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Into Belize

February 22, 2011

Placencia: If we had sails, we could simply float from Utila to Belize on the strong westerly winds. But despite all the pretty yachts moored offshore and all of my inquiries, we can’t find a captain who’s sailing to Belize. So, we take the ferry back to La Ceiba and then a series of buses to Puerto Cortes, further north on mainland Honduras, where we overnight in preparation for the once-weekly boat to Placencia in Belize.

Eager pelicans at Puerto Cortes

Sunday afternoon in Puerto Cortes and little is open. We are hungry, so we follow the locals to the garishly decorated palaces of American dining that line the Spanish colonial town square: Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King, etc. We slump for Burger King and, in a hall peopled by the overweight and, most depressingly, obese children, eat our ‘whoppers’, which are as disgusting as they sound.

Our speedboat to Belize

Next morning, we are early at the port to buy our boat tickets. The fish market is just setting up, and a young boy is gutting and preparing the previous night’s catch to an audience of greedy pelicans. We breakfast on rice, beans, fish and cheese with flour tortillas, washed down with blackberry juice from the café owner’s garden.

Our 'look no hands' captain

We pass picture-perfect deserted islets

Our chariot is a single-hulled speedboat and the journey takes us into the open ocean, so everyone’s glad that the day is calm and clear. Seasickness tablets are distributed and the boat is loaded. Around half the passengers are returning Belizians who work in Honduras.

Fishermen have set up shelters on some islands

Approaching Placencia

The ride is smooth with little stomach-lurching and, partway through the journey, I scramble up on deck to look for whale sharks and enjoy the view of tiny islands and dappled waters revealing the coral below. We slow almost to a stop at one point where the reef is very shallow and treacherous. In the 17th century, Belize was a pirate’s paradise, with large settlements of English and Scottish pirates who took advantage of this dangerous reef to attack Spanish galleons and rob them of their booty.

Cycling down Placencia's one street

It's a town of fishermen, subsistence farmers and tourism

The Spanish asked the British to take control of the situation, which they did by turning the pirates into loggers – initially to support the dye industry, and later for mahogany hardwoods. British Honduras, as it was then known, persisted until Belizian independence in the 1950s, to the irritation of Guatemala, which continues to claim it.

Hello again Queenie!

The back of the note's really lovely

Belizian hot sauce is delicious

As a result, Belizians speak English, play cricket and, when we exchange our Honduran lempiras, we are surprised to see Our Queen – albeit a far younger and more glamorous version of her – smiling out of the Belizian dollar notes (slightly upstaged by a rather camp jaguar).

Nick hits the beach

Keeping the beach clean

Placencia is a long peninsula of sand and rock, jutting out of the green coastal mangrove swamp in an easily sighted landmark. It’s delightfully laid-back, with few cars, plenty of fishermen and fruit sellers and kids bicycling around the stilted timber houses. Justin Bieber is also here with us (well, not with us, with his bodyguard), which is exciting some tourists – someone took a photo so I’ll get hold of it and put up.

A softball game in the village playing field

A happy well-stocked fruit stall

We find a lovely guesthouse, whose only drawback is that the two other guests are completely mad: a very loud and cheerful Canadian comedienne, and an anaemic-looking guy from the US who’s a missionary for the kind of extreme nutritional hectoring no one wants to hear (examples: white sugar gives you cancer, as does cacao if you cook it; and always eat bananas with a wrap of lettuce because you should only eat fruit with greenery (again with the cancer…). Also, “the British poisoned the world by refining sugar” – actually, he has a point there.).

Clinging to a log

Sailboat off the peninsula

Nick has a horrible cold, so we have an early but delicious dinner accompanied by too many rum cocktails and then head for bed.

A couple of kids find snakes under the bar we're eating in

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