Belize Trip Report: 03/05/13 - 03/20/13
We flew into Belize on March 5, arriving a little before noon. Because we were using air miles for travel and leaving from a small airport (Harrisburg), we had been required to either overnight in Miami or arrive in Belize at midnight on the 4th. We chose to stay in Miami, though it was midnight there before we were able to claim our checked bag, arrange for a hotel shuttle and get to our room. We were up the next day by 5 AM to get back to the airport after having been told that getting through security at Miami could be a long and harrowing experience (and the lines were very long.)
We had arranged to be picked up at the Belize airport by a taxi service. The owner, William, had notified us in advance that he might not be able to pick us up himself because of multiple bookings, but he would have someone he trusted there to get us to our first stop, San Ignacio on Belize’s western side. We got through customs quickly, and found William waiting outside the airport entrance. He quickly introduced us to Ted, his associate, who would drive us to San Ignacio. This was our first trip to Belize, and we wanted to sample as much as we could of the country.
Ted (Theodore Valdes) who has his own taxi service - Teddy Bear Taxi Service (501 667 1441 or 501 600 2695) - was very solicitous. He suggested that we stop at a grocery store outside the airport for cold drinks. He came inside with us to make recommendations on local beers and foods. He then asked if we were hungry (we were!) and if we would like to try local cuisine (we did!). He took us to the “Roadside Diner” - where we first encountered what Ted called the Belize national dish - two stew chicken, rice and beans, with Marie Sharp’s hot sauce. He also advised us to try gibnut, (agouti) - a frequently hunted rabbit-sized rodent common in tropical America; we could have gibnut along with chicken. We gave it a try and found it good. This meal was served out of a roadside shack with corrugated iron roofing over a few picnic tables. We bought Ted a meal, too, and we ate with him telling us about Belize.
We had decided we wanted to stop at the Belize Zoo on the way to San Ignacio, based on recommendations in guide books. This was about 45 minutes out of the airport area. Ted was obviously well known there; zoo people greeted him, and having stopped on the way there so he could buy bananas, so did some of the animals, who came over to the edge of their enclosures to get the treat and be greeted by him. In particular, he wanted us to see the keel-billed toucans, Belize’s national bird, up close, and they came right to the edge of their cage to get bananas.
This was a very nice zoo, and we spent almost two hours there. It is built in a forested setting, which provided both habitat for the animals and cover from the sun for us. The zoo features only Belize species entirely in naturalistic settings. Though it was midday, many animals were out nonetheless, and those that were sleeping could be seen under or in trees, some like the jaguar right up against the side of its cage. The zoo does a great job of informing the public about the animals and the need for protecting them and environmental conservation. There was obviously a real effort to reach out and inform children. There were only one or two other parties there while we were, and we took our time going around.
Then it was on to San Ignacio. a drive of another hour or so. As we drove along, we passed through watery lowlands to scrub grasslands, brown in the Belize dry season, to forested hills as we got closer to the town of San Ignacio. Ted stopped once at a convenience store outside of Belmopan, the national capital, for drinks and a few snacks and so we could stretch our legs, but then he took us right to the door of our hotel in Santa Elena, just outside of San Ignacio. The hotel was The Aguada, a very pleasant little hotel with a pool, small restaurant and bar, and large rooms with basic amenities. There is also a pond on the facility that draws lots of birds, and the hotel has a feeding station for iguanas, some of which were quite large, that hung out in the trees. The hotel is also nicely landscaped with a lot of flowering plants. There was a large tour group of 20 or so young people, many from England, staying at the hotel, and they put a strain on the hotel personnel, who nonetheless were friendly and helpful. We were pretty tired after our long day, so we ate at the hotel restaurant and went to bed early.
Our plan was to get up early on the 6th, go into San Ignacio, and arrange a tour, hopefully for that day, for the Actun Tunichii Miknal (ATM) cave, a must-see Mayan cave site outside the town. We had been told hotel staff at the Aguada that tours were available both in the early morning and around midday. So we got a taxi into San Ignacio, a small, bustling market town with narrow streets beside a river. This is the jumping off point for most tours going to Mayan sites in western Belize, as well as for Tikal in nearby Guatemala. But when we started talking to tour companies, they all assured us that tours only left in the early morning hours, unless arranged as a private tour, as all the sites were some distance away and took hours to go through. After talking to several companies, we chose Maya Walk tours for the 9th. We walked around town for a bit and shopped, and then took a taxi to the Mayan site of Cahal Pech, just outside of town. Cahal Pech was the site of a small city-state in the Classic Mayan period that managed to stay outside the conflicts among the great city-states of Tikal, Calakmul and Caracol. Many guidebooks say it is a short, 15 minute walk from the San Ignacio town center, but don’t believe it. The walk is all uphill, first out of town on a paved road and then on a steeper dirt road with switchbacks - quite taxing in sunny, 84 degree heat. We were glad we took a taxi. We were both impressed by this site, which was bigger than we imagined it would be from the guidebooks and still a work in progress archaeologically. A small, nice museum is attached to the place where you pay your entrance fees, and a small snack bar/shop is on the grounds. The site is wooded and quite striking, and you are allowed to climb the restored pyramids. The site was largely deserted most of the time we were there, though a school group arrived as we were leaving. We caught a taxi returning from the Cahal Pech Resort (which looks lovely from what we saw of it from the outdoor dining & bar areas, beautiful pool area, etc. The hotel is located in a very quite location overlooking the Cahal Pech ruins area, and is a very reasonable $7BZ for cab-fare into SI) which is above the site continuing on the dirt road. We went back into San Ignacio and had a late lunch/early dinner at Mr. Greedy’s, a small open air bar and restaurant with tables outside on the pedestrian walkway in the center of town. Travel guides said they made a good pizza, and we found that to be true, though it took 45 minutes from the time we ordered it to arrive. We bought a few pastries from the Old French Bakery for the next morning, as we knew we were getting an early start to Tikal.
