Monkey Bob bets on Belize

Posted on Updated on

Such an imp. It was just like Monkey Bob to climb atop  one of the many helpful maps in San Pedro and try to tickle the underbelly of the fish who stands guard over it.
Such an imp. It was just like Monkey Bob to climb atop one of the many helpful maps in San Pedro and try to tickle the underbelly of the fish who stands guard over it.

It is with some sorrow that we announce the departure of Rose’s constant traveling companion, Monkey Bob.

Somewhere, most likely at Orchid Bay in Corozal, northern Belize, Monkey Bob decided to remain behind. Our guess is that, as we packed for the journey to San Ignacio, Monkey Bob remained asleep under the covers.

Always one to seek out the positive, Rose is hoping that Monkey Bob finds his way into the arms of the one little child who currently lives at Orchid Bay year-round. If so, he will make her delightful companion until other children arrive, likely in the High Season, starting in November.

We held out hope that Monkey Bob would hop aboard one of the many colorful and inexpensive buses that crisscross this little nation, tying together Belize City, Corozal, Belmopan, San Ignazio, Spanish Lookout, Placencia, Punta Gorda, Dangriga, the Guatemalan and Mexican border crossings, and all points in between.

But he didn’t.

All the way from San Ignacio to Placencia and, yesterday, from Placencia to Belmopan and Belize City we searched the windows of passing buses in hope that Monkey Bob would be peering out a window, searching for us ...
All the way from San Ignacio to Placencia and, yesterday, from Placencia to Belmopan and Belize City, we searched the windows of passing buses in hope that Monkey Bob would be peering out one of them, searching for us …

Monkey Bob had a talent for amusing Rose when she was bored, distracted or lonely. He would pose almost anywhere in an attempt to make her smile at his antics.

The little monkey.

Monkey Bob’s favorite past-time was photo bombing. He loves the camera and the camera, in return, loves him. Not since Marilyn Monroe has a face been so naturally drawn to the lens, and drawn by the lens.

We carry on, now back in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye for five days. Yes, without Monkey Bob, but still very much in love, even more so, with this spectacularly diverse and welcoming country.

All this means is that Monkey Bob is moving here permanently, months ahead of us.

We will meet again, Monkey Bob. On a beach or in the jungle, somewhere in Belize, we will meet again.

Rose, without Monkey Bob to amuse her, took to isolated activities, like paddleboarding off the beach of Turtle Inn in Placencia. When she discovered she wasn't alone -- that there were many jellyfish out there to keep her company, Rose set a sea surface record paddling for shore.
Rose, without Monkey Bob to amuse her, took to isolated activities, like paddleboarding off the beach of Turtle Inn in Placencia. When she discovered she wasn’t so alone, that there were many jellyfish out there to keep her company, Rose set a sea-surface speed record paddling for shore.
Advertisements

Placencia is still quaint and funky but there’s drama on the horizon

Posted on Updated on

Welcome to Placencia. Now, relax.
Welcome to Placencia. Now, relax.

Yesterday was Rose’s birthday and, Rose being Rose, she started the day with yoga on the end of a pier here in Placencia. Just Rose and the deep blue sea. Nobody else.

Rose has done yoga by herself every morning under the palapa at the end of a pier just north of Turtle Inn. The owners let inn guests use the pier. Nice neighbors!
Rose has done yoga by herself every morning under the palapa at the end of a pier just north of Turtle Inn. The owners let inn guests use the pier. Nice neighbors!

I say Placencia but we’re here at Turtle Inn, full name Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn, which is a few minutes north of the town by bicycle. I wouldn’t be the first person to call the Turtle Inn one of the most incredible experiences ever. And I won’t be the last.

This is a photo by Rose of our cottage near the sea.
This is a photo by Rose of our cottage near the sea.

With its intimate Bali-Indonesian setting … well, we’ve been living a fantasy existence for the past few days. Our two weeks at Anse Chastanet on St. Lucia, where Rose taught yoga, is the only thing that comes remotely close to this experience. But I think we both agree, Turtle Inn is tops.

Everyone we have met assures us that Francis and Eleanor Coppola take great personal pains to be involved in every detail of this resort’s presentation, from the decor, to table settings, to the food that is served to the way the staff dresses and relates to guests.

We have a spacious cottage with thatch roof and a large screened porch, local hardwood floors and a lush view of the ocean through the foliage. At the back of the cottage is a walled courtyard with Zen-like garden and outdoor shower. Throughout the cottage and the grounds are original Balinese furnishings, statuary and art and even the pathways through the sand are paved with Indonesian stone. There are 25 such residences, two swimming pools, two bars and three restaurants and a large reception area — and all are integrated into this carefully cultivated environment.

Placencia still has a funky, sun and sea drenched quirkiness to it, like its signs for various bars and restaurants.
Placencia still has a funky, sun and sea drenched quirkiness to it, like its signs for various bars and restaurants.

Rose and I have spent the past few days talking extensively with the staff and we are greeted by name by many whom we may have met only once. Last night after dinner chef Edwin Alvarado joined us at our table in the Mare restaurant and spent more than an hour sharing wine and great stories, including the time that Coppola, on two weeks’ notice, summoned Edwin to accompany him to Italy on his private jet so that he could work beside the Coppola chefs and learn their craft. Edwin didn’t even have a passport but the mad scramble was worth it, he said.

Edwin is a talented woodcarver in Placencia and also has property for sale, if you are interested.
Edwin is a talented woodcarver in Placencia and also has property for sale, if you are interested.

After yoga and a continental breakfast, Rose and I borrowed a couple of the hotel’s bicycles and pedaled into the town of Placencia. There was a bit of trepidation on my part over what we would find. On the trip down from San Ignacio, along the stunningly beautiful and appropriately named Hummingbird Highway, we experienced lush tropical growth, fruit tree and banana plantations and the occasional small village.

We even detoured to a primitive coastal village called Hopkins.

