San Ignacio and its sister-town, Santa Elena are separated by the Macal River. They brag that they have the only suspension bridge, the Hawksworth Bridge, only a one-lane, thus one way bridge. It was built in 1949. These two towns are the second largest urban area in the country. These two little towns boast a total population of about 20,000 with a variety of nationalities including: Creole, Mestizo (Spanish-Maya), Lebanese, Chinese, Mennonite, Maya and other cultures. Considering the entire population of Belize is 344,700 it seems to put it in perspective.
What should jump out from the list of groups above is Mennonite. This religious group has the distinction of being some of the area’s best farmers and dairy people. We heard the community started with one family back in the 50s and others followed shortly thereafter. There is also a strong Amish community here, so seeing a horse and wagon is not an unfamiliar sight for the locals.
Burns Avenue is “Main Street” where most of the shops, restaurants and banks are located. It runs about five blocks before turning into residential areas. Aside from Burns Avenue, there are only a few short blocks hither and yon where there are isolated hotels, hostels, and some restaurants.
Needless to say, there is not a great deal to do as I have mentioned before, but Ron booked us on a river tour down the Macal River by canoe. I have an aversion to canoes. They make me nervous, because they are so narrow. I don’t trust them. We were told our guide would do all of the rowing, which was fine by me. I also have an aversion to outdoor exercise. If Mother Nature intended for me to move my arms in circular motions I would have been a bird.
Sergio picked us up to transport us the few blocks to the river where we met Tony, our guide. Had we known it was so close, we would have walked; it was embarrassing to be transported such a short distance. Once in the canoe, Tony paddled. Picture this: I am 6’1” and Ron is 6’2”. Ron is slender, but solid and I carry some weight. Tony is about 5’1” if we stretched his neck when measuring. He probably weighs in at about 110 lbs. During the tourism season, he does this trip daily. This canoe has three places to sit. In the front is a contoured seat like a metal seat on a rider mowing machine, the second and third are just plain planks of wood about 9” wide. The plan was to be canoed 6 miles up the river stopping along the way to see wildlife, which turned out to be mostly birds, but an occasional iguana sunning itself on a tree.
After the first half hour, hearing Tony breathing heavily behind us, Ron offered to help paddle. We were going upstream. Tony appreciated and accepted the offer. Sorry, but paddling was not in my contract. Having two of them paddle didn’t help. It still took us over 2 hours to get to the stop off area. At one point, the water was so shallow, we had to get out, walk the length of about a ½ block and then climb back into the boat. I immediately slipped on the rocks, flew into the air, and down on my back. Not hurt, but embarrassed and now filthy dirty, we continued on.
Our goal was to reach a luxury resort, owned by an American woman and her British husband. There on the premises is a historical museum, a butterfly house, and a medicine trail. Two plus hours is more than my butt or back can take of a canoe seat. If I had not been paranoid about falling over into the 2 feet depth of water, I would have stood up. Had it not been so slippery, I would have walked. I was in pain; enjoyment ended at hour 1 minute 39. We thought Sergio has told us everything was included in the tour. When we finally arrived it was a hike uphill to reach the Butterfly House where we found we had to pay extra to get in, but no one was there to sell us admission. Entering, we were surprised, awed, dive bombed, and entertained by gorgeous blue butterflies, seemingly the only species that has not yet laid eggs and died off. Continuing up the hill, we reached the History Museum, but this was manned and admission was 9 Belize dollars or $4.50 each. The museum was no larger than Abe Lincoln’s log cabin, so we turned our noses up and left. By the time we reached the Medicine Wheel, we found there was another fee to self-tour the grounds to view 300 species of plants from which medicines are derived. We passed up this opportunity too.
By now, I was considering taking a taxi back to the town. I thought we must have reached Guatemala after that river ride, so the cash register in my head was dinging over the cost of a taxi. It turned out to be only ten mile, but Tony offered that returning would be faster going with the tide. Convinced, we returned with him. Ron gave me the contoured seat. It was better, but not for 1 ½ hours. By the time we returned, I was ready to be on land and stay on land.
For my late afternoon and early evening entertainment, I spoke with locals. Belizeans are amongst the friendliest people I have ever met. It is not uncommon for total strangers to greet you with a smile and will stop to talk if you show an interest. Even the youth are extremely polite. According to the locals that I was able to speak with extensively, the area is a Mecca for ex-pats from a multitude of countries. The problem is that a work permit is $2,000 USD a year and has to be renewed annually. If you start a business and employ locals, there is no requirement. One Swiss man married a Belize woman with the contract that she would be paid $50 USD a month and one hot dog each day, so he could sell hot dogs from a street stand. This marriage is illegal, but no one cares. Locals pointed out ex-pats in mixed clusters of American, Italian, Swiss, and German. Personally, being an ex-pat, I am thankful to have chosen a country where I can flush the toilet paper.