Central America. Two simple words. Such powerful connotations.
It seems as though people have intense ideas about Central America. For many, the words conjure up visions of violence and robbery. For others, beautiful white sand beaches and fabulous coral reefs spring to mind. And for me – the words brought back some of the fondest memories I knew; memories of my Peace Corps days in Honduras.
As we neared Central America, my thoughts were centered on Honduras – I couldn’t wait to get back to my Peace Corps village and host family I left behind 22 years before. In my mind, Central America meant Honduras. We may have had to endure the other countries, but Honduras would be the highlight – of that, I had no doubt.
And so it was that, when I entered into Belize, I wasn’t particularly interested in the country. In fact, I could even say I was dreading it. Belize was, in my mind, nothing more than a few hundred miles of pedaling that separated us from my beloved Honduras. We vowed to make a beeline through the country; after all the horrible stories we had heard about Belize, we figured we wouldn’t miss anything anyway.
Never had our impressions been so wrong.
Mere hours after crossing the border, we pulled into the town of Orange Walk and made our way to a river resort to camp for the night. I wearily leaned my bike against a wall and headed to the bar to ask about prices.
“You are the most incredible woman I’ve ever seen!” a woman declared as she gave me a standing ovation. A straw cowboy hat perched haphazardly upon her head; dark mahogany curls fell around her neck. She pelted me with questions, a smile never leaving her face. “Where have you come from? Where are you going?”
I wearily spilled my tale about cycling from Alaska to Argentina, knowing we still had to get camp set up, buy groceries, and get dinner cooked. Our day was far from over.
“Jack!” Stacy called across the bar to her husband. “Did you hear that? They’ve ridden down from Alaska! Hey – let me buy you a drink. What do you want?”
Such was our introduction to Belize and some of the kindest, most generous people we’ve met. Jack and Stacy eventually decided we simply couldn’t camp – after a hard day of cycling we deserved a comfortable bed – so they booked a room for us. They also decided we couldn’t leave the area without taking a tour of the New River and Lamanai Mayan Ruins so they booked us on the tour the following day.
Our time in Belize was filled with unexpected surprises. A missionary couple stopping us on the road and inviting us to camp at their compound, a Canadian family taking us in and showing us the wonders of the country, another family rounding us up on the road and dragging us back to their house.
As I look back on Belize now, I have very fond memories and I wonder why so many people had told us such horror stories. Maybe they just didn’t know where to look to find the magic?