Monika's Belize Travel Journal

June 2006

Day 1 - Ambergris

After a long red-eye trip from Seattle, my husband, Jens and I, arrived into Belize City at 10:30 am. We worked our way through customs – which consisted of one person at a booth – and onto the terminal at Goldson International Airport. While waiting for our flight, I did what most people do at airports, people watch. The amazing diversity of ethnicity present in the tiny terminal just planted extra excitement for my anticipation about the upcoming days in Belize! We were called over the intercom to go to our gate, and about 12 of us were escorted out to our next mode of transportation, a twin propeller plane. The maximum capacity in this plane was 16 people, although, I think that is assuming everyone was slim! We all ducked our heads and made our way to an open seat. Off we went.

Flying over Belize afforded a great opportunity to see the landscape! Swaths of green behind us merging with what at first looks like murky brown water that as you continue towards Ambergris Caye, becomes a beautiful turquoise blue. You can even see the white line where the surf is continuously crashing over the barrier reef. The visibility is so clear that from hundreds of feet in the air, the outlines of the reefs and other vegetation are very defined.

We landed practically in the heart of San Pedro, the main city on the 36 mile long caye. Not having arranged a taxi pickup or transfer to our hotel, we simply walked out onto the sandy street, looked around, and picked a direction to walk in. We were right across from the bank, which we thought would be a great place to ask for directions. Unfortunately, it was closed on Sundays. I soon saw a young girl passing on a bike and I asked if she knew where the Holiday Hotel was located. She looked at me a little confused, then said “Spanish?” Thankfully, yes, I did know how to present our request in Spanish as well. The girl responded with a bright smile and gave us directions to our hotel that was only three blocks away. After We quickly checked in, flopped our bags and ourselves on the bed, and enjoyed the air conditioning for a while. We were traveling in June, which is not a prime time to visit Belize, and didn’t quite know what to expect from the weather. This first day was very hot and humid, and then poured buckets in the evening. Our hotel, located right on the beach, had hammocks strung up to enjoy to beautiful view. After relaxing for a short time, we wandered to the bar/restaurant area and found that a World Cup game was on. We sat down and began chatting with a young man who lived there about which teams he was rooting for. We all cheered for our teams until the game was over, and then I set about in search of Coke from a grocery store.

San Pedro is a fun little colorful town, with many storefronts with apartments above, sandy streets where many locals just walk around barefoot. Golf carts and bikes seem to be the main mode of transportation in town, except for the occasional minivan. Jens and I wandered around, amazed at the amount of coffee shops available, and many with free internet with a purchase. After emailing home to say that we had arrived safely, we continued on to find a grocery where we bought Coke and Pan Dulce. Back at our room, we enjoyed the sound of the rain and a nice shower.

Day 2 – Ambergris, Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley

This morning we rose early to walk outside and found puddles on the sand in the roads along with large potholes that had not been there the previous day. It is amazing the strength that a small storm can have! We set about to find our morning coffee, and then looked for a vendor from whom we could rent some bikes. After paying the $10 US for two bikes for three hours, Jens and I rode off to the south. We passed by many hotels and resorts, an Asian Garden Spa, a young lady selling hammocks in front of her small store, and then arrived at the beautiful white stone entrance marker saying “Victoria House.”

My first impression of this resort (which I had discussed with many previous clients) far exceeded my expectations! The beautiful lush green landscaping and very private and secluded entrance made it feel like an oasis into paradise! After visiting the grounds and rooms, we set out to bike back up to the heart of town along the beach.

Let me advise any who rent a bike in San Pedro…avoid the loose sand! After falling off my bike a few times, I began to figure out that the sand closest to the water was wet, and therefore a firmer surface to ride on. We rode past locals playing with their kids in the surf, others lounging on the beach working on their tan, and many operators offering fishing or snorkeling tours. We stopped at a beachfront restaurant for lunch of fresh tropical fruits, hamburgers and fries and watched yet another World Cup game. It is amazing what one sport can do to unify people of different cultures! The bartender would come out to the restaurant area to get a view of the TV, along with the hostess and the manager. Whenever Brazil made a goal the entire staff became elated.

We returned our bikes an hour early, and then decided to relax on the beach and read until it was time for our snorkeling trip. We walked up the beach in the afternoon, anticipating our trip to Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Our snorkeling trip was arranged through one of our local operators, the Tides Beach Resort. As we were walking to Tides, the clouds began to hover and the rain and wind started to blow in. It is a good thing that rain in the tropics is warm! We made it to the Tides, were fitted for our snorkel gear, and patiently waited in hammocks out on the pier for the wind to die down.

