Discover The Endless Beauty Of Belize
One afternoon I joined a small group going on a catamaran excursion up the Sittee River. Where a caye trip costs upwards of BZ$200 per person (about £62), this three-hour outing was just BZ$25 (£8), and it was a serene alternative to the clamorous diving scene. As the boat chugged up the winding, mirror-calm watercourse, we saw kingfishers flash by and little blue herons and an osprey perched on the banks. An iguana played dead and then suddenly dropped into the water with a splash. In the fading light, the old-growth saltwater mangrove and taller canopy trees glowed lime green, while the river turned an oily black. Jeanie and John served us rum punches and snacks, and played ‘Moon River’ and other old favourites on a ghetto-blaster while the pilot hooked a few small fish.
Super swamp – I hitched a lift south with a friendly Belizean couple from Belmopan. Through the window, the landscape gradually changed from level coastal plains of banana and orange tree plantations to grass-covered undulating hills and then more jagged ridges and small mountains clad in forest. In the west I caught glimpses of higher peaks, marking the Belize-Guatemala border. Rob Hirons, owner of The Lodge at Big Falls, didn’t do hard sell. “Belize is a swamp on the edge of Central America,” he said, while we enjoyed a beer at his bar. “That’s why the Spanish never took control of this country.
That’s why I’m here. I cashed in my overvalued house in Hampshire and bought this cheap land on the banks of the river.” But it was the lack of development that moved Rob and his American wife Marta to make Big Falls their home. “Having concreted over the whole of the east coast of the US, the Americans seem to want to keep going south,” he said, referring to the suburban horror that is the Mexican Mayan Riviera, just north of Belize.
In the tall rosewood and mahogany trees around my lovely chalet, I spotted a black and white owl, a possum, several skittish hummingbirds and gregarious flycatchers. The lodge’s garden is also busy with bromeliads and orchids, including the black orchid – the national flower of Belize. Though there is no ‘big fall’ around here, old British military maps use that name for the area, perhaps an allusion to the river’s movement from high jungle to lowland forest and swamp. It is this transitional quality that fills The Lodge at Big Falls with diverse flora and fauna.
Rob drove me out to the tiny coastal village of Barranco, where we met Joseph Palacio, a respected anthropologist and defender of Garifuna rights. He took me to see the grave of Andy Palacio, the Garifuna musician whose output was being compared with Paul Simon and the Buena Vista Social Club before his untimely death in 2008. Over an early morning stout we chatted about Belize’s restive history, involving British colonials, US confederates, banana planters and the region’s Mayans.
“We Garifuna are root, the Mayans are grain,” said Joseph. “They are perceived as more agricultural than the black Belizeans. We are even more discriminated against than them, but we can learn from the Maya.” Along the main road and the dusty tracks around the lodge I’d seen Mayan-style houses. One of Rob’s excellent guides, Steven Choco, drove me to see the Lubaantun ruin. There were about six of us in the group and we were the only people at the site when we arrived at iiam.
Lubaantun means place of fallen stones’, and is what all the famous sites of Guatemala and Mexico would probably look like without the artful reconstruction and conservation work that has taken place. There were still noticeable pyramidal forms and ballcourts, however, and a certain magic to the ruinous state. Trees were bursting through the tops of some stairways and giant blue morpho butterflies flickered around the cacao trees and jippi jappa palms -from which Steven plucked fruit and edible leaves for us to taste.
Driving from Lubaantun, the road became unpaved and we saw villages of thatched huts that had no electric power. Rice and frijoles – the beans Mayans mix with everything – were spread out to dry along the roadside. The locals still wore indigenous dress. Steven showed us how we could recognise Quiche Mayans by their blue skirts and Mopan Mayans by their brightly coloured dresses. We went for a swim at the Rio Blanco, where a beautiful waterfall tumbled into a cool pool. Swimming into the powerful currents meant you could plough away at your crawl stroke as hard as anything and not move an inch. We lunched up there and watched the local lads drink rum and jump off the falls.
A tale of two countries – I was not wrong about the space-time transit. There are two Belizes: the box-ticking one that packages offshore hotels, expensive diving experiences’ and fancy food – with a monkey sighting thrown in -exclusively for wealthy foreigners; and the real one, which involves meeting locals, moving around slowly and sometimes comfortably, and exploring the multi-layered cultures that make the country so different from all of its neighbours. The latter country is bigger, older, deeper and, happily, cheaper. If you’re planning to spend some time in this edgy swampland, you’re already one step ahead of the conquistadores; just don’t spend all your time underwater.