BELIZEAN DREAMS GETAWAY: HOPKINS BAY
Story and photos by Larry Turner www.larryturnerphotography.com
HighOnAdventure.com April 1, 2010
Make note: purchase and bring an underwater camera. As the steel bird tilted its wings after departing the Belize City Airport, heading back home to the USA, that is the first note which I made. The second notation I made was: FOOL…that being me for not bringing one. You would think that a professional photographer would know such in preparation for a journey to snorkel and diving paradise. Ah well, a mindless gap in preparation for Belize. Thank heaven for other activities though that more than made up for my potential below water camera experience. As the plane headed toward Houston, I closed my eyes and I was swooned back to the magic of the last week.
ARRIVING IN BELIZE
Peering out my window seat, I was transfixed by the lush, green landscape and water that surrounded the airport. A hurricane had recently touched this part of the Belize coast, flooding the coastal plain. Departing the plane and walking across the tarmac, immediately the sub tropic warm humidity released feel good endorphins, buoying my spirit after the long flight from cool Sacramento, California and the long layover in Houston where I slept on the airport floor, using my carryon camera bag as a pillow. It felt good to be in short-sleeve shirt weather. It also felt good to see a Third World airport with a warmth and realness that many modern airports do not possess. There was an unhurried pace to the entire scene, too. Vacation time!
My traveling companions arrived from the east coast of the US on a different flight. We boarded a SUV and headed toward Hopkins Bay, a three hour drive southwest to Belmopan along the Western Highway and then southeast along the Hummingbird Highway. Our final destination would be www.ultimateescapes.com’s premiere residence Belizean Dreams, located south of Dangriga, midway down Belize’s thin 175 mile spine (the small country’s broadest width is 68 miles).
Our first stop after the airport was for extra cooking and drinking provisions at a modern Belize City supermarket. If traveling and exploring Belize’s back roads, make sure you have plenty of bug dope (citrus based the best), basic provisions, sun screen, light colored (and loose) clothing to reflect the sun and of course: margarita making material! Fruit and vegetable stands are abundant along the highways. Along the coast, fish is abundant whether you catch it yourself or buy it. Food would be no problem at our final stay over with a great restaurant on the property and other restaurants along the beach. Traveling frugally and for extended stays in Belize, it’s amazing how far papaya and fresh fish will go though…and it will probably extend your lifespan, too.
Flood waters were everywhere from the hurricane and the damage was unavoidable to the eye. Most structures along the beach are built with stilts, poles and pillars to withstand swelled tides coming from tropical storms. Belize City looked tired and worn from the recent storm. We weaved our way out-- even crossing some low water pockets—and found the countryside. It was good to find smoother driving after the potholes of Belize City. The countryside was reminiscent of the Old Mexico which I knew back in the 70s with rural folks walking the roads —oftentimes leading or riding a horse, sometimes with a few head of cattle being pushed by the herdsman with a long stick—bicyclists and motorcyclists, country churches, and schoolyards with children playing all dressed in the same uniform.
Between Belize City and Belmopan, the countryside is mainly flat and agricultural. Departing Belmopan to Dangriga, the sub tropical mountains rise, creating a beautiful motif of forests and slope side fields where the native Mayans and small colonies of Mennonites raise their families and crops (citrus, especially grapefruit, predominates). We stop to purchase papayas, oranges, grapefruit, mangoes, tubers and bananas.
Belize, once called British Honduras, is English speaking but English is the second tongue to the Maya, Spanish, Creole and Garifuna (descendants of the Nigerian slave trade) cultures. The country also has small populations of Chinese, Eastern Indian and Lebanese.
The Hummingbird Highway offers some intriguing explorations to caves, birding areas, wildlife and waterfalls. Later we would spend half a day swimming, hiking and exploring St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park. It would be the first time I heard howler monkeys in the jungle. A gentle rain came and washed our sweaty bodies. I added new bird sightings to my list, including the black headed trogon and the rufous-tailed jacamar. There are 500 known species of birds in Belize. Forty percent of Belize is a natural preserve. We would slip into the entrance of St. Herman’s Cave, used by the Mayas for over a thousand years.
