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Trip Report BELIZE TRAVELOGUE (from 2003) and TRIP ADVICE

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As I plan our return to Belize, I'm finding the advice (near the top) of this travelogue still applies. It was a very wonderful, memorable trip and - especially if you're considering a trip to Belize with kids - there might be some adventures that are a good match for you. My photos are posted at http://flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/collections
HAPPY TRAILS!

Because we prepared to camp we hauled WAY too much stuff around. Since then we've learned the enjoy of traveling with a loosely-filled carry-on-sized conversion pack. I'll post my packing list in a different post.

HOLEMAN BELIZE ADVENTURE, 2003

This travelogue is long, but I guess it's your choice to read it or not! By way of an introduction, the Holeman family numbers 5: Mike and Stacey are teachers, and the kids are Mariah (20 and a college student) and Isaac and Carlos (17 and 18, entering their senior year in high school). We made a pact during our New Year's resolution gathering a year and a half ago to commit to a month of adventure and cultural exploration in Belize for this summer, partly as it may be our last opportunity for such a trip as a family with kids so grown and partly because we all love an adventure and are curious about other cultures. The catalyst that got us thinking about a trip to Central America was a desire to take Carlos, a native of Guatemala and of Mayan descent, to see some of his cultural and historic roots.

Before I start on our trip experience, here are a few bits of advice that worked for us, most of which you’ve probably heard before:

~As Mason Williams would say, "Don't go down to the ocean with a notion of what you will find". In other words, expect your adventures to be wonderful but don’t expect them to be predictable;

~grab every opportunity to get to know the people as opposed to just seeing places and scenery. Hanging out in small villages and seeking out locals gave us many of our most special memories;

~take advantage of things that are every day experiences for locals, like beans and rice, bus rides and bike rides, and shopping for produce;

~remember the Peace Corps adage: "It's not right or wrong, it's just different";

~stay as long as you can and adventure out from bases; we typically had 3-7 days in each location, and were glad for it;

~when traveling as a family, listen to the kids, plan to enjoy your together times and to spend times exploring on your own, as safety allows; our individual strengths and interests were woven together to make the trip more memorable for all of us;

~see a lot, but allow time to lay around in hammocks or sit and drink a coke with locals;

~read before and during your trip: guide books, identification books, the Belize Forum, and books set in Belize and written by Belizean authors, both fiction and non-fiction;

~pack a comprehensive medical kit that includes an antibiotic like cipro and a good quality water filter;

~take school supplies or books to donate along the way and gifts for kids and hosts (we took little rubber frog finger puppets and photo magnets showing a view of the wildflowers, mountains and Columbia River Gorge from our house);

~for bugs we preferred Sawyer's Time Release Deet bug repellent, which worked wonderfully and allows less deet to be absorbed into your skin than most formulas. We took hefty doses of B vitamins and garlic pills starting weeks before we left in an effort to smell repugnant to those smallest of pests, and found that it worked perfectly in areas where there really weren’t any mosquitoes, but failed miserably where there were (hence, the Sawyer’s).

~other things we were glad we had: headlamps, plant and animal identification cards, copies of our lodging reservation and payment emails, sun hats, sunblock and aloe, sarongs (for the females) and bandanas, blank journals, a variety of cameras (including underwater ones) and lots of film, good quality waterproof binoculars, clothes line and pins, cable ties, our own fishing equipment, including a great collection of hand-tied flies, open minds, a desire for adventure, and our senses of humor.


Saturday, July 12th through Monday, July 14th:

The flights went off perfectly, including security/check-in in Portland. When we stepped off the plane onto the tarmac in Belize City we were hit with air so humid it felt as though we were breathing under water. It was--literally--stunning until we caught on that there was enough oxygen in that air to sustain us. We went through SARS screening, immigration, and customs (they looked at the forms we filled out on the plane and hardly glanced at us) in less than 20 minutes, and a porter grabbed up our bags and found a taxi that would take us to our first stop, the Tropical Education Center associated with the Belize Zoo.