Our tour guide to Tikal picked us up at 7:30 at our hotel. We were planning on staying at the Tikal Inn on the grounds of the national park that evening, and The Aguada kindly agreed to hold our luggage in storage for us until we returned. We took small overnight bags and got into the van for the drive to the Guatemalan border. We had researched the various tours available for Tikal and had settled on Elias Cambranes (based out of the Casa Maya Guest house in downtown SI - http://www.belizeculturetours.com) in large part because he is a dual Belize/Guatemalan citizen and could cross the border with us. Other tours take you to the border and then hand you off to another company on the Guatemalan side. We also read that Guatemalans wait at the border and try to get you to pay entrance fees that are, in fact, not required. With Elias, none of this was an issue. He eased us through customs, and we walked to a van and driver waiting for him and us on the Guatemalan side of the border. It is only 12 miles or so from San Ignacio to the border, but then it is about a two hour drive to Tikal. It was an interesting drive through the Guatemalan countryside through several small villages and then the lake districts before entering the national park. We made one stop on the way outside the park at a store selling Mayan arts and crafts of all sorts and to use the bathrooms; we also bought several items. But then it was on to Tikal.
Elias had us dropped off at the entrance to the park, while he dealt with the entrance fees. His tour covered all these fees, transportation, and lunch at the park. After obtaining our entry passes - we had signed up for both the sunset and sunrise tours of the park as well as the main park itself, each of which required a different pass - six pieces of paper in all for us to keep track of. Then we walked into the park, with Elias pointing out all the main structures and explaining the history and layout of Tikal, one of the main Mayan city states and one of the largest with perhaps as many as 100,000 people living in and around it at its height. It was inhabited from 800 BC until around 1200 AD, with most of the buildings/structures - pyramids, palaces and stelae - dating from 250 AD to 900 AD. The city was discovered in the 19th century beneath the jungle that engulfed it after its abandonment, and it was excavated by teams from the University of Pennsylvania starting in the late 1940’s. Excavation and rebuilding is still going on, with only a fraction of the structures restored. Many will never be excavated because exposing the limestone buildings to the air speeds their deterioration. Scaffolding on several major structures showed on-going restoration and research efforts. At one time tourists could climb all of the pyramids, especially Temples I and II which are among the tallest in the Mayan world, but tourists had accidents on them, damaging themselves and the structures, and now climbing is restricted to a few buildings, most importantly, Temple IV, which has a wooden staircase (197 steps) up one side of it to near its top, which gives a breathtaking view of the forest and Temples I and II rising above the trees. We climbed everything we were allowed to climb, and Elias described every building complex and structure we came to. It was a long, strenuous day, but an exciting one as the site can only be seen to be truly appreciated. (We also saw spider monkeys and a tarantula on the grounds.)
In the late afternoon we walked the mile or so from the temple complexes to the park entrance and onto a small restaurant where a lunch was waiting for us. After we ate, Elias returned to Belize, while a van for the “Tikal Inn Sunrise” took us to our waiting hotel. This is a beautiful hotel set in a jungle with rooms built in the Mayan style with high, thatched roofs. Tired as we were from the day’s walking, we sat around the pool and relaxed. The grounds at the hotel were manicured and beautiful with tropical flowers and trees, and we walked around to see it all. We were excited to get a glimpse of a coatimundi on the edge of the grounds, and thought we were really blessed with that one sighting until suddenly a whole host of them walked through the area - 20 or more animals with their long tails in the air. It was like they had been let off a bus and were ambling through the grounds. Later we observed several different kinds of birds on the property including a flock of wild turkeys and hummingbirds.
We had tickets for the sunset tour, which involved walking back into the park and re-climbing Temple IV - which we would be doing yet again the next morning for sunrise. So we decided to stay at the hotel and have dinner. The hotel has a small restaurant with a limited menu with average food. We do not speak Spanish and the hotel staff spoke limited English and we had a hard time understanding one another. Also, we could never quite get enough local currency - quetzals, 7 to a U.S. dollar - to buy drinks or give tips - and the hotel had minimal change on hand. The hotel was quite busy with American tourists, and everyone’s need for currency seemed to be very taxing for the hotel staff. Again, we were to bed fairly early, since we had to be in the lobby by 4 AM for the sunrise tour. We had read several accounts by people who had stayed in the park about how much noise the howler monkeys would make during the night; when we went to bed @ 10:00 p.m. we were disappointed that the highly anticipated howlers were not vocalizing, but, without knowledge of the matter, attributed the lack of vocalization to perhaps being something that occurred only during the courting/mating season. This turned out to not be true. At approx. 1:00 a.m. we were awakened by amazing “jungle night sounds” - primarily that of the howler monkeys. They have a variety of incredible sounds, some of which are similar to a lion’s roar. We managed to lie awake for 10-15 minutes listening to the howlers, finding this fascinating and enjoyable, before the powerful effects of our Ambien sleeping pills and the need to sleep overtook us once again. I would highly recommend earplugs and sleeping pills to anyone who stays in the 3 lodges adjacent to Tikal Park. Without them, you may be limited to only a few hours of sleep!
We were up at 3 AM, and out to the lobby at 4 for the long walk in the dark (flashlights are a must) to Temple IV. It was still quite dark by the time we got to the top of the temple, and we were there with about 40 other people from several tour groups. Howler monkeys were howling in great numbers as the sun began to rise, and our guide told us that a distant coughing/sighing noise was a jaguar. The sunrise was impressive over the jungle and Temples I and II. Toucans were flying past in the early morning light, and we identified trogons and jays among the birds becoming active. We were on the temple for about 45 minutes, until the sun was high enough to see easily. Our group was going to be given a tour of the grounds much like what we had done the day before, and so we walked back to the hotel by ourselves - a little eerie in the twilight of the forest with no one else around. A flock of green Amazon parrots were screaming in the trees overhead. We encountered the band of coatis at the park entrance and stopped to take pictures before going back to the hotel for breakfast and getting a ride back to Belize - a cost we had prearranged with the hotel. As we waited for our ride, a spider monkey played in the trees outside the hotel. We dozed in the back much of the time during the drive back to the border. At the border, our driver left us, and we walked across the border - customs was very easy to manage - and got a taxi to take us back to San Ignacio.
