July 29, 2008

Our Trip to Belize

We arrived at the Belize International Airport at about 3:00 p.m. on Friday, June 6, 2008. From the plane, we had seen that most of Belize was covered in a lush green jungle. Here at the airport, it was hot, humid, and a little windy. There had been a tropical storm only a week earlier, so the wind was expected. After going through customs and all that fun stuff, we climbed into a small plane that would take us to our real destination: Ambergris Caye, a little island off the coast of Belize in the Caribbean. Ashley and I were stuck in the skinny seat in the back where they put the smallest passengers. Almost immediately after the plane started, Ashley's face was in her hands. Joseph was the lucky one and got to sit in the copilot's seat, grinning the whole time. Jared sat in front of me, taking pictures out the window enthusiastically. During this bumpy ride, we got our first glimpse of the "cayes" or small islands of the coast of Belize. They were green and marshy and the water ranged from bright turquoise to deep blue. It was enjoyable for me, despite the shakiness of the plane.




When we landed on Ambergris Caye, our first sight was the narrow, busy streets of San Pedro. Golf carts tore around corners, pedestrians narrowly avoided being hit, bikers wound between other vehicles, and we just watched it all. The buildings were colorful and a little rundown, but in a charming kind of way. The streets were cobblestone in some places and sand in others, but it was sometimes hard to tell because of the bustle of the locals and tourists through town. We met the caretaker for the house we would stay at, an older woman named Christina who had lived on the island her entire life. She and her daughter took us through the streets on a golf cart. We grabbed some ridiculously overpriced groceries and then headed to the beach. There, we saw beachside restaurants, palapas (small grass huts) on docks jutting out into the shallow turquoise water, and more people, some of them selling sea shells, jewelry, and things they made by hand. We stepped into a speedboat, which we would do many more times on this trip, to take the last part of our journey to the house we were staying in called Villa Aurora.
Later that evening (it wasn't really that late, but it seemed that way because the sun went down at 6:00), we went out to have our first dining experience on the island. The restaurant was called Mata Chica and had a thatched roof and no walls facing toward the sea, enabling the nice breeze to come in freely. It all felt a little dream-like to me, but that was probably because I slept less than two hours the night before. Jared and I ordered a seafood sampler dish, which was delicious, especially the snapper and crab. While eating, we watched big red and blue crabs walking around the floor of the restaurant, climbing onto shelves, and scaring the servers. I made sure to keep my feet out of reach. We assumed it was always this way, but it turned out that they were more active than usual because of the stormy weather earlier on the island. After dinner, we came back to the house, where we swam in the pool and discovered that the third floor balcony was great for jumping into the 11-foot deep pool below. This discovery led to a nightly jumping ritual, which was very refreshing after a long day of sun and salt water. Jared and I slept wonderfully that night with our five floor-to-ceiling windows open out towards the ocean and no blankets on.




The next day, we left early to go on our first snorkeling trip. Our guide's name was Geni (pronounced like genie), a laid-back Belizean guy with a Caribbean accent. Belize's reef is less than a mile from the shore of Ambergris Caye and is the second longest in the world, which created an ideal snorkeling environment. First, we went to an area called Hol Chan. This was my first real snorkeling experience (after a failed attempt in Mexico). A great variety of fish swam around us and through the coral and there was never a dull moment. The water was very clear and it was deeper than anywhere else we snorkeled later. It felt as warm as a bathtub and almost as calm.


Next, we went to Shark & Ray Alley, which, as the name implies, is full of sharks and stingrays. Luckily, they were only nurse sharks, which are about as harmless as fish can be. Even knowing this, it was a little disconcerting to jump in the water with several 4-6 ft. long sharks fighting with stingrays over the food they were given. Geni went right into the middle of the feeding frenzy and grabbed one of the smaller nurse sharks, which was still pretty big, and brought it over to us. Its skin felt a little scaly, not slimy like I expected, but underneath the scales it seemed soft and kind of squishy, like it was hollow inside. I held it for a moment before it got away and it seemed almost fragile because of its strange hollow, soft body. Hol Chan and Shark & Ray Alley were my favorite snorkeling places of all we went to in Belize.

That night we walked to the most beautiful restaurant we ate at in Belize. It was called the Rojo Lounge and had unique, good (but of course, expensive) food. We ate outside on a fancy patio with the nice sea breeze coming in. Red curtains hung all around and the atmosphere was just perfect. Ashley got a frozen specialty drink there that she raved about for the rest of the vacation because she loved it so much. On the way home, we dodged crabs whose legs seemed to carry them sideways out of control into our feet. It was unpleasant, to say the least, but entertaining. We realized later, when the crabs weren't so active because of the weather, that we kind of missed them. Just a little.

