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Infrastructure In Belize – It’s A Bit Quirky

Real Life Adventures In Belize

My first visit to Belize, my host for the Cayo segment of the trip, Mick Fleming, took me to see the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich. To reach them, we had to cross the Mopan River. I’m not sure if it’s still this way today (I haven’t been to Xunantunich in a few years), but at the time you accomplished crossing the Mopan River with the help of a hand-cranked ferry. I remember thinking of Josey Wales, even though nobody was shooting at us as we went.

The infrastructure in Belize isn’t high-tech, but it gets the job done and is so quirky that sometimes it’s a highlight of your travels.

One trip, Lief and I were returning from Corozal to Belize City to catch a flight over to Ambergris Caye. We were running late and then got stuck behind an unpassable tractor. We realized we’d be arriving at the airport maybe five minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off.

“No problem,” said our friend Phil, traveling with us. “I’ll call my buddy at Tropic Air…”

Phil called his Tropic Air friend, who promised to hold the flight for us… and did. We pulled into the airport parking lot, grabbed our bags out of the trunk, raced through the airport, and ran straight on to the plane… which took off minutes later.

I don’t know if that’d work every time, but Phil and his friend treated the event like an unremarkable-enough occurrence.

Years ago, I was taking another in-country flight, this one from Cayo to Ambergris. My ride for the day had an appointment and so dropped me off at the “airport” two hours early. I arrived to find an open field and a landing strip. No structure, not even a bathroom. I sat down on a stump to wait. This was before everyone carrieda cell phone everywhere. What do I do if no plane shows up, I wondered about an hour into my wait…

The plane did show. I was the only passenger. The pilot carried my bag on board for me.

(Today the airport at Cayo is an actual airport, with a terminal, a bathroom, a waiting area, and everything.)

Some object when I make the point, but it’s the truth. There are but two paved highways in Belize. One runs north and south along the long Caribbean coast. The other runs west from Belize City to the Guatemalan border. When Belizeans refer to three highways, they’re fudging things, thinking of the north-south highway as two, one traveling north from Belize City and a second one traveling south.

When I first visited Ambergris Caye, the biggest of the little islands lying offshore the Belize mainland, it had three roads running parallel along the coast and each other. Those three roads exist still today and are now paved. In addition, many other roads have been added, along with more hotels (there was only one the first time I stayed on the island), condo developments targeted at expats and foreign retirees, cutesy restaurants, galleries showcasing local artists’ works, and wine-and-cheese shops. Ambergris, especially San Pedro Town, has grown up and not in a bad way.

Although there are more and even some paved roads, the most common means of transportation on Ambergris is by golf cart. This is a no-cars-allowed island that you explore with the help of a golf cart, a bicycle, or your own two feet.

Until recently, Belize Telemedia Ltd. (BTL) blocked access to Skype in the country. It was their strategy for dealing with the perceived competition. The effort only inspired one workaround after another. Tell a Belizean he can’t have or can’t do something, and his response is to think of a clever way around the restriction. Finally BTL gave up, and today Skype is readily available for all.

Cell and Internet are improved and wider spread. Still, a friend living in Cayo jokes that it can take him days to download software upgrades (and I’m pretty sure he’s not actually joking).

Here are some other noteworthy Belize infrastructure points:

  • Any vehicle you buy or rent should be four-wheel-drive, because most of the roads in the country are dirt. As well, though, you don’t want a vehicle that’s too big. The in-town roads are narrow…
  • Buses are safe, cheap, and colorful… but not for everyone. You never know what might be in the seat next to you—could be a box of puppies or a crate of chickens…
  • An exception are the buses that travel from Belize City to and from Cancun. These take you through the Mexican Maya Riviera and are not Belizean buses but Mexican ones. They’re big and modern with bathrooms and televisions. This can be a great way to travel up to Cancun…
  • Why would you want to travel to Cancun? Because from there you’ll have more and often cheaper flight options for travel to and from the States…
  • Taxis are not metered, and fares are highly negotiable. Drivers can quote prices that are double the going rate, so don’t be shy when negotiating a fare and always negotiate before getting in the cab. The fare for a ride between Belize City and the airport is set, though—at US$25…
  • Police in this country don’t really patrol, so you don’t have to worry about them pulling you over for speeding on the highway. However, they do set up checkpoints. The main thing they’re checking for is car insurance… so make sure you have it…
  • Living in the country, you can drive on your foreign license for one year. Then you’ll need to get a local Belize driver’s license.
  • To get your local driver’s license, you’ll have to take both a written and a driving test. Fortunately, the language here is English, so this isn’t a big deal. The cost is US$30…

Kathleen Peddicord

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