It is time to leave Guatemala. Along with Venezuela and Costa Rica, it scores a hefty 10 out of 10 for warm people and geographical stimulation. Now it’s time for Belize. We drive east and cross the border, a time-consuming affair, but administratively simple. Various wildlife needs to be negotiated en-route: a dead boa, the odd turkey, some storks around swampland and a large orange iguana, about a yard long, blundering about in a tree. At San Ignacio we turn off to Blancaneux Lodge, a sister venue also owned by the ubiquitous Coppola. A jaguarundi steps across the road. This is a cat-sized “big” cat that sneaks around in the forest. The landscape has become hilly and is covered in pine trees but sadly they have been blighted by an epidemic of pine beetle so huge tracts of it are merely desolate stalks. We take up our lodgings in a villa built for a family and swig a well-earned Belikin beer by the river. The tachometer says that I have covered 12,000 miles since leaving home 22 days ago. Although there are a fair number of American children rushing about, we manage to find solace on the veranda of our villa, which is tucked away at the far end of the settlement.
It is Balinese-style with the sitting room open to the elements, between two large, comfortable bedrooms. This is the ideal spot to stare at the stars and play guitar, whilst drinking quality red wine. The food is better than advertised and we wolf down pork and prawns. In the morning we set off at 7.20am for a walk through the forest to Big Rock Falls. The idea is to be the first on the trail and catch some wildlife. In two hours we see two magpies and a sparrow. There is nothing here at all, and much of the woods have been reduced to open scrubland by the pine beetle infestation. Apparently they decided to let nature take its course – spraying the area would only have killed something else. So that’s a disappointment. The waterfall is pleasant enough, but looks rather weedy in comparison with the giants of Venezuela.
After a re-fuel of bacon and eggs, there is the quandary of what to do for the rest of the day. The various excursions are extortionately priced and it is pissing with rain. There is little alternative but to retire to the open-air (but covered) living room and read and write. Lying on the sofa, a hummingbird flits in and inspects all the flowers in the vase on the table, at fantastically close range. Then it’s time for the cheesy New Year’s Eve festivities at the hotel reception area, which we have re-named Bland Caneaux Lodge. There really isn’t much to do here unless you want to shell out an extra £500, and even then the attractions aren’t as spectacular as elsewhere. The Mexican band do their best and all the staff wear hats and blow trumpets. We retire gracefully to bed.
In the morning it is still raining and it is definitely time to go. We drive east for a couple of hours to Belize City, population 70,000, so very small. It has three sets of traffic lights. The landscape is flat and unremarkable, like Florida. We drive through several Mennonite Communities. These are the old-fashioned Amesh Christians you may have seen in the film Witness. Originally Dutch, they speak German, and the strict ones eschew all modern technology including electricity and cars. Having been rejected from many countries they have found a place in Belize, now accounting for half the country’s agricultural output. This is possible because many of them no longer adhere to the strict doctrine of their supposed faith, living in posh houses and posing around in $100,000 cars. So much for the ‘word of the lord’ when filthy lucre gets involved.
There is filth and depravation here, just like anywhere else, with the road peppered with burnt out cars and vultures circling rubbish tips. But there are also neat houses and patches where people have made an effort. It rains most of the time and eventually we arrive at Belize City airport, a small strip. “There’s one leaving now”, shouts the Tropic Air rep over the sound of revving engines, so we rush on-board a 16-seater plane and take the 15 minute trip to San Pedro on Ambergis Caye. Here we are met by a guy from our hotel, Victoria House, who takes us there in a golf cart – very eco-friendly and delightfully quiet. The place is idyllic; rolling azure surf stretching out to the barrier reef (the second largest in the world); white sand fringed by palm trees to create the classic desert island scene; and a classy room with its own sea-facing veranda. This should do nicely. The pool is right on the beach, which is privately owned by the hotel. Squadrons of frigate birds hovver silently overhead. Their speciality is aerial piracy – harassing other birds into dropping their hard-earned prey. This is because they do not have waterproof wings and so cannot dive into water. With a distinctive forked tail and a wingspan of over 2 metres, they make quite a spectacle. The quirky brown pelican is also very much in evidence, and I sip a cocktail whilst watching a majestic Osprey diving for his dinner. He comes away with a chunky fish after a classic swoop and dive. We raise our Olympic signboards in unison to reveal perfect sixes all round.
The next day we get down to the serious business of investigating what the bulk of Belize is really about: water. We visit the Hol Chan marine reserve for some close-up snorkelling. As befits the second largest barrier reef in the world, there is a lot to see down here. Large brain corals and fan corals flapping purple in the current. The biggest parrotfish I have ever seen, about 2½ feet long, and the rainbow variety with multi-coloured spectral markings. A grisly 4-foot barracuda, quite static, having its gills attended to at the wrasse cleaning station. Busy schools of horse-eyed jacks, the size of a large silver dinner plate with yellow trim, and curious pointy ballyhoo. About a foot-long and looking like a silver dart with a pincer tail and sword on the nose, they leap out of the water like flying fish. There is much more: garfish, triggerfish, electric blue tiny ones, whose name I don’t know, and nurse sharks, skulking in the shadows.
