Upon booking a trip to Belize, we didn't know much about it or what to expect, other than that it would be warm in February, relatively affordable and Southwest Airlines has a direct flight to Belize City to/from Denver.
We decided to split our time between San Pedro on Ambergris Caye and the jungle near San Ignacio. Overall, it was an outstanding trip, full of adventure (á la Finding Nemo and Indiana Jones), friendly people and fantastic weather.
Arrival in Belize City and flight to San Pedro
Following a seamless flight from Denver, we transferred to a Tropic Air puddle jumper at the Belize City airport. It was immediately apparent in the small, simple waiting area that we were on vacation. We dove right into sampling the local brew - Belikin, and were immediately impressed with the stout. Although a tad late (no worries, we're on vacation), the tiny plane rounded us up along with about 10 other passengers. We sat directly behind the pilot and I took care to not smash his lunch with my backpack. There were minimal instructions as far as how to use the seatbelt or "in case of a water landing." Nonetheless, up we went. Spectacular views of Caye Caulker and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and crystalline waters en route. The flight lasted about 18 minutes from take off to landing. Things got loud and wiggly on the way in, but Belizeans run a tight, albeit still somehow relaxed, ship. We skipped the dingy mini van taxis and gas-fueled golf cart parade and decided to walk to our hotel, The Palapa House, a small, three-story lodging on the north side of town. We followed some locals up the sidewalk as golf carts and vans swerved around us. A lady walking a dog asked if we needed help finding our way. We told her we were headed to the Palapa House. She advised that we walk on the beach to get there most directly. Once schlepping our suitcases on the beach, a young girl pedaling her bike with no hands rode up and asked where we were going. We found it. The Palapa House has a small pool facing the beach and a couple of units on each of its three floors, all of which look out onto the water and come equipped with chairs on the shared patios and balconies. The air-conditioned units come with bedroom, bathroom with shower (but no hot water), living room and kitchenette with microwave, mini-fridge and stove. A beach scene is mostly nonexistent in Ambergris Caye. There's a lot of seaweed, coconut shells, dried palm leaves and other debris piled onto shorelines just about everywhere. Nonetheless, the view of the water - and outdoor chairs from which to enjoy it - was great in the evening. We opted for dinner and the nearby Sandbar, a sports bar/hostel that was pretty popping. We sat outside in the wind, which picks up significantly in the evening. We had fish and chips and the local specialty - ceviche. It wasn't outstanding, but palatable. The most delightful discovery was the locally brewed (at a brewery in Belize City) Guinness in a bottle. Tastier even than the OG in Dublin, Belizean Guinness is delicious and flavorful and clocks in at a robust 7.5-percent ABV. On the way home, we stopped at a market to purchase bottled water (the consensus is that the water in Belize is not potable) and coffee grounds.
|Beach cruisers over golf carts!|
Beach cruisers, missed yoga
We rushed to get ready for a yoga class up north at Ak'Bol, but in our mission to avoid driving a golf cart - and instead search for a bike rental - we ended up missing it. We walked through town looking and asking everywhere for a bike rental shop. We finally found Breez -a new place that mostly rents E-Bikes, but added a couple of beach cruisers to their fleet. Matthew, a local who was running the place, was incredibly friendly and helpful. He supplied us with helmets, locks and a cooler bag. The bikes were singlespeed, backpedal-braking and ran $25 US/day. We rode amid the chaotic, one-way motor car/cart parade heading north, went over the bridge, then realized we were too late to make yoga. We still checked out Ak'Bol, where yoga classes happen every morning out on the pier under the shade of a palapa (which, we came to learn is the straw-like roof/shelter you see on structures all over the country). We turned around, brought the bikes back to hotel and went to Cool Beans for a pleasant brunch on the pier. They serve excellent coffee as well as fresh watermelon, pineapple and orange juice. The veggie omelette and Belizean breakfast with scrambled eggs and Fry Jacks (a sopapilla served with refried beans) were yummy. We rode up island again on the bikes, looking for a place to swim. We went into the water a little on the "beach" near the rio/bridge, but it was full of seaweed and not too inviting. We wandered around some structures off the road as we got farther north, coming across