Tikal was very impressive, and we would recommend it to anyone going to that region of the world. Our one disappointment was that we did not get to see the museum on the grounds of the site, which is supposedly excellent, but it was not included on our tour, was closed when we got back, and did not open until after we had to catch our ride the next morning. We were also disappointed that there simply wasn’t enough time budgeted on the trip to see the sites of Caracol and Xunantunich - another time hopefully.
Our taxi dropped us off at a rental car site outside of San Ignacio where we had prearranged to get a car. We were dismayed by the condition of the one car available - a Mazda SUV with 150,000 miles on it and multiple dents and a crack all the way across the front windshield. There was also a brief dispute over whether we had actually prepaid for the vehicle (we had and happily had brought proof of the transaction.) Nothing worked inside the vehicle and it hammered and clanged as if it would fall apart at the next bump. However, as we talked to Belizeans we found out that for Belize it was a pretty typical vehicle. It did have good tires and suspension, and the exhaust system was tucked up tight underneath the vehicle, which was critical on the poor roads we were on much of the time. The fuel efficiency was also pretty good for an SUV, important in a country where gasoline is nearly $6 a gallon US. We drove it back into San Ignacio, had a good lunch at Flayva’s, and made arrangements for our ATM tour with Maya Walk for the next day. We drove back to The Aguada, reclaimed our luggage, and drove to our next place to stay, a B & B called Inn the Bush outside of San Ignacio. The road outside of Santa Elena leading to the B & B was dirt and in poor condition, and the closer we got to the B & B the worse it got, with large rocks and potholes all over the road. We finally got to the B & B, with the road opening into a large manicured lawn with several beautifully made structures - three cottages, the owners’ home, a gorgeous pool, and an open air welcome center where meals are served. The room we had (Harpy Eagle) was absolutely beautiful, and the deck from it looked out over the lawn and the jungle. We took a nap on the huge, comfortable bed; took a quick dip in the pool, sat around the pool, and had dinner served to us by Roeni, the Belizean owner (with Robert, her husband), who is a great cook - the best meal we had had in Belize so far. It was very dark back in the jungle, so we went to bed early again, knowing we had to be in San Ignacio by 7:30 AM for our ATM tour and not looking forward to the drive back into town.
Our hosts at Inn the Bush kindly provided us with an early, light breakfast before we left for San Ignacio. We got out faster than we had gotten in the night before and arrived in town 15 minutes early. The problem we then confronted was parking. It was market day and a celebration was going on that severely limited the parking space. We finally found a place in a remote lot far from the town center and got to Maya Walk just in time to meet our guide and fellow cave walkers. We were pleased to find that our tour guide was Gonzo, a Mayan and certified cave archaeologist who had worked on the initial excavation of this site and who was highly recommended in tour guides. He runs his own company, River Rats Belize, but also contracts out to other companies. Besides ourselves, two others were on the tour at this point; further down the road we pulled over and waited for a car from Placentia with another couple. From the turn-off from the main paved road, it is another 8 miles on a poorly maintained dirt road to an entrance site/parking area that is still in the process of construction. We got out of the van, and Gonzo distributed helmets with headlamps and collected valuables to be placed in his dry pack; nothing could be left in the car.
At this point, trouble arose, in the form of one of us, (me) a 66 year old male who cannot swim. Both of us are fit for our ages, and the other is an accomplished swimmer. We had read extensively about ATM before arriving in Belize and could not decide based on the information available whether the non-swimmer could manage this tour. Requests for help provided contradictory information: some said it was no big deal; others said that swimming ability was required. When we asked at Maya Walk the day before, we were told that non-swimmers would not have a problem, that the cave entrance (where the deepest water is located) could be “walked around”. Encouraged by this information, we booked the tour.
ATM is famous for the artifacts and human remains left in the cage, presumably as sacrifices to the gods of the underworld. Mayans believed that caves were sacred, because the underworld could be contacted through them. Belize is based on a limestone base and is riddled with caves, but only ATM is known for the variety and quality of the objects found in it, most of them still in situ. It was only discovered to have these artifacts/remains in 1994.
So we started the tour by asking Gonzo about swimming. He was obviously somewhat distressed to hear that he had a non-swimmer in the bunch; no one from the tour company had passed this information along to him, and so there were no life preservers/vests available. Initially he appeared to reject the idea that deep spots could be bypassed. He was so obviously distressed by the situation, that this non-swimmer volunteered to stay behind and wait. Informed that the group would be in the cave 4 1/2 hours - an unattractive situation miles from anywhere, this non-swimmer (hereafter referred to as NS) decided to proceed. So we all set off to walk to the cave. There is a one mile hike to the cave opening, and the river that flows out of the cave has to be forded three times on the way. The river depth in this, the dry season, was calf high to mid-thigh high, but the rocks in the water were smooth and slippery. When we got back to the cave area, Gonzo provided each of us with a box lunch with chicken salad, rice and fruit. He urged us to eat all of it, since the cave walk was going to be rigorous and use up a lot of calories, and there would be no snacking along the way. By now he seemed to have accommodated the idea of having a NS along, saying it would be okay. He took us down to the cave entrance, which is a small blue river and pool, flowing over a jumble of rocks. For swimmers, there is now a brief swim of perhaps 20 feet (my wife, the swimmer in our pair, estimating it to be 8’ deep in places) to get to a ledge inside the cave. Gonzo led the NS around the edge of the cave to an opening where the deep water is only about five feet across. He swam across and told NS to jump as far as he could. He did so, and Gonzo reached out and grabbed his hand before he could sink below the surface. The others swam in, and we all proceeded into the cave.
