A trip to this tiny country pays dividends in sights and experiences available nowhere else.
By John and Harriet Halkyard, F357638
Imagine driving your motorhome to a tropical country. Envision yourself swimming over coral reefs and riding horses through a mahogany jungle. And in this idyllic country, everyone speaks English. They might also speak Mayan or Spanish, but you will have no problem communicating in English.
Welcome to Belize.
Belize is just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, with Caribbean waters to its east and Guatemala to the west. If you like beaches with clear water lapping like velvet over glorious coral, come and spend some time here. Belize boasts the second-largest barrier reef in the world. You can get your scuba license or, if you prefer to stay closer to the surface, enjoy plenty of good snorkeling.
Only two roads lead into Belize: one from Mexico and the other from Guatemala on the west, where Tikal “” the site of magnificent Mayan ruins “” lies a short day’s drive across the border. Belize itself also contains numerous Mayan ruins. Caracol, near the border with Guatemala, is one of the largest sites in the Mayan world, built to commemorate a victory over Tikal. Today the pyramid at Caracol is still the tallest man-made structure in the country.
History has been rich in Belize ever since the Mayans left. Pirates colonized the area, and the Spanish and English squabbled over the land. Then came the wood cutters, who sent mahogany back to English companies such as Chippendale. Slaves were an important part of the logging industry, to be sure, but the Baymen, as the locals liked to be called, had an unusual attitude toward the slaves. Slaves had to be paid for work on Saturdays, and no work was allowed on Sundays. This area was a British colony known as British Honduras until it became an independent country in 1981.
Motorhomers need not be worried about driving in Belize. If you are comfortable traveling in Mexico, you will find driving here even easier. The main roads are paved and a comfortable two lanes wide, except where they narrow to one-lane bridges. Away from Belize City, traffic is minimal, so narrow bridges are of little consequence. There are only four main roads around the country, so it is hard to get lost. Following the English tradition, the roads have names rather than numbers.
Jungle hikes abound near San Ignacio on the Western Highway near Guatemala. Or you can rent horses and ride into the tropical broadleaf forest to see orchids and mahogany while monkeys and macaws screech overhead. Rivers were the only mode of transport in this area until a few years ago, and you can still take your pick of them, from gentle waterways to wild, whitewater streams.
Belize has more formal campsites than the rest of Central America, but there aren’t many. Be aware that campers often pay a surcharge for power at the campsites, as it is an expensive commodity there. It is easy to find a place with water and sewer hookups in the more frequented areas for $2.50 to $10 a night.
Motor coaches are a novelty in Belize, and many places will let you boondock for free or for a few dollars. This is particularly true if you eat at a restaurant and ask if you can stay the night in the parking lot. Whenever you boondock, do so near a business of some kind, and please ask permission. We never had problems anywhere in Central America following this rule, and we invariably made good friends. Workers at the establishment also can give you local information.
Gasoline and diesel fuel are more expensive in Belize than in the United States, but the country is so small you may never need to refuel during your stay. Fill your tank before crossing the border and you should be able to see everything before refueling. Belize is 68 miles wide and 178 miles long, approximately the size of Massachusetts.
We entered the country from Guatemala and traveled to where the Hummingbird Highway branches south off the Western Highway, and in no time reached Blue Hole National Park. This is a deep sinkhole, or cenote, formed by a collapsed limestone cave. This is not to be confused with the Blue Hole Natural Monument. The latter is a vast blue hole in the coral reef that is a diver’s paradise.
The pool in the national park is constantly refreshed by an underground stream and has been softened by time and the jungle undergrowth. Steep steps led down into the deep shade, where only mottled sun reached the water. The pool was cool, small, and very deep, and little fish swam around our feet. It was a magical place. One could imagine an ogre hiding in the rock crannies, or good fairies living among the ferns and mosses.
We could have camped in the parking lot, but our destination was Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle Lodge less than a mile away. The area around the lodge was once a cocoa farm and some of the trees have survived the encroaching jungle. Purple pods with their precious beans drooped from the branches.
The appealing thing about Anderson’s is the tours they offer. We camped there for the night and selected an excursion that took us tubing through limestone caves. The excursion turned out to be very unusual and interesting and not at all what we expected.
After riding on the back of a trailer pulled by a tractor through acres of orange groves, we stopped at a stream at the foot of a jungle-covered cliff wall. We carried our tubes to the stream for a safety briefing and were issued flashlights that strapped onto our heads like a miner’s lamp. We flopped clumsily onto the tubes in the refreshingly cool, clear water, and paddled upstream. But paddling upstream was not difficult. Navigating around boulders and tropical undergrowth and passing under fallen trees dripping with cobwebs and many-legged critters were a bit of a challenge. It reminded us of a Disney ride, but it all was real.
Inside the cave the river became too shallow for the tubes in places, so we walked short distances. Bats were overhead, and crickets and birds clung to the walls. As we looked into the water, the blind red eyes of the catfish reflected the light from our headlamps. This unusual species has survived in these pools for centuries, cut off from the rest of the world.
We continued upstream, deeper into the cave, alternating between walking and paddling our tubes around spectacular hanging stalactites and limestone formations.
Interesting as they were, the tour was not just to view limestone caves. Mayan priests made offerings to their gods here, and their ceremonial fireplaces have lain untouched for thousands of years. Part of the rite was to break the pot with its offerings, to allow the spirits to escape. We sat around an ancient fireplace with shards of broken pottery and listened to tales of the Maya. Caves are considered the mouth of Xibalba where the underworld gods live. It was understandable that the Mayans held these caverns with their strange formations in such esteem. The damp, dark vacuous caves dripped spirits, and we could feel the gods breathing around us in the rustle of the river.
