I can even drive us to the nearest police station, mon!, Our cabbie can even drive us to the nearest police station, mon!, our cabbie tells us as we toast our first Belikin beers in the back of his station wagon. We ask him if it's okay for us to drink in his car and if it really is okay for him to be drinking while driving. Belize is like America, mon. Only, we're more chill here. The boy and I smile at one another. Not even an hour in the country and we're already liking it. We couldn't wait to get to our first destination: the Cayo District. Our itinerary tells us we have to cab it from the airport to downtown Belize City. From there we take another bus to Belmopan, the new Belizean capital. And finally thereīs one more bus to Cayo. The trip would have been cheap but would also have been a two-hour ordeal. We just weren't in the mood to deal with any potential transportation problems. So we took up our driver's offer to drive us straight to Cayo for US$80 -- pretty steep but we're drinking beers in his cab. Aldous Huxley wrote that British Honduras, as Belize was called before its independence in 1981, would certainly be one of the ends of the world. "It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else...it is all but inhabited." With only a population of just over 250,000, Belize remains one of the most relaxed countries in Central America. It is gratifyingly cosmopolitan with a mixed population of black Creoles, Spanish-speaking mestizos, Maya, East Indians, Syrians, Mennonites, Chinese and North Americans. Today, Belize is one of the world's leading ecotourism destinations. We were looking forward to jungle hikes, wildlife and snorkeling around a coral reef whose size trails only Australia's Great Barrier Reef. BZE - Phillip Goldson Airport We took a US Airways flight from Newark to Belize City via Charlotte. Cabs to Belize City All cab rides from the airport to Belize City are US$20. Belikin beers Belize's number one beer. There's also Lighthouse. An hour and a half later with a warm breeze blowing in our faces, the paved road turned into dirt. We have arrived at Caves Branch, our sleeping quarters for the next two nights. Past the small buildings of Belize City and the flatlands surrounding Belmopan, we were now amidst mountains and acres of dense jungle foliage. Caves Branch is owned by Ian Anderson, a cheery Canadian who moved to Belize thirteen years ago and discovered some of the caves near Jungle Creek. Christy checked us in and Pedro offered us our first lunch. Ian Anderson eventually came by to give us his cordial, if not stock, welcome that included a pack of local cigarettes (a godsend for the one half of us that was nicotine-starved). After lunch Christy gave us a tour of the site and showed us our cabana. The next cabana over was sufficiently far away to lend a feeling of complete privacy. Hibiscus flowers were laid on our full-size bed. Though the cabana is constructed with a fine mesh to keep out the mosquitos, we set up our own net over the bed to prepare for the impending insect-feeding hour at dusk. We headed off to the showers. Ample drinking water and hot showers in the middle of a jungle: no small feat, that. Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Mile 41 1/2 Hummingbird Hwy., P.O. Box 356, Belmopan Web: www.cavesbranch.com We rented a Jungle Cabana for two nights for $68 per night. Buffet-style meals are included. Caves Branch sits on a privately-owned 58,000-acre estate and you will be in the middle of the jungle. Showers and toilets are a few yards from your cabana but hot water and clean drinking water are ample. There is maid service and you can pay to have your laundry done. Check the Web site for the tours they offer. What was supposed to be the Jungle Creek river at Caves Branch is now a dry riverbed in the absence of rain. Ian Anderson showed us a photograph of the river: it's at least ten feet deep and you can swing from the ropes and jump into the water. The inhabitants of the jungle interior, both animal and otherwise, desperately await the rain. After unpacking and settling in, we decided to take a dip at the Blue Hole. The afternoon was jungle hot and humid. A swim was in order. A short walk across the highway, we followed the signs to the Blue Hole which is inside a closed park. We didn't expect the Blue Hole to be so...blue. We thought it was just a name. The water was cold and refreshing. Several small fish swam at our feet. We were content to have the Blue Hole to ourselves for the last hour before sunset. (Would you believe me if I told you I saw my first hummingbird? Ah, to grow up in New York City.) Dinner at Caves Branch is buffet-style. All of the Caves Branch guests report back to the main lodge at 6:30pm for dinner. We dined on some soup and vegetables, rice, potatoes, shrimps and pork ribs. We signed up for the Jungle Hike After Dark tour after dinner. At 9pm, we meet with Augustine, our guide for the