San Ignacio

We’ve got a lot of talking to do

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Here's a last glimpse of part of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye as we took the air taxi back to the mainland of Belize for our flight home.
Here’s a last glimpse of part of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye as we took the air taxi back to the mainland of Belize for our flight home.

It is Sunday morning and I hear the sound of splashing water outside as I slowly grope toward consciousness. It is a sound I’ve heard a lot these past few weeks, the warm night rains falling on broad leafed palms and tropical growth, trickling off tin and reed-covered palapa roofs all over Belize.

But, wait. It’s Sunday morning.

And this isn’t Belize.

It’s … it’s California. We got home at 1 a.m. this morning.

I remember now.

Oh, damn.

It’s a broken sprinkler head, outside our bedroom window.

After dinner on Thursday evening, as we walked home along the beach, we encountered a fairly large crowd outside a bar. They were waiting for the beginning of the Thursday night weekly chicken drop. Yes, you know the rules, the holder of the first number on which a chicken poops wins a cash prize. They say that during high season, the crowd is so thick you can't get close to this "drop" site." Can you spot Rose in the crowd?
After dinner on Thursday evening, as we walked home along the beach, we encountered a fairly large crowd outside a bar. They were waiting for the beginning of the Thursday night weekly chicken drop. Yes, you know the rules, the holder of the first number on which a chicken poops wins a cash prize. They say that during high season, the crowd is so thick you can’t get close to this “drop” site.” Can you spot Rose in the crowd?

I fall back on my pillow and close my eyes and try as hard as I might to wish my body back to a nice tropical storm in San Ignacio, or Placencia or San Pedro and for an extra 10 minutes or so, as the lawn sprinklers finish their cycle, I am walking the white sand beach with my face up to the rain, a steady wind blowing on shore,  and the distant crash of waves against the  barrier reef fills me up with joy.

You said it, Madonna:

Last night I dreamt of San Pedro
Just like I’d never gone, I knew the song
A young girl with eyes like the desert
It all seems like yesterday, not far away

But right now, there’s a broken sprinkler head that is calling louder than “La Isla Bonita.”

Rose and I sat down at Peete’s Coffee with a couple of tall black ones and a legal pad this morning and began to draw up a list of everything we must do in order to move by February to Isla Bonita — or maybe inland to San Ignacio; no doors are closed just yet.

It is a long and slightly daunting list.  (Wanna buy some Glasshof sculptures? A piano? A house? Some furniture?  A Mercedes?)

But it will get done, item by item, day by day. It will get done.

This is Caye Caulker, just south of Ambergris Caye. It is about a 20 minute water taxi ride between the two islands. The whole population is nestled at the back end of the "C" portion of the island. A very small and very laid-back bunch of people.
This is Caye Caulker, just south of Ambergris Caye. It is about a 20 minute water taxi ride between the two islands. The whole population is nestled at the back end of the “C” portion of the island. A very small and very laid-back bunch of people.

The last few days in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye are a too fast-forward blur. We went snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. Rose went off to yoga and a massage while I took the water taxi over to Caye Caulker for a few hours. Our friends John and Rose East picked us up in their golf cart and gave us a tour of the gorgeous house they are building north of San Pedro.

Then there was a dinner out, at Fido’s on the beach in downtown San Pedro. A waiter called Squeaky greeted us as we walked in, “Bob and Rose! Chargers and 49ers, right?”

Yeah, I was stunned. Squeaky had waited on us for a late lunch a few days earlier and we’d had a brief, casual, banter about California and our respective football teams but for him to remember us several days later?

This is one of the water taxis on a regular route between San Pedro, Caye Caulker and Belize City.
This is one of the water taxis on a regular route between San Pedro, Caye Caulker and Belize City.

Pretty wild, but honestly, we’ve come to appreciate the uncommon friendliness of the people we’ve met. A day or two after we went snorkeling the head of maintenance and a maid at the Exotic Caye Beach Resort, where we were staying, came up to me to ask about our adventure. Was the water choppy? Were the currents strong? What were you able to see? Did you have a good time?

They really wanted to know and dropped everything to talk abut the snorkeling.

When we first came here, I kept telling myself I’m not buying the tourism line about how caring and friendly the Belizeans are. But you know what? It is true. Not everybody you meet has  a smile and warm greeting but enough do to call it the norm.

Caye Caulker from the water taxi dock.
Caye Caulker from the water taxi dock.

Walking home from dinner along the beach late one evening,so many people who passed us said simply, “Good night.” Like the whole village was seeing us off to bed.

Contrast that with the table of guys my age who sat near us in Peet’s this morning and sounded like a bunch of Facebook flamethrowers — abrupt, insulting, aggressive, nasty, condescending, rude — and I think they were friends.

Well, for better or worse, we’re home. And we really are glad to be back. We missed friends, family and one funeral of a dear friend.

Have we found a place to live in Belize? Yes and no. Rose and I have narrowed it down to San Ignacio, near the western border with Guatemala and San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Both hold very different attractions to us.

