We were standing on the side of the road in Belize City. In front of us was a sad and dilapidated building, its grey weather-worn walls reminiscent of an old farm shed.
We’d arrived in the city from Caye Caulker with no intentions of staying. Our plan was to head straight to the Crooked Tree Nature Reserve.
Other travellers had warned us of the city’s dangers, and our government’s advisory board talks about muggings and gang-related violence.
One blogger even goes so far as to tell people to stay away altogether!
So we weren’t planning on hanging around.
But when we went to the bus station – an adventure in itself – we discovered the next bus to Crooked Tree wasn’t until Monday, the day after next.
Which meant we’d have one day in Belize City.
It’s why we were standing on the side of the road admiring a tumble-down building. We’d fallen in love with its mysterious air the moment we saw it.
And we just had to get a photo.
A man in a Rastafarian hat sat on the veranda and watched with mild curiosity as Andrew started snapping away with the camera. Caught up in the moment, we didn’t notice the truck pull up beside us until he pointed to it with his beer.
We turned around just as a burly police officer rolled down his window and asked us what we were doing?
“Um, going back to our hotel?” I said and pointed at the building two doors down.
“You shouldn’t be hanging around here. Move along and put your camera away it’s dangerous on the streets.”
Andrew looked at the tiny point and shoot camera clasped in his hand and slipped it into his pocket. (We’d left our good camera back in our room.)
Satisfied we were in no immediate danger the policeman gave a terse nod and drove away. His truck rumbling as it went.
But we weren’t going anywhere until we’d taken some photos. So Andrew ran around snapping shots while praying my puny camera was up to the job.
Then we hightailed it back to our room with the policeman’s warning still ringing in our ears.
Dodgy Belize City
The enchanting old building we took such delight in, turned out to be a well-known bar called Mike’s Club.
Everyone seemed to know it.
But a quick google search of Mike’s Club sent shivers down my spine. Newspaper articles revealed that a 26-year-old man had been shot and killed in the bar in 2014. His older brother had been killed in the area just 13 days before that.
This bar was only two doors down from where we were staying!
The thing is we weren’t staying in some dodgy dive. Our hotel is highlighted in Lonely Planet and was recommended to us by a local expat. And it’s a nice hotel.
But the area is sketchy as hell.
The street was full of beat up cars and homeless men hung out in groups. Walking back to our room we were approached by a shirtless man. His unbuttoned jeans hung so low his pubic hair was on show.
He seemed to just want to talk, however, asking us where we’re from. When we told him Australia, he laughed and said something about kangaroos. We weren’t hanging around though so we gave him a friendly smile and kept walking.
That first night we had an early dinner and we were back in our room before dark.
Surviving one day in Belize City
The next morning shined brightly with blue skies and a blazing sun. And with our sense of adventure restored by a good night’s sleep, we decided to check out the city.
We left our hotel keen to discover all the things to do in Belize City. As it was a Sunday there was less traffic on the street than the day before. But the groups of men were still there hanging out with not much to do. One man lay curled asleep in a doorway and another was rifling through a bin.
We saw someone break away from one of the groups and walk towards us.
We stepped up our pace. Heads down, not wanting to engage.
But he stopped in the middle of the street and shouted something that sounded like “Aussie”.
It was the shirtless guy from the day before waving good morning to us. We waved back, smiled hello, and kept going.
There isn’t much to do in Belize City at the best of times – most of the attractions are out of town. However, there’s the Museum of Belize which is housed in an old prison. It has exhibits from the city’s pirate and colonial years and natural and man-made disasters.
Most of Belize City seems to shut down on a Sunday though, and the museum wasn’t open.
So we ended up wandering the streets enjoying the river and old colonial style houses.
The Swing Bridge
Belize City is famous for its swing bridge. Built in 1922, it’s the only functioning manually operated swing bridge in the world. It used to be swung every morning and night to allow fishing sailboats to pass upriver. These days it’s only swung on special request.
St John’s Cathedral
St John’s Cathedral was built using bricks brought from England. It’s the oldest Anglican Church in Central America, and the Kings of the Mosquito Coast were crowned here.
Colonial Style Houses
During our walk around the city, we spotted some delightful old colonial style houses. These were easily the highlight of my day. Imagine sitting on one of these verandas with a cool drink in your hand, watching the sunset while the sound of cicadas buzz in your ears. Delightful!
We headed back to our hotel and as we strode along our street some of the local men waved to us. Surprised, we waved back.
Then our friend from the morning appeared, thin, bedraggled and reeking of alcohol he wanted talk. We couldn’t understand a word he said but we nodded and laughed along, hoping it all made sense.
I think he was just happy we took the time to talk to him. And he gave us high-fives before he sauntered off down the street.
Is Belize City Safe?
Belize City is dodgy and anyone visiting it needs to take precautions. We walked around the city in daylight hours without any problems. But at no point did we feel completely safe. We only carried the cash we needed for the day and my little camera which is easily replaced. And we only pulled it out when we felt it was safe to do so.
The bus station was the worst area we went to and we skedaddled out of there as quickly as we could. There’s a fish market one block back and a stinky creek filled with putrid water. In fact, the whole area reeks of urine.
People were sleeping on the footpath and men huddled in groups watching us – we were watching them too. People were sleeping on the footpath and kids were letting off firecrackers in the street. The youngest of whom ran off crying – I felt like joining him.
Passengers are kept in a fenced off area and you have to go through security to enter.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to return to the bus station as our bus to Crooked Tree didn’t leave from there.
It left from Mike’s Club!
But we weren’t worried about Mike’s Club or the groups of men anymore because by then we felt like locals walking down our street.
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