Belmopan, Hummingbird Highway and St. Herman’s Cave and the Blue Hole

Yesterday we caught the bus from the terminal which was heading towards Benque at the Guatemalan border, due west. While waiting a young man, Creole, nice face, bare-foot and dusty, approached a man in a row in front, and opened a wooden cigar box to show him a portrait he had painted. When he saw me looking he pointed at me, came over and sat on the bench in front, and proceeded to draw me. I was his target all along! He had a well-rehearsed patter, and a similar philosophical bent as the chap on the first day, who told us the origin of the word Belize. Conor asked him if we had to pay him as he was drawing me, and he replied only if you want to. He had about 10 minutes and we decided that the eyes weren’t too bad, but overall he made me chuckle – I was never a dolly bird and when I said he should add 30 years to it, he said that he had the eyes of an artist! And the gift of the gab! We gave him a few Belizean cents – and bumped into him, still dusty and barefoot, sitting on a curb side today. Different clothes, but still the same nice face and cheery smile. He waved as we went by, and we smiled and waved back. “The artist”, he called to our backs…

One of the problems here is that you want to bail everyone out, and it doesn’t work. I am already approaching various agencies in the U.K. to get selling outlets for some of the poverty stricken women learning how to do craft work…we shall see if anything comes of it. But this is an articulate and moderately gifted young man, capable of so much more in his life. He is not obviously high on anything. Why is he on the streets?

Anyway, we boarded our bus, passed the now familiar Belize Zoo, and on to Belmopan. Belmopan is the official capital of Belize, and claims to be the smallest capital in the world. It moved there after the infamous Hurricane Hattie – after which Hattieville is named. The land from the zoo onwards was climbing gently but steadily all the way to Belmopan, the jungle around us becoming denser all the time. An hour and a half later, BZ $12 poorer (i.e. it cost each of us £1.50 to travel 50 miles) we entered the outskirts of Belmopan. Immediately we felt a sense of relief. Small, well tiny really – a square, bus station, taxi stand, market place, a couple of shops and restaurants and then a smattering of different embassies and other government buildings. And relatively clean, ordered, a sense of a town dealing with itself, with a purpose. It seems to me the Hurricane Hattie and the subsequent flooding of Belize City was a fabulous excuse for the foreign ambassadors to live in houses in a beautiful part of the country!

As we got off the bus, the usual clamour of folk was at the doorway, most waiting to get in, and the few looking at us and hustling… “Taxi? Taxi?” A large man – Alberto we were to discover – with the uniform small towel on his shoulder to wipe off the sweat, was persistent.
“Where are you guys going? Bus to Dangriga? Just missed it. Won’t get another for two hours. You going all the way to Dangriga? The roads are bad ‘cos of the rains a few days ago. That’s why the buses are late. Just to St. Herman’s Cave? Eighteen miles down the road. I’ll take you there for $25. No, US. BZ$50. That’s what it costs. Return? No, one way. But I’ll wait and not charge you for waiting. OK, you think about it.”

We wondered round the market for a bit, trying to decide whether to pay the astronomical taxi fare or wait two hours. He pounced again, and we stalled.
“OK, get something to eat here first. That restaurant is good. Try the chicken tamales. How long you be? OK, I’ll come for you in twenty minutes.”

As we ate, we realised that in his insistence we had never double-checked his story. We decided to see if a bus came in at 1pm, just an hour after we arrived, after all. Then who should come bursting into the restaurant but the taxi man!
“Just taken someone and come back for you. You ready yet?”

We told him of our decision, so he left. We paid up, and joined many other folk in the queue to Dangriga. We were becoming increasingly optimistic when the taxi man came up again. This time his tack was it probably won’t be on time and we won’t have much time there before having to return back to Belmopan in order to catch the last bus back to Belize City. Now, we had read our guidebook, and new the times of the last bus, so were once again a bit more decisive.
“OK, here’s my name and number (Alberto) and when the bus doesn’t turn up ring my cell phone. And if you are stuck at the cave, ring me.”

Full marks for trying, I say; and it’s quite amazing how plausible some folk can be. Alberto was never nasty; just ebullient, insistent, and needing to make a living in the off-peak season. And ten minutes later we began to travel the Hummingbird Highway to St. Herman’s Cave – for BZ$2 each!

The Hummingbird Highway lived up to its guidebook reputation of being the most scenic road in Belize. Ridges of small steep sided hills gave way to higher and higher ones behind, leading eventually to the Maya mountains. These limestone hills are well eroded over the centuries, causing fascinating rock formations. But from the bus all we could see was trees – beautiful broad leaved trees, palms, vines, all shapes and sizes, ridge after ridge.

Occasionally there would be a flat plain, tilled, or covered in citrus trees. A Mennonite man had boarded a bus in Belmopan, recognisable by his braces, his beard and his wide rimmed straw hat. He alighted by a sign saying Springfield, and further proclaiming a farm four miles down the track with over 40 different types of produce. (A client last week described her childhood farm on the Mexican border as producing everything you would need but salt. It seemed a novel and charming way to describe abundance.) On our way back to Belmopan later that day, we saw a small two horse-drawn cart with a shaded top returning to the farm. A typical Mennonite pair was in it, the man as before, and the woman, somewhat to my horror in the Belizean heat, had a blue cloth bonnet over her entire head and fastened under her chin; it looked close fitting, and hot, but maybe acted well as a sun hat. She also had a heavy blue cloth cape around her. Whew!

