US Border to Belize by bus!

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Jul 18th, 2018, 09:44 AM
  #21
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*Villahermosa, Tabasco*

With a goal of getting to Belize from Puebla, Villahermosa seemed like an optimal halfway point to make the distance travelled more bearable, and I decided to spend 2 nights there just to check it out. My expectations were low since the jokesters seemed to quip that the name Villahermosa was ironic since there weren't any villas and it wasn't very hermosa (pretty in Spanish). Now that I've been, I agree with someone on tripadvisor who wrote that this mean-spirited quip under-rates the Tabasco state capital--what I thought would just be a journey-splitter ended up being a fascinating, eye-opening stop.

My hotel, Misión Express, was in the heart of the Zona Luz, an area of commercial vibrancy and some quite handsome colonial architecture in decent doses. Here, I tried for the first time pozol, a drink made of cacao and fermented corn dough. On its own, kind of bland & bitter but when drunk while simultaneously eating this sweet bar as one is supposed to do, divine! I enjoyed my meanderings in the Zona Luz.

The unquestionable highlight for me in Villahermosa though was the Parque Museo la Venta where coatis (an animal I'd never seen before) roamed freely. While there were animals in a zoo-like environment such as ocelots, spider monkeys, tigrillos, toucans and others, the highlight for me was the gigantic Olmec heads, altars, a floor tile mosaic and basalt tomb that were spaced periodically and the playful skilled climbers & jumpers that were the coatis as I strolled through the grounds. A centenarian ceiba tree was a beautiful intro to the archaeological area and I appreciated the setting adjacent the Laguna de las Ilusiones where there were bike and running paths.

That fantastic morning was capped off by an educational afternoon at the Museo Regional de Antropología Carlos Pellicer where I expanded my knowledge of the Olmec, Mayan, Mexica and other pre-Columbian people who inhabited or traversed the region. There was an exhibit that looked at the sacrifices that occurred and discussed the rationale behind them from the various groups that engaged in such practices. By the way, on recommendation of my fellow traveller friend, I'm reading Aztec by Gary Jennings, a bit of a tome, but one told through the eyes of an Aztec scribe Mixtli who travels throughout the region extensively as a pochtéca (Mexica word for travelling merchant)--this book has helped solidify my knowledge of the pre-Hispanic groups present in Mesoamerica into Guatemala as it's entertaining--museums help me understand also but this book humanizes and engages the reader in a real and I'm told very well-researched way.

*Some words regarding buses in Mexico coming up. And what were my thoughts on Chetumal, Quintana Roo and onward to Belize?*

Last edited by Daniel_Williams; Jul 18th, 2018 at 09:54 AM.
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Jul 18th, 2018, 09:50 AM
  #22
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La Abuela (grandmother). Parque Museo la Venta


Río Grijalva


Zona Luz
Pictures from Villahermosa
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Jul 18th, 2018, 03:39 PM
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*Buses in Mexico*

Taking buses in Mexico can be intimidating and just when I think I've got the routine down for the various bus lines, I am hit with new surprises.

#1. While my Spanish is good enough to have pleasant conversations with people and conduct most necessary transactions, the announcements on the intercom do leave me feeling like I may have missed something important, so I have to compensate.
#2. I learned awhile back that the ticket seller tells you something important "los andenes". This is the number of the "parking spot" your bus leaves from. If you can't read the ticket seller's writing, ask what the "anden" is and especially important for large stations like Puebla which are Herculean ask "¿Dónde están estos andenes?". Sometimes there will be a Sala you can wait in--the ticket seller writes this also if relevant (it is sometimes in Querétaro).
#3. Everything bigger than a backpack goes under the bus. You give your luggage to a baggage handler boarding the bus--the slip the baggage handler gives you you'll need to keep until your destination, which you tell them and sometimes your seat number too.
#4. Villahermosa "de paso" buses come from somewhere else ("local" I believe start where you are) and are in a different section of the station. What was kind of scary is the arriving buses don't state always where they're going and they arrive on both sides of the station. There's an employee there with a clipboard and on the clipboard is the number of your bus (this number is on the front of the bus). Ask if you're concerned. Don't trust the announcements will tell you.
#5. Have multiple 5 or 6 pesos in coins available--you'll need them to go to the toilet in the bus station. Have toilet paper and don't be shocked if there's no lid on the toilet in some places. Your own bar of soap is not a bad idea.
#6. On some lines, the buses show movies (ADO, Omnibus: yes, ETN: no, Primera Plus: yes but without sound). These are mostly Hollywood blockbusters dubbed into Spanish and this is what drove my travelling companion, despite ear plugs, most nuts. I mostly tune out the movies but sometimes even watch them to pass the time.
#7. There's often a stop to eat on the longer hauls. The bus drivers often pick some roadside restaurant that they like, which often has great Mexican food. Better than the fast food restaurants Greyhound often stops at. Listen and if you miss it, ask how long the dining break will be. It was about halfway between destinations (such as Puebla and Villahermosa for example).

