Blame it on Belize
Belize is a beautiful country filled with friendly people, colorful local culture, tropical weather - plus it's small enough that you can literally see most of the country in a week or two. But it will beg you to come back for longer. Renting a car is easy and hassle-free, and allows you to get out and see the real Belize, and not just a quick Surf-and-Turf vacation. Follow our itinerary here for a good intro to Belize!
Day 1 - Belize City and San Ignacio
We stepped off the plane at the International Airport in Belize City - the terminal was small and not very busy. There were no jetways, and just half of the passengers on our flight disembarked, the rest going-on to Honduras and Guatemala City, so the immigration process was quick and painless.
Outside the terminal we were greeted by that first big blast of heat and humidity. We walked a short distance with our luggage (good thing we travel light!) along the main access road and through a traffic circle toward the car rental office in a small strip mall. After a fairly extensive paperwork process, we hopped in our Suzuki Jimny and were on our way. The "Welcome to Belize" arch we drove under was a stark contrast to the rough pavement ahead and the poverty along the road. (I’m always struck by the ramshackle views we sometimes see around airports, and have to remind myself that the same thing is true of any country - no one really wants to live around airports, bus terminals, and shipping ports).
Further along, the road opened into the Cayo District, its lowland scrub gradually giving way to craggy highlands. The landscape was dotted with abandoned junk cars, shacks, outhouses, and lots of barefoot children running around. Unbeknownst to us, we had apparently decided on a “Surf & Turf" experience of Belize, so named for the land and sea itineraries many tourists to Belize travel - a few days or week spent inland followed by a few days or week at the beach. Our itinerary just happened to put the ‘turf’ first, so we headed west toward San Ignacio and Pook's Hill Jungle Lodge - so excited to be on our way.
About an hour’s drive from Belize City is the village of Teakettle where the sign to Pook's Hill was supposed to be. It sounded like a cute name for a town though we didn’t really see any town. We never saw a sign and missed the turn for Pook’s Hill, ending up back on the main road. The second time around we saw the sign and started down the rocky road into the jungle.
Washboard doesn't even begin to describe the road to Pook’s Hill - dirt, craters, rocks, boulders, and a lot of mud. Thank goodness for the Suzuki Jimny - it rode rough but never missed a beat. Along the way we passed farms, shacks, abandoned orange groves, undernourished horses, and dusty little kids. The scars of slash-and-burn farming were evident everywhere though it seems little farming was going on. Pastures gave way to dense jungle the longer we drove, and it was hot, humid, and beautiful - and buzzing with insects. The road narrowed as we started down a rutted hill and suddenly there was a clearing. We had arrived, roughly 5 1/2 miles from the turn to the lodge.
Pook’s Hill was lovely, with the owners' house close to the entrance, several cement block cabinas and a common pavilion, all with thatched roofs, and somewhat manicured grounds. We were greeted by Wim who smiled broadly and gave us a welcome drink of cold lemonade. He showed us to our cabina, which was modest and comfortable, with a one-speed ceiling fan - fast, real fast. There was a full size bed, large jalousie windows with screens, and fairly low water pressure. The compound was rustic and reminded us of summer camp, but it was just fine for us. It's the environment outside that we were looking forward to exploring.
After we had settled in, Wim took us for a short hike on trails he had cut through the jungle. The hike was incredible. We crossed a few small streams that were crystal clear and Wim told us the water is 99% pure and safe to drink. We ended up in the middle of a grassy meadow with several grassy mounds, unexcavated Mayan pyramids. On this hike and throughout our stay, the sound of birds was indescribable. We were visually able to identify parakeets, parrots, toucans, and at least a dozen others which we couldn't. In concert with the birds were the constant sounds of insects coming from everywhere. The cicadas were especially loud. This is what we had hoped for, experiencing this ecosystem in as raw a state as possible. We started back to the lodge as the light began to fade.