Hopkins Village, located on the Caribbean, is the heart of the Garifuna culture. One accesses it south of Dangriga by four miles of rough, bumpy red dirt road. Perfect for the adventurer! A village of a thousand, it is a warp in time compared to America with practically everything paved. No pavement here! Just hunker down and drive baby. Drive and pay attention. Go slow. Enjoy the folks as they walk to and from home, tend to their businesses and enjoy their leisure hours. Try to make as little dust as possible. Leisure is a means to an end here. Why not: it is paradise to the eyes to see the clear, clear Caribbean, endless mangroves and palms and folks living simple lives, tied directly to the sea and land and their sense of community. The friendliness of the local folks is immediate. Monetarily they’re not rich, but they’re rich in the most important things: family, friends, community, music, celebration, food, leisure time, work time, landscape and skyscape. These things I’d witness over the coming week. Time to kick back and to learn.
We arrive at our Belizean Dreams accommodations at Hopkins Bay. The contrast is stark compared to the Village—more like a high end resort compared to a budget motel on a side street. But we found no rancor between the locals and the Hopkins Bay Resort folks. For one thing, Hopkins Bay employs plenty of locals, but the greater thing is: the Garifuna people are above the “keepin’ up with the Joneses” mentality. They welcome tourism dollars here ($2 Belizean equals $1 US), but at the same time, they seem somewhat indifferent to it, too.
WEEK IN PARADISE
So a week in paradise begins. Morning swims in the ocean to catch the sun rise. Leisurely breakfast of fruit, yogurt and grains. Swims in the pool throughout the day. Hikes along the white sandy beach. Kayaking, snorkeling, fishing, reading, lying in the hammock being witness to the moment, talks with new friends, writing while in the easy chair beneath a slight swaying palm, dinners of fish and shellfish, explorations of native art in the Village. I eat gibnut, the royal rat of Belize, with Cindi, Bruce and Elizabeth. ‘Took two beers before I could take the first bite, but ‘hey, when in Belize, do as the Belizeans do’. I learn some new Garifuna words. Kahara: what time is it? Hiabibinorigo: you will come back. Heibugaegg: I am going to eat. Ubaabatutino: kiss me. Kabin: what is your name?
We spend a day snorkeling and fishing the Cayes (pronounced keyes). I catch and release a bonefish. Like fighting a torpedo. I catch my first barracuda. The underwater world is intoxicating visually. Why didn’t I purchase a damn underwater camera! We’re witness to schools of colorful fish, including rainbow parrotfish, midnight parrotfish, stoplight parrotfish, neon goby, yellowhead wrasse, queen parrotfish, bluehead wrasse, orangespotted filefish, queen triggerfish, Spanish hogfish, dusky damselfish, blue chromis, blackbar soldierfish, sergeant major, gray angelfish, blue chromis, French angelfish, queen angelfish, longsnout butterflyfish, spotfin butterflyfish and foureye butterflyfish, just to name a few. Spotted eagle rays fly below and around me. I push out a nurse shark just a few feet below me in the delicate reef. My heart skips a few beats at the sighting. This is the second largest living barrier reef in the world (approximately 185 miles). Our guide instructs us not to touch the coral, underscoring its delicateness and the need to preserve it for future viewers. A pod of dolphin play around our boat. We explore Tobacco Caye and Man-o-War Caye, the biggest photographic treat the sighting of hundreds of magnificent frigate birds gathered in the palms.
The following day, in looking back as I write this story, I find this excerpt in my journal: “There is a chop to the surf today. The crystal clear Caribbean of yesterday is now a brown and green ocean lapping against the white sandy beach. I see the large undulating shadow of a frigate bird as it circles the small beach thatched shelter which I am lounging under. The round thatched canopy is like a singular stemmed mushroom. The cap like that of a Southeast Asia rice farmer’s hat. Four fishermen in their panga have beached their boat to sell their daily catch of snapper. The troughs in the boat are filled with pompano, barracuda, stickle fish and other species. Nearby are two Maya ladies and a young boy walking the beach. They take a seat on the beach under a palm, lay out a blanket and from their balsas, they take out crafts from their region (Punta Gorda) and display on the blanket. There is embroidery work, carvings, masks, flutes, coconut etchings and jewelry. Unlike the beaches of Mexico where there are hoards of vendors, the tourist police of Belize regulate their beaches, allowing only a small amount of vendors on a beach. Each day, I would see two or three vendors only at Belizean Dreams (either one woman and a boy or two women and a boy), and they would only stay for a short time and move on. I purchased a half coconut shell with a jaguar etching on it. I was impressed by the ladies gentleness, their quiet yet assertive demeanor, and their natural beauty.”
