Kristen and I took this side trip to Belize towards the end of our time in Guatemala. We figured it would be a fun little side trip, and a chance to see another country!
“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”Alexander Pope
Country Count: 9
The Bus from Guatemala to Belize
We bought tickets for another Fuente del Norte bus that would take us all the way to Belize City, for about Q100 apiece. This bus was just as muggy as the first, but thankfully not as crowded, and we had made sure to dress accordingly.
In several hours we had reached Melchor de Mencos, a small border town. The driver stopped us, and a man with a card shark’s mustache got on board. He held a calculator and a bulging roll of bills. He announced, in English, that Guatemalan quetzals were not accepted in Belize, only Belize dollars and American dollars, and that he would be happy to exchange any quetzals we had. I was unsure of this guy, so I got out my phone and did a quick conversion from quetzals to Belize dollars (if you don’t have an internet connection, divide by 4 to get an idea). To the guy’s credit, he actually did give me a pretty fair exchange rate.
Belize was a British colony for well over a century, known as British Honduras. The official language is English (although Spanish and a local creole are widely understood), and their money still bears the face of Queen Elizabeth II. They did not gain their independence until 1981. I think this is an important thing to keep in mind, for reasons I’ll go into later.
Getting through customs was a case study in bureaucratic inefficiency, made worse by the fact that we had to bring every piece of luggage off the bus and carry it with us. At least we both had travel packs, and this is another situation in which I’ll recommend you invest in one.
The demographics, once again, shift dramatically. You will see a much higher percentage of Black individuals and hardly any Indigenous people. You will see virtually no women in colorful Mayan dresses, carrying bundles on their heads. Most people are dressed extremely casually; shorts are much more prevalent here than they are in Guatemala.
With brand new stamps in our passports, Kristen and I walked onto Belizean soil. We bought boxed lunches of fried chicken, rice, and plantains, and bottles of water before getting back on the bus. Everyone back on board, we continued on into the Belizean hinterland.
It strikes you as odd at first to be in a Spanish-speaking part of the world, but see shop signs in English, and towns named Unitedville, Mount Hope, and Ontario Village.
Belmopan, the nation’s capital, came and went. Blink and you’ll miss it. Instead, the former capital, Belize City, is the country’s largest. It is situated on the coast, bisected by a river. To stay north of this river is the commonly accepted generic advice; extensive gang activity has been reported in the southern half, although that is where many bus terminals are located.
The drive to Belize City gives you the impression that this country has a very chill vibe to it. It definitely strikes you as the stereotypical Caribbean getaway that many Americans and Europeans look forever to lounging in.
We lugged our bags across the street from the bus station to a curious combination of restaurant: Chinese food and fried chicken. The interior was sparsely adorned and seemed to be owned by an Asian couple, employing local Black workers. Two men argued amicably at the bar while one of the Hunger Games movies played on a small set.
The fried chicken, served with fried rice, was delicious and decently priced. The waiter, an old man with bleary eyes and a steady gaze, asked us if we were headed up to the islands. We told him yes, San Pedro.
“Nahhhhhhh,” he said, drawing out the syllable. “No San Pedro. Caye Caulker. San Pedro too big, too much stress. Go to Caye Caulker.”
Perhaps we should have taken the gentleman’s advice. Indeed, Caye Caulker (caye pronounced “key”) is a popular destination for tourists. But for whatever reasons, we decided to go to San Pedro, and that will be the focus of this post.
Express Ferry to San Pedro
We found the express ferry terminal and bought tickets for the 1.5-hour boat ride to San Pedro. San Pedro is a small town located on the island of Ambergris Caye, on the northern edge of Belize’s maritime territory. The ticket was not cheap, at around BZ72 for each. The boat reminded me of the SeaBus in Vancouver, but smaller and faster. Everyone aboard, the ferry revved its engines and disembarked, its prow rising and cutting through the waves of the Caribbean.
The ride began as exhilarating and settled into one of the most blissful voyages I’ve ever taken. The vessel rose and fell rhythmically. The sea breeze blew through the cabin. The occasional island passed us by, including one tiny atoll taken up by a single mansion. The sun climbed unhurriedly down from the sky, gilding the cerulean blue sea. I felt an urge to immortalize the scene with a photo but to do so would have cheapened it. This moment felt more at home among synapses instead of pixels.
