Belize it or not: Living in harmony with M&Ms (monkeys and mosquitoes)

You can’t visit Central America and not make at least some effort to see the monkeys. That’s just wrong. Monkeys are way too cute to be missed.

Like Costa Rica, and other countries in this region, Belize is also trying to brand itself as an ecotourism destination.

The Community Baboon Sanctuary, a conservation project in which over 200 private landowners in Belize have voluntarily pledged to conserve their land for the protection of the Black Howler Monkey (called ‘baboon’ in the local Creole dialect) habitat, is well-worth the trip inland. It’s only about an hour drive from Belize City.

But, there is a but.

Mosquitoes. Mosquitoes. Mosquitoes.
Before I begin talking about how cute the monkeys are, I am going to say this: I had never, ever before, seen so many mosquitoes before visiting the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS). Anywhere.

The closest I had ever come to this kind of mosquito infestation was in Venice. (Camping outside a city built on a swamp is not a good idea, note to self.)

I was covered in insect-proof gear from head to toe. Still, I had mosquito bites on my face and hands: the only two areas not protected, even though they were sprayed with high-percentage DEET repellent.

The thing is, these mosquitoes are not only tough, but completely DEET-resistant. My watch, on the other hand, wasn’t. DEET killed it (or its surface and band) right away.

What I particularly dislike about mosquitoes is how selective and discriminating they are in the people they attack. Our guide, Shane (see the first picture), was barefoot, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and did not get a single mosquito bite. How is that possible? Are the locals immune?

Clearly, it’s jealousy speaking. I am always the person with the record-breaking number of bites, no matter how much Vitamin B and gin’n’tonic I consume.

What? Gin and tonic doesn’t work, you say? Sure it does. It makes you more at peace with the unfair world of mosquitoes and their poor victims. In extreme conditions such as this, that’s all you can ask for.

I go on about mosquitoes, but don’t let me discourage you from visiting the CBS. But be prepared. Wear long pants (and stuff them into your socks), long-sleeve high-thread shirt and boots. A head-cover of some sort wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Chances are the mosquitoes might not be as bad when you go. We went during the rainy season, which generally means more mosquitoes in the jungle. The guides will give you a mosquito whip-type-thing, made from a certain type of palm tree, that you can use “as a tail” to repel insects (see picture). It works pretty well. At the very least, you’ll get an idea what it’s like to be a horse.

Enough about mosquitoes.

Baboons aka Black Howler Monkeys
CBS is truly a special place. The goal is to sustain the habitat of the Black Howler Monkey, which–hence the name–is the second loudest animal in the world, after the lion. The result has been an innovative project which offers promotes the economic development of the participating communities and provides a unique opportunity for visitors to experience the rainforest and witness baboons in the wild.

The landowners, all 200+ of them, benefit directly from the Sanctuary thanks to ecotourism, aka you. Many more benefit indirectly through the educational programs. The population of the Black Howler Monkey in the Sanctuary has risen to over 2,000 monkeys. And, you’ll get to see them up close, and — if you are lucky like us — feed them a banana.

The Sanctuary was founded by Dr. Robert Horwich, an American primatologist and Fallet Young, a landowner in the village of Bermudian Landing, in 1985 with the initial participation of 12 landowners. In 1998, the Women’s Conservation Group was formed, which currently manages the CBS.

The entrance fee is $7US. It includes a walk with a guide and lots of quality time with the M&Ms.

Belize it or not: Caye Caulker; where backpackers outnumber locals

Isn’t this heaven? (Sorry if these photos find you in the middle of cubicle hell.)

I took these pictures last week in Caye Caulker, one of the northern islands off the coast of Belize. Most people opt to go to the bigger Ambergris Caye, which is a bit more family friendly, but also more expensive.

Caye Caulker is smaller (about 5 miles x 1 mile), cheaper and hence packed with backpackers. The last time I saw so many backpackers in one place was probably Yangshuo, China. These are the kinds of places where you literally see more backpackers than locals. Kind of defeats the point of adventure travel, doesn’t it.

There are a few great things about Caye Caulker, though:

  • Seafood. Especially when conch is in season.
  • Cheaper than other Belize islands. I already mentioned that.
  • Closer to Belize City than Ambergris Caye. Ferries to Ambergris Caye stop here first.
  • Close to the Belize Barrier Reef (about 10 minutes by boat)
  • Best of all: Beach. It is one of the few places in Belize you can find a nice beach for swimming. Most of the shallow cost here on the islands is covered with sea grass, which makes it a little hard to swim. The northern side of Caye Caulker has a great little beach (see pictures) which is almost completely sea grass-free! There is a bar right there on the beach, with tables in the water. A backpackers’ take on resort swim up bars.

Can you beat that?

Belize it or not: Getting away from it all

Greetings from Belize.

I took this photo just a few days ago from the plane (hence the quality), during one of my island-hopping trips between Belize City and the island of Ambergris Caye.

