Beth and Aaron - Belize 2005
Maya Mountains and Ambergris Caye
I have to admit, I am an extremely anxious traveler. I cannot put my foot on it, but I am sure it has something to do with the idea of the unexpected and the notion of being completely removed from my element – ironically some of the things I love most about traveling.
However, if you are even slightly as anxious about traveling as I am, I can hardly think of a better location, a more laid-back atmosphere, a more inviting people or region than Belize. From the moment Aaron and I arrived in the tiny airport of Belize City, I was immediately at ease. This continued throughout our travels. Everywhere we went, every person we came across was welcoming and refused to allow the high-strung Beth to get the best of the situation. Her only appearance on this 8-day Belize tour was on the return flight home when American Airlines made us wait in the
Miami airport for eight hours, and an additional one and a half hours on the plane before it finally departed. I’m sure they had their reasons…
June 15, 2005 -- Arrive Belize City. Overnight Pook's Hill
My husband Aaron (also a fellow Adventure Lifer) and I had not been on a husband/wife-only vacation since our trip to Mexico two years earlier and I was SOOO excited. We flew from Missoula to Minneapolis and dropped our daughter off with the grandparents and then flew to Dallas, and a quick little jump to Belize City. It was literally a five-minute wait through customs at the tiny Belize airport and we promptly found our driver, Mike, waiting for us just outside the terminal. Mike was delightful. He was as quick to smile as he was to share with us his knowledge of the area. As we drove, the landscape quickly changed from lush flat fields, to dense rainforest as we made our way to the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Aaron and I were staying at Pook's Hill; it was roughly an hour and a half drive until Mike turned off the highway onto a small village road that would eventually take us to Pook's. A number of Pook's staff come from this local village, including Mike. He had a friendly wave to offer people as we drove through the village. "There’s the tourist tree," Mike laughed just as we entered the lodge and pointed to a tall tree with red bark that was peeling from the trunk. Aaron sheepishly smiled -- with Irish grandparents, he has a lot of experience with redness and peeling.
We were greeted by Vicki Snadden and her husband Ray, owners of Pook's Hill. I liked them immediately. Vicki showed us around the grounds while Mike brought our bags to our cabana. (Aaron and I were able to pack in just two backpacks – this included our snorkeling gear for the Cayes and our camera gear. I highly recommend you pack light; it makes for very efficient and easy travel.) We visited the iguana rescue project on the grounds, and cooled off with a drink at the lounge and watched humming birds breeze by. With some time before dinner, we walked the nearby paths into the surrounding jungle and tried our luck at a little bird watching. I even had time for a well-desired nap while Aaron photographed the grounds.
That evening we had dinner with Vicki and Ray and other guests of the lodge. Being a vegetarian, I am always prepared to live on bread and butter, but Pook's did an excellent job offering dishes for all diners. The food was great and served home-style. It made for easy conversation and a charming atmosphere. That evening we were also introduced to our guide, Ben. Ben and Aaron share the same sense of humor, extremely dry, and – gullible as I am – I knew I was in for it. By the end of our time with Ben I was finally on to him, but not before I fell for many erroneous "facts" and sly sarcasm. For example: there is no such thing as a double-billed toucan, no matter what Ben may tell you (Yes, I fell for this). I'll get you yet Ben Cruz! Ben would turn out to be a phenomenal guide and friend. That night, Ben gave us a briefing on tomorrow's tour of the Actun Tunichil Cave.
We also shared dinner that night with a group of archaeologists, headed by Christophe Helmke. They were an interesting and smart grouping of Germans, French, Australians and I believe an Englishman or two. They had been working on a dig in the middle of the grounds at Pook's – an ancient Maya sweatbath, extremely rare and extremely fascinating. Earlier that day the archaeologists let Aaron and I poke our heads in on the dig. I was a little awestruck and could offer nothing better than to comment, "Wow, this is so amazing." Well, it was amazing.
That night, it stormed and I slept like a baby.
July 16 – The Unforgettable Actun Tunichil Cave
We rose early to try and beat the river's rising water. You have to cross the Roaring River on four separate occassions on the hike to the Actun Tunichil Cave; it was a very wet season in Belize and the storm the previous night left our tour in question. Thankfully, Ben had surveyed the river and gave the OK.
