We woke up to another hot, blue sky day in Caye Caulker. We ate breakfast at Amor Y Cafe with its fresh squeezed juice. Yum! Fresh squeezed tropical juice is one of my favorite things about traveling in Central America! We walked over to Mario’s office nearby for our half-day snorkeling tour of the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve. It was another amazing day of experiencing the natural beauty of Belize.
Our snorkeling tour ended around 1pm and we walked back to Bella’s for a quick shower and some reading in the hammock. After a couple of hours we walked around town to grab some ice cream to cool down and to check out the local craftsmen and shops. We stopped at a British woman’s jewelry table and admired her artwork. Lindsay bought a lovely pair of earrings.
I ended up buying a Panama hat to help stay out of the sun. Lindsay and I both wore t-shirts while snorkeling today so we didn’t get sunburnt! But, beware! That fine white sand reflects the sun and you burn easily on the islands (even when you rub half a bottle of sunscreen on your skin)! After wandering around town for a bit, we headed back to Bella’s to take out one of the free canoes. We paddled over towards the split and enjoyed a beautiful view of the shoreline of Caye Caulker. There were a few sailboats out utilizing the brisk winds coming out of the East. I was a bit jealous. Raggamuffin Tours offers both a sunset cruise and a 3-day sailboat tour that finishes in Placenia in southern Belize. If we had more time I would have loved to have done the sailboat tour down to Placenia. I miss sailing!
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.
After dinner, Lindsay and I spent my last night at Bambooze bar where we sat and had drinks at the bar on giant swings! The bartender was quite friendly and funny. He was not from Belize and he had us guess where he was from. If we were right, he would give us a free shot of Green Elephant Juice. We never did find out where he was from, but he gave us a free shot. It was some concoction of rum punch. Lindsay and I both sipped on local beers. It was a fun atmosphere.
After a couple of drinks we started heading back to Bella’s. We stopped at the Toucan Gift Shop where I purchased a couple of souvenirs and some sample hot sauce for my father. Belize is famous for their hot sauce. Interesting enough, it’s also illegal to carry-on hot sauce on the plane. Opps! 🙂
Lindsay and I slept in a bit since we were both pretty fried from the day before. I, of course, mean that literally because we both had a nasty sunburn. We slathered ourselves in aloe vera (Lindsay was smart and brought some with her on the trip) and packed up our things.
Putting a heavy pack on top of burnt shoulders and back was not a pleasant feeling. I think we both let out a small scream as we put our arms through the shoulder straps. After checking out of Pedro’s Inn, we headed into town for a quick breakfast before catching the 10am ferry to Caye Caulker. Lick’s is closed on Mondays so we had to find a new breakfast place. Luckily, there was another cafe opened just next door with a breakfast menu and free wifi. I was extremely excited to see crepes on the menu and I ordered a plate. Unfortunately for me, the crepe batter was out and the usual cook was not working today. Another plate of fried jack and traditional Belizean food it was!
As we were finishing up our breakfast, the crew was unloading the ferry of passengers and cargo. A Mennonite man pushed his cart full of fresh fruits and vegetables by us towards the market. Surprisingly, Belize is home to a large population of Mennonites that travelled south from Mexico. They live on the mainland and grow a lot of produce to sell.
We bordered our ferry and set sail for the 45 minute ride to Caye Caulker. The sky was blue and we knew it was going to be a beautiful day! We didn’t have reservations at a hostel so once we landed at the dock of Caye Caulker, our first mission was to find a place to sleep. We got off the dock and found a lovely little bench in the shade near a sleeping dog. Lindsay pulled out her Lonely Planet guidebook and we weighed our options. A local rode his bike up to us and told us that all the places were booked and he would show us a nice hotel to stay at. We politely told him that we weren’t interested. He stuck around and made a few crude remarks and finally left.
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.
After checking in, we hung around the hostel for a bit and read in the hammocks in the courtyard. We chatted a bit with the other backpackers. A couple of the girls we chatted with were from Toronto and were heading to Flores next. We told them they absolutely had to stay at Los Amigos! After reading and relaxing for a couple of hours we headed out to walk around town. Caye Caulker is really small and you can walk across the island in about 30 minutes. We headed down Main Street and came up to Mario’s Snorkeling Tours. Mario was sitting out front of his little wooden office and asked us if we were interested in a snorkeling tour. We told him that we snorkeled Hol Chan Marine Reserve the day before, but Lindsay and I were definitely up for another chance to snorkel. When in Belize, right? He offered us a discount and we gladly accepted the opportunity to snorkel again, this time in the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve.
