Once upon a time…
Erica and I had planned a trip to visit Belize in March 2020. This, obviously, did not happen; we tried postponing it to December 2020, which also didn’t happen. We postponed a couple more times and then decided to “do it later.” Well, now it’s later.
Getting there was fairly straightforward: Delta flies to Belize City, and they had frequent-flyer seats available. It’s about a three-hour flight from Atlanta to Belize City, with one flight per day. We booked tickets and then started on the detailed planning– 90% of which Erica did– for a weeklong trip. Our flight down was uneventful and we arrived in Belize City about noon. Delta only operates a 737-800 on this route, so it’s not fancy by any means. The airport is small and noisy, with lots and lots of duty-free space relative to its size. (Liquor is expensive in Belize, so if you’re a heavy drinker, stock up at the airport.)
We’d booked a shuttle to take us up to San Ignacio, close to the border with Guatemala. It was US $120 and a roughly two-hour drive; for the first hour, there’s not much to see, but it gets more interesting as you go further west. Erica had used a stash of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which she transferred to Hyatt, to book us at the Ka’ana in San Ignacio, a small but extremely nice resort that served as our base for the first part of our trip. The resort is about a 5min drive outside San Ignacio proper– a little too far to walk. It’s beautifully landscaped, with about two dozen rooms laid out around a central area with a pool and a combined reception/bar/restaurant. There’s a helipad (seriously… but don’t get too excited, it’s a stone “H” laid into a grass field) and a small organic farm that provides much of the produce used in the restaurant.
After checkin, we hit the pool, which is small but lovely, and ordered a poolside lunch. Spoiler alert: the pool has iguanas, and they will steal your lunch if given the chance. We saw the first iguana as we lounged, but as soon as the food came out, there were suddenly more of them, and they weren’t shy at all about climbing on tables or lounge chairs. Erica eventually finished her sandwich in the middle of the pool to keep it safe from their depredations.
Dinner was at the hotel restaurant, which was oddly empty– there were only 2 other couples dining. We ate there each night; as you’d expect there were a few staple dishes (grilled stuffed chicken breast, various steaks) and some daily selections. All of them were quite good; none of them were so good that I’d rave about them here.
The next morning, we were up early for breakfast. Our room included continental breakfast, which you can pre-order, but the selections were a little different than a US hotel: oatmeal, sure, and a fruit plate, but also what the hotel called johnnycakes but what an American would call biscuits, served with delicious local cheese and refried beans.
Breakfast delivery meant we had time to eat before leaving for our tour of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, which we’d booked with MayaWalk. They picked us up from the hotel, and after a short wait at their office in San Ignacio we met up with the rest of our group and headed out on the 45-minute drive to the cave.
Summary: ATM is an amazing experience. It was made all the better by our guide Magdaleno, who was both knowledgeable and passionate about the history of el mundo Maya. He did a fantastic job of explaining the significance of the artifacts and remains in the cave itself, outlining what is known (versus what’s conjectured) about Mayan culture and civilization, and guiding us through the cave. The tour itself starts at a parking lot, where after a very short walk you ford a chest-deep river.
Getting to the cave entails two more shallow river crossings and about a 1.5mi hike on a mostly-flat, mostly-dirt, mostly-shaded path. Once you get to the cave, you swim in and the real fun starts.
We’d read tons of reviews of the cave experience, many of which highlighted how difficult it was. In reality, though, it was about a 5 on a scale of 1-10 for us. There was some climbing on and over rocks, and a few tight passages that required gyrations and contortions, but all easily managed. We saw one small clutch of roosting bats and one really impressive spider, plus all the usual beauty and grandeur of a large cave system. What sets ATM apart is its history as a sacred ceremonial space; there are multiple sets of human remains along the path, along with lots of ceremonial pottery. The tour culminates with climbing an extension ladder to the Cave of the Crystal Maiden, which is an unforgettable sight that unfortunately I couldn’t capture on my own. Cameras aren’t allowed in the cave because of damage caused by prior clumsy visitors, so the cave pictures we have come from MayaWalk’s archive. There are other restrictions (part of the tour must be done in socks, without shoes, for example) but nothing onerous.
After the tour, MayaWalk had catered a lunch of stewed chicken, rice, and beans, which we eagerly ate before the ride back to the hotel. Then it was time for another visit to the pool, as one does. Because of Erica’s status with Hyatt, the hotel offered to upgrade us a slightly nicer room that had its own private patio and tub, so we moved our stuff over and unpacked our $5 Walmart pool floats for the afternoon before enjoying dinner in the hotel again.
