On our return, Ron had a mission. He needed to find a man named Betti. Yes, we asked multiple times to assure us that we heard the name correctly. We left Guatemala with over 100 quetzals, but no bank in Belize will exchange them for Belize dollars or US dollars. There are no currency exchange places in the country. We were told that this man Betti, makes regular runs to Guatemala. We didn’t question why. However, he was the only source in the town to make an exchange. Ron must have asked 9 different people if they had seen Betti. His usual corner is close to the ‘bus station’. Just about everyone knows Betti, but no one could locate him for us. “He was just here a minute ago” was a common mantra. We would have had better luck finding A Boy Named Sue. We never did find Betti.
Trying to maximize the experience in San Ignacio, we searched far and wide for things to do. There is the same challenge here as there would be in trying to find 50 ways to entertain yourself on a 6 square foot area of a beach. It takes imagination and critical thinking.
One highlight that Ron had read about outside of this berg was the Belize Zoo. Getting there was a cultural experience in itself. The ‘bus station’ in San Ignacio is an oversized dirt lot along the river. There are no buildings associated with buses, bus tickets, or schedules. The lone building on the lot is the Official Taxi Services of San Ignacio. Scattered around the lot are numerous vendors selling fresh fruit, nuts, and cold drinks to either departing bus passengers coming or going, needing nourishment for their journey or quenching after it.
We were told that any bus going to Belize City would stop on the highway for the zoo. Climb on, find a seat, make sure your window opens or suffocate until some air comes in through the luckier windows, and wait for the bus to roll. Along the route from San Ignacio point A to Belize City point B, there are relatively few recognizable bus stops. Anyone can wave at the bus to stop at any spot along the route. The bus may stop for you and then stop again twenty feet farther away for someone else if you or they are too stubborn to stand in the same spot. You can ride for a good half hour or more before the young man comes around to collect your fare. He doesn’t even ask, but stands by your seat giving you the eye until you offer your destination. Then he will give your fare like an oracle providing a prophecy.
Our ride took approximately an hour before we were signaled that this was the zoo. Zoo is a misnomer in this case as zoos are generally establishments where animals are brought to be caged generally and specifically for human observations and entertainment. However, as you enter this particular zoo, you are provided with its short history.
A film crew headed by Richard Foster arrived in Belize in 1983 to produce a documentary titled “Selva Verde” (Green Forest). One of the crew was an animal caretaker by the name of Sharon Matola. Some of the animals used in the film were now tamed, so there was a question as to how to provide for them, because they assuredly wouldn’t survive being released into the wild. Matola stayed after the rest of the crew left. She cared for the 17 animals (an ocelot, a puma, a jaguar and several exotic birds), creating a makeshift zoo. Using the animals’ enclosures as exhibits she was able to generate funding for their care.
Covering twenty-nine acres, the by 2010 the zoo was home to more than 170 individuals of 48 species native to Belize. The zoo only houses native Belizean animals, but more importantly none of them have been taken from the wild. All residents were once someone’s pets, donated to the Zoo, injured and brought in for healing and rehabilitation, born at the Zoo, or sent to the Zoo from another Zoological facility. A couple of the cats were tranquilized by Mennonites when they caught them amongst their dairy herd.
The zoo has maintained all of the natural flora of the area, the only minor destruction was to create walking paths to venture around the exhibits. Since a number of the animals are nocturnal, a night tour can be arranged. However, our trip was still successful in seeing a number of the residents, even if they had sleepy, droopy eyes.
What we failed to anticipate is the fact that the zoo is set in a jungle environment. Forgetting our insect repellant was a major mistake. Although we didn’t feel a thing as it was happening, both of us had legs that looked like a bad case of the mumps by the time we flagged the bus to return. The mosquitoes feasted on us.