Christmas in Placencia

Placencia is on a sandy spit that stretches south from the mainland 27 miles long. At points the sea is just metres from either side of the road. We were meeting my Mum and her best friend, Else there for a week on the beach at Christmas. They had been doing their own trip around El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and joining us on the road for three days after our week together on the beach. We were all so excited and pleased to be spending our first Christmas away with them.

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The village is has 2 streets, one for cars but the Main Street is just a boardwalk through the sand. There are quite a few tourists here but it still feels very quiet with no big hotels or resorts in the village. The village is a mixture of local houses and guest houses. Mum had picked a wonderful small boutique hotel right on the beach with a big veranda to relax on. The sea was perfect for swimming and we had a fabulous time with them. We went snorkelling out at Laughing Bird Caye were we snorkelled on the reef and swam with big loggerhead turtles, nurse sharks and rays.

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Christmas had many elements of our traditional Christmas celebrations: midnight mass, stockings for the kids and a big lunch. However there was a Belizean twist to it all, the mass although familiar as it was Anglican, was in a small clapboard church with 3 doors open and fans running to cool the midnight worshipers and the priest had a wonderfully unhurried rich Caribbean accent and we stepped out straight onto the sand. Santa’s elves seemed to have bought mainly Mexican presents, which luckily passed with little comment. Lunch was a smorgasbord of marine delights that the hotel let us cook up on their barbecue.

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We had to drag the girls out of bed on Boxing Day to go to the jungle at Monkey River. We saw so many birds, reptiles and even howler monkeys on the river and walk but we got absolutely soaked on the way back and couldn’t find the elusive local manatees.

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A Wet Welcome to Belize

The border crossing into Belize had been totally rebuilt, so all the border crossing tips from other traveller’s websites were all out of date. We first ended up at the old crossing in amongst the small border town, we were kindly redirected to the crossing on the highway just to the west. It was very smart, new and well signposted. It was all very straightforward apart from them trying to charge us for our tourist cards again. Luckily we had kept the receipts from Tecate where we entered. After crossing the Mexican side the new road then swung round to the back of the old border and due to construction a little harder to navigate in the correct order. We missed the fumigation post to have the tyres sprayed. The Belizean side was also efficient and fast, even with the return to be fumigated and the whole process took an hour, including buying local insurance.

Steve had heard from the insurance guy that the road to Sarteneja (our planned first stop) was completely washed out, they’ve had a lot of rain in Belize over the last few weeks. As we were not allowed to bring any fresh food over the border, we stopped for groceries in Corozal, the first town over the border. Again we asked around about an update on the state of the road. We knew it was going to be an “interesting” drive there on a normal day with two hand cranked ferries across rivers but supposedly the road has been impassable for a couple of weeks and everyone has been getting about by boat. We were looking forward to a more challenging drive but not quite that challenging! We’d planned to stay there for a few nights as it is a chilled fishing and boat building village with a manatee and jungle reserve nearby. So, on to plan b. We continued south to Crooked Tree bird reserve, hoping to camp the night as well as see the birds. Half way along the good dirt road we saw a traffic jam?? As we got closer we realised that it wasn’t a jam, it was a car park. There was a row of buses and cars parked along the otherwise empty road. The reason, you guessed it…. the whole road further on was underwater.

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We moved onto plan c…we headed south again to the Community Baboon Sanctuary at Bermuda Landing. Luckily it was on a tar road, although there were flooded areas either side of the road and the rivers were hugely swollen, the road was good. Belize is a small country so by 3pm we were already almost halfway down the country. The baboon sanctuary is a community initiative of local small scale farmers to protect the black howler monkey, they call them baboons here. The farmers have left the large trees and much of the jungle intact to preserve the monkey’s habitat. The local women’s cooperative offers tours to see the monkeys and has an interesting museum, we stayed in their car park too for a small fee. By then it had started raining, again. So we holed up inside the museum until there was a break, then headed out in our kagooles and wellies. Steve had been laughing at me for bringing wellies on this trip but as the only one with soggy wet feet on the march through the jungle, I think he was rather jealous of the girls and I. Luckily the monkeys were very close by and the guide was able to find them easily. He was very knowledgable but as he was half cut and had a thick Belizean accent I don’t think the girls understood a single word he said. Fortunately his alcohol intake didn’t affect his ability to find the monkeys and they even came down from the top of the trees to have a nose at us. Then the heavens opened again…

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We were trying to work out how to spend our time in Belize. We are meeting my Mum for Christmas in Placencia but with all our plans changed we were wondering how to spend the remaining days. My mum and her best friend, Else are doing their own trip around Central America. After a wet night we headed to Belize City, had a look round and camped at the Marina there alongside all the yachts. It felt secure enough leaving the truck there to head over to Caye Calker, a tiny island just an hour from Belize City, for a couple of nights. We hadn’t intended to come out to any of the cayes (islands just off the Belizean coral reef) as we are going to spend a week on the beach with my Mum but with many things a washout on the mainland, we thought why not.