On Sunday, we had a lazy, relaxing day. We had planned on going to church, but the island ferry was so expensive and we were in the process of getting a pass for unlimited use, so we couldn't make it, which was disappointing. I was really looking forward to seeing what the church and the members were like here on such a small island. Instead, we hung out around the house for most of the day and made our own meals. We finally got a pass for the island ferry, making the island open to us since we were too far away to walk and the roads were flooded from the earlier storm.


That evening, we took the ferry in to San Pedro and went to a restaurant called the Sunset Grill, which was very fitting since it was on the west side of the island and we actually did get to watch the sun set while we ate. The restaurant was built over a lagoon, so fish were swimming right beneath us. The fish there were huge—some of the biggest we saw on the trip. There were tarpons, big silver fish that fought over anything dropped into the water. At one point, an enormous white stingray swam right next to where we were sitting. It was the only white one we ever saw and was probably four feet across. It was amazing. I can't even remember the food we ate because I was so distracted by the fish.

Monday was a very eventful day. We got picked up from our palapa at 6:00 a.m. to take a trip to the Mayan ruins called Xunantunich (Shu-nan-too-neech) and to go cave tubing on the mainland. We went in to San Pedro first and ate a breakfast of Johnny Cakes that the tour group provided. When we were told we would have Johnny Cakes for breakfast, we all speculated on what they were actually going to be. They turned out to be eggs, cheese, and meat in a biscuit—not as foreign as we were expecting, but quite good. We took a small plane to Belize City, where me met Joel, a native Belizean with six children who loved to talk and was passionate about American politics and Belizean bananas. He took us all the way across the country to the western border where Belize meets Guatemala. On the drive, we saw beautiful jungles, houses, and lots of people, especially children walking to school in their uniforms. Most of the people were black, but there were many, like Joel, with tan skin who looked like most Central Americans. On the drive, Jared couldn't help but relate everything to Brazil because it looked so much like the areas he had been. Interestingly, we saw several Amish people in horse-drawn carriages. There is a city in Belize called Spanish Lookout that was colonized by Amish people, so there are many around the area. We even saw some of the "modern" Amish people who drive around in really nice cars but still wear the traditional clothing. It was amazing to get a glimpse of how the mainland Belizeans live and the variety of people and cultures there. I kept thinking about how most of the world actually looks more like this than the American suburbia that I'm used to and that people everywhere live like this with so little, but are content. It made me want to live like that—simply, gratefully, and in a less materialistic way.



When we arrived at Xunantunich, we met a different guide named Dino. He had lived in the small Belizean city of San Ignacio, here in the jungle, all his life. We crossed a river on a ferry and then walked up a road through the jungle to get to the Mayan ruins. Once there, we saw the remains of what was once a large Mayan city with a tall temple at its center. It was incredible seeing something built so long ago and with so much (mostly unknown) history. We climbed the long narrow steps to the top of the tallest structure in Xunantunich. From the top, we could see Guatemala, which was only about half a mile away. Dino told us all about the assumptions that have been made about the Mayan people according to the evidence they have from the numerous ruins throughout Central America. In the jungle here, we also saw avocado trees, long lines of ants carrying big pieces of leaves (which apparently signals rain), and some huge iguanas lounging on branches. For lunch, Joel took us to eat at a local restaurant where we had the best Belizean rice and beans with stewed chicken. I don't know if it was because we were so hungry or if this meal really was better, but the other rice and beans that we had on our vacation were never quite as good as these.























The next adventure was tubing down a river that went through huge caves underneath the jungle floor. On the way to the river, we walked down a path with cliffs and tall trees on the sides. It was slightly raining, like it probably always is in a rainforest, which made it all seem very fresh and alive. We could hear howler monkeys calling to each other around us in the tops of trees. We saw parrots and toucans from a distance. Our guide, Luis, was only about 4'10" and full of personality. He claimed he was a full-blooded Maya, a womanizer, and not afraid to jump off of any height as long as there was water at the bottom. He took us through the caves on tubes and entertained us the whole way. The river was slow, but the scenery was so good that it was exciting all the time. The caves had huge stalactites and occasional openings where light poured through the canopy of trees in the rainforest above. We saw tiny bats, only a few inches long, hanging from the ceilings of the caves. Long roots and vines came through the ceiling as well, adding to the mystery of these dark caves. The river carried us through a few different caves and sometimes out in the open. We were sad for it to be over. When we finished tubing, we all jumped off an overhanging rock into the river. Luis, however, swan dived fearlessly into the shallow water. Afterwards, we met up with Joel again to make the drive back to Belize City and to catch our plane to the island.


