transport | urbanism | adventures | pontification
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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Southern Belize seemed to have a slightly more diverse population of bus makes than the North. In front yards and empty lots along the Hummingbird and Southern Highways from Belmopan to Punta Gorda, I saw Blue Birds, AmTrans, Wards, Waynes, Carpenters, and Thomas Built Buses. As in other places, many of them had the school district names covered in black spray paint, as if censored; I’d be interested in finding out whether this is done by the old owners (school districts), the new ones, or someone in between. Two years ago, I would have seen many more abandoned buses along the route; the recently paved Southern Highway used to take its toll on buses (in the first image below, note the picture of a bus driving through two feet of water), and many that broke down would be left on the shoulder of the road. Recently, scrap metal dealers, especially from Guatemala, have been hauling these away.
Unlike the Northern and Western Highways, which are served by many different bus companies, the Southern Highway is essentially served by only one company, James Bus Lines. Operating out of Punta Gorda, James Bus Lines is an icon of the country. Stonetree Records even uses the James livery as a motif for their This is Belize album.
The founder, James Williams, who recently passed away, was very well regarded by those in Punta Gorda. One person told me it was Williams’ morning routine to drive his truck to a bus stop known as The Dump, where residents of San Antonio and Crique Jute transfer from village buses to the early morning northbound express, just to talk with them and make sure they were doing well. The company also raffles off cash prizes to its passengers, using their ticket stubs as entry tickets. Other companies are able to make runs in the southern towns of Dangriga and Placencia, but James Bus Lines has a virtual monopoly on service all the way to Punta Gorda. A resident of Na Luum Caj told me that passengers in Punta Gorda simply will not ride another company’s buses. While much has changed since the 1989 bus report I read in Belize’s National Archives, the following still seems to apply to James Bus Lines: “Bus owners take great pride in their business and acknowledge the importance and responsibility in providing public transportation. In turn, passengers reciprocate through loyalty to specific bus firms.”
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