Today I’m heading to San Ignacio in the far West of Belize and near the Guatemalan border. To get there I need to catch a bus from Orange Walk to Belize City which I’m told with some vagueness will probably take around an hour. I am then to change buses for what should be about a two hour trip to San Ignacio passing through the capital of Belize, Belmopan.
It is too far to walk to the bus station just on the outskirts of town so I take a taxi. When I get there I find the bus station is no more than an open shelter shed and no one is in charge. However, as usual the locals help me out and I just need to wait for the bus which is coming from Corozal and I’m told usually departs from here around the quarter to the hour, every hour so I have arrived in plenty of time.
While I wait I talk to Tony, a dark, rather ruggedly handsome Belizean around my age with slightly peppered hair tied back in a ponytail. He is a horse trainer and tells me about the horse racing circuits around Belize. He used to live and train in San Ignacio but is heading north to Corozal where I have just recently come from. I am instantly drawn to him and I have a suspicion the feeling is mutual. We chat easily, intently interested in each other’s lives while my mind multi-tasks and somewhere off in fantasy land I am now the wife of a rugged Belizean horse trainer!
Soon we are bumping along, music blaring, hair flapping in the wind, passenger chaos wreaking havoc and as I look forward to my next destination I decide being a horse trainers wife isn’t perhaps the life for me after all!
The vendors are busy today and as we speed along stopping frequently to pick up and drop off passengers the vendors are also getting on and off selling all sorts of goodies including corn, nuts, pies and cold drinks.
It takes two hours to get to Belize City. The vendors stopped boarding the bus quite a while ago and now I’m hot, hungry, and thirsty. I’m also in need of a comfort stop and I look forward to a break at the bus terminal in Belize City. However, as soon as I disembark and tell the terminal staff where I want to go next I’m being ushered on to a waiting bus. I have just enough time to buy some toilet paper for $1 from the Toilet Attendant to use in the rather rudimentary portaloo setup next to the station, before we are heading off again.
Now I’m looking forward to seeing the vendor’s board the bus so I can buy a cold drink and snack to keep me going. However I am soon dismayed as none get on. This bus service won’t tolerate standing in the isles and that includes the vendors!! This is the first time I have seen any kind of discipline being enforced and find it rather perplexing! Nonetheless, I’ve only a couple of hours to go – or so I think.
Finally I arrive in San Ignacio after nearly five hours of travelling since I left Orange Walk this morning!
“Belize Time” is a phrase that I’ve now often heard Belizeans use with affection whilst shrugging their shoulders and grinning widely, as they half-heartedly explain away what to the rest of the world would be considered as tardiness.
And as I ponder “Belize Time” I think about how much anxiety we suffer in our own society through the expectations that accurate time keeping must be adhered to. I consider how often in my life my stomach has churned from anxiety at the fear of being late, whether for an appointment, meeting or for travel, sometimes rushing to get there to the detriment of my safety. Or how angry and frustrated I’ve been when others haven’t adhered to time.
Things get done in Belize; people get to destinations, appointments are met but no one gets anxious, frustrated or aggressive. They are simply too busy being happy to worry about such trivial things as time keeping.
Since our stop in Belmopan, the capital of Belize, I’ve been kept company by a young girl of around eighteen or nineteen years. She is visiting her sister in San Ignacio for the weekend and comes from a well to do family in the area. She is sweet and friendly and chirps away as we motor along, telling me about her uncle’s bank that she works in, her Grandmothers land that was sold, her other Uncles coconut farm that we are now passing and the main street of San Ignacio that belonged to her Grandmother’s first love!
I get off at the main terminal in San Ignacio but my companion is going on further so we bid each other farewell.
Instantly I am caught up in the vibrancy of this lively little town as music blasts out of the restaurants and people say hello as I walk by. I immediately know that I have not given myself enough time for my stay here. A couple of guys tout for business for their restaurant and I think I might stop and have a cold beer after the long trip and before I deal with hunting for accommodation. However, the guys have different ideas for me and point me in the direction where the hotels are, suggesting I go and get my accommodation sorted and off load my backpack so that I can relax when I do sit down for that beer! I’ve never known a tout to turn away business like that before, but I agree it would be good to get rid of my backpack.
Very quickly I find a satisfactory hotel, The Hotel Mallorca!! The price is remarkably cheap and it is clean and cool with a tv in the room. I’m thinking of staying three nights but the friendly receptionist tells me to pay for two nights now so I have the freedom to make up my mind later about the third night! Doesn’t anyone here want my money??
I quickly shower and change and head back out to the friendly bar. My guys see me coming and greet me warmly. The younger Manager, Conrad is extremely friendly and spends some time with me showing me on the map where to go and what to do while I’m in town. There is a real buzz about the town with all sorts of characters going about their business, including many artisan types and I expect there are Hippie Communes nestled in the jungle nearby with carefully nurtured and protected vegetable plots!
The main reason for my visit to the area is to see several Maya Ruins. Conrad tells me that one is on the outskirts of town and you can take a short walk up the hill to it. The other is close to a nearby village and the local bus can take you there. Otherwise to see anything else I should take a tour. Also as tomorrow is Saturday I mustn’t miss the market.
