“Next stop, San Ignacio.”
I twisted the key to our rental as Amy screen shotted our directions, because out here in the rainforest, Google isn’t your friend. Amy mentioned we were leaving San Felipe, passing near San Antonio, would drive through Santa Elena on our way to San Ignacio.
“I wonder if there’s a town in Belize for every saint?”
We had said our goodbyes, hugged our friends, cried a few tears, and packed up the luggage and Otis. When the anemic engine of our Dodge engaged, we both reached for the air conditioner control. The compressor engaged with a squeak, clunked to life and hissed out the beginnings of something other than damp 90-degree air. I rolled up the car’s windows then cheered on the air-conditioner as it gasped for traction and desperately tried to “condition” the heavy air of San Felipe.
“Come on baby…You can do it.”
Amy giggled, crossed her fingers and counted up the hours we’d been in an air-conditioned environment.
“You know what? We’ve spent five weeks here without air-conditioning, and we didn’t have it in San Pedro, either. Since November, the only time we’ve had it was in our rental cars and those three nights in Placencia.”
“Any chance our place in San Ignacio has A/C?”
She shook her head slowly and motioned for me to get going. I headed down Cotton Tree Road and as we banged through the first of many bangs, I suggested we say a prayer to the Mayan gods of transportation. Amy thought for a moment then suggested Ix Cacaphony might help get this car to San Ignacio in one piece. After having a good laugh, I told her I wasn’t ready to leave.
“Okay. Why not?”
“I’m not sure. We’ve made great friends and learned a lot about so many things. Deep down it feels like we haven’t been here long enough.”
Amy agreed. “We have made lots of friends and learned about chocolate, the rainforest, the animals of the forest. Maybe we’ll never be in another environment like this one? Maybe that’s why it hurts?”
Bumping across Cotton Tree road the birds of the rainforest seemed to put an exclamation point on her observation. We were buzzed by a fat Kingfisher, a few bright red Tanagers, a brace of Trogons, Flycatchers, Euphonias, and multiple Hummingbirds.
As we drove past Balam Ke, we honked and waved to all the crew and Miss Julie. We’d already said our goodbyes and I didn’t want to stop again. A couple of the guys waved their machetes, maybe to make sure we saw them. A month ago, we would’ve felt threatened by that gesture. Today we know the machete is the most basic tool for life in the rainforest, no different to a rake in our own yard. We drove past Emerson, Emir, Geraldo, Kevin, and Manuel. Their smiles were bright, and I wondered to myself if they were going to miss us as much as we would miss them. Had we made the same positive impression on them as they had on us? I seriously doubt it.
It was the internet, or lack thereof that made our month so positive. We’d learned the technique of turning fresh cacao into chocolate bars, we’d learned about present-day Mayan culture and some history of Belize. We’d learned how to make tortillas from scratch. When we went bird watching we were sure to bring our big Birds of Belize book. When we walked with Agapito or Pablo we learned just by listening to them talk about their home. In the evening, when we retired to our cabana, we spent hours reading actual books. I surprised myself with the list of books I’d finished. Joe Garagiola’s Baseball is a Funny Game, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw by Bruce Barcott, Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters, Painted Horses by Malcom Brooks, The New Chocolate by Marisela Presilla, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
I’d written ten thousand words and read six books all without the luxury of air conditioning. That may sound astounding but that was me before the internet became such an integral part of our lives. And I’ll bet many of you reading are agreeing with me. Prior to the thing that was supposed to make us more productive, many of us were much more productive.
As San Felipe slowly receded in our vibrating mirror, I couldn’t shake my feeling of regret.
“We should’ve stayed longer.”
San Ignacio is the second largest city in Belize. It’s intersected by the Macal and Mopan Rivers as well as the Western Highway. The big attraction to San Ignacio is the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech and Xunantunich. These two archaeological sites bring in tens of thousands of visitors annually in addition to San Ignacio’s close proximity to the rainforest. We hadn’t slept well the night before and it was a long, hot drive over the Hummingbird Highway, through Belmopan and finally into San Ignacio. We pulled into the city center around 2:00 pm and sort of knew how to get downtown. There’s a park, an open-air market and plenty of parking and restaurants within easy reach of downtown. We had a reservation with Airbnb nearby and just wanted something to eat and something very cold to drink. If you’ve never been to San Ignacio, and you’re tired and hungry, you’d best have impeccable directions that take into account San Ignacio’s one-way streets. Because most of them are not marked with signs. San Ignacio’s streets are also narrow and many of the buildings sit right at the edge of the street. Some of its streets run at right angles from their connecting streets. And some were apparently put in place in the middle of the night, perhaps by a few neighbors trying to right earlier street wrongs. A map of downtown San Ignacio looks like the results of mixing a few strands of over-cooked spaghetti with a game of Pick-Up Stix.
