Wednesday, May 20, 2015

This place is unbelizable

After donating just a little more blood to the local skeeters in Sarteneja, the next stop in Belize was Hopkins, a small coastal town, with a strong Garifuna culture still present. We felt like we had been transported to an island somewhere between the Caribbean and Africa, very different from the Latin American feel! The Garifuna people are descendants of African slaves who survived a shipwreck almost 400 years ago and eventually found their way to Belize. Some of their culture remains today especially in the forms of music, food, and language. Recently travelers have found their way into Hopkins, but it still very much feels unsaturated by tourism, despite the few backpacker joints on the main drag. Basically, it hasn't lost its rustic small town feel, but has just enough development to make us not stick out like a sore thumb among the locals. This was our kind of place for a few days!

Task #1 find a super budget sleeping arrangement to start making up for our diving costs... So something along the lines of FREE! We attempted 5 different places possible for camping but each one either smelled like a nearby septic leak, just flat out didn't look appealing, or was on the verge of a mosquito D-day invasion. Things were not looking good, and the guys (Leah and Mallary's chafuers for their endless hunt for the perfect place to camp) were getting perturbed with the ladies. "Whats wrong with this place? We can only search for so long! Thats enough, lets just stay here" The girls didn't give up though, and followed their intuition for one last cruise down a beach road, and thats when they spotted a yellow restaurant hanging out over the water, The Swinging Armadillo. Pulling up revealed that it was under construction and we asked the owner, Ted, if we could camp there. Ted apologetically said "There is nowhere to camp here." But after looking around we saw there was open beachfront property on either side, and we unashamedly asked who it belonged to. Ted said that it's public beach and after thinking about our situation he said we could camp for free on the beach if we ordered food at his restaurant tomorrow since it was going to be the grand opening. (Really we just needed a locals blessing to make camp on their public beach). Score!

Our budget balancing campsite. Note the palapa full of locals behind us in the bottom left
We made ourselves at home despite us being a tourist attraction for the locals who had a gathering point directly behind us and seemed to be watching our every move like we were the next blockbuster Hollywood hit. They were curious of our lounging in hammocks, making minor car repairs, and our ability to cook and clean dishes from the back of our cars and soon word spread through town. It wasn't long before folks showed up selling their prized chicken tamales or hand woven baskets which we partook in for a fraction of the cost of in-town prices.

Kids to play with the dog, fresh tamales, hand made baskets, and even a veggie truck in the street, oh my!
We could have lived like kings forever with our freshly delivered food, but we eventually ventured out to find the most genuine Garifuna food in town, Innie's. Innie and her husband served us up their most popular dish, Hudutu, which was whole Snapper in a bowl with coconut broth, mashed plantains, and casava bread on the side. Mmm mmm good! Next on the agenda was to head to the Sew Much Hemp Store for natural bug repellent and some much needed after bite salve. Here we got schooled about the magical hemp plant and all it's uses. Why is such a valuable plant illegal to grow in the US? You'll have to come down and stop by the magical hemp bus to find out! Final stop for the day to satisfy Mallary was Herbal Healer Tea Bar! The lovely folks here gave us a tour of their property explaining the medicinal use of the couple dozen plants they grew. Mallary was in heaven and asked if she could move in with them! They said yes, and Mallary seriously considered it until some fire ants protested by biting our toes... so instead we just enjoyed some lime leaf and almond leaf teas and stocked up on a few dried herbs for the road!
Hemp and tea, lucky me!
That night was finally the opening night for Ted's restaurant! We were just as excited as him, as we had been enthusiastic onlookers to the final preparations for opening night since we arrived! We partook in his delicious BBQ food and danced to some Garifuna drum beats with Belizean rum and music flowing through our bodies.
A taste of Garifuna

After two nights in Hopkins we said goodbye to the beach and moved inland to Mayflower National Park. This small park turned out to be a pleasant surprise (for some of us, guess who) as it was littered with unexcuvated ruins, jungle wildlife, and hiking trails. It had been five days since either of us had a shower so upon entering the park Chris asked if there was some water nearby he could jump in to freshen up. The ranger pointed out past the office and said there was a stream just a few paces into the jungle that would be suitable. Without wasting time Chris darted down to the water alone and jumped in. After a minute or two he happened to scan the bank and see something that no swimmer ever wants to see... semi-cloaked by jungle foliage was a crocodile only 15' away! In a moment of shock and fear that nearly made him run on water while craping and peeing himself at the same time, he quickly made it back on land, and started bragging about his close encounter. Mallary then scolded him, felt bad for all the years his mother had to put up with these shenegans, and stayed far far away from that little creek the rest of the day! Back to the matter at hand, hiking, and in this part of the world the first thing to do is DEET UP. Preferably the stuff that melts plastic, top shelf deet is a must. After sufficiently putting on the goods, we set out for a nice day hike, and bam, maybe ten steps along a trail was the most dangerous snake in all of all the America's, the Fer-de-lance!! It didn't seemed bothered by us, and held it's ground forcing us to cautiously go around it. Known for it's bite first, ask questions later attitude, it accounts for more human fatalities in North/South America then any other snake. This place just keeps getting better (for some of us that is). The rest of the hike brought us up steeply alongside a waterfall, with Chris leading the pack we all felt safe from any more creepy crawlers and were rewarded with a refreshing swim at the top of the falls. Back at camp that night Mallary and Leah took refuge in a little screened in room (as usual) while the guys continued their endless hunting for all things that freak the girls out... Just one example being the gerbil sized tarantula that just so happened to be chillin in the girls bathroom... Debilitating the ladies from using the toilet the rest of the night! Doesn't this place just sound wonderful?