*Next: back to the places. Daniel Williams enters new territory (for him): Chetumal and Mexico-Belize border*

Last edited by Daniel_Williams; Jul 18th, 2018 at 03:46 PM. Reason: clarification
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Jul 18th, 2018, 11:49 PM
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Great !!! it seems like you guys had a great fun by traveling in bus. How much does it cost you ?
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Jul 19th, 2018, 05:35 AM
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Still loving your report. Great information.
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Jul 19th, 2018, 06:23 AM
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James2222--Glad you're enjoying. Some random bus prices for you for the longer distances: Villahermosa-Puebla was longest & most expensive at 960 mex pesos; Chetumal to Puebla 523 pesos. One funny thing is: 1 night in a hotel where the room was barely larger than the bed in NYC (at US$210 after taxes) with shared bathrooms, no extras, was worth the same as 4-5 nights in nice, spacious rooms (more than I need frankly) with sometimes gym, pool and breakfast in Mexico!! Not to mention costs were split with my friend for part of the trip. I haven't done a final tally but this month travelling in Mexico & Belize has not set me back more than MUCH shorter trips I've done in Canada, Europe or the States.
schmerl--Love that you're still along for the ride! xoxo
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Jul 19th, 2018, 09:22 AM
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James2222-- I wanted to add that my friend mostly only liked the ETN/Turistar buses. The seats are super comfortable but it is a bit more expensive (e.g., 730 pesos from Puebla to Queretaro; which is only 4 1/2 hours). He would say "I am so done with this bus" for most other trajectories. He has a bigger frame than I do though which I'm sure made the ride less comfortable , the dubbed movies drive him nuts and he gets hungry more often than I do. And the sandwich (almost always ham & cheese with jalapeño) and drink the invariably high-heel-black-shoed young female (what's up with that?) would provide upon boarding wouldn't satisfy his hunger. I'm pretty Zen about the buses though, although for the longer hauls like to Villahermosa, I was always glad to arrive. We both agreed that the scenery was spectacular and would often look at each other and say "wow".
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Jul 19th, 2018, 10:06 AM
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So as not to hijack your post, I'll just say we enjoyed Orizaba very much, though it's colonial center was not as picturesque as others. Interestingly, readers of Mexico Desconocido (a great resource for travel ideas) voted Orizaba as their favorite Pueblo Mágico.
I'll include it on an upcoming trip report.
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Jul 20th, 2018, 04:24 PM
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*Chetumal, Quintana Roo state capital *

Villahermosa and Chetumal have in common that one is no longer in the cool temperature highlands of places like Zacatecas (19C at night when we arrived there! While Montréal was suffering through a heat wave!) or Puebla in the central Mexico highlands. Chetumal differentiated itself as well in other ways from all the destinations including Villahermosa I'd visited in Mexico thus far; my initial impression was that it was remarkably tranquil--it reminded me in some ways of a small U.S. city with broad avenues built on a grid with orderly-seeming traffic--at least in the blocks around my hotel, the Capital Plaza. The new ADO bus station had a modern sparkle about it.

