The boat ride from Livingston, Guatemala to Punta Gorda, Belize is about as enjoyable as an amusement park ride that lasts for two hours. Like an amusement park ride, the small motorboat was packed tightly with 20 passengers. We were given sheets of plastic to shield us from the frequent splashes of water as the boat bounced violently against the waves for two hours nonstop. The nauseating trip made me stumble into Belize feeling as drunk as an Exxon Valdez sailor.
Punta Gorda is a sleepy seaside town where biking is the main means of transportation. I quickly realized that Belize is a special place.
Why Belize speaks English
One reason Belize is fascinating is that it's the only country in Central or South America that speaks English (CORRECTION: Guyana also speaks English). You can thank British pirates for that.
Way back in 16th century, the Spanish ruled most of the American continent. However, Belize annoyed the Spanish because it had the second biggest reef in the world. Scuba diving wasn't too popular 500 years ago, so the barrier reef was only that: a barrier. The Spanish sought gold and trade routes. The reef off Belize would tear ships to shreds, so the Spanish steered clear of them.
The British pirates, on the other hand, loved such obstacles. Once their nimble ships figured out how to navigate those treacherous waters, they could attack richly loaded Spanish galleons with impunity. That worked well for the Brits until 1670, when the Spanish shut them down more quickly than it's taking us to shut down a few pirates from Somalia.
Instead of returning to Britain, the ex-pirates became semi-honest men and started the logging industry in Belize. The locals liked the Brits more than the Spanish (mainly because of their charming accent), so they celebrated in 1798 when the Brits kicked the Spanish out for good. And that's why today they still speak English in Belize.
The other oddity about Belize is that it has a two to one fixed exchange rate with the US dollar. That makes for easy math: if the meal costs 20 Belize Dollars, that's just 10 US Dollars. Since it's fixed, you can come back to Belize three years later and it's still the same exchange rate. It's also nice that they accept US currency as easy as they do in El Salvador and Panama (which both use the US dollar).
Punta Gorda to Placencia
The weather in Belize motivates you to lounge around and do absolutely nothing. And that's what most people seem to do there, so I joined them. I stayed at a quaint seaside hostel. The Caribbean Sea was just a few steps away. However, it was hard to motivate myself to walk a 20 meters and dip my toe in its warm waters. I preferred not moving my lazy ass.
My biggest accomplishment in Punta Gorda was borrowing the hostel's bike and biking four blocks to the bus station. I'm also proud to have found a vegetarian restaurant that a local ran out of his house. He had no other customers and he whipped up a veggie lasagna with soy meat and a lime-strawberry shake. I asked him about what he thought of his neighbor: Guatemala.
The restaurant owner said, "You know man, those Guatemalans are funny. They think they still own us, man. Fer real! They're still ackin' up about it. It's funny, man."
News flash to Guatemalans: You don't own Belize
Guatemalans grow up with idea that Belize doesn't exist. All school children are shown maps of Central America where Belize is simply part of Guatemala. Even to this day many Guatemalans stubbornly believe that Belize is rightfully theirs. Why is that?
Once again, it's has to do with the charming British. In 1859, the Brits cut a deal with the Guatemalans that if the British built a road from Guatemala City to the Belize coast, then the British could keep chopping down the trees and drinking tea there.
The British were good at doing the tree chopping and tea drinking part, but weren't so good at the road building part. Since they didn't hold up their side of the bargain, Guatemala believes that Belize should still be part of Guatemala. Besides, up to 400,000 Mayans used to live there 1,000 years ago, back when Guatemala and Belize were all part of the Mayan domain. These are valid points. The only problem is that the UK has bigger guns than Guatemala.
After the bus ride along Belize's Southern Highway, Placencia lived up to its Spanish name (which effectively means Pleasureplace). For under $20 per night, I found a private room with a view to the Caribbean Sea. I thought about scuba diving, snorkeling, and going for run. Instead, it was easier being a slug on the pleasant, warm beach.
Eventually, I left pleasant Placencia by taking another choppy 2+ hour boat ride to my new destination: Honduras. There I would come within two centimeters of death. I'll explain why next week!
Why Belize disappointed me
I had high expectations for Belize. As a result, three things disappointed me:
- Its beaches were nice, but they didn't blow me away. However, I didn't visit the famous Caye Caulker reef, which is supposed to be divine. Instead, I hung out on the southern part of the country, which had recently had a hurricane visit them, so the beaches were messier than normal.
- The people were the least friendly people of Latin America. However, this isn't saying much because they have stiff competition. Put Belize in Eastern Europe and they'll easily win the friendliness contest. Nevertheless, I was surprised by how many people were grumpy and cold. It could have been my bad luck or the fact that I was wearing my T-shirt that says, "CENTRAL AMERICA SUCKS."
- I didn't see any tropical jungles. I loved the movie The Mosquito Coast, which was filmed in a jungle in Belize (even though it was supposed to take place in La Mosquitia, Honduras). Therefore, whenever I thought of Belize, I always thought of lush tropical jungles. I hoped I'd get glimpses on my journey, but the only forests I saw were made of thin, spread out trees.
These are, admittedly, pretty weak reasons to be disappointed with Belize. However, consider this amazing fact: I didn't take a single photo while in Belize! Nothing impressed me enough to warrant a photo. Part of that is that I'm picky about my photos. In addition, I was feeling quite lazy thanks to the laid back Belize vibe.
2012: The Movie
If you recall my last email, I mentioned that on December 21, 2012 the world will end, according to the Mayans. I learned that there's a new movie called 2012 about that event. It's opening July 10, 2009. The trailer doesn't reveal much except that it's a good idea to live on a boat in 2012. The trailer also incorrectly states the population of the world. By October 2012, we'll have seven billion humans, not six billion. After seeing the trailer, be thankful this Thanksgiving, since we only have four more to enjoy before the end of the world.