Back from Belize and Ready for More
Friday, 22 July 2011 19:42
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This article is courtesy of Suitcase Ready

Anemone
Belize never disappoints. No matter how high my expectations, they are exceeded every time. Your first introduction to the country – friendly, happy and helpful immigration agents – sets the tone for the entire trip, and it only gets better from there.

Even when you arrive, luggageless, at your first stop to find out the town’s water has been off for 3 days, the hotel is under construction, and the room you’re supposed to be in is occupied, you know it’s going to be OK. Well, not OK… excellent.

“Welcome to Hopkins!” says the man from the porch of the lavender house with the pink trim. “First time here?” In fact, it is. This friendly man turns out to be Mike, a server at Belize’s best restaurant, Chef Rob’s, which is across the street from the lavender house and my guest house, All Seasons. By this time, I knew that the woman at Baggage Services at Belize International who told me with no hesitation that she would find my bag and put it on the next flight from Miami was as good as her word. I was ready to be welcomed to Hopkins.

 

Hopkins BelizePlanning Belize, Part 2 (better late than never!)

If you read “Planning Belize Part 1,” you know I spent the night in Miami on the way down to Belize rather than risk a tight connection. When there is a part 1, there should be a part 2, but those details just seemed too boring for a separate post. Instead, here’s a brief synopsis.

As my trip got closer, and the hotel rates for Miami Airport hotels dropped, I Hotwired a 3.5 star hotel for about $50 that turned out to be the Doubletree Miami Airport and Convention Center hotel. It was fine for the night and had my desired central air and free airport shuttle. The place I planned to stay in Hopkins, the Hopkins Inn, was closed for vacation and I opted for the next highly recommended small hotel – All Seasons Guest House. For my last night in Belize City, I pick D’Nest, a suburban B&B recommended by all the expats on Belizeforum.

Rather than checking my bag through to Belize, I retrieved it for the overnight in Miami and rechecked it in the morning. No comment on the bag gaining 2 lbs. in the 6 hours I was sleeping. I removed 2 books and it was back to 49 lbs. Somewhere between Miami and Belize, the bag was lost. Luckily it was located and caught up with me well before I left for Glover’s Atoll.

Belize City to Hopkins

I checked in at Maya Air and paid for the reservations that Off the Wall had made for me to travel between Dangriga and Belize City. Went to the waiting room that looked a little dingier than in past trips, but it could be that the crowd in season makes it seem more vibrant. The beautiful Belizean hardwood chairs are still there.

Did a quick recon of the suntan lotion prices in the stores, and decided to risk waiting for Hopkins to buy cosmetics if my bag doesn’t arrive. Sally and Kwame, the lovely couple from Dangriga I bonded with in the minutes before we deplaned in Belize City, give me their phone number in case my luggage never arrives and I need to borrow things. On the flight to Dangriga, I’m seated next to the pilot so I can jump out before the plane continues on to Placencia with the rest of the passengers. I’m 99% sure it’s the same pilot who brought me to Flores, Guatemala on my first Belize trip in 2003. He tells me it’s fine to take pictures from the window.

The only cab driver waiting at Dangriga, Leon, asks me if we can pick up his girlfriend for the ride to Hopkins, so we go by his house. He has a new wooden house, on the water in the newest part of town to be developed, he tells me. I ask about prices. Leon tells me when you’re a Belizean, you just take the land. Clearly, I need to find a Belizean.

All Seasons Guest House

All Seasons is a peaceful, well equipped guest house on the southern end of Hopkins. My upgraded room, the Orchid, is in the main house, across the street from the beach. Ingrid, the owner, also has another building with rooms right on the beach. They’re all booked, but I’m more than happy with my room. It is spotless, large, with a refrigerator, coffee maker and very quiet mini-split AC unit. AC is $7 more a night, and Ingrid tells me there is no charge if I only need it for an hour. It is so hot the first night, I hand her $14 the next morning. There is great reading light. I can’t hear a thing from the room next door and although I have to slam my door to close it, the people in the next room never hear it. Everyone I meet at the hotel is wonderful and well traveled, including Sade, an adorable 2 year old tri-lingual kid from Colorado with her parents.

Ingrid takes great care of her guests and really provides excellent service. She has a big problem; guests come for a night or two and don’t want to leave – and she constantly has to scramble to accommodate this, which is why I ended up in the upgraded room.

Hopkins Village

Hopkins reminds me of what Negril, Jamaica must have been 5-10 years before I got there in 1982. Except for the expensive resorts outside of town on the southern end, the town is comprised of little guest houses and small local restaurants on a sandy road. Belizeans live in wooden and cement houses along the beach and the other side of the road. The speed bumps are thick ropes strung across the road. Grocery shopping, like almost everywhere else in Belize, is done in a large, Chinese-owned general store. Food, liquor, cosmetics, auto supplies – they have it all. If you want to buy a single cigarette or 1 Bic disposable razor, this is the place.

