Day Two – Belize City, the Great House, and the Zoo
Saturday, November 20th, 1999

The International Airport in Belize City is small, with no jetways.  We deplaned in the morning light where a balmy tropical day awaited us, a stark contrast to California in late November.  I really like tropical climes.  One could get used to this.

The National Rental Car van was right there to pick us up.  The mandatory porter for the bags cost us BZ$2.00 or $1.00 US.  Our porter ported the bags the 50 ft. to the van and loaded them in.

At the car rental agency we found that, because we had reserved the car over the Internet, we qualified for a free upgrade.  Our steed for the next 600 miles was to be a 1998 white Jeep Cherokee with 60,000 miles on it.  It was in great shape except for the cracked windshield – a quick look around assured us that this was perfectly normal for cars in Belize.  As it turns out, it was good that we had a larger vehicle than originally planned, but that’s for later in the story. After a quick review on engaging 4WD in that model car, we were off!

I’d like to say that we spent the next week totally in 4WD, tires spinning, mud spraying as we winched and groaned our way through almost trackless tropical jungle, but the roads, despite being mostly dirt, were in pretty decent shape.  4WD is primarily needed during the rainy season and we didn’t see much rain.

We had wisely decided to spend out first night in Belize City rather than spend our first day traveling long distances over uncertain terrain after an all night flight. Belize City is not what I’d call charming.  It is the largest city in Belize with a population of 60,000 (200,000 total in the country).  Those 60,000 people are pretty much packed one atop the other and they all seem to be in the streets at the same time.  The mix of pedestrians, bicycles, and vehicles mixed well together in a sort of organized chaos.  All of the windows in the city are barred. Crime can be a problem, as we shall later see, but do not let it deter you from visiting this lovely country.

Lest I seem too harsh, I’ve never really been a city traveler.  It’s always been the countryside that has drawn me and I feel a bit claustrophobic when there are lots of people and buildings around.

After making a few wrong turns, we arrive at The Great House.  A lovely colonial style mansion set in the coastal tourist area.  We settle our luggage into our room and go downstairs for lunch at the Smoky Mermaid. Food was to be one of the eye-openers of Belize, although after frequently finding exquisite restaurants in unlikely places, I suppose we should no longer be surprised.

Judy had a salad with lobster and shrimp.  I was intrigued by the lobster burger on the menu, but alas, they were out.  I settled for a whole lobster tail.  That was all I needed to prime me for the week.  I immediately determined to consume every lobster I encountered during the next week.  Except for the three or four who eyed me warily from their dens underwater, that’s exactly what I did!  (6, you can count them as we go along ?.)

After lunch we walked down to the local wharf.  Belize is a big dive destination and three of the largest liveaboard dive boats were tied up at the dock waiting for their weekly departure.  If you want to do nothing but dive and live in the company of other divers, this is the way to go.  Big ships, luxurious quarters, great food and a dedicated crew.  I doubt we’ll ever do that, there is just too much else to see when visiting a new place <grin>.

Strolling back to the car we decided we were in good enough shape to make a run for the world famous (no kidding!) Belize Zoo.  As avid zoo visitors and supporters, both Judy and I will attest that this is one of the best zoos we’ve seen.… but, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Getting in to Belize City is easy, getting out is entirely another matter.  It wasn’t until the very last day that we managed to drive straight out, and that was only by slowly and very carefully following a map. The first time we meandered about the back alleys of the city for quite awhile, going the wrong way on one way streets several times before being turned around by cheerfully yelling locals who probably thought the gringo tourists were quite daft.

Once we found the Western  Highway from Belize City to Belmopan, San Ignacio, Guatemala and points West we were set.  The Western Highway is paved throughout its length and in excellent shape.

The Belize Zoo is 30 miles outside of the city and we sailed right by the entrance before realizing that it was there. It is very rustic—one thing that makes this Zoo so attractive is that the environment didn’t have to be crafted out of concrete and rebar.  The zoo is set in the environment where the native animals live.  Fence a bit of it in and bingo, you have authentic habitat.  The zoo is lightly enough visited that the animals view the visitors as a diversion and walk right up to see what you are doing.  There isn’t a sense of the animals being “caged” the way they are in more formal zoos. I could talk about the animals for hours, but I won’t.  You will just have to go there.
Judy, of course, had read the guidebooks and wanted to slather on the 100% DEET insect repellent we had brought, even before we left the hotel room.  I wanted to see if there were going to be any bugs before covering ourselves in that most potent of chemicals.

A few minutes into the visit, I looked down to discover that tiny “pine flies” had quickly and painlessly removed quite a bit of me and I was covered with spots of blood.  Yikes!  Thank goodness a liberal application of DEET took care of them.  There were to be others later on who would not be so easy to discourage.

We met another couple in the zoo who had not thought to bring repellent.  In the spirit of adventurers everywhere we came to their rescue and we all continued our happy visit.

A young Guatemalan woman attached herself to us and proceeded to show off the zoo.  I don’t know if she was a docent, employee, or just liked the animals.  She seemed able to summon them at will and point out creatures that were almost invisible to us. She must have been a recent immigrant, since, unlike most folk there, she spoke hardly any English.This was our first encounter with tree dwelling termites, which make fibrous nests a meter or more in diameter up in trees.  They look just like someone sculpted a big ball of mud around the tree trunk.

We wanted to be sure to be back at the hotel before dark, so back to the car we went and scooted up the highway for home. Once again we headed for the Smoky Mermaid and dinner. Chicken for Judy, which she enjoyed.  I on the other hand, had steak and …there will be a quiz later… lobster!  With few exceptions, we found that Belize is not known for beef, but the lobster was great.