The month of June took me back to the Americas with a birthday celebration in Belize for the seventh time. Travelling over 22,000 air miles round trip, it was not only a physical journey, but an emotional one as well. This is Part 1 of 2, starting off in Placencia, Belize.
I had decided that a night in Houston after my 14 hour flight was in order before heading to Belize the next day. A friend I hadn’t seen in 6 or 7 years picked me up and took me to my hotel where we caught up over a glass of wine. Even though my body time was about 10am, Mexican food was calling my name for dinner at 5pm.
I’d been dreaming of cheese enchiladas, rice and beans with a side of flour tortillas for a few years. Everything hit the mark and set the tone for my trip south where I’d be looking forward to Belizean food.
I showed up a day before my friend Dahnelle, to a lovely house along the canal in Placencia. This was a town I have flown into before, but never stayed, opting instead for accommodation on a caye. The landing strip was short, but at least the ocean was nearby in case the pilot overshot it (which has only happened once according to a local).
The Italian property manager, Stefano, met me there and gave me a run-down on the area. His thick accent and funny stories kept me in stitches and then left me as the sun went down to get acquainted with my home for the next 9 days. My first reptile encounter was this tiny gecko on the steps who willingly let me hold him for a photo then scurried off.
After an uncomfortably warm and humid night and being feasted on by mosquitoes and sand flies, I awoke to a purple sky around 5am.
I took the bicycle out early to see what was in town and naturally went the wrong way on the road, all the way back to the airport! Figures. Once I got back to where I started, the town wasn’t far and went on for longer than I expected. I stopped at a little shack that advertised tamales with a couple of locals standing around. How could I go wrong? They actually weren’t that great after all. I stocked up on groceries and started prepping a pot of pinto beans, fruit infused water and chopped up a pineapple.
One very odd fruit I had never seen before was this giant passion fruit. I’ve only seen the small round ones and had to buy it just to see for myself if it really was one. Sure enough, there is a giant variety and the flesh can be eaten (although it didn’t taste very good to me).
Getting acquainted with the house, the ‘crow’s nest’ at the top provided a fantastic view of the lagoon and ocean, while on the bottom floor, the deck invited you into the water for a float or a swim.
Mango trees were in the yard (and everyone else’s, too) and small lizards went about their daily routine.
Placencia boasts having the narrowest sidewalk in the world. While only a small section of it still remained, it had been expanded for tourism and took you through shops, restaurants and homes until you reached the pier.
Unfortunately, the weather was awful most of the time, which is very unusual for the first week of June (the locals admitted to this, too). We only got out on the ocean ONCE. Dahnelle did a dive and I did some snorkelling with Sunny Side Tours out at Southwater Caye. I had stayed out there in 2007 or so, not realizing there was more to the island other than Blue Marlin lodge!
A man patiently tried his luck at catching a bonefish which were all swimming in a large group. We told him to just get in the water and catch one by hand…I don’t think he found the humor in that. A small barracuda floated near the dock waiting for something exciting to happen.
The highlight of my snorkelling was seeing two squid, one of which was quite interested in my goofy appearance and got closer than most ever do.
We went out with Sunny Side for a tour of Monkey River where we saw, you guessed it…monkeys! There were a lot of cool creatures like bats on a tree, a boa curled up on a branch, a few small crocs in the water and a large one sunning himself.
We went for a walk in the forest and I took advantage of the offer to eat some termites. For some reason, they just sounded good and it’s one of those things I’d always wanted to try. The guide told us it’s like jungle Listerine…if you’re on a date and need to freshen up, just eat some termites. They were really minty, surprisingly!
Since the weather wasn’t cooperating, we went on a spice and chocolate tour one day, heading toward the Maya mountains.
The spice farm was planted on 500 acres by an Indian man from the U.S. and boy, did he do it right! They were putting up archways for a gorgeous backdrop when hosting weddings. The grounds were well taken care of and we were taken on a golf cart through the area to learn about the trees, vines and bushes which were all harvested throughout the year and sold locally.
Some of the highlights included the hundreds of orchids which produce vanilla. Since it’s very difficult for vanilla to be self-pollinated, teams of people go out during the very short flowering period and manually pollinate the flowers using a toothpick. And by short, I mean in a matter of hours. The flower only opens in the morning and that’s their window of opportunity. This happens daily until flowering stops. When we were there, there were no pods available to harvest or buy.
To make vanilla extract takes approximately a year from the time the vanilla bean is picked, dried and bottled (usually in vodka) until the time you can purchase it on the shelf. No wonder it costs so much! I inquired about how many times you can “water down” (meaning, add more vodka) the bottle the pod is kept in and he said about 3. You can also use the pod in a jar of sugar to flavor it.
We had a browse through their lovely shop on the way out and picked up some spices, chocolate powder and coffee beans.
Next stop was a small place which made chocolate and gave very informative talks on the subject along with a delicious lunch.
Everyone was presented with hot chocolate upon arrival which was pure cacao powder and water only. We were then advised to add certain spices, one at a time, to see how the flavor was affected. First was chili powder, which cut the bitterness. Second was cinnamon, which added a bit of sweetness. Third was nutmeg (then one other which escapes me) before we could then add sugar. We were also given a bowl of hand made dark sugar which was almost like molasses.
Everyone was shown the inside of a cacao pod and was able to eat some of it. This brought back memories of Costa Rica when I could buy these on the street for a couple of dollars each. Sweet and bitter at the same time, it’s one of the most beneficial foods you can possibly eat.
Dahnelle’s eyes lit up when we were given a full plate of chocolate to sample which contained different fruits and spices.
We were given the opportunity to remove the shells of some roasted cacao beans and prepare them for grinding. Our master chocolate maker used a stone to smooth out the chocolate into a paste.
A flycatcher watched on in a tree during the presentation and we were taken for a tour of their chocolate making facilities (which was VERY small). It was the perfect way to spend a day.
Finally, we went to a waterfall where a large party was taking place by the police force. Music was playing, lots of chicken was being BBQ’d, families were having fun and swimming. And keeping in my typical fashion of breaking up a party, within about 15 minutes, everyone was gone. I don’t know what it is about me, but this happens way too often to consider it a coincidence. The place was silent and we were the only ones left. Really weird. The only way you’d know anyone had been there was by the few trash bags left to be picked up. I have no idea how they put that BBQ out so fast or how that chicken even got cooked.
Although the weather didn’t cooperate, it was still a great time in a place I love. It made me a little sad to see that it was becoming a lot more popular with tourists and that the airport had expanded almost beyond recognition. I had hoped it would remain a nice little secret, but not many of those places exist.
The locals were still friendly as ever and I reconnected with some I had met over the past years through other family members. My network continues to grow and I have no doubt I will see them again in the future.
One memory I have during this last trip was seeing a 60something Rasta guy squinting to look at his cell phone, as if it was a new, necessary evil. It didn’t look right, nor did it appear it felt right to him. I just don’t want it to be like that. My first visit to Belize 20 years ago was much different than it was this time. I miss the old Belize and the disconnect from technology it used to have. I miss being one of the few Americans that would visit it; instead only hearing American accents everywhere we went this time around.
Well, everything and everyone changes with the times…for better or worse. I wonder what it will be like the next time I go back?