Despite my best intentions, it is way too hot to ride around and explore on a bicycle. The first day, I have lunch at the recommended Innies, make it across the street to beach and then to David’s Woodcarving. Hopkins and Dangriga to the north – centers for the Garifuna people – are known for wood carving using unique and gorgeous Belizean hardwoods.

David is either a brilliant salesperson, or it was just accidental, because I really had no plan to buy and carry around a large bowl for the rest of my trip. Ha! There he was, working on the most gorgeous bowl, made with wood unlike any I had ever seen. It was 2 tone – as if by accident – a swirl of rosewood colored wood running through a piece of maple colored wood. And, of course, it was for someone else. Coincidentally, there was a rough but similar bowl just waiting next to be polished. David guaranteed he would have “my” bowl polished by the next morning. He wouldn’t let me take a picture of him working on the bowl, but let me take one with him holding the bowl, as long as it met his tough standards (the lighting wasn’t optimum!). Please don’t ask what sort of wood – I forgot.

The next morning, I grabbed a bicycle to explore before it gets too hot. I rode about half way to where I wanted to go (King Cassava restaurant and bar; the mid-point in town) and gave up. Between the heat and the loose sand, I wasn’t that motivated – and there was Tina’s breakfast place. Not Tina’s Snacks, the other Tina. Tina serves a great vegetable omelet special with fry jacks (fried dough) for $6 Belize, or $3. She makes everything in a kitchen 1/2 the size of my microscopic NYC one. Soon 2 men, Darlan and Irving, arrive for breakfast – and within minutes Darlan is offering to accompany me back to New York. Tina takes him aside to offer some suggestions for procuring older women! If only he had offered beach front property in Belize

Unfortunately it is so hot I never make it to King Cassava or the Lebaha Center to hear Garifuna drumming the two nights I’m in Hopkins. I will definitely have to go back to explore this area and the rest of southern Belize on another trip.

To Dangriga

Two days after I arrive in Hopkins, I have to be in Dangriga to pick up the noon boat to Off the Wall. The choices are cab for about $45 or a bus for about $2. Having never taken a local bus in Belize, I opt for the adventure. I also have a tendency to become thrifty in places where most things are inexpensive and there is a wide price disparity. Ingrid tells me to be on the road at 6:45 for the 7am bus, which often arrives early. Good thing, because as soon as I set my bags down in the front of the hotel, I can hear the beep signaling the bus is coming.

In anticipation of the types of questions travelers ask: yes, you can bring luggage on the bus. There is a small secure area behind the driver, or bags can be placed in the back. There is a small overhead rack, but this would fit a small daypack, nothing larger. You can place small bags at your feet, but don’t expect to keep them on your lap; it is likely you’ll have children there.

The bus drove to the northern end of town, and turned around, picking people up every few feet. The conductor got on, and started collecting money. The bus got crowded, and the conductor would pass children to adults to put on their laps. I had the cutest little girl on my lap most of the way. Many people get off the bus when it reaches the highway and it’ a little more comfortable. The bus drops people off at the Dangriga terminal first, but since they park near Riverside Cafe, where I had to meet the Off the Wall people, they were happy to drop me off.

The Riverside Cafe is where most boats to the southern cayes and Glover’s Atoll depart; and they’re used to visitors lurking around. It’s a good idea to at least have a drink. I had breakfast (more fry jacks!) and kept checking for the Off the Wall boat to pull in, figuring I could give them my luggage and walk around town for awhile. It begins to pour. Finally 2 small boats approach with 10 soaking wet college-aged kids each with all their luggage exposed, drenched. I’m praying one of them isn’t the Off the Wall boat. As they pour off the boat, I go outside to ask where they came from. Tobacco Caye, luckily. They toss some Frisbees around to the amusement of a bunch of Dreads taking shelter under a tree.

A young couple arrives in fresh outdoor gear and I wonder if they are going my way. Kendra from Off the Wall soon appears and explains that the (much bigger) boat is in a deeper dock and brings me to their truck to store my bags. I scurry around Dangriga in the remaining time, picking up some recado, achiote paste that is used for making Belizean stewed chicken and a lot of Mexican dishes.

WelcometoOfftheWall

To Off the Wall

It all seems like a fog now, but Kendra and Jim (the owners) were on the boat, as were Dorrith and Matthew, the dive instructor and dive master. Buckles, who is driving the boat, and Therese the cook. There’s another guy in the back who I see off and on during the week with a wheelbarrow, but we’re never introduced to him. There’s also a guy who turns out to be the divemaster at the nearby Glover’s Atoll Resort, catching a ride.

