Dangriga, Belize: things you should and shouldn’t do in Belize’s cultural capital

First of all, before anyone gets any big ideas about the concept of cultural capital: Dangriga is no Paris, Rome or even Mol. It mainly got its status as the hub for Belize’s contingent of Garifuna.

But even though Dangriga does not feature highly on most tourists’ lists of places to visit in Belize, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in this scruffy seaside town.

Here are the five things you should and one you definitely shouldn’t do in Dangriga:

DO: Soak up the atmosphere downtown

Garifuna people in Dangriga, in front of King Burger Restaurant.

Other backpackers sometimes ask us: isn’t Belize all about fancy resorts, oversized rich white Americans in golf carts and expensive cruise ships? The reports of its costliness stop them from visiting.

While it’s true that this country is more expensive than its neighbours, that’s not the Belize we experienced.

Don’t get me wrong; these aspects of Belize do exist. You can gulp down mojitos that cost you an arm and a leg. And if you transfer your beach-bumming ass from Ambergris Caye to Placencia in small planes and private cars with tinted windows – well, no, you won’t see much local life.

It should come as no surprise that we did not have the budget for that. Instead, we went native. Located relatively far from the main tourist attractions in Belize, Dangriga is one of the best places to breath in the local air and do some people-watching.

Take a stroll down St Vincent Street towards the bridge over the North Stann Creek. Look at the pelicans. Check out the ladies with flowery soup dresses*. Play dominoes with the men in dirty undershirts in the pub or in front of the PUP party house. Admire the guts of the old man who rides a pink children’s bicycle.

Choose between the Price is Right Supermarket on one side of the road, and the First Choice Supermarket on the other. Eat johnny cakes or waffles with ham or have a Belizean breakfast at King Burger. Don’t worry; it’s much better than Burger King. Breath in and out. Relax. Yes, you’re enjoying the real Belize.

Little coffee and snack shack in Dangriga.

This is where we got our coffee and cake every morning.

*I know this is a literal translation from Flemish, but I refuse to call it a muumuu. The term soup dress expresses the core of this piece of clothing so much better.

DO: Discover the Garifuna culture

The first thing you see when the bus pulls into Dangriga is the monument Drums of our Fathers. One big dügü, a ceremonial drum, leans on two others. The central drum portrays the present which leans on the past and the future. “They represent those who have gone before, those of us who are now in the circle of life, and those who are not yet born”, writes E. Roy Cayetano, one of the Garifuna’s cultural fathers in Belize.

Drums of Our Fathers monument at the entry of Dangriga.

He dedicated a poem with the same name, Drums of our Fathers, to his grandmother, his wife and his future child, symbols for past, present and future. Here’s a fragment:

“Drums of my Fathers
of my grandfathers
of my ancestors
Drumming in my psyche
Drums of my Fathers
Drum! Beat!
Beat on! Drum on!”

It goes to show how vital the Garifuna culture is to Dangriga. During colonial times, this city was called Stann Creek Town, but it changed its name to the Garifuna word for ‘standing waters’. Attending a drum performance would probably be the best way to discover the culture of these people, eternally chained to two continents, Africa and America.

Not even the colonial slave masters could silence the sound of the Garifuna drum. Alas, the touristic low season could. No drumming happened during our stay, so we went to the Gulisi Garifuna Museum instead. This museum was named after the first Garifuna lady in Dangriga. Many of the current inhabitants claim to descend from her. As she had 13 sons, it’s probably true.

In the Gulisi Garifuna Museum, you can learn about the history of these people, their drumming rituals and their love for cassava dishes. Alternatively, you can also ask the museum guide about Argentina’s failed World Cup tactics. She is very passionate about football and readily shared her views on why “Messi is going to cry”.

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Check out our blog post about ethnicity in Belize to learn more the Garifunas and other ethnic groups in this country.

DON’T: End up in the White Swan

We wanted to visit Marie Sharp’s factory. According to Lonely Planet, this factory is located “8 miles northwest of town on Melinda Rd.” Without a car, we asked a taxi driver how much it would cost to drive us. He said 150 Belize dollar ($75) and got angry when I started to laugh like a hyena with a toothache. Even though the next taxi driver asked only 1/3 of that price, we decided to hitchhike instead.

Unfortunately, Melinda Rd turned out to be a dirt road into the jungle. No traffic passed for a very long time. We were ready to give up when, all of a sudden, a monster truck appeared. The driver opened his window and said that he would only go a few hundred metres further. But when he heard that we were planning to visit Marie Sharp’s factory, he told us what Lonely Planet should’ve told us: that there was a way to reach our goal with public transport.

“Just walk to the Hummingbird Highway, take a bus and ask the driver to drop you at White Swan”, he said. “From there, it’s only about a mile to walk.”

So we went looking for the place where we had to catch the bus and kept asking people about the bus to White Swan. In return, we received a bunch of puzzled looks. One man on a bicycle said: “I am a policeman, you should be careful in that area.”

At the bus stop sat a tall Rastafarian with dreadlocks and a Belikin beer. “Be careful there”, he said. “Are you sure you want to go there?”

“Yes, we want to visit the Marie Sharp Factory’, I replied.

“Oh”, he said and showed us the right bus.

