Before I tell you all about our long weekend in Belize I will explain briefly [well as brief as I ever get] why we had to make the trip.
The Immigration rules in Guatemala mean that, on entry into the country, a tourist receives a 90 day visa. The visa can be renewed once, without leaving the country but that entails going to the central immigration office in Guatemala City, leaving your passport, a photocopy of both sides of your credit card, a copy of your marriage licence [if you are married obviously] and your payment. They keep the photocopies forever but return your passport when you go back to the office ten days later. Call me paranoid, but even before we went through the trauma of “losing” Mike’s wallet I had decided there was no way that I was handing over that kind of information to anyone in Guatemala. Given that it would have also involved 4 x 6 hour bus rides – and probably 2 overnight stays in Guatemala City then the option became even more of a non starter.
The second option, which some cruisers take, is to hand your passport and money to the boat agent Raul and he takes the passports somewhere [Belize I think] and gets them stamped for you. Maybe this isn’t quite as bad as option 1 because at least it is only your passport which goes. But even so, I don’t really like this idea either and it isn’t actually legal. Apparently a “blind eye” is turned but there have been stories of such agents being fined when found out and all the passports in their possession at the time being confiscated.
So, Option 3 is to leave the country. But even this has “sub-options”. Guatemala is a C4 country – i.e. Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador have a joint agreement whereby a tourist only needs one 90 day visa to visit all 4 countries. [There is probably more than just that in the C4 thing – but it’s the only bit that counts for this purpose]. Technically, therefore, the visa isn’t re-issued when crossing these countries borders and, when the 90 days expire a person has to go out of all of them which means going to Costa Rica, Mexico or Belize [or obviously anywhere else like the UK/USA/wherever.] As many cruisers return back to their own country at sometime during the hurricane season it means that on return their 90 days starts again automatically.
However, Honduras and Guatemala don’t appear to stick to the C4 rules and many cruisers take Option 3a and travel from Guatemala to Honduras and back for their visa run, especially because it is probably the cheapest way of doing it. We considered this option long and hard – particularly as I found what sounds like a great place to stay in Honduras – the D&D Brewery. Yes, it makes proper ale, is on the side of a beautiful lake and accommodation there [though basic] is £10 per night per couple. It also has a decent restaurant. BUT…. technically it’s not legal to renew your visa in this way, and we are British so tend to do as we are told and we do have our own unwritten rule that we want all our paperwork and documentation watertight [if you will excuse the pun!]. So….Option 3b – go to Costa Rica, Mexico or Belize.
Well, Costa Rica might have been fun but it’s a long way. Mexico was quite a viable option and one we might have taken had our friends Steve and Mary not been coming to see us in a couple of weeks time because we could have combined Mexico with a trip to Flores and Tikal – but we are now doing those places with them.
So, Belize it was….. and now for the story of our weekend trip.
Fairly early on Friday 6th September we took two “collectivo” buses which got us as far as Puerto Barrios. The Lonely Planet suggests that the Puerto Barrios town council pays homage to the typical international border port image – i.e. slightly dodgy, edgy and sleazy. So, it’s not really a place I would like to stay but it was fine during the day and was where we needed to be to catch the ferry to Punta Gorda in southern Belize.
Now, don’t get all excited and think we went on anything that would normally be described as a ferry. This was a “lancha”. Admittedly it was larger than the one which Tijax uses to take us across to town from our marina but it certainly wasn’t very big – and seemed to have more “stuff” than passengers.
Really glad it was a calm day. The trip takes about an hour and big waves, or rain, would have made for a very soggy journey. As it was, it was a baking hot day and we were delighted to be out in the bay and enjoyed being on the water.
In Punta Gorda we stayed in the Seastar Flat at the “Blue Belize” guesthouse.
We had booked the smaller Almond Tree Flat but the DVD player had broken in that flat and, as no-one was booked in one of the larger ones, we were “upgraded”. There was certainly more room than in a Moody 44!
The managers of the flats, Kate and Adam, are a British couple who are in the process of buying a property in northern Belize to operate as their own guesthouse. They were really welcoming and helpful without being intrusive and they advised us on important things like which of their DVDs we should borrow and where to get the best Chinese take-away!
Punta Gorda [or PG as it is referred to by the residents] is a “sleepy” town. No, actually “sleepy” is an understatement. The photograph below was taken in the centre of PG in the middle of the day on Friday – which is a market day.
