After five months in Mexico, it was finally time to move on.
So I bid farewell to my dark, dingy hotel in the border town of Chetumal and waved goodbye to my pimp/pusher neighbour, turning down one final, hopeful, hushed offer of ‘blow? weed?’
I was keen to ride off pavement again in Belize, having been inspired by a cycling couple’s dirt road adventures there six months ago. The fact that the rainy season has now begun wasn’t ideal, but I figured it was worth a try.
Luckily the three day traverse to the Guatemalan border turned out really well. It was a tough, remote ride. Once I’d passed boistrous Orange Walk Town, it was almost 100% dirt roads, passing through Mennonite communities, Mayan ruins and dense jungle, before emerging across a rope string bridge into colourful San Ignacio, 10 miles from the border with Guatemala.
Beware, leaf cutter ants crossing. These little guys mean business too; they’ll happily snip through the ground sheet of a tent. I used to co-run a bike touring business in the Indian Himalayas. One of our drivers, Phunchok, a devout buddhist, always stopped to let animals and insects out of the way. I wonder what he would have handled this kind of road block.
This northern area of Belize has several sizeable Mennonite communities – protestants who trace their origins to a Swiss brethren from 1525. Some are more traditional than others. While those around Spanish Lookout have embraced such modern indulgences as pickup trucks, big windows (previously seen as ‘otherwordly’) and the internet, many continue to travel in horse and carts, wearing their distinctive uniform of dungarees, check shirts and sombreros. A strong sense of community pervades the area. For instance, when a couple is newlywed, they move into an old bus on a piece of land until they can afford their own house. Then everyone helps to build it by hand, which I saw as I past by the conservative settlement of Shipyard – like a scene from Peter Weir’s Witness. Those I talked to spoke English in a German accent infused with a gentle Carribean lilt – it was like nothing I’d heard before. So close to the border, this young mennonite, David, spoke more Spanish than English, and from him I gleaned I was heading in the wrong direction. Again…
In fact, it was easy to get lost with all the farm tracks wending off in every direction. One of his neighbours, Jacob Harms, drew me what looked like a ‘stream of consciousness’ map on a Post It note. Jacob was sceptical I’d make it through the next part of the forest, so he invited me for dinner and a place to stay if I had to turn back. We chatted about what it is that draws people to travel so far from their homes. For Jacob, family life was all he could imagine wanting and he was genuinely curious about this nomadic cycling lifestyle.
The rainy season brings with it brooding skies.
and mud… At this point, my bike was completely immobile. I couldn’t even lift it; with all that mud clogging the frame and sticking to my boots, it felt like everything weighed twice as much as normal. Somehow, I shuffled on, painstakingly slowly. Note to self – fit a rigid fork with massive clearances and disc brakes for the raining season.
Sometimes it was clammy and overcast. At other times, the scorching sun dried out the mud, and the road was smooth and fast.
Impromptu friends. It seems the mosquitoes had been waiting for the nod from the raining season to get hatching. This posse pounced on my arm the moment I got out of my tent.
I’m also nursing this little wound, the result of my hand getting caught in a low fan in Chetumal… Mexico isn’t a land for tall people.
Immediately noticeable the moment you cross the border is Belize’s rich ethnic diversity: Afro Carribean, Latin American, Chinese, Indian. Much of the architecture is wood-based and painted in bright colours faded by the sea air and the tropical rains. The energy also felt completety different from Mexico. While people were very friendly for the most part, there were certainly more than a few hustlers, I felt like I had to assert myself more. Over my brief visit, I met some real characters – Charles the boxer who was just out of prison, who spoke in time with the opening and closing of his scarred fists. Guys with massive afros who rolled by on their cruisers, calling out, ‘Hey mon!’ When I stopped at one house deep in the forest to check where I was, a man with unusually long finger and toenails eventually emerged, insistent that I could help him repair the radiator on his truck before he gave me directions.
I was keen to avoid Belize City by taking a jungle route across the country, as the main roads here are narrow, and people drive fast. Otherwise, I’d have gladly stayed along the coast, as I liked the timewarped feel of the place. Old fashioned, hand painted billboards advertised businesses with evocative names: Tropic Air, Atlantic Bank. Perhaps a throwback to colonial times, most houses sported immaculate lawns. Plenty of houses had signs up advertising the sale of second hand clothes from their yards. What I hadn’t expected was the roadie cycling culture; I crossed several riders garbed in full lycra. But aside from a passing nod, they didn’t seem too keen to chat.
Sugar cane season. These massive trucks lumbered by, scattering shards of sugar cane in their wake.
A 28 mile dirt track, potholed, dusty and hard work, led me to the ruins of Lamanai. I was the only one there. Camping there for the night, I chatted about life in Belize with the warden, Fernando, as we threw sticks into a plum tree to dislodge its fruit. Apparently there have been several recent incidents of violent crime in Belize City, where people have been robbed of everything they own, including the clothes they were wearing. ‘What kind of life is it when a man needs to steal another man’s clothes?’ lamented Fernando.
This in one of the jungle tracks I followed. Shortly after, a massive storm swept in, drenching me to the bone. It was invigorating. Having not seen a vehicle all day, I felt like I had the place to myself, enjoying the full brunt of a tropical downpour, stripping down to my shorts as I rode. I saw monkeys, deer, a puma and a kinkajou – or nightwalker, as they call them in Belize.
Beyond Hill Bank, I reached this confusing junction. The better of the roads was cleary marked as being closed. So I followed the diversion for several kilometres, working my way up and down a muddy and slippery path. But according to my compass, I was heading off into the wrong direction. Hm…
So I retraced my steps to the junction before nightfall and pitched my tent, figuring it was the best place to stop a vehicle – not that I had seen anything for some time. Late that night a mud-splattered jeep pulled up. It turned out I was camping on private, protected land. The warden suggested I leave my tent and bike, and offered to take me to his campsite for the night, before dropping me back off at 5am in the morning. Apparently several pumas had been lurking around…
The closed road turned out to be the more direct one, but it did involve a couple of miles of this energy sapping mud. Oil had recently been discovered in the forest, and unfortunately trucks have been ripping the place up to extract it.
At the next checkpost I met Denis, who invited me in for coffee. Denis was one of the most interesting individuals I’ve come across for some time, and we chatted easily for some time. His story was a troubled, crazy and personal one, but he’d managed to ‘break the cycle’ of the life he was caught up in, and buy himself a piece of land by the coast. There, he planned to grow organic fruit and vegetables on his land, since as he put it, ‘people always need to eat’.
As I was nearing Buena Vista, this pickup piled high with massive watermelons passed by.
I flagged it down, and tucked into one by the roadside, managing to polish off over a half before it defeated me.
In the Mennonite community of Shipyard, I got chatting to Belize-born Hans. It turned out Hans was a dentist, and as my teeth had been really hurting again, he offered to give me a check up at his house! It was great to meet his family and get an insight into mennonite life; and I left with a bag full of mangos from the garden.
A brief stretch of paved road in Spanish Lookout before hitting dirt once more.
Just a couple of miles from San Ignacio, I took this rope string bridge.
One muddy bike. My bottom bracket is now completely shot, so I’ll limping my way onwards until I can find a replacement. But for now, Guatemala awaits!