by The Guardian
Belize is now a well-known destination in the international tourism market, so much so that the Belize Tourism Board had to abandon its logo, “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret”, in January of this year. Belize is not a secret anymore, at least not to foreigners, because we had well over a million tourists visiting Belize last year alone. However, for those of us who were born and raised here, there is much to be discovered, explored and enjoyed. The Belize Tourism Board is starting a new campaign to encourage domestic tourism in Belize. When the BTB wants to promote Belize as a tourism destination to new markets, it takes a press team from that area on a familiarization trip to tourist destinations across the country. Since the BTB is trying to promote domestic tourism, agents of the local press were taken on a familiarization trip from Thursday, July 18th, to Sunday, July 21st.
On Thursday morning, we boarded a rental van and headed up the Phillip Goldson Highway to start our trip by visiting the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve. A little after the toll bridge there is a docking compound. From there, we got on a boat and headed down the New River for an hour journey to the New River Lagoon. Ruben was our boat captain and guide. It didn’t take him long to break the ice. Ruben drove the boat towards the river bank to show us a brown spot on some trees and revved the engine. Immediately, a colony of bats came flying out towards the boat. After the screams subsided the group enjoyed the joke and the journey continued. Ruben holds a wealth of information on the area. He said that he has been taking tourists on expeditions to the area since he was twelve years old, despite their hesitance in the early years. Ruben is now a mature adult in his forties and he enjoys sharing his information on the area and the species that call the New River home. With Ruben, the hour long boat ride is actually an hour and forty minutes. He stops to point out different species of birds, orchids and other wildlife. During our visit to Lamanai, the weather refused to cooperate but we were sheltered by disposal raincoats that were provided by Ruben and the tour went on. The Lamanai Archaeological Reserve is located on the bank of the New River Lagoon. Our first stop was at the museum where Ruben gave us a background on some of the artifacts on display. Some dated all the way back to the Pre-Classic Period of the Mayan civilization but what stands out at Lamanai are the artifacts that date back to centuries after the Post-Classic Period which proved that Lamanai was the longest occupied Maya City. Ruben explained that Lamanai, which means “submerged crocodile,” was able to survive because the Mayas were farmers and the land is extremely fertile. Being far inland also didn’t hurt. From the museum, we passed the Mask Temple where special ceremonies were held. After the Mask Temple, we visited the High Temple which is the third highest Maya temple in the country. Dorian Nunez of Ambergris Today, Arturo Cantun of Love FM, Benjamin Flores of Reporter and yours truly were the four of thirteen journalists brave enough to climb to the top of the temple. From 108 feet high, we could see miles and miles of the green and dense rainforest. After a few minutes to digitally record our accomplishment atop the High Temple, we gently made our way down (crawled down) to continue the tour. Ruben led us to the Pok-A-Tok arena where he explained the rules of the game as we debated whether we would prefer winning or losing. The answer arrived at on the question of winning or losing was “depending on what sacrifice is needed”. Ruben went on to explain that in the Maya world it was an honour to be sacrificed after a Pok-A-Tok match – no one claimed to be worthy of such honour. We then went passed a residence where someone related to the royal family would live and we were quite impressed. The structure was designed with a drainage line for water to exit after baths. The bathroom could comfortably fit up to eight adults and the sleeping quarters were quite large. A huge plus for the residence was that it was built in front of the Jaguar Temple, which seems to have been the location of “the happening”. A lot of musical artifacts were found at the Jaguar Temple, which causes the archaeologists to believe this was the temple for celebratory ceremonies. Due to time constraints, we were unable to climb that structure. Before leaving the reserve, we stopped by a gift shop operated by a lady and her son from nearby Indian Church Village. There are many art pieces and accessories that resemble artifacts found at Lamanai. We then boarded the boat but changed captain since Ruben chose not to return with us. Instead, he called it a day and left for home towards Indian Church Village. Therefore, the journey back only took one hour and we boarded our van and left for Placencia.
From the dock near the toll bridge, we travelled down the Phillip Goldson Highway, unto the Boom Road and then the George Price Highway. Our final destination for the day was the Laru Beya Resort in Placencia where we would spend the night. However, we decided to stop in at the Sleeping Giant Lodge which is located at mile 36 ½ on the Hummingbird Highway. By this time, it was after 8 pm. and most of us were tired but the warm welcome from Eric, General Manager of the hotel chain, revived our spirits. Well, the warm welcome plus the fresh fruits plus the ceviche and the punch that awaited our arrival. Eric explained that the owners originally purchased the property back in 1991 and used it for their family home. They eventually added several out buildings to accommodate visiting friends and finally in 2004, they started the process of converting place into a lodge. Emerson, Manager of Sleeping Giant Lodge, took us to see a couple of the rooms. The River House was the first we visited. It is located about one hundred yards from the main building and overlooks the Sibun River. The two bedroom structure is a vacationers dream. It is made for four guests but can comfortably accommodate up to six. Any attempt to verbally describe the beauty of the River House would fall well below par. The feature that is most impressive in the River House is the roofless out shower with glass walls, surrounding neon green lights and jacuzzi. Honeymooners will definitely enjoy that setting. The beds are creatively set with flower petals and towels twisted into the shape of different animals. Perhaps we were all tired at that time of the night but nothing seemed more beautiful than those beds at the Sleeping Giant Lodge. The next room we visited was a Spanish Casita. There are three Spanish casitas at the resort. They are made for six but can easily accommodate nine adults. There is more interior and exterior space in the casitas. It is primarily for families and large groups. After visiting the rooms, we were escorted back to the main building where we spent some time at the Creek Side Lounge. The name of the lounge is based on the fact that a creek runs throughout to property. The name of the resort is based on the scenic view from the third floor where one can look across the rainforest unto the Maya Mountains in perfect range of the Sleeping Giant. We left the Sleeing Giant Lodge at about 9:30 p.m. and headed to Placencia.
There is not much I can say about the journey to Placencia since I was only awake for a few minutes of that drive. Based on such comfortable sleep I enjoyed, I can say that the new road provided a smooth ride. We arrived at Laru Beya Resort sometime after 11 p.m. Rene Nunez, Manager of Laru Beya, stayed past normal working hours to welcome us to spectacular Laru Beya. Our dinner from Wendy’s Restaurant was waiting for us. Everyone expressed extreme satisfaction with the food. I surely enjoyed my filet fish with mashed potatos and garden salad. After the late dinner, it was time to rest in the luxurious rooms at Laru Beya. The bed was nice but I chose to sleep in the hammock on the balcony of the third floor where the cool sea breeze and restful sound of waves approaching the shore provided a setting for the best sleep I have had in years. A day full of adventure was ahead.
Next week, I will tell of our day in Placencia where we went fishing and snorkeling with Splash Dive Center and dined at the Maya Beach Bristro.
Touring Our Belize - Pt. 2
Dorian Pakeman and his monsterous Bacali Jack and view from Owner's Suite
Last week, I wrote of an adventure that led members of the local press corps on top of the 108 feet tall High Temple at the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve and ended with the best view available of the Sleeping Giant in the Maya Mountains. On day two of our familiarization trip, we got to enjoy the best of Placencia.
There are few things more beautiful than the sunrise from a third floor sea view balcony at Laru Beya Resort. Various species of birds fly up on the trees that stand next to the rooms and make pleasant sounds that even a morning grouch like me can appreciate. Such a peaceful rise from sleep makes the morning much easier to handle. On Friday morning, July 19th, we had breakfast at Laru Beya’s restaurant. Due to time constraints, we had a choice between breakfast burritos and breakfast sandwiches. Most of my colleagues chose the breakfast burritos. Nobody warned them that these burritos were not like the ones in Belize City; therefore, they were surprised and intimidated at size of the gigantic wraps. The burritos were about eight inches long and two and a half inches thick very loaded! Respect to those who ate the whole thing. My breakfast sandwich featured fried eggs, cheese and ham captured between two slices of perfectly toasted bread. Both dishes came with a side order of freshly cut fruits and a glass of fruit juice. Immediately after breakfast,we started our tour of Placencia.
The first activity for the day was to go fishing or snorkeling with Splash Dive Center. However, we delayed that adventure for a brief chat with Jolie Pollard, Executive Director of the Belize Tourism Industry Association-Placencia Chapter. Pollard describes the Placencia tourism experience as “having village integrated into the tourism aspect of things”. She says Placencia offers tourists “a more authentic experience” because visitors are attracted to the cultural environment that provides a very “rootsy vibes” and a true ecotourism package. Pollard says that Placencia has only been a tourism destination for over twenty years and it is already one of the most popular destinations across the world. She says the BTIA’s goal is to ensure that there is sustainable development going forward.
After our conversation with Pollard, we went on our way to Splash Dive Center. We were greeted by Patricia Ramirez, Manager of Splash, who introduced us to the boat captains and dive masters. Ramirez divided us into two groups: snorkelers and fishers. Before we boarded the boats, we signed a contract acknowledging that we realize the dangers involved with such activities. Those of us who chose to go fishing then followed Edlin to our boat. Edlin is a cool dude who doesn’t talk much but when he does it is direct and informative. He has only two rules: stay on your side of the boat to maintain balance and don’t fall off. As soon as those rules were established, we headed out to sea. We travelled a little over an hour out to sea where Edlin says the water is 120 to 140 feet deep. I asked him, “Where will we be fishing?” Edlin responded, “Nature will tell us bro.” I did not understand what he meant by that but I soon found out when he spotted a flock of birds flying above the water. Edlin said to me, “There! There is where we will catch the fish.” He took out two fishing rods and attached lures to them. Lures are designed to look and move like the prey of a fish. Unlike real bait, lures can be used over and over again because they are made of a rubbery material. Edlin then took the rods and connected them to the boat. He slowly drove the boat in the direction that the birds are flying. In a few minutes, we heard the rod made a sharp whistle like sound and the line became extremely tight. “Who is first?” Edlin asked. Dorian Pakeman, Director of the Government Press Office, accepted the challenge. It was an epic battle between Pakeman and the distressed creature. After trying to reel in the fish for a good four minutes, he suddenly remembered that he had an injured hand. Now, I know Pakeman to be an honest individual but it seemed a little convenient that he remembered an injury at the time when it appeared that the fish was winning the match. Nevertheless, we rallied behind him and cheered him on. The fish eventually got tired and Pakeman reeled it in. It was a huge Cobali Jack and the biggest catch of the day. However, in the words of our Captain Edlin, I caught “the only fish worth selling”. Like a professional, I reeled in a beauty that belongs to the tuna family. Fishing with Splash was a remarkable experience. After we overloaded our icebox with four huge fishes, we journeyed on to Silk Caye for lunch. There we had a delicious barbecue chicken with potatoes and beans. Our lunch break was short because Edlin wanted to give us an opportunity to do a little snorkeling as well. We went just five minutes out from Silk Caye and met a group of sea turtles, sharks and sting rays. The animals were very friendly, except for one huge sea turtle who seem to have been in a bad mood. It was aggressive to everyone in the water and had to be pushed away multiple times by the snorkeling guide. The turtle ended our day with Splash on a sour note but the overall experience was incredible. After snorkeling, we headed back to Splash Dive Center where we spoke to the owner of the establishment, Ralph Capeling. Capeling said, “Our goal is to not only be the best dive shop in Belize but the best in the Caribbean and eventually the entire Western Hemisphere.” He says they offer special prices to Belizeans and many times when the tours are not full “Belizeans get to go free”. Splash also provides free dive lessons to youths from the area. Splash Dive Center was recently recognized by the Belize Tourism Board as the Tour Operator of the Year.
After our adventure with Splash, we returned to Laru Beya to freshen up and then we visited Chabil Mar Villas. Chabil Mar is Maya for beautiful sea. It is a guest exclusive luxury resort that blends the natural and cultural wonders of the Placencia Peninsula with the lavish and upscale lifestyle of the rich and famous. There are only 22 villas available and prices range from US$250 in the slow season to US$650 in the tourism season. The rooms are spectacular and there are at least 1,000 square feet of living area in each. The resort offers personal butler service and many other services that can only be found at Chabil Mar. There is wireless Internet service, fully equipped and stacked kitchen, flat screen televisions in the living and bed rooms, washer and dryer and much more. There is no special package for Belizeans but management is open to offer very special deals for honeymooners and family vacation. For honeymoon or anniversaries, I personally recommend the owner’s suite.
After leaving Chabil Mar, we went to have dinner at the Restaurant of the Year, Maya Beach Bistro. The restaurant and hotel is owned by John and Ellen Lee. Maya Beach Bistro offers a wide variety of appetizers, meals and desserts. John says that opening a restaurant in Belize “provides a unique opportunity”. It allows them to feature several Belizean dishes with their own twist. The Belizean staff has a strong influence on the menu and John says the success of the restaurant is due in large part to them. Chef John receives an overall A for variety, taste and serving size of the three course meal he prepared for our group. The shellfish combo was a spectacular appetizer and the slowly cooked roast pork was perfect. Maya Beach Bistro certainly deserves that recognition as Restaurant of the Year.
From Maya Beach Bistro, we returned to Laru Beya and retired for the night. Another adventure awaits us Saturday morning. Next week, I will write of our day in Hopkins Village and our cultural experience with the Lebeha Drummers.