huge iguanas ambling through the grass like mini dinosaurs. We ended up at The Truck Stop – a cluster of restaurants and bars situated in shipping containers and food trucks, complete with games (ping pong, cornhole, etc) a lovely dock on the bay side of the Caye and a public saltwater pool. The only unpleasant component of the place was the televised hockey inexplicably blaring at 3 trillion decibels from the main bar. We got cocktails (rum is their signature booze ingredient) and got in the salt water pool. We had worked up quite a sweat and the sun was strong, so the water felt glorious. We grabbed pizza from a shipping container that was decent. A local guy who had seen us powerwalking through town earlier (during our bike rental search) was there, recognized us and asked why we were in such a hurry. He pointed out that "it's such a small island." A friendly one, too, no question. We returned the bikes - accidentally pedaling against one-way traffic for a block or so to the lazy (thankfully not hostile) annoyance of vehicles passing by. We went to The Palapa Bar for happy hour and dinner – a seemingly cheesy place on the pier adorned with fake palm trees. Turned out to be a great spot with roped off swimming access to the ocean and large sun deck in the back, where you could sip a beverage and hang in a tube. We had tasty ceviche and jalapeno poppers (and Guinness!) and listened to live music from a trio of ex-pats covering Bob Marley.
Day 3 Hol Chan snorkeling at Caye Caulker
We rushed to get to the Belize Express ferry in the morning. We had bought tickets online and got a QR code, but still had to stand in line to get paper tickets and sign in. We came close to missing the boat, but the attending gentlemen were not concerned ("don't worry, mon"). Caye Caulker was the ferry's first stop on the way to the mainland. We had debated on staying there rather than Ambergris for the island leg of our trip, but opted for San Pedro to have more options. We still booked our snorkeling trip on Caulker (at Ragga Sailing) so we could check it out before and after the trip. Definitely a comparably sleepier, more peaceful place full of lush, swinging palm trees, small beach shops and restaurants and delighfully fewer golf carts. Definitely more walking and cycling here. We checked in to Ragga for our full day snorkeling/sailing trip. The card machine was broken so we had to pay cash. Cash turned out to be crucial throughout the trip. We found a breakfast spot with yogurt bowls and bagels - Ice and Beans. Our snorkeling tour started with a walk to other side of the island and guide - a lovely local dude named Mush - showing us the Tarpon, a huge fish that swarmed up to the docks, apparently accustomed to being fed. Our boat - a sailboat with a motor - was full. There were six young British blokes, a family from Hungary, a French woman and Dutch woman, a couple from Mexico and the four local guides who loved life and cranked the Reggae on the boat. It took about an hour out to get out to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which is the second largest barrier reef in the world (next to the Great Barrier) and responsible for the calm, shallow and waveless turquoise water that surrounds the Cayes. After snorkel gear was distributed, we split into groups. We went with the other two girls and Mush, who clearly loved being under water and could do a hypnotizing bubble blowing trick like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland.
|Ragga Sailing guides|
Our first stop jumping into the water was rewarded with the sight of a majestic sea turtle. It was slowly eating grass off of the ocean floor (only about 12 feet deep in this area). Then we saw multiple sting rays, eagle rays and barracudas, plus large snapper and other colorful fish. The next stop on boat was Shark Ray Alley. We only saw a few sharks - all nurse sharks, a couple of which were half-buried in the seaweed and sand under the boat. A huge sting ray touched its face on Mush and followed him around for a bit. The last stop was a coral garden. Here, we all swam on our own without a guide. We saw some amazing coral formations and cool small fish, bright blue and day-glow green. When we boarded the boat for the trip (with sails up) back to Caye Caulker, the guides were waiting with rum punch and ceviche. We had a few cups to the soundtrack of Reggae. At a restaurant back on the Caye, I chatted with the bartender who grew up there about why you don't meet Belizeans in the U.S. or anywhere else. He said not many people move away because it’s possible to have a nice life and support oneself with a single job. Mush, whose parents both have a home in the jungle, said the only reason he'd want to visit the mountains or anywhere with snow would be to make a snowball and throw it at someone.
