Comida Típica

One of the most enjoying parts of my cultural immersion mission has been the food. I’ve made an effort to try a range of typical foods in my project countries, and the gustatory rewards in the first third of my trip have been numerous.

In Belize, rice and beans are a staple, to the point that there’s a famous Belizian song called Rice & Beans (your rice and beans nice | your rice and beans nice | give me more | give me more – listen by clicking on Track 4 here). Rice and beans are most often accompanied by potato salad and stewed chicken flavored with annatto. Marie Sharp’s, a ubiquitous and delicious carrot-based hot sauce, went with pretty much everything.

Typical Belizian dinner

Typical Belizian dinner

I also thoroughly enjoyed fry jacks (deep-fried tortillas folded over refried beans, cabbage, and chicken) in Belize. In the north, Mexican dishes such as salbutes, garnaches, and burritos were more common, while in the south, I enjoyed traditional Maya cooking.

In Nicaragua, the rice and beans are usually combined and called gallopinto (spotted rooster). As typically Nicaraguan as food gets, gallopinto allegedly got its name from a villager who bragged about the size of a spotted rooster he had. He overeagerly invited the whole village to come enjoy the rooster on the day he was going to slaughter it. When too many people showed up, there wasn’t enough meat for everyone, and he had to serve rice and beans. From then on, everyone jokingly would tell him how much they had enjoyed his gallopinto.

Another dish with a story is Indio Viejo. According to legend, it got its name in the days of the conquistadors. Spaniards marching through a local village expected the villagers to feed them some of their beef stew, even though there wouldn’t be enough left for the villagers. When the Spanish asked what was in it, the village chief replied “an old Indian who just died.” The Spanish decided to march on without lunch, and the villagers enjoyed their meal in peace.

Gallopinto and Indio Viejo were two of the dishes I learned to cook in the cooking lessons I took. Others included arroz a la valenciana (paella) and enchiladas (fried and more like empanadas than the Mexican-style enchiladas I’m used to). Nicaraguan cuisine also involves lots of plantains. Sometimes the plantains are cooked while they’re green (verde), and sometimes when they’re yellow/brown (maduro). Sometimes they’re boiled (cocidos), and sometimes they’re fried in disks (tostones) or strips (tajadas). An abundance of fresh fruit is one of the best parts of Nicaragua. Freshly squeezed juice is always available; passionfruit, pineapple, and pitahaya were some of the ones I had regularly. I also tried one called chila (or something similar); at first I thought it was called chicle because it tasted like bubble gum.

By far my favorite food so far has been the nacatamal. The tamales I’d tried before pale in comparison. Typically eaten with coffee on relaxed Sunday afternoons, these oversize Nicaraguan tamales are stuffed with pork, tomatoes, onions, rice, and tomato. Finding a stand down the street that sold these greasy delicacies for $1.25 was a dangerous discovery indeed. I tried to make up for my weekend nacatamal gluttony by healthy cooking for myself during the rest of the week.

Dinner preparation

Dinner preparation

Belize Bus Article Published in School Transportation News

National Transportation Services Limited bus leaving Orange Walk

National Transportation Services Limited bus leaving Orange Walk

I have now been published in one of the school bus industry’s leading trade publications. Read my article, Buses around Belize, in the November edition of School Transportation News here.

Belize Transportation Map – Subway Style

Belize Transit Map

Belize Transit Map

It took me a while, but I finally finished this map based on my travels in Belize. I tried to represent the majority of the country’s important bus and ferry routes in a transit-style map using the freeware program Inkscape. I had a fun time using the London Underground map as a guide, while making a number of changes (such as variable line widths to reflect varying service levels and larger diameter circles to represent transfer terminals). Download a high-quality PDF of the map here.

If you’re interested in similar transit-style maps (done much more professionally), check out these maps of Amtrak and the Interstate Highway System.

The Belize Bus Guide has helpful schedule and route information.

The map below shows the routes I traveled in Belize, covering the length of all four major highways (Northern, Western, Southern, and Hummingbird). For a map of the local routes I rode within Belize City, click here.

Belize Transit Map

Belize Transit Map (my travels shown in yellow)

Sights of Western Belize

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Cahal Pech

Cahal Pech is a relatively small complex of ruins a 25 minute walk outside of San Ignacio. After going to church in town, with few buses running on the Sunday afternoon, I decided to check it out. Because Cahal Pech doesn’t receive heavy tourist traffic in comparison to Altun Ha or Lamanai, the ruins seemed much more accessible. Exploring the visitors center and site was enjoyable, and the friendly dog that insisted on being a tour guide was a definite highlight. I also got the chance to talk to an archaeologist from the University of Texas who had been working on the skeletons at Actun Tunichil Muknal the previous day.

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Buses of Western Belize

Many companies run along the Western Highway from Belize City and Belmopan to Benque Viejo near the border with Guatemala, including Shaw’s, National, Guerra’s, D&E, Middleton’s, and the Belize Bus Owners Cooperative. This tends to be a slower route than the other main highway routes, due to curves and heavy agricultural traffic near the Mennonite community of Spanish Lookout. It was even slower for a few days during my stay with a detour required by repair work being done on the Hawksworth Bridge between San Ignacio and Santa Elena.

Drivers in Belize used their prewarning and warning lights not for boarding or alighting passengers, but instead for decoration and visibility. I saw a few buses with flashing lights and strobes driving along the Northern Highway, and it seemed more common in the west.

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Actun Tunichil Muknal

Actun Tunichil Muknal, The Cave of the Stone Sepulcher, is a three-mile long cave in Belize that the Ancient Maya used for sacrificial rites. Located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, the cave was opened to limited tours starting in 1998. A few years ago, tour restrictions were relaxed slightly, and the site’s parking lot is now increasingly filled with buses and vans.

In addition to interesting geomorphology, the cave also contains a wealth of ancient pottery, sacrificial tools, and skeletons. Even though it’s a bit of a strenuous trip into the cave, requiring scrambles over rocks and some amount of swimming, many of these artifacts are in danger from wayward tourists. The only barrier in the cave system is in front of the famous Crystal Maiden skeleton; the other artifacts are completely unprotected except for a limited amount of calcification that holds some of them to the cave floor. One of the skeletons has a hole in his skull from a dropped camera. As I was leaving the cave, a lady in a different tour group almost sat on a pottery shard, then picked it up and showed it to her friend before being scolded by one of the guides. With such occurrences, I wouldn’t be surprised if restrictions are again heightened. I’m glad I got to see the cave before they are.

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Sights of Southern Belize

In addition to my stays in Na Luûm Caj and the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, I enjoyed a number of other highlights in Southern Belize. Hickatee Cottages, a solar-powered bed and breakfast outside of Punta Gorda, was a great place to spend my first night in the south. The owners were able to tell me about their experiences traveling the Americas by bus (including the Green Tortoise Bus Line), I enjoyed a refreshing bike rides and hikes at sunrise and sunset, and I had the chance to participate in a Howler Monkey tracking project.

Another highlight of Southern Belize was the number of interesting bus stops. When I wrote about investigating the architecture and urban form surrounding bus stops in my Watson proposal, I couldn’t even imagine some of these thatched-roof palapa bus stops on the Caribbean coast. Since the Toledo district grows quite a bit of cacao, I couldn’t pass through without stopping by a chocolate factory, though its claim to be the chocolate center of the universe may be a bit hyperbolic.

Overall, Punta Gorda was great. Even with this year’s completion of the Southern Highway paving project, washed out bridges (like the one at Kendal) and the relative sparsity of tourist infrastructure will likely keep it a more relaxed and authentic experience than some of Belize’s other destinations.

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