hike. He equipped us with head lamps and bottles of water. The hike lasted for about three hours, Augustine and our head lamps showing us the way. The canopy is so thick that the stars are hidden from view. Our objective is to spot some of the nocturnal wildlife. So we keep the talking to a minimum. Though we arenīt vocal the animals clearly are. We are far from stealthy as the dry undergrowth snaps under our feet. Every so often we pause and sweep the surroundings with our lamps; bats glide overhead drawn to the insects that are in turn drawn to our lamps. Augustine grew up in the jungles of Guatemala and has been a guide at Caves Branch for a few years. He is clearly at ease and familiar with the terrain. He points out different animals along the way: tarantulas, toads, sleeping rats, roosting pigeons, jesus lizards that are otherwise camouflaged against the twigs and tree bark. But the best discovery was made by the boy -- he whispers for us to stop when he spots two red orbs high in the tree tops. We are told that they are the eyes of whatīs called a gingkachu, a nocturnal fruit-eating mammal. I wasn't too lucky: all I could find were moths. After breakfast the next morning, we join five other people atop a tractor-drawn trailer for a ride to our next tour: the Black Hole Drop. We were to hike in another part of the jungle and rappel down 500 feet into a sinkhole, then hike back. It wasn't even 10am and the sun was already blazing. We drove through an orange orchard and realized that the owner of Caves Branch is not just some guy with a few guest houses in the jungle. We confirm his land ownership later that night which he informs us is leased to orange growers for revenue. I was still a little tired from our hike the night before but I did not expect this hike to be as grueling -- I was completely wrong. The hike to the top of the cliff was about two hours with a lot of steep climbing. I could only imagine how much more difficult it would have been if the boy did not carry all our water. We were sweating buckets! Four guides join us to assist with the actual drop. They turn our attention away from the heat, sweat, and exhaustion by pointing out the different kinds of plants and trees in the jungle. There was the big tree the Mayans consider the tree of life. There were trees with poisonous roots we were warned not to grab onto while we were hiking. There was the thorny tree called Give and Take, aptly named because the thorns will give you pain but only its sap can take the pain away. Our guides use their machetes to hack through the occassional overhanging vine. Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Mile 41 1/2 Hummingbird Hwy., P.O. Box 356, Belmopan Web: www.cavesbranch.com We rented a Jungle Cabana for two nights for $68 per night. Buffet-style meals are included. Caves Branch sits on a privately-owned 58,000-acre estate and you will be in the middle of the jungle. Showers and toilets are a few yards from your cabana but hot water and clean drinking water are ample. There is maid service and you can pay to have your laundry done. Check the Web site for the tours they offer. We reached the top of a sheer limestone wall from which weīd make our drop. Our guides attend to our harnesses and ropes. One of our guides has already gone down to then serve as a belayer for the rest of us. The boy volunteers to go first. None of us really realized how scary it would be until he said, Jesus, when he was finally able to look down. You rappel with your legs against the cliff for about twenty five feet and then you let yourself fall the rest of the way down. You control the give of your rope and it's entirely up to you if you want to slide down fast or stop a few times along the way to take photographs. The photo on the left shows my feet dangling and the rope going all the way down to the ground. After we made it to the bottom, the guides set down a picnic blanket for our lunch. We feasted on boiled eggs, cheese, ham, and vegetables wrapped in tortillas. After a few minutes of rest, we proceeded to the next round of our hike. We visited a couple of caves that honeymooners can opt to camp in for a night. Newlyweds sleep inside the cave on an inflatable mattress while the guides camp outside the mouth of the cave to give them the privacy they need. (Later, we will read a letter in the Caves Branch guestbook with an attached photo of a baby conceived in one of those overnight tours. Oy!) Throughout the entire hike, I drank only two liters of water. I wasn't feeling too thirsty and I didn't want to have to relieve myself off trail. What I did not know was that the effects of dehydration were slowly setting in. I ate well enough during dinner to think that the fatigue I was feeling was just because of my tired legs. But as I did not replenish my body with more water during the night I was soon overcome with bouts of nausea and diarrhea. I was suffering. The next morning, I