Chetumal, Quintana Roo: The vast lagoons between Bacalar on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and the open Caribbean Sea are famous for their many colours. They glisten in a frothy white over green and in hues of violet and blue. Only those in the know can find the way to the [Caribbean] sea or to the Hondo River, which forms the border between Mexico and Belize. At times, the water is only a half metre deep and the driver has to operate very carefully to avoid running aground on sand.
Caution is advised particularly in the canals between the gradually widening lagoons where there are snakes, crocodiles and swimming armadillos. Often nets have been put in the canals without permission to block out fish.
"We tear them up," said José, the captain, an employee of the government of the state of Quintana Roo. "But a few days later the nets are back again."
The boat trip from Bacalar to the Hondo River takes about two hours. It is the only route between the Caribbean and Bacalar, where the Spanish built the fortress San Felipe in the mid-18th century.
Invaders were often pirates taking orders from England who sought to drive inland to capture native people and force them into slavery. They first had to anchor their ships near the modern-day city of Chetumal, 40 kilometres to the south, before the wide mouth of the Hondo River and then paddle small boats through the lagoon and the shallow canals before they encountered another human soul.
The Hondo River separates Belize, the former British Honduras, from Mexico. The area is a true alternative to the pretentious and sophisticated luxury tourist palaces in Cancun and on the Maya Riviera. The government of Quintana Roo is working on developing corresponding ideas and offers for visitors.
Mass tourism is not envisioned for the area, and is hopefully not an idea that's waiting to be implemented. The historical Mayan site of Kohunlich with its famous mask pyramid is located here, deep in the jungle on the Mexican side. Another hidden attraction is the waterlogged cave known as Golden Crocodile in a cliff about 70 metres high.
Not far away is an adventure camp built by well-known environmentalist Ernesto Parra [My note: better known as Maleno Parra].
"From here we do tours through the jungle, on the Hondo River and to Belize," said Parra, an employee of the tourist bureau in Chetumal. He serves people from all over the world who get a chance to spend a few days close to nature. And in the future they will have the opportunity to glide over the river in environmentally friendly house boats - so-called aqua lodges - the way "mensajeros de salud" people who looked after the medical needs of the remote settlements, once did.
To avoid Chetumal, and the coast on the way back to Belize, head to the town of La Unión. It is the furthest-most Mexican border point on the Hondo River and not far from Guatemala. Small boats bring visitors across the river to Belize, where a customs officer only occasionally shows up. On the other side lies Blue Creek, the land of the Mennonites, who arrived in 1958 from northern Mexico.
And they have transformed the rest of the jungle, left behind after the exploitation of the tropical forest by British wood exporters, into prospering farmland. The families in the Mennonite communities in Blue Creek have planted straight rows of corn, rice, beans, grain and many more crops in the fields.
The Mennonites also produce beef and dairy products, and for the last five years they have operated a huge chicken factory. They also export papayas to the United States. They have construction companies, and are also in the shrimp-farming business.
To the South of Shipyard, a village in the Orange Walk District is a large community of "old" Mennonites who still get around by horse and cart.
Still farther south lies one of the most impressive Mayan sites in the region. Lamanai is spread out along the west bank of the New River Lagoon near Indian Church. As the roads are in poor condition, the rivers are the most pleasant way of reaching Lamanai and generally to experience the interior of Belize. The rivers also support the traditional pastime of fly fishing, especially at the Belize River site of the time-honoured Belize Fishing Lodge.