School children watching crocodiles swimming in the New River in Orange Walk Town, Belize
Belize/Jungle Getaway, November 10, 2003
The full moon was shining brightly in the pre-dawn tropical morning as Jane and I wheeled our fully provisioned
bicycles into the suspiciously quiet street. In 35 minutes we were in the ADO, (Autobuses de Oriente), main bus
terminal in downtown Merida, our hometown and a city of one million inhabitants.
Jane came up with this trip idea that would take us to the south of the state of Quintanna Roo and its capital city of
Chetumal, then on to Orange Walk Town in neighboring Belize and then finally to Tulum on the Caribbean before
returning home to Merida.
It had been five years since our last visit to Chetumal but in years gone by we were regulars and have friends to visit
plus many eating establishments to revisit featuring the traditional trade route cookery with its own local flavor
accented by a variety of habanero chili pepper sauces.
Our bicycles were the ideal form of transport in this tropical town. As we biked around the city of Chetumal and its
extraordinary bay front boulevard, we were very impressed by the cleanliness and got the impression that it
somehow didn’t quite fit with the rest of Mexico that is miraculously garbage blind. After a two-night stay, we had
made the rounds and were again headed south into Belize aboard the first class bus “Novelos”.
On the Mexican side of the border everyone on the bus filed off to fill out forms and get papers stamped and then
we all boarded the bus only to disembark again for the Belizean bureaucrats. This time we would need to carry all of
our personal possessions including our bicycles.
We were not only entering a new country for us but a place unique unto itself.
This was to be a fact-finding tour and we had no intention of mingling with tourists or any of the tourist destinations.
Like one of the few European travelers that we came across on our 14 day excursion said; “if I wanted to see
Europeans I would have stayed in Europe and if I had wanted to see the tourist spots I would have gone to Cancun,
Playa de Carmen or San Pedro Island.” So, here we were embarking to a spot circled on the map that was
recommended by one of our neighbors back in Merida that said we would find it interesting and off the main tourist
route. We were soon to find out that this was just the spot we were looking for and before we left we had already
planned our return visit.
We have concluded that the borders of the world are only there to screw as much out of the traveler as possible and
in this case 20% was the least we managed to be duped out of by the money exchangers…some of them tried to
stick it to us for more than 30%. The greedy money-grabbing businessmen buy the political favors of politicians who
in turn enact tariffs to steal even more. (We were trading pesos. The best money to use is US dollars as they trade
$1 US to $2 BZ. The exchange rate is fixed.)
This border business used to be terrible in Europe with so many small countries but now with the open borders of
the European Union, free travel is much the same as in the United States and we dearly do appreciate that.
Well, we were finally into Belize after nearly an hour of bureaucratic “BS”.
Our destination in Belize was the city of Orange Walk Town, a city with a population of 20,000. It is the second
largest. Belize City is the largest city and has 120,000 The entire country has 273,700 and has an area almost the
same as the Central American country of El Salvador that has 8 million people or 24 times the population density of
Orange Walk Town, our first destination, is somewhat of a crossroads and commercial center for the local
farming district. With absolutely no glitter or glitz they cater mostly to local farmers and their workers. The mix of
people is very distinct. Though English is the official language, the local citizens speak Spanish, Mayan and a type
of Creole. The Spanish/Maya comes from the “Caste Wars” in Mexico when thousands of Maya fled to the area plus
the huge influx of Guatemalan and Honduran refugees displaced by civil wars and political unrest. They now make
up more than forty percent of the population and have brought with them their slash and burn agriculture.
The Garifunas speak their own Creole language. They originated as African slaves that were ship wrecked near
Becquia in the Eastern Caribbean in 1635. They mingled and intermarried with the Carib Indians who were known
for their cannibalism. In 1795 when the French encouraged the Carib Indians to rebel against the British and the
rebellion failed, the British then expelled 5,000 Garifuna men, women and children to the island of Roatan in
Honduras. These people later settled in Belize where they now make up a large part of the population and still speak
a language that I find totally unintelligible. All of the above languages are heard on the streets and we even listened
to some of the local school children uttering this Garifuna. This was understood by all of the classmates who were
then able to translate it to English or Spanish for us.
We found the following cartoon in the local newspaper:
Interspersed with this mix are the Arabs who have expertise is business and commerce along with the Mennonites
who are mostly farmers and craftsmen. Chinese are there in conspicuous numbers also and all engage in some kind
of private business where the entire family will pull together to be very competitive and at the same time keeping
their quality the very best. Our very best and most memorable meal of our entire two-week trip was in an
inconspicuous Chinese restaurant on the main street (Northern Highway) of Orange Walk Town at the New China
Immigration is open and encouraged in this country. The government is based on the British law and order system
and as a former British Colony retains close ties with the British. All citizens are covered under a governmental
medical program. A picture of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain is on all of the money.
