Category: Belize – Spring 2013


*** Check out the first post of our trip to Belize and read them in order! ***

Well, that sad day has finally arrived when we say farewell to our travels in Belize and return home to reality. We woke up at 7:00am and quickly gathered the remainder of our belongings (very glad we packed up last night). After a quick stop at the fryjack place and bakery to get some breakfast, and a run to the grocery store to get drinks, we walked over to the water taxi dock and deposited our large backpacks with the water ferry crew member.

We ate our breakfast out at the end of the dock as the crowd of people grew. Only about 10 minutes later, the water taxi arrived from San Pedro on its way to Belize City. We climbed onboard and sat at the very front of the cabin (thankfully less crowded than our previous ride). On the trip back to the city, we talked with the elderly lady next to us who had been on Caye Caulker with her middle aged son for the last two weeks. Across from us, an adorable local girl had just woken up from her nap and was groggily reacquainting herself with the world. She was starting to get fussy, so her mom gave her a piece of gum which she would chew for a while and then play with between her fingers. Rose watched the mom throw the gum wrapper out of the boat window into the water! When the little girl was done with her gum, she just threw it on the floor of the boat without the mom noticing or caring. We still find it amazing how much people take for granted the beautiful environments in which they live.

shoreline of Caye Caulker in Belize

Looking back at the shore of Caye Caulker from the end of the water taxi dock

After the uneventful ride, we disembarked and waited for our bags. While waiting, we took the opportunity to duck into our favorite Belizean meat pie shop to grab one more for Philip before we left. Also while waiting, we were hounded by no fewer than three taxi drivers all competing for our fare. The water ferry crew brought the bags and we then set off with one of the taxi drivers, a local man in his 30’s named Earl.

Earl’s vehicle was parked about a block away (the entire area is torn up with construction) and used to be a van at one point in its life. Now, it is a somewhat sketchy shell of a van lacking a radio, some door panels, and many other common items you would associate with a functioning automobile. He pulled a U-turn on the narrow road and, after just a few hundred feet, we were stopped by a man waving his arms in the road. He needed a jump start and already had the cables hooked up to his battery and we witnessed the quickest jump start of our lives (no more than 20 seconds of stop time).

Earl continued along, pointing out his neighborhood as we drove through. When we reached one of the main roundabouts, he pulled into a gas station to get gas (good thing we weren’t in a hurry). We have to credit him for keeping his stops quick, because after less than a minute we were again on the road with no more than $5 Belize more gas in the tank (less than half a gallon). The fuel gauge was still on empty, but given the condition of the rest of the vehicle, we doubt that it was functional.

As we drove, Philip asked him questions about Belize and we told him a bit about our trip. When we reached the narrow bridge on the north end of Belize City, a small line of about 4 vehicles had formed (including a bus and a dump truck) while a bus crossed the bridge the other direction. For some reason, Earl felt the need to pass the dump truck, even though there was nowhere to go and no room in the already stopped line into which to fit the van. He pulled the nose in and thankfully the traffic started to move before we got T-boned by the oncoming bus. The most astounding part was the anger with which Earl glared at the dump truck driver as if HE had been the idiot in the situation.

The rest of the drive to the airport was uneventful, though we nearly had a second collision when we arrived at the terminal. When we told Earl that we were on United airlines, he swerved into the traffic lane, cutting off a pickup truck. Interestingly, Earl again glared at the other driver (this time for several seconds…yes, his head was turned for several seconds) as if the other driver was at fault. Understandably, we were happy to get out of the vehicle at the airport and paid Earl his fare plus a very small tip (Earl had mentioned a tip when he told us the cost of the fare…$50 Belize plus tip…and we thought it best not to rock the boat too much after surviving the drive).

advertisement for cancer medicine from Cuba in Belize City

This is part of an advertisement for scorpion venom-based cancer medication made in Cuba…fortunately, there’s a chance the medicine won’t kill you!

When we checked in at the ticket counter, we learned that the incoming plane from Houston was an hour late and so our departure would also be delayed. We were a bit concerned that we now only had a 1.5 hour layover in Houston, though hoped that would be enough time to clear immigration and customs before our next flight.

With a few hours before our flight, we sat down on a bench to re-gather ourselves and quickly struck up a conversation with the man next to us (it actually began because he was enjoying a cone of ice cream). Philip went and got his own cone to enjoy while we talked with the man (named Ron). Ron, as it turns out, just completed a one month trip to a remote Mayan village in the southwest corner of Belize where he built a school. He is also a member of the Rotary club and in fact is also from Alberta, Canada (just like the high schoolers we met on Caye Caulker). We talked with Ron for some time, learning more about Rotary, and looking at some of his pictures from the trip. He is a cool guy and seems to be doing a lot of good in the world, one small village at a time.

Eventually, we got in line for security and made it through in just a few minutes. While we sat in the terminal awaiting our flight, we looked over and recognized two people we had met previously: the elderly English and Irish Californians from our first night at the Red Hut Inn. We spent the next hour talking with them about our trips (sadly, they did not have a great time during their visit to Hopkins and the man got eaten alive by the mosquitos). When the time came, we bid them farewell (well, Philip did, Rose had gone in search of a beverage) for their flight home via San Salvador.

Finally, our plane arrived and we managed to depart only about 30 minutes late. On the ride to Houston, we enjoyed the views of Belize briefly from the air and then settled in to watch the movie, “Wreck It Ralph”. As soon as the movie ended (worth seeing, in our opinion), we began our descent and landed in Houston.

Immigrations and Customs were no issue at all (our flight was the only one arriving internationally at the moment), though Rose did amuse Philip and at least one other lady with her “I have to pee” shuffle through the airport (several hundred yards to the first bathroom from the gate…or at least half a mile if you ask Rose). We made it through Houston security and then grabbed some lunch from an Italian place at the food court. Our food was tasty, though devoid of rice, beans, and stewed chicken. Before too long, we boarded our plane for Phoenix and set off on the last leg of our journey home.

Our trip to Belize has been an incredible adventure and surpassed our wildest expectations. We were able to do almost everything on our itinerary, and even picked up one or two extra items on the way. The Mayan ruins and caves are even cooler than we expected, the snorkeling more fantastic, and the overall beauty of the country is just astounding. Beyond that, though, we met some amazing people in our travels, both fellow sojourners as well as Belizean locals. Meeting interesting people is what really makes a good adventure a great one.

We hope you enjoyed following along with us as we experienced Belize and we highly recommend it if you are looking for an amazing destination. Feel free to send us a message with any questions and we would be happy to give tips and share more of what we learned along the way. Hopefully we will be back blogging again soon on our next journey somewhere around the amazing world in which we live.

Philip and Rose on a dock on Caye Caulker

One final picture of us, this time while waiting for the water taxi to take us from Caye Caulker back to Belize City

*** Check out the first post of our trip to Belize and read them in order! ***

Alas, it is our final full day in Belize and we are definitely sad to see our trip coming to an end. For the first time in nearly two weeks, we have absolutely nothing official planned for the entire day. Our hope is to spend the day relaxing and recuperating before returning home tomorrow.

We awoke without an alarm clock at around 7:30am and set off for some breakfast at a nearby place. When we stepped outside, we realized that it was starting to get hot and, unlike yesterday, there was no breeze to cool us down. After some difficult decision making, we ordered fryjack stuffed with items such as eggs, chicken, beans, cheese, and ham. We then proceeded down the street to a small bakery and picked up a few more items.

After some searching, we finally found a picnic table that did not appear to belong to any particular restaurant or hotel and sat down in the shade to enjoy our tasty meal. The pastries were a bit dry, though the stuffed fryjack hit the spot perfectly. We sat there in the shade for over an hour, enjoying the sounds of the island and spending some time reading and writing.

stuffed baby polar bear standing on cocunut halves on Caye Caulker in Belize

The baby polar bear enjoys island life as well!

As the temperature increased, the idea of a refreshing swim began to sound more and more like a good idea. With that goal in mind, we returned to the room to change clothes and put on some sunscreen. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view), Rose lay down on the bed in the path of the fan for a few minutes and our swimming plans were put on hold for a brief nap.

Just over an hour later, she awoke and we finally set off for the Split, the channel between the two islands that make up Caye Caulker. The Split is a somewhat recent addition, caused by Hurricane Hattie in the 1960’s. Due to the extremely shallow seabed around the island, and the fact that the coral reefs further east prevent the buildup of sand beaches on the island, the Split is the best (and most popular place) for swimming on the island.

When we arrived at the small public area next to the Lazy Lizard bar, we left our bag and shoes and climbed into the water. Almost immediately, we began floating east down the channel due to the very strong current. Philip had hoped to swim across the channel to explore the north island (mostly a nature preserve), but that plan was quickly abandoned for safety reasons. Instead, we worked our way over to the sea wall and sat on some submerged logs to cool down.

Interestingly, the main current in the Split seemed to be running away from the mainland of Belize, whereas we had expected it to run the opposite direction. It was hard to tell from our vantage point, but there may have actually been several different currents in the Split at the same time, going in opposite directions. A bit later in the day (on our way for lunch), we ran into our Aussie friends from the snorkeling trip and they told us the current had run towards the mainland the day before. We have no idea what forces are at work in this area of water, but the amount of variation on a daily (or even more frequent basis) is different than anything else we have seen.

After sitting for a while in the water, we made the foolish (that’s how it turned out, anyway) decision to go seek some lunch. We should mention that the temperature for the day was probably in the 90’s Fahrenheit. More importantly, though, the wondrous and refreshing breeze that had been present for the entirety of our time on Caye Caulker thus far was gone. Without the breeze, the high humidity and direct sunshine were nearly intolerable and walking around the island was a sweltering experience.

To make matters worse, the appetite-reducing heat and our general indecisiveness led us to walk nearly the entire length of the island in search of some food for Philip. Eventually, Rose made the decision to just grab some “fast food” from the place near our hotel and eat in the shade in front of our hotel room.

We stopped at the restaurant and ordered two chicken burritos. Rose ran next door to get a few drinks from the grocery store, and then we waited…and waited…and waited (fast food in Belize is not very fast). While we sat in the shade of the restaurant patio in front of a fan (decently pleasant experience), we were fascinated by the episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants playing on a small TV inside of the small kitchen. For those who do not know, Sponge Bob is one of the most popular cartoons of the last 10 years. It is also possibly the stupidest show ever created. We saw probably half the episode and can attest to the rumor that watching the show actually kills brain cells. The most amusing part of the experience was that the two occupants of the kitchen seemed to be an elderly couple, easily over 60 years old…not exactly the standard demographic for Sponge Bob. We should also note that there is a wooden Sponge Bob built around a tree along the main street of the island…we do not know why it is there.

Feeling stupider, we ate our quite tasty burritos (they had a sweet coleslaw inside that was actually very good) and then returned to the room to enjoy the shade of our front porch. We sat outside and read for a while, and then set out to find some free Wi-Fi to post to the blog. Most restaurants on the island offer Wi-Fi so we stopped at the one next door to our snorkeling tour operator because we knew they had a nice patio.

Unfortunately, we were not able to sit on the patio because the Wi-Fi signal there was too weak (what do you expect when the restaurant is actually sharing the internet signal from the hotel across the street…we assume the hotel knew about it and was in agreement…). While we worked, we enjoyed a plate of nachos as well as some lime ice tea (for Philip) and a lovely drink for Rose called a “Panty Ripper” (pineapple juice and coconut rum).

panty ripper drink on a table in Belize

Rose’s delicious drink of pineapple juice and coconut rum with an off-color name: the “Panty Ripper”

At about 5:00pm, we returned to the room to recharge the laptop and then set off to see the sunset. Along the way, we made one stop in order to partake in an experience specific to Caye Caulker: feeding the Tarpon. Near the split on the leeward side of the island, there is a tiny cove where the locals have fed and protected these fish. For $5 Belize, you can buy a pack of sardines (not actually sardines like in America, more like large bait fish) from the residents there and hand feed this group of very large Tarpon. We had heard about this experience from the Canadian “Rotarians” at last night’s dinner, and they assured us that it was worth trying.

With a bit of apprehension, Rose took a sardine and held it out over the water. After a few seconds, she dropped it in and a fish swooped in and ate it. The next sardine went much the same way, but the third one was where the fun began. Rose held one of the sardines just above water level and we watched probably 20 large fish swimming slowly around in the water. Suddenly, out of nowhere one of the fish jumped up and snagged the sardine out of her hand. Rose jumped so high she almost leapt off the other side of the dock! We had been expecting the fish to jump out of the water based on the stories we heard from the Canadians, but it still took both of us by surprise when it happened.

Philip had his turn next and also got to experience the large fish coming out of the water to snag the snack. The more fish we gave them, the more the Tarpon swirled around in the water looking for more. For the last several sardines, Philip tossed them high in the air over the water and we watched the pack of fish swoop in on the sardine, thrashing like crazy as they raced to get to the treat. All in all, it was definitely a unique experience and we happily still have all of our respective digits (in reality, Tarpon just have very hard gums and not sharp teeth, so even if they had “bit” us, we probably would have been just fine).

With the sun falling quickly, we asked the locals where a good place would be to view the sunset and they directed us just up the island. We walked out onto a dock there and sat on the edge with our feet dangling just above the water. Sadly, the sun was obscured by an enormous cloud that reached all the way down to the horizon and so the sunset was fairly unspectacular. However, we did enjoy the serenity of the time and sat for a while on the edge of the dock looking around at the beauty and talking about our trip.

sun behind clouds at sunset on Caye Caulker in Belize

The sunset on our last evening wasn’t quite what we had hoped due to the clouds, though definitely still beautiful

As dusk set in, we walked up the island a few hundred feet to the Split and tried to decide what to do next. We elected to spend the evening just walking the island and so spent the next hour or more walking up and down the main drag and searching for the perfect place to grab a small dinner (our late afternoon snack was still holding us pretty well). Along the way, we stopped at a grocery to purchase a few bottles of the local cashew wine to bring home as gifts and took those back to the room. Ultimately, Philip’s indecisiveness again led us to way too much walking and not enough eating, so we went for one final stroll down the main street to find the first viable restaurant.

coast of Caye Caulker in Belize

The coastline of Caye Caulker at sunset

We wanted to eat at a Lebanese restaurant where we found the Canadian Rotary group from the night before, but unfortunately they did not take credit card and our cash reserves were just enough to get us through breakfast and the cab ride to the airport. Instead, we found a restaurant running a special which included a free shrimp kabob with any order so decided to eat there. The patio looked like a wonderful place to sit and the bar area was lit up with flashing LED lights that may have caused seizures in an epileptic. Much to our dismay, the patio was full and we instead were sat at the back of the somewhat stifling restaurant in a room that was completely orange and lit with red-hued light fixtures with Chinese symbols on them.

Philip ordered some jerk shrimp for dinner and Rose just planned on sharing some of his free shrimp kabob and perhaps stealing the included piece of garlic bread. Our male waiter was not the most customer service oriented (that’s putting it nicely) and so we sat alone and abandoned in our little orange corner. Eventually, after the shrimp had time to be born, grow to jumbo size, be caught, then cleaned, then cooked, our food was brought to the table.

The saving grace for the restaurant was that the food was actually pretty good. When we finished eating, our waiter walked past several times but never even seemed to notice our existence. Finally, the other waiter at the restaurant, a female, noticed us sitting lonely in the corner and brought over our included fruit desert. The desert was simple, just a slice of pineapple and a piece of local orange for each of us, but it hit the spot perfectly. Our experience has been that the fruit in Belize is spectacular!

Our dessert finished, we asked the female waitress for our check and then gave her the credit card as payment. While she ran the card, Philip also had her make some change for our ten dollar bill so we could leave a tip. It took a bit of maneuvering, but he made sure to give the tip in cash to her and emphasize that it was for her. She smiled knowingly (we could see signs of recognition on her face throughout our evening interactions) and we are fairly certain this is not the first time she has had to step in and make up for her counterpart’s ineptitude.

Immediately outside the restaurant, we were stopped by a man selling pastries and he convinced us (a bit more forcefully than we would have liked) to buy two of his coconut pies. We had good experiences with coconut pies earlier in the trip so agreed and were not disappointed by their quality.

Exhausted and much later than expected due to a slow dinner, we returned to the room and set about packing up all of our belongings for the trip home. That task completed, we spent a bit of time reading and then went to sleep for the final time in beautiful Belize. Today was not as great as we hoped, mostly due to the lack of a breeze to temper the heat, but it was still a relaxing end to our journey. Tomorrow we head back home to Arizona and life, a proposition we are not quite yet ready to accept.

February 25th Synopsis

  • Reading and napping…the components of a relaxing day
  • Narrow channels = fast currents
  • Sponge Bob Square Pants is everywhere!
  • With a name like “Panty Ripper”, the drink must be good
  • We’re so glad the fish didn’t eat our fingers!
  • A very slow dinner

*** Check out the first post of our trip to Belize and read them in order! ***

We woke up this morning for possibly the most anticipated day of our entire trip: a day spent sailing through the coastal waters and snorkeling in the barrier reef of Belize. We began with a walk down the main road to a fast food breakfast place, where we ordered some burritos and a side of fry jack (fired tortilla things). While we waited, Rose went down the road to four different grocery stores before finding some good juice for both of us.

The food was not very fast as it took over 15 minutes to make (everything fresh, though). We took our meal down to the office of Raggamuffin tours to check in for our trip and get fitted for fins and masks. Afterwards, we sat on some benches outside in the shade to eat our delicious breakfast. Our appetites sated, we returned to the hotel to read, write, and relax before our 10:30am departure (life on the island moves at a bit slower of a pace than we are used to).

At the hotel, Rose sat at a picnic table in the courtyard area, while Philip stayed in the room for a few minutes to wash up. Unfortunately, when he attempted to exit the room, he found himself unable. The doors at the hotel have a clasp on the outside through which a padlock can be inserted. Even without the padlock, the angle of the clasp is such that it cannot be forced open from the inside. On the inside of the door there is a sliding deadbolt, though it is inaccessible from the outside. So for Rose to close the door from the outside, she had to use the clasp or else it would have swung partially open allowing bugs to come in. Thankfully, a quick shout through the window brought Rose over to save the day and rescue her husband from his imprisonment.

