Adventures in Belize

  We have been to the beautiful country of Belize three times and found it to be an enchanting country. Our first trip down was on the March Break in 1999. My husband had left a week ahead of me to investigate the possibilities of buying a property for our future retirement. He left during a blizzard with the limo scheduled to arrive at 6:00 am to take him to the airport. Guess who was out shoveling so the limo could get into the driveway? I waved good bye by tossing a shovel of snow on to the already steep banks at the sides of the driveway. I also had to get to work and my car was definitely not going to get out with all the snow that had fallen. I secretly hoped that his flight would be canceled so he could come back and finish the other half of the driveway. As fate would have it, his plane took off without a hitch and I was left on my own to shovel, work, tend to his business and our two Alaskan Malamutes with a combined weight of 235 lbs. There was something definitely wrong with this picture!

When I finally arrived in Belize City one week later, my beloved was waiting for me at the airport, overjoyed to see me. I'm sure guilt played a major role in his booking a suite at the Princess Hotel. Our room looked onto the calming blue water of the Caribbean and as the balmy warm breezes blew in through the sliding glass doors, my misery of the week before was becoming a distant memory.

One of the more delightful restaurants in Belize City is the Smokey Mermaid on Cork Street in the Fort George District. It's located right across the street from the Radisson Hotel. The restaurant offered a nighttime garden ambience with lighted palm trees and plants, umbrellas, fountains and romantic dining under the stars. Citronella candles were discretely placed in the foliage to ward off bugs and mosquitoes. The menu provided a variety of choices and the meals were delicious.

Belize City is not a particularly beautiful place to visit. Caution should be exercised at night, especially in the area of the Swing Bridge. The beauty of Belize lies outside the city, with its mountains, clear streams, waterfalls. exquisite underwater life, and the peacefulness of the people. Enjoying the beauty of Belize can be tricky; the roads can be trying at best and a 4x4 is advisable.

In all our years of travel, we’ve never run into a problem renting cars in Europe; however, car rentals in Central America can be somewhat problematic if you don’t stick to a reputable and well known rental agency. On our third trip to Belize several years ago, we arrived in July during the rainy season. Our flight arrived around 4:00 p.m. on a Sunday and when we wandered over to Budget car rentals, the office was closed. We found this strange seeing as we had been faxed a copy of the rental confirmation and were told we could pick up the car at the airport upon arrival. For some reason, the other agencies were also closed with the exception of one which shall remain nameless and I will refer to as Nameless Auto Rentals. We were told by the agent that the other agencies closed for a portion of the afternoon and reopened closer to dinner time, perhaps as more flights arrived later in the day. Our first question should have been why was this one open when all the others were closed?

Because it was raining heavily, we were about to go back to the terminal and wait inside. The agent at Nameless Auto Rentals invited us into his office. He told us he would honor the confirmation that we had with Budget. We showed him our contract and guess what? He had a red 4x4 Suzuki gassed up and ready to go. It was ours for the taking. Weren’t we just the luckiest? We did question if this was a legitimate practice and he assured us the agents did this regularly. By this time, the rain was driving down in torrential sheets and the thought of waiting around for Budget to open was not particularly appealing. Accepting his offer, we climbed into the Suzuki and headed for our hotel in downtown Belize City.

The next day while on a sightseeing expedition in our Suzuki, the 4x4 began to make some unhealthy noises and smoke started billowing from the engine and back end of the vehicle. The gear shift seized and we were stranded on the highway about seven or eight kilometers from the airport and the car rental agency. At this stage of the game, we were astute enough to realize we were too old to even attempt hoofing it back to the airport in the blazing heat. The alternative was to hitch a ride to the airport. We both agreed that after 25 plus years of standing on my feet teaching, my legs looked more like a Belizean road map and hiking up my skirt to attract anyone to stop was no longer an option!

We spotted a pretty yellow house and a truck with Mooresville, North Carolina painted on its door so figured perhaps the owners would be kind enough to let us use their phone to call Nameless Auto Rentals. The owner was very gracious and offered us a cold drink. By this time, the temperature had soared to over 40C (at least 104 F) and the humidity was about the same. It didn’t take more than half an hour for a tow truck and a new vehicle to arrive. A quick inspection indicated that there was no oil in the engine of ours! The agent said that the car had been gassed, but oil was never mentioned! I asked, “Are you sure the replacement has oil, water and gas?” I was told everything was in tip top shape. Thankful that another 4x4 had been sent promptly, we both took them at their word. We were off once again and hadn’t lost too much time.

We decided to take the scenic route to Consejo which is a tiny village across the bay from Chetumal, Mexico. This was where we eventually purchased a property. From here we would return to Belize City. At Consejo, my husband checked the tires, filled them with air, as well as topping off the oil and water. Everything seemed fine. Seemed being the operative word. The second vehicle had been running well during the drive up to Consejo. Somewhere along the way, we heard a funny noise and the car wasn’t handling well at all. We pulled over on to the shoulder and one of the back tires was off the rim and was punctured in at least three places. Have I mentioned that the roads are bad in Belize?

