Sarteneja and Shipstern

Sarteneja is a small fishing and boat-building town that’s virtually on the northeast tip of the Belizean mainland; it’s closer to Mexico than to most of Belize.  It’s also a very long way down a very bad road to get there.  And once you do get there, there isn’t a great deal to do (although for many people that go, that’s part of the attraction).  As a result, the place doesn’t see many tourists, which is a shame for the people that miss it, as it’s a cute little town and it’s near some untouched jungle.  It’s worth a day or two for those passing through, or for those with the time and patience to make the journey.  And if you’re like me, your OCD forces you to write lists of all the places you want to go to, and then forces you to visit them.  Whether I want to go or not is irrelevant, I’m a hostage to my own twisted psychology.

And so it is that my friend and fellow British expat Viv (who also has her own Belizean blog here) and I took a four-hour bus ride through the cane fields and forests of Northern Belize.  Sarteneja is far enough away to make visiting it on a regular weekend difficult-to-impossible, so I timed my trip to coincide with one of Belize’s many long weekends, in this case Commonwealth Day (also called Sovereign’s Day, it’s a day off to commemorate Belize’s membership in the Commonwealth. It also celebrates the Queen’s official birthday, but I won’t be celebrating that, as I think the very idea of royalty is ridiculous and anachronistic. And if you are going to have, and pay for, a royal family, you should have a better one than ours, a miserable German woman, her racist Greek husband, and their idiot children and inbred grandchildren. As you may have guessed, I’m not a monarchist. But hey, it’s still a day off!).  Viv had only been in Belize for two weeks, and I’m sure she would rather have gone to the cayes or the jungle, so I spent much of the journey apologising to her for dragging her to an empty village in the back-end of nowhere for two days.

It takes about two hours to get to the northern town of Orange Walk (nicknamed Sugar City, after its location surrounded by cane fields and its importance to the sugar industry), and then another two from there to Sarteneja.  And those last two hours are spent driving on a dirt road that’s potholed and rutted all the way to the sea.  But it’s still a pleasant journey, passing through small Mestizo villages (that wouldn’t look out of place in Mexico) and isolated Mennonite communities (that wouldn’t look out place in Little House on the Prairie).  An added extra is the crossing of the Laguna Seca at the village of Copper Bank, which is done by the low-tech-but-effective local transport, the hand-cranked ferry – the bus waits at one bank, and a flatbed wooden platform (which is only slightly bigger than said bus) slowly inches its way across the water towards us, guided by a thick greasy cable strung between the two banks, and powered by two small boys in a cabin turning the crank.  After bumping into the bank with the gentlest of kisses, the bus rolls on and we languidly slide back to the other bank, drive off, and continue on our way.  After that, there are no more signs of human habitation, just the forests and lagoons of the Sarteneja Peninsula.  And at the end of the road, Sarteneja village.

With a population of less than two thousand, the village covers just a few blocks along the seafront.  It has a few hotels and a couple of places to eat, which is unsurprising considering its small size.  Boats outnumber cars and the Hispanic influence is much more pronounced.  ‘Sleepy’ is probably the best word to describe it.  But it does have a lovely location on Chetumal Bay, and the water is clean and warm – it doesn’t have the sea life or coral of the cayes, but it’s still nicer than anything at home.  And after a dinner of chicken, beans and tortillas (very tasty, but I was a tad miffed that they didn’t have any fish in a fishing village), and a couple of drinks in the village bar, that’s Saturday night in Sarteneja.

The next day we hire a pair of bikes and cycle to Shipstern Nature Reserve, a few miles outside the village – one of the reasons I want to come all this way is to do a spot of jungle trekking, and the reserve is famous as a large and virtually untouched area of forest.  After paying the fee and wandering round the visitors centre, we pop into the butterfly house, which contains a large number of the beautiful Blue Morpho in various stages of life, from grey-green cocoon to brightly-coloured adult.  Perhaps it’s the time of year, or maybe they’d all just hatched and wanted to make the most of their short lifespans, but all the adults seem to be mating – up against walls, perched on rocks, balancing precariously on plant leaves, the room is full of delicately quivering butterflies going at it.

And the insect experience doesn’t end at lepidopteran humping – the reserve is alive with mosquitoes.  And despite slathering ourselves in bug spray, we both get bitten repeatedly.  This somewhat dulls the experience of walking through what is a very beautiful part of Belize, the thick jungle full of hundreds of species of plants, trees, and animals.

At the end of one of the trails is the observation tower.  After climbing the ten-odd flights of stairs to get to the top, we find that it’s being repaired – power tools are laying around, electric cables snake across the floor and down the stairwell, and lengths of four-by-two poke out dangerously over the edge.  And there are no guard rails to stop us from plunging straight over and into the trees.  If this was Europe or North America, the whole structure would be off-limits, swathed in yellow tape and plastered in stickers proclaiming ‘DANGER!’  But this is Central America, the developing world, and they’re considerably less health-and-safety-obsessed here.  So we enjoy a dangerous but mosquito-free lunch with a view of the jungle canopy stretching endlessly to the sea.

The next day, we attempt to leave by boat – there’s a water taxi that goes from the northern town of Corozal to Ambergris Caye’s capital San Pedro, via Sarteneja.  Unfortunately, it’s a small craft and it’s already full.  And there’s a large group of people who want to get on.  So, after exchanging a handful of passengers with the boat and the dock, it putters off, and we’re still here.  As it’s a public holiday (and Sarteneja is a tad off-the-beaten-track), there are no public buses today.  And neither of us fancies waiting for the San Pedro – Corozal boat, as that doesn’t depart until 4 p.m.

But all is not lost.  We’re told of a private bus that’s been hired for the day by a church group, on a day trip from Burrell Boom (which is tantalisingly close to Belize City), and we blag ourselves two seats.  After gathering the flock together and saying a quick prayer (the way Belizeans drive, I don’t blame them), we’re off.

The Seventh Day Adventists seem to be taking this trip for two reasons – to have a day out where they can swim in the sea, and to go on an extended fruit-shopping trip (I want to ask why they couldn’t have just gone to the local beach and the market, but they are giving us a lift, so I feel I should be polite and keep quiet).  All the way home the talk is of fruit, mostly kinep, a local one rather like a gooseberry or small plum.  As Viv mentions in her blog post, they were obsessed with the stuff.  After trawling round several villages and asking every person in our path, we finally come across some trees loaded with kinep, and as we pull up next to them, small black hands shoot out the bus windows to grab handfuls of the fruit.  After some firm Christian admonishment about stealing, the hands retreat, and the church leader goes outside to buy what appears to be the entire tree’s worth of the stuff from the owner, whilst inside the bus the fruit larceny continues unabated.  Having filled several bags full of kinep, we continue on our way.  Then someone mentions that it’s mango season…

Many hours later, the church bus, now resembling a mobile fruit stall, drops us off on the Northern Highway at the Burrell Boom turn-off, and that’s the end of the weekend.  Sarteneja may not appear in everyone’s Top 10 highlights of Belize, but it’s a pleasant place to spend a day or two, and, if you can get a seat on the boat, it’s a fine pit-stop between Corozal and San Pedro.

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