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John and Mandi

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Crossing Lines Drawn in the Sand, Belize Part 1

Jun 9, 2016
by John

The imaginary lines of humanity are fascinating. We never expected the contrast to be so drastic while remaining so familiar. Within driving a few miles we went from horribly bumbling through Spanish to easily explaining everything in English. The landscape was unchanged but the inhabitants are, ever so slightly, different. It would be easy to dismiss the subtleties, that would be a great disservice to Belizeans.

We had been told that we would either love or hate Belize. Our two previous visits to the country, albeit only a single day each, left us knowing it was a place we wanted to spend more time exploring. Not only for its natural beauty, but because of the smiling friendly faces everywhere. A charm that had stolen our hearts many times on the many Caribbean islands we have been fortunate enough to visit. The heart of the Carib has not been lost on the mainland. Within minutes we were beaming with the same infectious smile, we knew we would love Belize.

What We Did

Mexico to Belize Border Crossing

Crossing from Mexico into Belize was really easy. While exiting Mexico we handed our passports and our Mexico tourist card receipts to the border agent and were stamped out. We decided to cancel the van's ten year TIP even though we plan to return to Mexico at the end of our trip, our plans never seem to play out the way we intend so we figured cancelling the TIP was better than not. A few photos, my signature, and the removal of the window sticker by the official was all it took before we were parked at the Belizean side of the border.

A nice officer instructed us to turn around and drive to the fumigation office before starting our paperwork, a $5US ($90 peso) endeavor. Back at the main office we were given a crappy photo copied form to fill out while we waited in line. Apparently all non-citizens must complete it, fortunately the customs officer let us finish it at his counter while we continually assured him we were not going to re-enter Mexico in a couple of days, meaning we were not making a "border run". He either eventually believed us or was just doing his due diligence in asking since we only had one day left on our Mexican visa as he stamped our passports approving our 30 day stay in Belize.

Next up was getting our temporary import permit (TIP) for the van. Basically we answered unrelated questions as another official transcribed the information from our title to his form. Everything was correct, I signed, and my passport was stamped again for the van. While we were walking out we were approached by a guy in a green shirt who is responsible for collecting $15US for foreign vehicles. There is debate as to whether this is a legitimate fee but we were told it was one of the things we needed to do so we paid it, making sure to get a receipt.

Once through the border we drove directly to the insurance office, which was maybe 300 meters from the customs office. 30 days for $30US or $60BZ, Mandi spotted Classic Strider's postcard pinned to a board. Easy peasy, to enter we only had to do 5 things: Fumigation, Tourist Visa, TIP, Vehicle Fee, and Insurance...unbelizeable!

Sarteneja, Corozal

Once we completed our border day chores in Corozal, getting groceries, a sim for our phone, and withdrawing Belize Dollars, we decided we had enough time to make the drive to Sarteneja. It was a bumpy road to the coast through beautiful mangroves, requiring two river crossings via hand cranked ferries. The town itself was very sleepy, reminiscent of the forgotten coast of Florida. We checked out the local campground but instead opted for a free night right on the water with a fabulous sea breeze. Changing countries does nothing for the heat.

Sarteneja, Corozal, Belize

SUP free since '83

Sarteneja, Corozal, Belize

We like em plumpy

Lamanai River Retreat, Orange Walk

We opted to drive the back loop from Sarteneja to Orange Walk instead of using the hand cranked ferries again, a decision that bounced us a little over two hours to the very edge of town. Pulling into the largest parking spot available at a little city park we realized it was only 9:30 in the morning. Over the last few weeks we had started going to bed and getting up earlier due to the high temperatures. Some days the heat had already set in by 7:00 AM!

The Lamanai River Retreat campground was a great place to sort out which route through Belize we wanted to take. The onsite bar provides a wonderful distraction from accomplishing said planning or getting caught up on the blog. We had parked behind Chris & Birger so really we were killing time waiting for them to finish their Lamanai Ruins tour instead of doing what we were supposed to. We first met them in Chetumal, Mexico, so it was great to run into them again already. Their pace is a bit faster than ours, but we hope to catch up to them again somewhere in Guatemala.

The next morning Mandi managed to plan our proposed route and I hammered out our last entry for Mexico, so we did accomplish something, all before noon! None of us ever swam in the river because we were all too scared of the resident crocodile. Why in the world do they tell us about him then say "but it's safe", WTF. Just before leaving, the retreat owners' son Lance, whom we met the day before, gave us some tips on how to save some money while exploring Belize. He's a really cool guy who operates some of the tours from the campground. Thanks again Lance and good luck with your tour company.

