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Belize, Lamanai and the New River Safari -- The Complete Story and On-line Video
Belize, Lamanai & The New River Safari
This is Part 9 (of 16) from a travelogue covering a cruise aboard Celebrity's Galaxy. This chapter describes the excursion via bus and speedboat to Lamanai in Belize -- truly the highlight of the whole 10-day trip. I have included this chapter in its entirety, so there may be a couple of references that are without context unless one reads the preceding chapters. At the end of the post is a link to chapter 10, which contains pictures and more info from Belize.
In addition to the written story, I also made a 15-minute video about the day in Belize. You really need to have broadband to view the video -- I imagine it would take all night to download using a standard modem.
And/or read the story of a trip to Lamanai, below…
The tender for Belize City left at 7:15, so we just had some fruit from the bowl in the room along with coffee from the Oasis. Except for some grapes, the fruit bowl had gone untouched previously, its contents replaced every couple of days.
There were a lot of teenagers on this cruise, and they always looked like they were having a great time on board the ship. To see them in their natural state, one needed only to take an early tender. Here the teens looked sullen as they slumped in their seats, shielding themselves from the morning sunlight. Parents tried to engage them in pep talks about their upcoming Cave Tube or River Cruise adventure, but the teens' reactions defined indifference. I'm sure they eventually perked up.
We took a seat up top, curious to see our new surroundings. Belize City was fairly close, and the tender was relatively fast compared to the one in Cozumel. Within 15 minutes, we were approaching the dock. Besides the 1950's moderne Radisson Hotel, the first thing I noticed was the water color. I expected it to turn bright blue in the shallows near the shore, but it went brown instead. There were no beaches to be seen, only deep water lapping at rock walls.
We pulled up to the dock alongside a very new tourist oriented building. A channel continued inland. The other buildings looked like the tired places you might find off the beaten path along the Maine coast. We disembarked and were directed through the open core of the tourist building just as a bus pulled up. Stacked up were a number of large coolers, from which were dispensed ice cold water bottles as we boarded the bus.
We were going to Lamanai, an ancient Mayan site. We were to bus partway, cruise up a river looking at natural things and then tour Lamanai. I had visions of a slow boat loaded with a hundred people straining against the current for a couple of miles. Boring, but I really wanted to see some ruins and Tulum did not make the itinerary. The other major Mayan site in Belize sounded more interesting, but like Tulum was just too far to travel.
The bus departed, swinging past a tiny lighthouse and the tired looking Radisson. We negotiated a maze of narrow streets never designed for bus traffic. The tour guide got on stage and introduced himself. He was a young prototypical Caribbeanite with an infectious little laugh that would have been followed naturally by "Dude". I suspect he liked the ganga, mon. He was engaging, and I understood his dialect perfectly because I had lived on St. Thomas for three years. I'd guess that others may have had some difficulty. He tried to teach us some Creole phrases.
Yes, Belize is a Third World country. No doubt. Down a narrow street where early risers were stretching in front of ramshackle houses, a crude hand-painted sign at eye level to the bus passengers read "Funeral Home". On one side, junk piled high. On the other, a glass lean-to displayed the stock of coffins. I could not get the camera out fast enough. Sickly dogs walked down the sidewalks and lay in the alleys. They do not enjoy the same standard of living as their American relatives.
The guide was describing the scene to us. He was somewhat apologetic, but his message was "This is where we live, we are working hard to make it better and it is getting better, and we are very nice people". I absolutely believed him. I remember the first time I went into the real residential sections of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. It was shocking, and it made this view of Belize City much less so.
There are three traffic lights in all of Belize. We saw one of them. The guide pointed out the national football stadium, a dusty fenced area with a couple of rusting bleachers. Two colleges, one building apiece if I saw it correctly. Public and church-sponsored schools. The Belizians seem to understand the importance of education in improving their lot. A traffic rotary with many flags in the median. These were highlights and the guide was proud.
Here and there were signs of prosperity. Waterfront enclaves of large homes, but still no beaches. Brand new government housing developments with blocks of simple pastel colored homes. Industrial buildings obviously housing active businesses. A complex of modern buildings surrounded by antennae and satellite dishes - this is the operation at the other end of most internet gambling sites.
