A Travellerspoint blog

May 2021

Belize Road Trip: Belize City and Belmopan


View Belize 2021 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

From 2014 through 2020 we had been traveling every single time we got an opportunity. Once the kids were in grade school we were limited to their vacations but that still gave us three opportunities a year and we never missed one. Then COVID-19 came along after we'd already planned our 2020 spring break trip to Belize and Guatemala. I kept the possibility open to the last minute but eventually the risk of flying seemed to be too high and we canceled. I think if our departure was scheduled two weeks earlier we would have gone for it. After spring break, every new school vacation was met with another wave of COVID and the summer and winter breaks passed by without any travel as well. Finally in 2021 I was vaccinated and cases were finally on the decline. Belize had gone though a nasty wave themselves but through closed borders and diligent observance of infectious control measures they had virtually eliminated their epidemic. They had now reopened the country to air travel although the land border with Guatemala was still closed. We wouldn't be able to include the leg to Lago Peten Itza but that still left a week's worth of activities in Belize that we had deferred from the previous year. We were fortunate in that the place we had plans to travel in was now one of the safest countries on earth with respect to COVID.

We had an easy two hour flight to Belize and then another hour to get our COVID test documentation cleared at immigration. Picking up the rental SUV was an easy process at Crystal Auto Rental, a locally owned company that had a better reputation than the international chains. We were starving and fortunately we didn't even have to leave the airport grounds to tuck into some authentic Belizean street food. A lady had set up a tent just inside the airport exit and was serving fried fish, pig tails, and other delicacies out of the back of her vehicle. We were off to a great start.
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Most tourists bypass Belize City completely on their way to the Cays or to lodges in the interior. The original capital of the colony of British Honduras has more than four times the population of the current capital Belmopan and has a reputation for being unsightly and somewhat dangerous. Our style of travel involves experiencing the daily life of natives in the population centers as well as the more traditional touristic activities, so we headed straight from the airport to the Michael Finnegan Market. I was a little nervous going in as the only article I had found about the market was an old one about a murder that had taken place there. We needn't have worried because it was a reasonably upbeat and energetic place where we had no concerns about our safety at all. The goods on sale weren't particularly exciting, just a selection of typical Caribbean fruits and vegetables and nothing we hadn't seen many times before.
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The only surprise we encountered was a vendor selling live iguanas for consumption. We had hoped to try some bush meat during our trip but we hadn't expected to find any in Belize City. One of the guys hanging around the booth offered to cook one of them for us at his house. I had fond memories of iguana meals in Nicaragua and Trinidad so I was ready to accept but Mei Ling didn't have a good vibe about it so she turned him down. We tipped the vendor for letting the kids hold the iguana and moved on from the market.
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Aside from the market Belize City had a rather desolate vibe on Saturday afternoon. The shops seemed to be mostly closed and there was hardly any foot traffic on the streets. We made our way to Digi Park on the shoreline which was known to have a large number of food kiosks, but all that was on the menu were fast food selections like fried chicken and hamburgers. We let the kids stretch their legs for a bit in the playground before moving on.
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At the tip of the polypoid peninsula that the city occupies is the rainbow-hued Belize sign. We stopped for a souvenir photograph and ice cream before getting on the road to that night's accommodation.
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I had chosen Ghan Eden because of its proximity to the local cave tubing outfits and the added bonuses of being close to the Belize Zoo and to Belmopan. The hotel wasn't far off the Western Highway that connects Belize City and Belmopan, but shortly after turning off the highway we found ourselves on a bumpy dirt road that made me thankful I had rented a four wheel drive vehicle. We passed some colorful houses on stilts and a decommissioned school bus which was being used as an outbuilding. The GPS would have sent me down the wrong path at a fork in the road but fortunately Mei Ling spotted the hotel sign pointed in the other direction. Another half mile of dirt road later we arrived at the grounds of an estate that lived up to its Hebrew name, the Garden of Eden. It was a meticulously landscaped property with an unmistakable tropical character. We found the manager there waiting for us and we soon realized that we were the only guests. The manager had driven from his home to the hotel just to check us in. It was lucky that we had foregone the iguana dinner in Belize City or we would have kept him waiting there a lot longer.
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It was a fifteen minute drive to Belmopan, which had all the restaurants that didn't seem to be geared exclusively to tourists. The Nepalese restaurant by the market that was our first choice was closed at seven o'clock on a Saturday evening. At our next choice we were the only diners and the staff appeared somewhat bemused when we walked in. It started to dawn on us that we were in the leading edge of tourists returning to Belize after the epidemic, and the country hadn't quite reoriented itself to accommodating international visitors. Our first dinner in Belize didn't come close to living up to the promise of the meal we'd had just after landing.

