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The Belgian Trail

I was advised to stay at villa Boscardi when arriving in Belize City. The owner, a Belgian lady, offers a charming room in the garden house of her villa. It lies in the residential part at the north of Belize City. I had paid a visit to the city earlier but was far from impressed: ran down buildings, open sewers and begging drug addicts.

Belize 1

From what I had read on the internet I understood that the nicer part of Belize lies in the south of the country. Ambergis Key, an island at the north of Belize City, is popular with tourists, but most agree that it is too crowded. Placencia is often mentioned as a quiet village with a beautiful sandy beach and a range of sea activities, its Cockscombe Reserve in the vicinity (the only national park in the world where the jaguar survives in the wild) and a lot of Mayan villages in the neighborhood. Also San Ignacio in the Maya Mountains is often praised for its Mayan cultural remains, caves and wild rivers.

But before visiting the country I wanted to take some rest and do some sunbathing on a beach. Hence I headed for Placencia, which lies some 150 miles south of Belize City. One drives first to Belmopan, the smallest capital in the world with its 7000 inhabitants, newly built after hurricane Hattie in 1961, which devastated a large part of Belize City. The highway from there to the southern part of the East coast, the Hummingbird Highway, is a pearl. It swings through the Maya Mountains in an alternation of rain forest and orange groves over numerous brooks with here and there wooden houses, some villages and 2 large orange juice factories.

Belize 2

At the end of this road lies the junction with the southern highway which must bring us to Placencia. We drive at the foot of the Maya Mountains and discover the 10 000 ft high Victoria Peak dominating this mountain range.

The sign post for Placencia brings us on a dirt road, mostly in rather good condition, but with here and there potholes and boulders which are demanding for your suspension. It’s surprising to see all the building of dream houses that’s going on along this road on the peninsula. Evidently there are only a few places in the world where one can still build a house at the beach for an affordable price.  We pass Seine Bight, a village mainly inhabited by black Garifunas, direct descendants of the African slaves, introduced by the English for their mahogany trade.

Before entering in Placencia village we were intrigued by a peculiar sign pointing to a “Belgian Café”, which we wanted to try out, knowing the quality of the Belgian food. And yes, once again I stood in front of a Belgian which runs a hotel (Michelo) with a café where one can drink Brussels beer, eat toasted sandwiches, salads and delicious pastry. Amazing to run into a second Belgian the second day I am in Belize, especially that Belgium is a small country and really far away. But what a welcome change with what I had drunk and eaten up to now. Also the studios which he lets are beautiful, neat and safe, and not even so much more expensive than most of the wooden cabanas in the village. I have outgrown the age to share my room with cockroaches, scorpions, tarantulas and sand flies, which constantly bite you.

Belize 3

The village with its mainly wooden houses is unique and the bay unforgettable. The concrete path along the beach, the Sidewalk, is recorded, according to the locals, in the Guinness Book of Records as the narrowest street in the world. Lots of catamarans are based here with which one can sail to the atolls on the largest coral reef of the northern hemisphere. But one finds also possibilities at will to fish, snorkel, dive and to make excursions on boats which sail the rivers in the rain forest. From February to June one can admire on the reef the largest fish in the world which nowhere else in the world can be seen with almost absolute certainty: the whale shark. Also dolphins and manatees can be seen regularly if you go on the water.

Belize 4

I went 2 days sunbathing on the beach and you do not get tired swimming in water of 80 degrees (28°C). It is also quite pleasant sunbathing on an almost empty beach without shrieking children and a sea of beach chairs like in Europe. That is rather typical in this part of the world: Americans, representing a large part of the tourists here, hardly sunbathe on the beach, because, having much less holidays than the Europeans, they want an active holiday going on to trips, diving, sailing or fishing.

At about 6 o’clock in the afternoon at sunset the happy hour starts in the bars along the beach. It is unbelievable how communicative people are here. Everybody wants to talk with you: the locals, the tourists and the recent settlers. In a couple of evenings you can get acquainted with a dozen of people and you get to know nearly everything there is to know about Belize. From the recent settlers you learn the most. These mostly retired people from Canada and the United States have a wealth of time and find it exhilarating to counsel the visitor.

I have decided to go fishing. With one guide and 2 Italians we went with a small high-speed motorboat direction coral reef. With the fishing gear on board I have caught four fishes whilst the experienced Italians didn’t get any. Mind you, I didn’t catch barracudas, but a tuna, a snapper, a pike and another long fish, which we returned to the sea. In the hotel the spouse of Michel, the Belgian hotel owner, has marinated them and the next day we had a delicious raw fish starter with our meal.

