Think of the word “Paradise” and it will likely conjure up images of clear turquoise seas, palm trees and bright blue glowing skies, all far removed from civilisation. Correct? In Northern Belize, Central America, there is a remote fishing village called Sarteneja (sart-a-ney-ha) and it ticks all the boxes.
I left the UK over a month ago now and have been living in this remote part of Belize volunteering with a wildlife conservation organisation based here called SACD, click here. It’s been an amazing experience living and working here, worlds apart from the typical travelling lifestyle that I’ll be embarking upon when my time here finishes, though I’m not entirely convinced that “Paradise” is what I’m looking for at this point in my life…
Let’s talk about the turquoise seas first and glowing skies, because they exist here in abundance. My accommodation steps out onto the seafront and just 15ft over the sandy track, I stood and took the photo of the beautiful rickety pier that is this posts main picture. The bay here is very shallow (3ft deep) and has a muddy sand rather than the white sand we’d perhaps imagine in paradise. Because it’s so shallow, the waters can be surprisingly warm, in a way that isn’t particularly refreshing, but I still try and enjoy a quick dip most days. Sitting at the end of a pier, with a beer, watching the sunset sure isn’t a bad way to spend an hour or so after work.
The sun is hot here, even from sitting in an office all day I’ve got a killer tan ready for my travels. However, when the weather turns to storm, the shallow waters are quickly agitated and the turquoise blue waters turn to a muddy brown for a couple of days while it settles again; making for a less attractive swimming prospect …you can’t see the crocodiles coming when the water is murky ;-).
(the dirt roads turn to a muddy mess after rain)
The charity arranged my accommodation and I’m living with a family who have four bedrooms downstairs in their house; renting them out like a guest house/homestay. Meals are provided, and I join the family for breakfast, lunch and dinner; there’s no room to be a fussy eater, you get what you’re given!
We’ve built a good bond; Mayra is the mother, Guillermo the father (who works away in Belize City most of the week), Brandon their son and Chuch is the grandfather (and somewhat of a village elder). We see each other at every meal time where I share with Chuch what I’ve done today and swap stories of Belizean and British life. We all have a good laugh as I try to steal a bit of their time as a spanish lesson, and Mayra seems to enjoy taking on the challenge of trying to fill me; I’ve learnt to shout “mas comida” and “tengo hambre” to signal a desire for more food.
(senor chuch is an incredibly friendly person. big respect to this Belizean hero)
I’ll eat anything; anybody who knows me will testify! But I must admit sometimes the homestay setup can become a bit… tiresome. These villagers are incredibly proud of their cuisine, and Mayra is no exception, but to the typical westerner the lack of variety and near none existence of fresh fruit and veg can wear you down slightly. One week I decided that I’d opt out of lunch (“no almuerzo, gracias”). But I found myself battling the clock each day to find somewhere in the village that would work with just one hour for lunch.
(typical family meal)
One day I visited “Pablitos”, a lovely little local bar/restaurant (one of 3). I placed my order. Initially, he looked panicked, then went and got on his motorbike, drove off to what I presume was the shop, returned with a bag of ingredients, then waited a little longer (30minutes) before telling me that he wasn’t able to find his wife to come and cook it for me. I left “muy hambre” (very hungry). So I went crawling back to Mayra and luckily she welcomed me with open arms and a bowl of refried beans (something I now love to hate). I must give the woman the credit she deserves; she makes delicious flour and corn tortillas from scratch and her fluffy “fryjacks” are tasty. I just wish they weren’t all served with beans.
Best thing I’ve eaten from Mayra’s kitchen is one you can try at home! Nachos but the tortilla chips had been replaced with thinly sliced, deep fried plantain – amazing! Give it a whirl! Salsa and chilli or spicy chicken on top ?
In Paradise, it turns out they speak English, Spanish (due to this village being on the border with Mexico) and Kriol, so getting by here is easy by comparison to other Central American countries and likely explains (along with some of the cheapest property in the Caribbean) the reason so many Americans choose to build retirement/holiday homes in this sleepy village.
(American owned house)
Being so far off the beaten track, Sarteneja has yet to see the tourism boom that other parts of Belize enjoy, with the villagers main exposure to foreigners being those American retirees which makes for mixed opinions; some of the villagers welcome the money and work that the wealthy Americans bring to the village, and some have even made their living in catering to those them, offering building, cleaning, management services for the properties and so on.
However, some of the villagers resent the Americans because in a village that is struggling with it’s over-reliance on a declining fish industry (because they’ve over-fished), it’s hard to ignore the fact that the large expensive homes in the village all belong exclusively to Americans (and a few Canadians). It’s not uncommon to hear the word “gringo” thrown around generously in the village as I cycle around, and I don’t think they mean it as a compliment. They also regularly shout “stone cold” (Steve Austin) at me – I laugh along in the spirit of it all and then on one occasion a villager shouted “why you laughing, it’s not a compliment!”. Good times.
(typical village house)
Outside the confines of the family I live with and the people I work with (those who I get along really well with), it’s a tough crowd in Sarteneja in terms of getting to know people. Those who have heard of me through my colleagues, and have perhaps been given the “green light” that I’m not as bad as I look 😉 will engage in conversation with me, coming up to me rather excitedly because they know who I am and who I’m working with, they want to know about me, what it’s like in England, have I met the Queen (she’s the head of state here), how long am I here, and fast they become my best friend.
One local, after 15 minutes of chatter, was taking me to meet his wife, saying she will cook her famous tacos for me and telling me “You are a good guy Kyle, we are friends now, even though you don’t believe in God” (not sure how we managed in 15 minutes to get onto the discussion of religion, but we did). “Thanks”, I said!
