Punta Gorda, or PG, is not a place you save up for years to visit for a well-deserved fun-in-the-sun holiday. It has no white sands beaches leading into crystalline waters or 5 star beach resorts. It’s a sleepy town of about 5,000 residents at the end of a very lonely highway in a country that most Americans, in our experience, seem to think is an island. As the crow flies, PG is only miles from Guatemala, but as yet there isn’t any sort of viable route to travel between the two countries in all of Toledo District. If you want to continue past PG to the next destination, you take to the sea.
Yet, this is the center of commerce and trade for some 30,000 residents in the district for which PG is the capital. In many respects, it’s the big city for a largely rural populous, many of whom live their daily lives apart from 20th century conveniences such as running water, electricity, basic sanitation, etc. PG is a funky mix of new an old, “4G” wireless data plans and seaweed milk, shiny new banks and gas stations and collapsing termite-riddled colonial mansions. PG is easy to underestimate. At first glance, it seems that not much ever happens here. But culturally, ethnically, historically, economically, socially — it is an incredibly complex little community.
I realized a few weeks prior to leaving that I had an abundance of photos from all over Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, but hadn’t taken all that many in PG. On this particular morning, we were taking John, the incoming Rehab Director, around town to help get him and his family set up for the coming year. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to snap a few shots of places which helped define our experience over the past year.
This corner variety shop is one of the best places in town to buy a hammock, though their stock changes rapidly. We spent a significant amount of time going through their inventory (in Spanish) with various guests and for our own home. Our hammock from this store was one of the few keepsakes we brought back with us from Belize.
There seem to be more pictures of this clock tower online than any other single place in PG. The clock tower at Central Park was painted this way prior to our arrival, but I’ve seen few photos online of the current scheme (rather, the old bluish/teal). Central Park is the center of town and center of informal trade. It’s also where the party is on any given weekend.
Aprill’s Snack Shack is one of those guilty pleasures that Lori and I enjoyed indulging in from time to time. It’s often packed with mission groups, ex-pats or those few intrepid travelers that do make it this far down the Southern Highway, but was a nice break from chicken/ rice/ beans/ seafood. Run by Aprill (above) and her friendly staff, it’s one of the few places in the area to enjoy an iced coffee or bagel breakfast sandwich. It’s also a great place for running into expat regulars and for getting caught up on all of the latest PG news.
Cotton Tree changed owners three times during our time in the area, but the deliciousness of their mint chocolate bar never changed. A great place in town for taking guests to see the chocolate making process at a rudimentary and local level. Staff are generally on hand to offer complimentary tours of their small facility and free samples of their product.
Rose’s is one of those go-to places for grabbing a quick local snack that doesn’t take a long time or cost a lot. Garnaches, salbutes, panades, burritos. All delicious. Rose’s became a regular stop for Lori and her Rehab team on Home Health days in PG.
This is Main Street on the far side of town. If you look closely, you can see the clock tower at Central Park in the distance. At left is the largest primary school in Toledo District, St. Peter Claver. The hospital, polyclinic, town cemetery and catholic church are a stone’s throw away. While sleepy looking, this road is significant to PG residents, as it is only one of a handful of regularly maintained paved roads in town and is the main northbound arterial.
The colorful and unusually shaped library at the school is a familiar PG landmark.
Olympic Grill is also a long-running establishment for diners and drinkers. While we only visited a couple of times, it was a common landmark among Belizeans for giving directions in the area. Seems that nothing is too far from the Olympic Grill.
The big yellow and green building that is Blue Sky Chinese restaurant is another unmistakable PG icon and our go-to place for Chinese food. We were told that there were better places in town, but Blue Sky never disappointed, is centrally located and has A/C, so we never really had a reason to look elsewhere. There’s also a little ice cream shack out front. It was never our favorite place as Lori and I are convinced every flavor tastes like butterscotch. It’s not that we’re against butterscotch, but variety is nice. We stopped going altogether once we discovered Three Mountain Dairy ice cream and Sarah’s ice cream up at the “Garden House” in Jacinto.
For a town of 5,000, PG has a surprising number of hardware and farm supply stores — but of course they’re not just serving PG but all of Toledo district. Toledo Farm Supply was my favorite. It reminded me a lot of the old Farmer’s Co-op of my youth, screws and bolts of every kind in little hand-marked bins, the pervasive smell of fertilizers, and every fathomable size of rope and chain. If I needed a random doodad, I could generally find it here for any project.
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Above the newly expanded Brad’s store is one of the most popular watering holes this side of Front Street. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the place, but it’s unmistakable. Some Saturdays, it seems like half the town is up there testing the limits of their livers and the front balcony. Chain link fencing was recently put in to keep objects (and people, presumably) from happening over the precipice. I cringe to think what sorted incident brought on the very non-Belizean installation.
Village buses from all over Toledo wait under swaying coconut trees for 11:30am, when villagers in for the morning for Market Day, load back up to make the long journey back to their far-flung villages.
Courts! This modern and very conspicuous building coming into PG is a chain of appliance stores throughout the Caribbean. Their prices are a bit higher than most other places, but they carry name brand appliances and, most importantly in this Caribbean climate, a 1-year warranty (and reasonably priced 2-year extension). I can’t count the number of electronics and appliances that have failed on us over the past year. If they all had a Courts warranty, well then… I used to think that only expats shopped here, but Belizeans with means swear by Courts (for the selection and warranty). Plus, they’ve got air conditioning!!!