Five Blues Lake is at mile 32 off the Hummingbird Highway, about six miles down a dusty road between citrus groves and sharp limestone hills. Where the road is less traveled, it becomes not much more than a wide grass path where palm fronds swept the dust off the roof of our motor coach. It was well worth the drive. A park at the lake is maintained by the local community, which includes a large covered picnic area containing a museum display and information on numerous walking trails. There is enough space for several motorhomes to camp overnight. Five Blues Lake is also a cenote, and the varying depths of water and the shadows of the trees create at least five shades of blue. It is a wonderful place to swim. There was even a canoe with a sign inviting folks to borrow it.
The Hummingbird Highway takes motorists toward Dangriga on the coast. Just south is the town of Hopkins, situated on a splendid white sand beach. You can park right next to the police station and listen to the waves all night. In the morning you can step out of your motorhome onto the sand and into the clear waters of the Caribbean. To the south are several resorts where you can ask to camp if you prefer a more formal setting.
More than a third of Belize consists of nature reserves, parks, and sanctuaries. Exotic birds such as toucans and scarlet macaws inhabit the forests. If you want to see monkeys, head for the Community Baboon Sanctuary in Bermuda Landing on the Belize River. It is down a good dirt road, and you are welcome to camp the night there. The turnoff is south of Big Boom Bridge on the Northern Highway just before the town of Barrel Boom. There is something special about the place names in Belize.
The primates in the Baboon Sanctuary are not really baboons but a variety of black howler monkey known only in Belize. The neighboring communities agreed not to burn any more of the forest to preserve the land for these monkeys. The residents realize, if nothing else, good money is to be made through tourism. To get more than 150 farmers to agree to this voluntary program seemed to us an amazing accomplishment.
The $5 admission fee to the sanctuary includes a walking tour, and we hadn’t gone more than a couple hundred yards when we came upon a troop of the black monkeys. They were clambering around some cashew trees, eating the red and yellow fruit of the cashew nut. Later we hired a canoe with a singing guide who took us down the Belize River crooning like a Venetian boatman.
We don’t like to take our motorhome into cities, so we avoided Belize City this time and continued up the Northern Highway through Orange Walk. Several coaches can be parked on the soccer field or on the edge of the New River there. The charming town of Corozal is a comfortable staging point before crossing into Yucatan, Mexico, and back into North America. A small caravan could boondock on the grass park at the south of town, with the waves breaking on the adjacent seawall.
The best time to visit Belize is between November and April, to avoid the rainy season when some of the unpaved roads can become difficult to navigate. There are worse places to wait for roads to clear, and the rain usually does not last long.
Belize has it all. History and culture, beaches and jungle and some very interesting experiences are in store for anyone with an adventurous spirit. And the locals will make you feel very welcome.
Many people who fly into Belize stay at the beaches, but if you have a motorhome, you can travel at your own gentle pace and stay at beautiful and unusual locations throughout this charming country.
How Do I Get There By Motorhome?
Are you interested in driving your coach to Belize or other Central American countries? The writers of this article published a book, 99 Days To Panama, An Exploration of Central America by Motorhome. In the preface they state, “We wrote this book to demonstrate how easy it is to visit Central America. We want to encourage motorhomers to explore this fascinating part of the world.”
The Halkyards’ book, published in 2005, takes readers along with them on a tour in their type C motorhome through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize. The couple brought their dog on the trip with them, too.
The guide has an extensive appendix section with valuable information about costs, roads, safety, overnight stops, personal health, coach maintenance, campgrounds, stopping locations, and other various tips, so that readers can enjoy a similar journey. This 346-page paperback has a list price of $24.95 plus shipping. For phone orders, call (858) 748-8861. The book is available for $20 plus shipping if purchased through the Halkyards’ Web site, www.brindlepress.com, and for less when ordered through www.amazon.com. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Should I Caravan Instead?
Numerous companies provide RV caravan tours, but to our knowledge only two regularly take RVers into Central America. One is Adventuretours RV Tours, and the other is Adventure Caravans, C6954.
Central America is apparently the newest RV frontier, and these trips are hot commodities. “Our Central America trips sell out well in advance,” said Angel Stephenson, administrative assistant for Adventure Caravans. “They are very, very popular.”
The company uses experienced RVers as guides, visits sites of interest, and has English-speaking local guides. Ms. Stephenson also noted that Adventure Caravans is associated with trips to Central America geared for bird-watchers run by experts Bert and Shari Frenz. (See www.bafrenz.com for details.) The number of vehicles permitted on the birding tours to Costa Rica and Belize is more limited than the regular tours. “People get disappointed when they call and learn the tours are sold out already,” Ms. Stephenson said. So, if you’re interested, it’s advisable to plan now.
As it was with the Halkyards, who spent many nights without hookups, RVers should plan on “roughing it” if they take a Central America tour. Regarding the trek to Panama, Ms. Stephenson said, “This is 78 days and some of those days mean dry camping. You’ve got to be a sport. It’s not an easy trip. But it’s an educational thing. You learn a lot and you see a lot.”
“” Peggy Jordan, Associate Editor
For more information, contact:
125 Promise Lane
Livingston, TX 77351-0855
(800) 872-7897 X-(936) 327-3428
Adventuretours RV Tours
1501 S. Jackson Road,
Pharr, TX 78577
(800) 455-8687 X-(956) 630-0341