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Trip Report HOPEFULIST IN BELIZE, 2009

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Hi, all -
Here's my Belize Travelogue, also posted on the Thorntree Forum
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?messageID=16184025 and the Belize Forum http://www.belizeforum.com/belize/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=163302#Post163302

My Central America trip this summer was divided into 2 distinct parts, about 2 and a half weeks each. I started with a Spanish study visit to Guatemala with a group in tow, 15 of us in all, ages 13 to 65; I posted a separate thread about that and you can find it [here|http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=1819363]. Just like the Guatemala thread, this Belize one it’s shockingly long but since it’s your choice to read it or not I won’t apologize for that. My photo collections can be found with the link in my signature line and [here|http://www.holemansandbrinksinbelize.blogspot.com/] is a blog of the trip including photos.

Here’s the cast: myself and my husband, Mike, his brother’s family of 5, henceforth known as the BIF (brother-in-law’s family) including Eric, Kathy, Tyler 18, Adam 14, and Eli, 12), and our daughter, Mariah, and her husband, Greg. Our own family of 5 adventured in Belize for 3-4 weeks in 2003 and had a BLAST. Mariah has campaigned for several years to return so she could show Greg how the other folks travel (us folks who avoid all inclusive resorts); he was a bit nervous about brackish water, no showers, and no electricity but was an excellent sport and is now leading the campaign to return. This trip we visited old favorite spots and explored a few we missed last time.

The weather was wonderful, not as hot and muggy as I remember from 2003, no hurricane threats, and just a few thunder storms for drama. Greg had some stomach problems which continued past his return home; he’s fine now, though 20 pounds lighter. I had a 30 second flurry of sand fly interaction on Glover’s that, combined with hives from an allergy, resulted in a few yicky nights. The others weren’t with me at the time of the attack (breaking down my dive gear in the boat at the dock) and suffered virtually no bites. Other than that, no health or safety issues.

In planning our lodging and routes I was surprised at the cost increases since ‘03. Although I prefer the local buses to other forms of ground transportation we were enough off the beaten path this trip that a few shuttles were necessary to smooth the way. I was really surprised at the expense and chose different providers for different routes in the name of economy; service was excellent and I would especially recommend Leonard Russell (209.2055 or 625.9830) and Raul Marchand (628.6438 galmar_48@yahoo.com ). I’m not posting the prices here since our group included 7 to 9 people and our cost reflected bigger vehicles than most travelers would need. Where posted, prices are in US$ and phone numbers need 011.501 added to the front if you’re calling from the US.

4 friends and I scooted from Flores through the western border of Belize on August 4th, 2009 and grabbed lunch at [The Trek Stop|http://thetrekstop.com/] in San José Succotz. The place looked the same (yay!) and we enjoyed a few minutes in the beautiful butterfly enclosure with Tino before sitting down to our favorite meal from our visit 6 years ago, the Belizean Special (rice and beans, stew chicken, coleslaw for US$4.50 but I shared with a friend and it was plenty). From there the others dropped me at the airport to meet my family and headed to the dock and Caye Caulker for a few days before flying home.

Mike flew in on American and the BIF on Continental within 15 minutes of each other, luggage and smiles intact. Raul was there to greet us and whisked us to the Community Baboon Sanctuary in Bermudian Landing, a half hour distant. We stayed at the [Nature Resort|http://www.toucantrail.com/Nature-Resort.html] there which was lovely, though our actual time on site for exploring was limited since we just stayed 2 nights and were away the full day between. We could hear black howler monkeys but did not see them; if we’d paid a fee for a tour we likely would have; this was not a big disappointment since we had lots of great monkey action other places.

There were some communication issues there. The 2 cabins with air conditioning we reserved (US$65/night/each) became both sides of a gorgeous duplex with no ac and a smaller unit with ac (they thought they’d have ac in the other units before we got there but it didn’t happen and they neglected to tell us, even when I emailed specifically to confirm a few weeks ahead). I was told I could pay with my credit card and then was unable to; gratefully I had enough traveler’s checques, though I missed them later in the trip. Also, the delicious meal we were served the 1st evening (Belizean special plus mango tarts for dessert) was a whopping US$15 each. They would gladly have provided additional meals for a similar rate but the rooms had refrigerators and we shopped for baked goods, juice, beer, avocados, fruit, and happy cow cheese and were pleased with our own culinary magic for a fraction of the cost. Long story short, although I can’t say this was the best value of our trip, it was a beautiful place to stay, it was great to bed down so close to the airport, we loved our cabins and the surrounding meadows and woods, the food was delicious, and we’re happy with our choice.