And here’s the clue: the White Swan Bar, opposite of the entry road to Marie Sharp’s factory, is a notorious brothel. All of a sudden, I realised why so many people gave us weird faces. They must’ve wondered what kind of kinky plans the gringo couple had.

But for all those who, like us, want to visit Marie Sharp’s factory but avoid the steep taxi fees: it’s entirely possible by bus. Just don’t walk into the White Swan Bar. Or do and let us know how it went.

DO: Sample Marie Sharp’s famous hot sauce

Tom with two bottles of Marie Sharp's hot sauce.

Fanboy.

I expected many things from Belize, but probably not that I would fall in love with a lady in her 70s. But it’s hard not to. Or, at least, it’s hard not to fall in love with her hot sauces. Marie Sharp’s famous hot sauce is miles ahead of the competition. Especially compared to the junk which the Guatemalans try to sell as hot sauce.

Marie Sharp is an institution in Belize. Her hot sauces are everywhere. Nobody wants to eat in restaurants where the distinctive little bottles don’t adorn the tables. Supposedly, some Belizeans even carry a bottle in their purse, just in case. Heck, I dragged my stash around Central-America for nine months. All of this to say that I was quite excited to wander onto the birth grounds of the sauce that spices up even the blandest of meals.

The bus dropped us off right in front of the White Swan Bar (no activity besides a man lying in a hammock), and we walked through the citrus orchids until we saw Marie Sharp’s Factory.

In the 80s, Sharp started experimenting with her surplus of habaneros. The breakthrough came when she added puréed carrots to the mix. The carrots made the texture of her hot sauce rather unique. She tried to trade her sauce all around the country, promising the shop owners to pick up the unsold bottles. It was a smash hit! Nowadays, she sells her sauces in 20 countries, including a couple of European ones.

artwork of Marie Sharp hot sauce.

And with good reason, because it’s the world’s best!

Firstly, we sampled a dozen hot sauces, ranging from the standard one to Marie Sharp’s No Wimps Allowed, and even more fruit jams. I loved them all. All the product are for sale at discount prices in the factory shop. The workers also let us taste all the fruit wines, which were not for sale yet in regular shops. We bought some apple wine to drink in our beach cabin that night.

Afterwards, Sharp’s grandson gave us a tour of the factory. Alas, we couldn’t take any pictures. Although large parts of the production process happen automatically, workers still cut all carrots (30.000 pounds per month!), onion and habaneros by hand. As a feminist, Sharp employs mostly women. “She stimulates female entrepreneurship”, said her grandson, “Especially because lots of doors remained closed for her when she was younger.”

DO: Sweat yourself to death in Mayflower Bocawina National Park

Tom enjoys Antelope Falls in Mayflower Bocawina National Park, near Dangriga Belize.

Belize’s nature is gorgeous. The low population density of this country means that lots of jungle, pine forest and savannah is protected. I love the national parks and reserves! In a country that is notoriously expensive for backpackers, it’s a lovely idea that just 10 Belize dollars ($5) buys you endless kilometres of trails through forests you share with howler monkeys, big cats and hundreds of bird species.

True, the entrance of many parks are multiple kilometres off the highways, so hard to reach by independent travellers without a car. But cheapskates like us can start hiking in and try to flag down whichever car passes by. We’ve done it many times and have been picked up everywhere, most often by friendly park workers.

Mayflower Bocawina National Park proved to be no exception. It was good that we scored a lift because we needed all our energy for the hike to Antelope Falls. The trail started flat but then ran practically vertically upwards. We needed ropes to tackle the last part of the trek – we puffed and panted and sweated so much that I wrung out my T-shirt and could probably fill an Olympic pool with what came out.

The majestic views that stretched as far as the Atlantic Ocean made up for the suffering. So did the reward at the end of the hike: a picture-perfect waterfall that cascaded into a refreshing swimming pool. We sat down on the rocks, ate our takeaway rice and beans while the fishes in the tiny lake nibbled the dead skin off our feet. To think that people pay a fortune to go to a fish spa.

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Read more about Antelope Falls and other waterfalls we visited in Belize and Guatemala.

DO: Sleep in a cabin on the beach

Yes, Ruthie’s Cabanas are a rustic affair, but how often can you sleep in a bungalow on the beach? Every morning and evening, we ran out of our cabin and jumped into the water. We were the only guests, so we had the place to ourselves.

Ruthie's Cabanas: our cabin on the beach in Dangriga, Belize.

Life is a Beach (house).

Ruthie is a character with a laugh that can shake Dangriga to its foundations. The wifi in the cabanas made us want to pull our hair out, so we went to the restaurant next door whenever we needed internet. We often found Ruthie in the very same place, drinking one Belikin stout after the other and commenting loudly on life in Dangriga.

“These Estonians love it here”, she once said to the owner of the restaurant. She didn’t seem to care that these very same “Estonians” sat at the next table. O, Ruthie, don’t ever change!

ONWARDS FROM DANGRIGA

Tired of Ruthie’s laugh and ready to move on from Dangriga? You’ve got options in every direction:
-Hop on a bus to Belmopan and onwards to San Ignacio, gateway to jungle, caves and Maya temples.
-Head to Hopkins, a Garifuna town by the coast with a more touristic feel.
-Take a bus to Punta Gorda and then a boat to Livingston, to enter Guatemala and collect another passport stamp.
-Jump on a bus to Belize City and take a water taxi to tropical paradise island Caye Caulker.

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