After nearly seven months spent cycling all over Mexico, we were rewarded with a final few hours of blissful riding on the way out. For some crazy reason the wind decided to make a complete U-turn and shift from the grim headwind of the past month to a lovely, welcome tailwind. In no time at all we were at the border with Belize, looking forward to an early end to this Christmas Eve’s ride.
Well, even though the winds were with us for once, the Mexican border guy was not. When we rolled up to the immigration booth all cheerful and proud of ourselves for biking all the way through Mexico, he greeted us with a friendly smile and asked us for 300 pesos each to leave the country. We looked at each other with mouths agape. Thinking ourselves supremely clever planners, we had gotten rid of every single remaining peso before reaching the border. Nowhere had we read about or heard of any fee, and so here we stood penniless, or more accurately pesoless. With no ATM in town and credit cards not a viable payment option, I turned around and rode a very sweaty ten kilometers into the next town – Chetumal – to get the money. That did the trick and, once we delivered this guy his 600 peso Christmas present, we got over the border quite easily.
But oh, what a culture shock was awaiting us on the other side. We had been expecting the transition from Mexico to Belize to be gradual, a slow fade from the country we had grown so fond of to a coastal landscape of new adventures. Well, that’s not what we got. Actually, the shift from Mexico to Belize was rather abrupt. The first thing we noticed was that well-paved roads were immediately a thing of the past, together with almost the entire Latino population. Instead we were met with poorly maintained, asphalt-ish roads (of which there are four – yes, four – in the entire country) and a melting pot of wildly different cultures that seemed to only mildly tolerate each others’ presence. Caribbean Garifuna, Chinese, Mennonite, Rastafarian, Mayan, a smattering of expat Mexicans, and Americans fleeing the long arm of the law – you can find it all in Belize. Imagine a Latino guy (heavily tattooed, Chopper waiting outside) standing alongside a Mennonite guy (no mustache, full beard, denim overalls, horse and buggy waiting outside) haggling with a Chinese vendor (who could care less) in Jamaican-accented English over the price of eggs, and there you’ve got our first impression of this brand new country.
We made our way to Corozal, a nearby town where we had booked two nights for Christmas at the Sea Breeze Hotel. Both our reliably unreliable Lonely Planet guidebook and Trip Advisor raved about the place, mostly due to its supposedly awesome owner. Well, he was a complete asshole. Apparently an alcoholism-induced ulcer had soured his Christmas spirit, and we were left with the only urge we’ve ever had to post a scathing online review. (But hey, it was Christmas! So we decided to be nice.) Regardless, we went to sleep on Christmas Eve full of nervous anticipation, and on Christmas morning we awoke to find that Santa had actually come to fill our stockings. It was a real Christmas miracle complete with apples, oranges, broken yoyos and spinning tops, and the obligatory creepy muscle-man doll with a woman’s head. Thank you Saint Nick!
On the 26th we pushed on south, resolved to put our early impressions behind us and to take Belize on with open minds. Unfortunately though, our early impressions just kept being reinforced. The road infrastructure made riding a bumpy endeavor, and strangely every other house along the road seemed to be for sale. The people we rode past were less than friendly towards us – a big change from what we’d come to expect from our time in Mexico. Despite our eager attempts, rarely did people smile or wave back at us. (Note from Alex: That being said, Mexico has turned us into absurdly friendly people. We say hello to everyone, and wave to nearly every car that passes us on the road. Belize put a stop to our newfound gregariousness pretty quickly.) What we got instead were often hostile glances, and in Alex’s case aggressive catcalls. Belize, what did we do to you to be treated that way?
Anyways, add to that the by now standard headwind we’ve had to deal with since the Yucatan, not much in terms of scenery along the road, a singular choice for our route, and what do you get as a result? Bingo! Not so fun. The first town we hit after Corozal was Orange Walk, which looked big on the map but turned out to be a worn down place without much appeal (unless you like dusty roads and boarded up buildings). Things seemed to look up the day after when we decided to give Crooked Tree a try. The town lay at the end of a muddy, bumpy, pothole-riddled dirt road that stretched on for a seemingly endless five kilometers. Though the town is famous for its birdwatching opportunities, we also discovered its lesser-known specialty: ants, the biting kind. And the birdwatching? Well, in the morning we tried to check out the designated spots supposedly great for birdwatching but couldn’t reach them due to flooded trails.
