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Guatemala/Belize trip report

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This is a long posting.
Thanks to all the folks out here
that helped me plan the trip.
I apologize for the formatting.
Its a cut-n-paste from Ms-word and
the formatting is messed up.
Any questions, shoot me an email
to w4vku on yahoo.com.
------------
Day 1: Land in Guatelamal City. Get picked up by the shuttle from the
Hotel Los Volcanes in Pana. It is a good 2.5 hour drive on
winding roads up the mountains. The wife was cursing me, since
she did not like the hairpin bends. We finally get to the hotel
around 5pm. A long day, since we woke up at 3:45am to board the
flight.
TIP - GSM mobile phone. I was going to get a Claro phone in GUA/Pana
with a sim that could be switched out. This was the plan because
we could potential use a differnet Sim while in Belize. However,
i heard that the cheap Claro Nokia phones are sealed and cannot
swap Sims. The carriers have found a way to keep their
customers. I could have purchased the next higher priced phone
that had a replaceable Sim, but would then need to worry about
unlocking it or purchasing a model that can be unlocked. In the
end, i did not purchase any. I found that my US Verizon CDMA
phone worked in Guatemala city, Pana, Antigua, San Ignacio,
Belize City and San Pedro. I was able to use it at a couple
times to dial the local numbers as thought it was a local phone
in the local network. I was receiving incoming calls all along
from the states. yes, the calls are international roaming and
expensive. So i did not take the calls, instead just kept
monitoring to see who called and then dialed the voice mail from
a landline to check messages.

Day 2: We took the shuttle from the hotel to head to
Chichi(US$12/person). It was the sunday market. The best prices
are out here if you haggle. I heard the statement "Good price
for you..." from the hawkers everywhere. Was able to get a good
embroidered T-shirt for Q30. I start at 1/2 the asking and go
up, but will walk away if it does not work. Sometimes, i would
negotiate a price for more than one item. At other times, i
would switch from Quetzal to US$ and negotiate. Speaking of
strategies.

TIP- The museo on a side street across from the church has a clean
restroom. Tipping the guard Quetzal3 will get you in. Fun of
travelling with a 6 and 2 year old.

Around 2pm, the shuttle for Pana left with 1 person short.
Another reason to check ones watch and make it back to the
shuttle on time. Again Chichi was a good 1.5 hours drive from
Pana. The wife was complaining about the winding roads and
hairpin bends. There was a restaurant at the intersection of the
streets in the chichi market with a lot of gringos, so we made
it in and had a good pizza. The hawkers would not let us alone.
They tried to sell us stuff while we were having lunch. We had
travellers checks and it took a good 20 minutes to encash it in
the bank.

Day 3: We were planning to do the Lake tours to the 3 villages, but did
not want to wake up at 6am to make it to the collective
tour timing. So we decided to do it at our pace. We just took
the 9:30am boat to Santiago atitlan. Once we got there, we took
a tuk-tuk to go and see the places around.It was little kids
riding the tuk-tuk, they wanted Q150.
I offered them Q115. I could have offered even less, but the
kids were helpful and i thought the money was going to
their families. It was a good 1 hour ride around the place. We
got to see the El Mirador ??, a spot overlooking the lake and
the mountains, then another spot where the lava had flowed and
wiped out a building, the masimon,the church etc. We got back
to the dock and took the 11:30am boat to head back to Pana to
checkout from the hotel.
We also did some shopping in Santiago Atitlan.
There are several of these boats that go back and forth.
We checked out from the hotel, had them safe keep the luggage
and went to the Reserva natural atitlan - the nature
trail/spider monkey/butterfly house. This was a neat spot that
is about 10 minutes from the hotel. There is also a camping and
zipline activity to do here. There is also a water falls. We
spent some time till 3:30pm. We went back to the hotel and
boarded the 4pm shuttle to Antigua. This was another 2.5 hour
drive. In fact, we were supposed to stay for the night in
Hotel los des volcanes, but we instead chose to travel in the
evening rather than travel at 11am the next day morning and then
losing almost the most part of the day.

