Northern Belize

March 30, 2016, Trip: Belize
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March 30, 2016

To get to Sarteneja, you have to take a dirt/potholed/sort of paved road about 35 miles and cross two rivers by hand cranked ferries. These are a free service and that was fun. We each took a turn “cranking” but were not required to. The ferry holds four vehicles at a time. The crossings take less than ten minutes.

boarding

We stopped at a nature conservation place before the village of Sarteneja which had some reconstruction going on and they wanted $10 BZD to take a thirty minute walk through the jungle like forest so we passed. Their new butterfly reserve was not complete either. They did say we could camp in the parking lot for free if we wanted to though.

We passed on that as there was no breeze and it was getting hotter by the hour and went to check out the one camping area at a hostel closer to the town but it was $12BZD plus $10 for electricity and it was not near the water so again, no breeze, although it did have internet. Mark and Christine suggested we go into town and see if we could park on the beach instead, so we did. They spoke to the police and we spoke to a realtor who approached us and we were all told you could park along the beach as long as you were on government land, which most of it turned out to be anyway. We found a shady spot under some trees that actually had public bathrooms across the street and very close by was a pier to go swimming off. The water here is a few different shades of Caribbean green but rather murky near the shore so locals told us to go off the end of a pier with a ladder and the water there was not even shoulder deep for Fran but a welcome bit of refreshment as it was hot!: 34C and rising!

welcome committeeWe took a couple of dips that afternoon and spent out last happy hour with Christine and Mark for a while. They are travelling through Belize slightly differently than us but we hope to meet up again before we all leave the country or once we get to Guatemala next month.

Sidebar: Beer – important topic, right? Anyway, the national beer here is Belikin which is pretty good but so far we have only found in bottles not cans which can be a hassle in our fridge but in the scheme of things, not that great a hassle. The bottles are only 284ml though not 385 so it’s pricier than we were used to in Mexico. The other prominent beer is Presidente, which Fran prefers and comes in a 320ml bottle. So far the best price we’ve found is $58BZD for a 24.

Mark and Christine left the next morning and we hung out to get a few things done and then drove to the Backpacker’s Hostel to spend another night here in Sarteneja. It was darn hot today and AC was a welcome thing this evening.

The hostel had good wifi and we got a lot of downloading done and caught this website up. The couple, Natalie and Stefan, that run it are French Swiss and have been here 12 years. They have very nice bathrooms that actually have hot water, and instead of rooms they have cabanas; they rent bikes and horses and offer breakfast. We stayed almost 24 hours and got our money’s worth there.

We left on Friday morning and drove the back roads instead of the crank ferry route to the 3rd largest city in Belize, Orange Walk Town; so named because it used have orange groves along the river banks possibly dating back to Mayan times. The road is rough and although it was only forty miles to drive, it took us 2.5 hours! It had lots of pot holes, gravel, washboard and a few topes through the small villages of which they were three. We saw sugar cane fields, some banana trees, a papaya grove and sorghum fields which at first we thought was weird corn!

Sidebar: I believe we’ve mentioned before that the odometer and trip meter are not working on our truck which, while annoying was not a huge deal as the GPS was able to record our mileage. However, now that we are in Belize, we do not have maps for Central America, so we are leaving it on to record the overall mileage but now use maps.me on our phones for routing and search for places. This is a free app that is an open street map based program that does not require data or internet. So we hang one of our phones from the rearview mirror AND keep the Garmin plugged in to record over all mileage.

Orange Walk Town has a main drag called Queen Victoria Street and a square called Queen Elizabeth II park; showing their British roots, but it’s very different from the QE park in Vancouver!

Queen Elizabeth Park

We parked and took a walk looking for groceries and came across a market where we bought some veggies, then a Chinese store where we bought tortillas and beer. We met a woman named Daisy who was very helpful in pointing out where we could get food items. As it was cheaper to buy Belikin by the case we bought a 24 and it comes in a plastic crate which you return with the empties. There are a good number of Chinese here in northern Belize; they were brought here by the British to work in the sugar cane fields way back when. They seem to run most of the shops. This reminded us of the Indians who run the shops in Durban, South Africa.

When we were in Chetumal we met a couple at the resort from Orange Walk; they told us we had to try the tacos when we got here so we had lunch at a little taco restaurant in the market advertising they were the “best in town”. They had chicken and pork tacos which we tried at $1 BZD a plate which meant three small chicken or two pork tacos. We didn’t think they were something to rave about but they were alright.

where we had tacosWhen shopping we actually found good cheddar cheese (hard to come by in Mexico) and Lays potato chips! One thing that we couldn’t find was 2 litre bottles of diet coke; only regular. It seems Belizeans don’t drink it in big enough quantities to sell the large bottles; only 500 ml.

We parked at the Lamani River Resort for the night and ended up staying two nights. It’s right on the Lamani River with a nice breeze and run by a nice lady named Nisha and her father, Mr. P. He used to coach the Belize national soccer team and was a font of information. We also met a couple from NYC who were in Belize on vacation and sadly were leaving this weekend. Safe travels Matt and Virginia.

It was really quite hot and muggy here; even the birds were too hot:

You can swim in the river but you have to be aware there are crocs in the river; they are small and we didn’t see any on Friday, we did on Saturday morning! but that didn’t stop us from jumping in any way that day as it was too hot and it was humid. The AC in Tigger works but better at night as the resort doesn’t seem to have a lot of power somehow and it kept crapping out during the day so once the bar/restaurant closed at 8, we had more “juice” and could run it all night, thank goodness! The low that night was 84F!