For meals, guests gather at the common pavilion which also houses a dining room on the lower level. By day, hummingbirds chitter and chase one another among the dozen or so small feeders that hang near the openings under the thatching. As night fell, we could hear the territorial calls of howler monkeys in the distance as they settled in for the night. At about the same time, the pavilion was lit by candles and lanterns, lending a soft glow and ambiance as the day chatter gave way to the sounds of nocturnal creatures. There was a very small bar on the main level of the pavilion with a freezer/fridge behind it. Help yourself to a soda, Belikin beer or basic mixed drink and mark it on a note pad on the bar - the honor system. It worked well. Dinner was prepared by local Mayan women employed by the lodge, and boy, could these ladies cook - rustic but delicious. There was rice and plantains, chicken stewed with vegetables, and arguably the best refried beans I have ever had. Filling and delicious.
We didn't stick around to chat after dinner as we were exhausted from the day, and headed up the hill to our cabina. We left the high speed fan on and pulled the drapes over the front screens, and were greeted by a 4-inch long black scorpion hiding between the drape folds. I immediately felt sick to my stomach. My husband tried to gently knock it down with his flip-flop, but when it hit the floor it literally fell apart. Now on alert, he drew the drapes on the right together when one really big spider scooted out of the folds and went under the door and back outside. By this point, feeling completely at the mercy of the jungle and all it had to offer, I resigned myself to our bed, leaving my contact lenses in, just in case. Fatigue finally overcame us and we slept, scorpions and all.
Day 2 - San Ignacio and Xunantunich
The sky began to pale around 5:00am and with it came the symphony of birds, bugs, and howlers. By 6:00am it was already hot and humid. Showers were tepid but refreshing, and the steam helped to hydrate my contact lens back to normal. Breakfast In the common area smelled great, and was tasty with delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice.
We decided to drive into San Ignacio and visit the ruins at Xunantunich, finding the river crossing via a hand-cranked ferry without much trouble. As we waited for the ferry, a young guide approached us, showed us his government issued ID and gave us a price of $20 US dollars for a tour. His name was Valentin, and he was of Mayan descent and had worked on several archaeological digs there. His knowledge of the site and digs was impressive, including the site layout and interpretation, and he was an absolute bargain for $20. There's no way to adequately describe a place such as this. About 10,000 people lived and died here between 2,000 and 1,200 years ago. Exploring it felt a little like sneaking into someone's house after they’d moved away.
Dinner that night was much the same as the previous night with pork instead of chicken. Cicada songs and the night chorus played on, and sleep came much easier than the night before.
Breakfast that morning was enjoyed with a group of ecotourists, birders mostly, all clad in the correct Ex-Officio attire and binoculars. We decided on visiting the Mountain Pine Ridge that day and what a drive it was - hard packed sand and clay, but mostly big rocks and more big rocks. Gotta love the Suzuki Jimny - it handled the road with ease. The Mountain Pine Ridge is arid and desolate - a moonscape with vast tracts of dead pine trees from a parasitic beetle infestation, and mile after mile of scrub and bare tree trunks.
We drove to Rio Frio with its immense limestone cavern. There were most likely stalactites at one time but huge chunks of the cavern ceiling had fallen into the creek below. The cave itself was immense and fun to explore. Nearby are the Rio On falls, a series of short waterfalls, rapids and pools, and an excellent way to cool off from the heat.
The Mountain Pine Ridge is known for a particular biting fly, which leaves a red bulls-eye halo on your skin around each individual bite. The following day, several guests took one look at my legs and asked me how our trip was to the mountains. Don’t be alarmed at the red halo, sometimes a sign of disease such as Lyme disease. The halos fade within a day or two, with no lingering side effects.