After signing up for snorkeling for the next day, we walked around some more. Lindsay bought a beer at a bar and we walked around the beach. I purchased my Tropic Air plane ticket back to the mainland airport so I could fly back to Maine on Wednesday. We walked up towards the “split.” Many people will tell you the “split” was created by Hurricane Hattie that hit Belize hard in 1961, but it is actually man-made. Hurricane Hattie did create a small split so right after the hurricane the Village Council Chairman, Ramon Reyes, and others began hand-dredging the split further. It started as a small, shallow passage for canoes, but over the years, the increased flow of tidal water has created an opening of about 20 feet deep.
Many locals and tourists hang out at the split. There is a bar where it seems anything goes. You’ll see people of all ages here, even some children, although I wouldn’t personally recommend bringing your children here with all the alcohol and weed. After checking out the scene at the split, Lindsay and I grabbed ice cream at a small shop. It was a delicious treat on a very hot and humid day.
We headed back to Bella’s for a little more R & R before heading out to dinner at Wish Willy. Prior to leaving for Belize I had posted a question on the Nomadic Matt forum asking what we should do in Belize. Matt suggested that we eat dinner at Wish Willy, so obviously coming for him it must be a fantastic place to eat.
And boy was it awesome! And it was totally not want I was expecting either. I was expecting a traditional restaurant, but this place was a backyard BBQ joint. Willy’s opens at 5pm and we arrived around 5:30-6pm. Willy welcomed us in and we sat at one of the picnic tables outside. It had just rained a little bit, but nothing that we couldn’t wipe up with a towel. It was a beautiful evening out so we wanted to enjoy the fresh air. Willy asked us want we wanted to drink. I wanted a Belikin beer and Lindsay ordered rum punch (which happened to have a 2 for 1 deal). Lindsay’s drink was pretty weak so Willy went back to the kitchen to add more rum. He came back and it was still not very strong. This time Willy went back to the kitchen and I could see him pour about half the bottle into the cup! It was good after that! 🙂
Willy has to be one of the coolest guys on the island. The Belize islands have more of a Caribbean vibe than the mainland and its population reflects that in the native population. The islands have more of a Creole and Garifuna ethnic roots; whereas, on the mainland many natives are descended by the Mayans. Willy was definitely of Garifuna descend. He was happily singing and dancing to Bob Marley on the loud speak and calling us “baby.” It appears that men calling women on the island “baby” is rather normal. Willy actually has family in Utah and has gone fly fishing in the Rocky Mountains of the USA. He joked with us that it’s quite the sight to see a big black man fly fishing in the rivers of the US.
Not only was Willy totally cool, but the food was heavenly! I ordered the fish and Lindsay ordered the steak. Both came with vegetables and potatoes. An older woman from California joined us for dinner and we had a wonderful conversation. She is a dance and Pilates instructor from the San Francisco area and comes to Belize every year for a few weeks to volunteer at a nursing home on the mainland. She then spends a week on Caye Caulker before heading back to her busy life in California. Having conversations with strangers is one of my favorite things to do while traveling. Not only do you learn about the country you’re traveling in, but you can learn so much more about the world from just talking to people from all over. Our dinner and drinks only came to $25 BZ or $12.50 USD. It was funny to ask Willy for a check. Instead of a check, he just said “uh, $25 is good for you baby.” Such a funny man!
After dinner we were going to go see Monument Men at the outdoor theater, but when we arrived, it was not open! There were 3 other 20-somethings waiting us well who turned out to be staying at the same hostel as us. We determined that they probably did not show the movie due to the rain shower earlier in the day. Another couple of guys walked up to us as we chatting with the same idea. I suggested that we all go grab a drink somewhere. We walked up the beach and had a drink at a little hole-in-the-wall bar on the beach. I’m not sure it even really had a name. There was a group of locals playing poker in the corner. The two guys were spending their summer riding motorcycles all the way from Panama back to the US. It was fun to chat with them about their adventures so far.
After a couple of drinks, we were exhausted and headed back to the hostel for a good night’s rest. After all, we had another big day of snorkeling ahead of us! 🙂
Our half day snorkeling adventure with Searious Adventures started early. Our boat left the Searious Adventures dock at 8am sharp so we had to be there by 7:45am. Luckily, San Pedro is not very big and we could easily walk the 5 minutes from our hostel to the dock. Once we reached the dock, we were handed our snorkeling gear. Carlos, our tour guide for the day, shuffled Lindsay and I into the Searious Adventures’ boat and off we went. But, first we had to pick up more snorkelers along the way from their resort docks. We stopped twice and picked up a total of 6 other couples who would join Lindsay and me for the day.
Once everyone was onboard and we made a quick stop to exchange flipper sizes for one woman at another resort’s dock stocked full of snorkeling and diving gear, we were off for the 5-10 minute boat ride to Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The weather was perfect for snorkeling. It was a bright blue sky day with a few clouds. The wind was calm and it was hot. Good thing we would be in the water most of the trip!
