TRAPPED IN PARADISE
Belize, don’t know why but somehow this country always intrigued me. In Europe we typically don’t hear much about it and I doubt that many can accurately place it on a map. It is very young (it gained independence in the 1970’s), as former British Honduras it is officially English speaking which makes it a bit of an odd ball in that part of the world and, despite its relatively long borders to Mexico and Guatemala, it has only two official border crossings, one each at the Northern and the Western border. The focus of its just 400’000 inhabitants is mostly on the Caribbean and as we will experience it sees itself more as a Caribbean country than a Central American or Latin one. Of course it is famous for its coast, the longest corral reef in the Northern hemisphere, protected since 1996 and a diver’s paradise and the Cayes, tiny islands lined up off the coast with palm trees and white beaches. This is also what we wanted to see on our trip through Belize for which we had allocated just a couple of weeks before continuing to Guatemala from where we had planned to fly to CDMX for Fredy and Quetza’s wedding and on to Europe to visit friends and family.
We stocked up on a few items in Chetumal, not too many fruits and veggies as the import to Belize is officially not allowed, organised the health certificates for our doggies and off we were to the Northern border crossing. Leaving Mexico was as easy as always and with the exception of the relatively expensive dog permits the entry into Belize went quite quickly as well. We stopped in Corozal to do some shopping and buy a local SIM-card, what a tiny town. We were quite surprised to see that most shops were owned by Chinese and by the diversity of skin colours on the streets. This really looked more Caribbean than Mexican. The road took us inland again and when approaching Orange Walk we decided to stop, looking at the map we could have crossed the country in a day, something we were not used to after so much time in the US, Canada and Mexico. Berna picked a nice looking lagoon east of Orange Walk as destination for the night. Small dirt roads brought us through sugar cane fields to Honey Camp Lagoon, a mostly untouched lagoon with a small island in the middle, surrounded by jungle, sugar cane plantations and one or the other shack. We pulled in next to the lake for the night, jumped into the water and enjoyed our fist night sleep under palm trees, no lights in sight, no sounds other than the sound of the jungle.
The place was nice and we were not in a hurry so we decided to stay another day. We collected coconuts, chilled in the water and made plans for our snorkelling trip. The plan was to reach Belize City the next day. Morning came and with it the surprises, deja vu - Rouletout didn’t want to start. Teopisca all over again only that now we had a diagnosis system. Connected it told us about the famous low voltage error but this time simply deleting it didn’t do the trick, it just appeared again. Well we knew that we never identified the root cause of this issue. It seemed now was the time and opportunity to do so. After having checked all potential mechanical and electrical causes with the help of Javier in Merida and after some discussion with the team at Kestenholz in Lörrach it was pretty clear, we had to replace the engine control module.
This brought several challenges. A new module, on top of being hugely expensive, requires configuration for our truck by the factory and thus takes days if not weeks before shipping. Luckily, 24Volt.de had a refurbished one with almost the same configuration in stock and was ready to ship it. All we needed was a shipping address for which we found a hotel in Orange Walk. Güçlü, our motorbike, was on heavy duty for shopping and exploration trips while we waited for our part to ship and arrive. So was our kayak with which we toured the lagoon in the evenings. After a few days we were visited by the friendly landowner who welcomed us on his land. To our surprise he mentioned that there were crocodiles in the lagoon, not big ones but still. Suddenly Berna didn’t wanted to swim that far out anymore :-).
The days passed, our parcel cleared customs and soon was ready for pick up. Changing the module and its configuration was rather quick and Rouletout started on the first turn of the key, next day we were off for Belize City. Belize City is a small town but seems to have a couple of “dark alleys” with drug related crime. We found a place to stay just outside of the city in the garden of Alice, a widow that lives there with her daughters. The water along the coast is shallow and you can go for kilometre long walks in ankle to knee deep water along the mangroves (don’t step on any of the many rays!!). But it was time to do what we came here for and this was visiting the Cayes and snorkelling. Early morning - leaving Rouletout and our doggies at Alice’s place - we took the first ferry to Caye Caulker, a one hour ride over turquoise and dark blue waters to meet with our tour guide.
With a small boat we headed further north to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. But first we stopped at a huge underwater cave entrance where Tarpons, about 2 metre long fish, jump out of the water and try to grab your hand if you hold it steady over the surface for a moment, quite a fun experience.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a divers and snorkelers paradise. The variety of fish and underwater scenery is breathtaking and time passed quickly. We moved a bit further south to swim with turtles before our next stop, Shark Alley. A spot where mostly Nurse Sharks reside and swim with you by the dozen. Berna was a bit sceptical at first but soon enjoyed the view of these gracious animals. Due to the relatively rough see we couldn’t see any Manatees but other than that our guide made that a really impressive trip. Back at Caye Caulker we took the last ferry back to Belize City, tired from the sea and the impressions.