Where to Stay: Pook's Hill Lodge
Day 4 - Placencia
The drive from Teakettle to Placencia was long and uneventful. Fortunately it was on one of the few paved roads in the country, the relatively new Hummingbird Highway. It was difficult to imagine how people got around before its completion. Gradually, more people and houses appeared along the road south, but we didn't pass another car for several hours. We finally reached the ocean near Hopkins and turned south toward Placencia. Here, the road was no longer paved and the red dirt road looked newly widened with more construction projects everywhere - condo complexes, hotels - progress. And at the of the road, we reached the sleepy coast town of Placencia.
We checked in with Janice, the owner of the Trade Winds cabinas where we'd be staying, who also owned the bar across the street. After debating on what to do with our day, we decided on nothing at all. The weather was beautiful and our cabina was right on the beach - just add water. We'd hoped to snorkel with whale sharks and the time of year was right, but unfortunately it was not to be. The couple in the cabina next to ours had been scuba diving hoping for the same experience, but because of the recent storms, in three days they’d seen nothing more than a shadow far below them.
After a single night in a rock hard bed At Trade Winds, we decided to change plans and upgrade our accommodations to The Inn at Robert's Grove for two nights. Sometimes life is too short to sleep on a bad bed and ruin the rest of your trip. Having altered our plans, we headed to Wallen's Grocery for refreshments and a fresh pineapple, then back to the beach for a relaxing afternoon.
At night we made our second stop at the Pickled Parrot for dinner and drinks. The crowd was mostly expats and tourists, and Happy Hour there was not for the uninitiated with strong $2 rum punches! Back to the Inn and this night to a comfy bed.
An overcast day began with a wake-up call from the front desk. Our tour to Monkey River had been confirmed so we dressed and headed over to the lagoon to meet Clive, our guide. There was already a couple from Wisconsin in the boat who seemed nice. The last two couples to board discovered they were all from Atlanta, immediately bonding and chatting on and on. Their chatter continued for 45 minutes, drowning out the engine noise and Clive’s explanation at what we were seeing along the way. He pulled in to Monkey River town for a restroom break, water and lunch. Lunch was simple - baked chicken, baked fish, or fried fish with rice and beans. It was actually very good. In the store, we and the Wisconsin folks purchased water. The Atlanta group purchased beer. This was going to get worse.
As we boarded the boat again and headed further into the jungle, the Atlantans showed no sign of slowing down nor interest in listening to our guide. At the next stop, Clive lowered the engine to speak and they talked right over him. At this point I’d had enough and politely asked them to shut the hell up. They looked stunned, but stopped their chatter, and my husband teased me about ending their party.
We finally reached the trailhead into the jungle and began the best part of the trip. This was not a well-groomed trail, and the humidity was thick and close. Just when you think it can't get any hotter and more humid, you remind yourself where you're at and to just be in the moment - and then it's fine. We and the Wisconsinites were well-prepared with hiking boots, long sleeved shirts and long pants (as recommended). This was the rainforest after all, with all that goes with it. My husband carried a small backpack with water, bug spray, and his usual assortment of Boy Scout necessities. The group from Atlanta on the other hand were clad in tank tops, the women in short shorts, and all of them in flip flops slogging through mud and tangled vegetation. They had no water and their beer was back in the boat. I thought to myself Clive was probably smiling inside. I know I was.
Off in the distance we could hear them - howler monkeys! We trekked under a fairly thick canopy of towering cohune palms, gumbo limbo, and stands of the largest and thickest bamboo I’d ever seen, which kept the sun off of us. As Clive approached the area where the howlers were, we heard their low growls which quickly turned to pant hooting. There were two groups, one on either side of the trail. We pushed ahead a little further with their howls getting louder and louder, and then, there they were. What an awesome experience and worth the sweat, mud, and every bug bite along the way.
Where to Stay: The Inn at Robert's Grove
Day 7 - Ambergris Caye
We left Placencia early for the airport in Belize City and our hop over to Ambergris Caye, La Isla Bonita. No problems here and our commuter flight from the mainland was on time. On the flight over, the pilot spotted a school of manta rays and circled for passengers to take a few photos.
