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Belize and Guatemala: Ruins, Rain Forests and Reefs

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: November 2008

I wanted to go hiking in a rain forest. SO wanted to go snorkeling. Both of us were interested in cultural and historic sites. Neither of us wanted to pay too much for our vacation. Where to go?

After much discussion and argument, we finally decided on Belize, which offered Mayan ruins, rain forest trails and Central America’s best snorkeling. Sign us up!

We flew American Airlines out of Washington D.C.’s Reagan airport, connecting in Miami. I was bummed that AA wouldn’t let us check in online for an international flight, but luckily the lines were very short (at about 6 a.m. on a Friday morning) and we breezed through check-in and security.

It was sunny and about 80 degrees when we arrived at the Belize City airport. After a quick customs check, we took a rather terrifying taxi ride into town, which cost $25 US (both Belize dollars and U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere in Belize, and the exchange rate is fixed at $2 BZD to $1 USD). The driver wove in and out of traffic, tailgated both vehicles and bicycles, and narrowly missed hitting at least five pedestrians, but we survived.

The scene at the Belize City bus terminal was a bit chaotic — the waiting area was packed with schoolkids as well as adults of all ages. Belize’s public buses are actually retired U.S. school buses, gussied up with paint in an array of vibrant colors. We were waiting for a bus to take us to San Ignacio, a town near the western border of Belize. We were under the mistaken impression that the bus we wanted would be marked “San Ignacio”; we realized we were supposed to get on a bus marked “Benque” only as the Benque bus was pulling away. Argh! So we had to wait another 30 minutes for the next one.

The bus was very crowded — standing room only. You pay for your ticket on the bus; it was about $7 BZ ($3.50 US) each way for the three-hour ride from Belize City to San Ignacio. While many hotels provide transportation from the airport, we decided to take the public bus because it was significantly cheaper and because we wanted to get a glimpse of how the locals travel. The atmosphere onboard was noisy and cheerful; the music kept switching between reggae/Caribbean-sounding stuff, which I liked, and some dreadful American exports like Celine Dion and bad 80’s bands.

The bus stopped a LOT. There were few fixed stops; basically anyone could flag a bus down anywhere along the Western Highway, and anyone onboard could get off wherever they felt like it. Apparently there are express buses that stop in fewer places, but we never saw any of those.

We arrived in San Ignacio after dark and set off to find Martha’s Guesthouse, where we had a reservation. We saw another hotel, the Balmoral, right near the bus terminal and thought maybe the man standing outside might be able to help us find our way. He wanted us to take a room at his hotel instead, but we refused and asked if he knew where Martha’s was. He said he’d never heard of it. (We found this hard to believe, as San Ignacio is not a big town.) Well, then, did he know where West Street was?

“I’m not sure.”

Clearly he was a lost cause, so we asked at a nearby taxi stand. Turns out West Street was right in front of the Balmoral, and Martha’s was so close we could actually see its sign from where we were. Clearly the Balmoral guy was just trying to be unhelpful so that we would stay at his place instead. Jerk. (It should be noted that the taxi guys were very friendly — they directed us to Martha’s with no problem, even though we weren’t going to ride with them. The Balmoral guy was probably the only unhelpful person we encountered in all of Belize.)

Martha’s was an oasis at the end of a very long day of traveling. We were supposed to have a standard room with fan (about $50 US a night), but they were doing work on our room and upgraded us to the junior suite (fancy, fancy!) for no charge. It was a large room with two beds, a little breakfast nook area and air conditioning.

We booked a full-day Tikal tour through the front desk for $120 US each (unfortunately it couldn’t be added to our room bill and paid with a credit card; instead we had to give the full amount in U.S. dollars, which wiped out nearly all of our U.S. dollar stash). Then we headed to Hanna’s, just down the street, for dinner. The waitress was a sweetheart, and the food — rice and beans with stew chicken, a plantain and coleslaw — was yummy and very affordable. The whole bill came to just $13.50 US with tax, tip and two drinks!

