Huge abandoned houses. The terrible smell of sewage. A guy sleeps on the pavement in broad sunlight. A rusty iron bridge belongs more in some prison movie than in a tropical holiday destination. Old men shout at us from across the street. Dented, miserable-looking cars, rows and rows of closed shops. A little girl runs on the pavement full of holes. This apocalyptic atmosphere belongs to Belize City.
We were just walking towards our hostel when all of a sudden I was very well aware of all my belongings. A little backpack with my laptop, a bright orange bag that screamed “expensive camera” and the rest of my life on my back. My eyes scanned the environment and tried to look in all directions at the same time. My hands clung to my bags, even though I knew perfectly well that the only right thing to do in case of theft was to let go and give away the valuables. Fighting back can easily end your life.
The walk from the water taxi station to our hotel took no longer than 10 minutes. Tom had memorised the map because neither of us wanted to look like lost tourists with guidebooks. As if those big backpacks and our white skin didn’t betray us enough.
Lonely Planet highlights the areas of Belize City that are safe during daylight hours, but even then you should stay watchful.
Never have I been happier to lock the door behind us then when we arrived at the hotel alive. Even though “Sea Breeze Guesthouse” is wrapped in barbed wire and looks more like a prison than a hotel.
When we dropped our luggage, turned on the fan and tested the locks on all doors, Tom asked me if I wanted to take a walk in the neighbourhood. Well, no, I didn’t! But we were travelling. Since the whole point of travel is to break out of your comfort zone, I resisted the urge to stay locked in the hotel room until dawn. I said yes. Reluctantly I grabbed the same bright orange camera bag and off we went to see the city.
Stranded on the edge of a six-lane road
If your destination menu consists mostly of European countries, then you’re used to seeing all kinds of capitals and other big and culturally important cities. Your first trip to France will likely be a visit to Paris, your first encounter to England will be strolling the streets of London and so on. In Indonesia, stranded at the edge of a six-lane road in Jakarta with the intention to cross it to meet a friend in the mall, my perspective changed: I don’t need to visit every single capital on the planet.
But here I was, in a capital again. Better to get this little excursion done during the daylight hours. It was Sunday afternoon and the place was deserted. With no people on the streets and all the shops and restaurants closed, everything looked poor and abandoned. Only later did I learn that walking around in quiet hours like these on Sunday afternoon is not recommended.
Where are all the drug dealers?
At first glance, it looked like every single car in Belize City was broken, shabby, full of dents and cracks. But every now and then, a shiny new SUV steered by. For some reason, the first thing that came to my mind when I saw these expensive monsters were drug dealers. But it could be that they just belonged to rich people. I didn’t, however, see a house where these rich people could possibly live. Don’t get me wrong, the houses were quite cute two-story wooden beauties. But it looked like no one had taken care of them after the British colonisers had left. I could not imagine anyone with a fancy car living in an abandoned hut like that.
In front of the town hall squatted a lonely ice cream kiosk. Across the street, a pack of men stared at us. One of them crossed the street, almost running, and he waved his weirdly broken wrist under our noses. We walked quickly, hoping he was not going to follow us.
There was nothing to look at in the city. The nicest place was the seaside, where pelicans and children fished by the shore.
We took a slightly different route back, since Tom was eager to discover some more. I walked on, praying nothing bad would happen to us. We reached a street that was cut in two by a wide smelly canal. A black man with a white beard opened the zip of his trousers and decided to use the canal as his toilet. We decided it was a good time to find our way back.
Ice through the window
Back in the guesthouse, we were left with one remaining problem. Where to eat? Since we hadn’t noticed a single open food stall during our walk, we asked the friendly Indian owner of the place. He pointed out two restaurants that were open on Sundays. To judge by their looks, I wouldn’t have gone to either of them. The fancier and more expensive one was a concrete cube that reminded me more of a dog house than any kind of eating place.
The other looked like an abandoned hut in the middle of nowhere. We picked the second one. The food was nothing special and quite expensive. It seemed that every single tourist had found his way here. At the next table, a German girl poured the ice from her glass out of the window with one elegant move. From her face, you could read it- better not to touch any ice in this terrible city.
Everyone in prison
The next morning, we started our walk to the bus station. The atmosphere was much better, the streets were filled with people, food stalls, shops and restaurants.
Halfway to the bus stop, a guy offered us a ride for a reasonable price. When we were safely in his worn-out car, he opened his mouth and admitted that he only drove tourists. “It’s safe!” he said. As it turned out: a taxi driver had been killed just the previous night. So, yes, it’s better not to take any risks.
It was comfortable to be in a car. Shabby places and people flew by and I could relax and look at it all from behind the safe window. From the car window, even Belize City looked safe. Until our driver started to talk about his own prison experiences.
It feels like everyone in this country has been to prison. Even the most innocent family man in Stardust Sanctuary Farm had had trouble with the police- he had lived and worked illegally in the USA and had been deported.
The taxi driver had faced similar issues. He was caught by police when he tried to cross the Mexican-US border with a fake ID. Fun fact: the ID belonged to a wanted criminal. Our driver spent 19 days in a Mexican prison. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Either way, I was happy to leave Belize City behind, a city that according to Lonely Planet is the scene of most of the shootings and murders that fill the front pages of the local newspapers.