As we got closer to the reserve we saw about 15 boats moored together and about 80-100 heads bobbing up and down and the telltale splashes of flippers. We had arrived at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. First, Carlos had to check in with the park rangers since the reserve is protected. There is a $10 USD park fee to enter the reserve. The fee was included in our snorkeling package with Searious. Once we received the thumbs up from the rangers, we slowly made our way over to a mooring line to begin our underwater adventure.
We spent about 20 minutes in the boat while Carlos gave us a brief introduction to Hol Chan and the ground rules for snorkeling.
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.
Once Carlos gave us the signal that we could hit the water… SPLASH I was in. This was my first time ever snorkeling so I was more than excited to get moving! It took about another 15 minutes to get everyone ready to go and in the water. As soon as I hit the water I saw a bunch of fish congregating under the boat. Carlos led the way for us as we began swimming towards the channel. The channel itself if only 25 yards wide, but is about 30 feet (9 m) deep.
The reef near the cut is characterized by large formations of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmate). There is a high degree of bioerosion of these corals. However, a large variety of other encrusting corals and sponges have attached to dead sections of the elkhorn coral. Other coral located in the area include: brain corals (Diploria spp.), Starlet corals (Sideratrea spp.), boulder corals (Montastrea spp.), Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), and numerous species of sea fans (Gorgonia spp.). The water over the reef ranges from 3-6 feet deep. I honestly was surprised how bland the reef was. I was expecting the reef to be full of bright colors, but I guess that shows my ignorance. Don’t get me wrong though, there is some color! And the water is a beautiful turquoise blue.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve is home to more than 500 species of fish. It is common to see large schools of blue tang, grunts, triggerfish, hog fish, parrot fish, barracuda and nurse sharks. Loggerhead sea turtles can often be spotted as well.
We spent about an hour in the water snorkeling around the cut. We saw an abundance of fish, including barracuda and parrot fish. We saw a couple nurse sharks and a few stings rays. Hol Chan is dominated by southern sting rays, but occasionally if you’re lucky like we were, you’ll see a spotted eagle ray. As we left the boat area and headed towards the reef we saw a young sea turtle feeding on the sea grass. I got to swim along him for a little while.
After arriving back to the boat, we headed about 2 minutes south of the reef to Shark Ray Alley. Shark Ray Alley was essentially manmade. For several years, local fishermen often cleaned their catch in an area located just inside the reef slightly south of the cut. Fishermen began to notice that their cleaning of fish had attracted nurse sharks and southern stings rays. The fishermen reported the activity to local dive instructors and thus Shark Ray Alley was born.
Shark Ray Alley is a very popular snorkeling and dive site and was my favorite of the day. As soon our boat came to a mooring buoy, we could see dark shadows following the boat. Female nurse sharks and southern sting rays congregated around our boats in the area looking for scrapes. Carlos threw out some chum and as soon as it hit the water the sharks, rays, and horse-eye jack fish were swarming the water to eat. As soon as Carlos gave the signal I was in the water and swimming towards the school of hungry shark, rays, and fish! The shark and rays have no interest in you and they have no problem swimming around and up close to you. Carlos was able to snag a few rays and we were able to pat them.
Okay, maybe I told you a white lie. You have to make sure your hands and feet stay away from their mouths because they will suck the flesh off of your arm! But the chances of that happening is extremely rare. It was absolutely incredible to get so close to the sharks and rays. The water was not very deep in the area we were in and we could swim without our fins, which I prefer.
After spending about another hour in Shark Ray Alley, we hopped back on the boat. Carlos handed us sodas and water and also very delicious coconut tarts. We headed back towards land, but not without stopping at a local fisherman’s boat. The fisherman was “fishing” for conch. To “fish” for conch, one must dive down into the water and bring the shell up. Once you have a shell, you then have to punch a hole in the top of the shell and cut the conch muscle that is holding them into the shell. Once the conch is out, fishermen throw the shells back into the water for fish and invertebrate homes.
Carlos traded the men sodas and tarts for a piece of conch meat. He passed it around the boat and we all tried a piece. The meat was actually sweet and had a tough texture like clams or mussels. It was good! We watched a bit as one of the fishermen was feeding a loggerhead sea turtle pieces of conch meat with tongs. Carlos told us that the turtle was extremely old and blind. The turtle would probably not survive long if the fishermen didn’t feed him.
Finally, we began dropping the members of our tour off at their respective docks and Lindsay and I headed back to the San Pedro dock with Carlos. The snorkeling tour was amazing and definitely worth the money! The tour cost $72 BZ or $36 USD and included snorkeling gear, the park fee to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and sodas and a snack. I would have loved to do their full-day catamaran tour, but their boat was back in Belize City Harbor for maintenance.