Lamanai River Retreat, Orange Walk, Belize

La goon

Lamanai River Retreat, Orange Walk, Belize

Overachiever

Lamanai River Retreat, Orange Walk, Belize

...with erratic spurts

Lamanai Ruins, Orange Walk

Most visitors take a boat from Orange Walk to visit the Lamanai ruins, we're idiots so we decided to drive with the ambition of saving some coin. The Mennonite farmland was beautiful but the dirt roads were badly rutted out. When we reached the cane fields it became apparent as to why. We've come to believe that cane truck drivers are paid by the load so they tear ass and tear up the roads no matter what country they work in.

Arriving in the early afternoon we decided to go ahead and check out the ruins instead of waiting until the next morning, our usual MO. They are not the most impressive but we do think they are worth a visit. Taking the boat tour from Orange Walk is probably the smarter way to experience them. The view of the river and the expanse of the jungle from the top of the High Temple is beautiful.

Lamanai Ruins, Orange Walk, Belize

Tri plexity

Lamanai Ruins, Orange Walk, Belize

We think his Christmas wish came true

Lamanai Ruins, Orange Walk, Belize

Where's the Coco Frio vender when you actually need one

La Milpa, Orange Walk

Why drive shitty roads to one set of ruins when you can drive to two. After Lamanai we drove through one of the nicest farming communities we have ever seen, spending the night in a parking lot of a hamburger restaurant that was reasonably close to La Milpa. This is a set of ruins that is undergoing mild excavation where all of the structures are still completely engulfed by the jungle. Nothing has been restored so it appears almost exactly as it was discovered, minus some trees and underbrush. We really enjoy places such as La Milpa but don't recommend it for most.

Tours to the site can cost up to $150US per person. We were allowed to wander around for free so it cost us a few gallons of diesel and a couple hamburgers for a place to park overnight. We did have to call ahead to get permission to visit the site, something we did the day before. We arrived early, really early, with hopes of catching some exotic wildlife. Lance had come across jaguars in the area and during some of his tours to the site so we got an early start to try our luck. No big cats but we did see plenty of wildlife. An ornery oscillated turkey was a real treat. He eventually gave up on chasing us. It's possible he was trying to get rid of Mandi to have me all to himself so maybe he is a she.

La Milpa, Orange Walk, Belize

We really like what they did with the shrubberies

La Milpa, Orange Walk, Belize

Awww helllll nooooo

La Milpa, Orange Walk, Belize

I bet it fries like chicken

Altun Ha, Belize

Having ample time after exploring La Milpa we headed to Altun Ha on our way to the Belize Zoo. Immediately upon our arrival, a sweet local woman told us she thought "Peppa Pig", a PBS cartoon character who travels in a camper van sometimes, had arrived. We will have to check that children's show out when we get the chance sometime.

The ruins are one of the most popular in Belize and are very well restored. We spent an hour exploring the complex, we didn't make it to the onsite lake due to the number of mosquitoes on the trail. Belikin, the beer of Belize, sports a depiction of the Temple of the Masonry Altars as its logo. The real temple is way more impressive.

Altun Ha, Belize

Even the grass is thirsty

Altun Ha, Belize

Punslinger

Altun Ha, Belize

Yea, yea... where's the shade

Altun Ha, Belize

This angle would look way better on beer bottles

Belize Zoo, Belize

We dropped by the Baboon Sanctuary, thinking we would spend the night in the parking lot, but decided to skip it and chose to overnight at the Tropical Education Center which was much closer to the Belize Zoo so we could visit first thing in the morning, when the animals are more likely to be active. The sandy lot harbors our greatest enemy, no-see-ums, so it was a sweaty sticky itchy night. The lack of shade had us vacating before 7 and arriving at the zoo an hour and a half before they opened. Fortunately the security guard was cool and let us park in a shady corner for a minor reprieve from the sun while we made our morning coffee and waited for the zoo to open.

Zoos are a touchy subject, especially in the aftermath of the shooting death of Harambe (a lowland gorilla), but the Belize Zoo is more of an animal sanctuary than a for profit set of exhibits. They only have native species and rehabilitate then release every animal possible. At $30BZ, $15US per person, it at first seemed really pricey but after learning more about the zoo it was a real bargain and a great place to explore.

