Belize to Bacalar - Triplogue
December 1996, Belize City to Orange Walk, 54 miles
That we began our cycling trip in Belize City was largely my mothers doing. Fred and I had been planning to cycle in this part of the world for some time when she invited us to accompany her on a ten-day ecology-oriented tour. She said she would even pay for our plane tickets from Houston, which made the offer too good to pass up. And the tour turned out to be not at all bad. Our group of fourteen got along overall and had its humorous aspects (see Appendix I, with text by Fred). Martin, our Belizified Brit guide, was amazingly knowledgeable especially regarding flora and fauna-- and we managed to see a sizable chunk of the country, plus Tikal in Guatemala. During the first part of this tour, the thought of our bicycles waiting for us back in Belize City had a decidedly menacing feel to it; we would be biking in a strange land for the first time and had no idea what to expect. But as the tour wore on, the bikes began to represent freedom freedom from the handholding and sheparding, freedom from being trapped at a table three times a day with our unlikely companions, freedom to ride in any direction we felt like.
We bid adieu to our elderly traveling companions (including the incredible Sam Adams, who had celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday with us two days before) at the San Pedro airstrip on Ambergris Key, thrilled to be by ourselves and capable of making our own decisions after ten days of being babysat. We were reunited with our bikes at around eight a.m., in a storage closet of the Fort George Hotel. By the time we had changed into our cycling costumes, checked the bikes and loaded up the gear, it was later than we would have ideally set off in the tropical climate. Even threading our way through the confusion of Belize City, we could feel the heat. The whole fifty-some miles to Orange Walk were pancake flat, against a stiff glancing wind. Also slowing us down (sometimes our pace fell below 11mph) was the compositish surface of the road. The most striking feature of the landscape was its very lack of features: monotonous shrubby jungle broken only by the mileage markers which regularly remind us of our sluggish pace. By the time the clouds finally started to roll in, at mile marker 38, I seriously needed a break, and an unfinished house in the middle of nothing provided a nicely shaded concrete slab on which to rehydrate and play backgammon for an hour.
Coming into Orange Walk after a seemingly endless days riding, we passed a sugar refinery belching smoke into the sky. Mile-long lines of trucks loaded beyond capacity with sugarcane waited their turn, a preview of the sugarcane fields through which wed surely be pedaling the next day.
Orange Walk is your basic highwayside shithole of a town that smells and feels like some on the smaller towns in Java. We checked into the first hotel we came upon, which was spartan but comfortable and even had a pool. After chatting with an old Austrian couple who had driven there from San Francisco (yes, the one in California), we went to the pool with postage-stamp sized towels supplied by the hotel, only to discover that the water was probably not treated in any way, and perhaps not a good idea to swim in with all of the blisters and bites we had acquired in the jungle.
Our stroll around town was more successful. We even spotted a couple of homos sitting on a bench in the scruffy plaza. They followed us into a nearby bar, but I didnt notice until we were leaving, so we never got the chance to talk to them. At the suggestion of Emilio --the owner of the noisy, sleazy bar-- and the registrationettes at our hotel, we went for an early dinner at Lees Chinese Restaurant, which proclaimed "the best food in town" on their sign. It turned out to be a depressing place with uninspired, greasy food. I made the mistake of ordering iced coffee, which Fred described as having a "Mister Bubble aftertaste."
We went back to our room to get a dose of CNN, the only news (or reasonable facsimile) we had come across in nearly two weeks. The big story was another Clintonian scandal involving his legal defense fund. I found myself surprised by the apathy I felt towards the stock market news. The road ahead took precedence in my thoughts now. I went to bed with a new appreciation of the blank spaces on the map, satisfied with having officially survived our first day on the road, and thinking of the 400 or so kilometers to Oxkutzcab, the next town where I knew there was a hotel.
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Andy and Fred enjoying a last Belizian Breaky in the jungle
How many miles to Belize City?
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Roving South Asian money changer finds a customer
Andrew and his sewing circle in Corozal
"Who says Jews don't camp?" asks Fred
Deciembre, Orange Walk to Bacalar, 57 miles
We arose at around 5:30 and watched the sun rise from the sidewalk tamale stand where we had a breakfast nearly as delicious as the beautiful mexiboy sitting next to us. It struck us once again how truly multicultural Belize is as other customers included blacks and Chinese, eating food prepared by a Mexican woman. An East Indian dude was also at hand, eager to change our dollars into pesos, while severe-looking Menonites glared at us disapprovingly from across the street.