Like I said, we’ve got a lot of talking to do.

Some more photos from Caye Caulker:

The view long the main street of Caye Caulker. It seemed busier than these pictures show. The modes of transportation along the packed-sand boulevard are bicycle , golf cart and walking -- mostly walking.
The view along the main street of Caye Caulker. It seemed busier than these pictures show. The modes of transportation along the packed-sand boulevard are bicycle , golf cart and walking — mostly walking.

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More scenes from the main street, Caye Caulker.
More scenes from the main street, Caye Caulker.

 

This is Andy. He sits in an alley next to La Cubana restaurant and slowly turns the pig on the spit. He says it takes 4-5 hours of slow turning to cook the pig just right.
This is Andy. He sits in an alley next to La Cubana restaurant and slowly turns the pig on the spit. He says it takes 4-5 hours of slow turning to cook the pig just right.

At La Cubana, where Andy's roasting pig will end up, here is the evening buffet menu. Notice the all-you-can-eat price is $25BZ, or $12.50 in U.S. dollars. The same meal for lunch is $10US. Yum.
At La Cubana, where Andy’s roasting pig will end up, here is the evening buffet menu. Notice the all-you-can-eat price is $25BZ, or $12.50 in U.S. dollars. The same meal for lunch is $10US. Yum.

 
 

Globe-trotting cyclist’s take on San Pedro: Not cheap

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Frank E. Briscoe, the "old guy on a bicycle," told us a bit about his bicycling adventures before dashing off to catch the air taxi to Belize City.
Frank E. Briscoe, the “old guy on a bicycle,” told us a bit about his bicycling adventures before dashing off to catch the air taxi to Belize City.

Rose and I bicycled over to the Ambergris Brewing Co. for lunch today. It is on the water, next to the Blue Tang Inn where we stayed when we first arrived in San Pedro.

The intent was lunch and to thank Don, the owner for referring us to Bob Hamilton a straight talking, bare-footed, ponytailed ex-Canadian who now sells real estate. Bob spent a lot of time with us, giving his perspective on Ambergris Caye real estate and he suggested some folks who handle long-term rentals who might also be able to help.

The million dollar view from the "curb" tables at the Ambergris Brewing Co. in San Pedro, mbergris Caye.
The million dollar view from the “curb” tables at the Ambergris Brewing Co. in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize.

While waiting for our lunch a cheerful, slightly rotund but clearly energetic fellow appeared from nowhere like Alice’s rabbit and with a hearty handshake to Don said he could only stay for one beer because his flight was leaving in an hour.

The energetic character Frank E. Briscoe, freelance writer, motivational speaker and super-enthusiastic bicycle rider.  He pedaled from the San Juan Islands to the Florida Keys, all around Holland, and enough other places to log more than 30,000 miles since 2005. Did I mention he turns 67 this year?

He has a website about his adventures in cycling at www.oldguyonabicycle.com.

Frank had just spent the last 29 days in Belize, mostly on Ambergris Caye and was leaving the country by bus only an hour before the 30-day limit which requires you to renew your visa for $100. Frank is taking a Belize City-to-Cancun bus. There, he’ll be house-sitting for about six week.

He was planning to bicycle from Chetemul, at the Mexican border, to Panama City but his bicycle companion backed out on him. Frank said he just wasn’t up to making the trip alone. And that sounds more than reasonable. That’s a 1,500 mile cycle through mountainous terrain in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Hey, Frank. Maybe I should go with you!

Anyhow, Rose and I were so disappointed to catch only the fleeting last few minutes of this most gregarious fellow’s time on Ambergris Caye. He reminds me a great deal of my old airborne globetrotting friend Bob Gannon who has a knack for making lifetime friends where ever he lands his airplane.

Frank did say before he left that he was not crazy about San Pedro, mainly because prices for everything are pretty much what they are in the U.S. “On the other hand,” he added, “Caye Cauker is my kind of place. The pace is slower, the prices are lower and it is just more relaxed.”

Caye Cauker is on our list of places to visit before we leave on Saturday, perhaps a day trip by water taxi. It is just south of Ambergris Caye and much smaller, but its quiet barefoot village charm appeals to many whom we’ve met.

After Frank wraps his house-sitting project he’s returning to Belize, possible to bicycle the 60 miles or so to San Ignacio from where we have recently returned. It’s a good bicycle ride – decent roads for Belize, interesting and undulating landscape out west but without steep mountains.

When he gets to San Ignacio, by bus or bicycle, the first person he’s going to look up is Ginny Ophof our dear friend from Rainforest Realty who spent half a day showing us the town. Apparently they have been corresponding and she’s promised to show him a good time in San Ignacio. We know from experience, Frank is in for a real treat.

Funny, sometimes I feel that Belize is just one big neighborhood in which your friends are no more than two steps removed from other friends, no matter where you are in the country.

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.

Seeing San Ignacio through the eyes of its people

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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 ……

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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.