Things are not beautiful simply because they last forever, and eventually we arrived in port at San Pedro. After breaking past the ubiquitous mob of taxi drivers, we called an Uber. As we drove through the narrow streets of the small commercial center of town, I noticed that there was a substantial number of golf carts zipping around. Golf carts are to San Pedro what motorcycles are to Antigua, and the prevalence of them makes the town feel like some golf course blown out to sea by a hurricane.
I got to talking with the driver. This guy was my first real introduction to the Belize accent: it sounded to me as being similar to the Jamaican accent, if that Jamaican had been brought in a small North Country town in Upstate New York. I had read in my guidebook about gibnut (a local rodent served as a delicacy, most famously to Queen Elizabeth herself), so I asked the dude where I could get my hands on some.
“Oh, ya know, not many places around here, sir” he said. “Belmopan, the mainland, ya know, they sell that. And it’s a delicacy, ya know. Can be expensive, sir.”
“How much?” I asked.
“Oh, ya know, could be twenty dollars.”
“Belize or American?”
We deviated from the main road and turned onto a series of gravel roads sporting deep potholes. The driver unloaded us in front of Pedro’s Inn, a three-story white wooden building. The advantage of this place, the receptionist with the island accent explained, was that we could use the beaches of all their sister hotels along the coast.
We noticed immediately that the shower did not provide hot water, even after trying all taps and letting it run for a while. Even though I didn’t like, and I know Kristen sure as hell didn’t like it, we shrugged it off; in Guatemala, after all, this was a common problem. However, in that country, the rooms are priced accordingly. However, for BZ100 a night, this shouldn’t have been an issue.
The very next morning, still no hot water, and we complained to the front office again. Satisfied that this would be taken care of, we headed off to enjoy the beach.
We walked for a while, following the map the woman had given us. We took a shortcut and could see the blue horizon of the sea. Excited, we quickened pace until arriving at the edge of the ocean, where we were met with sand, palm trees…and the most seaweed I’ve ever seen in my life.
“Must not be the right beach,” we agreed, and we kept walking.
We walked for a long time. All along the water’s edge were great piles of ugly brown seaweed, two feet high in some places.
Incredulous, I went up to an outdoor bar and asked one of the waiters where the actual beach was.
“Yeah, the sargasso is very bad,” he said, motioning towards the clumps of sargassum piled up at the water’s edge. “It’s been that way for about two years now. It has hurt tourism.”
I understand that tourism is a vital part of their economy, but there was no universe in which I could recommend these beaches. I had seen better beaches in Texas.
“Well, where are the beaches that don’t have this?” Kristen asked.
“You can go to Secret Beach,” the waiter said. “That beach doesn’t have this problem. It’s about 40 minutes away by golf cart.”
Satisfied, we decided to get something to eat before heading over there.
There are several places to eat along Coconut Drive, what locals simply call “the main road,” and over the course of our days in San Pedro we got to sample several of them.
K’s Diner nails the feel of a classic American diner, but not the taste. You can pay BZ25 for bland fare amid the roar of TropicAir planes taking off literally right outside. El Fogon felt like outright robbery, and I can’t in good conscience recommend it. They offered uninspiring skewers of chicken for BZ45. Belikin, the national beer, tastes in no way different from Bud Light.
Unfortunately, I never found a place that served gibnut.
Fed up, we ended up ordering pizza. We ordered from PepperOni’s, and it was actually really good. In fact, it was the best food we had in Belize. I would definitely recommend a local place like PepperOni’s over the more tourist trap institutions.
Back at the hotel, still no hot water. The young woman at the counter, who to be fair was very apologetic and polite, moved us across the way to another building. Several minutes of letting the water run and it was still cold. We ended up requesting a night’s money back, which they refunded.
Susannah & Estel’s by the Sea
Frustrated, we set out to get breakfast on our last day. We had found a place online called Estel’s by the Sea. Not super cheap, but by then we had given up on finding something that was. Above all, we just wanted food that didn’t suck. It was morning and already the sun was up and beating down on us. Tempers were flaring.
An older woman driving a golf cart pulled up next to us. She was very friendly and asked us where we were headed. We told her, and she asked if we would like a ride. If was a long walk to get to Estel’s, so we happily agreed and hopped in the back.
The woman’s name was Susannah, and she said that we would enjoy Estel’s. We got to talking about the state of the beaches, and she echoed the bartender’s advice that Secret Beach would not disappoint us.
She also mentioned that she had grown up in San Pedro, back when it was a very different community.