If you’re heading to Ambergris Caye, I highly recommend taking a snorkeling tour with Searious Adventures. Our tour guide Carlos was extremely knowledgeable and very professional and friendly. He spoke excellent English and handled the boat well. Just don’t tell if him you’re afraid of sharks because he might just sneak up on you in the water and grab your toes like he did to poor Lindsay!
A Few Tips for Snorkeling:
Wear waterproof sunscreen and reapply A LOT!
Wear a t-shirt over your swimsuit of else you’ll probably end up sunburnt like Lindsay and I
Bring a waterproof camera – I love my Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS4!
Bring water – you’ll get thirsty from the hot sun and also want to wash out the salt water taste
We woke up early for our big day of snorkeling. Yesterday was rainy and the weather forecast wasn’t really in our favor, but when we opened our eyes the sun was shining! We had to be at the Searious Adventures boat dock by 7:45am. Lindsay and I both slathered sun screen on and walked down to the beach to Estel’s Dine by The Sea for breakfast. Estel’s is pretty much the only place open at 6am. The menu had traditional Belizean foods for a decent price. You order off of their chalkboard menu, which was different. I ordered the fruit with yogurt and water. It only cost me about $5 USD.
After a quick breakfast we walked the two minutes down to the boat dock to begin our snorkeling tour. I will go into a more in-depth post about the snorkeling tour because it was awesome! This was my first time ever snorkeling so I was stroked to do this. I’m a water person so if there is water around I want to be in it. Our snorkeling trip brought us to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. I was super excited to snorkel up close and personal with sharks and sting rays. Lindsay, however, was not. But, she willingly (or maybe unwillingly) tried to get over her fears and hopped into the water. 🙂
Here’s a few pictures as a sneak peek of what’s to come:
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).
After lunch, Lindsay and I migrated down the beach to find a spot to lay out and read. We found a little place near some palm trees and little kids playing in the water. I enjoyed a few hours reading Nomadic Matt’s How to Travel the World on $50 a Day on the beach. However, after a little bit I realized that my skin was on fire and I needed to seek shade or else I would have a monster sunburn!
We packed up our stuff and headed back to the hostel. Yup, I definitely got sunburn. Lindsay and I spent another hour or so hanging out in one of the pools at the hostel. Pedro’s Inn has two pools. One pool was filled with a bunch of drunk 20-something trying to funnel beers through the pool cleaning hose. We chose the pool with the two older ladies from upstate New York.
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.
Lindsay and I woke up in our Belize City Hostel, the Sea Breeze Guesthouse, after a solid night of sleep. I actually woke up about an hour earlier than Linds and wrote in my travel journal on our balcony. Our balcony shared a door with our next door neighbor. He came out and we chatted a bit. He’s from Los Angeles and comes to Belize for a week or two every year in May. The sky was a cloudy and looked like impending rain. Other than that it was a decent day, aka less humidity!
Once Lindsay got up we packed up our things and we walked the couple of minutes to the San Pedro Water Taxi station to catch the 9am San Pedro Belize Water Taxi to San Pedro. When we crossed back over the Belize border from Guatemala the day before, one of the water taxi representations gave us a discount coupon for our tickets. I purchased a one-way ticket to San Pedro since I was planning on taking the Tropic Air flight from the islands to the international airport, but Lindsay purchased a round trip ticket since she was in Belize for another week and was planning on heading south after I left. We each saved a few bucks! A normal one way ticket to San Pedro costs $17.50 USD, but I paid about $15 USD with the coupon.
We hopped on the boat and enjoyed the 1.5 hour ride to San Pedro. The boat was nice and basic. There was plenty of room for everyone, but I can imagine that it is more crowded during the high season. We arrived on the San Pedro dock around 10:30 and hit the first cafe we found for breakfast. Right across the water taxi dock is a little cafe called Licks. It was a great little breakfast place and we both had the traditional Belizean breakfast of fried jack, eggs, beans, and cheese. It was yummy!
After breakfast we began our walk to the Pedro’s Inn Backpackers Hostel. As we were searching for the hostel it started to downpour. We got half way to the hostel and asked a local warehouse worker if we were heading in the right direction. He pointed in the opposite direction and of course we headed in that direction because we didn’t know any better. Once we figured out we were heading in the wrong direction, we headed back the original we walked and eventually found the hostel. We checked in quickly and chose the cheapest option, the dorm room.
The room had two beds with a window. The beds were comfortable and we had access to the shared bathrooms, which were very clean as well. The accommodations were simple but comfortable for the $13 USD a night we paid. The downfall of the location of Pedro’s Inn is right next to the airport so it can be loud when planes take off throughout the day. It’s relatively quiet at night though. Pedro’s does have a reputation of a party hostel so it can be loud from drunk people, but it wasn’t bad when we were there for two nights.