In the morning we headed back east on the Western Highway to the Belize Zoo. On the way we stopped at Amigos, a well-known family restaurant right off the highway. The food was excellent but once again we were the only patrons. We were starting to wonder if we would see a single other tourist on this trip.
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We might have given the zoo a pass if we were pressed for time on this trip but fortunately I had left a lot of time open to just wander around. The Belize Zoo is a little different from the typical American or European zoo in that it began as a conservation project almost forty years ago. The staff warned us to be on guard for doctor flies, a common biting pest in Belize, so we applied mosquito repellent liberally. The animals were kept in very natural-appearing enclosures, sometimes so natural that we couldn't spot the animals at all. The most rewarding were the howler monkeys and the tapirs. A jaguar eventually showed up at the fence of her enclosure but only after a keeper appeared with strips of raw chicken.
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Our initial choice for our first accommodation had been Sleeping Giant. a well-known lodge in central Belize. They weren't very responsive to my inquiries so I figured they must have had more business than they knew what to do with. The restaurant was supposed to be the best in the area so we decided to stop in as we drove back towards the coast on the scenic Hummingbird Highway. The lodge was a beautiful place with very colorful foliage and a balcony with a great view of the surrounding foliage. Unfortunately the food was unspeakably bad to the point of being inedible. We were so stunned by the awfulness that we didn't even realize we'd never ordered the styrofoam-textured chicken fingers we'd vainly begged the kids to consume. They'd brought them to us in lieu of the chicken fajitas we'd requested.
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Fortunately our breakfast had been substantial enough to keep us going through our next destination, the Billy Barquedier waterfall. The best part of this walk was the mildly strenuous half hour hike through a forest and across a river to reach the waterfall. At the base of the waterfall was a good-sized pool of cool water and fortunately we had brought our bathing suits. The kids really enjoyed the reward of swimming after making the effort to reach the waterfall.
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At this point it was just another half hour further to reach the coastal town of Dangriga so we decided to push onward rather than taking our chances with dinner in Belmopan again. It proved to be a good decision as Dangriga was an interesting and colorful town with its own unique character as the center of Garifuna culture in Belize. The Garifuna originate from the intermarriage between shipwrecked West African slaves and Carib Indians on the island of St. Vincent. Due to the ongoing turmoil created by colonial forces in the Caribbean, the Garifuna were scattered around Central America and eventually coalesced in southern Belize. The Garifuna have their own musical, artistic, and culinary traditions. We drove through residential neighborhoods and eventually found ourselves at a seaside park bordered by colorful houses and a beach lined with driftwood.
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A little research identified Tuani Garifuna as a promising spot to sample Garifuna cuisine. Despite being set back several blocks from the waterline, the restaurant captured the beach vibe with a couple of inches of sand. The waitress was taken aback when we requested the local coconut broth-based stews sere and hudut. We also discovered they had pig tail which wasn't on the menu, but the salt-cured version they served wasn't as much to our taste as the dish we had had at the airport.
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It took us a full two hours to get back to Ghan Eden from Dangriga but we were glad we had pressed on to the end and discovered a part of Belize that hadn't even been on our original itinerary. The Hummingbird Highway had lived up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful and interesting roads in Belize.
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I had scheduled a ziplining and cave tubing tour for our last day in central Belize. We had breakfast at one of the touristy restaurants near the hotel which proved to be quite a bit better than the food we had in Belmopan and at Sleeping Giant. Naturally we were the only guests once again.
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The tour outfit was right next door but here we ran into the first logistical problem we'd had since we'd arrived in Belize. The receptionist insisted that we pay up front for our activities in cash and the amount was quite a bit larger than what we had on us. The nearest ATM was fifteen minutes away in Belmopan. I was infuriated because I'd exchanged several emails with the owner and he'd never mentioned a word about taking cash only, despite having provided meticulous details about the location. I demanded to talk to the owner and the receptionist grudgingly got him on the phone, but he wasn't helpful at all. At this point neither owner or receptionist seemed to care particularly if we went or not. We decided to tell them we were headed to Belmopan to get cash but instead we drove to the other tour companies along the same road to see if they would be able to take us. It quickly became apparent that none of the other companies were operational and we were stuck with the original outfit. If it had just been Mei Ling and myself we would probably have blown them off but I didn't want to deprive the kids of a fun experience just because I was pissed off. To add insult to injury, when we got to Belmopan we had to try three banks before we finally found an ATM that would agree to surrender some cash.

Our ziplining guides were much more friendly and helpful than the receptionist. None of us had ever been ziplining before so it was quite a task to get us all into our gear. The first platform was quite high and neither Cleo nor Spenser could be cajoled to jump off alone, so they had to go in tandem with the guides. Cleo got it together by the second platform but neither she nor Ian weighed enough to make it all the way to the end, so they invariably slid backward along the line and had to be retrieved by the guides. Nevertheless it was an exhilarating experience for them and I was glad we hadn't let the initial problems dissuade us from going through with it.
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The second part of our tour was a float trip through a cave our guide referred to as Xibalba, although I think that might be a common name for caves in Belize as it is Mayan for "scary place". The Mayans considered caves to be openings to the underworld and used them to make offerings to the gods, including human sacrifices. I wasn't up for sacrificing any of our kids to the gods that day so I had picked one of the more family-friendly cave activities that Belize offers. The forty minute hike to the mouth of the cave proved to be more of an annoyance than an adventure, given that I had to carry two bulky inner tubes the entire distance. We passed through a small cave featuring some interesting limestone formations and our guide discovered a huge termite nest in a tree. He hacked into it with a pocketknife to show us the scurrying insects and was surprised when Ian and I accepted his offer to sample the bugs. Since they were so small we had to crush them between our incisors to avoid swallowing them whole. They had a faintly woody taste, not unlike wild carrots.
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The river tubing was a rather mellow experience with all our tubes roped together and our guide in the water shepherding the flotilla through the cave. There was hardly any current at all and we could dangle our feet in the cool water. The guide provided a narrative that was just creepy enough to thrill the kids without scaring them in the dark cave. Perhaps one day they'll go back and try one of the more challenging caves such as ATM.
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We stopped at the small daily market in Belmopan for a quick lunch before getting on the road to Chan Chich. We were headed to a remote part of northwestern Belize close to the Guatemalan border and I wanted to make damn sure we got there before dark.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:58 Archived in Belize Tagged belize family_travel travel_blog belize_city belmopan Comments (0)

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