Back in San Pedro, we ate at a restaurant called Elvi's Kitchen, which is one of the most popular restaurants there. The food was good and I especially enjoyed the soft sand that was the floor of the restaurant. Walking around the busy streets was another fun part of the evening. There were always people to see and fun things going on in San Pedro.

Tuesday was a relaxing day—the first half at least. Then Jared and I had the bright idea of walking to San Pedro. It was supposed to have only been 5 1/2 miles, but walking in the sand on a curving coastline makes it seem much longer. It was fun to see all the houses and resorts along the beach, though. We walked through the outskirts of San Pedro, where life appeared to be a little more authentic and less touristy. Even after dark, kids played and rode their bikes in the streets, speaking Belizean Kriol (which is a creole based on English but not understandable unless you learn it) and Spanish. Jared and I ate at a little restaurant called Waruguma where a woman cooked Belizean/Salvadorian food on the street in front of us. It was surprisingly tasty for such a little place. Then we got ice cream at a place called Manelly's, which was delicious and had so many good flavors that we returned almost every day after. We sat out on the beach and ate our ice cream and built Mayan ruins in the sand. It was the first time Jared and I had done anything alone in Belize and we had a great time, besides the fact that I was covered in mosquito bites from our long walk to town.


On Wednesday, we went north up to a resort called Costa Maya, where we sat through a vacation club presentation in order to get discounts on a tour and to use the resort's kayaks. Off the coast of this resort, near the reef, was a place called Mexico Rocks. We kayaked out, Joseph and Ashley in one, Jared and me in the other, to snorkel around the area. The coral was impressive, but there weren't as many fish as the other places we had been to. For dinner, we went to a buffet restaurant called Jambel, which someone had recommended to us. It had a fun Jamaican atmosphere, with pictures of Bob Marley around and people singing. The food, however, was our least favorite, but it was a buffet after all.







Thursday was a very fun day. We left early to go on a tour to see manatees, a few smaller cayes, and to snorkel. It was the only tour that we went on that had other people in the group besides us four. The tour guide, a good-looking black man with a Caribbean accent, was named Willie. We rode his speedboat to an area near Belize City with a wildlife reserve for manatees. There, we got a few good looks at the elusive wild manatees, some of them very near the boat. After that, we headed to a really small island on the very edge of the reef called Goff’s Caye, with nothing but a few palm trees and a palapa on it. We snorkeled around and then had a delicious lunch that the guides had brought on the boat. Then we went snorkeling at one more place, called the Aquarium because of its clear water and abundance of fish and rays. At the end of the tour, we stopped for a quick visit to Caye Caulker, a lovely little island that had a similar style to Ambergris Caye, but was much smaller and less developed. The roads were only sand and there were clotheslines hanging up at almost every house.



That evening, we ate at a restaurant called Portofino, which turned out to be a very entertaining dining experience because of how much Joseph hated it. The rest of us thought it was fine, but the moment Joseph saw his food, it went downhill from there. He, Jared, and I all ordered the same dish. We knew it had crab in it, but none of us expected the gigantic claws covered in algae and black spiky hair to turn up on our plates. It looked frightening. I braved the ugliness and tasted it, though, and it was actually really good (to me and Jared at least). Joseph, however, wasn't convinced and not only griped, but went on an endless tirade about all the work you have to do for a little meat and how crab shells got everywhere, and black hairs were in his drink, and more. We laughed for most of the meal (except Joseph, who was seriously unhappy) and ended up having a good time despite the hideous crab legs on our plates.

Friday was nice, but a little sad because it was the last full day of the vacation. It was the clearest, least windy, and most beautiful day we had in Belize. We all relaxed, read, swam, and tried to get some of our last pictures and videos of the island. Later, we went into town on the island ferry, where we did some shopping around San Pedro. For our last dinner, we went to two places: first we made a stop at Waruguma for some pupusas as an appetizer, then we went to a restaurant called Wild Mangoes for a light, delicious meal. Then, according to tradition, we went to Manelly's for ice cream. When we got home, we all jumped off the balcony into the pool again, as usual. Only this time I made everyone do it without swimsuits on. Then we went to sleep early again because in only a week on the island, we were all becoming morning people.

The next, and final, morning, we packed up and took a ride on Christina's boat. Although we had seen it many times by now, we still admired the turquoise water and enjoyed the wonderful weather. It was a little sad leaving, but we all felt the need to return home and get on with our lives. We were able to drive around San Pedro and even get our last ice cream from Manelly's before getting on the small plane that would take us away from this Caribbean, cultural, and colorful adventure.
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