There are plenty of other examples of locals being intrigued enough to engage with me in the way I try to engage with them, but as for the rest of the locals who don’t seem to want to know me, they just give me what an American resident calls “the dead monkey stare” and it is quite literally as it sounds. Simple things like asking if they sell an item, or how much I owe, or where something in the village is; if they aren’t interested in helping, they just glare at me with no response until I make my next move, e.g. handing them money, or walking off. Lets not forget English is the main language here, so it’s not through lack of understanding that they deliver the dead monkey stare, but through pure bad manners to be quite honest.
So in Paradise, if you want to be off the beaten track and away from civilisation you need to be prepared to allow time for the locals to warm to you, even better… it helps if you know some of them before you arrive, or if you’re bringing something to the village that they can be part of, e.g. opening a bar/restaurant and employing some locals. My favourite haunt, “Martineja” is owned by an American couple who’ve retired here and they have garnered a lot of respect within the local community through engaging builders, workers and employing locals whilst they have been setting up their new life here.
Some weekends, I have traveled to the main tourist islands of Belize (though the transport cost and timings means it doesn’t seem worth leaving the village every weekend). The moto on Belize’s island communities is “Go Slow”, and it’s no different here in Sarteneja. Life is very slow and it’s lovely to experience, it feels relaxing and stress-free on the day to day; everything is chilled and nothing seems to be a bother. I sit with a cold beer and watch the world go by and wonder sometimes how things could physically go as slow as they do; do the drivers not realise where their accelerators are? Perhaps if the cyclists pedalled any slower they’d literally topple off their bikes!? Being used to the fast pace of modern Britain, when you need to get things done, it can become quite frustrating to grasp just how slow things are.
(step off the boat in Caye Caulker and it’s all sand and palms)
If you think you’re a patient individual, test yourself by doing one these fun activities: wait behind a Belizean person to use an ATM, visit a bank/immigration office, queue to pay at a supermarket, wait for public transport to set off or simply ask for another drink in a restaurant. All these seemingly very simple tasks take an astonishingly long time to complete. I am stood waiting in utter dis-believe that things can take so long here. Everything feels so unorganised and illogical, it’s at times difficult to restrain from asking what the hold up is, because there seems to be little or no reason. But everyone seems content, they aren’t getting frustrated at having to queue in a bank behind 5 people for an hour (not joking), this is just how life is here. Who knows what the cashier is doing with your groceries that takes her so long to scan and pay, or why she is manually writing down a list of each item you purchased, when I can clearly see it’s being scanned into a computer syste., but I’m not sure I’ll ever find out.
In the paradise of your dreams, you might imagine yourself enjoying a nice beer, or a cocktail, hey, perhaps even enjoying your favourite food while watching some netflix. Well don’t count on it, because in paradise things are hard to get hold of. I’ve been for a beer of an evening to the local bar to be told they have no drinks today (“come back tomorrow”). There are a couple of big supermarkets in the village, but shelves are vastly empty. Everybody lives day-to-day here, but that doesn’t really work when you’re the supermarket that’s meant have things available for customers to buy on the day-to-day. Let’s not even talk about the internet; they have it everywhere, it just barely works (despite being incredibly expensive).
There are no ATMs here in the village either, with the nearest ones being either a 30 minute boat ride, or a 1+ hour drive along dirt roads. I didn’t think to pack a boat or a car, so forward planning is most important when it comes to having cash, so I can go clear those empty supermarket shelves ;-). I’ve been to my fair share of remote locations on my travels over the years, but Sarteneja’s lack of tourism means you have to rely on it’s public transportation which is scarce and in infrequent. The once-daily boat that makes the journey to and from the islands of Belize is pretty expensive, and the last time I tried to use it, was too full for anymore people to get on. So you just go home and wait until tomorrow.
(these old buses are the only transport in and out of the village, along pothole ridden, bumpy, dirt roads. It takes 3.5 hours to Belize City)
Luckily for me, SACD have a couple of boats. So when they’ve been going to the nearest town across the bay, I’ve been able to go along. Useful for a trip to stand behind someone who doesn’t seem to know how to use an ATM. During my time here, they have also arranged to take a local school snorkelling in the Caribbean, which I was invited to along to and was an amazing day. As part of the work I’m helping them with, the rangers took me out on a tour of Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (the national park that SACD oversees). We went Dolphin & Manatee watching, snorkelling, swimming, visited a remote beach resort for lunch and went to a mayan ruin located in a unique coastal-jungle setting. I have then helped to cost the trip up as part of my work to see if we can promote it as an eco-tourism expedition, allowing SACD to create a revenue stream to bring in funds other than relying on government/international funding.
(sailing through the jungle on our way to go snorkeling in the Caribbean)
Overall, I’ve loved my time living in this version of paradise; initially very exciting, then a bit of a struggle once the novelty wore off. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. Now I’ve got around 10days left, and I’m not itching to get the hell out of here per say, just more excited about what adventures I’ve got ahead of me as I set off on my travels; an experience which will no doubt be completely different to my time here in Sarteneja.
I quit my career in the UK to go travel the world, which is a very different type of journey to my time living here. When I want to see the world, go on adventures and create memories, somewhere as remote and laid back as Sarteneja probably doesn’t satisfy my wider goals. I can, however, see how it has appeal to the many Americans who retire here, as you can really create a life here away from the masses and with a car/boat likely would feel much less isolated.
My time in Sarteneja has definitely been completely unforgettable, a brilliant experience that I’m pleased I chose to do.
Next stop, Guatemala.