We walked to the Split at the end of the island (where the Brits on our boat had played soccer the day before and enthusiastically recounted the play-by-play of beating the local team). We watched the sunset from the other side of the island (across the Split) with our Belikin stouts. We came back to Ambergris on the last ferry of the day, which was late. As I watched for it, a soft spoken local man struck up conversation. He was kind and easy to talk to– a security guard at a bank. He grew up in the jungle down south. Talked about how he feels protective when women walk alone. I asked if he had sisters. He said he has three. Generally, compared to Mexico, we felt quite safe throughout this trip. He said one can never be too safe. He shepherded us onto the ferry when it came.
|Ceviche at The Palapa Bar.|
We ended up going to Palapa Bar again. This time a Reggae-twinged band played Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." We ordered blackened red snapper and shrimp ceviche. It was delicious. The server remembered we like Guinness. We swam in the swimming hole at 9 p.m.
E-bikes to Secret Beach
We started the day at Cool Beans again with the Belizean Fry Jack breakfast and fresh juice. We returned to the bike rental place and sprang for E-bikes (at $50 US per day each, it was twice the cost of a golf cart, but way more fun). Matthew accompanied us over the bridge after giving a lesson and making sure we weren’t going to accidentally hit turbo and face plant into the side of a building. We rode about 7 miles on progressively more rural roads (janky and dirt at the end), around swamps and lagoons where we hoped to see crocodiles but didn't. We arrived at Secret Beach, an area on the bay side of the Caye spotted with restaurants that have tables situated in the shallow blue water. Here we went to Sunset Palace (affiliated with the bike shop), where we got a welcome drink (rum, mon) and settled onto our table in the water. We tried the free paddleboards and swimming around with goggles in the 2 foot deep clear water. We got ceviche and fish tacos. The service and cleanliness of the place fell short of elsewhere, but we had a great time.
|Drinks at Sunset Palace, Secret Beach.|
We rode back, stopping at The Truck Stop again for the delicious local Wit bier we had discovered (by Two-5 Brewing). We returned the bikes and went back to The Palapa Bar in hopes of catching the sunset and also looking for marine life with goggles in the swimming hole. We saw a spotted eagle ray circling the area. We returned to the hotel, showered and went to The Hut for dinner, a restaurant our Canadian neighbors recommended, located on a barge in mangroves on the other side of island. It was outstanding. Our server showed us pictures of crocodiles lazing on the deck outside during the day and how they feed a large orange iguana on a shelf outside. The three locals at bar were speaking Spanish, English and Creole ... one covered in paint from a Carnival celebration in town.
Flight in Cessna back to Belize City, car rental to jungle
The wonderful housekeeper at The Palapa House told us we could take our time packing up. We once again schlepped our suitcases across the sand as long as possible before we had to cut through town to get back to the airport. Flew back to Belize City on a Cessna. One other young woman joined us and rode shotgun. The violently windy day concerned me and I asked one of the guys on the tarmac if it would be an issue with the tiny plane, but he said it was nothing but “a nice island breeze.” Ya, mon. It was fine and the pilot was a pro. Smoothest take off and landing yet. We got our rental car from Hertz – a KIA SUV, with amazing efficiency, zero issues. We drove 2 hours to Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge, our home for the next half of our trip. The odometer was in KM, but speed limit signs in MPH, so it was confusing. Drivers pass liberally and disregard speed limits. However, there are massive speed bumps in villages and located randomly along the roadway, so you gotta watch out. We saw kids at school in uniforms playing outside, also Amish driving carts pulled by horses. San Ignacio is a small, hilly city that shows the country's status as "developing." We stopped at a market to pick up water, beer and snacks. Turning off the main drag outside of town, we drove for a while on a steep, winding dirt road up to our lodge. We got welcome drinks - rum, of course. The pleasant woman who checked us in was from down south. Her family is descendants of the Mayans. We walked down to the Macal River on a dirt path through the jungle that instilled the sensation of being on an episode of "Naked and Afraid." Except with clothes. And beer. And a comfortable dwelling (with AC) at the end of the day. The No. 1 allure of this particular lodging is the river access and natural beach. Here there were white cliffs across the river strewn with thick foliage. We went to the onsite restaurant, where, if you did not get the all-inclusive package (we did not), you could choose from a meat, seafood or vegetarian option and pay considerably more (for notably less flavorful food) than you would at a restaurant anywhere nearby.
