Senor Lopez

A figure strode deliberately  down the hill toward us, the machete hanging from his belt to his shins swinging ominously back and forth.  We were deep into the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve west of San Ignacio, Belize.  I handed Ken the hand-drawn map we had used to navigate to this private property on the river.  This was our inadequate indication that we were in fact permitted to be here.  The thing was, we were not sure that the caretaker of the property had gotten the message.  And from the way he marched towards us, it seemed that he hadn’t.  But what was that flanking his heels, bobbing and wobbling as fast as possible after the machete wearing man?  It looked like a tiny, floppy-eared brown and white puppy.

Fierce guard puppy

Fierce guard puppy

Thus was our first introduction to Senor Lopez and his fierce guard puppy, Spicy.  IMG_0844Over the next few days as we relaxed by the river, cleaning and maintaining the truck, rejuvenating ourselves with intermittent slides into the refreshing river, Senor Lopez kept a close eye on us, teaching us as much as he could about surviving in the bush of Belize all the while lamenting in his broken spanish/creole/english that the attention we were lavishing on his erstwhile guard puppy, Spicy, were surely ruining her for good.  “All Spicy do is eat, play, sleep!”  “An then people, they pet Spicy, and it is no good.”

Spicy learning how to do dishes

Spicy learning how to do dishes

 One of the most important lessons in my mind was how to kill giant tarantulas.  Kylee almost stumbled on one outside of the bathroom (apologies for the lack of pictures, I was too terrified to move), and soon we were all huddled slack-jawed around, at a very respectable distance of course.  Ken came running over not with the machete that one would imagine would be used to kill a spider the size of a dinner plate, but instead with a mere stick.  As Ken goaded the spider with the end of the killing stick it moved with lightening quick speed, latching onto the end with it’s fangs, causing all of us to scream, jump back and Ken to heroically pound it to a pulp.

Senor Lopez, firing up the bbq

Senor Lopez, firing up the bbq

By far the most impressive skill that Senor Lopez imparted was his complete mastery of the skill known as macheting.  Not only did he sharpen Joe’s machete to a razor sharp edge, he also bequeathed to Ken one of his worn-out, old machetes and taught them both how to swing one properly.  The grin spreading from ear to ear on Ken’s face might have prompted an unknowing individual to wonder if he had just won the $300 billion dollar PowerBall jackpot, nope just the euphoric grin of a man/boy with the best toy he could possibly imagine.  Needless to say, the jungle around our truck got destroyed, or rather tamed, that day.
One of the many sights we enjoyed in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve was the Hidden Valley Waterfall, at over 1,000 feet Central America’s tallest.  Although beautiful, it was not as awe-inspiring as we had hoped.  IMG_0811More fascinating was Pedro, the caretaker at the waterfall overlook.  A hunched over, weather beaten man, with his wisdom carved into his face, Pedro had been maintaining the overlook for 23 years. Leaving the waterfall we passed by a tall lookout tower that promised to offer stunning vistas of the surrounding landscape.  Unfortunately it was behind a barb wire fence clearly marked with a no trespassing sign.  Fortunately, we were still traveling with Joe and Kylee who had no reservations about driving to the main farmhouse and asking permission to climb the tower.  Gary, the owner of the Pine Mountain Farm, not only gave us permission to climb the tower, but also printed out a comprehensive map of Mountain Pine Ridge, and even offered us hot showers and internet.

Don't they look good?

Don’t they look good?

He clearly has either overlanded or traveled extensively and knows the high value those commodities hold.  We are still amazed every day we are on the road as we meet incredible people who are willing to share so much with us, and it inspires us to return that generosity as often as we can.

After a day of relaxing, reading, truck and camper cleaning and maintenance as well as a few rounds of competitive hearts, we hit the road for some jungle adventures.  First stop, Rio On Pools.  A beautiful series of pools cascading over granite rocks down the valley.

Rio On Pools

Rio On Pools

As refreshing as the water was, the tiny leeches clinging to our legs and slimy rocks threatening total body destruction with one misstep, prompted us to continue on to our next destination the Rio Frio Cave.  The Rio Frio Cave has the largest cave opening in Belize, its huge.  IMG_0941-1Inside a river carved through the middle of the cave and mineral deposits flowed like lava down the walls.

Exploring the depths

Exploring the depths

On the drive back to our campsite, we decided to take a “shortcut” described to us by Senor Lopez.

Riverbed or road....you decide

Riverbed or road….you decide

Lesson number 985 of overlanding was learned, do not take your rig aka home down “shortcuts” that are not on maps, especially when there are absolutely no signs of any previous traffic on them.

IMG_0983

We reluctantly left the beautiful Pine Ridge to return to San Ignacio in preparation to cross into Guatemala.  We ate one final meal with patagoniaorbust, even finding the ingredients to make two belated Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, baked in a wood-fired oven.

Wood-fired barrel oven

Wood-fired barrel oven

After over a month of overloading adventures together we are parting ways this morning.  They are headed to Guatemala and we are holed up in San Ignacio, Belize waiting for my contact lenses to arrive (the gift that keeps on giving thanks to the Oaxacan thief) and catching up on blogging, podcast downloading, book reading, and hammock swinging.

The oven might have been a bit hot, but burnt crust and all it was delicious.

The oven might have been a bit hot, but burnt crust and all it was delicious.

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Ragamuffin Mon!

