Our little foray into the Caribbean suffered a few false starts. Arriving at the Belizean border around 3pm, we were politely informed with a friendly Caribbean smile and shrug that they could no longer accept payment for Megumi’s visa as the next day was a holiday and they had closed the books for the day. It was only 3pm! Definitely a lot more relaxed work vibe around here – like a lot of travelling you either just relax and go with it or go crazy I guess. Somewhat chastened, we returned to Chetumal, the border city in Mexico just as it started to pour with rain, found ourselves a cheap hotel and started out again via the local embassy, Mexico side, the next morning. Since it was a holiday they wouldn’t be accepting payments at the border that day either.
Once in Belize we tried to catch a boat out to the Cayes, our ultimate destination. But with the threat of pouring rain the boats had been cancelled and we were sent back to the local bus station. The local buses in Belize (and Central America) are somewhat affectionately known as ‘Chicken buses’, old second hand US school buses – you know the yellow & black jobbies you see in Disney movies. Not too uncomfortable, but cheap, slow, crowded and steady. As we bumped our way along the road to Belize City the differences from Mexico was compelling. Outside the window, flat mangroves and farms rolled by to a slower, more third worldly vibe, people of mixed race predominate here – Creoles, descendents of African slaves and English pirates; Chinese; Mestizo (mixed Spanish & cental American) and stopping in the towns, we glanced a few Mennonites, distant pilgrims of German ancestry standing back-rod straight awaiting a ride, clad in blue overalls and white cowboy hats (even the kids), straight out of a movie. These Christian conservatives own large tracks of land in Belize and through their communities have a pseudo monopoly on agriculture apparently.
The day we had chosen to arrive was a national holiday – Garifuna Day, a celebration of the freedom of the free South American / African settlers who stood up against their conquerors. The day is spent drumming and singing for a full 24 hours, quite the party. As if on queue, midway into our bus ride a bunch of drunk, Caribbean blacks jumped on the bus loaded with drums, dreadlocks and the party vibe. Talking loudly, banging drums and singing traditional songs with a pleasant Caribbean lilt, they were quite a handful until the pleasant rocking vibe of the bus lulled them all into a sleeping stupor. Arriving in Belize City, an hour or 2 late, the place was swimming, a squall in full force, no chance of catching a boat out to the Cayes, we found a friendly hostel and settled into the dry.
The next morning, we took the 1 hour boatride out to Caye Caulker. Caye Caulker (and its upscale neighbour Caye Ambergis / San Pedro) run along a 200 km barrier reef that is famous for its fish, coral, diving and snorkelling. The “Blue Hole”, a collapsed coral reef the forms a perfect circle is its most famous feature and renown worldwide as a diving destination. We had chosen to base ourselves at Caye Caulker, the cheaper island with more of a backpacker and Caribbean Rasta vibe. The Caye itself was barely 3 streets wide (called front, middle and back respectively) a 300m thin strip of sand, edged by Mangroves in sight of surf breaking on the reefs offshore. With a population of less than a 1,000 people, everyone knows everyone here and it’s incredibly friendly. The difference from Mexico couldn’t have been more compelling or the return to the English language more welcome. As you walk around the island, you are greeted everywhere with pleasant Caribbean accented, often dread-locked calls to ‘slow down mon’ and ‘take your boots off man! Barefoot, full of hammocks, sand and fresh seafood it’s a pretty tough place to base yourself. We found a cheap room and settled in.
To check out the marine life, we signed up for a full day of snorkeling on the reef across 3 of the main sites – Ho Chan National Park, Shark and Ray feeding and Coral gardens on the reef itself. This is probably the best snorkelling I have ever experienced its as simple as that. Immediately we pulled up to the boat at Ho Chan, a huge 2m+ Grouper parked under us with a school of other large silver fish, these were friendly enough that you could tickle them on the chin. Within a short snorkel we encountered large turtles; huge spotted rays and their smaller regular cousins; nurse sharks; huge green manta eels and a myriad of other large and colourful fish. Later the boat pulled up and the crew threw some feed over the side as a plethora of nurse and other smaller sharks plus sting rays scrambled for a taste, over the side and into the water amongst them we went, we could literally touch and play with the rays and sharks as they milled around. In the coral gardens, I came face to face with a spotted ray that must have been 3-4m wide with the body of a dolphin. Megumi from the boat, soaking up the sun, told me it had completely leapt out of the water earlier. Got to buy myself an underwater camera when I return to civilization!
Mesmerising stuff and easily some of the best value money we have spent on the water. We were pumped for more and keen to do some diving. But it was not to be – a bit of dodgy weather out to sea mean’t no dives were heading out for the next couple of days, so we simply relaxed into the Island lifestyle instead. A bit of beach bumming, snorkelling of the docks and simply soaking up the local flavours. The seafood was fantastic – cheap lobsters, conche and other tasty morsels all cooked Creole style at impromptu restaurants all along the shore. We had come hear for the diving, but the snorkelling and the lifestyle was so agreeable here that we didn’t feel like we were missed out at all.
Replete, we headed back to Belize City to catch a connecting bus that would take us across to Tikal in Guatemala. It was just the smallest taste of the Caribbean, 5 days or so but it left nothing but good impressions and inspirations to savour it more in full. One day I’ll be back to sample Jamaica, Barbados and the other islands – perhaps to accompany some cricket!