Our second and last day cycling in Belize was far more interesting than the first, mostly because there was lots more to look at, and the rolling terrain kept our fingers busy shifting gears. About ten miles out of Orange Walk we turned onto a dirt road, an alternate route to Corozal and the border beyond, one that promised less traffic. It was a poorly maintained dirt road, yet faster riding than the highway due to its relative smoothness. The local monoculture of sugarcane became quickly apparent and supplied some shade from the surprisingly intense early morning sunshine. Two more surprises awaited us outside the sleepy town of Libertad, where we stopped for drinks and snacks: a swank-looking hotel (named "Santa Cruz") in the middle of nowhere, and a guy on a bike (practically the first wed seen in Belize) holding a baby bird. We noticed that the transition to Mexico happened well before the border; no one was speaking English anymore, and the dominant feature of every village on the paved road from Libertad to Corozal was the local tortilla factory.
We followed the beach route into Corozal and stopped at the first palapa we saw for a session of postcarding. It was too early for lunch, but too hot to be in the sun. An odd pair of locals soon joined us out of curiosity: Stafford and Laura. They worked together as seamstresses nearby. Stafford was the queeniest little teenager we had met in some time, and we wondered whether he realized yet that he was queer. I got him to sew up my blown-out handlebar bag, and then Lauras little brother led us to the post office to mail off the last of our cards. Lunch was in a place recommended by our seamstress friends, a place run by an American (God knows what he was doing in this godforsaken place), with good food and a breezy balcony perfect for backgammon. At 2:30 or so we reluctantly hit the road under a blazing sun. Soon we found ourselves at the border, where we encountered the expected bureaucratic dance of papers and rubber stamps. A customs officer told us that Bacalar, our destination, was 32 kilometers away, which sounded a lot easier than it actually was . The sun had drained me of all my energy, and it was tough going once we hit the main Westward highway out of Chetumal.
The overall first impression of Mexico was how orderly it was, and the undeniable fact that we were in a large country with a mammoth infrastructure, evidenced in the "glorieta" at some 10km from the border an enormous traffic circle surrounding a gargantuan chunk o public sculpture.
The second new word du jour was "topes" speed bumpswhich comprise an integral part of Mexican highway culture. Every village is heralded by several sets of topes designed to slow down the traffic, and the topes themselves are announced with far greater elaboration than the actual village. The first sign coming into a Mexican village warns: "TOPES 300metros", followed by international-style icons of topes, then: "TOPES 200 metros," etc. The inevitable sign "PUEBLADO PROXIMO:" followed by the name of the village and the number of its inhabitants, gets lost in all the semiotic noise over topes. After several days of riding over topes, we came to refer to the more characterless villages we passed through as "Topetowns."
When we turned northwards off the main highway, the truck traffic thinned out considerably and the jungle all but swallowed the road, thereby providing us with some much-needed shade. Signs announcing Bacalar and its topes were met with relief, especially with the sun so low in the sky. After ten days in Belize, we had learned how quickly it gets dark in this part of the world.
Fred started whining a bit about wanting to stay in the advertised hotel (which we hadn't expected) but I had already made up my mind that we ought to be trying camping. And the campsite was right there and looking mighty inviting. Besides, it was only 15 pesos, less than two bucks. We could spend all our money on food at the turista-type restaurant next door --which is precisely what we did. After setting up camp and washing the road gunk off our bodies, we scored a table beside the cenote a round Yucatecan sinkhole in which people swimand watched the sky turn colors as we drank our first Mexican beers of the trip. It felt pretty good, and I felt happy knowing that this was our first-ever night of self-supported cyclo-camping. We struck up conversations with some of the people around us: a French-Brit hetero couple living in Berlin with their high-strung daughter; and a middle-aged American professor from Davis living in Cancun who touts duckweed as a solution to sewage problems in the developing world. The seafood brochettes were delicious, but the waiter brazenly tried to rip us off, rounding the bill up from 135 pesos to an even 200. Perhaps he could tell it was our first day in Mexico. Im still upset that Fred tipped him
© 1997 Frederick Felman and Andrew Broan, All rights reserved. No part of this web site may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from authors or their agents.