After a quick side trip to Tikal, we returned to Belize and headed for the coast. What it lacked in jungles and ruins, it seemed to more make up for in beaches, and that was just fine by me. Plus, with distances being so short, we figured it was relatively easy to get from one place to another without taking all day to do so.
Apparently, we figured wrong. The 200km trip from San Ignacio to Placencia ended up taking over nine hours, involving three buses, a long and miserable wait and a kind-hearted water taxi driver who saved the day.
I’ll admit that wasn’t quite how I’d imagined things would go when I’d woken up that morning… but on the upside, there were fewer dead bodies this time around.
Bus rides in Belize aren’t renowned for their comfort or speed, but the trip to Belmopan was about as good as it ever got. Clattering into the bus station late morning, though, I was struck by the number of people crowded inside the terminal. It was a Saturday, and it seemed as if everyone in Belize had decided they needed to be somewhere else that day. With buses running south only once an hour, it seemed as if we could be in for a long wait.
We were. Four and a half hours, in fact, as buses pulled up, offloaded half a dozen passengers and departed again with the few lucky souls who had managed to fight their way to the front of the line. We finally made it onto the third bus to arrive, only to be kicked off again because police just up the road had decided to clamp down on standing passengers. It hadn’t been a problem on any other trip, but now it was, and we were unceremoniously pushed back inside the terminal once again to sweatily wait another hour.
This hadn’t been a great travel day, and it wasn’t about to get any better.
To get from Belmopan to Placencia required another change of buses, this time in Dangriga. From there, occasional buses ran down a peninsula and direct to the town, while others stopped in Independence and required a short water taxi ride across the lagoon. We’d already missed the last direct bus, and the water taxis ended with the daylight. The final scheduled service left at 6pm. We eventually rolled into town at 6:15.
A nearby taxi driver suggested we’d be able to pay a fisherman to take us across, so we piled into his dilapidated Toyota and bumped our way down to the docks. The skipper of the water taxi driver was sitting down chatting to his friends, but when I apologetically interrupted to ask whether he knew someone that could help, the reply was quick and unexpected.
“I can take you.”
As it turned out, he had to return to Placencia to pick up a few local workers, and had no problem with us tagging along for the ride. We’d struck our first piece of good luck for the day, and ten minutes later we were walking up the sandy main street towards our guesthouse.
Tomorrow really had to be a better day.
The next day was indeed much better, and our struggle to get to Placencia turned out to be worth the effort. It was my favourite spot in Belize, all white sand beaches and laid-back vibe. As with everywhere else in the country neither food nor accommodation were cheap, but I didn’t mind quite as much when our room was a few feet from the ocean and my office looked like this.
When I wasn’t working on my laptop I was working on my tan, and our four nights in Placencia quickly fell into a routine. Try to find somewhere affordable for breakfast, lie on the beach, try to find somewhere affordable for lunch, lie on the beach, try to find somewhere affordable for dinner.
You might be sensing a theme here.
Still, despite the costs, I was sad to leave Placencia – particularly because the only direct bus option to get to Caye Caulker left at the unpleasant hour of 6.15am. At least it went straight to Belize City, mind you… if I never saw the inside of Belmopan station again, it would be too soon.
We’d allowed ourselves five nights on the caye, mainly because it was our final stop in Central America for a while. While we’d heard that it had barely any beaches, friends had raved about the chilled-out bars and fun atmosphere, and we were looking forward to a bit of laid-back island life.
I wanted to love Caye Caulker, I really did… but for some reason I just didn’t get the appeal. In the absence of beaches, everyone seemed to congregate at ‘the Split’, a gap between the two parts of the island that’s about the only good swimming spot. I’m not sure exactly what I expected as I walked down there – but it wasn’t a hundred backpackers lounging around on broken walls and a concrete slab while thundering dance music boomed from the nearby bar.
I laid my towel down on the gritty surface, drank a watery fruit cocktail and hung around trying to read a book for an hour, before wandering back home and wondering what all the fuss was about. To be fair, things did improve as I walked around the back section of the island in the evening – if you want a peaceful spot to enjoy the sunset, that’s the place to do it.
In a country that was already expensive, island prices were even higher. Caye Caulker has long been known as one of the more budget-friendly places in Belize, but we still struggled to find a double room under $50 USD/night there. There were a couple of decent food options for around ten US dollars (a good pizza joint just beside our little hotel, and Fran’s seafood bbq on the front road), but alcohol was pricey, and overall there was nothing you couldn’t find in many other parts of the world for a lot less.
I think that was my problem with Belize in general, really. It was undoubtedly a beautiful country, with dense jungles and well-preserved ruins, some great beaches and, in the main, friendly and helpful locals. The language, culture and food are different to its neighbours, which is always something that interests me. But… and it’s a big but… it’s a difficult place to be a budget traveller.
I understand that Belize is a small nation, with little economy of scale and a need to import much of what it consumes. When basic infrastructure like roads, buses and internet is so limited, though, it’s hard to get excited about paying as much for a room as I would in central Europe or the touristy parts of Mexico, and more for food than I would in the US.
Wherever I travel, there’s a basic value for money equation that subconsciously runs through my head. “Is this place worth it for me?. Am I getting good value for the money I’m spending?”. Sometimes I’ll be dropping $100 a day and saying “yes, definitely”, other times I’ll be spending a quarter of that and thinking “no, not at all.”
Unfortunately, for me at least, Belize fell into the latter category. I liked it, but I just couldn’t love it. I know I’ll return to Mexico and Guatemala, and plan to travel extensively through the rest of Central and South America in coming years. When it comes to Belize, however? Sadly, it’s not somewhere I feel much of a draw to return to any time soon.
You can’t win them all, I guess.
On Caye Caulker we stayed at Axios Condos. Our room was spacious, with a small dining area and kitchen separate to the bedroom, hot water and a/c, and we were more than happy with it. We paid a little over $50/night.
Have you been to Belize? What did you think of it? Do you agree with my assessment of budget travel in the country, or think I couldn’t be more wrong? Let me know!
Bus image via WHardcastle