The bus driver went at a fair lick, mainly downhill as it made its way back to the coast at Dangriga. (Dangriga is about 70 miles down the coast south of Belize City.) Some of the corners were taken a bit too wide for my piece of mind, but it was easy to get distracted by the view! We passed through one sizeable village, Armenia, which again had the effect of reassuring us about people’s capacity to live well, to make the best of things even when you have little or nothing. There were quite a lot of houses in the village, mostly wooden, some not much bigger than our garden shed, some with a few rooms, or on stilts. One or two concrete houses, mainly bungalows, though some two storey houses too. The houses were scattered in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, yet none was too close to the other. Henny-pennies were scratching, crops were growing, fruit trees fruiting, even a cow or two. The whole place had an ambience about it which was tranquil, yet productive.

A couple of miles later, we were told we were at our destination – St. Herman’s Cave and the Blue Hole. We entered a small area with 3 wooden huts – tickets, tourist trap (shop), and toilets. The ticket hut had a cheerful pair who explained the routes we could take to the cave (high ground or low ground and we knew which one we were going to do in that heat) and then through the jungle for 45 minutes to the Blue Hole. We set off with enthusiasm for the 10 minutes to the cave, our first venture into thicker jungle. It was very soggy underfoot, which meant you had a tendency to watch your feet rather than look around, but nevertheless the sheer variety and splendour of the growth was stunning. The jungle we have seen here so far has been very varied in the shapes and heights of the foliage, which creates such a fantastic effect not a million miles from the illustrations in Where the Wild Things are, but with all the layers superimposed on one another. Huge red dragonflies were playing over the soggy ground as we turned a corner, and saw a sheer rock face in front of us, festooned in nooks and crannies sprouting ferns and big drips positioned perfectly to drop down your neck!

We climbed a few steps, only to see the cave entrance open up in front of us, with a series of steps descending down and round. There was a sturdy wire handrail on the left, preventing anyone from slipping on the wet mud down into the underground river coursing through the cave. It took a bit of time for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, even though we each had a small torch with us. Gradually, we saw how clear the water was, and marvelled at the stalactites and stalagmites, mighty pillars ascending and descending in nature’s cathedral. At times it opened out from about ten feet wide and twenty feet high to a vast cavern, with many ledges in the sides from the natural contours. If we weren’t so miserly, we could have paid for a guide to take us even further into the cave system, following the river passed Mayan artefacts which have never seen the light of day for at least two centuries. You eventually emerge from another entrance into the cave. The guidebook says that the steps down into the cave were initially cut by the Maya too.

We turned round, and made our way back, suddenly turning a bend into a glorious sight. The large fern fringed mouth of the cave let light in onto the water which then reflected gently off the roof, highlighting all the shapes and contours as it did so. It was quite magical. The gentle light illuminates way back into the cave when facing this direction, and it was easy to see how our ancestors would have lived in such places. What was surprising was how humid it was. We both emerged quite sticky.

As we made our way back to the huts, we jumped as a loud crack-crack came from our right. We heard it again a few times before we reached the hut, and asked the ticket man what is was – a white-collared manakin. This bird apparently cracks its wings as it hops in a circle, clearing a space on the jungle floor from leaves, as part of its display to the females. It is a small bird, but the crack made us jump when we first heard it! There are apparently 3 of the 5 indigenous wild cats in the area (jaguar, ocelots, and jaguarundi) and I was quite ready to half-believe it was one stalking us! What a weed!

We then walked 1.5 kilometres through the jungle to the Blue Hole. The Blue Hole is a collapsed karst cavern much as the St. Herman’s cave we had just been in. But we had some jungle to traverse first. Again it was pretty uneven along the trail so you have to keep looking down, but nevertheless we got our first proper taste! Many of the plants were ones which we might find growing a house plants in the U.K., indeed one which we have just wound around some banisters in the stables at Ellemford! But the ones we saw on Saturday were winding themselves around the trunks of trees, and heading skywards! Suddenly the scent of jasmine will waft over you, and then you would see the delicate tendrils hanging from a branch. Skinny stalks of trunks, great fat bruisers, with dried up leaves like huge spent gloves tossed across the path. Lots of little frogs, medium sized frogs, brown frogs, red frogs, speckled frogs; many birds at different levels (we are learning more about that) and good pictures along the way indicating who was what. Oh, and the mosquitoes! The hotter and sweatier we got, the denser the cloud. To our amazement the Deet worked – despite alighting on us they left hardly a mark. Just one or two tender places where there was no repellent, such as eyebrows.

The mossies got so bad we were glad to emerge into a clearing. We could hear the sound of people laughing – the promise of a swim in the Blue Hole was so relieving. We descended steps not unlike the ones into the cave, only this time the roof has collapsed, exposing the underground river for about 50meters before it disappears underground again. It is apparently a beautiful clear blue – except in the rainy season! It was opaque, but very clean and inviting. The river bubbles up in a central pool, before flowing in a narrower river for a short distance. It struck me as a bit daft as I removed my wringing wet clothes to don my costume! It was delicious, and good fun too as you let the river drift you downstream for a bit. Rocks were around the edge but the middle was a smooth, fine, gravely bottom. We frolicked and cooled, and enjoyed watching a church group frolicking and cooling too!

We had to make sure we caught the 4.30pm bus back to Belmopan, to catch the bus to Belize City, and had been warned that it is ‘Belize time’ and that the bus may be there just gone 4pm. We were ready and waiting and got talking to a very chatty group of Mestizos who were guides at the Ian Anderson centre by the bus stop. The centre provides some of the most highly regarded tours, climbs, kayaking, birding and trekking. They even take the British Army out to train them in rappelling – descending 90 meters or so in a sink hole from the jungle canopy. They even started to give us a bird guide as we waited. We had seen some pretty little black and white birds clinging to grasses and leaning forward to peck at others – Seedeaters! There were two types of woodpecker in the trees beside us, and tree creepers too. It turned out that they lived in Armenia, the village which had caught our attention on the way in. Nice people.