Saturday, December 8, 2018

A Recap of November 2018 - Part III

Week Four

As I mentioned at the end of my previous post, when I arrived in Hopkins, Belize on November 20th it was obvious that I was in a community with a different culture and background than the other parts of Central America that I had visited up to this point. From the color of their skin to the sound of their language to the style of their dwellings, the Garifuna retain many traditions of their past. If you would like to learn more about this unique group of people, this site has a good overview: Global Sherpa.
These local girls (and sometimes boys) rode around town on bicycles most afternoons
selling homemade empanadas, Johnnycakes and baked goods like coconut muffins. 
After settling in at the hostel, I went for a walk around town and stopped at one of the three grocery stores. Over the next few days I discovered that all of the grocery stores in Belize (at least in the towns I visited) are owned by Asians. They can be quite interesting to explore due to the inexplicable decision to put consumables directly adjacent to, for example, polyurethane varnish. Most of the canned items were rusted, sometimes severely, due to the high humidity. I ultimately decided to make a pot of soup for dinner and then discovered that the style I wanted, which had collard greens and white beans and was sold in a sealed pouch similar to Knorr brand noodles in the U.S., was 18 months past its "best by" date. The cashier offered to sell me the soup at a significant discount so I decided to take my chances since it, theoretically, wasn't a perishable food product. Back at the hostel, I cooked the soup as directed. The end result had a nice flavor but looked nothing like the photo on the package and had the consistency of soupy corn meal. Thankfully, I suffered no intestinal issues as a result of this meal. Being a budget-minded traveler, I even ate the leftovers for lunch the next day!
These cans of sausages were not expired,
just severely rusted from the high humidity.
I spent the next morning researching my onward travel plans since I hadn't booked anything else beyond the two night stay in Hopkins. This included my plans for the following day which would be Thanksgiving in the U.S. I had just talked to Greg a few days before on his birthday, so I called my grandmother and chatted with her for 30 minutes, and then tried to call my mom but didn't reach her or my stepdad. I also wrote and published a short blog post: Happy Thanksgiving from Belize. That afternoon I borrowed a rusty single speed bike from the hostel and explored the extended reaches of Hopkins on my own, no map or guidebook needed since you basically can't get lost!
I biked to a more remote part of the beach in Hopkins.
That evening, after returning the bike to the hostel, I decided to treat myself to a nice meal at a nearby restaurant. I had grilled fish topped with mango salsa, coconut rice, and steamed vegetables. I even splurged on a fresh coconut margarita. It was a delicious meal that I enjoyed while watching the almost full moon rise over the Caribbean Sea.
My delicious meal at The Coconut Husk restaurant.
The next morning, two of my hostelmates and I got up early as planned and took the 7:00 a.m. local bus out to the highway to catch a connecting bus heading south. We reached Maya Center Village at 7:45 a.m. and unfortunately, though we had hoped to catch a ride down the rough dirt road the remaining six miles into Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, no inbound vehicles went by for almost 30 minutes. Not wanting to waste any more time, we reluctantly paid $40 Belizean ($20 U.S.) for a taxi, which is the standard rate. We were in the park by 9:00 a.m. and started our first hike shortly after checking in at the ranger station. As it happened, the Belize Audubon Society was in the process of doing a three day bird count and we were allowed to tag along on a net run with Luti, a park ranger and bird guide, and some volunteers.
Luti (R) and a volunteer (L) banding two birds for the Belize Audubon Society.
After getting a close look at some birds being banded, we set off on our own on the Wari Loop Trail. Not too far down the trail I stepped in some taller grass to avoid the mud. Melanie was a few feet behind me and I heard her shout as she walked in the same spot I had. A huge spider the size of my hand had jumped out beside her foot!
This is the tarantula Brachypelma vagans I almost stepped on!
After having a good look (from a safe distance) at the spider, we vowed to be more cautious about where we stepped, and then continued on through sometimes deep mud all the way to the river tubing area. There we spotted many more colorful birds in the surrounding trees. We doubled back to the main trail and a bit farther on we reached the starting point for the Victoria Peak Path, which requires a guide. We returned to the ranger station and then hiked the opposite direction on the Waterfall Trail. After taking a break at the small waterfall and, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, sharing snacks with a family from Indianapolis, I decided not to continue up the even steeper Ben's Bluff Trail. Instead, I walked back to the ranger station on my own where I planned to reconnect with Luti for a guided birdwatching hike.
Kristel and Melanie cool off near the waterfall.
