5 Endearing Customs of Belize

5 Endearing Customs of Belize

On a February trip to Belize, a friend and I stayed in Airbnb rentals near villages, shopped for food in local markets, and did self-guided running tours through towns, rainforests and wildlife sanctuaries. Belizeans were friendly and engaging; they seemed content with their lives. Here are five ways of Belize that won my heart:

  1. Live and let live. Barriers and “Keep Off” signs did not exist in parks and archeological sites allowing visitors to assess their own capabilities before climbing up pyramids or venturing into the jungle. Children and dogs ran around villages unsupervised, allowed to experience the natural unfolding of life’s lessons. I never heard scolding or harsh warnings in Belize. I felt free.

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    Caracol Maya Ruins
  2. Smile and wave to others – even to strangers. It is a simple act that creates instant connection and harmony in the community. Warm greetings are genuine in Belize and I found them to be contagious. I felt happy.

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    Fresh Hot Tortillas – San Ignacio
  3. Protect fragile ecosystems and endangered wildlife. Since gaining their independence from Britain in 1981, Belize has designated an estimated 26% of their territory, in water and land, as protected wildlife reserves and national parks. The reefs and the rainforests are pristine. I felt grateful.

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    Forest of  Caracol
  4.  Be inclusive. Most Belizeans are multiracial and bilingual. Maya and Europeans have blended into a single identity, Mestizo, and make up nearly half the population; Kriol, Africans, and Garifuna make up another forty percent and the remaining ten percent is a mix of other immigrants. There was no racial tension. I felt accepted.

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    Hopkins: “Friendliest village in Belize”
  5.  Enjoy the outdoors. Belize’s warm climate is conducive to spending lots of time outdoors. Locals told us where to find the best local swimming holes. We saw Belizeans running, riding horses, and bicycling. Children played pick-up soccer games before and after school, laughed and played with their dogs, and hung out in the village with friends after dark. I felt refreshed.

I enjoyed the rainforests, ruins, waterfalls, swimming holes, monkeys, and birds we found in Belize’s remote parks and wildlife sanctuaries. But it was the people that wove Belize into my heart.IMG_2797

Savoring San Ignacio

Savoring San Ignacio

Heavy rain overnight left the morning air steeped in mist and fog. Droplets of water rolled off the trees onto our roof. Tropical birds fluttered between tree branches singing and squawking, while roosters crowed and frogs croaked. I emerged from our Airbnb hut on stilts, which sat off Bullet Tree Falls Road on the outskirts of San Ignacio Belize. My feet submerged into cropped rubbery vegetation soaked in cool standing water. I commenced my trek across the meadow to the bathroom, my flip-flops kicking water up my calves.

The aroma of coffee wafted out from the hut when I returned. I kicked off my sandals and closed the door just as another deluge of rain broke loose from the clouds. We sat down, coffee in hand, and waited for the rain to abate.

As expected, the deluge was short-lived. We shoved, jammed, and wiggled our feet into running shoes, damp and muddy from our previous day’s adventure. We grabbed our smartphones equipped with GPS and camera, tucked Belize dollars in our shorts pockets, slipped our water bottle straps onto our hands and stepped outside into the drizzle. Rain jackets were left hanging inside the hut; we had acclimated to varying degrees of wetness, from sticky to drenched, but had not yet felt chilled in Belize. Besides, the sensation of water rolling off our skin felt much nicer than a clinging wet jacket.

I tried to run the least muddy sections of the road – a strategy foiled by the onset of another torrential downpour. We turned toward a park expecting to find a footbridge across the Mopan River – a short cut to San Ignacio. Slipping and sliding down a grassy hillside, arms and legs flailing to keep ourselves upright, we followed a trail to the river. Instead of a bridge, however, we saw a yellow rope strung six feet high across the water. I envisioned us dangling from the rope swinging hand over hand, but was startled back to reality when a man’s voice rang out from under a nearby tree, “how about this weather we’re having?” Beside him was a rowboat with its nose on the shore. “You want a ride across?”

 

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Ferry on the Mopan River

As we clambered onto the boat, trying to keep it steady, a Belizean man came careening down the hill on a bike calling for us to wait. He was wearing a garbage bag over his clothes as protection from rain and mud flung from his tires. The four of us, and one bike, stood in the boat while the captain used the rope to pull us across the river hand over hand.

San Ignacio is spread over about three square miles. We ran through its center with the traffic, noting ATMs, tour companies, sidewalk menus touting stewed beans and Belikin Beer. Hostels were near internet cafés and small businesses sold household items. Delivery trucks clogged the narrow streets, parked with flashers on. School children, dressed in uniform, walked together in clusters along the side of the road. A short steep ascent up the last quarter mile to the Mayan ruins, Cahal Pech, was empty compared to the rest of town. It seemed we were the only people on vacation in San Ignacio.

