Belize

Belize

Originally called British Honduras, Belize is one of the few English speaking countries in the northwestern part of the Caribbean. As it’s original name implies, although first declared a Spanish colony in 1506, it was ruled by the British from 1862 until its independence in 1982. Although its financial, legal and language are traditionally British by nature, the country has little to show for its colonial rule. Despite its 500 years of colonial rule, a visit to Belize will leave visitors with a greater appreciation for its Mayan heritage than any other. Mayan ruins are found throughout the country and Creole is the  unofficial native language. Over half the population is  multilingual with Spanish being the second most common spoken language. The country accepts US$ and has an easy exchange rate of 2 Belizean$ for every 1 US$.

Like most visitors, I flew into Belize City. Belize City is home to Belize’s main airport and its cruise ship port. What a shame. I speak to so many people who have visited Belize and in most cases, their visit is by cruise ship. Since all cruise ships dock in Belize City, and many of these visitors never venture beyond the city most visitors never get to see the beauty of the country. You see, in my opinion, Belize City is one of the worst cities in the Caribbean. Crime is rampant, the city is dirty and there are few culinary or cultural experiences to enjoy. What a shame because visitors who only visit Belize City miss one of the beautiful gems of Central America. The rest of this little country ( Belize has an area of only 8,800 square miles (22,800 km2) and a population of only 387,879) is fantastic. 

I limit my time in Belize City to as long as it takes to hop on one of the two local “puddle jumper” airlines that ferry visitors across the country (Maya and Tropic Air) or, if I have the time, I’ll hop on one of the many water taxis that move visitors and locals alike up and down the coastline. Belize is working on a new cruise ship port and international airport to be located in Placencia, one of the prettiest parts of the country. Until that happens, use the city as your launch pad to view the rest of the country.

My first stop and base of operations for my visit was Ambergris Caye located off the northeastern coast of the country. Ambergris Caye is Belize's largest island. Famous for its  scuba diving around its Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world, and the 124m-deep Great Blue Hole, the island is the most popular tourist destination in the country.  The town of San Pedro is the island's gateway and center for sailing and reef exploration.

Because of my quest to find local indigenous dishes, I don’t usually stay in resort towns and with its multitude of tourist focused hotels and attractions, Ambergris Caye is clearly a resort town, but on this trip, my wife decided to accompany me on my journey and she’s a resort only traveler. And so, my trip included an unusual visit, at least for me, to what it’s like  to be a tourist in another country.

We stayed at a nice, brand new resort called Costa Blu. Located about midway up the Island, the resort featured a great beach, super heated pool with a nice pool bar in the pool and a pretty good (if not a bit too touristy) restaurant. The rooms were nice, service was excellent and I must admit, I found the finest coconut cream pie I had ever had at the resorts restaurant. But, although my wife was content to spend her entire seven days lounging on one of the beachside hammocks at the resort, I took to the sky and sea to explore the country. But before I ventured from our tourist island paradise, I needed to visit San Pedro, the largest town on Ambergris Caye. 

Taking the water taxi through the beautiful emerald blue waters of Belize is the way to travel. The wind in your hair (what hair I have left) the sea spray on your face and the beautiful waters are enough to start dreaming of where you’ll build your home in this beautiful country.  I chose the water taxis as often as I could whenever I travelled and found that, at least around the coast, it’s the travel mode of choice for the locals. I know they call them taxi’s but they’re really buses because they stop at every dock and pick up travelers heading to and from the different locations on the island. Every morning school children would hug their parents at their docks and board the water taxi for their trip to school in San Pedro. Every afternoon the would hop a taxi home to be greeted by their parents and their dog. A trip down the island that would normally take 15 minutes (without all the stops) would take an hour, but I didn’t care because it gave me a chance to see how the locals lived and become a part of their daily routine. This is something I recommend to all travelers to REALLY get to know the country your visiting.

I was told that San Pedro was bustling with restaurants, stores and Belizean “finds” serving tourists and locals alike. What I found was a bustling town, jammed with people and an unusual form a traffic. Because it’s an island, San Pedro has few cars. Most travel is done by water taxi or golf carts. In San Pedro I encountered my first experience with golf cart traffic jams. Mom’s with their family carts ferrying kids to school, golf cart delivery trucks delivering supplies to the stores, golf cart taxi’s ferrying tourists about the town, the town was crammed with carts custom designed for every purpose. 

Unfortunately, for me, the town reminded me of Tijuana Mexico... on a bad day! The town was dirty, the restaurants were lacking in variety and there was little if any quality shopping (unless you call tourist trinkets quality shopping) to be found. I did find a beautiful little church on the beach that was open to the sea breezes and a view of the ocean, an interesting and unusual graveyard located right on the beach and a great little local chocolate shop called the Belize Chocolate Company, located in the heart of the town. Unfortunately, that was the extent of what I considered anything of value. I did enjoy my brief visit to Ramon’s Village (a resort right in the middle of San Pedro) which featured wonderfully prepared local fish dishes and heavily treat in tree houses for their guests. But, that was all I found of any value in San Pedro. That wasn’t the case for my next visit to Caye Caulker.

Caye Caulker is a great little Island about 30 minutes by water taxi from San Pedro. As you approach the Island you get the feel that you have found a long lost fishing village. Surrounded by mangroves, this lovely little town, with its brightly colored homes, lining its sandy streets, welcomes visitors with open arms. Much smaller and quieter than San Pedro, Caye Caulker features several great little restaurants all offering locally caught seafood that can be enjoyed right on the beach. If you’re looking for big time night life or a hopping time, Caye Caulker is not for you but, if you’re looking for a laid back Caribbean experience, Cay Caulker is the place to visit.

