The first time I went to Belize two years ago—the first time I really travelled by myself—the rain arrived the day I did, hammering all night on the tin roof of the “relaxing cottage” I’d rented on the island of Caye Caulker.
It turned out to be the freakishly early beginning of the Caribbean rainy season and the rain drove away the other tourists. My plan had been to take day tours from the island to see things like Maya ruins and howler monkeys. But the guides wouldn’t run trips for just one person and since the rain on my roof sounded like Niagara Falls on a kettle drum, I spent the wee hours online trying to figure out where I might take myself on my own.
Through my research I discovered that to go anywhere I would need to take a ferry and catch a public bus out of Belize City. The public bus part was just fine with me. But I also discovered that Belize City was home to the majority of murders in the country, and that in 2012, Belize was listed by the U.S. State Department as the sixth most dangerous country in the world. The violence was described as generally gang-on-gang, rarely targeting tourists. But still.
I had to decide about the bus. I started collecting advice. Friends who were seasoned Central American travelers sent emails saying go ahead, just stay alert and keep a credit card in your bra. An Australian couple working in northern Belize suggested I carry a “drop wallet,” a decoy to calmly hand over if mugged. A friend of a friend who had done Peace Corps in Belize 10 years before said the busses had been great but she’d heard from friends that the country was going down the shitter. Both my parents and some Belizean women who lived on the island said for the love of god if you’re going to travel through Belize City, please hire someone to take you in a car.
I made lists of destinations beyond Belize City: a birding sanctuary in mid-Belize, the pyramids of Tikal just over the border in Guatemala, and what seemed to me the sweetest place, a little rescue zoo near the Belizean capital of Belmopan. It was supposed to reflect the incredible biodiversity of the country and be fluid with the natural environment, with many of the animal residents coming and going at will. One could even stay and do a night tour, the best way to see the creatures since they were mostly nocturnal.
And so I was sold on the zoo, until the Internet told me that bus I would need was not at the normal bus station, but instead, across the street from a bar in the most dangerous part of Belize City. Not only had someone recently been assassinated in front of that bar, but it had been subsequently set on fire and was still standing only because the owner caught the arsonist when he went out to feed his cat.
I did not go to the zoo.
Completely sleep deprived, I opted instead to make what was left of my vacation as relaxing as possible. I moved into a fancier hotel with a non-tin roof, and signed up for a snorkel tour. I booked myself a massage. And it was pleasant, if a bit quiet. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being kind of an American asshole—that it was just fear of the unknown holding me back. It was a bus. And a zoo. And if I were Australian I wouldn’t think twice about it.
And I genuinely kept that guilt until a few weeks ago, when I went back to Belize for Easter vacation with friends.
I have known since I arrived in Mexico that I would go at some stage—the Belize border is only two hours south of where I live, and the zoo is basically between my town and Belize City. The destination was too close for the journey not to be completed. And so my coworkers and I planned a trip for our school break to the Belizean capital of Belmopan, from which we could do a river tubing tour through jungle caves, and finally visit the goddamned zoo.
We booked ourselves an apartment in Belmopan. And then we looked into how to get there. As it turned out, even though we’d be departing from Chetumal, which is a decently large travel hub In Mexico, and traveling to Belize’s capital, we still had to go through Belize City.
And so with some trepidation, we embarked. To get to Belize from Chetumal we took a 1950s school bus painted green where the driver played hip hop and reggae. This would have been awesome had we not had to ride the bus for five hours instead of the two we had anticipated—it turns out there is no express bus from Chetumal to Belize City.
Instead we went through every “big” city in northern Belize, various-sized aggregations of battered wooden houses on stilts and stores with misspelled hand-lettered signs surrounded by miles of farmland. It felt like a place that had been started and then abandoned, which it kind of was. Belize was British Honduras until the 80s, when the British finally moved out decades after depleting the country’s mahogany forests, deciding there was no longer anything there worth the struggle to stay in power.
About half an hour from Belize City it started to pour, strange because it was now two months ahead of the typical start of the rainy season. For the final half hour we rode slowly, watching the water rise in the dusty streets, smelling the sewage. Between the black clouds and the setting sun, I was getting nervous—my most recent research really recommended against Belize City after dark. The public service announcement signs plastered on the sides of buildings beseeching the community to stop violence against children did little to allay my fears.
Once at the bus station we stood in the waiting area which felt like a cattle holding pen, with people pressed up against wrought iron gates that would open once the buses arrived. A few teens wandered through the crowd, seemingly sizing up the smattering of tourists, scanning for loose items. And then the Belmopan bus arrived, and we squeezed through the bars with the polite yet forceful crowd.
And that was it. It wasn’t super pleasant but it wasn’t the worst. I hadn’t been an asshole not to chance it on my own two years before but I probably would have lived.
The next day we wandered through Belmopan and found it calm, quiet and weirdly tiny, more like an outlying Iowa farm town than a capital city. The woman who owned the apartment we rented told us it has a population of 25,000 during the day and 12,000 at night. The latest statistics I could find showed there were 17 murders in 2012, which given the population is ludicrously high. But it felt comfortable enough and certainly strange. Each block was surrounded by a shallow moat, there were at least seven Chinese restaurants, and there were many Mennonites dressed in old-timey clothing—long dresses and bonnets for women, and straw hats, spectacles and suspenders for men.
The next day, the guide picked us up from the apartment and took us to the caves at Jaguar Paw, where we hiked through lush, high jungle—the kind where the plants are so giant and green they look magical—and then floated in connected inner tubes down a river, through network of caves, under incredible webs of stalactites, stalagmites and crystals.
And then finally we went to the zoo. There animals were beautiful—eagles, howler monkeys, peccaries, a jaguar and a kinkajou (a mammal that looks like a tiny bear monkey). But the place was smaller than I expected. The rescue animals seemed well cared for but they made me a bit sad as their cages didn’t seem that large or fluid. The injured ones and the ones who had been born in captivity were unequipped to go back to interact with the surrounding wilderness. The howler monkeys could indeed come and go as they pleased and, we were told, chose to return to their enclosure each night.
After two years of wondering about the zoo, it took us about 45 minutes to walk through the entire thing.
I’m glad I went. I don’t need to go again.