Moon Belize (Moon Handbooks) - Lebawit Lily Girma (2015)
New River, Orange Walk Town.
Northern Belize is home to the largest mestizo population (descendants of the Yucatán Maya and the Spanish) in the country. Tourism is slowly emerging in these parts, but agriculture remains the region’s main economic base.
A closer look into this little-visited part of Belize reveals more history and nature than meets the eye. The Orange Walk and Corozal Districts are home to protected areas filled with rainforest and wildlife, including populations of jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis, and even regionally endemic birds such as the ocellated turkey.
The Orange Walk District includes the archeological site of Lamanai and its impressive rainforest trails, the Río Bravo Conservation Area (a large private nature reserve), and the majestic New River, Belize’s largest body of fresh water—28 miles long with abundant birds and wildlife. Morelet’s crocodiles and Mesoamerican river turtles, locally known as hickatee turtles, inhabit these waters, along with numerous fish, wading birds, and waterfowl.
Orange Walk Town is the area’s hub, a small commercial and farming center. Orange Walk’s annual summer fiesta and a full-blown Carnival on Independence Day lure most of the country up north to partake in Latin-flavored celebrations.
Corozal, a peaceful bayside town, is an hour’s bus ride north from Orange Walk. Enjoy taking a stroll or bicycle ride along the seawall, picnicking at one of the many seaside parks, or taking a dip by a less glamorous version of “Miami Beach.” Nearby, you can explore two of the country’s oldest Mayan archeological sites—Cerros and Santa Rita. The authentic fishing village of Sarteneja lies across Corozal Bay and is well worth the trip for its turquoise waters and beach shoreline. South of Sarteneja, the extensive coastal lagoons of Shipstern are largely undeveloped and are home to manatees, dolphins, and flocks of native and migratory birds.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
Both Orange Walk and Corozal towns are small enough to be explored in a couple of hours each. There are also day trips from both towns to Chetumal (Mexico), Lamanai, and Cerro Maya (commonly known as “Cerros”) archaeological sites. To really dig into the north, plan on at least a night or two at the Lamanai Outpost Lodge or in Indian Church Village; situated close to the ruins, this is the best, fullest way to experience Lamanai Archaeological Site and the surrounding rainforest. Add an extra couple of days to venture to the Río Bravo Conservation Area or plan a stay at Chan Chich Lodge and explore Gallon Jug Estate, one of the vastest and lushest rainforest areas in the country.
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S Banquitas House of Culture: Located in Orange Walk Town, this exhibition hall features displays on history, industry, and culture (click here).
S Lamanai Archaeological Site: Lamanai is one of the top attractions in all of Belize. A network of trails leads you through a partially excavated city on the shore of beautiful New River Lagoon, with its abundant birdlife (click here).
S Río Bravo Conservation Area: Participate in a variety of research projects at Programme for Belize’s field stations, deep in the northwestern wilds (click here).
S Chan Chich Lodge: Staying at this lodge at the Gallon Jug Estate means experiencing nature at its best, with thousands of rainforest and farmland acres. You may spot one of five species of big cats on your morning walk (click here).
S Sarteneja: This remote village of fishers and boat builders is the perfect off-the-beaten-path destination for curious travelers (click here).
Some travelers link Corozal into a loop that includes Ambergris Caye, using the boat service between Corozal and San Pedro. This offers a chance to stop off at Sarteneja, a fishing village with a beautiful sandy shoreline and the home of Belize’s wooden sailboat tradition.
Orange Walk Town
Located 66 miles north of Belize City and 30 miles south of Corozal, Orange Walk is one of the larger communities in Belize. Its 16,700 inhabitants work in local industry and agriculture. If you’re passing through, stop and look around. The town has three banks, a few hotels, and a choice of small casual eateries. Roads leading from Orange Walk access 20 villages and a handful of lesser-known small archaeological sites.
Outside town, you’ll find historic sites that include Indian Church Village; a 16th-century Spanish mission; and the ruins of Belize’s original sugar mill, a 19th-century structure built by British colonialists. Heading west and then southwest, you’ll find Blue Creek, a Mennonite development where Belize’s first hydroelectric plant was built. This is also the gateway to New River Lagoon and the Lamanai ruins.
S Banquitas House of Culture
Situated along the banks of the New River, Banquitas House of Culture (Main St., tel. 501/322-0517, firstname.lastname@example.org, 9am-6pm Mon.-Fri., free) is an exhibition hall that presents a broad exhibit about Orange Walk-area history, culture, and industry, along with the work of local artisans. The hall also hosts special traveling exhibits on Mayan and African archaeology and the modern culture of Central America. The plaza comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights, when young Orange Walk couples stroll the river walk enjoying the cool evening together. The nearby amphitheater hosts monthly cultural activities.
SPORTS AND RECREATION
About 20 minutes south of Orange Walk Town, on the old Northern Highway, you can join the locals and indulge in the white sandy beaches and shady coconut trees of Honey Camp Lagoon, which is as nice as any on the cayes. It’s mostly a locals’ picnic spot; you’ll find some basic food services and tons of people during Semana Santa (Holy Week, at Easter).
Birding and Wildlife-Watching
Trips up and down the New River and around the New River Lagoon are incredibly rich adventures for the entire family, with a chance to see Morelet’s crocodiles and iguanas sunning on the bank. By day you’ll see the sights of verdant rainforest and wildlife along the river. Most people combine a river trip with a visit to the ruins of Lamanai. This is one of my favorite tours in Belize.
Your Orange Walk hotel or a local guide company can arrange a trip up the lagoon; check with Hotel de la Fuente for their local guide Ignacio Lino from Lamanai River Tours (at Hotel de la Fuente, tel. 501/302-1600 or 501/670-0700, email@example.com, www.hoteldelafuente.com). Night safaris can be especially exciting, offering a chance to see the habits of animals that come out to play only after the sun sets; you’ll need the help of a good guide and a spotlight.
ENTERTAINMENT AND EVENTS
Orange Walk’s main summertime event, Fiestarama (July) is held at the main football stadium in Orange Walk Town. Families and friends indulge in games, amusement park rides, mestizo foods, rum tastings, and live concerts well into the night. The highlight for me was witnessing the town’s talented and lively marching bands, performing along Queen Victoria Avenue to promote the start of the event on Saturday afternoon, and later at the stadium. The weekend usually ends with a live concert. While the fun officially begins at 3pm, the crowds don’t arrive until 8pm.
The most colorful time of the year in Orange Walk is during the Orange Walk Carnival (Sept. 21), with a full-blown Latin and mestizo-inspired carnival sponsored by the local rum companies. The parade takes place all along the Northern Highway, starting in the heart of the town, close to the D’Victoria Hotel. It’s well worth the two-hour drive north from Belize City to watch the extravagant parade, with young marching bands and women in beautiful traditional mestizo outfits, and to indulge in some of the best street food in the country.
Orange Walk has a reputation in Belize for being one of the country’s top party hotspots, rivaling San Pedro. It may not look like it at first, but Sugar City is another place altogether after the sun goes down. Nightlife here ranges from house parties—if you’re lucky to be invited—to modern nightclubs and seedy bars in the center of town that serve up prostitutes (who often come from neighboring Central American countries).
Hi5 Pub & Night Club (8 Aurora St., 7pm-5am) is the most popular and trendy hangout; the lounge is on the left and the dance club on the right. Dress up, lest you be turned away at the door for wearing sneakers. Also in town, Butchy’s Lounge/Club (Belize Corozal Rd., no phone) is more casual but no less popular, attracting a crowd on its upstairs veranda and serving simple bar bites like ceviche. The Video and Karaoke Lounge (San Francisco St., 5pm-2am, Tues.-Sun.) is a popular late-night hangout spot, serving classic cocktails—margaritas and beeritas—and bar food such as wings as well as Orange Walk’s popular “salpicon” ceviche. Music videos of the latest Latin and international hits play continuously on flat screen TVs in this brightly lit restaurant and bar.
Orange Walk has a combination of well-equipped business-oriented hotels and a few old budget standards.
Akihito Hotel (22 Queen Victoria Ave., tel. 501/302-0185, firstname.lastname@example.org) charges US$22.50 for standard rooms, more for air-conditioning; most guest rooms have shared baths (US$15-18). Dorm beds go for US$7.50-9 pp. The hotel tax is included in all room rates. Run by the Lees, this is a good sleep for the dollar, and centrally located. It’s clean, with cool tiled interiors, and offers just about every basic amenity the traveler needs: laundry service, credit card phone calls, high-speed wireless Internet, and cable TV. There’s a decent upstairs common area as well. The only catch: If you stay out late at night, there may or may not be a way back to your room.
Lucia’s Guesthouse (68 San Antonio Rd., tel. 501/322-2244, www.hosteltrail.com, US$15-20) is a basic traveler’s rest house; guest rooms with private baths are US$20. Air-conditioning is available. Coming from Belize City, go left at the fire station downtown and continue 0.5 miles.
Named after the patron saint of travelers, the family-run Hotel St. Christopher’s (Main St., tel. 501/302-1064 or 501/322-2420, email@example.com) is popular with large groups; it has 22 colorful, traditional Spanish-feeling guest rooms with tiled floors and private baths for US$39 with fan, US$54.50 with air-conditioning. Amenities include wireless Internet, laundry service, private parking, and complimentary coffee in the lobby. A conference room that seats 70 is available for meetings or catered meals. Located on the riverfront, the hotel has plenty of space for recreation: kayak and paddle rentals, a volleyball court, picnic tables, and greenery to attract birds and other wildlife. A few of the guest rooms have shared balconies with a view of the river.
You’ll find solid value at the family-owned S Hotel de la Fuente (14 Main St., tel. 501/322-2290, www.hoteldelafuente.com, US$35-85), where 22 varied guest rooms offer a range of amenities, including fully equipped apartments and free wireless Internet; it’s great for business travelers who want to stay in the heart of town. All guest rooms are nonsmoking and have air-conditioning. The lobby now features a 24-hour bar and café, serving all day coffee and tea, full breakfasts, or a cold beer after hours. Owners Orlando and Cindy de la Fuente are a wealth of information, if you’re lucky enough to meet them. The hotel also helps arrange tours, particularly to Lamanai—they use the reputable guide Ignacio Lino from Lamanai River Tours. Ten additional guest rooms are set at the back, away from the street noise.
