Sunday, October 19, 2014

Best souvenirs to bring home from Placencia, Belize, for yourself or others :)

Best souvenirs...meaning they they are the most economical/portable/most Belizean character/looks like you were really thoughtful....in no particular order.....

1.) Tiny bottles of Marie Sharps....less than  $1us! Portable, fun, authentic! Probably an overall winner in all categories :)
 2.) Bottles of jam-I wondered what to do with these...still not sure I did it right....but I sauteed chicken in the jalapeno jam and it was AWESOME. You can use the banana and other fruit jams like regular jams...but a very unique gift. Or, don't try to be creative, just eat it with a spoon, out of the jar. Only a couple bucks at the grocery stores.
3.) Lion fish earrings from Treasure Box-Khadija is the owner of the shop (she is the daughter of Saeed, the awesome Bamboo guy!) She has a lovely shop where they sell very sweet lionfish earrings...lionfish are invasive species on the reef and she makes use of the lionfish in a useful and truly unique way...visit her store off the main street! Lionfish are reportedly evil....imagine wearing dangerous fish spikes dangling from your ears! What a story.
 4.) Adorable silver jewelry from Denyse's....her shop in on the sidewalk. Very affordable and unique sterling silver. My friend Shannon cleaned the place out on her trip.
5.) Go to this store on the pier....they have great souvenirs...Belizean coffee, honey, and other things that are packaged very cutely! Looks thoughtful.
6.) A hammock! You can find these at most souvenir stores...they are mostly handmade and some of them are very unique and soft :) Can you imagine this hanging in your basement....in the middle of the Cleveland winter....with recorded sounds of waves coming from your CD player in the background?
7.) Belize coffee mug...because this is easy....Dave is a coffee mug nerd and so am I, now, so this might be a good souvenir for us.
8.) Belikin Beer T shirt....if you are really edgy you could try to get a bottle of beer out of the country but I am not sure this is smiled upon :) Grab a t shirt at the airport on your way out for a great last minute gift....I tried to buy one for Dave online a while ago, when we didn't live here, and it was impossible to find. So, get them while you are here! (If you smuggle the beer, don't say you read this blog and I said it was ok)
9.) A Belizean wood cutting board...you can also find these at the airport for like $15us...they are awesome! And it looks thoughtful and expensive.
 10.) Disclaimer....I have never tried this. But I believe it to be pretty unique to Belize. There is a rumor that if you get tipsy on this, and go to bed, the next day you experience a second drunken wave! Now THAT is a heck of a souvenir!
 11.) A little Belize flag, because that is fun to have in your office, in February, when you are looking outside at snow and dead trees.
12.) Goss Chocolate- but put this in your carry-on. Don't let it melt on all the other souvenirs in your bag, that would ruin the flags and t shirts in there.
Best enjoyed on a hammock, looking at palm trees, not at a Formica counter top in February, in the Northeast.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

What is it like to drive in Belize? Is it safe?

I am getting this question often from travelers-nearly everyone flies into Belize International Airport, and from there, you can rent a car. If you are going to the Cayes, you can take the water taxi or a puddle jumper flight (Tropic or Maya Air), if you are going to San Ignacio or Placencia (or anywhere else inland), you can rent a car or take a puddle jumper. Many people who come to Belize don't just go to one location though-one of the greatest things about choosing Belize is that you can do an island adventure trip, jungle adventures, Mayan ruins, and beach relaxing all on one trip. Belize is small, and relatively easy to get everywhere. The first time we came, we rented a car at the airport and drove around the whole country; it was a fantastic experience.
Car rental at Belize Airport-looks just like at home!
I am a worrywart about safety, and for most humans, if we haven't done something before, and it isn't familiar, it can feel unsafe or scary. After 7 months, we have driven in Belize so many times that it is completely normal to me now. This post should explain what it is really like, from the worrywart perspective :)

Some pointers, advice, and thoughts:
1.) The car you rent here might be a bit....in need of a tune up. Belize roads are hard on cars, it is hard to get cars in here with the import taxes, and cars stick around a long time. The first car we rented was a jeep whose shocks were actually quite shocking; it felt like we were driving a waterbed with all the bouncing.
2.) It wouldn't hurt to have a set of jumper cables and to know how to change a tire. If you do not have/know these things, you will most likely be driving in walking distance to help, and a car with a good Samaritan probably is not far off here. When we have rented cars, there has also been a service available where you can call and get help from the rental place, so ask about this service when you rent.
3.) OK now you have your car and you are all set...one of the unique things you may encounter will be a police checkpoint. There are no standard traffic cops, although you will at times see a cop car. One of the ways that flow is controlled is through these random checkpoints. If you see a traffic stop building with no one in it, just go on through. There will be cones and cops clearly there if you need to stop. All they are looking for is to make sure your vehicle is insured and that you are here legally. You just need to show your passport. The insurance proof is actually on the windshield in Belize. It wouldn't hurt to know where the car's registration is, but just show your car rental paperwork if asked. This should be a quick and easy situation (keep your passport handy, don't pack it in your luggage in the truck, which would be a huge pain for everyone). One thing to note, sometimes kids/people will put cones out that look like a traffic stop, when really they are asking for donations for their school or team. Other times you may think it is a traffic stop but it is kids selling fruit or something. Feel free to donate, or just kindly roll by and wave.
4.) One of the other controls on the roads are speed bumps. These are annoying, and you do have to be aware as you are driving and look out for these. Almost 100% of them are marked, but sometimes the signs are hard to see, or they will come up rather quickly. Since there are no traffic cops, this is a way to manage speed. Also you may see those same kids selling fruit at the speed bumps because you have to slow down...you can just roll by :).