We had breakfast of eggs, oatmeal, toast, beans, granola and juice. Wonderful. I was also looking forward to a cup of coffee (like any good American). Cup full to the rip, I took a deep sip and I commented, "This is fantastic coffee!" Ben laughed, "It’s just Folgers." Aaron thought that was pretty funny as well. So maybe Folgers tastes better in Belize… Now that I think of it, this could have been one of Ben’s little jokes.
From Pook's, the three of us hiked through the foothills of the Maya Mountains, into the jungle. I carried a backpack full of our lunch and dry pack, Ben carried our spelunking gear, and Aaron carried our camera equipment. We spotted a number of birds including a couple toucans and a tiger crane – we also spotted a fat toad and a number of millipedes along the path. It was a beautiful morning – mist was rising off the hillsides. Ben pointed out that the mist helped to indicate where there are caves. The caves are scattered throughout the region; their numbers are quite impressive. It was an easy hour and 45-minute hike to the mouth of Actun Tunichil Cave. I was totally excited!!!!
To enter the cave you must swim across a pool roughly 30 feet wide. It was chilly, but growing up swimming in Lake Superior I had no problem with the water temperature. Aaron, on the other hand, was not as forthcoming. But he put on the brave face and jumped in. Dress as you like for this tour, but just note that you will be wet for essentially 6 hours. I wore a cotton t-shirt and a pair of swim trunks. For the most part I stayed warm, but did get a little chilly near the end of the tour. To do it again, I may opt for a quick-dry synthetic top. An excellent pair of water shoes is also a must for this trip. At times we were climbing over rock, other times we were wading in thigh-high water or clutching to the sides of rock as the water reached 8+ feet deep. As we made our way through the cave, we were spoiled with fantastic cave formations: hanging stalactites and towering stalagmites that literally sparkled in the light from our helmets. Ben showed us exactly were to step, where to lay our hands, to prevent further disruption of the cave formations. As delicate as they are beautiful, it is important to respect your surroundings. Guides require a special license to lead tours in Actun Tunichil. Ben has been leading tours in the cave for years, and his experience shows. Manmade figures also decorated the cave; ancient carvings of a jaguar and a woman with child came to life as Ben shined his spotlight over the rock formations, casting a dramatic shadow within the cave. Aaron and I would have never noticed them without Ben's thoughtful eye.
It took us about two hours to reach The Cathedral, the central area of Actun Tunichil. The Mayan believed that caves were the entrance to the underworld, and as such, sacred. Entering The Cathedral, I could completely understand this; there is definitely a spirit, an essence, to the cave. You have to climb up to the entrance. We left our shoes at the entrance of The Cathedral; stocking feet are required to explore this area to keep you literally on your toes and prevent – as much as possible – disturbance to the area. Unfortunately, not everyone has been so careful. Broken artifacts attest this fact. Again, Ben did an excellent job guiding us through the area; we shadowed his footsteps as close as possible.
We were carefully guided to the skeleton remains of a seven-year-old boy, as well as a number of infant skeletons. We passed clusters of ancient clay pots. Aaron, a ceramist himself, was particularly fascinated with these Mayan artifacts. I was speechless; Ben did well answer my questions before they even reached my lips. On our hand and knees we crawled into secluded regions where enormous clay pots lay hidden for centuries. Ben told us that 13 skeletal remains have been found so far in Actun Tunichil. We saw five of these, including the "Crystal Maiden" who once graced the cover of National Geographic. Her remains are of particular interest because they have been remarkably well preserved. And unlike the other skeletons within the cave whose remains are in pool-like forms (pool-like is a very accurate description, because it was actual pools of water that filled the cave and drained away, leaving the bodies in small-circular gatherings) the Maiden is still lying in the position of her death. Her body easily distinguishable – arms, legs, fingers – that remind her visitors of their own mortality. This tour is very raw, very authentic. There is nothing "Disney" about it. We were completely alone in the cave, I felt almost as if we were the very first people to stumble on these remains. All except a roped-off region protecting the "Crystal Maiden" there is little evidence of modern-day visitors.
Before leaving The Cathedral we checked our shoes for spider-scorpions. Ugly little cave dwellers, Ben pointed one out just to my right, who got a little to close for comfort.
It is hard to give an accurate description of Actun Tunichil without becoming overly romantic. We spent nearly two hours exploring The Cathedral, and almost six hours within the cave itself. I could have easily spent another six. This tour is very dramatic and mysterious, and very exciting. Ben is of Mayan descent and I could feel his sense of respect for the cave and his ancestors. I was privileged by the experience.
Before hiking back to Pook's the three of us enjoyed a picnic lunch. Back at the lodge, Aaron and I poked around the tiny library and enjoyed our surroundings until dinner. A completely excellent day.
June 17 – Caracol, Rio Frios, Rio on Pools, and…Tarts and Vicars?
Another early rise-and-shine morning in Belize. Today we had a visit to the Maya ruins of Caracol planned, but Ben was also to surprise us with a stop at Rio Frios and Rio on Pools. Caracol is located near the Guatemala boarder; it is the largest Maya site in Belize. We had the park almost completely to ourselves. There was one small group of a handful of American travelers, and a small Indie-film crew. While a visit to Guatemala's Tikal is also easily arranged from Pook's Hill, I really enjoyed the solitude of Caracol. The ruins of Caracol are certainly worth it as well – I was very impressed by the grandeur of the temples as well as the size of the grounds. From the top of the Caana Temple, you can see Guatemala in the horizon – not to mention the fabulous view of Caracol's surrounding jungle. Ben, an experienced birder, brought along his telescope, and filled us in the surrounding treetop wildlife as well as the history of the ruins. And, while I had my heart set on seeing a howler monkey, they remained hidden. I had to settle for hearing a howler monkey instead.
After Caracol, Ben drove us to Rio Frios Cave. I was so overwhelmed by the size of this enormous cave I started to laugh. It is enormous – did I already say that? Well, it is. A Batman fan and comic book nerd at the core, Aaron was in search of the winged mammals. There is a trail leading to the cave and natural pools that are popular for swimming. Just as we were leaving, a local school bus pulled up, and a herd of Belizean tweenagers came out. It was a good time to leave.
Rio on Pools was our next treat. It is a beautiful location made up of striking granite rocks and waterfalls. It was a perfect place for a cooling dip and a popular stop for many Belize travelers – we were no exception. Aaron and I (Ben made himself comfortable on a nearby rock) shared the pools with a family, but otherwise had the place to ourselves. There are nearby warning signs stating "Careful, rocks slippery." My bruised thigh could vouch for that. "Careful," Aaron said. Thanks for the warning, Honey.
We stopped for a drink at Francis Ford Coppola's resort, Blancaneaux Lodge, in the pine forest region of western Belize. A foreign beetle has devastated this region. The dead ghostly trunks of the once flourishing pines stretch out for miles and miles. If you have ever come across a region impacted by a forest fire, this is exactly what it looks like. "It will take at least sixty years for the region to even begin to resemble its past self," Ben stated. Let's hope for a quick recovery. At Blancaneaux's lounge I orders Cokes for us in broken Spanish, and Aaron mocked me by speaking in broken German. Ben bested us all with his fluent English, Spanish and Mayan.
That evening Pookis was hosting a party for a volunteer group from Great Britain that was just wrapping up a month-long stint in Belize and Guatemala. The Brits celebrated with a Tarts and Vicar’s party. Aaron and I were invited to join in the festivities, even though we were not dressed for the occasion. Unfortunately, I had left my "tart" attire back in Missoula. But next time ol' chums, I promise! It was the eve of my 26th birthday, and I could not have thought of a better place or a more unique group of people to ring in 26! The volunteers also hired a local Garifuna band to come and perform. Garifuna are local Belizeans, whose ancestors are escaped African slaves and Caribbean Islanders. Their rhythmic music is widely recognized the celebrated. I thoroughly enjoyed their performance. And yes, I danced.
June 18 – To Ambergris Caye – Happy Birthday Beth!
Aaron and I spent the morning repacking our bags and saying our goodbyes to Vick and Ray and the rest of the Pook's staff. The staff surprised me with a hat and t-shirt for my birthday – items which Aaron has now taken over as his own. I assured Pook's we would be back again soon. Ben drove us back to Belize City where we were to catch our water taxi to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. I gave Ben a great hug and Aaron and I thanked him for giving us a handful of "firsts."
Aaron and I bought our tickets for the water taxi at the marina. It was US$30 for two people from Belize City to San Pedro – the money conversion is two Belize dollars for one US dollar, and US dollars are accepted pretty much everywhere. Note: any change you receive will be in Belize currency.
It takes an hour and 45 minutes to take a water taxi to Ambergris from Belize City. While more affordable than taking a small charter flight, it was raining that afternoon, and the water taxis are open-air. And someone on the boat suggested that we cover in a large blue tarp to keep dry. It whipped and flapped in my face the entire ride. The stinging rain in my face might have only slightly been worse. Anyway, we made it to the island in one piece and dry.
I had made previous reservations for us at Ruby's Inn. This is not a common hostel that we work with, but it was affordable and right on the beach – literally a two-minute walk from were the water taxi docked. When I told Vicki we were going to be staying at Ruby's, she was very excited. Turns out it is her favorite place to stay while visiting San Pedro. Accommodations are very basic, but you have clean sheets, a large osculating fan (an absolute necessity – it was hot hot hot), a good-sized room and a private bath with hot water. The staff of Ruby's is also incredibly sweet and excellent hosts. I was particularly fond of a girl named Tiffany who helped me with the reservations. To give you an example of their wonderful service: Aaron had contacted Ruby's before our trip to surprise me with a birthday cake upon our arrival. The staff supplied us with a HUGE home-baked cake that could have served twenty hungry people, easy. They brought it to our room, candle lit and all. Aaron and I had two plate-sized pieces, then shared the rest with the gals at Ruby's.
We spent the afternoon reading and playing cards and found a nice nearby restaurant for dinner. That night a storm rocked the island and took out the power across all of Ambergris. Aaron and I stood on the balcony and watched a terrific lighting show. A little scary – a lot romantic.
June 19 – Ambergris – The Tides
Aaron and I spent a leisurely morning having breakfast and strolling along the beach. We got to know the shoreline very well – walking back and forth for hours. While San Pedro is obviously economically supported by the tourism industry, its core is all Belize. For example, while the beachfront is lined with restaurants and travel accommodations (which I should note are mainly locally-owned), a local cemetery, church and schoolyard also share the property. As we were strolling the beach, a group of local children came by carrying some teeny-tiny baby raccoons. They told us they had seen the mother raccoon fall in the water, so they decided to rescue the babies. One little girl asked Aaron and I if we wanted one – we politely declined. Customs would never allow it…
We made our way to The Tides Resort and Dive Shop. The Tides is a frequent location where Adventure Life travelers stay, and we thought we would stop by and say hello. Sabrina, the co-owner of Tides (along with her husband Patojo) welcomed us in – she insisted we move from Ruby’s and stay with them. How could we say no? Aaron and I were sad to say good-bye to our hosts at Ruby's (they were so great about letting our reservation go with little cancellation fees – I think it amounted to US$25 – thanks ladies!), but were looking forward to spending time at Tides. Note: Tides has air-conditioning in the rooms, which were gratefully welcomed!
As I walked onto a dock, Aaron pointed out a ray in the water, just feet from the shore. There was also no shortage of conch and other fish to see in the crystal Belize waters. I was starting to get really exciting for snorkeling – especially if this was just a taste of what was to come. Our afternoon snorkeling plans were postponed; the weather did not agree. It started to rain. While traveling during the low-season certainly has its advantages (less travelers to compete with, and accommodations tend to be less expensive), unfortunately the weather is very unpredictable. In our case, very wet. San Pedro does not have paved roads, and there were many occasions where I lost my flip-flops in the mud. We ate lunch at a local Mom and Pop restaurant (Sabrina's recommendation, and a great one; Aaron and I would frequent it during our entire stay on Ambergris), then sat out on the balcony and watched the waves. We opted for larger restaurant for dinner – Fido's. While nice food and atmosphere, it was a little too "touristy" for my taste. I really enjoyed eating at the smaller restaurants. But whatever your flavor, there are plenty of options to choose from to suit your taste (puns intended).
