Hello Central America!
|Written by Jared on January 24, 2012|
Start: January 12, Chetumal
Two countries down, eleven or twelve to go. After spending 70 days in Mexico we've finally made it to Central America! A week ago we crossed the border at Chetumal and headed back to the Caribbean coast. Unfortunately, we have less than two weeks in the tiny country of Belize, so we're doing our best to make the most of it.
We spent our first nights in Belize on the southeast peninsula in the small fishing village of Sarteneja (pronounced sar-ten-ay-ah). Then we left Blue behind and hopped on a boat out to the northern cayes (islands). Caye Caulker was our final destination, with a short stopover in San Pedro on Caye Ambergris. For three nights we relaxed on the Caribbean island - doing a bit of snorkeling, making ceviche and eating lots of good food.
The city of Chetumal was our final destination in Mexico. A stone's throw from the Belize border, it proved to be a great place to relax, meet the locals and get ready for the next leg of our trip. Above, Jessica and Kobus' tent sits on a split overlooking stormy skies and the Caribbean sea. It didn't rain much, but when it did, it was nasty.
Our first night in Chetumal we met the owner of our campsite. He is a retired Mexican federal police officer, having served all over the country, including as bodyguard for the national congress. His hospitality was unmatched; rum, beer and stories flowed freely into the wee hours. Needless to say, we woke up the next morning very slowly. And then went back to bed.
We spent much of the next two days online researching the border crossing and where we'd like to go in Belize. And in case you ever wonder what it looks like while we're writing articles for Life Remotely - this is pretty much it.
Welcome to Belize! This bridge crosses the river that separates Belize and Mexico, the first river we've seen in three weeks. The border crossing was very uneventful, taking less than 45 minutes.
From the border at Santa Elena we headed into Corozal, the first major town on the Belize side of the border, to resupply and figure out how to get to our next destination - Sarteneja. We managed to find a butcher in Corozal with the help of a local - $3/lb rib eye steak, sliced by band saw to your specification. I think I'm gonna like it here.
The route to Sarteneja was a bit of mystery. The roads weren't on either of our three maps, the GPS or even on Google Maps. But we knew, thanks to some local intel, that there was a way we could get back out the Caribbean coast without driving half way down the country and back up. Eventually we found the road, and only had to backtrack once. It was without a doubt the worst road we've driven on yet, but luckily it was only a 90 minute trip.
The best part of the drive to Sarteneja was crossing two rivers by hand-cranked barge. Five or ten minutes, and a bit of elbow grease later, we were on the other side.
Apparently it's not cost-effective to build a bridge across the rivers here - hell, the road's not even on the map. It also provides employment, somebody has to turn that crank. On the left side of the above picture, inside the shack, you can see the ancient machine that makes the boat move. Rumor is these ferries run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Jessica and I had to get out of the car while we made the 50 foot crossing. I'm guessing for safety reasons, although there were signs clearly stating that the government was not responsible for any accidents or injuries. The river is lined with mangrove trees, and tropical fish swim in the waters. We were told crocodiles also live in the area, but we didn't happen to see any.
Safely in Sarteneja, we setup camp at the Backpacker's Paradise. It's a bit back in the bush, but it does include a restaurant, a few cabanas and a screened communal room with a small kitchen. Thank goodness for the screened room, it rained the previous nights and the mosquitoes were thick, and out for blood. We were attacked as soon as we stepped out of the car.
Our first day in Sarteneja we took the advice of Natalie, co-owner of Backpacker's Paradise, and visited the local boat builder to check out the sailboat they've commissioned. Edward (also co-owner) has been working on the project with the help of a local boat-building legend for the past year and half. A very, very impressive piece of craftsmanship. We look forward to returning once it's in the water!
The most scenic area of Sarteneja was the beach, especially the piers. The water was cloudy with silt as a result of the northern storms that had been passing through the area daily.
After two nights in Sarteneja we decided to head out to the cayes. A huge reef lines the coast of Belize, the second longest in the world. Between the reef and mainland are a long stretch of islands, called cayes, pronounced keys. At the advice of a colleague (thanks Scott!) I steer us toward Caye Caulker, a small island about two hours from Sarteneja. Fortunately, Natalie and Ed were nice enough to let us park Blue safely at their campground or else we may not have dared make the trip.
We caught the boat to San Pedro on Caye Ambergris at 7:30 in the morning. After 90 minutes we arrived at San Pedro, the above photo shows the many piers and hotels that line the beach. It's definitely a high-end tourist destination, much more so than Caye Caulker. After seeing some of the prices, we're glad we decided to move on.
A short water taxi ride from San Pedro brings us to Caye Caulker. Above is our first glimpse of the main drag on the island.
The roads in Caye Caulker are made entirely of compacted sand. There isn't a paved stretch of road on the entire island. In fact there are only three main streets, aptly named Front Street, Middle Street and Back Street. It's my first taste of Caribbean atmosphere - everything moves slow and nobody seems to worry.
While I took an afternoon nap, Jess and Kobus befriended Moses, the local groundskeeper at our hotel. He offered to help them make authentic Belizean conch ceviche. Much shopping and chopping ensued.
The recipe is as follows:
1 onion, chopped
1. Combine the lime juice and conch. Let stand for 10 minutes.
It should look a little like this, basically salsa fresca (pico de gallo) with fish that's been "cooked" in lime juice. It's enough to serve a dozen appetizers, or lunch for four hungry people.
The following day Jess and Kobus took a snorkel tour on a local sailboat. We stopped first at the coral gardens, and then Shark Ray alley. The photo above is Nurse Sharks fighting for the fish bits our captain was throwing overboard. You can barely make out the blackjacks (cousins of the tuna) and stingrays underneath. If only we had an underwater camera.
After a bit of convincing, we realized the sharks are harmless and all jumped in the snorkel around and get a chance to pet the sharks. That's Jessica on the left in the photo above. Exciting! The final sailboat stop was the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. A beautiful diving and snorkeling area on the reef close to San Pedro. The marine life here was incredible. In less than an hour we managed to see three giant sea turtles, moray eel, a brittle starfish, sea cucumber, tons of coral and millions of brightly colored fish. And on the sail back from the reserve, free rum punch was served. Needless to say we returned sun burnt and intoxicated.
Our favorite restaurant (because it's also the cheapest!) on Caye Caulker was Marins. It's all the way at the end of the main street, so you do have to work a bit for your meal - but the prices can't be beat. Menu boards like this one line the main streets on the island, so choosing a place to eat and hunting for the best deals on lobster and snapper (the two local specialties) is easy.
The best food I had on the island was from a guy called the Budget Man. At around noon he setup a table off the street and served two main dishes with three sides - usually coconut rice, plantains and curried vegetables. Garlic chicken, jerked chicken, curry chicken, jerked shrimp, coconut curry shrimp...whatever he has, it's guaranteed to be good.
It took us a day to find affordable (and clean) accommodation on Caye Caulker, but we eventually found a room in this tidy little house for only $12.50 a night for the three of us. Cheaper than most campgrounds! The only down side - it was a block or two from the beach, which I guess is about as far as you can get from the beach.
Up next: We head into central Belize, the Belize Zoo and San Ignacio before crossing into Guatemala. Also, Jessica feeds a howler monkey.