I would like to share with readers my trip report from May 22 ? 29, most of which was spent on the mainland (or the ?interior? as locals call it) with the balance in San Pedro.
We rented a car from Crystal Auto at the International Airport and they will give you a cooler as promised. The free map was not the best, I recommend that you get your own. Arrived late afternoon at the Banana Bank Lodge near Belmopan. It?s a surreal experience to bang the gong and request the hand ferry to deliver you to the lodge grounds. This is where we saw the first locals wearing the ?Damn the Dam? t-shirts. The view as you cross the river to the Lodge is quite nice, and John & Carolyn Carr could not be more gracious hosts. They join in with the guests as meals are served family-style. There are many animals about the place including an adorable pet grison named Oreo. The lodge rooms are very tastefully decorated, especially the bathrooms, and we enjoyed the air-conditioning.
The following day we briefly visited Guanacaste Park but didn?t see a lot. Much more enjoyable was St. Herman?s Cave, part of Blue Hole National Park on the Hummingbird Highway. It?s worthwhile to stand at the cave entrance and see the variety of birds, including the beautiful blue motmot, that are attracted by the cool temperatures. We also saw a very long green snake at the entrance, which we were told later was a vine snake. Check out Blue Hole for a refreshing swim while you?re in the area.
For a lunch break I can highly recommend Caladium restaurant in Belmopan near the bus terminal. We had very tasty nachos here, plus they do a lot of platters for a reasonable price. The grilled chicken was a good choice.
We drove on to Eva?s in San Ignacio to make tour reservations for both Actun cave and the Mayan ruins at Tikal. It?s worth it to stop in and meet Bob who runs the place. Then we arrived at our next stop Chaa Creek where we stayed two nights.
As you read the awards and recommendations for Chaa Creek you wonder if it?s overrated. I can say that it was everything we expected; the grounds are just beautiful with flowering trees, thatch-roof buildings, and I was even able to see toucans eating fruits along the main path. The service is top-rate: they think of everything, they even dried our shoes after our cave adventure. Dining in the evening in an open-air thatch pavilion is close to magical.
On our first full day at Chaa Creek, two of us went to Actun cave as arranged by Bob of Eva?s. The all-day tour was very professionally handled and well worth the $65. Probably the best cave experience possible in the area, but not for the faint-hearted. The other two of us stayed at Chaa Creek, took the early morning guided bird walk with Miguel where using a spotting scope we saw both the largest woodpecker and the smallest owl and many other interesting birds. Then we did the morning horse riding tour into the mountains. You actually go by horse through a bamboo forest and even get a view across the valley of Mayan ruins. I?m a novice with horses, just let them know that and they?ll see that you get a horse to accommodate you. We also did the sunset canoe trip, a great opportunity to see birds and large iguanas along the Macal River and a chance to see locals fishing, swimming and doing laundry.
The following day was our tour to Tikal in Guatemala. It seems like no matter whom you book with everyone gets funneled into one group along the way. We switched vehicles several times, kept joining up with additional people; this went on even after we arrived at Tikal. I don?t know what alternative there is to this, maybe there is none, as tours try to consolidate to keep the cost low. We paid around $80 to be picked up right at Chaa Creek. This did include a hot meal at the ruins that was not too bad. Our big complaint was that our tour guide did not show us much of the Tikal grounds; he would lead us into a hot or buggy area where there was nothing to see and go on and on about the Mayan calendar and the endless combinations of Mayan lucky numbers. We kept wondering if would see any ruins at all or just get heatstroke. I can?t figure out why the tour was handled this way and we knew we would have been better off on our own, but at that point it was hard to just take off. Bob (of Eva?s), you might want to look into a different outfit for your Tikal tours. The difference between the quality of the Actun and Tikal tours was night and day.
That evening we stayed at Aguada Hotel in Santa Elena. You can?t beat these rooms for the price (the place was full) and the service is very friendly. My tip is to ask for a room with a normal ceiling height, as ours had a cathedral ceiling and the A/C had trouble keeping up. There?s a pool and a convenient restaurant on the premises with low prices, even low drink prices.
The next day we started our return east and stopped at the Belize Zoo. It really is worth stopping here just to read the amusing signs that someone?s made for the animals. Also the animals are quite easy to observe even though they live in simulated habitats. The ocelot was lying on its back like a housecat. Sadly the zoo was running very low on water for the animals, with the fishpond down to dangerously low levels. A gentleman there told us they had used the last of the reserved water and they were counting on the rainy season (which was two weeks late starting) to kick in. I hope they got their rain by now.
This concluded most of our mainland portion of the trip. Next we hopped a very tiny plane from Belize City to Ambergris Caye, where stayed for three nights at Blue Tang Inn. The location is good, the room was very spacious with a complete kitchen, and the A/C was excellent. While the pool is very small, the surrounding area is decorated nicely and the free continental breakfast is a bonus.
From San Pedro we did an all-day Lamanai/New River tour through Tanisha Tours www.tanishatours.com
with Daniel Nunez. A class act all of the way. This is definitely worth it if only for the speedboat ride through the mangroves. We thought the Lamanai ruins, while smaller than Tikal, looked more interesting from an artistic standpoint. You also get to see a troop of black howler monkeys. Daniel has excellent knowledge of the birds in this area and has his guidebooks on hand to explain everything. Also helping with the tour is a man who can read and speak the Mayan language and he contributes his wealth of knowledge of the Mayan culture.
The next day we went on a snorkeling trip to Hol Chan/Shark Alley with Alfonso Graniel. This guy knows and will point out every critter in the sea and is also very amusing in general. You can look him up though the Visitor Booth on the main street in town (the folks are very helpful at this booth with providing ANY information that you need on anything) or his home phone is 226-3537, cell 614-5450.
A lot?s been written about the restaurants in San Pedro, but I can say of the ones we tried we really liked Elvi?s both for atmosphere and the food. Also try the homemade banana ice cream at Mannely?s. Lastly, don?t forget to check out Papi?s, it?s a non-pretentious hometown diner.
The last evening of our trip we went to the weekly Wednesday night world-famous Chicken Drop at the Spindrift Hotel. This is where locals bet on which square a chicken will ?drop? a load of something. My son won! And it was with the lucky Mayan number 7, the guide at Tikal knew something after all. And I was never so proud.