The cave twisted and turned. Sometimes the water was ankle deep, sometimes waist-deep, sometimes shoulder-deep, and for one long stretch well over our heads. In this stretch, Gonzo told the NS to hold on to his backpack while Gonzo swam him across. There were sharp rocks in the water to avoid at times (“ankle biters”) and areas where we had to clamber over piles of rocks to get into another cavern. Sometimes we could only squeeze through very narrow openings, where you had to “scruntch down”, turn sideways, etc. to allow for your chest and head to pass between boulders. Gonzo’s knowledge of the cave was extensive; he coached us perfectly on the exact technique and process to avoid any pitfalls and to pass safely through the tight squeezes. The water was cool, but not as cold as we expected. The cave walls were beautiful when Gonzo swept his flashlight over them; calcium-rich water had created waterfall-like flows and sparkling crystals. Finally we pulled up next to a huge boulder sitting in the water; the boulder was about 8 feet tall. Gonzo told us this would be our ladder to a ledge above our heads where we would see the Mayan artifacts and skeletal remains the cave is famous for. He showed us one by one where to put our feet on the boulder as he stood on top of it and pulled us up. We then had to step across a drop-off onto the ledge and then walk up a smooth incline, of an estimated 20% grade. By now, with the help of the flashlight, we were seeing Mayan pots - over 400 of them, Gonzo said - that had been left as offerings; bones could also be seen, though most were covered or partially covered with the calcium flow. The path through the artifacts and remains was uphill and narrow. Reflective tape marked the areas we couldn’t step, but any mis-step on our part would have meant crushing something a thousand years old. (Obviously no site in the U.S. would have sanctioned this tour.) Eventually we came to an area where we had to take off our shoes and proceed in stocking feet, though it wasn’t clear why that was necessary at this particular point. We later decided it was likely because this is the only convenient place remaining where a group of people could safely take off and “store” their shoes. The stone flow was bumpy and jagged; Gonzo called it the “ooch eech ouch” part of the tour, especially an area where we had to climb over some large, sharp rocks. Do yourself a favor and take THICK socks!! No shoes of ANY kind (Vibram shoe socks, reef shoes, etc.) are allowed beyond this point! Eventually we came to a spot where an aluminum ladder stretched up into another large opening in the cave wall. This had to be climbed in our aching, stockinged feet to get to the area most famous in tour guides, the skeletal remains called the “Crystal Maiden,” described as the crystallized skeleton of a 14 year old girl, sacrificed for some reason. Gonzo told us that more recent research had shown that it was really the skeleton of a 17 year old male, but obviously the tour books prefer the Crystal Maiden title.
We crawled back down the ladder and over the rough rocks to the spot where we had left our shoes. Gonzo had us take a break at this point, and he distributed candy bars he had brought with him “as a reward.” As we sat there, looking down this steep, slippery slope to the top of the boulder “ladder,” anxiety began to build, and most of the people in our small group were very quiet. Our group of 6 included 2 people who were obviously over 65 (this writer included), two people who were perhaps in their early to mid-60‘s, my 54 year old wife, and one young man of 24. Gonzo cautioned us to proceed with extreme care; slipping would be disastrous and painful, as the drop off here was perhaps 10-12’ on solid rock. There is no other way down ..... We crept down the slope, got over the opening onto the boulder one-by-one, and with Gonzo’s expert guidance and assistance, got our hands and feet planted on all the right footholds & handholds. Everyone got down without even a minor mishap, and I think even Gonzo may have held in a sigh of relief!
It was then a process of retracing our steps back out to the cave opening, which everyone seemed to be enjoying at this point, having survived the descent down the boulders without incident. When we approached the cave opening, Gonzo had me, the NS, grab onto his backpack again and swam him across to the main opening. Wet and tired, we all got a breather at the spot where the lunch had been served before walking back the mile and river fords to the waiting van. A tour company car met us with a cooler full of beer and soft drinks. We dried off/changed clothes, changed our shoes and socks, and got back in the van for the hour long drive back to San Ignacio.
Gonzo was really a wonderful guide and host. He was very knowledgeable and his talks along the way were informative and detailed. He was patient with us old, weak people, and even complimentary, though he must have been chagrinned by me, the NS. There were other tours in the cave at the same time, and we could hear their guides occasionally, and their commentaries were more for entertainment than for education. Gonzo obviously took his job quite seriously, even chastising one of the guys on our tour who unbuttoned his shirt as we were looking down at a sacrifice. “Would you take off your shirt in church?” We very much appreciated his efforts on our behalf and we tried to tip him well and took his girlfriend and him for drinks afterwards.
We had a fairly nice dinner in San Ignacio and drove back in the dark to Inn the Bush, the drive becoming less intimidating each time. We had to leave the next day, so we did some quick repacking before falling into bed, exhausted.
In general, we believe that the guidebooks understate the rigors of the ATM cave; most state only that you must be over 12 years of age and “fit”. None that we saw, for instance, told how difficult it was to reach the “Crystal Maiden;” one web-site even referred to it as “lying on a beach area”, which made you think it was easily accessible. We never read any information which revealed that the portion of the hike where you must remove your shoes and proceed in socks, entailed stepping across pointy & at times sharp rocks, over a distance which I would roughly estimate to be 20 yards. There is no way to step around the rocks, and if you have any trouble at all with your feet, this portion may give you considerable pain! ATM is definitely a trip worth taking, but be prepared to be wet, cold and muddy for hours, and you really will appreciate it more, with less anxiety, if you know how to swim.
Determined to see as much of Belize as we could, we had an early breakfast at the B & B, said good-bye to our hosts, and drove to the Belize Botanic Gardens, a effort by Ken duPlooy, the now deceased owner of the dePlooy Jungle Lodge Resort outside of San Ignacio. We had read how fabulous these gardens were with their display of native Belizean plants as well as tropical ornamentals; a large orchid house was also featured. We had seen the sign directing us to the Gardens on our way to Tikal, and it seemed like a short ride. But the turn-off turned out to be a long drive on gravel roads. There is a fee to tour the gardens; we took the self-guided option, with an entrance fee paid at the Jungle Lodge. We ended up spending very little time at the Gardens; frankly we were disappointed in them. But the fact that it was hot and sunny, and we were sore from our ATM tour the day before, and we had a long drive ahead of us to the Placentia Peninsula all contributed to that. The orchid house was nice, and the grounds were large. We were surprised to find horses grazing adjacent to the Gardens. But we left after about an hour.