One street up, Orchid Palm Inn (22 Queen Victoria Ave., tel. 501/322-0719, fax 501/322-3947, www.orchidpalminn.com, US$35-64) offers similar amenities, including a nice lobby, air-conditioning, and wireless Internet, with more of a boutique hotel feel. The deluxe rooms are immaculate and cozy, with coffeemakers, fridges, and cable TV. All these hotels are centrally located.
Lamanai Riverside Retreat (tel. 501/302-3955, firstname.lastname@example.org, US$40) is a small family-run business located on the New River. It has three basic guest rooms with fans (air-conditioning is also available), cable TV, and private baths. The Pelayos can take care of all your needs with a decent open-air riverside bar and restaurant on-site and a variety of tour offerings. This place is unique in Orange Walk. Grab a drink, take a seat just a few steps from the river, and watch the occasional crocodile gliding by.
Also facing the beautiful New River and a stone’s throw away are four luxury cabanas at S El Gran Mestizo Riverside Cabins (tel. 501/322-2290, www.elgranmestizo.com, US$80-130), for an intimate, quiet escape in nature and away from the dusty streets and noise of Orange Walk. The cabins range from standard to premium—with a full kitchen and a living area. The single cabin for two is cozy, with an open space design (no bathroom door, but there is sufficient privacy). Wi-Fi is available throughout the property. The on-site waterfront restaurant—the Maracas Bar and Grill—is also popular with locals on the weekends and a nice spot for a relaxing meal.
El Gran Mestizo Riverside Cabins
Panificadora La Popular (6:30am-8pm Mon.-Sat., 7:30am-12:30pm and 3pm-6pm Sun.) is regarded as the best bakery in town, and quite possibly in the country. There is a huge selection of breads and pastries—grab a tray at the entrance and make your rounds, picking up what strikes your fancy. Get pizza by the slice starting at 3pm, or have a whole pizza ready in 15 minutes (tel. 501/322-3229 to place an order). Escalante Bakery and Café (8 Cinderella St., no phone, 2:30pm-8pm Mon.-Sat.) serves espresso drinks and freshly baked goods, including sweet breads, cinnamon rolls, muffins, and brownies.
For a sit-down breakfast in Orange Walk—a rare treat—La Malinche (at Hotel de la Fuente, tel. 501/322-2290, www.hoteldelafuente.com, 6:30am-10am daily, US$5-10) comes to the rescue—a casual café and lounge area beside the hotel’s reception area, open to the public, and where a full breakfast menu is offered. Choices include “The Belizean,” for a taste of Belize’s fry jacks, as well as pancakes, french toast and healthier fruit options.
S Central Park Restaurant (New Market, near the village bus terminal, a.k.a. “Fort Cairns”, no phone, 7am-5pm daily) is actually a collection of six restaurants styled after the old-school open market located next door. They serve everything a hungry traveler could want: burgers, tacos, empanadas, pizza, hot dogs, bacon and eggs breakfasts, rice and beans for lunch, sweet cakes, waffles, and the usual assortment of beverages, all for a couple of bucks.
For Orange Walk’s famous tacos—there’s a constant war on which taco stand is the best—you won’t go wrong with Mercy’s Taco Stand (across from the fire station, no phone, 6am-10pm daily), also serving up burritos. Tacos are just three for US$0.25. Wash it down with fresh orange juice or horchata.
Lamanai Riverside Retreat (Lamanai Alley, tel. 501/302-3955, email@example.com, US$5-15) is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s a nice setting to relax after a long day of traveling and sightseeing. Their mid-range dinner menu includes burgers, fajitas, burritos, and seafood dishes; fresh fruit juices and a full bar are also available. Karaoke nights (Fri., sometimes Sun.) attract a local crowd, and occasionally there is live music.
S Nahil Mayab (corner of Guadalupe St. and Santa Ana St., tel. 501/322-0831, www.nahilmayab.com, 10am-3pm Mon., 10am-10pm Tues.-Thurs., 10am-11:30pm Fri.-Sat., US$5-15) is still the local Belizean favorite, or all-around favorite, offering the best dining atmosphere in Orange Walk; the outdoor patio is set in a beautiful tropical garden, and the air-conditioned restaurant has an attractive Mayan theme. The food is excellent; the menu includes Mayan and mestizo specialties (the tacos arracheras are popular), including seafood, steaks, and pastas, with happy hour 5:30pm-7pm daily. They also have a new kids menu with finger foods and sandwiches. Nahil Mayab means “House of the Maya.”
A few steps below Nahil Mayab is a more casual affair, Juanita’s Restaurant (tel. 501/302-2677, 6am-3pm and 6pm-9:30pm Mon.-Sat., US$3-5) serving rice and beans and all the other Creole dishes in a classic Belizean atmosphere.
Chimole to Tamalitos: Mestizo Eats
Northern Belize has a reputation for serving the best mestizo food in the country, a mix of Spanish and Mayan cuisine. Mestizo food is most often sold from a shack or eatery window on the roadside, and also happens to be some of the cheapest and tastiest food around—the “three for a dollah” tacos are filling enough to send any budget traveler away happy. But there’s a lot more to sample. Most of these mestizo dishes have corn as their common ingredient.
✵ Chimole, or “black dinner” as the locals call it, is a dark-colored and seasoned chicken soup, cooked with onions, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, black recado (a Belizean curry paste), and boiled eggs. Freshly made tortillas accompany this meal.
✵ Escabeche is a white-colored onion soup, served with a handful of tortillas. It’s said to be excellent for a hangover. Other ingredients include garlic, white vinegar, cinnamon, and jalapeño peppers. Some also serve it with a slice of roasted chicken on the side.
✵ Garnaches are my favorite—small deep-fried corn tortillas topped with refried beans, grated cheese, chopped onions and peppers, thinly sliced tomatoes, and cilantro soaked in lime juice. These crispy treats are seriously addictive.
✵ Tamalitos are a Belizean take on the Mexican-style tamale, made with Mayan masa corn flour and wrapped in plantain or banana leaves.
S Mi Cocina Sabor (across from L&R Liquor, South Belize Corozal Rd., tel. 501/322-3482, 11am-10pm Wed.-Mon., US$5-13) is perhaps the most welcome addition on the restaurant scene, and to locals’ delight is open on Sunday. The menu is a delightful blend of mestizo and Latin specialties, including mouthwatering appetizers like jalapeño poppers. The bar offers a myriad of cocktail options, including sangria. My favorite dish here is the Fisherman’s Soup—a rich coconut broth with big seafood chunks, reminiscent of the Garifuna hudut dish, but served with a side of white rice and hot peppers as garnish. There’s a screened porch as well as a spacious air-conditioned interior.
Maracas Bar and Grill (Naranjal St., tel. 501/322-2290, www.elgranmestizo.com, 11:30am-10pm Thurs.-Sun., US$5-12) offers one of the best dining environments in Orange Walk—a beautifully lit thatched-roof restaurant with tables facing the New River, including a private table for two, with flowing drapes, set on a platform inches from the water. The menu, consisting mostly of Belizean mestizo specialties, doesn’t disappoint. Opt for the Rum Fish, or try the Mayan empanadas.
For the best ceviche in Orange Walk Town, a cold beer, and an ultra-local vibe—no tourists here—head to Cevichería La Enramada (5 Cristock St., tel. 501/302-2868, 10am-10pm Mon.-Thurs., closes later Fri.-Sun., US$1.25-3.75). Set in a residential area, it’s a lively spot on Friday and weekends, where you’ll see the northern culture of Belize in full display—from the mestizo crowd to the juke box blasting the latest Latin ballads and pop music.
Set in a residence, just a couple of blocks from the center strip in Orange Walk, is a nice green respite from the heat—Tan’s Pizza Paradiso (47 Castillo Alley, Riverside area, tel. 501/322-2669, firstname.lastname@example.org, 11am-10pm Wed.-Sat., US$5-10). You’ll find homemade pizza, local desserts and a full bar.
Orange Walk may have the highest per capita number of Chinese restaurants in all of Central America, but be warned, the food is greasy and sometimes unclean or dated (food poisoning victim, here). But if you’re on a meager budget, there’s the established Lee’s Chinese Restaurant (San Antonio Rd., near the fire station, 9am-midnight daily, US$3-12). I still recommend going for tacos instead, unless you’re vegetarian.
For a cold treat or some fast food—burgers, nachos, hot dogs, pizza slices—head to the local favorite, IceBreak (5 Park St., tel. 501/322-0602, 8am-7:30pm Mon.-Thurs., 8am-10pm Fri.-Sat., 5pm-10pm Sun., US$2.50-10). The outdoor veranda is ideal for people watching.
Orange Walk’s fanciest meals are found outside of town at El Establo (tel. 501/322-0094, http://aguallos.com/elestablo, 11am-9pm Tues.-Sat., 11am-5pm Sun., US$5-20), serving Belizean food as well as bar snacks. Ask any taxi driver to take you there.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
Orange Walk Town is the commercial center of the district, so there are many small shops selling all kinds of merchandise, including agricultural supplies, local cookware (such as a cast-iron comal or a tortilla press, both heavy but useful souvenirs), and many used American-clothing shops. There are three major banks on Main Street and basic services for travelers, including laundry and cheap food. For an Internet café, try FarWorld Tech (65 Cinderella St., tel. 501/322-0716, 8am-6pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sat., US$2 per hour).
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
During the cane harvest, the one-lane highway is a parade of trucks stacked high with sugarcane and waiting in long lines at the side of the road to get into the Tower Hill sugar mill. Night drivers beware: The trucks aren’t new and often have no lights.
There is no main bus station, but the buses traveling between Corozal and Belize City all stop to idle next to Fort Cairns (the site is supposedly temporary, but nobody knows where the bus station is moving to) for a few minutes before lumbering on—they pass about every hour until 6pm daily. Buses passing through town after 6pm usually briefly stop by Town Hall. The last bus to Belize City passes around 6:45pm daily, and service to Corozal continues hourly until about 9pm daily. Some of the buses are express, but it’s hard to tell which ones, unless they are the comfy, air-conditioned charter buses. Sunday service is about every two hours. Buses to Indian Church village (near Lamanai) leave only on Friday, returning Monday. There are hourly buses to San Felipe to the west and Sarteneja to the east. Buses to Sarteneja can be found across the street from Banquitas House of Culture by the Zeta Ice Factory.