What did we do the next day? Not a darn thing except floating in the pool. I read two books, took pictures of some birds, drank several local beers, watched the iguanas, and generally just relaxed.
Wednesday morning we had an earlier wakeup so that we could take a tour of the ruins at Tikal. This required more driving than ATM, so we needed an earlier start. The MayaWalk driver picked us up as before and took us to the office to meet up with our group, and off we went. It was just us and one other couple (two lovely Brits now living just outside Quebec City). We made one stop en route at a local shop, which had a pretty impressive scale model of the Tikal complex. The model below shows the full extent of the complex, but not all of it is visible when you get there– more on that in a bit.
The total drive there took about 90 minutes. Part of it is inside the boundaries of the park; you pass through a big gate that looks, no kidding, much like the famous gate from Jurassic Park. After we parked, we started exploring the complex. It covers an area of about 16 square kilometers; as you walk through on the provided paths, you can see the tops of some of the larger buildings, but many of the smaller buildings just look like tree-covered mounds.
This is on purpose; if you remove the trees and vegetation from these structures, you’d also be removing some of the support that holds them together, not to mention exposing them more to erosion and water damage. The complex has been thoroughly mapped using both radar and lidar, which is where the layout in the diorama above came from. Some of the structures are open to the public, including Temple IV and most of the complex known as the Mundo Perdido (“Lost World”).
It’s pretty astonishing to wander around the complex and picture the amount of effort and knowledge that went into building these structures: all by hand, with very limited tools, in a place with no nearby rivers or lakes (so limited supplies of water). There was a lot of specialized knowledge involved, too. Our guide told us the story of one structure that was restored by a team from the University of Pennsylvania but that had to be re-restored– the UPenn team made the structure too straight and level, so it was eroding much faster than expected because rainfall pooled instead of running off the side of the uneven original structure.
The tour took about 3 hours all told, then we piled back into the van for the trip back. En route we stopped at a restaurant, where we’d stopped on the inbound leg to preorder lunch. My plate of barbecued chicken, rice, and beans was simple but delicious. As with the inbound leg, we stopped at the border to walk through the customs checkpoint, which entailed having our passports checked and stamped. Since we’re both used to clearing customs and immigration at airports, this was a mildly novel experience but nothing too exciting. Once we got back to the hotel, we enjoyed a pleasant evening at the pool and a tasty dinner.
Saturday morning we got up, packed, and caught the shuttle we had booked back to Belize City. Our driver, Lucy, was a great conversationalist and told us all about life in Belize (summary: go to Guatemala if you need surgery; don’t trust politicians; if you want to live in Belize, rent before buying). Our destination was the water taxi terminal at the southern end of the city, where we wanted to take a water taxi to Caye Caulker. Tickets were around $20 each, and after a short wait we boarded the water taxi for the ride.
(Intermission: let’s talk about dollars. Belize uses the Belizean dollar (BZD), which is pegged at a 2:1 exchange rate with US dollars. Some places show prices in USD, but most are in BZD. We found that USD was accepted everywhere, and most places would accept USD and return change in USD. Lots of places don’t take cards, and none of the places we went to throughout the whole trip would accept American Express.)
The water taxi ride took about 45 minutes and deposited us at the tiny terminal at Caye Caulker. Luggage handling is a bit of a mess– the ferry was too full for us to carry on our small luggage, so we checked it; after arrival we had to wait for 45min or so for the luggage to be unloaded and sorted out. This was made less pleasant by the stink of rotting seaweed. At the moment, Caye Caulker’s eastern shore has been collecting an unusual amount of seaweed, which mostly sits there in the sun and decomposes. Crews come and shovel it away every so often, but not fast enough… thus the smell.
Caye Caulker is not a large island– it’s long and narrow, so you can easily walk from the western side to the eastern in five minutes or so. We’d booked at the Colinda Cabanas, and I can’t say enough good about the property– easy to get to, quiet, clean, with a small but very pleasant waterfront and beach area. Our bungalow was set towards the back of the property, with a small front porch with a water view. It was small but neat on the inside. Like Ka’ana, they provide filtered bottled water, which is important– I did get a touch of Belize belly at one point, probably due to ice cubes, and it wasn’t a whole lot of fun.