I discovered though that while Chetumal during the day (undoubtedly due to the heat and humidity) was quiet, the Malecón by the greenish-turquoise waters of the Bahía de Chetumal came to life at night. My first night there, a cultural festival was occurring and young adults dressed in beautiful traditional costumes were doing enchanting choreographed dances with partners. In addition to carts selling all sorts of tacos, tortas and other treats, I loved that there were tons of things to keep the kids entertained: inflatable slides & bouncy castles, merry-go-rounds and miniature cars, for example. I really enjoyed the energy at the Malecón at night!

I also felt the Museo de la Cultura Maya and Museo de la Ciudad (Spanish needed for the latter) were worthwhile places to spend a few hours. The former was a bit more tactile, where not only did I enhance my knowledge of Mayan civilization, customs and beliefs, I also using an interactive screen, enhanced my understanding of Mayan math, which is based around the number 20 and uses dots, bars and eyes. The latter museum was wordier but I learned a lot about the history of Chetumal (formerly Payo Obispo) and Quintana Roo in general.

I had been curious to see Chetumal, as I wondered if being so close to Belize (20 km away), would one feel the influence of the English-speaking neighbour in Chetumal? I was actually surprised how slight this influence seemed to be. While I did see some Belize, C.A. license plates and noticed the very occasional person with African blood who spoke English with that quasi-Caribbean-island-like Belizean accent, the overall feel was of a Mexican coastal town rather feeling Belize's imminent presence. Eating at Cafe del Puerto, a great breakfast joint by the way a few blocks from the Malecón, I felt I could have been in anywhere Mexico.

*Next; Marlin Espadas minibus from Chetumal to Belize City. How did things go with this bus line I'd never used before? How was the border crossing? What were my initial impressions of Belize's largest city and former capital?*
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Jul 20th, 2018, 04:33 PM
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Malecón por la noche


Bahía de Chetumal

Pictures of Chetumal.
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Jul 21st, 2018, 12:48 PM
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The part of my Belize travel made me a bit nervous. I had not been able to book buses or boats in advance, despite attempts. Turns out, last minute was how things seem to work there. My initial plan was to take this "San Juan bus" which was supposed to leave at 7:00 am from in front of the ADO station in Chetumal. But on my arrival, no one was giving me great information about it, so I got fed up and went to my second choice, this company Marlin Espadas, which left Chetumal at 9:30am. I discovered they had strange hours, which alleviated my concern why I was not able to reach them by phone (morning hours then closed in the afternoon, reopening from 5-8pm). So, I went to the office around 5 pm via taxi-- the place worried me a bit as all that happened was a guy wrote my name down and told me to show up up the next morning to go to Belize City.

Turned out fine. They take people on an ATM run because you need cash to pay the exit fee--I had the money for that but not the ticket cost as their credit card machine wasn't working, so had to join. My fellow passengers were mostly Europeans in their twenties with English again the common language of banter, a tidal wave of change from my travels in Mexico and a precursor of what was to come in Belize, where Europeans, Canada/USAns and Australians are seen in much larger numbers than in anywhere I'd travelled in Mexico. Few were actually going to Belize on that bus, most were continuing to Flores, Guatemala.

Chetumal being so close to the border, it is minutes before one arrives at Mexican immigration. The Mexico exit fee went reasonably smoothly and then we passed through an area of walled, barbed-wired highway and the Belize customs & immigration begins. The immigration official was very friendly and had some suggestions of things to do in Belize (such as the Blue Hole) during my time there.

As the bus travelled south in Belize, I got one possible answer as to why Chetumal maybe had not "seemed more Belizean"--the population of northern Belize in the Corozal Town area very much physically resembles the mestizo of nearby Mexico, in terms of skin tone and even though signs are in English here, Spanish is present and I was told quite widely-spoken. It was only moving south, as one was actually fairly near Belize City that I started seeing more Creoles with African-influenced features and skin tones. My assumptions about the ethnic makeup of Belize had been not quite accurate--mestizos are majority (over 50%), creoles only about 25-30%, with Garifuna, Maya, East Indians and some others as sizeable groups. I had assumed Creoles were majority.

