With only a couple of weeks left until the end of this trip, where I fly out of Cancun, Mexico, I wanted just one more mini-adventure. And it would be in Belize.
I had read on Cass Gilbert’s blog of an off-road route he had taken through northern Belize. Having missed the fun dirt-track biking recently, I decided to do something similar…
But right now, I was in the south. I had a country to cross. Belize however, is a small country. A biscuit of beauty, dipping into the Caribbean, only 290km (180miles) long and 110km (68miles) wide.
On arriving in Punta Gorda it was clear this country was a little different. Formerly known as British Honduras until independence in 1981, Belize is (unlike the rest of central America) English-speaking. Officially.
The reality is that much of Belize’s diversity lies in it’s cultural cocktail and you are as likely to hear Spanish, Creole, or even German and Chinese.
This is more remarkable considering so few people live here. A country of only 330,000, it has the lowest population density of all central America. And it shows.
Cycling the southern highway was unlike anywhere else. Much of the region is protected forest and sparsely populated. With pine trees and forest tracks, is was not unlike Thetford where I come from.
Headwinds made the otherwise flat road hard work. Made worse due to lack of food. I had expected regular roadside stalls, but there was nobody selling food. Actually, there was nobody.
As I was resigning myself to a measly tent meal of rice and spice I happened upon a village with a place to eat. Fried chicken and coleslaw. This competes with rice and beans for the unofficial national dish. Delicious to the ravenous.
The following day I awoke early. Itching from the no-see-ums that had feasted on me before I got into my tent and the ants that had nibbled me through the night having chewed small holes in the ground sheet as a starter. I cycled to Hopkins and took a day off. The village spread out along the coast, white sands and palms spreading in both directions. The kind of laid-back place where days could easily turn into weeks… where smoking weed, drinking Belikin beer and swinging in hammocks is the local sport. And Bob Marley the musical mascot.
Back on the bike, the hummingbird highway headed inland. Through orange groves and around hills to Belmopan, the capital.
You’d never guess it was the capital. Three kilometres out in any direction and you’re in unspoilt landscape. It’s more of a small provincial town with a few government buildings.
According to my road map, there is a secondary road from the village of Jih Chan on the highway to Belize City. Not quite accurate. There is actually a track 1 mile from the general store called Jih Chan. I triple checked because there was a locked gate across it.
So into the unknown I went. Heading for Big Falls. Another village where there was a shop, apparently. Cycling first through tropical forest, then with some farm tracks with cattle resting in the shade. Not much traffic on this track. I put up storks, herons and egrets and set the monkeys howling while I look up at them high in the trees and wonder how such a giant terrifying sound can come from something so small and cuddly-looking. Even the cattle raced off at the sight of me, and they are usually curious creatures.
Big Falls it turns out, is actually a farm. A farm with a distinctly abandoned look. Here the trail ended and I had to cross the river. After much searching and hollering I found one weathered cowboy. He and four others live in the beat-up rusted trailer homes surrounded by scrap cars and defunct refrigerators. The cowboy paddled me and my bags across in a patched-with-mud leaky canoe using a plank of wood, then went back for the bike.
Willow Farm apparently had a shop but I unwittingly passed it. “When you see the house with the school buses in the yard, go along past three more houses and then when you see a path on the left with a small board nailed to a tree saying ‘shop’, go down there a short distance and it’s the green house”. But I never saw any buses…
A ninety-year (you’d never have guessed it) old lady however kindly sold me some snacks and a coke from her house though. She was just returning from town. I hope I am still that able at ninety. She’s been living alone since her husband died and is now scared about the ‘bad’ people around and worries that she can’t protect herself. That’s why she has three dogs. For protection, and company. But although she said she was scared, I could see she wasn’t letting that stop her get on with her life. If you are looking for someone with an iron will and determination, you are best looking to the oldest lady in a village in a country like Belize. They have lived through more in their lifetime than anyone likely to be reading this blog. Mostly we hate the idea of getting old. I used to as well and thought I would rather die young. But not now. I want to have lived through nine decades in a changing world, like this lady. To have seen and heard and lived and learned…
Reaching a t-junction I turn left and am promptly called back. ‘You’re going the wrong way,’ called a dredlocked local on a bike. I stop, turn around and reach for my questionable road map. – Really? ‘Well, where are you going then?’ asks his less presumptive friend Gregory. – Hill Bank. ‘Oh, well in that case you’re going the right way!’ We chat briefly, and they describe the route… this time it’s pretty accurate except, their directions only take me as far as Rancho Dolores, 5km further on.
By now, the sun’s rays burn dimly and the shadows grow longer by the minute. I have no idea how far it is to Hill Bank. From the map I would guess 20km, but local estimates vary between 20 and 30 miles. I hear the word dangerous a few times. I am keen to continue but need some food. Rancho Dolores has a well-stocked shop and outside on the veranda friendly faces. We chat and before I know it, I’m asking if there is somewhere to camp safely. Sometimes it is best not to make plans and rely on instinct. My sub-conscience tells me this is a good place to stay the night. I was right.