After about 30 minutes, we all climbed in the motorboat, and made our way out to our first snorkeling site, Shark Ray Alley. Our guide Guillermo, started to tell us about the sharks in the water, and how they were docile and would not hurt us. Then, he started to chop up some wrapped up meat and throw it over the side. Within minutes about 20 sharks were piling on top of each other on the side of the boat in an effort to get the meat bits falling down. After seeing this swarm of sharks, Guillermo then announced that we should get in. He advised that we not make sudden movements, and if we see a bull shark, to just leave it alone. He said all this with a grin on his face, so I was thinking “He must be joking…ha, ha. Okay, so we saw the sharks, now let’s go on to where we are snorkeling.” But we stayed there, and he started to put on his fins and jumped in with the sharks! I watched as he went up to one and gave it a bear hug, the shark just let him and didn’t seem to mind at all. I decided I would let everyone else get in the water first, just in case they were in the mood to sample an American tourist. The water was so much warmer than the air, so it felt good to get in. Our guide then took us on a winding path where we got to see a huge eagle ray, sea urchins, many brightly colorful fish, all different kinds of corals, and many other spectacular marine life -- I have no clue what their names are! It is very difficult for your guide to explain what is what while you are under water. Next, we hopped onto the boat and continued on to our next dive site, Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Once again we were eager to dive into the water, and began to explore the marine underworld. Our guide swam down along a reef wall, slapping his fist against his other hand under water, when all of a sudden a huge eel jumped out of the wall at him! He balked away quickly, a little nervous about such a close call. Supposedly the visibility was very poor during the time of year that I was there, especially since it was raining and overcast. I, however, was absolutely amazed by the different world that we were able to witness under the water!

We returned very wet and cold to our hotel, and began to think about our stomachs’ needs. After looking through the restaurant guide, we chose to try Elvi’s Kitchen. I had read previously in a guidebook that it was a “must visit” place. I admit, while a little informal in style for the meal prices, was an absolutely unique and charming place, with sand floors and a tree root systems adding amazing décor to the main dining room. Jens and I each splurged on some local seafood dishes, which tasted fabulous and made us both agree with the guidebook’s tip! We returned back to the hotel room for a relaxing last night on the caye.

Day 3 - Placencia

This morning we rose early, strolled out to get our daily espresso and pastry, and packed our bags to head down to Placencia. We took our short flight back over the turquoise waters and landed at the domestic airport in Belize City in a downpour of rain. We ran into the tiny terminal where we found some open seats and proceeded to wait an hour and a half for the hard rains to die down. Luckily, another World Cup game was on, and we all were entertained during the delay. Finally we started to board our plane. Later we found out that the other airline carrier had cancelled their flights for the rest of the day due to the storm, and that Placencia had received 4 inches of rain on that morning alone – not to mention the other 10 inches from the week previous. We arrived and were met by Deb Vernon. Deb, her husband and their daughter run Toadal Expeditions Adventures out of Placencia.

After a very muddy and potholed drive, we arrived at their place, parked, flopped our luggage down and read on the covered porch waiting for the rain to stop. When it finally subsided later on at night, we ventured out to find that nearly everything was covered in rainwater, sometimes up to 10 inches deep. The whole spit, which is not wider than maybe ½ a mile at its tip, looked like it could be washed out to sea! We ventured out to the beautiful white beach and watched the surf pound against the shore for a while, then decided to go for a little walk north along the beach. We must have walked for over 2 hours when all was said and done, because we ended up at the Inn at Robert’s Grove, which is about 3 miles north of the village. After visiting with them and seeing the resort, we settled in to have a drink and some complimentary tapas (chips and salsa today!) to relax before calling a cab to take us back to the village. The rain began to pick up again, and we spent the rest of the day reading and listening to the rain on the roof above us. With each drop, we were hopeful that tomorrow the clouds would break enough for us to go play.

Days 4-5 – Placencia, Monkey River Tour

The next few days we tried to do as any outings as possible whenever the rain would allow us. We took out a kayak and paddled around the lagoon side (between the Peninsula and the mainland) to see a different side of Placencia. It is amazing how different a city can look from the ocean. The water’s edge was lined with little restaurants, bars, and hotels that all looked so inviting. Practically every house or place of business had a tiny skiff tied to the shore. The main mode of transportation in Placencia appears to be by boat; they seem to greatly outnumber the cars in the area. We paddled around for only one hour and a half, but even still, I was out in the overcast weather long enough to get severely sunburned. I guess you can never underestimate the intensity of the sun when you are near the equator!

We also were able to take a day tour to visit the Monkey River. The rain had completely blown out the river, so the banks were entirely flooded, which we were told would limit the likelihood of seeing wildlife or crocodiles. However, we were hopeful and set about in a rainstorm towards the river opening. We picked up a local guide at the small town at the river’s mouth. He began to tell us all about “his jungle” and how certain plants are used to heal different common illnesses such as headaches, or colds. It was so fascinating, and we were so amazed that the jungle could be so useful! We were able to spot some iguanas perched on branches overhanging the river and some howler monkeys far off in the trees. At one point, we ventured off the boat and waded through the swampy bank to arrive at the base of a tree where a very noisy howler monkey was perched. Our guide began to howl at him, and the monkey would scream back, almost as if to threaten us about being on his turf! We saw a large hairy wolf spider, as well as little crabs. Thankfully, we did not run into any snakes or crocodiles, and I was grateful to get back into the boat. By this time I was so drenched from wading in the water that the rain really didn’t matter anymore. As we began to turn around to head back, we were all desperately searching the shoreline for any sign of a crocodile. After several false alarms – pointing at dead wood drifting in the water – we saw one hidden in the tall grasses right next to our boat! We could only see his head, and as we came closer he ducked under the water and swam away. Still, it was amazing to be able to get that close to one without having to be in a zoo! We returned to the little town where a great dinner awaited us. On our boat trip back to Placencia, our driver, Ian, stopped in a lagoon so we could try to spot some manatees. I asked him what I should look for. He said they would look like a stone or floating log (which doesn’t help me out that much!). The looming purple storm on the horizon, however, changed all of our minds about the necessity for spotting one. We headed back in to Placencia just in time to avoid the downpour! After a great seafood dinner at the French Connection, we settled in for the night, sad that oiur time in this quaint Caribbean town was coming to an end.

Day 6 – Hamanasi and Flores

Our next adventure began with a morning flight to Flores, Guatemala for a trip into the Peten region. But first, we made a stop in Dangriga to visit the Hamanasi Resort. What a beautiful paradise location they have on the coast! Their rooms are very nice, with a Caribbean beachside feel to the design and layout of the resort grounds. We stayed for a wonderful fresh salad lunch, then continued on our way to catch our plane to Belize City and on to Guatemala. Our flight from Dangriga to Belize City consisted of 3 people: myself, my husband, and our pilot (who was actually Canadian) in a tiny four-person single prop plane. What an experience that was!

Upon our arrival to Flores, we found a taxi driver to take us to our hotel, Casona de la Isla, which overlooked the beautiful Lake Petén Itzá. The tiny island of Flores, once a strategic stronghold for Maya leaders, is now a quaint and colorful island that welcomes visitors. The cobblestone and brightly colored buildings give the streets a certain charm. We also enjoyed watching a number of kids playing out in the main plaza soccer court. Jens and I strolled around the island visiting the different shops and perusing the many restaurant options for a good bite to eat. We settled for our hotel’s restaurant, as we could eat dinner out on the verandah overlooking the lake. We decided to turn in early for the night after making our arrangements for pickup the next morning at 5:30 am! We wanted to make sure to not miss a single thing while at Tikal.

Day 7 - Tikal

We rose very early to wait outside in the street with our luggage in hand for the shuttle bus to Tikal. I was surprised at how many people were outside waiting around as well. For what? I am not sure. But even though it was still dark, the street was not empty. We loaded up on the shuttle, and took a brief nap during the hour drive to the park entrance. When we arrived, we had to wait at the gate until it opened at 7AM and purchase our entrance tickets. It was another 15 minutes drive to the actual ruins. A troop of spider monkeys were hanging out at the entrance, jumping from branch to branch, looking for their morning snack. It was a treat to be able to see them so close! We were met by a man who offered his guide services to a small group of people on the bus with us. We all agreed, and found a place that would store our bags for a small fee, and set off on our adventure.

I think that a guide must really make or break a tour like this. There is so much additional information and history that the guide can provide that really makes the whole experience more understandable and fascinating. Our guide showed us so many plants and the different uses they had while we walked through root covered trails to each excavated site. We passed countless mounds of “jungle” that were buried temples or buildings that had not yet been excavated. It is estimated that Tikal was once home to over 100,000 people, and that only the small central plaza and upper class areas have even been touched. We were able to climb up some of the temples that the Maya used to offer incense and other sacrifices to their gods. We learned about their calendar system, which was surprisingly accurate despite its complicated method. We were able to climb some of the larger temples to see the view of the entire jungle canopy with other stone temples sticking through the green. The view was absolutely spectacular; mystical in a way (except for all the other tourists right next to me)! We continued to walk around the ruins, learning about the Maya water reservoirs, which made life at Tikal possible. We also learned about their underground food storage methods (or “natural refrigerators”), their ball games, burial methods for leaders, and had a chance to learn about the stelae used for recording main events. After exploring the Central Acropolis for a while, we decided we had seen a lot of the ancient city, and now it was time to catch a World Cup game! We headed back to the Jungle Lodge – a hotel inside the national park – and relaxed in their restaurant over lunch and watched France beat Brazil.

