There comes a time in the life of every parent when they discover that their children no longer have a desire to join them on the family trip. Usually this occurs somewhere around the time the child is in his or her mid-teens often lasts for the rest of one’s life. I was very fortunate to be asked by my 25 year old daughter if I would care to join her on an adventure trip to Belize. Apparently she had vacation time available from work, but no travel partner to join her, so as a last resort, she asked dear old dad. I hope every parent is fortunate enough at some time in their life to be asked by their child to go away on vacation with them.
Corey said that she wanted to go to Belize and she sent me a link to a website for a place called The Jungle Dome. After looking at the site, I asked her why she selected this particular place. She told me that the expeditions that they offered were the types of activities she wanted to do, but that she was not married to the idea of staying there. The location of this lodge was somewhere outside of Belmopan, in the Cayo District, and is apparently a rustic place offering just the kind of excitement she wanted. After reviewing the site for a while, I discovered that there were only 3 guest rooms at this lodge. It occurred to me that while I love my daughter, we might feel the need for some external stimulation. If we were the only guests there, we would have only each other. I spent a great deal of time searching the web for alternatives that might suit us better. In my internet travels, I came across the name of Katie Valk, an American who has lived in Belize for many years and has come to know the country as well as almost anyone. When I called her for advice and to find out what she could do for us, her answer was simple. “Tell me what kind of activities you want to do, and I can book everything for you except for airfare from the states.” With that in mind, Corey & I made a list of the expeditions and excursions we would like to do and e-mailed them to Katie, who planned the entirety of our trip. Every one of her suggestions was a winner, and I have no compunctions about recommending her to anyone that needs guidance in planning their own adventure in Belize.
Our flight from Orlando brought us into Miami where we connected to a non-stop into Belize City. From there we took a 20 minute puddle jumper on Maya Island Air into San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, the largest and most populous island in Belize. We told Katie that we wanted to stay in a moderately priced hotel with A/C and TV and while we did not want to stay in the center of the city, we wanted to be able to walk there. Her selection of the Sunbreeze Hotel proved to be exactly what we asked for. When she told us it was right across the street from the airstrip, I didn’t realize that I could have thrown a baseball from where the airplane stopped and hit the front door of the hotel. Since the last flight lands at 6:30PM, noise was not an issue. We arrived at the hotel at 1:30 in a drizzle and since our room was not quite ready, we left our bags and strolled into San Pedro where we had lunch at The Reef. The most remarkable thing about the restaurant was that the flooring was non-existent. The walls were erected with a roof and stood directly on bare ground. Lunch was about $3.00 US each and was our first taste of the local cuisine. We walked back to the hotel, had our bags brought up to the room, which was quite spacious, unpacked, and then strolled south along the airstrip in the puddle filled roadway until we decided that in this weather we would be better off taking a nap or reading. Dinner that night was at the Blue Water Grill, the open air hotel restaurant. Corey enjoyed her Pesto Pizza, but my lasagna had peppers in it and I didn’t care for it that much. The service and presentation were excellent, and perhaps if we ordered something else I would have appreciated the restaurant more.
The next day we walked up the beach about 500 yards to Amigos Del Mar Dive Center. Katie had booked us on a two tank local dive and after a quick briefing, we boarded the boat and took off for our first dive site, Taco Box, which was 1000 yards off shore and just beyond the breakers. Visibility was about 100 feet and the coral reef was denser than any I had ever seen. In 85 feet of water, the colors were not as vivid as I would have liked, but there were several large grouper and a handful of 3’ nurse sharks which immediately came over to our dive master. Later we discovered that he had brought some chum with him to attract the sharks. I brought my 30 year old Nikonos underwater camera with me on this dive, but unfortunately, not a single photo developed. It’s too bad, because we would have had photos of Corey swimming through an arch and me petting the shark while it was held like a baby by the dive master. After a 45 minute dive, we all surfaced safely and spent our 1 hour 10 minute surface interval back at the dock. It was the first time in 33 years of diving that it was easier to return to the dock than to stay out on the water between dives. Our second dive was to Esmeralda Canyon, a little further ride than Taco Box. The dive was similar in depth and time. Again we saw grouper and sharks. There was one formation that resembled a ski slope, with the white sand replacing the snow and the coral formations resembling the trees on the side of the slope.
