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belize

Belize hasn’t entered my plans at all until now and the only thing I really know about the place is that it is nominally an English-speaking country and that Belize City has something of a nasty reputation. Casting my eyes over my map, I see about three major roads marked in the whole country and virtually no secondary roads. It’s not a large place but I assume, nonetheless, there must be some sort of human habitation and activity off the main highways so I start to question people and, as soon as a I can, I try to get a look at a more detailed map.

When I finally do get my hands on a map I find that, while there are indeed a few tracks wandering off the main thoroughfares, few of them link up. However, I nonetheless manage to spy out a route that might work – the only issue being a river around the halfway mark that is going to need crossing somehow. I am discussing these route options with an ex-pat American who is overall quite doubtful about my plan but gives me what turns out to be a lucky camping tip; down the highway towards the Belize Zoo are a couple of bar/restaurants that he feels sure will let me camp out the back.

The first of these establishments, which I approach at dusk, gives me a rapid brush off but the second, run by a Hungarian whose overarching philosophy is stated as ‘anyone can do whatever they want here’, is much more welcoming. So, after my tent is set up at the back of the Hungarian’s house, I find myself downing a couple of beers at the bar with an eclectic Caribbean crowd during an extended happy hour chatting to an US archeology PhD student doing some research at a local site. One of the men, clearly a regular, gets up to leave as the happy hour finally draws to a close and the girl I am talking to suggests that I ask him for advice about the roads.

After I explain my potential route to the man, he abandons his plans to leave the bar and spends the next hour making phone calls, trying to track down someone on the farm that the road passes through who can help me negotiate the problematic river crossing. After failing to get a definitive answer, Bruce gives me directions to his house and tells me to drop by in the morning, any time after 6AM, to follow up on the matter.

So the next day, I arrive at Bruce’s house at about 6.30 and, after he has fried me some eggs and made the coffee, the phone rings and the manager of Big Falls farm is on the line promising that someone will be waiting for me at the river to ferry me to the other side. You’ve got to love a small country!

Escaping the highway is not so easy in Belize. Most roads that aren't the three main highways of Belize are private roads. This one runs through a cattle ranch called Big Falls. A chance encounter in a bar gave me the contact I needed to negoitate the river at the end of the road and the right name to drop to the people who accousted me en route to tell me that I was on private land.

Three men are waiting at the river with a canoe help me to negotiate the crossing.

Once across the river, I am faced with having to navigate a confusing tangle of tracks aided only by a few place names: Rancho Dolares, Hill Bank, Indian Church, Lamanai. I am not helped by the fact that mostly I don’t actually know what any of these names is referring to – a village, a farm, a reserve, an archeological site… I have no idea.

The people I make enquiries to are clearly dismayed by the urge to travel. “That’s not in this area!,” they exclaim, while making vague serpentine gestures with their hands to describe the way. One woman tells me that I can’t go to Hillbank because it is a long way and there is nothing there but wild pigs but a group of old men sitting under a shady tree at an intersection tell me that Hillbank is a ‘big tourist place’ where, obviously, as an apparent gringa, I will be welcomed. However, neither of these snippets of information contains very much truth.

Hillbank, it transpires, is a privately owned, protected wildness area that borders the Rio Azul area in Guatemala – it is, in fact, where I would have ended up if I had managed to cross the border at Tres Banderas. Three rangers are hanging out at their post at the barrier which controls access to the area and they ask me if I am expected. I want to give them the right answer so I hedge a little.

“Should I be?”

“Well, yes…”

After I admit that I am not expected, the guy who appears to be in charge radios to some higher authority and then opens the gate. Once I am inside he is much more friendly: he sends me to the water tank to replenish my drinking water, gives me a handful of tiny yellow mangos and then invites me onto the verandah to rest a while. When he see me get out some fairly meagre rations from my food pannier he asks me if I would like to try some of the ranger’s lunch-time fare of chicken, beans and rice.

Three park rangers control access to Hillbank, a protected wilderness area that borders the Rio Azul protected area in Guatemala. I am close to Tres Banderas.

They introduce me to one of three endangered yellow-headed parrots rescued from poachers and now undergoing rehabilitation so that it can return to the wild.

And feed me a fine lunch of rice, beans and chicken.

Eventually, well-fed and rested, I set off again across the savannah, a hot sandy place under the mid-afternoon sun, and struggle towards Hillbank, still unsure exactly what I am going to find there but hoping that it will prove to be a place where I can camp and possibly eat.