Traveling by boat is a pleasant way to get anywhere, especially up the New River to Lamanai. Enjoy nature’s best along the shore of the river and the labyrinthine passageways through the wetlands. You never know what you’ll see next—long-legged birds, orchids in tall trees, hummingbirds, crocs—it’s like a treasure hunt. Bring your binoculars. Ask anywhere for directions to the boat dock. Some boat operators depart from the New Hill Toll Bridge south of town.
There are a few taxi stands (tel. 501/322-2050 or 501/322-2560) located on Queen Victoria Avenue, next to the sports field and across from the park. Elido Vasquez (tel. 501/651-1718) is a reliable and wonderful taxi driver. Fares around the central part of Orange Walk Town run US$2.50, US$7.50 to the toll bridge, and US$10 to the airstrip.
Located on the property of a Caribbean rum warehouse are the minor Cuello Ruins (4 miles west of Orange Walk on Yo Creek, free). Check in at the gate office (tel. 501/322-2141, 8:30am-4:30pm daily), then investigate these relatively undisturbed ruins, consisting of a large plaza with seven structures in a long horizontal mound. There are three temples; see if you can find the uncovered ones. These structures (as at Cahal Pech) have a different look than most Mayan sites. They are covered with a layer of white stucco, as they were in the days of the Maya.
The ruins of Cuello were studied in the 1970s by a Cambridge University archaeology team led by Norman Hammond. A small ceremonial center, a proto-Classic temple, has been excavated. Lying directly in front is a large excavation trench, partially backfilled, where the archaeologists gathered the historical information that revolutionized previous concepts of the antiquity of the ancient Maya. Artifacts indicate that the Maya traded with people hundreds of miles away. Among the archaeologists’ out-of-the-ordinary findings were bits of wood that proved, after carbon testing, that Cuello had been occupied as early as 2600 BC, much earlier than ever believed. Archaeologists now find, however, that these tests may have been incorrect, and the site’s age is in dispute.
Also found was an unusual style of pottery—apparently in some burials, clay urns were placed over the heads of the deceased. It’s also speculated that it was here, over a long period, that the primitive strain of corn seen in early years was refined and developed into the higher-producing plant of the Classic Period. Continuous occupation for approximately 4,000 years was surmised, with repeated layers of structures all the way into the Classic Period.
Set on the edge of a forested broad lagoon are the temples of Lamanai. One of the largest and longest-inhabited ceremonial centers in Belize, Lamanai is believed to have served as an imperial port city encompassing ball courts, pyramids, and several more exotic Mayan features. Hundreds of buildings have been identified in the two-square-mile area. Archaeologist David Pendergast headed a team from the Royal Ontario Museum that, after finding a number of children’s bones buried under a stela, presumed that human sacrifice was a part of the residents’ religion. Large masks that depict a ruler wearing a crocodile headdress were found in several locations, hence the name Lamanai (“Submerged Crocodile”). The Institute of Archaeology has done a great deal of work at this site, and the main temples are impressive even to those not well versed in Mayan history. The High Temple can be climbed to yield a 360-degree view of the surrounding rainforest and lagoon.
With the advent of midday cruise ship tours, the site boasts a dock, a visitors center, craft shops, and a museum. Lamanai is also a popular site for day-trippers from Ambergris Caye and can be quite crowded in the middle of the day, especially during the week. For a more solitary experience, go early in the morning or late in the afternoon, as cruise ship crowds arrive at noon and disappear in less than two hours.
S LAMANAI ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
The Lamanai Archaeological Site (8am-5pm daily, US$10 pp) comprises four large temples, a residential complex, and a reproduction stela of a Mayan elite, Lord Smoking Shell. Excavations reveal continuous occupation and a high standard of living into the Post-Classic Period, unlike at other ancient Mayan sites in the region. Lamanai is believed to have been occupied from 1500 BC to the 19th century—Spanish occupation is also apparent, with the remains of two Christian churches and a sugar mill that was built by British colonialists.
The landscape at most of Lamanai is forest, and trees and thick vines grow from the tops of buildings. The only sounds are birdcalls and howler monkey voices echoing off the stone temples. These are some of the notable sites:
Two significant tombs were found at the Mask Temple (structure N9-56), built around AD 450. There are also two Early Classic stone masks; the second mask on the temple was exposed in late 2010.
Mask Temple at Lamanai Archaeological Site
At 100 feet high, the High Temple (structure N10-43) is the tallest securely dated Pre-Classic structure in the Mayan world. Among many findings were a dish containing the skeleton of a bird and Pre-Classic vessels dating to 100 BC. The view above the canopy is marvelous, and on a clear day you can see the hills of Quintana Roo in Mexico.
The game played in Ball Court held great ritual significance for the Maya, although because of the small size of Lamanai’s court, some think it was just symbolic. In 1980, archaeologists raised the huge stone disc marking the center of the court and found lidded vessels on top of a puddle of mercury; miniature vessels inside contained small jade and shell objects.
The Royal Complex was the residence of up to two dozen elite Lamanai citizens; you can see their beds, doorways, and the like. It was excavated in 2005.
Dating to the 6th century AD, the Jaguar Temple (structure N10-9) had structural modifications in the 8th and 13th centuries. Jade jewelry and a jade mask were discovered here, as was an animal motif dish. Based on the animal remains and other evidence, archaeologists now believe that this was the site of an enormous party and feast to celebrate the end of a drought in AD 950.
In 1983 archaeologists began an investigation of Stela Temple (structure N10-27), where they discovered a large stone monument, designated Stela 9. The elaborately carved stela depicts Lord Smoking Shell in ceremonial dress. Hieroglyphic text on Stela 9, while incomplete, indicates that this monument was erected to commemorate the accession of Smoking Shell, the Lord of Lamanai. Further excavations near the base of the monument revealed a cache of human remains and artifacts, believed to be associated with a dedication ritual. Today, a replica stands at the stela temple; the original can be viewed in the museum at Lamanai.
Birding and Wildlife-Watching
The trip to the site, up the New River Lagoon, is its own safari; once you’re at the ruins, you’ll see numbered trees that correspond to an informational pamphlet available from the caretakers at the entrance of Lamanai Reserve.
Birders, look around the Mask Temple and High Temple for Montezuma oropendolas and their drooping nests. Black vultures are often spotted slowly gliding over the entire area. A woodpecker with a distinct double-tap rhythm and a red cap is the male pale-billed woodpecker.
Near the High Temple, small flocks of collared aracaris, related to the larger toucan, forage the canopy for fruits and insects. The black-headed trogon is more spectacular than its name implies, with a yellow chest, a black-and-white tail, and an iridescent blue-green back. Although it looks as if the northern jacana is walking on water, it’s the delicate floating vegetation that holds the long-toed bird above the water as it searches along the water’s edge for edible delicacies. Other fauna spotted by those who live here are jaguarundis, agoutis, armadillos, Central American river turtles, and roaring howler monkeys.
All regional tour operators in Orange Walk, Corozal, and Belize City offer water tours to Lamanai. It is the most impressive way to approach the site, and a time-saver as well, compared to going by land. Bob the crocodile and a group of spider monkeys have become regular tour stops, as they are accustomed to feeding routines. (Some boats invite spider monkeys on board to eat bananas, which should be discouraged; they can become aggressive toward people and cause serious injury.) Ask about night safaris, bird-watching tours, and sunrise trips up and down the New River.
Most hotels can arrange tours with licensed guides. Tours include the entrance fee, drinks, and usually a catered lunch as part of the deal; prices range US$40-70 pp. I highly recommend Lamanai River Tours (at Hotel de la Fuente, tel. 501/302-1600 or 501/670-0700, email@example.com, www.hoteldelafuente.com, US$50 pp for 4 people, private tour US$230 for 3 people)—ask for guide Ignacio Lino, who knows the area inside out. Another option is Jungle River Tours (20 Lovers Lane, tel. 501/670-3035 or 501/629-3069, US$40 pp for a group of 4) with boats leaving from a landing near the historic La Inmaculada Catholic Church. Errol Cadle’s Lamanai Eco Tours (tel. 501/610-1753, firstname.lastname@example.org, US$50 pp for up to 10 people, includes lunch) caters to travelers who want a less frenetic pace, often from cruise ships.
view of La Inmaculada Catholic Church from the New River
Most visitors use one of the tour companies based in Orange Walk or the transfer services of their accommodations, but it is possible to do it yourself as well. A two-person boat transfer from Orange Walk should cost about US$125, less if you can get in with a bigger group. You can drive the San Felipe road in about 1.5 hours, depending on road conditions.
INDIAN CHURCH VILLAGE
The ruins of Lamanai huddle to one side of New River Lagoon and sprawl westward through the forest and under the village of Indian Church, which was relocated by the government from one part of the site to another in 1992. It is reachable by boat from Orange Walk or by road from San Felipe.
Contribute directly to the local economy by shopping at the Indian Church Village Artisans Center, a community-based organization founded in 2000 with the assistance of professional archaeologists, artisans, and architects working at the nearby Lamanai site. The center provides workspace, tools, material, craft training, English classes, and a computer center to interested villagers. The center has a small shop at the Lamanai site, or you can check out the artisans’ wares at their workshop in the village. Artisans produce silver and bronze jewelry, hand-sewn purses, bags, embroidered pillowcases, slate carvings, and fired clay statues. Most of the artwork emulates artifacts found at the Lamanai site, including silver pendants of the Lord Smoking Shell stela. Stop by the village workshop yourself or ask your guide to take you by the shop at the Lamanai site.
The Indian Church villagers have been hosting groups of foreign archaeologists, anthropologists, and biologists (and the odd gringo volunteer) for decades. In addition to the places listed, there are a few informal homestay options available. Find out the latest developments in the village’s foray into tourism by calling the community phone (tel. 501/245-2015), or just wander into town and see what you find. Note that Indian Church is off the electricity and telephone grid, and solar panels and gasoline generators provide power. All budget options provide meals and cultural activities and can hook you up with local guides for the ruins and wildlife tours.
Olivia and David Gonzalez (tel. 501/667-3232 or 501/668-8593, from US$20 s, US$30 d) have a row of modern cement guest rooms with private baths and basic amenities, including a few hours of electricity each evening. Doña Blanca’s Guest House (tel. 501/665-0044, US$40 with 3 meals, room only US$25) has 15 guest rooms with private baths, solar power, and hot and cold showers. Also available are very basic cabanas, ideal for the backpacker, with private baths (US$8). Call ahead to give them time to prepare your room.
