Driving 'The Beast' through North-America
by Isabelle Demaeght, January 20th, 2022
On New Year's Day we drive to Calakmul, the largest archaeological site with the tallest temple in Mexico, deep in the jungle. Two days before, we ignored it because the Mayan city is quite a distance from the main road. But after the extra explanation by Guillermo we decide to return. The advantage of this site is that it is not accessible to large buses. However, at the same time as us, a pickup arrives where, indeed, 15 people of all ages disembark, most of whom completed the journey standing up in the trunk. On top of the highest temple, we also look out over the jungle. The small number of visitors makes this site seem even more magical or mysterious. A very good start to 2022.
After another day at Mica's, we decide to go to Bacalar because of its natural azure freshwater lagoon. I chose Bacalar on the recommendation of the American Sylvia we met at our camp site. That woman knew for sure that the horse dewormer Ivermectin works against Covid, and she knows that Corona is a biological weapon and some more conspiracy theories. I was dumbfounded; Adriaan had plenty of material for discussion. According to Sylvia, Bacalar is the most beautiful place on earth. We choose a (commercial) bathing place called 'Sac Ha' which is full of coolbox tourists this Sunday. The proprietor tells us that they would all disappear at 17:00. From 18:00 until morning we have the place to ourselves. Most beautiful place on earth? We didn't believe her on that point either, even after we had visited the town ourselves.
It is raining cats and dogs so we decide to drive on to Belize. At the border they ask for a three day reservation in a 'Gold-Standard' hotel which we don't have. (Those - rather expensive - hotels have been selected by the government to sit out a possible quarantine, Corona-proof). They make an exception for vaccinated campers and after a quick test we end up in Corozal, the first town in Belize, where we arrange car insurance, a SIM card and cash. And groceries. Almost all supermarkets here are Chinese-owned. The Belize dollar depends on the U.S. dollar. Therefore, everything here is a lot more expensive than the surrounding countries.
Belize is a country (a third smaller than Belgium) with 400,000 inhabitants. It is still a British colony and therefore also English speaking. The majority of the population is black. Again thanks to our iOverlander app, we found a wild-camping sleeping spot by the sea. To prevent the tent from staying packed up wet for four nights, we check into a hotel in Belize City the next day (where we dry the tent) and then head for the island of Caye Caulker. Most tourists come to Belize because it is a diving paradise. As do we....
Adriaan is going diving the first day, the next day we snorkel together. Off the coast is the longest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere. It consists of seven protected parks and more than four hundred islands. Even though the sharks are terrifying up close I really enjoy the snorkeling. The life underwater is an enduring wonder. We celebrate with a lobster meal (which is very cheap here) and mojito.
Saturday night I get back stomach/and or gall bladder problems which seem to get better Sunday morning: Adriaan goes diving again. Shortly after I tell the chambermaid that I am sick and want to rest. One of the employees, Omar, comes knocking and takes me to the hospital under protest. In the hospital (read: house with 2 rooms) I get a drip with medication (?) after a negative covid test. Concerned Omar stays next to my bed the whole time (just didn't hold my hand :). When Adriaan shows up after diving I exchange the uncomfortable hospital bed for our hotel room. The next day we go back to the mainland. Because I am still sick and nauseous we stay in a hotel room. We end up sleeping in 'Gold-Standard' hotels for 6 nights.
On the island they told us that crime in Belize city is very much on the increase and Adriaan doesn't really feel safe either after picking up the laundry on foot elsewhere in the city.
We went back on the road and after visiting a smaller, remote Maya site (Altún-Ha) we found a very remote place in the middle of nowhere. In broad daylight we find that the houses in the swampy flatlands look very shabby. The north of Belize is clearly still underdeveloped and certainly not a tourist attraction.
We made a jump to the Caribbean Sea via the very beautiful Hummingbird Highway and ended up in a lovely village Hopkins with a 'flower power' New Yorker where the faded hippie Gaston also found a place to stay. Later an American joins them, who after 10 years of living in the woods and a heart attack further, now is staying here in a hut. In any case, the mishmash keeps us awake for several hours with their loud drunken talk. We sleep in a place that has just been deforested to build a resort. Americans and Canadians like to stay here during the winter months because of the climate and the language. Hopkins is one of the few places with a sandy beach and thus access to the sea.
We leave southern Belize for what it is and now head in a straight line to Guatemala. We spend the night in San Ignacio, a "must see" according to my guidebook (which we still don't understand) and before crossing the border make a stop in Xunantunich, our umpteenth impressive Mayan site. At its main 39 meter high temple, El Castillo, I am suddenly face to face with my savior Omar whom I left at his hotel on the other side of Belize 4 days ago. Omar is taking a tour with some hotel guests and is accompanied by his family. An incredible coincidence but above all a super happy reunion.
Crossing the border into Guatemala is not without difficulty. Once we are in Guatemalan territory it appears that since a few days they also require a negative test. But there is no test facility. Asking if they wouldn't make an exception, Adriaan asks. 'Of course, if you pay 100 US dollars in cash to our immigration officer'. 'That's corruption!" replies Adriaan. We then return to Belize by car(!) for a test of USD 50 per person. (The tests there are questionable as well: at the entry a Dutchman stood in front of us, after a positive test he got a second 50$ attempt which was negative, and was allowed to cross the border. It seems to be more about the money).
Because we have wasted so many hours I look for the first campsite not realizing that the off road route to it is difficult to drive and that by sunset (then there is no way back) we end up on an active army base. It's a spot on a lake; the sunset is very beautiful.
The next morning we visit our last Maya site, for now. Aside from a young German couple and some workers, we are alone in the jungle on a 3 square kilometer site. This was, for us at least, the Maya highlight. I am aware that it sounds blasé: Because we drive ourselves, we can just "be" at various sites, without hundreds of tourists. We enjoyed the relative silence at each site (the biggest, the highest, the difficult to access, the half-excavated) and decide to skip the the 'mandatory' Tikal and head towards Guatemala City.
We spend another weekend at the home of a Gualtemalan family who run a venue at the spring. They are incredibly hospitable. My planned writing time is not happening because I am kept busy all day by the children and the family's grandmother. It was a surprisingly fun weekend.
We can't arrive in Guatemala City without making a detour to Semuc Champey, a nature reserve that consists of a huge river that disappears underground for a bit, right where there are turquoise colored pools and between steep mountain slopes. Semuc Champey is not accessible with a normal car but the squeaky and creaky Beast doesn't let us down. We climb a cliff very early in the morning and later swim in the pools. ("White" tourists, as we leave again, are brought in like cattle in pickup trucks.) The detour was well worth it.
After only a few days in Guatemala, we have adjusted the image in our heads. It is very beautiful, the people super friendly. This was not in our scenarios a few months ago. We are very happy to get to know this country, even if we visit it 'by chance' because of the availability of parts for The Beast. And we're not done yet: if the repairs work out, we're still going to see volcanoes and cross over to the Pacific. But that's for the next episode!