There are only 2 dozen or so countries in the world with diplomatic relations with Taiwan. I’ve spent most of my life away from the state/nation of my birth with no particular patriotism for any government, but recognizing my country still gave Belize a descriptor in my mental files beyond just ‘Central America’. I’ve never made it south of Mexico before, so when the opportunity arose, I made sure to put Belize on the list of nations to explore.
With the iconic Caribbean Sea washing up against the length of the eastern Caribbean coast, beach attractions were at the top of our list and we needed to cross that off the list first, even though we’re not suntan-seeking travelers. The transfer flight from Belize City took no more than half an hour, and the approach to San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye was definitely one of the most scenic routes I’ve ever experienced. The flight process was refreshingly low-key, a world away from the body scanners and the heavy security in the rest of the ‘civilized’ world – even our boarding passes were reusable cards.
From the skies, the silver linings surrounding the island bore hint of the white sandy beaches, and the surrounding waters displayed varying shades of azure, turquoise, with splotches of dark shadow promising underwater fields of corals waiting to be explored. Instantaneously, memories of the the excruciating 26-hour flight from Warsaw to Belize City, inclusive of 3 layovers, evaporated into the fluffy white clouds. We were picked up in a golf cart upon arrival, then transported to a hotel boat, where we hugged the coastline and finally arrived at our hotel.
Hol Chan marine reserve
We spent the rest of the week snorkeling, relaxing, and by default, getting a tan. One of our favorite snorkeling spots lay just off the southern tip of the island, at a Marine Reserve called Hol Chan, which is Belize’s oldest underwater site. The country’d Marine Reserves are made up of 3 distinctly different ecological zones, namely: reef, seagrass beds, and mangrove, and the authorities name around 40 species of coral, 3 types of sea turtles, and over 160 fish species that call the areas home. The channel at Zone A was spotted with coral reefs along the sloping seabed, starting from a shallow 2-3 meters and dropping to about 10 meters. Sun rays penetrated the clear water easily, casting streaks of white down to the corals, wavering with the aquatic movement. The display of underwater vitality was refreshing, from parrot fish to sea turtles, moray eels to barracudas. The last zone, Zone D, is a special interest patch of sea called ‘Shark Ray Alley’. As we were pulling up to the Zone, nurse sharks swarmed the boat instantaneously, making splashes as they jostled for position. Our dive master explained that this is from decades of training, when fishermen used to clean their catch around this area, making for easy meals for the sharks. All of us jumped in the water to swim with the sharks – daunting at first, but the fears quickly subsided with the nonchalance they bore towards humans.
The next stop on our Belizean tour was at Cayo – having visited, and being fascinated by Chichen Itza in Mexico, we wanted to see how the Mayan ruins were represented elsewhere in Central America. While the rest of Cayo was quite a well developed island tourist destination, the western district had an air of antiquity about it, with ancient cave systems to explore, lush old forests to trek, and of course, pre-Columbian historical sites. ‘Xunantunich’, the name bestowed upon the site strewn with 26 palaces and temples, means ‘stone woman’, a ghost that is believed to inhabit the site, with many a sighting reported around the main structure, the El Castillo pyramid.
Placencia Sidewalk Arts Festival
After pottering around Cayo for a few days, we heard about a Sidewalk Arts Festival in Placencia, so we decided to make the 4 hour drive to check out the human vibe that inspires the local culture. Once we arrived at the mile-long sidewalk (once a Guinness record holder for being the narrowest main street in the world), the excitement in the air was tangible. You know what they say about tension so thick you can cut it? Well the concentration of humanity there was the same. Artists were displaying their creations as far down the street as the eye could see, with a distinct explosion of colors in the Caribbean style paintings jumping out at every turn of the head. There were food stalls, artisans displaying their sterling silver goods, and the happy sound of chitter chatter interspersed with music and live performances. The line up of various entertainment over the 2-day festival included local musician Oscar Scott belting out tunes to the strum of his guitar, dance crews showing their moves, fire dancing, and the much photographed percussionist Emmett Young, banging out impossible beats on his Creole drum. Unfortunately, as we still had a lot of travels ahead of us, we didn’t purchase any of the art or trinkets on display, but the creative impression was a lasting one.
Many travelers spend their holidays clambering over themselves trying to lay claim to the best spot of beach or trying to get to a site before the hordes of other likeminded people do. Placencia reminded me that it’s the people that make the culture, and what better way to peek into the local way of life but to revel in the artistic expression of a society?
Some artists who have made a name for themselves immortalizing Belizean moments in time: