“If the world had any ends, British Honduras (now Belize) would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.” -Aldous Huxley
Day 1 – Belize City to San Ignacio After visiting Europe two years in a row, it’s time for a tropical getaway, so we are off to Belize. Why Belize, you ask? For us, it’s simplicity. Formerly a British colony, the official language is English. Currency conversion is a breeze, as well – $1 US is always $2 BZ. In fact, USD is preferred, although you’ll probably get change back in Belize dollars.
Upon landing in Belize City, we track down our driver, then begin the two hour trek. Cruising along, all is well until, at some point, the paved “highway” ends and the gravel road begins. Mile after mile, our brains rattle in our skulls. Our teeth chatter. I have visions of hitting a pothole and a wheel rolling away from the van.
It’s turns out the vision was no premonition, thankfully, and we arrive safely at the resort hotel in San Ignacio. The friendly staff is quick to greet us with some sort of boozy, tropical concoction that seems to find its way right into the bloodstream on this hot, humid day. A light, tropical rain is falling outside, but it’s not enough to keep us from exploring by foot.
Interestingly, and seeming very out of place, a small casino is next to the hotel. A security guard brandishing an assault weapon is stationed at the front door. I’m not curious enough to find out what it’s like inside, but this vibe is definitely different from Las Vegas.
Heading into town, we walk down a steep hill, lined with a few houses that look abandoned, and some are destroyed.
The ruins of a home in San Ignacio, Belize are shown during the day.
Passing one house, I look back and see the front door is open. Beyond the entryway, someone is lying in bed, looking back at me.
A few minutes later, we find ourselves in the center of town, which is characterized by two-story buildings lined with shops and restaurants that feel sort of like a neglected, colorful New Orleans. Belize has been truly sovereign since 1981, and it feels like the country is still working on finding its way. Rebar sticks out of so many unfinished buildings, with no sign of when construction started, or when it might resume. Either way, here we are, ready to explore some of what makes this area unique.
Some locals recommended lunch at a place called Erva’s, so we check it out. On the menu are salads, stew chicken, pork, fried fish… It’s a good selection and maybe branches out a little too much when you flip the menu page and see pizzas and club sandwiches. We’ll stick with the classics here that come with rice and beans.
Janine orders the stew chicken and a bottle of the local beer, called Belikin. I order a chicken breast plate and a chocolate Belikin. Oh man, that beer is good. It’s very much like the wintertime-only Sam Adams Chocolate Bock. I have a feeling I’m going to be drinking a lot of these on this trip.
The food is delicious. The cucumber salad is fresh. The chicken is tender, cooked with onions, green peppers, and tomatoes. Whatever else is in there is a secret, and I savor each and every bite.
A plate of traditional Caribbean food is shown at lunch, consisting of chicken, rice and beans, fresh vegetables, and plantains.
Day 2 – ATM Cave Our first booking is a tour to the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave, which is approximately 10 mi. (16 km) directly east from town. Getting there is a different story, with a slow, bumpy ride down unpaved roads. It’s about like the cross-country, gravel road adventure we experienced getting here… but worse! At times, to navigate the road ahead, the van slows to a crawl. Carefully driving over potholes feels like being in a lowrider with a child adjusting the hydraulics. We bounce in our seats, and our heads almost make contact with the roof a few times.
Upon finally reaching the dirt parking lot, everyone takes a few minutes to gather their belongings, then we start the hike. The walk is long and muddy and takes us through a waist-deep creek. We finally reach a clearing and hang our bags containing towels and a change of clothes under a hut. Next, we strap on our helmets and walk just a little further to the cave entrance.
The entryway is a striking, incredible sight. Among the lush, jungle flora on the banks, the cave opening is like a big archway with deep, turquoise water running through it. One by one, we hop in the water, among the fish, and swim straight ahead to a boulder. From there, the long trek through the cave begins. At times, the passageway is tight enough that everything but your head is submerged underwater, and you have to crane your neck to fit your helmet through the rock ceiling just inches overhead.
Finally, we reach a point where we have to take off our shoes to protect the artifacts. Walking a little further in our once-white, now-brown socks reveals an old, rickety wood ladder. The ladder rungs are slick, and I can’t imagine this being allowed where we are from. At the top is a large, open chamber with shards of Mayan pottery strewn about. When the cave floods, the pieces move around and resettle.
The highlight of this chamber is the Crystal Maiden skeleton. The bones are fused to the cave floor and sparkle due to the calcite left behind from water running over the remains. It’s an odd but memorable and humbling site, bearing in mind the 15 sets of remains discovered in this cave system are thought to have been sacrificial victims, used to please the Mayan gods over 1,000 years ago.
The Crystal Maiden skeleton by Peter Andersen / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
Unfortunately, I have no images from this excursion. These days, cameras are banned inside the cave, after someone stood over a different skeleton to take a photo, dropped the device, and broke the skull.
Day 3 – Tikal, Guatemala Our next day trip is to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, located in a Guatemalan rainforest. The drive takes two hours. After ten minutes, men wearing camos are blocking the road ahead. Oh great. What is this? Are these guys military? Paramilitary? Are they going to stop us? As we slowly approach, they move out the way, and we move on. The driver says “They’re trying to stop cigarette smugglers.” You know what would be more convincing? Just tell me they’re training.
We arrive at the Belize/Guatemala border. The driver says “Okay, everyone grab your things. You will need to have your passport out. A driver will meet you on the other side.” This is all starting to feel very sketchy.
Except for the driver who abandoned us at the border, we all get through customs just fine. We don’t know where to go from here. No one is obviously waiting for us, so the group ventures out to the parking lot. Among the cars, there is one van, unmarked but similar to the one that brought us this far. We all approach it and asks the man reading a newspaper in the driver seat if he’s waiting for a tour group. He is. It turns out this is our driver. Thanks a lot for making us find you, buddy.
There are some interesting sights along the drive – small villages, a large lake… Chickens, goats, turkeys, and pigs run free. At one point, we have to stop so a potbelly pig and a feral dog can cross the road.
A pig crosses the road in Guatemala.
Finally reaching Tikal, we get parked, and our guide walks us to a clearing. He explains the history of the Mayan ruins and describes the jungle path we’ll be walking today. During this introduction, something warm and wet smacks my arm. I look to the tree branches above, and some weird animal, which looks kind of like a long-tailed, brown raccoon, has just crapped on me. The guide looks up and says “Oh, that’s a coatimundi!” I feel like the animal and I have already been acquainted. Last year on vacation, I took a direct hit from a pigeon. Great. “What animal will I get next next?” I ask aloud.
The coati that pooped on my arm makes its getaway.
The guide takes us through the forest. He spots a spider monkey, way up in canopy. “Watch out, they sometimes throw feces, so watch your heads.” I take note and consider taking an umbrella on all future vacations.
A spider monkey climbs from tree to tree in a Guatemala jungle.
Along the path, leafcutter ants cross the way, carrying bits of green leaves far bigger than their own bodies, from a tree that seems to reach into the heavens. Looking around, we also spot a single toucan, which happens to fly away the moment it’s identified.
Leaf cutter ants cross a path in Tikal, Guatemala.
No surprise, the rainforest is hot and humid. The hum from all directions sounds similar to a chorus of cicadas… or an idling circular saw. The deep, creepy roar of howler monkeys carries through the forest. The guide tells us one of the most dangerous jobs around is collecting leaves for thatched roofs, due to the poisonous tree snakes. I’m sure this jungle is filled with plenty of things that would love to turn us into food, if given the chance.
Occasional clearings expose the grand temple-pyramids that were centerpieces of this Mayan city until its decline 1,200 years ago. At one base are cylindrical, carved stones, on which human sacrifices are believed to have taken place.
The restored, ancient east pyramid of Group Q (a twin-pyramid complex) is shown at Tikal, Guatemala during the day.
It’s a challenge in the heat, but we opt-in for every opportunity to climb to the top of the temples (except for Temple I, which is no longer permitted). Wood stairs have been installed next to a couple of the pyramids, presumably to preserve the structures while allowing safe access to the top to continue.
Temple I is shown in Guatemala’s Tikal National Park during the day. The limestone, funerary pyramid was completed circa 734 A.D. and measures 154 ft. (47 m) tall.
Taking the stairs to the top of Temple IV, we are rewarded with a nice, refreshing breeze and a great view of the tops of other temples peeking above the jungle canopy. For any film buffs, this was the very spot where the moon Yavin IV was established in the 1977 film Star Wars: A New Hope.
From Temple IV in the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, Guatemala, Temples III, I, and II are visible above the jungle canopy during the day.
Our time here is about up, so we make our way down the temple and take our last looks at the park.
Temple IV is shown in Guatemala’s Tikal National Park during the day. The limestone, funerary pyramid was completed circa 741 A.D. and stands 64.6 metres (212 ft) tall.
Next up is lunch, which is at some roadside restaurant. They were ready for us, so this tour must stop by everyday, on the way back to Belize.
I see a fountain drink machine churning away inside the building and ask what they have. Ah, I’ve always been curious about the Jamaica flower tea, so I’ll try that. Oh, wait. We’ve been told, over and over and over again, to not drink any tap water in Central America. I run after the waiter and stop him, just as he’s about to dispense my drink from the fountain. “Lo siento, Pepsi, por favor.” “Oh, okay,” he says with a smile. Whew! We have a flight tomorrow morning. Maybe it’s an abundance of caution, but this also could have been bad…
Lunch is fine… The border crossing is weird again, but we know the routine… We explore San Ignacio until dinner.
For our final meal in San Ignacio, we head to Erva’s, yes, again, and you know what? Our order is exactly the same as before, it was that good. The waiter is more chatty with us this time. He asks our names. “This is Janine. I’m Justin.” “Oh, Jussin? Like Jussin Beaver?” He chuckles, and I’m really not sure what the guy is talking about. Oh! Ohhhhh…. Justin Bieber. That accent… “You know, 'Jussin Beaver' actually ate here, when he was in town. Everyone here was going crazy!”
We kick back, relax, have some laughs with our waiter whenever he stops by to check on us. The food is great, again. We knock back some more Belikins. We stumble back to the hotel. Goodnight.
Day 4 – San Ignacio to Ambergris Caye Flight Janine is sick. This is bad. Breakfast doesn’t stay down (or in) long. Being a travel day, we have a cross-country flight this morning, taking us to the island of Ambergris Caye (pronounced “key”). On the way to the airstrip, we have to ask the taxi driver to stop by a place that has meds and a bathroom. We have a sense the issue is food poisoning from last night. We haven’t had any ice. We haven’t had any tap water. I’m guessing the veggies in the cucumber salad aren’t rinsed with bottled water. This isn’t good at all.
Our small prop plane is really late showing up, testing our patience. The aircraft has no bathroom, so we are literally flying on a wing and a prayer… and Pepto Bismol. We have three quick stops at unpaved airports ahead, so this journey is going to take some time.
An airport is somewhere down there…
Flying above the jungle in a plane maxed out with a dozen people, it’s hot in here. It’s humid and almost cloudy in the cabin. Did a raindrop just fall on my head?
Sitting in the second row, a passenger is in the seat ahead of me, in what is traditionally the co-pilot seat. It’s weird but, so far, this has been the right choice, not enduring the brain-rattling ride again (and with a sick companion) on the gravel roads below.
Homes on the island of Ambergris Caye in Belize, near the town of San Pedro, are shown from an aerial view during the day.
Once we reach Ambergris Caye, we aren’t quite prepared enough to know how we will get to the resort/hotel. Fortunately, the hotel is on top of things. They have someone waiting, who hops in a taxi with us and, a few minutes later, we are directed to a small boat. It turns out the guy is the boat captain, and he navigates us 5 mi. (8 km) north to the hotel.
On the dock, a hotel employee greets us with warm, lavender-scented towels and directs us to the bar. “Go ahead and get your complimentary drink, then we’ll get you checked in,” we are instructed. The bartender gets right to whipping up our cocktails and starts pouring in the rum. “Say ‘when.’” I just smile, as the rum reaches the brim.
From there, we are escorted to our lodging, and an employee brings in a tray of soap. I didn’t know soap loaves are a thing, and we are invited to whiff all of them and pick out the scents we like. Upon making our selections, the woman cuts soap bars for us. This is awesome.
A room with a view…
We are taking it easy today. Janine needs to recuperate so we can make the most of our time here.
Day 5 – Caye Caulker The hotel’s boat shuttle takes us into town, San Pedro. From here, we hop on a water taxi and head 13 mi. (21 km) south to another island, Caye Caulker. I don’t remember how I heard about the place, but there’s a bar here called The Lazy Lizard that seems awesome. It’s right next to a swimming spot called “The Split,” where a hurricane ripped this part of the island in two in the 1960s.
The bar is know for its “world famous” (what isn’t these days?) Lazy Lizard Juice. It’s a bright green, frozen concoction. Tasty? Sure. Does it have booze in it? Allegedly, but I can’t be sure. We move on to a bucket of beers. I really love this Belikin chocolate stout, and a tear comes to my eye when establishments have only the traditional lager.
