The beauty that surrounds us Belizeans is immense and varied. Yet, caught in the throes of simply living and surviving, we might miss moments here and there. However, we get a gentle reminder when we meet people who have plotted and planned for months to visit our country. We meet them and see them trying to enjoy every second of their precious vacation time exploring Belize’s wonders. Suddenly, our curiosity is piqued. Why here? What is it that draws you here, out of all the places in the world? Why Belize?
We met Ali Wunderman in the most unlikely of places, and once we spent more time together, it was clear that our chance meeting in the Chiquibul rainforest in the Maya Mountains is classically Ali. She is unique, outspoken, passionate and in love with Belize. Her experiences, which she shares frankly with us, have only cemented her love further. Here she shares some of her reasons ‘Why Belize?’
MBB: So first of all, how did you find out about Belize?
Surprisingly late in life! A few years ago I was going on a kayaking trip in San Francisco, and the guide was just about to move to Belize to start a kayaking company there. He was really cool and he made Belize out to be this magical jungle paradise, more off the beaten track than Costa Rica or even Nicaragua.
MBB: So you hear about Belize and think to yourself…”Self, go forth and explore!” How long did it take you to get to Belize after hearing about it?
About 2-3 years…I got engaged a few years following that kayaking trip, so obviously the honeymoon conversation came up quickly – because that’s really why people get married these days.
We actually had our sights on Cuba, since it had just become legal for Americans to travel there, but we also tossed around the idea of Cuba plus Jamaica plus Belize, just to make the most out of the opportunity. Three weeks before the wedding we still had no concrete honeymoon plans, and because Cuba’s travel laws were so confusing, it became faster just to pick Belize! Our first stop was Ambergris Caye, at the Phoenix Hotel.
MBB: La di da! So what did you think?
My first impression was…kind of a complicated feeling. My first time abroad was to Costa Rica. I was 10 and I really loved animals and desperately wanted to see the jungle. As I got older, I developed a fear of flying, fear of spiders, and fear of discomfort. I was honestly kind of scared when I got to Belize. It was very hot, and I had been on two plane flights, plus a Tropic Air flight, and I was nervous to be far from home.
MBB: Wow! That was complicated!
What was weird was how much the environment of Belize put me at ease. The smell of gas from the golf carts, the salt air, food cooking from behind open windows, people chatting, all the bright colors – it was like I had shut myself off from the world, and by going to Belize, all the lights had turned on again!
I am, at my core, a traveler, and it had been a long time since I let myself exercise that muscle, out of fear. Belize reminded me who I really am!
MBB: Would you say it’s been a passionate love affair ever since?
Basically, yes! The whole trip was three weeks…the first two were in San Pedro, because I was still hesitant about traveling around. Plus I was tired from wedding planning – putting a wedding together is no joke. We mostly putzed around the caye, went out to Secret Beach, which was still quite unknown, even though it was only two years ago. By the end of the second week I had contracted giardia. I had been careful with water but I got unlucky. Getting sick abroad was basically my biggest fear, and yet, there was nothing that would have made me want to leave
MBB: Goodness, that sounds terrible…and oh my god, did you go to our local clinic?
No haha! At this point I was on the mainland, starting my G Adventures trip. I cave tubed, visited Mayan ruins, went bird watching, all while feeling like dying.
I hadn’t eaten in like five days, constantly throwing up, feeling so crappy. I decided to take a day in San Ignacio and just hang out by the pool. I went to the clinic but there wasn’t a doctor there, and the walk up the hill in the heat really took it out of me. My guide was around, and his cousin or someone came to visit, and he had another relative who is a doctor. So it being Belize, they just called the doctor over who came and treated me while I was in a bathing suit at the pool. Gave me some medicine, some advice, all that. That would never happen in the U.S. I felt physically worse than I ever had, and yet so truly HAPPY because that sense of community is almost gone from where I live.
MBB: It’s the classic Belizean “everyone is related to someone” story
Yes!!!! And also that Belizeans in general want to help each other and help strangers. I love that. The connection between people is so strong. One of the scariest parts about traveling abroad is feeling alone, feeling helpless if something goes wrong. Things couldn’t have gone more wrong for me that first trip to Belize, and yet what I remember is how good I felt about who helped me, and how I was able to help myself.
MBB: Speaking of the mainland, that’s where we met you! How did that happen?
