The long dark depths of January have finally passed, which were particularly trying this year, as it was the first January since 2010 that did not involve a foreign trip!
On the colder, darker mornings, my mind was cast back 12 months, to a place which had long been a candidate for a visit: Belize, in Central America.
That said, we had our fair share of cold in Belize, by Central American standards anyway. First stop was inland to San Ignacio, a small market town which also serves as a mini-tourist hub for some of the country’s better non-coastal attractions.
My main purpose had been to visit the famous Actun Tunuchil Muktal Cave, conveniently known as ATM for short. A cave 3 miles deep, through which you must swim, wade and scramble til you reach a chamber with a centuries old skeleton and other assorted props from The Descent. It sounded fantastic. Unfortunately, torrential rain caused the cave to flood and we couldn’t visit while we were there. Indeed, heavy rain and lower than average temperatures were to be a feature of our stay, and appears to be a hazard in January in Central America.
There were more downpours when we visited the Mayan site of Xunantunich. However, that didn’t detract from a site which while relatively small in scale is impressive and beautifully situated.
Just take a local bus from San Ignacio up to the entrance to the park, cross the river on a small jetty, and it’s about a mile uphill along a track to reach the site. Even with the rain bucketing down, the ruins were striking, with howler monkeys thrashing and screeching in the trees.
The town of San Ignacio itself is small and pleasant, with a couple of main streets to familiarise yourself with and navigate. On Saturdays, there’s a great market in the town and it is buzzing and lively, with every conceivable product available.
From there, it was on to a Tropic Air bus-like stopping service to Ambergris Caye. Three stops including the tiny capital Belmopan and two airports in Belize City en route, before landing in San Pedro, the main settlement on Ambergris Caye.
San Pedro and the stretch of tourist hotels spread over quite a distance now. However, the terrain is easily navigated by bike, including along the hard sand narrow strip of beach. Many hotels, including our own at Caribbean Villas Hotel, have free bike hire as part of the deal. Golf carts are the other main tourist modes of travel, and taxis are plentiful and reasonable.
It’s worth heading up to the North of the island by bike to get out of the main hustle and on to quiet and beautiful beaches. Some pitstops worth checking out are Palapas Bar and Lazy Crocs BBQ. Be warned – crocodiles can stray on to the roads and cycle paths up here, as one did as our lazy, languid two-wheel spin turned into a velodrome-like sprint in an instant! Thankfully, the croc appeared more frightened than us, and scarpered back into the water pronto too.
The main attraction here though is on and under the water. The beaches – with a coastal strip of seagrass – are not wonderful, swimming better done off the piers. However, underwater, there are few better places to get your PADI Open Water certification as I did, with what passes for a mega-resort at Ramons. The rates are reasonable, and the sealife spectacular. One of my fellow divers remarked that it was unusual to get my Open Water whilst surrounded by ray, nurse sharks and turtles. I’m sure it was, and even more unusual to have a shark arrive simply it seems to “play” with me and my instructor!! It was awe-inspiring, and had the added benefit of ensuring we avoided a few more of the seemingly ever-present showers.
Nightlife is reasonably varied, from locals dive bars to tourist music stages. There’s a great choice of places to eat, and drinks can be quite reasonable. A very lively ex-pat scene exists too, with unsurprisingly Americans and Canadians dominating.
One other thing that was notable about Belize was the bird life. I’m not particularly ornothologically minded, but the birds seemed intent on posing for photos, so it would’ve been rude not to take a few.
Overall, Belize has a taste of more about it for me. Perhaps later into the Spring would be better, a March / April visit, to minimise the risk of the type of weather issues we faced. However, it is a country that packs a lot into a relatively small space, and has a charming friendliness to go with it.