One of the reasons we wanted to visit Caye Caulker was its laid-back vibe. San Pedro is larger and more like a mini-Cancun, but Caulker is super slow-moving. In fact, “Go Slow” is their official island motto, and people take it seriously. There are no cars on the island, which is fine because you wouldn’t need them anyway. Instead, there are golf-cart taxis, plus lots of bikes. Colinda included two bikes with our cabin, but we didn’t use them because it was easy enough to walk. There are plenty of restaurants and bars, and a few shops. Interestingly, most of the grocery trade in Belize is controlled by Taiwanese immigrants, so you’ll see lots of grocery stores with Chinese surnames or poorly translated English phrases.
At the north end of the island, there’s an area known as “The Split”; in 1961, when Hurricane Hattie blew through, the storm surge washed away part of the island, leaving a ~100′ wide channel. We mostly stayed on the south part of the island. The Lazy Lizard is a famous bar right at the Split, and we walked past it a few times, but it looked like the kind of loud, heavy-drinking stupidity that we generally avoid. We did take a ferry across to the north side one afternoon to hang out at a secluded beach; the hotel on site is closed but they’ll still sell you beach access for BZ$10, which was well worth it.
Caulker has a reputation as a cheap destination for backpackers, and there were plenty of ’em. However, overall the island wasn’t nearly as busy as I expected. It is more busy during the summer. One note: lobsters aren’t in season until June so we didn’t get to have any. #firstworldproblems
We’d scheduled two activities while in Caye Caulker. First was overflying the Blue Hole. This is a legendary scuba destination, but since we don’t dive, a flight was the next best thing. There are two primary tour operators who provide flights from the small Caye Caulker airstrip: Tropic Air and Maya Air. Both operate air service to the mainland and other islands with Cessna Caravans, but only Tropic has Caravan flights over the Blue Hole.
The TropicAir website is absolutely awful, so save yourself some hassle and call them if you want to book a flight. The flight takes about an hour overall. Tropic Air has a very nice new terminal building at the airport; after a brief wait, the C208 landed and we joined the passengers who had already flown from San Pedro to pick us up then departed for the tour. The flight out was at 3500′, then we descended to 1000′ over the Blue Hole, and went as low as 700′ to see the shipwreck. Whether or not you enjoy flying in small airplanes, the scenery is absolutely stunning; watching the pilot and silently judging his airmanship was just an added bonus for me.
Because we are who we are, of course we had some unscheduled activities while at Caulker, too, including taking one of the Colinda kayaks out for a paddle. The wind was steady the whole time we were there: out of the east at 15 to 20 knots. This made kayaking a little more difficult than it would have been if we’d gone to the west side, but being able to take a few steps from our cabana and be in the kayak made up for that.
Our other big adventure was snorkeling. Caye Caulker sits about a 5-minute boat ride away from the edge of a large reef system and marine preserve, so we were eager to get out in it and snorkel. Caveman is the best-rated tour operator on the island but they wouldn’t return Erica’s emails, so we booked with Anwar Tours and had a superb experience. Our guide, Jian, was born on the island and has lived there his entire life, so he was a wealth of information and guidance about the area. At the first stop, we fed rays and nurse sharks; the other two were actually inside the reef boundaries, so we got to see a gorgeous selection of marine life, including the biggest, ugliest moray eel I’ve ever seen.
A few other Culker highlights:
- The coffee at Ice and Beans is terrific. We made it a regular morning stop.
- There’s a local food called “fryjacks”. Think of it like a super-sized empanada– a fry-bread shell stuffed with goodies. Errolyn’s was our favorite fryjack place, but we had good ones at Ka’ana and at a couple of other places.
- The local animal shelter lets their charges run around the island during the day. You will often find friendly dogs, and occasionally cats, just walking around spreading joy.
- One morning we did a yoga class at Namaste. It was jam-packed, but it was a good class.
- Every day at sunset, the staff at the Iguana Reef Hotel feeds the stingrays, which means you can get as close to them as you want.
Although I would happily have stayed longer, eventually we had to go back home. Sad, right? On a whim, I decided to book us on Maya Air for the 8-minute flight back to the Belize City airport. The small price premium (compared to buying water taxi tickets plus a taxi from the ferry to the airport) was far outweighed by the time savings, and buying the ticket could not have been easier– show up at the Maya Air counter, tell them your name, hand them a credit card, and walk away 5 minutes later. It was faster to buy these tickets in person than it usually is to buy tickets from the websites that American or Delta offer.
Anyway: as advertised, the flight was about 8 minutes long, then we were on the ramp at BZE. Customs and immigration was again straightforward, and after a short wait we were back on another 737-800 headed home.
Overall, Belize was an amazing place to visit and I’m eager to go back.