We sat outside at the picnic table and talked with some of the other guests. An older Englishman named Martin was eating his breakfast and told us of his travels around Central America and his plans to spend almost a month here on Caye Caulker. While we were sitting there, a new friend of his from Punta Gorda walked by and came over to talk. Tony, as he was introduced, is from Malta (island south of Italy in the Mediterranean) and is in month 5 of a 7 month journey around Central America. It was fun talking to them for a while and seeing an even more budget-conscious perspective on travel than ours. If you are traveling for that many months, every dollar saved per day definitely adds up.

Tony attempted to find a room at our hotel, though unfortunately it was booked for the day. We later learned that he found cheap accommodation elsewhere on the island and would come back the next day to try his luck again. After some time, we returned to the room to dress for our snorkeling trip and put on ridiculous amounts of sunblock. Philip also tried to braid Rose’s ponytail with results that left Rose howling in laughter (she quickly took it out and redid it herself, still chuckling). We then set out for the Raggamuffin office to wait for our tour to begin.

On the way, we decided to find some dark sunglasses for Rose because the ones she brought were pretty light and not well suited for the water. We failed to find any for her, though Philip found a pair of Ferrari sunglasses that make him look cooler than he actually is. We bought those and Rose took Philip’s other pair of sunglasses as her own. After a quick trip back to the room, we once again set off for the Raggamuffin office and our tour.

When we arrived there, a large crowd was already gathered beneath the shade of the trees. We found a couple from Steamboat Springs, Colorado (Tom and Sandy) and talked with them for a while as we waited for further instructions. Eventually, the staff came out and announced that we would be split into two separate boats (yellow and green) and they read through the assignment of people to boats.

We found ourselves on the green boat (along with the Coloradans) and walked down the dock to board our vessel. Our captain for the day was named Vito and he was joined by his crewman, Rob. As Vito was giving his introductory spiel, he was interrupted by a 6th grader name Hugo who pointed out an issue with the rigging on the boat. Sure enough, when Vito looked up at the rigging, there was a pulley missing a pin, which probably would not have lasted for the trip. Impressed, Vito quickly fetched a keychain ring to use as a replacement pin and we were ready to go. It turns out that Hugo has a bit of sailing experience, and Vito announced that Hugo would be sailing us back to port after our trip (he was also the only one on board under the age of 18 and thus not able to partake of the promised rum punch after our day of snorkeling.

sail boat with sails furled in ocean near Caye Caulker, Belize

This is our boat, the Ragga Prince, with its sails furled

We used the small outboard motor to get us away from the dock and then Vito and Rob unfurled the jib and main sail. The sailing was enjoyable (well, for most of us…Rose started to feel motion sick as we rocked over the waves) and we were able to spread out around the vessel as we went. Rob came around with cups of water and fresh fruit (watermelon and papaya). You know you are living the life when you are sailing through tropical waters munching on refreshing watermelon on a work day!

While we sailed, Rob peeled the shrimp that would be part of our ceviche on the return voyage. He threw the shells overboard as he peeled them and three seagulls were flying along with us competing for the scraps. Naturally, they were hoping for the entire shrimp, and were probably quite disappointed after every dive. Philip was fascinated, as he often is by flight, by the way the seagulls could so effortlessly float along above us and then dive with precision accuracy to retrieve the food and never even get their feathers wet.

We arrived at our first stop, an area known as the “coral gardens”. It is outside of any of Belize’s marine reserves, which is why there are very few large fish around. The local fishermen make their living from this and other non-protected areas. However, it holds an abundance of colorful tropical fish as well as dozens of different types of coral (Vito may have said there were 34 different types present).

coral in ocean near Caye Caulker, Belize

We saw more types of coral than we could count while snorkeling in the “coral garden”

We all donned our snorkeling gear and set off to explore the area. Vito asked that we not go more than about 500 feet from the boat and also warned that some coral was pretty close to the surface and the wave action could be misleading with how much clearance was really there. Coral is highly sensitive and so touching it or kicking it with flippers can damage the mucus membrane surface layer and allow bacteria to get in.

We decided to leave the camera behind for this stop and just enjoyed swimming along together, holding hands, and looking at the beautiful underwater environment (romantic, we know!). It took Philip a few minutes to figure out how to not drink the ocean while breathing and he never fully mastered it. As we swam, we admired all of the different corals and saw several schools of fish swimming along.

Eventually, we returned to the boat at just the right time and sat down on the deck for some lunch. The meal was basic (rice, chicken, and pasta salad for Rose, rice and seafood curry for Philip) but tasty after our first tiring swim. After eating, we scraped any leftovers into the water as food for the fish and then motored along for a few minutes to the next snorkeling spot at a place called Shark Ray Alley.

Shark Ray Alley is so named because it is a hangout spot for both sharks and stingrays. Our guides threw some fish into the water to attract the sharks and we saw just a swirling mass of brown sharks (not sure the type, though did learn that they are nearly blind and function primarily from touch and sensors near their mouths). We again donned our snorkeling gear and jumped off the boat on the side opposite of the sharks.

We swam around to the other side and spent a while with our faces in the water watching the sharks feed. Our crewman, Rob, dove down into the water and picked up several empty conch shells from the bottom. He filled these with sardines and then dropped them into the water where they sank to the bottom. This method acts kind of like a time release capsule of sardines and it allowed us to observe the sharks and rays on the bottom rather than just thrashing at the surface. There were also numerous enormous fish swimming around us, too large to be of interest to the sharks or rays.

sharks and rays feeding in ocean near Caye Caulker, Belize

Swimming with sharks and rays is a neat experience…fortunately for both us and this staring fish, we are too big to be a meal

At one point, Rob dove down to the bottom and picked up one of the rays. He brought it up to the surface where we could touch its wing and feel the slimy texture. The tail was a bit ominous looking but nobody was stung during the affair.

guy holding stingray at bottom of ocean

One of our guides, Rob, swam to the bottom and caught a stingray so we could feel his wings…quite slimey

When Vito stopped feeding the sharks, they dispersed and we returned back into the boat. Vito had us all say hello to a Marine Reserve ranger who was there to verify the boat’s license and other paperwork (in reality, the same ranger probably sees the same boats and tour operators every day so the visit was possibly more friendly than official).

We then motored along to our northernmost point and the final snorkeling stop, a place called Hol Chan Channel, which is the feature from which the Hol Chan Marine Reserve gets its name. Vito explained that Hol Chan Channel is a natural channel through the reef and the word “Hol Chan” in Mayan means deep channel. For this final stop, Vito and Rob each took half of our group and led us around the waters pointing out various animals. Directly beneath the boat, we found some enormous grouper, probably weighing at least 100 pounds if not more. Vito joked that they call these “BAG” fish, standing for “Big Ass Grouper”.

We were in Vito’s group and began by observing the sea turtles feeding on the aptly named “turtle grass” on the ocean floor. Sea turtles have been protected in Belize (and its former incarnation as British Honduras) since the 1950’s and there are strict rules as to how we could interact with them. Unlike with the sharks and rays, we were told not to dive down to get a closer look at the turtles and to give them a wide berth if they came to the surface to breathe. They are simple creatures, spending most of their lives eating grass on the bottom, coming to the surface to breathe, and repeating. That said, there is something beautiful about the way they swim and glide slowly through the water.

sea turtle on floor with turtle grass near Caye Caulker in Belize

The sea turtles spend their day eating the appropriately named “turtle grass” on the sea floor

After the turtles, we moved out towards the Hol Chan Channel. At one point, Vito dove down and enticed a Moray Eel to come out of its hiding place in the rock so that we could see it. At the channel, the coral formed what appeared like coral cliffs and the bottom dropped down to about 30 feet deep. In one spot, the coral actually formed a tunnel and Vito dove down to swim through the tunnel. Only two people in our group gave it a try, and only one guy managed to duplicate Vito’s feat. Since Rose doesn’t like the pressure of being that far underwater and Philip swims like a cat, we elected to not make the attempt ourselves.

As we returned to the boat, we passed over some scuba divers a few feet below. To be honest, the water in this area is shallow enough that scuba really does not offer much benefit. It is easy enough to take a breath and dive down the few feet to explore some area of interest. Certainly, scuba is necessary for some of the other areas of Belize’s reef and its many atolls, but we were quite content with our choice to do just snorkeling on this trip.

stingray swimming in ocean near Caye Caulker, Belize

We saw this stingray swimming below us on our third snorkeling stop…look how long his tail is!

We climbed aboard the boat and motored away from the reserve. Vito and Rob hoisted just the main sail and we began the downwind trip back to Caye Caulker. Hugo sailed for part of the journey, doing a fine job of keeping us pointed in the right direction. As we sailed, Rob came around with some more fruit, followed by the rum punch and bowls of tortilla chips and ceviche. While there may be other kinds, this ceviche was like a salsa made with tomatoes, peppers and lime shrimp. The shrimp is uncooked, but it is marinated in lime juice and the acid from the citrus has a similar effect as cooking with heat. The ceviche was delicious and a great snack after a long day in the water. Moreover, Rob pushed the rum punch like a liquor store owner going out of business and everyone drank as much as they wanted.

We sat at the front of the boat for the return voyage and spent most of it talking with a lovely couple from Melbourne, Australia. Eliza and Sean are in the early stages of a several month trip around Central and South America. It was great talking with them about Australia, the United States, English language differences, British influences, and all manner of other topics.

After about an hour and half sail, during which Philip got sunburnt due to his forgetting to reapply sunscreen after the snorkeling, we arrived back at Caye Caulker and bid farewell to the other guests. We returned to our room to change and shower, and then hurried back outside to watch the sunset. Unfortunately, we just missed the setting sun, and so will have to see it tomorrow night instead.

It was still early (around 6pm), so we decided to walk around the island for a while and then eat some dinner. Philip grabbed an ice cream so “he wouldn’t starve” (a likely excuse) and we strolled up and down the main street of Caye Caulker. Eventually, we worked our way back towards the center of the island to a small outdoor restaurant called Fran’s (really just a hut with an outdoor grill and some picnic tables). Last night, while walking around, the aromas from Fran’s grill were so tantalizing that we knew we would have to come back for dinner.

We sat out a full picnic table and struck up conversation with the people around us. On one side, there was a group of Canadians from Alberta who were on a service project trip with the Rotary Club. Half of their group (2 leaders and about 6 high school students) is here in Caye Caulker working with local high school students to develop leadership skills by working with elementary school kids. The other half is building a playground one the mainland in the city of Corozal. They were a great group to talk to and we enjoyed sharing stories and hearing about their work in Belize. One of the leaders told us that working at the elementary school is quite rough. Corporal punishment was just discontinued last year in Belize and, as a result, the elementary school kids are very physical with each other. Moreover, in her words, she has never “heard so many F-bombs from little kids in her life”. There was one younger kid with the group named Liam (we assume the child of one of the leaders) and this was definitely a unique experience for him.

On our other side at the picnic table was a guy and a girl who knew each other but were not traveling together (we assume they had met that day or the day before). They were also fun to talk to and told us about their lives and their travels around Central America. Derek is a firefighter from Montana while Mandy is a recent college graduate from Seattle. Mandy told us that she had come to this same restaurant three times during her stay on Caye Caulker because it was so delicious.

We waited a while for our food to cook, but it was well worth it. The meal included two drinks (rum and pineapple juice cocktail), though Rose only had one after having consumed a couple cups of rum and punch on the boat. Philip’s rice and curried shrimp was decent, though the curry (like most in Belize) was not very spicy. The star of the meal was Rose’s barbecued chicken with an amazing (though a bit spicy for her taste) sauce and very tender meat. The meal also included a small piece of chocolate cake, served on a square of aluminum foil, for dessert.

We probably sat at dinner for an hour and a half talking with those two groups. Once we paid, we set off to walk some more around the island and digest our delicious meals. During our walk, we made it to the less traveled areas and saw the shacks where a lot of the locals live as well as the very noisy power plant for the island (diesel generator). It was yet another reminder of the drastic difference in the façade that exists for tourism and the realities of life that support it. That is not to say that tourism isn’t good and doesn’t bring money into the country; certainly, it does. However, just because the restaurant looks like it could fit in on a Florida beach doesn’t mean the worker’s homes would also.

moon rising between branches on Caye Caulker, Belize

The moon rising over Caye Caulker

After our evening stroll, we returned to the room and called it a night. Swimming, especially in the hot sun, is an exhausting activity and we both fell asleep almost instantly. Tomorrow is our last real day in Belize and we intentionally have nothing planned. We will sleep in (if possible), relax, swim a little, eat lots of food, and just enjoy one final day spent in paradise before returning home.

Philip and Rose underwater wearing masks and snorkels near Caye Caulker in Belize

Nothing looks more flattering than snorkeling equipment!

February 25th Synopsis

  • Meeting some true “budget” travelers
  • Sailing across the crystal clear waters
  • Swimming with sharks and stingrays
  • Floating along with the sea turtles
  • Enough rum punch to keep even Aussies happy
  • A delicious dinner with interesting people

*** Check out the first post of our trip to Belize and read them in order! ***

As we have done several times on our trip, we woke up early and packed up all of our belongings. We loaded the car and, after a quick check of the next door grocer found them closed (it is Sunday), we bid farewell to the St. Charles Inn. We snacked on some ginger cookies as we drove and soon found ourselves at the first stop of the day, a small Mayan site called Nim Li Punit.

We parked in the grassy parking area and went inside the office/visitor’s center to pay our entrance fee. After a quick glance at some of the informational placards on the walls, we set off up a small hill and into the ancient Mayan city. As we have become accustomed to, the site was completely empty and we were able to enjoy the morning sounds of the jungle without any distraction.

excavated tomb at Nim Li Punit Mayan site

Excavated tomb at Nim Li Punit

Nim Li Punit lacks any massive temples or impressive structures (at least when compared to the other sites we have seen). However, what makes Nim Li Punit unique is the abundance of stelae (ceremonial markers that archaeologists discovered at the site. The main plaza boasts remnants of 26 different stelae, compared to a maximum of 2 or 3 for any one plaza at any other site we have visited. As a result, archaeologists believe that Nim Li Punit was some sort of ceremonial center for the region.

ball court at Nim Li Punit Mayan site in Belize

An ancient ball court at the Mayan site of Nim Li Punit…this is where the Mayans used to play a “game” to determine who would be sacrificed.

The walk around the site was lovely, especially as the birds sang their morning chorus. Most of the stelae still in place amidst the ruins are badly weathered and it is nearly impossible to make out the carvings. A few of the better ones are covered by thatched roof huts and just the hints of carvings are visible on those. The best preserved stelae have been moved to the visitor’s center and live indoors to prevent further erosion.

stela lying down at Nim Li Punit Mayan site in Belize

The remnants of an ancient stela (ceremonial marker) at Nim Li Punit

We spent about 30 minutes walking around the ruins and then made our way back to the visitor’s center to see the stelae that are kept there. One of them is an incredible 9 meters long, about the height of a standard telephone pole! The carvings are quite visible on these stelae, though as we do not read ancient Mayan glyphs, we could not interpret their meanings. Informational placards on the walls gave some explanation about them, though several of the placards showed signs of water damage, often so bad that the bleeding ink made it impossible to read.

large stela at Nim Li Punit Mayan site in Belize

One of the nicest stelae we have seen yet in Belize, now preserved indoors at Nim Li Punit to avoid further deterioration.

With slight sadness in our hearts, we bid farewell to Nim Li Punit, the last Mayan site of our trip. We managed to visit 7 of our planned 9 Mayan sites, including all of the major ones with grand architecture. Shockingly, we would still like to see more and hopefully we can visit some of the others in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras (and others in Belize) on future trips to Central America.

Our primary goal for the day was to make it back to Belize City, return the rental car, and catch the 5:30pm water taxi to Caye Caulker. Arriving early would be fine, because we could take an earlier boat, but the final boat left at 5:30 pm and missing it was not a good option. As a result, we cruised along the Southern Highway at a healthy pace and made great time arriving at the start of the beautiful Hummingbird Highway. We decided to pass on a visit to Dangriga, as it would have taken us several miles out of our way and we weren’t sure what would even be open on a Sunday. On a future trip to Belize, we will have to visit the east coast and see the cities of Dangriga and Hopkins, as well as the Placencia Peninsula.

amish buggy sign in Belize

A sign we may actually find in America, though only in a few states…Amish and Mennonites are prevalent in various areas of Belize

Adjacent to one of the many citrus factories in the area, we were delighted to spot the sign for an ATM. Desperately low on cash, we pulled into a parking area and went into the ATM room. Unfortunately, both tries at using the ATM (each of our cards) led to printed receipts claiming an inability to process the transaction, though still including the $3.00 ATM service charge. We’ll have to check when we get home if the charge was actually executed, but it was definitely a frustrating experience.

orange truck in southern Belize

More oranges than we have ever seen in one place in our lives…we saw several trucks like this as we drove the roads of southern Belize

We continued along on the Hummingbird Highway and passed all of our food stops from two days ago (tamales, dairy, bakery). As expected, they were all closed for Sunday (though the lady had mentioned that the tamales place would probably be open in the afternoon). 12 miles before Belmopan and the end of the Hummingbird, we arrived at the turnoffs for the Inland Blue Hole and St. Herman’s Cave.

We pulled in at the visitor’s center and, lo and behold, ran into two people we had met previously on our trip. Eric and Angel had spent a night at the Red Hut Inn in Belize City during our second stay there. We talked with them for a few minutes and shared some stories of our respective adventures. They were exhausted from a 400 step climb to a waterfall the day before, and uncertain about how much hiking they had in them for today.

Inside the visitor’s center, a worker took our entrance fee and gave us an overview of the trails and attractions at the park. We had two options for exploring St. Herman’s Cave: go in ourselves and be limited to about the first 300 yards, or go in with a guide and be able to go the whole length of the cave and come out the other side. Due to our time limitations, we decided to go with the shorter, self-guided route, though we may have to explore the entire cave on a later trip to Belize. The guy also told us about an observation tower that we could climb to get a view over the entire region.

We decided we would start with the cave, followed by a trip to the observation tower, and then we would finish our visit with a dip in the “blue hole”, which is sinkhole in the jungle that is filled with water and great for a refreshing swim. We had two options for our hike to the cave: the low route (10 minutes) or the high route (15 minutes). We took the low route, thinking we would perhaps return via the high route and be able to get another view over the trees.

The hike to the cave was an easy stroll down a sunny path. All around us we could hear the sounds of animals scurrying around in the jungle (after some additional close observation, we are fairly convinced that 90% of the sounds we heard were caused by lizards scurrying along. For some reason, these small lizards make an incredible amount of noise as they move, sounding like a much bigger animal.