It continued to rain for a while so we both read awhile in bed. In the early afternoon the rain started to turn to a drizzle and we both decided to head into town to check out the massage place we saw on the beach for $25. After a few days of nonstop travel, hiking Mayan ruins, and cave tubing, we both could use a little relaxing and massage. My right IT-band and hip were quite tight (I have a chronic right hip issue) so a massage was just what the doctor order. We found out that a half-hour massage cost $25 USD and an hour-long massage cost $50 USD. This a bargain compared to the $75-$100 I pay in Maine (which doesn’t happen often these days)! We decided we would do a half-hour.
The cool thing about this massage place was that it was a tiki hut right on the beach! It wasn’t extremely private, but we lucked out that because it was the beginning of the low season and the weather was rainy, the beach was quiet. As soon as Lindsay and I hit the massage table, we both decided a full hour would be better! That massage was amazing! One of the best I’ve ever had. I was way more relaxed and carefree after that hour. The massage was definitely a splurge, but well worth the $50 plus a $5 USD tip! 🙂
After the massage, Lindsay and I set out to find a snorkel tour for the next day. We talked to the people at both Seaduced by Belize and Searious Adventures. Both tours cost about the same price and offered the same level of snorkeling. We decided to go with Searious Adventures because they were a couple of dollars cheaper. Both tour companies have excellent reviews along with Grumpy & Happy Belize, so you can’t go wrong with any of those choices!
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.
After an afternoon snack of chocolate we walked back to Pedro’s Inn to shower and get ready for our “fancy” dinner. Lindsay and I decided that we would splurge on one really nice dinner. Lindsay had her mind-set on another restaurant called The Tackle Box (not to be confused with the bar in San Pedro), but we discovered it was on the other end of Ambergris Caye and would have required a taxi ride. The Blue Water Grill at the Sunbreeze Hotel was our second choice and it was worth it! The restaurant is right on the beach and we were able to score a small table right on the railing to enjoy the sunset and cool evening breeze.
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…
After dinner Lindsay wanted to get another dinner so we walked down the beach to find a bar. Since May is the transition month from the high season to the low season (aka rainy season), the party scene was pretty dead. We decided on Fido’s Courtyard. The place had about 10-15 people at most. We were able to sit right at the bar with a few locals and tourists. We both ordered fruity drinks. They were okay. We chatted with the bartender a bit and then we headed back to Pedro’s. I was exhausted and we had to get up early for our snorkeling adventure in the morning!
Lindsay and I are both budget travellers and thus spent countless hours discussing activities and budget over the phone and Skype. We both agreed that we were willing to spend a little more for the opportunity to go cave tubing in Belize. And I must say, it was my favorite activity out of the whole trip!
There are plenty of places to go cave tubing in Belize. We did some research and found out that the best tour company is Vital Nature and Mayan Tours, or often just called Cave Tubing Belize. After our tour I would have to agree, although I have nothing to compare it to, but I wouldn’t go with another company if I ever go back to Belize! I emailed the company prior to our departure to Belize and received a prompt reply within 24 hours from Vitalino. We were able to make reservations for May 16th for the sunset cave tour. We asked if they would be willing to pick us up at the bus station in Belmopan and then drop us off at our hostel in Belize City afterwards. They said they absolutely would! For $75 USD each we got our transportation to and from the tour base, the cave tubing tour, dinner, and rum punch! If we had more people with us, it was just the two of us, the price would have been even cheaper.
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.
Our tour guide was named Walter. He is 25 years old and lives in the local village nearby. He is a Mayan descendent and speaks Spanish as his first language. He speaks excellent English, although he will tell you it is “not so good.” He is quite the character and I would highly recommend him as your tour guide!
To reach the beginning of the caves you must walk through the jungle on the nature trails. This is one main things that sets Cave Tubing Belize apart from the other tour companies. Cave Tubing Belize takes the time to show you the various wildlife and flora of the jungle. The walk can vary on time and distance depending on where you start on the river and how fast you walk. You definitely want to wear some sort of water shoes. No flip-flops are allowed. If you don’t have a pair of sandals or shoes that you don’t mind getting wet then you can rent water shoes for about $5 USD.
We began the tour by walking across the river. The river in May is very shallow, but obviously gets higher in the rainy season. There is a pole with painted marks (yellow, orange, and red) that the guides use as a measure to determine if the river is safe for tubing. Some of the caves have low ceilings making the float impossible to complete if the water is too high.
As we were walking, Walter showed us various plants and fruit. One of the plants Walter pointed out to us was the “tattoo” plant. I wish I knew its common name, but it grows in the Belizean jungle and the Mayans have used it for centuries to create temporary tattoos on the skin. Walter gave Lindsay a smiley face and I got a number “7” on my hand. It lasted for a couple of days because the “ink” is waterproof. As we walked further into the jungle he showed us the mahogany tree or Cedro tree in Spanish, which only grows in the jungle. I didn’t know that! There is a large Mennonite population in Belize and they use the wood from the mahogany tree to make furniture to sell. He pointed out the cashew tree, which we had seen in Tikal, but at the time didn’t know what it was. Walter knocked down a couple of the fruit for us to try. Surprisingly, the fruit was very juicy and sweet. The locals make wine out of the cashew fruit.