Hotel feedback - Hotel Los des Volcanes. Very friendly Francisco at
the help desk. Helped with translation and offered feedback on
several issues for the trip planning. He called hotels in
Antigua, when we decided to leave earlier than planned, since
the hotel Palacio Chico with whom we were to stay did not have a
vacant room for a day earlier than our reserved dates.
The hotel Los des Volcanes is on avenida Satander, the main
street. We stayed in a room with 2 double beds. A small
room on the top floor. One can hear the rooster coo in the
morning and i still remember my 2 year old wake up and
ask "what is that?".
The italian restaurant next to Hotel Los des volcanes is a bit
expensive. We got some good soup for the kids from this place.
Just at the end of the avenida satander, is a good restaurant
with a nice tropical setting. They are open for breakfast and
lunch only. Great food, reasonable price. This one has 2
branches on the same street. I am talking about the one at the
very end, just close to the big hotel. We liked the mexican
place Orale. We also dined at El Patio that serves Guatemalan
food and liked the dishes with the pepin sauce. If one were to
compare prices, everything is less expensive in Pana. So shop
here, if you are going to antigua. In antigua, you will pay more
for the same.


Day 4: We had stayed the previous night in Hotel on the 3rd street
called San Sebastian. It was a nice large suite with all antique
furniture. One of the bed was squeaking to the point that i
commented would have been good for firewood. None of these
places have heating, so the temperature swings with the outside.
Moreover, the street noise from people talking or vehicles
plying till past midnight is painful. Its an OK hotel. Never got
a receipt for the cash payment i made. Anyway, we took the
Elizabeth Bell tour and it was good. The rest of the afternoon,
we just wandered around to the rest of the sites not covered by
Elizabeths tour. She has a new office near the main square. We
used them to book a coffee plantation tour for the next day.
After the Elizabeth bells tour, we went and checked out from
San Sebastian and then checked into Palacio Chico. This place
has a nice garden. Their free continental breakfast is ok, but
is kind of rationed. You gotta ask for more and not take. The
rooms are not heated. I caught a cold due to the wide
temperature swings between the day and the night. The only issue
we had here was the hot water. They had one of the shower heads
that has a built in heater in it. This one did not work very
well. At one instant, i had to fix some plumbing issue. I later
spoke to the owners brother about the issue. They are affiliated
to the green initiative and are trying to conserve energy. I
think the shower head was not grounded and felt stay current
when i touched the GI pipe. Since it was 110V, it was not that
bad.I am an engineer.
The hotel Palacio Chico did not want to take travellers checks.
So i had to encash it at the bank and hand over them the
Quetzals for it. However, i did not have trouble with
San Sebastian in paying with Travellers check nor at the hotel
Los des Volcanes in Pana. The owners of Palacio Chico have 3
hotels in the area. Their hotel in the northern part of Antigua
has a modern room is what I was told by the owner.

Day 5: we took the coffee plantation tour. It was good. Now i know that
instant coffee comes from crappy mix of beans :). Margarita
Asensio (7831-5067 or 5585-8713) masensio@intelnett.com is the
owner of the plantation. She speaks good english, travels to
Canada quite often and works with the university doing
editing/proof reading of books prior to printing. I recommend
her plantation.It was $10/person. We paid $20 for the family. If
booked via Elizabeth, it will cost you $8 more per person.
We took the morning tour, since our 2 year old would nap in the
afternoon. However, it appears that the afternoon tour is the
best due to the fact that all the workers are busy in action and
the coffee mill at work. The rest of the afternoon, we just
spend walking around and seeing the monuments that were skipped
by Elizabeth Bells tour and then did some shopping.
Oh, Elizabeth bells agency contributes a lot to the development
of Antigua, so the slight mark up goes to a good cause.

