It’s felt as if I’ve had a rather large monkey hitching a ride on my back this last week. Something has been weighing down on me all the way up Belize; physically I’ve been tired, sluggish and nursing a slight cold, mentally I’ve been all over the place. Yet this morning, when I crossed the border back into familiar old Mexico all those burdens vanished, I made the dash up to Bacalar with euphoria and excitement bubbling away in my stomach. It’s as if Belize never happened, as if it was just the Saturday morning hangover from the fantastic Friday night out that was my time in Guatemala.
Since landing in Punta Gorda in the far south of Belize, I have enjoyed one day of riding, endured four other full days in the saddle, had one hop and a skip of a day across the water to Placencia where a storm then kept me marooned for a further day. That all adds up to exactly 300 miles of riding… it’s a really small country. It would be too easy for me to be down on Belize as it has undoubtedly been one of the least inspiring chapters of the tour, but that would be wholly unfair. The rainy season has been harsh to me since Guatemala and it has become all to apparent that I am a thorough bred winter camper, not built to sweat the night away as the flaccid cheese in a nylon sandwich. The riding has on the whole been terrible and I never managed to surrender myself to the people or culture of this potentially fascinating and diverse society. Yet I would love to go back to Belize one day, just next time in flippers and not cycling shoes.
The day after my last post I motored up the spit from Placencia and made incredible time to the coastal town of Dangriga. Its impact sapped by heavy grey skies, the spit ride was an anticlimax that set me thinking. When the riding is this uninspiring it is easy to become your own worst enemy, you’re on auto pilot, a state that leaves the mind empty and vacuous, ready to suck in thoughts you’d rather ignore. By the time I had reached Dangriga, many long forgotten dark recesses of my mind had been explored, bringing with it a strange blend of forced positivity and mental fatigue. One thing was for sure though… I just wanted to get out of Belize. So much so that the first ten miles out of Dangriga the next day were spent trying to decide whether Belize could top Baja California in my league of ‘rubbish places to cycle tour‘. The scenery has been monotonous, the climate oppressive, the road surface standard and the route about as topographically interesting as Norfolk. It was a pretty fair match up but Baja won out, retaining top spot on counts of water availability (tap water in Belize is good to drink) and sheer size (the pain is less drawn out in Belize). Such thoughts give a pretty fair picture of where my head was at when I set off up the Hummingbird highway, cutting northwest into the heart of the territory. As it turned out, that 54 miles into Belmopan proved quite a nice little jaunt, completely out of character with the other highways, so by the end of the day Baja was once again untouchable in the league of rubbish.
I am sure that if the Hummingbird Highway had been in any of the other countries I’ve cycled through on this trip it wouldn’t have warranted a mention. But in this context, amongst its sibling routes, the imaginatively titled Southern, Western and Northern highways, it stands up with outstanding character. Why? Because the road does a bit of winding and climbing; scaling four distinct little peaks and reaching the heady heights of 850 feet above sea-level (I’ve had saddle sores that would have been more of a challenge to scale). Over the entire length of the highway I only climbed a cumulative total of 2,300 feet, below that of an average day elsewhere but a divine gift in Belize. The Hummingbird cuts directly inland from the water at Dangriga, bouncing through the foot hills of the Maya Mountains that subtly rise to its south. A picturesque route that also provides a little snapshot of the population make-up of the country; offering up Garifuna, Kriols, Maya, Mormons and probably others. There is also the Blue Hole National Park, so named because of the dramatic blue cenote around which it spreads. To my shame and disappointment, I passed on the opportunity to visit the cenote on account of not trusting the two guys/kids at the gate with my bike. Still, a good day out nonetheless.
The Hummingbird dropped me into Belmopan, reportedly the smallest capital city in the world by population. Until 1970 Belize City held the capital honor, but after Hurricane Hattie (1961) wreaked havoc over the place affectionately known as ‘shitty’ by the locals, Belmopan was developed in a Canberra style to take over government duties. The result is a bizarre centre of bureaucracy and national diplomacy. I have to say I quite enjoyed the place, it’s like a western University campus where maintenance staff forgot to paint the buildings or cut the grass. Not unpleasant by any stretch, grassy, leafy, spacious, but just a bit stale, like new towns often tend to be. One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the place was that the people were universally nice to me. In Dangriga I returned from a quick walk to the market to get fruit and vegetables quite put out by the hassle I received. There is a proportion of the population that give the ‘you and me are best friends and my cousins got a boat‘ patter in a lead up to the inevitable asking for money. This grates on me, I much prefer how it’s done in Mexico and Guatemala when people send their kids out to beg for them. I jest, it’s just harder to take a beggar seriously when their mouths are full of gold teeth.