The beautiful New River flows alongside Main Street and through Orange Walk Town
John on Main Street in Orange Walk Town
John further on down Main Street in Orange Walk Town
A side street in Orange Walk Town
A contingent of street people of varying ethnicity can be seen shuffling along the streets… some drunks, some
burned out junkies and vagrants who find the climate easy on them and the easy going atmosphere doesn’t
Life here appears to be laid back and easy for some but it is hard toil and the environmental conditions push and
challenge both physically and mentally those who dare to achieve to produce to the limits. A good example of this is
an industrious Chinese couple, Akihito Ming Ren Li and his wife Bo Zhong Bian Li who we had the pleasure of
getting to know when we rented a hotel room from them. Akihito and his wife spent 14 years of their youthful and
energetic lives establishing a vegetable farm in the jungle of Belize. Their efforts were beaten back by all the tropics
could throw at them. Their efforts were plagued by leaf cutter ants, caterpillars, and grasshoppers and on and on
plus hungry jungle creatures all relentlessly countering their every effort. Plus they had to compete with the cheap
produce from Mexico that crossed the Rio Hondo or Belize River at night without paying customs. They gave it their
every effort and finally had to give it up.
Akihito Li and his wife Rose Bo Ghong Li, owners of Akihito Hotel
For reservations at the Akihito Hotel, e-mail: email@example.com
Next they would attempt another endeavor and this time it was fish farming. Alligators, eagles, egrets and fish ducks
were just a few of the obstacles to their success. As they told us, even if some meager production of their labors was
then brought to market, the financial reward didn’t begin to merit the arduous toil, so it was time to surrender this
beautiful tropical jungle back to nature and move on.
We met them in their spotlessly clean hotel located on Northern Highway in Orange Walk Town where this husband
wife team did it all. It is not easy money here but they will be successful because they keep their overhead low and
don’t let a single cent slip past their door. We watched as a customer came in and purchased a single cigarette.
In our conversations with these lovely people who were both university professors back in China, we got a better
insight into the country of Belize.
We asked about the vagrants that we saw walking the streets and were told that yes the country had poor people
but there were few and they were only poor because they didn’t want to work not because there wasn’t any work.
We asked about the notorious crime problem we had heard about and they said that Belize City was not a place to
walk the streets alone in, even in the daytime. They said that Orange Walk Town though a very busy commercial
area was almost totally crime free but that they had an experience with having a burglar steal their watch dog.
Another couple we met and heard a similar story of struggle from was at the jungle outpost camp owned by Victor
Aguso and his wife, Sonia, who also tried vegetable farming but moved on to dairy cows and beef cattle and then
they opened a restaurant and bar plus built bungalow cabins to rent along a small dirt road through the tall jungle
that dead ended at a lagoon. They worked long hours and toiled hard for their rewards that they then divided
amongst three children and their wives plus countless grandchildren.
When the rainy season comes to their jungle place in the fall of the year along with the occasional hurricane they
are many times cut off and isolated by high water and must get to town by boat. Sonia told us that when the last
hurricane hit, they rushed home from a trip to Chetumal on the Mexican border and on the way home purchased
$800 worth of basic food provisions. It turned out that they were stranded for three months without any business
whatsoever and only occasionally made it to town by boat.
Above is our quiet cabin at Victor and Sonia’s
Sonia and Victor with John inside of the their restaurant. Sonia is considered the best cook in the
area. For reservations, telephone Belize 30-20183
The Mennonites are another example of survival here. This religious group had its beginnings in northern Holland
and Germany in the 16th century. Persecuted for their religious beliefs, they were driven to migrate to Germany and
then into East Prussia. Over the years they immigrated to Canada, Mexico and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in the
United States. They have a unique and distinctive dress and life style and we have observed them in many parts of
In 1959, with a special agreement made with the Belizean government, 3,000 of these Mennonites set up their own
community in Belize with their own schools, banks and businesses.
What I found so very distinctive and different was the fact that these Mennonites have no police or police station and
that fact alone makes this group almost utopian. Self-taught doctors provide their medical treatment. They do all
forms of treatments from eyeglasses and dental and also to fulfilling advanced healthcare services not only to their
group but to the general population. These doctors also double as veterinarians to all of the groups own domestic
(When we told our account of our encounter with the Mennonites to a doctor friend in Merida, his remark regarding
the doctor/veterinarian was that the reason they could treat both animals and humans is that they are “bilingual”.
We found that remark very humorous.)
Respected for their uncanny work ethic, the Mennonites have turned the jungle into neat, productive farms and
dairies. They also manufacture first quality hardwood furniture that is sold countrywide. These distinctively unique
Northern European farmers are clean, neat and almost identically dressed. It is easy to see that the men are well
muscled, slim and trim from their efforts and the women range from very slim and trim to buxom and robust
depending upon their age and number of offspring. All can definitely carry their own weight and then some.