With the rest of the afternoon ahead of us, Corey put the time to good use by taking a nap. I, on the other hand, headed out to explore the town and began to walk north; eventually coming upon “the cut,” a river that is 20-30 yards wide and now has a new steel plated bridge spanning it. The cost for motor vehicles seemed a little excessive to me, but I guess that there’s not too much traffic and they have to generate the funds to pay for the bridge somehow. Anyway, pedestrian traffic is not charged to cross, and I made my way over to the “north side” of the island, which I think represents 70% or more of the land mass and is apparently relatively undeveloped. My destination proved to be several hundred yards away. I was headed for Coco Loco’s, a beachside bar tended to by “Wonderwoman,” a regular on the AC bulletin board who was kind enough to reply to one of my queries prior to departing from Orlando. She also extended an invitation to come see her if I got up that far, and while I really didn’t think I would make it, the opportunity arose and Linda and I chatted for a little over an hour while I nursed a Virgin Colada. During the trek, I passed a restaurant that had been recommended to me as having great local food, and for some reason or another, it was closed. Dining at Papi’s was one thing that I wanted to do but never got the chance.
Dinner that evening was at Wild Mango’s, a beachside restaurant not more than 30 yards north of our hotel. The owner is a well-reputed chef who had recently left a job at a first class resort on the island to pursue her dream of opening her own place. Corey had no appetite at all, so she watched as I ate a dish of “coconut lobster,” which while excellent in quality and preparation, was nothing like what I anticipated. I’m sure that there are many fine restaurants on Ambergris Caye, but Wild Mango’s certainly has to be considered when looking for a special meal.
We went to bed early that night in anticipation of our dive the next day. We were being picked up on the dock of the hotel at 5:30AM for the short ride to the dive shop. When other guests had also arrived, we boarded a larger dive boat for the 2 ½ hour voyage to The Blue Hole. This feature was at one time a land mass that was devoured by a sinkhole a bazillion years ago. The diving here is deep. The coral reef forms a perfect circle that in some spots is barely a few feet deep. From the air, one can see a 300’ diameter area that forms The Blue Hole. The captain anchored the boat a short distance from the shallows and we were briefed on the dive. The hole is formed by limestone that has sunk. The wall is almost vertical and fairly smooth, with some mossy vegetation in some places. It is perpendicular with the floor and extends straight down for over 100’ where it then extends outward forming a cavernous area with stalactites and stalagmites. Our maximum depth for this dive was 135’, the deepest I have ever been, and our bottom time was 7 minutes. The ocean bottom was 240’ below us. There was virtually no marine life except for 1 large grouper and a couple of sharks way off in the distance. When we all arrived back on board, the captain took us over to Half Moon Caye, a small island that is home to some birds and has a picnic area where we had lunch. We took a slew of photos along the beach and found some coconuts that had fallen from a tree. One of the divemasters showed me a steel rod in the ground and demonstrated how to break open a coconut. After he did one, I picked up another and broke my own. Then we cut up the coconuts and cut it into pieces for everyone to partake.
After lunch, we did two more dives of 85’ at Half Moon Caye and Lighthouse Reef. Both dives were similar with extensive coral (I can’t imagine that there is a place in this country to dive that does not have extensive coral) and we then took the 2 ½ hour boat ride back to the dock, arriving at 5:15.
