Monday, 6 January 2014

Everyting's gonna be al'rite...

Reggae, rum, 'relax man', big mommas, and Marie Sharp's flaming hot sauce...that about sums up what Belize is all about. Guatemala is pretty chilled too but the difference between the two is marked even on the border. As soon as we arrived in Belize it was sun, smiles, dreadlocks, that Jamaican lilt on the tongue, reggae beats on the decks and the smell of BBQ chicken in the air. I loved it! Even though we were many miles from the sea in San Ignacio, the Caribbean spirit was still very much in evidence and only became more pronounced as we made our way down the coast to little visited Hopkins beach.

Hopkins and Placencia, two southern sea side towns in the Stann Creek district of Belize, were the two highlights of our trip to this sun drenched corner of the world. Very different from each other, they provided an  interesting insight into life in Belize and its development as a tourist destination.

Hopkins was the first stop. We arrived there just as the sun was setting with no map and no idea of where we would stay - we thought it would be pretty easy to figure something out; everyone seemed so laid back and friendly...a little too laid back as it turned out! It was only as we started to enquire in the very few places we could actually find that we realised it was a Sunday, and mother's day to boot, so most people were either at church or out for a special dinner (bless!). Mostly there just weren't any likely looking places at felt like we'd just stumbled into a sleepy village with no tourism infrastructure whatsoever.

Hopkins village consists of one very very long main road that runs parallel to the beach and goes on for about 2kms. The bus dropped us bang in the middle of town which meant there was a lot of backing up on ourselves before we finally found somewhere to stay, and a lot of grumpy, tired walking around with our backpacks on. In the end a local boy took pity on us and guided us to the northern most end of town to the Lebeha Drumming Centre & Cabanas, a selection of beach huts run by the famous local drummer and his American wife. It was a long walk but well worth the effort. We opted for a hut bang on the sand complete with sea views, wireless internet, a hot shower, and the biggest resident cockroach I have ever seen in my life. Chris spent an hour and a half chasing it around the room while I was locked up in the bathroom!

Finally, cockroach banished to the outdoors where it belonged, we went in search of food. We were famished and luckily next door was home to the Driftwood Cafe, the only restaurant in the village that was open. Thank god we were staying a few steps away and not a million miles down the road! Run by an Irish/American duo, they served the best pizza we had on the entire trip plus BBQs, fresh fish, daily changing specials and some mean rum cocktails. There was nothing much to do in Hopkins,being low season it was absolutely dead, and we were so thankful that this little place turned out to be such a hotspot. We spent the next couple of days totally relaxing on our stretch of beach,  and mingling with the locals at the Driftwood, playing beach games and drinking the local brew.

As the only tourists around, it felt like an authentic slice of the real Belize. As we walked and cycled around town the only life  to be found was wholly local - Parties banging in every house in the village, BBQ smells wafting down the streets, teenagers 'hanging out' and wandering aimlessly down the one road in town. It felt very friendly, like we were taking part in their lives and were not strangers looking in from our tourist centric bars and restaurants.

One of the locals told us that Hopkins now is reminiscent of Placencia many years ago. I can see how that would be the case. Placencia now, however, has just that little bit more polish. A few more bars, a few more restaurants,  a lot more hotels. In fact I think it might have been a little too busy for my liking in the high season as the peninsula was dotted with resort style hotels which promised to fill up as soon as the skies were clear. We were there in the off season though and I loved it. Most places were open despite the lack of tourists, which immediately gave it a happening vibe. Instead of holiday makers these establishments were frequented by locals or expats which again gave that feeling of experiencing something authentic.  We stayed in a quiet guest house, bang on the beach and, a bit like Hopkins, felt that we were really seeing a slice of Belizean life, that we were sharing in something that was not there purely for tourisms sake (as can sadly be the case in so many backpacker destinations e.g. Caye Caulker).

One of the highlights was our last night in town when the Placencia assassins, the local football team, won the Belizean equivalent of the premier league. A big parade filed through down the only main street in the town and a big party was thrown on the beach for all and sundry to attend. It was a fabulous, inclusive vibe something I don't think I have ever encountered apart from in Latin America. I guess the shared English language helped too but we really felt welcomed throughout our stay in this little country.

Belize is can get from one end to the other in about 8 hours. There are only a few roads so it is virtually impossible to get lost. If you're looking for a chilled out, off the beaten track travel experience with plenty of things to do you could do worse than visit this beautiful country.

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