Weather-wise, this November has been the best month we've experienced since moving to San Pedro fifteen months ago. It was mostly dry, cooler than normal, with highs only in the upper 70s many days. Best of all, the humidity was so much lower than the norm that my skin and lips were dry and flaky, and I actually had a few good hair days -- with my wavy mop that tends towards frizz, that's saying a lot!
But a couple of days ago, that all changed. For the past two nights, we've had hours of heavy rain, a total of around five inches. I guess our assumption that dry season might be beginning early this year was a bit premature. I'll let the photos tell the rest of the story....
Here's the approaching storm late yesterday afternoon.
And some of the roads north of the bridge today. These were all dry just a couple of days ago.
Taxi negotiating the puddles
Motorcycle testing the depth of the puddle
But we can't complain too much. Without the rain, we wouldn't have the lush tropical foliage nor these beautiful flowers!
Last year was the first time we'd ever been in Belize in the month of October. It was not our favorite month. I remember it as being gray and rainy and still, with not nearly enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes and sand flies away. I remember plowing through deep pond-sized puddles on the road north of the bridge as we traveled from our condo to town and back again, time after time. I remember washing our bicycles over and over since the puddles were deeper than our bottom brackets. About the only thing positive I can recall about last October was that it was cooler than the summer months. October, we were not sorry when you melted away into November.
What a difference a year makes. This October has been much drier, sunnier, and the breezes a bit more constant. There have been a few mosquitoes and sand flies, but nothing like last year. It has been, really, gorgeous and bright, with only a few days that tourists wouldn't love. Those folks who got cheap low-season rates for October vacations here are no doubt feeling a bit smug. Hurricanes? Nope. Tropical storms? Not even close.
The biggest difference in the October of 2012 and the October of 2011, though, is the roads. Sure, less rain has helped, but thanks to a big effort by the new town council, the road north of the bridge (at least as far as Grand Caribe), was graded and filled with load after load of gravel this summer. And it's holding up well. There are a few areas where potholes and "moguls" are developing, but this is nothing even close to the "great lakes" of October '11. And in a few of the larger holes, more heavy-duty gravel was dumped just in the past week or so, after a few wet days made a bit of a muddy mess in a couple of lower-lying spots. This rocky gravel isn't the most bike-friendly stuff I've ever seen or ridden on (thank goodness for wide beach cruiser tires), but it certainly beats putting one's legs up and going "wheeeeeee!" through deep, silty puddles you can't see the bottom of.
This was a big, wide puddle a little over a week ago but was quickly filled!
Rocky gravel fill
But I'll shut up now and let the photos tell the rest of the story.
Huge puddle behind our condo
Same area behind our condo - dry
At Reef Village looking towards Kama Lounge -- what a mess this made of us and our bikes!
Same view and a very different road this year thanks to weather and lots of packed fill
Looking south towards Legend's -- tough going for golf carts and bikes
Looking south towards Legend's now -- smooth sailing!
Reef Village -- notorious for having a terrible road out front
Reef Village now -- still some small bumps but the "great lakes" are GONE.
Outside The Cloisters and Funky Monkey Bar & Grill -- cyclist dodging huge puddles
Road is far better and even the telephone & electric wires have been cleaned up!
In addition to changes in the road, the Funky Monkey at the Cloisters is no more, but a new restaurant. Feliz, is busily preparing for opening soon, and we happened by as the new sign was being painted.
Sign being painted
Sign for "Feliz"
We also happened to meet the new proprietor, Kevin. He's currently working on planning the menu and is hoping to keep prices reasonable so ex-pats and locals, as well as tourists, will be able to afford to eat and drink there. Great idea! It will be nice to have another choice of eateries in our north of the bridge neighborhood.
All in all, I'd say the changes between this year and last are for the better!
Emily talking to Kevin
UPDATE October 20: I was biking by again today, and the Feliz signs are complete. Very cute and colorful, don't you think?