About 0.5 miles up the bank of the lagoon from the Lamanai archaeological site, S Lamanai Outpost Lodge (tel. 501/672-2000, U.S. tel. 888/733-7864, www.lamanai.com) is one of Belize’s premier rainforest retreats. Lamanai Outpost offers a low-key, escape-to-nature kind of setting, perfect for the bird-watcher, Mayaphile, naturalist, or traveler who wants to get away from the tourist trail for a while. The area is rich in animal life, including close to 400 species of birds as well as crocodiles, margays, jaguarundis, anteaters, tayras, arboreal porcupines, and the fishing bulldog bat.
From the moment the staff greet you at the dock, you know you’re in capable, welcoming hands. The lodge boasts 17 elegantly rustic thatched-roof, rough-hewn wood cabanas detailed with converted brass oil lamps and other amenities that contribute to an old-fashioned feel (although a couple of guest rooms add plasma-screen TVs, air-conditioning, and wireless Internet access to the old-timey mix). Outside, lush, landscaped grounds of orchids, ceiba trees, and palmettos provide cooling shade as you walk the gravel paths. Below the resort’s lodge and dining room (which are the only parts of the complex visible from the river) lies the shore of the lagoon, where you’ll find a dock, a swimming area, canoes, boats of various types, and an assortment of deck chairs. The dock is particularly peaceful at sunset. Activities keep you busy from pre-dawn hikes and canoe trips to nighttime “spotlight cruises.” All-inclusive packages start at US$676; there’s a two-night minimum stay, and rates include transfer to and from Belize City, meals, and two guided adventure activities per night booked. See the website for summer specials and individual pricing options.
The owners of Lamanai Outpost are involved in several scientific research projects that also allow nature-study opportunities for guests. Study topics include local bats, archaeology, howler monkeys, Morelet’s crocodiles, and ornithology. Guests with some group programs can participate in the work.
In Indian Church village, you’ll find cheap local food at the Grupo de Mujeres Las Orquideas Restaurant (no phone, 11am-5pm daily, about US$5 per meal). This is a communal effort of nine women from nine families who are adept at dealing with both groups and individuals. You can also ask about Maya cooking lessons, and try your hand at making tortillas.
You can take the village bus to Indian Church, which leaves Orange Walk at 5pm-6pm on Friday and Monday. The same buses depart Indian Church at 5am-5:30am on the same days, so you’ll have to make a weekend out of it—or more. On the opposite end of the time, comfort, and price spectrum, you can charter a 15-minute flight from Belize City to Lamanai Outpost Lodge’s airstrip with one of Belize’s private charter services.
Blue Creek and the Río Bravo
As the road meanders west from Orange Walk and Cuello, numerous small villages dot the border region. Occasionally you see a soft-drink sign attached to a building, but there’s not much in the way of facilities between Orange Walk and Blue Creek. Heading west from San Felipe, you soon find flat, open farmland, with Mennonite accoutrements, dominating the landscape. Low, open paddy fields provide great bird-watching opportunities as well as placid scenery. In the foothills of the Maya highlands is Blue Creek village. Climbing up into the foothills you can see the flatlands of the Río Hondo and New River drainages to the east. The small village to the right is La Union, on the other side of the Mexican border. This part of Northern Belize is much hillier and has an increasingly wild feel to it.
BLUE CREEK VILLAGE
In the village of Blue Creek, The Hillside Bed & Breakfast (about 30 miles west of Orange Walk, tel. 501/323-0155, email@example.com, US$50) is a unique and peaceful place to stay. Guests experience Belizean Mennonite hospitality and life on a working farm. (As far as I know, this is the only lodging offered in a Mennonite community in Belize.) Guest rooms feature all the basic amenities, including air-conditioning, and rates include breakfast in the kitchen. Companies visiting the area have occasionally booked the entire place for a few months at a time, so call first before heading there.
At the top of the hill are the Linda Vista Credit Union and a gas station-general store. Fill up the tank if you’re driving on to Río Bravo or Chan Chich, as this is the last gas station until you come back this way.
S RÍO BRAVO CONSERVATION AREA
At the dramatic boundary of Programme for Belize’s Río Bravo Conservation Area (RBCMA), the cleared pastureland runs into a wall of rainforest. There is a gate at the border, and if you aren’t expected, the guard won’t let you pass. Once inside the gate, you’ve entered the Río Bravo Conservation Area.
Programme for Belize (1 Eyre St., Belize City, tel. 501/227-5616 or 501/227-1020, www.pfbelize.org) is a Belizean nonprofit organization established in 1988 to promote the conservation of the natural heritage of Belize and wise use of its natural resources, centering on the RBCMA, a 260,000-acre chunk of Belize where Programme for Belize demonstrates the practical application of its principles (the land was originally slated for clearing). The RBCMA represents approximately 4 percent of Belize’s total land area and is home to a rich sample of biodiversity, which includes 392 species of birds, 200 species of trees, 70 species of mammals, 30 species of freshwater fish, and 27 species of conservation concern.
Within the conservation area, the research station is housed in a cluster of small thatched-roof buildings. Programme for Belize is dedicated to scientific research, agricultural experimentation, and protecting indigenous wildlife and the area’s Mayan archaeological sites—all this while creating self-sufficiency through development of ecotourism and sustainable rainforest agriculture, such as chicle production. A scientific study continues to determine the best management plan for the reserve and its forests.
Ongoing projects include archaeological research at the La Milpa Maya Site and other sites on the RBCMA in conjunction with Boston University and the University of Texas; timber and pine savanna research programs aimed at identifying the most optimal approach to sustainable timber extraction; a carbon sequestration pilot program, the first of seven globally approved projects to start on-the-ground research on how forest conservation could combat global warming; ecological research and monitoring of migratory and resident avifauna, such as the yellow-headed parrot; a freshwater management program, which looks at the New River Lagoon, its tributaries, and the New River; and the biological connectivity program, which looks at the RBCMA and the critical links it forms with other protected areas in northern Belize.
La Milpa Field Station
Programme for Belize’s La Milpa Field Station lies nestled deep in the forests of northwestern Belize. This station is only three miles from the third-largest archaeological site in the country, the La Milpa archaeological site, which is just one of at least 60 archaeological sites found on the Río Bravo. Hiking nature trails, rainforest trekking, and birding are the order of the day at La Milpa. Spend a day in the nearby mestizo and Mennonite villages for a taste of Belizean culture or tour breathtaking and majestic ancient Mayan sites. Birders can compile a list of more than 150 species during a three-day trip to La Milpa.
For accommodations, guests can choose between charmingly rustic thatched-roof cabanas (US$50-55 pp) with private baths or a comfortable and tastefully decorated dormitory (US$41 pp) featuring state-of-the-art “green” technology with shared baths. The La Milpa venue has meeting facilities, telephones, and dining facilities and is family oriented, with 24-hour electricity and hot and cold water. All-inclusive packages start at US$180 pp, which includes accommodations, three buffet-style meals, and two guided tours on the property. Contact Programme for Belize (tel. 501/227-5616 or 501/227-1020, www.pfbelize.org) for details.
Hill Bank Field Station
Located on the banks of the New River Lagoon, the Hill Bank Field Station serves as a research base for sustainable forest management and specialized tourism, which incorporates research activities into the visitors’ forest experience. Hill Bank, an important site in Belize’s colonial history, served as a center of intensive timber extraction for more than 150 years, commencing in the 17th century. The Hill Bank experience brings to life the architecture and artifacts of colonial land use, such as the quaint wooden buildings of logging camps, antique steam engines, and railroad tracks.
Explore the wilds of Hill Bank by canoeing, crocodile spotting, hiking nature trails, birding, and rainforest trekking. The scenic boat ride, replete with wildlife sightings along the New River Lagoon, is a great experience in itself.
For accommodations, guests stay in Hill Bank’s Caza Balanza, which features 100 percent solar power, no-flush composting toilets, and a rainwater collection system, with shared baths (US$41 pp). Or choose a charming double cabana with private baths (US$50-55 pp) and verandas overlooking the New River Lagoon. Contact Programme for Belize (tel. 501/227-5616 or 501/227-1020, www.pfbelize.org) for details.
CHAN CHICH RUINS
As recently as 1986, the only way in to the Mayan site of Chan Chich (Kaxil Uinich) was with a machete in hand and a canoe to cross the swiftly flowing rivers. Most people making the trip were either loggers, pot farmers, or grave robbers. Then, in the northwestern corner of Belize in Orange Walk District, near the Guatemalan border, an old overgrown road, originally blazed by the Belize Estate and Produce Company for logging, was reopened, and consequently the site of Chan Chich was rediscovered.
When found, three of the temples showed obvious signs of looting, with vertical slit trenches just as the looters had left them. No one will ever know what valuable artifacts were removed and sold to private collectors. The large main temple on the upper plaza had been violated to the heart of what appears to be one or more burial chambers. A painted frieze runs around the low ceiling. Today, the only temple inhabitants greeting outsiders are armies of small bats and spider monkeys.
The ruins provide opportunity for discovery and exploration, and the population and diversity of wildlife here are probably greater than anywhere else in Belize. The nine miles of hiking trails wind through the verdant rainforest and provide ample opportunities to see wildlife, including big cats.
This is not a public archaeological site, and the ruins are unexcavated. Chan Chich Lodge looks after the site.
Gallon Jug Village and Estate
Originally the hub of the British Belize Estate and Produce Company’s mahogany logging operation, this land was purchased by Barry Bowen. Gallon Jug Village and Estate (tel. 501/227-7031, www.gallonjug.com) is now a diverse and privately owned working farm, ranch, and community, with an airstrip, a post office, a coffee-roasting facility, and a school. The scientific research conducted here, led by Bruce and Carolyn Miller, has focused on jaguars and neotropical bats.
S Chan Chich Lodge
It’s safe to say that there’s no other lodge in Belize like Chan Chich (Gallon Jug Estate, U.S. tel. 800/343-8009 or tel. 501/223-4419, US$320, includes breakfast), the country’s very first rainforest eco-lodge. This elegant yet unpretentious retreat is surrounded on all sides by unexcavated pyramids and the second largest tropical forest in the Americas. The landscaped grounds, subtly lit pool and jetted tub, and sunset views from the tops of the mounds complement the spacious cabanas, which rest inside an actual Maya plaza and feature modern amenities like water coolers, fridges, huge tiled baths, and natural insulation and ventilation. Though decried by some archaeologists when it was built in 1988, the presence of Chan Chich Lodge serves as a deterrent to temple looters and marijuana traffickers, both of which used to thrive in northern Belize.