After some confusion about whether there was room for us or not (in spite of confirming last week) they gave us a wonderful home-for-the-night that included two bedrooms, each with a double and a twin and a fan, and huge screened porch with comfortable chairs and a table. The walls, floors, and tables were covered with Mayan weavings, and the yard surrounding it had huge, colorful versions of the plants we call “houseplants” in the states.

Other highlights of our stay there:

~hanging out with Peace Corps volunteers, some starting out, some heading home;

~the caretaker's 17' long snake, Julius Squeezer;

~finding big chunks of molted iguana skin on the ground;

~looking out the bedroom window and seeing a pineapple growing in its funny near-the-ground way;

~trying to spot the crocodile in the lake;

~Carlos' discovery of a small clearing surrounded by palms; the boys got caught in a downpour and made a shelter out of palm leaves that kept them dry.

Monday morning we spent more time exploring, then caught a ride to the zoo. What a zoo! They basically carved paths through the jungle and fenced and netted natural spaces for animals native to Belize, including jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, spider and black howler monkeys, and toucans. None of the animals are wild-caught, and they all seemed calm and curious. We could get within a foot or two of most of them! When we were ready to move on, we ate a snack in the bus stop shelter. As a bus approached, I ran up to the road to flag it down, but it didn't stop! Good thing, too, because an empty, air-conditioned shuttle van returning from the airport gave us a lift to San Ignacio, 6 miles from our destination of San José Succotz, an Indian village near the Guatemala border, for $10 US total. In addition to the driver, there were his two wonderful kids, aged 3 and 6 to share the ride, and we played "paper/rock/scissors" (their idea!) most of the way to San Ignacio. From there we caught a bus to the Trek Stop.

Monday, July 14th through Thursday, July 17th:

The Trek Stop--another fabulous place! We stayed in little Caribbean pine cabins that glowed with red streaks at dawn, cooked and ate in an open air kitchen, and walked to San José Succotz Village to explore and to shop for fruit and groceries. The fruit we purchased by the roadside (big iguanas gathered in back of the stand to eat the overripe fruit) and for groceries we went to a Chinese grocery store (common in Belize, and this one was one of the few places we saw milk that wasn't powdered). We enjoyed the village, especially Carlos who wondered around on his own, looking like he fit there, meeting locals and eventually being asked to join a soccer game.

Wednesday we rode in the back of a pick-up into the Maya Mountains (through jungle that was way beyond "Jurassic Park", according to our boys) to visit Chechem Hah Cave. We hiked more than a mile up onto the Vaca Plateau with our Indian guide, William, whose family owns and farms the property and who discovered the cave by accident in 1989 while looking for bay leaves for thatch. He was an excellent, knowledgeable, witty guide and we loved the cave. There were ladders here and there to see Mayan ceremonial areas with pots and incense burners. Some of us climbed through a tiny opening on our bellies to access another part of the cave. We even saw congealed blood vampire bat droppings! There was also a stunning waterfall to hike to and an interesting, naughty spider monkey. Next we picnicked outside of Benque at the earth sculpture park, Poustinia, a beautiful setting with a varied assortment of sculptures, some beautiful, others just odd. We met some of the artists, including a visiting sculptor from Argentina. In the evening I accompanied Tino, one of the owners of the Trek Stop, to the village to see the learning center he and his wife, Genoveva, have started in their home. Genoveva and I are both kindergarten teachers and I was glad I could share supplies from my program to theirs.

Other highlights from the Trek Stop:

~mangoes plumping down around us, sweet and juicy and free; Mariah is the mango queen;

~seeing, from the open-air dining area, the top of Xunantunich, a late-classic Maya ruin peeking above the forest canopy;

~hiking to the Mopan River, taking a hand-crank ferry across, and hiking another mile through the jungle to the ruins--fabulous!

~the winding trail up the hill (watch out for poisonwood!) that leads to a small, unexcavated Maya mound;

~Isaac's attempt to shake a coconut out of a tree, disengaging a flurry of big bats instead;

~Carlos flipping beetles and moths to the big frog in the kitchen;

~the beautiful butterfly house with trails through towering natural plantings and many species of butterflies, including Blue Morphos;

~floating in inner tubes down the cool, green Mopan River, cormorants calling from the trees as we pass; Isaac took a couple of huge leaves from a vine that hung down to the water and made enviable hand paddles;

~swinging in hammocks outside our cabins while listening to birds and insects, watching the bats, and gorging on mangoes.