Visibility is good and it is a calm day. We haul anchor and move to Shark Ray Alley. This is an area where commercial fishermen used to clean their gear and chuck odds and ends of unwanted catch overboard. The fish soon caught on and now you can jump into ten foot of water and be surround by them. There are a dozen or so stingrays cruising about – brown on the top and white underneath, the larger ones covering a diameter of about four feet. They are very happy if you given them a tummy rub, and if they think you have food they will come right out of the water and give you a big hug with their huge fins – a fantastic experience. Their teeth aren’t particularly problematic, but the horse-eyed jacks patrolling the area present a trickier problem. They are fast and aggressive, and will dart for anything that wiggles, so we are advised to keep our hands in clenched fists at all times. The nurse sharks are shy today and don’t bother to show, but the stingray show more than makes up for it.
Less satisfactory was the sight of a large sailing boat poking out of the reef at a 90o angle. Apparently some idiot has been showing off, completely misjudged his run into shore, and smashed into the reef. Several days later the boat is still there, spewing debris on to the reef. Our guide pulled out a huge bit of carpet that was clogging coral and we had a fair old discussion about the repercussions. Someone said that there was a fine of $15,000 for every metre of reef damaged. Someone else wondered whether the owner or renter had tried to leg it without facing the consequences. It even transpired that sun-tan lotion of certain types can damage coral, so god know what a collision with a boat and the spillage of all its contents can do. I returned to shore with mixed feelings – the rays were a delight, but the boat wreck was a travesty. The owner should be strung up.
The contrast between land-based Belize (flat and unremarkable) and sea-based (first equal best reef in the world) is highly significant. We therefore elected to spend another day on the sea. I was pleased that things started cloudy, because over 8 hours I would fry to a crisp regardless of how many protective measures I took. We were picked up at the jetty by two local wide-boys: “No shoes, no shirt, no problem!” One of then was a Rasta with striped shades who was the spitting image of the Dutch footballer Edgar Davids. He was in charge of an impressive 20-foot launch powered by 400-horse power of solid Yamaha outboard muscle, and he was going to show its capabilities, regardless of choppy seas. We thundered off at a jaunty angle, thumping against the four-foot waves for 40 minutes. It’s a bit like having somebody shake you violently for an extended period and hitting you on the testicles, every thirty seconds, with a ping-pong bat.
We screamed through a colony of several hundred cormorants, scattering them to the four winds. He completely failed to notice one of the wooden poles the locals use to secure their lobster pots. I was facing towards the stern with my hand on the guardrail so I didn’t see it coming. It whipped me on the knuckles at god-knows-how-many knots. Finally we slowed in a small mangrove-fringed lagoon, cut the engine and used a punting pole to edge towards our goal. We even stood on the seats of the board to avoid stepping noises reverberating. Total silence. And then we saw them: manatee. There aren’t too many of these creatures left in the world. It’s a large, slowish sea cow. Bigger than seals and sea lions, and very prone to being chopped up by speedboat propellers, particularly by reckless joy riders in Florida. More and more of them are ending up here, where they can get some peace and not be smacked on the head by some twat in a powerboat. If they are lounging about, they stay underwater for 25-30 minutes, but 10-15 is more common. We had twenty or thirty very close by – lone males, a pregnant female and a parent and daughter trio. Very calm and peaceful. They have a very slow metabolic rate and are vegetarians, consuming a few hundred pounds of sea grass every day.
We pushed away and moved on, whizzing past a number of extraordinary islands. One had been bought for $55m by a guy from Boston, who had converted it into an 18-hole golf course. Apparently he brings 500,000 gallons of water from the mainland every day just to water it. Insane. Rather more admirable was a man who had built his own island. Now 76 and in a wheelchair, he had spent years dropping conch shells into a shallow area until he built up a reasonable patch of land. Now it houses his family and dogs, is planted with well-established palm trees, and provides a base for his lobster harvesting business. We moored up at Goff’s Caye, one acre of island nothing in the middle of nowhere. There was a hilarious scene where a brown pelican was trying to fish for his lunch with a seagull standing on his head. If the penguin ever dropped anything the gull was in like a shot. He spent the whole time we were there irritating the hell out of the pelican in this way.
