“Don’t go there! It’s very dangerous!”
That is what we have been told before entering Belize. Some down south neighbor danger syndrome? We have been told the same by the Americans before entering Mexico, and it was not that bad at all. We had a great time there, in fact Mexico was one of our favorite countries in our Panamerican adventure. Now the Mexicans from Chetumal were warning us about Belize… how would it be, what would we face in Belize? We hoped we would enjoy as much as we enjoyed Mexico! All the warnings made us more curious and excited about our next adventure.
When entering a new country our strategy to overcome our fears of the unknown was pure and simple: preparation, researching and breaking down the risks. Study the route, the culture, set your points of interest, the dos and don’ts, research about fellow overlanders experiences on iOverlander and forums and discus ahead what to do if you get yourself into trouble. Besides that, we had a few days maintenance in Chetumal and packed up with provisions. We were good to go to the border.
We chose our route driving through the Crooked Tree Bird Sanctuary hoping to be lucky to get some birdwatch going. We would then drive down south on the picturesque Hummingbird Highway all the way to Placencia Beach. From there we would experience the virgin Caribbean islands and get some diving and snorkeling going before trying venturing for some more Maya pyramids and caves and waterfalls expeditions around San Ignacio, near the border with Guatemala.
Crossing the border with Belize
Crossing the border with Belize was easy as expected. We liked the vibe we felt immediately as we entered the country. It reminded us of Africa. People from customs were friendly and helpful, seemed more opened and extrovert than in Mexico. They speak in English and have more African descendants in the mix.
Since we had a “giraffe” printed on our truck one of the custom officers asked us if we had been in Africa. The man’s eyes were smiling hearing that we had been there, and that we were familiar with the continent.
As we knew that the food in Belize is more expensive than in Mexico we stocked up our truck with serious supplies before crossing the border. We were good for at least 10 days. This is how much we planned to spend in Belize. Luckily the border officer was not interested in our salami and didn’t check thoroughly all the food what we brought in our storage area, just hand picking a couple of vegetables from our fridge. We paid 15$ for road fees and another 15$ for the insurance and we were in. The paperwork was operated fast and with no issues. Pfew! We got away in a trouble-free border crossing.
We were welcomed in Belize and that felt relieving!
I must confess that the first hundred kilometers from the border towards our first stop, Crooked Tree Bird Sanctuary were worrisome. There were few buildings around, mostly of wood and in poor shape. The single lane road with the usual speed bumps and potholes was in no better condition than in Mexico, it was mostly empty, and from time to time we would come across with overloaded trucks topped with sugarcane up to the derricks. The whole place looked almost abandoned. It gave us the uncomfortable feeling of entering a deserted and forgotten place.
Crooked Tree Bird Sanctuary
We were glad when we arrived in Crooked Tree Bird Sanctuary campground and found an Iveco Daily 4x4 just like ours parked. They were a German couple with a baby on board adventuring in Belize. They seemed very relaxed with the child playing around. It was a sense of familiarity that came just in time. It was time for us to ease down.
The Sanctuary is recognized as Wetland of International importance where one can spot many migrant birds looking for refuge in those lagoons.
We arrived tired after two border crossings and a long road trip and needed some rest. We took it easy that afternoon, just going for a short walk to spot some birds and watched the sunset coming down the lake in front of us.
We figured we did not want to stay too long in Crooked Tree Bird Sanctuary. For some reason the place was not very inspiring, not a lot of activities to do besides bird watching which should have been fun. However, we realized it was not that much fun as we expected, did not see anything we haven’t seen before. So, we moved on towards the coastal part of the country in the south. We were aiming to reach Placencia beach resort known for its palm-lined beaches, dive sites on the Coral Reef Barrier and very laid-back Garifuna atmosphere of the village.
We took the picturesque and amazingly beautiful Hummingbird Highway to get to Placencia. We were very surprised to discover a scenic road through pure jungle. From flat lands with sugar cane plantations in the north of Belize we were in the open jungle enjoying a gorgeous sightseeing of untouched nature.
From time to time we observed farms of orange and banana trees.
The street vendors were offering 5 to 10 litters bottles of fresh orange juice from the farms. Pity we didn’t stop to indulge from the local treats, our mouths were watering.
