Blackbird Caye, Ek Tun and Tikal -
Recently posted by riverrunner
Trip Report: Blackbird Caye, Ek' Tun & Tikal
We recently returned from a great trip to Belize & Tikal with our family (two girls ages 10 & 13 plus mom & dad). We did a lot of research on this Forum prior to the trip so consider this report our small contribution to all of the information and suggestions contributed by past travelers.
Overall Trip Highlights:
Best Overall Experience: Ek' Tun
Best Singular Moment: Sunset from Lost World Pyramid (Tikal)
Best Food: Dinners at Ek' Tun (Honorable Mention: Baked goods at Blackbird)
Best Snorkeling: Reefs at the Blue Hole & offshore from Half Moon Caye
Most Useful Sources of Planning Info: Belize Forums & Belize First web sites
Most Interesting Pre-Trip Reading: Lords of Tikal (Peter Harrison)
Belize & Guatemala's Best Resource: Amazingly friendly and helpful people
Blackbird Caye Resort: As advertised, the staff of Blackbird Caye met us at the airport after an easy on-time flight in from DFW. They basically waited until the last incoming flight had arrived and then loaded everyone up for a short bus ride to the new tourist village dock where we loaded up for the 1 ¼ hour ride to the resort. The boat ride was a little bumpy & one person got seasick but we didn't have any trouble. We arrived in time for a few people to take a quick snorkel. Our luggage was carried to the cabins in rapid order by the staff while we hopped in the kayaks for a quick paddle and then walked around the resort area for a few minutes before dinner. That first evening we saw hermit crabs, sand crabs, frigate birds, pelicans, assorted gulls, a small ray, a woodpecker and later the resident crocodile "Jack" made an appearance at the dock (he came every night that we were there).
The next two days we did 4 snorkeling trips with Chris (who was also a boat captain for the divers) and on one occasion with the resort manager, David. Both of these guys were absolutely fantastic with the girls, but since we went most of the time with Chris he deserves special praise. He basically taught our youngest daughter how to snorkel and showed all of us a ton of sea life including huge rays, schools of blue tang, barracuda, damselfish, parrotfish, squirrelfish, trumpetfish, the largest porcupine fish I've ever seen, lots of coral and sponges, Christmas tree worms, spiny lobster, conch shells, sea urchins, brittle stars, squid (which were so cool), and of course the well-named Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber. It seemed like the people who were snorkeling were often seeing just as much, if not more, in the way of sea life as the people who went on the diving trips.
In general, during the week there were between 3 and 8 people snorkeling with the rest of the folks doing dives or hanging around the island. This was perfect for us as the small group size made for a nice overall experience with plenty of personal attention. During down times between snorkels we played horseshoes, walked the beach, kayaked a fair amount and hung around in hammocks. The resort had a kayak tie down about 100 yards out from the dock so you could pretty easily paddle out to the reef and do an extra snorkel if you desired.
On our last day, the entire resort loaded up for a great day trip to the Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye. The 1.5-hour boat ride going over to the Blue Hole was fairly rough but the boat captain did a good job making it as smooth as possible. The snorkeling on this day was probably the best of the trip with both the Blue Hole and the shore snorkel off of Half Moon Caye being excellent. The bird preserve on Half Moon Caye was also fun with a nice elevated viewing platform and the largest collection of hermit crabs on the trail we had seen. The staff of Blackbird cooked up cheeseburgers (in paradise) for lunch. Afterwards, we did a drift snorkel over the divers along Long Wall. This was pretty decent in that we saw yellow tube sponges but the viewing wasn't great as the earlier snorkels as we were a long way above the reef and the sky was getting darker due to clouds.
Our overall experience at Blackbird Caye was very good & the four-day snorkeling package worked out well for our family. The rooms were nice, the food was good to very good and since you're already on an atoll, the daily boat rides to great snorkeling were painless. This was a really excellent way to get a good atoll experience. There's not much nightlife besides Jack but Blackbird is an excellent base to experience water sports with a great staff. Overall the snorkeling was great in 84-degree water, the bugs weren't a problem and we never saw jellyfish or pica-pica in the water (we saw a couple of small jellyfish washed up on the shore).
Ek' Tun: After returning to Belize City, our driver (Edmond Crawford 025-2125) met us for the transfer inland to San Ignacio. We stopped at the zoo (which is a great place) and had lunch at Cheers (also gets a thumbs up). We made it to Eva's around 2:30 where Brian from Ek' Tun met us and started a great 4 day visit. First stop was the Tropical Wings Nature Center at the Trek Stop for a really nice tour by Tino. We've been to a few butterfly farms but Tino's personalized tour and detailed explanations put this one at the top of our list plus as an added bonus the girls got to hold a tarantula. The Trek Stop also looked like a nice place to stay for budget travelers.
After the butterfly farm, Brian made a short drive thru a local village and showed us some traditional Mayan dwellings and then we headed out to Ek' Tun. The magic really started after they loaded our luggage into the boat and Brian took us across the river to see a colony of small bats burst into flight. Then it was on up the river a short ways and onto the spectacular grounds of Ek' Tun.
It's really hard to describe the beauty of the location and landscaping of this very special property in the heart of the rain forest. It's certainly one of the most unique & special places we have every stayed. The kids loved the pets (dogs, cats, a pig and horses); we all loved Phyllis's cooking and the accommodations are really special. While Ek' Tun is probably not for everyone; if you like adventure and great food, one of a kind jungle lodge accommodations, an amazing location and visiting with gracious entertaining hosts, then you'll love this place. If you're into 5 star mega resorts with discos and tons of nightlife you probably want to head somewhere else. We absolutely loved it.