It was choppy here, but we were nevertheless advised that it would be safe enough to snorkel inside the reef, where it didn’t seem too bad. Actually in comparison to the previous day’s marine life (and my experience on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) there wasn’t much to see. But the strong wind was taking its toll and I reckoned I’d had enough, so I swam back to the boat. I had just lobbed my flippers and mask into it before hauling myself aboard, when there were sustained cries of “Help, Help”, from a man about thirty yards away. I couldn’t tell whether it was him who needed help or whether he was indicating that there was someone else. Certainly, his was the only visible body. There was no time to lose. I got my head down and swam crawl-style as fast as I could to get to him. He was in distress and sinking. I told him not to talk “Just behave calmly and I will drag you in”. Which I did. Pulling a grown man who is heavier than you against the wind in choppy seas is heavy work, but I did it. He collapsed in the boat. He had cramp. I recovered my breath feeling the rather strange sensation that I had just saved someone’s life.
The drama was over and we retired to Goff’s Caye for lunch. Edgar Davids had knocked up an excellent meal of Maya sauce chicken with all the trimmings with no facilities in the middle of nowhere. We had a couple of beers, picked up a dead piece of fan coral, purple and a foot square, wondering whether we could get it back to London in one piece. The nearly-drowned Italian was now well refreshed and it transpired that he had studied in Eastbourne. The word “help” had certainly proved useful to him today. We waded waist-high back to the boat and set off for Caye Caulker. This is a place that is even more laid-back than Ambergis Caye, if that’s possible. We wandered barefoot along its sandy main street to the Lazy Lizard bar at the split – so called because it is here that Hurricane Hattie, in 1961, split the island in two.
As we sat drinking in the sun, it occurred to me that this was definitely the first time that I had ever seen someone snorkelling in a pub. There they were, drinking and sub-bathing in and around the water with fish and snorkellers drifting past. We got into the boat again to see another remarkable marine spectacle in the shallows: sea horses. Delicate little creatures that take 30 years to grow to a maximum of 8 inches, they should not be touched but can be scooped up gently from the mangrove shallows in a small bucket. We studied them intently for a while and then sent them gently on their way. On the other side of the island was another “outdoor shark aquarium” a similar situation to Shark Ray Alley, but this time with plenty of sharks. You have to be swift and jump in straightaway when your boat arrives. The moment the sharks and rays realise that you have no food or that you have run out, they begin to drift away. This was a good showing though – ten rays and three or four nurse sharks (6 – 7 feet long) all at close range for 10 minutes or so. It had been a great day. Close to eight hours on the water and some magical sights: manatee, sea horses, sharks and stingrays. I slept well.
The next day we took a 16-seater plan for 15 minutes to Corozal, a little further north up the Belize coast. Here we were met by the local ‘Arthur Daley’ of transport, Mr George Moralez, and conducted safely to the Mexican border at Chetumal. This was smooth and pleasurable, compared to the checkpoint at Guatemala. Strangely, it is a privatised concern, apparently allowing the owner to charge whatever emigration fee they fancy – in this case $30 Belizean as the base price, plus $7.50 for PACT (a Preservation and Conservation Tax). Fair enough. We were met by “our man in Mexico” and driven west for 45 minutes to the Explorean at Kohunlich. I had been to an Explorean before, at Salto Chico, in Torres del Paine, Chile, possibly the most interesting hotel in the world, so I was hoping for the best. Initially, I didn’t get it. First of all, the situation of the hotel and the view from it was unremarkable. Granted, it was in the middle of nowhere and overlooked unspoilt rainforest, but there was nothing particularly unusual about the landscape. 1 – 0 down.
Our villa was basic but pleasant enough in design and amenities. But it smelt of mould, which no amount of air conditioning, candles and window opening seemed able to shift. 2 – 0 down. We were then enticed to go on a “kayak adventure, see the sunset, cruise the lake at dusk, see the wildlife, have dinner under the stars” at 4.30pm. This was a disaster. Twenty of us were herded into 5-litre Chevrolet cans with a massive kayak-laden trailer and driven for an hour, down a seemingly impossible track for an hour to the shore of a lagoon. Here we were subjected to a safety briefing and warm-up exercises in Spanish, not dissimilar to a scout’s away day or a clandestine coven meeting deep in the woods. There was no sunset. It was also pretty clear to me that there was no wildlife either, but we nevertheless launched into the lake as the last light faded. One guy led off. Twenty of us followed uncomfortably seated in our kayaks. A few had been given lamps to strap to their heads, but most of the time we couldn’t see where we were going. Then came several hundred yards of dense reeds. Out paddles were slopping piles of wet vegetation all over us. Sure enough, there was no wildlife. The sum total of our discovery was two herons roosting, a handful of fireflies blinking in the dark, and one pair of red reflective alligator eyes in the distance. It started to rain. We paddled back in the pitch black and towelled down. By now the van was full of midges and to add insult to injury we were stopped by the Mexican army on the way back and searched for drugs and guns by torchlight.
After four futile hours, we were back where we started in the hotel, soaked through and gagging for a drink. This was one of the most pointless things I can ever remember doing. 3 – 0 down. In the morning we declined the proposed 20-mile bike ride to a 16th century Franciscan monastery and had a lie-in instead. We needed a new plan to turn this experience around.