I couldn’t help but laugh at my misfortune regarding photographing the sea. It seemed that every time the sun was shining and I was in town with my camera, the sea was rough and brown, not the inspiring Caribbean seascape that one would want to send home to family and friends (but much more representative of the sea in PG). Two days after I took this picture, I found myself standing at the end of the Waluco’s dock on a brilliant morning marveling at the absolute placidity and crystal clarity of Amatique Bay. It looked like paradise and I had neither camera nor iphone to capture this fleeting moment. So, instead, it’s etched into my memory. Ironically (yet fitting) it was the last time I peered out at the sea in PG before we left Belize, as if the sea were saying, “I know what you say about me behind my back, but I can turn on the charm if I want to…just thought you ought to know before you left.”
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I never thought a hardware store would be one of my wife’s favorite places to visit, but she loved talking to the middle-aged Spanish-speaking guys here who always treated her with respect and good humor.
The sea was angry that day, my friends…
Fortunately (for my future hopes of securing any sort of boater’s insurance in the future), this was not my boat. But it was somebody’s not too long ago. Lori and I remember the languid day it appeared offshore in PG town…
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It may surprise many readers to learn that sailboats are a novelty in PG, despite its location on the Caribbean sea. Spend a little while here and it may not surprise you any more. PG used to have a good marina south of town, but it was recently sold to a private party. PG has no natural harbor and conditions offshore can turn from silky smooth to stomach-churning in minutes when the afternoon wind picks up and the tide comes in. Add that to zero services for boaters (at least not in the sense that American cruisers might be used to — no power/water hookups, no marine fueling stations, no docking deep enough to accommodate a keel, etc.), oh, and let’s not forget the outrageous taxes for titling/registering a boat in Belize, and, well you might begin to understand why seeing sailboats is so rare.
…So, back to this guy. After a week moored out a few hundred meters, it became apparent that something was seriously amiss. The sailboat was heavily listing to one side and appeared grounded on the shoal. It remained this way for weeks and became a bit of a PG landmark. Nobody seemed to know who the boat belonged to or whether it had run aground before or after it had been left. After all, it is not uncommon for cruisers to leave the boat moored for an extended period to spend some time exploring inland. Lori and I would update each other on the status of the grounded sailboat, as it seemed to shift around quite a bit, slowly creeping closer to shore. Finally, one day, as if some big giant had picked it out of the water and placed it in this lot, it found a home on land. I’d imagine this is a temporary resting place, but in PG, it’s hard to tell. For now, the wreck greets everyone coming into town on Front Street. Strangely, in PG, it doesn’t appear out of place but rather right at home. To understand this is to understand PG and everything that makes it altogether quirky and unique and sad and wonderful.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of our final day together in PG was our emotions while visiting Jose Maria Super Store (what we affectionately call, “The Mall”) for the final time.
This was a place introduced to us by Lori’s predecessor and we passed the tip on to John. The Mall doesn’t have everything (we get our produce at the market or Quality Poultry) but it has a surprising amount of goods. Chinese-run stores in PG are controversial for a number of political, cultural and economic reasons I’m not going to dive into here — but as volunteers and foreigners, selection and price were frequent considerations. Plus, the Mall stayed open til 9pm, far surpassing Belizean-owned stores.
This was a place that we visited on a weekly basis and as such knew every corner of the store. We’d come in with long lists and leave with packed bags. The stock changed rapidly, and it was always exciting to see what new products they had on hand (and sad to see which products they stopped stocking).
On this particular day, we introduced John, who disappeared into the aisles filling his list. Then a funny thing happened. Lori and I found ourselves alone in the middle of the store without a list of our own. It’s hard to describe the feeling of standing somewhere that you’ve visited so often, that has fulfilled a very utilitarian need week after week, and then to not need anything at all. It may seem very odd that a visit to a supermarket may illicit our first stream of deep emotion. Our leaving Belize hadn’t really set in up to that point, until I guess it was made very tangible and concrete in realizing that we no longer needed to stock up on anything — because we simply wouldn’t be around long enough. All of a sudden, the aisles felt very foreign and lonely — they weren’t for us, but for someone else, like John. The only thing left for us was a one-way ticket out of town. It was time to go.
Back to where it all began. A little over a year ago, Lori and I rolled into the PG bus station for the first time under the cover of darkness on a James bus with six bags of varying sizes and a year in Belize ahead of us. As chronicled here on awaygowe.com, It’s certainly been a year for the books with countless memories to last a lifetime. But like the James bus, life rolls on to the next destination. For now and for us, that means DC, Turkey and then on to Africa. We don’t know what lay ahead after that, but Belize has taught us that it really doesn’t matter if we’re in it together and always try to make the best of any situation — and if we can uproot our lives in one country and get off a bus at the very end of a very lonely highway in another — meet all sorts of unexpected challenges that life throws at us, and emerge happier, more satisfied, wiser and stronger than when we arrived, well, then I would like to think that nearly anybody can do anything.