(June 8, 2006)
Read about other days of the trip:
DAY ONE – Departure
DAY TWO – Key West, Fla.
DAY THREE – Cozumel, Mexico
DAY FOUR – Belize City, Belize, and Xunantunich Ruins
DAYS FIVE and SIX – A Day at Sea, and Returning Home
On Thursday, we had to wake up early — 6:40 a.m. — because of the excursion we had planned for the day. As usual, we ate breakfast in the WindJammer Café. The ship had already arrived in Belize.
Then we hurried down to deck four to wait for our tender. In sea-going terminology, a tender is a small boat that takes passengers from the large ship to the shore, in places where the larger ship can’t dock.
All along the shoreline of Belize, extending for several miles into the sea, is a great barrier reef , the second largest in the world. Because the United Nations environmental officers won’t let anyone cut a channel through it, large ships can’t get close to the small country. So, the Enchantment of the Seas had to dock farther out, and we rode the small boats about eight miles to the mainland.
Belize is a tiny country of about 8,880 square miles (consider that the state of Oklahoma comprises nearly 70,000 square miles!). Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America, it was known as “British Honduras” until 1973. It became an “independent” nation in 1981, yet still recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as its sovereign. The paper money in Belize carries the face of Queen Elizabeth.
Beginning about 1,500 years before the birth of Jesus, the Mayan civilization spread through the area, and flourished until about 900 A.D. The first Europeans arrived in the early 1500s, long after the Mayans were in decline.
The colony grew, but in 1961, Hurricane Hattie tore the country apart, leaving the former capital ( Belize City ) in danger, because most of the city is about 18 inches below sea level. At that time, the government moved the capitol to Belmopan, at the exact geographic center of the nation. Currently, about 7,000 people live in Belmopan, while Belize City is still the most heavily populated, at 60,000.
The country’s number one industry is sugar cane, with the next two largest being banana crops and citrus fruits, respectively. Tourism only became an industry in 2001, when Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines began using it as a destination. That year, only 14,000 tourists came to the country by cruise ship. Last year (2005), more than 800,000 tourists visited, and it’s estimated that over a million will have landed there by the end of this year. Within a year or two, it’s estimated that tourism will be the nation’s number one industry.
Anyway, we rode the tender to Belize City , where we docked at an area owned by the cruise line, where several Belizean companies rented out spaces for shops. Again, like Cozumel , the wares being sold included T-shirts, handbags, sunglasses, liquor, and jewelry. Of course, at every tourist destination we found, there were also batteries, film, and sunblock, sold at extremely high prices, since those are crucial items.
We were on a tight schedule since our scheduled excursion would last most of the day.
A word about excursions for those who’ve never been on a cruise: At nearly every port-of-call, the cruise line has cooperated with local tour companies to create “excursions” that cruise ship passengers can buy. For instance, at all of our destinations, there were snorkeling excursions, and scuba excursions. If you have a scuba certification, you can select that excursion and ride a boat out to a nice spot, don the scuba gear, and get busy. There are ATV excursions, which take the tourists along jungle trails. And dozens of others. Some visit the local zoos.
The excursion we’d selected for Belize (which cost about $90 per person) was a tour to the Xunantunich ruins on the other side of the nation.
We hurried through the store area to a back door where the tour buses were waiting, and then waited for about 10 minutes. During this time, I smoked a cigarette (since I hadn’t had one in a while, and knew the bus ride would be over an hour long). We boarded the bus and it pulled away.
Our tour guide, Raúl, spoke over a PA system on the bus and began telling us all about his nation, even as Renaldo, the driver, took us on a winding path through the city. Raúl turned out to be extremely knowledgeable about Belize, more so than you’d expect the average resident to be. Don’t laugh. I’ve been on tours before, where the guides seemed to know next-to-nothing about their subject matter. Raúl had an answer to nearly every question, and had a good sense of humor.
Soon, we were on the Western Highway, which heads pretty much straight west toward the border with Guatemala . As Raúl explained, the part of Belize to our right (north) is mostly swampy, coastal plains, sometimes heavily forested. To the left (south) are the Maya Mountains , containing the highest point in Belize — 3,800 feet above sea level (the highest point in Oklahoma is 4,973 feet, by comparison).
It wasn’t long until the rumbling of the bus put Marline to sleep, while I continued to listen to Raúl tell me about his country. As we passed the Catholic schools , he told us that every school in the nation was run by a chuch (most of them Catholic ), which was odd, considering that the British broke away from the Catholic Church in the 1500s.
As we traveled, I took pictures out the bus window . It was difficult because of the reflection on the inside of the windows, but I think my camera did okay. Marline woke up occasionally to tell me that Belize reminded her of Oklahoma . Indeed, I’ll admit that many of the places were similar. Also both places feature large rural areas with a primarily poor population. There were dirt roads , cows, run-down houses, broken wooden fences, and poor children playing soccer in their yards. Mentioning only these things, it does sound a lot like Oklahoma. But there were also palm trees , something you’ll never see here. Plus, because of the low elevation, many of the houses were built on stilts, something I’ve only seen before in southern Louisiana and around the Corpus Christi (Texas) area.
Soon, the bus was climbing into the mountainous area, and Raúl told us that one of the smaller mountain ranges was actually made of coral, indicating that the whole country had once been underwater, except for a few mountaintops.
The bus finally parked near a small river, where we climbed out and stood on a cable-driven ferry as it crossed. On the other side, several long passenger vans awaited to take us a few more miles up into the hills. Where the vans finally parked, we got out and walked up a fairly steep hill to a small Xunantunich museum.
It was 11 a.m. by the time we finally saw the actual ruins . Marline filmed while I snapped pictures , and we both listened to Raúl’s speech about the Maya culture, and the process of discovering the ruins of the temples.
As Marline and I began climbing the largest of the pyramids , tiny sprinkles of rain began to fall. We were halfway up when it began raining in earnest. We finally made it to the top , but got soaked . Across the next valley, we could see a powerful column of rain coming that made Louisiana rain look like a lawn sprinkler. We scrambled down the monument hurriedly and ran for the tiny museum just as the heavy rain got there. We found out later that this tropical storm went on to become “Alberto.”
Thankfully, I’d already taken a few pictures of the ruins before the rains began, so I didn’t miss out on it altogether. I’d hoped for more opportunities, but the rain wasn’t about to let up.
We made our way down the hill to where the vans would pick us up, and eventually got back to the bus. That’s when the rains quit, and it just stayed humid and cloudy until we got back to the ship.
But on the way back, we stopped at a nice hotel not too far from the ruins and had dinner. It was beef fajitas, Spanish rice, and plantains. After dinner, I took quite a few more pictures of the landscape on the way back.
It was 3 p.m. by the time we hit shore, and the boat was ready to leave. We rode another tender back to the ship, where we swam in the Deck 9 pools and then ate supper in the WindJammer .
That evening the ship’s production performers put on a show called “Can’t Stop the Rock,” which took spunky rock songs from several movies, some old and some new. That was in the Orpheum Theater. Later, we watched a few old folks dance to Big Band music in the Bolero Lounge .
Time flies when you’re having fun, and the day was over.
Stay tuned for DAY FIVE….