Ultimately the Audubon volunteers decided they were tired from a full day of bird banding and the hike was canceled. I waited for Kristel and Melanie to return from Ben's Bluff and then, having no other option than to spend another $40 Belizean on a taxi, we hitched a ride on Luti's 4-wheeler all the way back to Maya Village Center. Yes, five full-size adults somehow managed to fit on a standard-size 4-wheeler and to ride six miles on a bumpy dirt road without falling off! We even stopped for a few minutes to check out the wreckage of a small plane crash that occurred in the jungle in 1983 while the founder of the wildlife preserve was tracking jaguars. We also saw a large snake (most likely an Indigo) quickly moving off the road as we approached.
Then, continuing to "do as the locals do," we hitchhiked from there to Hopkins in the back of a pickup truck! The driver, who works for a hotel in Hopkins, also stopped along the way to pick up a huge bag of oranges that were propped against a fence (obviously a planned delivery) and at a roadside stand for fresh tamales. We couldn't resist the chance to have a cheap meal so we hopped out and bought some, too. The tamales, plus a few beers from the grocery store, and later, a walk to Nice Cream with Melanie for some homemade soursop ice cream, was my Thanksgiving dinner.
L to R: Melanie, me, and Kristel hitchhiking near Hopkins, Belize.
Selfie credit to Melanie.
Friday morning I again got up early, along with pretty much everyone else staying at the hostel, to catch the 7:00 a.m. bus out to the main road. I then transferred to the southbound bus and took it all the way to its termination at Punta Gorda, a ride of about three hours. The driver blasted horrible electronic-overlaid pop music in Spanish the entire time. Unfortunately I was sitting at the back of the bus where it was loudest because I wanted to keep an eye on my suitcase. That's because people actually open the back door to get on or off when the bus is full, even though it is a good three-foot drop to the road with no steps other than a small trailer hitch.
Repurposed school buses serve as public transportation all over Central America.
I arrived in Punta Gorda at noon in the steamy tropical heat of midday. Thankfully I was able to check into my air-conditioned private hotel room right away. This is something that I normally would not have paid extra for, but as there are no true budget options like hostels in PG, I didn't have a choice. I decided to go ahead and walk down to the port to verify my travel options for the next day. Normally the boat only goes to Livingston, Guatemala on Tuesdays and Fridays but thankfully they were running at least one boat each way daily due to the Garifuna Settlement Day holiday which is observed on different dates one week apart in the two countries. I bought my ticket, got all the information I needed to prepare for the border crossing process on both ends, and then took a quick walk around town before retiring to the hotel to relax and enjoy the cooling AC in my room.
The Family Court building in Punta Gorda, Belize.
As my boat was not until 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, I decided to go for a longer walk around town the next morning. I left my luggage with the hotel manager and then ate a huge breakfast burrito at a nearby local spot he recommended. After walking around for about an hour as the temperature continued to rise (daily highs the whole time I was near the Caribbean were over 90F and the "feels like" temperature was closer to 100F), I spent my remaining Belizean dollars on a couple of bottles of beer and then returned to the hotel to drink them in their slightly cooler (but not air-conditioned) reception area. Then I walked the few blocks to the port with all of my luggage and paid the $40 Belizean exit fee to leave the country.
The immigration building at the port in Punta Gorda, Belize.
After getting my passport stamped, I went out to board the boat and only then realized how small it was. When I saw all the luggage, food, boxes of unknown items, and all the people that would be getting on the boat I was shocked. We left 30 minutes late because it took that much longer to get everything loaded and secured in the front of the boat. The pile of luggage was much higher than our heads! Thankfully the water was calm and the crossing only took about 45 minutes. Still, as we were all crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, wearing bulky life jackets, and with no way to move around, I sure was glad to get off the boat in Livingston and stretch out my legs!
Yes, I put on my life jacket after this picture was taken!
By now, if you've read all of my recent blog posts, you may be wondering why I didn't spend more time in Belize (only six days and nights total) and specifically, why I didn't go out to the famous diving and snorkeling or beach spots like Caye Caulker. The reality is that, as I expected, the cost of traveling in Belize was pretty much double everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala. Where a bed in a hostel dorm in those countries averaged $7.50 (U.S) per night, the same type of accommodation in Belize was at least $16 (U.S.) and that's in the less touristy places I chose to visit. Food, whether groceries or restaurant meals, was also twice as expensive. Honestly, I had no desire to spend time and money at a more touristy beach destination plus, knowing that many cruise ships call on Belize as part of their Caribbean itineraries, there is a decent chance I will be back in the area someday (and not on a backpacker's budget like I am now).
Add this up and divide by two; that's the equivalent in U.S. dollars.
Once again, this post has gotten too long to continue, so I will leave off here and write one more, separate post about the remainder of November 2018.

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