San Pedro is a fun little place with only three main streets, narrow and dusty with very little vehicle traffic. Bicycles, mopeds, and golf carts are the preferred means of getting transportation, or simple walking. Our host met us at the airport and transported us to Belizean Shores, our home for the remainder of our trip. Belizean Shores was a very nice place with a beautiful pool, tiki bar, and enough room in our suite for four more people. It was also right on the water and had its own dock. This was a good day to relax.
Later in the day we made the short walk to San Pedro to find a casual place for dinner. The main town of San Pedro is an interesting blend of local small businesses, a bank, bars, eateries and hotels/hostels, with most of the tourists on the island. We saw small crowds having a good time outside of one of the bars. They were cheering on a chicken strutting around on what amounted to a large brightly colored checker board with numbers in the squares. Patrons placed wagers on a particular number betting the chicken would poop on that square. Of course, the drinks flowed freely and fueled the gamblers and the contest to a fever pitch! Welcome to San Pedro.
After a light breakfast we joined a group on board a catamaran and set sail for Hol Chan Marine Reserve to snorkel with rays and nurse sharks. Sails were dropped and we motored the last hundred yards to a mooring. The rays and sharks appeared on cue as soon as the boat arrived, conditioned by food from the crew. There were dozens of them around us and the snorkeling was a blast. To be able to snorkel on the largest reef in this part of the world was spectacular!
The tour was set to continue out to Caye Caulker for lunch, and the stiff breeze we had at the start soon died down. The sky was starting to gray and storms were coming. The crew continued to motor toward the island but the squall developed pretty rapidly, and soon there was plenty of wind then sheets of driving rain. The crew of two young men did a great job of sheltering us by rigging a tarp over the deck. This kept the driving rain off us and our spirits high. Despite the weather, we made it safely to Caye Caulker. Lunch was good but we weren’t able to wander around the town because of the storms. Some of the group opted to wait for a power boat rescue, but the rest of us continued the adventure and sailed back on the catamaran, motoring the entire way at about 2 knots!
Another day to lightly explore and relax. We opted to stay close and wander around the immediate area around our hotel. The white sand beaches of Ambergris are great for exploring, and a swim or kayak can easily take you out to the amazing reef that sits right off the shore. In the evening, the Concierge suggested a nice restaurant with a good wine list in San Pedro which was an easy walk along the beach. As we walked, we came upon a wedding at Captain Morgan's Retreat, a hotel made infamous from the reality TV series Temptation Island. As we stopped to gawk, two of the groomsmen walked past us carrying the groom, passed out in a green plastic lawn chair. Off to the side was the bride, who appeared to be confused and more than a little upset. Clearly, this wedding had more drama than we had time for, so we made our way up the beach to our dinner reservation. The restaurant at Capricorn was easily one of the best dining experiences of our trip. The open-air restaurant was casual but chic, and we lingered for hours enjoying our meals, more than several cocktails, and the gorgeous night air. Make sure to check it out when you go!
We opted for the complimentary water taxi to return us to our hotel, which turned out to be an experience all its own. The water taxi itself had no running lights, nor were there any lighted channel markers that we saw. And with little ambient light surrounding it, Ambergris has amazing views of the night sky. The stars and constellations seem close enough to touch with your hands. But once away from San Pedro, given the lack of light and resulting sense of depth, the speeding open boat cuts through the pitch black darkness, an unintended thrill ride careening, you fear, straight to your death. Definitely not a ride for the faint of heart. If speed or the water at night isn’t your thing, have the restaurant call a ground transport to come get you.
Our last day on Ambergris was spent exploring the docks around San Pedro, chatting with the locals, and slowly making our way from breakfast, and lunch, then dinner, interspersed with beach, and pool, and back again. Entire days and afternoons and evenings here seemed to easily be spent doing nothing of any importance. It’s this slow quiet rhythm that captures you in Belize, and lulls you to a place you long to stay.
Where to Stay: Belizean Shores