Restaurant - We dined at La Fonda de la Calle real on Calle del Arco.
This is near the central park. Food was ok, but a bit pricey.
Won't complain about the price due to the decor and the location
though. We also dined at Cafe Flor and liked the food. We also
dined at La Cuevita de los Urquiza. The food was ok. The Fodors
guidebook says this place is inexpensive, however it is not. We
were looking for authentic local eats. I was a bit leary about
the quality/hygiene of the food. Well, none of us fell sick
eating here. This place closes at 7pm or atleast they did on the
day we dined.

Shopping - we shopped at the handicraft market near the bus terminal.
There is a plaza with shops and there are shops outside the
plaza. You will find the prices better outside the shopping
plaza. We also shopped the handicrafts store on Calle Del Arco
i think, near 5th Ave Norte. There were paintings, Guatemalan
postage stamps for collection and a lot of other stuff.

Day 6: We left for tikal early in the morning by the 9:55am Taca
flight. The cab ride to the Guatemala city airport costed us
US$35/family. We land in Flores around 11am or so. We were
quoted Q300 for a private shuttle to the Tikal park. We teamed
up with another couple, who were going to El remante. We ended
up paying $30. They paid $20. So we saved close to $10 on this
pooling. It was an hours drive. We arrive at the park around
1pm. We checked in. We found that the prices have gone up this
year. I reserved the room for $144 in Nov'07. For 2008,
they raised it to $160 with 2 meals inclusive.They still
honored the $144. It was a good stay here. very good food and
service i should say. We purchased the park ticket just after
3pm and were able to use it all day the next day as well.
We walked to the park around 3:45pm and heard the howler monkey
howl. We thought it was a loudspeaker at work, since the sound
was coming from near a building and my first thoughts were it
was a predator like a lion or something.

Day 7: I took the sunrise tour with Roxy who is an archealogist
affiliated with Tikal Inn. A flash light was a good asset since
they turn off the generators after 10pm and it is needed when
one needs to wake up in the morning and go for the 5:30am
tour.We also had a good backpack to stash the
camera,deet,waterbottle etc. The tour started at
5:30am with us seeing a scorpion at the steps of the hotel and a
scoprion spider as well. The spider monkeys were all up in the
tree, making sounds. it was still dark. We did not go to the
Temple IV since the guide mentioned that there will be around 40
to 50 people on it. So instead, we went to temple V.
Boy, this was a difficult and steep steps to climb. We had
climbed temple IV the previous evening and i did so with my 2
year old in the toddler carrier on my back. Temple V was a more
difficult climb. To add, it was all wet with the fog and
treacherous. we climb up and wait for the fog to lift. There
was a small window when it did lift and we were able to see the
other temples. However not enough to see a clean sunrise.
However, it was good to see all the animals and birds wake up
and shout/fly around.
I did this early morning trip solo(not with family). So i came
back to Tikal Inn and had my breakfast.
We checked out from Tikal Inn, left our lugguage in safe keep
and went back to the park with the family.
This time to see the ones that we had not see the previous
evening. We did a good walk between 11am to 2pm. We returned and
had lunch at the first restaurant right across from the street
from the park museum/gift shop. I did not like the food here.
The prices were comparable to the food in the restaurant at
Tikal Inn and would have received better service at Tikal Inn.
Moreover, when i paid US$, they did the exchange at Quetzal 7
and not even 7.5. Anyway. We finally had the hotel arrange a
shuttle to take us across the border to Belize. This was US $60
for the family and was a good 2 hour drive.

Crossing the border - We check out from the Guatemalan side,
walk with our luggage to the Belize side.
Once you pass the formailities, it is a US $15 cab ride to San
Ignacio and takes about 15 minutes.
We stayed at Hotel Casa Blanca guest house. This was a nice
place in the middle of the town. The owner Beautrice was very
helpful and attends to the guests herself to make sure they are
well served. I would highly recommend this place. We did not
miss anything by not staying in a resort except for paying less.
The temperature was not that high, so any outdoor pools would
have been a bit cool for comfort. We paid US $45/night for a
room with 2 double beds. If A/C is requird, it is $15/night
additional. We just had A/C for the first night and then had it
turned off. We had the hotel do the laundry for us. A load was
Bz $15 (US$7.5). There is also a shared kitchen with a
microwave, refrigerator, plates, cups, spoons, dishwashing
liquid etc. There is no stove. We prepared coffee here.