Tikal, Guatemala
Our long trip to Tikal started at 7:30, when a staffer at Martha’s drove us to the Guatemala border (about 30 minutes away). There we paid an exit fee ($30 BZ each), got our passports stamped, and were passed into the hands of a Guatemalan driver, who took us the 2+ hours to Tikal. It was a rough ride at first; the roads out of the Guatemalan border town weren’t paved, so we bounced and jostled along for a good half hour. I was glad I’d taken a Dramamine! The trees and grass along the side of the road were white with dust kicked up by passing vehicles; between that, the fog, and the obvious poverty of the border town, Guatemala gave a bit of a dispiriting first impression.

But we soon passed onto a paved road, the sun came out, and the scenery improved immensely. For miles there was nothing but green fields and lush tropical forest, gilded in the morning sun. Eventually we found our way back to civilization, passing through the town of El Remate, located on Lake Peten, Guatemala’s second largest lake. There we stopped at a major tourist trap of a store filled with overpriced souvenirs. It did have a bathroom though, which is nothing to be sneezed at when you’re in a foreign country!

Then it was on to Tikal, which is a huge national park area. Our driver bought our entrance tickets, ordered lunch ahead of time at a comedor within the park, and then handed us over to our park guide: a wiry, energetic little man who was apparently part Mayan. He spent a lot of time talking to us about energy and nature and the universe, and how the Mayans had the sort of intuitive knowledge that we modern folks supposedly lack today (due to a combination of religion and rationality). He kept thumbing through a Mayan spiritual handbook, looking up our personalities and life paths based on our birthdates. It was interesting, though I had trouble overcoming my rational mind in order to fully believe in what he was saying.

More interesting was Tikal itself, which is absolutely massive. What we saw was only the “downtown” area of a very large Mayan city, and much of it still hasn’t been excavated from the jungle that’s overgrown it since it was abandoned in 900 A.D. You have to walk along various jungle trails to reach the different sections of town, including the highlights: the city’s five temples. The first time we turned a corner and caught sight of Temple I, our little tour group let out a collective “holy crap.” You really can’t appreciate the amazing scale of these things until you see them in person (and you can’t appreciate how high they are until you climb them!).

We climbed three — first Temple II, which gave us a nice view of Temple I (which you can’t climb); then Temple IV, which is the highest one and offers a truly amazing view of jungle as far as the eye can see; and finally Temple V, which was scary. Instead of nice wooden steps this one has a rickety ladder, and there was no railing at the top, where a crowd of people gathered on a ledge that was far too narrow for my liking. But again, the view was worth it — you could see the tops of the other temples amid a sea of green jungle.

We also saw pyramids and palaces, as well as some cool wildlife: spider monkey, black howler monkey, coatimundi (several), various birds, and a (huge) golden orb spider.

We ate a decent lunch back at the comedor; I had chicken with mushrooms, while SO had chicken fajitas. (Our driver had posed our choice thus: “Pollo or pollo?”) Then it was back into the car to go back to San Ignacio. There we ate dinner at Eva’s, which seems to be a major hot spot for tourists and expats — you can eat, drink, get online, and book a tour all in one place. Again I had rice and beans with stew chicken — it’s yummy and it’s cheap!

Barton Creek Outpost
The next morning, we hopped aboard a half-day bus tour to Barton Creek Cave, but we weren’t planning on doing the whole tour; instead, we wanted to be dropped off at the Barton Creek Outpost, where we planned to camp for three nights. It took about an hour to reach the Outpost from San Ignacio on hilly, rocky roads. We passed through a number of citrus groves (apparently oranges, grapefruits and other citrus fruits are major exports for Belize) and then entered a farming community of Mennonites; there are about 500 Mennonite families living here, having come to Belize because the government places few restrictions on how they live. It was Sunday morning, so there were a ton of buggies parked outside their meeting house.