It takes time to get used to the fact that Belize doesn't have the same concept of the four seasons we are used to in the United States. In North Carolina, where I grew up and spent most of my life, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter are distinct seasons and provide an easy way to refer to times of year. "Last winter we went to Florida," or "Sure has been an early spring," or "The leaves are especially pretty this fall."
Here in Belize, the year is not structured exactly the same. Instead of the four seasons I'm used to, there are only two: dry season and rainy season. The latter is the longest, stretching from June through December in most cases, though this year it seemed to last through January and start up again in May, leaving but a short three-month dry season. Even during rainy season, it certainly doesn't rain all the time. It rains more at night than during the day, but storms are more frequent and can be heavy, even if short-lived. Occasionally it stays gray and rains off and on all day long, but that is rare. And it rains on occasion even during dry season, but much less frequently.
This year -- this "summer" -- just when we thought rainy season was here to stay, Mother Nature's waterworks turned off. Although I don't have official rainfall statistics to quote, on Ambergris Caye July was dryer than June, August seemed dryer still (with the exception of our brief brush with Hurricane Ernesto
in the early part of the month), and September was downright desert-like. Even the locals were complaining about the heat and dry weather, and passing motor vehicles kicked dusty dirt in our eyes when they passed us on the unpaved roads. It was 83 or 84F every morning by the time I got up (6:30 to 7 am). Almost every day without fail, the skies were brilliant blue, the sun was shining brightly, and it was a perfect time for visitors to enjoy a tropical island vacation. But for residents, the lack of clouds and cooling rain can get a bit stifling over time.
And then it changed.
Over the past few days, we've started getting some brief daytime showers and brilliant lightning and thunder shows at night. And clouds, yes cooling clouds! Although the high temperature most days is still hitting the 88 through 90F range in the mid-morning to early afternoon timeframe, we've been having great breezes in the later afternoons and evenings; and at times, there is the slightest "edge" to the breeze that almost feels...dare I say, cool.
The birds are in high gear as fall migration time has arrived as well. Almost overnight we started noticing wood warblers in the heavy tropical foliage out our windows, along with the plaintive call of the Great Kiskadee that had been silent all summer long. Even year-round residents like orioles seem more active and plentiful. The Roseate Spoonbills are back at Grand Belizean Estates, along with the flock of Blacked-Necked Stilts wading in the mangrove pools, and many more birds flying overhead. But again, I used the the US seasons "fall" and "summer" to describe these differences -- because they are important and distinct times for birders -- even though both are part of the rainy season in Belize.
I suppose no matter where one lives, there are certain constructs that will never die, and for me, one of those is the concept of the four seasons. It's different here in Belize in spring, summer, fall, and winter, no matter how those "seasons" are described. So now, I'm going to say it, even though the leaves won't be changing: Fall is here!
Stann Creek District of Belize
In keeping with our quest to spend time seeing different areas of Belize, we decided to take a short trip to the village of Hopkins in the Stann Creek district during the last week in June. Since rainy season is officially here, and actually began early this year (May instead of June), we weren't sure if we'd end up getting to do all we wanted to, but as it turned out, we ended up lucking out with a perfect week to travel and only a brief sprinkle of rain the entire time we were away from home.
Hopkins is a small Garifuna fishing village on the coast of the Stann Creek district of Belize, south of Dangriga and north of the Placencia peninsula. This map
shows where we live on Ambergris Caye (just south of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico) in relation to Stann Creek and Hopkins.
Most Belizeans who live in Hopkins were born and raised here, and there is a strong and proud tradition of making music involving drumming, dancing, and rattles. There are local crafts created in Hopkins such as wood carving, and small restaurants offering traditional Garifuna food. There are small guest houses, beach cabanas, and upscale resorts catering to tourists. There aren't any chains -- stores, restaurants, or lodging, which is typical of Belize.
But let's back up a bit -- first we gotta get there. Since we try to travel frugally, this journey took a lot longer than the mileage from Ambergris Caye to Hopkins Village would indicate. We started with the 9:50 am water taxi from Grand Caribe to San Pedro, loaded down with our backpacks and with Paisley and her gear in tow. After dropping Paisley at Pampered Paws for boarding, we had a little free time before catching the 11:30 ferry to Belize City, so we walked to Lily's Treasure Chest on the beach for a late breakfast. This is only the second time we've eaten breakfast at Lily's, but we have gotten great meals both times. Their Huevos Rancheros
are the best I've had anywhere. Yum!