Check it out. Some guy built a house on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean several miles of the coast of Belize.

I think that qualifies as “wanting to get away from it all.”

Can you imagine bringing all the wood and building equipment here on boat? What happens when the hurricane season comes? I know hurricanes are not too frequent in this area, but still. A big storm could probably blow this house right in the ocean.

I’d love to meet this person. I picture him looking like Robinson Crusoe. I would be very disappointed to find a white-collar dude trying to create his own personal tax haven. (God knows Belize attracts those people.)

Belize it or not: Island-hopping on budget

Greetings from Belize.

If you come to Belize, chances are you’ll stay on one of the islands, not mainland. Not only is it easier to find nice beaches on the islands (cayes), but it is much closer to the Barrier Reef. And if you are visiting Belize, you simply must see the reef. Even if you don’t dive, the ocean is shallow around here and the opportunities for snorkeling are plentiful.

If you’re not sold on the idea of island vacation and decide to stay inland and spend time in the jungle instead, you should at least visit the islands for a day or two.

Flying tips
If you arrive in Belize by plane, you will most certainly land at Belize City International Airport. The most convenient way to get to the islands is to fly straight from here.

There are two local airlines that operate all those island-hopping routes: Maya Airlines (owned by Belizeans) and Tropic Air (owned by American expats living in Belize). I have flown both and I couldn’t really tell the difference in quality or service between the two. Both use the same planes and operate efficiently. Tropic has more planes than Maya.Flights from the Belize City International Airport to the most popular northern island, Ambergris Caye (town of San Pedro), cost $65US ($130 Belize) per person.

It’s only a 15-minute flight on board a little Cessna, which is great because it will give you a great opportunity to see the area from up above. You’ll actually fly low enough that you’ll be able to see sharks and dolphins in the sea below you. If you are lucky, you might even get seated on the jump seat next to the pilot – my favorite spot.

If you want to save money and have extra time, consider flying out to the islands from the municipal airport in Belize City instead. A taxi from the international airport (14 miles outside the city) to the municipal airport will cost you $25US ($50 Belize) and take about 15 minutes.

Here is the benefit. From the municipal airport, Maya or Tropic Air flights to San Pedro go for only $35, instead of $65. If there are more of you traveling, it makes a lot of sense. We did it and our cab driver even gave us a little tour of Belize City for just a few extra dollars. Belize City is not the safest of cities and seeing it from a car might actually be enough for a lot of people.

Taking the ferry
If you are on a tight budget, your best bet for getting out to the islands is a boat trip. Once again, you’ll have to take a taxi (or bus) from the international terminal to the water taxi building in the center. From there, boats to the islands leave about 6 times a day, the last one taking off mid-afternoon.

Express ferry from Belize City to Ambergris Caye (San Pedro) costs $12.50 ($25 Belize). It takes about 60-90 minutes and stops at the backpacker mecca of Caye Caulker on the way. Obviously, flying is much more convenient, especially if you–like me–tend to get seasick.

Happy travels.

Belize it or not: Top Surprizing Things About Belize

Greetings from Belize.

Those of you who have been to Belize before might not find these surprising, but this is my first time here and they surprised me. Here is a brief laundry list:

  • The U.S. Dollar is widely accepted. With the Belize Dollar pegged at 2:1 to the U.S. Dollar, it’s not surprising. Guess where you should be traveling when the U.S. Dollar is practically worthless? Where they accept dollars, of course! Although Belize is pretty expensive comparing to other Central American countries, the cheap dollar makes it affordable.
  • English is all you’ll ever need. While guidebook after guidebook tell you people speak Spanish or Creole, Belizeans almost universally speak perfect English. It’s the official language, don’t forget.
  • It’s not all jungle. While the UN pegs forest cover at 79% in Belize and the country itself claims to have 44% of its land under some legal land-protection regime, there are whole sections of the country that are open, rolling hills and farmland.
  • It’s not just the Blue Hole. There’s great diving all up and down the world’s second-largest barrier reef. The terrain is varied, and so is the wildlife. I can tell you that first hand, as I squeezed in 5 dives in 2 days off two different islands.
  • There’s a surprising level of development. Literacy is above 75% (depending on the source). The economy is rapidly growing. While the UN’s human development index generally puts the country at about number 80 of 177 countries studied (in terms of education, GDP per person, etc.), life expectancy here is in the top 40 worldwide.
  • The population density is one of the lowest in the world. With 300,000 or so people in an area the size of the state of New Jersey (which has almost 9 million folks), and 1/3 of people living in Belize City, it’s not surprising, really.
  • The rainy season (May-November) is quite pleasant here, especially if you stay in the north. We are in the middle of it right now. It rains about once a day, if that, for a while and then it’s sunny again. The benefit over the dry season? It’s cheaper and there are hardly any tourists.
  • People are really friendly, helpful and pleasant. The islands have a Caribbean feel, while the inland is more Spanish-influenced.

I give Belize two thumbs up.