We spotted a couple of howler monkeys way up in the trees. Unfortunately we couldn’t coax them to come down a bit for a closer look. After about 45 minutes to an hour of walking through the jungle, we came to the beginning of the cave. Walter had knocked down a couple of small coconuts earlier for us to eat and spent about 10 minutes breaking them into pieces with a rock. After a little snack, we got into our tubes to begin our journey.
I was amazed how crystal clear and blue the water was. It was stunning! Walter tied Lindsay and I together in our tubes and placed himself in front in his little rubber black tube. Our tubes were big and yellow with a back rest and a cup holder. We were riding in style! Before we began our walk in the jungle, Walter told us that he would tell us “butts up” and it shouldn’t be confused with “what’s up.” The water its extremely shallow in some spots, like not even an inch of water covering the rocks. So when Walter said “butts up” he wanted us to lift our bottoms up so he could pull us over the rocks to continue down the river.
Walter told us that the normal person to guide ratio is about 8 to 1. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for him to pull and swim while tugging 8 people behind them! We only had time to meander through one cave, but the cave was about a half a mile to one mile long. Walter pointed out various rock formations. He pointed out numerous stalactites, which hang from the ceilings of caves and form through deposition of calcium carbonate and other minerals. They only grow a few centimeters a year and take thousands of years to grow. He also pointed out a few stalagmites, which rise from the floor and grow similar to stalactites. Over thousands of years, stalactites and stalagmites can grow together to touch and create a column.
Each rock formation Walter pointed out to us looked like various animals and things. It was similar to playing the cloud game as a child. It took us about 30 minutes or so to float through the cave. At times the water was about 20 feet deep and at other times it was only about 2 inches deep. We emerged from the cave and continued floating down the river till the end point. Walter pointed out more jungle plants and even plucked us an allspice leaf to try. I didn’t even know allspice was its own plant. I always though allspice was a combination of various spices. Clearly, I’m very uneducated about spices!
Finally we were back where we started. We were able to change at the bathrooms and waited for our driver to return to bring us back to headquarters. When we arrived back at Cave Tubing Belize headquarters, we had a take-out container filled with a hot supper. The cooks also filled sippy cups full of rum punch for us on our long drive back to Belize City.
Vitalino Junior drove us back to Belize City in his brand new truck. Lindsay and I had a great conversion about the business, what it is like to be a tour guide, and Belize in general. I think it was one of the highlights of the trip.
Cave tubing was awesome and I highly suggest if you’re heading to Belize to try it! Cave Tubing Belize comes highly recommended by both TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet and I truly believe it is the best too. All the guides are certified tour guides and hold CPR and First Aid certifications as well. The equipment is top-notch and you can tell Vitalino takes pride in his guides and company. We chatted with him a bit at headquarters and he has the cutest little daughter.
Things to Bring:
Shorts or pants and a shirt
Water shoes, such as Chacos or old tennis shoes (no flip-flops)
Cave Tubing Belize also has their own zip line course nearby. They offer full day and half day tours. One of the full day tours is through the Crystal Cave system which will take you through all five caves. I wish we had done that one! You can find out more about their tours on their website.
My alarm went off at 3:40am to prepare for the sunrise tour of Tikal that left our hotel, the Tikal Inn, at 4:00am. However, when I rolled over to shut off my alarm, I realized that it was pouring buckets out. I got up and put my contacts in while Lindsay’s alarm went off about 10 minutes later. We decided to skip the tour because of the rain. It broke my heart a bit because I was hoping to see an amazing sunrise over the tops of the temples and capture them on my camera. But, alas, I will have to do it another time. The downfalls of traveling in the almost official rainy season.
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!
Actually, it was a group of howler monkeys! Unfortunately, we could not see them from the trail. They carried on for at least an hour as we wandering around the Grand Plaza. Around 8:00am Lindsay and I headed back towards our Hotel for breakfast and packing. Our taxi was arriving to pick us up at 10:00am. Breakfast at the hotel was delicious. I had the pancakes with fresh fruit and papaya juice. Our taxi driver arrived sharply at 10:00am and we were off for our 2 hour nerve-wrecking drive from Tikal National Park to the border of Guatemala (Melchor de Mencos) and Belize.
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.
