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This was our first trip to Belize. We are scuba divers, and have always heard great things about diving in Belize. After meeting a family that enjoyed a great caving experience on the mainland, we decided to finally plan a trip. We spent one week on Thatch Caye, and one week at Caves Branch Jungle Lodge. We booked the entire trip through Caves Branch, and they handled all inter-Belize transportation.
For first time travelers, here are a few things to know. English is the official language in Belize! For part of its long history, Belize was a British Crown Colony until it gained its independence in 1981, and Queen Elizabeth is still on their money. The exchange rate is currently fixed at USD$1 = BZE$2. You can pay for things in US dollars ? but bring some smaller bills, as you will get change in Belizean dollars.
The main roads in Belize are in excellent condition. They are paved and well-maintained, making travel relatively easy. Even though they are a former British colony, they do drive on the right. Even though the climate is tropical, in the winter months cold fronts that blow in can cause cool temperatures ? getting down into the low 60?s ? so bring a sweater or light jacket.
There is a $39.50 departure tax upon leaving the airport. They will NOT accept Belizean dollars. They DO take US dollars, travelers cheques and credit cards.
Our family LOVED Thatch Caye. While not perfect, it was such a relaxing, quirky place. We felt very much at home, and would definitely return again. To get there we flew into Belize City, and then took a small plane (17 minute flight) to Dangriga. Richard, the General Manager, met us in Dangriga and took us by boat (20 minute ride) to Thatch Caye. The Caye is approximately one mile long, and very narrow. The resort makes up the entire island. They can accommodate up to 22 guests.
Thatch Caye is a very eclectic place. The resort has been open for 2 years and under construction for 8. They literally created the island (it was the remains of Coco Plum Island, which got split into 3 islands during the hurricane of '61) by filling it in over several years. They encourage vegetation here, so there is a great jungle feel (pines, palms, mangroves) and lots of animals ( agouti, coatimundi, a bunny. ) The challenge they will have is keeping up with the effects of the wind, sun, rain and sea on the structures.
Accommodations: We stayed in the Family Villa, which consisted of 3 separate, thatched cabanas ? two were bedrooms, each with a private bath, and there was a central cabana with a sofa & chairs and an eating table, also with a separate bath. We almost never used this central living space (although we might have if it had rained during our stay.) There are dishes and a mini-fridge, but nowhere to buy groceries, so we never used it. We have suggested they provide a coffee maker. If we were at the villa during the day we spent our time on the very expansive decks, relaxing in one of 4 hammocks or sitting in the chairs (which weren't very comfortable, but sturdy, and probably hold up better to the weather than other choices). The bedrooms were furnished simply, which was fine with us. Our cabana had a reasonably comfortable queen bed, a couple of small tables and chairs and a closet for clothes. The best part was the design with screened, louvered windows all around and 2 doors, both with screen doors. We loved the openness to the outdoors. The bathroom was simple, with hot water showers. Towels are changed every other day. The kids' cabana had two twin beds. From our deck we had beautiful sunrises, a great view of Bird Island where the frigate birds nest, and on still days we could look down and see giant starfish, rays and other sea creatures swimming below us. Twice we saw dolphins swimming across the bay. The villas are starting to show signs of wear and tear already (some deck boards need replacing, and the sofa could use a scrub down) but I know that this environment can wreak havoc on materials. Hopefully the management will be able to keep up needed maintenance as the resort ages.
Meals: I loved the food. The chef, Alberto, was very creative. When we arrived we were told that breakfast was at 7:30 AM, lunch was at 12:30 PM, and dinner was at 7:00 PM (with snacks served at 6:00 PM). We learned this was not at all rigid, though! If we came back late from a dive, we ate lunch at 2. If we got to talking with the other guests and didn't make our way to the Dining Room until 7:30 PM ? no problem. They were very flexible. There are no menu choices, but they will be very accommodating if you have allergies, are vegetarian, or simply don't like something. But let them know in advance so they can be prepared! Portions are small, which was perfect for me, as I am a goldfish and eat everything put in front of me. My 15 year old son learned that all he had to do was ask for a second plate. I loved the variety. Breakfast always included juice, fruit, and a choice of cereal. Hot meals changed daily, and could include eggs, pancakes, French toast, fry jacks, bacon, sausage and more. Typical lunches were chicken quesadillas, a burger, chicken & bacon wrap, fish & chips. Dinners included an appetizer (sometimes soup, or salad. Once we had delicious spring rolls). Some of the different entrees we had were grilled snapper, stuffed chicken, pasta with shrimp. One day some guests went fishing and caught a large grouper with Samuel's help. Alberto cooked it up whole for a special dinner. What a treat! A modest dessert followed every meal. There was only one meal that didn't appeal to me during the entire week (and that is because I am not a big conch and calamari fan.)
ACTIVITIES While there are some very small beaches to use, this is not a beach destination. And while you can snorkel and see a resident nurse shark and eagle rays, there is not a snorkeling reef right off the beach. For me, these were minor points and did not detract from the overall experience. One of the things I especially appreciated was how accommodating the staff was with regard to activities. There were numerous kayaks available for guests to use. There is a small Hobie Cat you can take out. Do you want to go snorkeling? Do you want to combine a snorkel trip with a fishing trip? No problem! One day we wanted to go in search of manatees. Several guests wanted to take the boat out with us, and then kayak back. Sure! Travis just loaded the kayaks onto the boat. When the kids wanted to jump in for a swim, Travis let the boat drift for half an hour until they got tired. All you had to do was ask. Not everything can be accommodated just because of manpower and logistics. For example, on one or two days the snorkel trip had to be in the afternoon, since a boat was not available in the morning, but I loved how willing the staff was to try to accommodate guests' every wish. And the best part was that all these activities were included in our stay. There were no hidden costs. The only extra was diving.