We had a few more days to kill for our plan to match visa regulations so we decided to head south towards Mayflower Bocawina National Park. On the way we stopped at Gales Point, also called Manatee as it is a huge lagoon where Manatees live and retreat from the sea, but we only saw their noses catching air, the waters are too murky for more.
Mayflower Bocawina National Park and its surroundings are quite different from the flat north with hills and cliffs that reminded us a bit of Thailand. Together with the lush green jungle it is great place for hikes leading you from waterfall to waterfall. It was at the lodge of the park that for the first time realized that Covid-19 had reached us. There were signs encouraging you to wash your hands before entering and outside sinks. After a couple of days we decided to drive towards the Western border in direction of Guatemala. A scenic drive through the hills brought us close to the border and as we had plenty of time we decided to check out Barton Creek, a small creek with an impressive cave system that we had on our radar as one of the few climbing spots in Belize.
The plan was to stay just for the night despite the rough ride on narrow roads. Mike’s place as it was called was a huge well maintained area at the entrance of the cave with a small restaurant and a few rooms for rent. It is mostly frequented by tourists on day trips coming in from the coast or nearby jungle resorts. Mike made us aware that El Salvador had closed the borders the day before due to Covid and that he had heard, that Guatemala had also imposed restrictions. Still, we decided to try it in the morning. We drove out from Barton Creek and an hour later we were at the border to learn that Berna may pass but that EU-citizens were not allowed to enter Guatemala anymore, quite an interesting thought process. We tried to learn more about the restrictions and their duration but no way, we headed back to Barton Creek, hoping that things would clear up in the next few days.
It developed quite differently. Guatemala closed the border completely and shortly thereafter Belize did the same. Air travel was stopped and the last tourists disappeared. Canada and the US were flying out their citizens and we were in Barton Creek, alone with a few local workers still hoping for tourists and an impressive array of nature. Mike was kind enough to let us stay where we had parked, arranged for us an outdoor shower and a big fridge and offered his support with anything we might need. We still hadn’t grasped what was really going on but after a few days we decided to head again to the border to get our visas extended. The picture was quite different from the busy border we saw the first time. Roadblocks, empty offices and no one around. This border was closed for good and as it turned out later, it was one of the last days the offices were occupied to get our extensions for the visas and temporary import. Having done that, we decided to go for an extensiv shopping trip in San Ignacio. We stocked up on everything and headed back to our new home under the mango trees.
Barton Creek emptied completely, the workers went home and only Mike checked on us every other day or so, made sure we had enough Landshark (a really nice beer) and Belizean rum, kept us up to date on government regulations, and entertained us with stories. Some of his workers were from Guatemala and they couldn’t get back to their families, others were stuck in Guatemala and couldn’t come home to Belize. Some tourists were stuck between the borders canoeing on a river they were not allowed to enter either country for a day or two until some solution was found. Weird times.
As in most other countries, the rules of the lock down changed from week to week and logic seemed to be abolished. We didn’t really bother as our only neighbours were howler monkeys that passed twice a day through the trees near us. We explored the area on Güçlü (our motorbike) and went shopping in 7 Miles (the nearest small village - mostly Spanish speaking - with a shop for the daily needs) that we reached on a very steep and bad dirt road. We also checked on some nearby farms, if they had anything to offer and got really lucky. Most farms in the vicinity are run by Menonites, some stricter others less strict in using technology in their daily lives. Most of them wear traditional clothes, long beards and travel by horse cart. When we saw that the first time we thought we might have accidentally entered the set of the TV series “Banshee”, that plays in Pennsylvania in an Amish county. All of them were extremely friendly and supplied us with what they had on a regular basis. Jamaica limes, basil (yes, since a very long time we were able to eat Spaghetti Pesto on a weekly basis as one farmer had a field of basil and no customers for it), papayas, velvet fruit, and all sorts of exotic vegetables and fruits. Andy and Cenaida even baked bread for us, sometimes they had fresh yoghurt and Deborah always had several types of cheese.
Several different kinds of bananas were growing all around us and we went to collect coconuts, lemons and limes, and to buy tomatoes and water melons directly from the fields. Mutlu and Posh became real coconut eaters, halved coconuts kept them busy for a while probably replacing a bone and they became all excited when I left in the morning with the machete to collect more of them. While I was collecting coconuts, Berna invented always new stuff using bananas. Banana flour, banana pudding, banana ice cream, dried bananas… We started taking weight from all the bananas but they kept growing all around us and it was close to impossible to not simply let them rot. In the end and despite the fact that we never had such nice bananas anywhere else we reached a point of saturation :-).
People got used to us and we got used to our daily routine. It was the end of the dry season, and it was very hot. So we got up before sunrise, went hiking or trained a bit and then hid in the shade or jumped in the cool water running out of the cave for a swim. Towards the end of the dry season temperatures raised above 40°C and the occasional forest fire kept us busy as we lacked the experience to understand which way they went and how dangerous they really were.
