Flight to Dallas: uneventful.
Connection to Belize City: equally non-memorable.
We arrived at the Belize international airport with no set plan for how to reach Ambergris Caye, a few miles off the coast. I was told not to worry about it, that we would simply be shuffled onto a tourist plane that would fly us out there.
And, indeed, we were. We walked up to the ticket counter, bought two seats on the next plane out, and off we went.
It was a twin prop puddle-jumper that seated about 20 passengers for the 15 minute flight to the town of San Pedro in Amergris Caye. We got the front row seats, which put us pretty much inside the cockpit.
We landed in town, checked into the hotel, took a long walk on the beach and had a fancy, expensive dinner to kick off the trip.
At the top of our agenda for Belize was a visit to Blue Hole.
This was taken off the back of someone’s T-shirt. It’s not tremendously accurate, but it gets the idea across.
Blue Hole is a vast sink hole out on the reef, a quarter mile across and several hundred feet down.
“Has anyone ever been to the bottom?” asks the curious diver.
“Yes. Many people. They are still down there,” replies the witty local dive master.
At about 100 feet, the sink hole starts to curve outward, forming a cavernous ring that’s 60 feet from top to bottom and filled with massive stalactites.
Occasionally you can find sharks swimming in the center, but there generally isn’t a lot of marine life in Blue Hole. The attraction is the formation itself.
You have to go down very deep, and once you’re in the cavernous ring you’ve got a ceiling over your head, so you can’t ascend straight up. Both of these things make Blue Hole an advanced and fairly dangerous dive.
Unfortunately, Melissa had only just been certified. It’s a regrettable consequence of geography that Belize came first on our itinerary, with no opportunities to do any easy, sensible dives first to build up her comfort level. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted my first dive to be a 140 foot plunge into a dark cave with sharks orbiting nearby. But then, I’m sort of a wuss.
We were at least able to squeeze in a day of coastal diving before the Blue Hole trip. So there was that. But alas, the morning after our arrival, Melissa got really really sick. It was the result of any one or more of the following possibilities:
– pre-existing cold
– malaria medication
– sudden exposure to a world of new microbes in the food
Take your pick. The bottom line is she felt like crap. Nausea, headache, and trouble down below. Melissa is a trooper, though. She slinked out of bed and put on a swimsuit. With some small amount of guilt, I took her with me on a morning dive.
Here’s what I learned about diving off the coast of Ambergris Caye: it stinks. Poor visibility, few fish, very little coral, just a lot of greenish rock. The dive shops go there because it’s minutes from the resorts, and I guess they figure a lot of the divers won’t know any better. They’re probably right.
This is my scarcely-informed snap judgment, by the way. I rely heavily on such things, but I suppose I should give that disclaimer before allowing anyone else to.
After one dive, I had no interest in doing any more and Melissa was looking about as green as the rocks, so we went back to the hotel. It wasn’t quite the primer for Blue Hole that I was hoping for, and Melissa’s condition appeared to be worsening. Things were not going well.
The next day was Blue Hole day. Wake-up call at 4:30am, boat pick-up at 5:30am, and a two hour cruise out to the site.
…We woke up at 6:30. The night watchman at our hotel had forgotten to deliver the wake-up call. The boat came and left. I called the dive shop and they said there was no way out of paying. We owed them the full amount. I’m not going to tell you what the full amount was. It’s still too depressing. I’ll say that you could buy a very nice iPod with it. How’s that?
I summoned my inner American and marched down to the lobby. After some yelling and stomping and fault-admitting on the part of the hotel, I got them to call the dive shop and agree to pay for our missed trip.
I find it very difficult to get genuinely angry about anything, but I’m getting better at faking it.
We eventually worked out that Melissa and I would change our schedule so we could go to Blue Hole on the following day, we would pay for the trip, and in exchange the hotel would give us a free night of accommodation.
…am I boring you? Why are you reading all this? Get to the good stuff, Matt!