Diving: The dive operation is going through many changes, with an upcoming turnover of personnel, so I recommend getting up-to-date info directly from Thatch Caye. The reef in this part of Belize is pristine. The soft corals are in amazing shape. We saw numerous eagle rays, green moray eels, lobster, spotted drum, barracuda etc. There are no fixed moorings in this area, so you should be comfortable with doing drift dives. The boats are very simple launches with limited room, and a back roll entry is required. The group sizes are very small, which was nice. Usually we were a group of 6 divers (and our family made up 4 of those). The reef was only a 20 minute boat ride from Thatch Caye (although it can take longer to go to some of the more distant sites. ) The weather was choppy during our visit, so we stayed close to minimize the boat ride. The dive instructor, Ian, was very experienced and did a fine job. Unfortunately, he was off-island teaching a course during half our stay, so things did not always run smoothly during the second half of our trip. The dive staff is turning over anyway at the end of March, so I encourage you to get details on who will be running the dive operation to get the latest information.
Our family had a great vacation at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle Lodge. We stayed for six nights, and went on five excursions. They have the adventure vacation down to a science, and while it can have a very processed feel, they do such a great job that we didn’t mind. The positives: The location is excellent. The property is well maintained, the gardens are beautiful, and the jungle setting is lovely. The property is on the banks of the Caves Branch River, which looks like it would be lovely in the right season. Because we were there in March – the beginning of the dry season – the river was bone dry. They added a great pool and hot tub about 1 ½ years ago, and it is a tremendous addition. We LOVED the accommodations. We stayed in a 2 bedroom treehouse – a building on stilts built right into the hillside jungle. Although they claim they are NOT a resort, the rooms were as nice, or nicer, than many resorts I have visited. The first level had a small outdoor deck and an outdoor shower. Through a screen door was a large living area screened on 3 sides. This contained a sofa and chairs, tables and a set of bunk beds in the corner with a tile floor. Up a few steps was a bedroom open to the living area with a king bed. The bathroom had a beautiful stone shower. There is a water cooler style bottle in every room for drinking water. Upstairs was a large deck and a second bedroom with a king bed and half bath. The “no resort” claim is probably to give fair warning of the following: 1) this is the jungle! We shared our shower with a resident cockroach we named “Willie”, and one night we rescued a large spider and put it outside, 2) the shower is described as a “warm shower” , 3) electricity is a precious commodity – there are a few small, dim lamps, so our headlamps came in handy for reading in the evening. They discourage electrical devices. Most lamps are wired directly into the wall, although we did find one outlet where we could charge i-pods etc. 4) There are no phones, TV, radio, clocks etc. They do have free wi-fi in the main eating area.
The adventures were great. Many of the adventures are right on the property, such as cave tubing, waterfall expedition, black hole drop, Mayan ceremonial caves, jungle hikes etc. The guides were excellent. They all have wilderness rescue certifications and most have many years experience. Abel and Esperansa were the main organizers. They made the rounds at dinner and signed groups up for the next day’s adventure, which was then posted on a white board. We found them to be very accommodating. The minimum group size was 2 people, and our largest group was 12 for the waterfalls The Black Hole Drop and the Waterfall Expedition were the most popular. They are both moderately strenuous and quite fun. Be aware with the waterfalls that they will not allow Keen style water shoes. I had Columbia water shoes which are more like sneakers. These were acceptable, and I wore them with socks to keep out the sand and pebbles. I actually wore these on all our expeditions. They rent hiking boots for $5 per day. This is a good idea because if you wear your own, they will never dry. I also highly recommend the Mayan ceremonial cave trip. Since many people are only there for a couple of days, they stick with the most popular, but we loved this adventure.
I loved the local wildlife. I didn’t even mind when the howler monkeys woke me up at 3:45 AM! One night we were surprised by a kinkajou eating a tree off our deck. We went on a night hike in search of anteaters and other creatures. They offer early morning bird hikes which I heard were great. I loved going to sleep with the sounds of the insects and frogs, and waking to all the sounds of the jungle coming to life in the morning.
The negatives: the food was not great. Meals are all served buffet style, and the seating is at large tables. One of the problems is the lack of variety. Breakfast included watermelon, papaya and pineapple, tortillas -homemade and delicious – at first- scrambled eggs, refried beans, salsa, potatoes, and pancakes. Only the meat rotated – sometimes sausage, ham or bacon. The tortilla was tasty on day one, but by Day 6 I couldn’t stand eating another one. Cereal was also an option. You could squeeze your own OJ - from oranges growing in the surrounding groves. They had coffee and tea out all the time, but the coffee wasn’t very good. Lunch was always the same: tortillas –again- with a mystery meat, cheese, hard boiled eggs, cabbage, tomato, onion, carrot and condiments. We were so excited on the last day when we visited Xunantunich and could eat lunch at a restaurant. Dinner had slightly more variety, always starting with a different soup and salad, and more vegetable and entrée choices.
The days were very structured, which we usually avoid on vacation. Breakfast is at 8:00 sharp. Trip groups meet at 9:00 to start their adventures. Chips and salsa are served at 6:00 and dinner is served immediately following. We were prepared for a more structured environment, and it was run like a well-oiled machine, so we did not mind it.
I would definitely recommend a trip to Caves Branch. It was a very memorable family adventure. A few tips: the jungle is very humid, and if it rains or is overcast, not only will nothing dry, but your clean clothes will be damp. I packed my clean clothes in 2 gallon zip lock bags, so they stayed dry. The mosquitoes were not bad while we were there, but it is important to use repellent when going on the jungle adventures. While at the Jungle Lodge we did not have to use much repellent.
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