We arrived at the Outpost to find a rustic wooden building housing a bar, a couple of bathrooms (marked “Tarzan” and “Jane”), and a generous wrap-around porch complete with a porch swing and a hammock. The grounds had tons of colorful tropical flowers, and the Outpost is perched right next to the clear waters of Barton Creek. (Barton Creek Cave is upstream just a bit, within easy canoeing distance.)

There were two young American guys staying at the Outpost when we arrived, but otherwise it was pretty quiet. One of the guys took us for a walk to check out the surroundings (Mennonite farms, tropical forest, and not much else!). After our walk, we came back to a lunch of … you guessed it … rice and beans with stew chicken. Accompanying it was fresh-squeezed orange juice from nearby fruit trees. The meals at Barton Creek Outpost are pretty much fixed; the owner or caretaker will ask if you have any food allergies, but otherwise they make one dish for each meal and that’s what you get. I don’t remember the exact prices, but I believe it was something like $7 for breakfast, $10 for lunch and $15 for dinner (all BZD). In terms of accommodations, you can rent a tent for $20 BZ per night; bring your own and you can camp for free.

Our days at Barton Creek Outpost were lazy and laid back. We hiked around a bit, saw a lot of birds, met a few of the local Mennonite kids, played card games, and took a dip in the local swimming hole. The highlight of our time there was probably our trip into Barton Creek Cave. You’re not allowed in without a local guide, so someone affiliated with the Outpost paddled us up the creek and took us into the watery cave one morning before any tours arrived.

It was a peaceful, almost otherworldly experience; once we got past the entrance, nearly all noise and light fell away, and all we could hear was the soft sounds of the paddle and the drip-drip-drip of water seeping down the limestone. The guide gave SO a lamp that he could shine around the walls of the cave, illuminating some impressive stalactites as well as a few small Mayan artifacts: a skull and some pottery.

We probably paddled in about a mile or so before we had to turn back. Our guide gave us a little bit of information about the cave, which was apparently used by the Mayans for burial rites, but for the most part he was quiet and let us soak up the experience. We encountered a couple of other canoes on our way out, but otherwise we had the cave to ourselves. Pretty amazing.

Less amazing was my ungainly disembarkation from the canoe when we got back the Outpost. I tried to jump out and catch the canoe as it approached the dock, but I lost my footing and ended up in knee-deep water, soaking my boots and jeans. Smooth!

While we enjoyed our time at the Outpost, we quickly realized how isolated it was. Because the owner’s vehicle was in the shop, there was no real way to get back to town unless a tour group showed up and gave us a ride out. Since we had to go all the way back across Belize to get to Caye Caulker, our next stop, we decided we’d better cut our Outpost stay a day short to give ourselves more time to get back to San Ignacio.

And it’s a good thing we did. With no tour groups showing up on the day we wanted to leave, we ended up having to hike for three hours along isolated roads with all of our bags. (We had backpacks on our backs and duffel bags on our fronts — if I’d had any idea we’d be doing this sort of thing, we’d have packed differently!) Luckily the sun went behind a cloud shortly after we set off, or we would have had problems with heat exhaustion. We probably had another hour yet to walk before we reached the Western Highway, but finally — thank GOD — a logging truck picked us up and gave us a lift the rest of the way. (As a note: I am not usually one to hitchhike, and probably would not have done so if I had been alone. However, SO and I were traveling with two other guys, and hitchhiking seemed to be a pretty commonly accepted practice in Belize. In fact, the logger who picked us up already had another hitchhiker with him, a female schoolteacher.)

The logger dropped us off at the Western Highway, where we were planning to try to flag down the next bus headed to San Ignacio. But a group of locals hanging out in front of a house across the street noticed us, and one of them volunteered himself as an impromptu “taxi” service. I think we paid about $40 BZ for him to drive all four of us to San Ignacio. No idea whether that was a good price or not, but after the hike we’d just done, we would have paid much more!