After enjoying a cold beer I take a little walk around the town but soon decide that Conrad’s bar, The Tandoor Restaurant and Bar is the place for me, so I settle back there to enjoy some good food and a couple more beers.
The following morning I am up and out at the market early. It is a hive of activity and obviously a popular Saturday morning trip for the locals. Fresh fish and meat are sold straight out of cool boxes, there are rows and rows of fresh fruit and vegetable stands and spices are in abundance. Someone is opening coconuts and pouring the juice straight into customers drink bottles.
Later I head towards the first Maya Ruin on the outskirts of town, Cahal Pech which is the oldest known Mayan site in the Belize River valley, dating back to between 1500 and 1000 BC!
I follow Conrad’s directions and climb the big hill but it is getting extremely hot and there isn’t much shade. I reach the top of the hill and keep walking for a bit, but I don’t see any signs of the ruin. Conrad told me I couldn’t miss it so I think I must have taken the wrong turning and retrace my footsteps back to town. I really want to see it but couldn’t bear climbing another hill in this heat so I decide to ask a taxi driver to take me.
The taxi driver takes me back up the same hill and I realise I had been heading in the right direction after all, but had barely reached half way when I turned back. I wonder what Conrad was thinking when he said it was an easy walk!
It is an interesting little site and is well shaded so I enjoy wandering around visiting the different “Plaza’s” which I am learning are a common part of the Mayan infrastructure. There are also “ball courts” where ancient ball games were a common spectator sport. Some say the winners were then sacrificed to the Gods, which was apparently a great honour! Cahal Pech is another site which is quite spectacular in its own way but sadly doesn’t seem to attract many tourists.
I’m on a mission now and after walking back down the hill to the town from Cahal Pech I enlist the services of Louis – “Sir Louis to me!”, a local taxi driver who makes me laugh, to take me to Xunantunich – the Maya site situated near the next village. I don’t have enough time left in the day to mess about with the “might be on time or not, might take ten minutes or ten hours” local bus to get there so we haggle a reasonable price for Louis to take me there and wait for me.
We drive at high speed along potholed roads chatting about many topics, including “Trump and Brexit” (Sigh!) until we get to a little hand cranked ferry crossing which will take us across the Mopan River and up the hill to the site. Passengers are not permitted to remain in cars while we take the two minute crossing so I get out and chat to the Ferry Men to pass the time.
When we get to the entrance of the site I pay my entrance fee and head to the ruins as Louis assures me he will be waiting right here for me at the carpark when I return.
The high pyramid which dominates the site is extremely impressive and my favourite to date. I am compelled to climb it, although as I reach the top I am becoming increasingly terrified and am at the brink of tears as my vertigo takes control and I cling to the smooth stone, shuffling along narrow ledges and clambering the steep high steps on all fours.
Finally at the top I am so distraught and traumatised that I only stay long enough to take a couple of photos of the majestic views, the only thought in my head being to get off this nightmare!
The opening of the stairwell down is so dangerously near the precipice that I initially freeze with fear, but I need to get down and there is no one around to assist me, so the only way I can bring myself to go near it is to get down on all fours and crawl along the ledge towards it rather pathetically, shuffling my daypack in front of me, before doing a kind of crab crawl round so that I can align myself feet first with the stair way and sort of shuffle backwards down into the well until I feel safe enough to stand up again. I pray no one is watching me as I know I must look like a mad woman or worse like “Eddie” from Absolutely Fabulous after a night out with “Patsy!”
To add to my anxiety, as I reach the top I come face to face with a soldier carrying a machine gun!! I’m so taken aback by his presence that I blurt out “What are you doing here with a gun like that?”
He explains that we are close to the Guatemalan border which he is patrolling. I remember that I have heard some vague stories during my travels about a bit of unrest between Guatemala and Belize but until now I hadn’t really taken it in.
When I eventually return to the carpark, one of the site attendant’s checks with me that I am “the tourist with the taxi driver” and advises me that Louis has had to go on an errand, but will be back shortly. I haven’t paid him yet, so I know he will return and I settle down to compose myself and relax in the shade while I wait for him. Almost immediately another attendant approaches me and tells me that Louis is on his way back, and sure enough within minutes amid a cloud of dust Louis’s car speeds into the car park and comes to a screeching halt right in front of me.
Full of apologies Louis explains that he had expected me to be a little longer and that I’d seen the site in record time!! But then I was probably expected to remain at the top of the pyramid to enjoy the views for much longer than the few minutes that I did!!
As I chuckle at this little incident I am touched by how well Belizeans work together and are prepared to help each other out. I contemplate the various levels of cooperation that people do or don’t extend to each other in life. Sadly cooperation is all too often begrudged or worse only extended as a trade off for something in return and again I am warmed by the Belizean culture.
It’s been a hectic, strenuous and at times rather emotional and traumatic day, but very interesting and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it, so I return to “The Tandoor” to tell Conrad, who greets me with a hug, all about it while I thirstily drink down a well-earned cold beer!