When we reached the cave, we descended some slippery rock stairs and entered the large mouth of the cavern. We also donned our LED headlamps, finding them not quite as bright as we hoped, though sufficient for our short trip (should have brought new batteries). The cave contains an underground stream, as most caves in the region do, and the footpath weaves its way through a series of small switchbacks. As a result, about 150 yards into the cave, all ambient light is blocked and the cave is truly pitch black.

underground river in St. Herman's Cave in Belize

A view of the underground river within St. Herman’s Cave

Before long, we reached the end of the self-guided portion of the tour and stopped at the sign indicating, “you should have a guide to continue further”. Technically, there didn’t seem to be any rules against us going further on our own, though the guy in the visitor’s center had warned that the cave has several branches further on and it would be easy to get lost underground. Not wanting to be lost forever beneath the surface in Belize, we wisely turned around and returned back to the cave entrance.

sunlight streaming in the entrance of St. Herman's Cave in Belize

Looking back at the entrance from within St. Herman’s Cave

After returning from the coolness of the cave to the hot air of the jungle, we began our trek to the observation tower. We had two possible routes, a half mile option and a full mile option. We elected for the half mile option in an attempt to save some time and quickly began a rather steep ascent up the side of a mountain. Logically, we knew that an observation tower must be at a high point to be worth anything, but we underestimated just how much vertical we would need to gain.

stuffed baby polar bear in the jungle near a cave in Belize

The baby polar bear doesn’t just climb Mayan temples, he’s also an experienced spelunker!

We arrived exhausted at the top of the large hill ready for the reward of a great view. Unfortunately, the path began to descend down the other side. We followed it suspiciously, keeping our eyes peeled for the tower. After descending for some time, we began another steep ascent, at which point Rose announced that she was no longer enjoying this particular hike. The guy in the visitor’s center had not mentioned that the 0.5 mile hike to the tower was best achieved with a pack mule and several Sherpas.

Despite the difficulty, we finally reached the point where the 0.5 mile route met up with the 1 mile route and exhaustedly looked around for the observation tower. Much to our dismay, we found no tower, just a path continuing higher up the mountain. Another 0.2 mile climb up the mountain brought us finally to a wooden structure, several stories high. We climbed the quasi-sketchy wooden ladders and arrived at the peak to enjoy our view over the jungle.

wooden observation tower in Belize

Looking down at the sketchy ladder from the top of the observation tower

The view was nice, though not spectacular by any means. To sum up Rose’s thoughts: much like her experience with the board game “Acquire”, in which Rose defeated 5 other players in her one and only time of playing, this hike was “not worth the time and effort spent in achieving victory”.

view across countryside in Belize

The view from the top of the observation tower…perhaps not quite worth the effort it took to get there

After a few moments at the top, we descended back down the tower and quickly retraced our steps back to the cave. Traveling downhill was certainly easier than climbing up, though we were still dripping in sweat and exhausted by the time we reached the cave. All desire to take the high route back to the visitor’s center gone, we walked slowly back down the low path to the visitor’s center, got our payment voucher from the worker there, and climbed into the car with the air conditioning set to maximum.

The one positive outcome of our hike was that it prepped us excellently for the next part of our visit at the park: a swim in the blue hole. We drove back down the road two miles to a second entrance of the park and showed our voucher to the guard there. After a quick change in the changing rooms, we walked down a handful of stairs and saw the blue hole waiting for us. A handful of other people were there, including some local children running up and down the stairs chasing each other. We set down our belongings on a nearby bench and slid into the brisk and refreshing water.

We hung out at the blue hole for about 20 minutes, swimming around a bit and going over the deepest part (about 20 feet). The water actually continues under a rock and through the caverns, though it isn’t possible for a person to go the same route. At the other side of the area, the water emerges from a small cave. Our understanding is that the blue hole used to be just part of an underground river, though the collapsing of the cave and the sinkhole opened up this small portion to the outside.

We chatted for a few minutes with the other guests swimming there, including one younger guy from Canada who was playing a game of dropping his waterproof penlight at various points and diving down to retrieve it. We elected to stay at the surface, though it was fun to watch and guess whether he would be able to retrieve it or not.

Once our bodies had cooled down from the water, we returned to the car and continued along on our journey. At the end of the Hummingbird Highway, we made a quick detour into Belmopan (the capital of Belize) to stop at a Scotiabank ATM, which fortunately worked without incident. We turned onto the Western Highway and began the final leg of our drive around Belize with the trip back to Belize City.

Along the way, we stopped again at Amigo’s restaurant and ordered a late lunch of burritos and enchiladas. While we waited for the food, we browsed some of the souvenirs two children were selling out front (we assume children of the owner or a worker). After much debate, we actually decided to purchase one thing, though the pleading and price lowering of the other child had us walking away with two purchases.

We took our food to go, thinking we could eat in the car, though that turned out to be less than optimal (using a fork while driving just isn’t safe or practical). So, we decided to just save the food for when we returned the car and were waiting for the taxi to take us to the Marine Terminal for our boat to Caye Caulker.

The drive back to the Red Hut Inn was uneventful, at least until stopped for gas just inside of Belize City. As soon as we pulled into the pump, a guy started washing the windshield, though he was not wearing the uniform of an official employee. Meanwhile, a uniformed employee began to take out the gas cap. That was easier said than done, because the already broken gas cap broke even more and the handle half separated from the other half, leaving part of the cap blocking access to the gas tank. It took the two guys several minutes and the use of a large stick to work the broken gas cap out of the tank opening, for which we gladly gave them a tip.

With our most expensive fuel visit of the trip now behind us, we drove the final few miles, returned our rental car, and settled our bill with the Red Hut Inn. We also explained the additional incidents with the car (gas cap, parking brake light not turning off). Lewis, one of the owners, offered to give us a ride down to the Marine Terminal rather than waiting for a taxi. While better for our schedule, this also meant that we didn’t get a chance to eat our meals, now an hour old and lukewarm. As we drove to the terminal, he commented on some of the odd sounds the car was making and said he would give it a full inspection when he got back home. He also informed us that we had put about 950 miles of driving on the car. While not too much distance in American terms, much of that mileage was on potholed and bumpy roads, and all of it was within a country smaller than the state of Massachusetts.

He took us most of the way to the terminal, though a blocked road stopped us from getting all of the way there. Fortunately, water taxi employees were present with luggage carts and they took our bags over to the terminal. We bid farewell to Lewis and went to the end of the area to wait for the 4:15pm water taxi to arrive. Rose sat down to eat with our smaller bags, while Philip waited in line to turn the voucher we had purchased from the hotel into actual tickets.

On an aside, this was the stupidest process we have seen yet in Belize. We purchased our tickets early having been told this would make life easier and faster at the terminal. Instead, Philip still had to wait in the same long line as those without tickets in order to exchange the voucher for usable tickets. Furthermore, the lady behind the desk seemed confused by the voucher and it was actually more complicated and took longer than if we had just purchased our tickets then and there!

Anyway, tickets in hand, we sat to eat our meals (now 2 hours old) and wait for the water taxi. As might be expected, the Spanish rice was less than amazing after sitting so long. While we waited, we enjoyed the ambiance of a group of locals watching an Italian “Serie A” soccer match on TV (Inter-Milan vs. Milan, we believe).

Eventually, the water taxi arrived and we waited in line to climb on board (line is a generous term as people kept nonchalantly wandering forward rather than waiting their turn). We packed like sardines into the boat and set off for the 45 minute ride to Caye Caulker. The water taxi was not a particularly enjoyable experience due to the number of people on board, but at least there were enough windows in the cabin to allow a healthy breeze to sweep through. At Caye Caulker, we disembarked, though Philip forgot his sunglasses onboard and ran back to retrieve them. The boat operators unloaded the Caye Caulker luggage (the boat continued on to Ambergris Caye and the town of San Pedro).

lots of people inside the cabin of the Caye Caulker water taxi in Belize

Packed like sardines inside the water taxi from Belize City to Caye Caulker…maybe next time, we take the short plane ride instead

We retrieved our bags and set off on foot to find our hotel. Near the dock, we passed a spirited game of beach volleyball, though way out of Philip’s league. After a short walk, we found ourselves as a soccer pitch where a match between teams of local girls was underway (most had cleats, though at least the nearby goalkeeper was playing barefoot). We looked in vain for a sign indicating the presence of our hotel (supposedly at the same intersection), though were unable to find one. Fortunately, one of the locals helped us out when we asked and we walked through the gate and into a courtyard. Still confused as to the location of the office, we found a lady walking towards us and she directed us to the house at the back to check in.

The soccer field just outside our hotel on Caye Caulker...we were impressed at the fan turnout to watch the local girls play

The soccer field just outside our hotel o Caye Caulker…we were impressed at the fan turnout to watch the local girls play

We were met by a little old lady who gave us the key to our room. After dropping our bags inside, we returned to her house to do the registration and pay for our stay. When we sat down at the kitchen table, she asked if Philip had been the one she had talked to on the phone when we made our registration. He responded, “yes”, to which she indicated her surprise at discovering we were so young. She was expecting a couple in their 50’s based on the brief phone conversation. We all laughed and finished filling out the necessary paperwork. When it came time to pay, she told us that it would be just under $100 for the three nights. As we put together $200 Belize dollars, she corrected us saying it was only $100 Belize dollars! Even at US$30 per night, this was one of the least expensive hotels of our trip. At only US$15 per night, this is an unbelievable deal.

Excited at the savings, we thanked her and returned to our room. Outside, we met our neighbor, a man named Terry, who has been coming to Caye Caulker for over 10 years. He gave us the lowdown on the places to go and things to see. After a quick refreshing in the room, we set out to explore the island and have a snack. We walked around the majority of the island (Caye Caulker is pretty small) and grabbed a cone of ice cream (American style and delicious). Before too long, though, our long day caught up with us and we headed back to the room for a good night of sleep.

moonlight on ocean near Caye Caulker in Belize

The moon shining above the ocean around Caye Caulker

We spent about 10 days traveling around the interior of Belize. Happily, we had no incidents while driving so many miles and we are grateful for the freedom it gave us to get off the beaten path and truly see the country. That said, the beaten path is beaten for a reason, so we are excited for the chance to spend a few days enjoying the island, the beautiful water, and the laid back atmosphere of Caye Caulker.

Philip and Rose in front of Mayan ruins in Belize

Here we are standing among the ruins of Nim Li Punit…sadly, this was the last Mayan site of our trip 😦

February 24th Synopsis

  • Our final Mayan ruin
  • Driving, driving, driving
  • A cave a day does the body good
  • The deceptive hike from hell
  • A refreshing swim in a sinkhole
  • Farewell to the rental car and all of its issues…er…quirks
  • Taking the water taxi to the island of Caye Caulker

*** Check out the first post of our trip to Belize and read them in order! ***

We began our day after a surprisingly good night of sleep at 7:00am. The beds at our hotel are the most comfortable we have had so far in Belize. Moreover, Philip actually went to sleep at a reasonable hour last night.

When we left the hotel, we saw a small group of people in the hotel courtyard next to a van marked “Belize Church of Christ”. We learned that a group had driven from Belize City this morning for a church conference in Punta Gorda. We saw them at around 8:00am, which means they must have left Belize City around 4:00 or 4:30am!

Before setting off in the car, we walked to the grocery store next door and picked up some water, juice, and muffins for breakfast. The gentleman behind the counter was very nice and we spent a few minutes talking with him. He told us that he was born in northern Belize and now splits his time between California and Punta Gorda.

We returned to the car and somehow managed to back the car out of the gate with the large van taking up most of the drive. The pressure was even higher due to the crowd of church conference-goers in the courtyard watching as Philip made a 9-point 90 degree turn while Rose guided. Nevertheless, we were successful and drove out of Punta Gorda and off to the small village of Blue Creek.

At this point, we still had no definitive plans for the day since we did not have a guide set up to take us to the Hokeb Ha cave or to the Mayan site of Pusilhá. Our guidebook suggested (and the hotel night manager had somewhat confirmed) that we could find a guide at Sho’s Restaurant and so when we arrived in Blue Creek, we pulled into the driveway of Sho’s. A man was sitting on the front porch shucking corn and he greeted us as we got out of the car. We asked him about our options for visiting the cave and the ruins, to which he responded that he was actually a tour guide himself and could take us at least to the cave. The Mayan site, according to him, is 1.5 hours drive down a difficult and bumpy road. Furthermore, he was not sure that we could find a guide there since most people from these villages go into Punta Gorda on Saturdays to gather supplies. We decided that we could live without going to Pusilhá but did request his services for taking us to the cave.

Some basic internet research last night yielded some example prices for trips to Hokeb Ha ranging in the >US$60 price range with some even higher. Now, some of these packages included transfer from Placencia, but we were still expecting at least US$25 each. When we asked the man, whose name was Rosalee, the price for the tour, he told us that it would cost $25 Belize each, including rental of life jackets and head lamps. We were overjoyed that he would guide us through the cave for just over ten US dollars each!

We waited a few minutes so he could change clothes and gather the necessities for the tour and then all climbed into our car for a short drive to the launching point of the cave path. We took only the necessities (towels, camera w/ underwater case, passports in waterproof bag, GPS tracker) and hiked for about 20 minutes through a path next to the creek coming out of a deep canyon. The village of Blue Creek sits at the base of fairly high ridge and the cave sits beneath the hill.

Along the way, Rosalee pointed out some of the vegetation, including grabbing a leaf from an allspice tree and handing it to us to smell. We probably could have stood there for 10 minutes just sniffing at the leaf and taking in the aroma of spices. The spice we buy in the store is actually the seeds of the tree, though the leaf smells very similar.

Rosalee also pointed out two varieties of poisonwood trees along the creek. We had learned previously that poisonwood typically grows very near its antidote, the gumbo limbo tree. Not seeing any gumbo limbo around, Philip asked about this. Rosalee explained that gumbo limbo is not actually a cure for poisonwood but instead just stops the poison from spreading on the body. The real cure is a compress made from the allspice leaf, which was indeed growing nearby.

As we continued down the path and passed a large termite mound on a tree, Rosalee asked if we had ever eaten termites. It was indeed an unexpected question, and the implications of what would soon follow were clear. Since we responded that we had never eaten termites, Rosalee used his finger to make a hole in the termite nest and got a few to crawl on his finger. He then proceeded to put them in his mouth and asked if we would like to do the same! Rose, the more adventurous of us when it comes to eating bugs, gave it a try and commented on the minty flavor. After a few moments of apprehension, Philip decided to give it a go (YOLO – you only live once) and put his finger on the termite mound until a few crawled onto it. The taste is best described as a minty or evergreen taste, kind of like chewing on a pine needle. Termites are so small that they don’t really have much texture, just a small burst of flavor. The termite diet of exclusively wood perhaps explains their taste.

termite nest with a hole in Belize

The termite nest from which we extracted a snack….nature’s after-dinner mint.

As we stood there sampling jungle delicacies, we talked about how termites can be a problem for houses, both here in Belize and back home in Arizona. Rosalee mentioned that he had once had issues with termites at his house but a friend showed him an ingenious way to deal with them. Since the jungle is full of ants, which happen to love eating termites, the friend suggested that he use some sugar to lure the ants to the offending termite mound. Sure enough, as soon as the ants found the termites, they launched an assault and the termites were either eaten or abandoned the nest to move to less dangerous areas. We were again amazed at how the jungle works and that leveraging the natural relationships between ants and termites can be used so effectively.

We passed a few small huts along the creek, apparently part of a field station though uninhabited at the moment. We stood on the dock out in front and enjoyed the beauty of the creek running through the canyon. Rosalee pointed out an iguana sitting high on the branch of a tree, though we have no idea how he managed to spot the brown iguana sitting motionless on the brown branch so far away. We also looked at the many fish of different sizes swimming in the water. Rosalee pointed out the different varieties, including some tilapia, which is a non-native and invasive species that escaped from a fish farm somewhere in the region.

serene Blue Creek in southern Belize

We hiked along this beautiful creek on our way to the Hokeb Ha cave.

Finally, we reached the enormous opening to the cave and got ready to do some swimming, leaving our shoes and towels on the rocks. Hokeb Ha is a wet cave, though we didn’t realize ahead of time just how much swimming would be involved (thankfully we had life jackets…well, more like floaties since we tied them around our waists). Before entering the cave, we sat for a few minutes on a rock at the entrance to take in the sites and to let our body temperatures cool down a bit. Rosalee wanted to avoid the shock of going from hiking in the heat to swimming in the coolness of the cave. As we sat there, he explained about some explorations he had done when he was younger, including finding some Mayan pottery in a dry section of the cave near the entrance.

Our bodies cooled down sufficiently, we entered the cave and slid into the cool water of the first pool near the entrance. Our entire journey through the cave consisted of swimming through pools and then occasionally climbing up onto the rocks to get to the next swimmable section. The cave is pitch black in the middle, so we used our waterproof headlamps to light the way. Rosalee swam like a fish as he led us through the water, stopping occasionally to point out some interesting geologic features.

A few times, we had to climb through some rapids and even up a tiny waterfall, which was an exhilarating and challenging experience. Eventually, we reached a larger waterfall and sat on a rock just to the side to watch the water cascade down. High above, a small window of light was visible through an opening on top of the mountain. Rosalee mentioned his (and other guides’) desire to install a ladder to access the opening, thus enabling them to do cave tubing when the creek is high. When the water is low like it was today, it is possible to fight the current and go upstream, though the water surface is broken by rocks in some areas. When the water is higher, the current becomes too strong to fight against coming upstream, but would be good for riding a tube down through the cave (not entirely sure if this is a safe proposition in this cave but it certainly sounds like a blast!).

We sat at the waterfall for a while and Philip even followed Rosalee to a spot behind the falling water. While we waited, we watched Rosalee search for a flashlight he had lost a few days earlier. In the darkness of the cave, we could just make out the glow of his underwater flashlight as he swam all around the chamber looking for the dropped light. Unfortunately, his search turned up nothing so it had either washed downstream further than he realized or some other guide had found it in the days since.

underground waterfall in Hokeb Ha cave in southern Belize

Philip and Rosalee beneath the underground waterfall inside the Hokeb Ha cave…without our headlamps, this area of the cave would be almost pitch black.