San Ignacio also has street gutters, basically two-foot-deep troughs that line the edges of most of its streets. No grates, just open concrete troughs at the edge of the street. And that means a wrong turn, especially down a one-way street might have dire consequences. And did we ever make some wrong turns. The first time I found a one-way street I immediately recognized my mistake. All the cars parked on the street were pointing at us, and I was able to quickly back out. The next wrong turn took us down the street that went to the Hawksworth bridge, a main thoroughfare that fed traffic from Santa Elena, its sister city on the other side of the river. Yikes! A sharp left hand turn down a narrow, uphill street and suddenly I was looking at a line of cars all headed my way. I stabbed the brakes, Otis went flying, and I braced myself for the burst of horns, angry wave of arms, extended middle fingers, and flashing headlights from pissed off drivers. The transmission protested as I slammed it into reverse then twisted around to see what I was about to back over.
What happened next is why we’ve come to love Belize. Several folks on the street helped me back out and the driver in front of me was telling me to “take my time, it’s okay.” One gentleman also asked us where we were trying to go and pointed us down the hill when I answered El Mercado. How many times have I seen tourists in my city twist their cars down one of our one-way streets only to be met with jeers, shouts, and laughter? How quickly we tend to forget that we were once strangers in a strange city. With their help we had found the city center, parked, then made our way to a slew of restaurants. We needed one with wi-fi because we had to get directions to our room. Within fifteen minutes we had settled into some seats and tried to come to terms with the closeness of San Ignacio. Cars and sweaty bodies were everywhere, the cars honked, the people waved and yelled at one another across the street, across the town, and it was hot. When we finally got some Wi-Fi, I was surprised that our Airbnb hostess hadn’t issued us directions, she hadn’t even responded to my message from a week ago. I clicked “Text” and sent her a note asking her to please respond. Ten minutes went by and nothing. I clicked “Call” and nothing. I tried again and again and eventually got a “this number has been disconnected.” In the next hour I tried Airbnb support through an email, a Facebook DM, and finally a phone call which soon gave me support in San Francisco. This gentleman also tried to get in touch with our hostess to no avail. Eventually we gave up and he offered us a complimentary room at Eve’s Place, another host nearby. We took one look at the photos of Eve’s Place and thought “Dear God, what a dump.” But I muted the phone and told Amy that Belize hadn’t disappointed us yet and maybe it’s just a lousy photo.
“Let’s just take this place for one night and see how it goes.”
We agreed, made our reservations and sent the host, Carlos, a message that we would be there shortly.
Carlos answered us right away with “We’re ready for you.”
Everything around me was movement, noise, humidity, and sweat and my frustration was getting the better of me. Fortunately, Eve’s Place was only a short drive from downtown, and a block off the Western Highway. And when we arrived it was certainly a better-looking place than the photos would imply. When we pulled up, Angy the hostess was waiting for us. She was a trim brunette in her early 20s and wore a big smile through her mask.
“Hello Mr. John. Welcome to San Ignacio.”
The home was set on a hill and the narrow backyard overlooked the whole of San Ignacio with the dark rolling greens of Guatemala languishing in the distance. It was fully fenced in and that was great for Otis. And it had bars on all the windows and locks on the perimeter gate, the small gate that opened to the patio, double locks on the outer door and double locks on the inner door. As she opened the last door to the house, I had to ask.
“So, uh, Angy. Anything we should know about this neighborhood? Should I be armed, I mean, alarmed?”
She was quite taken aback, and her eyes scolded me.
“No, Mr. John. This is a very safe neighborhood.”
That final door opened, and we were greeted with a delicious rush of 65-degree air.
“I turned on the air-conditioners for you.”
Angy held the door open. We stood there motionless for a second or two as we contemplated a good night’s sleep in the luxury of air conditioning. It is a rare thing in Belize, and in Central America, indeed it is rare in many parts of the world. At that moment I pictured a halo forming and angel’s wings sprouting from Angy while she smiled her innocent smile.
We walked in, dropped our bags and closed the door. Otis plopped to the floor and his tongue dropped to the chilled floor. Angy gave us a walk through and pointed out the three A/C units, the two bedrooms with queen beds, the large bathroom, washing machine, kitchen and she finished with the TV. Once the icons loaded, she pointed to the Netflix icon.
“And we have a Netflix account, just click here.”
Her halo turned from a soft, fluorescent glow to a brilliant, blinding white.
My wife’s attention was suddenly diverted away from the washing machine to the TV.
“Miss Amy, do you have any questions?”
Amy turned to me and whispered “Net. Flix.”
“No Miss Angy. Thank you very much.”
Angy made her way out as Amy went for the couch and I settled for the floor. Shoes, socks, pants, and shirt were soon discarded as I let the air settle over my body. I thought about how many times I took this feeling for granted and swore that moment “Never again.”
“Sweetheart, have you ever been so grateful for cool, comfortable, air-conditioned silence?”
“Will you just shut up and let me enjoy the moment.”