However, we were not going to drive for 20 minutes on the dirt road to go elsewhere. Also, there was the entertainment of a couple of lemurs that jumped onto the rail ledge from trees above and ate bananas out of people's hands. We sat in our screen-enclosed porch afterward, listening to jungle noises – bugs, birds and the occasional howler monkey.
ATM Cave Tour
If you want to feel like you ARE Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (minus the giant boulder and violent indigenous tribes coming after you), the ATM Cave tour is not to miss. For real, this is a true, rugged adventure.
We didn’t sleep too well the first night in our jungle diggs. There was a prehistoric-sized ant on the bed right before I settled in. The jungle noises were cool though - howler monkeys audible a couple times during the night. In the morning, there was definitely a cat of some sort snarling (Belize is supposedly home to Central America's largest concentration of jaguars), but this sounded like a house cat. We had our pre-arranged breakfast – there was dehydrated soy rather than veggie sausage, but the fry jacks were good. There were colorful toucans with saw beaks and several other bird species eating fruit from a shelf. A couple colorful birds perched near us and wanted some breakfast. The van taking us to the ATM Cave made the rounds picking up all guests (eight total in our group) at their respective lodgings. Jahime (the driver) picked us up first. I apologized for being late and he said, "that’s how you know you’re in Belize. Usually everyone is 30 minutes late. Ten minutes late is early." Also on the tour were a younger couple and two older couples. We picked up our tour guide, Patrick ("the ladies can call me Lord Chocolate") from his home in San Ignacio. A super fit Caribbean dude, he had a large machete hanging off of his back and was carrying some industrial sized bags containing our helmets and other gear. "Hello, brave people," he said as he got in the van. As we picked up the last couple, the woman was smoking a cigarette and put it out on the ground right before getting in the van. Patrick's first words to her were, "you pick up that cigarette. Respect my country, mon. Don’t ever do that again."
Patrick is a fascinating dude, incredibly well educated. Turned out he studied agriculture, spent time in the military in England and studied at CU Boulder for 4.5 years. He lives in the states during the summer and flies hot air balloons (pointing out how he's "the only chocolate guy" who does so). He is a certified bushman that routinely leads searches and rescues (aka body recoveries) in the jungle and is one of only 22 guides in the whole country certified to lead groups into the ATM Cave.
It took us over an hour to reach the trailhead. We set off from parking area with helmets (including a head lamp) in tow. We opted to carry nothing other than the water bottle they provided us, wearing quick dry shorts over swimsuits and old trail running shoes. This was the correct choice over Chacos or any other type of waterproof sandal.
|Cameras and phones were not allowed in the ATM Cave. This is the first river crossing on the hike in.|
We did an immediate river crossing, one of about four. There was a rope to help get across. The water was deep in places, but current not too strong. It felt a little cold at first, then adrenaline took over. We walked through the jungle on a wide dirt path. Patrick, who had stopped the van en route to show us the leaf from an All Spice tree, stopped on the trail to point out key lime, then some sort of pine leaf. He pointed out the ruins of an ancient Mayan citadel in the middle of the path. We had at least two more river crossings, then climbed down some rocks and got into the water – Roaring Creek, a tributary to the Macal River that runs past our hotel and through San Ignacio. It was cold and deep. Patrick instructed us to keep three points of contact with the cave – two feet and a hand on the wall – at all times. I was happy to be in a long sleeve swim shirt, as the air temp definitely got cooler in the cave. One side of the cave was sparkling. It was all limestone rock, which served as a natural purifier for the water, which as far as I could tell in the growing darkness, looked blue and very clean. There were incredible rock formations – stalactites, stalagmites and flat, glossy mounds that looked like glazed donuts - throughout the journey. The water flowed under us for the first 45 minutes of the journey, ranging from ankle deep to over our heads in places, requiring a single file line swimming through the narrow tunnels. We scrambled up and down rocky ledges. We were in the cave for about four hours total. We started to see some pottery artifacts and then full ceramic pots dating from the time of the ancient Mayans (900 AD and earlier). Patrick explained that Mayans believed everything made with one’s hands had a soul and therefore, had to be broken to release the soul. Thus, some pots had a perfect hole drilled out. Others were fully broken into pieces. Then we came upon the skeletons of human sacrifices. The first was a pile of a skeleton of an older "man of status." Patrick explained that he had been deliberately cross-eyed and with his forehead purposefully deformed. He pointed out that throughout civilizations, from foot-binding to corsets, people have done weird shit in the name of beauty. Botox included. Then there was a child left to die alive and a 16-year-old “crystal maiden” who might actually be a boy, fully intact. The sight of them was creepy and exhilarating. Although archaeologists have studied the area many times over the years, nearly all artifacts have remained inside the cave.
