Excuse the cheesy headline, but traveling to Belize gives license to some great hashtags. #UnBelizeable #YouBetterBelizeIt... you get the idea. Belize was the first trip Matt and I had taken out of the country since our 2 month tour in South America (maybe one day I'll get to posting about that). We landed on Belize mainly because I was playing in Google Flight Search (a hobby of mine) and came across a $283 round trip fare from Salt Lake to Belize City. Yes, you read that correctly.
Albeit the tickets were a terrible flight schedule. Originally this was our flight path:
Getting there: 11:59 p.m. depart SLC, arrive CLT 4:50 a.m.; 7 a.m. depart CLT, arrive MIA 8:54 a.m.; 9:55 a.m. depart MIA, arrive to BZE 11:17 a.m.
Coming home: 5:15 p.m. depart BZE, arrive DFW 8:18 p.m.; 6:15 a.m. depart DFW, arrive PHX 7:51 a.m.; 8:34 a.m. depart PHX, arrive SLC 10:10 a.m.
Again, yes, I know... TERRIBLE flights. But hey, for less than $300 it was worth 10 days in Belize. Luckily, due to a flight schedule change, our original departing flight was rescheduled to leave past midnight on the night of our departure, which then caused the airline to reschedule us for earlier. Our new flight schedule was:
Getting there: 7:15 a.m. depart SLC, arrive DFW 10:58 a.m.; 12:10 p.m. depart DFW, arrive BZE 2:10 p.m.
Coming home: 5:09 p.m. depart BZE, arrive DFW 8:18 p.m.; 10:40 p.m. depart DFW, arrive PHX 12:16 a.m.; 8:30 a.m. depart PHX, arrive SLC 10:13 a.m.
Another whole day of vacation, on the airline! And if you're wondering, yes there was a flight from DFW to SLC the night we were coming home. I almost convinced a ticket agent to put us on that flight but was shut down. So we spent a *lovely* evening in the Phoenix airport. Would I do it again? I'd like to think not. But give me a good deal to somewhere great and I might be convinced.
Once the flights were booked, the research began. I realized for such a small country, Belize has a lot to offer. There are countless eco-lodges in the interior offering exciting jungle activities. And while most people think of the Northern Cayes for beach time in Belize, there are several other great options for working on your tan.
We knew we didn't want to rush our time and decided to spend 3 nights in the San Ignacio Area and 6 nights on Caye Caulker. Travel time between San Ignacio and Belize City (where you catch the water taxi to the Northern Cayes) is only a couple of hours. This would give us time for jungle and ruin exploration and well as allow for plenty of R&R time by the ocean without criss-crossing all over.
San Ignacio Area
Where we stayed
Parrot Nest Lodge, which is technically in Bullet Tree Falls. To get here we took the bus from Belize to San Ignacio and then a taxi to the lodge. There is supposedly shuttle service to this area but we arrived at night and during our stay never needed to get into San Ignacio. We paid $62/ night for a treehouse room and breakfast. The only downside to the treehouse room was the shared bathroom. However, we didn't spend too much time in our room anyway so it wasn't a huge issue.
The owners are wonderful in arranging local guides for any and all activities. They also offer tubes for floating down the river that runs behind the property. We didn't have time to do it but would have liked to have spent a day relaxing in the jungle.
Because we didn't have a car it was easier to have dinner at the lodge. Dinner was $12.50/ person; the food was tasty and the portions filing. We might have saved money out in San Ignacio but we were content to hang out at the lodge after our long days of exploration.
What we did
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (ATM Cave)
The ATM cave tour is one of the coolest tours I've been on, partly because our guide was so outstanding and partly because the actual cave is so unique. The ATM cave is a Maya archaeological site that includes artifacts and human remains. Our guide, Gonzo (arranged through the lodge), has been coming to ATM since before it opened to tourism and studied it as part of his PhD in Archaeology. He's involved in helping maintain and map the cave systems throughout Belize and was extremely knowledgeable in local flora and fauna. He definitely made the tour. Unfortunately no photography is allowed during this tour (read about why here) so our camera stayed in the car while we pretended to be Indiana Jones.
The tour starts with a "hike" (more like a flat long walk) that crosses water 3 times. At the third crossing Gonzo asked if we wanted to see where the cave was "first" discovered. Of course we said yes and followed Gonzo up river to the tributary where the cave entrance is. You couldn't make up a more perfect entrance to a mysterious cave; the rocks form an hourglass shape and you swim upstream to the opening.
You have to swim through the entrance of the cave to reach land on the other side. The rest of the journey through the cave requires some swimming and a lot of scrambling. We finally made it to our destination, which was a large interior chamber accessed by climbing up some rocks. At this point you are required to take your shoes off, so as not to disturb the artifacts. One reason the tour is so cool is that tape and rope separate you from ancient artifacts. This kind of thing would definitely not fly in America, there'd be glass coverings and heavy barricades. Gonzo would hop from the off limits area and point things out to us and back to the path meant for tourists. ATM is believed to have been a site used for human sacrifice and there are several human remains. The farthest point of the tour is to see the "Dancer," which is a crystallized skeleton of a 17 year old boy in a traditional dancing position.
Before going on this tour I only knew ATM was the "thing" to do in the San Ignacio area. Tours are around $100 so it was a definite splurge. Luckily the day exceeded every expectation I had.
Caracol + Mountain Pine Ridge
Caracol was once among the most powerful Maya cities. It is a 52 mile drive from San Ignacio on a very rough road, the drive can take between 3 and 4 hours. The silver lining of this is that it is a very beautiful drive, in some parts it is 2400 feet above sea level through a pine forest. Yes, Belize has a pine forest. Caracol is also very close to the Guatemalan boarder and therefore there is a large military presence at the site.
