Latest update: 6 March 2023
Never, ever, did I expect to be pelted with eggs on Madonna’s Isla Bonita. Yes, you read that right: in San Pedro, someone smashes an egg on my head… It’s Carnival!
The San Pedro that Madonna sings about actually exists. It’s Ambergris Caye in Belize. My excitement and curiosity grow as I take the water taxi to the island. I can already hear the samba, nature is wild and free, and I feel the tropical island breeze. This is where I long to be. Especially since it’s Carnival, but it will be a while before I discover the festivities…
When leaving the water taxi, I smell a faint seaweed smell. Madonna didn’t say anything about that! Yet the coastline is littered with seaweed. The locals try to keep the beach clean for tourists who (like me) want pictures of white beaches with blue water and even bluer skies. But the fight against the seaweed is a lost cause from January to March. The wind takes it to the east side of the island. There simply aren’t enough wheelbarrows, rakes, or people to win this battle with nature.
The golf carts
Many people ‘flee’ to the other side of the island. To a small strip of sand called Secret Beach. There is a short lineup of golf carts on the way there. They are the primary means of transport on the island – for tourists and residents. You can easily rent one for $50 daily (24 hours). The streets are unfortunately not made for so many golf carts. On the main road, pedestrians must watch their steps during rush hour and zigzag through the street to avoid the golf carts. The big advantage of this traffic jam is that many people spontaneously offer each other rides. I am impressed with the friendliness.
The road to Secret Beach
A few brave people take a bike to Secret Beach. It is a 1.5-hour bike ride. It takes about 45 minutes by golf cart. And it’s a bumpy road. As soon as I leave the main street, I question the benefits of a golf cart. It is a dirt road with many holes and bumps that I try to avoid. The surroundings are beautiful: there is water and mangrove everywhere. But, with every meter I travel, I become increasingly alone in the world.
The secret beach
Except on Secret Beach itself. People couldn’t keep their mouths shut and passed on the secret. There is wonderfully soft sand, easy water access, beach chairs, and a few restaurants. The food and drinks here are more expensive than San Pedro. But that makes sense: getting your purchases here is quite an undertaking. The staff leaves every morning at 7 am with a shared bus to the beach; they only return after closing. By the end of the day, I manage to take a reasonably human-free photo of the beach.
The coconut decapitator
One of the bars has a cool coconut decapitator. I can open my own coconut for free! You don’t have to tell me that twice. I immediately place a coconut in the holder and decapitate it. I know it’s not as tough as opening a coconut with a machete, but I’m still pretty proud of myself. The coconut water tastes excellent after the dusty ride.
On the way back, I pass a few hitchhikers. I hesitate for a moment but offer them a lift anyway. I only have room for two because I’m with a travel buddy, and the golf cart only fits four. One of the three gentlemen stays behind, and I feel so sorry. He also looks so disappointed, but his friends assure me he will get a ride soon. That’s probably true; I have also been offered a lift several times.
The two are brothers from Mexico. They temporarily work here in construction. In Belize, it pays better, they say. The brothers tell me that the last day of Carnival is celebrated in the evening and advise me to go out. San Pedro is one of the few places in Belize, or perhaps the only one, where Carnival is celebrated.
The Carnival of Belize
A few days earlier, I had already looked at the festivities, but I was not impressed. There were speeches and dance performances by school children, food stands, and a DJ, but no one was on the dance floor. I thought Carnival in Belize would consist of beautiful parades, beauty pageants, and lots of music and dance. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Rio here, but maybe a mini-Rio? Or like in Ecuador?
The two brothers assure me it will be worth it. They advise me to wear old clothes because there will also be a foam machine and people throwing paint. I don’t quite see the fun in that yet, but that will come. It’s time to say goodbye to the brothers. One asks if I want to see his snake. Well, that sounds rather inappropriate señor. When a man wants to show a woman his snake, it usually doesn’t involve a real snake. But still, I feel like I can trust him. He has kind eyes, and, after all, he does have a bucket with him that could contain that snake. I decide to take a chance. We are on a busy street, so what could happen?
The Mexican has caught the snake, a boa, to keep rats away from his garden. “If I put a sweaty shirt of mine in the bucket with him for a night, he’ll get used to my smell and won’t hurt me,” he says. He opens the bucket, and there it is: a big snake. I’m afraid to get too close, fearful that the snake will suddenly decide to attack the one closest to him. So the man was telling the truth. I’m relieved, sort off. I ask him if he’s tried the trick with the sweaty shirt before. He shakes his head quietly. He will learn if it works tomorrow.