Our return trip out of the cave was definitely easier than going in since we had the current to help carry us along. At one point, we could hear the screeching of several bats as they flew above. When we drew near to the entrance, we all turned off our lights and swam in the darkness towards the increasing source of light that was the cave entrance. Once there, we dragged our exhausted bodies out of the water and back onto the rocks.

After drying off and resting for a few minutes, we began the hike back out of the canyon. When we passed the termite mound, we noticed that the termites had already completely repaired the hole that Rosalee had created. We know we have written a lot about the jungle’s small insects, but it’s only because they are so fascinating and continue to amaze us!

entrance to Hokeb Ha cave in southern Belize

The entrance to the Hokeb Ha cave.

At the dock, we stopped so that Philip could take a jump off a high platform into the creek. He did just that and we then continued back to the car. We dropped Rosalee back off at his store and thanked him profusely for guiding us on our caving adventure. Exploring Hokeb Ha was far less touristy and far more intense than we expected and, as a result, was awesome! We never saw another person during our visit to the cave, though Rosalee said that they can get as many as 20 people on a good day. Sometimes, he will do two tours in a day, though we can’t imagine the exhaustion that must bring.

We took a quick look at some homemade Mayan bags he had for sale and then said farewell. We drove back towards the main road and then curved around to the other side of the mountain to a town called San Antonio. Our goal was to see the beautiful stone church at the center of town, though we were also hungry and desired a stop for lunch. Unfortunately, we could find no place to buy a meal. We even stopped at a small shop to ask, but the girl behind the counter informed Philip that the nearest place to eat was almost back in Punta Gorda. We’re not sure how nobody runs a restaurant (other than Rosalee’s wife in Blue Creek but she wasn’t around for the day) in any of the nearby towns, but we accepted the fact and settled for a granola bar to hold us over.

The small church of San Luis Rey in San Antonio sits atop a small hill near the center of town. We parked the car, climbed up to it, and went inside to sit for a few minutes and take in the architecture. Unlike most churches in the country, which are made of concrete, the villagers built this one from local Stone. It has nice wooden trusses to hold up the roof and the stained glass windows are quite beautiful. While we sat there, a handful of local children were at the front of the church either practicing for a play or decorating the altar area (it was hard to tell). After a few minutes, we left the church and returned to the car to continue along.

outside of church of San Luis Rey in Belize

The church of San Luis Rey in the southern Belize village of San Antonio.

Since we couldn’t visit Pusilhá, we decided to try and visit a different nearby Mayan site in the town of Santa Cruz, four miles west of San Antonio. Some of the road around San Antonio is paved, and the rest is very smooth dirt road that will be paved soon. This route is currently being developed as an extension to the Southern Highway and will reach all of the way to a new official border crossing at the Guatemalan border. We saw numerous men working on the road, though mostly we saw them sitting in the shade as it was lunch time.

We reached the next village and noticed immediately that it had a distinctive feel. Almost all of the buildings were huts with thatched roofs. Furthermore, we saw several girls walking along the road, all wearing traditional Mayan dresses. Southwestern Belize is dominated by the descendants of the Mayan people, with several different groups represented. We had seen Mayan descendants scattered throughout Belize, though these people often identified as Mestizo (in this area meaning a mix of Mayan and Hispanic, typically Guatemalan). Here in Toledo, though, the people appear to have inter-married with other cultures less than those in other areas and hold more tightly to their Mayan traditions.

thatched roof huts in southern Belize

Thatched roofs are common in the tiny Mayan village of Santa Cruz in southern Belize.

We weren’t really sure how to find the Mayan site, though the guidebook had mentioned something about checking in with the chairman of the site to get access. As we got near the far edge of town, we noticed a sign that said “Chairman” and so pulled into a grassy driveway and up a small hill to a few huts. A young man inside came out and Philip explained our intentions. He pointed us to another set of huts around the corner where the Chairman supposedly lived.

We walked the short distance to the other huts, but were soon met by a few woman who seemed less than eager to see us (not necessarily rude or anything, mostly surprised to see us). One of them told us that the Chairman was not home, so we thanked them and returned back towards our car.

By this point, we figured that seeing this Mayan site was probably not going to happen nor was it worth the difficulty. Just was we were about to back out of the driveway, a young boy rode up on a bike with a little girl trailing behind. Philip rolled down his window and the kid asked if we wanted to see the site. He told us that he is the Chairman’s son and that he could take us to other members of the board to gain entrance and pay the entry fee. Unsure of the proper protocol and not wanting to offend or get into trouble, we politely refused the kid’s offer and decided to just return to Punta Gorda. It would have been neat to see the site of Uxbenká, but were wiped from our caving adventure and the obstacles seemed larger than the rewards.

When we returned from our trip, we saw that the hotel office was still closed, so we walked through town to find a bite of lunch. The place we were targeting in our guidebook appeared to not be open, so we walked around hoping to find a viable option. On one corner in the middle of town, we were met by a friendly guy who introduced himself and asked if we wanted to do zip lining (he was a tour guide, supposedly…he did have a business card at least). We told him that we weren’t interested today, but we could use a recommendation for lunch.

He sent us just up the block to a small and stifling hot restaurant that serves local Belizean food. We were a bit late for the lunch rush so not all items on the small menu were available (sadly including the meat pies). However, we did order some fryjack (fried tortilla/pita like things) as well as some Dhal Roti (big pita pocket with curried pea paste inside). The food was delicious, though probably not the healthiest thing we could have gotten, and we (well, Rose at least) sat in the breeze of the one fan in the restaurant. While we were eating, numerous locals came in for food and it seemed like a popular place.

After lunch, we returned to the hotel and finally found the hotel office (/ice cream parlor/bike shop) open. We paid for our room and Philip also decided to sample the ice cream, which was a refreshing treat on such a hot day. We then decided to lay down for a bit to read and perhaps take a nap in the room. Three hours later, we woke up groggily realizing it was almost time for dinner and would be our last chance to see Punta Gorda in the daylight.

It turns out that we had seen most of Punta Gorda at lunch, but we set out anyway to walk the town and find some dinner. We also embarked on a quest for some sunscreen as our supply is running low. We went to a pharmacy near the water, but they had only one type of sunscreen for kids at a price of about US$13 for a small bottle. The worker told us of another store that might sell sunscreen so we returned all the way back to our hotel and continued the other direction for a few blocks to the new store. They carried only the exact same product as the pharmacy, though it was a bit cheaper so we decided to purchase. Sunscreen in hand (bag actually), we returned again towards downtown for dinner. One the way, we passed one of the churches/schools and saw several guys playing volleyball on a court outside. They were all very good and we saw a handful of well-executed spikes as we walked past.

At the center of town is an interesting little park with a few swings, a clock tower, and some benches. In the trees, a choir of birds sang their sunset chorus at a volume that was shockingly loud. Small children were playing in the square, including a little girl riding a bike and chasing a boy as she yelled , “I am your worst nightmare!” Given his love of being in places where locals spend time, Philip enjoyed our short time spent in the square before we continued on to our restaurant for the evening.

no urinating wall sign in Punta Gorda, Belize

An interesting sign painted on a wall in Punta Gorda…apparently there had been issues?!

We walked past the local Roman Catholic church, which was having its evening mass with doors and windows open. Just beyond the church, we came to the restaurant, which sits on the second floor of a building on the waterfront. As we climbed up the stairs, we were met by two dogs who then followed us excitedly…all the way into the restaurant. As we walked through the open restaurant door, they came right along. A man who worked there asked if they were our dogs and we laughed and explained that they had just followed us in. The man chased the dogs out of the restaurant as we watched amused.

Unlike other restaurants, this one did not have a menu but rather just a display hot table with the food for the evening. The pricing structure was complicated, though reasonable so we ordered our food and a lady loaded up our plates. We took our plates to a table on the very windy patio to eat. A family of Americans (we assume) we’re eating there already and two Canadians from British Columbia came not long after us.

The food was good (best curry chicken in Belize yet for Philip and Rose’s stew chicken with a roll was also good), but the wind was ridiculous. At one point, Philip even lost a lettuce leaf to the wind. The tablecloth kept blowing up unless weighted down by several heavy objects. As we finished our meal, we struck up a conversation with the Canadians at the next table and spent a while talking with them about our travels.

Through our conversation, we learned that they are staying at the same hotel as us, so after paying our bills, we all walked back to the hotel together. At the base of the stairs to our room, we bid them farewell and returned to our room to call it a night. Our trip to southern Belize was short, but we had a great time today exploring the cave and driving around through some of the villages. It was also the first time in 5 days that we have not visited a Mayan site (despite our plan and backup plan),though we will get back on track tomorrow with a visit to our final Mayan ruin of the trip.

February 23rd Synopsis

  • Following the guidebook’s advice really works!
  • Philip actually ate a termite
  • Swimming through a cave to reach a waterfall…how cool is that!
  • Driving through some modern-day Mayan villages
  • No Mayan ruins today…despite our best efforts
  • Lunch and a nap
  • The quest for sunscreen
  • Dinner with the Canucks

*** Check out the first post of our trip to Belize and read them in order! ***

We arose early at 7:00am and groggily packed up our belongings. As we took our stuff to the car, Rose stopped to take a few pictures of the neighbor’s dog, who if you tilt your head and squint slightly, looks just like our dog, Kali. Definitely the hardest part of traveling is being away from her for so many days. We loaded the car and said farewell to the man from Placencia (we learned today his name is Rob) as well as Trisha, the resident tour guide. Julia offered to just take care of all bills when we returned the rental car in a few days, so at 5 minutes past 8:00am, we set off to explore the southern part of Belize.

Rather than going 15 miles out of our way to the north, just to take a south westerly road, we decided to risk going the through the edge of Belize City and taking the Western Highway from its start. Fortunately, we accomplished this without any incident, though Philip’s knuckles may have been white from gripping the steering wheel too hard through the roundabouts.

As the Western Highway leaves town, it passes both through and around a cemetery. We say “around” because at one point the road splits into an avenue (center median) and there are a handful of tombs located on the 10ft x 100ft median with cars driving by on both sides.

cemetery in Belize City

The cemetery at the western edge of Belize City…the road splits around a small island of graves.

We drove over half the way back to San Ignacio where we reached the turnoff for Belmopan and the Hummingbird Highway. Before continuing, we stopped at a supermarket to pick up some water and juice for the long drive ahead. We could have taken the coastal road, which is further east (though not along the coast), but everyone we talked too said that the Hummingbird Highway is the most beautiful drive in the country and the coastal road is miles of bumpy boredom.

After driving it, we have to concur that the Hummingbird Highway is AMONG the most beautiful drives in the country, though our trek through the backwoods of western Belize is also a contender. For the first part of the Hummingbird, the road passes over beautiful jungle-covered rolling hills. Periodically, it passes through small towns and communities, where colorful houses contrast nicely with the deep green of the jungle foliage.

forest covered Maya Mountains in Belize along the Hummingbird Highway

The beginning portion of the Hummingbird Highway is a beautiful drive through the forested Maya Mountains.

We made numerous stops along the Hummingbird, both to visit some of Belize’s national parks and to consume many tasty treats about which others have raved. Our first attempted stop was at Five Blue Lakes National Park (we think…sadly, the order of stops is already getting fuzzy in our minds). We actually drove past the turnoff (poor signage) and had to make a U-turn back to the dirt road. Unfortunately, the signage only got worse and we drove several bumpy miles through orchards and communities before giving up and going back to the highway. As we returned, we spotted a group of people along the road to ask about the national park. One man in the group spoke up and informed us that the park was actually pretty close to the highway, though the lake was currently drained. Our guidebook had mentioned that the lake had mysteriously drained a couple of years ago (likely a sinkhole at its bottom), but then also said that it had refilled. Apparently, in the time since the book was written, the lake has drained again and so there was really nothing to visit after all (still no clue as to why it is “5 blue lakes” park when in reality there are only one or zero lakes).

The search for the park was an excursion through beautiful landscapes and we even met some nice people, so we didn’t mind that our ultimate goal failed. Returning to the highway, we continued south and soon pulled into an Amish bakery on the side of the road. Our friends in Belize City (as well as the Canadian woman Rose met while we checked out from the hotel in Orange Walk) had told us about this bakery and so we ordered a few cinnamon
rolls and some chocolate chip cookies from the sweet Amish girl behind the counter. We elected to take our treats on the road rather than eat them at the small table in front of the store, so we hopped back in the car and continued south.

Hummingbird Highway in Belize

Driving down the Hummingbird Highway

No sooner had we finished our cinnamon rolls (tasty, but not earth shattering good like people had said), than we arrived at our next destination, a Mennonite dairy with supposedly the best ice cream in the country (we thank Rob for this tip).  A young man behind the window served us our ice cream and we sat down under a tree to consume our rapidly-melting food.

The ice cream was indeed fantastic! Philip had a cone of soft serve while Rose elected for the cup of coffee flavored hard ice cream. The creaminess and richness of the flavors was amazing, especially when compared to the other ice cream we have had in Belize. We assume that the great taste comes from the use of fresh, unpasteurized milk, and we felt good knowing that this ice cream was locally produced (literally, the dairy ingredients probably went from cow to ice cream to taste buds within the same few acres of land).

Refreshed and cooled down from the ice cream, we again returned to our vehicle and set off down the road. As we passed the marker for mile 27, we started searching for any indication of our next destination. Supposedly, this stretch of the Hummingbird Highway has one spot with an anomaly known as a “gravity hill”. These places have been recorded around the world (so says the internet) and are characterized by gravity appearing to be reversed in certain locations. We were told that if we stop the car going downhill at a certain spot and put it in neutral, the car would actually roll back up the hill, thus defying gravity. Unfortunately, our directions were limited to just an approximate stretch of road and there were no visible markers telling us where to experience the phenomenon. We felt it unwise and unsafe to stop repeatedly on the back side of hills in an effort to find the right place, so we continued along our way.

banana plantation in southern Belize

Banana plantation along the road to southern Belize…if you look close, you can see blue bags around the bunches of bananas.

Less than a mile down the road, we came around a corner and saw our next stop on the left side. However, since we were going 60 mph and had less than 2 seconds of warning, we decided to continue along to make a safe U-turn rather than rolling our SUV in an attempt to make the turn. We safely made our way to the turn off and pulled into a small roadside shack where Ms. Bertha sells her homemade chicken tamales (another recommendation from Belize City). We each ordered one and sat down on a bench to eat them. Unlike most tamales in America, these ones do not have all of the bones removed from the chicken so eating them is a bit treacherous. That said, the tamales taste fantastic and we enjoyed the warm food as we conversed with the proprietor. We told the woman in the shack (not actually Ms. Bertha herself…perhaps her daughter) about our travels south and asked if she knew about the gravity hill just up the road. She was surprised that we had heard of it, but told us that she had witnessed the phenomenon many times. She was a really sweet lady and seemed excited to learn about who we are and why we are driving all around Belize.

Our tamales consumed, we once again returned to our vehicle and continued the drive south. Several times we got stuck behind slow moving vehicles (including one or two large trucks completely filled with oranges) and Philip had to figure out how to safely pass them. The presence of seven one-lane bridges along the road also added to the intrigue of the drive.

fields and clouds in Belize

The beautiful scenery of southern Belize

Near the end of the Hummingbird Highway, we reached the first of many citrus factories (this area of Belize is like the orange-juice capital of the world…or at least Central America). We pulled off and entered the small supermarket there to purchase our park entrance tickets to visit a waterfall in the area (another suggestion from Rob). The proprietor told us that there was currently no fee and then explained the reasoning. It turns out that the road was damaged in a previous hurricane and the government has never repaired the signage or the road surface. As a result, finding the parking area for the waterfall is a challenging and bumpy endeavor. Furthermore, the waterfall is a 45 minute hike from the spot where we could leave the car…if we can find the right path (he hinted that just walking in the creek would be the best). With his advice in mind, we elected to skip this waterfall and go back up the road a few miles to visit a smaller one that is easier to access.

We fairly easily found the turnoff for the other waterfall, though we barely managed to slow down in time to actually execute the turn. We paid our entrance fee (only $4 American each, instead of the normal $5) at the fairly sketchy booth with two unofficial looking guys inside. One of them explained that the waterfall was about a 15 minute hike away and so we set off up the large, steep hill at the side of the road.

Once reaching the top, we almost immediately descended down the back side and along a narrow and muddy path through the woods. Eventually, we came to a creek with a slack rope and some stepping stones arranged as a crossing. We managed to navigate the crossing and then followed the path of the creek for a few hundred feet. Surprisingly, our path then took us back over the water at least two more times, with nothing but a few slippery rocks to stand on. Fortunately, we made it to the vantage point for the waterfall without any incident. Unfortunately, seeing the waterfall was not really worth the effort and time we spent getting there.

stones across river in Belize

Our path across the river to get to the waterfall

We took some pictures anyway (it was still a waterfall after all) and then returned the way we had come. On the way back, Rose’s foot slipped off a rock and fell into the water. She managed to recover with only one foot getting soaked and no injuries, not too bad considering it could have gone much worse. After climbing up and down the large hill, we returned to the car and once again continued on our way south.

small waterfall in southern Belize

This small waterfall waited for us at the end of our short hike off the Hummingbird Highway.

Our roadside stops behind us, we actually drove for many miles in a row, transitioning from the Hummingbird Highway and onto the Southern Highway. This road appears to have been the most recently paved of all of Belize’s highways and boasts both brightly (relatively speaking) painted side and center lines as well as a refreshing lack of potholes and asphalt patches. Just as Rose was about to fall asleep for her nap, we reached the Cockscomb Wildlife Reserve and turned off the highway.

dirt road on sunny day in Belize

It was a beautiful day as we drove through Belize…the landscape changed many times as we moved further south.

We traversed several miles of bumpy road to get to the actual visitor’s center of the reserve and went inside to purchase our tickets. A small group of people were there and one of the staff members took us outside to explain the large hand-painted map of the available trails. He fairly awkwardly explained each one, as well as the time it would take to complete. At one point, he mentioned that one of the trails was relatively flat and would be great for the pregnant lady in the group. We’re still not certain if the lady to whom he was referring was actually pregnant or just had a belly (we’re leaning towards the latter), but she took the comment well and didn’t say a word.

jaguar crossing sign in Belize

An awesome sign you won’t find in America!