As incredible as this might seem we have only seen these peaceful people well mannered and curious though we
have noticed that they have a tendency to stare at strangers, namely us. We get the feeling that they are doing a
This small country made us think that we were back on highway 17 in the state of Georgia in the 1950’s. Except for
the coconut palms and bananas, it was shockingly similar. We found even more similarities when we had the
opportunity to eat in the small “Mom and Pop’ diners featuring their daily specials and at the same time playing old
country music classics from that era featuring Hank Snow, Webb Pierce and George Jones.
The local beer was extraordinary and our favorite was Belikin stout, a black beer made with dark roasted malt that
resembled a British porter and was not quite as heavy bodied as the Irish Guinness. One of these Belikin’s will
usually fill even the avid beer drinker because of its heavy density.
We found the local rum (Cuello) made from the molasses of the nearby sugar
refinery to be of superb and top quality at $5.50/Ltr./USD modestly priced,
although no match for Nicaraguan “Flor de Caña or Haitian Jane Barbenquart
which are in a league of their own and top the list as the worlds finest. After
Jane finished adding just a little extra molasses, the local Cuello was almost
equal to the most expensive brands found worldwide.
We have acquaintances that hate the Belikin beer and won’t drink the rum
either…but then as George Bernard Shaw used to say, “there is just no
accounting for taste”.
On a related subject: Here in the Orange Walk district sugar cane is the
number one crop and it is refined here also. The principal products are sugar,
both brown and white and molasses of different grades. Jane and I had read
about this before our arrival and were anxious to sample the different grades
of molasses because Jane uses a large quantity of the dark and also black strap
in her homemade bread making. We also like to flavor our own rum and I must
admit that Jane is unrivaled in her expertise regarding this process. Yes, we
are connoisseurs of the very best and Jane does duplicate that taste to
Back to the subject of molasses and Orange walk Town; after two days of
searching all of the local stores and even inquiring at the local rum distiller, we
finally found a man that could tell us why there was absolutely no molasses for
sale here. It turned out that here, like most other places on the planet; they have
the very best politicians that money can buy. In an attempt to stamp out any and
all competition in the production of rum, a law was passed prohibiting the sale of
molasses to the general public. This man, the grocery store owner that
enlightened us about the molasses law did have a product in a 7 ounce bottle
marked, (Black Cake Coloring) that one of his neighborhood ladies makes by
rendering brown sugar and it cost $2.80 Belize or $1.40 US. We bought a bottle
and it was good and thick but light on flavor. This man said that he also had to
have a permit to sell brown sugar.
Belize and most of the Caribbean receive copious quantities of rain in late fall as
the hurricane season gives way to the winter weather pattern of occasional but
brief afternoon rain showers interspersed with “northers” that can bring extra
precipitation and cooler weather. Well, we were no strangers to this having owned Caribbean waterfront property
just 30 miles north of the Belize border in Mexico where we visited in all seasons. November is notoriously a wet
month. So we counted ourselves lucky to do daily bicycle excursions without being drenched.
We ventured into town from our jungle cabin at Victor and Sonia’s one morning but when we returned that afternoon
after a torrential rainstorm, we were astonished to find the dirt road for a stretch of nearly a mile had turned to the
slickest stickiest gooiest gumbo mud imaginable. We had to dismount and walk. Our wheels soon became so
impacted with the gumbo mud that they wouldn’t even turn and we wound up dragging them along at the same time
treading gingerly and trying to keep from slipping on our butts in that creamy colored gumbo. The tour books give
caution about this gumbo mud and also about the sharp stones on the dirt roads. We were soon amazed at the
sharp stones that turned out to be volcanically generated obsidian rock. What a find if you were into making
arrowheads! We procured several samples to carry home and then discovered that one of Jane’s tires had bad
sidewall damage from these razor sharp stones. We were amazed that we hadn’t ruined our tires completely
especially after we saw many tire fragments that were neatly sliced off and littering the roads.
Some years ago while touring in the State of California backwoods we came across an entire mountain made of this
obsidian rock in all sizes, some too big to be carted off by the largest of trucks
We met two young Swiss girls there that Akihito and his wife arranged an all day tour for to some nearby Mayan
ruins in the jungle and they were thrilled. Not only did they get the tour for one half the travel agent quoted price but
Akihito and his wife made the arrangements and also stored their luggage at no cost.
Jane and I got a crash course in deciphering Chinese writing symbols coupled with an interesting history and
adventure lesson from these two adventuresome people who left their academic life as university professors back in
China to start this new life on a new frontier. Their attention to detail was continuously ongoing and we noticed that
they had set hours to open and close with a watch dog in their back service entranceway and also up on their
upstairs balcony where their huge black watch dog would lick and sniff you to death if you entered as I did. We
asked if they had a crime problem that warranted the dogs and they replied “not especially”. However as I stated
earlier, one burglar had stolen one of their watch dogs.
