It’s the age old story of being completely underwhelmed by what you came to see and leaving with a sense of value in the experiences that were unexpected.
Like you, I probably headed to Belize to see the Great Blue Hole. I might have been excited to get some R&R on Caye Caulker. But for the resort loving tourists (that I love to insult) who went to Caulker Village, bought a t-shirt and a puka necklace, and felt like they did something special, I move that they could have gone to Cancun and got the same generic experience. The truth that no one will tell you about Belize is that most of the photos you see online of the water have the contrast turned up too high. Either that, or I visited at whack time where the ocean currents screwed me because — well, the water was actually pretty gray and full of seaweed.
*Disclaimer: I did not dive. Had I, I might be raving but deep water is not my M.O. (See crying in Jamaica here.)
What I do remember about Belize is being (figuratively) lost in a jaguar rain forest without a soul around. I felt shy feline eyes on me as I observed the tropical birds and water dripping from foreign plants. The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world’s first Jaguar Preserve, protects more than 80 of these endangered cats from obvious deforestation and encroachment that sits at the park’s eastern doorstep. Bring a swimsuit for a private swim under a waterfall after a steamy hike.
I remember a sketchy yet pleasant off road drive through red mud to find the incredible 1,000 foot San Ignacio falls.
I remember the roadside eateries, typical of the Caribbean, in their Fine China styrofoam to-go containers, crowded with locals who walk to the corners of their neighborhoods for spicy chicken and rice & peas. Those types of situations where you don’t ask questions, you just eat whatever the momma slops on the plate for ya, and it’s delicious. No explanation on her part needed.
It was at one of those said roadside stands that I got to know a refugee El Salvadoran family making pupusas. The stand was in the yard of a neat but modest home. The cook’s son, about ten, tried to send me off with one of his many weaned kittens before he rode his bike down the road to play. The cook was happy to have a bag of my blouses as were were about the same size. This was the second time I’d brought my hand-me-downs abroad instead of to Goodwill. Lord knew it had to be hours for her to drive to shop. My inner four year old girl (that I frequently write about) also became fascinated by one of those Jesus Walk on Water Lizards in the driveway.
We stumbled upon authentic beach vibes at the Garifuna village of Hopkins. The Garifuna people, descendants of West African slaves who shipwrecked and washed ashore parts of Central America, have their own music and oral traditions. The 1,000 or so residents have shifted from an agrarian economy to tourism based jobs. We thoroughly enjoyed the food on the sweltering patio at Gecko’s and found reasonable accommodations where we had the beachfront to ourselves.
But we weren’t by ourselves for long when: On Central America Highway 13, which connects Guatemala to Belize, I did something I’d never done before and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. A hitchhiker approached me at the Guatemala border because he noticed my backpack. Maxim had a huge red backpack. He climbed into the front seat of our hired car. Possibly the most interesting man in the world, he shared that he had left is stable job as a native Russian working in Spain to travel the world on foot. We rode several hours together in our hired car where we discussed broad ideas like socialism and altruism, whereupon we amicably disagreed more often than concurred. He sucked from a filtered water bottle and shocked me when he said he’s lived the last two years walking from Patagonia to Belize, through the streets of Peru, Colombia, and El Salvador, all while sleeping in his tent. He found that people were friendly and helpful everywhere he’d been. He was on his way, walking, to California. He’d lived the last two years on a whopping total of $6,000, stopping to work for a few months at a time as he went. Leaving the rest of us to never use money as an excuse not to travel ever again . . .
So it wasn’t the Belizean beach that I left “oohing and awwwing” over. Proving that planning is pretty useless in this brilliant life where you just have to put your nose to the ground and sniff out unexpected experiences. Wonders like hidden jaguars, roadside stands, muddy back roads, private waterfalls, and fellow wanderers with lots to divulge are what left the most last impressions.