A bit concerned about time (probably should have skipped the earlier waterfall hike), we were limited in the trails we could hike. Sadly, the trail to a large waterfall would have taken too long to hike and still make it to our Mayan ruin before it closed. Thus, we decided on an easy set of three trails that would bring us in a loop and back to the starting point.

stream in Belize

An idyllic stream in the nature reserve.

The walk through the jungle was very peaceful and we heard several signs of wildlife. We also heard a lot more sounds that we attribute to the wind causing palm tree leaves to rustle together. At least twice, we saw and heard the fleeting shadows of animals at ground level as they scurried through the undergrowth. Ultimately, our actual spotting of wildlife was limited to a few birds and a small lizard, but the walk was enjoyable none the less. It would have been fantastic to see a tapir or even a jaguar, but we knew that 2:00pm is not the optimal time to be looking for nocturnal creatures.

Once completing our loop, we got back in the car and drove a half mile or so down the road to another short trail. This one intrigued Philip because it is called the “Plane Wreck”. Sure enough, only a few hundred yards from the starting point, we crossed a small creek and there was the remains of an airplane sitting in the woods. Someone had propped the plane up on cinderblocks but otherwise, it was a mess of sheared metal and was stripped of its engine and interior. A placard near the plane explained that it had crashed shortly after takeoff and the pilot and passengers escaped with only minor injuries.

Philip and Rose next to crashed airplane in Belize

Tired and sweaty but of course excited because we are standing next to the remains of an airplane in the Cockscomb nature reserve

With Philip smiling because he got to see an airplane, we returned to the car and began the long drive back out to the highway and down to our final stop, a Mayan ruin known as Lubaantun. As was becoming our custom, we missed the turn off from the highway and had to make yet another U-turn. We followed the dirt road from the highway to the site for about 6 miles, passing through small villages. A large sign directed us down another road and about a mile later we pulled into a grassy parking area with one other car.

jungle in Belize

The jungle around the Cockscomb nature preserve

We walked down a large grassy hill to a creek, where a few modern-day Mayan ladies were packing up their home-made crafts. We then climbed up the other side of the hill to the visitor’s center where we paid our entrance fee. Other than the few locals were hanging out under a tree at the entrance to the site (probably maintainers of the ruins), we were the only people around.

stairs up steep hill in Belize

The climb up the hill to the Mayan city of Lubaantun

We meandered slowly through the many structures at the site as the late afternoon sun illuminated the trees and ruins. Lubaantun is unique because the Mayans here did not use any mortar to hold up the buildings. Instead, stones were cut precisely to fit together in a style similar to the Incas of Peru. It was incredible walking around and on the various structures, admiring the handiwork of the Mayans after so many centuries. Stray stones were piled everywhere, lying as they had fallen over time.

close fitting stones at Lubaantun in Belize

The Mayans at Lubaantun built their city without the use of mortar, much like the Incans in Peru.

Lubaantun is also unique in that archeologists found no stelae (ceremonial markers) at the site. The city does have temples, though, which is why it is odd that there are none of these objects. Some archeologists speculate that Lubaantun was mostly an administrative city whereas nearby Nim Li Punit was the ceremonial center (it has an abundance of stelae).

Lubaantun Mayan ruins in Belize

A portion of the Lubaantun site tucked away behind a temple

Finally, Lubaantun is the site where archeologists discovered the crystal skull (yes, like in Indiana Jones but minus the aliens). The history of the skull is riddled with controversy and suspect archeology, but nevertheless, it began at Lubaantun.

We spent about 40 minutes taking pictures and enjoying the serenity of the jungle and the ruins. Philip took a ridiculous amount of pictures of rocks and trees lit up by the setting sun. Gumbo limbo trees, their red bark peeling, were plentiful at the site. We also heard the distinct call of a Montezuma oropendolas bird, though did not see it or its unique hanging nest in the trees above.

Gumbo Limbo tree at Lubaantun in Belize

A beautiful gumbo limbo tree standing atop the ruins at Lubaantun

When we had finished exploring the site, we returned to the visitor’s center to sign the guest book. While there, the ticket taker guy showed us some Mayan artifacts that the maintenance people had found. Oddly, he just had these 700+ years old objects lying in a cardboard box on the floor. We looked in wonder as he pulled out small masks, figurines, and even a few ceramic whistles. He then showed us some of his own modern-day versions including some beautiful whistles (also in the box, though wrapped in paper…yes, the modern ones seem better protected than the ancient). It was a cool experience seeing these items right in front of us, rather than locked away in a display case in some museum.

A few minutes later, we thanked him and returned down and up the hill to our car. We saw two young Caucasians in swimsuits that had apparently been swimming in the creek (unsuccessfully it would seem since the creek was little more than a trickle of water). We spoke with them for a few moments and learned that they were staying at a lodge just up the road. We also noticed that somebody had written a few words in the dust on our rear driver-side window, though we did not recognize the language and a Google search later in the night revealed nothing.

We drove the mile back to the road and then continued along to the highway. When we reached a T-junction where the dirt road intersected with pavement, we were not positive of which direction to go since our printed map was of questionable print quality (Philip has learned his lesson about using the “Draft” print setting for items such as road maps). Philip was fairly confident that a left turn was correct and so we did just that.

A hundred yards up the road, a man was waiting at a bus stop so we pulled over to ask him if we were going the right direction for Punta Gorda. The man was very friendly and told us that we were indeed going the correct direction. He also asked for a ride to “the Dump”, which we later learned is an intersection not too far up the road and on our way. Unfortunately, we had to turn him down since our car rental hosts at the hotel asked us to not pick up hitchhikers (and of course because we have been well trained by our parents). We explained the reasoning and the man was, thankfully, very understanding.

As we drove, we had a conversation about hitchhiking and how unfortunate it is that we live in a world where we are always suspicious of strangers. Hitchhiking in Belize, especially southern Belize, is part of the way of life and a large percentage of the population counts on getting rides in the back of a passing pickup truck most days of the week. There seems to be an expectation that if you are going down the road and have some room in your car or pickup bed, you will give people a ride for as long as you are going a common direction. Naturally, they would do the same for you if the situation was reversed. It is actually a quite effective system and works well for this population where not every family has a car of their own. How nice it would be if communities and people in America could operate the same way and we didn’t have to view every person on the side of the road as a would-be axe murderer only out to harm us.

Before long, we made a 90 degree turn and found ourselves on a road next to the ocean. We made it into Punta Gorda and despite a bit of confusion and one more U-turn for the day, we found our hotel. The office was closed, but a man sitting in the courtyard did the registration and gave us our room key. Our room was stifling hot, but otherwise very nice (probably the nicest place we’ve stayed yet). After dropping our bags, we moved the car from the street into the hotel’s courtyard where it would be better protected.

While our hotel is nice, the check in process and some of the operating procedures are a bit odd. Most significantly, the remote for the air conditioning was not in the room when we arrived. When we inquired about this with the guy in the courtyard, he explained that the remotes were actually locked inside the owner’s house. He knew where they were kept but did not feel comfortable going inside to retrieve them without the owner’s explicit permission. Unfortunately, the elderly owner had just returned from visiting the doctor in Mexico and was out at dinner. Planning to try again later in the evening, we set off for dinner in the meantime.

We ate at on the patio of a small restaurant just around the corner called Grace’s. While waiting for our food, an adorable little kid carrying a five gallon bucket came over to us and asked if we wanted to buy some fry chicken (we think that’s what he asked, he was hard to understand). When we turned him down, explaining that we were sitting at a restaurant to eat dinner already, he gave us very sad eyes and kept saying, “please, sir, please”. We gave him a Belizean dollar, though did not take one of the somewhat sketchy looking bags of fry chicken and tortilla from his bucket. Sadly, pushy beggars seem to be commonplace here in Belize and many refuse to take no for an answer. It often leads to awkward situations and the frustrated handing over of a few coins. While we are all for helping those in need, the downright rudeness of some of them comes across as less needy and more “scam some money from the obvious foreigner”.

Dinner was actually very tasty and we enjoyed some French fries, beef curry for Philip, and a chicken burrito for Rose (naturally accompanied by some watermelon juice). Afterwards, we returned to the hotel and found that the owner had returned from dinner but had since drawn a bath and was still inaccessible. We spent some time in the room with three fans going and prepped for our adventures tomorrow. After doing some research, Philip went back to the courtyard to talk with the man there about our plans and see if the owner was finally available.

The bath was still in progress, but Philip got the man to commit to just bringing the remote to our room when he was able to access it. Philip also talked to him about the logistics of our plans to visit a nearby cave and some Mayan ruins tomorrow. The man explained that there were some tour companies in town but we should be able to find a guide at the village near the cave.

The A/C remote came about 20 minutes later and we gladly turned it on. It was a long day of driving, but we saw (and tasted) some pretty neat things. We are excited for the chance to go and explore some of the Belizean Deep South tomorrow and we are sure it will be as beautiful and amazing as everything else we have seen of this small country.

February 22nd Synopsis

  • Farewell to Belize City…again
  • The Hummingbird Highway – gorgeous despite its lack of hummingbirds
  • Baked goods, ice cream, and tamales
  • The lake is full…now it’s empty…full again…and now empty again
  • A short hike to a waterfall
  • What makes a nature hike better?…finding a plane wreck!
  • Alone again amidst Mayan ruins
  • Hello to Punta Gorda and the southern limit of our adventure

*** Check out the first post of our trip to Belize and read them in order! ***

After a decent night of sleep, we set out this morning at around 7:45am to drive north to explore the Mayan site of Altun Ha before the cruise ship crowds arrived. We bid farewell to the hotel staff and set off through the neighborhood, but quickly returned when we realized that Rose had forgotten to take her allergy medication. That problem resolved, we again bid farewell and this time made it out to the highway.

Fortunately, our route took us north; the south direction seemed backed up for miles and we were very grateful to not be joining that line of cars. Along the way, we stopped at a new (to us) grocery store to pick up some pastries, water, and juice for the day. The homemade “strawberry Pop-tart” pastries were pretty dry, but the small coconut finger pies were delicious.

On the way to our turn off for the Old Northern Highway, we passed through a small construction site where a few guys were working at the side of the road. Quite ingeniously, they had set up temporary speed bumps using nothing more than a think piece of rope. Philip was impressed at the simplicity and effectiveness of the idea. We quickly reached the turn and set off for the 12 mile journey to the Mayan site. “Highway” is a bit of a stretch to describe the road, though it technically is paved for most of the duration we traveled. However, the paved section is only about one lane wide so anytime oncoming traffic was present we would both have to drive partially onto the shoulder. Sometimes this transition between pavement and dirt shoulder was minimal; other times the height difference was a few inches and thus a bit terrifying of an experience.

We made it to the parking lot for Altun Ha without any trouble and parked next to the only other car there. Unlike many of the other Mayan sites we had seen, this one seemed to have a large tourist infrastructure with little shops set up along the pathway to the site. We figured that they must usually have much larger crowds than just the two cars currently in the parking lot in order to support that many shops.

Mayan temples at Altun Ha in Belize

One of the two main plazas at Altun Ha

We stopped at the guard booth to pay our entrance fee and then set off up the path to the “visitor’s center”. The quotes are necessary because the visitor’s center consist of a pavilion with three picnic tables, one map of the site, and one informational board talking about jade artifacts. However, we did meet a man there with a Belize Institute of Archaeology shirt who offered to tell us a bit about the site…for a small tip. We obliged and he spent about 3 minutes telling us some basic information about the different structures on the map as well as the artifacts that archaeologists had found in tombs at the site.

Temple of Masonry Altars at Altun Ha in Belize

Side view of the Temple of Masonry Altars at Altun Ha

Temple of Masonry Altars at Altun Ha in Belize

The Temple of Masonry Altars at Altun Ha…this building is featured on the label of Belikin Beer

With our new knowledge, we set off up to the first of the two main plazas and climbed the first large temple. While we don’t know much about each of the buildings at the site, the experience of being there in the morning with no other people in site was amazing. We climbed each of the structures that we could, taking pictures from every angle possible. Altun Ha is fairly well excavated and some restorations have been done to certain buildings to repair some of the damage caused by 800 years of neglect.

stone mask at Altun Ha in Belize

Stone mask on a building at Altun Ha

We spent over an hour walking around the site, taking pictures and climbing temples without seeing another tourist. The highlight of the Altun Ha site is known as the Temple of Masonry Altars. It is better known as the image seen on the label of bottles of Belikin beer, the local brewery in Belize. As we were at the top of this last temple, we finally saw one other person walking around the site. We descended and took a path through the jungle leading to a pond. Along the way, we spotted some paw prints in the mud, though we’re not sure what animal created them. Supposedly there are additional ruins along that path, but it may be that they are still buried within the jungle to the sides. The pond was peaceful, though nothing spectacular, and so we soon returned back down the jungle path, through the main Mayan plazas, and back towards the car.

pond in Belize

A tranquil pond near the Altun Ha Mayan ruins

During our time at the site, the locals had arrived and most shops were now open as we walked past the storefronts. In addition, numerous people had setup tables along the path selling sugarcane, bananas, and coconuts. We caved in and purchased a coconut from the man closest to the parking lot. While it was not as “ice-cold” as he had advertised, the coconut milk was still a refreshing treat after the sweaty experience of climbing several Mayan structures on a hot morning.

We returned to the hotel back the way we came, passing several buses and vans along the way. It seems that we yet again just missed the cruise ship crowds at a Mayan site. On the Northern Highway, we encountered two different police checkpoints that had appeared while we were at Altun Ha. At the first one, the officer asked to see Philip’s license and passport but then sent us on our way. At the second one, the officer just asked a few questions about where we were going before bidding us farewell.

Back at the hotel, we were just going to rest for a few minutes before heading down into Belize City to explore. However, Philip developed a pounding headache (probably due to dehydration) and our brief rest evolved into a short nap. Eventually, though, we got our act together and drove down to Belize City.

We parked near the Belize Museum and started our tour around the city by seeing the museum’s exhibits. After purchasing our tickets and checking our daypack at the front desk, we walked through the many rooms looking at the various collections. The building in which the museum is located was formerly a jail, and one small room is still preserved as a jail cell. On the bottom floor, the museum currently has exhibits on postage stamps, currency, and glass bottles. Upstairs, the museum is dedicated to Mayan artifacts except for one room containing thousands of butterflies and insects. By far, our favorite butterfly was a brilliant metallic blue color that shimmered in the light.

The Mayan artifacts on display include mostly pottery and jade pieces, though the original Stela 9 from Lamanai is also located here. The most interesting of the artifacts are the different jade necklaces, ceremonial axes, and enormous jade ear gauges. The museum houses also a 9.75 pound jade carving of a head that was found at Altun Ha, which is significantly larger than any of the other artifacts.

jade in teeth of Mayan jawbone

The ancient Mayans used to embed pieces of jade in their teeth…sometimes with tragic consequences due to the lack of sterilization.

skeleton with jade objects at Belize Museum

Skeleton recovered from Altun Ha with all of its jade artifacts

After the museum, we walked toward the touristy area in search of something to eat. In a shop within the area known as “Brown Sugar” (absolutely no idea why it is called that), we purchased 4 small Belizean meat pies from a sweet local lady. They were far spicier than either of us first realized so Philip got to consume all four of the delicious treats. We continued walking down the road, being accosted frequently by street merchants. Fortunately, they were all respectful and were willing to accept the fact that we were not interested in purchasing anything. We also had numerous people ask if we were on our way back to the cruise ship, to which we happily responded that we were traveling on our own. It was interesting being in such a tourist-centered area and seeing the assumptions that people make.

boats in harbor in Belize City

Boats moored in the mouth of the Old Belize River in Belize City

We worked our way through the streets to the Swing Bridge across the Belize River. This is the only hand-operated swing bridge (called a swing bridge because the entire deck rotates 90 degrees to be parallel with the river when a large boat needs to pass) in Central America, but unfortunately we were not there at a time when it was opened. After crossing the bridge, we walked down Regent Street and then down along the waterfront. Across the river, we could see (and hear the ridiculously loud music) of the Tourist Village, which seems to be the collection of touristy shops that all cruise ship passengers must walk past when coming ashore. A few miles out at sea we could see two large cruise ships anchored; they cannot easily come any closer due to shallow waters and coral reefs.

church in Belize City

St. John’s Cathedral in Belize City, the oldest Anglican church in Central America

When the road ended, we continued back to Regent Street and to St. John’s Anglican Cathedral. This is the oldest, non-Catholic church in Central America and was built from bricks from England that came to Belize in the form of ballast for logging ships (this fact courtesy of Trisha, the tour guide who lives at our hotel). Unfortunately, we could not enter the church because a funeral was in progress (we heard later that it was for a police officer…not sure whether active duty or retired).

church in Belize City

St. John’s Cathedral was built from the bricks that arrived from England as the ballast of logging ships.

As we walked around town, all of the schools let out for the day and the streets were crowded with students in their various school uniforms. It was a cool experience walking around as kids flooded the streets on their way home from school.

We returned to the swing bridge via Albert Street, stopping for an ice cream and a Coke at a shop along the way. The ice cream was refreshing on a hot day and was the best ice cream Philip has yet had in Belize. With refreshments in hand, we encountered a very persistent beggar who walked with us for over a block and would not give up until we gave him a coin. After crossing the bridge, we made our way back to the car and, on the way back to the hotel, stopped for gas in preparation of tomorrow’s journey to southern Belize.

public square in Belize City

Central square in Belize City at the junction of Albert and Regent streets

Back at the hotel, we relaxed in the room for a while, reading, writing, and enjoying the cool breeze of the air conditioner. Just before 6:00pm, we went out to the patio to talk with the other guests and wait for dinner to be served. At one point, the photographer / software engineer came out and showed the two of us some of his incredible photographs on his Google Nexus tablet. We spent a few minutes talking about tablet technology and why Google’s is better than the “idiotPad” (his name for the iPad).

After the software engineer left to do dinner out in Belize City, we spent several hours (until 9:45pm!) talking with the man from Placencia, two couples who had just arrived from Vancouver, and Trisha. Topics ranged from stories of fast cars to healthy cooking with local produce and even to oil politics around the world.

Philip and Rose at Altun Ha Mayan ruins in Belize

Here we are alone at Altun Ha.

Lewis served a wonderful dinner of baked beans, coleslaw, and enormous pork shoulder in his delicious homemade barbecue sauce. We all ate and talked and had a lovely evening enjoying each other’s company. When Rose could barely keep her eyes open, we returned to the room and got ready for bed. We have really enjoyed our stays at the Red Hut Inn, particularly the time spent sitting on the patio and talking with the other guests. But, it’s time to move and we are excited to head south tomorrow and explore new areas of the beautiful country of Belize!