was weak and withdrawn. Ian Anderson noticed that I was not my usual chatty self during breakfast. He gave me some dehydration salts and ordered me to sip water every few minutes during our trip to our next destination: Caye Caulker. I skipped breakfast because there was just no way I could keep anything down. We were scheduled to catch the Novelos bus back to Belmopan, and then catch another bus to Belize City to the water taxi terminal. But I simply did not have the strength to even stand up. We decided to wait it out until I felt better. We were fortunate that Pedro was headed to Belize City to run some errands. Ian Anderson was good enough to have him take us all the way to the water taxi terminal in their SUV for free. We rode comfortably as Pedro drove to his Spanish music. On our way out we passed the bus stop and were slightly embarrassed to see our hiking group from the other day waiting while we drove off in relative luxury. Eeep, but what can you do? Helping the sick is a priority! Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Mile 41 1/2 Hummingbird Hwy., P.O. Box 356, Belmopan Web: www.cavesbranch.com We signed up for a two tours: Jungle Hike After Dark, which was US$30 per person and the Black Hole Drop tour which cost us US$105 each. Check the Web site for the other tours they offer. We waited for an hour for our boat to leave at its scheduled departure time of 12:30pm. I still haven't eaten and all I did the rest of the wait was sleep on one of the benches in the terminal while the boy walked out to look for an Internet cafe. During the forty-minute ride, we slathered ourselves with sunblock. The sun was so intense. We could only imagine how it would feel to dip our feet for the first time in the Carribean Sea. The water changed from dark blue to turquiose as we neared the island of Caye Caulker. This was our destination for the next three days with a day trip to the other islands in between. It felt like our vacation was only beginning. Caye Caulker is one of the 200 small islands or cayes (pronounced keys) surrounding Belize's coral reef. It's a small village with residents who lead regular lives while running resorts for tourists. We preferred to stop here over Ambergris Caye because of its relaxed atmosphere and the slow pace at which Belizeans there lived. Joe, a pedicab driver offered us a ride to our guest house, De Real Macaw. We slowly followed the sand and watched faster golf carts breeze past us. De Real Macaw was only a five-minute walk but the ride was very pleasant. Joe even stayed with us to chat while we waited for our room to be cleaned. He let me ride his bike, The Daily Grind, and advised us on where to eat and hang out at night. After checking in, we walked to the east tip of the caye to have lunch at the Lazy Lizard's open bar. We had our first taste of the hot sauce that accompanies most barbequed dishes on the island. It looked more like salsa than sauce but whoa, it was hot. Nothing is more evocative of the flavor of Caribbean food than the Scotch bonnet or habaņero pepper. After roasting, the peppers are added to chopped onions, salt and vinegar. I was feeling a little bit better but still not strong enough to go in the water and swim. My legs were still tired from the hikes and I opted for a long nap under a small tree on the sand while the boy enjoyed the warm water of the sea. For dinner, we stopped by one of the small restaurants on the main strip when we saw live lobsters being prepared for the grill. We were already three bottles of beer deep and we could not find the heart to leave even after we waited two hours for our dinner to be served. The owner was nice enough to chat with us while he managed the grill -- he used to live in Las Piņas with his then-wife, where I grew up in the Philippines. It was a small world indeed. We forgot all about the lobsters and they came out overdone and tasteless after long minutes on the grill. This is typical tropical "cuisine" -- if seafood is not deep-fried in hot oil, they are well-done. We were so hungry that by the time we paid our bill, we walked straight to the lady on the street selling stewed chicken with rice and beans on her bike. When in doubt, always go to the street vendors. That night, the boy gave my tired legs a massage that was so good I dozed off before midnight. Our room was air-conditioned, but the breeze from the trade winds outside our house was comfortable enough to just use our ceiling fan. Joe, The Daily Grind You have to get a pedicab ride from the docks to your guest house for the hell of it! Look for Joe, the husband of the canoe champion in Caye Caulker. De Real Macaw, Caye Caulker E-mail: [email protected] Web: www.derealmacaw.com We rented a double room with A/C for three nights for $50 per night. We never got to use the A/C because the breeze was just perfect. You have your own private bathroom. You also get a small fridge which was very useful to keep our