Belize City was not nearly as difficult as I feared. In fact, I really enjoyed the day. We began the day carrying the bikes to the tenders which were not NCL vehicles but private boats from the Belize City fleet. There were several different kinds of boats and we found ourselves on a large catamaran which seated about 100 people. The boat crew loaded our bikes for us and handed them to us on the pier in Belize City when we got there. There were four large cruise ships anchored 6-8 miles offshore from Belize City served by about 20 tenders. The trip to shore took almost 20 minutes at relatively high speed, about 25-35 knots. I saw dozens of seabirds and gulls and a few large brown pelicans flying low over the water or floating between the low waves. Those of us who didn’t opt for NCL excursions had to wait until after 9am while the dive boats and tour boats came directly to the ship to pick up their customers. We made it off the tender and through the maze of the tourism shops to the outside where we ran another gauntlet of t-shirt salesmen, artists, and hair braiders to the Belize City’s narrow streets filled with hawkers, cruise passengers, tour buses picking up passengers, and vehicles ranging from trucks to taxis to horse carts.
I was looking for Orange Street which turned into Cemetery Avenue and the Western Highway for our trip to the Southeast to see what Belize was all about. I knew that the inland blue hole was probably not reachable because it lay almost 30 miles out, but I was willing to see how far we could get while we studied this part of Belize. Unfortunately, I found out after only 50 yards that Orange Street was one way in the wrong direction and we had to walk against traffic for a block or two before I thought of moving over a block to find a street moving in the right direction. The cars on the streets accepted our ignorance and allowed us to move at a comfortable pace past a succession of third world shops selling items I opined to be of barely adequate quality. The buildings were one and two story cinderblock construction and reminded me of those I had seen in Hanoi ten years ago when I visited.
We moved carefully across a bridge and road into a gas station where I asked first an employee and then what I presumed to be the owner where I could find Western Avenue. He seemed confused at first and then corrected me that the street was called Western Highway. He gave me directions and then asked what I was looking to do. He suggested that I ride out to “Old Belize” and visit the Marina and try the restaurant. That sounded good to me and we headed a few blocks down the street to a stoplight, turned left to a roundabout and headed right onto Cemetery Avenue as the blighted city began to transition into homes with yards and businesses ranging from auto parts stores to architect offices, dentist offices, plastic fabrication businesses, and bus barns. The potholed city streets also changed to a two lane paved road and the cars immediately began speeding up to as much as 60 mph. Yet we still felt safe riding in the occasional traffic. It seems as though the people in Belize know that tourism is critical to their survival, and they are careful to ensure tourists safety. After a few miles we entered the namesake for Cemetery Street with crypts above ground like I have seen in New Orleans. Most showed crosses over them and many had stone versions of open books with names and stories of the dead. The cemetery was several blocks long on both sides of the street and a block deep on both sides. Beyond the crypts, I could see some newer buildings which looked like two story apartments and I saw several people taking short cuts through the cemetery as they apparently returned from their early morning efforts—probably some had jobs and some had been shopping.
Cemetery Road quickly transitioned into the Western Highway as the businesses on the side of the road became further apart and I could see miles of black water-filled ditches lining the Highway in front of Mangrove forests. This was perfect bike country for Marilyn—flat as far as the eye could see with just enough room on the side to allow her to feel comfortable as big rigs approached from the rear tooting their horns and passing as they accelerated to 60mph.
I didn’t see any passing of vehicles until our return trip but I’m sure the drivers were all opening up their vehicles as they tried to make good time getting to wherever they were going. Does Belize have a speed limit? I think not, which is kind of nice, actually.
Above, a variety of large birds circled, ranging from Hawk-like birds to narrow-winged seabirds. Most were dark in color but I also saw white egrets in at least two sizes, usually walking or wading on land. We passed a large iguana venturing to within 10 feet of the road in short grass before skittering back to the safety of the deeper brush. We saw a sign indicating tapirs nearby, and I began to think we might see a crocodile or two because the habitat looked like the Louisiana alligator habitat on the roads between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. But I never saw one, although the signs indicated there was a crocodile park on the Northern Highway 25 miles out of town. Perhaps we’ll try that route next week.
The day was hot but the sky cleared from the haze of the city to a perfect cloudless blue. Looking back, I could see the quartet of cruise ships on the horizon behind us as we pushed through many miles of this forest and business habitat. I was impressed with the variety of businesses which led me to believe Belize was close to digging out of the present near-squalor. I don’t know whether there are enough trained workers to staff some of these businesses properly, but they indicate someone is interested in the future and planning for bigger things like better construction and export industries. I saw a lot of what I thought to be unemployed young men and women but I hoped they would soon find a better future.