Thursday, July 17th through Friday, July 18th:

Thursday morning we stowed our excess baggage at the Trek Stop and flagged a taxi to the Guatemalan border. Customs was a breeze and we had no trouble hiring a van to take us to Tikal, an hour and 40 minutes ($50 US each way). The ride was interesting and we loved our lodging there (Jaguar Inn). The ruins were fantastic, and one advantage of staying overnight was we practically had them to ourselves since the day trippers were leaving as we arrived on Thursday, and arriving as we left on Friday. We especially enjoyed exploring the lesser-visited areas (especially El Mundo Perdido, The Lost City) where the wildlife viewing was outstanding in the early morning. We climbed 2 of the pyramids (Temple 4 and Temple 5--the only high ones you can still climb) and the views were breathtaking in more ways than one. We ate our meals at a "comedor" and enjoyed shopping for Mayan crafts. Each one of us named this excursion as a true highlight of the trip.

Most memorable moments in Tikal:

~everyone mistaking Carlos as our guide;

~the mystery and majesty of the tall temples, including Temple 3 which remains shrouded in jungle growth;

~beans and rice, Guatemala style;

~meeting the Indian craftsperson we purchased weavings from, and watching her work; the pride in her husband's eyes;
~seeing parrots and toucans and oropendolas feeding at close range and at eye-level as we stood in the jungle on temple ruins;

~hearing (and racing around until we could see) black howler monkeys ROARING in the trees.

Friday, July 18th through Monday, July 21st:

After our safe passage back to and through the border we traveled to our next lodging-- Macal River Jungle Camp--highly recommended. We were well taken care of by our host, Dolcio, the food was fabulous and the cabins in the jungle perfect. We ate our meals in an open air "palapa" saw and heard woodrails, toucans, aricaris, and motmots from our beds and hammocks.

Saturday we canoed down the Macal River, an interesting trip--water birds and iguanas in the trees were highlights. We also experienced sunburn, dehydration, and tired arms and were glad to reach the town of San Ignacio, where we visited their weekly market (mostly fruits and vegetables). Mike sampled rum-and-cokes in various establishments (we all got a kick out the place called “Coco Nutz”) and the rest of us enjoyed banana milkshakes at Eva's, a local hangout. We dropped off our laundry at Martha's, then split into ones and twos to explore before calling for a shuttle back to camp.

Sunday most of us kicked back, although we all hiked the half mile through the jungle to tour the blue morpho butterfly farm and an excellent natural history museum. I hiked 4 or 5 miles to take in some of the Mayan ruins on the Chaa Creek property.

Highlights from Macal River Jungle Camp:

~the lovely calls of motmots in the early mornings, landing in the trees outside our screens;

~tarantulas lurking in and by their holes in the "lawn" outside our cabins;

~for Carlos, going back twice to the butterfly place because the presenter was cute

~Isaac, our knight in shining armor, jumping on the beds with machete in hand to whisk a big scorpion from the beam above our heads into a waste basket for release in the wild (that part was my job).

Monday, July 21st through Thursday, July 24th:

Monday we hitched a ride on a service truck to San Ignacio (Mariah took pictures of the "Don’t Smoking" sign) and then did the bus thing--by the time we got to Belmopan the seats and the aisle were packed. A young creole man standing over us sang LOUDLY to the radio with less than a normal talent load. Really, the busses are an incredible form of entertainment in addition to cheap transportation.

We loved it at Caves Branch. We were planning to camp, but when we arrived they told us that, as it had been raining so much lately, they'd assigned us a cabaña at no extra charge!

Tuesday was Black Hole Drop day for all of us but Carlos, who truly doesn't appreciate adventures in very high places. It was INCREDIBLE: after hiking up into the jungle for an hour and a half, we harnessed up and rappelled and free-hung 300 feet down into a huge sink hole; the cave was inspiring and the trip out was an adrenaline rush.