We got a taxi for $5 USD from the border to Benque Viejo del Carmen, the closest Belize town to the border (about 2 miles away). He dropped us off at the “bus station,” which is really just a stop in front of a shop. We hopped on the old yellow school bus for the 1 hour or so ride to Belmopan. The bus ride cost us $2.50 USD each. WAY cheaper than the $25 each taxi ride! The bus stopped every once in a while to pick people up and drop them off, but it moved quicker than I thought it would. The bus dropped us off at the main bus station.
Once we were off the bus we headed straight to Scotiabank to get more cash. I was a complete idiot when budgeting my cash. I had budgeted $325 in cash based on my last trip to Central America (Costa Rica and Nicaragua), but I forgot that everything except dinner was pre-paid. I only brought my credit card so I had to take a cash advance, which cost me a few extra at the end. So make sure you either bring your debt card or enough cash! Lesson learned.
We had time before the guide from the cave tubing company was going to pick us up at the bus station. We grabbed a quick dinner at Caladium Restaurant across from the bus station. We both had the special – jerk chicken, coconut milk rice and beans, and fried plantains. The rice and beans were to die for. I wanted just a plate of that!
Walter, our guide from Cave Tubing Belize, met us at the bus station right on time and we drove in the van to their headquarters at Cave Branch located at Mile 37 on the Western Highway. After paying $75 USD each for our 2-person tour (which includes the tour, all the gear, dinner, rum punch, and transportation from Belmopan to Belize City), we hopped in the van for the 10 minute drive down the road to the river. I will have a separate post next week on just our cave tubing experience. But, I will say, if you are ever in Belize you NEED to go cave tubing! And go with Cave Tubing Belize. They are the best!
Our cave tubing adventure took a few hours and it was absolutely amazing. Worth every penny in my mind and I would do it again in a heartbeat! After the cave tubing we changed and hopped in a brand new truck with Vitalino Junior. Honestly, I think the ride was one of the highlights of the trip. Junior told us a lot of the country and culture of Belize and also about his life. They gave us our dinners to-go with rum punch in sippy cups. Over the hour and 15 minutes of the drive back to Belize City, I succeed to get quite tipsy! That stuff was good!
Junior dropped us off at the Sea Breeze Guesthouse. I had made the reservations prior to leaving the states. The hostel came recommended by Lonely Planet and it was one of the cheaper hostels/hotels in Belize City. The place is also surrounded by barbed wire so you knew you were safe – for anything! We checked in around 9ish and were shown to our room. It was simple and clean. We even had a tv with satellite! Since I had just drank an entire sippy cup of rum punch, I had to pee like no tomorrow. I opened the bathroom door, turned on the light, and watched a giant cockroach crawl through the sink. I immediately shut the door, walked back to tell Lindsay, and then went back and peed. I never saw the cockroach again.
I passed out early and slept like a baby all night. Stay tuned for a more detailed post on cave tubing next week!
Tikal National Park entrance fee – Q150 (~$20 USD)
Why is it that travel days always seem to last the longest? Day 1 of the trip began before the sun even woke up – 3:00am. My flight left Boston-Logan Airport (BOS) at 6am. Luckily I had a very generous college friend who hosted me the night before and drove me to the airport for 4am. Thanks Greg! It saved me close to $300 for an airport hotel or spending the night in the airport (which I have done before and it’s not fun!).
I made it without much wait time through security sans any snafus. I was a bit worried that someone might yell at me about my backpack size, but rest-assured it easily fit in the carry-on luggage test device (ok, perhaps with a little manipulation). The only place in the airport opened at 4:30am was Dunkin Donuts, so I waited until Starbucks opened at 5am. Sorry America, America doesn’t run on Dunkin!
The first leg of my flight was from BOS to Atlanta (ATL). The flight was uneventful. We hit a few rough patches of air, which caused a little bit of anxiety. The older I get the more nervous of a flyer I become. I used to love flying, but now every little bump in air causes my heart to jump and instant thoughts of we’re going to die. I seriously think I need some medication. It’s actually rather pathetic.
My layover in ATL was less than an hour and thus it was a run to the next gate. Thankfully the gate was nearby and I just went plane to plane. The downfall was not being able to grab a snack in the airport. We soon left ATL for Belize City. The flight was a little less than 3 hours long, meaning no lunch was going to be served. Originally my plane ticket said lunch, but it magically disappeared when I checked it. Well played Delta, well-played. I ended up shelling out $9 for a Delta snack. It was good, but obviously not worth $9. The leg from ATL to Belize was rough. At this point I relaxed a bit and was able to read a good portion of my book.
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.
The border crossing was rather simple once we figured what our Spanish-speaking driver told us to do. Get off. Walk through Belize Immigration. Pay $15 USD exit tax (we paid slightly less because we just arrived in Belize that day). Walk to customs and get passport stamp. Walk across river-bridge to Guatemala. Walk up to Guatemala immigrations and customs to pay the $3 entrance fee and get passport stamped. Find bus driver and bus.