Chan Chich Lodge is a top birding spot in Belize.
Guests spend their days birding (more than 80 percent of visitors are avid birders from North America), exploring the ruins and hiking trails, canoeing at the nearby Laguna Verde, or horseback riding from the Gallon Jug stables. Birding opportunities include seeing trogons, ocellated turkeys, toucans, and hundreds of other birds. All five species of Belizean cat, including jaguars, pumas, and jaguarundis, live in the surrounding forest and are spotted regularly on the property. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you might get to write your sighting on the lodge’s daily log board. Tours of the coffee plantation and experimental farm at Gallon Jug provide the opportunity to learn all the steps in the coffee-making process as well other sustainable agricultural initiatives taking place here. And the day doesn’t end at the peaceful dining veranda, where the best steak in the country is served, among other Belizean cuisine options. If you’re not signed up for the night safari, then you can finish off at the Looter’s Trench Bar. Ask about a nighttime canoe ride along Laguna Seca to spot crocodiles and absorb the sheer magnitude of life in the rainforest at night. Chan Chich is 130 miles from Belize City, an all-day drive from the international airport or a (much easier) 30-minute charter flight to Gallon Jug. In addition to accommodations, add about US$70 per day for meals, plus tours, guides, and taxes.
Corozal and Vicinity
Corozal Town’s 9,000 or so inhabitants casually get by while the bay washes against the seawall running the length of town. While English is the official language, Spanish is just as common, since many residents are descendants of early-day Mayan and mestizo refugees from neighboring Mexico. Historically, Corozal was the scene of attacks by the Maya during the Caste War. What remains of Fort Barlee can be found in the center of town, west of Central Park.
The town was almost entirely wiped out during Hurricane Janet in 1955 and has since been rebuilt. As you stroll the quiet streets, you’ll find a library, a museum, the town hall, government administrative offices, a Catholic church, two secondary schools, five elementary schools, one gas station, a government hospital, a clinic, a few small hotels, a couple of bars, and several restaurants. There’s not a whole lot of activity here, unless you happen to be in town during the Mexican-style “Spanish” fiestas of Christmas, Carnival, and Columbus Day; there are also a few local events in mid-September and a monthly art festival. Nevertheless, Corozal has a special aura; you’ll see families, lovers, and friends along the Bay’s various parks, running, playing, watching the sunset, or frolicking in the water.
There are no major attractions per se for visitors in Corozal, just a couple of historical sights, but it’s an unassuming base for fishing trips, nature watching, and tours of a few nearby ruins and waterways. Some trips include day trips to the Shipstern Wildlife Nature Reserve, Sarteneja village, and the Maya sites of Cerros and Santa Rita. Visitors enter Corozal from the north (from Mexico), from the south on the Northern Highway, or from Ambergris Caye to the east by boat or plane. Getting oriented to Corozal is easy, since it’s laid out on a grid system with avenues running north and south (parallel to the seawall) and streets running east and west. Corozal’s two primary avenues are 4th and 5th, which run the length of town. The majority of restaurants and stores of interest to travelers are on, or are adjacent to, these streets. Wander through the town square, stroll the waterfront and the Market Square in town, and strike up a conversation with the locals or expats who’ve come to love the laid-back lifestyle. Many of the seaside parks, especially the one called Miami Beach, are popular hangouts on the weekend and holidays.
Corozal Town Mural
In the Town Hall (across from Central Park, 8am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri.) you’ll find a dramatic historical mural painted by Manuel Villamour. The bright painting depicts the history of Corozal, including the drama of the downtrodden Maya, the explosive revolt called the Caste War, and the inequities of colonial rule. It’s well worth stopping in for a look.
Corozal House of Culture
The country’s newest House of Culture (1 Avenue, tel. 501/422-0071, 8am-5pm Mon.-Fri., US$5) opened in February 2012 in a refurbished historical building that was once a municipal market, built in 1886. It is slowly being stocked with historical displays on Corozal’s past and biographies on Corozaleños of note. Stop in to view the current month’s exhibit, such as a fascinating look into the lives of indentured East Indians brought to Corozal in the 19th century to work the sugar plantations.
East Indian Museum
Dubbed “Window to the Past” by its founder and curator Lydia Ramcharan Pollard, the East Indian Museum (129 South End, tel. 501/402-3314, 9am-11:30am and 2pm-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-11:30am Sat., free) is the first museum in the Caribbean—and the only one in Belize—dedicated to East Indian history, heritage, and culture. The museum was established in 2001, and its collections, gathered by Pollard through various means, include cooking utensils, musical instruments, and more. It is located on the Northern Highway, where Corozal town meets Ranchito village.
SPORTS AND RECREATION
Corozal has beautiful, well-maintained stretches of green all along its seaside—Mothers’ Park, Children’s Park, and Miami Beach Park. Some parks include playgrounds, while others step into the bay, where children splash around or lovers cuddle up on concrete platforms, gazing at the sky. Spending a stolen morning hour at the park or sunset with friends is a favorite local activity. For fishing or boat activity while in Corozal, your best bet is Our Island Tours and Charters (tel. 501/633-9372 or 501/633-0081, firstname.lastname@example.org, full day of fishing US$400 for 4 people), offering boat rides to nearby Cerros, across the bay, for some Mayan history, or across the New River or Río Hondo for fishing.
Archaeological Sites near Corozal
The nearby ruins of Cerros and Santa Rita are not as immediately awe-inspiring as, say, Lamanai or Caracol, but they are still interesting and easy to visit.
Commonly referred to as “Cerros,” the Cerro Maya (“Maya Hill”) archaeological site lords over both sea and rainforest on a peninsula across from Corozal called Lowry’s Bight. Cerros was an important coastal trading center during the Late Pre-Classic Period (350 BC-AD 250) and was occupied as late as 1300. Magnificent frescoes and stone heads were uncovered by archaeologist David Friedel, signifying that elite rule was firmly fixed by the end of the Pre-Classic Period. The tallest of Cerros’s temples rises to 70 feet, and because of the rise in the sea level, the one-time stone residences of the elite Maya are partially flooded.
It would appear that Cerros not only provisioned oceangoing canoes, but also was in an ideal location to control ancient trade routes that traced the Río Hondo and New River from the Yucatán to Petén and the Usumacinta basin. A plaster-lined canal for the sturdy, oversize ocean canoes was constructed around Cerros. Archaeologists have determined that extensive fishing and farming on raised fields took place, probably to outfit the traders. But always the question remains: Why did progress suddenly stop?
Be prepared for vicious mosquitoes at Cerros, especially if there’s no breeze. You can reach the site by boat in minutes—hire one at Tony’s Inn in Corozal or check with a travel agent. If you travel during the dry season (Jan.-Apr.), you can get to Cerros by car; it takes up to 45 minutes, and you’ll have to employ the hand-cranked Pueblo Nuevo Ferry. Admission to the ruins is US$10 per person.
Guests at Cerros Beach Resort (tel. 501/623-9763 or 501/623-9530, www.cerrosbeachresort.com, US$40-60) can bike to the ruins; keep an eye out for jaguarundis, gray foxes, and coatimundis along the way. Cerros Beach Resort is a quiet, off-the-grid location with four screened-in thatch cabanas with private baths and hot water.
The Santa Rita site, one mile northeast of Corozal, was still a populated community of Maya when the Spanish arrived. The largest Santa Rita structure was explored at the turn of the 20th century by Thomas Gann. Sculptured friezes and stucco murals were found along with a burial site that indicates flourishing occupation in the Early Classic Period (about AD 300), as well as during the Late Post-Classic Period (1350-1530). Two significant burials were found from distant periods in the history of Santa Rita: one from AD 300 was a female and the other was a king from a period 200 years later.
In 1985 archaeologists Diane and Arlen Chase discovered a tomb with a skeleton covered in jade and mica ornaments. It has been excavated and somewhat reconstructed under the Chases’ jurisdiction; only one structure is accessible to the public. Post-Classic murals, mostly destroyed over the years, combined Mayan and Mexican styles that depict the ecumenical flavor of the period. Some believe that Santa Rita was part of a series of coastal lookouts. Santa Rita is probably more appealing to archaeology buffs than to the average traveler.
ENTERTAINMENT AND EVENTS
For bars, try Machie’s Pool Hall (2nd St. N. near 4th Ave. N., noon-midnight daily) for billiards and dominoes tournaments. At Miami Beach, on the south end of town, are two popular open-air bars: Swing by Jam Rock (1st Ave. S., no phone, 11am-8pm daily) while the bartender mixes a michelada, or have a cold drink and botanas at Primo’s Casita Bar (no phone, noon-midnight daily), across the street. The most popular event in town is Art in the Park, a monthly arts and crafts festival held on the second or third weekend in Central Park. More than 30 local artists—from painters to wood-carvers—showcase the best of Corozal’s talent. You can snag unique local crafts and gifts here, and enjoy mestizo food and live music.
Corozal has lots of little shops, grocery stores, bookstores, and a few gift shops. You’ll find locally made jewelry, pottery, woodcarvings, clothing, textiles, and a host of other mementos here and there, but the place is not overrun with gift shops yet. White Sapphire (7th Ave., south of the UNO station, 10am-6pm daily) has a large selection of local crafts and jewelry. Gifts, books, postcards, and other supplies can be obtained at A&R (4th Ave., 9am-5pm daily), near Patty’s Bistro.
Maya World Guest House (tel. 501/666-3577 or 501/627-2511, email@example.com, US$22.50-30) has clean rooms surrounding a cheery well-kept garden, and cheery owners. It features a massive communal kitchen, cozy common areas, and a top-floor veranda with plenty of chairs and hammocks. The central location and conveniences such as bike rental and laundry service attract backpackers. Caribbean Village RV Park and Campground (tel. 501/422-2725, firstname.lastname@example.org) offers full RV hookups (US$20) and camping (US$5 pp).
S Sea Breeze Hotel (tel. 501/422-3051 or 501/605-9341, email@example.com, www.theseabreezehotel.com, US$20-35) offers the best budget accommodations in Corozal. Guest rooms have cable TV, fans (air-conditioning for additional cost), hot water, and wireless Internet. The seaside location of this hotel offers a cooling breeze in the evening. Call ahead or email, as this place has only seven guest rooms and gets busy. The second-floor bar (for guests only) is a great place to meet other travelers and is a quick walk from the main thoroughfares. Bikes are available for guests to explore the town by day. Enjoy a freshly brewed cup of coffee in the morning and breakfast on request.
