Hello Google. How do I say “Which way to the beach in Mayan?”
There’s four highways in Belize. No kidding. Four major highways crisscross this country of nine thousand square miles. The Philip Goldson, Western (George Price), Southern, and the Hummingbird Highway. If your destination is off one of those highways by twenty miles there’s a good chance that’s twenty miles of dirt or gravel roads. These highways are as wide as a two-lane road in the states and there’s a hint on yellow paint to mark the appropriate side of the road. There’s also no speed traps, however the aforementioned speed bumps, washboards, broken chunks of pavement, tractors hauling loads of oranges or pineapples, and potholes that could hide a fish dinner for twelve means there’s little opportunity for speeding.
Twenty minutes after leaving the zoo we saw signs for the Coastal Highway and as we were headed to the coast, and Google recommended this shortcut as it would save us thirty miles, heck why not give it a shot? The road was in okay shape for the first half-mile then we passed a small, solitary orange sign that read “Go Slow.” Some things are done incredibly well in this country. The chocolate, beer from Hobbs Craft Brewery, flowers, rain forests, fresh seafood, and snorkeling are all world class. Highways, well I give you the Coastal Highway. Apparently, it’s been under construction for fifteen years and as of this writing it’s no better than a farm road in Georgia, after a hurricane has dumped twenty inches of rain. Good thing Jurgen recommended a four-wheel drive vehicle. However, it did give me an opportunity to teach some off-road technique to my bride. An hour after making that ill-fated turn we were back on the Western highway and headed to Belmopan, the capitol.
On the outskirts of Belmopan we put gas in our now forty pounds heavier with orange mud Dodge and turned onto the Hummingbird Highway. Its name alone conjures up images of exotic wildlife, lush green canopies, acres of gorgeous blossoms, tiny cafes, and smiling warm faces. The Hummingbird Highway is all that and more and it is an absolute joy of a drive. At only 53 miles long, the Hummingbird connects Belmopan with Dangriga yet it also connects the major landscapes of Belize. From lowland Savannah, limestone hills, up through the rainforest, past the citrus fields, then down to the Caribbean coast, everything beautiful in Belize is showcased on the Hummingbird. This is easily the prettiest drive in Belize, and I’ve read it’s considered one of the best drives in the world.
The Hummingbird peaks at roughly a thousand feet of elevation and that puts the driver in the middle of the rain forest. We made several stops along the way, the first at Lamanai (lah mah nigh) Chocolate and its simple promise of a coffee and chocolate experience. Lamanai is housed in a wooden, um, shed, and don’t let its humble walls fool you. They make delicious coffee and intriguing chocolates right in the middle of the forest. After meeting Roger, the owner, we opted for his Medicine Trail walk where he shared his knowledge of medicinal properties of many local plants. Don’t roll your eyes because over 120 important pharmaceuticals are plant based and it’s a fine place to grab a cup of coffee. His chocolate bars are much different than most as they’re thick and chewy, almost a fat Power Bar, and a far cry from the snap of most Belizian bars.
Our next stop was St. Herman’s National Park. And this is where we got up close and personal with the rainforest. To me it felt like hiking through the movie Avatar, to Amy it was more Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Cohune Palms, magnificent Cottonwoods, towering Kapok trees all reaching for the sky, stunning orchids, bromeliads, and fiery Heliconia (heli cone yuh). The flora of the rain forest is at once menacing in its completeness, breathtaking in its beauty. A hike through the rainforest on an actual hiking trail (we were walking on a fire road) may offer up skittish tarantulas, silent boas, a menacing Fer de Lance, as well as magnificent Toucans, Tapirs, Pacas, and Aracaris. The canopy is so thick, so alive, so overwhelming in its complexity it feels practically alien to this East Coast cook. Be still for a few minutes and one can hear the rainforest growing, reaching out for room, aching to embrace this fire road, reclaim it and replace its grey rock, gravel, and open areas with thousands of shades of green and yellow, red, and orange. Focus on your breath, feel your heartbeat, notice that solitary drop of sweat rolling down the middle of your back. Now carefully listen to the forest as birds, snakes, and reptiles make themselves known.
Hiking through our own east coast mountains, even in the temperate rain forest above Brevard, NC, doesn’t come close to the sense, and sounds of life in this forest. It is a remarkable experience and perhaps I shall one day find the words to accurately describe it.
Back on the road to Placencia and it was past lunch time and on this stretch of the Hummingbird that means Bertha’s Tamales.
Most restaurants in Belize are simple and open-air and Bertha’s is a prime example. Her menu is rather simple: chicken tamales, bottles of water, and Coca-Cola.
“Dos tamales, por favor, un poco más de servilletas?”
I’m not a fan of branding an entire country as “third-world” and poor is a state of mind. Belize is a young, relatively undeveloped country and as such their citizens haven’t had the same opportunities as you have. And their politicians, like most good politicians, have mortgaged their country’s future income and helped themselves to the lion’s share of that borrowed money. When government officials are buying condos in Miami while the average Belizian manages without proper roads, schools, health care, fresh water, recycling, social services…well that’s why tamales are stuffed with chicken necks. These people are used to scraping by, and cooking a whole chicken is a luxury so if you buy a tamale from the same restaurant as a local would, it’s likely got a chicken neck, or a wing, or gizzards, or liver, or a back, bones and all, in the middle of that tamale. And that means you’re going to get messy and will need extra napkins. And you’ll have to ask for extra napkins, and they’re thin, Bi-Lo brand napkins that shred like confetti as soon as you look at them. Oh, but those tamales, how wonderful are they? Let me count the ways. The chicken is braised in aromatic vegetables and plenty of Recado, that omnipotent collection of spices, herbs, and vinegar. Recado is the fluttering national flag of Belize, the enticing aroma behind the scent of salt water, the backbone of the construction crew that built that gorgeous beach front hotel, the smoke of the working-class neighborhood, the fuel of the local dive masters and bartenders. It is the blood, sweat, and tears of Belize. As red beans and rice sustains the backbone of my native New Orleans, Recado braised chicken, and those banana-leaf wrapped tamales, is the mother’s milk of this country. Just remember to ask for extra napkins.
