Belmopan

Inside San Ignacio with Preston Wright

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Iconic steps leading to Preston Wright's Kumquat Cottage in San Ignacio.
Iconic steps leading to Preston Wright’s Kumquat Cottage in San Ignacio.

Preston Wright of Minnesota  has owned Kumquat Cottage in San Ignacio for more than a decade. He recently added a seven-acre coconut grove to his holdings. Still working in the States and visiting when he can, Preston longs for the day when he can live in San Ignacio full time.  As our “guest columnist” today, Preston Wright had this to say about San Ignacio in the western Cayo District in a couple of e-mails: Hello, came across your blog about moving to Belize, and San Ignacio in particular.  I have owned land and a house for 10 years there, but currently work for a media company in the US. Read the rest of this entry »

Foot-dragging from village to village through Belize

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Heading north on the Hummingbird Highway, bracing for the rain.
Heading north on the Hummingbird Highway, bracing for the rain.

There’s one phrase we’ve learned to toss out, here in Belize: “We’ll get an early start.”

Each place where we have spent a few days manages to find its own way of undermining our Western “go-go-gotta-go” mindset.

And so we linger.

Heading north on the Hummingbird Highway.
Heading north on the Hummingbird Highway.

For just another view of the beautiful flowers and plantings around Orchid Bay in Corozal; and we travel more slowly down the rutted Chunox and San Estevan roads  that runs beside Progresso Lagoon and leads back to the paved Northern Highway.

In San Ignacio, we pause for one more view of mist rising above the rainforest across the valley; and we drop into the New French Bakery for another delicious cup of coffee and pastries. All the time hoping someone would appear and say, “Wait! You don’t have to go. Stay and join us. Make your new life here.” (Perhaps our car and its stone-dead battery were also trying to tell us something on that morning ….)

Banana plantations and rainforest contribute to the Hummingbird Highway's  reputation as the most beautiful road in Belize.
Banana plantations and rainforest contribute to the Hummingbird Highway’s reputation as the most beautiful road in Belize.

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But they are only imaginary voices. Nobody appears. In our heads, many Belizean voices in so many Belizean places clamor for our attention. Picking a home will not be easy.

At Turtle Bay in Placencia there were more reasons to linger yesterday than I can begin to recount. Certainly the breathtaking beauty of the place, especially after a long night’s rain, keeps us in our seats. The complimentary breakfast overlooking the Caribbean Sea definitely demands our attention for longer than it needs to.

And the people who make Turtle Inn the preternaturally charming oasis that it is — how hard it is to say goodbye to them.

Front office manager Terryann Emmanuel and I must share one last passionate conversation about Belize and conservation. We must make sure that our waiter and friend Victor gives us a call when he visits the Coppola winery in Napa later this month, so that we can share a drink and hear about his first commercial airplane ride.

We search in vain for Ivan, the beach captain, who has also been a terrific guide through the many layers of Belizean culture and who patiently drew a map in the sand to objectively show me how the proposed cruise ship terminal on Harvest Caye would fit, or not fit, into the local ecosystem.

On board the Belize Express water taxi to Caye Cauker and San Pedro. The 4:30 pm boat, second last of the day was jam-packed. The young man to Rose's left is a student who commutes from San Pedro to Belize City by boat every day to attend school.
On board the Belize Express water taxi to Caye Cauker and San Pedro. The 4:30 pm boat, second last of the day was jam-packed. The young man to Rose’s left is a student who commutes from San Pedro to Belize City by boat every day to attend school.

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And of course, how can we leave without saying thank you to our host, the dashing general manager Martin Krediet, who sent Rose an excellent bottle of Coppola’s Diamond Collection Pavilion Chardonnay for her birthday dinner?

Eventually we exhaust all excuses to linger, knowing that we have a long drive to Belize City to drop off the Suzuki Jimny. The rain pours down and we press on through the day. Our only stop is in the Stann Creek Valley for fresh pineapple and grapefruit drinks from the front of the citrus factory  in Pomona, just off the Hummingbird Highway; and for lunch in Belmopan.