My husband opened up the trunk and pulled out the jack. He tried to jack up the car but it was sitting at such a steep angle that he couldn’t get it jacked up high enough to remove the tire. The sun was blazing in all its splendor and there was no pretty yellow house nearby where we could go for help. By this time, my poor husband was getting bitten alive by red fire ants and doctor flies. After awhile, a trucker stopped to help. He agreed that the jack was not the correct one for an SUV and offered to use his instead. He backed up his truck right on top of our vehicle and we could hear this loud scrape as we both screamed, “STOP!” When he pulled forward, there was a huge dent and a large patch of blue paint on the hood of our SUV. We looked at each other and I thought well, there goes the insurance deductible!

Within no time, the tire was changed and we thanked the gentleman and offered a payment for his time, which he refused. He advised my husband to drive slowly until we reached the next town where there was a gas station and he could put more air in the spare tire. The nearest gas station was fifteen kilometers away. My husband put air in the tire and as he was backing up to the gas pumps to fill up, I could hear a hissing sound again. Sure enough, the spare had a leak and the pressure in one of the front tires was down. It had a leak too! So, we had to repair three tires and the unhappy couple headed directly for Nameless Auto Rentals. By this time, my husband’s face, neck and hands had swollen to about five times their normal size from red fire ants and doctor fly bites. After close to two hours at the side of the road in the heat, we were both filthy and smelled like we had spent the day rolling in a pigpen! Our arrival at the car leasing agency was anything but welcomed. The agent appeared rather horrified as he stared at us, two individuals who probably looked to him as if we’d arrived from another planet . At the very least, I looked like I had just stepped off of a broomstick!

The agent couldn’t understand what had happened…. What a terrible misfortune to have such bad luck with two cars. He said, “This has never happened before.” I replied, “I find that highly unlikely. There is no way these vehicles are being regularly serviced because if they were, the first wouldn’t have had the engine blow because of lack of oil and the second wouldn’t have had three flat tires.” I also thought that the agent knew the condition of the tires on the SUV. If the vehicles had been regularly checked, he would have known. There was no excuse for a faulty spare and the wrong jack. My husband had been silently watching all this unfold and was now looking like some kind of an escapee from a circus freak show. He was in desperate need of some antihistamines. He came forward and presented the agent with the bill for the repairs to the tires.

The agent indicated that it was our responsibility to pay for the tires. I could understand one, but three? That was pushing it. I asked, “Do we look like people who are having a good time on our vacation? Every unpleasant thing that has occurred has been the result of your vehicles.” While this scenario was playing itself out, a young couple walked in to inquire about a rental. They were observing the exchange and the agent became quite nervous and called his manager, who suggested we were to be given another SUV but we would be liable for the tire repairs on the second car. We definitely didn’t want another car from this rental company. The agent told him there were customers in the office and we didn’t want another vehicle. We wanted our money refunded. With the young couple watching, he ran out to the car, checked the odometer and gas readings and hightailed it back into the office to begin the paperwork to reimburse us for all the charges and the damage deposit. He had failed to notice the dent and the streak of blue paint on the hood. There is justice in this world after all!

Next door was a Hertz agency and the agent there asked what kind of a vehicle we wanted. All I could think of saying was, “A 4x4 with four round tires, an engine with oil and your assurance that it will not blow up on us!” He gave me a nod and replied, ”I’m guessing you were using another car rental company and it didn’t work out so well.” There was a reason why Nameless Auto Rentals was open on a Sunday afternoon when all the others were closed.

We had a wonderful experience at The Maruba Resort and Jungle Spa for a jungle experience North American style. Located in the Corozal District of Belize, the resort offered over 2000 acres of jungle and took nine years to build. Stucco cabanas with thatched roofs dotted the compound. Each bathroom was filled with natural products of the jungle- creams, soaps and lotions. Every square inch was filled with hibiscus and palms. The room had a Mayan rock sculpture almost the size of a mini fireplace where incense was burned and soft music played in the background. Hibiscus flowers adorned the towels, pillows, and tables in the cabana.

The pool area gave a whole new meaning to relaxation with magical waterfalls, exotic plants and waiters constantly coming by to check if they could bring us anything. Did we really have to leave this wonderful haven? The meals were phenomenal with most of the fruits and vegetables grown on the resort. What a wonderful experience to eat breakfast under the jungle palms with parrots, macaws and other tropical birds and insects to entertain you.

Another wonderful and exciting day trip was taking a boat ride along the New River which winds its way through the jungle to the Mayan Ruins at Lamanai. The ruins are interesting, but I believe that those in Copan in Honduras were much more impressive. Our guide pointed out various birds and wildlife along the way as we went searching for crocodiles in the river (at a distance). He was a walking encyclopedia on the ruins, the jungle, Mayan culture and Belize in general. We were served a delicious picnic lunch with linen table cloths and to top it off, the sterling silverware was held in place in linen napkins with palm leaves and hibiscus flowers. These people certainly knew how to picnic.

Upon our return to the resort, we had another wonderful meal. Our enjoyment was somewhat short-lived because we knew that this would be our last night at this idyllic paradise. The next morning, we would be returning to Canada and reality!

  Next Installment:   The Bahamas - swimming with Dolphins.      
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