SO and I checked back in to Martha’s Guesthouse, this time in a standard room with air conditioning ($55 US a night). It wasn’t as nice as the junior suite, of course, but it was clean and offered a hot shower, which was all we wanted after three days of camping.

Caye Caulker
We got up early and caught a public bus to Belize City on November 19, Garifuna Settlement Day, a national holiday in Belize. The center of the celebrations is Dangriga, in the south of Belize, where the Garifuna people — an Afro-Caribbean group known for their music and unique culture — are based. We were afraid that buses might not be running on the holiday, but luckily they were (just less frequently). This bus ride was more fun than the previous one we’d taken; it stopped less, and I got into a really fun conversation with a young Belizean man heading to Belmopan. Turns out that he followed the recent American election nearly as closely as I did, so we spent some time discussing the ins and outs of the Obama and McCain campaigns and airing our opinions of President Bush. (I won’t go into details, but I’ll just say that the Belizean and I were in complete agreement. *g*) I was amazed at how closely a non-American had followed the election, but then as he said, what happens in America affects the whole world. If our economy crashes, other markets go with it, and nations dependent on tourism — such as Belize — take a major hit.

As soon as we arrived in Belize City, SO and I raced across town on foot to catch a ferry to Caye Caulker. We just made it! The boat ride took 45 minutes and was rather bone-rattling at times as we bounced our way over the choppy waves. (Note to self: For a smoother ride, sit in the back of the boat.)

Once on Caye Caulker, we checked into Maxhapan Cabanas. The owner, Louise, showed us to our second-floor cabana, which had two beds, a microwave and fridge, and a private balcony with a hammock. (We spent a lot of time in that hammock!) One thing we really liked was that the top drawer of our bedside table could be locked, which was useful for the days when we went swimming/snorkeling and didn’t want to take all of our valuables with us. Louise also had a bunch of free bikes available for guest use. All of this was just $50 US a night — a steal! It’s so cheap because it’s a couple of blocks away from the beach; there are a number of waterfront hotels where we could have stayed. But honestly, we didn’t really miss the ocean views; the island is so small that you can reach the beach in under five minutes.

We ate lunch at a place called Rose’s, which was okay — SO had a shrimp burrito and I had the catch of the day, grilled grouper, which was delicious but pricey ($25 BZ). Then we set off to explore the island. It’s very small — only a few miles long — and there are no cars here, just bikes and golf carts. Most of the action for tourists is along Front Street, which runs along the eastern shore where most of the hotels, restaurants, shops and swimming piers are.

The beachfront area is colorful and fun, though there’s very little “beach” to speak of — just a narrow strip of sand with piers stretching out into the water. Because there’s so much sea grass right off the beach, most people either swim off the end of one of the piers or go up to the Split, where Hurricane Hattie cut the island in two, and swim in the crystal-clear waters there.

Dinner that night was divine. Following a tip from another traveler we met in San Ignacio, we went to Habaneros and shared the chef’s special: lobster-stuffed snapper with shrimp. Mmmmmmm. It was a huge plate and absolutely delicious. (It came with rice, bread, veggies, a fruit garnish, and a habanero pepper. SO poked his fork into the pepper and licked a tiny bit of juice off it — and that alone was enough to make him sweat!) We also shared a “veggie crock” appetizer, which I thought might be semi-healthy but was instead a few random veggie pieces floating in a vat of cheese. We topped it all off with a Spanish variant of creme brulee — utterly unnecessary but oh so good! The atmosphere at this place was really nice too — open-air porch, candles on the tables, white lights along the railing, a little mood music… All of that plus the food were well worth the $105 BZ price tag.

The next day we worked off the calories with a full-day snorkeling tour. Our guide, Carlos, took us to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark-Ray Alley and the Coral Gardens. A friend had recommended Carlos to us and we were very pleased; he was informative, gave us a decent amount of time to snorkel at each stop, and took excellent digital photos that we were able to buy on CD at the end of the day ($15 US).