Cahal Pech, means “place of the ticks” in Yucatec Mayan language. The name reflects the working conditions the archeologists faced in the 1950’s when the site was also a pasture. Yet excavations on this hilltop between 1988 – 2000 revealed what experts have determined to be a palatial home of an elite Maya family. Ceramic pottery discovered in the area has been dated back to 1,200 BC. I thought the name ill-fit such a remarkable discovery.

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Cahal Pech

We were the only visitors meandering through the tunnels, walkways, rooms, steep stairways, and plazas. I tried to imagine how it looked there when the Maya went about their business. Fog enfolded the structures and it was quiet, which made the occasional chirps and whistles of birds seem amplified. Not a tick in sight.

On this same run, we ventured out to the rural village of Santa Familia. The locals, from an integrated mix of Creole, Maya, and Latino origins, were relaxed and friendly. Children greeted us, residents waved from porches, dogs sprawled in the road in front of their homes and regarded us with disinterest. Homes rose on stilts, some with adjacent outhouses; clothing sized from adult coveralls down to the tiniest infant socks hung on clotheslines and fences, soon to be dried in the afternoon sunshine.

A sheltered wood-fired oven sat in front of a home with a sign posted, “tortila de vende.” The vendor, a stout weathered woman, was unaccustomed to having foreigners for customers. When my friend asked to take her picture, she laughed, deepening the lines on her face and revealing a small gap in her smile; she held her hands in front of her face and shook her head. We paid $1 BZ (50 cents USD) for a package of ten piping hot corn tortillas to consume at our Airbnb; they were the perfect accompaniment to hard-boiled eggs and silky avocados spiced with local hot sauce. A fresh pineapple, sweet like candy, topped off our meal.

We drove back to the center of town in search of internet access, fresh produce, and information from the Cayo Welcome Center. The outdoor produce market had permanent stalls open daily. There were papayas the size of footballs, monster melons, bananas at varying stages of ripeness and stacks of pineapples. The aroma of tropical fruit was intoxicating, the colors alive. We strolled through the entire market and purchased the makings of a vegetarian feast.
The man behind the desk at the welcome center was about twenty years old. His eyes lit up when we asked about local trails and swimming holes. He flipped open his notebook to a photo of Big Rock Falls in Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. He pointed to a rock wall adjacent to falls and described how he and his friends would climb up and leap off into the swimming hole. He jotted notes on the map, clearly describing the landmarks at crucial turns to get there. The waterfall looked voluminous, the swimming hole inviting and the rock walls treacherous. We would go there the next day.
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Big Rock Falls

A fifteen-minute drive west from San Ignacio took us to a hand-cranked ferry that carried us across the Mopan river to the Xunantunich archeological site. In contrast to our ferry earlier that day, this one had a platform to carry cars and we shared it with a pick-up truck. During the short ride across the river, the captain pointed out iguanas lying still on tree limbs over the water.

Xunantunich is Maya for “Stone Woman”. Like other ruins in the area, its original name is unknown. The jaw-dropping spectacle of “El Castillo”, a pyramid situated on the axis of the cardinal lines of the site, commanded our attention. The Belizean rule of “climb at your own risk,” despite steep stone stairs that are slippery when wet, was a novelty. In the US we see fencing and “Keep Off” signs, restrict access in the interest of preventing lawsuits. Xunantunich is in a peaceful sanctuary for tropical wildlife. While standing atop “El Castillo” we could see down howler monkeys thrashing and roaring in the treetops.
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El Castillo Xunantunich

San Ignacio was our hub for venturing down backroads to waterfalls and lush forests. We enjoyed the tropical scenery and wildlife. The day we spent close to town was a delightful immersion into the human side of Belize.

Running in Jaguar Territory

Running in Jaguar Territory

“Watch out for the peccaries” the ranger said “they can be mean.” I wasn’t familiar with this term and envisioned an aggressive tropical bird. He noticed the confused expression on my face and continued, “They are pigs with tusks, they travel in herds of 60-80 and they will charge you if they feel threatened. Can you climb a tree?” I looked around at the moss-covered trunks, none with branches low enough to climb, but decided I could climb anything if charged by a peccary. “Just be careful” he said. He didn’t say a word about the jaguars.

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve is a stone’s throw from the Caribbean Sea in Belize. Brian and I convinced the ranger to let us run the 7.5-kilometer Outlier Trail; they had just finished clearing it the day before. He looked us up and down, decided we were fit enough to tackle it and said, “I’ll see you at about 3:00.” His estimate gave us nearly six hours, a generous amount of time for 15 kilometers; I ignored the tiny warning light in my head that signaled “challenging terrain ahead.”