HOPKINS BAY EVENINGS
Hopkins Bay evenings were spent reading on the veranda of the villa, walking the beach, swimming in the clear gentle Caribbean and preparing for dinner inside the villa or at a nearby restaurant. One afternoon, a local boat pulled up to the beach of a nearby restaurant. Fisherman everyday sells their catch to the local restaurants. Our group purchased some fish which we prepared ourselves. We also ate out at the Hopkins Bay Resort (The Woven Palm Mediterranean Bistro and Bar) which has great cuisine, nearby Hamanasi Resort (with its casually elegant dining room and great veranda) and my personal favorite: Beaches and Dreams (www.beachesanddreams.com), owned by Alaska natives Tony and Angela Marsico. Beaches and Dreams is the last restaurant on the beach, southeast of Belizean Dreams. The simple outdoor setting is magical with the evening moon and star light, accented by the colorful outdoor lighting (Christmas like) of their eating and drinking veranda. A simple sign on the beach, under a palm tree, near their dock displays the evening specials which always include fresh seafood. They have beachfront rooms to rent, too. Their good friend Jim Hybarger (email@example.com) is one of their best customers and one hell of a fly-fishing guide, too. Fly-fishing gear can be rented from him.
BELIZEAN DREAM ADVENTURES
Hopkins Bay Resort Belizean Dreams has a variety of adventure packages, including fishing, snorkeling, diving, ruin tours, Sittee River cruises, jungle horseback rides, zip lining, canoeing and kayaking and land tours to Mayflower Waterfalls, Cockscomb and Jaguar Preserve, Mayan Ruins, Croc O’Dile Isle (a home for the American salt water crocodile which is in danger of extinction in Central America), river caves, St. Herman’s Cave and Blue Holes National Park, Placencia Village (for shopping, art galleries, food and sparkling beaches) and the scarlet macaw tour. My favorite was the full day fly-fishing tour ($250 a day for two people and $50 for an extra person). The Hopkins Bay area is known for the permit fish, along with bonefish, tarpon, snook, barracuda, dorado and an occasional sailfish. The prices for all of the adventure activities were quiet reasonable. Necessities for being on the water, especially day-long adventures, include a large hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt and long pants. And don’t forget your camera, especially an underwater model which can easily be purchased for around $200. I have one now and I’m ready to head back to the cayes of Belize.
IMPORTANT INFORMATION: Hopkins Bay Resort (www.hopkinsbayresort.com) , Belizean Dreams (www.belizeandreams.com ). Low season (May 1 to December 15) rates are $179 US for one-bedroom that sleeps two, $384US for the executive suite (sleeps up to 6) and $489US for a villa (sleeps up to 8). High season rates (Dec. 15 to April 30) are $279 for one-bedroom, $484 for the executive suite and $589 for a villa.
Vehicles can be rented at the airport (http://www.budget-belize.com/welcome.html). If you wish to fly to Dangriga from Belize City, contact http://www.tropicair.com/ or http://www.mayaair.com/. At a small fare, Belizean Dreams can arrange shuttle service from Dangriga. Hopkins Bay’s average temperature is 75 degrees (81 degrees in May). Belizean Dreams has internet access. An unlocked GSM (global system mobile) 1900 MHz cellular phone is required if you want cell service. Belizean Dreams rents cell phones or a person can purchase a phone card. But, hey, you’re in Belize. It’s vacation time. Leave the phone home.
Recommended Reading: Fodor’s Belize: 4th Edition: With El Peten (www.amazon.com), Belize Country Guide by Mara Vorhees (www.amazon.com), Moon Spotlight Belize Cayes by Joshua Berman (www.amazon.com), Living Abroad in Belize by Lan Sluder (www.amazon.com).
Prints may be ordered at www.larryturnerphotography.com or by emailing Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org