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.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.
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.
- Click here for the video (Windows Media format).
And/or read the story of a trip to Lamanai, below…
- Click here for a post on CruiseCritic that contains a complete index to this and two other cruise travelogues.
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.
(continued in next post -- there is a limit of 10,000 characters!)