February 21st Synopsis

  • Alone amidst the ruins of Altun Ha
  • A brief impromptu nap
  • Exploring Belize City on foot
  • Dinner and conversation on the patio

*** Check out the first post of our trip to Belize and read them in order! ***

We awoke again to the sound of chirping birds, quickly packed up our belongings and said farewell to the Tropicool Hotel. After loading up the car, we decided to see if the French bakery would be open this morning and were pleased to discover that they were. We each got a ham and cheese croissant and a chocolate croissant for breakfast and took them back to the car. Our goal was to drive about 8 miles west to the town of San Jose Succotz and arrive at the Mayan site of Xunantunich at 8am when it opened. Unfortunately, we had a few issues achieving our goal.

street in San Ignacio, Belize

The street in front of our hotel in San Ignacio…it’s far more happening in the evenings

The first issue was that Philip got his orientation of the city confused and took us across the river and in the complete opposite direction of where we needed to be. We quickly realized the error and crossed back into the city to go the correct direction. The next issue was caused by the fact that San Ignacio is full of one-way streets, though none of our maps accurately depict these. We knew which road we needed, but no matter how hard we tried, we just could not get to it without going the wrong way on a one-way street. After about 20 minutes of trying, we finally found the correct combination of roads and had a mini celebration as we drove out of town on the Western Highway.

After just a few minutes, we arrived at the ferry for the river crossing to get to Xunantunich (pronounced shoe-nan-TOON-itch…or something like that, everybody says it slightly different). This ferry is hand-cranked and can pull up to four cars across the river at a time. It was on the opposite side of the river so the operator began cranking to come back to our side. While this happened, we spoke with one of the guides who was waiting on our side of the river and enlisted his services to take us around the site. We had considered passing on a guide but we learn so much more by having one and the experience is much more enjoyable.

hand cranked ferry at Xunantunich in Belize

Hand cranked ferry for crossing teh river to access the Xunantunich Mayan ruins

Once the ferry hit the bank, Philip pulled the car on and Rose and Ramas (the name of our guide) walked on behind (for safety reasons, only one person may occupy the car as it enters or exits the ferry). It took only a minute to reach the opposite bank and then the three of us climbed into the car and drove the mile up to the parking area for the site. We paid our nominal site entry fee and then Ramas led us up the hill into the ruins.

Xunantunich was an overwhelming, though awesome, experience. Ramas was an excellent guide and told us about the extensive history of the site and the people who lived there. Unlike any of the other sites we have seen, the history and design of Xunantunich seem to have been influenced heavily by warfare and defensibility. As we walked around the ruins, Ramas explained the theories of who lived where and how they moved around over time. He also explained the politics and power relationships between the various Mayan cities in the region. Xunantunich, it seems, was never a fully independent Mayan city but was always under the control of one of the larger cities around, primarily Naranjo in modern-day Guatemala. Additionally, it seems that Mayans of the Elite and even ruling classes may have migrated from other sites and settled in Xunantunich throughout the years.

Mayan ruin Castillo at Xunantunich in Belize

The Castillo rising in the distance at Xunantunich

The best structures of Xunantunich are around one extremely large plaza at the top of the hill. Ramas explained how, over time, the Mayans built a large temple in the middle of the plaza separating it into two different smaller plazas. Then, as the population of the city declined and conflicts with other cities loomed, the ruling family abandoned certain parts of the city in favor of other, more defensible structures.

Mayan temple at Xunantunich in Belize

Mayan temple in the center of the plaza at Xunantunich

This history of defense influenced the creation and modification of the largest structure at the site. It is known as the “Castillo”, which means “castle” in Spanish. While other sites largest structures are primarily dedicated to temples to various gods, the largest in Xunantunich is a defensible residence. We climbed several of the structures around the site, but the most memorable was certainly the Castillo. The view from the top provides a 360 degree panorama of the surround region, including views into the forests of Guatemala. It was also cool to see some of the more mundane aspects of the Castillo, such as how it was designed with a drainage canal on the mid level of the structure to carry water and dump it off the side.

stuffed baby polar bear on Mayan ruin in Belize

The baby polar bear chilling at the top of yet another Mayan ruin…this is the highest point he has been too yet in Belize!

The other interesting part of the Castillo was seeing how it changed and developed over the centuries. It is still hard for us to fathom how the Mayans would sometimes just fill in all of the rooms of their buildings with dirt and then construct new buildings on top of this higher structure. Moreover, they would oftentimes cover beautiful carvings and other ornamentation, hiding them behind the stones of newer construction. At the top of the Castillo, there once existed a large band of carvings on all four sides. An earthquake led to the damage of parts, though two entire sides have fallen off as well. Ramas told us that it likely occurred because the constructions later Mayans added on top of the existing structure put too much weight and caused the lower walls to bulge out and break off those beautiful carvings.

stone carvings on Castillo at Xunantunich in Belize

Stone carvings high above on the upper levels of the Castillo at Xunantunich

In the area just behind the Castillo, we spotted a family of black howler monkeys in the trees. There were even two young monkeys and we spent a few minutes watching them climb through the trees. We did not see the male, though René explained that howlers mate for life and live as a family so he was probably not too far off.

iguana in Belize

Large iguana hanging out on the ruins at Xunantunich

After almost two hours exploring Xunantunich, we returned back to the parking area (after a quick stop at the visitor’s center to see the diorama site map of the city). As we walked back to the car, we passed crowds of tourists who had just arrived. These were cruise ship passengers on a shore trip and we were very glad we had gotten up early to see the sight before they came. We saw fewer than 10 other people during our entire tour of Xunantunich and the experience of being mostly alone amidst the ruins is well worth getting up early.

Mayan ruins at Xunantunich in Belize

The beautiful view across the plaza rom the top of the Castillo at Xunantunich

Castillo at Xunantunich in Belize

The side of the Castillo seen from below

As we were getting into the car, Philip asked Ramas about the best place to get an inexpensive carwash (we had more or less covered the entire exterior of the SUV in mud or fine limestone dirt from our drives on bumpy roads). Somewhat cryptically, Ramas said to wait until we were in the car and then he would explain. We did just that and he launched off into a discussion about Chinese restaurants in San Ignacio and how only one of them is worth eating at. Just at the point where we were certain he had misheard the question, he switched to carwashes and spoke of how it is currently a highly competitive service in San Ignacio (the best we can figure is that some of the competition is caused by locals vs. Chinese immigrants though the connection was not really obvious). The ultimate answer, we think, was that any of the car washes around town would be fine…a long answer to our question but at least we learned something, we think.

We drove with Ramas back down to the ferry, which was of course on the opposite bank. The operator brought it to our side and Philip drove on. By some clever use of psychology, Ramas got Philip to crank the ferry most of the way across the river (it was actually somewhat fun, at least for the minute or so it takes to cross…perhaps all day, every day, would be a different story). We bid farewell to Ramas and returned down the highway towards San Ignacio.

On the outskirts of town, we stopped for gas and inquired inside about where to find a local carwash. The clerk told us that the gas station actually did car washes and she picked up the phone to call the person who washes cars who was supposedly just across the street. She said it would be a few minutes so Philip moved the car away from the gas pump and we sat on the curb to wait. While sitting there, an elderly man who could barely walk came up to us, mumbled something, and handed us a piece of paper in a protective plastic bag. The paper was a letter signed and stamped by the Mayor of the town explaining who this gentleman is and that he is unable to take care of himself. This was, by far, the most official beggar we had ever seen and we gladly gave him some change.

After probably 10 minutes, Philip went back in to ask the clerk again about the carwash. She seemed surprised that the guy had not arrived yet and so she called him again. Apparently he was in a house just across the street and was “on his way”. We waited a few more minutes and then saw three younger guys who quite honestly looked like hoodlums coming towards us. We expected them to pass by when one asked if we were the ones waiting for a carwash. Surprised, we responded yes and Philip pulled the car into the right spot for them to wash it.

Efficiency is not the right word to describe these guys’ process of washing the car. The efficient way would have been for one to use the power washer to blast off the dirt and mud while the other two used soap to wash the car. Then, after rinsing, all three could use towels to quickly dry the car. Instead, two guys took turns pressure washing first their work boots and then finally the car. Then, one guy did all of the washing with soap while the other two sat and watched. After that, one guy rinsed the entire car and then two sat and watched while one guy dried the entire car on his own.

By the end of this process, we had spent probably 30 minutes total at the gas station and any frustration had turned to amusement at the ridiculousness of the situation. All of that said, the guys actually did a great job of washing the car and it looked great. While the one guy was finishing the drying, we asked the leader of the group where we could grab some faster food for lunch. He pointed out a little roadside place just down the road and so, after paying for the carwash, we drove down to that restaurant and went in.

We purchased some orders of rice, beans, and stewed chicken and took our meal back into the center of San Ignacio. We parked the car near Flayva’s and went inside to see if Sergio (the guy who had booked our afternoon tour of some caves) was around. He was not (we were a bit early) so we stopped at a market for some cold water and juice and then took our food to a nearby plaza to eat in the shade.

After finishing our meal, we returned to Flayva’s and met Sergio there. We settled our remaining payment and sat to wait for a few minutes until it was time to depart. While there, we saw a man with a parrot on his shoulder. Apparently, the parrot’s name if “Flayva” and he is the resident bird of the restaurant. At one point, the guy took Flayva off his shoulder and put him up on one of the rafters. The bird chilled up there until the guy came back and put him back on his shoulder.

When it was time, Sergio took us out behind the restaurant and introduced us to Manuelo (Manny), who we thought was to be our guide for the day (it turns out he was just there to shuttle us to the site where would have a different guide). We walked the short distance to our car while he went to his, and then we followed him east out of town. The plan was for us to leave our vehicle at the point where the road to Barton Creek branches off of the highway. That way, we would not have to return all the way back into San Ignacio before continuing east to Belize City.

We followed Manny’s red Toyota Camry for about 15 minutes until he turned off onto a side road and pulled over to the shoulder. Knowing that the terrain ahead would be bumpy and even include fording a small creek, we offered to drive our vehicle and instead leave his Camry parked here. He agreed and climbed into the back seat and we were off.

Manny is an older gentleman and was a lot of fun to talk to. As we drove down the mostly dirty road, he told us about his life, growing up in Belize but then moving to California for almost 30 years and working as an auto mechanic. He is the kind of person you can talk to for hours and just listen to his stories.

There are two routes to get to the cave. Unfortunately, the faster and nicer of the two through the heart of some Amish communities was blocked by a closed gate. Instead, we took the second route around the edge of the Amish community, bouncing along on potholed roads until we reached the creek. Had we been alone, we probably would have given up at this point because the creek seemed to be flowing pretty fast and the thought of driving a vehicle into that flow seemed foolish. Manny assured us, however, that we could make the crossing and he directed us through the path we should take. We crossed without incident thanks to his knowledge and continued the rest of the way to “Mike’s Place” and the cave.

spot to ford creek in Belize

The spot where we forded Barton Creek on our way to the cave

Mike’s place is a bar, restaurant, zip-line operator, and cave tour operator located at the entrance to Barton Creek Cave. From talking with Manny and Mike’s son, Brian, it seems that the cave entrance is actually on Mike’s land but the Belize government demanded that they have an access as well. Mike went to court over the issue but apparently lost since there is also a little hut where the entrance fee to the cave is collected for the government.

When we arrived, all of the tour guides were currently in the cave and so we had to wait about 20 minutes for one to return to take us. The property is amazing and we walked around the grounds for a while talking with Brian and playing with his dog, Rex (enormous German Shepard). Brian is actually an electrical engineering technician who splits his time between Belize and Canada; it was enjoyable talking to him about the work they had done on the property and his own explorations into the cave.

We saw a canoe emerge from the mouth of the cave, carrying two passengers and our soon-to-be tour guide, José. We waited a few minutes for José to have a bit to eat and then put on life jackets, received his safety briefing, and stepped down into the canoe. Rose sat in the center seat to take pictures. Philip sat in the front and held the high-powered LED light connected to a car battery to illuminate the cave during the journey. Once away from the entrance, Barton Creek Cave is 100% pitch black, so dark that there is no difference between having your eyes closed or open (as might be expected, the cave is home to many bats, as well as cave crickets, spiders, and even catfish).

canoe exiting cave in Belize

Another canoe coming out of the cave opening at Barton Creek Cave

The cave is actually 8 miles long, though the canoe tour only covers the first mile. José sat at the back of the canoe and slowly paddles us through the very narrow channel into the entrance and through the vast caverns. We saw several Mayan artifacts above us on ledges in the cave including several pieces of pottery and even a human skull. José told us that archeologists found numerous skeletons throughout as well as many more pieces of pottery, though few are visible from the creek. For the most part, those remains and artifacts have been studied but still remain in the cave.

We also saw several natural bridges spanning the cave; these are known as “Mayan bridges” because the Mayans would use them to cross when performing ceremonies. On one of the bridges we could see where the Mayans had carved some footholds to make it easier to get out of a dugout canoe and up onto the rock. This was several feet above our heads, though José told us that geologists believe the water level was almost even with the base of that Mayan bridge hundreds of years ago. In general, the geology of the cave was beautiful and we passed numerous interesting formations, including one place where there were two Mayan bridges at different heights in the same cavern.

bands in the rock in Barton Creek Cave in Belize

Bands in the rock of the cave wall showing the history of Barton Creek Cave’s formation

Twice, José had us turn out the light and just sit in the total darkness and listen to the sounds of water dripping throughout the caverns. On our way back out of the cave, we turned out our light as soon as we saw a glimpse of natural daylight and we paddled silently out of the cave towards the growing triangle of light that was the entrance.

Barton Creek Cave in Belize

The light at the end of the tunnel as we exited Barton Creek Cave

José told us a bit about the discovery of the cave and the search for the ultimate source of the water. The opening we used as an entrance and exit is actually the point where water flows out of the cave. Through the use of colored dyes, geologists managed to trace the water in the cave to at least two surface water sources, though in both cases this water enters the cave through percolation through the limestone rock. It is also believed that there are one or more natural springs in the cave system though they have not been observed. José also mentioned that cave divers, in their attempt to discover the source of the water, found a sinkhole over 400 feet deep at the back of the cave system!

Stalactites in Barton Creek Cave in Belize

Stalactites in Barton Creek Cave

Once we emerged from the cave, we docked the canoe and returned to the car. As we were about to leave, Brian came riding in to the parking area on his dirt bike with a bag of Styrofoam clamshell containers in one hand (presumably holding his dinner). As he came to a stop, the bike slid out from under him but he managed to step over the handlebars and land on his feet unscathed without even tipping the bag of food…while wearing flip-flops! He and the bike were both fine and his skill with how he evaded disaster suggests that this may not have been the first time such an incident has occurred.

Before we left, Manny met a photographer in the parking lot who was one of a group about to enter the cave and shoot some footage for National Geographic. Hopefully, we can find some of this footage when it airs and perhaps see some of the areas further back into the cave than we were able to go in our canoe.

We and Manny drove back the way we had come, again fording the river successfully. Along the road back to town, we saw several Amish people either working in the fields or walking down the road. They all waved and the one older gentleman we saw even took off his hat as we passed.

We dropped Manny back at his car, thanked him, and then set of east back to Belize City. Manny had given us a suggestion for where to eat dinner along the highway just past Belmopan, so we stopped at a place called “Amigo’s” just off the road. As we pulled into the parking area, the skies opened up and the rain began to fall hard. We ran from the car into the building and, after getting the attention of the person behind the bar, took a seat on the patio to look at the menu. With the rain falling and the wind blowing, we were both getting cold so Philip ran back into the rain to the car to retrieve our jackets.

Moments after he made it back to the patio with the jackets, the rain and wind both stopped. Rose put her jacket on as she was still cold. We overheard the people sitting at the table behind us talk about being cold, so Philip offered his jacket to a woman at that table. She accepted and told the waiter that Philip’s drink was on her…and then she realized that he was having only water. We refused any offers for her to pay for part of our meal and sat back down to wait for our food.

While waiting, we saw a few beautiful birds (one was a brilliant red color) flying around the nearby field. We also saw a house about 100 yards away with several dogs in the yard. One of them looked a lot like our dog Kali (at least in Philip’s opinion), thus necessitating one more trip to the car to get the binoculars to get a closer look. It was definitely part Golden Retriever, though we still disagree just how close the resemblance was.

Our food arrived and was fantastic…in other words, quite tasty! Rose had a burrito while Philip went with some chicken enchiladas. Both meals were served with a black bean spread, a few tortilla chips, and a large mound of the best Spanish rice in existence. Philip, one of rice’s biggest fans, doesn’t normally care for Spanish rice but he could not stop raving about how delicious this rice was. The other food was amazing as well and we thoroughly enjoyed our meals. As we took care of the bill, we noticed that Amigo’s has a lot of “pieces of flair” adorning the walls, including several signs with fairly inappropriate/non-politically correct sayings.

Amigo's restaurant in Belize

The Amigo’s restaurant on the road from Belmopan to Belize City…best Spanish rice in the world!

Our stomachs now full, we continued the rest of the way to Belize City and back to the same hotel where we had spent our first two nights in the country. The drive was mostly uneventful except for almost being hit head on by a van that was passing another car and didn’t seem to care that we were coming the opposite direction. We slammed on the brakes and bailed to the shoulder to avoid getting hit; he never even seemed to slow down and barely even moved to his side of the road. The other disappointing moment was when the driver in front of us through their beer bottle out the window and into the swampy area next to the road. Like many laws in Belize, the law against drinking and driving is rarely enforced, which is also one reason why we will do our best to not drive after dark.

We pulled into our hotel and were greeted by our hosts, Lewis and Julia. We told them of our travels so far and then went up to our new room (next door to the one we had previously). We quickly dropped our belongings and then went back out to the patio to spend some time talking with the other guests.

Philip and Rose in life jackets

Don’t we look so cool in our life jackets…nothing worse than falling in the water in the absolute pitch darkness of the cave.