As we left the city limits we passed the entrance road to the international airport. I think they were preparing to pave it, perhaps for the first time. The population quickly thinned out. Belize City used to be the capital, but when the last major hurricane killed 7000 people there, the government established a new center at Belmopan well inland up the main north-south highway on which we were now traveling. Not many people followed, and Belize City is still at the center of the economy.
Hurricanes come and go, but they leave a permanent mark on places like this. When a house blows down, its splintered pieces are used to construct another one. Since the temperature never fall below the mid 60's, the houses don't need to be tightly built. So for a lot of people, the shacks you see are a very practical adaptation to the environment. A hurricane is an awesome thing. In 1979, we went through two big ones, David and Frederick, back-to-back on St. Thomas. I will never forget sitting in an interior basement closet for 12 hours holding our months-old son, unable to converse with Kris because the wind was too loud. My son had two hurricane-shaped cowlicks on his head. We had no electricity for many weeks. Builds character.
In the countryside far inland many houses were built on stilts. I hadn't detected any rise in elevation. The highest points of land were the speed bumps across the main highway were it passed through settlements. Many houses built of concrete block were long abandoned in a partially finished state. "Why", I wondered. We would sometimes see a very nice house surrounded by decorative fences, attractive landscaping and SUV's. Who were these people, and what did they do out here?
The air in the bus seemed to warm. The driver pulled over, opened the door and disappeared. Returning a minute later, he conferred with the guide, who then walked through the bus opening the emergency hatches in the roof. The driver pulled out a cellphone and started making calls.
Underway again with the door open and a hot breeze blowing through the bus, the guide admitted sheepishly that the air conditioning was broken and they were trying to get another bus. The driver kept to the right on the unlined main highway, traveling at about 10 miles an hour. We kept this up for 20 minutes as the guide told stories and we watched the sparse traffic pass us by. I was perfectly comfortable and would have happily gone on at full speed to the destination, but I was not in charge.
The bus pulled to the side of the road and we followed the guide down the steps and onto the dry grass, pausing to thank the driver. Another bus was parked behind us. Its destination sign said "Just Passing Through". We boarded quickly and reached cruising velocity without delay. The air was cold. Near the end of the 57 mile trip, a shiny Range Rover passed us. The guide excitedly retrieved his mic and pointed out the license plate - a jeweled crown, and nothing else - on the vehicle belonging to the head of the government. It cruised right through the crude toll booth that lay ahead. Over a short bridge, we pulled to the opposite side of the road. The guide said he could only take 18 people in his boat, so some of us would have to join another group. We were given more bottled water.
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Kris and I walked through the riverside pavilion, looked at the row of boats by the shore, and chose one of the two sporty looking models. There was still room for us. The driver/guide was a short young man in his 20's, a Mayan Indian/Spanish mix (Mestizo), crisply dressed. He was shouting back and forth in Spanish with men on the shore. I wondered if we had made the right choice. The other boats left while we waited for a couple of stragglers.
The driver slowly backed away from the dock, turned and briefly punched the throttles. Spurred by 400 HP divided between two V-6 Yamaha outboards, the boat carrying 35 people leapt ahead and settled back down. I do not know what this guide's name is. Let me call him Carlos. Carlos laughed heartily and said "Hold on to your hats".
We navigated out of the little bay, through a thick mangrove and onto the main body of the New River. It was barely two boat widths across. Carlos again opened the throttles wide, and we popped up on the plane and hit 45 MPH in a flash. The river curved and twisted like a road racing course, and Carlos banked through the turns with great relish. His eyes and head were moving rapidly back and forth, up and down. In the front of the boat, a woman's hat blew off and shot like a rocket towards the rear. Carlos' left hand came off the wheel and snatched the hat in mid-air. Didn't miss a beat. He laughed gleefully and passed the hat forward as we leaned around another tight corner. "I told you to hold on to your hat", he shouted. I was right next to him and was probably the only one who could hear him above the rushing wind and the scream of 12 cylinders running at 5000 RPM. I glanced at Kris, and my grin was so big it hurt.