Welcome to the jungle. We've got fun and games....and the deadliest snake of the America's.
Mallary of the Jungle

One of us reluctant to leave, and the other ready to get the hell out of the jungle, we said gooddbye to Mayflower and all its critters. We were ready to explore the cave region of Belize. We haphazardly entered some coordinates into the GPS and made our way through dirt roads to a place that no longer existed. Oops, we should have consulted google once we saw the last review was 3 years ago, and noted for the future to pay more attention! Nevertheless, things worked out and we found a nearby eco/adventure lodge at the mouth of Barton Creek Cave. Once the site of Mayan rituals, it now allows for some neat canoe expeditions inside of it. The owner gave us free camping and a killer deal on the cave canoeing that we couldn't refuse, not to mention his place had a honor code self serve bar and satellite tv at our disposal! We can deal with gigantic grasshoppers, hoards of roaches, and ginormous scorpions in exchange for a little beer and TV! Next morning we said hello to some Toucans passing by, donned our life vests, and paddled into the cave. We carefully maneuvered our way around crazy formations that glittered under our spotlights and even at times ducking down in the canoe to pass under low hanging stalactites.

Oregon Trail, Belize edition
Mouth of Barton Creek Cave
Canoe spelunking?
Hungry for more adventure, as usual, we ditched the safety net of beer and tv and drove into the adjoining Pine Mountain Forest Reserve. Getting there was easy, but only because Lola was built to own steep switchbacks and rutted up, rocky mountain roads! Gas stations do not exist outside the confines of paved roads forcing us to buy some sketchy "bush gas" from someone's backyard. Oops, shoulda filled up our 5 gallon spare while at a real gas station. With fingers crossed that the gas wasn't contaminated or old, we pressed on further. The reserve is home to the tallest waterfall in Central America, stunning pools to swim in, and a surprisingly large pine forest, hence the clever name. It was a much needed relief from the heat and bugs of the jungle. After weeks of dreaming of cool mountain air, we took plently of time to soak it in while drinking tea and viewing the 1,600ft falls from afar. Then we hit up one of our most favorite places yet called the Rio On Pools. Here the pure and clear waters form a series of natural pools, made of smooth dark granite, resembling an expensive countertop, which provided us with natural jacuzzis and back massages under waterfalls! We jumped around on the huge boulders, and slid down granite water slides as if we were kids again. We stayed until dusk caught up with us, and then booked it down to the city to meet back up with Leah and Nick for the last couple days with our travel amigos.
Gasoline from old bleach bottles kept the expedition moving
Rio On Pools
Nature's jacuzzis

Our final Belize layover was the town of San Ignacio, a small tourist destination that attracts people for its proximity to many different guided trips for every taste. Mallary was craving a stroll through a medicinal trail, Chris said "yea right!" and instead was lured by a tour described as ''for the fit and adventurous'' and also one of National Geographics highest ranked caves, Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM for short). Leah and Mallary enjoyed a day of girl talk and found the Medicine Trail, strolled through the jungle learning about all the trees and how the Mayans used them for every ailment, and wondered why we still don't use these natural remedies widely nowadays. We learned about some crazy interesting research into rainforest medicines, and the fact that diseases that modern medicine can't cure could one day be cured by rainforest plants is just amazing. (Kudos to the miracles of modern medicine that I (Mallary) have been witness to in the hospital, but the prospect of new treatments coming out of the lush, but dwindling, rainforests is so exciting!) Meanwhile, Chris' hike involved a few hours of crossing streams, swimming into the mouth of a cave, wading through cold cave water, scrambling up boulders, and climbing up into a chamber that contained the mostly untouched remains of 14 skeletons, sacrificial tools, and countless pottery. It is one of the few places in the world one can explore an archeological site in this manner, it truly was some Indiana Jones type stuff! Sadly, cameras are no longer allowed since someone had dropped their camera onto a skull, puncturing the 1000 year old remains. Pictures below are pulled from Google. The next morning we said goodbye to Belize, thanked them for having toilet seats (unlike most of Mexico), and headed into Guatemala.

Girl time on the Medicinal Trail
Swimming into ATM!
Many Mayans were sacrificed in this chamber of the ATM.
The 1,200 year old crystal maiden. Her bones sparkle when you shine a flashlight on her.















  1. The adventure continues! What was the bigger adrenaline rush, swimming with sharks or the crocodile? Mallary, I feel your pain with Chris and his reptile shenanigans. In his younger years, Chris would have captured the Fer-de-lance and studied it. Hope you have a snake bite kit. Keep safe, Lou & Carol

  2. Wow. What great pictures and stories. I think you should make it into a TV show! Thanks as always for taking the time to share. Have fun and stay safe. Dad J

  3. Hope the fun continues in Guatemala. Good luck incorporating that country's name into a pun for your blog posts.