“I grew up in that house right there,” she said, pointing a row of blue-colored buildings with a view of the sea, now occupied by restaurants and adventure agencies. “We all lived there. My brothers, my sisters, my mother. We would all play together and walk to school together. That was years ago. It has changed. My mother held out as long as she could, but it became too expensive and she had to move.”
I felt bad that Susannah had lost her childhood home to the encroachment of capitalism, but I was also happy to meet someone who could connect a genuine human history to this place.
Estel’s ended up being a wonderful seaside restaurant. The only locals you’ll see are the ones that come to your table, either with a menu or trinkets for sale, but again, we learned to lower our expectations. Their mimosas are very good, their breakfast filling and flavorful. I highly recommend ordering a serving of their fry jack, which is nothing but fried bread (sort of like the crust of an empanada), but trust me is very tasty. Spread a little of jam on it and kick back to enjoy the waves roll in and out.
We talked it out over breakfast and figured that Secret Beach could in no way be any worse than anything we had seen around here. Being as we were already spending a whole lot for not a whole lot in return, what was another couple of bucks? We’d be broke anyway after this trip. Taking the bartender’s and Susannah’s recommendation, we went down to ATM Cart Rentals on Coconut Drive. $50 got us an eight-hour rental on a golf cart, plus gas.
I hadn’t driven a golf cart since my valet days, so the finicky accelerator took some getting used, as did driving on those cobblestone streets. The streets in San Pedro have little gutters running across them at various intervals. They’re small enough that you can’t really see them until you’re on top of them, but they’re deep enough to bounce the hell out of your cart, so keep an eye out for them and watch your speed while in town. Other than that…this part was a ton of fun.
After dropping a bag of laundry off at an American-owned cleaner, and stocking up on snacks at an Asian-owned convenience store, we hit the road. Kristen played some driving music on her phone and we gassed the cart to top speed. We drove out of San Pedro and into the countryside, passing by lagoons and marshes. Eventually, the paved roads ended and it was gravel back roads, with the occasional sign to tell us that, yes, we were going in the direction of Secret Beach. It’s not smooth, but we enjoyed it all the same.
Finally, you arrive at Secret Beach, which does not seem very secret at all, but is definitely a beach. A real beach.
While the San Pedro beaches we had been roaming were on the eastern, Caribbean-facing side of the caye, Secret Beach lies on the western side. Shielded from the oceanic currents, there is not a strand of sargasso in sight. There are just palm trees, white sands, and relaxing blue waves.
There were plenty of waiters and other staff keeping watch, so we stowed our stuff and waded out into the water. It was pleasantly warm. We walked over 200 yards out and could still keep our heads above water. We came back and got big coconut margaritas, relaxing in the shade of the palm trees swaying the breeze.
It was pure bliss. We chilled there for several hours, finally watching the sun go down over the waves. Having closed down the beach, we got back in the cart and took off into the night.
The Benque Bus
At the end of our several-day excursion into this country, it was time to board the express ferry back to Belize City. While not as gorgeous as the ride over (a singular moment), it was still wonderful to be out on the waves. We were on the second level, which offered unparalleled views of the cerulean waters, which did not seem all that deep, even this far offshore. It was beyond relaxing; one of the stewards on the boat even climbed over the edge of the handrail and took a nap on the deck. He was awakened with a start by the sound of the horn going off about five feet from him.
However, upon arriving at port, we were told that the intercity buses were not running, this being so close to Easter Sunday. The man at the ferry terminal tried to pressure us into buying what seemed like very expensive passes, so Kristen decided to ask one of the local taxi drivers.
The taxi driver said he would drive us to a local bus station, and from there we would get on the bus to Benque Viejo del Carmen, a border town. From there we could get a taxi back to Flores. Not knowing what to expect from a local Belizean bus but hoping to high hell that it was nothing like a Guatemalan chicken bus, we agreed that this was the best course of action.
The “James Bus Line” station was definitely a local one; this was a bare-bones, no-frills, definitely Central American establishment. We waited with everyone else behind a wrought iron gate and waited for the buses to pull up. These buses looked similar to chicken buses: they were also repurposed school buses, albeit painted less garishly, a cardboard sign in the window declaring the destination. When the bus bearing the name “Benque” pulled up, a surge of humanity pushed through the gate and got on board. I recommend to anyone not accustomed to riding public transit to keep your hands on your phone and wallet, if you can’t put them into a bag. Not just in Central America, anywhere.