We consulted the map board at the park headquarters which was oriented south-up. Upside-down maps are popular in Australia and South America; when viewed from the world perspective their appearance raises the status of these regions. Australia is no longer “down under”; Africa and South America take center stage, and Mexico appears dominant to the United States. The park map showed the Outlier Trail to be the lone path in the direction we were heading so the risk of getting lost was nil.

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Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary Trails

We slogged up the park road through puddles and sloppy mud on our way to the trailhead. A tropical downpour commenced five minutes into our run diluting sections of the road into a slippery soup. Sunscreen and bug spray dripped into my eyes, stinging and blurring my vision. Having already seen one fer-de-lance viper earlier in our trip, we resisted the urge to dash into the thick vegetation for cover. Startling a “mean” peccary had been added to my list of things to avoid, so we stayed on the road, heads down, and wished the rain would cease.

Our experience running trails in Colorado familiarized us with signs of mountain lion activity: half eaten deer appendages, tracks in the snow, the pungent scent of cat urine. The reward of running in the mud with our heads down was the sight of feline paw prints. In Belize, it is common to see scat and tracks from five types of felines: jaguar, puma, margay, jaguarundi and ocelot.  There are an estimated 200 jaguars in the 150 square miles of Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve, the highest concentration of these cats in the world. The tracks we saw were the size of saucers so we assumed they were from a jaguar. Like mountain lions, the jaguar is elusive and our chance of encountering one was slim but spotting their tracks piqued our hope of a rare sighting and we became acutely aware of movements in the forest.

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Jaguar Tracks –Cockscomb Basin Belize

We ducked under a “Trail Closed” sign (with the ranger’s permission), and soon found ourselves swallowed up in the forest on the Outlier Trail. Under our feet was a soft bed of clippings left by expert hacks of a machete.  The forest canopy created a sticky cocoon of stagnant warm air and dim light. Fronds from the giant palms and ferns twitched and waved at the slightest touch of a birds and raindrops.

We stopped frequently to look in the trees for colorful macaws and other tropical birds known to live in Cockscomb but the ones we heard were hidden within a scrambled mass of verdant leaves, branches and vines. The trail dipped through several shallow streams with steep slippery banks and then began a steady climb straight up a mountain. We grabbed trees and vines to pull ourselves up the steep gradient rather than relying on the tiny bit of traction under our feet. The Belizean National Parks Service had decided not to cut switchbacks into the hillside.

As we gained elevation, we were enveloped in the clouds. Moss hung off every tree and branch. Creatures were quiet. For the first time that day we felt a refreshing breeze; the vertical terrain broke open the forest canopy. Each foot plant depressed an area of the ground five times the size of our foot and then sprung back when released. Narrow sections with steep drop-offs to one side provided mossy tree roots to grasp for security.

Several points near the end of the Outlier Trail present expansive views of treetops and the Caribbean Sea. I was grateful the clouds had thinned so we could enjoy the surrounding landscape. We had climbed about 610 meters (2,000 feet). Victoria peak, at 1,124 meters (3,688 feet), was behind a veil of clouds.

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View from top of Outlier Trail 

At one point during our run back, we heard a knocking sound in the woods, not far from the trail, that made us stop in our tracks. Could it be the dreaded peccary tusks? We didn’t stick around to find out.

The ranger was surprised when we returned shortly after noon; he was not accustomed to the pace of trail runners. We asked where to find the nearest swimming hole so we could clean up and cool down. He directed us to the “Waterfall Trail”, a one-mile path to a swimming hole where we could have a pummeling shower under the falls. Tubers were hiking out on this trail wearing sandals and swim suits; they had floated 2 hours down the winding river.

After a refreshing plunge in the cool water under the falls, we sat and listened to the soothing white noise of the falls and reflected on our adventure. Butterflies the size of my hand flitted between the trees. In this little oasis, it was hard to imagine there were mean peccaries or predatory felines; even the mosquitos and flies left us alone.

How I Flew 3 Trips Abroad for almost Free

How I Flew 3 Trips Abroad for almost Free

My round-trip flights to Copenhagen, Belize, and Iceland each cost me only airport taxes and fees of well under $100. The airline tickets were free. How? Through the art of travel hacking: collecting frequent flyer points and miles to get free flights, hotels, tours, and more. I flew on United, Southwest, and Delta Airlines using rewards points I earned from bonus offers on three credit cards; the most satisfying hack was using points for my Iceland flights on Delta when I wasn’t even a member of their frequent flyer program.