We had been dealing with various health issues ranging from weird rashes to diarrhea and upset stomachs and were grateful for our well-stocked medical kit, especially the antibiotics. We chose to forego the Waterfall Cave trip we had planned to do Wednesday, and instead had a peaceful, therapeutic day in the jungle, reading, hiking, and swimming in the beautiful Caves Branch River--green and cool--flowing by our cabaña.

Other cool things about Caves Branch:

~The operator, Ian Anderson, is hilarious and personable;

~the guides are great--we entrusted our lives to Augustin (a brother to many of the guides whose life story has interesting parallels to our Carlos' past) and Mergilio (who spoke little English, was strong and skilled and sang beautifully in Spanish as he hiked and repelled and belayed);

~the outdoor showers, surrounded by palm leaves and orchids, where perfect-temperature water pours from tin buckets with holes in the bottom;

~Mariah finding a tiny gecko you could see through on the screen in our cabin;

~witnessing an awesome life-or-death struggle between a snake and a lizard: they were stalemated for a long time as they twisted and spun, latched onto each other, and eventually escaped in separate directions;

~swimming in the marvelous Blue Hole, a magical place;

~dinner time, and not just because of the food.

~for Mariah, Carlos, and Isaac, staying up late playing cards and making friends with the guides and workers.

Thursday, July 24th through Friday, July 25th:

The bus trips to our next destination, Cockscomb, were a kick: loud punta/reggae music, crowded, no two people alike. Carlos got the address of a cute girl sitting across the aisle from him - go figure. At a bus stop outside Dangriga we watched police set up a road block to check for insurance and registration stickers; they walked with somber faces in slow motion that would put ESPN to shame.

I loved the Cockscomb Jaguar Reserve and we had a wonderful place to stay (the "Private Cabin") but the mosquitoes were BAD and we were pretty tired and grouchy from the long trip there. We had reserved a cabin months in advance, then were informed when I was confirming reservations the week before we left that the cabins were all full, but we could reserve a spot in the campground. When we arrived, the campground was full (!) BUT the cabins were empty. We enjoyed a night tour with our wonderful guide, Gregorio Chun, who also provided our taxi service Friday.

Highlights from the area:

~shopping in the craft center in Maya Centre Village - expensive but priceless;

~beans and rice, Maya style;

~cooking and eating and reading (we read more than 20 books between us during our trip, trading as we went, Mariah holding the record at 8 and Isaac a close 2nd; many of the books were fictional works set in Belize, or by Belizean authors);

~seeing places and equipment (even the traps and a wrecked plane!) from Rabinowitz' book Jaguar;

~hiking under howler monkeys to the beautiful waterfall and swimming under it into the grotto; Isaac had his mask and snorkel and followed the fish around;

~fresh marks where jaguars had sharpened their claws on a tree;

~a huge frog with eyes the size of marbles;

~3 tiny gray fox kits frolicking in the grass by our cabin;

~glow in the dark everything: bugs, worms, mushrooms, fungus;

~standing by a swamp in a DRIVING rain, watching the water rise. This was one of only two times in a month-long trip that the weather could have had a negative impact on our activities, and it was AWESOME.

Friday, July 25th through Sunday, July 27th:

We enjoyed visiting with Gregorio on the ride to Sittee River Village (a creole community) and our next lodging, Toucan Sittee. Mosquitoes still bad, food great, lodging great. We checked in at Glover’s Guesthouse, left a list for the produce guy and walked to Reynold’s Store to stock up on food for the next week. What a wonderful experience! The elderly creole couple helped us accumulate a pile that included huge avocados, noodles, Marie Sharp’s hot sauce, beans, rice, onions, matches, and sugar and their beautiful granddaughter gave us advice on what candy to buy. The kids got a kick out of the bright green "oranges" they picked for us and the lovely brown eggs made us miss our hens back home.