After we stowed our bags and clambered up into the school bus, I realized this was the first time I’d been on one since a debate trip back in high school. The interior was standing room only, yet the conductor told everyone to sit down at least until we were clear of the station. A young woman sitting next to me graciously had her young child sit in her lap so I could take a seat. Looking towards the front of the bus, I could see that the cardboard sign, the one outwardly displaying “Benque,” had the name of a school district on the reverse. So it really was a school bus, just not right now.
As the driver took us out of the station, he started playing music, American music, mostly from the ’80s. Cindy Lauper and the like. Was not expecting that. The ride, though a bit packed, was not half-bad. The windows were all down, so there was a wonderful breeze passing through. Along the way we picked up a variety of soldiers, or maybe military school cadets; they were all young and wore what I counted as at least three different styles of camouflage.
The driver slowly worked his way through the crowds, and after we paid our fare (BZ20 apiece), he smiled at us and said, sarcastically, “Welcome to Belize.”
I laughed. Little did he know that we had paid almost twice as much for a bus that was more crowded and had no A/C of any kind. Everything was good.
Until the rain started. What began as a slight drizzle at first turned into a torrential downpour. I’m from Texas, so I’m no stranger to driving in a downpour, but this was on another level. Up went the windows and with them the temperature inside the bus. The pungent smell of cigarette smoke wafted over us; I mentally and sincerely apologized to anyone I had ever sat next to on a train or bus back when I was a smoker. The rain came down harder.
I wasn’t worried at first, but when I started seeing cars parked on the side of the road with their hazards flashing, I began to look for the emergency exits.
I looked out the front windshield and wished I hadn’t: I couldn’t see a thing. And the driver was going pretty fast.
“I don’t like this,” said Kristen.
“I don’t either,” I said. I held her hand tight and just kept an eye on where the exits were, my anxiety rolling through any number of possibilities, including what this thing went off a bridge and into an overflowing river?
I always travel with what’s called a “tactical pen.” It’s large, made of heavy-duty aluminum, and the tip of it is a sharp piece of metal. Because it just looks like a beefy pen, it is the closest thing you can get to bringing a weapon with you on a plane. This tactical pen serves two purposes: fending off an attacker or breaking glass in case of an emergency.
My other hand gripped it tight in my pocket.
This was not helped by the fact that I could hear the passengers across the aisle from us begin to whisper in Spanish.
“No se ve nada,” said one of them. “You can’t see anything.”
And all the while that ****ing ’80s music kept playing.
Some Final Thoughts on Belize as a Destination for the Budget-Conscious, Time-Limited Traveler
The people of Belize, at every turn, showed us courtesy. I don’t remember having any kind of negative experiences with the locals. Indeed, Susannah offering us a ride to the restaurant, and the taxi driver helping us out, are two solid examples of the Belizean peoples’ generosity.
With this in mind, then, it pains me to shift focus and look at Belize through the eyes of a typical American, with limited time and limited funds, looking to see the world on a budget. From that point of view, I personally do not think there is much in Belize that you cannot find somewhere else, for a lot less money. The ferry rides were heavenly, Estel’s was good, and Secret Beach was nice. But again, nothing you can’t experience anywhere else. Go to Miami Beach. You’ll experience one of the great beaches of the world and eat better food.
I give Belize the benefit of the doubt that we were simply in a very watered down and overpriced part of it. It’s possible that San Pedro is like the Belizean version of Cancun; yeah, you’re in a foreign country, but not really.
I would like to point out that Belize does have the Garifuna culture, in towns like Dangriga, as well as some reportedly impressive Ancient Mayan sites, like Corozal. The Cayo District, in which Benque Viejo del Carmen is located, is said to have some impressive subterranean caves that you can explore. The Great Blue Hole, a few miles off the coast of the country, is a popular destination for diving and snorkeling.
But those activities do not come cheap. And many of them are not particularly accessible.
In other posts, I’ve mentioned that travel, to me, is much more than pretty Instagram photos. There’s what’s visually appealing on social media, and then there’s what you actually see and experience when you’re there.
I never want to be that American that goes to somebody else’s country and speaks ill of it. I always look for something new and noteworthy. But looking for something doesn’t always mean you’re going to find it.
All I know is that we damn near kissed the ground after getting off that bus, and could not wait to get back to Guatemala.