Belize: Not just a spring break destination

Rachael Martel

It was 11 p.m. and I finally laid down after obsessively cleaning the room I booked on Airbnb for the night. As I stared up at the wooden planks from the top bunk above me, wishing I had skipped Belize City altogether, I envied my travel buddy, Amy, who had already passed out. All I could think about was how disgusting the bathroom was, how dirty the sheets on my bed looked and how disturbing it was that I had to cover the pillow provided to me with a T-shirt because the pillowcase had blood on it.

A women's clinic in San Ignacio, Belize. (Photo by Rachael Martel)
A women’s clinic in San Ignacio, Belize. (Photo by Rachael Martel)

After going through my list of criticisms, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it was just one night, it could be worse, and tomorrow I would be on a beautiful island. Finally, as the music playing on the street outside my window began to fade, I drifted off to sleep.

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All of the sudden my eyes flew open. Something was crawling across my chest! In a split second I launched whatever it was to the floor and yelled to Amy, “Wake up and give me your flashlight!”

As I frantically searched for the mysterious creature, I whipped out my smart phone and Googled, “Does Belize have tarantulas?”

Many of us book vacations with the hope of escaping our reality. We want to go on an adventure, but because we are paying for that adventure, we often have expectations of how it should go. Having a dirty pillowcase and waking up to a creepy crawly on my body obviously wasn’t part of the plan, but when you travel the way I do, anything can happen and that is what I prefer.

Belize City, Belize (Photo by Rachael Martel.)
Belize City, Belize (Photo by Rachael Martel.)

I have met people that have traveled all around the world and never leave the confines of their cozy resort. They successfully escape their reality, but don’t get to know the reality of the place they are visiting. Personally, I want to pay for a vacation that is drastically different than what I see on a regular basis, for better or for worse. I want to capture a new place in its entirety.

What I learned on my recent trip to Belize is that there is much more to it than Mayan ruins, cave tubing, the Caribbean, and beautiful islands.

On the flight in, I met a young Belizean girl named Keyla on the airplane. I asked her what she recommended I do while in her country. Her response seemed slow and unsure. I then shifted the conversation by asking her what she felt was the biggest issue in Belize today. She said poverty.

She went on to explain that Belize had only had its independence from Britain for 35 years and that the country was still developing. At this point, it dawned on me that Keyla, and many other Belizeans, do not have the luxury of exploring their own country because they cannot afford it.

Kenny's Animal Shelter on Caye Caulker, Belize. (Photo by Rachael Martel.)
Kenny’s Animal Shelter on Caye Caulker, Belize. (Photo by Rachael Martel.)

As Amy and I drove inland to our first stop for the night, the poverty and the need for development that Keyla had mentioned was all around us. The roads were narrow and falling apart. There were almost no streets lights along the way and the lines on the roads were barely visible. There were also hardly and road signs posted. We never knew what the speed limit was or when we were going to hit a pedestrian crosswalk which was inconveniently indicated by a speed bump.

As we made our way, I could tell Amy was consumed with anxiety. Every time we passed a village, she was on the edge of her seat. A lot of people were walking alongside the road and sitting out in front of convenient stores, restaurants, and houses that resembled shacks. She turned to me and said, “This isn’t what I expected.”

Both of us had been in Central America before, but our experiences were completely different. She had stayed at a resort in Costa Rica, and I flew into Costa Rica and drove to a town two hours away from the airport without a GPS or a proper map. Based on my experience, Belize was exactly what I expected.

I turned to her and I said, “Don’t worry. A lot of this may look like a ghetto now, but tomorrow when the sun comes up you will see that it is all a matter of perspective.”

That night after we got to our room, we pulled up the CIA World Factbook online and started reading about Belize.

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We discovered that Belize had a population of 347,369 people. The labor force accounted for 120,500 people and 12.9 percent of them were unemployed. We also found that 41 percent of Belize’s population was living under the poverty line.

The next day when we drove into town, San Ignacio looked like a completely different place, just as I had promised Amy. It was not a ghetto. The standard of living was just much different than it was in the United States.

For the rest of the trip, I watched as my friend took it all in. Of course we covered all the tourist destinations, but we also got close and personal with the reality of Belize. We took an interest in getting to know everyone that we met and we made sure to go off the beaten path.

On our last day, as we headed to the airport, our cab driver, Keith, gave us an invaluable inside perspective on Belize. He talked about his country’s struggles and what he thinks it will take to make Belize prosper. As we pulled up to the airport, we thanked him for his insight and he said something that hit both of really hard.

“Most people come here for fun in the sun. They come for the islands: San Pedro and Caye Caulker. They don’t want to know our existence.”

Collegian World Affairs Blogger Rachael Martel can be reached online at blogs@collegian.com.