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! 🙂
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.
In 2011 I travelled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua on a medical mission with International Service Learning, a United States-based educational NGO that focuses on enlisting medical and educational volunteers to provide care to underserved communities in Central America, the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. We spent a week providing care to Concepcion de Alajuelita, a very poor urban community within San Jose. After a week in Costa Rica, we headed north via the Ticobus to Nicaragua.
In Nicaragua we spent a few days providing medical care to members of the Nindiri community at the church Hermanos En Cristo. On our last day in Nicaragua we explored the old Spanish colonial city of Granada. Granada has a population of over 117,000 people and is the fifth largest city in Nicaragua. Granada was the first European city settled in mainland America in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba.
Granada is located on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the world’s 20th largest lake, in western Nicaragua. Granada sits in the shadows of the Mombacho volcano, an extinct volcano with still visible lava. Granada is both a tourist and expat hotbed. It is filled with beautiful Spanish colonial architecture and is famous for its cigars.
Antiguo Hospital San Juan de Dios is located in the western part of the city. Construction of the hospital began in 1886 by Carlos Ferry. The hospital opened in 1905 and served patients during war times until it was closed in 1998. The hospital has now fallen in decay and is a great place to take photos and wandering around.
Granada has several famous churches within the city. The most attractive of the churches is Iglesia La Merced. It was originally built in 1534 and was sacked and burned by Henry Morgan in 1670. It was rebuilt in the Baroque facade between 1781 and 1783. It was damaged again during war times and repaired in 1862. One of the best features of the church is the bell tower. You can pay a small fee to climb the tight spiral staircase to the top of the tower for the best views of the city! While looking over the red-tiled tops of old colonial buildings, you can see Lake Nicaragua from one side and the Volcan Mombacho from the other.
One of the main tourist attractions of Granada is Lake Nicaragua. Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America and the 20th largest in the world. Even though the lake is located geographically closet to the Pacific Ocean, it drains into the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River. Lake Nicaragua contains over 400 islands with 300 of them within 5 miles of the city of Granada. Not all the islands are inhabited. Some are owned privately and contain pretty impressive vacation homes.
One of the 400 islands is known as Monkey Island. Monkeys are not native to the western side of Nicaragua, but one local islander released their former pet monkey on the island. The monkey population has since grown. The monkeys are Capuchin monkeys and are omnivores, meaning they will eat both fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Due to all the tourist boats the monkeys are used to being fed by tourist versus finding their own meals.
The food in Nicaragua is amazing, especially the seafood in Granada. After a boat tour of the Isletas de Granada, we ate lunch at an island restaurant.
If you’re traveling to Granada then you certainly don’t want to miss an opportunity to roll your own cigar! Nicaragua is well-known for their cigars and rum. During our carriage tour of the city the driver brought us to the Dona Elba Cigar factory where we learned how to make our own cigars. It was a really cool experience and I purchased some cigars for friends and family back home.
I really loved Granada and the country and people of Nicaragua. I would have loved to have stayed longer and really experience more of the Nicaraguan culture. We were really lucky in that our trip leader, who was Costa Rican, had a cousin that lived and worked in the Nicaraguan government. After our day trip in Granada, he took us on an evening tour of the city of Managua and told us the history of the country. He also took us to the local discoteca, which was quite the experience!
Have you been to Granada before? What do you recommend seeing?