I looked down at my watch and saw that it was only 2:00 pm. I thought it was much later than that so I double-checked the time on my iPhone. Yup, it was 2:00 pm.
“Hey, Gregor, what time do you have?” I asked.
Gregor reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. When he looked down, he was surprised. “Two o’clock. Geez, I thought it was more like dinner time.”
This was happening a lot since Gregor and I arrived in Belize – this feeling that time was moving a lot slower than normal. At first, we couldn’t quite put our finger on why this was happening. After a few weeks on the Belize coast, we eventually figured it out…
Island Life on Caye Caulker
One of the main reasons we came to Belize was to snorkel in the Belize Barrier Reef. It’s part of the second largest coral reef system in the world outside of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The marine reserves off the coast of Belize are home to hundreds of species of coral, fish, and marine animals. We dragged our snorkel gear all the way from Canada especially for the Belize Barrier Reef.
Fellow travellers recommended that we explore the reef system from Caye Caulker (pronounced “key cocker”), a tiny coral island off the Belize coast in the Caribbean Sea.
Caye Caulker is only 8 km (5 mi) long by 1.6 km (1 mi) wide. There are no cars on the island except for a few utility vehicles that serve the local residents. People get around by walking, riding bicycles, or driving golf carts. Since there was no way to get our van onto the island, we left her at Backpacker’s Paradise campground in Sarteneja and became real backpackers for a few days. We even left our computers behind so that we could tap out and enjoy the full island experience.
We went to the main pier in Sarteneja village to catch the 8:00 am water taxi to Caye Caulker.
Several hostellers that we met in Mexico mentioned that they had a decent stay at the seaside cabanas at Ignacio Beach Cabins. We headed toward its location, according to our Lonely Planet map.
As we walked on the island’s sandy roads with our backpacks, we heard chilled-out reggae music playing from bars and restaurants.
We saw locals riding bikes and driving golf carts as if they had no particular place to go – just cruising around.
Anyone who wasn’t on a vehicle wasn’t just walking – they were “sauntering”. And anyone who wasn’t sauntering was lounging on a wooden chair or bench under the shade of a palm tree. If people were any more laid-back, they would have been lying down. Likely in a hammock.
We realized that we were walking faster than everyone else, even with our big backpacks on. So we slowed down.
While we walked, we saw that the price of food, booze, and accommodation was at least 50% more on the island as it was on the mainland.
When we reached Ignacio Beach Cabins, we were a little disappointed at how run down the cabanas were (semi-clean, holes in the window screens, peeling paint), but the price was the best we could get for a cabana with a kitchenette, private bathroom, and seaside views (80 BZD/48 CAD/40 USD). In the end, it was just fine.
After settling into the cabana, Gregor and I ventured into the village again.
On our after-dinner evening walk, we basically saw the rest of the island. Lots of touristy restaurants and bars, hotels and guest houses, tour companies and diving shops. Away from the main drag we saw dilapidated wooden homes on stilts and stray dogs wandering around potholed roads. Everywhere we went, we heard reggae music or reggae-fied pop songs.
By the way…
The reggae version of ‘Stand by Me’ is not so great.
Heading back to our cabana, Gregor and I saw a guy riding his bike while talking into an old-school telephone receiver. He was repeating the word “Happy Birthday” into his phone.
Clearly, the Happy Birthday guy had island fever. It was easy to see how you could go crazy on this tiny island. Things moved pretty slowly here. If you didn’t work in the tourism industry or fish for a living, there was really not much to do except drink and smoke weed.
After our first day in Caye Caulker, we wondered why tourists were so drawn to this place. Must be for the snorkelling, we thought.
Snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef
On our second day in Caye Caulker, Gregor and I went on a snorkelling trip with Mario’s Tours. Since high season was winding down, it was just me, Gregor, and the tour guide on the boat. Our stops included Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark Ray Alley, and Coral Gardens. The snorkelling was spectacular and well worth the trip to the island.
Here’s our video of a Loggerhead Turtle in Shark Ray Alley, Belize Barrier Reef
In between snorkel sites, we got to know our boat captain and guide, Mario Sr. (his son, Mario Jr., also works as a tour guide).
Witty and easy-going, Mario has had a full life. Aside from being a tour guide and business owner on Caye Caulker, he is also a pastor, town councillor, and head of the island’s association of tour guides. Before coming to Caye Caulker, Mario was a farmer, fisher, and sailboat-builder in Sarteneja. The wooden fishing boats he built are still in use today. He and his Mayan wife had 6 children together and his clan includes 12 grandchildren.
