Por Ana Teresa Benjamín
Fotos: Carlos E. Gómez
The mid-day sun beat down in Placencia that day. It may have been the three hours in an air-conditioned car, the merciless heat engendered by El Niño, or age that made us feel the weather so much. Placencia is undoubtedly hot, but it has the advantage of nearby beaches that offer breezes that play through your hair, treating it like so many palm fronds.
Located in southeastern Belize, Placencia is a thin, low-lying neck of land that stretches between a lagoon and the Caribbean Sea. New arrivals will notice the explosive real estate market: the limited land (along with landfill of sand and stone) is filling with hotels, houses with tall roofs and covered porches, homesteads, and banana plantations.
The center of town has a beach ambience with scorching sun and a pervasive smell of salt. The oldest houses ―wooden, some two stories high― have their windows wide open. On the patios, clothes dry in the wind and, on the roadside, people with sweat-shiny skin come and go in shorts, t-shirts, and sandals.
Overflowing with restaurants, lodging options, and food stalls, Placencia is steeped in the atmosphere of the sea. There is a spa here, a bank with faded lettering there, and several shops. Even the town’s gas station has a beachy air that encourages people to park their golf carts and go enjoy the sunset rather than filling their tanks. Our destination on that first afternoon was Seine Bight. We had heard it described as a nearby Garifuna community and I was eager for the new experience of meeting the Garifuna.
A Terrace Overlooking the Caribbean
History tells us that the Garifuna ―a mixture of various African and Caribbean peoples― came to the Atlantic coast of Central America after being expelled from the island of Saint Vincent in the late 18th century. The Garifuna are currently found in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Belize. Their culture, songs, and language are rich enough to have been included on the UNESCO lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, but the people themselves now live mired in poverty.
“The Garifuna language belongs to the Arawakan language groups and has survived centuries of discrimination and linguistic domination,” notes a UNESCO web site. “It is rich in tales (úragas) recited during wakes or large gatherings. The melodies bring together African and Amerindian elements, and the texts are a veritable repository of the history and traditional wisdom of the Garifuna, such as cassava-growing, fishing, canoe-building, and the construction of baked mud houses.”
The village ―as the inhabitants call it― of Seine Bight (in Placencia) is a community of some one thousand people living in wind-weathered wooden houses perched on stilts. At this time in the afternoon, the children are going home from school and the vibrant hairdos of the youngest girls add color to the dusty streets that are flanked by patios.
The heat persists in the center of town, but the Caribbean breeze invites visitors to walk seaward. There are few people in the street ―it must be the heat-induced drowsiness― but closer to the beach a woman sits on a large terrace overlooking the sea and shouts into her phone, as if trying to drown out the wind. I think of how nice it is to have a terrace overlooking the sea. In the background, two palm trees serve as posts for clotheslines, to which clothes are firmly pinned.
The first inhabitants of Placencia were the Maya, who used the waters of the lagoon to produce salt for trade. They were followed by Protestant Puritans and later, by the Garifuna. Although much of the population makes a living by fishing (especially the men), tourism has grown into a significant source of income: Placencia welcomes thousands of tourists every year, attracted by the area’s marine treasures, which include the second-largest barrier reef system in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and beaches, islands, and the famous atoll known as the Great Blue Hole.
The tour to Seine Bight ends with an improvised show of Garifuna music, organized by Alphus Calvin Moreira, a grey-haired man with wiry arms. Alphus plays the maracas and sings with heart-rending power, while two companions thump the drums. A child begins to dance with confident, sinuous movements that urge us to stay longer and enjoy the party.