Saturday afternoon we walked 4 hot miles to Hopkins Village, and it was worth every step. Largely built along one long, narrow, road, this Garifuna village has an otherworldly charm that brings to mind a different era. The kids hung out by the sea and Mike and I rented bikes and saw as much as we could. Some friends from our home town lived in Hopkins during their time in the Peace Crop years ago; we enjoyed meeting people who remembered them and found the home of a local teacher they’d hoped we could meet, but she was visiting grown children studying in Guatemala. We left a note and a bag of school supplies. As we waited for the 6:00 o'clock bus, friendly people passing on foot and on bikes waved and struck up conversations with us. Every child we saw was beautiful. The bus made it half a mile before overheating. Luckily there was a swamp nearby (!?) so they could refill the radiator and hit the road again.

Sunday, July 27th through Sunday, August 3rd:

WHAT A WEEK! Glover's Atoll Resort was awesome--like being Swiss Family Robinson with scuba diving equipment. The boat ride out was choppy and a little hairy (Mike says "bone jarring"--the only time weather had a negative impact on our trip, other than Isaac's natural tendency to stoically suffocate in the humidity on a daily basis).

There were no bonefish around our North East Caye, so Mike and Carlos were the primary users of the kayak we rented for the week, seeking their elusive prey on other nearby cayes (a mile to Long Caye and 2 more to Middle Caye). The bonefish they found were mostly feeding in large schools, and by the middle of the week the guys had the tides and techniques figured out. In addition to bonefish, large and small, they also hooked a tarpon, a small permit, yellow-tailed jacks, grunts, needle fish, various snappers, a ray (by accident!) and one barracuda. Carlos also had a barracuda slice in and devour a fish in a bloody attack as he was trying to land it. They were mainly fly-fishing, catch-and-release, except when Carlos journeyed off with Warren, the proprietors’ son, to points outside the Marine Reserve.

Highlights of Glover's:

~the incredible, unbelievable water colors: turquoise, teal, royal blue;

~coconuts as delicious and plentiful as the mangoes were in Succotz; Isaac perfected the husking and he and Mariah borrowed a grater from the kitchen and learned to make coconut candy by caramelizing sugar on grated coconut over a kerosene stove;

~hermit crabs of every size (peanut to softball) everywhere - creating zoos, racing them, putting the food in tricky places since they could climb anything made of wood (and everything was made of wood);

~gorgeous conch shells everywhere (some in our suitcase);

~the proprietors' 2-year-old, white-blond and with the best all-over tan on the planet, bailing naked off boats and docks into the sea and swimming like a fish;

~our kids catching lobsters on the reef crest at night with the resident 10-year-old fishing expert who befriended us; we watched from our hammocks as their headlamps bobbed along, then their excited voices rang out and the lights flashed everywhere, before they resumed their search with a heavier bag;

~cooking and eating the lobster and delicious fish with beans and rice, Glover's style;

~phenomenal snorkeling: 10' nurse sharks, 6' barracudas that followed us like puppies, enormous spotted eagle rays at close range, dozens of other fish in exotic colors and bazaar shapes, including eels and huge parrot fish, something new every time;

~scuba diving (Isaac and I) on the world-renowned wall dives: all of the above plus amazing sponges, coral, turtles, and dolphins;

~the calm, beautiful trip in through the reef and up the tranquil Sittee River.

Sunday, August 3rd through Tuesday, August 5th:

Back at the Toucan Sittee we rested and read and explored. Carlos walked back to Hopkins and I explored Sittee River Village, stopping to chat with locals and American expatriates, and eventually spending an hour with an older creole gentleman named Isaac who had grown up and raised his family in the same spot. He shared wonderful insights about families, village life, the influx of Americans, making a living, and keeping your family close. I got to meet giggling knots of grandkids and several of his 8 children, including a daughter who teaches English and Literature at an all-boy Jesuit high school in Belize City.

Special memories from Sittee River Village:

~the lovely grounds of the Toucan Sittee;

~well-stocked bookshelves;

~beans and rice, creole style;

~the marvelous shopping experience at Reynold's Store;

~the charm and smiles of the locals;

~huge iguanas and ctenosaurs lounging in the trees;

~a truly astoundingly huge spider (long legs attached to a body bigger than my thumb) and the ensuing family controversy over whether to kill it (Isaac and Carlos) or capture it at great personal risk and release it (Mariah and I). Eventually I trapped it in a pitcher and set it free, "at least a 5 minute walk from the cabin" at Isaac’s request;

~the flashy sights and sounds of red lored parrots around our cabin, morning and evening;

~geckos darting around the window screens, helping lower the mosquito population;

~a beautiful, green-headed vine snake, 3' long and as big around as a pencil, seeking a way out of our cabin; when s/he finally found the door, s/he leapt 4' from the porch to a waiting shrub.