Alright, alright. I’ll pick up the pace a bit.
Melissa felt slightly better by late morning and we had a day to waste, so we decided to rent bicycles and explore the island.
The town of San Pedro looks like this.
There’s a canal on the north of town, and the only way to get across is by ferry. The ferry is two guys pulling a rope.
It costs $1 each way.
A few feet over from the ferry, workers are pouring concrete for a new bridge. One day very soon, it will put the two guys out of work and they will have to find other jobs. Progress!
It was around this time that two British guys in a golf cart came up to us and asked if we’d like to take part in a promotion. They pulled two small envelopes out of a pouch and handed one to each of us.
I opened mine. It said I’d won the 4th prize; a $25 gift certificate at some resort somewhere.
Melissa opened hers. It said she’d won a 7-day Caribbean cruise worth $2000.
We both just kinda looked at each other. The two British guys launched out of their golf cart and started jumping up and down. They were excited, evidently, because they’d managed to hand out the winning ticket, thus earning them each a $50 bonus and the rest of the day off. They asked us, with straight faces, why we didn’t seem to be excited. Why was it that they were the sole providers of exuberance?
The reasoning went something like this: even if it wasn’t blaringly obvious that we’d been marked by a couple of charlatans, matchstick men, flimflam artists; even if we ignored that he’d picked the envelopes out for us; even if we accepted that there are guys wandering the back roads of San Pedro handing out free Caribbean cruises to strangers without any sort of entrance fee or qualification; even if we got past all that, the prize they were offering would be about the 17th-most-exciting thing Melissa and I have to look forward to in the coming months.
They ’d picked the wrong couple of pasty-white American dumbasses.
We asked if we could wander by to claim our prizes later. They said we had to come with them right away. So we handed the prize-winning tickets back and invited them to find a more gullible pair of rubes.
It felt good.
As we began moving north along the coast, I made this prediction: “In about three miles, we will come across a beach resort that is ten times nicer than anything we’ve seen. Guests of the resort are whisked away to this place the moment they land, so as to never have to lay eyes on the filth nor smell the gasoline fumes in town. It is made impractical for guests to leave this resort, insuring that all the money they spend will be poured into one place. The beach will be wide and clean and Lo! there will be much thatch.”
Welcome to Captain Morgan’s Retreat. Its logo features a dashing, curly-haired rogue who looks not-at-all like the portly Captain Henry Morgan of Jamaica who sacked the Spanish fortresses at Panama and plundered their vast riches.
It does, however, look a great deal like the guy on the rum bottle.
The resort is proud to have been the location for a season of Fox’s Temptation Island; an American reality show in which devoted couples have their monogamous inclinations tested by a highly-improbable selection of single, attractive humans with nothing better to do.
We had some drinks and left. It seemed like a very nice place to stay.
A word on the locals. San Pedro is heavily populated by American ex-pats. Not the sort you think of when you hear the term “ex-pat” – or at least not the sort I think of. No, San Pedro is the only place I’ve been where I’d much rather be mistaken for a tourist.
The place is packed full of drifters and deadbeats from up north. I have confidence in identifying them as such, being myself a drifter and deadbeat of the highest order.
Mullets are not uncommon, nor are sleeveless denim shirts or clothing emblazoned with clever bon mots about how enjoyable it is to be intoxicated. These people haven’t updated their music collections since Bon Jovi cut his hair.
Yes, the Belizians are being exposed to the cream of the crop from American society. The trendsetters, the influencers, the elite. And these people are driving real estate prices into the stratosphere.
Construction is everywhere. Real estate offices line the streets. The rumor floating through town is that one beachfront home just went for half a million US dollars. Half a million in Belize – a country where the average annual salary is below $7000.
I’m no expert on this sort of thing, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say San Pedro is a small part of a very big bubble that’s gotta pop at some point.