We now had a long drive ahead of us, back through San Ignacio and Belmopan, then south through the Mayan Mountains of southeastern Belize to Placentia on the coast. We were told by the B & B hosts that the drive would take us 4 hours; it actually took 2 1/2. The roads were paved, and there was little traffic on them. We drove by St. Herman’s Cave and the (inland) Blue Hole, both places we wanted to stop, but we pressed on, not knowing what was ahead of us. We arrived at our destination, the Maya Beach Hotel on the Placentia Peninsula, at around dusk.
We would come to really enjoy this hotel over the next few days. Owned by an American/Australian couple (Ellen and John), the hotel features a few large rooms, an extremely friendly and accommodating staff, a pool, a wide beach, a covered deck out over the ocean for sitting and watching the water, and an excellent restaurant. Guide books said it was the best restaurant on the peninsula, and we certainly agreed. Innovative and tasty dishes were served with grace by friendly waitstaff. Among the great food served were a pumpkin green curry soup, a watermelon salad, spicy shrimp over red curry rice, a wonderful seafood chowder, and other excellent dishes we sampled over several meals there. We were in the Jaguar Room, which we recommend for its deck and excellent view of the beach and ocean. They also had excellent WiFi connections and a computer lounge for those of us who felt disconnected from the world.
We had breakfast at the hotel and then drove the 8 miles into Placentia Village at the end of the peninsula, just to get a feel for it. It was then the drive back to St. Hermans and the Blue Hole to sample them - a 75 mile drive one-way. St. Herman’s was a let-down after ATM, and the steps going down into it were wet and slippery. You’ll need a flashlight to see much of anything. The Blue Hole was a couple of miles down the road from the cave. It is a cenote, a limestone cave opened to the light. The blue color of the water is from the depth of the cenote. My wife went in and found it refreshing and truly deep. She also had a nice conversation with a local boy about the pool - there were many local families enjoying the water that day.
After these two stops, we looked for somewhere to eat, since neither of us had eaten since our early breakfast. But there are very few options on this mostly lonely stretch of road - the Hummingbird Highway. We ended up buying some candy at a gas station and then driving to Hopkins, a Garifuna/Black Carib coastal village that has become a resort destination in recent years. It is also known for its traditional drumming school where travel guides say spontaneous performances can be had for the asking. The road to Hopkins is a long, dirt road and is in very poor shape, and the village itself was sadly impoverished. We stopped at the drumming school, but it was deserted. Guide books said that the community was divided into north and south Hopkins, with the south being the area where the posh resorts are. The contrast was extreme and, to us, embarrassing. Guide books recommended Chef Rob’s for dinner, but when we asked for directions, people just stared at us. It turns out that Chef Rob’s has moved since the last guide books came out; it is now out of poor Hopkins and located in posh resort Hopkins. We did eat there, and the food was excellent, a prefix menu with soup, salad, entree and dessert. The staff was extremely solicitous, and the owner’s wife talked to us and gave us advice on how to get back to Maya Beach without backtracking on the terrible road we had come in on. It was still a long drive in the dark on a dirt road, but it did take us back to the Southern Highway eventually, and to Maya Beach.
This was our first day dedicated to relaxing. We had breakfast at the hotel and then sat on the beach and read for awhile. We took a walk along the beach, visiting some of the other hotels, having some wicked rum punches at the pool bar at one of them. We went back to the Maya Beach for pool time, then Happy Hour, which included some excellent appetizer-type foods. It had been cloudy all day, and by four o’clock it had started to rain, so we went back to our room for a nap. It rained for the next three hours, sometimes very hard. We had dinner at the hotel - the seafood chowder this evening - very good. We read in our room and made another early night of it.
This day we had a quick breakfast in our room from over-the-counter items we bought from a grocery store a short distance from the hotel. We then drove back into the Maya Mountains to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve - about 40 miles from where we were staying. Belize has done a remarkable job of promoting environmental conservation, and this reserve is part of a protected wildlife corridor meant to preserve the rain forest and provide adequate territories for jaguar populations and the animals they prey upon. They also seem to have promoted a number of Mayan women’s cooperatives, which have stores at the entrances to several of these environmental centers, such as St. Herman’s Cave. The one here at Cockscomb was where you pay your entrance fee to the Wildlife Preserve, and it is also a large store selling craft items, made by Mayan women.
It appeared that the store was the entrance to the preserve, but the guide book said that it is 4 miles from there to the reserve. This was another dusty, dirt road, also used by heavy construction vehicles going back to a quarry. At the end of the four miles, there is a sign welcoming you to the Preserve, but it is another 2 miles on an even worse road to the Preserve Welcome Center. A number of hiking trails branch off from the Welcome Center, some of them going to mountains deep in the preserve and lasting several days. We took one of the intermediate trails, one that takes you through the jungle to a small waterfall and then up to Ben’s Bluff, a lookout over the Preserve. The last part of the climb is steep and taxing, as you clamber over loose gravel and questionable footing for quite a distance. But the view is spectacular. When we hiked back out, it was late afternoon, and we decided to not take any more trails. We found that another group of hikers had come across an injured toucan which they had brought back to the Welcome Center. They said a hawk had swept down on the toucan as it flew in front of their van as they were driving into the Preserve. The bird had a wound under its chin and was clearly stunned. It couldn’t fly or stand. The Preserve personnel wanted nothing to do with it, so the tour leader bundled it up to take it to a vet in Placentia (where their tour had originated.) We gave them our phone number and hotel in volunteering to help pay for the bird’s care, if it should survive, but we never heard anything back about it.
We went back to our hotel for Happy Hour and drinks by the pool. For dinner we walked down the beach to Mango’s Restaurant, a second story open air bar and restaurant. The guide books said they offered the best hamburgers in Belize but that the service was extremely slow. We found both things to be true. We waited 45 minutes from the time we ordered until our meal arrived. (And in general we experienced long waits for food in restaurants, though not at the Maya Beach Hotel.) But the burgers were a happy switch from chicken and rice or gourmet meals at fancier restaurants. We walked back to our hotel and had drinks on our deck before reading and going to bed.
