by Dreddi & Karla Heusner
Until a few weeks ago, my familiarity with Northern Belize, that area between Belize City and the Mexican border, was, shall we say -- limited. But a weekend road trip changed all that.
That particular Saturday, I was on crutches, so my cousin J.C. was driver. But I was the navigator. We filled up the rental car, stocked up few snacks, headed for Belize City and then rolled onto the Northern Highway, the backbone of the Orange Walk and Corozal Districts.
In the days of the ancient Maya there was no Corozal or Orange Walk. Nor was there any highway. The Maya traveled mainly by water. In fact, the area was originally called "Acalan," or "land of canoe people."
Acalan is believed to have stretched from its capital, Chactemal (present day Santa Rita, Corozal) through Holpatin (the site called Cuello today) and down to the ancient ceremonial center of Lamanai overlooking a beautiful lagoon. But Mayan traders had a far wider reach, transporting goods such as honey, salt, feathers, cacao and obsidian blades, up and down Belize's extensive networks of rivers and along the coast, from the Corozal Bay and northern cayes, up and over the boot of the Mexican Yucatan and down to the Bay of Honduras.
With the arrival of British pirates and woodcutters, the Maya were pushed into the interior, forced to abandon many of their riverside communities, except for Lamanai. Logging camps soon replaced Maya trading posts, and the people's subsistence maize farms were swallowed up by the sugar plantations. Maya-Mestizo refugees fleeing the Guerra de Las Castas ( Caste War) in the early 1800's brought the sugar cane technology with them, but it was Southerners from the United States, emigrating to Belize after the Civil War, who transformed sugar production into one of Belize main export sectors.
Sugar is still King in much of the north. In fact, Orange Walk Town is fondly known as "Sugar City."
As we made our way north, the villages of Ladyville, Gardenia and Sandhill whizzed by. Gradually, about forty miles into the trip, we noticed the architecture changed from a mix of concrete and clapboard houses to thatch roof pimento stick homes, a sure sign that we had left the Belize District.
We crossed the "Toll Bridge" over the New River. I could hardly contain myself as I made my way down the bank to the boat landing. But only one other person was in sight! I knew then we had missed the riverboat tour to the Lamanai archaeological site. I stared down the river longingly. White water lilies floated along, releasing a sweet fragrance, while thick jungle vegetation protected both banks.
I made a mental note: Book in advance. Lamanai trip leaves at 9:00 AM. SHARP.
Disappointed but undaunted, we made our way to Orange Walk Town.
It is believed that Orange Walk is built over the Classic Maya settlement of Holpatin. But we gave very little thought to the sleeping spirits that lay resting beneath this bustling community as we made our way to the outskirts and into the villages of San Jose and San Pablo.
The sugar cane influence was now evident as rows and rows of the sweet juicy cane stalks extended in front of us, and on both sides of the highway. Buena Vista village rushed by and still there was nothing to do. Then I had a light bulb moment.
What if we were missing the true Northern Belize, the part that is not on the main road? J.C. pointed out, quite irritated by now, that we didn't have a map. Who needs a map when you're in a car with someone who has a nose for adventure? "Make a right here," I commanded. I was met with a look of reproach or skepticism.
It took some convincing, some promises and downright bribery before I could get him to take that right turn. But once he did our entire trip changed.
We found ourselves in Libertad. Literal translation: Liberty. Belizean translation: land of sugar and molasses. This name came from Libertad's history with the sugar cane industry.
On this particular Saturday we found the residents enjoying the afternoon: fishing in the river, gathering in their yards-we even passed children beating a piñata at a birthday party.
We drove on in search of the beachside community of Consejo Shores, but a wrong turn landed us in "Gringolandia", as the locals say in Spanglish. This community of foreign settlers, mostly Americans in their expensive homes along the Corozal Bay didn't know too much about the history of Corozal, but they took time out to talk to us and share a little about their lives. Many of them are retirees, "snowbirds" who live in Belize when it is winter in the United States.