While a lot has been excavated, much of the site remains under the jungle's surface. A fun fact about Caracol is that the Sky Palace is still the tallest man made structure in Belize. From its top you get a pretty impressive perspective of the Chiquibul Rainforest, as well as a peer into Guatemala.
Our guide, Juan Allen (arranged by our lodge), was another excellent local guide. While we got to the park later than most, we felt like we had the place to ourselves since Juan goes in the opposite direction that most tours take. He also does so many tours that the guards all know him and don't mind if he isn't out of the park right at 2 p.m. (the park closes so early so that no one gets stuck).
On our way out of Mountain Pine Ridge we stopped at Rio Frio Cave and Big Rock Falls. We had both sites to ourselves. We spent a good half hour swimming at dusk at the falls. By the time we got back to our lodge it was 6 p.m. Long day!
Jaguar Paw Cave Tubing
Cave tubing wasn't really on my to dos. Another couple, Rihanna and Laine, staying at the Nest were leaving for Belize City to catch the water taxi to Caye Caulker the same day we were and offered to give us a ride, but were planning on doing a cave tube on the way there. We decided why not?
The drive to Jaguar Paw was pretty uneventful and was a straight shot on the Western Highway. Once we entered the cave tubing staging area we were assaulted by tour operators vying for some business. However, we held our ground for Fry Jack, a recommendation from the Nest's owner. Fry Jack assured us we had enough time for the 3 hour tour. This tour starts further up the river than most tours at a very scenic swimming hole. This was especially appealing as it was cruise ship day, which meant the river was overrun with day tourists at port.
Our day turned into a day when Laine jumped in and hit his head on some rocks and came up with a gushing gash. Luckily Fry Jack was able to staunch the bleeding with a T-shirt and we opted to go on the tour, head wound and all. The experience was cool as you ride through some caves and the river is very scenic. However, there were so many people around it made the experience more Disney-like than I prefer.
Side note: We went to the emergency room in Belize City for Laine's wound. However, around 4 p.m. Matt and I took a taxi to the water taxi so we could still make it to Caye Caulker that day. Luckily at the very last minute Laine and Rihanna made it on!
When deciding whether to stay on Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye my main concern was dive access to the Blue Hole. Caye Caulker offers more dive trips to the Blue Hole and it's backpacker vibe meshed more with how Matt and I like to travel. I doubt you can go wrong with either caye, but we really enjoyed Caye Caulker.
Where we stayed
We spent 6 wonderful nights at Colinda Cabanas in Cabana 5 (one of the raised cabanas). With a promotion they were running, our cabana was $59/ night. The property has lots of different accommodation options, from seaside suites to cabanas like ours. The rooms all come with complimentary bikes (great for riding back and forth as Colinda's is on the far side of the caye) and there's a private dock with a covered palapa (perfect for Matt). Since Caye Caulker doesn't have a long sand shelf, having the private dock was key for hanging out by the ocean. It meant we didn't have to go to Loco Lizard and pay for drinks for ocean access. Instead, we bought a $5 bottle of rum and made our own cocktails.
What we did
We dove with Belize Diving Services as it was the most recommended in all of my research. It is also one of the more (if not the most) expensive dive operators based out of Caye Caulker. However, the extra money is definitely worth the peace of mind when doing a more technical dive like the Blue Hole. You can read about our two days of diving here.
Yup, the rest of our time on Caye Caulker was pretty much spent on our private dock reading books and taking swimming breaks. I worked on my tan while Matt hid from the sun.
Things we ate/ drank
The fish and lobster burritos here are ENORMOUS and delicious. Pull up a swing and enjoy the ocean breeze.
In a more remote/ local part of the island, on the 3rd floor of it's building. The food is excellent, if it's conch season be sure to get some of it curried here.
I don't think you can go to Caye Caulker and not go to the Lazy Lizard at least once. It's located at The Split, which divides the island in two. I opted for their Lizard Juice, which I instantly regretted as it was electric green and too sweet. I would definitely recommend stopping by at least once to soak in the vibe of the place, but I preferred our dock to this one.
Pasta Per Casto
We were on Caye Caulker during low season so this restaurant just re-opened up for business. The homemade pastas here were perfect after a long day of diving. Plus, they serve salad!
There are lots of vendors grilling seafood on Front Street by the shoreline. If you're looking for a cheaper lunch option, this is great.
The Cake Lady
At night she tends to hang out on Front Street near the basketball court. I think we ate cake every night we were on Caye Caulker.
- If I were to go back, I would definitely rent a car for our time in the interior. Because Matt and I are so used to bussing everywhere I didn't really look into it. If you want more freedom to roam, renting a car would be ideal and easy. You can drop it back off at the agency and they'll take you to the water taxi for your time on the cayes.
- The bus from Belize City to San Ignacio may have been one of my least favorite bus experiences ever. But that's because we took the local bus which stopped every hundred feet or so to pick up and drop off passengers along the Western Highway. The 70 mile journey took HOURS; by the time we arrived in San Ignacio, it was dark. Apparently there is an express bus, so if you do decide to bus, definitely make sure to take that one.
- Both places we stayed had filtered water available for reusable bottles. We forgot ours at home and kicked ourselves the whole trip for not bringing them. I now always research the availability of potable water when traveling out of the country.
- Things Missed:
- The Lamanai Ruins in Orange Walk. These ruins are accessed by river and seemed especially adventurous because of it. The Lamanai Outpost Lodge would be an ideal way to spend a few days in the Belizean jungle.
- Central Cayes: A simple google image search of Glover's Reef Atoll will tell you why. The Central Cayes are less trafficked and Glover's offers excellent dive access.
- Hopkins seemed like a cool, laid-back beach town with easy access to great diving.