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! 🙂
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!
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)
If you ever find yourself in Western Guatemala then you absolutely must go to Tikal National Park! It’s like stepping back in time to an ancient civilization and seeing history unfold in front of your eyes.
Tikal National Park is located in the heart of the jungle in the Peten Department of Northwestern Guatemala. Tikal is located about 64 km (40 miles) from Flores and Santa Elena. Tikal was inhabited from the 6th century BC to the 10th century AD by the Mayan civilization. Tikal is considered the ceremonial center of the Mayan civilization because it contains numerous temples, palaces, and public squares.
Tikal is the largest excavated site in the American continent. The park comprises of 222 square miles of surrounding jungle. Tikal was declared a national park on May 26, 1955 after being originally named a national monument in 1931. The University of Pennsylvania spent 13 years from 1956 to 1970 uncovering 10 square miles of structures at Tikal. However, only about 30% of the archaeological site is uncovered today. Much of the structures are still covered by the jungle and earth.
Story has it that in 1848 Ambrosio Tut, a gum collector, discovered Tikal while trekking through the jungle. He saw the temples’ roof combs in the distance and ran back to Flores to inform the governor of Peten Province. There is much mystery to the Mayan civilization and Tikal in particular. At the height of their reign from AD 700-800, the area housed close to 120,000 inhabitants. In the 9th century, the Mayan civilization began to disappear rapidly. Almost overnight, the city of Tikal was abandoned. Researchers believe that overpopulation and the lack of water in the area led to the demise of the population.
After arriving at the entrance gate of Tikal National Park, you still must travel over 12 miles to the beginning of the trails to the ruins. Be prepared to walk a lot. The entrance fee for the park is Q150 or about $20 USD. You can only pay in Quetzals so make sure you exchange money prior to arriving at the park.
As you enter the park trails, you’ll be greeted by the Ceiba tree, which is Guatemala’s national tree and is probably well over 200 feet tall! The Ceiba tree was sacred to the Maya because it’s roots are believed to connect the planes of the underworld. You’ll soon arrive at a fork in the trail where you have three options. The middle trail is the shortest route to the Grand Plaza, which is probably the main focal point of the park.
As you make your way to the Grand Plaza, you’ll pass Group F, which served as the market place for the Maya. The structure is still mostly covered by dense jungle giving you idea of what Tikal looked like for early explorers and archaeologists.
The Grand Plaza is comprised of Temples 1 and 2, and the ball court housed between the Central and North Acropolises. Temples 1 and 2 construction was ordered by Ha Sawa Chaan-K’awil (aka Ah Cacaw or Ruler A), who brought Tikal back to wealth and power after a series of wars. Temple 2 was finished during his long life (he lived between 60-80 years old) and Temple 1 was finished by his son and served as Ha Sawa’s burial site. Temple 2 stands at 122 feet (38 m) tall and Temple 1 is 144.36 feet (45 m) tall.
The Maya considered Temple 1 to be the portal to the underworld. Ha Sawa was buried in the interior of the tomb, which was very untraditional as the rulers of the past 500 years were all buried in the North Acropolis. Ha Sawa was almost 6 feet tall! I overheard a tour guide tell his group that step height was determined by the tiba-fibula length of the ruler. I’m not sure if this was true or not, but I can tell you those steps were big for my little legs! Temple 1 is also known as the Temple of the Jaguar because the carvings in the lintel (door frame) show a king sitting on a jaguar throne.
Temple II sits directly across from Temple I. Temple II is also known as the Temple of the Masks. Tourists can climb to the top of Temple II via the wooden staircase in the back to get stunning view of Temple I and the Grand Plaza. From the top of Temple II, you can view the carvings of masks. From the top of Temple II you’ll see tour guides clapping their hands. Don’t worry, they aren’t crazy. The combs serve as ancient acoustic amplifiers! High priests could easily be heard by all during ceremonies.
On the ground on the plaza you’ll see giant stones. Were they seats? A Table maybe? Nope, the Mayan sacrificed people over the stones. The Acropolises are a great place to climb around and see birds. I got to see quite a few parrots up close. They aren’t very quiet either.
To the south of the Grand Plaza through the jungle sits Group G or Palacio de las Acanaladuras. The palace is the possible home to Yik’in, the son of Ha Sawa. When we were visiting in May 2014, the palace was under construction. Temple V is also not far from here and is currently under construction as well. Temple V dates back to AD 700 and is built with the architectural style of the Early Classic period. It is the second tallest temple at 187 feet (57 m) tall.
To the East of Temple II is Temple IV or Templo de la Serpiente Bicefalcia. Temple IV is the tallest temple standing at 230.98 feet or 72 meters falls. Unfortunately, Lindsay and I didn’t make it this far, which is my biggest regret at Tikal. Guess I just have to go back! Temple IV was built around AD 741 to make the reign of Yik’in Chan K’awiil. Archaeologists believe his tomb lies undiscovered somewhere underneath the temple. Tikal was made famous after George Lucas filmed a scene of Star Wars from the top of temple IV.
To the North of the Grand Plaza are complexes O, P, Q, and R. Over 54 species of mammals live in Tikal, including the howler monkey, spider monkey, anteaters, tree-toed sloth, and the jaguar among others. Over 333 different species of birds also make Tikal home including the ocellated turkey, red macaw, and parrots. The best times to see wildlife are at dawn or dusk when many of the animals are most active. While we were at Tikal in the morning, we heard howler monkeys, but could not see them. Boy did they may a racket!
Tikal National Park is a very special place. Not only is it a major historical site (it became a World Heritage site in 1979), but it is just plain cool to explore. Lindsay and I were at Tikal during the tail-end of the busy season and only saw a handful of tourists. It was truly unreal exploring the jungle ruins of Tikal. The Mayan culture and history is absolutely fascinating and to see it in person was truly a treat. I will certainly be back to see Tikal again in the future and hopefully finally be able to go on the sunrise tour!
How to Get There – Take a bus (tour or local) from Flores/Santa Elena for the day. You can also stay overnight at one of the park’s hotel or camp. I highly suggest this if you have the time and money! It’s about a 2 hour ride and costs about $10-15 USD. It will only cost a few dollars if you take the local bus, but will take a lot longer.
What to Wear – Wear shoes! You’ll be walking a lot and it is become slick if it rains. Hiking clothes or active clothes are best since you’ll be trekking and climbing temples. Bring a rain jacket during rainy season as you will get wet.
What to Bring – Water! You can buy water and snacks there as well, but it will be more expensive than if you bring some with you. A camera is a must and perhaps binoculars if you want to see the wildlife in the distance.
What NOT to Miss – The Grand Plaza and Temple IV
Cost – The entrance fee is Q150 and must be paid in Quetzals. If you do either the sunset or sunrise tour you must pay an additional Q100. Tour guides vary in price and are usually booked back in Flores/Santa Elena. You can do without one, but if you want to know more about the history and wildlife then they are worth the price.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! 🙂
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?