Then we were off to Corozal or so we thought. But another wrong turn brought us to a ferry crossing. We asked the ferrymen what was on the other side, and they wasted no time in promoting their village to us, inviting us to the opening of a restaurant in Progreso. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at an intersection that gave us the options of Copper Bank, Progreso, Sarteneja, or Little Belize. Hmmm. Now what? But remembering the ferrymen, we chose Progreso.
Within minutes we were on the bank of an aquamarine body of water, El Progreso Lagoon, watching a flock of chattering toucans return to roost after a day of foraging in the forests. Most Belizeans only see toucans in picture books, or at the Belize Zoo, and here we were, watching them in the wild!
A couple from Little Belize was heading home, while visitors from Caye Caulker were enjoying the cool refreshing water. Limited by my crutches, all I could do was dangle my legs into the soothing water and vow to come back some day to take a real dip.
Hunger pangs soon brought me back to reality and I remembered our other reason for coming here: the opening of El Conuco. We spent the next several hours talking, laughing, eating and drinking with the family and friends we were only now meeting.
Outside our Northern Explorer, an orchestra of crickets and frogs had begun their evening concert amidst the smell of rich, moist loam and humus. As we retraced our way to the ferry and finally got back on the Northern Highway, I couldn't help but smile. What a day this had turned out to be. I couldn't wait for tomorrow.
Day 2 started out foggy. Some fishermen had gathered on the pier to try their luck. After a jack cut a young fisherman's line, a heated discussion broke out on the Corozal Town pier. The older fishermen barked out criticisms and demonstrated time-honored techniques of netting the big one. The younger men fired back, praising new technology and making condescending comments about the "old days."
Alarmed at first by their heated exchange, it suddenly occurred to me that this discussion is probably played out every Sunday, in exactly this same place, at the same time, and ending only with the rising of the sun -- or in this case the lifting of the fog.
I looked around for the first time, in awe, at Corozal Bay. From where I stood, I could see the outline of the temples of Cerros, in the distance. A Corozaleño pointed out the general direction of Progreso and Sarteneja villages.
A honking horn behind me signaled that my cousin, who no longer needed further urging, was ready for the day's adventures.
Our destination: Santa Rita or what remains of the ancient capital city of Chactemal as it was called during its more prosperous days when it served as a trading port. It once extended from the Rio Hondo to the New River to Corozal Bay. Today, the portions of Santa Rita not buried under the modern town of Corozal can be found on its outskirts, off the Northern Highway.
We made our way back to the highway and headed north, intending to go to Four Mile Lagoon. A few miles down the road; however, another irresistible side road caught our attention and took us to the "paradise" village of Paraiso.
At one corner of the centrally located park, the women of the Tut family had gathered in their yard to prepare chicharron, one of the many local delicacies.
We finally made it to Corozal, only to find the streets blocked off to accommodate a bicycle race speeding through town. While we waited for traffic to clear, the Yo Creek Mestizo dancers and a Chinese group gave us a cultural experience. For lunch we had tamales, made from chicken and corn steamed in plantain leaves.
We were told that some jade jewelry had been discovered in Caledonia Village so the archaeologists in us led us in search of the cache, but we missed the turn. By this time, it was getting late.
Finally JC suggested we head home. But as we entered Orange Walk we realized we had stumbled onto a political convention being held by the Opposition United Democratic Party. So naturally we lingered to watch the parade and other activities.
As we crossed the Toll Bridge once more, I had to admit that missing the boat to Lamanai may have been the best thing that could have happened. We'll go there another time. But this trip was not about the ancient Maya world, it was about finding the heart and soul of today's Northern Belize, and things you won't see in the tourist brochures.
So go ahead, rent a car and head out onto the highway, or off it. You won't get lost. In Belize, there's no such thing as a wrong turn.
Special Thanks to:
Jeri Collins - Villa Americas
Duran Family (Progreso)
Tut Family (Paraiso)
Estevan Pasas (Paraiso)
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography