000 years and, at its largest, held over 35,000 inhabitants. The site is not fully excavated, but clearly covers a much larger area than Altun Ha.
We first visit the Jaguar Temple, and then living quarters that once housed royalty or high-level religious officiants. We make our way past the smaller Stele Temple, with its beautifully carved standing stone, through the Ball Court, and then on to the High Temple, which is indeed really high. I get dizzy 3/4 of the way up, and refuse to go up any farther. Visibility is wonderful from this high up, but it makes me nervous.
Then we spend a few moments on a gravel path to the Mask Temple, so-called because of its depiction of a deity wearing a crocodile headdress. The masks here are fiberglass replicas too, which seems quite sensible to me in protecting the original from exposure to weather (and careless people). Here we run into not one, but two cruise-ship tours, full of loud people who spend a lot of time taking selfies. I actually hear two people refer to the temple as “Inca.” Eye roll.
(I dunno. I’ve said we’re Museum People and history geeks, and that’s true. We don’t go on vacation with thoughts of tropical rum drinks and tanning on the beach. We’re weird, and we like it that way.)
After the Mask Temple, we’re making our way along the tree-shaded, graveled path back to the entrance when we hear them: howler monkeys. We go to the picnic shelter for our lunch, of traditional Belizean stew chicken seasoned with annatto, rice and beans, fried plantains, cole slaw, pico de gallo, and soft drinks. It’s delicious.
Then we’re back on the boat, breeze blowing our shirts. Taz rests his head on my thigh and goes to sleep. We round a curve and six white herons rise on flapping wings into the air, lifting, lifting — and then we’re around the next curve and they’re gone. The CEO mutters to me, “They told me these were crocodile-infested waters. I feel cheated.”
We’re almost back to the boat dock when we see it: a roiling in the water, something being dragged down. I’m thinking, Ooh finally! a crocodile just grabbed lunch!, when Ian slows the boat to get a closer look, and it turns out to be…
… a tail-less crocodile, certainly dead, floating in the water. Ian speculates that either it had been killed by poachers and its tail taken, or it had been hit by a boat and something else, perhaps another crocodile, had eaten its tail. It was definitely moving when we saw it, though we decide that at that point, another crocodile must have been moving it, trying to drag it away to be lunch. The CEO goes back through his photos and finds one showing movement. SEE IT LOOKED ALIVE SEE SEEEEEE?? THERE WAS SPLASHING AND EVERYTHING.
I nearly drift off during the trip back to Belize City, while Ian and The CEO talk about the possibility that someone might come in and buy a bunch of the land that is just sitting idle here, and start an agricultural enterprise. There were once sugar plantations, after the mahogany had been thinned out, but people don’t really farm around here, other than a few private vegetable gardens, and those cattle we saw earlier. We see lots of little roadside stands selling fresh coconuts, but nobody really raises coconut trees; they find the trees and harvest the nuts to sell.
Dinner is at the Sahara Grille, five minutes’ walk for Mediterranean food. Picky Taz is nonetheless satisfied with chicken kebabs (and red Fanta, of course). The CEO can’t remember whether he likes falafel or not (I remember, and the answer is NOT), so he orders kefte, which he has a vague memory of liking. It’s all good, and although we have to dodge the potholes in the road with care, it’s nice to walk after dinner.
I’m still not wearing any perfume, by the by: too many mosquitoes, too big a chance of Zika virus and other nasty tropical illnesses. Better safe than sorry, though I could really dig a spritz of Tommy Girl at this point.
Tomorrow we snorkel!