We spent the morning on the beach, but then went into Placentia for lunch. We ate at D’Tach, another open air restaurant where we had the best fish and chips we ever ate. We walked around this little community, using what the guide books call the narrowest road in the country - actually a sidewalk cutting through both locals’ living areas and guest houses. We took a lot of pictures of the guest houses with their bright colors and pretty gardens, but the juxtaposition with the living conditions of the locals was extreme. We shopped for awhile and then back to the hotel for more beach time and dinner. After dinner we drove back down into Placentia to The Barefoot Bar for some reggae music and beers. A gray fox ran across the road in front of us on the way. In particular, driving through the village of Seine Bight on the way to Placentia is a harrowing experience at night. Pedestrians, bicyclists and dogs were on both sides of the narrow road, and they all routinely walked or rode in front of us, requiring several abrupt stops on our part.
After breakfast, we packed and headed back to San Ignacio to turn in our rental car. Ted picked us up at the rental car area and drove us back to Belize City so we could catch the water ferry to Caye Caulker (Caye pronounced as Key), a narrow slip of an island north of Belize City. This was a lot of road time - 2 1/2 hours to San Ignacio, another 1 1/2 hours into Belize City. We did this mostly to avoid a drop-off fee for the rental car in Belize City; we also weren’t sure we wanted to navigate the city, looking for a rental car lot, and the drive into the dock area confirmed our choice. It was a long wait for the ferry, which travels back and forth from Belize City to Caye Caulker several times a day. The ferry was extremely crowded this day, as locals were traveling home to Caye Caulker from their day jobs or for the weekend. The ferry left 20 minutes late and took 55 minutes to cross to the Caye. It was a bumpy ride. A formally dressed couple went to the front of the boat, took two bullhorns out of their luggage, and proceeded to exhort the passengers to get right with the Lord (in Spanish) for most of the trip. We were sitting at the opposite end of the boat, over the engines, so we didn’t hear much of what was being said, but other passengers relayed the message. The boat crew didn’t seem to care.
Our hotel in Caye Caulker, the Seaside Cabanas, was right off the ferry dock. This might seem like a poor location, with all the ferry comings and goings, but actually it was a quiet and well placed hotel, right on the beach and almost halfway along the inhabited part of the island. We had another large room with two big beds. We quickly dubbed the Seaside the Cheese Curl hotel because it was painted the exact color of those fat-rich treats. But somehow in this tropical location, the color worked. It had a nice pool overlooking the beach area and a nice seating area around it; there was also a small bar called the Uno Mas associated with the hotel.
We unpacked and then walked through the town to The Split, a boat channel through the middle of the Caye. The inhabited area is north of The Split; the south side is a mangrove preserve supposedly uninhabited, though we were told that there were squatters living off the grid there. It was a popular snorkeling and sunbathing spot, and the Lazy Lizard Bar was there, also. We walked back through town for dinner at Rose’s Grill, where you pick your fresh fish from a display outside the restaurant and they are then grilled to your taste and served to you inside - to the extent that there is an inside. Most places on Caye Caulker are open air, making one wonder what happens in the rainy season. We went to The Sports Bar after dinner for drinks and televised NBA games. We got caught up in the Friday night bar trivia contest with several other couples and ended up spending a couple of hours there before heading back to the hotel to sleep.
The hotel served a continental breakfast each day, made up of rich coffee, sweet rolls and freshly cut fruit - melons, pineapple, bananas, etc. It was very good. We ate poolside. Afterwards we walked along the beach towards the north of the island, going as far as the little airstrip that can also take people from Belize City to the Caye. We found the shelling along the beach to be great - more shells than we could bother to pick up. We had to be careful though, since many of them were home to little crabs. For every empty shell there were a hundred scrambling away from us in the water as fast as they could go. We walked back through the other side of the island - you can easily see from one side to the other - exploring the restaurants and shops for later. We ate lunch at the Cafe Paradiso, a tiny shop with an open air seating area which featured gourmet sandwiches made with fresh vegetables and a variety of meats on hard rolls. Much of the afternoon we spent poolside. For dinner we went to the Rainbow Grill, which has a deck out over the ocean. We had coconut shrimp and fish & chips, both of which were very good.
None of the restaurants or bars we went into on Caye Caulker would be called luxurious. Most were basically roadside kitchens with outdoor seating - very basic structures. Grilling took place on large oil drum grills right on the street. Two of the people who had been with us on the ATM tour had just come from Caye Caulker, and we had asked them what people do there. They both said “fish, dive and drink.” That seemed to be true. Caye Caulker was largely made up of guest houses and small hotels or hostels, bars, basic hole-in-the-wall restaurants, Chinese owned stores and dive shops. There is a residential district just off the main commercial area with very poor shack-like homes, some churches and a soccer field. Once again, it was sad to us to see how most of the locals live, while many tourists spend lavishly and may not even bother to take note of the poverty.
There are supposedly no cars on Caye Caulker, though we saw a couple. You walk, ride a bicycle or drive a golf cart, of which there is an incredible variety. We found that you had to be alert while walking all the time because inevitably there was a golf cart or a bicycle coming up on you. The streets are narrow and made of packed coral sand, but that doesn’t seem to slow anyone down, especially locals. We were very nearly hit several times, as carts tried to pass each other or a bicyclist suddenly stopped or turned in front of us.
Continental breakfast at the hotel. Then my wife went on an all-day snorkeling tour through Ragamuffin Tours, one of the many dive companies. The reef running the length of Belize (and outside Caye Caulker, making the water very calm) is the second longest in the world, second only to the Great Barrier Reef, and in better shape besides. So my wife wanted to see what she could. Ragamuffin Tours runs a fun filled “full day” sail & snorkel adventure. It is actually 6 hours (there is a 4 hour option as well) and they visit 3 stops for leisurely snorkeling. The best part, beside actually getting to snorkel the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world (and see many rays, nurse sharks, colorful coral and many species of tropical fish) is the fact that this is truly a sailing trip too. They only use the motors to get in and out of the dock area and to moor up in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
I stayed ashore, ran errands, read poolside and went back to the Paradiso Cafe for lunch. My wife returned at 4. We returned to the room, showered, and headed back to The Split for sunset at around 6 PM, as well as Happy Hour (4-8 PM) at the Lazy Lizard. The Enjoy Bar was recommended by guide books as an inexpensive, but good place to eat, and we decided to try there for dinner. We both had the coconut curry seafood dinner, which was good, but the service was incredibly slow. The staff apologized to us many times, saying that the meal would be out any second, but it was an hour before it arrived. Meanwhile we sat on a bench with a rough table in front of it on the street, watching the traffic walk or cart by. Fishermen came with their catches in buckets - mostly snapper - which they hawked to restaurants up and down the street. The swimmer had been told by one of boat crew that the place to be was the I & I Club, a three story reggae bar, but when we went there (too early @ 10:30 p.m.) were only three other people at the bar and two unhappy waitresses. We left after a single beer, going back to our room.