5.) Hitchhikers-it is normal to hitchhike and to pick up hitchhikers here. This is not recommended of course, and certainly not for your first time here. You are not obligated to pick anyone up of course, but you will see a lot of people with their thumb out, there is kind of an understanding between drivers and hitchhikers here. Just roll on by and they won't care.
6.) Buses-one thing that makes me uncomfortable while driving here is the buses--you will see Caribbean-colored old school buses that are a private bus line here, racing along the highways quite frequently. At times I feel like the bus is a freight train coming right at me. The drivers know the roads well so they speed along like crazy, and it always makes me slow down and be extra cautious when I see them coming at me. Just be aware of them them and make sure to be as far as you can safely be from the mid line in the road :)
Real James Bus in Belize.
 What James Bus looks like coming at you on the highway.
7.) "Highway"-ha! Although the roads are called highways, there are no "highways." The roads are actually pretty nice, but they are a 2 lane country road throughout. With this comes twists and turns at points, and passing is quite normal here, and often done at the speed bumps. It is recommended that you pass with great caution when you are in the twisty parts of the road!!

8.) Gas stations and bathroom breaks-there aren't that many cars here so there aren't that many gas stations. It is recommended that when you do see a gas station, stop and get gas if you are under a half tank, and also use their bathroom. It won't be the Ritz, and they may even charge you a dollar, but use these bathrooms if you can. Unless you prefer to pull off into the bush and pee while looking for snakes and fireants :)
Real Belize Gas Station! Looks like home!
9.) Dogs--when you roll through one of the towns, there will be speed bumps to protect the people, and you will also see a lot of dogs here. We have narrowly missed hitting dogs on a  number of occasions when going through towns, because they tend to just run out into the street at times-just keep your eyeballs on them when you see them on the sides of the road.
10.) I think driving here is fun and totally worth it. You will drive through what looks like Hawaii, North Carolina, Hilton Head, countryside, farms, etc. You are statistically VERY unlikely to have any interactions with a criminal element while on the roads. The biggest safety issue here is car accidents, which are pretty common because people drive too fast. Being a defensive driver, and taking your time, is the best safety advice.
Actual scenery you will see as you drive.



I used to think that driving anywhere in Central America was like a ticking time bomb, that you were likely to be targeted and staked out by a carjacker--this is ridiculous. Only in southern Belize City is there a level of organized criminal element, and "poor" does not equal unsafe or criminal here. (In the US, there are "poor" cities and middle class cities/suburbs, and crime is more concentrated in the "poor" areas. The social dynamics are different here, most people do not have much money, and most people all hang out in the same places.) Belize has the lowest population density in Central America, and with that comes a LOT of gorgeous landscapes with a few little villages scattered amongst farms and mountains.
You will see a lot of poverty for sure, amongst all of the gorgeous landscape. But Belizeans are very used to tourists and are very friendly. You can feel safe to stop anywhere along the highway, at roadside stands and such, and this is part of the fun of the drive. One last thing to note-the gas here is really expensive, and so is renting a car. Gas is like $5-6 a gallon, and car rental is around $50-100 a day. This is again the result of there not being that many cars here. A lot of times you will be the only car on the road, and that makes for a really peaceful drive :)


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Of all the cities in the world, what are the top ten reasons why someone should vacation in Placencia, or even move there?

