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How to find the desire to go: Do you like places that offer beautiful beaches, diverse culture, astounding landscapes, ancient pyramids that aren’t overrun with tourists, cheap, fresh seafood, bars with in-the-ocean seating and $2.50 cocktails? If not you should probably avoid Belize.
How to communicate: You’re in luck, almost everyone speaks English! Well, sort of. A lot of the English spoken is actually Creole, which is hypothetically English but you might not feel that way whiles attempting to decipher the phrase that was just launched your way. Start here: everyone is referred to as “gyull” (girl) or “byoai” (boy) and it’s not condescending, it’s just the way everyone talks to each other. (If you order a coffee, they’ll likely bring it to you with “here, girl” and if you leave a store you might here “bye, girl.”) You’ll get used to it.
How to find a place to stay: Are you on a $15/night budget as I am? You’re screwed. What do you think this is, Guatemala? Well, OK that’s fair, it is right next door after all. And it is also a developing country in which hot water, uninterrupted electricity and solid WiFi are total wildcards. BUT it’s also the only English-speaking country in Central America and it’s nothing but coastline and islands and Mayan ruins and pretty high quality food. You won’t be sleeping anywhere for $15/night unless its in a dorm room with seventeen 22-year-old frat byoais who don’t know how to keep their liquor down yet. SO maybe adjust your budget, or stay somewhere long enough to negotiate. And if by chance a window at one of the places you choose to stay for way more than you’ve budgeted collapses on you, knocking you out and leaving a lump the size of an apple because it wasn’t properly screwed in, do not expect anyone to care. It’s apparently impossible to sue in Belize. Do as you’re told and rub a banana peel on your bump/head/hair twice a day and stop being so high maintenance.
How to use the bus system: Follow these steps to ensure proper arrival to your next location.
- Get information about bus arrivals, ticket prices and travel times at one of the convenient town information centers.
- Ignore that information and expect a wildly different timeline.
- Criss-cross the country on a series of busses, switching when necessary, ask a lot of questions as you go, spend 4 hours in an unexpected location for a layover if necessary.
- Stop complaining. The busses are pretty comfortable, even when packed. (See: Guatemalan shuttles.) They’re cheap, even though you’ll likely get the “tourist price” (whatever number pops into their head) no matter how much you argue. And the country is small; even though you might have to go out of your way once or twice you can get where you need to go in a day, easily.
- When night approaches, get ready to party. Yes, you’re still on the bus, but now it’s a party bus. Reggae music will be blasted; colorful lights will start flashing. This is normal.
How to get around after that: If you’re in a land-locked locale, you should find a friend with a motorbike. Or take cheap taxis. Or just do the old-school thing and just walk. If you’re on an island, golf cart is more likely the mode of transport. You can rent one if you’re a fancy pants. You can also take a kayak or get on a water taxi. If you’re like me, you’re going to want a bicycle — they’re cheap, stylish and you can still refer to your “ride” parked out front.
How to bike in Belize: As though you are in an obstacle course. You will battle head-in-the-clouds tourists, golf carts and potholes the size of small whales that will literally knock your teeth into your eye sockets or deposit you into the woods if you don’t notice them. If you’re half-blind at night like I am, the stakes become higher. Offer yourself small rewards, such as an extra fancy cocktail, if you emerge unscathed. If it rains, and you’re on an island with sand roads, they will then turn to sand-mud, a formidable substance which will fling itself up on you with the force of a garden hose on full blast. It may decorate your pants/shirt/backpack as you ride. But take comfort in knowing that sand-washed denim is kind of hot right now. And everyone else will look a little “splattered” all the time, too.