In less than 250km we reached the Placencia Peninsula, a spit of land surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. Crossing the spit of land and observing water on our left side and water on the right side was just stunning.
We thought we would find an alternative tourism in Placencia, a hippy place with shacks and “palapas” by the beach. Well, in Placencia we found a newly developed resort mostly by Canadians and Americans. There were some gorgeous villas and estates. It seemed much nicer than we expected, decent and most importantly it felt safe.
People were friendly, waving at us all the time, smiling, interacting. I must say a huge difference in comparison with Mexico. I felt that daring, vibrant, alive, happy atmosphere that I found in Africa and which we loved.
To our luck we discovered the “Mariposa” Resort that hosted overlanders for free at their parking lot if we consumed at least one meal per day in their restaurant. When we entered the estate, I couldn’t really believe it: an extremely well-organized and clean property with pool and a beautiful beach front. “Mariposa” resort was managed by a couple of Canadians who bought the property upon their retirement to develop an ecofriendly tourism destination. Now they are living the dream receiving guest from all over the world. The husband is the chef enjoying his time cooking for his guests, while the wife is administrating the estate and a greenhouse where she is trying to produce organic fruits and vegetables. Seems like a dream retirement plan to me!
I remember we spent the whole day just chilling in this wonderful relaxing spot. We woke up, ate and felt asleep again in the hammocks by the beach. It felt just like in the old childhood days when worries were not an issue 🙂
Curious of what we would discover in Placencia village we decided to take a bike ride. It was a pleasant stroll looking at this Caribbean landscape. We found an array of cosy boutique restaurants, bars, lots of diving shops, a welcoming public beach, a charming marina and a very laid-back friendly atmosphere. We heard diving is amazing in Placencia so we were on a mission to find a diving center. Said and done! The next morning, we were booked for a unique experience: Belize Reef Barrier here we come!
We woke up at 6am that morning to see all those colorful fish. We were welcomed by a peaceful and serene sunrise and a friendly crew of divers next to the marina.
We took a boat trip to one of the hundreds of cayes Belize is blessed with. A caye is a small, law-elevation, sandy island on a surface of a coral reef. Our caye was literally about 500 square meters piece of sandy land in the open sea, one hour far from the mainland. There were couple of palm trees, a barbecue, 5-6 tablets and a toilet. That was it. And it was magic! I remember approaching the caye by boat, seeing just a hand of sand in the open water. It looked so romantic and beautiful, image I have seen only in postcards. Our excitement was at high levels.
Snorkeling around the “caye” was even more exciting, probably our best snorkeling, respectively diving experience we ever had. We had the chance to see a multitude of colorful fish, baracudas, huge yellow turtles, sting rays, eagle rays, lobsters, corals from yellow to violet colors and icing on the cake we finally met the sharks. Well, not the big white shark, I would never enter the water with those ones, but the nurse sharks which - we were told - are innocent.
Even knowing that they are harmless I was still overwhelmed by the encounter. I remember they were swimming close to the sea bottom, then upper, then through us. They didn’t seem to be bothered, they seemed almost domesticated. I reckoned the diving guides gave them food, so they knew it was feast time. They were swimming comfortable amongst us looking for food, an opportunity for us to see them closer.
Although we were snorkeling with almost domesticated animals, it still felt strange and in the same time magical to be in the same environment with the nurse sharks, the Orlando turtles and the eagle rays. I stayed there for a while having the chance to see very close these nature beauties, but very soon I wanted to be out of there as they were swimming very daring between us hunting for their food. I was thinking … "what if they confuse me with food? :)) … I don’t want to be bitten by the turtle or sting ray :)” and honestly the proximity to the sharks was not comfortable either :-)))
JP soon came from his scuba diving trip with the other group saying he just had the most amazing diving experience. “It is a jungle down there, it is tremendous!” he said in pure excitement after having touched a shark.
I remember we arrived back to our campground exhausted and ready to take a nap, but the level of excitement of what we experienced was so high that we couldn’t literally sleep from the adrenaline.
San Ignacio and its neighborhoods
After we spend enough days of relaxation in Placencia it was about time we move on towards the western part of the country which would offer us completely different attractions from the coastal side of Belize. We were about to visit Maya ruins, mountains, caves and waterfalls, diving into the wild jungle near San Ignacio which is known to be a cultural hub of Belize.
