Three days of snorkeling, delicious food, fantastic service, romantic tropical rains, and good company on an island surrounded by mangroves and crystal clear Caribbean Sea—and we were back at the Radisson in Belize City. Not to stay—thank god—but to wait for a shuttle to the airport where we had a rental car reserved for the next part of our Belizean adventure—visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal.
But since we had to kill about 30 minutes, and it was swamp-crotch humid in the late morning, we lugged our luggage into the shade of the deck outside the Radisson restaurant where we figured we’d have access to Wi-Fi and cold Belikin beers. Unfortunately, the poolside Stone Grill was closed. There was no Wi-Fi, no food, and no drink, or at least not until 11am, which I thought was a little late for the “premiere hotel of Belize City,” but I guess everyone in the tropics lives on island time, whether it’s an island or not.
“I think I can get onto the guest Wi-Fi, but the signal is weak!” Jonathan said, lifting his sunglasses to his head, so he could bring his Galaxy S4 closer to his face and with his opposable thumbs hack into the hotel’s servers. I interpreted his sweaty brow as panic and anxiety, because for him, and most of the Bay Area techies we know, a few days without access to news, apps, email, and the summary page of his E-Trade money market account, is just too much to handle. It had been three days without good high speed internet and the feeling of interconnectedness amongst our group was palpable. His mother had her iPad, iPhone, and MacBook out all at the same time like she was some guerilla day-trader or something. His sister was practically doing the same. The sweat on their brows could have been the result of the heat, but I’ve seen them all yell at their phones before, sooooo…..
“I’m gonna go to the lobby and use the restroom,” Jonathan said before grabbing his phone and heading off towards the lobby. I knew he was lying. Like a junkie who wants everyone to think he’s sober, he just needed to step away for a minute to snort his memes and GIFs.
“Ask them about the internet!” his mother yelled after him, and I wondered how many people truly “get away” for vacation in our digital age? But in the absence of an answer, I went back to people watching in the shade.
Over the next 20 minutes, tourist after tourist climbed the stairs to the restaurant patio where we’d setup camp, and reached for the doors to go inside, but they were locked. In the beginning we just let people figure it out for themselves. They pulled a few times, then stuck their nose to the glass with their hands on the sides of their head and peered inside where there wasn’t any movement. Then the realization set in—they weren’t open yet. Defeated, they turned and walked away eventually. But after the first few, we started warning people as they approached the doors, because it was something to do.
“They’re not open yet,” I said, not even looking up from the paperback book I was reading (I know, how analog is that?), “there’s a bathroom in the lobby, and you can access the Wi-Fi from there too.”
All of the sudden a white middle-aged man approached.
“Is this the nicest hotel around here?” he asked, out of breath from waving his cell phone around in one hand, while pushing his bleached blond I’m-way-too-old-to-have-a-Justin-Bieber-haircut bangs out from in front of his eyes. His black patent leather driving loafers, baggy track pants, and white I love Aruba t-shirt seemed to highlight his leathery orange skin.
Who is this fat American tourist and what is he squabbling about, I wondered.
“My wife and I just spent the week at the Ritz in Aruba and she is gonna kill me if this is really as good as it gets! I’m scared to go back to my room!”
We all kind of looked up at each other to assess which one of us was going to say something. “You’ve gotta leave Belize City if you want to get to the luxury resorts,” I said.
“I’m Mormon,” the guy said, looking down at his phone, “this is so stressful I need a drink!”
“Go for it,” I said, “you’re on vacation.”
Jonathan’s mother and sister offered him our Lonely Planet guide book and were patiently explaining where some of the better resorts in Belize are when his phone rang.
“Hello?” he asked, raising his voice with surprise. “You fucked us Sharlene and you better figure out a way to get us out of here. It’s a Radisson for god’s sake!”
While his travel agent worked her magic, we threw out the names of all the high end resorts we’d heard of in the area.
“Call me back!” he shouted into his phone, before hanging up. “You know what happened?”
“What?” I asked.
“Our travel agent booked a bunch of flights for us at the end of the year, because we needed the points to maintain our SPG status. And I guess she figured Belize would make us happy.”