Stomachs full, slept soundly.
June 20 – Snorkeling
HURRAY HURRAY a snorkeling day! While the weather was still not completely ideal – the clouds were still spitting, but at least the wind had died down – we were not about to let another day pass by with out venturing into the Belize waters. There are a number of snorkeling locations to visit; we made two separate stops, the first at Hol Chan and then at Shark Ray Alley. There were roughly ten people in our tour group, not including the captain of our boat and the two guides. While in the water, the guides split us into two groups to spread us out. The sites we visited are some of the most popular – there were other tour groups in addition to our own exploring the sites. It was somewhat crowded, but in no ways jeopardized my experience. I can, however, see how these sites might become overwhelmed with snorkelers and divers during peak season. Thankfully, the local operators have a good offering of departure times to try and prevent over-crowding. You can ask their advice on the best time to visit the sites – they will surely have sufficient recommendations.
Belize is known worldwide for its snorkeling and diving – the world's second largest barrier reef lays just off its shoreline. The fish at Hol Chan were certainly interesting (we also saw an eagle ray…very cool), but I was most impressed by the coral formations. At Shark Ray Alley you will see just that: sharks and rays, specifically nurse sharks and stingray. The marine life has absolutely no fear of humans, and the chum* supplied by our guide, only encouraged their presence. The wildlife is very familiar with visitors, but that does not mean you should totally disregard the fact that they are wild animals and have no moral issues about biting an unsuspecting tourist. We brought little underwater disposable cameras, which took great pictures, even in overcast light. (Note: buy these before you depart. I saw the same cameras for sale in Ambergris for twice the amount I paid for them in the States. Also, be sure to bring film from home – also very expensive to buy once in the country. As my grandpa would say, That's how they get ya.)
*I was a little surprised at this, and have mixed feelings about feeding the marine life at Shark Ray Alley. If you do not approve of such methods, I recommend asking the local tour operators their position on feeding the animals at Shark Ray Alley. You are sure to find an operator who is against doing so, or who would adhere to your request not to feed the animals on your snorkeling tour. There are plenty of companies to choose from…
June 21 – Rainy day in Ambergris
Wet wet wet. Thoughts for another afternoon or snorkeling were quickly put down when we work up to the gray, wet morning. We decided to do a little wandering, and a little shopping for our family and friends back at home. From kitschy to high-end, there are plenty of shops to choose from in San Pedro. There is also an Internet Cafe in town; I resisted the urge to check my email, but there were plenty of other travelers who were not as strong as I was. I ordered a way too expensive coffee instead. The cafe also has an international call service: you can use their phone to call home… It was way too expensive – they were charging fifty cents a minute. Aaron and I did a little hunting and found another cafe with phone service for only ten cents a minute (along with a free cup of coffee I might add). So we called the kid in Minnesota who was thoroughly enjoying the spoils of being the only grandchild.
An extremely lax and quiet day, it was the perfect time for Aaron and I to "cool it" and just enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of Belize and reconnect with each other.
June 22 – Home again, home again. Jiggity-jig
Always anxious when it comes to catching a flight, I was sure we were packed and ready to go on the first water taxi departure at 7:30 am. Sabrina was already up and had a handle on breakfast – we said our goodbyes and thanked her for a great visit. Of course, it was a beautiful sunny day. The ride back to Belize City was gorgeous! I could have ridden the water taxi back and forth all day, just enjoying the ocean wind and sun on my face. OK, I exaggerate. But it was sure nice to see the sun again. Once at the marina we shared a taxi-taxi with two other travelers who were backpacking through Central America. It is very common for taxis to charge by the person, not by the ride. Our travel companions thought the driver was trying to take advantage of us, but I assured them it is common practice to charge per person. Our driver, taking note of the wary clients, cut us a deal. Once at the airport, it was a breeze through customs. I noted a large pile of conch shells confiscated from a number of travelers' suitcases. Note: you cannot bring conch shells home from Belize.
We flew back to the States happy and content, proud of our successful endeavors. Belize, thanks for treating the Conways so well. We'll be back.