The river widened out as we continued. Suddenly Carlos whipped the wheel to the right and the boat sliced a 180 degree turn at full speed. He cut the throttles and we drifted towards shore. "Iguana" said Carlos, and everybody heard him this time. We all looked. Nobody saw anything but trees on the shore. "Up there, on that branch" Carlos clarified. He had to take us step by step before anybody spotted it. It took me about 3 minutes.
So began our slow, boring boat ride. It did get better.
We traveled almost 30 miles up river like this. We stopped to see Jesus birds walk on water, buzzards hunting for lunch, poisonous trees side by side with trees that excrete the antidote and lots of yellow butterflies. We heard stories about the Mennonite farmers who are responsible for 95% of the agriculture here, as we looked over their crude but pastoral farm at a bend in the river.
At length, we burst from the narrow confines of the river into a 3 mile wide bay. On the right was the only hill I'd seen - Lamani. Ahead of us was the twin to our boat. Encouraged by the passengers to race it, Carlos told us he had better props and said it was no contest. We overtook the other boat easily before backing off. We were the last boat to arrive at the dock. I guessed there weren't any slowpokes among the guides.
Up the hill were some buildings and picnic pavilions. Two lines formed for lunch, which was being dished up by what looked like a couple of families - everyone from the children up through the grandparents. An older women chanted to the crowd "Try my bread. I made it this morning. It is delicious. The tortillas are like gold, so please only take one if you are going to eat it". We grabbed plates and were served some of everything. Paprika chicken, rice with beans, yellow rice, homemade coleslaw, fresh bread, hand made tortilla chips and salsa, coconut pastries and of course, the gold tortillas. We sat with a couple we'd met another day at lunch, and dug in.
Now, the food on the Galaxy is indeed fine, but Chef Roux could stand a lesson from this group. The lunch was delicious, and we all ate every scrap. There wasn't time for seconds which was most unfortunate.
So many people express concern about bugs in Belize. I hadn't seen a one yet, but we were about to enter the jungle. Carlos said "If anybody has bug spray now is the time to put it on, but you won't need it". We had some, and applied it. Two steps into the jungle, I heard a mosquito at my ear. I swatted at it, and that was my last contact with a bug of any sort. You should try going outside in New Hampshire in the morning, evening, night, or during the entire month of May. Maybe there are bugs under certain conditions here, but for our trip it was bah humbug.
Carlos led us through the jungle, dispensing all kinds of interesting information about the Mayan culture, the history of Lamani, his own heritage, flora, fauna, folk medicine and human sacrifice. The ruins were much more significant than I expected. Carlos' explanation of them was fascinating. We saw and heard lots of howler monkeys overhead in the canopy, including a little baby. Carlos stopped to let the children and teenagers climb and swing on vines. They all looked much more perky than they had first thing this morning.
At the largest of the temples, excavation and repair are still active. Dozens of men wearing long sleeves, trousers and hats filled 5 gallon buckets with mortar and carried them up 100 feet of narrow steps on the temple's face. Did I mention that it was wicked hot?
Exhausted, we returned to the boat and snagged the frontmost seats. I aimed the video camera and my face into the wind, and we made it back to the starting point 30 miles down river in 40 minutes.
In the pavilion by the river, local craftspeople had set up their handiwork for sale. A man sold cold local beer for $2 or $3. He could have sold out at $10 a bottle. Kris bought a nice handcarved hardwood bowl marked at $20 and offered for $15. Kris refused to go any lower. Back on the bus with more water, we dozed on the way back to Belize City. In the open lobby of the pier building, a very young girl sat on a folding chair. Her cardboard placard pointed the way to a place selling ****** and other salvations. The tender was waiting, so we went aboard and crossed the brown water to the ship.
A lot of people we talked to had major reservations about even stepping foot in Belize. A surprising number of them took what was probably the worst course of action for them - they tendered into town and walked around. This is not St. Thomas or Nassau. There are a few shops, but little else in town. It is outside the city where the fun is to be found, doing things you can't do anywhere else. The people we met were warm and friendly, and we departed Belize well entertained and a bit smarter about the world.