Let's get right to it. No place is perfect, and vacationing vs. living somewhere would require different checklists. Also, what is paradise to one person, is not paradise to another. But what is going on in Placencia, that made it feel so magical to us, and to many people that come down here? We meet people every week who, after visiting, are now on a house hunt. The whole village is on a verge of an even bigger explosion of growth, with several huge projects in the works.
**most pictures borrowed from google, but all represent realistic portrayals :)

1.) The peninsula is very special and unique. We drove onto the peninsula the first time we came. The drive is so gorgeous and special....you go from watching the Maya Mountains, which look like Hawaii, to driving through what feels like a North Carolina shoreline.....to arriving at Hilton Head-like homes (Plantation area and North)....to driving through Maya Beach, which looks and feels like 1940's Florida (at least what I imagine it did :) ), to seeing authentic Belize culture in Seine Bight (this town is rough around the edges, but friendly, right on the water, and tons of local character), to arriving in the village, where not a structure is over a few stories high....everyone is friendly.....Caribbean-colored wooden homes and businesses....one cute restaurant and shop after another...and throughout this whole drive, you can see the lagoon and Maya Mountains on your right, and the gorgeous Caribbean the whole time on your left, and palm trees everywhere. I have never been in a place that had so many charming natural aesthetics.

2.) You can drink the water here. Right out of the tap, we have been doing it for 7 months and I think it is delicious. I can't tell the difference between bottled water and tap water here. You cannot drink the water everywhere in Belize, and certainly not everywhere in Central America. But here, it is fed by an underwater spring. Just from my visit to Roatan this past week, I  was reminded what a plus this is.

3.) Belize is English speaking, and they accept USD everywhere. This makes vacationing and living here MUCH easier.

4.) Placencia is a perfect mix of the inland experience, but an island feel. I really liked San Pedro, but I was worried about "island fever". Here, you can get in your car and drive inland, get to stores and fill up your car if needed, and it is cheaper than an actual island, because things don't have to be all shipped by boat.
5.) Placencia has just the right amount of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, beach bars, and shops to be a quaint, small town village, without being so small that you can't get what you need, or becoming bored. We have been here 7 months and I still haven't tried everything. You will recognize some familiar (and friendly!) faces (of  locals, expats, other tourists, and even beach dogs :)) within a day of being here, and there is only one road into town, plus the walking main street sidewalk.  Which brings me to....

6.) One of the things I love best about Placencia is that I can walk the main road into town and feel like I am in a true Central American village. Culture, local flavor, all of the wood-stilted houses you think of, busy-ness of a downtown village, but then...I can turn the corner and walk the famous Sidewalk....which is right on the beach, and transforms into a true vacation paradise. Even now, 7 months later, I feel like I am on vacation when I walk down that sidewalk. You will walk by one charming bed and breakfast, restaurant, ice cream stand, souvenir shop, and much more, all while looking at the ocean with this wonderful energy around you. The sidewalk feels more like the Caribbean, while the main street feels like Central America. 


7.) Laughingbird Caye, Silk Caye, Cockscomb, Tutti Frutti, Belize Ocean Club, Rumfish, Secret Garden, all the islands surrounding the peninsula that you can kayak to, Barefoot and Tipsy Tuna, Brewed Awakenings...these are just a few of the standout activities/establishments here. If you feel a need for some resort style living for a day, you can take a drive up to Belize Ocean Club, at the top of the peninsula, where it is as luxurious as an all inclusive resort, and they let you use their pool. Rumfish and Secret Garden are just two of the really unique and spectacular restaurants here. Tutti Frutti has the best gelato I have ever had. From Placencia, you can snorkel in two unbelievable Cayes. Tipsy and Barefoot are SO MUCH FUN....and where you will find locals, expats, tourists, and dogs all having an awesome time, every night of the week, and they are right next door to each other. Brewed Awakenings has some of the best coffee and smoothies I have ever had.
 

 8.) The Sea changes EVERY SINGLE DAY. I start out every day with a walk to the shore...and every day, the color, waves, and shoreline are different. It is so amazing. Sometimes the water is so still and clear it looks like the most pristine Caribbean beach you could imagine, like turquoise glass. Other mornings, like today, the water was full of big waves and it looked more like the Atlantic Ocean. I LOVE waves in the sea, but also appreciate the beauty of a calm and clear sea, and this was the only place with all the island feel that had this. (In the cayes, the water is gorgeous, but it never gets any waves because it is too close to the reef.) Not to mention, just the other morning we watched a school of dolphins swim right by the shore!
 
9.) You can walk EVERYWHERE. From the village, you can walk to farmer's stands, beach bars, restaurants, groceries, everything. Also, unlike many other places I have visited, you can safely ride your bike--this was not an option in Roatan, for example, because it was too hilly and the street too narrow. In San Pedro, there are not a lot of sidewalks, and I found walking and biking to be a bit stressful with all the cars and golf cars whizzing by.
10.) The FEEL of it here. This is one that you simply have to experience. Will every person that comes here have that "feeling" that they never want to leave? Of course not, but a much higher percentage than is really reasonable :). You have this feeling here that you are somewhere very special, and also you have a feeling that you are in a place that is about to explode, as the tourist numbers and construction keep increasing every month...there is a reason for that! I felt like I stumbled on a secret when I got here, and the friends we have made here all have that same feeling. Tourists repeat their trip year after year here, despite all the other options in the world!