Sailboat, don’t mind if I do. Snorkeling with nurse sharks, sting rays, and thousands of other fish, don’t mind if I do.  Shrimp ceviche, don’t mind if I do.  Free-flowing rum punch, don’t mind if I do.  Middle-aged Italian women bumping and grinding to some reggae, not particularly enjoyable, but it’ll do.  Stuck on a reef in a sailboat full of drunk Americans, Italians, and a semi-sober Belizean crew, you better Belize it!

Perhaps I should start at the beginning.  After an incredible 42 days and 4,730 miles spent in Mexico, we reluctantly crossed into Belize.  Mexico had surprised and enthralled us and although we were excited to head into new territory we weren’t looking forward to $6/gallon gas and triple the prices.  The border crossing was essentially uneventful (full write-up to follow).  After stocking up on some delicious Belikin in Corazol, we headed down the dirt road towards Sarteneja.  Ahead, two hotly anticipated hand cranked ferries awaited us.  A mere six miles down the road we approached the uncrossable river.  On the opposite bank, we spied a wooden boat loaded with two cars slowly making its way towards us.  Didn’t look too sturdy to me, but Ken is the boat guru and he was practically salivating waiting to get on the thing, so it must be ok.

Load up!

Load up!

We loaded our trucks on with no difficulty, rasta music was blaring from the radio and the the hand cranking began.  Of course, Ken and Joe immediately jumped in and asked to take over.  What had seemed like a simple task as we watched the ferry approach us, turned out to be a bit more difficult.  IMG_0553The opposing bank moved slowly towards us, water visibly rushing underneath the gaping boards.  Kylee and I thought we could provide a bit more muscle and took over. IMG_0554 Big mistake.  The boys wandered off with the cameras, the ferry operators were inspecting our trucks, and me and Kylee were left to crank the rest of the way.  As we disembarked, the operator told us that the second ferry was out of commission requiring us to take a longer road, that he assured us would only take 45 minutes longer.  Forty five minutes later we were still twenty miles from Sarteneja, faced with the biggest pot-holes we had seen since Baja.  Luckily we made it in one piece to Backpacker’s Paradise and enjoyed a laid back evening exploring the town and swinging in some hammocks.

Hammock's are awesome

Hammock’s are awesome

After a night in Sarteneja and a few days relaxing at a family friend’s home in San Ignacio, we were ready for a vacation from our vacation.  Along with patagoniaorbust (yep, we are in it for the long haul with them), we parked our trucks in San Ignacio and hopped on our first public transportation of the trip.  Big, bad Belize City here we come.  Thirty minutes in I was cursing all third world country busses that lacked overhead storage for backpacks that stopped every 20 minutes to off and on load more passengers, and really missed the comfort and convenience of Suzie.  We survived an irate bus load full of Belizeans cursing out the gang suppression unit that thought our bus was loaded with gang members and made everyone disembark in order to search all the luggage, and a mere three hours and eighty miles later (but only a $4 USD versus $50USD for gas) we made it to Belize City, purchased our tickets for the water taxi to Caye Caulker, and prepared for our second boat trip in Belize.

Paradise

Paradise

Caye Caulker is paradise.  Street of white sand, colorful houses and storefronts, unimaginably blue ocean framed with palm trees and mangroves, bikes and golf carts zipping through the minimally crowded streets, with reggae music and ‘hey mons’ wafting through the air.  IMG_0619Definitely paradise.  We spent a few days wandering the three streets that make up Caye Caulker, lounging in the sun at the Lazy Lizard on the Split (the beach where the middle of Caye Caulker was split in half by Hurricane Hattie) drinking buckets of Belikin, and feasting on conch fritters and fry jacks.

The good ship Reggae Queen

The good ship Reggae Queen

The third day we boarded the Reggae Queen of Ragamuffin Sailing Adventures and headed out to sea.  Belize and it’s Cayes are world renowned for their snorkeling and diving, with the world’s second longest barrier reef stretching from Cancun through Belize.  Diving here is incredible, everyone has heard of the Blue Hole, unfortunately it is quite expensive and Ken is not dive certified, so we settled for some snorkeling.  Our crew consisted of Captain Kimani, Shane, and Dillon, all speaking lilting Creole and doing their best to accommodate the mixed group of gringos they were stuck with for the day.  First stop was Coral Gardens, true to its name beautiful coral as far as we could snorkel.  Next up, Shark Alley.  Not my cup of tea.  Snorkeling with whale sharks in Mozambique was a once in a life time experience, one I thought would be literally once in a lifetime.  Now I was expected to jump in the water with sharks and stingrays that had been lured around our boat by the sardine chum that the crew had thrown in the water.

Yep, sharks.

Yep, sharks.

Luckily these sharks were merely nurse sharks, completely harmless to humans.  For the final snorkel we were split into two groups an followed our guides through the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, up against the barrier reef.  We were treated to incredible reef and coral with abundant marine life including moray eels and turtles.  As we motor sailed our way back to Caye Caulker, the crew prepared shrimp ceviche and deceptively weak tasting rum punch.  It began pouring.  No worries, everyone crowded into the cabin around the dreaded-headed captain who was navigating our vessel, and relaxed, out of the downpour.

Crowded?  Nope, just fun.

Crowded? Nope, just fun.

All was kosher until the sailboat came to an abrupt halt.  Ken and Joe sprinted to the top deck to investigate, returning quickly to direct everyone to the bow of the boat.  We were stuck on a reef.  In normal circumstances, sans four glasses of rum punch, we might all have been slightly panicked.  Instead, everyone cheerfully piled from one side of the boat to the other and eventually we drifted free and motored safely back to Caye Caulker.  IMG_0739Although we miss Suzie, Caye Caulker has been a welcome vacation from our vacation…I know, we are spoiled.