own water and beers cold. There is maid service and you can pay to have your laundry done. Lazy Lizard Bar & Grill We went here twice for lunch because of the open bar and the view of the Split. The boys who work here are really nice and made us feel welcomed. The lady who served us her hot sauce loved us! The Iron Man A few yards away from De Real Macaw. The owner is really nice but he over-grilled our lobsters. The massage last night officially cured me. I was raring to go! I was hungry and I was thirsty -- I was back to my usual self! Our house faced an empty patch of sand on the main strip. We could see how calm the water was. We could see how green it was. It was a good day to join a snorkeling trip to the coral garden. We had breakfast at Rasta Pasta where we had fried jacks with a plate of different kinds of tropical fruits. It wasn't even 10am and the sun was already beating down our backs as we walked the neighborhood to check out the scene. We observed a few other restaurants we'd like to try for the rest of our stay. We bought fresh watermelon juice from a street vendor. We even watched a few iguanas sunbathing and devouring handouts of bread in an empty construction lot. We walked by Star Tours as they were preparing for their next snorkeling tour. For BZ$35 (about US$15 each), we signed up for half a day of snorkeling that included three stops: the part of the Barrier Reef where the sting rays hang out, the coral garden and the shark stop. It was the Fourth of July and there will be no fireworks in the country of Belize today. We didn't mind at all. Rasta Pasta Middle part of the Caye by Front Street. You won't miss it because the owner is this lady with braids and a scratchy voice. Jolly Roger's Also on Front Street. We ate dinner under canopies and our grill man agreed to take our fish off the grill when we wanted him to. We were able to hang out and drink beer after dinner while playing a round of Scrabble. Massage from the boy Sorry, exclusive to girls with the name Cia. The sting rays are conditioned to the sound of speed boats. Arriving boats in their territory meant a free and easy lunch so a shitload of them swam towards our boat as soon as we anchored. It was an amazing sight. You could watch them glide smoothly on the bottom because the water was so clear and shallow. We suited up (me with my life jacket because I don't swim -- long story) and our guide started to feed the sting rays with small fish. They were so used to being fed they would just swim up to his open arms and eat. Star Tours A few yards from De Real Macaw. A three-stop snorkeling trip, or half a day, was BZ$70 for two; about US$35. We've snorkeled before but we have never seen so much diversity of marine life underwater. We swam as a group -- there were five of us -- and we followed our guide wherever he went. In between stops, we ate fresh watermelon and replenished ourselves with cold water. Star Tours A few yards from De Real Macaw. A three-stop snorkeling trip, or half a day, was BZ$70 for two; about US$35. Back in Caye Caulker, we went back to the Lazy Lizard open bar to eat a late lunch and hang out at the Split. There isn't a wide patch of beach to chill on in Caulker. But the Cut or the Split, a channel through the island made by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, has a nice and shallow swimming area. People sunbathe on the remains of a concrete bridge. A few young Belizeans chatted with us while we were eating our fried fish and drinking our Belikins at the bar. We had such a pleasant afternoon, later catching up on our reading on the same spot we picked yesterday. Anita has set up her braiding business across from our house by the beach. In her Creole accent, she told me during the process that my complaining of the pain will not help when she finally pulls the shorter hair on the side of my head. She was right. She braided my crown until I was wincing in pain. With the thin Asian hair that I have, I knew that it would be a miracle if my braids last throughout the night. Well, I guess you just don't underestimate the gunk they put in your hair when they braid it. My braids lasted for two more days and were still intact when I arrived in New York City. Lazy Lizard Bar & Grill We went here twice for lunch because of the open bar and the view of the Split. The boys who work here are really nice and made us feel welcomed. The lady who served us her hot sauce loved us! Anita's Braiding Services Across the street from De Real Macaw. You can't miss her. Her young daughter, Zena, runs around the huts. Anita will braid your whole head for US$25 and your crown for US$10. Cayeboard Connection Probably the best named small business in the Caye, this Internet cafe proved very convenient when we wanted to check our e-mail and let our families know that we were just fine. We were up and about before 9am the next morning so we visited the neighborhood bakery to try and buy