The Marlin Espadas bus stops by the San Pedro Water Taxi terminal in Belize City, convenient for those going to the islands and also convenient for me to get to my hotel, the Great House, which was only a few blocks away. For the short (maybe 5 minute) walk to my hotel, I was greeted by a somewhat aggressive-seeming whir and buzz of people trying to get my attention "Taxi?", "you going to an archaeological site? I can take you!", "why don't you come look at my crafts?" "Ganja? (this actually was a bit later on the Swing Bridge when I went to go to an ATM, by someone who had a water taxi shirt handing out flyers)", "I want you to answer my question. Why are you walking so quickly?". After weeks in Mexico where I felt people allow me to go about my business undisturbed, I felt barraged and hassled and a bit disquieted-- I was wondering what on earth I had just gotten myself into, with 2 nights planned in Belize City!

*Next: Activities and later thoughts on my time in Belize City*
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Jul 22nd, 2018, 06:51 AM
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*Belize City thoughts and activities*

In my last post, I gave my initial impression of being hassled and somewhat intimidated or concerned as I walked around Belize City. But the city grew on me...I found a route (Marine Parade Blvd., let's hope the hawkers aren't reading this) from my hotel to a variety of places of interest such as the Belize Museum that mostly steered clear of the people wanting something where I could walk in my preferred more meditative fashion. And even in the areas where one does get approached (such as around the water taxis and Swing Bridge, where they know tourists go), when I told people that I was going to the post office or Swing Bridge, many quickly changed from sales pitch to thoughtfully telling me where I needed to go in a friendly way. I chastised myself thinking these folks are just trying to make a living. And in those moments where I was not occupied with discouraging someone approaching me with a "no, thank you" in these touristy areas, I actually found Belize City to be rather picturesque. The often handsome boats in the water, the colonial-style wooden homes (some in better condition than others), the men fishing along the waterfront, I was at times quite charmed. While I crossed the Swing Bridge, I wished I had seen the Swing Bridge in operation, a bridge that is turn-able in a man-operated fashion to let the boats pass. And bottom line, I found many I interacted with so friendly. Sadly, there's also a lot of heart-wrenching poverty, especially on the South Side of the Swing Bridge. Nevertheless, given its photogenic parts and friendliness, I see great potential that Belize City can become a place that people say "hey, Belize City is a great part of a Belize vacation" rather than the current common-seeming advice of "get out as fast as you can". I'm on the "I like Belize City" team and while I see the problems, I also see the potential!

And even for those who can't quite stomach Belize City in its present form, I will say that I was glad to have made it a base, as it's an easy starting point for some great tours, such as the two I did to the "Baboon" Sanctuary and the Mayan site Altun Ha. The Belize Museum there, while small, I think is an excellent place to go to learn about the history of the small country, with a focus on the Maya, the forestocracy, Maroons (escaped slave communities) and music. I found interesting that there was a celebration of Jankunu and Gombay music, which seemed to be just alterations in spelling of the Bahamian Junkanoo and Goombay which I was more familiar with.

*Coming up: amazing life experience during Altun Ha and the Baboon Sanctuary*

Last edited by Daniel_Williams; Jul 22nd, 2018 at 07:01 AM. Reason: annoyed at my repetitive word use
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Jul 22nd, 2018, 07:07 AM
  #33
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Pictures of

View from Swing Bridge


San Pedro Water taxi dock
Belize City charm!
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Jul 22nd, 2018, 08:18 AM
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*Altun Ha*

