Tag Archives: adventure

Day 6: Island Hopping from San Pedro to Caye Caulker, Belize

Welcome to Main Street on Caye Caulker where to motto is "Go Slow!"
Welcome to Main Street on Caye Caulker where to motto is “Go Slow!”

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!

The beachfront on Caye Caulker
The beachfront on Caye Caulker

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.

Bella's Backpackers Hostel
Bella’s Backpackers Hostel

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.

Relaxing in the hammock at Bella's
Relaxing in the hammock at Bella’s

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.

The "split" of Caye Caulker
The “split” of Caye Caulker

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.

The best food on Caye Caulker!
The best food on Caye Caulker!

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! 🙂

The Wish Willy menu
The Wish Willy menu

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! 🙂

Caye Caulker
Caye Caulker before the rain shower

Daily Expenses

  • Ferry Ticket – $8 USD
  • Breakfast – $10 USD
  • Two nights at Bella’s – $25 USD
  • Snorkeling trip with Mario’s – $20 USD
  • Tropic Air plane ticket to airport – $80 USD
  • Ice Cream – $2 USD
  • Dinner – $12.50 USD
  • Total = $157.50

In Case You Missed It:

Day 1: From Belize City to Flores, Guatemala

Day 2: Flores to Tikal

Los Amigos Hostel – Flores, Guatemala

A Quick Guide to Tikal National Park

Day 3: Tikal, Guatemala to Belize City

Cave Tubing in Belize

Day 4: Welcome to San Pedro, Belize

Day 5: Discovering the Beauty of San Pedro, Belize

Snorkeling Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize

Snorkeling in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize

 

Searious Adventures headquarters and dock in San Pedro
Searious Adventures headquarters and dock in San Pedro

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.

Who doesn't want to look at this all day?
Who doesn’t want to look at this all day?

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.”

Hol Chan Marine Reserve Map Source: Hol Chan Mareine Reserve National Park Website
Hol Chan Marine Reserve Map Source: Hol Chan Mareine Reserve National Park Website

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.

holchan1

CoralReefThe 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.

Barcuddavsfish
Barracuda vs. fish

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.

SpottedStingRay

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.

SeaTurtleFloor
A young sea turtle snacking on sea grass

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.

Holchan2

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.

Sting rays up close and personal :-)
Sting rays up close and personal 🙂

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.

MeSnorkeling
Thumbs up for snorkeling with Searious Adventures!

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
  • Tip your guides!
Hello my friend!
Hello my friend!

 

Day 5: Discovering the Beauty of San Pedro, Belize

SanPedroPalmTree
Welcome to beautiful San Pedro, Belize!

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.

Searious Adventures office located right on the beach!
Searious Adventures office located right on the beach!

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:

Sting rays up close and personal :-)
Sting rays up close and personal 🙂
Hello my friend!
Hello my friend!

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).

L to R: Lick's Beachfront Cafe, Patch the dog!, Conch Fritters, a perfect beach read - How to Travel the World on $50 a Day
L to R: Lick’s Beachfront Cafe, Patch the dog!, Conch Fritters, a perfect beach read – How to Travel the World on $50 a Day

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!

One of the pools at Pedro's Inn
One of the pools at Pedro’s Inn

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.

Chilren playing in the water
Children playing in the water on the beach in San Pedro

Daily Expenses

  • Breakfast – $5 USD
  • Snorkeling Tour Tip – $ 2.50 USD
  • Lunch – $24.20 (included Lindsay’s beer)
  • Dinner – $10 USD (water and a smoothie)
  • Total – $41.70

In case you missed it:

Day 1: From Belize City to Flores, Guatemala

Day 2: Flores to Tikal

Los Amigos Hostel – Flores, Guatemala

Day 3: Tikal, Guatemala to Belize City

A Quick Guide to Tikal National Park

Cave Tubing in Belize

Day 4: Welcome to San Pedro, Belize

Cave Tubing in Belize

RiverCaveEntryLindsay 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 Headquarters at Mile 37 on the Western Highway
Cave Tubing Belize Headquarters at Mile 37 on the Western Highway

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.

Walking through the jungle with Walter
Walking through the jungle with Walter

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.

Flora from the jungle, including the "tatto plant" (top left), the mahogany tree, Prickly Yellow tree, Termites, a cashew, and finally a pineapple!
Flora from the jungle, including the “tatto plant” (top left), the mahogany tree, Prickly Yellow tree, Termites, a cashew, and finally a pineapple!

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.

CaveTubing4

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.

Cave tubing with Cave Tubing Belize!
Cave tubing with Cave Tubing Belize!

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!

CaveTubing5

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:

  • Bathing suit
  • Shorts or pants and a shirt
  • Water shoes, such as Chacos or old tennis shoes (no flip-flops)
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Sun screen
  • Towel
  • Waterproof camera

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.

Day 2: Flores to Tikal

Bienvenidos!
Bienvenidos!

After a goodnight’s sleep at Los Amigos, we woke up and headed out to explore Flores for a few hours and grab breakfast. Flores is a small island so you can’t really get lost. You just have to watch out for tuk-tuk’s and trucks moving quickly over the cobblestone streets. Lindsay had an idea of a few breakfast places she found in her Lonely Planet guide-book so we headed out to locate those places. We wandered around the water a bit and then headed up a street to find breakfast.

We ate desayunos (breakfast) at La Galeria Del Zot’z, a cute little local cafe. I ordered the panqueques and yogurt con frutas and Lindsay had huevos ranchos. Both meals were delicious and cheap. After breakfast we headed back to Los Amigos for the last time to grab our stuff and head over the bridge to Santa Elena to grab the bus to Tikal. On the way to the bus we stopped at a small souvenir stall. A nice man who spoke a little English showed us his baby parrots he’s raising. I purchased a couple of postcards for my collection and a jaguar mask made by local artisans for $12.

Baby parrots at the souvenir shop in Flores!
Baby parrots at the souvenir shop in Flores!
A fishing boat docked on the streets of Flores
A fishing boat docked on the streets of Flores

We walked over the short bridge to Santa Elena and walked about another 3/4 of a mile down 6a Ave to the bus station. It was hot and humid out and we both were a sweaty mess by time we got to the station. We found the buses to Tikal on the right side of the station. A Spanish-speaking man brought us to the office and put us on the phone with a guy who spoke English. He came to the office a few minutes later and gave us our options. We knew we could get to Tikal pretty easily, but coming back from Tikal was going to be a bit harder because we needed to leave in the morning and make it over the border to Belmopan by 3:00pm. We hemmed and hawed over it for a bit because we knew we could travel to and from for cheaper, but it might take us a lot longer to get them and back over the border. The ride on the collectivo bus cost us $11 and we ended up with a private taxi from Tikal to the border for $47 each.

Cobblestone streets of Flores
Cobblestone streets of Flores

The bus ride to Tikal was actually fun. We traveled with about 8-10 other from all over the world, including two guys from Bozeman, Montana where Lindsay is from! Small world incidence #2 of the trip! The others on the bus were travelling for a tour and the tour guide, Samuel, gave us a good overview of Flores and Tikal and the Mayan culture and history. It was pretty cool and definitely made me more excited about exploring Tikal. At the height of the Mayan empire, there was over 120,000 people living in the area (including Mexico and Belize), while at the same time London only had about 50,000 and Paris had about 75,000 people. One of the biggest drivers of the end of the Mayan civilization was the lack of water and resources in the area.

The park fees can only be paid in Quetzals, which neither Lindsay or I knew. Thus, we had to stop and exchange money at a small shop on the side of the road. At first the woman wouldn’t take my American dollars because they were either wrinkled or slightly torn. I showed her all my bills and told her that’s all I had. Apparently, the banks in Guatemala are very particular about American dollars. Samuel, the tour guide, came over and helped us. Eventually she exchange $50 for me. It was a real pain in the ass and I highly recommend you take “good” American bills with you if you travel to Guatemala.

The park entrance fee is Q150 or about $20 USD. The park is very big. The park entrance is about 20 km from the hotels and the entrance to the sites. If you visit Tikal, be prepared to walk a lot. The bus dropped us off at the Tikal Inn just as it started to thunder and rain. I was hoping to do the sunset tour that started about 4pm, but decided against it due to the rain. 😦 We checked in easily as Lindsay had made reservations via email ahead of time. It was a good thing that we made reservations because we learned later in the pool that a large group of students from Loyola College in New Orleans were in Tikal on an Ecology travel course. A jungle-view bungalow room cost us $67 USD each, which included dinner, breakfast, and a sunrise tour of Tikal.

Welcome to Tikal Inn, located in Tikal National Park, Guatemala
Welcome to Tikal Inn, located in Tikal National Park, Guatemala

The room was nice. Definitely more of a hotel feel. However, there is no electricity in the park and thus you could only get power and a hot shower between 7pm and 10pm. Keep that in mind if you wanted a hot shower at 3pm after a long day of traveling! We waited a bit and the rain stopped. Since the park didn’t close until 6pm, we decided to explore Tikal for a couple of hours. We grabbed our cameras and rain jackets and hit the trails. We ended up walking about 4.25 miles that afternoon exploring the various trails and ruins.

Walking around the jungle is unreal. I felt like I was in a movie. Everything was SO green! There was even mist hanging around the trails as we walked giving it a bit of an eerie feeling. After about 1.5 miles we approached our first ruins that was still under excavation. I plan to go in more depth about Tikal in a few days so stay tuned for that post! But in a nutshell, the place was amazing. I would go back there in a heartbeat!