Feeling a bit discouraged, we slowly made our way out of Crooked Tree and back down the muddy road from hell. We rode that day for more than fifty miles without passing a single hostel, hotel, guesthouse, or any other kind of place to stay at (that includes abandoned buildings, boxing rings, city halls, and other people’s backyards – we’re not picky!). Even the police weren’t helpful: upon asking for any suggestions we were laughed at and told to go Belize City, a place we deliberately bypassed on our way south.
Lucky for us that when night fell and we were frantically riding around in the dark with no bed in sight, we met the friendly self-designated “swampman” Arturo. He and his friends were hotboxing a truck while on a beer run at the local gas station, and he offered us a place to camp in his yard in the tiny nearby village of La Democracia. Yes, you read that right, we camped in Arturo the Swampman’s yard. We were a little desperate at that point. We were slightly heartened by the fact that he had hosted a couple on bikes the year before, and that he was an enthusiastic swamplife conservationist. While we were setting up camp Arturo invited all his friends over for a party at his house and blasted perfectly fitting Motown music well past the time we fell into an exhausted slumber. What more could we ask for?
The next morning we packed up, re-gifted Frederick to Arturo’s young daughter (who had a stroller but no doll and didn’t seem to mind Frederick’s creepiness), and took to the road. Much to our excitement, New Year’s Eve was approaching. We had booked a weeklong stint in the beach town of Hopkins, south of Dangriga. Since the side trip to Hopkins would necessitate backtracking on the way out (and biking the same road twice is something we generally try to avoid) we cut our losses and tried out the Belizean bus system for the short stretch from Belmopan to Dangriga. While the bus ride itself wasn’t terribly exciting, the wheeling and dealing and bike deconstruction that got our two bikes and nine bags into the back of the retired school bus made the day one to remember.
Once we reached Hopkins and settled into the All Seasons Guest House there was only one thing left for us to do: wait for our guests! Yes, not only had we reserved a place in advance but we had also managed to get our two friends Mathis and Jay from the US of A to come visit us for a couple days of fun in the sun. We spent December 30th waiting for their arrival like two kids waiting for Santa to come. When night fell they finally emerged from a cab (driven by a guy with the awesome name of Gatsby), exhausted from a long day of school bus travel but with broad smiles on their faces. Big bear hugs ensued and our reunion soon became cheer- and beer-infused (and wine-infused… and rum-infused). Thus commenced a week of lazing around, ringing in the new year, and simply enjoying the long-awaited company of friends.
But eventually this happy interlude had to come to an end. When the day came that first Jay and then Mathis had to return home, we rode west to leave Belize ourselves, bound for Guatemala (there’s only one way to leave Belize by land, the southern route requires a boat). The road out of town was refreshingly green and hilly – our first hills in months! We relished the change of pace, but before we knew it we were stuck in a downpour and forced to take cover for two days at the Hummingbird Lodge. Luckily the lodge was run by Jaime, our kind host who let us set up our tent on a nice covered balcony and served us delicious food. Our favorites were his famous cocoya fritters, some sort of genius blend of a latke and a taco. Food that good almost made us forget that the rest of Belize – except for Hopkins – had been a little bit of a disappointment.
When the rain finally let up we bid goodbye to Jaime and pushed on up the Hummingbird Highway, past Belmopan (stopping there for fried fish and fryjacks and all things fried) and on to San Ignacio. San Ignacio marked the last bit of civilization before crossing into the vast wilderness of Guatemala’s Peten deparment. And what a change of pace it was. Whereas most of the rest of Belize seemed either forlorn or for sale, San Ignacio was a bustling city full of an energy more reminiscent of Mexico than Belize. We spent our final night there eating the last good Chinese food we were likely to find in awhile. And that was okay by us. So long Belize, you strange little country you!
Note from Alex: Last but not least, a plea to our readers. We need your help. What, oh what, is “da fi wi chikin”? Having traversed all four of Belize’s four roads, as far as we can tell this is the most popular advertisement in the entire country. We’ve got the “chikin” part down, but any thoughts on the meaning of “fi wi” would really help us wrap up our most pressing question about Belize. It’s probably something really obvious. Thank you.