the famous Caye Caulker johnny cakes. They were already sold out and we were told to try again at six the next morning. Yikes! Six is a little too early but I made a vow that I will not leave the caye until I've tasted the notorious cakes. Breakfast was at Vespucci Cafe where we had the usual fare of scrambled eggs with our pancakes and fruits. As usual, street vendors saved the day by providing us with beef pies: small and warm pie tarts with yummy warm beef ragout inside, and fresh watermelon juice. The lady juice maker bragged at how fresh her juice was. We knew because we watched her as she plugged in her extension cord at the tiny shack selling fish tacos on the main strip and dragged the cord to her mobile fruit stand to turn on her blender. Joe stopped when he saw us and the boy toyed with his bike while we waited for our fruit juice. By 10am, we reported to Carlos Tours for our second snorkeling trip, this time with a 96% chance of seeing manatees. Carlos looks Asian but it turns out he is originally from El Salvador -- he said most people mistake him for being Indonesian. He has been diving and snorkeling for years and in fact, he was the first to discover the manatees when he almost bumped into them while swimming. We signed up for a stop at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and a lunch trip to San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. If we didn't see a manatee today, we could at least say we were able to step foot on the most famous stop for scuba divers. Bakery It's a private residence across from Chan's Mini-mart with a step ladder to enter the house. Vespucci Cafe On Front Street a few yards away from Rasta Pasta. Our teenage waiter had a disturbing long pinky fingernail. Carlos Tours On Front Street. If you want to see a manatee, you gotta sign up with Carlos the night before you want to go. He knows his shit and you end up trusting him and his assistant, also named Carlos. Our snorkeling trip cost BZ$70 each, about US$35, and we stopped by San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, for lunch. Manatee! Manatee! And another manatee! Three of them were swimming near our boat even before we anchored and suited up. Our group hurriedly jumped in the water to follow Carlos. We were only a few yards away from them! Carlos led us to them but stopped us so as not to scare them. We stayed still floating as the boy and I grinned at each other behind our masks. We watched the large placid sea cows swim lazily, nuzzle each other, and rise to the surface for air. We were part of a larger group of snorkelers today, mainly Americans and a couple from New Zealand. The rest of our snorkeling trip at Hol Chan, we saw more widlife than the previous day. There were crabs, parrot fish, lobsters, the cutest groupers and plenty of yellowtails! We even swam with a sea turtle! Swimming in a marine reserve, we appreciate the beauty of marine life in their natural surroundings. But rather than thinking of conservation, swimming with the fish had an unintended effect: we were thinking about consumption. As perverse as it sounds, seeing those fish only made us hungry. You know how the waiter in a Chinese restaurant will show you your fish before cooking it to demonstrate its freshness? Thereīs no better display of freshness of your seafood than a fish that swims or a crab that crawls. Save the Manatee We were told that a manatee eats about 1,000 pounds of turtle grass a day! Check out the Save the Manatee Web site. Carlos Tours On Front Street. If you want to see a manatee, you gotta sign up with Carlos the night before you want to go. He knows his shit and you end up trusting him and his assistant, also named Carlos. Our snorkeling trip cost BZ$70 each, about US$35, and we stopped by San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, for lunch. Carlos let us off at San Pedro for lunch. We were to meet after a couple of hours at the dock to proceed to the last leg of our trip: the nurse shark stop. Ambergris has more of a moneyed tourist vibe than Caye Caulker. Just like our day trip out of Mazunte in Mexico, the food was twice as expensive here than at the Caye. At Lily's restaurant, however, the food we ate was the best we've had so far. We ordered blackened and grilled red snappers. We made sure with the waiter that we like our fish off the grill before it gets too well-done. The fish ceviche did not disappoint. It was what we were craving for with our Belikins. Ambergris Caye, Belize Ambergris is the substance secreted by sperm whales and when quantities of it appeared on the shores of the caye during the 19th century, the name stuck. Lily's Restaurant In San Pedro's east end. It's a little pricey but at least our snappers were not overcooked. Mazunte, Mexico See our trip to Mexico. A dark cloud was hovering over Caye Caulker when we met up at the docks. Carlos knew the storm was heading this way and decided we will let it pass by