We waited for our driver from the jungle lodge in Belize to show up, only to find out that we had all been waiting together the whole time, but didn’t recognize each other. Once we all figured it out, we loaded into the van for the 3 hour drive to our next destination, Pook’s Hill. Arriving at Pook’s Hill, we drove through the jungle to find a beautiful clearing with cabanas perched on the hill overlooking a gorgeous landscape. This lodge not only has some of the best birding available due to its raised open air lodge, but also has an authentic ancient Maya site right on its property! We settled into our cabana and joined the other guests down in the main lodge for dinner. The cozy atmosphere at Pook’s and hospitality really helped to make us feel welcomed and at rest with our new surroundings!

Day 8 – Pook’s Hill, Rio Macal, Xunantunich

This morning we woke early to a beautiful sunrise. We met up with our guide for the day, Mike, and left in the van to eat breakfast with one of five sisters who helped revive the art of Maya slate carvings. After being served a traditional Maya meal using natural foods from their farm, Maria showed us a demonstration of the carvings she and her sisters began to create when they were young. She explained to us the history of her culture, and the sisters’ desire to revive it. Maria then showed us their museum full of carvings they had done. After this, we drove back to the San Ignacio area to find a put in at the River Macal for our canoe, and then set off in search of wildlife along the shores.

I am very amazed at how well Mike was able to spot some large iguanas, because they all blended very well with the trees they were hanging in. It must take a very trained eye to see them, but they were extremely huge once we saw them, almost the body size of cats, with long tails. Every once in a while, one would jump off its branch and into the water below with a lot splash. We were able to see many birds along the river, including comorants, and bats hanging underneath rock hangs.

After our canoe trip, we stopped at Clarissa Falls for a great Belizean meal next to the river and nearby waterfalls. We then proceeded on to the ruins of Xunantunich, which are only accessible after taking a hand-cranked ferry across the river! We hiked up the small hill to the ruins, climbed the highest temple and enjoyed the most spectacular view of the entire valley around the peak of this mountaintop. You could see with unobstructed view all the way around! No wonder the Maya chose this peak to build their main capital on. It would be very easy to guard with such a view of the territory surrounding it. The ruins at Xunantunich were very ornate, with some re-constructed friezes on the sides of the temples, as well as a very well laid out museum and information house with maps and pictures to help give the history of the ruin site. Xunantunich was one of the last of the ancient cities to be abandoned by the Maya.

Day 9 – Actun Tunichil Muknal

After two previous nights of hard rainstorms, our guide, Ben Cruz, told us that he might not be able to take us on the caving expedition due to the river height. We would have to cross this river four times before even arriving to the cave entrance, and sometimes the current is so strong that this is not possible. After begging and pleading that we try it anyway, we set out for the two-hour walk to the cave entrance.

Upon arriving to the first river crossing, Ben decided that it was low enough to traverse, which made Jens and I absolutely elated to be able to proceed on the adventure. We arrived finally at the cave entrance, a foreboding sight with its deep pool and dark mouth. We got all of our gear ready, and jumped into the water for the swim into the cave. Along the way Ben pointed out the formations, and places where it is believed the Maya altered the naturally shape to create an ancestor’s face with the shadow. We continued scrambling over large boulders, through narrow cracks, and in water waist deep – 500 ft into the cave until we came to one large boulder in the middle of the water flow. The boulder was the perfect height for a step up. We climbed up the rock, and into the main cavern area, where we began to follow Ben closely behind so as not to disturb or destroy any pottery along the path. After removing our shoes and putting down our bags, so as not to accidentally hurt anything, we followed Ben on a winding maze into a huge cavern where the Maya used to pray and make sacrifices to their gods. We saw some full human remains, fully intact pieces of pottery, pottery half-way calcified, and gorgeous formations and crystals all throughout this natural auditorium. After exploring the great cavern’s secrets, we descended into the water again and began our climb out to daylight. This truly was the perfect ending to an already amazing trip to Belize!