As a young man, Mario travelled all of Central America working as a translator. In addition to English, he can speak Spanish, Mayan, Kriol, French, and Italian. I asked Mario where he learned how to speak all those languages.
He spread his arms out towards the Caribbean Sea and said, “The university of life.” The guy could have made it anywhere, but he chose to live in the sleepy little villages of Sarteneja and Caye Caulker.
I asked Mario what other places in Belize we should visit. He said we needed to go to Hopkins.
Power Outage in Hopkins Village
Gregor and I drove for five hours to get from Sarteneja to the coastal village of Hopkins in Stann Creek District.
We really wanted a campsite with access to electrical power because we needed to recharge our house battery. For some reason, it was draining faster than we could charge with our solar panel or alternator.
In addition to electrical power, we needed WiFi so that Gregor could work. He had software code to deliver that week, plus a Skype conference call scheduled for 10:30 am the next day.
We drove up and down the dirt streets of Hopkins looking for a place to camp. The village looked pretty run down and it didn’t look like there was much to do.
Hopkins seemed a lot like Caye Caulker, but even more laid back and more sleepy. This must be what Caye Caulker was like before all the tourists came. Gregor and I could see why our tour guide, Mario, liked the village but it was a little too sleepy for us. The good thing about it was there would be few distractions while Gregor worked.
We eventually found a campground called Palmento Grove. It had WiFi, access to electrical power, and hot showers. It also had a Belizean restaurant on site, which was a bonus. That night, we ate a delicious meal of sweet pork ribs, cole slaw, and mashed purple yams at the restaurant.
We were sipping our morning coffee when Gregor discovered that we had no electrical power (and hence, no WiFi). Based on the lack of water pressure in the bathrooms and the darkness in the restaurant, Gregor deduced that the power was down in the entire campground.
Ever the problem-solver, Gregor approached the campground manager, Mel. She was an easy-going Belizean woman who had a charming smile.
“Excuse me,” Gregor said, “we noticed that there’s no electricity.”
“Dat’s right,” Mel said, giving a nod and flashing a smile. Then there was an awkward pause. At first, I thought she was just agreeing with Gregor’s statement. Then I wondered if she was actually poking fun at his incredible powers of observation. Clearly it was up to Gregor to keep the conversation going.
“Okaaaay…” Gregor said tentatively, “…do you know if the power will come back up today?”
“Mmmm…It will probably come back up by noon,” Mel replied. Another awkward pause.
“Soooo…do you know why the power is down?” Gregor asked.
Mel held up her cell phone: “Da power company told us dat de grid will be down for repair. De whole town of Hopkins has no power.”
It was obvious that Gregor wouldn’t make his 10:30 conference call. I could see the pain in his face. “So the whole town has no power,” he said, like half-question, half-statement.
“Dat’s right,” Mel replied, giving a nod and flashing that smile. And then that awkward pause again.
Gregor pursed his lips. I saw that he was about to lose it, so I jumped in: “Maybe we can go to an Internet cafe in another town. They might have power.”
“Nah…” Mel said, shaking her head slowly from side to side. “Nun of de nearby towns gonna have power. Da power grid goes all de wey down de coast to Placencia.”
Gregor looked at me with a “this can’t be happening right now” look. I gave him my “what do you want me to do?” face.
We then discussed the possibility of driving further inland, outside of the power outage zone. That would mean checking out of our campsite ASAP. The problem was that we had already pre-paid to stay that night. Gregor tried to negotiate a refund, but Mel said she doesn’t give refunds – especially for circumstances that are beyond her control. While her response irritated us, she was absolutely right. It wasn’t her fault that the power was down.
Gregor and I had to decide. We could drive away, forfeit our camping fee, and search for another place with power and WiFi so that Gregor could work. Or we could make the most of our camping fee and just chill for a day. Gregor was torn because he already told his boss that he would attend the conference call and put in a day’s work. With no data plan or WiFi, he couldn’t even tell his employer about the change of plans. Gregor didn’t want to look like he was slacking off.
Seeing how agitated we were, Mel offered a suggestion: “You could take a day trip to da town of Dangriga. It’s about half hour from here. Even if dey don’t have power, you could still visit de Garifuna museum and Marie Sharp’s hot sauce factory. You can taste all da habanero pepper sauces in the shop. Just to give you something to do.”
Tasting tour of hot sauces…that sounded all right. I gave Gregor my “what do you think?” face. He replied with a “well, what else are we gonna do?” look.
“I guess we’re going to Dangriga,” I said to Mel.