Tuesday, August 5th through Friday, August 8th:

Tuesday we rose early, packed up, and enjoyed a big breakfast before the taxi arrived to take us to Dangriga. Our driver, a Garifuna man native to Hopkins, was charming and helpful. He stopped in Hopkins to pick up an elderly uncle, then honked at another house and two women, a mother and daughter, squeezed in for the ride to Dangriga. They were from Chicago, the daughter visiting and the mother moving back after 30 years. Mariah seemed to have a wonderful time getting to know them during the 40 minute ride. In Dangriga we got cash from the bank and explored a little, wishing we had more time - such a place! The kids laughed and sang along with the kids' music on the taxi radio and blaring out the open doors of local stores licensed to "sell spiritous liquors on the premises". We bought a punta rock CD by the latest local favorites before heading out to the airstrip for our flight to the international airport. The staff and pilot were friendly and professional and the plane much newer and safer-looking than the runway. We had a smooth, quick flight and Mariah was very brave in spite of her general distrust of small planes.

After checking our luggage (cursory safety check) and paying the $20 US exit fee per person (which, by the way, you pay even if you’ve paid exit taxes en route to Guatemala and still have the receipts), we bought last minute keepsakes at a gift shop (couldn’t pass up the scuba patches and Belikin glasses) and ate the lunch we’d packed: orange slices, peanuts, coconut, and bread. Our flight was delayed on the ground in Belize, and in the air and on the ground in Miami due to a lightning storm that dumped 2" of rain. After walking what seemed like miles and waiting what seemed like hours for our luggage, we breezed through customs and met my sister, Kathy, who had been waiting hours for us. We enjoyed beans and rice, Cuban style at an airport restaurant, then rented a car and headed to Key Largo. My sister is in the process of moving from Key Largo to the gulf-coast community of Naples, Florida, so we enjoyed two new environments and their associated sights.

Highlights, in addition to spending time with Kathy, were:

~the wildlife in the Everglades: soft-shelled and other water turtles, interesting fish including gars, anhingas and other birds, big, bazaar wingless grasshoppers, baby alligators, and finally an adult alligator in the shallow water under the walkway;

~beach combing in Naples, picking and choosing among the thousands of pretty shells;

~walking out the Naples pier, watching the fisherpeople and the fish;

~a classy dinner out compliments of Kathy, near the beach under a large umbrella, complete with valet parking, gourmet food, dolphins in the sea, and another beautiful beach walk.

Friday, August 8th into Saturday, August 9th:

We rose early and drove the 2 hours to Miami International Airport, turned in the rental car, then sat in the plane on the ground for several hours while they fixed a mechanical problem (a leaky coffee pot hose?!). We discussed trip highlights and wondered about missed friends and loved-ones and home town activities. Thankfully, we’d purchased new books and magazines in the airport. The flight included a funny movie, and our only airplane meal in 6 flights, a choice of pasta or American Airlines-style beans and rice--no joke.

We missed our San Francisco to Portland flight, but were able to get seats together on the next Alaska flight heading north (3 hours later) and, gratefully, all our luggage caught the same flight. Our new boarding passes included a code that allowed all 5 of us to benefit from a fine-tooth-comb security inspection of our selves and our carry-ons. Our lateness added the complication that the person who was going to drive to meet us at the Portland Airport with our puppy, Bel, couldn’t do it, which necessitated an additional hour round trip to pick her up before heading to The Dalles, 80 miles east of Portland. When we finally pulled into our driveway it was nearly 2 am (5 am Florida time). Our country home, not a palace by American standards, felt embarrassingly luxurious, and looked so much the way we'd left it, it gave us a feeling that our wonderful vacation was a dream. Maybe so, but a dream of togetherness, adventure, insight, and awe to be treasured through our lives.

:D Happy trails....

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