The ride up the 53-mile-long Hummingbird Highway is a feast for the eyes. We join it just north of Placencia, in Dangriga, and travel through coastal pine and scrub, through the heart of banana plantations and citrus orchards, and through lush and hilly rainforest before reaching the capital Belmopan.

From there, a sharp right turn on to the east-west George Price Highway puts us 60 miles from Belize City in a flat and nearly straight blur of farmland and scattered forest growth. We take a shortcut through Hattieville, past the sprawling Belize Central Prison, just missing Burrel Boom as we aim for Ladyville and the International Airport.

At the airport, the rental agent tells us it will be a $25 US taxi ride to the water taxi in Belize City – or we can drive the car to their Belize City office (less than five miles away) and pick up a free shuttle to the water taxi.

Done.

Except that as we are driving to Belize City from the airport, the shuttle driver, Giles,  is en route to the airport to drop off a customer.

Giles is worth the short wait. Belize City is a bewildering maze of small and very crowded streets and even more crowded thoroughfares. School is getting out and the streets are jammed with parents picking up their kids at the many public and religion-based schools in the city.

There is a shoulder-to-shoulder festive air to it all. Every student wears a school uniform of prescribed colors and every school has its own colors, so the sidewalks are an undulating rainbow of energetic children with classes behind them and a national holiday ahead.

All the streets, traffic circles and parks are decked out in Belize national flags and red, white and blue triangle flag bunting. (The Belizean red, white and blue are softer, less-aggressive shades than the red, white and blue of the US.) September is Independence Month in Belize, Giles explains, and Sept. 10 celebrates the Battle of St. George’s Caye, in which slaves on the island defeated the Spanish.  There are celebrations all over this young nation this month, and we seem to be missing every single one of them.

Our home in San Pedro for the rest of this week, the Exotic Caye Beach Resort. This is the view from the front porch, looking toward the Caribbean Sea. Rose takes yoga 100 feet from here and I take coffee directly under the yoga studio. Works really well.
Our home in San Pedro for the rest of this week, the Exotic Caye Beach Resort. This is the view from the front porch, looking toward the Caribbean Sea. Rose takes yoga 100 feet from here and I take coffee directly under the yoga studio. Works really well.

At the moment though, we are concerned about missing our 4:30 pm boat but Giles smoothly guides his Ford Explorer down alleyways that seem to materialize only for him, and like a Harry Potter porthole, we pop out right in front of the entrance to Belize Express with five minute to spare before boarding.

The porter tags and stows our backpacks, the clerk takes our $60BZ/$30US for the watertaxi and we join the last remnants of a line of people entering the craft that looks slightly like a Buck Rogers rocketship.

We think we’re the last. People keep boarding after us … and keep boarding … and keep boarding … and then the crew asks all of us seated on the center bench to stand so they can add more baggage into the hold. And then they keep boarding … until every square inch is filled with tropic-warmed flesh. I counted close to 100 people in the belly of the rocket, including one brightly colored and feathered Carnival costume for a lady getting off at Caye Cauker.

What a relief when the taxi finally hits the open water, rises up on hydrofoils and sprints across the blue-green surface to Caye Caulker and its citrus-colored fishing and party town. About half the passengers get off here and only a few board, so the balance of the trip to San Pedro is – dare I say it? – a breeze.

It is dusk when we dock in San Pedro and Rose and I take a leisurely hike down the beach to our new digs – the Exotic Caye Beach Resort. The front desk is already closed but the security guard is expecting us and leads us to our room where we find handwritten greeting from Alfredo and some vouchers for dinner and breakfast. Dinner is fish and chips at a place upstairs from  Crazy Cannuck’s, a legendary San Pedro beach bar.

But we’re as sleepy as off-season San Pedro tonight, so there’ll be no late-night carousing for us. It is home to read and to bed. In the morning Rose has yoga only steps from our front door and I know I have a cup of hot coffee and a WiFi connection waiting for me at Melt’s, the café just below her yoga studio.

In some ways it is beginning to feel like we’re coming home to San Pedro, where our Belizean adventure began, seemingly ages ago.

Monkey Bob bets on Belize

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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.

Oh, rocky road, take me home ……

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(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.