“Dat’s good,” Mel smiled, “You may as well make da most out of it, right?”
And that’s just how it is here.
No power? No problem. Just Keep Calm and Carry On. Maybe the Brits learned that one from the Belizeans.
Day Trip to Dangriga
Dangriga was a larger, grittier version of Hopkins. Still laid-back, but dirty and rough around the edges. The sights, sounds, and smells reminded us of Ghana, Africa, where Gregor’s mom now lives.
As per Mel’s advice, we visited the Gulisi Garifuna Museum. Some of the exhibits were fading with age but there was some good content about Garifuna history, culture, and food.
Contrary to what we thought, the Garifuna were never slaves themselves. Their ancestors were African survivors of a wrecked slave ship in 1675. These Africans ended up in Saint Vincent and intermarried with the local Caribs. Their descendents are the Garifuna people.
We also learned that the Garifuna staple food is cassava bread (ereba), which we never had the chance to try. Apparently, cassava contains poisonous liquid that can kill you if it’s not properly removed.
Garifuna drumming is a big part of the musical heritage. I really wanted to listen to samples of Garifuna music, but the museum’s CD player was broken.
We weren’t allowed to take photos in the Garifuna Museum, but I was able to snap some pictures of the Garifuna Community School next door. According to the museum curator, this school is the only one in Belize that teaches the entire curriculum in the Garifuna language.
Next we went on a tasting spree at Marie Sharp’s hot sauce factory.
Marie Sharp’s is like Belize’s national brand of hot sauce. Every restaurant that we’ve ever been to in this country has a bottle of Marie Sharp’s on the table. A family run operation, the factory makes many different types of hot sauces. Our favourites were Grapefruit Pulp Habanero and the Special Edition Smoked Habanero Pepper Sauce. Marie Sharp’s also makes wicked tropical fruit jams. We liked the Mango jam the best.
In the end, we had fun playing tourist for a day in Dangriga. But we needed to get somewhere with decent Internet so that Gregor could work.
The Beach Town of Placencia
Placencia was like a jacked-up touristy version of Caye Caulker and Hopkins combined. The town is located at the end of a long and narrow key, with water and sand beaches visible on either side.
As we drove towards Placencia, we were shocked to see that the key was lined with high-end beachfront resorts, luxury residences, and expat retirement complexes. As we got closer to town, we were relieved to see the quaint and colourful buildings that we were accustomed to seeing in the rest of Belize.
Our solution to the Internet issue was to rent a studio apartment at One World Rentals for a couple of days. We highly recommend this place – clean, fast Internet, and great location in the middle of town.
Like the other coastal towns we visited in Belize, Placencia had that same laid-back vibe. We heard reggae music piping from the restaurants. We also saw some of the same type of stir-crazy village people that we saw in Caye Caulker. Some talked to themselves or yelled at no one in particular. Others loitered outside of shops with a beer in hand.
Just not much to do, really. Except eat and drink and watch the world go by.
Unravelling the Time Warp
Our impression of Belize up to this point was that it was a pretty slow-moving place, trapped in time. Like the Brits left the country in a certain state and it hadn’t progressed much from there.
There were moments in Belize where time seemed to be moving so slowly that Gregor and I both felt…bored. We haven’t felt bored in almost a year – that’s how long ago we started planning for this Pan-American trip. It was so weird to us that we tried to analyze and rationalize our feelings.
After dissecting the issue over beers, Gregor came up with a logical explanation for the time warp: It’s all about the vibe.
WARNING: This blog post is about to get really geeky.
A “vibe” or “vibration” is basically like an acoustic wave. If we were to describe the vibe of a place, we could express it in terms of amplitude and frequency.
For example, the vibe in the fast-paced oil-and-gas city of Calgary, Canada, can be described as high-amplitude and high-frequency:
The vibe in Mexico, say in Oaxaca state, is a more laid-back than in Calgary but there is still a feeling of “busy-ness” in the air. It’s mid-amplitude, mid-frequency:
The super laid-back, sleepy vibe of the coastal towns we visited in Belize is low-amplitude, low-frequency:
Now if you translate this vibration or acoustic wave into a musical style, you would get…
Once we were able to visualize the different “vibes”, we discovered that Belize isn’t actually trapped in a time warp. We were the ones who were trapped – in a different dimension, at a higher amplitude and frequency. Early on, we just weren’t ready to get in tune with the Belizean vibe.
Time to bring it down a notch.
By the way…
The top reggae song that we are hearing in Belize right now is “Rude” by Canadian band MAGIC!