None of it prepared us for what we encountered as we turned south and headed down the narrow peninsula toward Placencia. I can only describe it as steroidal development gone wild. On both sides of the only paved road that travels the spine of the peninsula there were enormous houses, even more enormous condo projects and even more insanely enormous resort/condo developments. A lot of the lagoon-side development was on land that was clearly filled-in lagoon.

Dodi creates beautiful tapestries on her loom. Each takes 6-8 hours. She did not mention having property in Placencia for sale.
Dodi creates beautiful tapestries on her loom. Each takes 6-8 hours. She did not mention having property in Placencia for sale.

It is the Cancunization of Belize. I think both of us were a bit deflated. This was not what I was expecting. For all the multi-million dollar properties, there was a bland international anonymity to the architecture. Nothing says “Belize.” A lot of it screamed “Miami” and “big money.”

What I had been focusing on was the fact that Placencia until recently was in the Guinness Book of Records for having the narrowest paved Main Street in the world. It is little more than a raised sidewalk fronting the beach-side buildings and it really is used as a street.

Several miles before arriving at Turtle Inn, the land began to calm down. We passed through Seine Bight and Maya Village, a couple of older small fishing villages and noticed that parcels of land were actually filled with lush growth instead of gated mansions.

If you think Rose has her birthday bliss on here -- that is my beer by the way -- you should have seen her after her 90-minute Thai massage at Turtle Inn later in the day.
If you think Rose has her birthday bliss on here — that is my beer by the way — you should have seen her after her 90-minute Thai massage at Turtle Inn later in the day.

Farther down, the municipal airport forces the road to take a sharp U-shaped turn around the eastern end of the landing strip, nearly putting cars on to the beach; it is so tightly wedged into the land.

Very quickly after that you reach Turtle Inn, an oasis, for sure.

So, what did we find in the village of Placencia?

Well, they now have a paved road that runs all the way to the end of the peninsula. And there are some signs of big-testosterone development but mostly it is still small tropical-fruit-colored restaurants and beach bars, coffee shops, markets, cottages, bed & breakfast inns and real estate businesses.

Some views of the village of Placencia from the very end of the Peninsula. It still has loads of charm.
Some views of the village of Placencia from the very end of the Peninsula. It still has loads of charm.

IMG_2161 IMG_2153 IMG_2154If anything, it has the quaint air of the beach bum-and-fishing village that San Pedro on Ambergris Caye might have been 20 years ago.

It only seems like every piece of property has for sale sign on it.

Indeed, I met a quiet-spoken local named Evan, a woodcarver with a head full of Rasta braids. He was sitting beside a humble shack trimmed in yellow, black, red and green — working on a sign for a couple with a new home. He showed me some of his driftwood carvings and they were intricate and beautiful.

“I also have a beachfront lot,” whispered Evan, tossing his head back over his left shoulder toward the sea. “It is for sale if you are interested.”

Jeesh.

Placencia still has its charm but everyone seems braced for the coming boom – either in dread or anticipation. Not only will the development to the north bring spending customers and pressure for growth to the village but so will the cruise ship industry which is positioning itself just off shore.

Norwegian Cruise Line has purchased Harvest Caye, south of Placencia and has plans to develop it into a self-contained Disney-like cruise ship destination. Inevitably some of those thousands of people who drop anchor at the caye will want to load into launch boats for a taste of the authentic Belize in Placencia and Big Creek on the coast. They’ll take river cruises and cave tours and visit Mayan ruins and zipline adventures and, some say, generally overrun the carefully calibrated eco-tourism industry that exists today.

This is serious ecological drama, folks.

As far as living there, we get the feeling that that ship has already left port. The most livable places seem to start in the high $400,000’s and rise rapidly into the millions of dollars. This time of year, Placencia is delightfully quiet and low-key but clearly when high season arrives the beach bars and restaurants will be jammed with the manic, sun-toasted tourist crowd — cramming a whole lot of local rum and good times into their one-week vacation.

Massage in progress: The shot I missed was the glow on Rose's face after 90 minutes under the practiced hands of a masseuse from Thailand.
Massage in progress: The shot I missed was the glow on Rose’s face after 90 minutes under the practiced hands of a masseuse from Thailand.

???????????????????????????????

Not what we want.

San Pedro has that, too, but it also has room to get away from the touristy and beachy craziness. Of course, so does San Ignacio far to the west in the jungle river regions, which is also in full contention for home.

I think I’m going to be a little sad when we leave Turtle Inn tomorrow. This has been such a special treat for both of us – and we really like hanging out in Placencia like it was 1980 all over again. Only it isn’t.

Tomorrow we drive back to Belize International Airport, drop off the Suzuki Jimny that has been sitting silent since we arrived and grab a boat taxi back to San Pedro for five more days. I wonder if we will see San Pedro differently, the second time around?

Especially after this time we have spent in the remote Corozal region and bustling San Ignacio and the funky island-like Placencia.

Seeing San Ignacio through the eyes of its people

Posted on Updated on

The open air marketplace in San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize.
The open air marketplace in San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize.

I learned something about myself today and learned how to begin loving a town that is pretty much foreign to me in almost every respect.

When we rolled into San Ignacio, the other day I was bewildered by how taken Rose was with this western Belizean outpost, close to the Guatemala border.

At the market in San Ignacio.
At the market in San Ignacio.

She started uttering “Beautiful!” shortly after we left the nation’s capital, Belmopan, and kept it up pretty much until we passed through Santa Elena and drove across the one-lane bridge into San Ignacio.

Where she was seeing beauty, I was seeing dust, dirt, decay, traffic and chaos. San Ignacio and its people look nothing like anything from my past. It was all so … so … so … foreign.

Imagine that. We go to Belize to find a place to live and I’m struggling with the fact that it seems foreign to me. Maybe I am the Ugly American after all.  Maybe I’m not the easy-going, adventurous, intrepid traveler that I thought I was.

Rose was San Francisco born but has roots in the Third World. Her father was Philippine and her mother came from Mexico. She’s an all-American girl but well-traveled around the world. She even carries a British passport, as well as her American one. She once lived in Western Africa for two years. She’s traveled in more countries than I can find and name on a map.

