Belize it or not, we managed to avoid a pun in the title of our blog post about Belize. Of course, you’d Belize us now if we told you it was a legal requirement for all blog posts about Belize to contain at least three puns. Un-Beliezably we have already met that requirement in the first paragraph.
You have to Belize me when I tell you I’m stopping with these puns.
We should probably explain how we even ended up in Belize at this point of our trip.
When we returned to Mexico from Cuba, we had been given shiny new tourist cards. This would allow us to stay another 180 days in Mexico—if we so chose. However our 4Runner had missed out on a trip to Cuba and had spent almost 6 months in Mexico. This meant the temporary vehicle import permit was due to expire. When this permit expires, Mexico likes to keep your $300 deposit. We didn’t really like this idea.
We planned to stay a couple of nights in a nice campground in Chetumal, pop down to the customs office on the border with Belize, renew the permit and carry on with the tough job of exploring Mexico.
So there we were, very close to the border. In fact, we were going to be driving right up to it.
“I’m really looking forward to going to Belize.” Said Emma.
“Yeah, me to. Shall we just go there instead.”
That is how we found ourselves in Belize much sooner than we had planned or expected.
Well, luckily, since we don’t really plan at the best of times, this was just like any other day for us, so without further dilly-dallying, we set out to explore Belize.
After a brief overnight in Corazal to collect our thoughts, we made our way to Sarteneja, for no other reason than it was on the coast and we hadn’t spent any quality time on the beach in the Yucatán due to the unrelenting wind.
The road to Sarteneja wasn’t always a road.
There were a few hand-crank ferries to cross.
Ben couldn’t resist having a crack at driving the ferry.
Despite the variable road conditions, Belize is not a very large country. It wasn’t long before we reached our destination.
For those of you who live in our hometown of Christchurch—if you were to imagine that Christchurch was the centre of Belize, the top and bottom of the country would only be as far away as Kaikoura and Waimate respectively. The difference is, it takes a lot longer to drive anywhere on the sandy, potholed roads of Belize than it does on the sealed highways that connect the thriving metropolises of Kaikoura and Waimate.
For those who don’t live in New Zealand, perhaps one day you too will have the pleasure of driving from Kaikoura to Waimate.
Welcome to the small coastal town of Sarteneja. Population: Not many. Conveniently the sign for ‘Backpacker’s Paradise’ directed us to one of our favourite camping spots of the trip so far.
When we arrived, we thought we were seeing double.
One of these silver 4Runners with a rooftop tent and matching tyres clearly doesn’t belong to us.
The better kitted out one with the tent that is actually waterproof turned out to belong to an awesome Canadian couple who clearly had top taste in vehicles.
They weren’t keen to make a swap, even though our car has only been driven on the one road trip in the past year…
There were several reasons we liked this particular campground. There was always good company, both in the form of other travellers and the four-legged kind. There was a mosquito-proof common room and kitchen in a peaceful rural setting with free mangos constantly falling from the trees above (both a blessing and a health and safety hazard).
The pungent aroma of ripe mangos filled the air as we spent the scorching sunny afternoons relaxing in shaded hammocks, gently cooled by a refreshing breeze. This was the perfect spot to unwind after a whirlwind tour through the highlights of the Yucatan.
The mosquito-proof common room, with wooden tables and a reliable power supply was the perfect place to make a start on our new career as ‘digital nomads‘.
What was even better about this spot, was that it was only a short walk from the coast. A lazy stroll from a peaceful, shallow bay, filled with calm, turquoise waters that you normally just see on postcards and adverts for tropical resorts you can’t afford.
There we were, enjoying the beach without any of the exorbitant resort fees. No crowds of tourists, just us, bright turquoise waters, rickety wooden docks, palm trees and clear skies as far as they eye can see.
Do we really need to bother seeing the rest of the country?
Nope. I reckon we should just stay here.
We did, for a few days.
We probably could have stayed longer, but had been told that the snorkelling at the Cayes was unmissable.
We left the Four Wheeled Ticket to Freedom at Backpacker’s Paradise and hopped on the local boat to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.
This particular town had a lot to live up to. After all, it is supposedly the San Pedro that Madonna sings about in Isla Bonita. We hoped it would be as ‘bonita’ as advertised.
When we arrived in San Pedro we were greeted by streets bustling with near-sighted North American retirees dangerously roaring about town in a surprisingly large number of golf carts. Madonna neglected to mention this in her song.
There were some sandy beach-side roads and a few peaceful spots on the island that were perhaps a little more like what we had been expecting after doing our travel research by listening to Isla Bonita a couple of times over some beers.
Conveniently San Pedro was home to a restaurant owned by a couple of Aussie expats, which meant Ben was able to enjoy his first flat white since leaving New Zealand.
However, when a flat white is the highlight of your visit to a town, it probably means you should keep moving, no matter how good the accompanying food is.
Ultimately, our destination was Caye Caulker, rumoured to be a bit quieter, a bit cheaper and to be the home of fewer golf carts. Although probably no flat whites.
There were palm trees, sandy beaches, quiet roads and no shortage of beer, or places to drink it.
The island is so small that you can see one side when you are standing on the other, it only takes 10 minutes to walk the full length of the main street.
Yet there is still a Starbucks.
More or less.
We weren’t there to drink Starbucks though. Snorkelling was on the agenda.
First up was a night snorkel. Because it was completely dark and our waterproof camera struggles in full daylight, we have no photos but you’ll have to trust us when we tell you that it was pretty cool. We didn’t see a lot of critters, because well, it was dark and spotting camouflaged aquatic critters on the reef by torchlight in 1 metre swells is actually rather challenging, but we were pleased to see assorted weird lobsters, cuttlefish, turtles and a very fast octopus.
As for the daytime snorkelling, we headed out for a full day trip to explore Hol Chan marine reserve, and a few other top notch snorkelling spots on the reef.
We swam with huge nurse sharks, giant rays, enormous loggerhead turtles, hilarious scampering spider crabs, angelfish, parrot fish, tarpons, green turtles, corals, anemones and even got to check out a sea horse. Nobody was eaten by anything bigger than them, nobody drowned, we think we can call this a successful outing.
After we had snorkelled all we could snorkel, drunk all the beer we could drink and walked the length of the island a few dozen times, it was time to head back to the mainland.
This savage wee beastie was guarding the docks, but we managed to sneak past and hop on a boat back to Sarteneja.
What we hadn’t seen while we were out and about snorkelling was a manatee.
Luckily, we had an opportunity to correct this a few days later at a manatee rescue facility in Sarteneja. Not quite the same as seeing one in the wild. Also, they don’t really look that great from above the water. Kind of hairy, dirty and weird-looking. But the people at the manatee rescue centre were enthusiastic about the job they were doing for these slow-moving water-sloths. Even though we weren’t allowed to cuddle a manatee or swim with one, it was an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon.
We of course weren’t ready to leave Sarteneja immediately. It took a few more days relaxing in the calm tropical waters and drinking cold Belikin beers on the shore as we watched the sun sink low on the horizon before we were ready to hit the road.
Perhaps Madonna would have done better to sing about Sarteneja, but I guess it has the wrong number of syllables. It does however have the appropriate number of retirees in golf carts: 0.