On the southern side of the Maya range the Hummingbird eases through citrus fields. The orange, grapefruit, and lime orchards are fresh pieces of the landscape’s puzzle. Connected by tractor paths and the occasional processing plant, they have an untamed feel. On the edge of the rainforest with its octopus-like plant life, nothing is safe from its tentacles. Unlike in Florida, citrus trees here live and flourish within a tangled patchwork of life. The local oranges naturally have a rough-hewn alligator green hide, crunchy seeds, and disorderly inner flesh. What else would one expect from such challenging terroir? They are quite delicious, though. Here the Hummingbird plays host to a variety of 1950s era machinery, from buses to tractors, some hauling fruit, others hauling human labor. Our average speed dropped into the low 40s, but the view was still in the high 80s.
Ninety minutes later, after another stop, Placencia (plah sense eeah) and the coast swung into view. We’d left the zoo a few minutes after nine that morning, skirted the capitol, traveled through the Maya mountain range and the rainforest, and were now approaching the setting sun and the coastal savannah. Once again sand flats, palmettos, scrub pine and Osprey dominated the landscape. Placencia Road took us from the tail of the Hummingbird to the driveway of Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn and his neighboring micro-hotels, guest houses, and dive shops of this 18 mile-long, isthmus that’s so narrow, Drew Brees could stand on the south side and reach the water line on the north side with a regulation ball. Placencia’s sole runway is so compact it needs traffic lights for the highway so Tropic Air flights may take off and land without having to clear the roof of a vehicle. We were exhausted and hungry and with the 8:00 pm curfew approaching (restaurants close by 7:00 pm) we unloaded our soreness at Dave and Laura Diffendal’s Caribbean Beach Cabanas.
We met Dave and Laura on a boat, our second week in country. They’re hotel folks from Ohio and fell in love with Belize on a short vacation. For the duration of our stay in San Pedro, Belize we’ve been guests of Diana Evans at Feathers Guest House on Ambergris Caye. It’s been perfect for two recovering tent campers and Diana is a wonderful, engaging hostess. It falls neatly in line with our monthly budget, has a cool community kitchen that suits me, and sits in a convenient part of town. However, it is not luxurious. Dave and Laura’s seven room micro-hotel is luxurious with a capital L.
Oh, how we’ve missed Egyptian cotton sheets, polished wood floors, room service, air-conditioning, supple seating, all those things that soften the edges of a long, choppy drive. We were welcomed into this most luxurious of cabanas courtesy Randy Brunner, their knowledgeable General Manager, his smiling staff, and a tall, chilled rum punch. Oh my.
The beach is a very short walk away, there’s plenty of kayaks, boards, and games, the sparkling pool is front and center and there’s a neat triangulation between their open bar, the pool, and the beach. After checking in my wife asked:
“Just three nights here?”
“Well, yeah. We’re supposed to go to the jungle lodge next, remember?”
The look on her face was a mixture of disappointment and, well, disappointment.
“Oh yeah. The jungle lodge.”
I brightened her mood by suggesting a bike ride along Main Street and a search for dinner. She made me promise to keep my speed in check and reminded me the nearest Emergency Room was, well we didn’t know where the nearest ER was.
“But it’s just beach bikes.”
Ah yes. That look in her eye. How could I forget that accident of mine on the streets of old Mount Pleasant, just the two of us on beach cruisers. Her gently pedaling, enjoying the setting sun, the call of gulls, the sounds of water borne traffic, and me trying, and succeeding to twist the chain off the single gear bike. I can still taste the concrete, still bear the scars. Just beach bikes, indeed.
Placencia. It’s a Mayan word, roughly translated to mean perfect. San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye, is very cool and quite wonderful, however, people live close here, very close. After three months we have begun to absorb the noise, to vibrate in the key of Belize. San Pedro buzzes along. Its music, traffic, disparate languages, and the sea all conspire to create a unique, Caribbean cacophony. Even the most populous bird, the Common Grackle, speaks a raucous, piercing language that demands your attention. In late January we’re now part of San Pedro’s sonic landscape. And perhaps that makes the peacefulness of Placencia that much more welcoming. Ambergris Caye is home to more rattling golf carts and lousy roads than any piece of real estate I know of. Placencia, however, is serenely quiet, landscaped with spectacular amounts of blossoming Bougainvillea and Allamanda, and home to bicycles, a few cars, proper sidewalks, paved streets, and half as many local residents. Off we pedaled for a tour of the town followed by dinner at Omar’s. In a country bordered by the Caribbean, it’s best to seek out fresh seafood. And this second-generation owned restaurant is a nice blend between Belizian cuisine and a tourist friendly. On our way home we noted a coffee house for our morning fuel.
Our second night without our dogs (they were enjoying their own time with fellow four legged brethren at Pampered Paws in San Pedro) would be spent in a sumptuous, air-conditioned room. Belize doesn’t produce its own electricity, they purchase it from Mexico and as such, air-conditioning and clothes dryers are a luxury. Jason from Truly Wild Belize would meet us at 8:00 am. We plugged in our camera batteries, set an alarm, then dreamed of the jungle.
Care to spend a spectacular week wrapped in Caribbean luxury at Caribbean Beach Cabanas?
Bohemian accommodations in San Pedro Feathers Guest House
Video of the runway at Placencia
On the Hummingbird
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, (former) 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.