Unspoiled natural beauty is the appeal of this small Central American country nestled between Mexico and Guatemala along the Caribbean Sea. It features the MesoAmerican Reef, the longest coral reef in the northern hemisphere–about 200 miles–and second largest in the world. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia–over 300 miles–is the longest. We snorkeled there in 2006. In fact, the driving factor for this Bucket List item was to compare the former to the latter.
Portions of the Reef, where we snorkeled, are less than a mile offshore. Sadly, this part has been damaged by excessive tourism and overfishing, and lacks the intense color we saw in Australia; however, we’re told that the parts further offhore are more colorful–not sure if we’ll get out that far. However, the sealife is plentiful and colorful, and the water is warm and calm.
Shark Alley is an especially exciting snorkeling spot. The reef is only five to ten feet deep and there are many fish and nurse sharks; rays and sea turtles, though not as plentiful, are common to spot.
We spent 21 days on two islands a few miles offshore–Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker (see my previous blogs to learn about those) in the northern part of Belize. We were told by locals that there are some beautiful islands in the southern part as well, close to Guatemala–reason to return for another trip!
On the mainland, rainforests and Mayan ruins offer further adventure and a sense of history. We spent the last three days of our trip in Belize City visiting some of these. On an all-day private tour, we visited the archeological site at Altun Ha and then went cave tubing in Cayo, a few miles away from the Mayan site.
Altun Ha, an ancient Mayan village, is located about 30 miles north of Belize City. About 25 miles square, the site was inhabited from about 900 B.C. to 1,000 A.D. According to our guide Joel, only about 3% of the site has been excavated and only two areas are open for tourists to explore. To say that the ruins are amazing is an understatement—seeing what those ancient people did with what they had to work with is phenomenal. Learning about the amazing accuracy of the calendar they developed, and how they engineered the acoustics around the temples blows the mind–you can clap your hands at one end and hear the echo at the other.
The Sun Gold’s Temple is the largest pyramid we saw–about 53 ft tall, and half as wide. Its magnificence is best observed from a distance–it is incredibly complex, with several layers and even an archway (in the lower left of the picture below, just over the heads of the two men standing there). The top is flat, and contains the remains of an altar that was used for (non-human) sacrifices to the gods. (Interestingly, they not only worshipped the sun and gods in the heavens, but also the gods of the underworld.)
Carvings of gods have been uncovered on several buildings. They are rectangular in shape, with long ears that denote the importance of being heard from a distance. Apparently, the priests blocked their ears when they spoke so as to hear how they articulated and, therefore, could be heard when speaking from the top of the temples.
I was very happy that we had opted for a private tour as it was very hot and humid that day, as it was most days of the trip, and we were able to do things at our pace–slowly. When we left Altun Ha, we were so ready to go cave tubing and cool off!
TUBING ALONG THE CAVES BRANCH RIVER
After a 40-minute hike through rainforest and across two narrow rivers, we got to the entrance of the cave. Using inner tubes and tethered to our guide, we floated along the Caves Branch River through a huge underground cave for about 40 minutes. The only lighting was from little headlamps on the helmets we were required to wear. Joel aptly pointed out shapes such as dolphin, a man and a woman, an eagle and more carved into the rocks over thousands of years. Without the lights, it was pitch black and a bit eery.
The water was quite shallow–no more than three or four feet–and crystal clear so that you could see the polished rocks on the bottom. We glided along for the most part, with Joel occasionally towing us.
He told us that the Mayan worshiped gods of the underworld with ceremonies held within these caves–somehow they had devised torches for lighting their way through, another example of skills this amazing civilization developed.
Belize City itself was a disappointment. Basically, it is a crowded, dirty city with a high crime rate. According to its own website: downtown streets were designed by colonizers for bicycles and mule and carts, not for today’s vehicles. So they are all one ways, at odd angles at every turn. There are potholes that could swallow small cars, poor or no drainage, missing or unreadable street signs.
The crime rate is so high that cops and paramilitary ride around on ATV’s chasing gangs as part of the city life. In fact, we were warned by taxi drivers, tour guides, and hotel staff not to walk around at night.
Tourism began as a a major industry in the 1960s. There is a Tourist District along the seafront populated with world-wide retail establishments like Diamond International, Del Sol, and others that we had seen in every port during our Alaska cruise as well. There are also some major chain resorts and hotels such as the Radisson, Best Western, and the Ramada.
The City comes alive when cruise ships are in port. Tour buses appear out of nowhere and street vendors sell everything from handmade jewelry, wood carvings and tourist knickknacks. During these days (generally three a week) police officers are very visible and looking out for the well-being of tourists.
This city is not for everyone. But is does offer an interesting if gritty look at an old city that today remains the main population center and commercial hub of Belize.
This is the end of my series on Belize. Next major trip planned is a river cruise through Eastern Europe in the Fall. Stay tuned….