Day Three – The missing ruins, Belmopan and The Hummingbird Highway.
Sunday, November 21st, 1999

We awoke early, as is usual for us, had a nondescript breakfast at the Mermaid, and headed Southwest down the Western Highway for Belmopan, the Hummingbird Highway, and our final destination, the Rum Point Inn, Placencia, Belize.

We intended to drive slowly and stop and look at things on the way, and we did.  We took a little over eight hours to make a nominally five hour trip.  The run down the Western Highway is through a drier part of Belize, with pretty mountain vistas in the distance.  We couldn’t find much to stop and look at along this stretch of road, so we ran right down to Belmopan for lunch.

Belmopan is a new, custom built city that exists as the center of government.  We stopped at the Bullfrog Inn for a quick lunch.  I had a hamburger, which pretty much put me off beef for the rest of the trip.  Judy had a BBQ pork sandwich which worked for her.  The Inn had a nice little arboretum where we saw our first treefrog and gecko of the trip.  Across the street was one of the ubiquitous Pharmacias whose proprietors are licensed to sell “Drugs and Poisons”.

Before starting out, we had searched fruitlessly for a good map of the country.  In the morning, one of the other guests overheard us discussing the situation, and graciously gave us her map.  She was leaving for home that day and didn’t need the map any longer, but I know she was giving up a little souvenir of her trip.  If she ever reads this some day – Thank you!

Scattered across the map like pepper are red markings indicating the location of Mayan ruins.  We set our sites on the closest one, “Baking Pot,” and went to have a look.  A ways out of Belmopan, we came up on a covey of bicycle riders, complete with truck escort, completely blocking the road.  We followed them slowly for some distance, since there was no obvious way to get around them. The people in the escort truck completely ignored our presence. Finally a large truck came up to us from behind.  We dropped back to let the truck pass us and see how he handled the situation.  The truck driver was more direct.  He just sounded his horn and drove at them.  They respectfully pulled over and the truck went by.

Before we could execute a similar maneuver, we noted on the map that we had passed our destination by some bit and were almost to Guatemala!  There is not much distance between countries down here.  We turned back and drove slowly back towards Belmopan, looking hard for some indication of the ruins.  We never did find them…

 We stopped at a gas station to fill up since we didn’t know how far to the next one.  I then acted in the first of many little gas station plays we were to have everywhere except Placencia.  Gas there is BZ$5 or about $2.50 a gallon.  Not bad, considering how far they have to truck it.  US currency is accepted everywhere, change is always tendered in $BZ and the exchange rate is always 2/1.  I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I put in something like BZ$48 worth of gas and tendered US$30.  The US$20 to BZ$40 calculation appeared to work.  Now we have a situation where I owe him BZ$8 and have given him US$10.  He hands me BZ$2 and waits to see what happens. I continue to wait for more change and after a longish pause, he hands it over.  This happened often enough that Judy and I decided there was more to it than gas station owners having trouble dividing by two.

Back to Belmopan and the intersection with the Hummingbird Highway. Perhaps the most picturesque road in Belize that we traveled, it is also paved throughout much of its length, but bits are still under construction and portions are still dirt.

There are two basic approaches to driving on dirt.  The conservative way is to go 20 or 30 mph and slow down when you see a rough spot ahead. This causes the occupants to shake, rattle, and roll with the road.  The second way is just to zoom along at 50mph, let the suspension take the beating, and hope nothing breaks.  This is smoother for the occupants, but the car begins to drift at anything over 50 mph and when you hit one of the BIG dips, you really know it. There are enough big potholes that you’re punished no matter which way you drive.  The was one little hill where I believe all four wheels actually left the ground, but that was the exception rather than the rule.

Belmopan, and a right turn onto the Hummingbird, jewel of Belize.  The Hummingbird is well paved, for the most part, smooth, and the prettiest drive in Belize.  We cruise Southeast past banana plantations (fruit covered in a kind of big hairnet, presumably for protection from birds and bats), citrus plantations, and rainforest, into the mountains towards our first stop at the Blue Hole.

