Heading North from Tela I spent a night in a place that looked like a small Mexican city except that there was more trash on the street. I enjoyed strolling around in the afternoon, but the clerk at the hotel warned me passionately not to go out at night because of the danger posed by youth gangs. That hotel had the visual appeal of the set of “Taxi.” Another city along the East coast of Honduras had wide roads and curved cement curbs that made it look like a suburb in California. Now that I think about it, it looked just like a neighborhood I got lost in one time along the bay near South San Francisco.
The essential problem of traveling between Honduras and Belize was one of Bandits. It seems they liked to stop the buses that travel North along the East Coast to Guatemala from Honduras. The Lonely Planet travel guide didn’t even describe this route other than to warn against it. My theory was that locals must have a way of avoiding the bandits, so I asked them. The locals confirmed that it was a bad idea to take the North bound buses. When I asked a gentleman how people would get to Guatemala if they had to he said, “oh, they would take a lancha.” Within a few minutes I had instructions on how to get to the lancha.
It started with a short bus ride. I got on a bus and asked other passengers for help finding the right place to get off. They also assured me that I didn’t have to worry about bandits on this bus. My stop appeared to be a field full of cows. It was a beautiful sunny day and I got off the bus with a handful other people. I followed the group right out into the field of cows. Soon it was clear that our destination was a concession stand on the far side of the field. We were to wait next to a large irrigation ditch for a boat. We enjoyed refreshments while we waited; eventually a canoe with a tiny outboard motor came puttering up the ditch. We climbed in and the driver navigated, for a while, the intersecting agricultural ditches. When the farm fields ran out we found ourselves on a small river surrounded by light forest. We came to a shack on a high bank of the river that served as a hub of these canoe taxis. I made a transfer there.
While I was waiting for the next boat to get going I saw an American who was dressed like a character in a movie about central America. He was wearing a linen shirt and baggy tan pants and had a straw hat. I wasn’t the only foreigner who had taken this route. Still, the minute I stopped following the path described in the Lonely Planet I started to have authentic interactions with the people I met. They were generally interested to talk to me, helpful and friendly.
After disembarking from the canoe, I walked along a flat red dirt road to a perfectly quaint border crossing in the middle of a banana field. The border crossing consisted of a shack like toll booth next to a white wooden bar that stretched across the road. Relaxing in a chair next to the shack was a portly Guatemalan border guard with a pistol. The guard was friendly and polite. We chatted, he stamped my passport and I was on my way.
A short bus ride took me to Punto Gordo Guatemala, I spent the night in a hotel there after asking how and when to book a ride on the lancha. The lancha was a newer v-hull aluminum boat, maybe 21 feet long, with twin 300 HP outboard motors. A group of about 5 people climbed into the boat. I remember thinking that the price of this trip was quite high compared to the buses I had been riding for the last couple of weeks. I wonder if the bandits robbing the buses were making as much profit. On the other hand I suppose those twin 300’s are thirsty for fuel.
It felt like we were heading straight out into the Atlantic. The waves were strong and the sky was darkening. At one point we got a light dose of rain as we traveling in the uncovered boat. The coast remained in sight, but far away for the duration of the hour to hour and a half long trip.
I don’t remember most of the other passengers, but one was a kid who looked like he was high-school aged who was wearing a large amount of gold jewelry. He told me that he had a visa to pick bananas in Belize. I don’t know how banana pickers get paid, but I can’t imagine that they end up with a lot of disposable income for investing in gold. I expected him to act like a thug, he turned out to be a sweet kid and we ended up talking half way through Belize.
Coming from Guatemala, the port city in Southern Belize blew my mind. The houses in this town were all one story bungalows with tropical gardens around them. After being in Latin America for so long it was a real surprise that everyone around me was black and speaking English. The border guards were neatly dressed and disciplined. The roads were wider and better maintained but still made of red dirt. The buses were still old school buses.
At a rest stop half way through Belize a small grocery store had a small wall with various denominations of colorful local money. I commented that by comparison, American money is ugly. He replied with a note of shock: "American money is beautiful." I don't know if his appreciation for American bills was based on an appreciation of their value and stability, but I did reconsider my position. I guess when I think about it, I prefer monochrome money with a design that has a lot of history. Too bad the treasury has since decided to mess that up with a garish fish-eye lens.
Arriving in a larger city at night and hungry, my bus stopped in a crowded square filled with hawkers. Most were offering food and I ended up having a conch sandwich. It was delicious; sadly I haven't had the opportunity to enjoy a conch sandwich since.
The hotel I stayed at that night was run by a young East Indian; I didn't spend enough time in Belize to ever get over how much British influence there was in the country in the middle of Central America.
Arriving at the Mexican border was like returning home; suddenly I was in the Americas again. Things were dusty and crowded at this crossing and the poverty looked less quaint. There was even a sign just for American's. The sign was written in English and read something to the effect that transporting a firearm into Mexico is punishable by a thirty year sentence.