Now that I had hit the islands, it was time to move inland. My next stop was the Corozol district which borders México. I had been told by some of the resort staff that this area featured some uniquely “Northern Belize” dishes that I might find of interest.... NOT!!! The area featured ghost towns with nothing more than local bar’s and few local greasy spoons with nothing to offer of interest. The only memorable event to my visit to this area of Belize was my flight. The flight from Ambergris Caye to Corozol was full on our 12 seater plane. Because of this, I got to sit in the co-pilots seat. About half way trough our flight, the pilot asked me to take over while he completed his paperwork! Now I had taken a few flying lessons at Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach during my college days but, that was years ago and I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a pilot but, I jumped at the opportunity to give it a whirl. After a few minutes of in-flight instruction, I was piloting the plane. This was a thrill to me but, I’m sure not as thrilling an experience for my fellow passengers. When we landed, the pilot stated “I bet you can’t do THAT in the states” and that’s a great example of the unique experiences one encounters when you travel around the world. Other than my flight adventure, Corozol is an area I would recommend you cross off your list.

My next to last visit was to Placencia in southern Belize. Placencia, is located on a peninsula so unlike the island communities, they have roads and cars. The beautiful views of the ocean on one side and the lagoons and mountains on the other is a daily benefit for all locals and tourists alike. The town is actually broken into two parts. The northern end of the peninsula is predominantly residential, featuring luxury million dollar homes not unlike those found in upscale communities of Florida. The southern half of the peninsula is home to the “downtown” and offers apartments, condo’s and stores. “Downtown” Placencia is actually on the beach with the “main road” a large sidewalk that winds between the cute shops and restaurants. 

I found several great little restaurants featuring locally caught seafood, French and Italian offerings and of course local Belizean offerings such as Gibnut and Hicatee. I was even able to find a fabulous German restaurant which offered a great goulash. If your looking for some freshly made breads, and excellent European pastries, visit Sweet Dreams Bakery. If you prefer a genuine Italian gelato, try Tutti Frutti’s. You won’t be disappointed. It is in Placencia that I immediately fell in love with the unique style of eggs Benedict over fresh made crab cakes a recipe I learned and took back to my Crumbzz International Bistro in Forney, Texas. This dish would eventually become one of our most popular breakfast dishes.

Like so many of the Caribbean nations, Belizean cuisine features a mixture of many regional traditions and food habits. Although the major influences came from the Mexican, and Mayan cultures, Belizean cuisine also features cooking techniques from many of its early settlers, including the cuisines of Spanish and African cultures. Accordingly,  distinctive Belizean cuisine does not exist in the Belize we know today. However, the country does offer some truly unique culinary experiences that visitors will find especially enjoyable. 

As with most Caribbean nations, rice and beans are a quintessential part of the Belizean diet. The difference is that Belizean’s flavor their rice with coconut milk which adds a creamy sweetness not found in other Caribbean countries versions of this basic staple. Belizean rice and beans is usually served with a type of potato salad, baked plantains, and Marie Sharp pepper sauce. If your a meat eater, Belizean’s traditional meals almost always include beef, pork, chicken, or if seafood is to your liking, locally caught fish. If you’re a bit more adventurous, try their gibnut meat dishes, and locally caught meats of deer, iguana and Hicatee. Usually, the meat portion is grilled, stewed or fried. The Belize fruit cake, a rum based fruit cake is also a favorite around the holidays.

There are so many other local dishes only found in Belize that you can try during your stay including; the small but tasty Johnny Cakes. If you’re into fried food try their Fry Jacks. You can also enjoy the always popular Ceviche which is made differently than Ceviche found in the rest of the Caribbean. In Belize the Ceviche features conch, lion fish, octopus and shrimp. If you’re looking for something heartier, you might want to try their meat pies. The slow smoked Belize dish of Cochinita Pibil is made from roasted pork dish flavored with annato seed paste and fresh onion, cilantro, tomato and Habanero pepper sauce. Locals restaurants cook this dish in a clay oven with firewood, until the meat wonderfully is tender. If a hearty soup is on your list, try their Chicken Escabeche. This Belize-style chicken soup shows influences of both the Spanish and Yucatec Maya cuisines. 

When you’re finished with your dinner, you’ll want to cap it off with a great Belizean Soursop ice cream, made from Soursop fruit mixed with condensed milk or possibly their Cassava pudding, which is made from craboo wine and different fruits.

If you need something to wash down all that great food, try their unusual Cashew and Craboo wines or Belikin beer. 

On a special note, one other side-dish that’s one of my favorites is the Belizean fried plantain. As with all of Central America, in Belize, the plantain is found in abundance. Belizean’s love the traditional baked or fried plantains served Spanish style as a side with every meal. The Belizean style golden-brown plantain is a perfect side dish for any meal.

Your trip should include not only the great dining experiences but also the amazing Mayan ruins that are throughout the country, zip lining in the forest, some of the worlds best scuba and snorkel diving. One of the towns I didn’t have time to mention is San Ignacio. A  stroll down Burns Avenue in San Ignacio will provide you with a view of how the locals live. Visiting San Ignacio’s downtown farmers’ market on a Saturday, and eating at the many great local restaurants is a great way to spend a few days experiencing the country from the ground up. It is in San Ignacio where I found the great Jalapeño sausage I serve at my International bistro in Forney Texas.

Belize is a wonderful experience that I would recommend to anyone. Experience the culture, the food and most importantly the wonderfully friendly people. It will be a trip you won’t soon forget.

 

J Stephen

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