We always seem to slow down as we near a border crossing. At least that’s been the case for the three we’ve encountered so far. We’re concerned about the upcoming bureaucracy and inspections that come with leaving one country and entering another, of course. We spend hours reading other’s accounts of crossing over the same border to try and learn from their experiences in order to be as prepared as possible for the confusion ahead. We study up on the next country, electronically scouting camping places and scouring the Lonely Planet for areas we’d like to see.
Trepidation of the unknown, however, is only part of the equation. As we study up on the new country, we begin to appreciate the current one in a different light. Faced with a whole new culture in a place we’re unfamiliar with seems to help us feel more at home where we are.
We were in Mexico for a bit over 100 days. Most of the time we were there, we felt like outsiders- with pale skin, clumsy Spanish, and an inability to discern the rules of the road. Faced with our crossing into Belize, we realized our poor Spanish was improving every day and that the rhythms of life in Mexico were more than a passing breeze in our day to day. We spent nearly a week in a place we’d intended to stay only a night or two, just soaking in our last days in a country that had suddenly felt like home.
In our last week in Belize, we again found ourselves slowing down. We bought enough food and packed enough water to spend 3 nights in the Mountain Pine Ridge forest reserve. However, the air was just too crisp, the sky too blue, and the few people we met just too friendly. We stretched our supplies to a six day stay in the park. The higher altitude meant drier, cooler air, and the pine forest meant sweet smelling campfires every night.
We practiced our Dutch oven cooking skills and I put forth my best effort to duplicate the handmade tortillas we’d learned to make in San Cristobal. (spoiler alert- I failed) We even got to roast a few hot dogs and Taylor tried her hand at making our favorite Beliziean dish- chicken, stew beans, and rice.
On our first night, we camped overlooking Thousand Foot Falls, the tallest waterfall in Central America plunging a paradoxical 1600’. We made friends with Alphonso, the man in charge of the grounds at the falls, and were sure to put our names and homeland in his extensive book of visitors. We’d been told, far too late, by the man at the entry gate we’d need a permit to camp inside the park. Each ranger we spoke with though either shrugged the requirement off, or laughed outright when we asked them about it. They were all simply excited to have us enjoying and exploring the park.
By our second night we’d visited the Caracol ruins and made camp in the official “camping ground” at the Douglas deSilva ranger station. The station and grounds appeared to be abandoned, leaving the impression of camping on the soccer field of a WWII era South Pacific air base. Despite the neglected feel, however, we found running water and even flush toilets/showers among the disused houses and crumbling quonset huts. There was even a night guard, Israel, who has worked in the reserve for more than 20 years.
We made friends with the only other camper in the park, Lyndon and found ourselves on a private tour of Pine ridge the following day. Driven by Lyndon and guided by Israel we spent the greater part of a day together, the four of us just chatting about life, the pine forest, and visiting Israel’s favorite places in Pine Ridge. At the end of the day, we had our newfound friends over for a healthy helping of stew chicken. Cooked (mostly) on the fire, of course.
In addition to crisp air, pine trees, and friendly rangers, Pine Ridge also has tons of forest roads to drive, caves to explore, and deep mountain pools to cool off in. It is also lousy with wildlife like foxes, tapirs, jaguars, pumas, and gigantic bright green rattlesnakes. It even harbors an active military outpost, complete with a contingent of friendly Dutch Marines due to its proximity to the contested Guatemalan border. For a time it was even necessary to travel by military convoy to the ruins of Caracol to avoid bandits and illegal loggers, but hostilities have relaxed and tourists are free to drive the route on their own.
We spent three more nights in the reserve, before finally making our way off the mountain to San Ignacio, the last town on our itinerary before leaving the country. We pulled into the campground with the fastest internet we could find, intending to tie up a few final loose ends and roll across the border as soon as possible.
However, we arrived in town on good Friday and found everything closed and a local Easter fair being erected next to our camp. Our plans were quickly abandoned and we elected to take the Belizean mantra Go Slow to heart. We couldn’t get anything done anyway and there was a fair to visit, a bike race to see and street food to eat. We even rented a scooter to scour the local countryside for ice cream stands. Guatemala would wait for a few more days.
We had a great time hanging out with the family and friends of the campground owners. Eating (and drinking) our way through the tiny Easter fair, engaging in a little karaoke, and all cheering together for the American cyclist once it was clear a Guatemalan was the most likely to win. There was also a little scotch consumed and a few cigars smoked in the service of solving the world’s problems.
From the beginning, Belize had a small-town America feel. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, there were plenty of full size diesel farm trucks, and one of the first signs we passed after entering the country advertised “Hound Pups 4 Sale”. The local radio stations also play plenty of gospel music and one features countrywide obituaries alongside classified ads and local call-in shows.
As we watched the televised bicycle race cross the country, we recognized all the places the cyclists passed. We even met Israel again, enjoying some much-deserved family time away from Pine Ridge at the Easter Fair. As we contemplated our move into Guatemala, it was hard not to feel as though we’d made yet another country our home. Even if only temporarily.
We’ve been in Guatemala for a few days now, and we’re having a great time. We feel like outsiders and strangers in a new land. Awkward encounters, geographical ignorance, and bungled Spanish conversations are once again our norm, but I’m confident this country too will feel a bit like home in time. I’m counting on it.