I'd been to Teotihuacan and Cholula in Mexico, so it was not my first pre-Colombian civilization site, but this was my first Mayan ruin. Altun Ha was populated during the Classic Mayan period so had long been abandoned by the time of Chichen Itza and Spanish conquest, for reasons that remain mysterious. Some enormous jadestone was found in one of the tombs here, a precious commodity in pre-Hispanic times. There were several buildings uncovered thanks to the work of David Pendergast (Royal Ontario Museum), the most impressive of which was the Temple of the Sun God, Kinich Ahau. The tour, arranged by Shanice (sp?) at the Radisson next to the Great House and given by Earl was well-done, informative not only on Altun Ha (a name given to the community--it is unknown what it was really called), but also general Belize history but also on the flora and fauna. For lovers of winged creatures, Belize has a fantastic array to be observed--the colourful yellow social flycatcher and gorgeous sparkling blue morpho butterfly were seen during the hour walk amidst the grounds. These I saw for the first time ever, along with a fascinating epiphyte known as devil's guts, which encircled a tree adjacent one of the temples. Earl also introduced our group as well to the copal, which had a pleasantly sweet incense smell, that was commonly used in rituals in Mesoamerican civilizations. A stone face was visible at the base of one temple and one could climb the sun pyramid to the pedestal where the ruler was presumed to stand on a raised circle and would call upon Chaak (rain God, apparently believed to be same as Aztec Tlaloc) to have the clouds unleash their healing water.

Up next: And just when I think the day can't get more incredible, we then went to the Baboon Sanctuary!
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Jul 22nd, 2018, 11:27 AM
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Temple of Kinich Ahau


Hamming it up as high priest summoning Chaak


Stone mask at base of temple
Altun Ha
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Jul 22nd, 2018, 12:05 PM
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*Baboon sanctuary*

What in Belize is referred to as a baboon, is what I know as a howler monkey. Here, a volunteer at the sanctuary came out and informed our small tour group (4 of us) that 20 miles of private land had, by agreement of the landowners, been created as a habitat wherein the howler monkey would be protected.

The excellent guide, an older fellow with a beard that my friend thought resembled Morgan Freeman (I didn't think he did that much) began by showing us a variety of plants such as the locally called "hot lips", the Yama bush and the ringworm bush, whose uses ranged from testing for pregnancy to serving as a balm to reduce fever. My favourite plant was the mimosa pudica, whose leaves would curl inward upon touch. The guide explained to us that mimosa pudica would be placed around a penitentiary and, if anyone escaped, the path they followed would be readily traceable. Also shown to us were streams of leaf-carrying ants and another ant, the soldier ant, who the guide extracted from an anthill by pounding his feet against a certain area. The guide then demonstrated to us how the ant mandibles could be used for stitching wounds in a remarkably bloodless fashion, as he illustrated by placing the poor ant in his wrist. I also appreciated that as we walked between spots, that the guide gave us spot lessons in Belizean Krioll, which I at times sort of understood, although not always and I certainly couldn't repeat what was said!

The highlight though, unquestionably, was the howler monkey. The first one greeted us with a minute-long emptying of bladder from a high-up tree where we had to do a quick move in order to evade the falling liquid (good thing we got out of the way what followed was poop). What an introduction to the howler monkey! Luckily, the later interactions were of a more agreeable variety, as a group of trees filled with a family of monkeys brought what I'll call "toddler-aged" and "child" monkeys, for lack of a better word within maybe 10 feet! The pièce de résistance of the day though was, at the guide's suggestion, I put a locally-found fruit in my hand and one of the wild howler monkeys snatched the snack directly out of my hand, such that I felt the gentle touch of its nails against my plan. They seemed by and large such gentle and peaceful creatures, which according to the guide, look out for their fellow members in the family unit. During the close proximity of the low-lying monkeys, the alpha male was howling with its lips forming a mouth-wide-open "o" shape; the howling sound was not the "oo oo oo" one would expect from a monkey but more like that an asthmatic jaguar...kind of spooky.

All in all--that day (July 10 2018) with Altun Ha and howler monkey both, goes down as one of the most amazing days of my life.

*Next: off to my first Belizean island, Caye Caulker! Can it possibly match the experiences of the mainland?*
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Jul 22nd, 2018, 02:06 PM
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* San Pedro Water Taxi to Caye Caulker*

After a morning at the Belize Museum and enjoying my fave Belizean dish, stewed chicken specialty with beans/rice and plantain garnish, at my favourite cafe (The Last Drop Cafe) in the Fort George Tourism area, I boarded the water taxi to Caye Caulker. I was only able to purchase tickets for the ride about an hour beforehand, as nerve-wracking as that was for me who likes to have tickets at very least the day before. Belizeans reassured me though that this was how things are done, except maybe for a special occasion like Lobster Fest.