Barry's veggie omelet
After breakfast, we headed over to the ferry dock and were pleased to see that they were offering a June Special. $10 BZD ($5 US) off the normal round-trip fare. Worked for us!
My Huevos Rancheros
While waiting for the ferry, a huge stingray appeared in the crystal-clear water beside the dock. It was fun to hear the local children excitedly checking it out. We big kids enjoyed it as well!
Barry walking to the bus station
We ferried to Belize City and since we didn't have a really tight connection, we decided to walk to the bus station. We've been to the city enough now that we've gotten much more comfortable walking around there than we were on our first visit, and Barry remembered the way to the station. This saved us the $10 BZD taxi fare, and we knew we'd be sitting so much that we appreciated the exercise. We didn't even get hassled by panhandlers this time!
We had planned to take a James bus leaving about 30 minutes after we arrived at the terminal, but when we arrived, there was a G-Line bus just about to leave for Dangriga, so we hopped on that one instead. This worked out just fine. It's a long journey, stopping in the capital city of Belmopan, then continuing on the scenic Hummingbird Highway over the very pretty Maya Mountains. This is the same route we took to go south to Placencia in the winter.
This bus kept us entertained with plenty of music and even a video screen -- that was a first for us. The bus ride cost us just $10 BZD each ($5 US).
Most Belize buses are old US-made Blue Bird school buses. Not very luxurious, but cheap!
Videos provided entertainment for the travelers
This bus wasn't overly crowded
In Dangriga, we had to catch a different bus to Hopkins. The Hopkins bus only runs twice a day, once in the morning, and once at 5:15 pm. We met a nice couple in the bus terminal who were staying in Hopkins as well and chatted with them for awhile -- we ended up seeing them later in the week as we biked around the village.
Bus to Hopkins
The bus ride to Hopkins cost $5 BZD each and took under an hour. The last four miles into Hopkins Village on a mostly unpaved road were quite an adventure. This road has definitely seen better days, and between potholes, big rocks, and washboarding, took a long time to traverse. I can only imagine how muddy it is when it is raining.
After entering the village, the bus driver took a circuitous route dropping locals all over the small Garifuna town, some right at their modest clapboard homes. What a difference from San Pedro. Hopkins has nearly all unpaved roads and very little commercialism. There were a couple of other backpacking tourists getting off at some inexpensive lodging in the north part of town as well.
Tony and Angela, proprietors of Beaches and Dreams
, where we were going to be staying, had told us to have the driver let us off at Innie's Restaurant, where they would come pick us up. Innie's is a small local restaurant serving up authentic Garifuna cooking, and I was excited to try the hudut
, which I'd read about beforehand. This traditional dish consists of a whole fresh red snapper cooked in a delicious homemade coconut milk broth, traditionally served with a soft green plantain dumpling for dipping.
As we were getting a drink and relaxing at our table, Tony and Angela stopped by our table to let us know they were there, but would be taking a walk and picking us up after dinner. Right after they left, two van loads of high school students and teachers rolled up. So much for our quiet dinner! Actually, they were quite well-behaved considering how many of them there were.
Barry tried the Belizean stewed chicken with stewed beans and rice, which he loved, and I enjoyed the hudut. It would be nice to have a few veggies with this meal, but that was all that was missing. Otherwise, it was delicious!
Barry's stew chicken w/stew beans, rice, & salad
Traditional Garifuna Hudut served with Plantain dumpling
After we finished our dinner, Tony and Angela drove us down to Beaches and Dreams, a couple of miles south of Hopkins Village at False Sittee Point. It is located in the same area as several upscale, expensive resorts but is a more laid-back, casual place and proved to be a perfect choice for we frugal travelers who didn't want to spend $200 a night for lodging. There is an excellent restaurant on site, Barracuda Bar & Grill (#1 rated in Hopkins on tripadvisor.com), where Tony is the head chef and Angela bakes all the wonderful desserts, but they told us that it was closing this week for a couple of months during low season. We were disappointed with this news; however, Tony said we were welcome to attend a Tapas fundraiser the following night (Wednesday) and also offered to cook for us on Thursday night. That would work!
