What? Yes, I just returned from Belize. I know what you are thinking—‘yeah, Lisa, you really needed another vacation’ (better get a mop because the sarcasm is dripping). What can I say? Traveling is my new career.
Belize is one of those places that some backpackers skip–mostly because it’s quite expensive compared to the rest of Central America. But compared to the Caribbean islands, it’s one of the cheapest destinations around. Home to the hammock, unbelievably blue Caribbean waters and the second biggest barrier reef in the world (after Australia) – Belize is just too good to miss.
Previously a British Colony (remember British Honduras?), this tiny nation (roughly the size of Massachusetts or Belgium) was granted independence in 1981. I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t even sure where Belize was (besides somewhere in Central America) before this trip. Now I know it’s the tiny nation jammed in between Mexico and Guatemala. But apparently Madonna knows because she sang about it in her 1987 hit La Isla Bonita: “last night I dreamt of San Pedro …” (one of Belize’s Caribbean islands’ main cities). This being perhaps the most played song in Belize after various Bob Marley tunes.
My American Airlines plane careened down the airstrip in Belize City, I walked down the metal stairs and onto the tarmac into the warm, Caribbean air, and went through immigration and customs in all of about 5 minutes. I had a connecting flight in about an hour to one of dozens of Belize’s off shore islands or Cayes (keys). I approached the counter for Maya Island Air where a relaxed chocolate skinned, beautiful Belizean girl greeted me with a grin.
“Where ya headed today?” she asked with a charming Caribbean accent.
“I’m going to Caye Caulker or Caulker Caye,” I forgot which way it went.
I started to fish my passport (love that thing) out of my backpack when she said, “Lisa Lubin?”
Confused by how she knew my name, I inquired while literally looking down at my chest to see if I was wearing a ‘Hello, My name is…’ tag that I’d forgotten about. She slyly replied, “magic” and continued to grin. Laughing, I asked again.
“You are the only one getting off there, love.”
Okay, you know you are in a small place when they greet you at the airport counter by name.
There were twelve other passengers, but I was the only one getting off at Caye Caulker.
“Ya know,” I said, “when I check-in at Chicago O’Hare, odds are they are not going to greet me by name.”
(Cut to interior of tiny 12-seat propeller plan)
“Ma’am, there are no seats left so you have to sit upfront with the pilot.” One of the friendly ground crew said to me as I saw my bag being stowed underneath. He escorted me around to the front passenger seat right next to the pilot. How cool—I was riding shot gun.
When he told me this, one of the other male passengers offered to go in my place, assuming I was a timid ‘flower-of-a-gal’ who would be afraid to sit upfront or something.
“No way!” I exclaimed, as I held up the whole flight while I scrambled to dig for my camera in my carry-on which I’d have to leave in the back (there is no “under the seat in front of you” when you are in the cockpit with only the windshield and nose of the plane in front of you).
In my life, I’d ridden in small planes, a helicopter, a blimp, and once, the backseat of a Cessna, but I can’t recall ever having the chance to ride shotgun. Like a toy plane, we skitted down the runway and took off as if we were as light as a feather. It was a beautiful, 15-minute ride over turquoise blue waters and other islands and before we knew it we were gliding down to the tiny airstrip of Caye Caulker flanked by what looked like a clapboard shack which turned out to be the ‘airport.’
I caught a ride in a golf-cart taxi to town with another American expat, who just so happened to own one of the most popular bars on the island: the Lazy Lizard. I thanked him and pledged to catch up with him later.
Caye Caulker is a beautiful, relaxing, palm tree bit of paradise. It is a bit more of a sleepy, laid-back destination compared to the larger, more touristy Ambergis Caye to the north. It’s only about 5 miles long and a few blocks wide. There are now a good amount of hotels lining the main streets. I bedded down in Trends Beachfront Hotel, a pastel-colored wood, shingled building trimmed with front decks and hammocks.
There is no shortage of good, local eateries serving up tasty seafood and also a good amount of Mexican specialties. Some of my favorite spots were for breakfast. Glenda’s restaurant is a humble, tiny place with a screened-in porch at the back of the island. Here you order off the chalkboard menu as you enter and start your sunny day with a great cup of coffee, sweet fresh-squeezed OJ, eggs with onions and tomato and most likely Belize’s best homemade cinnamon roll all for five bucks.
I enjoyed a few lazy days in the sun on Caye Caulker. As promised, I ventured down to the Lazy Lizard to say ‘hello’ to my new friend from my flight over. His bar was right on what they call the ‘split’ on the edge of the island where it once was attached the island just a few yards to the north but is now ‘split’ in two. The tiny beach here is sprinkled with picnic benches and tanned bodies lying in the sun. I made some new Canadian friends, quenched my thirst, and again, felt at home in the world.