What is slightly unusual about the town is that it has [some] proper roads and quite a lot of pavements. You might remember from earlier blog posts that most of the roads in Belize are just dirt/hard-packed sand and, indeed, that is what we found on Saturday when we borrowed the guesthouse bicycles and went to visit the village of Boom Creek.
I think I need to clarify what I mean when I say bicycles. They look pretty normal but, no gears, no suspension and no proper brakes. To brake you have to back pedal which meant I kept stopping the bike when I didn’t mean to and not being able to stop it properly when I wanted. Great fun!
The village of Boom Creek was also very sleepy…
Except we didn’t! Apparently, as we found out when we returned to the guest house, the real creek is about 50 yards beyond the village round a bend. We got to the edge of the village – which was quite difficult to determine in itself and decided that the creek we had crossed before we came to the first house must have been it. Ah well.
It was another blistering hot day and although we had taken cold water and coke when we left the flat it was not really very thirst quenching 2 hours later. However, we saw a sign which looked like there might be a shop….
It seems that there are six main communities of Mennonites in Belize, totalling around 10,000 people – which is quite a sizeable number when you consider that the total Belize population is only around 250,000.
Anyway, Coke drunk, back on the road and we chanced across, but fortunately didn’t ride across, another local resident…………..
The ride was about seven miles each way – which I would say was quite an accomplishment given the boneshaker nature of the “beasts” and the fact that the last cycle ride we did was two years ago in the Canary Islands. We certainly earned a much needed beer by the time we got back into Punta Gorda.
The bar was full of friendly folk – or at least as full as anywhere in PG gets and we spent a pleasant couple of hours sitting outside being serenaded by our new found friends [who’s names we can’t now remember!]
….and we were offered more samples than we could actually eat. We bought some rum ‘n chocolate barrels which contain Belize rum. Yummy when we teamed them with Mochacoffee [or in Mike’s case normal black coffee] from the small cafe down the road.
We happened to be in PG on September 10th which is “National Day” in Belize, not to be confused with “Independence Day” which is Sept 21st. The history of British Honduras/Belize is, in fact, rather an unusual one…
In C17, the reefs off Belize [which was part of Guatemala] attracted many English and Scottish Pirates who operated freely capturing booty laden Spanish ships. Because Belize/Guatemala was technically Spanish the Spanish government convinced the British government that they needed to clamp down on the pirate’s activities – which they apparently did – and many “unemployed” pirates went into the logging business. The British government then actively protected these loggers interests while continuing to assure Spain that Belize was indeed a Spanish possession. But, by this time Belize was really British by both tradition and sympathy and it was with considerable relief that Belizians heard, on 10th September 1798, that a British force had defeated the Spanish at St. George’s Caye. Then, in 1859 Britain and Guatemala signed a treaty which gave Britain full rights to the land provided that the British built a road from Guatemala City to the Caribbean coast. Belize became British Honduras [quite why Honduras and not Guatemala I don’t know] and the treaty was enacted but the road was never built, though we did hear that a final six mile stretch which will connect PG to the Guatemalan “Interamericana” main route is due to open soon. Even so, 160 years to build a road is quite a record! It may also be the reason why many Guatemalan maps show Guatemala extending all the way through Belize to the coast because they have never accepted formally that Belize is a separate territory.
Anyway, regardless of who actually owned it, on September 21st 1981 British Honduras officially became the independent nation of Belize.
But, back to September 10th and the National Day celebrations. There was some Red, White and Blue….
We stood and watched the parade which took all of ten minutes to pass – it would have been five minutes but one of the cars pulling a “float” overheated and had to be revived with a bucket of cold water. What that did to the engine block heaven only knows but it kept the show on the road as it were! We then retired to our balcony where we had great views across the bay.
Sitting there, as we did most mornings and again in the afternoons, we wondered why on earth we were holed up in a marina up the Rio Dulce. The sky was blue, the sea was calm, there was a pleasant breeze blowing. What’s all this about tropical storms and hurricanes? Well, around ten pm each evening we got a hint of “what might be”. The sky lights up, the thunder claps, it rains buckets and the wind rises to well above anything comfortable. You might also have heard/seen what has been happening in Mexico recently and that’s not very far from us. We have also been warned that in previous years when there hasn’t been a single hurricane during August there can be intense activity in October/November. So, we are absolutely right to be where we are and, after our weekend away we returned to Rio Dulce knowing that this is the best place to be until the end of November. In fact, our 90 day renewed visa takes us to 6th December which should be excellent timing.