It was already pitch dark by the time we arrived, so we couldn't see too much of the grounds or the beautiful ocean very well, but here are a few shots of our room, the "Scarlet Macaw" (Room #3 of only five rooms at the inn). Since we weren't able to see actual Scarlet Macaws when we visited Red Bank
, the many brightly colored, painted birds in this room were the next best thing!
Comfy king-sized bed
Neat ceiling and very high made the room feel even larger
Nice large tile bathroom and a ceiling fan!
The room was quite large and comfortable, with a decent-sized bathroom. The clothing armoire, water dispenser, and sofa were great additions, as were multiple hooks on the walls for hanging damp clothes. There was no TV nor A/C, but three fans and lots of slatted windows for ventilation kept it comfortable. The only addition that would have made it totally perfect would have been a dorm-sized fridge to keep beverages cold, but Angela kindly brought us a small cooler of ice. I drank about six glasses of ice water that night after all our travel on a warm day!
We hit the hay early as we were exhausted after our day of travel. Our reasonable low-season room rate of $75 US included breakfast cooked by Angela, so we looked forward to that in the morning before heading out to Bocawina Mayflower National Park for some hiking and bird-watching.
[To be continued...]
Armoire for hanging clothes and more macaws
Large tile shower
Our friend David had a golf cart for the week so suggested he drive the three of us down to a restaurant south of town for dinner. Normally we go to eat out right in town since we (and David) live north of the bridge and have no vehicles other than bikes, so getting to restaurants south of town is not impossible but inconvenient. David picked us up at Grand Caribe last night, and away we embarked on our adventure to Casa Picasso
-- and with the roads in the shape they were in, it really was
The road north of town had already been riddled with potholes, but thanks to 2.5 inches of rain on Tuesday, these potholes were now filled with water. And in some cases (cough...Reef Village...cough), deep
water. We plowed through the "great lakes" as we headed southward, and as we approached the incline of the Sir Barry Bowen bridge, the golf cart stalled out. Oops! It really wasn't surprising considering that the water in a couple of the "lakes" reached almost to the floorboard.
A couple of locals in a cart behind us stopped to survey the situation (yes, the cart had plenty of gas), and Barry got out and pushed the cart back off the bridge and out of the way. I jumped out of the cart to snap a couple of photos, and before long, David got the cart going again. I even jogged over the bridge to keep the weight in the cart down as he drove it over the only real "hill" in town!
Cart going nowhere
Barry pushing cart away from the bridge so others can pass by
Mud on cart -- and my foot -- from splashing through deep puddles on road
Even after we crossed the bridge into town and onto the paved road, the fun wasn't over as we had to negotiate the muddy, unpaved detour in town while Middle Street is under repair near Castillo's Hardware. And after getting through town, the road in front of the Belikin distributor and around in front of Casa Picasso is unpaved and puddly as well. We were very happy to see this sign!
We had never been to Casa Picasso before but had heard great things. And it didn't disappoint. The decor was bright and attractive, with lots of local artwork on the walls.
Service was polite, professional, and attentive. Since this is low season, we had the place to ourselves for much of our meal, though more diners arrived near the end of our meal.
Barry and David
The food was deliciously prepared and lovely to look at as well! The three of us shared two Tapas (which we forgot to photograph), but here are the descriptions -- I took a photo of the menu since we gobbled up the food so quickly!
And we each tried a different entree, all of which were wonderful.