Not to say that people weren’t good to me in Belize, because I met some kind and interesting folks. I was warned before even entering the country that the national psyche is to only warm up with a person once they know you’re ‘all-right’. This ‘gain my trust and I’ll treat you like my own‘ mentality was always very evident. Although the kids always made me smile when they’d sidle up on their bikes to question me in their laid back Caribbean drawls. And it has crossed my mind that maybe here I was just more aware of people’s attitudes towards me because of the predominance of the English language. I’ve become used to people shouting ‘Gringo‘ at me and I can kind of understand it, but in Belize on more than a couple of occasions the shout was ‘Oi, white boy!‘. Maybe I’m being oversensitive, but this just felt a bit too aggressive and perhaps a touch racist. Maybe I just don’t understand similar taunts when they’re fired in Spanish. Maybe I wouldn’t care if I had been more inspired by the cycling.
Quite often on my journey through Canada and the States I’d have what I call ‘when shit turns to gold‘ days. Bad or difficult days that you persevere through until a fantastic and bizarre twist comes out of left-field to make it all worth while. I had such a day riding out of Belmopan and the twist came just after the sun had set in the form of a guy called Lennox. I had woken up feeling very tired and frankly terrible; my head fogged by my cold, my saddle sore from the monotonous stroke of flat riding and my mind turning in on itself from vacant repetition. 20 miles into the day I stumbled into Belize Zoo hoping it would revive my flagging spirits. It made a pretty good effort and was perhaps the highlight of my time in Belize. An ethical establishment that keeps only injured, orphaned or other animals that were born into captivity or simply wouldn’t cut it in the wild, the zoo offers an opportunity to see the incredible wildlife that hides within the countries wilder areas. Really well put together with friendly staff and show stoppers including a Jaguar, monkeys, Ocelot and Harpy Eagles. For me though it was the national animal, the Tapir, or Mountain Cow that captured my imagination. A goofy looking rhino, elephant, hippo anteater type creation, one of which really befriended me, climbing up on the fence to closer investigate this bizarre if not fine specimen of humanity.
I spent hours at the zoo, cooking a full meal and resting in a desperate attempt to get back in touch with my withered energy reserves. It seemed to have some effect as I manged to battle another 30 miles into a nagging headwind until 5:45 when the sun quickly fell from the sky. I was in the long linear village of Sand Hill and with standing water everywhere, had been unable to find a camp spot. The plan was to pitch up in the grounds of the Police station, an idea that was quickly derailed by the intervention of a local who presumed my plight. Lennox (55) took me under his wing and made it his mission to find me somewhere to sleep. We went around some of his family members before a sheltered spot out the back of the school was ruled to suffice. He seemed like a genuine and good man but my respect soured when he forcefully asked for his tip. I had run out of money with only US$2 and B$2 left, he happily took all my remaining money in full knowledge that I couldn’t get any more. Despite having got me out of a tight spot this left a nasty taste in my mouth. I set up under clear starry skies and enjoyed my evening oatmeal as the insect life in turn enjoyed feasting on me. On the verge of hitting the hay, Lennox returned and redeemed himself, saying his elderly aunt insisted I camp in her yard, protected by a fence and two dogs. I packed up and relocated to the more secure spot that came complete with a bathroom very reminiscent of the famous filthy toilet in the movie Trainspotting. That turned out to be a hot and incredibly unpleasant and stormy night in the tent, but one that set my thoughts firmly on the road to optimism.
So it should be clear that my time in Belize has not been all bad, just unremarkable and a bit flat after the highs of Guatemala. I am sure that the barrier reef with its islands and archetypal Caribbean attractions is an incredible place to explore during the dry season, but the interior in the wet season makes for uninspiring cycle touring. My attitude to the place has also been tempered by the fact that I pretty much hotel-hopped through the country, nursing less than perfect health and escaping unpleasant hot and humid camping conditions. Belize is famed for being an expensive place to visit and forking out for these rooms just made me a bit resentful towards the place. My advice to anyone who is thinking of steering their touring route through Belize is to travel south from Mexico if you can, take boats down the coast from Chetumal or Corozal, all the way to Dangriga, then cycle up the Hummingbird Highway straight through Belmopan and the hell out of the country into Guatemala. You’d get all the good stuff and none of the bad that way. Oh, and avoid rainy season if you can!