How to eat food: If you’re not eating fryjacks in the morning, you’re doing it wrong. Fryjacks are wedges of fried dough that are sometimes sliced in half and stuffed with things like ham and eggs and beans, or served on the side of a breakfast plate on their own. They’re one of the most delicious things you’ll ever put in your mouth, so just put lots of them in your mouth. Maybe wash it down with a fresh juice from one of the cheap stands touting glorious variety. You’re also going to want to invest in a lot of rice and beans (a staple) and curry (big and GOOD here). If you’re on the coast, do yourself a favor and go get some fresh lobster and conch for a fraction of the cost you’ll get such delicacies in the U.S. Fried whole fishes? Yes, eat lots of those, too. All of this is best consumed on the beach if possible, and if you’re on an island, there will be lots of grills set up seaside allowing you to do just that. Restaurant food, in some locales, is almost just as expensive as it is in the U.S. (and occasionally more!), but the street food is skillful, delightful and super affordable. Don’t forget to hit the BBQs — charred chicken legs and pork ribs and more, slathered with sauce and served with a couple sides, usually. You won’t regret it. Oh, and Belize is also known for its hot sauce — specifically, Marie Sharp’s habanero sauce. You should put it on literally everything.
How to drink alcohol: There are some pretty stellar rums coming out of Belize, and you’ll also find a greater variety of spirits and wines than you will in some other Central American countries. Rum punch is on every menu. As is the “panty ripper,” which is to be pronounced with a Creole accent and only to be enjoyed if you like the combination of coconut rum, pineapple juice and diabetes-triggering sugar doses. Otherwise, go for Belikin. You don’t have much of a choice, it’s the country’s only beer and a true powerhouse of a brand (Belikin also control importing; so imported brews are limited), but thankfully it’s super solid. The Belikin stout is not really a stout, but more of a brown ale, and it’s delicious. If you’re traveling around the holidays, you might be lucky enough to find the sorrel stout, and just order a bucket — it’s great.
How to use your cellphone: Get a SIM card for like $5 at a BTL store and then get an idealistic data plan that you will probably exceed by 700 percent. When you inevitably need more data, go to any convenience store and tell them you want to “top up” your cellphone (you have to use that phrase of they will have no idea what you’re talking about). Once you put some more money in that black hole, dial *100# and press call and SURPRISE, it’s not a phone call but a portal to an online system that will allow you to dole out that money in whatever intervals you like. Calls here are pretty clear comparatively to Guatemala. But don’t be dumb and make actual phone calls. That’s for rich people. Do FaceTime audio. It’s FREE if you’re on WiFi.
How to manage the heat: Drink lots of water. Drink lots of beer. Get in the ocean as much as possible. Put hot sauce on all your food so you sweat more. Seriously consider a cabana with AC. Or buy a fan and be happy you’re not surrounded by mounds of snow? I don’t know, you’re not acting like a very good islander with all these concerns.
What to do when the electricity (fans, WiFi, AC) and running water go out at the same time: Shrug and go get a beer. See, now you’re getting it.
How to feel really small: Easy. Just head to one of the dozens of wondrous Mayan ruin sites in the country and walk around, climb the temples, imagine life 2000 years ago. Yeah, the electricity problem doesn’t seem so bad anymore, does it?
How to get work done: Oh yeah, you have to work in one of the world’s most beautiful places? Well boo hoo, we don’t feel sorry for you. Sure, you might rather be out swimming with sharks or dancing atop a catamaran but honestly if you have to get stuff done, there are worse locales. Here’s how to do it and still maintain your island attitude:
- Find yourself a swinging desk. Cafes and bars with swings for seats are a thing on the islands, and it’s scientifically proven that swinging while working makes it better.
- Find yourself a desk that happens to be in the water. Bars with seats IN THE OCEAN are a thing on the islands. And it’s scientifically proven that sitting in the ocean while working makes it better.
- Find yourself a desk overlooking the beach. Food-and-drink establishments on the beach are a thing on the islands. And it’s scientifically proven that looking at a beach while working makes it better.
- Find yourself a desk with beer on it. Beer is a thing everywhere, and if you’re working in Belize, your boss can’t yell at you. Get a beer. It’s scientifically proven… well, you get the idea.
How to entertain yourself: Belize is home to some of the best swimming, snorkeling, shark buddy swimming, the world’s second largest coral reef and blah blah blah but the real fun comes in attempting not to lose a finger or seven while hand-feeding tarpons (massive, big-mouthed fish) and pelicans from docks on the island’s west side (Iguana Reef Inn for pelicans, the tarpon feeding dock for the tarpons.) Honestly, I could do that every evening and feel 167 percent better about life.
How to leave: Ask someone else. I’m probably flying back after the holidays.