Author: Denis Lyonnais
Do you know Belize? No? It’s not a surprise … This country, which is as big as the Gaspé Peninsula, has always been under the tourist radar, preceded by Costa Rica prized by nature lovers and Mexico with its inviting beaches.
Belize would be a well kept secret? Surely… except for scuba diving enthusiasts who have found an aquatic paradise in the second largest barrier reef in the world after Australia! This barrier, which stretches for 380 km long, contains about a hundred small, sparsely populated paradisiac islands that offer sportsmen or travelers looking for a rest unforgettable moments. For the holidaymaker who wants to combine diving, fishing and outings without problem, Ambergris Caye and especially San Pedro is the place to be. This is the mecca of tourism with its souvenir shops and street vendors in a beautiful environment.
In contrast, there is Caye Caulker located right in the center of the coral reef. When you get off the shuttle bus that brings you to the island, a sign clearly indicates what to expect: No Shirt, no Shoes … no Problem. This tiny island (8km long by … 1 km wide!) located just 30 minutes by boat from Belize City has always served as a relay port for fishermen and small boat builders. These fishermen were among the first to establish a fishing cooperative in Central America, thus obtaining a reasonable price for their product. At the beginning of the 60’s, the island is “rediscovered” by hippie communities who find there a place to settle, adding to the island an impression of peace and serenity. Cayer Caulker breathes tropical paradise. Here, no cars, flashy hotels or noisy speedboats. The main street is sandy, you can walk by bike or golf cart and slowly stroll among the stalls of fruits and vegetables, friendly cafes and small restaurants that offer their grilled seafood in front of you.
But Belize is not just a coral reef …
Nestled between Mexico and Guatemala, this small country covered with lush rain forest was an ideal hideout for pirates before the British colonized it and named it British Honduras until its independence in 1981. Result? A piece of English-speaking land stuck in a vast Spanish-speaking expanse that has kept British customs despite its population of very multiracial origin (75% of the inhabitants are from Mestizo or Creole origins).
The Mayans make up 11% of the population and are concentrated mainly in the Toledo region near the Guatemalan border. To get in touch with these
communities is to live the story live. The many Mayan ruins found throughout the country bear witness to the greatness of this civilization. The city of Punta Gorda is the base camp to visit this region composed of more than thirty Mayan villages. However, booking in these accommodations is not easy and it is best to contact the Toledo Ecotourism Association or, better yet, Village World to get all the necessary information. The villages of Big Falls, Indian Creek and Golden Stream, for example, offer opportunities to live in Mayan communities and share their way of life while being introduced to traditional cuisine … and chocolate.
“A cup of this precious drink allows a man to walk a whole day without eating,” Cortez proclaimed to Charles V when he returned to Spain in 1528. In the process, chocolate made its appearance in the old continent when it was a major cultural element of the Mayans for over 1500 years! Drinking a typical chocolate drink including vanilla, corn flour, honey and cinnamon is a pleasure!
The Mayan remains in Belize are numerous and many are very well preserved. There is obviously the beautiful Altun Ha site, easily accessible from Belize city but very busy in high season. Xunantunich (pronounced: shoo-nan-too-nik), located near the welcoming city of San Ignacio (21,000 inhabitants), is one of the most impressive sites in Belize. Climb its imposing pyramid of nearly 50 meters offers a spectacular view of the entire site and the rain forest that surrounds it.
The Table Rock Jungle Lodge, located just 20 minutes from San Ignacio, will complete this great stopover in this region. Operating almost exclusively with solar energy, this hotel is self-sufficient in organic fruit and vegetables and is very involved in its community. Ask Abe Guiterrez from the Savannah Taxi to take you there from San Ignacio. It is also the best guide of the region! However, it is Caracol which remains the most important site of Belize. Located near the Guatemalan border, this imposing city was home to nearly 150,000 inhabitants, more than double the current population of Belize City! But his access is rather difficult. Several rental agencies will even refuse to rent a vehicle because of road conditions and for security reasons. Indeed, several flights have been reported in recent years. It is therefore strongly recommended to visit this site as a group and accompanied by a guide.
Finally, there is the Garifuna community concentrated mainly in the center of the country, from a mixture of escaped slaves and native who have managed to maintain their language, their music and their culture. No wonder this community has been classified as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site. Their celebration, on November 19, is a celebration occasion throughout the country especially in Dangriga and Hopkins. Numerous activities are on the program including a parade that highlights costumes, traditional Jankunu dances and music inspired by African rhythms.
For nature lovers, Belize offers interesting perspectives. Crooked Tree (800 inhab.), located 50 km from Belize City, is arguably the best base camp for observing some 270 species of birds listed in this sanctuary including Jabiku, one of the largest birds in America that can have up to 2.6 m wingspan!
There is also the inevitable Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS)… which is not quite a sanctuary and does not house baboons. Explanation.
CBS is the result of an association of more than 200 villagers in 7 villages who have decided to help a population of endangered apes by establishing a protected area of approximately 20 square miles, with the collaboration of Audubon Belize. The success was such that the population of monkeys increased to the point of no longer being considered a threatened species. Entirely managed by the women of the 7 villages concerned, the CBS offers a very interesting interpretation center as well as the possibility to walk paths in this jungle and to see these famous monkeys up close. Watch out: essential anti-mosquito cream ! To complete this adventure, why not sleep at one of the many villagers who offers lodging? There is no better way to soak up the culture of this friendly Creole community while providing financial support for this project which is the perfect example of the harmony between the villagers and their environment.
And the baboons in all this? No doubt a Belizean whim! In fact, we talk about the Yucatan black howler monkey found almost exclusively in Belize among the 9 species of howler monkeys. It’s also one of the biggest. It must be seen and especially heard … the roar of the male at dawn, approaching 130 decibels is an amazing experience or even terrifying for the uninformed person.
What’s the best time to get there? From mid-December to April, it is the dry period so the peak tourist season so generally higher costs everywhere. The sun is persistent and invites us to dive or laze along the coast. From May to October, the rainy season is not conducive to outdoor activities…My favorite moment? November. The sun is resurfacing, the prices are reasonable and it is still the low tourist season. We can therefore visit the most popular sites in all tranquility. Booking in advance is not necessary which can leave room for a beautiful improvisation if the heart tells us…except for Dangriga and Hopkins during the Garifuna celebrations in mid-November. Suggestion if you want to leave in November: book in advance (at least a month) for the Garifunas parties and let your audacity and your taste for the moment guide you to the rest. The country belongs to you! The Lebeha Beach Cabana in Hopkins is the perfect place to attend the Garifuna celebrations. Cabin rental revenues are used to operate the Lebeha Drumming Center, a Garifuna Percussion School founded by Dorothy Pettersen, the owner of the accommodation.
Belize is a country of contrast that is easily offered to the traveler who wants to live a nice balance between nature, history, nautical activities and idleness. It is a country that is easily tamed for those who want to leave reasonably, but safely beaten track. You better Belize it!
Author: Denis Lyonnais
To see all the accommodations in Belize, visit Vaolo!