Unfortunately the rain followed us there and the first night we had a 4 hour deluge with heavy rain either side. In Belize City that night we’d heard they’d had 9 inches of rain that night, the annual total is just 6 inches. After a couple of false starts due to the rain the following morning, we headed out to snorkel on the reef. It was fantastic, just inside the reef there is an area where southern sting rays and nurse sharks congregate in a marine reserve. The water was crystal clear turquoise and shallow enough to stand up in. Steve and I had a great time snorkeling with them, Lucy tried it for a short while but Alisha couldn’t be persuaded about the safety of the whole encounter. Richard our guide was brilliant about explaining about the marine life and how nurse sharks have such small teeth that they couldn’t really bite anyone. They loved watching them from the boat though. Before the next torrential downpour we managed to make it round to the other side of the island to see tarpon. They were congregated in huge numbers in the shallow waters near an underwater cave. Steve is now very keen to catch these big game fish that can grow up to 5 feet in length sometime soon. Despite the rain, we’ve really enjoyed Caye Caulker, it is the sort of place you can imagine yourselves putting off your departure, day after day. It has a great relaxed vibe, with just 3 sand roads, no cars and is popular with backpackers. Although the rain is a bit of a pain for us, we really feel bad for those who are flooded and also for those people who are here for their precious 2 week holiday.

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Belize is so different from Mexico and the other Latin counties around it, as it used to be a British colony, British Honduras. It is a multi-ethnic country with a mixture of those of different descent: Spanish, African, British and Mayan. It feels far more Caribbean than Central American and English is the official language, although most people speak Kriol. It is a patois based on English but listening to it we get lost by about the third word, it sounds like we should be able to understand it though.

We finished our trip to Caye Caulker with the traditional dinner of red snapper and spiny lobster. Just delicious.

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The sharks and rays, while snorkeling:

Reflections on Mexico

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Alisha

After spending 8 weeks in Mexico, we are leaving for Belize. I feel sad that we are leaving beautiful Mexico and all its colourful culture. Some people believe that the Spanish came to Mexico and discovered it but that is absolutely wrong. Loads and loads of people were here already. The Olmecs, Toltec, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Mayans and Aztecs were all here first. They built great temples, palaces and cities. They had good schools and could write with hieroglyphics.

The beautiful traditional dresses that the ladies wear, a white dress with embroidered flowers are lovely. I liked the beaches and swimming in the underground cave (cenote).

The heat in Mexico is completely boiling but not all the places were hot, in Baja we had to wear raincoats on the beach. The food in Mexico is very spicy. I like the spices but sometimes it is too hot. My favourite is tortilla chips dipped in hot salsa.

A picture of a turtle like the one I released.

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Lucy

I think that Mexico is the most promising land in the world. They eat tortillas.

They are famous for pyramids. The most famous is called Chichen Itza. I wish Chichen Izta was perfectly normal, like it was when the Mayans were there, so we could see what it looked like. Chichen Itza, I think is cool, it is my favourite pyramid in the whole world.

The turtles were Olive Ridley ones and I loved them. You have to cover your hands in sand and then you can pick them up. At the end you release them, then you have to turn round the ones that were going the wrong way away from the sea.

We had a coconut to eat. It tasted yummy and I want to eat more of them.

My picture of a palm tree and coconuts.

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Gilly

We have loved Mexico and it has really been a wonderful experience being here.
Driving through the US we constantly heard negative comments about travelling here. Even people we met who had travelled extensively were concerned about us heading south of the border. We were well aware of the possible dangers and had researched the places we were visiting and the possible issues. So we weren’t heading into it naively. I think it affected how I felt about the country for the first few days in Baja and then on the mainland for a short period too. However, we were soon won over by the warmth of the people we met and we had no problems with feeling safe, once we had relaxed a bit.

There have been so many highlights from the deserted deserts of Baja, interesting fauna, the wonderful food, amazing ruins, beautiful beaches and fascinating towns. It really has been a varied destination with so many different things to see and do. Although we have seen so much in our 8 weeks here, I feel we could have easily stayed longer. My only small regret is that we didn’t spend more time in Mexico City. It was a last minute decision to go in for the day by bus from Teotihuacan but I wished we had stayed in a hotel there for a couple of nights. We could have gone to the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo galleries and museums in the south of the city and seen a lot more.

The size of the roads, especially through towns has been far more of a challenge than it was in the US and Canada. As for the topes (speed bumps) that are liberally sprinkled along most roads, they definitely require both of us to look out for them full time. However, I understand that Mexico is just the tip of the iceberg, we have far many, many, many more miles of topes to look forward to as we head further south.

Steve

After living for so long in Eastern Europe I have learnt not to believe all I read in the press so I was a little more circumspect regarding the Mexican horror stories. As it has turned out the people of Mexico have been wonderfully friendly and helpful (with the odd exception). Even some of the police have been helpful. When we were driving back through Tulum the other day the main road had been dug up so we went on a side street. The police stopped us to say we were not allowed on that street and I thought here we go again. But no the police motorcyclist told us to follow him and helped us through town and back onto the main road. It is a shame the press stories have had such an unnecessary damaging effect on Mexico as it is a great country to visit.

Mexico has been fantastic and so varied from the deserts in Baja, through the mountains and colonial towns to the ancient Mayan ruins and beaches. It has been fascinating and we have had a great time. The variety of scenery and culture has meant we have been constantly stimulated and the food has been just as varied. Whereas in Canada and the US we mostly cooked on the campfire, in Mexico we have been eating out nearly every day as the food has been so good and amazingly cheap. We have eaten everything from tacos, quesadillas, tamales and empanadas to more complicated meals such as Mole, Fazole and lots more.

In Mexico it has felt we are really travelling and we have settled into a rhythm. Driving has been more of a challenge in the towns and villages and at times I wished I was driving something smaller but when we stop it is perfect for the 4 of us in the back and we are used to all living together in the small space. This lifestyle must also be healthy. I have lost over 10kgs without even thinking about it. I am still enjoying my food and beers but must be eating healthier than before and am certainly more active. We are also managing with our Spanish although there is certainly room for improvement.