We found our bus and driver plus 2 new additional passengers. One was a really nice Guatemalan woman who spoke English. The second was a really stinky shirtless man who was going all the way to Guatemala City. Lindsay and I both checked our packs in the back of the bus because our lovely bus driver walked away from the bus and left our stuff unattended. Everything was just dandy though.
After all the passengers returned to the bus, we were on our way again. The highway in Guatemala from the border to Flores was paved in the recent years making the ride smooth and fast. The landscape was beginning to turn into more farmlands and jungles. Surprisingly, the ride was quite hilly. There was one big hill that I thought we were all going to have to push the bus up because it was so steep.
The bus ride from Belize City to Flores took about 5 hours. One-way tickets cost about $25 USD. We could have taken the normal buses from Belize City to Benque Viejo del Carmen (the last town in Belize) for about $5 USD, a $5 USD taxi from Benque to the border, and then take another bus from Melchor de Mencos (Guatemalan border town) to Flores for a few US dollars as well. However, we were looking at about 7-8 hours travel time. The $25 for the express bus was worth it in my opinion.
The bus driver dropped us off at our destination of Flores, Guatemala. Lindsay and I pre-booked our beds at Los Amigos Hostel prior to leaving the US. On the short walk to the hostel we picked up a fellow bus passenger from England after he asked us where we were staying. Turns out he had spent the month of March in Hollis, Maine! That’s about 2 towns over from where I live and I regularly ride my bike through the town. This was the first incidence of a small world.
Los Amigos is by far the best hostel I’ve stayed in during this trip and all the others I have stayed in on previous trips. I plan on doing a separate post about the hostel, but in a nutshell, if you’re going to Flores then you must stay here. It’s about $9 a night for a bed and the atmosphere is very friendly and fun. Lindsay and I had dinner with our new friend Ben (English-boy) and talked Maine and travel. We ordered dinner and drinks from the restaurant. The bartender/waitress did not like me for some reason and I got yelled at and I had to ask twice for my drink order. One of the reasons I need to learn Spanish. Good thing I’m signed up for Spanish lessons at The Language Exchange in Portland starting in July!
I tried the local brew, Gallo Cerveza, and it was quite good. I thought it was similar to a Newcastle in taste. For dinner I had the fish, which was excellent. If it was socially acceptable I probably would have licked my plate. After a very long day of travel and a 2 hour time change for me, we called it a night and hit our bunk beds.
I’ve been MIA lately because I was away on vacation! My first “real” vacation in close to 5 years. Actually, it might be my first “real” vacation ever. Unless you count summer vacation when you’re a kid. I miss those days. Being completely carefree and playing outside from dawn to dusk. Being a “grown-up” just isn’t as fun some days. You know what I mean?
The Formation of a Plan
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.
At the time I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my vacation time for the next couple of years. Yes, I said a couple of years because I’m super Type A and need to make 5 year plans. It was serendipitous. As soon as I saw her post, I called her up and asked her two questions: 1) When are you going? and 2) When should I buy my ticket?
So that’s how I decided to travel to Belize for vacation in 2014. Over numerous phone and Skype calls in the months leading up to our departure, our travel plans evolved to include a couple of days in Guatemala as well. And boy, am I glad we made that decision!
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.
After graduating college early and realizing that medical school and becoming a doctor was not the path I wanted to take, I decided public health was the better career path for me. Luckily, global public health is an ever-growing diverse field that I plan on seeking a career in future years. In May 2011 I set foot in Central America for the first time on a medical mission and ever since then the desire to work countless hours in dirty and humid conditions making someone’s life better by giving them access to primary care, clean water, food, etc. is something I want to do. I might not make much money doing it, but at least at the end of the day, the experience is worth it.
The Evolution of Travel
My recent years were heavily focused on finishing my masters degree and triathlon. As much as I love the sport of triathlon, my desire to travel and see the world is much stronger. Spending last summer training and finishing an Ironman is something I will never forget and taught me more about myself than I could have imagined. I thought that I would compete in my second Ironman in 2015, but I think Ironman training will be put on the back burner for the next decade. Don’t get me wrong, I will still compete in triathlons, but at this point in my life, I want to invest money and time into seeing and experiencing new parts of the world.
The day after I set foot back on American soil, I was already planning my next trip. Actually, that’s a lie. I started planning my next trip about a month before I left for Belize. I’ve been bitten hard by the travel bug and I’ve been concentrating on learning the fine art of travel hacking. Travel can be expensive if you make it, but it can absolutely be cheap as well. With my student loan debt and the pledge I made to myself (and everyone who reads this blog), my focus is to pay off my loans first and foremost, but also to travel as well.
So, I hope you will bookmark this page or better yet follow it and get new posts in your email box! Because I’m about to recap the good, the bad, and the beauty of Belize and Guatemala in the weeks to follow.