Me? I went to England once, as a pampered travel writer. Then there were two weeks on St. Lucia where Rose taught yoga as a guest at an absurdly upscale resort. (Anse Chastanet. Look it up, and drip with envy.) Real easy to be a world traveler when you are traveling first-class on somebody else’s dime.

But being of the world? More challenging when you are not wrapped in the high-walled comfort and exclusivity of a five star resort that has carved out its own self-contained space in a foreign country.

I wasn’t digging San Ignacio and I was liking myself less, for the only reason I could come up with was that I was “uncomfortable.” This wasn’t a place or culture that I was familiar with.

IMG_2066

The New French Bakery in San Ignacio.
The New French Bakery in San Ignacio.

So Friday morning we got up, skipped breakfast at the place we were staying – Ok, a resort … but  slightly threadbare and time worn one! – and walked down the steep hill to downtown San Ignacio. We passed a hotel where the Queen of England has stayed not once, but twice. Could we afford a room there, I wondered?

We grabbed some pastries and coffee at a place called the New French Bakery — which used to be called the Old French Bakery before it recently moved — where we heard numerous accents, none of them French. I think the total cost for three fresh-baked pastries and three cups of coffee was around $5 US. Best coffee I’ve had this whole trip, too.

We strolled across the street to the open-air market where fresh fruits and vegetables were going for a fraction of what we pay in the US. I was told later that on Saturdays you can get almost anything you need at the much expanded market, including jumper cables for your dead car battery …

The market lead to a stroll along the muddy and rain-swollen Macal River and across two one-way, single-lane bridges, one of them Belize’s only suspension bridge.

A funny thing happened as we walked through parks and markets and the town. I started picking up on the rhythms of the street and the smiles and greetings from perfect strangers. I was growing comfortable with San Ignacio. Well, a little.

We dropped in on Ginny Ophof at Rainforest Realty. She and Rose had been keeping up an e-mail conversation since Rose heard her program on Belize Talk Radio. Ginny knew of our plans and was totally onboard with the idea of trying out a place for six months before making a permanent commitment.

Rose and Ginny Ophof prepare to sit down for lunch at the Corner Cafe in San Ignacio.
Rose and Ginny Ophof prepare to sit down for lunch at the Corner Cafe in San Ignacio.

We talked about San Ignacio and expats – Ginny is Dutch but has lived around the world – and a bunch of other topics. She told us about her feisty 86 year-old mother who is an artist and has lived 30 years in San Ignacio, lately in what she called a “tree house.”

Ginny rang up Amalia Quiroz and Lovelia Seguro at the local branch of Atlantic International Bank and got them to hold off on lunch so we could get down there and open a bank account.

Our new bankers! Amalia Quiroz and Lovelia Seguro at the local branch of Atlantic International Bank.
Our new bankers! Amalia Quiroz and Lovelia Seguro at the local branch of Atlantic International Bank.

Amalia walked us through the paperwork and Lovelia explained the finer points of the Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Program (QRP) which provides me with all sorts of financial incentives if I commit to depositing a minimum amount of cash in a Belize bank each year.

When we were done, Ginny picked us up and showed a sampling of what’s available on the local market, even though she knows we won’t be returning until next year and might not even decide to move to San Ignacio. We saw riverfront houses for $600 and $700 a month and a brand new two bedroom house filled with native hardwoods going for $139,000. The builder was onsite and beaming with pride. “I just get better and better with every house,” he said with a broad smile.

Over a delicious lunch at a little street corner kitchenette in a tiny shack that could barely hold the three women cooking inside, Ginny told us stories of expats and family and the ups and downs of being a stranger in a strange land. The lunch, by the way, consisted of two delicious quesadillas and a burrito and three all-natural fresh fruit juice drinks and the bill was less than $12.

She told us about the  La Ruta Maya Canoe Race down the Macal and Belize rivers. that starts in San Ignacio and ends in Belize City on the coast. Thousands of people join in the race and turn it into a four-day celebration. Her mother became a local celebrity after she painted the first map for the race, which many people laminated and still use.

Once she learned that Rose once danced and taught ballet professionally she stated, with mock insistence, that we MUST live in San Ignacio. The town, she said, hasn’t had a ballet teacher for the school kids for two years. Many ex-pats, she said, are coming up with after-school programs to keep kids involved and away from trouble.

Back at her office, she marched me down to a small brightly colored shed — a very bright tropical green — in which a Scottish (I think) fellow named David sometimes sells fish but mostly decimates other ex-pats at cribbage, exchanges gossip  and witty retorts and runs a paperback book exchange. An American couple, Mike and Judi, from New Jersey and North Carolina respectively, were hanging out, playing cribbage.

David was in high spirits because the couple had brought him a large pouch of dark pipe tobacco  to replenish his nearly depleted supply. “In the nick of time,” exclaimed David, holding up the pouch. He was tossing off one-liners like Billy Connolly unleashed.

Mike and Judi had lived in several places in Belize before settling on San Ignacio. It is, in their term, “the most normal city in Belize.”  They’re very happy and offered us the sum total of their experience so far, including impressions of various Belizean towns and their experience shipping furniture and goods through an Alabama firm. Naturally we exchanged phone numbers.

As we were sitting around the cribbage board,  Hector Mar pulled up in his pickup truck for our trip to Xunantunich, which I wrote about yesterday. As we left with hearty handshakes and well-wishes all around, David flashed an impish grin and said, “Remember, when you come back: dark pipe tobacco!” He held up the over-sized pouch from Mike and Judi for emphasis.

I got a funny warm feeling, just knowing that someone expected us back – and in time to refill his cache of tobacco!

Much of the road to Xunantunich is lined with eco-lodges and large houses with stately well-kept lawns. It felt like an upscale Western-ish suburb compared to the urban chaos of San Ignacio.

Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That's our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.
Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That’s our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.

Hector, who had once been vice-mayor of San Ignacio filled much of the drive to and from the Mayan ruins with stories of his family and life. When Hector’s turn to become mayor came up in rotation, he deferred to a “younger and smarter” council colleague “with better ideas.” The older politicians weren’t having it and crushed the young man with the bold ideas and drove him from politics and San Ignacio.