Jane and I counted our time in conversation with these interesting people one of the highlights of our trip.
Our fact-finding tour to Belize was not only fun but also interesting and rewarding. We had already known that
November was more than likely to be very wet but it was also very much off season for tourism.
Tuesday November 18th was the end of the first week of this jungle sojourn. With on and off rain, Jane and I
ventured out to an early breakfast at Juanita’s café. This was a family run business that was the best and as far as
we could discern the only choice for breakfast in Orange Walk Town had no credit card signs on the door. With
early 1950’s western music and the small town atmosphere of the place, we were already regulars after only six days
On our last day, we biked to the one room bus terminal on the main street to catch the 10 AM first class bus to
Chetumal in Mexico where we would cross the border and then catch the first bus out to Tulum on the Caribbean
shore to visit with our kids for a few laid back days.
The bus ride was cheap at $3.50 per person but the shake down exit fee for the privilege of exiting the country is
$37.50 BZ per person. We considered the fee to be another border “shake down”. Next the money exchangers had
to take their piece of the action and again we got the feeling of having an unnatural relationship with the government
as we got screwed again thanks to the border functionaries. The busload of Dutch tourists that accompanied us also
had to fork over to the Mexicans another $20.00 to enter there; we have residence status in Mexico and at least
avoided that additional traveler’s rip-off.
The Belizean bus driver was very friendly and smiley but not at all accommodating. After clearing the gantlet of
border functionaries and ready to reboard our bus to complete our trip into Chetumal which was only about six miles
away, we had to search for our bus that was parked several blocks away. Next we were dumped off in a supermarket
parking lot several blocks from our connecting bus terminal in Mexico.
Four hours and two ho-hum movies later we disembarked our bus in Tulum and made a hasty trip to our favorite
beach front cabins before the sun took a trip over the horizon. At these latitudes at this time of year when the sun
hits the horizon you only have about two minutes before the stars come out and the Mexican highways are not
where you want to be after dark for a number of reasons, one being safety. Well, we made it just as the stars began
to do their first twinkle and as luck would have it there was one cabin still vacant. So, we got a quick swim in the briny
surf and had a light supper before stretching out in our hammocks… exhausted from a long day of travel and
Our Güero was having his 29th birthday party the following day and he was out inviting everyone in sight to join in
the festivities. We had made sure we would be here because he doesn’t have much in the way of family and as he
has often told us that we are the only people that remember him.
A lot had transpired in Güero’s life in the last few days. He had just returned from Switzerland where he had been
working for the past six months (it had been his fourth time to go to Europe for work). He also had just signed a ten-
year lease on a nearby beachfront hotel, which he was also going to manage.
The next six days were great with several visits to visit Grisel and her ten month old baby boy, plenty of swimming,
reading, writing and napping while swinging in our hammocks overlooking the Caribbean. This turned out to be a
laid back and fun vacation. This was our fourth time to Tulum this year. It is only a four-hour bus trip from our home
in Merida so our next trip will be in January for Grisel’s baby boy, Amanecer’s (sunrise in English) first birthday and
we will be there.
*A footnote to our travel story; one of the most enjoyable things about travel is the people you encounter from
diverse countries and cultures and this trip was no exception.
I mentioned that we encountered two young Swiss girls at the Akihito Hotel in Orange Walk Town in Belize. When we
asked them where they were from and where they were going they mentioned that their next stop would be at Tulum
in Mexico so we gave them a tip of staying at Punta Piedra cabins and also told them to look up Güero. Well, the
next day they turned up in Tulum and became our neighbors at Punta Piedra cabins. As luck would have it they not
only looked up Güero but got invited to his 29th birthday party and even went out on the town with him later. They
were comfortable with Güero as he speaks their dialect of the Swiss/German language.
Over the next several days we got better acquainted with Alice and Sandra, the Swiss girls and they made the
rounds with Güero, so they got a better look at the Mexican way of life. They happened to be about the same age as
Several days later we had the privilege of their visit at our home in Merida and also a breakfast together downtown
followed by a trip into the big central market where Jane and I do our weekly provisioning.
Jane and I both were extremely happy to see these young Swiss girls who already had ventured up from Guatemala
and next were headed to Cuba before turning south to San Jose, Costa Rica pursuing such an adventuresome life
and at an age when their youth would give them strength to carry on.
We heard their plans for extensive travels in South America and only wish that we too were striking off with them.
We gave them our best wishes and do hope that we may meet again sometime soon to share and exchange stories
by John M. Grimsrud BACK TO ARCHIVES
It you are ever contemplating any tours or side
trips in the area, this without a doubt is the
number one place to get connected.