waiting another hour. It did and it was furious! The boats rocked and the water rose. The rain was warm but we wondered how we're going to cross the channel with such strong winds. When it let up, we continued to the nurse shark stop closer to the Caye. The strong winds continued. As soon as Carlos stopped the engine, our boat was surrounded by sharks and yellowtails. Plenty of them! I could hardly put my mask on in excitement. I realized I really needed to pay attention and secure my life jacket because of the current. I watch the boy excitedly jump into the water and being surrounded by the nurse sharks right away, thinking he was the man with the food. It seemed insane to be snorkeling while sharp rain drops pelted our backs but it was much warmer underwater than staying in the boat and battling the strong winds with only a wet towel. Even with the tropical storm, it was still the best day out of all the three. We swam with manatees and we ate really good food, only to swim with sharks during a storm. We couldn't have imagined a better last day for our vacation. The rain had stopped when we returned to the Caye but it continued again throughout the night. We had dinner at the local Chinese restaurant and were pretty amused that Chinese people straight from Quangdong Province would settle in Belize of all places. The Belizians at the Lazy Iguana Bar told us the Chans have been in the Caye longer than most Belizeans. As with most Asian families in countries other than their own, they were owners of the biggest grocery shop or the only Chinese restaurant in the village. In one of the grocery stores where we stopped by to refill our water gallon, a few Rastafarians chatted with us. They easily offered us sips from their Anise drinks (gross!), smokes from their cigarettes and joints while we talked about New York, Caye Caulker, American tourists and of all places, Amsterdam. One of the Rastas used to live in Amsterdam and it was a trip to listen to the boy rapping with him in Dutch. China Restaurant Your usual take-out Chinese food: oily, oily and oily, but oh, do they make good fried chicken! We wanted to support our people so we had dinner here and ordered the lobster omelette and the vegetable hot soup. Albert's Grocery It is essential to buy a gallon of water for about US$3 and then just refill it at Albert's for half the price. The Asian teenager who sometimes looks after the place is too hip hop even for our taste. We find it pretty cool that he looks just like us but was born in Belize City. Amsterdam, The Netherlands See our trip to The Netherlands. We planned to catch the water taxi leaving at 8:30 to Belize City. But I haven't forgotten about my vow to taste a johnny cake. Because of the rain throughout the night and the nice cool breeze blowing through our screen doors, we slept longer than usual. We still had to pack! The boy waited at the docks with the rest of the passengers while I ran to the other end of the island to buy some johnnycakes. The old lady remembered me asking for her johnny cakes the day before and as soon as I climbed up the step ladder to her house, she told me to come in and wait for my johnny cakes. It was the first time I saw them. I was very surprised to see that they were more like warm flat buns than actualy cake-looking things. I watched and took photos as she split them open and filled them up with shredded chicken in sauce that was sitting in a big pot. I could only imagine how many of these she sells each day. But finally, success! I walked away with four chicken johnny cakes and two with just cheese. While on the boat to Belize City, the boy also tasted them and was very happy I worked hard to buy them. They were delicious! It was a Sunday and Belize City is like a ghost town. A predominantly Catholic country, everybody was in church while their stores stood quiet and empty. A cab driver told us that if we let him drive us to the airport, he can drop us off now at the only open restaurant in town and pick us up again for the ride to the airport. At the restaurant, we ordered cow's foot soup but were disappointed that the writing on the menu board was from the night before. They were only serving breakfast. So naturally, I drank my coffee while the boy drank his morning beer like a local. As we left Belize behind, we played our tie-breaking game of Scrabble on the plane. Bakery It's a private residence across from Chan's Mini Mart with a step ladder to enter the house. Water Taxi to Belize City Round trip to and from Belize City is US$15 per person. Check out Go Caye Caulker for the ferry schedule. Marva You trust a Belizean and he takes you to the only open restaurant in Belize City on a Sunday morning. Cabs to Belize City All cab rides from Belize City to the airport are US$20. zoot Also zoot suit (zoot' suit'). Men's suit during the swinging era of the 1940s with baggy, tight-cuffed pants and an oversized coat. A winning Scrabble word.