Here's Johnny! He's a Mayan slate carver with a spot along the Mopan River near the ferry to the Xunantunich archaeological site. He does great work. If you go, buy something from Johnny. He's a really nice guy.
Here’s Johnny! He’s a Mayan slate carver with a spot along the Mopan River near the ferry to the Xunantunich archaeological site. He does great work. If you go, buy something from Johnny. He’s a really nice guy.

Hector quit politics but not before working with “the people” to drive out the leader of the older politicians, after first coming to the man who had been a mentor and giving him a chance to resign with dignity. “Because I spoke with him first and acted like a man and told him exactly what I intended to do,” said Hector, “we are friends to this day, even though he had to leave politics.”

Hector left politics for another reason, too. His wife, a Guatemalan who had paddled across the border into San Ignacio at 14 to find work, was dying. Hector made a promise to God to serve him alone if his wife was spared.

On the way back from Xunantunich, we picked up a load of hitch-hiking Catholic high school students and dropped them off in the center of San Ignacio. Seems like the classic posing of high school students anywhere in the world, eh?
On the way back from Xunantunich, we picked up a load of hitch-hiking Catholic high school students and dropped them off in the center of San Ignacio. Seems like the classic posing of high school students anywhere in the world, eh?

She recovered and Hector became a Christian minister. They served their church together until she recently passed away. “God gave her to us for nine more years. How beautiful is that?” said Hector with a slight welling of tears.

He talked a bit about what it feels like to live without her, and I recognized in Hector some of my own older brother, Jim, who suddenly lost his own wife earlier this year.

When we separated, Hector invited us to come stay at his home, become part of his family and enjoy some good local cooking when we return to San Ignacio. And there it was again, “when you return to San Ignacio.”

Friday morning we were planning to leave early for Placencia and make a few stops along the way. One problem: I’d left the lights on in the Suzuki Jimny and over the last two days the battery was completely drained.

That’s when Carlos Panti showed up with jumper cables. Even though he was at our hotel, Cahal Pech Resort, to pick up another couple for a tour of nearby Mayan ruins he took time to charge the battery and make sure the car was running for me.

Carlos told me about recently starting his own tour guide business after working for bigger firms for several years and about his wife who teaches at the local high school and about the great deal he got on his SUV. He gave me some advice on keeping the Jimny running safely after putting it through some rugged roads. And he told me about his father who was caretaker at the Xunantunich archaeological excavation site for 25 years.

He talked about cave tubing, which is one of his tour specialties, and promised us a great experience “when you return to San Ignacio.”

Needless to say, this brief immersion into San Ignacio has left me with a very different impression than the one I started with. It only took getting to know a few people just a little bit to start to liking a lot this city of 9,000 people (20,000 if you count the surrounding “suburbs”).

Like Hector Mar had been saying, “It is through our stories that we learn, that we teach, that we find God. And I have many many stories.”

We may have to return to San Ignacio to learn and record those stories.

But first I’ll need to pick up an extra large pouch of black Cavendish pipe tobacco.

Electrician at work on a future illuminated sign, in downtown San Ignacio, seen just as we were pulling out of town.
Electrician at work on a future illuminated sign, in downtown San Ignacio, seen just as we were pulling out of town.

On top of the (Mayan) world at Xunantunich

Posted on

El Capitillo at the Mayan archeological site Xunantunich, close to the border with Guatemala is the second highest structure in Belize. The name of the site is Mayan for Stone Lady and refers to a ghost of a woman in white sometimes seen high up on El Capitillo.
El Castillo at the Mayan archeological site Xunantunich, close to the border with Guatemala, is the second-highest structure in Belize. Xunantunich is Mayan for Stone Lady and refers to a female ghost in white seen occasionally since the 1800’s  high up on El Casitillo.

It was late in the afternoon on Thursday as we stood atop “El Castillo,” the soaring temple at the heart of the Mayan ruins known as Xunantunich. The Stone Lady. From the rainforest and Mopan River below, an ethereal mist was rising to meet the low gray clouds. A slight drizzle and hint of breeze repelled the dank humid air that hugged the ground, some 130 feet below.

Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That's our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.
Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That’s our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.

We were the only three people amid the ruins – Rose, me and Hector Mar, our new friend from nearby San Ignacio and guide for the afternoon. We savored the stillness from atop the second tallest structure in all of Belize. (The tallest is also a Mayan temple.)

Suddenly, from the west, arose the sound we’ve been talking about and aching to hear since deciding to come to Belize – the howler monkeys.

If you’ve not heard them, these monkeys unleash a full, deep-throated roar that sounds like the wail of fresh souls condemned to hell. I’m not exaggerating. Search for “howler monkey”” on YouTube and feel the chills.

For a good ten minutes this band of howlers, hidden in the rainforest just beyond the western edge of Xunantunich, bellowed back and forth. Were they sending out mating calls or challenging each other or defending their turf? Hard to say. But the sound is haunting, even from high above.

The experience at Xunantunich was capping an absolutely incredible day in which we’d taken a full immersion course in the secret beauty of San Ignacio, found an excellent cup of coffee, checked out some great deals on houses and even opened a bank account at Belize International Bank.

More on that later. For now I’m going to share some images from Xunantunich, which is between San Ignacio and the Guatemala border. You can see the border crossing and the Guatemala frontier from atop El Castillo. The site is 80 miles from Belize City.

The core of the city of Xunantunich was about one square mile and it was serviced by many farms in the area surrounding it. So much of the site has still to be uncovered. “It will never be done in our lifetimes,” said Hector.

IMG_2093Hector never mentioned that the name Xunantunich or Stone Lady was inspired by the ghost of a woman dressed in white who is sometimes seen walking in the upper reaches of El Castillo. She disappears into the stone. The woman was first spotted sometime in the late-1800s. Another guide that I met just this morning grew up in a little village beside the entrance to the ruins. His father was caretaker of Xunantunich for more than 25 years.

Did his father ever see the ghost?