Rosie is watching the shop while her daughter is in the city. She is recently retired from teaching and struggling with the change of tempo and free-time at hand. Well that’s understandable I say. The more I travel and the more people I meet from all different backgrounds, it becomes clearer that we are all just the same. With the same hopes and dreams and fears. All facing challenges with the same drive and determination.
Plied with beer by one of the boys, my dehydrated sun-burned body still relishes the cool refreshing taste. He refuses to let me pay and unfortunately conversation is stifled by my inability to sift through the words I recognize in his heavily accented Creole slur.
As darkness envelops this little village, Rosie’s daughter returns and we go back to her house a mile down the road. Pedalling in complete darkness behind Ethan, Rosie’s 9-year old adopted son, we bump and rattle along until Rosie catches up in the 4×4 and the trail is lit from behind by the headlights. That night I sleep soundly in a rustic-looking cabana that is kitted out with electricity and hot running water no less!
It’s an early start the next day. As Rosie goes to open the shop, and Charlene to Belize City to teach (following in her mother’s footsteps?), I pedal off in the opposite direction. The direction that nobody else is going.
Down the rocky track, past an unguarded checkpoint and on into the wilderness. The track is not heavily used, but I do notice another set of cycle tyre tracks. After several miles I come across a local bike lying on it’s side. Since the only people who tend to travel this route are poachers and those trying to stop poachers, I decide not to stop. The track crosses a couple of small creeks with wooden bridges and then the route becomes sandy and it’s time to push. There are no more bike tracks now, or car or truck tracks. Just paw prints. Cats. Two locals trappers working for a conservation group had told me several cats live in this area… jaguar, puma, ocelot, marguay and jaguarundi… and I wondered in whose footsteps I was following.
A few of hours of cycling and I arrived in Hill Bank. More of a research station than a village, on the banks of the New River lagoon. The military officer asks if I’m not scared a jaguar will get me. This is the reason locals have been telling me the road is dangerous. Jaguars and poachers. But the jaguars hunt at night and I’m always safely off the road by then, I explain. ‘You’re right, jaguars usually hunt at night,’ he confirms, realising that he isn’t going to be able to scare me with stories of cats on the prowl.
There was not much reason to stay at Hill Bank (they’d run out of coke and there was no shop for food) except to fill up my water bottles. By now the sun was up high and burning. The heat beating down relentlessly. The tropical air deep in the forest was heavy and full of moisture. At least cycling you create a small breeze. But as soon as you stop, sweat layers on your skin and drips down your head and arms and legs and drenches your clothes which now hang wet and heavy… So I just keep cycling. And wiping my face with my bandana, which i occasionally wring out as the dirty sweat drips to the dusty ground (gross I know!). I’m having great fun along these lonely tracks where I meet no-one.
Until the end of the reserve, where there is another checkpoint. And afterwards, the forest falls back and the land turns agricultural. Here is the start of the Mennonite community.
The Mennonites were persecuted in Europe for their radical beliefs and fled. The Belize government allowed them to settle in this region and they now are the largest contributors to Belize’s agricultural sector. Cycling through farmland on wide dirt roads past horse and cart. Driven my men in blue dungarees or denim held with braces and straw hat or women in traditional dress and bonnet tied neatly under the chin with serious-looking children silently sat by her side. It was like being transported into another century. Except that these Mennonites have embraced some modern farming methods. And there were a few tractors and lorries in use too.
I was looking for the shortest route through this countryside. Only because the shortest route went straight through the heart of this community and I wanted to see it. No skirting round the fringes, in neither forest nor farm. But once again my map was useless and so I walked over to the tractor and a young man came to my help. Noticing the confusion on my face as the list of lefts and rights grew longer, he reached for a pen and paper and began scrawling on it. This made it all clear and off I pedalled following the line. Once I reached the end of the page I asked again for directions. And once again another page of doodling showed me the way.
And so I passed more horses and carts. The men would smile and say hello. The children would wave if there was no adult around, or simply stare if there was. The women’s eyes would bore through me with disapproval, or so it seemed. Unlike the rest of central America, I felt at home in most of Belize. Except here. Here I felt like an outsider. A passing curiosity. And although people I spoke to were friendly and helpful, I didn’t feel as relaxed here. Our lives were just too different.
I would have liked to spend more time here. To understand why the Mennonites continue to live the way they do. But one night would not be enough and besides, there were still many hours of daylight left for cycling and the thought of a shower, clean dry clothes and good meal in town were just too appealing…
And so, after a 112km day, with 106km off-road, I made it to Orange Walk. And checked into a hotel run by a Chinese lady and ate Chinese take-away from down the road. Because the Mennonites are not the only immigrants to Belize. More recently the Chinese have come. They run the stores and restaurants in town. But the money goes back to China, just like when the British were here and chopped down the trees and sent the Mahogany to Europe. Belize, for such a small country, has much to offer… and I’m hoping the Belizeans will get to prosper from it.
After another rest day, I cycled to the border and crossed into Mexico… and so ended The Great Americas trip!