It’s the Pope’s first visit to Mexico, and (lucky old us) he’s chosen San Cristobal as one of the four privileged places to get a visit. And who can blame him? Probably he last came here on his Gap Year. As a result though, San C has gone a bit ‘Pope mad’.
As the local Argentinian restaurant, where a papier mache Pope Francisco has replaced the customary statue of Maradona, charmingly puts it; ‘todos vienen con papa’. The words for Pope and potato are the same (though the Pope gets a capital). It’s either fries, or popes, with everything.
They’ve cleaned up the cathedral – only seriously injuring one worker in the process (health and safety on scaffolding not really being a big deal here) and there are dire warnings of thousands of pilgrims on their way from Guatemala, Honduras and elsewhere, as well as threatened water shortages and closed streets. And the Swiss Guard are apparently everywhere; with guns.
There’s only one thing for a sensible travelling family to do, and that’s to take some serious anti-papal measures. Fortunately we’ve a cast-iron excuse since our friends the Ashcrofts are travelling to Belize to meet us. It’s only the next country after all, how hard can it be?
Turns out getting to Belize involves an epic journey, made even longer by the fact that the locals in Oxchuc – an indigenous village on the way to the Mexican border – have been burning the first-class buses in an attempt to register their dissatisfaction over a political dispute. So the buses are going a (very) long way round –adding three hours and an awful lot of windy bends to our overnight journey.
Snuggly blankets (two metres of fleece each from the local fabric shop) and some seriously strong travel sickness pills ensure we slumber most of the way, although there’s some alarm when the bus hits either a hole (olla) or chicken (pollo) at some speed at about 4am. Still not sure which it was, as the old ladies at the front providing a running commentary had very thick accents. Wasn’t fun, anyway. At about 5am, an entrepreneurial ‘egg exporter’ got a telling off from the authorities, as you’re not supposed to carry eggs across Mexican states apparently – the constant checking for food and fowl from the military rather disturbed our sleep.
First-class buses (when they aren’t being burned) are not a bad way to get around Mexico, and used to be the only way before lower cost flights were introduced. Though (look away now, NCT group) they always include some unsuitable violent films and a fizzy drink for free. The girls were delighted by this. Fortunately the very posh buses come with headphones nowadays, which means the violence can be seen but not heard and the travel pills we picked up in Bangkok were, as I mentioned, very good at inducing sleep – probably illegal in the UK, but they came from Boots Bangkok, so I’m reassured.
It’s a 16 hour journey – thanks to the Oxchucians – from San C to Chetumal, which borders Belize. Then there’s a quick taxi ride to the border itself – an informal place where they want to know if we’re trafficking fruit. “You have apples? How many apples?” “One” – “Oh, that’s alright then.”
Belize, if you’ve never heard of it (which wouldn’t be a surprise) is a a little bit of England in Central America. A former colony, once known as British Honduras, it’s been independent since 1981 but still has the Queen as a head of state. She looks very young on the coins – don’t think they’ve been replaced in a while.
With a diverse, not to mention tiny, population of mestizos, Mayans, Garifuna (mixed race but of African descent) and vegetable-growing Mennonites in dungarees, it’s a curious place. English is the main language, but many speak Creol (sounds like English, but isn’t) or Spanish.
Belize feels like pirate country, and that’s really because it is. For most of history nobody wanted the place, and it was run by Baymen – buccaneers and then loggers. What it now has in abundance is space (the lowest population density in Central America) and nature (and apparently some great Mayan ruins, but we didn’t see them).
We started our Belize adventure in Hopkins, a Garifuna village that the guidebooks describe as ‘laid back’. So delighted to see Peter and Rachel (who are Clover’s godparents) along with two year old Miriam and baby Clem. The children are the same age as ours were last time we did a big trip, so we were quite nostalgic. Also quite impressed – they aren’t easy travelling ages, but Peter and Rachel made it look easy.
What to say about Hopkins? Great beach, if not great weather, and beautiful sunsets. We did very little – walked along the beach, ate pizza, went in the sea.
It emerged very quickly that Hopkins may have been laid back once, but is rapidly being colonised by retired Americans – who can live in Belize for free, so frequently do. They’ve paid a lot for their beach access villas, and they don’t want you to pass over their area of beach – even if you’re not doing any harm. That kind of land management leaves an unpleasant taste – even if the large American who asked us not to walk past his house backed down pretty rapidly when he realised we really weren’t any trouble. If Belize allows much more of this, it could quickly lose the laid-back vibe that brings the tourists in. Privatising beach access is a sad state of affairs.
Belize is expensive, too – a shock after Mexico. We cooked for ourselves a lot – enjoying the fact that you can buy sausages that actually taste like sausages, but also enjoyed fantastic seafood at local restaurants, and lots of lobster. The girls loved a bar where you could play giant Jenga in particular.
After a few days in Hopkins, we got a car and water taxi to Caye Caulker, an island so relaxed that it makes Hopkins look uptight. Here, despite continuing windy weather, we did some amazing snorkelling. The girls were brave (the sea was pretty rough) venturing out on the reef, where we saw huge turtles close up, as well as sting rays, nurse sharks, coral and eels. Paul, it emerges, is not a good sailor in rough seas, and felt much better when we returned. However, these are his pictures from the waterproof camera we were loaned. Impressive stuff. Clover still refuses to breathe through a snorkel pipe, but enjoyed using the mask, and Daisy is becoming a champion snorkeller.
Daisy and Clover enjoyed hanging out with Miriam – there’s nothing like being adored for being a big girl to lift the spirits, and we enjoyed hanging out with Clem, Peter and Rachel, drinking inappropriately named cocktails on the rooftop at sundown. The rum was cheap, even if the vegetables weren’t, and the drink of choice appears to be a Panty Ripper (pineapple juice and rum, to the uninitiated).. We also managed a night out – thanks for the babysitting!
Daisy and Clover made a friend or two and spent a happy afternoon with them shaking tourists down for cash by trying to sell them seeds they picked off the floor. They spent the cash on sweets from the local store. Not sure whether to be proud or horrified by their ‘Young Enterprise’ tendencies.
Hair-braiding, Bob Marley in every bar and a Caribbean vibe that’s distinctly lacking in Mexico means that Belize felt like a really different experience, even to the Mexican seaside. It was so nice to share it with friends too. Didn’t really want to leave. Caye Caulker’s motto appears to be ‘go slow’ – and we’d just about slowed down enough by the time we came to leave. Pretty sure we’ll be back, despite the horrifically long bus journey.
In other recent news, we’ve had our five minutes of fame in the last few weeks. One article in the Telegraph (here) and one in the Mail (here) about our trip. Some extraordinary comments on the bottom of both – particularly love the criticisms of my trousers, the girls’ haircuts (which I admit were terrible, but there wasn’t much else available in Cambodia), and the fact that they’re not learning any physics (yes, obviously that’s my main worry, too). Oh, and one Daily Mail reader thinks I should be in jail. Interesting times – though I’m grateful for all the reader support I received too. Quite glad to be back on more mundane subjects this week.