This day we got up early and had our usual poolside continental breakfast. We then caught the water ferry to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. This caye is larger than Caye Caulker and much more developed from the standpoint of businesses, condominiums, and industrial construction. This was a 35 minute ride on a smaller boat, and the ride was quite rough. At one point the boat hit a wave wrong and was tossed sideways. The passengers all gasped, but the captain righted the boat into the waves and on we went. The people at the Maya Beach Hotel had told us that when they went to Ambergris Cay, they always ate at the Blue Water Grill. It was about noon, so we sought it out. Happily it was only a short walk from the boat dock. The Grill is associated with a luxury hotel, and the dining room is open air overlooking the ocean. The menu was extremely varied, and everything looked good. We had an excellent lunch and even ordered dessert, which is rare for us. Service was extremely slow, however. After lunch, we walked around San Pedro, looking in shops and trying to get a feel for the place. The streets are paved in San Pedro, and cars and trucks are added to the bustle of bicycles and golf carts of Caye Caulker, making walking even more hazardous. We walked along the beach and looked into several beachside hotels. In the end, we got drinks and sat on the beach under the palm trees and watched the ocean. In the late afternoon we caught the last water taxi back to Caye Caulker. After a quick stop at our hotel, we walked over to the Iguana Reef Hotel on the western side of the island for sunset, live music, drinks and a mini pizza - all very good. The Iguana Reef is a very nice hotel with beautiful grounds and an elaborate pool. Later we went to Syd’s, a TA recommended restaurant more in the middle of the island. The guide books all said that the cook there made the best fried chicken on the island, so we each ordered that. It was another long wait, but each meal is made to order, and there was a steady stream of people coming in to order take-out. Everyone seemed to know each other, so it was a friendly, informal atmosphere, and we sat out in their garden under the lights. The menu urges patrons to not feed the cats that are in the yard - the owners feed them at closing - but we didn’t obey. After dinner we walked around, finally settling in with drinks at Magandan’s where a talented guitarist was performing.
This was to be our last full day in Belize, so we took it easy, eating our continental breakfast and later cheese and crackers at the pool. Around midday, my wife decided to go snorkeling at The Split, so we walked down there and she swam around in the boat channel. It was a hot, sunny day, and we strolled around afterwards, taking pictures of the streets and colorful businesses on the Caye. Most of the afternoon was spent poolside. That evening we found a little place called 88 West that is not in the guide books - a relatively new bar and restaurant set down a side street near the western side of the island. We had shrimp ceviche and snapper tacos with avocado - again all very good. We went back to our hotel room to pack and get ready for our return the next day.
We had our last breakfast at the hotel, settled our bill, and caught the 10 o’clock water taxi back to Belize City. From there we took a cab to the airport, where we checked in, had a quick lunch at the airport restaurant - our last bit of stew chicken, rice and beans - went through customs and security and waited for our 3:45 flight to Dallas. We arrived in Dallas about 8 PM (with a time change - Belize does not go on daylight savings time), waited in long lines to go through U.S. customs, caught the hotel shuttle to the Ramada, and had dinner at the restaurant at the Westin Hotel next doors, It was almost midnight by the time we got back to our room, and we had to be up at 3:15 to catch the shuttle for our 5:45 flight to Chicago. All went well though. It was 14 degrees when we landed in Chicago at around 8 AM, and then it was on to Harrisburg and the two hour drive back to our home in central Pennsylvania. Happily we had been able to sleep a bit on the flights.
Money: From past experience, we had our cash in what we thought of as small bills when traveling - 20’s - and, of course $20 doesn’t go far in the U.S. However, in Belize and Guatemala, a $20 US bill was often too much for people to handle. We were constantly trying to break down larger bills for smaller local currency and shop keepers, wait staff and hotel desk clerks often just didn’t have enough on hand. We cashed US money at banks a few times, but always lost money on the transaction. If we go back, we will go with some smaller denominations.
Credit cards were accepted almost everywhere, even in remote locations. We also had some Visa check cards that worked most of the time but were rejected by the credit card approval process at a few businesses.
Tipping did not seem to be a standard practice wherever we were, and many clerks, wait staff, etc. seemed surprised that we tipped them. In the U.S., we try to be generous tippers because my wife’s mother supported her family as a waitress for many years, and my students often paid their tuition with service jobs. In addition, Belize is a very poor country, and we were constantly aware of the difference between the tourist lifestyle and that of the local people who worked long days cleaning, cooking, etc. for them. We even had a number of bar patrons in Placentia make fun of us for tipping our waitress for a couple of drinks, but she thanked us and said that if everyone did that, she could have some nice Christmas presents for her kids by the end of the year. ‘Nuff said.
Driving: The main roads and the roads in the larger cities are paved, though often bumpy from multiple repairs to potholes. Outside of the cities there was very little traffic. All secondary roads were dirt or gravel, and they ranged from poor to dreadful. Except for a few spots along major highways, all roads were two lanes and often narrow. This was important because there was a constant flow of bicyclists, pedestrians, and dogs on both sides of roads, especially it seemed, at night. None of these seemed to pay much attention to traffic, and we saw many maimed dogs, though happily we didn’t hit any. People on bicycles were often transporting children, or adult passengers, or carrying groceries or big bags on their handlebars, and they would weave and wobble at the edge of the road. We were constantly on edge while driving especially when going through a village at night.