As Galaxy sailed, the shadow of high mountains could be seen soaring to the west and south of Belieze City. Francis Ford Coppola owns two resorts out there somewhere. The longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere lay out to sea ahead of us. Man's creations are pretty humble after all.
It was another formal night and we had to rush to get ready for an invitation-only party in the theater. I guess this one was just for the heck of it. We arrived late, sat down in front and tried to get a waiter's attention. By the time we did, the party was beginning to break up. The waiter returned with a tray full of the party's offerings. Kris took the champagne, and I asked for a Mai Tai. He looked around at the thinning crowd and set three of the drinks in front of me. I thanked him profusely.
We had our 'private' photo sitting in the Grand Foyer at 7:25. A lot of people spectated. The photographer's game was he'd pose us and at the last minute push my arm down so that my hand was on Kris' rear. Each time, he'd feign impatience at my inability to learn the proper position. The crowd loved it. Later, as we sat by the photo station sipping coffee, a couple with two little boys arrived for their session. The children were decked out in fine white dinner jackets, one in a stroller and the other marginally ambulatory. I asked for and received permission to take a picture. The kids looked great. A few minutes later when they actually posed for the photographer, the children burst into tears and would not cooperate. I offered to sell them the picture I'd taken.
Dinner was routine, and we went to the theater to see Elliot Finkel afterward. He was presented as having some credentials, but I couldn't place him (Later, neither could my pianist mother, who is familiar with everybody in the business). His father plays the grumpy old teacher on Boston Public. Elliot was a combination of Liberace and Rodney Dangerfield. I found him entertaining and suspected he could play, but this was disguised by the continual sweeping arpeggios up and down the keyboard. The orchestra was cookin'. I wanted to see the follow-up show of classical and Gershwin pieces, but we missed it. I hope Elliot got some respect.
After the show, it was time for bed. The heat of the day had taken a lot out of us. Tomorrow we could relax, but why put off for tomorrow what you can do today?
Loved your rept, and it is so true! We did the Lamainai cruise and ruins this past May,and found it to be one of the best tours we did. Our driver guide actually stopped by his home to have his wife and children bring us out umbrellas, as it looked like rain. That was pretty amazing to me. Our river guide and ruins guide was also Mayan, and so we felt we were getting a valid tour. This was definitely one of the best tours we've taken of all our cruises. Although, we did take our tour off the ship thru belizeexcursions. It made me a bit nervous about getting back to the ship on time, but the guide was very conscious of this and actually got us back to the pier well ahead of time.
Thanks Sweetpea, Debbie, Becki and Zeno. The Lamanai excursion still ranks as #1 in our book. What a blast.
Becki, we did the ship’s tour. I think I would have been too nervous about getting back on time. As it was, we were an hour late and the ship was held for our return. Glad it worked out for you. Everyone we met was genuinely friendly – sounds like your guide was a cut above.
Thanks for watching, calflamesgirl. Won't be long now...
lizstas, I imagine an inquisitive 8 year-old would have a fine time. The only real down-time is on the bus, so you might want to prepare for that somehow -- if the child tends to fall asleep during such times, all the better, I suppose. The walk is about 1.5 miles on mostly level dirt pathways. There are only a couple of slight up/downhill segments. The path is generally smooth, but there is no doubt that you are in the jungle and not at a Disney resort. The tour pace is fairly slow, and there are many opportunities to rest. The biggest factor for us was the heat -- we were there in July, so that wasn't a big surprise. Bugs were not a problem, though by reading other reports I gather they may be more common during the winter months.
Hi Neighbor, glad to read more about your adventures. We just returned from cruising the Western Carib on board the Mariner. Great ship, you and the family must give that class a try sometime. My #1 son is going on the Red Sox cruise in January and they will be stopping at Belize, so I was anxious to read about your tour. We did a private Cave Tubing with Reggie, which we really enjoyed. I will directly my DS to your links. Still unemployed, hating it, but working temp up in your town at Herringtons.