You can swim across The Split, but the current feels pretty strong. Plus, crocodiles are known to hang around the mangroves on the north side of the island. Plenty of mangroves are right across the way, so I’ll just enjoy the turquoise water right here.
Tours and transportation are the only reasons requiring us to maintain any concept of time. We need to take the water taxi back to Ambergris Caye, so we can then take the last boat shuttle of the day back to the hotel.
We get to the dock a few minutes before the water taxi is scheduled to arrive. We wait, and we wait, and we wait. Was it early, and we missed it? Island time feels real here, so that’s doubtful. We wait some more… then wait a little while longer. FINALLY, the boat comes into view. There is no way we are getting back to the island before the last boat shuttle of the day departs for the resort.
When we do get back to the island, it’s time to figure out what to do next. It seems the only choice is to hire a private water taxi, so that’s what we do. It’s an extra $40 we didn’t plan to spend, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and do what it takes to find a quick resolution.
Dinner is at the hotel, ‘cause hey, there ain’t really a choice around here. Now, I sort of regret the quick resolution and wish we would have stayed in town, had dinner, then paid for the water taxi back. The resort’s restaurant looks fun and nice, but I’m not feeling the vibe, or much on the menu. I just get an appetizer and a soft drink. When we get our checks, we get two – one for the food and one for the soda. For some reason, all drinks come from downstairs – where the bar is – and are billed separately from the restaurant. Whatever the reason, it’s dumb.
Day 6 – Snorkeling The main event today is snorkeling the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. All of this area is protected by a reef, so the water is mostly calm. The marine park is just south of our island and promises sharks, turtles, tons of fish, etc. We’ll see!
Our guide meets us at the end of the resort’s boat dock. Right away, this, like a lot of things around here, feels a lot less regulated than what we are used to. “You can swim?” “Yes.” “Okay, great! Let’s go!” I like the spirit, though.
The boat ride is short. We pull up to another small boat, occupied by one man, who I presume to be a park ranger. He chats with our guide for a few minutes, then we proceed to slowly navigate to a certain spot. It doesn’t take long before we are swimming among colorful fish, turtles, and stingrays.
A Southern stringray is shown in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize.
The guide has asked us to grab any trash, if we happen to see any. He takes us in a big loop from the boat, pointing out marine life and different types of coral along the way. He then swims way down and grabs something. It’s a piece of plastic. Good man!
A green sea turtle is shown in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize.
We get back to the boat, then head to another nearby spot – Shark Ray Alley. Right away, the boat is surrounded by nurse sharks. We aren’t really given much guidance, other than “Get in, if you want.” Swim with sharks? Of course we will!
I hop in, and it’s incredible seeing all this wildlife swim by. Janine hops in and lands on a freakin’ shark that has just emerged from under the boat! I’m guessing the shark is as spooked as she is, and it jets away. Wow, I’m glad that turned out the way it did.
The rest of the day, we do next to nothing… and it’s great.
Day 7 – The Day of Rest We do next to nothing, again… and it’s great.
Your author, Justin, doing next to nothing.
Day 8 – Home The time has come to head back to “the states.” The path: resort boat shuttle to San Pedro, water taxi to Belize City, flight to Texas, flight to L.A.
At the airport, we discover there’s a departure tax. We’ve never heard of such a thing, and I start digging deep into my pockets to see what money is left. It turns out the airline included the fee in our ticket price so, fortunately, it’s not another unexpected expense.
In reflection, the contrast between the perception and reality of Belize is pretty extreme. Travel publications highlight the beauty of the nation, through carefully curated imagery. That’s only a small slice of the story. The poverty is extreme in many areas. We saw dogs eating from trash piles. Some villages still don’t have running water. We experienced a couple power outages from the unstable grid.
On the other hand, Belize has an incredible and important ecosystem. There is some money here, too, and it seems to be concentrated along the Caribbean coastlines, demonstrated via beautiful luxury villas and pleasure yachts.
Nearly half of the people in Belize live below the poverty line. Despite, we only experienced friendly and generous inhabitants. But it’s important to know, if judging from travel magazine photos and reviews of eco-resorts alone, that the country appears to be trying to become a better version of itself yet has a long way to go.
“Belize and a Guatemala Day Trip – 2014” Written by Justin Kilmer, Edited by Janine Kilmer
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