“Yes,” said Carlos Panti gravely,  “many times. The story is true.”

Standing up there, listening to howler monkeys and watching the mist rise from the rainforest, it felt as if a thousand ghosts might rise up at any minute from beneath Xunantunich.

 

Views from atop El Castillo.
The view from atop El Castillo, looking north toward the city plaza.

 

Western side of El Castillo.
Western side of El Castillo.

 

The eastern side of El Castillo.
The eastern side of El Castillo.
Rose and Hector climbing to the top of El Castillo on the southern side.
Rose and Hector climbing to the top of El Castillo on the southern side.
Another view from the top.
Another view from the top.
Rose couldn't wait to climb to the top.
Rose couldn’t wait to climb to the top.
View from the top,looking toward Guatemala.
View from the top,looking toward Guatemala.

Two points of view on San Ignacio

Posted on

Miss Rose takes one last walk along the jungle trail in Orchid Bay.  We also took out a couple of paddleboards on the glass-flat bay, between rain storms. As she looked out toward the mouth of the bay Rose said, "Now I know how they came up with the idea for infinity pools."
Miss Rose takes one last walk along the jungle trail in Orchid Bay. We also took out a couple of paddleboards on the glass-flat bay, between rain storms. As she looked out toward the mouth of the bay Rose said, “Now I know how they came up with the idea for infinity pools.”

We stopped in Belmopon for lunch Wednesday on our journey to San Ignacio.

The Belize government was moved to Belmopan after Hurricane Hattie wiped out Belize City in 1961. There are only about 15,000 people there and from everything I’ve read, nobody wants to be there – full-time, anyway.  Apparently it is pretty quiet for a national capital.

Although, the recent opening of a US embassy there was seen as a shot in the arm — you know, free-spending, American party animals and all that …. Except for the various government buildings and embassies and a sprawling drugstore called Brodie’s,  Belmopon didn’t exactly wow us. Frankly, there is no there there – not yet, anyway.

Rose walks into San Ignacio, a town she immediately fell in love with.
Rose walks into San Ignacio, a town she immediately fell in love with.

Well, we did find a decent enough restaurant for lunch, Corker’s, where Rose had a chicken curry and I had a nice beef stew as the rain came down.

As luck would have it, at the next table was a group from Belize Bird Rescue which is located just outside the city. Having recently begun volunteering with Bird Rescue International in Northern California, I was well aware of its Belize sister and was half-hoping to visit.

Just half-hoping. I wasn’t sure how it would fit in with our agenda.

When Rose sees San Ignacio, these are the things she focuses on -- like the yellow house for $600 a month. She sees beauty and function. And a nice place to live.
When Rose sees San Ignacio, these are the things she focuses on — like the yellow house for $600 a month. She sees beauty and function. And a nice place to live.

IMG_2079 IMG_2068

The co-founder of Belize Bird Rescue Nikki Buxton popped in as we were talking with her crew.  I think her daughter owns Corker’s. And, yes, she said, she’d love to show us around the facility, although it isn’t generally open to the public.

So we made a tentative date to visit on our way to Placentia later this week.

Funny how those things happen.

Like the night before, as we rolled into the restaurant for dinner at Orchid Bay near Corozal in northern Belize. There was a small group dining, chatting away and half-watching an old James Bond movie. At the center was Tara, who operates the restaurant and her husband who is handling a lot of the construction on the development site. They’re from San Luis Obispo, California.

Tara was giving a couple from North Carolina advice on furnishing their newly purchased Orchid Bay casita, identical to the one we were staying in. So we learned a bit about shipping stuff from the US and also some more about Orchid Bay. Which is lovely and remote and won’t be home for us.

Bob's first impression was different. He saw decay, clutter, stray dogs and things like cow foot soup. He may not be as comfortable in a strange land as he first imagined. But those are first impressions. They can change.
Bob’s first impression was different. He saw decay, clutter, stray dogs and things like cow foot soup. He may not be as comfortable in a strange land as he first imagined. But those are first impressions. They can change.

IMG_2080 IMG_2086

One mark against it is the vast acreage of corn and sugarcane that leads up to Orchid Bay. We think that might explain why Rose’s allergies went off the chart there.

With morning came one last trip down the hard scrabble road to civilization. I took it slow and nursed our Suzuki Jimny around the potholes and across the rocks as if it were about to collapse in a million little pieces. There was no avoiding the flooded areas however – wider, deeper and more of them. For the first time there were vehicles on the side of the road that had clearly soaked their electrical systems.

Before leaving I’d written to Cahal Pech resort in San Ignacio about holding a room for us. A couple of people in Orchid Bay had recommended the place. It sits atop the tallest of the seven hills that make up San Ignacio and adjacent to the Mayan archaeological site from which it takes its name.

Somebody at the desk named Lenny wrote back “Don’t panic. It’s the slow season. We have a room for you.”

So we ended up in a hillside cabana overlooking the right lights of San Ignacio and beyond. The resort is a bit frayed at the edges – we were warned of as much – but clean. Its bathroom towels are the thinnest I’ve ever seen.  However, the grounds are beautifully landscaped and the kitchen under chef Jimmy is first rate.

Dodi Guerra, a friendly face at the end of long days, at Cahal Pesch Resort.
Dodi Guerra, a friendly face at the end of long days, at Cahal Pesch Resort.

The place also has a first-rate bartender/restaurateur in Dodi Guerra. Both nights it was Dodi who greeted us with a warm smile, a welcome and a nice cold drink.

After driving most the day, our first night in San Ignacio consisted of a brief walk around the neighborhood, a late dinner, some quiet reading and bed.

Still, Rose is making it pretty clear that San Ignacio was rising quickly to the top of her list. She finds the rolling hills and rivers and mix of jungle and farmland that lead up – and surround — to the city to be most beautiful. I was surprised how quickly she said she could definitely live here.  I, on the other hand, find the heat, dampness and busy city traffic less than appealing. My taste runs toward something oceanfront with sand under my feet.

I think we’re headed for our first disagreement in Belize.