A sneak peak of Tikal National Park - more to come so stay tuned!
A sneak peak of Tikal National Park – more to come so stay tuned!

After walking around for a couple of hours we headed back to the Inn just in time for the power and hot water to come on! The pool looked quite inviting since it was still about 80 degrees with 1000% humidity! There was no one in the pool we when got in, but after about 5 minutes about 30 Loyola college students jumped in. We chatted a bit with a couple of them and then hopped out to shower and eat dinner.

I had the fish with steam veggies and Lindsay had the steak. A woman named Michael joined us for dinner and it turned out she was from New Orleans too! I asked her about hundred questions about New Orleans because I am (well did now 🙂 ) traveling to New Orleans the first week of June for work. After dinner we both hit the sack early.

Daily Expenses:

  • Breakfast – $7 (Q48)
  • Bus/taxi (including return trip to Belize border the next day) – $58
  • Park Entrance Fee – $20 (Q150)
  • Tikal Inn – $68
  • Souvenirs – $12
  • Total: $160

Los Amigos Hostel – Flores, Guatemala

The entrance to Los Amigos Hostel in Flores, Guatemala
The entrance to Los Amigos Hostel in Flores, Guatemala

If you have find yourself in Flores, Guatemala (which I highly recommend that you do), then you must stay at Los Amigos Hostel. I’ve been to quite a few hostels over the years, and hands down, this hostel wins in many categories.

Los Amigos is located on Calle Central, or less than a 5 minute walk from the bus stop on Flores. Los Amigos was started in 2004 by Matthias, a native of Holland, and his friend Erica, who is behind the delicious menu at the restaurant. The staff at Los Amigos is quite friendly and most speak some basic English. However, I do recommend knowing some Spanish because I had some issues communicating with one of the bartenders who was not very nice to me. Overall, the staff is great.

The Restaurant
The Restaurant

Los Amigos has several different room options to meet your needs. Dorms are the cheapest at about $7.00 a night. Each dorm has about 10-12 bunks with clean sheets on arrival. The cost of a dorm room bed does not include a towel. If you feel like spending a couple extra bucks, then you can stay in the dorm deluxe rooms for about $9.00 a night. The dorm deluxe rooms have about 5-6 bunks with a private bathroom and hot shower in the room. The cost includes the use of a towel. Lindsay and I stayed in a deluxe dorm room and it was nice. We had several fans in the room and the shower had excellent pressure. I got stuck on a top bunk, which I found comfortable, but a bit wobbly. I felt bad for the girl on the bottom bunk because I move around a lot in my sleep.

Gallo Beer and the Night Lounge
Gallo Beer and the Night Lounge

If you’re looking for something a little more private, Los Amigos has both private rooms with shared bathrooms ($19.00/night) and private rooms with a private bathroom ($29.00/night). All the rooms have beautiful photos and/or art done by local travellers that have passed through the hostel over the years. The beds are also handcrafted by local artisans in the region.

Our Deluxe Dorm room
Our Deluxe Dorm room – No toliet paper in the toilet!

Los Amigos also has a spa, but neither of us went so I couldn’t tell you about it. However, I can tell you that the restaurant is fabulous. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had dinner and drinks there on the night we got there with our British friend, Ben. I ordered the Coconut Milk Grouper Fish with steamed vegetables and rice. The fish is locally caught in the lake and was very tasty. If it was socially acceptable, I would have licked the plate clean. To drink, I had a mango vodka and Gallo, the local Guatemalan beer. The beer tasted similar to a Pilsner and was pretty good. And, it only cost $1.50! Actually, my whole dinner and two drinks cost me a whopping $12.00.

At 9:30pm the night lounge opens. The night lounge bartender walked around the restaurant while we were eating and handed out tickets stating “free Tequila shot with your first drink.” We didn’t take him up on the offer, but I’m sure a lot of people do. The night lounge was unique and if we weren’t exhausted from travelling all day we might have spent some time in there. The night lounge definitely had a hippie vibe with a beer pong table set up with some club music playing. I can only imagine things can get crazy in there.

Scenes from the common area
Scenes from the common area

What I really loved about the hostel was the common areas. It felt like you are in the jungle with trees growing in the middle of the patios with giant flora. There were even a few cats and dogs wandering around as well. Not sure who they belonged to, but they were friendly. There is even a pool table and hammocks for reading and napping in the common area.

You can’t beat the price or the atmosphere at Los Amigos. If you’re heading to Flores and Tikal then Los Amigos should be your base. You can check out their website at amigos hostel.com. It’s a must stay in my opinion! 🙂

The Beginning of a Journey

Hola! Bonjour! Guten Tag! Hello!

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.

Serendipity

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!

The Trip

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.

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