Even before we arrived in Belize, Ray and I were pretty sure that Placencia would be THE place for us; so our first road trip, no surprise, was south to the Stann Creek district.
We headed out last Friday and it was interesting now to see the local area (Corozal to Orange Walk) with fresh eyes. All the small villages between the two towns had gone by in a blur when we first arrived, since we were mostly concerned then with navigating to our new home. This time we noticed that, as in Guam, each village has its own personality – some distinction, whether obvious or subtle. Also, almost every school kid in Belize must attend Catholic school, with their colorful and cleanly pressed uniforms. I wish I could appear as fresh as most Belizeans manage to look in this heat, even the kids tearing it up at recess; Ray and I are usually red-faced and often sweating profusely.
We also took a closer look at Orange Walk with an intentional drive through it (we’d accidentally gone that way on our first visit but since then have taken the bypass road). With all the cane fields and a sugar processing plant, Orange Walk is nicknamed “Sugar City” (or, if you prefer, “Shuga Siti”). It’s a good size town and seems to have more, or at least different, shopping opportunities than Corozal.
It’s located on a pretty stretch of the New River (the same waterway we have to cross by crank ferry, though it’s wider down there), and close to the Lamanai Mayan ruin (I learned that Lamanai means “submerged crocodile” in the Mayan dialect – hmm). Anyway, we’ll definitely be making at least a day trip there sometime soon.
Orange Walk to Belize City is another hour’s drive, with few residences and much open road. At a police checkpoint on the outskirts of town, a cop inquired as to where we were headed. When we told him, he shook his head (tourists!) and informed us that we should have taken a bypass quite a ways back and saved ourselves some time and miles (we’d seen signs but wavered, deciding to go the way that we knew). Oh well.
Our next stop was at the car rental place we’d used on our first trip here, where we picked up a free map (perhaps this is where we should have started, no?). Helpfully, a certain road along the way to Placencia had been marked out in large XXXs with the message “DO NOT DRIVE ON THIS ROAD” so we figured maybe that was worth the miscue, as we probably would have turned there.
We got into a little bit of city congestion before the shift from the Northern Highway to the Western Highway, but after that we breathed a little easier. The landscape began to shift dramatically from the Northern Belize jungle that we’ve gotten used to to an open scrub savannah / marsh ecosystem. Not much to say about that, except that we learned later that it’s a protected “wildlife corridor” where territorial animals can move back and forth across their various habitats. We also passed the Belize Zoo which bills itself (rather audaciously?!) as the best little zoo in the world. We were anxious to get south, though, so we didn’t stop.
We started to see some blue hills to the east, a little surprising since we thought that most of Belize’s mountain terrain was west, in the Cayo district near the Guatemalan border. We also happened upon the turn for the road which had been X’d out on our map, which looked passable though unpaved, and DID NOT TURN there.
The Western Highway continues into Belmopan, Belize’s capital city. We saw only a small slice of town, which seemed clean and prosperous, before the intersection with the Hummingbird Highway, which was our next turn, southeast to the sea.
This highway is a little gem, sloping upward, at first gently and then pretty dramatically, through a series of lush hills and valleys. Along the first stretch, we drove past Blue Hole National Park, a popular swimming, picnicking and hiking spot (not to be confused with the Blue Hole reef diving spot offshore) and the Caves Branch Lodge, which offers cave tubing, zip lining, and other adventures. We didn’t stop at either on this trip, partly because we were clearly on a mission from God to get to the beach, and partly because the rivers and creeks are pretty dry right now. We will definitely be going back to explore them at some point.
The road itself is a rollercoaster ride of swoops and switch-backs, with several challenging one-lane bridges (busses and trucks were plowing right on through them, though), and some areas that look as if they might wash out during rainy season (we heard later from friends that it does happen but repairs are quick, since this road is an important through-way).
Eventually we deposited onto the Southern Highway, where the landscape was reminiscent of north or central Florida – scrub, palms, and pine
trees. Still more citrus and now banana groves.
We were tickled to finally see this sign and head south down the Placencia peninsula to our first destination: Maya Beach.