In San Ignacio, Bob and Rose have some talking to do and questions to be answered. And they still love each other madly!
In San Ignacio, Bob and Rose have some talking to do and questions to be answered. And they still love each other madly!

If this were “Househunters International” the questions just before the commercial break would be:

  • Is Bob willing to give up his love of the ocean for an inland dream home with Rose?
  • Is Rose willing to give up her dream home for something smaller and closer to the sea?
  • Can Bob and Rose both compromise and find something that will please them both?

Stay tuned, when we come back to Belize Hunters International ….

Oh, rocky road, take me home ……

Posted on Updated on

(There has been no internet service since we arrived on Sunday. It is up for the moment and a pretty intense storm is headed our way, which means we’ll lose it shortly!  I’ll post pictures as I can but not right now! — Bob)

The thing about this road is when something goes bad, you can't call AAA and have them tow you out of the drink.
The thing about this road is when something goes bad, you can’t call AAA and have them tow you out of the drink.

Unbelievable.

There, at the entrance to the remote village of San Estevan in northern Belize, was a traffic speed bump.

One of the water hazards along the road to Orchid Bay in northern Belize. After all the potholes, this was sort fo a relief -- except we had no idea how deep it was until a truck came along and slogged through it.
One of the water hazards along the road to Orchid Bay in northern Belize. After all the potholes, this was sort of a relief — except we had no idea how deep it was until a truck came along and slogged through it.

The speed bump itself wasn’t unbelievable. The main road through every village and town in Belize has speed bumps, at both ends … and sometimes a few toward the center.

What is amazing is that the road leading into San Estevan is bomb-cratered, potholed, rib-caged and rock-strewn — overrun by streams of unimaginable depths. If you get up to 18 miles an hour for the hour long drive from the main highway you are simply careless. And have no regard for your life or the axles on your vehicle.

We were sort of joking that this is the Belizean AAA, but then this one vulture kept following us own this crazy road .... it got less funny.
We were sort of joking that this is the Belizean AAA, but then this one vulture kept following us own this crazy road …. it got less funny.

It is just that a speed bump in San Estevan, after all that, seems so … so … so redundant. As redundant as the sign at the end of town that warns of road construction for the next nine miles. Ha! Ha! Ha! What a sense of humor these Belizeans have.

I’ve driven this road three times now – past thousands of acres of Mennonite-planted corn and sugar cane — and seem to get more wreckless with each passage. At least I seem to be dropping down into bigger craters. Perhaps the thunderous rain Sunday night changed the topography on me — moved some craters down the road and replaced them with exposed rocks embedded in clay.

Perhaps I just have more confidence in our little clay-encrusted Suzuki Jiminy. It is no Humvee or Range Rover and it rattles like bones from hell by it seems to leap over the worst of it.

Whew, home safe

Our casita at Orchid Bay, until tomorrow when we head off for San Ignacio.
Our casita at Orchid Bay, until tomorrow when we head off for San Ignacio.
View of Orchid Bay resort from the palapa at the end of the pier. Our casita is just past the first row of trees at the end of the pier.
View of Orchid Bay resort from the palapa at the end of the pier. Our casita is just past the first row of trees at the end of the pier.

Rose and I are now at an exotic little wedge of Paradise called Orchid Bay. It is a beautiful and curious looking planned community east of the town of Corozal. Orchid Bay has a majestically long gray pier with a palapa at the end, jutting into an extremely becalmed bay of gray-blue water.

The view from our casita at Orchid Bay.
The view from our casita at Orchid Bay.

There’s an on-site bar & restaurant (Monday is soup and movie night) with cold beer and Costco food, a large bed & breakfast building and perhaps 20 small detached pill-shaped houses with thatched roofs.

The houses are all close to the shore, all of them framed by extremely well-manicured and landscaped tropical growth.

On many acres behind these houses are the as yet unrealized expectations of the developers – scores of home sites, half-built condo buildings and perhaps some shops, once there is a year-round population to justify them. Everything is already laid out with roads, open spaces and stone pathways and on a map the whole thing looks like it was lifted from the most intricate crop circles of a decade ago. (By the way, I now know who did the infamous Suisun Valley crop circles a decade ago last month. It wasn’t aliens….)

We’ve seen a few of these developer dreams-in-suspension in our short stay in Belize. One in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, called The Mansions, was particularly poignant. In serious tropical decay, it had cobbled streets, old gaslamp-style street posts, all utilities and was surrounded by a large white wall, what we’d call a graffiti canvas. Two large houses on the grounds seemed derelict but inhabited.

The car ferry to Copper Bank normally cuts about an hour and a half off the trip to Corozal. It is closed for repairs.
The car ferry to Copper Bank normally cuts about an hour and a half off the trip to Corozal. It is closed for repairs.

Clearly, The Mansions is going nowhere soon. But Orchid Bay seems like it has legs. If you don’t mind the absolute remoteness from civilization. In fact, I think that is their selling point.

Orchid Bay isn’t far from Corozal under normal circumstances. For us, it was a two hour ride, traveling a V-shaped path south to Orange Walk then north to Corozal, more than half over rough roads. There is an east-west road that makes the whole trip in less than 10 miles. It requires passage across two rivers on car barges. Unfortunately the government has taken two or one – it is not clear – of the ferries out of commission for badly needed repairs. No matter. If one is out, the whole route is out.

Checking out Corozal

Trevor started school today, kindergarten in Corozal. He came to Belize eight months ago and speaks four languages. He like to ride his bicycle around the tables in his mother and father's restaurant.
Trevor started school today, kindergarten in Corozal. He came to Belize eight months ago and speaks four languages. He like to ride his bicycle around the tables in his mother and father’s restaurant.

We took the trip to Corozal on Tuesday and, if nothing else, we were able to scratch it off our list of potential places to live. There is an expat community of sorts and it meets on Tuesdays at a restaurant or bar, we were told. That’s about it. We ended up eating lunch at an open-air Chinese restaurant along the shore and it was fresh veggies and good but ordinary.