Matthew tells me he would have been on the bus with me from Hopkins but he missed it. Dorrith also missed the bus. How much fun it would have been to hang out with them for those few hours in Dangriga. Oh well.

The other guests seem interesting, which is a good thing because with only 10 guests, it’s important to have a fun group. The outdoor garbed couple from San Diego are wonderful – you can just tell. They’re going to the jungle next, so the Permethrin-sprayed outdoor clothes make sense. There’s an attractive man, traveling with a younger man, who I later find out are father/son. Two sisters who regularly travel together, and their husbands, complete the small group.

The rain has subsided by the time we begin the trip and the ride out is gorgeous. We pass multiple cayes and at one point slow down to get a better look at dolphins. As we pull up to what will be our basically private atoll island for the week, we are all stunned by how beautiful it is. Well, not all of us – I’m sure the employees were thinking more like “here we go again.”

Kendra and Jim show us around the resort; explaining about the honor drink system, the value of water, and how the composting toilet works.

For anyone not familiar with a composting toilet, it was best characterized by someone on Tripadvisor who said “a less smelly outhouse.” The 2 rooms are up 2 flights of steps, to accommodate the composting system below. Men are asked to sit at all times. You can use paper, then you drop wood shavings in the bowl and close the lid. Although this is what I was most concerned about, the composting toilet situation is fine. Considering most people in the world use something like this daily, I feel a little prissy even being worried.

Thatch
Kendra and Jim split us up and show us to our rooms. My room, the Thatch cottage, is rustic wood with a palapa roof. Having survived a 4am bat visit last time I stayed in a palapa’d building, I would have rather had a real roof, but I don’t want to be a high maintenance guest. Jim says it is the most requested cottage among return guests, and points out that I have the only guest room with a fan. This fan is so useful in the extreme heat that when the wires disconnect in the middle of the night, I pull out my multi-tool and rewire it!

The accommodations are very well equipped for an atoll eco-resort. Despite the information on the web site, the unit does have a good reading light and I never need my headlamp or book light. The sheets and more important to me – pillows – are quality. The sea air deteriorates elastic, so I have to refit the bottom sheet constantly, but this is the first time I’ve been in a tropical locale with down pillows! There is a pitcher for water, 2 tables, 2 rods for hanging clothes, and 2 large towels. Candles, a clicker to light them and a large plastic container with tight lid for snacks/electronics. My “hut” has a private covered deck with chairs and a hammock. Next door is a large palapa with 2 Adirondack cushioned chairs and a lounger. Dorrith, the dive instructor, is in a similar hut next door; the rest of the guests are further away.

Redseaurchin
The Snorkeling

The first afternoon, we take advantage of unusually calm weather to snorkel on the house reef behind my room. This is the reef I was counting on for my daily snorkel, based on the aerial photos of the resort, and it’s the only time it is calm enough to visit. Only 2 of the divers dive, the rest snorkel. Right away, one of the sisters alerts me to a Queen Black Durgeon. I never knew there was a Queen Black Durgeon, but it is larger and has brighter blue markings than any durgeon I’ve ever seen before. We also see about 5 lionfish.

Lionfish-150x150

The scourge of the reef, the Lionfish. They may look exotic, but they’re predators and the dive masters intend to come back with spears. Every day, there is 1 snorkel trip by boat, except for the day all the divers and the diver masters go to Gladden Spit in the hopes of seeing whale sharks (they don’t). That day, I go to the nearby reef off the sandbar in front of the caye with Kendra by kayak.

The reef condition is better than I’ve ever seen, anywhere. The only thing close was my experience at Lighthouse Atoll, also in Belize. The soft corals were more abundant than I had ever seen. I waited years to see my first Flamingo Tongue in Anegada; at Glovers there were 100s. Large groupers were everywhere. One day at the sand bar reef, Liz from San Diego points out a brittle star hiding in a sponge and a spotted eagle ray, which completes my fish bucket list!

underslickrockdock-150x150
The “muck” snorkeling in the shallow area in front of Off the Wall is excellent. I spot eel, a small yellow stingray and 5 different types of anenome. Kendra points out a buoy marking a large piece of pink coral. Next to that is another one, teeming with life. Two or three banded reef shrimp so tiny, I almost missed them. Then I spotted a tiny green claw; the coral was covered in tiny (dime sized) stone crabs. It took 100 pictures to get one sort of in focus.

Some of the most interesting snorkeling is done under the dock at Slickrock, the kayaking resort that shares Long Caye with Off the Wall. Every day I see 100s of bonefish under our dock, but the day I swim over to Slickrock, I’m with a school of what seems like 1000 bonefish.