Just two blocks south of the town center, and right across from the water, the Hok’ol K’in Guest House (89 4th Ave., tel. 501/422-3329, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.corozal.net, US$21-65) was begun by a former Peace Corps volunteer with the intention of supporting local Mayan community endeavors. In Yucatec Maya, Hok’ol K’in means “Coming of the Rising Sun,” a sight you’ll see from your window if you’re up early enough—follow your sun salutations with an excellent breakfast (and real coffee!) on the patio downstairs. Hok’ol K’in’s 10 guest rooms have private baths, verandas, cable TV, and fans; free wireless Internet is available. Ask about available trips and homestays (or visits) with local families; the staff are very helpful in arranging things to do. This is one of the few lodgings in Belize equipped to handle a wheelchair (one room only, so be sure to specify if it’s needed). There’s a bar, and the restaurant (7am-7pm daily) serves a variety of good meals.
I loved my stay at the S Bayside Guest House (31 3rd Ave., tel. 501/625-7824, http://baysideguesthouse.webplus.net, US$40, includes continental breakfast), set in a residential home that is a stone’s throw from the waterfront and a five-minute walk to town. The rooms are immaculately clean and spacious, with mosaic tiled sinks and a hot shower bathroom. Cable TV, air-conditioning, and Wi-Fi are included. Upstairs is a terrace bar and restaurant where you can grab a drink, breakfast, or dinner. There’s a restaurant upstairs if you’re too lazy to walk to town. This is a nice respite away from the noise, and ideal after a day’s activity.
CJ’s Lodge (2nd St., off Northern Hwy., tel. 501/621-1799 or 501/623-0212, email@example.com, US$25) is an affordable option geared toward both long and short-term stays, with friendly owners. Guest rooms are comfortably furnished and have wireless Internet, hot and cold water, air-conditioning, and cable TV. A communal kitchen is on-site as well as a swimming pool and a tranquil garden area. The on-site restaurant serves only breakfast on weekends.
Hotel Mirador (tel. 501/422-0189, www.mirador.bz, US$35-75) is a 24-room lodging across from the main dock and seawall; the rooftop boasts the best views in town. The guest rooms are spotless, with private baths and hot and cold water, and the hallways are cavernous. There’s cable TV and wireless Internet, plus you’ll get lots of friendly help from your hosts, Jose and Lydia Gongora. Deluxe guest rooms with air-conditioning start at US$50. The bay-facing guest rooms have wonderful light and views. On the road leading into town from the south, the Hotel Maya and Apartments (South End, tel. 501/422-2082 or 501/422-2874, www.hotelmaya.net, US$35-50) offers 20 guest rooms with air-conditioning, TVs, and private baths; the restaurant serves breakfast only. Furnished two-bedroom apartments with air-conditioning start at US$400 per month.
Las Palmas Hotel (formerly Nestor’s, but completely rebuilt, tel. 501/422-0196, www.laspalmashotelbelize.com, US$45-75) is in the heart of town, with 27 full-service guest rooms that include air-conditioning, private baths, hot and cold water, mini fridges and microwaves, wireless Internet, gated parking, 24-hour security, and a backup generator.
Three seaside options are on the south end of town, clustered together on what is locally known as “Gringo Lane.” At Tony’s Inn and Beach Resort (tel. 501/422-2055 or 501/422-3555, firstname.lastname@example.org, from US$85), “beach” may be stretching it a bit, and the 24 guest rooms are set up more like a Motel 6 than a resort. Still, the large guest rooms have air-conditioning, private baths, and hot and cold water. The Y-Not Bar and Grill is in a nice setting on the water, and the hotel has its own marina and runs a variety of local trips.
A bit more to the south, in a quiet, out-of-the-way spot, the Copa Banana (409 Bay Shore Dr., tel. 501/422-0284, www.copabanana.bz, US$55) has lovely tropical-decor guest rooms and suites open to the sea breeze (but also air-conditioned), a shared living room and kitchen area, lots of space, plus free use of bikes, coffee, tea, and juices.
At S Almond Tree Hotel Resort (425 Bayshore Dr., tel. 501/628-9224, www.almondtreeresort.com, US$85-149), in a quiet location down the road from Tony’s Inn, each of the six guest rooms has its own elegant decor and comfortable beds; larger units are equipped with a kitchenette and a living room. The view from the upstairs wraparound veranda is wonderful. Downstairs is a bar and restaurant where breakfast is available on request and cold Belikin is on tap. Outside, you can relax poolside, walled by a tropical garden, or talk to the owner, Lynn, about arranging an activity that suits your interests: fishing by dory, a trip to the cayes, or inland tours.
Serenity Sands Bed and Breakfast (3 miles north of Corozal, 1 mile off of Consejo Rd., tel. 501/669-2394, www.serenitysands.com, US$85-105) has four tastefully decorated upper-level guest rooms with queen or twin beds, air-conditioning, and private balconies over Corozal Bay. The two-bedroom guesthouse (US$125) can accommodate a family of six. The hotel is off the grid and uses organic products as often as possible. There’s complimentary Internet access and a well-stocked library.
The town market has a selection of cheap eats and is your best bet early in the morning if you have to eat and run to catch a bus just up the street.
For Belizean options, head to RD’s Diner (4th Ave., tel. 501/422-3796, 8am-10pm daily, US$5-9), by the sports ground, which serves Belizean and American food, including seafood and pasta, and daily rice and beans options. SPatty’s Bistro (2nd St. N., tel. 501/402-0174, 7am-9pm daily, US$5-9) is a nice little option for Belizean lunches and dinners. The conch soup has a unique hint of coconut, as does the curry shrimp entrée (US$7.50). There are fajitas and chicken dishes for less, and the burgers are excellent. Meals are served in an air-conditioned dining room.
If hamburgers or pasta are your fancy, head to the seafront Copper Horse Restaurant (Copper Horse Inn, 2nd Ave. N. at 4th St. N., tel. 501/671-4663, 11am-9pm daily, US$5-12). There are also Belizean specials. Try the home-cooked daily specials at June’s Kitchen (3rd St. S., tel. 501/422-2559, www.corozal.com/junes, breakfast and lunch daily, dinner by reservation only, US$4), where you’re basically eating in Miss June’s living room or on her porch. The breakfast plates are famous and huge, or stick to rice and beans with stewed chicken.
Corozo Blues (Northern Hwy., tel. 501/422-0090, www.corozoblues.com, 10am-midnight daily, US$10-18), found just before the turnoff to Tony’s Inn, is a new addition with a lovely setting and average food. But if you’re looking to relax by the water in cozy cushioned seats or in your own gazebo set in a lush garden, it may be worthwhile. Serving international food and one local dish, dining options include wood-fired brick-oven pizzas, burgers, salads, and steaks.
Indian and Chinese
There are plenty of Chinese options, but the favorite is Wood House Bistrot (1st Ave., no phone, noon-9pm Tues.-Sat., US$5-10), next to Primo’s in Miami Beach. Wood House is a step up from the dingy fast food Chinese stops; the spicy wontons and consistently fresh seafood make this place stand out. A close runner-up is the Romantic Bar and Restaurant (3rd St. S., no phone, 10am-midnight, US$3-10), on the ground floor of the Mirador Hotel. Their diverse menu features daily specials such as curry masala gibnut, cow-foot soup, and lasagna.
Across from the immigration office is Venky’s (5th St. S., tel. 501/402-0536, hours vary, US$3-5), a take-out place for curries and other East Indian foods.
Mexican and Yucatecan
For solid, super-cheap Mexican snacks and meals, Cactus Plaza (6th St. S, tel. 501/422-0394, 6pm-close Fri.-Sun.) has a very popular street-side café; drinks, beers, and juices are served all night (till the club inside closes, anyway). This is also the center of the nightlife on weekends. The Purple Toucan Restaurant Bar and Grill (4th Ave., tel. 501/622-9200, 11am-3:30pm and 6pm-11pm Mon.-Sat., US$2-5), beside Atlantic Bank, features cochinita pibil, poc chuc, and other Yucatecan specialties. There’s ample seating.
D’s Superstore (College Rd., no phone, 9am-10pm daily) is the largest grocery in town. Family Supermarket (near Fort Barlee, no phone, 8am-midnight daily) is another option that is more centrally located.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
Corozal’s main web portal (www.corozal.com) is a fount of information for travelers. Corozal also has several ATMs and branches of Belize Bank, Scotiabank, and Atlantic Bank (8am-2pm Mon.-Thurs., 8:30am-4:30pm Fri.). For emergencies, contact the fire department (tel. 501/422-2105), police (tel. 501/422-2022), or the hospital (tel. 501/422-2076). For Internet access, try the Hotel Mirador (across from the main dock and seawall, tel. 501/422-0189, www.mirador.bz) or M.E. Computer Systems (3rd St. S., 9am-9pm Mon-Sat.). You can also find a couple of desktops at Stellar Link (39A 4th Ave., tel. 501/402-2043, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sat.). There are a few other Internet places around the central park.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
There are five inexpensive daily flights on each airline between Corozal and San Pedro. Contact Tropic Air (tel. 501/226-2012, U.S. tel. 800/422-3435, www.tropicair.com) or Maya Island Air (tel. 501/223-1140, U.S. tel. 800/225-6732, email@example.com, www.mayaislandair.com) for schedules.
Buses are in disarray, so check the schedule at Corozal’s Northern Transport Bus Station before departure. Northbound buses from Belize City alternate final destinations between Corozal and Chetumal, taking three hours to Corozal (US$6) and leaving Belize City frequently 5:30am-7:30pm daily. Southbound buses from Corozal leave regularly between 3:45am and 7pm daily, all of them originating 15 minutes or so earlier in Santa Elena. If you have connections to make in Chetumal, be aware that, unlike Belize, Mexico uses daylight saving time.
The Thunderbolt (tel. 501/631-3400 or 501/422-0026, firstname.lastname@example.org, US$22.50 pp) departs for San Pedro at 7am daily. Special promotions are often run during peak holiday times, so call ahead. From San Pedro, the boat leaves the Westside dock at 3pm daily; the trip takes about two hours and stops in Sarteneja are possible on request.