Depending on the severity of the lock down, we went to visit San Ignacio or Spanish Lookout for shopping. Spanish Lookout is very different from any town we had seen since the US. It could be a small US town in the midwest with mostly modern buildings, well maintained roads and lots of shops with tools and equipment for the local farmers - needless to say that it is a Mennonite town. What I forgot to mention is that most Mennonites in Belize are originally from Northern Germany. From there some of them moved to Russia, then on to Canada and from there either directly or via Northern Mexico to Belize. Many of them are bound, have blue eyes and some still speak an older form of German (which is still taught in school). It really looks weird to see these blondy boys playing in the jungle. The big advantage of this rather strange setup in Spanish Lookout is, that you can find tools and spare parts that are hard to find in the Americas in general and that they have excellent repair shops. Having so much time on our hand we spent lots of it improving Rouletout and fixing stuff. We also had a small oil leak on the back axle but the guys in Spanish Lookout ordered the correct differential oil seal directly from Europe and replaced it.
Time passed, we eventually ran out of repair work, had our teeth fixed and had read many books, played endless sessions of backgammon (no idea why Berna always wins) but the overall situation - meaning the border closures - did not improve. There was also a small cliff nearby with a dozen climbs or so but not enough to keep us busy for long. So we looked at options to get out of Belize but as there were no flights (other than repatriation flights to the US that didn’t take dogs) and all land borders closed, we decided to wait a bit more. Rainy season started. One evening, we were just doing our exercises, Berna suddenly screamed “they are coming”. A cloud of insects darkened the sky and it was too late to close all windows and doors of Rouletout. As we learned later, it was an invasion of “flood bugs” - flying termites with oversized wings that land on everything and everyone, drop their wings and become larva. It was a fight to get rid of the ones that made it into Rouletout and we still found their oversized wings everywhere weeks later but at least it kept us busy for a while. We also encountered one or the other tarantula (Berna showered with one, realising it only when she was done) and plenty of other crawling and flying insects and small animals. The only constant however were the howler monkeys that woke us every morning and ended the day for us with their impressive noise.
The change in nature coming with the rain was incredible. The areas devastated by the forest fires turned green in a matter of days, trees grew new leaves within two weeks and the birds went crazy. Birds of all sizes, from Hummingbirds to Toucans started buildings their nests and mating all around us and the offering of fruits and vegetables became a completely different one.
While we enjoyed the change in nature (and the drop in temperature) we also realised that we had to come up with a plan B. Continuing our journey in direction of Panama seemed unrealistic and Barton Creek was nice but the green became too green, the sound of the birds too noisy and the limitations to free movement - despite not really being locked down - weighted to heavy on us for too long. We contacted our embassies in Mexico and the honorary consul in Belize to initiate the process of obtaining a permission to cross the closed border back to Mexico. Contrary to Guatemala, Mexico had less Covid-related restrictions and the options for flights to Europe were much better.
A few weeks later we finally received an e-mail by the director of the Department of Border Management and Immigration that granted us the permission to leave the country overland. Accompanied by a letter from the embassy in Mexico that the Mexican authorities asked for free passage to Cancun this proved to be enough to cross the Northern border.
After three months in Barton Creek it was time to say goodbye. We visited all our new friends for a last time and left Mike’s place in direction of Orange Walk and the border. The exit procedure was quite expensive as we had to pay all extensions at once but on the Mexican side it was business as usual, luckily we still had our Banjercito! A short inspection and off we drove to Chetumal. Who would have thought that we would be back so quickly.
Southern Quintana Roo was a red zone (yes, Mexico had a traffic light system long before any country in Europe) and most restaurants and parks were closed. So we headed further north, closer to Cancun as this was an orange or even yellow zone. Contrary to last time, we were lucky in finding a spot to stay, just a bit north of town on Isla Blanca right at the beach at a kite surfing school.
As we still had to sort out our flights - many airlines cancelled their flights due to limited demand - and get the papers for our doggies in order we decided to make use of the infrastructure and started kite surfing. The advantage of being the only customers was, that we went when we wanted (or when the conditions were good) and each of us had our own teacher. On top of that we had a jet ski taxi to bring us back upwind.
Thanks to the new sport we both enjoyed very much time passed quickly and after two weeks it was time to bring Rouletout to Javier near Merida - our friend and mechanic - who generously offered his garden as safe storage for our home while we are gone. Merida was again in a red zone and it felt quite weird to walk the streets while I was waiting for the bus back to Cancun.
The next morning the team from the kite surfing school brought us to the airport - about 85kg of luggage and 70kg of dogs and crates are quite a challenge to move around. Needless to say that we were quite surprised as we heard that the airline wasn’t able to check the dogs through to Frankfurt. In the end and despite the delay from Cancun we re-checked them just in time in Mexico City for an almost empty flight to Frankfurt. But as always, more on that and our onward journey in the next blog post.