Copenhagen on United Airlines

My trip to Copenhagen was a spontaneous decision to visit my daughter while she was studying abroad. I had over 100,000 Ultimate Reward points in my account earned from Chase credit card bonuses deals: 50,000 from Sapphire Preferred and 60,000 from Business Ink Plus. Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer 1:1 to United Airlines. The trip to Europe was 60,000 United points and might have been fewer had I not booked so close to my departure date.img_2625

Credit Card Bonus deals involve spending a minimum amount on the card the first three months after opening the account. This amount varies and for some deals can be too exorbitant for my budget. I met the minimum spending requirement on the Chase Sapphire Preferred personal card without changing my budget. I charged every living expense on the card: groceries (with two teenage boys living at home), cat food, coffee, clothing, parking, books, gas, and more. Good thing the card is made of metal!

Similarly, all my operating expenses for my physical therapy practice were charged on the Business Ink Plus card.  It was a stretch to reach the minimum spending requirement through my business, so I had to be creative. I found that I could pay my office rent using my credit card through Plastiq so I used them two months to boost my spending enough to score the bonus.

Belize on Southwest Airlines

When Southwest Airlines opened a route to Belize in 2016, winter was looming in Colorado, so my friend and I jumped on a the “wanna-get-away” rate of around 32,000 points round-trip plus nominal taxes and fees. My points were acquired from a 50,000-point bonus offer on the Southwest Premier card.img_0037

When I began collecting frequent flyer miles in 2013, Chase Southwest Airline bonus offers had the least intimidating requirements. I followed the guidance of Million Mile Secrets to earn 50,000 points on both the business and personal versions of their travel rewards card, spent two extra months charging enough purchases to add 6,000 points and qualified for a companion pass. After that, I was hooked on travel hacking. One of my kids could fly with me for free on Southwest to any where I flew over the time span of a year and a half. I am currently on track to earn a new companion pass from Southwest using the same strategy after waiting the required 24 months to reapply.

Iceland on Delta Airlines

My trip to Iceland was another spontaneous decision; my friend invited me to join him during his one-week layover on his way to Europe. Iceland Air offered the lowest fares from my home base in Denver. However, at the time, Iceland Air was not a partner with any of my frequent flyer programs. By now I had become accustomed to flying for free and was determined to use my travel points.  Here is how it worked: KLM and Air France offered flights from Denver to Iceland; KLM and Air France are part of Flying Blue; Flying Blue had recently become partners with Chase Ultimate Rewards so I booked my flights through the Ultimate Rewards reservation portal using points. Delta is a partner with Air France and flew my route to Iceland.img_20160828_102056417_hdr

The Ultimate Rewards program has an extensive list of partners and points can be redeemed for flights on any Star Alliance partner and rooms in five-star hotels. The versatility of Ultimate Rewards makes them my favorite. When I am not spending to score a bonus on a different card, I use one of my Chase cards that earns Ultimate Rewards. Every living expense get charged – a dollar charged equals a point earned and sometimes 5 points depending on the card and type of expense.

Advice on how to choose the best credit card bonus deals for your travel goals and how to follow the rules of the programs is available online from numerous travel hacking experts. Following these websites through their email subscriptions has given me invaluable tips that make my travels affordable:

Why I Refuse to Take Cipro Antibiotic

Why I Refuse to Take Cipro Antibiotic

Ask your doctor for a cure for traveler’s diarrhea, or any number of bacterial infections, and the first line of defense will often be a prescription for Ciprofloxacin (Cipro). Athletic individuals, in particular, have sound reason to push back when offered this drug for their ailment.

Cipro is the most prescribed member within a family of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones. The FDA requires all drugs within this family to carry the stringent “black box warning” on the package insert indicating there is reasonable evidence of a serious health hazard associated with them. What is the hazard associated with Cipro?

Tendinitis and tendon rupture

Tendinitis is swelling and pain in the fibrous tissue that connects muscle to bone. Tendon rupture is a partial or full tear.

The Achilles tendon, behind the ankle, is statistically the most vulnerable to Cipro induced rupture.  This tendon bears the stress of propelling our full body weight forward in walking. Pain or rupture of this tendon seriously impacts your mobility. If your passion lies in activities that involve explosive power from your feet while sprinting, cutting, jumping, or charging up a mountain you are demanding a high level of tensile strength in your Achilles tendons.

Researchers theorize that Cipro breaks down the collagen throughout the body. Collagen is what gives connective tissue its strength and structure.  A 2015 study implicates Cipro in Aortic Aneurysm which is rare but life threatening. The lining of the aorta – the largest artery in the body – is made of collagen.