There are a few taxi stands in town: Los Toucanes Taxi Union (tel. 501/402-2070) is by the market, a few steps away from the bus station; Corozal Central Park Taxi Union (tel. 501/422-2035) is by the central park. You can get around town for US$2.50, to the airstrip for US$5, to the border for US$10, or to Chetumal and Cerros for US$30—all convenient ways to go if you have a few people to split the costs. You can also contact Belize VIP Service (tel. 501/422-2725, www.belizevipautorental.com) for car rentals as well as transfers.
One of the best independent guides around is Vital Nature and Mayan Tours (tel. 501/602-8975, www.cavetubing.bz), also known as Vitalino Reyes, whose years of experience qualify him to teach and certify many of Corozal’s other guides. Vital runs tours to local ruins, the caves at Jaguar Paw, the Belize Zoo, night safaris, or anywhere else you want to go. Belize VIP Transfer Services (tel. 501/422-2725, www.belizetransfers.com) is your best bet for charter transportation, with brand-new vehicles that are great for groups. Belize VIP specializes in local tours (including a day tour of Corozal and Cerros), trips to Lamanai, Chetumal transfers (and other Mexican attractions), and Tikal or Flores trips to Guatemala. George & Esther Moralez Travel Service (tel. 501/422-2485, www.gettransfers.com) offers transfer services and tours. They will also help you with hotel and local flight bookings (dial 00 before the phone number when calling from Mexico to Belize). Hok’ol K’in Guest House (89 4th Ave., tel. 501/422-3329, email@example.com, www.corozal.net) handles all such trips as well, especially to local villages.
Nine miles north of Corozal, the tiny fishing village of Consejo is home to a beach hideaway, an upscale hotel, a nine-hole golf course, and a retirement community of some 400 North Americans called Consejo Shores (www.consejoshores.com).
Rent one of three bayside units at Smuggler’s Den (2 miles northwest of Consejo, tel. 501/600-9723, http://smugglersdenbelize.tripod.com, US$40-65), which are nicely furnished and have hot and cold water; they are quite a bargain if you’re looking for isolation. Two units have private baths and kitchenettes, but the unit without a kitchen is cheaper. Discounts are sometimes available on request. Smuggler’s is locally famous for its Sunday afternoon roast beef dinners; reserve in advance.
Right in Consejo, Casablanca by the Sea (tel. 501/423-1018, U.S. tel. 781/235-1024, www.casablancabelize.com, US$75-150) is an intimate hotel with lovely grounds and views of the Bay of Consejo. Casablanca has eight stately guest rooms with queen beds, private baths, air-conditioning, hot and cold water, and TVs. The bar and dining room offer excellent seafood dishes as well as other meals, all enjoyed while watching the lights of Chetumal across the bay. There are also rooftop stargazing, volleyball, and top-notch conference and group facilities.
The Millennium Restaurant (11am-9pm Wed.-Mon., US$2-10), in the heart of Consejo village, is a friendly watering hole and eatery serving up daily specials at great prices.
SHIPSTERN NATURE RESERVE
In Corozal District, Shipstern is in the northeastern corner of the Belize coast. Thirty-two square miles of moist forest, savanna, and wetlands have been set aside to preserve as-yet-unspoiled habitats of well-known insect, bird, and mammal species associated with the tropics. The reserve is home to about 300 species of birds, 70 species of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 270 species of butterflies (they began the production of live butterfly pupae through intensive breeding). The reserve also encompasses the shallow Shipstern Lagoon, dotted with mangrove islands, which creates wonderful habitat for many wading birds.
The International Tropical Conservation Foundation has been extremely generous in supporting Shipstern. As at most reserves, the objective is to manage and protect habitats and wildlife, as well as to develop an education program that entails teaching the local community and introducing children to the concept of wildlife conservation in their area. Shipstern, however, goes a step farther by conducting an investigation of how tropical countries such as Belize can develop self-supporting conservation areas through the controlled, intensive production of natural commodities found within such wildlife settlements. Developing facilities for the scientific study of the reserve area and its wildlife is part of this important program.
Start at the visitors center (3 miles outside of Sarteneja, tours 9am-noon and 1pm-3pm daily except Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Easter, US$5). The admission fee includes a guided tour of the visitors center, butterfly garden, botanical trail, and observation tower. The forest is alive with nature’s critters and fascinating flora, and the guides’ discerning eyes spot things that others most often miss. Before starting your 20- to 30-minute walk, pick up a book with detailed descriptions of the trail and the trees at the visitors center. The lovely Botanical Trail starts at the parking lot by the visitors center and meanders through the forest. Visitors have the opportunity to see three types of hardwood forests with 100 species of trees, many of which are labeled with their Latin and Yucatec Mayan names.
It is easiest to take a boat from Corozal or to hire a local tour guide to arrange travel. From Corozal and Orange Walk, figure a little more than an hour to drive here. The road takes you through San Estevan and then to Progresso. Turn right just before entering Progresso to Little Belize (a Mennonite community). Continue on to Chunox. Sarteneja is three miles beyond Shipstern. Don’t forget a long-sleeved shirt, pants, mosquito repellent, binoculars, and a camera for your exploration of the reserve.
Sarteneja Adventure Tours (tel. 501/633-0067, www.sartenejatours.com) provides standard tours and overnight camping trips, with opportunities to explore Shipstern’s trails by day or night and visit local caves, Mayan ruins, and nesting bird colonies. While accommodations are available by special request, visitors are encouraged to stay overnight in Sarteneja village.
From the Mayan “Tzaten-a-ha” (“give me the water”), Sarteneja was named after the 13 Mayan wells found in the area, carved into limestone bedrock and providing potable water. In addition to being a picturesque fishing village, Sarteneja is the only place on mainland Belize where you can watch the sun set over the water. The spot was first settled by the Maya as an important trading area. It is thought to have been occupied from 600 BC to AD 1200, and period gold, copper, and shells continue to turn up in the area. Mexican refugees from the Yucatán Caste Wars settled here in the mid-19th century, again attracted by the availability of drinking water. The village took a pounding from Hurricane Janet in 1955 but rebounded and became known for its boat builders and free-diving lobster and conch fishers.
Sarteneja, just 30 minutes from Corozal, is the hub for Belize’s fishing boats.
Today, 80 percent of Sarteneja’s households remain reliant on the resources of the Belize Reef. Tourism is creeping in, and Sarteneja offers one of the more off-the-beaten-path experiences in the country. Located on Corozal Bay, it is a well-kept secret in Belize, and few travelers have heard about its breathtaking sunsets, sportfishing, turquoise swimming waters, and importance as a protected area for manatees and bird-nesting colonies in the Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. This is slowly changing, as more travelers now stop here on their way to the Northern Cayes. Bring your swimwear—the water is beautiful and a stop here feels like an island getaway.
Sarteneja is known for the annual Easter Regatta, during which newly painted sailboats of the artisanal fishing fleet, crewed by local anglers, race against each other in a tradition that has continued since 1950. The regatta, on Easter weekend, includes live music, food, and fun, local “catch the greasy pig” games. Master boat builders Juan Guerrero and Jacobo Verde handcraft traditional wooden vessels at their workshops in Sarteneja—the wooden boat building tradition is unique in Belize and also in all of Central America. During fishing season, these boats dock in Belize City by the Swing Bridge. If you’re interested in culture and boats, ask around for the Mitzi-Ba Wooden Boat Building workshop to see master builder Juan Guerrero at work. If you’re lucky, you’ll witness one being designed from scratch.
Sports and Recreation
Sarteneja’s location is ideal for fishing, kayaking, sailing, or exploring the nearby reserves. You can rent kayaks from the office of the Tour Guide Association (Front St., www.sartenejatours.com, US$5 per hour double kayak, up to 5 hours maximum), or ask about their Manatee Day tour to go manatee spotting (US$20 pp). The beach on the long, pretty coastline offers swimming and relaxing. The farther east you go, the prettier and more isolated the swimming areas get. Rent a bicycle from Brisis Bike Rental (Front St., no phone, 10am-4pm) if your guesthouse doesn’t provide one. Other options include hiking in the Shipstern Nature Reserve, exploring the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve on the northern tip of Ambergris Caye, or fishing along Corozal Bay (US$30 pp for 2 people) with Ritchie Cruz of Ritchie’s Place (Front St., tel. 501/668-1531).
With access to nearby Mayan sites and ties to the barrier reef at Bacalar Chico, Sarteneja has a lot to offer the adventurous traveler in search of the real Belize. The community is aware of its resources, and groups have joined forces to form the Sarteneja Alliance for Conservation and Development (N. Front St., firstname.lastname@example.org), which comanages Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Local anglers, now trained as guides, offer a number of guided tours, both marine and inland. Contact Evanier Cruz, the President of the Sarteneja Tour Guide Association (tel. 501/635-1655). Their office is located on the seafront; take a left from the arrival dock. They can also help visitors find a licensed local tour guide.
Sarteneja is also the location of the Manatee Rehabilitation Centre, run by Wildtracks, a local NGO that takes in and rehabilitates orphan manatee calves as part of a national program to protect this threatened species. The center is not open to visitors.
Most accommodations, eateries, and bars can be found along Front Street, abutting the sea and dock.
Experience local culture through the Sarteneja Homestay Program (tel. 501/634-8032, 501/661-8395, or 501/664-5490, email@example.com, US$25 pp, includes meals). There are 13 participating families in the program, providing a unique village opportunity. Stay for a night or a week in a safe, comfortable, private room with shared indoor toilet. Enjoy three home-cooked meals, learn how to make tortillas, and practice your Spanish. The program gets rave reviews; don’t hesitate to call a day ahead or ask on short notice.
S Fernando’s Seaside Guesthouse (tel. 501/423-2085, www.cybercayecaulker.com/sarteneja.html, US$40-50 plus tax) was the first to open its doors in Sarteneja. It has upgraded its guest rooms, offering private baths, air-conditioning, cable TV, wireless Internet, and a nice veranda with hammocks and a waterfront view (a discount is available without air-conditioning). Like most men in Sarteneja, the owner, Fernando Alamilla, was once a full-time fisherman who used to sail and fish for up to 10 days at a time. His son, Fernando Jr., is a friendly and gregarious man who helps run the guesthouse and who can help arrange tours, transportation (including Tropic Air flights to the cayes), or pick you up from Chetumal for a fee.