One of the things I had read about on the AC.com bulletin board was Thursday night trivia night at Fido’s Sandbar. Corey and I had blocked out this activity and we were looking forward to it. We knew that the restaurant was a ways south of our hotel, but we weren’t sure just how far, so we decided to start walking at 7:15 and figured if the weather turned bad or we got tired, we’d catch a cab. At 7:55, a nice young lady in a golf car pulled up along side us and asked, “how far are you going?” When we told her we were going to Fido’s Sandbar, she told us that that is where she was going. “What brings you there,” I asked, figuring that here was some competition for the trivia game. “I own it” was the reply. Well, we both chuckled and we jumped in to find out that our ride was a mere 200 yards. As we entered the restaurant, we noticed only one table occupied by a family with two young children. We were hoping that things would pick up a bit by the time the game started, but just as we were ordering, the other party paid their check and despite being offered a chance to play, left the place. Corey and I enjoyed our meal but were discouraged that a heated competition was not to be. Our host was more than accommodating and offered to allow us to play against each other. We sat at the bar and had a couple of drinks playing and laughing for almost an hour. As we were about to leave, we could hear some thunder in the distance, and we accepted the offer of a ride back to the hotel in the golf car. It was a very enjoyable evening and if I get back to AC, I’ll try to arrange it again over a Thursday for trivia night.
On Friday morning, we had a little time to do some shopping and use the internet before catching a late morning flight to Belize City. We took a cab to the bus station and boarded a bus that would leave in 15 minutes for Belmopan, the capitol, and points further south. Our options had been to have someone meet us at the airport and drive us to Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch, which would have cost somewhere over $100, or to take the bus, which was $3 per person. The choice for us was easy. We saved $100 and were able to get a taste of the local way of life. The bus was a Blue Bird, the same company that makes school buses in the US. In fact, I would not be surprised if this bus originally was put into service in the US and then shipped to Belize after 100,000 miles. The only thing that was different was the paint job. After about an hour of traveling, we arrived at the main bust station in Belmopan where the bus was surrounded by a dozen kids ranging in age from 5-12, with a different food item in their hands. They were carrying the food over their heads, offering them for sale through the bus windows. There was pizza, burgers, and some local delicacies. Eventually, one of the kids opened the rear emergency door and they flooded down the aisle of the bus. Corey said she wasn’t hungry, but I decided to take my chance on a tamale. For 50 cents, I could be a sport, even if I didn’t like it. This was chicken tamale, and I had heard that the Belizeans use every part of the chicken. If you get a foot, it is considered lucky. I wasn’t that lucky. I think I got the back, and I had to remove bone from almost every bite. Aside from the bones, I finished it off sans the corn husk, which I had inquired about prior to leaving. One doesn’t eat the husk; it’s just a wrapper. After our 15 minute pit stop in Belmopan, the ride continued for about another half hour and we passed hovels in the middle of nowhere. Finally, the driver stopped and announced, “Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch!” Corey and I got up and exited along with another couple that was seated directly behind the driver. They had no luggage, so by the time we retrieved our bags from under the bus, they were long gone. The bus took off, and here we were in the middle of nowhere across the road from a gravel path with a sign out there that said, “Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch.” I knew that the trail to the lodge was about ½ mile, and we were trying to figure out the best way to get there with the bags when a vehicle came out from the gravel path and saw us starting to walk over. “You cannot walk there, get in.” It was a taxi cab, and we were glad to see it. We put our luggage in the trunk and climbed in. After 50 yards, we passed the other couple from the bus and stopped to offer them a lift, but they declined. After a few minutes, we arrived at the lodge, glad that we had not attempted to roll the luggage over the gravel. We figured that the cabbie would ask for a couple of dollars for his trouble, and I would have gladly given him a $5 bill, but when we got out, he asked for $15 Belize. It was the only time during the entire trip where I thought we had been taken advantage of.
Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch lies on a beautiful piece of property adjacent to the Caves Branch River. The gravel road stops at the main lodge, an open air community building with a small office, a kitchen, and a lobby area adjacent to dining area. This open air lobby has ceiling fans and electricity provided by a generator which runs from 6:00AM until 10:00PM. We were greeted by one of the staff who took our luggage and placed it in a cart. We followed Rudy to our cabana, a jungle hut with one bedroom containing a full size bed and a set of bunk beds. There is a bathroom with commode and sink. The walls have screening from the ceiling to about 3 ½ feet off the ground and the room is exposed 24/7. Lighting is provided by kerosene lanterns and the room is dark even in bright light due to the heavy canopy of trees surrounding the structure. Privacy is not an issue. Corey and I unpacked the things we thought we would need and then set out to explore the property. At the river which flows just below the lodge, there were some students of archaeology cleaning buckets and brushes in the river. They had just finished a dig not far from the lodge and this was their last day. By 4:00PM, I noticed that Corey had a pensive look on her face, so I asked her what was on her mind. She told me that while we had only been there a couple of hours, she was bored already. There’s not much to do at the lodge other than read, play board games, or chat with people. At this point, I was convinced that we had made the right decision to stay here where there were other guests, rather than at Jungle Dome. We watched some of the other guests arrive from their expeditions, and at 6:00, the staff came out with tortilla chips and salsa and people started to congregate and mingle with one another. A buffet dinner was served at 6:30 and realizing that once you left the lodge, there was no place to go but to a dark room, most people hung around until 8:00 or 9:00 to share experiences. When we got back to our room, we read for a while before conking out.
After breakfast the next morning, we were introduced to the guides who would take us on our respective expeditions. Corey and I were signed up for the Black Hole Drop. We were fortunate to have only one young couple on the same trip. At 9:00AM, we were herded onto a cart pulled by a tractor for a 30 minute ride down the main road and then off to another piece of property which took us past an orange grove. When the tractor stopped, we got down and donned backpacks containing our gear for the day and several bottles of water. There were three guides with us as we began our ascent up the trail though the jungle. We climbed several ridges during our two hour death march which, I’m sorry to say, was held up by one slacker, who lagged behind for much of the hike. The heat and humidity was appalling, and I should have been used to it from living in Florida. Finally we reached our destination, a small clearing which overlooks a sinkhole that was created thousands of years ago. We unpacked our gear and donned a harness and hardhat. Then, one by one, we descended by rope over the edge of a cliff that dropped 300 feet onto the floor of the sinkhole. One at a time, we grabbed hold of the rope and leaned backwards into the abyss so that we were at more or less a 45 degree angle and walked backwards down along the face. The rock formation that we were on was shaped like a mushroom. We started out at the top and as we approached the edge, our heads were extended out and we took baby steps down towards the rim, which extended about 15’ down. Once we got that far, there was no foothold and we dangled over the floor for another 285’ as we worked our way down letting out a little rope at a time until we reached bottom. When the last of our party arrived, the guides took out a picnic lunch and we lingered for 20 minutes munching, drinking, and congratulating ourselves on cheating death. The hike out covered much of the same trail except for the first section, which took us out of the bottom of the sinkhole and back to the top. It was quite a bit less strenuous as it was now mostly downhill, and I had less difficulty keeping up.
After arriving back at the lodge, we showered in the outdoor palapa roofed showers. The cluster of 4 showers is made entirely of leaves and 2x4s. The shower heads are metal buckets with holes punched in the bottom. It is rustic but quite enjoyable showering outdoors. Privacy is adequate even if there is someone else showering in the stall next door.
By 6:00, we were ready for dinner and scarfed down chips and salsa before our buffet dinner was ready. The food here was great and plentiful. After dinner we chatted with other guests before retiring to our hut where we read and slept the sleep of the dead.
Our second adventure at Caves Branch was a waterfall cave expedition. We were escorted along with 3 couples to the mouth of a cave where we donned hard hats and miner’s lamps. Working our way past geologic formations the likes of which one would expect to find in Utah, we stopped periodically to take photos of stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. As we neared the back of the cave, we were given instructions on how to scale the waterfalls that lie ahead. The first section involved swimming across a pool about 12’ wide and finding some handholds in the rock wall behind the stream of water that flowed from a ledge about 12-15 feet above the pool. One by one we watched and took turns swimming and climbing to the next level. Eventually we all made it up and repeated a similar process to get to a higher section. After making our way to the third level, we rested a few minutes before turning around and experiencing a real highlight of our trip…we jumped down into the pools below. Back at the bottom, I asked Corey how it compared to the jumps she routinely makes while performing at Sea World. She told me that while she had to jump from a higher height at Sea World, the cave jump was more exhilarating because of the fact that aside from the miner’s lamp, the place was pitch black and the bottom was obscured.