It was a short drive to a grocery store where we grabbed some coffee, beer, sodas, fruit, local baked goods, and a few toiletries then headed downtown for dinner. Burns Avenue is the city’s center, two blocks are pedestrian only and that was our destination. After a shower, a cold beer and a chance to do so in a cool environment, in the fading sunlight San Ignacio felt a bit less jarring. Amy drove and she had a better sense of its one-way streets and the puzzle pieces of the city’s interior. The three of us were soon walking around town in search of a memorable meal. And we found it at Crave Restaurant. We turned the corner and saw an open-air bar with two empty barstools, soft lighting, an outdoor grill, and a rack of wine glasses that dangled over the head of a pretty bartender.
“Look!” I exclaimed. Wine glasses.”
Amy noticed Crave’s neighbor was a tiny ice cream shop with “homemade” in its logo.
I felt like Ahab finally catching sight of the white whale. At the same moment the aromas of steak on the grill tickled Otis’s nose, Amy saw real ice cream and smelled something other than stewed chicken, and we were caught in a tractor beam. Edith, the bartender watched us approach and greeted us with two glasses of ice water and a bowl of water for Otis. Now that’s hospitality. Edith produced a beautiful Mojito for Amy, resplendent with fresh mint and local limes, and poured me a glass of Argentine red, a blend of Cabernet, Malbec, and Syrah. As much as I love hand-crafted beer with local flair, there’s nothing more satisfying than a glass of wine to complement a meal. A great beer might only be six weeks in the making, a great wine may take years. Both beverages are capable of artistic expression, a great winemaker is also a farmer and a fortune teller and has to see, taste, and smell his wine’s future a year or more down the road. While we dined, Edith entertained our questions about San Ignacio and things we should and should not miss. We were soon treated to perfectly grilled steaks spiked with chimichurri, eggplant Parmesan with real Parmesan, roasted local vegetables, and hand-cut fries with plenty of crisp. A properly grilled steak with a glass of intriguing red wine is truly one of life’s grand pleasures. We finished our meal with treats from the Ice Cream Shoppe next door to Crave. Belize is flush with locally made ice cream courtesy the hands of the Mennonites at Western Dairies. It’s decent ice cream produced in a large factory, but doesn’t come close to the clever, memorable creams made at this little place. We polished off our cones then headed back to our air-conditioned accommodations. I believe that night we had our best night of sleep since arriving in Belize.
That morning we had our coffee and watched the sun rise. Our porch faced almost due North, so the sunrise came over our right shoulder. The bulk of San Ignacio sits in the shallow valley of the Belize River and the Western Highway, one block behind us, carves across the high ground. As the city slowly came to life, we caught bits of Spanish and English, the buzz of a golf cart or two, the rattle of delivery trucks, and the aroma of fresh tortillas. A gentleman on a motorcycle with an ice chest strapped over his rear wheel, stuffed with fresh tortillas zipped through the streets below. He had a rhythmic beep to alert his customers. Beep, Beep, Beeeep! Unlike in San Pedro, San Ignacio’s streets have a respectable distance between them, so we were not breathing down our neighbor’s necks. As the air warmed, the low hills of Guatemala, off to our left, exhaled a fine layer of steam. Otis was already easing into his morning nap on the cool concrete, and we were about to share a couple of Pan Dulce we’d bought last night. These were from a local bakery and I had high hopes for them. Pan Dulce isn’t any one thing, it’s a type of sweet, soft bread usually in the shape of a bun, topped with lots of sugar. I’ve had them from Hispanic bakeries in Greenville, New Orleans, Durham, NC, and Tulum, Mexico. Sadly, I haven’t tasted a Pan Dulce that wasn’t as soft, squishy, and mundane as a King’s Hawaiian roll. And these were no different. Amy, the fussy professional pastry chef, invited me to enjoy the bun for what it was. An uncomplicated bite of sweetness, as modest and familiar as a sunrise. I leaned back and listened to San Ignacio, sipped my coffee, dunked my Pan Dulce into my cup and reluctantly agreed.
The best parts of life are contextual. A great bottle of wine drank in solitude is nothing more than a sad tale. A six pack of American lager, enjoyed in celebration of a recent birth, a promotion, or a significant accomplishment can create memories of a lifetime. Although we’ve dined in some rather spectacular restaurants, some of the best meals I’ve enjoyed were full of friends, smiles, sunsets, craft beer, and $20 bottles of wine. Many of those wonderful meals took place in our, or a friend’s backyard and were simple celebrations of friendship and life. Our guests may not remember exactly what was served, they will remember how they felt when they arrived. The smiles of their friends, the smell of the grill, the hugs and handshakes, the opportunity to just be in one another’s company without a time frame and enjoy a sunset and a simple meal. I may not be a fan of Pan Dulce, yet I’ve had the opportunity to appreciate its simplicity, to enjoy a sweet bun, dunked in dark Central American coffee, while watching the sunrise over San Ignacio.
You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, recovering tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.