This part of Belize is composed of Karst topography, which means that the bones of this land are composed of limestone, worn and eroded by eons of rain and water. The Blue Hole is a cenote, or a pool of water formed when the roof of a flooded cavern collapsed exposing the interior.  The deep, undisturbed waters are an unreal blue surrounded by jungle.  Some cenotes are the doorways to miles of unexplored underwater caves, but this one is old and shallow.

As we are admiring the view, several local children arrive for an afternoon swim.  We leave them to their play and take the trail that leads to an aboveground cavern and a mile or so of rainforest. No matter how many times I visit one, I’m always amazed at the density of life in the rainforest environment.  Be it in the tropics, or in the Pacific Northwest, it is an awe-inspiring experience.

After a bit of scrambling, we arrive at the cave entrance.  Unfortunately, since we didn’t pack flashlights, we can only go a few tens of meters into this wild cave.  In the fading light and the feeble glow of my keychain light, we can see stalactites hanging from the roof and a slow, extremely clear stream running beside us. Next time we will be better prepared.

It’s interesting to note that all of the parks and zoos charge admission, and that there is an unspoken arrangement that there is one price for the tourist and another, lower one,  for the locals.  Only fair, to my way of thinking.  National parks consume a large part of Belize and eco-tourism generates a significant amount of revenue.  I’d much rather pay extra to see those magnificent forests in their natural setting than see them turned into artifacts for export.

Time is marching on and we still have no idea how long it will take us to reach the Rum Point Inn.  The Southern Highway, which we’ve just turned onto, is dirt along much of its length and its condition is unknown to us.  We run South.

To me, born and bred to the US freeway system, the lack of directional signs is always something of a shock.  As we drive along we often encounter wide, graded dirt roads diverging from our own. They never seem to quite match the map.  They are almost always unlabeled, but clearly lead to destinations of import. The question is, does it lead to our destination?  We pass one such road on our left reading “Robert’s Grove – Placencia”.  Well, we know Robert’s Grove is in Placencia, but is that really the road we want to take?  After a few more miles of discussion, we decide that it probably was and turn around to take it. By now the light is fading fast, with the lack of twilight characteristic of the tropics.  We hope we’ve made the right choice, for if not, we will be spending the night in the car.

This road is seriously in need of grading, and provides a tooth rattling ride at whatever speed you choose to take it. We’re beginning to worry, but eventually the towns of Maya Beach and Seine Bight Village come into view, telling us we are on the right road and that the Rum Point Inn is not far ahead. We arrive at Rum Point, halfway to Placencia Village, just as the sun dips below the horizon.

The Rum Point Inn is a charming resort on the Placencia Peninsula. The buildings are somewhat free-form, being made of ferro-cement.  The rooms are large, airy, and air conditioned.  The beds are comfortable and we found it a thoroughly satisfactory place to stay. Of all the resorts on the peninsula we chose Rum Point because it offered the largest dive boat in the country, short of the live-aboards, and the boat had a marine head – very useful when you are out on it most of the day.

George Bevier, the owner, met us as we arrived and we were soon settled into our second floor room with its accompanying geckos and tree frogs – those indispensable residents of every tropical hostel.  They both eat bugs and having a resident gecko is considered to be lucky by the natives of almost every country.

We decided we were not too tired to dive the next morning, so we signed up for the boat before heading to the dining room for dinner.

The Rum Point Inn offers a complete meal package as part of their service. Dining is family style, in a very nice open-air dining room.  The ceiling fans and ocean breeze made it quite comfortable. However, Judy had done her homework and discovered that there were several promising places to eat nearby, so we did not take advantage of the meal plan.  For someone only interested in diving and remaining on the resort grounds, the meal plan might make sense, but we liked the option of exploring.

Dinner that night was a choice of conch or marinated flank steak (no lobster, alas).  We both chose the flank steak, but since Judy asked, the kitchen send out a sample of conch for us to try.  Quite interesting, but I think I preferred the steak. After dinner, we made an early night of it and went to bed.