In any case, the day wound down and we went to bed early so as not to sleep through the boat pick-up again. Melissa was feeling much better than the day before, which made it seem like maybe not such a bad thing that we missed it the first time.
Next morning. We wake up. Boat arrives. Boat zips us out to Blue Hole…Now that’s efficient storytelling.
The dive briefing was pretty intense. We were to descend to 40 feet, then coast along the ocean floor as it slopes down to the lip of Blue Hole at 60 feet. At that point we would let the air out of our BCDs and plummet into the darkness.
For a time, there was nothing but murky blackness. Visibility was little more than an arm’s length…70 feet, 80 feet, 90 feet…Then, in apparent defiance of some basic laws of physics, it got brighter. We passed 100 feet and we could see the cavernous ring.
Lower still: 110, 120, 130. We were entering the realm of nitrogen narcosis: Cousteau’s “rapture of the deep,” when high nitrogen intake from the pressurized air alters nerve transmission and creates an effect similar to drunkenness. It’s a nice feeling and all, but at a less than ideal moment. When divers get seriously narc’d, they can do some pretty dumb things.
Melissa was right there with me, more than twice the depth she’d ever been to. She got hit with a little bit of it. I held her hand. She was spooked. The divemaster came over and helped her adjust.
She got her bearings quickly and we were able to explore the ring.
How about those underwater camera cases, huh? This was taken with the same pocket-sized doodad I shoot the dancing videos with. Wrap it in a clear, plastic, waterproof shell and you can take it anywhere humans can go.
We maxed out at 140 feet. Because of the extreme depth, we were limited to about 8 minutes inside the hole – barely enough time to take it in. We saw a shark highway nearer to the center, bulls and reefs circling in both directions – why? I have no idea.
I stopped near one of the larger stalactites and handed Melissa the camera. We shot a dancing clip. It’s too dark to see what’s going on and I drift out of frame after a few seconds. The clip will probably never see the light of day, but mission accomplished.
Ascending back to the surface had an ethereal quality, as it was simply a matter of rising up into the light.
At 40 feet, we were back under the boat for a long decompression stop. They’d dropped several tanks for us in case anyone had run out of air.
And that was that.
We did another wall dive before lunch. It was a great spot, but somewhat diminished by the flailing mass of limbs. We used Amigos Del Mar, which is the most highly recommended dive shop in San Pedro. If I have one complaint about them, it’s that they’re victims of their own success. 16 people is too many to drop into a dive site at once – especially with less experienced divers who tend to cluster around the divemaster.
For lunch we stopped at Half Moon Caye, a tiny island paradise in the middle of nowhere.
On the far side of the island, male frigate birds perch in the treetops with their throats inflated to attract passing females overhead.
And red-footed boobies do…whatever it is that red-footed boobies do.
Two hours by boat back to San Pedro, and time for some sleep.
That was it for the coast. At the crack of dawn the next morning, we left by boat back to Belize City.
Here’s a bunch of Belizians on the boat.
Belize was a British colony for more than a century, so the lingua franca is English. The population is a mixture of Mestizo (50%), Creole (25%), and indigenous Maya (10%), with a smattering of American white trash and, believe it or not, a few thousand Mennonites. Tracing the immigration is a tangled web. Everyone came here from somewhere, fleeing from something — even the Maya, if you go back far enough. But people seem to get along relatively well.
We spent about 10 minutes in Belize City before catching a bus inland toward Guatemala. The bus dropped us off at Belize Zoo, which the guidebook called the best zoo in the Americas, south of the United States. It was, indeed, quite spectacular.
The zoo was started when the filming of some big movie I’ve never heard of left a number of semi-tamed animals who couldn’t be released back into the wild. It was built to very high standards and the animals seem healthy and well-taken-care-of. The zoo entrance is adorned with photos of eco-conscious celebrities like Harrison Ford and…well, that’s all I can remember. But isn’t that enough? Harrison Ford!
Of course, I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the spider monkeys.
I would like to be a spider monkey.