Riding on the through the savannah - a hot and sandy business.

I have left the savannah behind me and have re-entered the jungle when I see a couple walking towards me dressed in khaki jungle gear, rubber boots and sensible hats. I guess they think I look kind of strange, too, on my bike. I stop and we exchange particulars – they are ornithologists stationed at Hillbank conducting a comparative study on different swallow species. The objects of their current interest are mangrove swallows.

I ask them if I can camp at Hillbank and they look unsure.

“Well, you can ask.”

They don’t sound very convinced.

I ride off and it is not long before I arrive at a clearing dotted with wooden buildings overlooking a lagoon and, after some dicey negotiation, receive rather grudging permission to stay a night.

Nat and Katy, the ornithologists, return from their walk and, with greater enthusiasm than the management evinced, invite me to the mess hall for an illicit dinner and, more excitingly, to accompany them the next day on their rounds of the swallow’s nests.

The lagoon at Hillbank... with the nesting boxes.

Nat and Katy checking out their babies.

Six day old mangrove swallow chicks.

The chicks are exhaustively measured...

...and even have their nails painted.

Then we stake out the box, having wired it to trap papa swallow...

...a wily bird...

...who nonetheless eventually falls victim to Nat and Katy's evil designs and has his blood taken...

...and vital statistics recorded.

A dragonfly freshly emerged from its shell - still damp and wrinkled, drying in the sun..

It is late in the season and so most of the birds have already flown the nest and the days work is over quite quickly. In the afternoon, after Nat has managed to secure me another night’s camping at Hillbank, we go for a walk which ends in a refreshing snorkelling adventure in a small mangrove lined stream.

Afternoon sees the three of us relaxing on the verandah... (Photo: Nat)

...before a walk which culminates in a swim in a crystal clear mangrove lined creek.

Cool water is heaven.

The next morning, early, before I completely wear out my dubious welcome with the authorities at Hillbank, I set off again.

Packed up and ready to leave at dawn.

Deep black water.

One of my reluctant hosts at Hillbank has drawn me a very detailed and beautiful map to speed me on my way to the border that sadly proves, at the very first intersection, to be utterly useless. I pass through Mennonite communities and ask for directions where I can always receiving elaborate instructions with a myriad of very specific references to local landmarks, accompanied by a fluid wave of a hand that indicates any number of potential twists and turns. All in all, it combines to form a overwhelming fog of hazy information and a number of times I have to resort to my compass to make a reasonably informed decision about the way.

Nat and Katy have informed me that I need $37.50 Belizian dollars to leave the country and this leaves me with exactly $2 Belizian dollars at my disposal unless I happen to find an ATM before I reach the border – which is pretty unlikely – so, with my almost empty food pannier, it’s looking like a hungry day. Things look even bleaker when I discover that I can’t cross the border at the customs post at Blue Creek and not only have I ridden 15 kilometres out of my way but I have to ride an extra sixty kilometres through Orange Walk and up to Santa Elena.

However, I am saved from starvation by a lovely girl called Ingrid in San Felipe. I have been told she sells tamales and when this turns out to be misinformation I clearly look very crestfallen. She tells me to wait, runs to the kitchen, and then returns asking if I would like fried chicken and beans.

I can’t refuse this offer even though it’s probably going to break my budget and leave me in trouble at the border.

She invites me into her house and sits me at the kitchen table where she serves me a generous helping of chicken and frijoles accompanied by a stack of tortillas and a big glass of watermelon juice. After I have polished off the first helping she refills the bowl with beans and then, when I have finished them, she opens a packet of sweet biscuits – an item she surely keeps for special occasions – and gives me a pile.

We chat about our lives as she continues with her domestic tasks, cutting vegetables at a bench with her 8 month old baby daughter scooting around her feet on a walker with wheels. Eventually I get up to leave, asking how much for the meal, but she waves any suggestion of payment aside dismissively and insists that I must come back to visit again the next time I pass through Belize.

Unless I come across an ATM, I have two Belizian dollars to see me to the border so abundant mangoes by the side of the road are very welcome.

The Belizians are not much into signage, it seems. This is one of about four road signs I saw passing through the country. I particularly like its sense of perspective.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Jonathan | June 28, 2010 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing all of this.

  2. julie | July 10, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m having a big catch up with your news as I’ve been away to Canberra for Ken’s funeral and since then doing paper work for funding submisssions which take a huge amount of effort and time. As always I love reading your blogs – they make wonderful reading – so descriptive and witty – I love your wry humour. xxx

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