Day 8: We rented a suzuki sidekick from
Matus car rental(824-2089/824-2005) for $55/day.You get a better
price for paying Cash or will get hit with paying a percentage to
use a credit card. We went out to see Cahal Pech Ruins,
Xunantunich Ruins, Chaa creek natural history center. We dined at
a South Indian restaurant run by George and his wife(623-9698).
They are from Kerala, a southern state in India. Excellent home
made food and a great price. This restaurant is on West Street.
We did dine at Hanna which is across from Casa blanca and i would
say that the quality of the Indian cuisine is much better at
George's place. Great prices to the point that we would eat very
well for US$20 for a family of 4. We dined there every evening we
were in San Ignacio. It does take a little bit of time for them
to prepare, since it is a mom and pop operation with no one else
to help out. But we were glad to wait for the quality food. Their
menu also has Belizean food in addition to sandwitches etc.

Day 9: We head off to Caracol. It is a good 1 hour drive to the check
point for the natural reserve area. An armed security patrol
leads the tourist vehicles at 9:20am and the next one is at 11am.
They lead a convoy.This is to protect tourists from the
Guatemalan robbers that had once haunted this route. This is one
of the crappiest roads i have seen on our trip. Do not eat a
heavy breakfast. You are better off on a vehicle with a softer
suspension. I pity those people that were in the vans. The roads
are nothing but pot holes. One needs to swerve from side to side
to find a flat patch of land to get the tires throught.
It is that bad. The last 8 kms is the best roads on this 62km
stretch. On our way back, we had a flat tire at near
Rio Frio pool. Luckily, i know how to swap the tires, so not an
issue. However, i was a bit leary, since we had another good
32kms to San Ignacio and could not afford a second flat tire.
So i took it very easy with the driving. On the way back, we did
stop by Rio Frio Caves which is close to the security checkpoint.
It was a good spot to visit. We skipped the 10,000ft falls, since
it would be a few miles off the main road. We took an armed
soldier from the security checkpoint to accompany us to Rio Frio
Caves. he mentioned that, from a diversion ahead of Caracol,
there is a road that leads for say a 2 hour drive. From that
point, another 9 miles of 4 wheeling should get you to a large
cave, where the British military chopper gets in at one end and
exits at the other. Well, we were not ready for that
challenge. Esp not with the family in the car. May be a good
camping/drive for the hardcored.

Also on our way back from Caracol, we left early and waved good
by to the soldiers that led the convoy.
In essence we were on our own. I was driving and was ready for
some robbers jumping infront of the vehicle, but i guess i was
being paranoid. Nothing of that sort happened. On our way back we
did have lunch(snack rather) at the restaurant at Blancaneaux
lodge which was very expensive.

Day 10: We head off to the blue hole and Dr hermans cave which is on
humming bird highway. This is very good road to drive. It was a
nice spot. A good private spot for young ones i should say, esp
the blue hole. I think it took us about 1.5 hours to drive, but
it was a breeze to drive here. A diversion from Belmopan. On our
way, we did see signs for the ATM – the famous caves. However, we
were told that one will need to take a guided tour. It is a
difficult tour with having to walk through water and squeeze
through narrow passages. We skipped it, since it would have been
difficult for the kids.

Day 11: We take a taxi to head to Belize city to board a maya island
air flight to san pedro. The taxi usually runs Bz $150. We had
George call in a pastor who also drives a taxi and took us for
Bz $125. We went to the municipal airstrip. It was a good 2 hour
drive.
TIP - On sundays, if you pay by cash, they offer 25% discount for the
trip to or fro from both the municipal and International airport.
Ask about the discount.
We check into Spindrift. We had lunch at Caliente, the restaurant
downstairs.
TIP- Check with Caliente. If you stay at spindrift, they should offer
you a 10% discount on the prices.

Warning - Check the menu carefully. In some restaurants, the tax is
already included in the food prices. In some, they are not. There
are some unscrupulous waiters who take advantage of the tourists.

Esp, Carabas on the street adjoining "barrier reef drive". We were
charged the mandatory service charge for a family of 4 ( only
applicable for a group of 5 or more per their menu) as well as the
10% tax. The bottom of the bill had a print ( Tip not included). I
normally tip well, but this was a bit unexpected. I did not argue,
but paid up and left to never return.

The same trick was attempted on me by Caliente when we were there
a second time for lunch. When i questioned the items in the bill,
the owner a friendly lady not only voided the deal, but also
mentioned about the 10% discount. So please watch out. We need to
tip the deserving, but not get taken advantage of.

Day 12: We rented a golf cart and decided to drive up north to see the
point where the reef comes closer to the shore (Rocky point). This
is a good 18 mile trip. We went as far as portofino i think and
just hung around to spend some time on the beach, open up some
cocounuts, take some pictures etc. On our drive up north, we were
approached by the timeshare vendors for the Grand reef resort. The
90 minute presentation and walking out ended us with a US$25
coupon good for dinner at Jambal Jerk pit or a few other places.
My wife got a US $50 coupon good at "The Lime" for either
snorkeling or golf cart rental etc. I heard that Captain Morgans
resort offers US $125 for the same presentation. We did
not do it, but would have been free cash to spend. I did not like
the marketing they do. They do not want to offer the fine print.
So i walked away with a No. Did not make business sense to me, but
apparently it does for some that vacation often i guess.

Day 13: My wife and daughter go for the snorkel/glass bottom boat tour
to Hol Chan and Shark Alley, while i baby sit the 2 year old. The
rest of the afternoon, i spent trying to shop for a "discover
scuba" course.

Day 14: I took the morning snorkel trip to Mexico rocks. The afternoon,
i took the "discover scuba" trip with Silvin Forman who works from
an office behind the "Bottom Time" shop. He was good and it was a
great dive to 30ft with another couple in their 50s may be.

Day 15: I go for an early morning dive with Silving past the reef to a
depth of 60ft. It was a nice dive, but the marine life was a bit
disappointing. Silvin did offer to lend me his fishing rod to help
me entertain the kids for the afternoon. I purchased some bait
from Captain Sharks store which is near the airstrip. The bait was
too soft. I was lucky to catch a small snapper and use that as a
bait to catch a large snapper. This was dinner for my wife. Wish I
had done this every day.Caliente offered to clean/fry the fish for
a great price and they did.

Diving - I did not like the Hol Chan nor the marine life beyond the
reef past the channel. I think if you are serious about diving,
skip these spots all together and go down to the south or the
atolls to the South. I have seen beautiful reefs at 10meters in
the Indian ocean, so this was atmost disappointing to me.
I would have gone south had i travelled alone. Well, may be the
next time around.

Shopping - There is a store called BLU which is next to Celi's Café
on Barrier reef drive. The prices are better here. We found the
same T-shirt for US$2.5, which was sold for US$5 at the airport.
There were a lot of other gifts that we found were cheaper than
the other stores around on Barrier reef drive. We dined in Celis
and the food was good. We also dined at Jambal Jerk pit. The Jerk
chicken was hot. I eat spicy food. I liked the coconut chicken
curry though. There is also another restaurant near Celi's
cafe. This place serves mexican food and the food was good and
service too.

TIP -As soon as you are on the island, as a first thing, Visit the
tourist office which i think is either on Barrier reef drive or
the street next to it and get the coupon book. This book has a
lot of coupons for dining, golf cart rentals, scuba diving,
and last but not the least a 10% discount off the duty free shop
that sells liquor at the international airport :)

Day 16: We head to the airstrip to get back home. We took the flight to
the municipal airstrip due to the discount and lower pricing. Then
we took a cab for US $25 from the municipal to international
airport.

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