The ride was unquestionably the least comfortable travel mode I had experienced that trip. Crammed in like sardines, head-sweating/intelligence-dimming hot while waiting for the boat to depart and bumpy. Thankfully, the ride was under an hour and the wind created as we moved made the ride more bearable.

Arriving in Caye Caulker, I liked my first impression, with streets of packed sand with mostly only bicycles & golf carts & pedestrians roaming, colourfully-painted wooden buildings, hammocks tied between palm trees and an area where people swam and dove into calm (but slightly grassy) waters known as the Strip where in one place, people sat on chairs immersed in the water under palapa-roof-covered tables.

As charming as the town was and as much as I appreciated refreshing my body from the powerful Belizean heat & humidity in the Strip, the unquestionable highlight for me was the half-day snorkelling I did through Ragamuffin Tours. For 70 Belizean dollars only, I went snorkelling for the first time ever (although funny enough, I have been scuba diving in the Bahamas!) and I think I couldn't have picked a better spot if I'd tried, with Caye Caulker only a mile away from a barrier reef. Going with Anwar's group, the guide first took us on a group swim with him leading, pointing out to us varieties of coral, names of fish (sadly I didn't have an underwater pen to write them all down) which included the "Dory" fish from Finding Nemo, colourful yellow snapper, a bright red fish, some large silver-coloured fish and a moray eel, amongst others, sometimes alone, sometimes in schools with scores of fish. A subsequent stop was Shark Ray Alley, where through movement of the boat in a specific place, the guide was able to attract dozens of nurse Shark and sting rays, which would sometimes swim mere feet below our flippery selves. The final stop was the so-called Coral Garden, where we got to swim freely in an area dense with coral and schools of colourful fish. It seemed to me as I observed the coral, that they were looking at me, trying to hide amidst the coral, possibly fearful that I was some ilk of predator. I felt like I was participating in an alien world where I did not belong--I wished I could somehow have reassured the fish schools that I was not a direct threat, but alas.

Anyway, what can I say? Travelling to Belize turned out to not only be travel to a new country but travel to greater understand ancient civilizations with the Mayan site, but also to travel to parts of the animal kingdom I had never experienced before, with the coral reef marine life and howler monkey habitat seen as never before.
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Jul 22nd, 2018, 04:03 PM
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Chairs and tables affixed in water with the mini-palapa umbrellas


Packed sand streets and colourful architecture. Hammocks sometimes tied between the palms


Swimming area at the Strip
Caye Caulker images:
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Jul 23rd, 2018, 05:33 AM
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WOW! You are having quite the trip! Thank you for taking us with you through this report.
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Jul 23rd, 2018, 08:43 AM
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Thanks so much for reading all the way to Belize, schmerl! Oh and baldone--you said you really enjoyed Orizaba; the colonial side was not as picturesque you say as other places. So I'm curious what made it so enjoyable. Hiking?

*Final thoughts on Belize*

As I took the Water Jets International from Caye Caulker via San Pedro to Chetumal, Mexico, I reflected on my experiences in the country. Having visited the island of Bimini in the Bahamas around New Years and with the Bahamas the only other country I'd visited in the Anglo West Indies, I imagined that Belize might be similar. But apart from a certain British colonial commonality and a Caribbeanesque accent, I found the two really quite different. As mentioned, the ethnic mixture of Belize is only about 25-30% Afro-Caribbean Creole and the presence of mestizo, Maya, East Indian and Garifuna bring totally different cultural influences to Belize. Having a large part of Belize on the Central American mainland provides a non-island vibe to Belize also that differentiates it completely from the inescapable association with island-ness that I've found everywhere I've been in the Bahamas (mind you, I've not been to the largest, Andros).

Belize is really a nature- and animal-lover's dream. From howler monkeys to colourful birds, butterflies and fascinating plant-life visible on land to the incredible and equally colourful and diverse sea life visible while snorkelling in the gardens of varied coral of the barrier reef, I can't think of many places that offer so unbelievably much in terms of flora & fauna. I'm sorry I'm only just discovering Belize now in my late 40s but glad I did make it!
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