On the way home, down the Northern Highway, through San Joaquin, San Francisco, Adventura, Louisville, San Narcisco, San Pablo and more the same scene was unfolding – children were being let out from their first day back at school. Kids walked up and down the roadway or stood in clusters according to their brightly colored school uniforms. Catholics, Anglicans, Evangelicals and more all seem to have their own schools and colors.

Getting hustled, Mennonite-style

The two little Mennonite entrepreneurs who hustled me for an extra buck after I bought one of their watermelons. I made them pose for the picture in exchange for the buck.
The two little Mennonite entrepreneurs who hustled me for an extra buck after I bought one of their watermelons. I made them pose for the picture in exchange for the buck.

On the way home we stopped and bought a watermelon from a couple of Mennonite boys. It was about $2.50 which I paid to the older of the two. The younger one stuck out his hand and I looked quizzically at his big brother.

“Give him a dollar,” he said flatly in a Germanic accent.

“Why?” I asked.

The older boy just shrugged with the slightest hint of a smile. The slightest.

OK. Reason enough. I dug out a Belizean dollar (that’s fifty cents US) and handed it to the younger boy.

He simply turned and walked away like it was his due.

Our little Isuzu road warrior, which is not  two-toned.
Our little Suzuki road warrior, which is not two-toned.

That’s OK because on our way up on Sunday, not far from their watermelon stand, I hit a pothole and accidentally splashed a group of Mennonite women sitting under a shade tree beside the road. Just a little. About fifty cents worth of splash.

Tomorrow we head south, past Orange Walk and Belize City then west past the capital of Belmopan and toward San Ignacio, near the border with Guatemala. It’s mostly highway – read that as two-lane, paved road – and that will come as a relief.

Except that, as we head into the jungle, we don’t yet have a place to stay.

Heading for mainland Belize

Posted on

A resident of southern Ambergris Caye.
A resident of southern Ambergris Caye.

It is 9 am and our bags are packed but were not ready to go. San Pedro is a multi-layered, complicated town on a beautiful island and were just beginning to pick up on its true nature and rhythms.

Yes, there are some crabby types in Paradise.
Yes, there are some crabby types in Paradise.

Fortunately we’ll be back for five days at the end of our journey.

We’ve already become friends with the woman who runs the place we’ll be staying at upon our return, because of Rose of course. The two were in a yoga class Saturday morning and hit it off well.

Gaylynn is a former Californian and like a lot of people here, it seems, she does a lot of jobs. She runs the resort, an athletic club don the street and a condo complex next to the athletic club, among other jobs.

And she has the energy to get it all done.

Signposts are all around San Pedro, so getting lost is a challenge. Well, getting lost on an island is a challenge to begin with.
Signposts are all around San Pedro, so getting lost is a challenge. Well, getting lost on an island is a challenge to begin with.

Gaylynn has offered to keep an eye out for the right property for us for our eventual migration to Belize. Though we’ve yet to explore the rest of the country,  San Pedro just might be the place.

We really like it here.

Already Rose is talking with two women (her yoga instructors) who will be opening a wellness center in San Pedro later this year. It is the kind of work Rose does right now — therapeutic and restorative yoga and pilates — and they are interested in incorporating her skills into their group which will also include a chiropractor.

Sounds like a good thing for the aging expat community that is headed this way! Still, nothing firm and much to talk about but it is great to see possibilities opening before you.

We rented a golf cart again yesterday afternoon and went as far south as we could, past some really nice houses and condo complexes. It is pretty remote and the road is a kidney cruncher.

Some beautiful crafts along the beach area. Saw our first acquaintance Jesus Anthony walking the beach with a crazy coconut "party hat" on his head. He'll make and sell anything given a few coconuts.
Some beautiful crafts along the beach area. Saw our first acquaintance Jesus Anthony walking the beach with a crazy coconut “party hat” on his head. He’ll make and sell anything given a few coconuts.

We suspect that a lot of people simply keep a boat for the ride into town — the fastest and smoothest way to get around.

Our taxi arrives in a few minutes and we head off for northern Belize and Corozal for a few days. But, really, we can’t wait to get back to Isla Bonita.

Last night, atop the Blue Tang Inn for sunset.
Last night in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, atop the Blue Tang Inn for sunset.

Finding the rhythm and beauty in San Pedro

Posted on Updated on

San Pedro transportation consists mainly of bicycles, golf carts and taxi  vans.
San Pedro transportation consists mainly of bicycles, golf carts and taxi vans.
The golf carts in particular are everywhere in San Pedro. Sometimes parking can be a challenge....as is staying our of their way as  pedestrian!
The golf carts in particular are everywhere in San Pedro. Sometimes parking can be a challenge….as is staying out of their way as a pedestrian!

On the water there are boats taking people everywhere -- off to other islands, over to the barrier reef for diving and snorkeling, to the mainland and up and down Ambergris Caye to homes and resorts in more remote sections.On the water there are boats taking people everywhere — off to other islands, over to the barrier reef for diving and snorkeling, or fishing, to the mainland, and up and down Ambergris Caye to homes and resorts in more remote sections.

Selling fresh caught fish on Back Street for $5 BZ a pound (That's $2.50 US)
Selling fresh caught fish on Back Street for $5 BZ a pound (That’s $2.50 US)
A majestic old house, a survivor of the faded glory of the British  colonial era, on Back Street.
A majestic old house, a survivor of the faded glory of the British colonial era, on Back Street.
Terrell is a street painter working on Barrier Reef Drive this morning. He'd just finished this painting of the corner directly behind him on which sits the Caribbean Connection Internet Cafe.
Terrell is a street painter working on Barrier Reef Drive this morning. He’d just finished this painting of the corner directly behind him on which sits the Caribbean Connection Internet Cafe.

In Belize, ‘What do you recommend?’ opens doors

Posted on Updated on

Rose and Monkey Bob enjoy some sauvignon blanc from Sonoma, of all places at Wine de Vine
Rose and Monkey Bob enjoy some sauvignon blanc from Sonoma, of all places at Wine de Vine

Can I get a recommendation?

On Ambergris Caye you only have to ask and people come forth with all kinds of great stuff.

