I'll start this trip report now and add to it later. Please feel free to ask any questions.
Background: Three women, ages 23 to 58 (mother, daughter, aunt) who travel together extensively. We do not "rough it" but we do prefer independent travel and make all of our own arrangements, drive ourselves, etc. etc. I always want to know what everything costs and I like good food so please excuse any excessive details.
Arrived BZE airport direct from Atlanta, about 3 hours, via Delta, without any trouble. Went directly to the ATM just outside of baggage and got Belize dollars, but frankly, everyone in Belize preferred US dollars. Did not take AMX card bc it wasn't accepted at most places, did take our VISA card. We had rented a car from Matus Car Rental and they had also provided us with a driver to pick us up at the airport. The reason we did this is because we wanted to pick up and drop off the rental car in The Cayo District since we were going to Tikal, Guatemala later in the trip and then flying out of the Flores, Guatemala airport. There are several car rental kiosks right at the airport and the drive from BZE to San Ignacio is a piece of cake. It's one road, in great shape, not indimidating at all. Keep in mind that Belize is an English speaking country, which makes it easy. Our driver, Saul, from Matus ( the charge was $63 US + the gas for the airport pickup) drove us to San Ignacio in the same SUV that we were to rent and we completed all the paperwork at the Matus office in San Igacio. Comment on Belize City- I wouldn't stay there unless there is no alternative due to arrival/departure hours.
Bars on every window. This is not uncommon in Central America and I'm not picking on Belize City in particular, just making the comment that I wouldn't stay there. We didn't stop at the Zoo, but Saul was proud of it and it would have been easy to do. If you have a driver, you will have to pay extra for time to allow this. We stopped for a soft drink, just on the edge of town. There was no door to enter the store, just a large, barred window and you talked to the store owner through the bars, slid your money in the slot and they handed you your drink back through the bars. Enough said about Belize City.
San Ignacio is a small town with winding streets, of no particular charm, but sufficient to get a bite to eat, get gas, arrange for tours, etc. I wouldn't recommend staying in town because of the noise of traffic and no scenery, but just outside of it would be fine. There is a huge market on Saturdays that we didn't go to, but looked interesting. Our SUV was fine, got gas ($4 per gallon-- all prices in this trip report will be quoted in US $$). If you rent a vehicle-- GET FOUR WHEEL DRIVE. Many of the smaller roads in The Cayo are very rough. Matus gave us a good map of the town ( so we could find our way out of it) as well as clear directions out to Hidden Valley Inn. I went through Matus because their prices were better, ($68 per day) they offerred a very reasonable pick up price and because they had an office in San Ignacio. I see no reason not to rent a car at the Belize Intl Airport, however, if you are returning it there. Driving in Belize is easy and gives you the freedom to go where you please. The roads are not any less rough because someone else is driving.
We booked four nights at Hidden Valley Inn which is less than 20 miles from San Ignacio. HVI had emailed us a map and it was great. HVI isn't far from Five Sisters and Blancaneaux. Everyone takes the same pitted, dirt and gravel road to get to the Mountain Pines area. The road is awful. You will take 45 minutes to an hour to go 20 miles. Unless you are driving a big truck with oversize tires, you simply can't drive more than 15-20 miles an hour on much of it because the pot holes are huge, they are everywhere and there are big rocks in the road. You will be jostled and bounced the entire way. There are speed humps in the road in the small towns you pass through but these are marked with a sign-- good thing because they're the same color as the road and I wasn't paying attention and just about threw my passengers out the window.
But, the drive is interesting and the destination is worth it. You'll pass a ranger station where a very nice man comes out to lift the gate and you sign in. We arrived at Hidden Valley a bit dusty. We were greeted by Misael who sat us down in the cozy bar and gave us the best lime juice I've ever had. Hidden Valley Inn is a gem. There are only 12 casitas and 7000 acres. The casitas are clustered in one area, but not crowded, along pea gravel paths that wind around between tropical plants to connect to the main lodge where the pool, jacuzzi, management office, bar, lounge/library and dining room are located. The service from HVI management is perfect. If you want to book any of the normal Cayo District tours, they'll arrange it. If you want to be left alone, they'll arrange that too. They encourage hiking and will even have your packed lunch dropped off for you at the end of your hike. They have mountain bikes and bird-watching tours. Everyone who goes out onto the property is given a walkie talkie and a map so if you get tired of hiking or biking, you can call for a ride back to the lodge. (they do charge $10 for this service). We felt completely safe. I'm not a huge hiker, but we hiked to Butterfly Falls and it was well worth it. Imagine an easy hike through tall pine trees and tropical foliage to a hidden pool with a large cascading waterfall that you have completely all to yourself. It was beautiful. I stripped down (I did say we were alone) and went for a quick, chilly swim. We also drove ourselves to a few other waterfalls, such as 1000 foot falls, King Vulture Falls, etc. Our casita was very nice. It's more like a duplex but I believe they also have single units for honeymooner types. Our unit had two very comfortable queen beds plus a third twin (a real bed, not a rollaway) with two leather reading chairs in front of a fireplace. The fireplace was a nice benefit because it did get a little chilly at night. It also had a very large screened porch with lounging chairs and a hammock and a remarkable bathroom Ok, so I realize men are not into bathrooms, but this one was very cool. It had a clawfoot, deep tub with rock flooring and a stack of rocks built into a kind of table next to tub for your book or your cocktail. It also had really nice bath products. Two dressing mirrors, including one that had a seat. The best part is the outdoor shower. You stepped out of the bathroom through a door into a completely private, but completely outdoor rock walled area with a waterfall shower. Loved it.
The bar is nice. Their drink prices are very reasonable and it has a big fireplace blazing. I do recommend that you bring a jacket for this time of year and long pants. The library/living room is a good place to grab a paperback book, or a book on Belize birds, or on Mayan history. You sit at the same table for all of your meals and the food is good, especially breakfast and lunch. Its pricey, but I'm not sure it can be helped since they have to bring most of it in. You can take the per day rate, which we did, for $60 pp, including all meals. Or you can pay $12 for continental breakfast. $17 for full breakfast (ouch), $14 for lunch and $32 for dinner. Wine, beer, cocktails are not included. The food is very good and they try really hard to make the dinners interesting and different. They did overcook my filet one night but I ate it anyway. They have amazing banana pancakes. I really recommend one of their packed lunches just so you can have the experience of seeing what they pack for you. We drove ourselves to Caracol Ruins to meet the convoy (more on this later) and they put a big cooler in our SUV. When I pulled everything out at lunch, I felt like we had Mary Poppin's handbag. Containers of fried chicken, two kinds of salad, fruit, banana chips, cookies, vegetables, bread, drinks, linens, condiments, real forks, knives, spoons, etc. etc. It was almost embarrassing....
Next-- Actun Tunichi Muknal Tour -- something not to missed.
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I'll start this trip report now and add to it later. Please feel free to ask any questions.