“Well good luck.” I said, and went back to reading my book. And I couldn’t help but think about the irony of the situation. A newspaper headline would capture it as “Drunk Mormon businessman found murdered by wife at closed hotel bar, after setting the bar too high for vacation spots.”
Driving to San Ignacio Belize from Belize City
Once we got our rental car (always rent from Crystal Rental, everyone in Belize said they were the best, and the place we rented from didn’t have our car when we showed up, so they ended up walking us over to Crystal Rental, and paid them to give us a rental car….which was great!) we left the Belize City Airport and took the Western Highway towards the Guatemala border.
Along the way, we passed the Belize Zoo, the city of Belmopan (the current capitol of Belize), lots of little shanty villages, some nice looking boutique resorts, and loads of jungle landscape. The goal was to get to the Guatemala border by 1pm, because we were meeting our guide Roxy on the other side.
“You’re not planning on driving across the border, are you?” the rental car guy asked.
“Nope, we’ll park and walk across,” we said, “we’ve got a guide picking us up to drive us to Tikal.”
The roads, or more accurately road, was clear and there was essentially no traffic, but it still took us about three hours to make it to the border. From time to time we’d have to cross into oncoming traffic to pass a local driving in a beat up car from the 70s that can’t go faster than 30 MPH, but that was sort of exciting. Not so much when Jonathan almost got us killed a few times doing it on a blind curve, but for the most part, it was fine. We couldn’t really go more than 50 MPH, because the potholes in the road—as few and far between as they were—are bad. Additionally, Belize is one of those countries who has employed the “sleeping police man,” which means they randomly put in speed bumps where you’d least expect them, preventing drivers from speeding. Do they work? Yes. Will you have whiplash after driving the roads of Belize? Yes!
Since Jonathan gets the hangries if he doesn’t eat every two hours, we decided to stop in San Ignacio, the last major town before reaching the Guatemala border. Saint Ignacio is where you’ll want to stop if you need to fill up on gas, pop into a proper market for some snacks or bottled water, eat at a restaurant, or get your tires repaired and that sort of thing. It’s a real town with a real population and a weekly market. So we stopped to check out the market and grab a bite to eat.
We parked across the street in a lot of mud, tall grass, and two Rastafarian stoners who agreed they’d watch our car if we brought them something to eat. To which I asked them if they had any allergies or wanted anything in particular. Jonathan grabbed me by the shirt and rolled his eyes.
In the market some expats from the UK tried to sell us ginger and merlot flavored vinegar they called wine. Heed this warning BELIZE DOESN’T PRODUCE GOOD WINE. There were several booths owned by Chinese locals selling kitchen supplies, knockoff Hellow Kitty Tupperware, and aluminum mixing bowls from small to large.
We found the food court, which was three tents with gas stoves running on propane tanks and cast iron grill tops heated by coals. A mother and daughter were making pupusas fresh to order. From a large plastic bowl willed with the corn flour dough they grabbed enough to fill with cheese, beans, and meat before slapping them onto the grill.
The daughter spoke a little English, definitely more than her mom, and took our order just when it started to rain. We took a seat at the picnic tables under their tent and waited for our order.
While the pupusas fried on the grill, we went to the stall a few feet away and ordered some chicken tinga tacos. The handmade tortillas were moist, soft, and slightly chewy. The onion and cilantro salsa and salsa verde had a little bit of heat, but not so much that it over powered the sweetness of the chicken. This plate of food was like $2. The dish was messy and the paper thin napkins they give you everywhere in Belize didn’t quite make things better. A wet wipe was definitely in order.
Then the pupusas came. They were fresh off the grill with bits of crispy fried cheese around the edges. The marks across the top were made with a steel spatula so they can tell which pupusas are cheese and beans vs everything else.
On the table was a bucket of pickled cabbage slaw and a squeeze bottle of hot sauce.
We ordered two bottles of orange Fanta which is the perfect beverage to wash everything down. I think it was made with cane sugar because it wasn’t super sweet either.
Headed to San Ignacio? There are some places to stay while in town, but for the most part, you can stop in San Ignacio and then it’s just a few minutes longer before you get to the Guatemalan border.