The other day over breakfast with English expats John and Rose East, we learned that Friday night’s must-eat dinner is the Mayan buffet at Elvi’s Kitchen. And, holy cow, was that a great recommendation. Later this morning we’ll line up for the soup at Briana’s on Back Street, a Saturday-only experience that lasts only as long as the soup. And according to John and Rose, you get there early or you don’t get any at all.

Part of the buffet table at Elvi's Kitchen.
Part of the buffet table at Elvi’s Kitchen.

Over breakfast yesterday at the Melt Cafe, owners Mark and Michelle tipped us off to what sounds like a pretty good rental — two bedrooms fully furnished on the ocean in one of the nicer condo complexes south of town. We’re going to grab a golf cart or bikes and check it out later this morning, after Rose is done with yoga.

A glimpse of the interior of Elvi's Kitchen
A glimpse of the interior of Elvi’s Kitchen.

Yesterday afternoon we grabbed a light lunch at the Ambergris Brewing Co., which as yet does not brew any beer. But they do offer good sandwiches at a cheap price and they are right next door to out Blue Tang Inn. The owner, Don, stopped to chat after picking up his son at school. When he learned of our intent to move to Belize, possibly San Pedro, he immediately recommended talking to Bob Hamilton, a former Canadian, now Belize citizen, who owns Coral Beach Real Estate.

IMG_1984

Dinner at Elvi's
Dinner at Elvi’s

Another great call. Bob — or Barefoot Bob, as he’s beginning to be called — turns out to be an incredible resource. Even though we just sort of popped into his office yesterday he gave us as much time as we wanted to talk real estate, local gossip, the trials and tribulations to migrating to Belize — he knew it all. And he hardly cared if we were interested in buying property.

He calls it good karma. When we’re ready, he said, he’ll be here. Meanwhile Bob recommended a couple of property management companies that could set us up in a long-term rental while we decide the next big step.

After leaving Barefoot Bob’s — he does work barefoot and in shorts, with a graying ponytail, we headed for the social hour at Wine de Vine, a high end wine, meats and cheese bar. That was another recommendation, from Rose’s yoga instructor. Lots of expats flock to the wine bar on Fridays.

Wine, by the way, is a bit of a luxury here — very expensive by US standards. After a couple of glasses of chardonnay from Chile and sauvignon blanc  from back home in Sonoma we felt it was time to get back into island life and head for the Mayan buffet.

Good citizens: Carlo & Earnie's (to the left) gave up part of its parking lot for a detour around a road construction project.
Good citizens: Carlo & Earnie’s Runway Bar and Grill (to the left) gave up part of its parking lot for a detour around a road construction project.

But first we had to check out another recommendation: Carlo & Earnie’s Runway Bar and Grill, an open air bar right next to the airport landing strip. John East had noted that it was one of three very inexpensive bars worth visiting.

We thought it was pretty decent of Carlo and Earnie to donate a big portion of their parking lot for a detour around the town’s one major street rehabilitation project. Otherwise traffic would have been routed around the far side of the airport, a major inconvenience to all.

And what do you know? We ran into John there, picking up fish and chips for him and Rose, who’d taken a bad fall at their home construction site yesterday. She was home recuperating as he ran errands. (We send our thoughts and well wishes to Rose, a lovely woman, our first friends on the island.)

The Mayan buffet was every bit as good as John and Rose said it would be. Starting with a shrimp bisque, the fare was familiar — rice, chicken, pulled port, tortillas, refried beans and more — all with unique twists to flavoring and preparation. Desserts included a very dark papaya, chocolate bread pudding and strong Mayan coffee.

Elvi’s Kitchen is a cavernous space with a packed sand floor and a huge tree decked in twinkling lights. Great atmosphere.

For the moment we’ve run out of recommendations but I’m pretty confident that as soon as we strike up a conversation with the next local we’ll be off on our way to the next great discovery.

Working in the ‘office’ today – Belize-style

Posted on Updated on

Looking back at the Blue Tang Inn this morning just before our walk down the beach to yoga class for Rose.
Looking back at the Blue Tang Inn this morning just before our walk down the beach to yoga class for Rose.

This morning we walked down the beach to the Exotic Caye Resort so Rose could attend a yoga class. A nice breeze kept the temperature cool and activity on the island seems to be picking up with the weekend.

As luck would have it, there is the Melt Cafe downstairs from the studio with a very strong WiFi signal.

So I ordered up some WiFi, fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee and a bagel.

My "office" this morning, an outside table at the Melt Cafe in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize. A gentle breeze kept me cool and the view kept me distracted -- my kind of office.
My “office” this morning, an outside table at the Melt Cafe in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize. A gentle breeze kept me cool and the view kept me distracted — my kind of office.

Mark and Michelle, both retired from the Air Force, recently took over the Melt and are working hard to make a go of it. Yes, working hard is not a foreign concept in the island.

As Michelle pointed out, there is hard work and there is working hard at something you enjoy. And they clearly enjoy their cafe.

This is their first go at a restaurant — in the military, Mark was in telecom and Michelle was in operations. They are emphasizing fresh and local with a nice dose of warmth and personality.

That cool breeze brought with it some dark clouds from the northeast and with it, some rain. So I moved my office in under the protective palapa covering as the rain came down for about 20 minutes.
That cool breeze brought with it some dark clouds from the northeast and with it, some rain. So I moved my office in under the protective palapa covering as the rain came down for about 20 minutes.

This is a slow time on Ambergris Caye for any business, said Mark. Come October and the high season, everybody starts making a living. “You make your year from October to April,” he said. “After that it is all profit.”

Mark and Michelle took a year off after spending time in Afghanistan as consultants and moved to Las Vegas. When considering their next move they looked at a lot of countries but settled on Belize, specifically Ambergris Caye.

They are avid divers and love fishing and some day in the future there will be a boat of their own. Meanwhile they are working from 6 a.m to around 3 p.m. at the cafe and are thinking of eventually adding dinner to the menu.

They’ve got their two-bedroom oceanfront condo, their business and their dream and they sure seem to be enjoying all of them.