After everyone had descended, the guides took out some tablecloths and laid them on a boulder and we all ate lunch. It was at this moment that one of the young women that was with us realized that she was missing her diamond ring, which must have come off in the water. She was distraught due to the fact that the ring had belonged to her mother and here she was on her honeymoon and she had lost it. The mood had changed as we all felt bad for this girl who was inconsolable about having lost a keepsake which had both monetary and sentimental value to her. After eating, we trudged our way back to the mouth of the cave and then hiked out to the pickup truck which took us back to Caves Branch Lodge. This particular day was probably the most exciting thing we did on the trip.
The next morning we were picked up after breakfast by a private guide and driver which had previously been arranged for by Katie Valk. We bade goodbye to the staff at Caves Branch and got into an old Chevy Suburban for a 1.5 hour drive through the Cayo District and were taken to Actun Tunichil Muknal, a sacred Mayan site situated in a remote cave system. Our driver parked the vehicle and Corey and I departed with our guide for a 45 minute trek that crossed the same river 3 times in knee deep water before we arrived at the mouth of the cave. We donned our helmets with miner’s lights and swam and trudged through areas of deep water all the time wondering how the Mayans managed to navigate this with torches. We reached a point way back in the cave and were asked to remove our shoes. The area we were entering is where many of the artifacts were to be found, and as a safety precaution, everyone treds in socks only so as not to damage the artifacts. “What kind of artifacts,” you ask? Well, for the most part they are clay pots in various shapes and sizes. With the exception of 2 pots, every one of them was intentionally broken by the Mayans. This cave was used for hundreds of years and with each Mayan expedition, they brought new pots which were broken to allow the spirits to escape. The rest of the artifacts are skeletal remains; we were able to see about a dozen out of the 40 odd known to exist in the cave. After taking many photos, we turned back and headed for the mouth of the cave where we had lunch and then hiked back across the river 3 more times to reach the vehicle. After changing into dry clothes, we drove though the jungle to the border town of San Ignacio, staying at the San Ignacio Hotel, a relatively upscale property high up on the hill on the edge of town. The lobby floors were marble and our room had A/C and a TV with cable. Corey exclaimed, “This is just what we needed after days in the jungle.” She was correct.
We walked down the steep hill into town to do a little shopping and find an internet café, where we checked e-mail and surfed for about an hour. We also managed to arrange for transportation to pick us up at the hotel the next morning and take us to the border crossing. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant which was supposedly one of the finest in town. It was well appointed, but I was not overly impressed with the cuisine.
The next morning we were up early, as we were every single day of this trip. The transportation that we had arranged for was a taxi that would pick us up to drive us ¼ mile into town where we transferred to what was supposed to be a communal taxi that would take us to the border, about 12 miles west. We transferred our bags from one cab into the other and were the only ones there, so off we went for our private ride in one of the most dilapidated cars I had ever been in. After paying the driver, were virtually accosted by a slew of money exchangers asking if we wanted to change Belizean dollars into Guatamalan quetzals. Since we had none, we chose to enter with only the US dollars we had. The cost of entering Guatamala from Belize was about $30 each and after walking through the checkpoints on both sides of the border, we located the private transportation that we Katie Valk had arranged for to take us directly to Tikal. Our driver spoke a little more English than I speak Spanish, and we were able to communicate sufficiently between his English and my Spanish. The vehicle was a clean 9 passenger minivan which would have provided a smooth ride if it had not been for the roadway, which for 27 miles, was under construction and necessitated dodging potholes and ruts. When we entered the border town of Melchor de Mencos, I asked to stop to buy some ice cream. We found a shop and I bought ice cream for the driver and a pineapple creamsicle for me.
The ride continued for about 45 minutes when Corey told me that she would need to use a restroom soon. I notified the driver that “necessitamos un baño en vente minutos,” thinking that we would find a suitable place to stop within 20 minutes. After a moment, Corey advised me that she didn’t think she could wait 20 minutes, so I revised our request to “diez minutos.” But it appeared that even 10 minutes would be too long, so in a loud voice, for emphasis, I told him, “dos minutos” knowing that he would find the nearest possible refuge. As it turned out, we were about to pass the type of home one might see in south Georgia, i.e., the kind of place one wouldn’t want to live in by choice, and our driver pulled over to the side of the roadway, exited the van, and asked one of the women sitting on the front porch if it might be possible for the American woman to use the facilities. With a nod of the head from the woman, Corey and I got out of the vehicle, she with a sense of urgency, and while she was escorted around the side of the house, I looked at the children playing under the porch and took a couple of photographs with Corey’s camera. She returned in great relief after a few minutes and we thanked the family. I offered them a US dollar to show our appreciation and it was rebuffed until I insisted by saying, “si, para los niños.” A while later, Corey described the facility as being a hole in the ground. She said that while she was not happy about having to make a stop like that, she was glad that she gleaned the insight from the experience.
The rest of the ride to Tikal was a little less eventful, but we did stop at a souvenir shop and purchased some native pottery and chicle. Our driver pointed out to us the mountains, on the other side of a large lake, which looked like a crocodile. Finally arriving at noon at the park, we were dropped off at the lodge to check in. After leaving our bags in our room, we set out to find the English speaking guide that worked for the same company that our driver did. The people at the lodge did not know where he was, nor did any of the other guides that congregate at a location like prostitutes waiting for someone to come by and hire them. After a few minutes of conversation with the only one that spoke some English, it was decided that we would hire this fellow and pay him out of our own funds and worry about being reimbursed later.
The grounds are quite large and require a great deal of walking. Within 5 minutes from the entrance, we diverted to a route less traveled and came across a gray fox foraging in the woods. We stood a photographed it for 5 minutes until we lost interest and went on our way. A typical tour lasts about 4 hours, but Corey and I were satisfied to call it quits after three hours. We had seen most of what was there and the weather was starting to change for the worse, so rather than get wet, we thought we’d explore later on our own. We rested up in the hotel room and as sundown approached we headed back to one of the pyramids and climbed up to the top to get a view of the sunset. Unfortunately, for reasons that were not readily apparent, we and the rest of the guests that were there were ushered off and we hoofed back to the lodge where we had dinner. We read ourselves to sleep in beds covered by mosquito netting.
The next morning, we woke early and I watched Corey eat breakfast. Shortly thereafter, we were picked up by the same driver who brought us from the Belize border. He explained to us that the guide had come the day before at 2:00PM and looked in vain for us. (We were already touring the grounds by that time.) He gave us back the equivalent of $43, and we had paid $50 the day before to the guide, so it cost us a few bucks, but all in all it worked out okay. On the drive out of Tikal, we passed a wild turkey on the side of the road. The drive to the town of Flores took just over an hour and we got to the airport with very little money. I went into a gift shop and spent whatever I had in my pockets on some souvenirs and trinkets. After waiting a couple of hours or so for our puddle jumper back to Belize, we boarded the airplane with just a couple of others and were soon at the Belize International Airport wondering why we had to pay another departure tax to leave the country when we had just paid to get from Belize to Guatemala two days earlier. We didn’t have enough money to pay the tax, but they accepted a credit card, so we boarded our American Airlines flight to Miami with not a nickel between us. After we cleared customs, we had to hike what seemed like 2 miles to get to our connecting flight to Orlando. On the way, we passed an ATM and Corey pulled out her card to get some cash.
I can remember the days when the travel portion of a trip was as much fun as the destination. Sadly, those days are long gone, but if I ever get a call from one of my daughters to join them on a vacation, I’m going to do the best I can to figure out a way to go.