Saturday morning, we saw the croc – it came right to the little “dock” we’d been swimming off the day before! Fran also spent a little time observing some interesting birds on the concrete walled shore of the river included a northern Jacana and its little one. Jacana mothers give birth and then leave the child rearing to the father.

jacana and his young 'unDuring the day we saw “Jesus Christ” the croc (assuming it was always the same one that Mr. P. had named) several more times and spent the day going for a few walks between dips in the river (despite the croc!), used the Wi-Fi, chatted with locals, and just tried to stay cool as best as possible. The people here say hello without prompting and are offering their assistance without being asked; very friendly. You hear a mix of Spanish, English, Creole and Chinese walking around.

Saturday late afternoon: humidity began to dissipate some as it tends to do lately but of course, no completely. However as we sat riverside under a palapa enjoying a drink, it began to sprinkle and there was some thunder rumbling in the distance. After fifteen minutes it got a bit harder and we headed into the rig; then we saw lightning and thunder increased until the skies opened and it really began to rain. It lasted a few hours and it didn’t’ seem to rain more overnight but we awoke Sunday to overcast skies and it was quite muggy.

Shortly after we awoke, Mr. P., the owner of the resort knocked on our door and pointed out a feeding frenzy on the river. The water birds, egrets, giant egrets, herons and cormorants were having a field day. There appeared to be a huge school of small fish coming down the river and there were quite large fish jumping out once in a while and the birds were having a feast. There were maybe a couple of hundred of them and it was fascinating to watch. We took our camera out of course, but as we’d had AC on all night, and it was muggy and warm outside, it took a while to get the lenses from fogging up! It was very cool to watch and we appreciated Mr. P bringing it to our attention.  Below is a somewhat “foggy” video of what we saw that morning:

By midday we were ready to boogy on and made our way a little southeast to Crooked Tree Village where the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is looked which is a meca for bird watching. While we are not avid bird watchers at all, this sounded like a nice spot to check out anyway as the rare jabiru stork makes its home here around this time of year.

It was less than an hour’s drive and the majority of it was on the paved Northern Highway. The road was in fair condition; no pot holes but rough in some spots and could certainly use some resurfacing.

The last three miles (5km) was dirt and a little rough with some potholes and graded sections but all in all, not bad. To reach the village you cross a causeway over the lake and when you arrive a man greets you from the Sanctuary Visitors Centre and here you pay your entrance fee, get a map and ask questions. The man was very friendly and told us where a campground was (it was already noted on iOverlander though). We went to the Bird’s Eye Lodge where the campground is situated and when into the office to check the price and services. They said they offered power but it was only sufficiently strong enough for light bulbs so if we were going to pay $20BZD we wanted to be able to run the AC as it was still pretty hot out and was supposed to rain again this evening. Next we asked a local about a spot that might have power and were told there’d be nothing free with that so we haeded to the Jacana Inn (from iOverlander) as it was right on the water and although it did not say it had power, we thought at least there might be a breeze from the lake. We were pleasantly surprised to find that she too wanted $20BZD but it had power, bathrooms and a shower and there were nice Adirondack chairs on the shore to use.

After parking and plugging in, we sat by the lakeshore reading, Doug went for a few dips and we spoke with the owner lady and her two kids. Doug made them some balloon animals and we gave them a beach ball to play with in the water. We were advised to get up early tomorrow (5:15am) and go for a walk along the shore to see the local birds.  We saw a fresh water iguana making his way to the shallow waters before swimming away from us.

lakeshore

 

We awoke before the sun and headed out to the water. We did not have high expectations and the birds met our low ones; saw some egrets, herons, jacanas; all to be expected but no jabiru stork and really, not large numbers of anything. We did come across a great black hawk and a couple of rose billed ibis’, some small colourful birds, some hummingbirds and right after the camera battery died, a few unidentified birds.

great black hawkWhen we got back to the campsite, we had breakfast and upon packing up, began chatting with the owner and Fran spotted a big flock of birds including cormorants, egrets and more all gathered near the shore flapping their wings, diving in for fish and following what the owner thought was a school of sardines. We watched them make their way down the water right after we saw a manatee poke its head out a couple of times but never long enough to get his photo.

The owner told us that bird watching will be much better in about three weeks when the water levels are lower but from what we read, the jabiru storks will probably have migrated north again by that time. So……if we decide to extend our visas and stay in Belize longer than 30 days, we may could back here.

Monday we drove about 40 minutes to the Community Baboon Sanctuary where a troop of rare black howler monkeys make their home. You can camp here, get Wi-Fi and power and go for a guided walk into the subtropical jungle to see the monkeys. Geraldine took us out there for about a half hour, we saw the monkeys high in the trees but as it was still morning and rather hot out, they were not very active nor where they howling. She said they generally only howl in the early morning and early evening and that after this guided walk, we were welcome to come back ourselves as often as we’d like.

This little project is run by a community of women and is supported by organizations like the WWF, PACT and the surrounding villages. As the guide takes you around you also learn about the community of women, the plants and trees and the monkey’s habits. There are a few other troops in the area as these monkeys like to have their own territories and their troops can be as small as five or as large as 11.

We spent some time on the internet during the afternoon and through a thunderstorm and went for a walk before dinner, but did not see or hear the monkeys. We made our bookings for both Caye Caulker (pronounced “key cocker”) and Ambergris Caye which will cover about a week. These are small islands off the Belize coast that parallel the barrier reef. Christine and Mark are doing some volunteer work with an animal shelter at Caye Caulker and they reached out and asked when we were coming over and did we want to do a snorkel tour on Wednesday.

Next morning was still overcast and although we could hear the monkeys they did sound very close. We packed up, had to “jungle” dump down an abandoned road and made it to Belize City.

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