Our 1st full day in Belize we shuttled to Orange Walk and boated to the Lamanai Maya ruins up the New River with Lamanai River Tours (670.0700, US$45 including park entry). Our captain and guide was Carlos Godoy (not sure of the last name spelling) who was a friendly, informative, and conscientious companion - highly recommended. We saw lots of crocodiles and iguanas, fed bananas that Carlos provided to spider monkeys that came to the boat, and identified lots of birds including wood storks, anhingas, limpkins, boat billed herons, snowy and great egrets, green kingfishers, social flycatchers, brown pelicans, northern jacanas, snail kites, whistling ducks, and beautiful black collared hawks.

At Lamanai we ate the wonderful lunch that was included in the tour (Belizean Special but with interesting salads) before heading into the ruins. Carlos was a good guide there, too, and allowed us plenty of time to explore on our own. There were tarantulas and toads, orchids, vines to swing on, and lots of howler monkeys. The trails and ruins were wonderful and the view of the lagoon from the temple tops was breathtaking.

Our 2nd full day, Thursday, we said our goodbyes to the Baboon Sanctuary and headed to the [Belize Zoo|http://belizezoo.org/] (US$8/pp) early in order to beat the cruise ship visitors - good call! We had the zoo to ourselves for nearly an hour and a half; the cruisers arrived in large batches as we were exiting the gift shop, ice cream in hand. Early meant cooler temps, too, and there were almost no bugs. Highlights were the tapirs and cats, the huge crocodiles, the beautiful harpy eagles, and the endearing and informative handpainted signs.

We kept our bags safe in the shuttle van while we toured, then Raul dropped us at the bus shelter and we caught the 1st bus heading west just 5 minutes later. It dropped us in Santa Elena and we hiked the few blocks to the beautiful [Aguada Hotel|http://www.aguadahotel.com/]. I can’t recommend that place enough - the rooms were spacious and tidy and colorful, with plenty of hot water and welcomed ac (I didn’t used to be so spoiled). Mike’s and my room was in the new section beyond the pool and pond and included a refrigerator and microwave. The staff was exceptionally friendly and we loved having a pool, especially for the boys. The onsite restaurant had wifi and was good and reasonably priced and good coffee was available early each morning. For us it was not a problem to be away from San Ignacio proper; we enjoyed walking the 1st afternoon through the neighborhoods of Santa Elena and across the rickety bridge into San Ignacio and back for groceries and baked goods and ice cream treats and it was easy to arrange for tour pick-up and taxi as needed.

On Friday Francisco from [Pacz Tours|http://www.pacztours.net/pages/tours/ATM.html] picked us up at the Aguada and we headed to Actun Tunichil Muknal, the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre (US$70/pp, maybe a special price because of the size of our group). All of us loved it and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to visit and to share the experience with my loved ones. It’s just amazing to see bones and pots 1000+ years old amid strange and beautiful cave formations, and in the bargain have to hike, swim, climb, slide, wade, and tiptoe to get to them.

Before dinner we had the hotel call a taxi to take us to the ruins of Cahal Pech. I was pleasantly surprised by these ruins. The museum is small but nice and the ruins themselves tranquil and interesting with stairways and chains of rooms.

Saturday morning a shuttle van picked us up and we headed to Hopkins Village with several important stops on the way: at the Orange Gift Shop at [Caesar’s|http://www.belizegifts.com/guesthouse/index.html] for souvenirs, in Belmopan to shop for groceries for our week on Glover’s, and at the Dangriga Airport to meet Mariah and Greg. In Hopkins we stayed at the [Hopkins Inn|http://www.hopkinsinn.com/] (US$59-99/cabin/night, depending on the configuration of the cabin and number of occupants), 4 beautiful white-washed cabins with lovely art work and comfortable furniture, framed with tropical plantings and sitting in the sand beside the Caribbean. The owners are friendly and helpful and serve a wonderful breakfast on the deck of each cabin at the requested time each morning, an altogether wonderful place to stay.

