A laidback English-speaking country with a Caribbean flair right in the heart of Central America, that's beautiful Belize. Maya Goldstein shares why picture-perfect beaches are just a small part of what makes Belize such a special spot for cycle touring.
One of the things we found fascinating about Belize was how multicultural it is. It’s a small country, by both size and population, with only 300,000 people, but they come from so many different backgrounds and ethnicities.
There are the Maya people, who live in their traditional thatched roof houses and speak their own languages. There are also East Indians with small businesses, and Guatemalan immigrants who speak Spanish and are the only reminder that this country is indeed in Central America - the majority speak English.
Then there are the Chinese, who have cornered the supermarket industry, and of course, there are the Afro-Caribbeans, with their wide smiles and neat fuzzy hair styles. Most surprising of all for us was the big population of Mennonites. They are originally from Germany but arrived in Belize via Canada and Mexico. Most of them do not use electricity and they get around with horse carriages.
Agriculture is their main business, and they produce most of the fruit and vegetables in Belize. We ate the most delicious watermelons, which were sold by Mennonites on the side of the road.
Cycling through Maya Villages
A highlight for us was cycling through small Maya villages in south Belize. Not only did we enjoy the small quiet roads, but also the warm welcome and hospitality we encountered. In the village of San Antonio a family invited us over for a bowl of boiling “caldo de pollo” (chicken soup), and a mildly hot cacao drink, made from cacao beans they grow and sun-dry in front of their house.
We spent the night in the yard of one extended family in the village of Santa Cruz, right by their thatched house.The village wasn’t connected to electricity and most people got their water by walking down to the main village well.
We loved the cultural experience, but the people who hosted us found us fascinating too. We told them that we used to live in a high building with an elevator, but had to explain what an elevator was, because they had never seen or heard of elevators. They also had never seen a tent and everyone, including the grandma, came to take a look. The kids passed the evening by playing inside the tent, having the time of their lives.
Could there be a better reason than this to go cycle touring anywhere?! Chocolate seems to be an obsession in Belize, and we often cycled by cacao beans drying in the sunshine and the smell of cocoa kept on chasing us.
In our short stay, we visited no less than four different small factories where chocolate was made from scratch. After tasting them all we concluded that they were all excellent, smooth, fruity, and very fresh, although we appreciated more the chocolate made by local Maya families than those which are manufactured by foreigners. Every time we bought chocolate and tried to keep it for later, it completely melted but the end result was still good, especially when eaten with a banana.
Aside from chocolate for itself we also enjoyed the cacao fruit, something that we tasted for the first time in Belize. When we stopped by a cacao orchard, eight-year-old Nehimiah appeared and volunteered to climb a tree to pick a few cacao fruit for us. He climbed like a monkey with ease, picked the ripe fruit, and then broke the cacao open for us with a rock. The white gooey stuff that covers the beans is sweet and tasty, and we enjoyed it while conversing with Nehimiah about our trip and his life in Belize.
The Hummingbird Highway
Mostly we found the roads in Belize to be quite boring, with pine tree farms on both sides of the road making the ride very monotonous and mentally challenging. What was nice though was the little traffic on the roads with barely any cars even on the main highway.
Belize was also the flattest country we’d ridden in, so at least it wasn’t physically difficult and our progress was decent. The Hummingbird Highway offered a blessed change of scenery, with rolling hills, the forested and well named Maya mountains and a few rivers to swim in. There was also a slight elevation change, which was actually nice after all the flat roads we had ridden.
We also stopped for a refreshing swim in the famous Blue Hole National Park, which is a natural swimming pool with supposedly beautiful turquoise water. Unfortunately, the water was more green than blue due to recent rain.
Belize was our last destination and the seventh country we cycled on our five-month tour of Central America, and it offered a refreshing change. While all the other countries were different in one way or another, they were also quite similar in many ways - but not Belize.
First of all the majority of the population speaks English, and while we enjoyed conversing with locals with our broken Spanish in the rest of the countries, it was quite a treat to have a full on conversation. The food was also interesting and delicious with lots of fish dishes and tropical fruit everywhere.
Because Belize is so small we didn’t have to worry about cycling in and out large population centers. We did cycle into Belize City, the largest city with a population of 70,000, but it was very easy and did not feel like we were entering a big city.
The only reason we cycled to Belize City was because we needed to catch our flight from there, otherwise, you could completely skip it, and probably should as we didn’t find it so interesting. We did visit two incredible islands - Tobacco Caye and Caye Caulker, both of which offer amazing snorkeling. In conclusion, Belize is a small country that can easily be ignored while cycling in Central America, but we highly recommend not to skip this small but surprising country.
About the Author
Maya and Gili and now with their son Neil love cycling and cycle touring (and for Neil: anything that is bike related).
They take any opportunity they can to go on their next cycling vacation. Their longest trip was crossing Central America (through all seven countries) over five months and with a lot of time to explore.
After Neil was born they decided it wouldn’t stop them from doing what they love, so they’d just take him along for the ride. They cycled for three months in South Korea and Japan starting when he was 7 months old. When Neil was 18 months old, they cycled in France, and just before he turned two they headed to New Zealand for a month of cycle touring. When they're not bicycle touring, Maya and Gili ride around their home city of Vancouver. Neil, who is now two, scoots around happily on his balance bike.
Maya is also a passionate educator. She combines her two passions into a cycling education non-profit program for young kids learning to ride on balance bikes called Kids on Wheels.
You can follow their family adventures on their blog: Life in MAGIcLand.