Belize Zoo, Belize

Wall mount preview

Belize Zoo, Belize

Downright distraught by our presence

Belize Zoo, Belize

He doesn't look all that friendly to me

Belize Zoo, Belize

Want

Belize Zoo, Belize

Peeping tom cat

Belize Zoo, Belize

Pigglet-in-a-blanket

Caye Caulker, Belize

Our original plan was to leave the van in Sarteneja and visit Caye Caulker via San Pedro, more commonly known as Ambergris Caye. Obviously that was changed on our very first day in Belize so we ended up parking the van at the Old Belize Marina, approximately $5.33BZ per night, and taking a direct ferry from Belize City. We are absolutely infatuated with Caribbean islands so getting a mild taste was in order. Our laid back approach had us scrambling for a room once we reached Caye Caulker, settling for Anchorage Resort as everyone was holding rooms for groups that were supposed to be arriving that same day. It was pricey at $60US per night and marginally sufficient, we probably could have found a much nicer place for the same price or less but I was too hot to keep wandering around with all of our crap.

We spent 4 nights on the island mostly doing nothing, sucking up the A/C as much as we could. We did go snorkeling with Raggamuffin Tours on a sailboat to Shark and Ray Alley and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve which was fabulous, $70US per person. It was a recommendation from our Dutch friends Gerhard & Lesley and our main reason for visiting Caye Caulker. We could have easily spent only two nights on the island, taking the snorkeling tour the only full day there, and would have been fine. Lounging around in the air conditioned room was really nice though.

Caye Caulker, Belize

Go Slow

Caye Caulker, Belize

Merwench

Caye Caulker, Belize

Salty dogs

Caye Caulker, Belize

Turtle dove

Caye Caulker, Belize

No thanks, I'm not in need of any medical assistance

Caye Caulker, Belize

Um Dory, that's not Nemo

Caye Caulker, Belize

Get a real backbone

Caye Caulker, Belize

Doing our best to bring back Enya

Honorable Mentions

While we don't list every place and thing we do there are some that stick in our minds. Weeks later we catch ourselves mentioning them to others or just savoring the memory of the exquisite cuisine we consumed. Here are a few standouts.

Ms Angie's, Orange Walk

Coconut infused rice and beans with stew chicken, delicious and cheap. We were taken to this place by an overzealous tours salesman but couldn't have found better on our own.

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), Cayo

We were worried about how close we were to the rainy season so we made a detour to San Ignacio to ensure we were able to complete the ATM cave hike. It is one of the best things we have done and will probably make our trip end list of top ten. The ATM has been named the number one sacred cave in the world by National Geographic. Roughly 95% of the artifacts found in the cave remain undisturbed in their original locations so getting to scramble around the pottery and skeletal remains was a magical experience. The $85 US it cost per person was definitely worth it, we booked the tour from the Mana Kai campground. Cameras are not allowed so we don't have any photos to share, just memories.

Au French Corner, Caye Caulker

Reasonably priced delicious egg bowls and free coffee refills, not a trivial thing on the island. Now owned by Chris and Carrie, a fun Canadian couple who were wonderful to hang with each morning. We wish them nothing but success and have a hunch they might be on the road traveling someday.


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Say what? (6)
Sri
Jun 9, 2016 at 01:07 PM
Nice writeup. Last month we visited Teotihuacan pyramids and other places near Mexico city. We were bumbling through spanish and found out the English don't help much in Mexico. I thought that you both might have got better with your spanish as it is needed much in Mexico. Even those bumblings will end up being good memories later :D

I checked out some pictures of Actun Tunichil Muknal. Wow, It looks amazing.
Jun 9, 2016 at 01:14 PM
Thanks Sri! Great to hear you took a trip to Mexico. We have some very basic Spanish but not enough to carry an actual conversation. We are planning on attending school in Guatemala.

The ATM cave is a really special place and one we will cherish forever. There is a lot to do in the San Ignacio area so planning a visit to the cave could easily turn into a week long vacation, ; )
Jun 9, 2016 at 01:45 PM
Fantastic! We spent 12 days in Belize... all on Ambergris... a few years ago and did Lamanai, etc so not sure how much time we'll spend there.. but we sure did love it.
Jun 9, 2016 at 02:27 PM
Love the pic captions! FYI we didn't escape the bugs and heat by entering Guatemala. We did find a way to avoid the "bridge tax" though...we'll update iOverlander. Don't forget the Indian Tacos while in San Ignacio!
Jun 9, 2016 at 03:17 PM
Nice underwater pictures!
Looks like you're still enjoying the adventure :-)
Happy travels
Jun 19, 2016 at 09:52 AM
Thanks Rhonda, Claude-Alain, and Josh & Jenna!

Those Indian Tacos are great, we've told others about them too. We'll be crossing tomorrow so we'll look for your updates in iOverlander.
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