We saw sea turtles, nurse sharks, rays, an octopus, an eel, and many colorful fish. We even got to pet a shark (it felt coarse, like sandpaper) and a ray (slimy-smooth)! The water was warm and clear, and it was amazing how close we were able to get to the coral and to the animals.

For lunch, we made a pit stop at Ambergris Caye, which is the island north of Caye Caulker. We had decided not to stay there because it’s more expensive and more built up than Caulker is, but I was glad we at least had a chance to visit and see what it was like. The beachfront was pretty, but San Pedro, the main town, was kind of crowded and busy (with both people and cars); we definitely preferred the vibe on Caye Caulker.

We ate at a place called Celi’s, located right on the beach. It served pretty standard bar-type food — burgers, fries, grilled chicken and seafood. Later that afternoon, Carlos gave us fresh fruit on the boat: pineapple, banana, papaya and orange slices. It was delicious after all that swimming.

We ended the day with dinner at Rainbow’s, which juts out over the sea near the north end of Caye Caulker. I had lemon-butter shrimp and SO had coconut snapper, both excellent. Caye Caulker restaurants were definitely more expensive than the other places we’d been, but the fresh seafood was worth it!

On our last full day in Belize, we ate breakfast at Glenda’s, a teeny little place on Back Street that serves yummy omelets and cinnamon rolls. We spent about $10.50 US on breakfast for both of us, including tip.

We rented a canoe from a place on Front Street (I believe the name was Toucan Rentals) for $10 US an hour. We went paddling through the Split and then up along the western shore of the northern half of Caye Caulker. (It all used to be one island before Hurricane Hattie; now all the development is in the southern half, while the northern part has only a few isolated houses without electricity.) Wildlife sightings included a great blue heron, some cormorants, a few huge starfish and some fish.

We ate lunch on the beach at the Barrier Reef Sports Bar and Grill, where the food was pretty average (except that there was no rice and beans!). I had a lobster “burger,” which basically consisted of grilled lobster on a hamburger roll. Our every bite was avidly documented by a little Pomeranian dog, who sat at our feet, looked up beseechingly, and made an occasional asthmatic grunting sort of sound. Did he have a cold? A breathing problem? Who knows?

We didn’t do much the rest of the day — took care of some souvenir shopping, took some more photos, and had a lazy last dinner at the Sandbox, which has a nice open-air seating area with tiki torches and picnic-style tables. The portions were enormous; I couldn’t finish my snapper with spinach sauce, which came with a side of beans and rice. SO had an appetizer of ceviche with conch (mmmm) and an entree of jerk chicken.

Final Thoughts and Tips
We found traveling in Belize to be very relaxing. English is the official language, and there’s not a lot of the sort of aggressive hard-sell type of behavior we’ve experienced in other developing countries — ie people pressuring you to buy things, take a tour, ride in their taxi, etc. There’s a little bit of that in Belize, but once we said no people backed off quickly. In general the people we met were friendly, laid back, and eager to help.

A few tips:

* Bring a good supply of U.S. dollars, as there are times when Belize dollars weren’t accepted (in our case, the Tikal tour and the exit tax at the Belize City airport).

* Bring bug spray, particularly if you’re headed to the rain forest. There are ticks, mosquitoes and lots of other pests.

* Consider the public buses. Renting a car is very expensive, as are many hotel shuttles, and the buses are kind of fun! They’re also a great place to meet locals.

* The Belize City airport has the same security rules as the U.S. does, so don’t try to sneak through the checkpoint with your bottle of water or your mondo-size shampoo.

* Beware of ATM fees from Belize banks. We were expecting to pay a several-dollar fee from our own bank when we withdrew money, but the banks in Belize charged us too — for a total of nearly $20 US per withdrawal, ugh!

* If you’re trying to dine on a budget, order the beans and rice — it’s yummy, filling and cheap!

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