The FDA warning states “These problems may affect tendons in your shoulder, your hand, the back of your ankle, or in other parts of your body.” Essentially any tendon where there is repetitive stress from your favorite activities can be at risk: those of the shoulders of swimmers and throwers, knees of hikers and skiers, and elbows of golfers and tennis players.

It is alarming when you consider how miscalculated Cipro’s role might be in causing tendonitis. The onset of Cipro related tendon problems can be from a few hours after your first dose to six months after taking your last dose. The longer the time span, the less likely one would connect their pain to the drug, so the relationship is probably higher than statistics would indicate.

There are compounding factors that increase risk of Cipro induced tendon problems:

  • Being over 60 years of age when tendons tend to be weaker due to lower levels of collagen in the tissue
  • Concurrent use of corticosteroid medication which in itself is known to weaken tissue
  • Participation in vigorous exercise
  • Pre-existing tendon disorder
  • Diabetes mellitus when circulation is compromised

The fluoroquinolone family of antibiotics is especially good at penetrating bone, tendons and cartilage; if that is where your infection is, it may be the best choice. But in conditions where the infection resides in your gut, bladder, or sinuses there is certainly an antibiotic other than Cipro that can cure you.

Cipro nearly quadruples your risk of tendon rupture. Any time your doctor prescribes it, ask if there is a safer alternative. Why take unnecessary risk of interrupting your active lifestyle?

References:

Chien-Chang Lee, M. S., Meng-tse Gabriel Lee, P., Yueh-Sheng Chen, M., & al, e. (2015). Risk of Aortic Dissection and Aortic Aneurysm in Patients Taking Oral Fluoroquinolone. JAMA Internal Medicine, 1839-1847.

Trevor Lewis, M. M. (2014). Fluoroquinolones and Tendinopathy: A Guide for Athletes and Sports Clinicians and a Systematic Review of the Literature. Journal of Athletic Training, 422-427.

US National Library of Medicine. (2017). Ciprofloxacin. Retrieved from Medline Plus: https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a688016.html

 

5 Things to see on Land in Belize

5 Things to see on Land in Belize

Belize is well known by scuba divers and snorkeling fanatics for its thriving reefs off shore. Inland attractions are lesser known and offer immersion of a different sort: tropical rainforests, Mayan ruins, and a mix of Creole, Latino, and Mayan cultures. As a former British colony, the primary language is English but driving is on the right side of the road. US dollars are widely accepted and you can expect change given in a combination of US and Belizean currency at a 1:2 exchange rate.

  1. Mayan Ruins You can climb all over four impressive ruin sites near San Ignacio which is a 2 ½ hour drive from Belize City: Xunantunich and Cahal Pech are close to San Ignacio; Caracol is a three-hour drive from San Ignacio on rough roads; El Pilar, discovered in 1983, is seven miles up a four-wheel drive road and rests under a rainforest canopy that is stirring with howler and spider monkeys. Crowds are non-existent. Fees at ruin sites are $5-$10 US.
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    Caracol

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    Xunantunich
  2. Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Native Belizean pine forest with waterfalls, swimming holes, and caves. Four-wheel drive is recommended or you can hire a guide (required for exploring the caves) out of San Ignacio. The staff at the Cayo Welcome Center in San Ignacio shares directions to the local’s favorite falls and swimming holes in this park. You can enjoy the scenery and a refreshing plunge with few other people around. No fee.

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    Big Rock Falls
  3. Herman’s Cave. Hike 10 minutes through a lush tropical forest to enter the outer 200 meters of St. Herman’s Cave with flashlights; you can go deeper, if you wish, with a guide. Your entrance fee includes access to Inland Blue Hole a mile down the Hummingbird Highway – a great place to swim and cool off after your hike. Fee $4 US

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    St. Herman’s Cave
  4. Hopkins. This Garifuna village on the Caribbean coast was named “Friendliest village in Belize” by Belize First Magazine. The residents welcome you as part of the community. Ask the locals where to find live Garifuna drumming for your evening entertainment.

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    Hopkins (Photo Credit: B.Tomas)
  5. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve. Hike trails to waterfalls, tube the river, and peer into the lush green forest of giant palms and ferns for jaguars, peccaries, macaws, toucans, ocelots, and other tropical wildlife. If you don’t have a rental car, you can take the bus from Hopkins to the Maya Center and hire a taxi or hike the six-mile access road to the park. The cats are elusive but mosquitoes are bold – bring insect repellent. Fee $5 US.
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    Outlier Trail in Cockscomb Basin

    (For tips on driving in Belize, check out my guest blog post at One World 365 )