There are very few traffic lights in Belize. Rather, like many Latin American and Caribbean countries, they rely on speed bumps, called sleeping policemen in Belize. Going through any populated area meant going over multiple speed bumps. The ones designated as pedestrian walkways were typically several inches high and a foot or more across. Hitting this at normal speed would do significant damage to a vehicle. Most of these speed bumps are marked, but not all of them, and the ones that are not can be hard to anticipate at night. Most locals seem to drive as follows: go as fast as you can between speed bumps, hit the brakes hard at the bump, and then gun your engine after you get across the bump. As I said, there wasn’t much traffic, but especially on major highways, locals all passed me, even though I was going the speed limit.
A couple of other notes on driving. We had read - and then had confirmed by locals - that a left turn signal may mean a driver intends to turn left, or it may not. It could mean an invitation to pass them. Similarly a hand signal out the window does not necessarily mean what you might think. We were told by two different taxi drivers that there is a Belize law that if you are driving on a major highway, and you want to turn left, you are required to pull off the road on the right and wait until all traffic is safely by you before you make that left hand turn. (This is because there are no turning lanes, and the major highways are only 2 lanes) This does not apply to driving in towns or Belize City. If you drive as you would in the U.S., i.e., put on a left turn signal and slow to make a turn, and someone then passes you on the left and hits your car as you are turning, you are at fault, not the driver that hit you. However, we noted that very few drivers abided by that law. And I do not recall ever reading about it in any of my research or guide books. So exercise caution when someone is signaling a left hand turn.
Also, gas stations are few and far between. For example, between Belmopan and Placentia, via the Hummingbird and Southern Highways, there were only one or two gas stations in that roughly 150 mile stretch. One of them, a Shell station about 70% of the way to Placentia, was always very busy when we were going through. Don’t expect a gas station around the next corner...
Internet connectivity: Many hotels and a few restaurants had Wi-Fi, but service was spotty, and we were seldom able to connect to anything other than our e-mail. Replies to e-mails sometimes went unsent because the connection wouldn’t support them. Also note that neither of our cell phones worked in Belize - a question of having the right SIM card we thought. So we bought a cheap phone and a local SIM card, and we still could not get service.
If you are a dog lover, Belize can be hard to take. Dogs are everywhere, but for the most part, they were skinny, miserable looking beasts. This is not unusual for a Third World country. In Placentia and Caye Caulker some of the dogs had collars, but they were wandering nonetheless. They were generally not mean dogs, except to each other. We witnessed several nasty dog fights, and even ended up in the middle of one on Caye Caulker, and we met one tourist there that had been bitten in a situation like that. There are vets and animal shelters, and on Caye Caulker there were signs encouraging tourists to adopt homeless dogs and take them back to the US or Canada. We were told by some Belizeans that in tourist areas authorities sometimes conduct stray dog round-ups and “get rid of them”.
There are two water taxi companies: Caye Caulker Water Taxi ((http://www.cayecaulkerwatertaxi.com) & and the San Pedro-Belize Express (http://www.sanpedrowatertaxi.com). Both have very similar, but not identical schedules, with taxis leaving every 90 minutes or so between 7:30 am and 5:30 pm. Both make stops in Caye Caulker and San Pedro. The terminal in Belize City for San Pedro-Belize Express is nicer and more modern than CCWT, with clean restrooms, a nice waiting area, a cafe, etc. Make sure you make note of the final water taxi for the day if traveling between islands, and leave enough time to insure that you are not at the back of the line for the last water taxi; seats are first come/first served.
A final note: Belize is a very poor country. A radio program that we heard one day said that Belize had the smallest proportion of its teenagers in high school of any Central American country - just 2 in 5. This was because high school requires paying tuition, which most families cannot afford. We heard several radio advertisements for sales and telecommunications jobs purported as “good wages”, opportunities for unlimited overtime, and “excellent starting wages of $5.25 per hour with opportunity for advancement after 6 months” resulting in a raise to $6.75 per hour (Belize of course)! Everywhere we went (except San Pedro) we saw extreme poverty. This was especially telling around resort communities like Placentia where well-off tourists and others stay in luxurious comfort. The Belizeans we met were all friendly and hard-working and they wanted the best for their families and children. We met several who were living apart from their families for better pay and more opportunities for their children. They worked long and hard. For example, the person who opened the kitchen at the bar at the Seaside Cabanas in Caye Caulker and prepared the continental breakfast, was also the afternoon bartender, and was sometimes working until closing late in the evening. This is not to say that you should avoid the country for its poverty - rather they depend on tourism for their survival - there are few other ways for Belizeans to make a living other than subsistence agriculture or working for what locals called “slave wages” on an orange or banana plantation.
Side note on lodgings - just my opinion of other places that I personally would consider staying in the future. I only saw these places from the outside, but all were well kept, with clean, immaculate grounds. Keep in mind this list is not all inclusive; there are lots of other nice places as well. These are just places I happened to notice or seek out and was impressed by:
Cahal Pech Resort - beautiful grounds and pool and inexpensive ride to town.
Midas Resort - again, nice grounds, nice pool area, easy walk into town.
Casa Beya Vacation Rental’s
Maya Breeze Inn (I was so impressed by this place that I spoke to the new(?) manager, Violetta about it. They did not yet have a web-site. Really nice, sparkling pool, clean grounds, ocean front efficiency apartments (unit A is the most direct OF; unit B would be my 2nd choice) and the prices seemed very reasonable. Appears to have been recently renovated. Violetta - 501 666 5238 or Jake 501 628 4215.
Joyce & Frank’s B&B - nicely kept property right on the beach with a nice pool & friendly owner: 501 533 4086
A little further down the road towards Placencia Village - Robert’s Grove.
Ranguana Lodge - really nice, well kept, individual cottages right on the beach and pretty courtyard.
Belize Nirvana (www.belizenirvanna.com)
Cozy Corner Hotel
Island Magic Beach Resort
Barrier Reef Inn
Blue Wave Guest House
De Real Macaw
Shirley’s Guest House
Kokomo Beach Suites
(A little confession: The majority of this report was written by the member's husband!).