To reach this section we had to remove our footwear and climb up the last part only with socks on our feet. We stepped up and down a metal ladder, up and down a rock tower, a fall from which would have resulted in major injury. Any adventure like this anywhere in the U.S. would require a 50-page waiver. We swam back through the cave, including down a Goonies-like waterslide and around a slot with a pointed wall that brushed up against the center of our throats. We returned through the river, to the parking area where Lilly the cook had made us coconut rice and beans, grilled meat and veggies. Upon returning to our lodge, we went down to the river to relax on the beach. I fed the lemurs at dinner. One gently grasped my hand with its little claw (they are both cat-like and monkey-like) for easier access to the banana and looked at me with its bulging eyes before climbing back up its tree.
Xunantunich Mayan Ruins and river paddle
We drove to Xunantunich, located about 15 minutes from the hotel and close to the Guatemalan border. We had to take a small, hand-cranked barge ferry across the river. The ferryman told me that I, as the passenger, had to get out of the car to walk on and that if the car's brakes failed or the ferry sank, M, as the driver, would have to swim. We got across in less than two minutes and it was fine. We drove up a steep dirt road to the Xunantunich ruins. We nearly ran over a large snake slithering across the road – black with green stripe. At least five feet long. We parked, paid to get in ($5 US), then walked up to the ruins, a series of dwellings and temples used for rituals and ceremonies. There were not many people at all and we could explore at our leisure. We eavesdropped on a couple of tour guides and found out about how one area was used for “bloodletting” those who were entombed. It turns out the individuals buried in tombs were all from royal families. The largest structure – a Castillo - had steep, eroded steps that still allowed people to climb to the top. The green grassy expanse between the structures was probably not how the place would have looked in ancient Mayan times. Earth and trees had grown over all the structures, probably many times over. The Castillo had carvings on the side, symbols and figures holding things on their shoulders: "skybearers." At the top, we took photos of the surrounding landscape below. You could see Guatemala nearby. The Castillo was only used as a tomb and not a dwelling, we read. We also read about how there was a ball sport sort of like basketball – Pok-ta-Pok - in which a stone hoop was put at the end of the court and players moved the small rubber ball on their arms and legs and had to get it through the hoop. Often the conquering team played against a team of "captives" that were predestined to lose. After the game, their decapitated heads were hung for all to see. Brutal.
An iguana was chilling at the top of the Castillo near the stairs. There were also several bats hanging inside. We saw a lot of iguanas as we wandered around the area. The security guards with giant machine guns were – like most people – very friendly. They joked that they’d be our tour guides for the day. We read about the history in the visitors center and also saw masks, artifacts and a skeleton from one of the tombs.
|Benny's Kitchen lunch.|
After the ruins, we drove to Succotz – a little village just across the river where our ATM tour cook Lily was from. The place was much cleaner and more inviting than San Ignacio or anywhere else we saw along the drive from the airport. We went to Benny’s Kitchen for lunch. M had Pibil, pork that said it was cooked underground for eight hours and came with guacamole and pico di gallo. I got "fried shrimp and vegetables" that was really coconut shrimp with coleslaw and fries.
We drove back to the hotel and went to the river. Got the metal canoe. It was difficult to paddle upriver, but fun. We saw a large bird in the brush and took our time floating back. We hung out on the beach a while, swam in the Macal River.
Smooth and uneventful return home