This fella is a puma, which is exactly the same thing as a cougar, mountain lion, and red tiger. Who knew?
The big draws though, are the jaguars. A jaguar is exactly the same thing as a panther. Again, who knew? They’ve got one stunningly regal black panther, and another that’s reg’lar-type. The black panther didn’t want to be bothered at all, so I didn’t get a picture. Instead, here’s one of Huey Newton.
The other fella was slightly more gregarious. So much so, in fact, that he wouldn’t stop moving.
I finally gave up and turned the flash on to get a non-blurry picture. The jaguar found this so irritating that he fired golden laser beams out of his eyes at me.
And that was it for the zoo. We waited by the side of the road until another bus came along to take us to San Ignacio, near the border.
San Ignacio caters to the flip-side of Belize tourism: eco-mad hippie tree-huggers. The town has the country’s only health food store, its only vegan restaurant, and so on. I must confess, I found the place much closer to my own sensibilities than San Pedro.
We had a jaw-droppingly spectacular meal at a place called Hannah’s. If you ever find yourself in San Ignacio, eat nowhere else.
For the fourth leg of our day-long overland journey, we hired a taxi to take us to the border. The taxi driver was Guatemalan, and we found ourselves thrown abruptly into Spanish-speaking-land. It’s like you walk past a line and suddenly everyone’s talking this other language, knowing not a word of the previous one. We hadn’t time to re-boot our brains for the change, so we were instantly reduced to a pair of babbling fools.
There is a little man living inside my body. He’s responsible for making things run smoothly and providing me with all the stuff I need to get through the day. Right now, he’s up in the attic pushing old, dusty boxes around in search of a few old, dusty boxes in particular. These boxes are all labeled “SPANISH,” and inside each of them are hundreds of useful words for me to communicate with.
Melissa also has a little man living inside her body. No, it’s not a little woman. It’s a little man. That’s just how it works.
I received a message today from the little man inside my body. He sends them to my brain in little canisters that run through my arteries like pneumatic tubes.
The message reads:
“Have been searching for Spanish boxes all day STOP Came across several big ones in the basement that are all labeled ‘FAT’ STOP Have been running a little low on fuel lately STOP Would you mind if I started burning some to keep things running STOP Also take it easy with the weird meat or I’ll have to pull the big red lever down below STOP”
I can only assume Melissa has gotten a similar message, although in her case the lever has already been pulled.
We crossed the border on foot, did some sketchy money-changing, and caught a van headed west toward El Remate; the tourist town that services visits to the ancient Maya city of Tikal.
The guidebook mentioned a pair of lesser ruins we’d be passing along the way named Yaxha and Nakun. They are more recent discoveries and less t horoughly excavated, receiving far fewer visitors. On the subject of crowds I have this to say: I will gladly sacrifice a bit of spectacle for some goddam peace and quiet.
The only hotel that services visitation to the ruins is called El Sombrero. It’s off the main road running from the border to El Remate. The guidebook is a little fuzzy on how far off the road. You can read it two different ways. It’s either 200 meters, or 7 miles.
I convinced Melissa that this would be a fun way to spend one of the two days we had budgeted for Tikal. We tried calling the hotel from a pay phone at the border to arrange a pick-up, but the line was busy every time. The van dumped us at the turn-off to El Sombrero and we started walking. It turns out it’s 7 miles.
We’d started moving at 7am; had been on a boat, a bus, another bus, a taxi, and a van. It was 5pm by this point and starting to get dark. We were on the outskirts of a tiny town that isn’t on any map I’ve seen whose name sounds similar to Machina. We had no Guatemalan money and almost no ability to communicate with anyone.
Melissa had never been in a situation like this before. Melissa was a little mad at her boyfriend for hurling us headlong into it with seeming deliberacy (Note: deliberacy is not a word, but it should be).
In my defense, I don’t think I did anything on purpose. But I will acknowledge that this sort of thing happens to me all the time.