We stopped after about 1 ½ hours of riding at the Old Belize shop and Marina area. Marilyn had some trouble navigating the potholed entrance but we moved on through a large open parking area past a few dozen boats in the marina and locked the bikes to one another at a rack in front of a museum-like 1 to 2 story wooden building and found the bar-restaurant looking out over a beach with a simple amusement park.
We planned to replenish liquids before taking off for another hour or so before returning for something a little more substantial. This time we each had a “light” coke ($1.25), and shared a yummy key lime pie. It looked authentic—it wasn’t green. The rest felt good. The menu seemed encouraging.
We took off for another bit of riding but Marilyn began immediately indicating this was not going to be a full hour out and back. She suggested a half hour out and I agreed. We passed a short stretch of road improvement and a bridge while I looked for a lagoon or lake I saw on the map when I was searching last night. First I only spied some rivers or drainage ditches carrying water to the ocean from the lowlands inland and then I actually saw what the map was indicating. Apparently it is a salt water lake. I was reminded how low this entire area really was and how susceptible it was to hurricane-blown surges of the salt water. I realized how much it took to build here, first filling in the land to mitigate the near-surface water table, and then constructing with hurricanes in mind. The place looked a little like Guam which frequently gets hit by 200 mph typhoons, blowing the tops off all trees reaching up too high. Here in Belize I saw few trees stretching more than 10-15 feet high. I had heard that this place has been decimated several times in the past ten years and now I could believe it. I saw several homes built or being built on cement columns stretching at least 10-15 feet above the surface. This is reasonable planning for Belize weather.
At one point, I called back to Marilyn that we might turn around at a red and white radio tower off in the distance. But less than thirty minutes out from our rest stop we passed the tower and I kept going. After about 1 or 1 ½ miles, I looked back and found no Marilyn to be seen. Quickly I figured out she probably stopped and I made a u-turn, explaining to a couple waiting at a bus stop that my wife seem to have been lost. Seeing the red and white tower, I figured out what had happened and eventually spied Marilyn’s bike standing along the road. As I approached, I could see her waiting under another bus shelter talking to someone waiting for a bus. As I approached, Marilyn broke off her conversation and mounted her bike heading back toward Belize City.
We returned to “Old Belize” after a half hour ride. Marilyn seemed to be slowing down and I was concerned that she was getting dehydrated under the hot sun. When we reached the restaurant, I made sure she took in plenty of cold liquids, and she agreed that she felt much better after the drinks. I ordered a diet coke and a Belikin beer and Marilyn also had a diet coke. The Belikin beer, which is advertised throughout the area, is small, just 9 ounces. Odd. We ordered an appetizer of ground fish and corn meal called panades along with the special of whole fish with coconut topping. They brought a bowl of tortilla chips and a bowl of beans for dipping. This really hit the spot. When the waiter brought the food, he apologized that they were out of panades and set down the fish platter. We have to get better with the pictures. Here is the residue of our meal. We’ll try to have a before picture in the future. It looked and tasted wonderful. Served with rice and beans, this fare rivaled whole fish I have had at some of the best restaurants in Hawaii. The outside was crisp and the flesh moist. The food was accompanied by a duo playing a marimba and a turtle shell. The music fit in perfectly. As we were ready to leave, Marilyn visited the rest room and I looked out to sea just in time to see a brown pelican diving into the ocean offshore. I thought that this combination of music, food, and nature was just what I was looking for in Belize—perfect.
We remounted our bikes for the trek back, refreshed and satisfied. On the way back through town, we stopped to see if Marilyn could find a replacement for her riding/running shoes which were dangerously close to their end of life. Yesterday, the heal came off. We had seen a few shoe stores in Belize City on the way out and decided to try one. We got a suggestion which took us off the original route but needed two more sets of directions before we found a lane of shoe stores. Marilyn tried first one, then another, but couldn’t find anything to her liking. I must admit they seemed to have a limited selection of women’s shoes and an even more limited set of sizes. She actually tried on shoes at a second store while I watched over the bikes. A tall man who had suggested the first store began a conversation with me and I felt comfortable telling him about Hawaii and our bargain on the cruise package. I think I would have been comfortable having dinner with him, although I was reminded of my earlier searches about Belize and unsavory characters offering help to travelers. I think my good impression was much closer to reality than the bad impression left with the commenter.
We returned to the cruise ship tender area and found several persons interested in our bicyclecruising. These people ranged from security guards to vendors and many cruse ship passengers. In the tender and back on the ship, the interest in our bicycles and our use of them continued, leaving me with the impression that several people may try this their next time out. I hope they check this blog!