I prepare for the Carnival with other travelers from my hostel in the evening. Read: grab old clothes, drink a few beers, and speculate about what will happen tonight. Some people have already bought a bottle of paint to actively participate in the Carnival. While I doubt I’ll enjoy a paint fight, I decide I need a bottle anyway. After all, I have to be able to defend myself. So I buy a bottle of paint on the street. It comes in a half-liter water bottle. I’m armed for just $5 BZ ($2.50 US). The lady who sells the paint drives a nail through the cap. That way, I can spray people better, she explains.
I enter the main square with both excitement and fear. What should we do? We look at the local people. Most of them are completely covered in paint. The teens are divided into two groups and have declared war on each other. They attack in large groups. Some of them look like burglars with their balaclavas. It’s how they try to protect their hair. Others just hang out with their friends and family: drinking, laughing, and spraying a little paint.
Music plays, and very slowly, some people try a dance move. The foam machine is loved by the children. They play with the foam and brush paint off their bodies. Or they simply walk to the sea to have themselves rinsed clean. There isn’t much interaction between the groups. Everyone keeps the party to themselves. So we seem to be safe from the paint battles.
The paint fight
Until the first person in my group carefully sprays some paint on a friend. That gift is returned quickly. And then it escalates into one big paint fight. Everyone joins in and chases each other. There’s paint in hair, eyes, and mouths (it tastes chalky), but no one cares. The game is on.
With the first blob of paint, I’m surprised by the attack and the cold, wet feeling. But once I surrender to it and let go of the idea of ever getting my clothes clean again, I love it. Our paint supply is just enough for five minutes of entertainment. By then, I’m blue. I could easily pass for a smurf or a member of the Blue Man Group.
We take a minute to catch our breath, take group photos and move toward the bar. We end up in the middle of the foam and dance party. Some of our group even end up in a dance-off with Belizeans. Shake and twist those bums and hips! There is no other option than losing this dance-off, but oh well… who cares? The paint starts to dry and itch – nothing an extra glass of beer won’t help you forget.
photo by Katariina Kangas during Carnival in Belize
But then, I get hit on the head. I feel my hair, crusted with dried paint. It also feels slimy now. I turn around and see some boys laughing with eggs in their hands. Then, I feel again and discover pieces of eggshell. Eewww!
Carnival in Belize means not only paint throwing, but also eggs. “It was you, wasn’t it?” I ask the boys. They look a little scared, but they give in. I ask for an egg. The boy with the eggs is hesitant to give one to me. I promise him he’s safe. He quickly hands me an egg and ducks away, just to be on the safe side. But I turn around and treat one of my new friends to an egg. He looks at me in surprise and disgust. “Now we have the full experience!” We laugh the egg away and dance the night away.
A few hours later, I’m in the shower. Fully clothed. Getting the dye and egg out of my hair is a nightmare. The next day someone tells me I should have washed it out with baby oil. Half an hour of washing and scrubbing later, I’m still covered in blue paint residue. It will slowly wear out over the next few days. I see them as a keepsake. The laundromat lady refuses my clothes, which I understand entirely. I dump it in the nearest dumpster.
Like Madonna (not) singing: Last night, I got egged on San Pedro.
More Belize travel inspiration?
Useful links for your Belize trip
- Travel guides. I love the practical guidebooks by Lonely Planet. You can buy them at Bol.com and Amazon.
- Flights. Compare all your options! For sure check Momondo, Skyscanner, and Kiwi.
- Bus. Book buses in Belize through Busbud, Omio, or 12Go.
- Accommodation. All-time favorite is Booking.com. Book hostels via Hostelworld.
- Money. Your bank cards may not get accepted everywhere. You could opt for a Revolut card as an additional card when you travel.
- Activities. You book the best tours and activities with GetYourGuide and Viator.
- Car rental. My go-to car rental companies are EasyTerra and Sunny Cars as they have all-inclusive / worry-free offers.
- Travel gear. Buy your gear at Bever or Decathlon, or simply at Bol.com.
- Package deals. Rather go on a catered trip? Not many Dutch travel companies offer trips to Belize: try Sawadee or Shoestring.
Or, book a lovely yoga retreat in Belize!
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First published: August 2018. The article has been updated since.