San Ignacio and Santa Elena roll down the hills of western Belize in Cayo, the forest interrupted for a spell by fraternal twin towns that perch on either side of the Macal River's upper reaches. My journey starts in San Ignacio, named after Saint Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order of the Roman Catholic church. San Ignacio is a cultural pot-luck of resident townsfolk, people from outlying villages, and globe trotting adventurists from every corner of the world. And, with Guatemala just a few miles west of the Mopan, the flavors blend to make the place unlike any other.
For me it's a two-hour ride as the hummingbird flies, west from Dangriga through the Stann Creek Valley's citrus groves and picturesque villages with brightly painted clapboard homes, backed by brush stroked tropical forests that cascade the Maya Mountains. The scenery is breathtaking. And, if you live in a nearby village, you'd get your haircut right here on the highway's edge and then jump into the river to wash off.
My friend and guide for the long weekend is a man named Israel Vasquez Sr. (or Mr. V), Mestizo Belizean and as native to San Ignacio as they come. He drives a taxi around the twin towns and offers tours to those interested in a grass roots grasp of the area. Generations of his family have grown up in the villages around these twins, canoeing the Macal and Mopan into rainforests and over borders that really aren't. He knows everybody and everything in these parts and I'm counting on him to help me understand the charm of this storied little town.
It's Easter weekend after all and I've come to the conclusion that this Belizean journey of mine is nothing short of a spiritual exploration.
We pass through quiet Santa Elena, and into an eerily deserted San Ignacio. The normally vibrant streets are deserted and all the shops closed. Where throngs of people usually gather at the town's center, there is only an empty intersection. San Ignacio, it seems, is in observance. There are makeshift altars here and there that sit outside homes, delicately adorned with white linen and candles, crucifixes and artistic renderings of the fateful day at Golgotha.
Come to find out that Easter in Belize is a national event that rivals Christmas. Most offices are closed by Thursday at noon for a four-day weekend that goes like this: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday. Bars are actually not allowed to open before 3 p.m. on Friday, (the hour of Christ's death). Local legends have it that if you go swimming on Good Friday at 3 you'll turn into a fish; break an egg laid on Good Friday and you'll see an image of Christ in the yoke; chop a coconut tree and it might bleed the blood of the Messiah himself.
I check into my Easter retreat, a budget guesthouse called Casa Blanca recommended by Mr. V who I make a later appointment with. I want a chance to acclimate in solitude, and he wants to get back to his home in Barrio Pobre, where his wife and kids wait with lunch. Casa Blanca sits just a few meters from the police station, and at the middle of the accommodation scale in San Ignacio proper. US$19.25 a night buys a perfectly clean and cozy room with a queen and a single, a private bathroom with hot and cold shower, and cable television with movie channels and the American networks, just in case it's the NCAA Final Four weekend. Use of the kitchen, sitting room, balcony and rooftop, as well as the kind hospitality and warmth of hostess Betty and co-pilot Ruth, is gratis.
The streets are quiet and I've got a face full of sun walking the empty avenues and side streets of San Ignacio town. The architecture here is very Spanish, even the mall's got a little fiesta flavor. Come to think of it the street side cafés and quaint restaurants nestled in vista-advantaged locations give it a continental feel, more apparent with hints of a burgeoning coffee culture. On the other hand the tropical vegetation that encroaches at every opportunity, combined with the nearby confluence of the Macal and Mopan Rivers which emerge from the forest, gives the whole place a distinct jungle tingle.
I find Mr. V's blue Toyota station wagon sitting where the independent taxis gather, at the intersection of Burns Ave and Branch Mouth. We agree to take a drive up the Old Benque Road to Cahal Pech, a section of town named for the Maya site meaning "Place of the Ticks" situated - temples, visitor center and all - right in town. As the sun goes down somewhere over Guatemala we take the long way back over twisting limestone gravel roads that climb and drop at precipitous angles through a gauntlet of well landscaped hotels and ramshackle clapboard houses. The contradictions are as apparent here as they are everywhere else in Belize.