Off the Wall – in general

The place is really marvelous! Kendra, Jim and the staff work hard to make sure every detail is covered and that the guests are always happy. They’re always available night and day to be sure every need is met. The staff works non-stop to keep the grounds clean and beautiful. Kendra has marked off a nature trail that circles the island with a very detailed guide to the trees, birds, animals, mangroves on the trail. Every evening, Mario, the security guard sets candles throughout the resort then returns to light them while we’re eating dinner.

The new shower building is beautiful and well done. There are 4 “stalls” and the timing works out – there was never a wait for showers. Stalls really isn’t the right word; they’re large shower rooms with dressing areas. There are hooks near the shower and hooks in the dressing area to keep items dry. All over are beautiful tile details and creatively designed lights.

The food is great. Considering everything is brought on the boat on Saturday – other than fish that is bought from local fishermen – the food is varied and inventive. Therese, the cook, does it all herself, including fresh baked bread, cakes and pies. As good as it is, I can only wonder how excellent it could be if Therese had help. One assistant would make all the difference in the timing of all the dishes. One woman cooking 3 meals a day for the entire guest and staff is pretty amazing. She must go home and collapse in her off weeks.

After every meal the staff rushes back to the kitchen to do dishes and clean up. It is amazing to me how many hats they wear! Midway through the week, Tony, the regular boat driver appears. In addition to driving the boat, Tony does all sorts of work around the grounds, fixes boat propellers, cleans fish, and dishes. And, he’s happy and smiling all the time.

Back to Civilization

The problem with idylic trips like this is they have to end. Unless you’re lucky like Kendra, and meet a guy like Jim on vacation… On Friday we are asked to close out our accounts by 5pm, and told what to do to get ready to leave in the morning. Too early in the morning, we thank Kendra for a marvelous week and get on the boat. One of the sisters thanks her for picking such a good group; we really did get lucky. The trip back is more quiet, as we reflect on the experience we had at Off the Wall. Jim, who left the island to take care of business, meets us and gets us to the airport for our flights back to Belize City and the U.S.

Belize City

I probably could have made better use of my last day in Belize by planning an excursion to Altun Ha, the Mayan ruins I haven’t yet visited, or the spa at Maruba, but I didn’t. The only item on my agenda was a stop at a large grocery store to pick up rum, hot sauce, jams, chocolate and something for the nephews. Since there is a large Brodie’s supermarket in the suburbs, I didn’t need to stay in downtown Belize City. I’ve never had a problem in Belize City, but the hotels tend to be more run down/backpacker in the center of town, expensive in an enclave called the “tourism village” or mixed in the suburbs, so I picked the suburbs. After a week of 90+ degree heat and slightly brackish water showers, I was thrilled to put the AC on full blast (16 celsius/62 fahrenheit) and take a long, hot shower at D’Nest.

Katie Valk, who booked my first trip back in 2003 when you needed a local agent to book the hotels at Tikal, met me for dinner with her friend Isabel, who owns Go Tees in Belize City. We went to the Oar House, a new restaurant/bar popular among expats,  at a marina. They didn’t have a full menu yet, but the fish fingers and chicken tacos we tasted were excellent.

Even though I haven’t left Belize, Katie and I start to discuss my next trip. I want another atoll lodge, maybe with a few more creature comforts. Katie suggests Southwater Caye or Turneffe Flats. I promise to take a look at their sites when I get home.

Checking in for the return flight, my collection of One Barrell Rum and Marie Sharp’s hot sauces have added 10 lbs. of weight. How much could this possibly cost? An extra $100! Knowing that the clothing in Eagle Creek cubes is the only thing padding all these bottles, I remove them to reduce the weight. Luckily, I always have a roll-up tote bag in my daypack. Each bottle is still in at least 1 knotted plastic bag and rolled in a tshirt or my wet suit. I hand the bag over, hoping it doesn’t appear on the conveyor at JFK dripping a rum/hot sauce concoction.

The last thing you hear is the voice. The very unique, almost mechanical sounding voice that starts off as background noise as you wait in Belize International for your flight home. The voice of Jet, who cruises the terminal nicely offering drinks. Of course, if you’ve made a domestic flight within Belize, you’ve already heard Jet. Jet has been a fixture at the Belize International airport as long as it’s been there. I have my last Belikin Stout at the bar with Jet. Amazingly, he remembers to ask about my luggage. I even get a signed autograph.

Of course, the Miami TSA opens my bag. The 10 bottles of rum and hot sauce probably resemble a crude incendiary device on the Xray. They even rip open some of the plastic bags. Everything makes it through intact! The rum won’t last long, but I get the feeling I will be back in Belize before I run out of hot sauce.

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A very special thank you to the woman at American Airline Baggage Services at Belize International for finding my bag and getting it to me in Hopkins. When a Belizean tells me something, I believe it!