We made it to Central America! It felt like a big milestone for us on one hand, but on the other how different could these sets of countries be? We thought we’d have experienced the biggest culture on the border of Mexico to the US, but we were to be proven wrong.
To be fair to us, Belize sits in a unique position in Central America when compared to many of the other countries. Historically colonised by the British, the country has 4 main dialects with a major one being Creole, and English being spoken throughout the country. It was a welcoming break in a way from Spanish speaking countries, but strangely we missed being able to practice our Spanish and the challenge of everyday tasks!
The two most famous attractions in Belize are arguably the coastal islands with the Blue Hole and the caves inland. We opted against visiting the islands. Once the cost of storing the van, taking boats / flights and paying for accommodation in these backpacker havens was taken into account, we decided we couldn’t justify it. Another big reason to visit these is to dive and we’ve also drawn the line under that as being an activity too expensive for this trip. With this in mind we headed inland for some of the less famous, but to us no less interesting attractions.
On our first night we camped at a baboon sanctuary about 90 minutes from the border. It was a community run project, encouraging local people to take up alternative industries rather than farming to reduce deforestation of the howler monkey habitats. We paid for a tour that evening but unfortunately didn’t see any – so they offered us a free one in the morning! We felt super safe camping there, to such an extent that we drifted off with the back doors open. This wasn’t the horror stories we’d heard of the dangerous Belize so far, but granted we were avoiding the cities for a reason. The next morning we saw a family of howler monkeys and tried our best to capture them.
After the baboon sanctuary we stayed on our most direct route to Belmopan, which is actually now the capital of Belize. We’d decided to beeline to the Guatemala border and see sights on the way – and we successfully managed to avoid filling up our tank in the country! We stayed at a bird rescue sanctuary in Belmopan, run by a brit and a lovely fellow from Fiji, although his accent was so disarming we were sure he was from Kensington and Chelsea. They had an amazing place, which they’d had for 15 years, focused on rescuing parrots from poachers and uncaring owners. It was a grand property with their own lazy river on it! So whilst not the traditional Belize cave tubing we did tube in Belize, and best of all it was included in the $10 camping fee – much less than the $50 per person tubing fees through the caves.
Although we only planned to stay for 1 night we ended up staying for three and used it as our base. On the second day we visited the inland blue hole. The not-quite-so-famous version of the national land mark was much easier to get to, much cheaper and almost certainly less busy! We had it to ourselves, a gorgeous deep blue freshwater swimming hole which we took the opportunity to cool off in. We decided after such a cheap day to splurge the following day on the ATM caves.
Everyone we’d met who had experienced the ATM caves told us they really weren’t ones to miss. The decision loomed over us as it would be around $100 each, the equivalent of over 3 days of budget. We decided however that they were unique enough, and we would likely never get the chance again so we went for it. We can confidently say now that it was the right decision!
The caves stand for Actun Tunichil Muknal and it really is quite a physical activity. We were greeted by our driver in suit shoes and trousers however we had previously been told to wear clothes & shoes we were happy to get soaking wet so they two didn’t really add up. It turned out our guide was quite a character, and happy to swim in suit trousers! We met the other 4 people in our group and headed on the short 1.5mile hike to the entrance.
We all gathered around the entrance, had our last minute pees and were explained a little bit about the history of the cave. The caves were viewed by the Mayans as passages into the underworld, and as such priests would go in for days and sometimes bring in sacrifices. We had to swim for 10m in deep water just to gain entry, and then we were climbing through the caves for 3 hours. At one point two jagged rocks left a small gap which we were instructed to put our necks through! It was hairy stuff, but seeing the artefacts from hundreds of years ago made it worth it. Finally we were able to see the full untouched skeletons of the sacrifices, which was a thought provoking moment.
We’d have loved to have shared the photos however unfortunately several tourists over the years have caused big issues with the cameras. One even dropped a lens on one of the skulls fracturing it! There’s always a few gringos who are sure to ruin it for the rest of us….
On our final night we visited San Ignacio, and met up with Rob and Sanna, who we’d met on the tour the previous day. They introduced us to the local Belize cuisine which was deep fried dough filled with cheese and beans and was glorious! We shared beers with them and Rob even showed us where he’d found banana bread the previous day! It was a nice send off to Belize, but we were ready to stop eating tinned food we’d smuggled from Mexico and start buying fresh food for cheap in Guatemala! The following day the border crossing went smoothly, we were through in less than an hour and on to country number 8!