Back in town I go on a fruitless search for nightlife of any kind. There's no shortage of bars and nightclubs but nothing's doing on Good Friday night. I settle for a Lighthouse lager, Belize's other beer, at Coconuts, followed by a stroll through Culture Club, directly upstairs. Usually both these places are hopping, but not this weekend. The young bartender at Culture Club is happy to see me and happier to have me stay and chat a while to relieve her boredom. She tells me that the house band is in Mexico for the week and that's why there isn't much going on. So I spend an hour sitting on the wrap-around balcony overlooking the river pondering a full Cayo moon. On the way back to the guesthouse I stop on Hudson Street for tacos that are the best I've had in Belize, and I'm convinced that eating them sitting on the street corner just makes them taste better.
From the roof of Casa Blanca I can see that San Ignacio is
back in character, halo and all. Tourists and locals alike hustle
through the streets, dodging traffic at the intersection that confuses unfamiliar
crosser's because pedestrians,
bikes and cars seem to come at you from all directions. Everything stops abruptly
for a few minutes between 8 and 9 for the Holy Saturday Cross Country Classic,
Belize's biggest bicycle race that goes from Belize City to San Ignacio and back
again. Gleaming bodies, colorful gear and sparkling chrome flying down a hill
are about all I catch of it. My day begins in earnest with eggs, beans and fresh
flour tortillas at Eva's,
a restaurant, Internet café, information stop and anything else you might need
it to be. Coffee refills are free, the juice is fresh squeezed and there's even
a tiny library of guidebooks. At least half the patrons are tourists and as far
as I can tell there are about a half dozen languages being spoken. And then there's
the musical Creole that can always be heard in Belize, and is usually the loudest.
After an hour languishing over breakfast and coffee I'm back on the streets in search of authentic close encounters of a cultural kind. The search doesn't last long. 60 feet and I'm smack in the middle of an open market that's even busier than the town's main intersection; stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables, plastic wares, household goods and, well, everything else you'd need if you were a San Ignacian and you did your weekly 'stock- up' here. And just in case they don't have it, across the street is an equally impressive indoor
Smoke from the ever-present barrel barbecues deliver grilled chicken aromas into the air and I am again amazed at the endless variety of people that call themselves Belizeans, pronounced Belle-eee-jjjuns. I know there's a rainforest and a reef here, hundreds of archaeological mysteries and the like, I know that Belize is a certifiable natural wonder, but it's the people that I find most captivating. Of course Mr. V knows this already and that's why he's taking me to the big fair at Victor Galvez Stadium, 'up the hill' in a different area of Cahal Pech.
I'm thinking farm animals and circus acts with Spanish guitarists and acrobats, but that turns out to be an April fool's. Municipal fairs, as they are known, are bit of a phenomenon in Belize. They're organized in various parts of the country and tend to bring in villagers and working class folks who make it an excuse to get extended families together for an evening of down home kind of fun. Like traveling carnivals in other countries, kids ride the bumper cars, merry go-rounds and shoot little targets for cheap plastic prizes. Cholesterol saturated foods are mandatory, abundant and tasty as heck.
Mr. V. smiles and waves expansively, "This is Belize. Look around, there are people from every village, and every district in the country here. For many of them this is the biggest day of the year. His train of thought is interrupted by a familiar face. That lady over there is from El Salvador, she makes the best popoosas in Belize, try one."
After that there's just no alternative but to sit
There isn't a better way to watch people than to just sit and have them parade by. Spiritual exploration or not, it makes me realize that there are an awful lot of us on this planet and that we come in more varieties than we have names for anymore. Somewhere in their acceptance and integration, Belizeans have a lot to teach the rest of the world and like Mr. V says, "If you want to understand Belize enough to feel at home here, the people are a good place to start."
Coffee at Eva's Sunday morning and one last walkabout to see the clusters of crisply attired children, followed by parents trying to keep them that way, off to church in their Easter Sunday best. Mr. V meets me at Casa Blanca and insists on driving me the 400 meters to the bus stop where we sit and shoot the river breeze with the street vendors while we wait. Behind me the river plays host to wet revelers and families have picnics on its grassy banks. In front of me buses unload returning residents and visiting backpackers on spiritual explorations of their own perhaps.
If I lived in Belize, it would be in these twins. Three hours and I'm in the rhythm of Dangriga on the Caribbean coast, four and I'm on a caye swimming with whale sharks and manatees. I can get everywhere from here and with Monday being another holiday, I just might try.