Another day of sunbathing and then I went sailing with John, an experienced yachtsman, whom I had met the evening before in the Barefoot bar. We got the companionship of 2 dolphins which have followed us all the time. And we even saw the nose of a manatee appearing on the surface.

Belize 5

The next day we went up the Monkey River. It is an excursion of some five hours on the river which swings through the rain forest. We saw hundreds of birds, crocodiles and turtles and walked in the rain forest in search of the howler monkeys. The guide could imitate their roar and as a result, they showed up in the nearby trees. Very instructive what that man told us about the rain forest.

I also wanted to have a look inland. I therefore drove to the Cockscombe reserve about 35 miles of Placencia, where the jaguar lives. It is not easy to see the animal, because he hunts at night. A guide showed us numerous medicinal plants which still are used by the local population. We then went tubing on the river along that impenetrable rain forest. Heavenly quiet. Later we went direction water falls of which one can slide down with a refreshing plunge as a final result.

Belize 6

Driving back I stopped in a Maya village. Their pieces of land and houses are extremely tidy, even if they live under a palapa on stamped soil. Those palm leave roofs are very refreshing and can perfectly keep the rain out for about thirty years. I have met a man who has extensively explained to me its way of life and culture. They live essentially of the products of nature, but it would lead us too far to go over everything he said, but it was really worth listening to him.

Michel told me that there is another Belgian running a jungle resort at Black rock in the Maya Mountains. In the vicinity there are beautiful Maya ruins and caves which are worth visiting. I should also have a look out there at the Mennonites, whose origins go back to the Fries population in Holland and Germany.

Thus I left the next day to Actun Tunichil Muknal on the road between Belmopan and San Ignacio. After a walk through the jungle, where we had to wade through the river 3 times, we arrived at the cave. Equipped with a helmet with lamp we swim into the cave. Once inside with our lamp, we see beautiful stone formations with all kinds of colors . We see also dozens of pots, skulls and remains of human that were sacrificed to the gods. Three hours later we are glad to see the daylight again.

Then I headed to Spanish Lookout, the residence of the largest Mennonite community in the country. It is an area on a plateau of the Maya Mountains and reminded me of Switzerland with its neat houses and beautiful gardens. It is the centre of the livestock-farming and crude oil was found there. The Mennonites are usually blond and although most of them live as we do, there is a core which refuses modernity (horse and hamper instead of car) and where the women bare long clothing with caps on their head, the men with straw cap, chequered shirt and suspenders. They told me that they ended up here after a hundred-year-long roaming around through Poland, Canada and Mexico.

Belize 8

There was just time enough leaving Spanish Lookout to get at Black Rock over a small rock path along the river. The hotel of Wim and Chantal lies in a wonderful setting and the country cottages, although in wood, are charming and very neat (we wonder what chemicals are needed to keep it free of insects in the rain forest). But it is the rain forest and sitting outside in the evening is not advised, except if you are immune against the caustic insects.

Belize 9

You can reach the Xunantunich temple crossing the river along the western Highway near San Ignacio. Climbing the main building (el Castillo) is not an easy job because it is very steep. But on the top you can see some carvings, which have been restored to their original state, suggesting what the entire building must have looked like. Above there the rain forest panorama is impressive.

Belize 10

On the way back to Placencia we stop at the blue hole. It is essentially a delicious walk of 3km through the rain forest with as end destination a round blue pond in which one can have a delicious swim.

Back in Placencia I decided to snorkel around one of the atolls on the coral reef. It was March and then the largest fish in the world can be seen here: the whale shark. He weighs around 7 tons and feeds himself with plankton and fish eggs. We were lucky to see two of them. This is one of the very few places in the world where you can almost certainly see them  around full moon between February and June. It is not an aggressive type of shark and they are not disturbed by the presence of dozens of snorkelers and divers. Outside this extraordinary fish we saw hundreds of species of tropical fish around the coral reef. You don'y have to be a diver to be able to enjoy the scenery, although of course the coral reef here is a paradise for divers.

Belize 11

A holiday has always an end. Leaving Placencia I had the feeling that this place could be for me an ideal place to retire in a couple of years. No traffic-jams, no pollution, no agitation, accommodating people, and fundamentally cheaper to live than where I live.

Marie-Jeanne
mjattenelle@hotmail.com

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