Backpackers Paradise (Bandera Rd., tel. 501/423-2016, http://bluegreenbelize.org) is about a 15-minute brisk walk north from the arrival dock. Accommodations at this funky, laid-back, rustic, and friendly hangout range from camping (US$3.50 pp) to guest rooms with shared baths and a few private cabanas (US$12.50-40). Nathalie’s Restaurant (8am-2pm and 6pm-8pm daily), also on-site, serves up wonderful and affordable dishes, including crepes made by the Vietnamese-French proprietress. Free wireless Internet is available, bicycles (US$10) and horses (US$35) can be rented for the day, and guided day trips are available as well. Guests can use the communal kitchen to prepare meals (Sarteneja has a few grocery shops and tortillerias) and can relax in the shared screened reading room peppered with hammocks. If you choose, ask to be picked up from the dock by Nathalie in her horse and buggy.
Ritchie’s Place (Front St., tel. 501/668-1531, usually 6am-10pm daily, hours vary, US$2-5) has a good selection of fresh dishes featuring fish empanadas and other mestizo delicacies. Owner Ritchie Cruz will also arrange fishing trips. Liz’s Fast Food (tel. 501/665-5998 or 501/668-4478, 6:30am-2pm and 6:30pm-10pm daily) is found two streets back from the seafront. This place is the local favorite, serving tasty, cheap, and traditional food in a friendly snack-stall setting. Expect three-for-US$1 Belizean tacos, empanadas, and garnaches as well as rice and beans. The homemade horchata (a rice-based drink) is worth trying.
S Pablito’s (off the main street, no phone, 11am-9pm daily, US$3-6) also known as Estrella del Mar, is the local favorite and serves big portions of Belizean dishes, including soups and fresh whole fish, lobster, and lionfish when available. There are a few tables on a concrete floor, under a palapa roof, and it’s a good spot to chill out from the harsh Sarteneja sun.
Information and Services
You can get online at Backpackers Paradise (Bandera Rd., tel. 501/423-2016, http://bluegreenbelize.org) for US$2.50 per hour. Laundry service is also available (US$5 per load). Be forewarned: There are no ATM machines or banks in Sarteneja, only a local credit union for Belizeans, so bring enough cash to last your stay.
Getting There and Around
Sarteneja has been linked to the rest of Belize by land for less than 40 years—roads are rugged and dusty and, during rainy season, often flooded and rutted. The road from Corozal to Sarteneja was recently upgraded through a European Union-funded project; although the road remains unpaved, it was a significant improvement. Still, expect a few rough spots after a heavy rain.
Most visitors get to Sarteneja by boat from Corozal or San Pedro. The water taxi Thunderbolt (tel. 501/422-0026 or cell 501/610-4475, captain’s cell 501/631-3400, www.ambergriscaye.com/thunderbolt), a well-run and locally owned operation, will stop in Sarteneja on its once-daily Corozal-San Pedro run. It departs Corozal at 7am, arriving in Sarteneja 40 minutes later before heading on to San Pedro. The San Pedro-Corozal boat (about 90 minutes) departs at 3pm from San Pedro, stopping at Sarteneja at approximately 4:30pm. Note that Sarteneja is an on-request-only stop on the way back, so let the captain and crew know as you board if you’re heading to Sarteneja only on a day trip from Corozal, to be sure to get picked up in Sarteneja on the 4:30pm return boat (Corozal-Sarteneja US$12.50 one-way, US$25 round-trip, San Pedro-Sarteneja US$22.50, US$42.50 round-trip). The Thunderbolt runs every day of the year except Christmas Day and Good Friday.
Tropic Air (tel. 501/226-2012, U.S. tel. 800/422-3435, www.tropicair.com) has two flights a day that will stop at Sarteneja’s tiny airstrip on request. Flights leave San Pedro at 7am and 4:45pm daily, arriving in Sarteneja 10 minutes later, as part of the San Pedro-Corozal schedule. Flights will stop later in the day if there is more than one passenger requesting to be dropped off or picked up in Sarteneja.
The bus from Belize City is often full of returning anglers and is the most exciting way to get here. The distinctive light-blue Sarteneja buses leave Belize City from a riverside lot next to the Supreme Court Building. Four buses make the three-hour ride (US$5 one-way), the first at noon and the last at 5pm Monday-Saturday. All buses stop just before the bridge at the Zeta Ice Factory in Orange Walk to pick up more passengers. Buses depart Sarteneja for Belize City (via Orange Walk) between 4 and 6:30am. There is a direct bus from Chetumal, via Corozal and Orange Walk, which runs every day, including Sunday, leaving Chetumal at noon or 1pm (depending on whether or not Mexico is on daylight saving time). It departs for Corozal and Chetumal at 6am daily. Buses from Corozal are intermittent, so it’s best to check with the Corozal bus station first. There is also local traffic going to Sarteneja from Orange Walk via San Estevan.
From Corozal, head south and turn left at the sign for Tony’s Inn. Follow this road, veering right until you come to a stone wall; then go left. Follow this road until you reach the first ferry across the New River, an experience in itself and free of charge. Sometimes there are lineups on Friday and Monday, so anticipate a bit of a wait. After crossing, continue on the unsurfaced road until you reach a T junction. Turn left toward Copper Bank, Cerros, and the ferry to Chunox. On entering Copper Bank, keep driving until you see the signs for Donna’s Place (an excellent eatery) and the Cerros ruins. If you’re not stopping to eat or visit the ruins, turn left at the ruins sign and proceed until you see the sign for the ferry crossing. After crossing, continue until you reach another T junction. Turn left for Sarteneja, or right for Chunox and the grinding drive through Little Belize back to Orange Walk.
An exciting dose of culture shock is an easy 15 miles from Corozal. Chetumal, capital of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, is a relatively modern, midsize city of more than 200,000—nearly as many people as in the entire country of Belize! If you don’t come for the culture (wonderful museums, a few parks, a zoo, and a delicious seafront), then you must be here to shop in the new American-style mall or see a first-run film in Chet’s brand-new air-conditioned Cineplex, located in the Plaza de las Américas mall.
Chetumal can be visited as a day trip from Corozal or used as a base from which to visit the many Yucatecan archaeological sites—including Tulum, just up the coast. It’s also a gateway to Mexico’s well-known Caribbean resort areas: Cancún, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, and Akumal. Chetumal presents the businesslike atmosphere of a growing metropolis without the bikini-clad tourist crowds of the north. A 10-minute walk takes you to the waterfront from the marketplace and most of the hotels. Modern, sculpted monuments stand along a breezy promenade that skirts the broad crescent of the bay. Explore the backstreets, where worn, wooden buildings still have a Central American-Caribbean look. The largest building in town—white, three stories, close to the waterfront—houses most of the government offices. Wide tree-lined avenues and sidewalks front dozens of small variety shops.
Do not miss the Museo de la Cultura Maya (9am-7pm Tues.-Thurs. and Sun., 9am-8pm Fri.-Sat., US$5), located at the new market; it is an impressive and creative experience by any standard. The Museo de la Ciudad (Av. de los Héroes 108, no phone, 9am-6pm Tues.-Sat., 9am-2pm Sun., US$12) is excellent as well, with a great deal of contemporary Mexican art.
On Avenida Héroes, five miles north of the city, is Calderitas Bay, a breezy area for picnicking, dining, camping, and RVing. Tiny Isla Tamalcas, 1.5 miles off the shore of Calderitas, is the home of the primitive capybara, the largest of all rodents. Twenty-one miles north of Chetumal on Highway 307 is Cenote Azul, a circular cenote over 200 feet deep and 600 feet across and filled with brilliant blue water. This is a spectacular place to stop for a swim, lunch at the outdoor restaurant, or just to have a cold drink.
ACCOMMODATIONS AND FOOD
Chetumal has quite a few hotels in all price categories (including a Holiday Inn near the new market), although quite a few are lacking in service, as well as many fine cafés specializing in fresh seafood. A convenient location and budget hotel in Chetumal is Hotel Villa Fontana (tel. 52/983-129-2003, US$20), with air-conditioning, TVs, and Wi-Fi. The hotel is on Avenida Héroes, the main street, which is home to most of the city’s other hotels and the Museo de la Cultura Maya.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Corozal-based Belize VIP Transfer Services (tel. 501/422-2725, www.belizetransfers.com) and George & Esther Moralez Travel Service (tel. 501/422-2485, www.gettransfers.com) will arrange Chetumal transfers (and other Mexican attractions) and trips to local ruins.
Buses from Belize City to Corozal and Chetumal travel throughout the day all the way through the border (you’ll need to get off twice to pass through immigration controls and pay a US$19 exit fee) to the Nuevo Mercado Lazaro Cardenas in Chetumal. A local Chetumal bus from Corozal costs US$1.25; a taxi to the border costs US$10. If it’s running, the express bus to Chetumal from Belize City takes about four hours and costs US$11. Also check with the various kiosks and travel agents in and near the Water Taxi Terminal by the Swing Bridge in Belize City for direct bus service to Chetumal.
If you’re traveling by bus from Belize, you will pass the main ADO bus terminal on Avenida Insurgentes; ask the driver to stop at the Pemex gas station on the corner of Avenidas Insurgentes and Héroes. Bus travel is a versatile and inexpensive way to travel the Quintana Roo coast—there are frequent trips to Playa del Carmen and Cancún, and a new fleet of luxury express buses is a treat after Belize’s school bus system. Chetumal is part of the loop between Campeche, Cancún, and Mérida. Fares and schedules change regularly; currently the fare to Cancún is about US$30. It’s about a 22-hour bus ride from Chetumal to Mexico City.
Chetumal can also be reached by water taxi on the San Pedro Belize Express (tel. 501/226-3535, www.belizewatertaxi.com, US$45 one-way from San Pedro), which departs for Chetumal at 7:30am daily (or 7am from Caye Caulker) and returns at 3pm. San Pedro Water Jets Express (tel. 501/226-2194, www.sanpedrowatertaxi.com, US$60 one-way) leaves San Pedro at 8am daily and returns from Chetumal at 3pm.
A good paved road connects Chetumal with Mérida, Campeche, Villahermosa, and Francisco Escárcega. Highway 307 links all of Quintana Roo’s coastal cities. Expect little traffic, and you’ll find that gas stations are well spaced if you top off at each one. Car rentals are scarce in Chetumal; go to the Hotel Los Cocos for Avis (Av. Héroes, tel. 52/983-835-0430, 9am-5pm daily). Chetumal is an economical place to rent a car (if one is available), since the tax is only 6 percent. If you’re driving, watch out for “No Left Turn” signs in Chetumal.
black orchid, Belize’s national flower