Bon Voyage - give my best to Kris
Nanatravel aka Bev
Celebrity Infinity 15 nights East bound Panama Canal - San Diego to Miami, Celebrity Constellation 5 nights 2/3/14, Celebrity Eclipse So. Caribbean 14 nights 3/9/2013, Crown Princess British Isles & France 5/19/2011, Emerald Princess Eastern Caribbean 6/13/2010, Golden Princess Hawaii from LA 4/11/10, Carnival Freedom 6 night Western 2/21/2010, RCI Jewel of the Seas 10/27/2009 repo Boston to Miami, Caribbean Princess 11/2/08 Southern Caribbean, NCL Gem to No Where @ Boston 12/13/2007, NCL Majesty to Bermuda, 7/1 2007, Emerald Princess, 5/ 29/2007 Grand Meditteranean, RCI Freedom of the Seas 11/5/2006 Western Caribbean, Carnival Pride 10/30/05 Mexican Riviera, RCI Mariner of the Seas 11/7/04 Western Carib. ,Celebrity Millennium 2/22/04 Eastern Carib., Carnival Conquest 10/26/03 Western Carib from NOLA, Carnival Legend 4/11/2003 from Ft. Lauderdale, Carnival Pride 2/23/2002 from Port Canaveral, Celebrity Galaxy 11/01 Southern Carib. from SanJuan, Grand Princess 3/2001 - from FLL, Celebrity Millennium 9/9/2000 - Europe Capt. Club, Sea Princess 2/22/1999 - Western Carib. from FLL, Vison of the Seas 10/28/1998- Panama Canal, Rhapsody of the Seas 3/1998- Southern Carib., Celebrity Century 3/1997, Celebrity Zenith 11/1996, Legend of the Seas 6/1995- Alaska, Celebrity Horizon 4/1994- So. Carib. from San Juan
Hey, Bev -- long time, no 'see'. Two cruises in one year? Nice going... Both boys are in college now, so I can't even imagine when we'll sail again. I am still employed for now, among the surviving 130 people (down from 6,000 in 1990 when I started). Scary. Might have to relocate to China at this rate.
I received a Herringtons catalog a while back, and was surprised to see that they were in Londonderry. Must be by the airport, I guess. They had a firewood rack I was interested in, but of course by the time I was ready to buy, the catalog was gone. Couldn't find them on the web because I assumed it was Harringtons. Oh well.
Hope the material is helpful to your DS. I still have your cruise book, tucked safely away until we meet again. Kris sends her best, as do I. She is doing well.
Thanks for the video! I want to bump this up to make it easier to find for others in our group! I am considering this tour for my mother and myself. She is generally in great shape for someone 74 years old (still works full time, walks regularly) but has difficulty with irregular terraine due to her knees. I understand that this should be ok for her. Correct?
Thanks, "Sunny". Lamanai is rustic but the trails are generally smooth, without a whole lot of ups and downs. From the dock at water level to the highest point on the tour, there is probably an elevation change of 20-25 feet, I'd guess. Some spots have tree roots or loose rocks to contend with, but a helpful arm on occasion ought to be all the help mom should need.
This sounds like a wonderful excursion, one which I would really like to participate in. Are there any companies in Belize that offer this tour? I am on Holland America, November 2005, but did not see this offered as an excursion. I would much rather do a river safari than ride a bus...
http://belizecruiseexcursions.com/ is one. There is at least one other but I can't remember it right now. We booked this with the ship due to the long tour length--practically the entire port stop. I'm looking forward to it.
Thanks Chesterh for your great reveiw and video, this made our exc choice easy. In your reveiw you mention mangrove tunnels did ya" ll go through them are just see them in the distance. Thanks again Paul (NCL SEA 3/05)
Looking_forward, I'm sorry to say that I don't have an answer for you. Hopefully, BobbieSu's lead will pan out. Anybody else have a suggestion? Personally, I was glad to have the relative security of a ship's tour given the time and distances involved, but if HAL doesn't offer it, then it is certainly worth seeking alternatives.
crewsin250, we passed through a ‘tunnel’ to get from the boat landing to the river. As I recall, it was a few hundred feet long, and passengers at the sides of the boat had to duck in places as we crept forward.