So that first trip really reawakened me to who I am. I got sick, saw spiders, etc and loved every second of it. I belong in the jungle and I had ignored it for so long! It felt good to be back. Not only that, it really reminded me that what I truly love is wildlife. That’s why I loved the jungle to begin with, it’s so full of animals. Seeing howler monkeys at Mayan temples and crocodiles around San Pedro was like…euphoric. I remember being sicker than sick, cave tubing, and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. When I got home, I was inspired. I immediately created my website, The Naturalist, which was meant to be a digital magazine that explored wildlife topics through a positive lens, as well as tracked my travels as I went looking for animals to photograph/write about. It was only six weeks after the honeymoon that I was back in Central America. My plan was to go from Guatemala to Colombia, hitting every country along the way, but…after Guatemala, I stayed in Belize for five weeks – of course!! I volunteered with Scarlet Six (now Belize Bird Conservancy) and spent two weeks essentially alone in the jungle, camping beneath nests defending baby parrots from poachers, while jaguars and crocs and every bug circled around nearby and I have never felt so alive!
MBB: Imagine our surprise at bumping into you that day on our one-day excursion!
Yes! I was so desperate for human interaction at that point too – haha! It was definitely an interesting experience.
MBB: Would you say that Chiquibul ranks up there as one of your coolest experience?
Yes, definitely. Not just because it’s the actual jungle with actual jungle animals, but because of the access to it. It’s extremely rare to find free volunteer opportunities, and even rarer to participate in something where you genuinely get to have an impact. It is NOT a tourist experience. It’s not releasing baby turtles on a beach (who don’t need that kind of help anyway).
The Chiquibul is wild and raw and real. Belize is the only place I know of where 1) locals, not foreigners, are the ones leading the charge for conservation and 2) making it possible to get foreigners like me on board to support them in a hands on way. The location in and of itself is exquisite and special, but it’s the same environment that Guatemala has – same trees and all that. But Belize takes a different approach that allows for way more appreciation.
MBB: There are resorts that market the reef to jungle experience, but not everyone can quite say they’ve done the Ali Wunderman special, huh?
No haha!! And I would recommend my approach. Traveling around is easy and quick (and fun, I love the buses), so there’s no real reason to restrict yourself to one hotel – I mean, last trip I went to Cayo Espanto and Old House Hostel, so go figure!
MBB: You’re an advocate for the bus route then?
For solo/young/couple travelers, yes. Not for families, unless they’re already adventurous. It also depends on how much time they’re there. But Belize is not a place I would recommend going if you just want to sit around in one place. It has a lot more to offer than that, and the buses will show you some of that.
MBB: What about the food in Belize?
I think Belizean food is some of the best in the world. I was just telling my husband today that the lack of chain restaurants means pretty much anything you get is going to be authentic, and delicious, and not processed like American food. I am of course pathologically obsessed with fry jacks. That’s what we ate three meals a day in the jungle…
MBB: Wait…you ate fry jacks 3x a day in Chiquibul?
YES hahaha. With beans, sometimes cheese, and canned meat if it was a special day. I don’t know why I didn’t get sick of them, I only craved them more. I’ve looked all over Belize for fry jacks like that ones we made and Pop’s is the closest to homemade! Errolyn’s House of Fry jacks on Caye Caulker is my choice on the Cayes.
[The Chiquibul is where] I learned to make them, and I’ve tried to make them in the US but I can’t get them to puff up. I’m also in love with Marie Sharp’s, just the regular fiery flavor. I have a few bottles here and I use it with a lot of meals.
MBB: Obviously you’ve come back to Belize, and we know it has to do with writing. Care to share?
I’ve been writing steadily about Belize for magazines and newspapers. In 2016 I broke a story internationally about plans to drill on the barrier reef for oil, and I was told this helped push against that.
MBB: That’s brilliant! …okay, carry on…
Last year I took on the project of revising a Belize guidebook for Frommer’s, with the intention of finding and promoting eco-friendly hotels, restaurants, and attractions. Since I have had the chance to experience a lot of these things firsthand, I knew what I could vouch for. Belize being the place that it is, a lot of people also guided me in the right direction, introduced me to people, and gave advice on what to include. Some places call themselves eco-friendly but are the exact opposite (I’m looking at you Harvest Caye/Norwegian Cruise Lines)
So many Belizeans take conservation and the environment seriously, and I wanted to create something that would do their work justice. I already help a lot of people plan their Belize trips, but doing this book gave me the chance to reach out to a bigger audience and help them make eco-friendly decisions
I find that most tourists want to put their dollars towards ethical companies, so if I can do the research for them then it’s so much easier for them.