Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

Here’s Looking at You, Belize: Part Two: The Special Features We Found

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My husband and I spent only four days in Belize since we squeezed our anniversary celebration into a spring break. We were based on the Placencia peninsula, but we did our best to use our time well.   We swam every day in the beautiful ocean waters in front of the resort, but we used so much sun screen that we maintained our dead-chicken-colored skin. Since we squandered hours on end before the trip scouring the Internet for sun screen and cream insect repellant that we could pack in our checked luggage, we came away feeling accomplished–if not tanned.

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The list of tours that could be arranged for guests by the gracious concierge of our resort (The Singing Sands Inn–not all resorts advertise the same tours) began with a walk along Monkey River–apparently a strip of jungle that’s home to a number of howler monkeys. Hearing the booming sound of the howlers would have to be an impressive experience. However, after other guests described the way the monkeys liked to throw their feces on intruders, my husband and I opted instead for a tour of the jaguar preserve–a park that evolved from research. Jaguars are nocturnal, and I’m not sure you’d want to meet one in the open, since they look like grumpy cousins to a tiger. We weren’t surprised that we didn’t see any. However, our Mayan guide knew so much about the jungle with its poisonous and curative plants and creatures (including a huge fuzzy tarantula and Army ants that became a feast for the birds instead of devouring our flesh in a rush as horror movies had led us to expect) that we didn’t miss the jaguars. We laughed at what the locals call a “tourist tree”–the bark of which turns red and peels. Our guide brought a picnic box lunch for each of us that was included in the cost. Our group decided not to take advantage of an opportunity to tube down the river after our hike. (We were more the educational type.)

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Another tour involved visiting Mayan ruins. Mayan ruins are strewn across Belize; many of them haven’t been investigated yet. Mayans still predominate in the extreme south of the country. In fact, we narrowly missed an opportunity to witness a celebration of their culture–Maya Day–because of our flight schedule. The wife of one of our taxi drivers was generous enough to describe to me in great detail how she planned to use banana leaves to cook barracuda for the festival. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her careful instructions were wasted on someone who has neither banana leaves nor barracuda back home.

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On a different day, my husband and I were included in a group tour that visited a partially excavated ancient settlement that once served Mayan royalty inland and high above the coast. We had a close-up view of the foundations of royal homes, stone graves, and a ball court dating back around 790 AD. The view to the distant ocean was magnificent. Our Mayan guide was proud to explain some of the many extraordinary achievements of the Maya evident on their stella (huge stone commemorative plaques)–including their invention of the zero–which mathematicians could explain is worth far more than nothing. We left the ruins for our homemade buffet lunch provided by an expat Indian couple who had established a homey restaurant in the midst of the jungle. After lunch, we had an opportunity to trudge up a rocky trail to a cave once used by the Maya where some of our group chose to swim in to see the interior waterfall and float back out using life preservers. Again, the trail was challenging for those of our group who were not used to traveling routes that hadn’t been smoothed for guests. No whiners!

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High-end resorts in any attractive location are not cheap, even if daily living is. The cost of the tours from Placencia that my husband and I investigated ranged from $90 US to $135 US per person, not counting tips given to the guide. My husband and I are so fond of swimming, exploring on our own, and spending time getting to know local people that we might not choose to take tours on future trips. However, we decided that experiencing the jungle through the eyes of a Mayan from a family of healers was well worth the time and cost.

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We shopped only in Placencia Village, and except for pieces of art and original jewelry, Belizeans aren’t known for their wealth of local handicrafts. Their specialties seemed to be local rum and beer (Belikin Beer, which has several different forms), farm shrimp, chocolate in many different presentations (especially with bits of chilis that warm your esophagus), and crafts that often resemble fabric or wooden products from Guatemala. We found the local food to be similar to the southwestern tamales and burritos we can find near our home, although fresh untainted shrimp, coconut rice and black beans, and varieties of fresh-picked tropical fruits are certainly not items we could find in our town. The chef in our resort made the best vegetarian appetizer pizza for us that I have ever tasted, as well as delicious pasta. We enjoyed a shrimp Po’ Boy in Placencia Village that was a treat.

We saw many “For Sale” signs on properties along the beach as we traveled the peninsula. The coastline is being expanded with fill in some developments, and construction is almost exclusively concrete in answer to previous hurricane damage. We were told certain buildings are too heavy for the foundation beneath and have problems with sinking off-balance. Construction crews were working to fix the issue as we drove past. We didn’t have the time or inclination to research the interior condition or costs of real estate, but our impression was that the prices varied widely. Inland, religious fundamentalist groups, Mennonites, and Amish settlements and farms are evident alongside the local people. Stands of cacao trees provide income for the regional Mayans. Many of the homes we saw inland seemed to illustrate extreme poverty. We were told education is “free,” except that families must purchase many costly supplies such as uniforms of navy blue with sky blue shirts or blouses.

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We were sad to leave the kindly, casual life in Belize. My husband and I felt energized by the clean ocean air. At the airport, a local character named Jet Holland runs an efficient if tiny bar. He brought us ham-and-cheese sandwiches made by his daughter (he explained in his unique gravelly voice that all the ingredients had been purchased from people he knew personally and were, therefore, safe) and glasses of rum punch. We weren’t allowed to pay until we had eaten our fill, although our table was outside the restaurant in the main terminal room. We were treated like old friends. His rum punch (made with Belizean rum, of course) is an item worth seeking out if you’re in the Belize City airport any time soon. Just don’t drink too fast.

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