David's entree: Malaysian Style Rendang Pork Ribs -- Tender pork ribs, braised in lemongrass, ginger, garlic chili sauce, fresh coconut, turmeric & coconut milk, served with coconut turmeric rice and acar (Malaysian style pickled vegetables)
Barry's entree: Vegetable Lasagna -- Homemade rolled pasta layered with fresh vegetables, tomato sauce and cheeses, served with an organic salad & garlic bread
My entree: Curry Rice Noodles with Sautéed Vegetables (v) -- Asian inspired curried, sautéed rice noodles with fresh seasonal vegetables & local chaya
Portion sizes were generous, and I even had enough to take home half of my entree for lunch the next day. We skipped dessert, but I have a feeling those would have been lovely as well. Maybe next time! Our waiter served us complimentary shots of Limoncello
after our meal, a perfect way to end the meal.
Barry and I
Leaving Casa Picasso
Here's a big pond on the road right outside the restaurant:
On the drive home, we remembered to take photos of some of the worst road moguls and ponds up around Reef Village. Wish we'd gotten these shots earlier while it was still light, but I think you will get the idea. Fortunately the golf cart held up just fine this time with no more stalling out. It is worrisome to realize that this is just the beginning of rainy season here, and the the window on grading the road has probably come and gone, as it may not dry out for many months now. The road just doesn't drain properly and is badly compacted from all the vehicles driving on it when it is in this condition.
"Moguls" now filled with water
Approaching a large pond, but not the worst one
Large, deep pond, followed immediately by another one
Another cart plowing through the worst of the ponds -- this sucker is deep in the middle!
Despite the challenges in getting there and back, we had a lovely evening and can recommend Casa Picasso to anyone who enjoys upscale, eclectic dining. This is really a gem of a restaurant that reminded us of nicer places "back home" in the US. The owners, Adam and Jackie, couldn't be any friendlier, and they've created an attractive and unique spot with an obviously talented kitchen staff and excellent service as well. Check it out!
We are finally getting a taste of what "rainy season" here in Belize is really like. Rainy season here officially spans the months from June through November. We were here for a week in late August 2010, during which time we had only one brief rain, so we were a bit unimpressed with the so-called "rainy" season. It had actually rained more in May 2010, when we were here for our 25th anniversary. On May 20, San Pedro recorded 11" of rain. Yes, you read that right, ELEVEN inches! Pretty unprecedented, even for here. Fortunately, with the sandy soil, it soon soaked in, but the darker "pool" in the grass at The Phoenix in the photos below was not actually a pool, just flooding from the incredibly heavy rain.
New pool at The Phoenix!
May 20, 2010. It rained and rained and rained. Buckets.
But that was an anomaly for May; or for anytime, really. Even the locals were astonished by it.
Then this past July, we spent two weeks here, and although it rained a bit more, there were still days and days of end-to-end sunshine. As there were when we first arrived here in August. Not so now. Today was what seems to be a more typical rainy-season day here in Belize. It rained off and on most of the night. We woke up to rain but were able to head out on our morning run once it tapered off. After the run, it got very nice and sunny indeed; in fact, eventually there was not a cloud in the sky.
We got through our bike ride to town and shopping (today we only needed a handful of grocery items, plus some housewares, after yesterday's big marketing), and the ride home. But at some point in the afternoon, the sky over the Caribbean Sea grew dark again, the wind kicked up, and before we new it, it was raining sideways again. Here are a couple of photos of the fast-approaching storm before the rain began.
Once the storm passed, it cleared up again; only to turn cloudy again in the late afternoon. This time the rain stayed offshore; but who knows, it could rain again overnight. In fact, I'll be very surprised if it doesn't.
All this rain has really done a number on the packed sand roads north of town. We have to dodge many puddles on our rides, and some are so large we have to ride through them, as they span the entire width of the road. I miscalculated one this morning, got into a patch of sticky mud, and had to put a foot down, lest I fall over sideways. So, I got a sneaker full of mud, but I had to laugh it off. We were close to town at this point, and once we got to the beach road there, I simply walked into the Carribbean Sea and cleaned off my foot, ankle, and sneaker. Ya just gotta roll with the punches during rainy season. And wear shoes you don't mind muddying up!
A puddle after the rains...this is not one of the biggest as we didn't have the camera with us today.