We spent several hours talking with the other guests, sharing stories of travel and life. As we have said before, meeting new people is one of our favorite parts of traveling and helps give perspective for our own journeys. At about 9:30pm (so late for us, we know!), we returned to the room to call it a night. It is cool to come back here midway through our trip, now “veteran” travelers of Belize. When we drove away from the hotel a few days ago, we felt like scared kittens running through a dog park. Now, we’re navigating the roads with ease, avoiding most of the potholes and speed bumps, and can even navigate this area without a map. What a difference a few days makes!

February 20th Synopsis

  • No way out of San Ignacio
  • It’s a cool Mayan ruin but we still don’t know how to actually pronounce it
  • Three hooligans, a beggar, and one slow carwash
  • Canoeing into pitch darkness
  • An amazing dinner along the highway
  • New faces, new stories

*** Check out the first post of our trip to Belize and read them in order! ***

We learned several things about San Ignacio last night. First, staying in a hotel at the heart of downtown is not what one should do when desiring quiet or an early bedtime (the voices weren’t too bad, but Philip wishes that one guy would stop hitting that drum over and over and over again!). Second, the birds awake early in this part of Belize and sing a beautiful, though quite loud, chorus around dawn. Third, Mack’s PillowSoft Earplugs are amazing at blocking both the noise of drums and chirping birds!

We woke up with the birds and quickly got ready for our day of exploring Belize’s largest Mayan city, Caracol. We were running ahead of schedule so we purchased some bottled water from a nearby restaurant (none of the markets were yet open and they also gave us directions to the office of our tour guide) and then sought out a breakfast shop to pick up some pastries. They had actually sent us to a nearby French bakery, but we sadly found the place closed when we arrived and thus had to make other arrangements. With food in hand (including a much anticipated ham and cheese croissant!), we walked the few minutes to the shop of our tour operator and met the proprietor, Albert. Through speaking with him, we realized that we should go back to the room to pick up a change of dry clothes because the day’s adventure would include some swimming. So, we returned to the room to pick up the clothes and then made our way back to the office.

While waiting there for our departure, we met Albert’s employee/niece who was very nice and talked with her for a while. Then, Albert introduced us to René, our tour guide for the day. Before too long, we walked to the van and the three of us set off toward Caracol. We passed through a few small villages on the way and René explained to us the nickname for Belize speed bumps and these town’s slight modifications.

The speed bumps in Belize are often called “sleeping policeman” because they just lie there in wait and the police don’t have to do anything themselves (such as giving speeding tickets). The typical sign associated with these speed bumps (that is, when there is a sign) has two adjacent bumps with a yellow background. The townsfolk joke that the speed bumps should actually be called “sleeping policewoman” due to the image on the sign (use your imagination…you’ll figure it out). In fact, a few of the signs have actually been completely repainted by locals to more accurately depict the image of a policewoman lying on her back, badge pinned to the shirt. At least they took the time to repaint the word “BUMP” as well.

Philip, of course, asked questions almost constantly as we drove and René was happy to provide answers. Along the way, we stopped to pick up two more guests, a young couple from San Francisco who were staying at a birding resort outside of San Ignacio. The road to get to their resort was treacherous and even included one section where the road descended steeply and then ascended again forming the shape of a “V”. René navigated the van expertly through that section and the rest of the potholes on the road and we pulled up in front of the Macaw Bank Lodge.

It took a few minutes for our fellow travelers to join us, and we were then on our way back down the bumpy road and towards Caracol. Our companions were Westin and Tara and we talked with them about jobs, travels, and life in general as we drove. We passed through several small villages and the road transitioned from dirt to pavement and back several times. At one point, we passed a car with an absolutely shredded rear right tire and several people standing nearby. They had the situation under control and were in the process of changing the tire and we later saw them at the Caracol site. We had to wonder, though, how with all of our rough backwoods driving we have not yet had a flat tire.

landscape in Belize

The beautiful landscape between San Ignacio and Caracol

We eventually reached the entrance to the Mountain Pine Ridge park and went through the entrance gate and on to the military camp in the center of the park. We should point out that, in the past, travelers on the road to Caracol have sometimes been stopped by Guatemalan bandits and robbed at gunpoint (Caracol is only about 10 miles from the Guatemalan border). In response to this, the American Embassy and Belize government funded and instituted a military presence in the area to provide escorts and patrols along the road.

The military camp is an interesting place, mostly consisting of small, dilapidated buildings. René explained that budget cuts have reduced the number of staff assigned to the site and thus most of the buildings are no longer used. He pointed out one building to us that looked like it had been gunned down by a firing squad. The culprit…woodpeckers!

Before going to the Mayan site, we took a slight detour to the Rio Frio Cave. From the parking area we walked short distance down a path and then saw an enormous cave open up before us. René explained that it is actually a tunnel since it is open at both sides, and thus the interior is fairly well lit. As a result, the Mayans appear to have never used the cave for ceremonial purposes like they did with almost every other cave in the country (it seems that Mayans revered the pitch darkness of caves as it represented the underworld).

Rio Frio cave in Belize

Looking back towards the cave opening of the Rio Frio cave.

We walked inside of the opening and took in the sight before us. A river runs through the center of the cave, dropping several dozen feet in elevation in the process through a series of rapids. At the bottom of the cave is a sandy area made up of pulverized granite. This sand lacks the smoothness of typical beach sand because of the hardness of the granite. René told us that the cave has a granite bedrock with a large section of limestone sitting above. Since water erodes limestone much faster than it does granite, the river created a huge opening through the limestone but has made much slower progress in cutting through the granite floor.

Rio Frio cave in Belize

Looking down at the sandy area at the base of the Rio Frio cave…this cave is enormous!

We took a bunch of pictures and then climbed down to the sandy area to explore a bit. Much too soon, it was time to leave the cave and return to the van to catch the military-escorted morning caravan out to Caracol. We retraced our path to the military camp and checked in at the guard station. Atypically, there was to be no escort for the day and instead foot soldiers were already patrolling along the entire length of the road.

stalactites in Rio Frio Cave in Cayo, Belize

Stalactites in the Rio Frio Cave

The trip to the Caracol site was slow going due to the rough condition of the road, but we finally pulled into the small parking area. Throughout the day, the rain would start and stop, though never raining so hard as to be a problem. At times, it was just a light mist hanging in the air and at other times the Sun would even appear for a while. After a quick look around the small museum (complete with a sweet scale model of the site), we set off up the path and into the ruins. René purposely took us in a different direction than the rest of the tour guides so that we could have more privacy and enjoy the ruins with fewer people around.

Our first stop was and excavated area of residential buildings for middle class Maya residents. This is the only known Mayan city where they have uncovered the residences of lower class Mayan citizens and not just members of the Elite upper classes. René explained that these structures would have likely been thatched roof huts. While we were standing at one of the buildings, Tara became fascinated by a line of leaf cutter ants crawling nearby (see, we’re not the only ones enthralled by jungle ants!).

Before moving on to other ruins, René led us down a slight detour to see two incredibly large Ceiba trees. The Mayans revered these trees, believing that the branches held up the heavens and the roots reached down into the underworld. René explained that the trees in front of us were perhaps 200 years old, though they can live over 300 years. Eventually, too much water can invade the tree and it will slowly rot from the inside out, weakening itself and eventually come crashing to earth. René also told us about the strangler fig trees, which begin as small vines but eventually grow so large as to suffocate the host tree and kill it once it is no longer needed for structural support.

Ceiba tree at Caracol, Belize

An enormous Ceiba tree at Caracol…the Mayans believed that the branches of this tree held up the heavens

Our next stop was the residences of Elite Mayans, which were much more elaborate than those of the lower classes. For terminology sake, the word “structure” refers to any raised area that the Mayans built. Most of their plazas sit atop structures. “Temples” or “buildings” would sit on top of these built up structures. Even for the fairly small Elite residence area, the amount of material that was used to fill in the built up structure and form the foundation of the plaza and buildings is staggering. René explained that the Mayans would plaster the plaza with a limestone paste, though this is not visible now since a layer of dirt and grass sits above it. He did point out, though, that many of the large trees that grow around the Mayan ruins have roots that extend horizontally rather than deep down into the soil. Often times the roots appear like buttresses supporting the tree. Fortunately, the jungle in this area rarely experiences high winds or there would likely be fewer trees still standing since they lack the deep roots necessary for support.

tree trunk with spikes

Interesting tree with mean-looking spikes on the trunk at Caracol

We then moved on to the main plaza of the city and the structure known as Caana, which means “sky palace”. This massive structure contains a small plaza and three temples sitting on top of it, though they are barely visible from the ground since the structure is so large. It is so much larger than anything we have yet seen in the Mayan world and is truly awe-inspiring. Around the plaza at the base of the Caana structure are other structures including one with several jaguar masks at the base (much like the Mask Temple at Lamanai). After exploring these other structures, we ascended to the top of Caana to see the temples from which it got its name.

The climb to the top was, frankly, exhausting, but oh so worth the effort. We were rewarded with views across the lower plaza and a unique perspective of the surrounding trees at the same height as their foliage. We first checked out the two tombs that were next to the main temple. In the anteroom to the tomb itself, a quivering mass of bats hung from the ceiling. We have no idea how many bats were there but it was definitely more than a few. We were also able to see some of the small “A-shape” arches that the Mayans frequently used. The ones on Caana have been restored since they had collapsed, but other buildings at Caracol still have the original arches intact. Unfortunately, it is only the smallest spans that still have arches and all of the larger spans have given way to time.

Caana structure at Caracol, Belize

The largest structure at Caracol, known as Caana (sky palace)

We scaled the top of the main temple and were able to look out over the jungle in a 360 degree panorama. Caracol is built on a hill and the point at the top of the main temple on Caana is higher than anything around. From the top of Caana, we could look off into the wilderness of Guatemala. Unfortunately, we were not treated to another chorus of howler monkey calls like we were in Lamanai, but we did hear numerous different bird calls throughout the day.

After descending from Caana, we went into the nearby ball court and René explained the “game” that was played (closest modern analogy is basketball) and the stakes of the game. He made a point to say that, unlike some other tour guides, he does not believe that winners were always the ones chosen to be sacrificed. Typically it was the losers who would be sacrificed, though supposedly there is evidence of winners getting sacrificed on some occasions. The more important point is that human sacrifice did not become part of Mayan culture until late in their existence, after contact with the Aztec tribes of Mexico City. Instead, Mayans would participate in non-fatal bloodletting and the burning of the blood as an offering to the gods. René also mentioned that once human sacrifices became a part of culture, it was often captured rulers who would be sacrificed. To some extent, this was a win-win situation since the captured ruler was already disgraced for having let down his people. Rather than falling on his own sword, he could go in an honorable way as a sacrifice to the gods.

ball court at Caracol, Belize

One of the two ball courts at Caracol

We then came into a clearing where the University of Central Florida has a camp set up for its archeologists. This camp is situated to the back of the oldest building at Caracol, called the Temple of the Wooden Lintel. The camp consists of some small cabins, an array of solar panels, lots of clotheslines, and even an informal soccer pitch. Near the camp, there is a small shelter with several artifacts protected from the rain. René told us about each one (mostly altars and stelae) and explained the Mayan practice of body modifications and how they were depicted in the carvings. Apparently, the upper Mayan class would flatten their foreheads, attempt to become cross eyed, and drill through their teeth to insert pieces of jade. These features would set apart these people from the rest of society, even when they were not wearing their elaborate ceremonial headdresses. Sadly, it seems that some Mayas actually died from these modifications, particularly the dental work with non-sanitized tools.

From the camp, we followed a long blue hose that led us to the only functioning Mayan reservoir at the site. Due to the distance from a natural water source, the Mayans built several reservoirs around the site and plastered the interior to prevent the water from seeping through the porous limestone. The plaster is still intact in one of these reservoirs and it catches rain water for use by the archeologists at the site. We saw one other reservoir later where the bottom was broken by trees and thus does not hold water. Near the reservoir, René pointed out a very interesting red tree that appeared to be losing its bark. He joked that it is called the “tourist tree” because it looks like it has bad sunburn and is peeling. In reality, it is a gumbo limbo tree, which shed a layer of bark when they get too much water.

Caracol is not the actual name of the city as the Mayans called it, but was given to the site based on the discovery of great quantities of snail shells (caracol means “snail” in Spanish). In a brilliant example of ecological engineering, the Mayans here kept snails in their reservoirs as a method of filtering the water of impurities. Much like some shellfish, snails are able to clean the water in their environment as they pass it through their bodies. The true Mayan name of the city has since been discovered, but the name Caracol has stuck

We continued along to an area known as the “South Acropolis”, which is yet another structure on the site that was used for both residential and ceremonial purposes. The most interesting part was that we could go inside one of the excavated tombs. Leaving that location, we passed through another ball court, this one older than the previous one. Ball courts were typically built near important temples, and this one served the oldest temple at Caracol.

residential structure in Mayan ruins at Caracol, Belize

A residential structure at Caracol

We finished our explorations at Caracol by walking to the front of the Temple of the Wooden Lintel and entering its plaza. This plaza has large excavated buildings on three sides and one yet unexcavated mound on the other. The Temple spans a fairly large distance horizontally, primarily due to the additions on each side of the original building that were added by later Mayan inhabitants. For most of our time exploring this plaza and its structures, we were the only ones around. To be surrounded by such incredible architecture and such history without the crowds of other humans was a neat experience.

Mayan temple through doorway in Belize

One of the Mayan temples at Caracol as seen through the doorway of another

After taking pictures from the base, we climbed the Temple of the Wooden Lintel and explored its nooks and crannies. At the top, we saw the feature from which it gets its name. While some has been reconstructed, there are still a few of the original wood beams in place. We took just a quick glance at these, though, as there was a nest of wasps inhabiting the same area and they seemed to become more agitated the longer we stayed. We then descended the Temple and climbed one of the other structures in the plaza, mostly to get some aerial photos of the structure we had just left. Also, while we were in this plaza, we kept hearing the unique call of the Montezuma oropendolas bird, and even managed to see a few of them as they flew. They make very interesting nests that hang like Christmas ornaments from high in the trees. One of the nests had fallen to the ground and it was shaped like a long stocking and was a cool piece of bird engineering.

Mayan ruins at Caracol,Belize

The A group of structures at Caracol

Mayan temple in Caracol, Belize

A Mayan temple at Caracol…you can see the remnants of masks at the base on either side of the stairs.

When we returned to the base of that structure, René announced that it was time for lunch and we made our way back to the entrance area. Along the way, he pointed out an odd ramp in one side of the additions to the Temple of the Wooden Lintel, which is atypical in that it is not symmetrically balanced on the other side. The theory is that the ramp was created as a matter of practicality in order to move stones, stelae, and other heavy objects around. He also showed us another Ceiba tree of mammoth proportions, though sadly it had been recently struck by lightning and was looking worse for wear.

Mayan ruins at Caracol in Belize

Building A-6 at the Caracol Mayan ruins

We ate lunch in a pavilion near the entrance and enjoyed our meal of salad, chicken burritos, and plantain chips. Our appetites sated, we returned to the van for the trip back to San Ignacio. Caracol was an amazing experience for several reasons. First and foremost, it is an incredible Mayan site and 10% of the structures have been excavated (as compared to 2% of Lamanai). Additionally, Caracol is much harder to reach than some of the other major sites and so tends to be much less crowded. Experiencing the grandeur of the ruins without too many other people is really nice.

On the way back to San Ignacio, we made one final stop at the Rio On Pools to do a bit of exploring and some swimming. The Rio On Pools are a series of numerous connected pools and the water cascades down through them via small waterfalls and channels. We, along with Westin and Tara, scampered all around the rocks and swam in some of the pools. On the walk to the pools, we were caught in a mini downpour, though it cleared up just minutes after beginning and the sun actually came out for good.

Rio On Pools in Cayo, Belize

The Rio On Pools in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest…we could have spent all day scampering over these rocks and swimming in the pools.

Exploring the pools was a lot of fun and we probably could have spent the better part of a day there. In fact, we probably could have spent the entire day in the Rio Frio Cave or more time at Caracol also. It is a good day when each aspect is so enjoyable that you don’t want to leave it to move to the next one.

small waterfall between pools in Cayo, Belize

A small waterfall between 2 levels of the Rio On Pools

We dropped our new friends off at their hotel and René returned us to ours in San Ignacio. We thanked him for a wonderful day and then dropped by our room to change and unload our unnecessary belongings. Then, we set out for some dinner as we were already hungry again from our active day.

We walked to a nearby restaurant that René had recommended and were not disappointed. Ervin’s had a delightful staff and some absolutely delicious food. We started with an appetizer made from chaya (related to spinach), onions, roasted green peppers, and cilantro (and tomatoes though we got it without those for Philip’s sake). It was served with homemade corn tortilla chips and tasted amazing. For our meal, Rose had a traditional stewed chicken with rice and beans (and pineapple juice, of course), while Philip went for fresh snapper in a Creole sauce with coconut rice. We both enjoyed our meals and even had the chance to talk with some of the staff for a few minutes. One guy, in particular, is from southern Belize where we are going later in our trip and he gave us several tips and pointers for our time down there.

After dinner, we walked around town a bit and made a few purchases: sunglasses for Philip due to a new scuff in his line of sight on his old ones; bottled water and a juice from a grocery for tomorrow morning; and a small cone of ice cream for dessert. On a side note, the ice cream was tasty and supposedly homemade, but is very different than what we are used to at home. We haven’t been able to figure out if the difference in taste is from the use of unrefined cane sugar or perhaps coconut milk or some other reason.

We ran into Albert, the guy in charge of the tour company, out in front of his shop. We chatted with him for a few minutes about our day and then made a stop at an ATM across the street to prepare for some upcoming payments with people who don’t take credit card and then purchased our first souvenir of the trip: a small frog created from a Cahune nut (type of palm nut) from a friendly Rastafarian man on the street. We had talked with him last night several times but his wares won us over and we have an inexpensive and nifty little item by which to remember San Ignacio.

Philip and Rose at Caracol, Belize

Here we are standing on top of a structure at Caracol

After a very long day, we returned to the room exhausted. Before going to sleep we went through the day’s pictures and worked through some details of our plans for tomorrow. We are sad to say goodbye to San Ignacio as we have enjoyed our time here and the people we have met. Hopefully we will come back someday because there are still more caves to explore, restaurants to try, and ruins to visit in this area of Belize than we can possibly see in our short time here.

