I could probably pinpoint my fascination with Central and South America to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s glory days in the mid-80s, with Commando and Predator. Oh, I was hooked. The hot, humid temperatures … the thick jungles … the flaring muscles and tempers! Hell, it was pretty close to summertime in my native North Carolina. Well, minus the hopped up muscles. But it never occurred to me that I’d actually go there.
In January, I was able to accompany the mister to Grand Cayman on a business trip. This was no parasailing, pina colada-swigging, screaming children at the Nickelodeon hotel vacation. No, this was paradise all the way. What a grand way to experience the Caribbean Sea for the first time: no pressure, relaxing, beautiful weather, romantic. We loved the snorkeling and the clear water. The tradewinds in the tropics hold the temperatures at a comfortable level, and the steady breeze keeps your hair out of your eyes (or in it, depending on which way you’re going). I’ve lived in North Carolina, and gone to those beaches, for thirty five years. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the waters in North Carolina are warm, and the waves choppy and active (just as we like it). But the water is always green and murky. Plus, there are no coral reefs, no brightly colored tropical fish, and if there are sharks in the area, you’re screwed because you don’t see them coming. But in the Caribbean … sigh. There’s no sneaking up there.
Last year we took our son adventuring in Arizona for his spring break. We’d been to Arizona before, to Tucson and Tombstone; but last year we went to Phoenix, Sedona and the Grand Canyon. Since we loved the snorkeling so much, we knew this year we wanted to take him to the Caribbean. Only, we’re not interested in resort traveling. We like to get dirty and learn about a new culture; we like to break out the maps and follow the wind; we like, as our son calls it, to go adventuring. Costa Rica was our first choice, having been on my mind for nearly two decades after a colleague in advertising in the mid-90s raved about her eco-tour to Costa Rica. But our son was adamant: no Costa Rica. The things that fascinated me about Central America were the very things that worried him—namely, the “drug cartels and the kidnapping.” Granted, these are concerns in a great portion of the world, but not in Costa Rica. So when he suggested Belize, one country north on the Yucatan Peninsula, we did our research. Aside from John MacAfee hiding out in Belize with his bizarre evasion, it was foreign to us. But we liked it immediately.
Here are some basics:
- The currency is the Belize dollar (BZ$), which translate roughly to two BZ$ = one $US.
- While you do need a passport to get into and out of Belize, you do not need a Visa as an American. That’s because Belize was once under the British Empire (known at one time as British Honduras). Everyone, for the most part, speaks English (it’s the official language).
- The population is 333,200, whereas the number of annual visitors is over one million. Since most folks work with tourists, they’re pretty friendly and accepting of the industry.
- There are over 300 native orchid species and over 100 coral species. Even I could grow them in Belize.
- Belikin is the native (and only) beer of Belize. And it’s the bomb. By the way, they have Pineapple, Grape and Fruit Punch Fanta in Belize. Wake up America! We need these things locally.
- The roads in the south of Belize, where we stayed, are terrible. Once we turned off of the Southern Highway on our taxi trip from Dangriga to Hopkins, we had 5.9 miles of sheer rutted torture. They tell us that it’s roughly $1M for 1 mile of road. In 2010, 43% of the people lived below the poverty line and unemployment was around 13%. Do the math.
- There is an interesting mix of people living in Belize today. Officially, they can be broken down, roughly, into Mestizo (a blend of Spanish and Amerindian descent); Creoles (descendants of African slaves); Maya (many traditional Maya live in the south, where we traveled); Garifuna (descendants of shipwrecked African slaves from the 17th century); and Mennonites (yes, Mennonites, complete with their 16-th century clothing, bonnets, beards, blue eyes and blond hair). We also met a large number of ex-pats, which makes my imagination run rampant. Remember I mentioned my fascination with 80s-era Schwarzenegger?
- Talk to everyone. Our guides, taxi drivers, housekeepers, shopkeepers, waiters, and just folks we met while adventuring were proud of their country and their heritage. When I asked if they identified more as a Caribbean nation or a Central American one, they uniformly said: “we are Belizeans.”
We loved Belize. Everything about it. It was affordable, safe, adventurous, educational, monumental, , timely (with the new phase of the Mayan calendar) … and priceless. To travel to a developing third world nation with our 15 year old child; to witness his curiosity explode as he took in the tropical rainforest and jungles, the UNESCO World Heritage barrier reef, the ancient Mayan temples, the waterfalls and the ancient Mayan trails; to know that he engaged in conversation with people from the different cultures as easily as he does his friends at school, without judgment and with earnest curiosity about their days. Who knows how much longer we’ll have access to these treasures? I am so thankful for a husband with an adventurous spirit and generous heart, and to a child who recognizes the differences … yet find common ground … with the people of Belize.
Stay tuned for more Beautiful Belize posts. I’ve got more planned. 🙂