Beaches, creatures and Mayan ruins highlight a Central American trip with 5-year-old twins
BY MARSHALL S. BERDAN
Special to Newsday
January 21, 2007
Like most young children, our 5-year-old twin daughters were fascinated by sharks. So my wife and I figured we'd have little trouble getting them into a speedboat from which they could lean over and see 10-foot nurse sharks circling lazily just below in the pale green tropical waters. We were right. We also figured they might be somewhat reluctant to actually jump in with the sharks. Boy, were we wrong.
Whether they were just too young to realize they should be afraid, or whether they completely trusted our Belizean guides, who assured us nurse sharks were harmless, they quickly donned their bright orange life vests and snorkeling gear and joined the gesticulating and silently gawking crowd of tourists thrashing about over Belize's justly celebrated barrier reef, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. And they loved it, not only then and there, but in their remembrances months later.
5 isn't too young
As it turned out, we were wrong about a number of things on that trip. But we were right about the most important one: 5 isn't too young to take children on an educational vacation.
What had given us the most trouble was deciding where to take them. Because we would be going in March, there was both an incentive and a practical need for someplace warm. After several weeks of weighing the possibilities, we opted for a two-week tour of Guatemala and Belize because we thought it would be a well-balanced diet of educational experiences: ecological diversity, foreign culture and ample wildlife-viewing opportunities.
Our first stop, the Spanish colonial capital of Antigua, Guatemala, an enduring masterpiece of 17th century ecclesiastical architecture, proved that we weren't going to score many points with the girls on aesthetic charm. Our second, the volcano-rimmed Lake Atitlan, home of a still-vibrant indigenous Indian culture, amounted to a called strike two. It was therefore with considerable trepidation that we made the all-day bus ride to Tikal, indisputably the most impressive Mayan ruins in the world. Surely, we reasoned, the girls couldn't be expected to appreciate the achievements of a 1,200-year-old civilization.
No, they couldn't. But they certainly would enjoy clambering up and down the plentiful ruins and encountering the resident wildlife with which Tikal, situated in a 25-square-mile protected park in the lowland jungles of northeastern Guatemala, is blessed.
Our two-day vertical assault on Mayan history began at Temple IV - or more poetically, the Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent - which, at 212 feet, is the world's tallest surviving Mayan structure. It took six wood ladders and a willingness to trust our kids' footwork to reach the crumbling stone ledge that looks out over the jungle canopy and the tops of Tikal's other great temples, all built between 700 and 900 AD. The view was truly inspiring: for my wife and me, for all the standard civilization-in-perspective reasons; for the kids, it was the prospect of all those other heights to scale.
And scale they did for the next 24 hours, including a ranger-led trip to the top of the thrillingly steep Temple IV to watch the sun rise over the jungle, a luxury we were afforded by having lucked into a vacancy at one of the three inside-the-park hotels. Their favorite, however, proved to be the pyramid of Mundo Perdido, which looked out over a thicket of trees that was home to not only two types of monkeys - agile and active spiders and their more sedentary, but vociferous, cousins black howlers - but a colony of equally cacophonous parrots and the odd, but mesmerizing, keel-billed toucan. That, combined with a curious clan of coatis (a cross between a raccoon and an anteater) that emerged from the underbrush at sunset, made Tikal a double-feature attraction: an enormous playground set inside an open-air zoo. Score two for education.
To the beach
By now, however, the girls were demanding a beach break from their studies, and we were only too happy to oblige. It took us a day to make our way - via public transportation - to the border and across Belize to scruffy Belize City, where we caught a water taxi (in reality a rollicking 90-minute ride across open water) to Ambergris Cay (pronounced "key"), Belize's premier tourist destination.
Wishing to end on an unambiguously pleasurable note, we had selected Captain Morgan's Retreat, one of the up-market beach resorts located several miles north of San Pedro, Ambergris Cay's colorful and decidedly low-key "metropolis." The beach itself left something to be desired (such as sand), but that was compensated for by a great fresh-water pool that became the girls' second home for the next three days - that is, when they weren't out behind our thatch-roofed cabana chasing wish-willies (spiny-tailed iguanas).
Because scuba diving was out of the question, we signed up for the full-day (nine hours) combination snorkeling-wildlife tour with SEArious Adventures. The highlight of this, undoubtedly, was swimming with the nurse sharks, but it could easily have been drifting alongside lethargic grazing manatees in Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary or scooping delicate sea horses out of the shallows of San Pedro Lagoon. In any case, it ended with a 90-minute shore excursion on Cay Caulker, Ambergris' smaller, southern sister, where life is taken even more casually (if that is possible) and where the girls chose some suitably nautical souvenir jewelry and we caught a sunset cruise (complete with adult beverages) back to our hotel.
Having declined the all-inclusive food option at Captain Morgan's, we simply walked down the beach to Capricorn, the island's - if not the country's - most touted restaurant, located right on the beach.
After a "reward" day of sunning and swimming, the next afternoon saw us substitute the ridiculous for the sublime as we took the water taxi into San Pedro to join the crowd at the Pier Lounge's World Famous Chicken Drop, where tourists place bets which number on a grid a live chicken will, er ... mark. Needless to say, the girls thoroughly enjoyed it, and we all appreciated the opportunity to wander "downtown" San Pedro.
Beware of monkeys in trees
An unexpected surfeit of sun (i.e., the kids were fried) prompted us to forsake the beach in favor of an extra day of semi-educational experiences back on the mainland. That required renting a car, but it saved us the $25 taxi fare back to the airport. Fortunately, three open-air classrooms of the type that had already proved successful were located along the Northern Highway: The Community Baboon (howler monkeys) Sanctuary, where a territorial male urinated on us from a tree; Altun Ha, Belize's best-preserved and reasonably impressive (unless you've seen Tikal) Mayan ruins; and the 16,000-acre Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, where we spent our last night at the Bird's Eye View Lodge, scanning the nearby lagoon for rare Jabiru storks, while vermillion flycatchers darted in and out of the bougainvillea.
Alas, it will be years before we know whether we inspired any lifetime passions during the course of those two weeks. In the meantime, we have the satisfaction of knowing that at least we exposed them - and that their show-and-tells were the envy of their kindergarten that spring.
KEEPING THE KIDS HAPPY
What we learned on our kids' school break: