here's a several part series by the Wandering Lobster from Maine, who came to Belize recently on an eight day visit. Lots of great images and very descriptive text, one of the best blog series I have seen done by visitors….
Enjoy! I just put a lil of the text from each article up, click the titles to go to the whole blog post, you will enjoy every one…
The Beginning of a Journey
Back in February one of my best friends who lives thousands of miles away in my second favorite state, Montana (Maine is obviously my favorite, duh), posted on Facebook that she just purchased a plane ticket to Belize. I’m not one to believe in fate, but I do believe in serendipity, or perhaps I just like it because it’s my favorite word.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be writing about my trip to Belize and Guatemala. So be on the lookout for vacation recaps, travel tips, and a boat load of photos! I was bitten by the travel bug back in my early college days. Unfortunately, like most Americans I thought travel was expensive and non-conducive to my intended life decisions, i.e. medical school. I wasn’t able to study abroad in school because it would have messed up class schedule as a biochemistry major. In retrospect I absolutely could have studied abroad and it is something I regret not experiencing in college. However, I did attend a two-week English course in Italy over winter break one year. Yes, English in Italy is kind of ironic I know.
Day 1: From Belize City to Flores, Guatemala
We arrived in Belize a little early. My friend landed shortly before us. Well, actually three planes landed within minutes of each other creating a bit of a long wait to get through immigration and customs (especially when you really had to pee!). I got stamped and met Lindsay on the other side. We grabbed a taxi to the bus/water taxi station to take the express bus from Belize City to Flores, Guatemala.
We ended waiting about an hour or so until the bus showed up. The express bus left around 1:30pm and we got to the station way before either of us had originally thought. We chatted with a Belizean local from the Southern part of the country about Southern Belize and the Belizean culture. Finally the bus arrived.
Now, based on the pictures on the sign and what the ticket agent told us, we thought the bus was going to be an air-conditioned custom coach bus with a bathroom. Nope, it was an old mini-bus from the 90s. No A/C. No bathroom. At least it wasn’t crowded and the windows opened. It wasn’t bad, but I expected something more. The bus ride took us from Belize City over the Western Highway to the border of Belize/Guatemala. The ride was uneventful for a “normal” Central American bus/taxi/car ride. If you’ve never taken road transportation in Central America than you’re certainly in for a surprise. There is a lot of honking and passing (sometimes with oncoming traffic, blindly, and on sharp turns and hills). Generally it’s just best to close your eyes and hope for the best.
Day 2: Flores to Tikal
We walked over the short bridge to Santa Elena and walked about another 3/4 of a mile down 6a Ave to the bus station. It was hot and humid out and we both were a sweaty mess by time we got to the station. We found the buses to Tikal on the right side of the station. A Spanish-speaking man brought us to the office and put us on the phone with a guy who spoke English. He came to the office a few minutes later and gave us our options. We knew we could get to Tikal pretty easily, but coming back from Tikal was going to be a bit harder because we needed to leave in the morning and make it over the border to Belmopan by 3:00pm. We hemmed and hawed over it for a bit because we knew we could travel to and from for cheaper, but it might take us a lot longer to get them and back over the border. The ride on the collectivo bus cost us $11 and we ended up with a private taxi from Tikal to the border for $47 each.
The bus ride to Tikal was actually fun. We traveled with about 8-10 other from all over the world, including two guys from Bozeman, Montana where Lindsay is from! Small world incidence #2 of the trip! The others on the bus were travelling for a tour and the tour guide, Samuel, gave us a good overview of Flores and Tikal and the Mayan culture and history. It was pretty cool and definitely made me more excited about exploring Tikal. At the height of the Mayan empire, there was over 120,000 people living in the area (including Mexico and Belize), while at the same time London only had about 50,000 and Paris had about 75,000 people. One of the biggest drivers of the end of the Mayan civilization was the lack of water and resources in the area.
A Quick Guide to Tikal National Park
If you ever find yourself in Western Guatemala then you absolutely must go to Tikal National Park! It’s like stepping back in time to an ancient civilization and seeing history unfold in front of your eyes.
Tikal National Park is located in the heart of the jungle in the Peten Department of Northwestern Guatemala. Tikal is located about 64 km (40 miles) from Flores and Santa Elena. Tikal was inhabited from the 6th century BC to the 10th century AD by the Mayan civilization. Tikal is considered the ceremonial center of the Mayan civilization because it contains numerous temples, palaces, and public squares.
Tikal is the largest excavated site in the American continent. The park comprises of 222 square miles of surrounding jungle. Tikal was declared a national park on May 26, 1955 after being originally named a national monument in 1931. The University of Pennsylvania spent 13 years from 1956 to 1970 uncovering 10 square miles of structures at Tikal. However, only about 30% of the archaeological site is uncovered today. Much of the structures are still covered by the jungle and earth.
Day 3: Tikal, Guatemala to Belize City
The park officially opens to normal tourists at 6:00am so we went back to sleep for a couple more hours. The sounds of the rain and the jungle coupled with travel exhaustion from the previous two days led to a great night’s sleep. We soon set out on the short walk from the hotel to the trail entrance where we paid another Q150 to enter the park. If we had waited and not used our ticket from yesterday then we could have saved Q150. Personally, it was worth the expense in my opinion. Instead of wandering around the trails and taking the long way to the Grand Plaza like the day before, we took the direct trail right to the Grand Plaza. As we started walking up the trail we suddenly heard this racket. It sounded like a mix of dying cows and mating gorillas. Not that I know what that sounds like… We both looked at each other and all I could think of was we were on the Lost island with the polar bear!
Getting over the border was fun. There was some confusion between our Spanish-speaking driver and our limited Spanish-speaking abilities. He pulled over and locked our packs in his car while he went to look for his amigo on the Belize side to drive us to San Ignacio. Lindsay and I went through the Guatemala border crossing/customs, which is just a line at a desk. We paid our $3 USD departure tax and got our passports stamped. We were done in less than 5 minutes and spent about 25 minutes looking for our driver. Finally he came back and told us it would cost about $25 USD each for his amigo to drive us from the border to San Ignacio. We told him no and that we would find our way. I gave him a $2 USD tip and we grabbed our bags and went through Belize’s border crossing. Again, super easy.
Cave Tubing in Belize
Cave Tubing Belize is located at Mile 37 on the Western Highway, which is the main highway that runs all the way from Belize City to the border of Guatemala. The tubing actually happens a few miles down the road from Cave Tubing Belize’s headquarters at the Nohoch Che’en Branch Archaeological Reserve. Caves Branch River is a lazy river that winds through a network of five limestone caves. It is believed that the Mayan used these caves between 300 and 900 AD for religious ceremonies to petition their gods to nourish their fields and provide bountiful crops and game.
First you will arrive at Cave Tubing Belize’s headquarters to pay and possibly eat lunch or you may eat after the tour depending what time you depart. Then you will hop into one of their 16-passenger vans to head the few miles down the road to the park. Admission to the park costs $5 USD and is included in the cost of the tour. Here you will change into clothing suited for water. I wore my bathing suit with running shorts and a tank top. The water temperature is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit so don’t worry about wearing a ton of layers or even a wetsuit. Your guide will hand you your helmet with headlamp attached and your tube.
Day 4: Welcome to San Pedro, Belize
As we were walking along the beach we saw a little chocolate shop and who can’t resist chocolate?! Belize grows cacao in the Toledo district in southern Belize. About 10 years ago Jo and Chris Beaumont, a UK couple, quit their London jobs and moved to a little island in Belize. They went to the annual chocolate festival in Toledo and came back to San Pedro with the idea of starting a chocolate company. Kakaw Chocolate was born and is now sold in a cute little shop on the beach in San Pedro called the Belize Chocolate Company. Lindsay and I spent some time looking at all the boutique chocolates. I picked out 3 of them to try – a chocolate peanut butter cup, a mint pattie, and a chocolate-covered marshmallow. All were delicious! I also purchased some chocolate bars and chocolate tea to bring home.
Lindsay had one of the local beers and I had a nice glass of Malbec. We enjoyed an appetizer of conch ceviche. Conch is a traditional island food and the South American ceviche dish is popular in Belize. Mixed together it was quite yummy. One thing I love about travel is being adventurous and trying the local foods. I drawn my line at insects, but generally I will try anything at least once. Being in the Caribbean I couldn’t resist eating seafood every chance I could and this dinner was definitely not the exception either. I ordered the breaded-pan seared grouper with chilled papaya-red onion salsa, plantain cakes, and grilled vegetables. Lindsay had the black bean crusted snook with steamed rice, wok vegetables and a caramelized-banana curry sauce. Both plates were amazing! I still dream about that dinner…
Day 5: Discovering the Beauty of San Pedro, Belize
We got back from our morning snorkeling tour around 1pm. I was hungry! We went back to our hostel to change clothes and grab our books so we could lay on the beach after a quick-lunch. We went back to Lick’s since it was right on the beach and the smoothie I had yesterday was delicious. I ordered a plate of the conch fritters, which is a traditional Belizean dish of fried conch. They tastes similar to fired clams. While sitting and eating at our table right on the beach, we enjoyed spending time with Patch, the very friendly dog that belongs to the owner of Lick’s (that Lindsay and I wanted to take home).
Around 7ish we headed out for dinner. We chose to walk further into town to check out the restaurant scene there. We decided on Caramba! Restaurant since they had AC! As we were walking downtown I was starting to feel really dizzy and nauseous. I ended up not eating and just ordered a cold water and watermelon smoothie. The thought of eating made me want to barf whatever food I had in my stomach. Clearly, I got too much sun that day. After Lindsay quickly ate dinner we walked back to the hostel to cover our bodies with aloe vera. Sun – 1; Lindsay and Katelyn – 0.
Snorkeling in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize
Belize is a small country with an area of 8,800 square miles or roughly the size of Massachusetts. However, it is home to the second largest coral reef in the world (the largest is the Great Barrier Reef located off the coast of Australia). The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System begins in Cancun, Mexico and runs a total of 560 miles (900 km) down the Belize coast to Honduras. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is located off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye and focuses on a little more than 25 yards (23 m) cut through the reef called a quebrada. Hol Chan is Mayan for “little channel.”
The entire reserve covers only 3 square miles and is divided into four zones marked by buoys: a) the reef, b) the seagrass beds, c) the mangroves, and d) Shark Ray Alley. The Government of Belize established the Hol Chan Marine Reserve on May 2, 1987 in an effort to control the often destructive fishing and diving activities that were occurring in the area. Shark Ray Alley was added to the reserve on August 31, 1999 to protect the area where numerous nurse sharks and southern sting rays congregate.
Day 6: Island Hopping from San Pedro to Caye Caulker, Belize
Right next to our bench was Yuma’s House Belize that looked quite lovely in a very laid back and hippy vibe. We checked with the owner to see if they had any openings, but she only had two beds in two different dorm rooms. We decided that we would try somewhere else first and then perhaps come back. We took off down the sandy Main Street in search of Bella’s and Dirty McNasty’s hostel, which were right across from each other. Secretly, I wanted to stay at Dirty McNasty’s because who wouldn’t want to stay at a hostel with that name! They offered free wifi, free breakfast, and free bike rentals. We checked with them, but decided to try Bella’s first before making a final decision.
Bella’s is a very laid back and had a free-spirited vibe to the place. We decided to stay at Bella’s because it was a couple of dollars cheaper and didn’t have the loud drunk partygoers that we saw at Dirty McNasty’s at 11am. We had to search around a bit to find Nicole, the woman in charge to book our two nights and pay. We paid about $25 BZ (or $12.50 USD) a night to stay in the bottom floor dorm room. We had the option to stay up in the tower, but I didn’t want to walk up and down the steep stairs.
Day 7: Exploring the Laid-Back Island of Caye Caulker
After canoeing to the split and back, Lindsay and I grabbed our cameras and headed to the split on foot to hopefully get some sunset pictures. Unfortunately, the skies haven’t been very cooperative over the past few nights and the sky was cloudy. It was still a pretty sunset, but not the amazing pinks, reds, and oranges that I was hoping for. While watching the sun set in the West, a dread-locked local came over and asked us if we would like some brownies to enjoy with the sunset. We kindly declined his offer knowing what was really in the brownies.
As the final rays of the sun set over the horizon, our stomachs were grumbling with hunger. We decided on eating dinner at Habanero’s Restaurant. It was a little more than I wanted to spend, but Lindsay had her heart set of it after reading about it in her Lonely Planet guide. And I must say the food was fabulous! Everything sounded amazing on the menu, I opted for a grilled chicken salad. It was yummy! We enjoyed our meal on the patio overlooking Front Street. Since it was off-season, it was quiet.
Snorkeling in the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve, Belize
After spending about 45 minutes hanging out with the sting rays, it was time to hop back on the boat to head to the reef. It was a beautiful day out, but it was windy. The water was a bit choppy, but still pleasant to snorkel. Gerald lead us out around the reef where we saw more fish and corals. The water was not as deep as Hol Chan, but the reef was equally as beautiful.
After snorkeling around for 45 minutes, we climbed back into the boat for a snack of fresh pineapple, orange and sodas (or water for me). Our last stop of the day was the high reef. I forget the proper name for it, but at times there is only a few inches of water between the reef and the blue sky. Gerald let us off the boat to explore the area on our own for 30 minutes. The Spanish woman didn’t want to go because of the windy conditions and her poor ability to swim. The Florida couple and Lindsay stayed near the boat as well. However, as soon as Gerald said we could explore on our own I was off. The reef was home to a lot of juvenile fish. I saw numerous long-spined sea urchins hiding out in the reef. At times I was so close to the reef I could touch it. I got nervous. Not only was afraid of destroying the delicate reef, but I was nervous I was going to touch fire coral. And I had no idea want fire coral even looked like! I just knew that it’s not fun to touch. After awhile I headed back to the boat so we could head back to shore.
Day 8: Caye Caulker Back to Reality in Maine (USA)
After breakfast, I said goodbye to one of my best friends. We spent a glorious 8 days together and now we have many memories for the years to come! I walked the 10-15 minutes down the sandy back road to the airport. I passed children walking or riding their bikes to school in their school uniforms. The children smiled and waved as I walked by them. I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. I was handed my ticket and waited in the air-conditioned waiting room. It felt amazing in the heat and humidity of Belize!
My small plane arrived a few minutes late and almost packed from picking up passengers from Ambergris Caye first. The flight was only about 7 minutes and I will admit that I’m actually afraid of flying! I’m not sure why I chose to take the island hopper vs. the water taxi, but the views were well worth it. Unfortunately I was stuck in the rear seat between two men. We were on the ground before I knew it.
I grabbed my bags and headed to the ticket counter. There was a line so I decided to get my ticket from the machine. I then waited in line at customs only to be told that I needed to go to the Delta ticket counter to get my plane ticket stamped by an official. So much for being sneaky and trying to reduce my wait time! I had no problems after that. Soon I was waiting for my plane to arrive to head back to US soil.