Landscape of Colors
After touring Seine Bight and strolling on the pier, where a man was cleaning a recent catch of immense fish in front of a crowd of customers, I retired for the night to a hotel room with windows on all sides. This last detail is important: around ten at night the wind began to blow, starting gently but building to bend palm trees and shake roofs. Fifteen minutes of this convinced me that a hurricane was imminent. I went out on the terrace and looked out into the street: it was deserted; everyone was at home. I figured that if the local residents were not worried, then I would not be either. I spent the next fifteen minutes curled up in an immense bed listening to the sky split open while the foliage outside the room danced. The wind whistled, the rain fell sideways, and I lay there wide-eyed, feeling the gusts whip by the bed thanks to the excellent cross ventilation.
The nighttime downpour lasted a couple of hours longer, serving to mitigate the heat. The morning dawned on a splendid day. Feeling the early sun on my face, I armed myself with a bathing suit and headed for Silk Cayes.
The sea near Placencia is an intense turquoise. Just offshore, the vast expanse overwhelms. After an hour of sailing on the Caribbean, the boat slowed and stopped at the edge of a sandbank, giving us a view of where we would spend the day: a spit of sand, dotted with a handful of palm trees inhabited by sea gulls and cormorants, and supplied with restrooms and tables. There were already people lunching and snorkeling there.
I must confess here that I do not know how to swim. I have an atavistic fear of the water, so water-related activities represent a psychological challenge. But here I was, in Belize, with sunblock smeared on my body, sporting a mask and a pair of fins. Seated on the dazzling white sand, I carefully listened to the instructions given by the young man in charge of the expedition. He explained how to put on the equipment, breathe through the mask’s mouthpiece, and even flip in the water while wearing fins.
Lesson one: put on the mask and breathe through the mouthpiece. It sounds basic and obvious, but instinct makes us breathe through our nose, which makes the plastic mask stick to the nostrils. Result: anxiety. Lesson two: are you used to breathing through the mouthpiece? Good (but not really). Put your face in the water and keep breathing. What do I hear? Blub, blub, blub… gug, gug, gug… just like in those horror movie scenes where someone is being smothered with a pillow. Imagine it. Result: terror.
After he finished this mini-course, the instructor invited us to crawl along the sand while wearing the masks. I am still struggling with breathing and the negative associations produced by the sounds, so of course water gets into my mask. It might have been my helpless air or my coughing fit, but the young man found me a better-fitting mask. He realized that there was no way I would get into the water without a life jacket, which he also found for me.
What followed was an exercise in sheer willpower. More confident with my life jacket, I put my face in the water again and decided to stop fixating on my shallow, rapid breathing. I opened my eyes. I cannot believe I opened my eyes. I began to appreciate the beauty: a colorful fish, two fish, five, a dozen. Some swam slowly, others shot by like little torpedoes, but all of them together created a colorful, magical spectacle.
The other amazing thing was the coral. There were soft corals swaying with the current, and hard corals resembling brains. There were so many shapes, colors and hues that I gradually moved away from the shore and swam, dogging the guide’s heels, toward a dark blue background that raised my anxiety level again. A lobster, a manta ray, a needlefish, and even an eel appeared along the way. We snorkeled for two hours, lunched on the islet, and stopped on the way back for some shark-watching. I sat this last activity out.
Back on dry land, I can categorically state that this was the best part of our trip to Placencia. Believe me: there is nothing like overcoming your fears and discovering new worlds.
How to Get There
Starting on December 8th, Copa Airlines will offer two flights a week to Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport in Belize. Placencia can be reached via a local flight from the same terminal.
Where to Stay
Placencia has a range of accommodations for all budgets. The Panorama of the Americas team stayed at Captain Jak’s (on the town’s main road), which offers rooms (complete with living room and kitchen) for backpackers, couples, families, and small or large groups. The hotel rents reasonably priced bicycles and golf carts for running around the town and surrounding areas. For further information, visit www.captainjaks.com or send an email to email@example.com
Splash Dive Center provides full diving and snorkeling packages in addition to PADI courses, shark-watching expeditions, island visits, and lodging arrangements. For further information, visit www.splashbelize.com or send an email to Splashbelize@yahoo.com.