Melissa and I were both schlepping about 50 pounds of luggage. I gave her the options of either walking into town with me and all our bags to find a phone/taxi, or staying with our bags at the turn-off and waiting for me to return. Neither option appealed to her. I gave her two more options of either waiting with me at the turn-off for another car that would accept US dollars to take us to El Remate, or walking the 7 miles with me to the hotel.
With all this laid out before her, she chose to let me go into town and try to sort things out.
I walked for a few minutes and, in the process, watched a dog on the street get hit by a car. It was upsetting.
I found a tiny little tienda by the road. Next to the shop, a woman sat at a card table with a phone and a clock on it. I was able to change enough money to make a call and try the hotel again. Again, the line was busy. I then asked the woman if there was a taxi in town – or I may have asked her if I could buy a taxi from her, I have no idea. She eventually got the picture.
She said there were no taxis in town. She then led me across the street to what looked like a small, boxy school made of concrete and aluminum. One of the classrooms was filled with men from the town, all of whom were squirming around in children’s desk-chairs. One man was standing at the chalkboard, speaking to them.
The woman called to the man at the chalkboard, interrupting the meeting. He came outside to talk to me. It was pretty clear he was her father. He had a huge mole on his face. This has nothing to do with anything.
He said something along the lines of: “I will drive you to that weird hotel out in the middle of nowhere that no one ever goes to for 80 Quetzales ($10), but first I have to finish this town meeting and that’ll take about an hour. You can wait here or you can wait back at the turn-off. I don’t care.” He agreed to take payment in US dollars, so we had a deal.
I went back to the turn-off and found Melissa waiting, nervously, with a couple of local men. They’d tried talking to her.
One of them asked if she’d ever studied Spanish.
She said yes.
He asked how long.
She said, “siete.”
He said, “siete dias?”
She said no, and then failed, after seven years of studying Spanish, to remember the word for “years.”
I presented Melissa with the fruits of my labor. What had seemed to me a very promising development, once relayed, didn’t sound so good.
“So you’re telling me a strange man who isn’t a cab driver is going to pick us up by the side of the road in maybe about an hour?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
It wasn’t flying. She wanted us in the next van to El Remate. As a last ditch effort, I reasoned with her that waiting in town by the classroom was just as good as waiting by the turn-off, and that if a van didn’t come by, we’d have the back-up option of going with the guy.
She conceded, but was still pretty edgy.
By the time we reached the classroom with all our bags, another guy had caught wind of the hopeless, hapless, helpless gringos and offered to take us right away for “setenta y cinco Quetzales.”
“150 Quetzales?” I thought. “The nerve!” I explained that the man in the classroom had offered to take us for only 80. He pointed out that setenta y cinco, that being 75, was in fact less than 80.
Right. Yes. Okay. Nevermind.
We got inside his sparklingly-new minivan. We failed to come up with any US currency that vaguely resembled 75 Quetzales, and instead gave him $20, which is more like 150, thus rendering my feeble attempt at bargaining somewhat prophetic.
And off we went.
Along the way, I tried to make chit-chat by asking him if he’d ever seen the ruins of Nakun. What’s the word for ‘see,’ I thought? Ah yes, ‘vivir’.
“Tu vive en Nakun?”
“No,” he replied in Spanish. “I don’t live in the ancient Maya ruins of Nakun. I live in town like everybody else.”
And so I gave up on talking.
We reached El Sombrero about a minute before this happened.
It’s lovely here. We’re on a lake filled with crocodiles. There are no other houses or hotels or buildings or anything anywhere along its perimeter. We’re also the only guests in the hotel. We have a cabin to ourselves out in the jungle.
Tomorrow we go to see the ruins of Yaxha and Nakun.
Here’s a map of our trip through Belize and into the northeast corner of Guatemala. If you want to see it as a fancy scrolling map that you can zoom in and out of and with red balloons that you can click on to find out what each place is, you can go here.