The first morning we awoke to the sounds of Howler monkeys & the smell of steaming Mexican hot chocolate delivered to our doorstep. After a superb breakfast, Brian took us on a 4 ½-hour rain forest hike/cave tour on the property. I won't give away his secret stops but this was an outstanding walk. We learned an incredible amount about the rain forest, had a great time underground in an untouched Mayan cave, enjoyed lunch above the river and came back in time for a swim in Ek' Tun's amazing spring-fed pool. As stunning as the pictures on their web site are, you can be assured that the real thing is even better. The day was topped off with excellent dinner served in their open-air dining room overlooking the river.
The second morning we did a short early morning walk around the property looking for birds (no toucans but a wide variety of other species were spotted). The afternoon was devoted to a visit to Che Chem Hah that was a great experience and offered so much more than just a cave tour. We had debated going to Actun Tunichil Muknal but decided to save that for next time due to our children's ages. It's hard to believe that it could have made a better trip for us than Che Chem Hah. Our guide William did a great job showing all of the features of the cave and then took the kids through 3 or 4 crawlways that they loved. Dad followed along on one and it is pretty amazing to be crawling along next to thousand year old pottery. In addition to the cave, the waterfall on the property is great, the gift shop has some nice weavings, the fields of star grass and flamboyant trees are beautiful and the pet monkey (Lupe) was a delight to play with. The day was topped off with another excellent dinner back at Ek' Tun.
The third day was spent resting, relaxing and playing on the property. We went inner tubing all morning and had a great lunch of burritos. The afternoon was devoted to swimming, birding and taking a short walk up to the "Bat Cave". At the cave you can see at least two different types of bats roosting and flying around in the dark along with what appears to be some carved steps leading further back into the cave depths. We had thought about taking a trip to Five Blues Lake National Park or maybe Barton Creek but the flooding had those sites closed while we were in the Cayo. I suspect those would also be fun trips but we had a great time soaking up the site on this exquisite property and were able to rest up for the next two days heading over to Tikal.
Tikal & Home: We awoke the next morning and said farewell to Phyllis and Ek' Tun. Brian took us to the border where we meet up with our Tikal guide Caesar who Phyllis had arranged for our two day Tikal excursion. After reading the entire litany of web postings about Tikal, we were a little apprehensive before we went (as we were headed there within a week or two after a protest stranded tourists for several days). I can honestly say that we never felt threatened or uncomfortable in any way and the park security presence was excellent.
Crossing the border was a snap and before heading to the park we stopped in Melchor to do a little shopping. We highly recommend a shop called Antigua that had a much better selection of goods than anywhere in the park itself. I'm sure the prices were somewhat more than the highlands but we weren't going that direction and we were glad that we took the time to stop and shop there. After a quick lunch in El Remate, we checked into the Tikal Inn for two nights. This is a delightful little inn with a great swimming pool and a pretty decent restaurant. We looked over the other hotels at the park and the Tikal Inn appeared to us to be the best choice although the Jungle Lodge also looked pretty good. Whatever you do, make sure you actually spend at least one night in the park. We toured in the evenings as most people were leaving and in the morning before most people got there. It was cooler, less crowded and the wildlife was much more visable than during the heat of the day.
Tikal is more than just an incredible archeological site, it is also a superb wildlife and botanical resource. Over the course of the two days we walked thru the park, we spotted spider monkeys and howler monkeys on several occasions (at least once per hour), probably 50 coatimundis, several gray foxes, several agoutis, numerous "ocellated" turkeys, tons of leaf cutter ants, several types of toucans and parrots, woodpeckers, several flocks of oropendola and a myriad of birds whose names have since escaped me. The rainforest flora is equally amazing rich and the various pyramids and temples provide an elevated view of the canopy.
During our visit to the park we took three walks that averaged about 4 hours each and covered most of the major sites. Highlights from the first afternoons walk were Temple V and the Lost World Plaza. Caesar did a great job bringing the ruins to life and outlining the history of the site construction and occupation. We had an outstanding encounter with a troop of monkeys including the usual aggressive displays (throwing sticks etc) and mothers with babies on their backs swinging thru the trees. Sunset from the top of the Lost World Pyramid was incredible - views of Temples I thru IV and the wildlife in the rainforest canopy were all painted in an incredible glow as the sun went down on a crystal clear day.
The next morning we awoke at 4:30 am intending to catch sunrise from Temple IV, however, there was a light rain falling so we slept a little longer and instead headed out at around 6:00 am which was plenty of time to visit two twin temple complexes (Complex Q & R), climb Temple IV and spend an hour or so exploring the Central Acropolis prior to heading back for lunch as the main crowds rolled into the park. After resting in the early afternoon we headed back in the park to Complexes P, Group (or Complex) N and the Bat Palace along with a few of our favorite locations from the earlier walks. The stela and altar at Group N near Temple IV were particularly interesting and in fact the scene from the altar at that complex is reproduced as a painting on the dining room wall at the Tikal Inn.
The next morning we meet Caesar and our driver for the short drive to Flores where we caught a flight back to Belize City. The flight itself was pretty interesting with views of the rainforest and countryside in Belize and Guatemala and we had the entire small plane to ourselves. We had arranged for Edmond to meet us at the airport since we had a 4-hour layover prior to our flight back to the States. We got lunch at a Chinese restaurant and then had a quick tour of the city including stops at the Belize crafts store to pick up some last minute souvenirs. We had a little excitement on the way to the airport when there was accident on the bridge that closed it to car traffic. Edmond helped arrange to hand carry our baggage across and found a driver who got us to the airport in plenty of time to make our flight.
All in all, this was a great trip and we enjoyed all aspects of the visit. We felt that Belize is one of the top eco-tourist destinations that we have been to and we highly recommend the experience for adventurous families. The blend of atolls, rainforest and Mayan ruins coupled with wonderful people make this a really special destination.