The road to San Ignacio was easy and pleasant as we returned on Hummingbird Highway. We were lucky to find a nice campground in the heart of San Ignacio. It had a big plain grassy area and most of the utilities we needed. The owners were also very friendly. Nearby we could buy fruits and vegetables and there was this bakery where we could get some sour dough bread. Pretty much all we needed, we couldn’t had wished for more.
We took a very pleasant walk in town the next day and the atmosphere seemed safe to us, alive, friendly, lots of nice restaurants, bakeries and little shops. We reckoned a mix of cultures from indigenous Maya descendants to Mestizo, Garifuna, Indians, Lebanese, Turks, Chinese, Amish and other Americans and Europeans. It seemed to be a boiling pot of different nationalities and ethnicities. And that was beautiful!
We could not avoid stopping in one of the local restaurants to have a shrimp coconut milk soup with lots of vegetables, while JP indulged into the traditional rice and beans dish with chicken.
The following day was reserved to discover Caracol Maya ruins, caves and river cascades which were located just 80km from San Ignacio in the heart of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. We heard we might see jaguars, anacondas, toucans and scarlet macaws in this tropical forest, so of course we wanted to experience the thrill of such encounters.
Although it was only 80km away the drive was long due to the off-road conditions. After more than 3 hours we made it to the Maya ruins. They looked like the ones we’ve visited in Palenque, Mexico as they were positioned inside the jungle. However, the jungle of Belize was much wilder and untouched compared with Palenque. Definitely a much less touristic location and it made the experience more genuine.
We went up and down the temples and we observed that the ruins were not just plain pyramids, they had pyramids within the main pyramid. At each level of a pyramid one could enter and discover what was inside. We even found a courtyard and two graves at the last level of the biggest pyramid. The constructions were huge and seemed like a labyrinth, always something hidden to unveil.
We could hear plenty of birds singing, howler monkeys making their disturbing sounds :)) no jaguars, anacondas, toucans or scarlet macaw parrots this time 🙂 but gorgeous vegetation including the precious “red gold”, the mahogany tree. Tremendous experience we thought.
Realistically it was almost impossible to see those wild animals unless we would stay overnight in one of the jungle’s campgrounds and wake up very early to catch the wild cats wondering around. To be honest it felt a little scary to me. I preferred the sour dough pastries next door to our campground :)))
After we were done visiting ruins and pyramids and had a much-deserved lunch we returned to San Ignacio. On our way back we stopped to Rio Frio Caves and Rio on Pools, one of the two main nature attractions in Pine Ridge Forest Reserve.
We had to take an off-road route of 2.5km from the main off-road road to see Rio Frio Cave. At some point it was getting really bumpy and full of potholes whilst we were digging in the humid jungle. We started to question if this whole reroute was worth it. Was this another touristic trap? We persisted and eventually we reached Rio Frio Caves. WOW! We didn’t expect to see that! It was a river crossing through a huge tall cave. For the first time we had the chance to walk in a vast cave with a river crossing it. All the road challenges to get there were forgotten, the place really deserved all our efforts.
Encouraged by what we had encountered we continued towards Rio on Pools attraction. This one became one of JP’s favorite! A virgin scenery where the river crossing the mountains was forming little falls and pools, perfect spots for swimming. JP didn’t wait any second and threw himself into the big river, into the falls and played for a while into the energizing water just like a bear (his totem :). He simply loved it while I was happy to watch him having such a great time.
We had a full day of sightseeing and experienced incredible nature. Satisfied with our adventure we made it safe back to our campground in San Ignacio and ended the day with a well-deserved dinner.
The next day I recall we woke up with muscle fever and felt very tired. We decided to take a full day just to relax and enjoy the sour dough bread from the bakery next door before crossing the border with Guatemala. A new experience was waiting ahead of us! Guatemala!
Belize was a real beautiful surprise. Whilst for the initial hundred kilometers as we crossed the border it felt a bit worrisome, it turned out to be an outstanding and genuine experience. We had a great time. It is definitely a destination we will return to, specially to dive in the Belize Barrier Reef and to get lost in some of the of virgin “cayes” the Caribbean coastline has to offer. Thank you Belize, we will be back!