February 19th Synopsis

  • Another day of bumpy roads
  • Finally, a ham and cheese loaf!!!
  • Some cool folks from San Francisco
  • That’s a really big cave!
  • The Mayan city of shells – Caracol
  • Exploring the Rio On Pools
  • A fabulous dinner

*** Check out the first post of our trip to Belize and read them in order! ***

Last night, before going to sleep, Philip did some more research about driving in Western Belize. The results of that inquiry were not encouraging for our plans for the day, so we woke up unsure about what the day would hold. We packed up our belongings and went to the hotel lobby to grab some toast and talk to the hotel manager who would hopefully have more information. Unfortunately, the manager was going to be later than usual, but the two guys behind the desk did their best to help us out.

We knew that we could go as far as Blue Creek without any issue, but heading further west might be problematic. We decided that we really would like to see the Mayan ruins at La Milpa, and so Philip asked the guys to call ahead to the La Milpa Field Station to inform them of our desire and to get permission to enter their gated property. After some quick searching on the internet, we found 4 different telephone numbers for the Programme for Belize, the entity that runs the La Milpa site. Naturally, none of these were the correct numbers. In a moment of brilliance, though, the hotel clerks found a guide book for Belize they had laying around which had yet another phone number. They made the call and handed the phone to Philip to work out the details.

It was an interesting phone call, mostly because the guy on the other end seemed to be on a walkie-talkie (La Milpa is pretty remote!) and so every few seconds the typical walkie-talkie button press sound would ring and thus obscure whatever was being said. After a few painful minutes, Philip managed to convey the necessary information and we were set to head west. We figured that we would drive the 1.5 hours to La Milpa, spend some time there, and could still return to Orange Walk and make our way to San Ignacio via highways in about 4.5 hours more. If by some miracle we managed to figure out a viable route down the western edge of Belize, then all the better. Our hopes were not high due to the private ownership of much of the land in that area of the country and the need to obtain prior approval before entering. In fact, a large wall map of the country in the hotel lobby did not show any routes that would connect through to San Ignacio and most people we talked to so far in the trip did not think there was any way to get through. While Philip was on the phone, Rose met a Canadian woman who had gone as far as Blue Creek the day before and she raved about how beautiful the area is…and warned that good directions are critical to success.

So, with a 90% chance that we would have to turn around at La Milpa and take the long way, and all of our hopes placed in that remaining 10 %, we thanked the hotel staff profusely and then bid farewell to the Hotel de la Fuente. On the way to the car, we picked up some pastries for breakfast, and then before heading out of town, stopped at the Shell station to fuel up the car for the day’s remote journey. The gas station was full service, as seems to be common in Central America, and the bill for a half tank of gas came to a whopping US$60 (gas is a bit pricey in Belize)!

The drive to La Milpa started off very bumpy, though the road improved as we got further from Orange Walk. We passed through several small towns including Yo Creek and San Felipe, bouncing along and admiring the ever changing scenery. As we drew near to Blue Creek, the road transitioned from potholed dirt to smooth pavement and we cruised along the Mexican border heading west. The area around Blue Creek is agrarian and is reminiscent of the more beautiful areas of the American Midwest…at least until you look closely and notice that the plants are different. Blue Creek is also an area heavily populated by Mennonites, though we did not see many on this journey.

trees in swamp in Belize

A small swampy area along the road to Blue Creek…if you look closely at the trees in the water, you can see dozens of feet of Devil’s Gut Cactus

After passing Blue Creek, the road again turned to dirt and we soon came to the gate to the La Milpa area. Philip stopped and signed in with the guard, who then opened the gate for us to proceed. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally saw the La Milpa Field Station and pulled into the Visitor’s area. The office building was closed, but a man soon appeared walking across the lawn toward us. We explained who we were and our intention to see the La Milpa ruins. He explained that the one guide was already at the site with another guest, but that we were free to drive there on our own and try and meet up with him. With that intention, we climbed back in the car and drove through the camp and down a dirt road at the back into what can best be described as a jungle tunnel. The foliage pressed in on both sides and even seemed to come together above us leading to a very cool experience. The site was only 2 miles from camp, but the road had some rough patches and again it felt like forever before we found the clearing at the end of the road where a white truck was parked.

We got out of our vehicle and just looked around in amazement. We were buried in the middle of the jungle, tall trees looming all around us. There were no sounds other than the jungle, including a few monkeys high in the trees above. After enjoying the seclusion of that place, we set off up a trail towards the La Milpa site.

wooden railings in the jungle of Belize to access Mayan ruins

Walkway from the end of the road to the Mayan site of La Milpa.

Unlike Lamanai, La Milpa has had only very minimal excavations. It does not boast the beautiful facades of temples, but is instead still covered by jungle. Mounds of earth and trees give a hint as to the structures underneath but the only stonework that can be seen is what nature has exposed. The highest temple (mound) at the site rises some 7 stories and we were able to access the top via a very, very steep path complete with a rope that we could cling to and pull ourselves up. Needless to say, this type of trail would not be open to the public in America due to the treacherous conditions. Even standing at the top, the jungle still towers above, filtering the sunlight to just those beams that can find a path between the leaves.

purple flowers beneath enormous trees in western Belize

An interesting patch of flowers beneath some enormous trees at the edge of the main plaza at the La Milpa Mayan ruins.

When we descended the temple, we walked around the large plaza at its base. Everywhere around were additional mounds of earth and trees hiding other Mayan structures. While the minimal excavations make it hard to appreciate the Mayan engineering, the overwhelming presence of the jungle and the isolation of being in this place alone was an awesome experience.

stuffed baby polar bear in front of overgrown Mayan ruins.

A baby polar bear in the jungle? Here he is in front of an overgrown Mayan structure at La Milpa.

While walking the plaza we were also fascinated by the trails that ants have cleared (yes, we’re going to talk about ants…again). The sheer number of ants in the jungle is incredible. In areas where ants travel frequently, the ground has been cleared completely of debris and we could see these cleared trails through the fallen leaves from quite a distance. All along these trails, ants scurried one direction or the other, carrying bits of leaf. We followed one of the trails back to a hole in the ground, which seemed to be an entrance to an ant mound at least 20 feet in diameter. It wasn’t the typical mound shape (probably since it was against the base of a hill), but the ground had been churned up in the same way as other ant hills we’ve seen.

We managed to find several of these clear cut trails, each leading back to the same ant mound. As we’ve mentioned before, the amount of biomass in the jungle requires a staggering number of ants and termites to clean it all up. We both concluded that it would be interesting to somehow map out all of the ant trails leading from the ant mound and follow them to their end points. We only saw what seemed to be the main arteries of the network but it is likely that there are additional branches near the ends. Don’t be surprised if someday we blog about our experiences mapping the spatial behavior of ants in the rainforest!

Once Rose managed to pry Philip away from the ant trails, we decided to take a trail that skirted the main plaza and see if we could catch up with the guide. Sure enough, it was only a few minutes later that we heard voices and came across the guide and the other guest as they returned down the path from their bird watching hike. We spoke with them for a few moments, and the guide suggested that we continue down the path and complete a loop that would take us through several other Mayan plazas. That sounded great to us, so we said farewell and continued along.

We managed to stay on the trail pretty well, though there was one time when we took the wrong branch and ended up at a dead end with an active (though empty of people) archeological site. Tarps were strung up on ropes to cover various holes in the ground, but otherwise it looked just like another mound of earth. We backtracked to find the correct trail and finished our loop around the sites, returning to the main plaza for one last look at the main temple (and the ants) before returning to the car. During our strolls we saw (and/or heard) several monkeys, a small green snake, and an unidentified ground creature (possibly a coatamundi) running through the underbrush. There were not many birds, though it was late in the morning so the optimal time for bird watching had passed.

Philip standing beneath tall trees in the jungle

Philp standing amongs the tall trees in the jungle around the Mayan ruins at La Milpa

At the clearing, we found a couple from North Carolina who had just pulled in. We spoke with them for a few minutes and learned that they are in Belize for a month since they have seasonal jobs in America (beach cook and server) and can live at about the same expense whether they are home or in Belize. As we drove back towards the Field Station, we pondered the options for employment that would allow us to earn enough money in less than a full year so that we could travel like that…alas, we did not come up with too many viable options.

When we returned to the field station, we stopped again at the visitor’s center (again closed) and waited for our earlier host to come across the lawn. We paid our entrance fee for our time at the site and inquired about how we might continue our journey south to Gallon Jug and finally San Ignacio. The man explained that he could call ahead to the ChanChich Resort (the owners of the land around Gallon Jug) to try and get us clearance to proceed. While he did that, we walked over to the dining area to use the restroom and see a bit more of the beautiful field station.

Inside, we found the guide and he and Philip spoke for a few minutes about our desire to travel south. He explained that there is not just one piece of private property, but instead several different properties that must be crossed in order to connect to San Ignacio. At this point, we were doubtful that we would be able to go that route and the news from the other guy that he could not get ahold of the staff at Chan Chich seemed to seal our fate. He suggested that we wait for about ten minutes and he would try calling again since they might have just been busy at the moment.

We sat down at a park bench outside and took in the view. A few minutes later, the man came outside and informed us that we were cleared to go to Gallon Jug. After Philip asked, he explained that the staff at Chan Chich resort would inform the subsequent gates of our arrival and that we would be able to go all of the way through to San Ignacio! With our plans intact and excitement swelling, we thanked him for all of his help and returned to the car to continue on our way.

La Milpa field station in western Belize

The dining hall at the La Milpa Field Station

The road between La Milpa and Gallon Jug was a veritable corridor of wildlife. Just minutes after departing, we saw a grey fox at the edge of the jungle. Next, a coatamundi darted across the road. Around the next bend, several wild turkeys sat on one side of the road while a white-tailed deer pranced on the other side. It was an incredibly beautiful drive with the white limestone gravel road stretching out before us, flanked by a narrow strip of grass holding the green foliage of the jungle at bay. We saw wildlife periodically and after about 30 minutes arrived at the next gate.

road in western Belize

The road between La Milpa and Gallon Jug…wildlife seemed to be waiting around every bend!

winding road in western Belize

The winding road in the latter stages of the section between La Milpa and Gallon Jug…before this, we were surrounded by junge on both sides of the road.

We passed through without incident and followed the signs to the Chan Chich lodge, which was much farther off the “main” road than we realized. Nevertheless, we eventually reached it and, after crossing a nice suspension bridge above a creek, pulled into one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen. Chan Chich is a resort consisting of 12 thatched roof cabanas sitting in the main plaza of a small Mayan ruin. The Mayan structures are not excavated, but the setting is still magnificent. Since the site is buried deep in the jungle, the bird watching is incredible and the serenity of the place had us talking in whispers.

wild turkey in Belize

One of the many wild turkeys we saw during the day…the picture does not do justice to the brighness of the turkey’s coloring.

We entered the main lodge hut and asked for Letty (just like the man from La Milpa had instructed). The staff soon found her and she sweetly provided us a map outlining how to continue our journey to San Ignacio. She also had us sign an “Acceptance of Risk” document since the next leg of our journey would be on the private land of a logging company. We all agreed that the best rule of thumb was to give logging trucks right of way since it is their land and they are much bigger (hooray for common sense). After she walked us through the directions, we decided to stay and eat lunch since we didn’t know if we would get another chance on our drive through backwoods Belize.

blue and white hummingbird on a branch in Belize

One of the dozen or so hummingbirds around the patio at Chan Chich.

We were a bit apprehensive about lunch since we knew this resort is very upscale (the bathrooms have a basket of rolled up hand towels for use instead of paper towels or dryers); our fears were amplified when the lunch menu did not contain any prices. Nevertheless, we placed our orders and hoped for the best. The food was tasty (quesadilla for Rose and burger for Philip), but the highlight of lunch was the setting. We sat on the patio and watched at least a dozen hummingbirds as they flitted about just feet away. One hummingbird seemed to get protective of one of the feeders and kept chasing away any others who would draw near. In the lawn just off the patio, wild turkeys roamed and we even saw two males get their feathers ruffled as they sparred. At one point, a woodpecker joined the party as he landed on a nearby tree.

Closeup of a woodpecker on a tree in Belize

This woodpecker came to visit while we were enjoying our lunch at Chan Chich.

On a side note, while sitting at the patio we met again one of the ladies from our Lamanai river tour yesterday. She was part of the group that had not returned to Orange Walk via boat since their resort was picking them up at Lamanai. It turns out Chan Chich was that resort and it was fun to talk to her for a few minutes about our journey that day and about her bird watching thus far.

When the bill came, we were pleasantly surprised that it was only US$25, pricey for lunch in our frugal mindset but quite reasonable considering the setting. After paying, we walked around the property for a few minutes and even saw a baby iguana scurry across our path and hide under a tree. Fed, refreshed, and with invaluable map in hand, we returned to the car and continued onward.

About five minutes after leaving the Chan Chich driveway (which mind you is several miles of bumpy dirt road), we reached yet another checkpoint. The man that manned the gate was very nice; however, he did not speak much English and Philip was excited to have the chance to speak Spanish with him. There were a few puppies that came over to investigate and after a few moments of conversation, he cleared us through the gate and on our way.

two deer laying down in grass

Two deer chilling in the grass as we drove by.

The drive continued much as before and we spotted numerous deer and wild turkey along the road. We eventually came to what would be the final gate, where a younger man came to inspect us. We had expected that this last gate would be the most challenging, though we had been authorized to proceed. The man had Philip sign his sheet and he even asked to look in the back of our SUV before permitting us to move through. We continued along, this time on rough logging road and watched the scenery shift around us. Most noticeably, the height and type of foliage of the surrounding jungle changed as we entered areas that had been logged at various times in the past. We fortunately encountered very little traffic and it wasn’t until the very end that we saw our one and only logging truck (Philip pulled well off to the side so he could pass). The road was bumpy and potholed, but nothing that we could not handle in our Jeep Liberty.

logging road in Belize jungle

Driving the Yalbec logging road from Gallon Jug to San ignacio

We eventually reentered farmland areas and saw the signs of civilization reappearing. The pavement reappeared and before long we had joined with the Western highway about half way between Belmopan and San Ignacio. We took the highway the rest of the way into San Ignacio and along the way, realized that Philip had never printed off good directions for how to get to our hotel. We did manage to find it in the guidebook, and this is where the navigation fun really began. All day, our biggest worry had been getting lost in back roads in the jungles of Belize; as it turns out, our hardest navigation was the final 50 yards to the hotel!

clouds and fields in western Belize

Just one of the many ever-changing variations of the beautiful scenery between Gallon Jug and San Ignacio.

San Ignacio contains many one way streets, including one which is barricaded at one end. Unfortunately, this is the exact street we needed to get to our hotel. We did one full loop of town, which led to a conversation like: Rose – we’ve been here before; Philip – hmmm; Rose – Let’s give it another go!

We got as close to the hotel as we could manage and parked at a small grocery store to get help. Rose found her daily juice and the gentleman at the counter was very nice. He gave us permission to leave our car there while we walked down to the hotel to sort out the parking situation. On the way to the hotel, we ran into two familiar faces: the husband and wife couple from Canada we had met in the line for Customs at the airport in Belize City. We spoke with them for a few minutes and then bid farewell and continued to our hotel. We checked in with the English proprietor and were given a map of how to get to the parking area (at least a half mile of driving to go 50 yards) as well as the keys to our room. We retrieved the car and navigated to the appropriate parking area, and then settled into our room.

We didn’t stay in the room for long, though, because we wanted to explore the town and perhaps meet up with our cave tubing tour guide (Fryjack!) who calls San Ignacio home. San Ignacio is definitely the most tourist-focused town we have seen yet, and that is honestly a bit welcome at this point. The road right outside our hotel is a main drag that has lots of vendors and restaurants. We walked up and down the street a few times, taking in the sights. We spotted Fryjack just outside the restaurant he frequents called Flayva’s. He was speaking with some other people so we continued walking with the intent of coming back in a few minutes.

We stopped for a gelato for Philip from an “Italian Gelateria”. Yes, the quotes are necessary because the gelato was certainly not of a quality to be called Italian (or gelato for that matter)! With sadder tastebuds, we returned to Flayva’s and said hi to Fryjack. To our astonishment, sitting at one of the tables was none other than the Canadian couple. Per her suggestion, we actually officially introduced ourselves by name (Evelyn and Henry, by the way) and we introduced them to Fryjack. We spoke for a few more minutes and then sat down with Sergio, the tour operator who uses the restaurant as his home base to schedule a tour for exploring Barton Creek Cave later in the trip.

We arranged the details of the tour and paid our deposit before bidding farewell to Fryjack. The tour is a bit more expensive than we expected (as we confirmed when returned to the room and looked at the other options we had considered), so hopefully the quality will be worth the extra expense. With cash funds running short, we decided to stop at the ATM to replenish (our credit card with no foreign transaction fee has been an amazing simplifier while traveling…though not everyone takes plastic).

Since the gelato was such a disappointment, Philip decided to try again with a tamale from a street vendor. While we stood at the cart, an older man came up to shake our hands and ask how we liked Belize so far. It was a bit awkward, but we chatted for a few moments until the food was ready. On the other side of the street, we encountered a very polite beggar and gave him some change. We then returned to the room to call it a night (7:30pm!) since we have an early morning for our trip to Caracol, the largest Mayan site in Belize. We spent some time going through the day’s pictures, and Philip ate his disappointingly soggy tamale. Hopefully, he can find the right vendor and get some amazing street tacos before we leave Belize!

The trip through the backwoods saved at most 30 minutes from taking smooth highways most of the way from La Milpa to San Ignacio. However, the experience was unforgettable. We saw areas of the country that most Belizeans, let alone tourists, have never seen. The wildlife was everywhere, scenery was incredible, and the people we encountered were amazingly genuine and helpful. We need to give a serious shout out to the people at La Milpa Field House and Chan Chich Lodge as they saved the day and helped us have such a great experience. Sergio, Fryjack, and others were surprised and amazed that we completed our journey today by the path we chose. Yes it was bumpy. Yes the logistics were challenging. But one of our goals of travel is to get off the beaten path and see things that the average tourist does not. Today accomplished that goal in a spectacular way!

February 18th Synopsis

  • Farewell to Orange Walk
  • Sticker shock at the gas pump
  • Skirting the Mexican border on the way to La Milpa
  • Just the two of us and the jungle…including more ants
  • How amazing it is when plans actually fall into place!
  • The most peaceful lunch in the world
  • Riding the roads less traveled…seriously, nobody does this
  • 50 yards away and no idea how to get there
  • San Ignacio…the place where we see people again