We strolled the sandy streets, ate good Belizean food at Iris’s, near the south end of town, and shopped for fruit and vegetables at a local stand. The boys and I jumped waves in the twilight, then all of us walked down to the [Lebeha Drumming Center|http://www.lebeha.com/] (for donations, US$10/pp+/-) at the north end of town for an incredible show of drumming and dancing; anyone who visits Hopkins and misses that has missed the Garifuna boat totally.

We have hometown friends who were Peace Corps volunteers in Hopkins Village 20 years ago. They’ve been collecting books for the library there and our nephew, Tyler, agreed to transport them to Belize and donate them. He met with Lois, an expat who is managing Bertie’s Library, the project of a more recent Peace Corps volunteer who passed away in Hopkins a year or 2 ago.

The next morning at 8am Mariah, Greg, Mike, and I went to Glover’s Guesthouse in neighboring Sittee River Village to connect with our boat headed to Glover’s Atoll. It was hours before we left while they dug up enough diesel for the trip, but the 40 mile ride itself was wonderful - smooth ride in their 80 foot catamaran, beautiful weather, and dolphin escorts. This was a great start to our wonderful week on North East Caye at [Glover’s Atoll Resort|http://www.glovers.com.bz/] (US$250/pp for the trip out and back and a beach cabin). There was a large group of teen-agers attending an adventure camp our 1st night there and, since the beach cabins were full that night, we were upgraded to over-the-water cabins for the week; ours were numbers 7 and 8, attached to the shore and each other by a Y shaped walkway. We loved them. Since last visit they’ve upgraded the toilets and added shower stalls, though the water is still the smelly brackish sort that was offered for bucket baths 6 years ago. Our cabin had a really serviceable propane stove, (another improvement) and we cooked our own meals and ate simply and well, purchasing a few loaves of homemade bread and fresh fish for our last 2 dinners. There were only 2 other couples there when we were, one who bought the meal package (US$250 each) and reported that the food was excellent (though I don’t think Tony, the cook when we were there, is a permanent fixture).

My husband flyfished daily for bonefish, catch and release, on NE Caye and neighboring Long Caye with good success, especially early in the week (success has a lot to do with the timing of the tides as well as experience); he hitched a ride on the dive boat to SW Caye one morning but wasn’t impressed with the fishing there. He also caught a big permit off Long Caye, a highlight of his trip (and maybe even his life). Mike and Greg went north beyond the boundary of the Marine Reserve but weren’t able to catch dinner.

The snorkeling and diving (US$40-50/dive) around Glover’s Atoll is absolutely phenomenal. I identified more than 60 fish species my first dive and more than 120 in all, new things every dive. Lots of great wall drift dives (mild current), turtles, nurse sharks, cool things like soap fish, razor fish, spotted eagle rays, giant jew fish, juvenile spotted drums, camouflaged scorpionfish, schools of jacks, clouds of juvenile tangs, damselfish, butterflyfish, you name it. One dive I saw nearly 30 cow fish, another there were huge trumpet fish everywhere. And the snorkeling, even from shore, is nearly as good as the diving. We also rented 2 sit upon kayaks for the week (US$150) and put them to good use.

The divemaster, Santos, was terrific as were the boat captains, Rudy and Ian. I enjoyed several evening conversations with Becky and touched base a few times with Marsha Jo. We couldn’t believe how grownup the kids are, especially Warren who was 10 last time and now is a 16-year-old who looks 20 and recently won a huge fishing derby based out of Belize City, competing against teams of adults with heavily rigged boats while he was scooting around with a friend in his little skiff. Glover’s Atoll “Resort” gets mixed press but once again, we enjoyed the setting, activities, and the people, had an absolutely marvelous time and are certain to head back again in the future.

On Saturday we headed back in from Glover’s (another great trip, more dolphins!) and spent another night at the Hopkins Inn. We had asked ahead for a traditional Garifuna meal to be prepared for us at the home of a local woman, Therese, and it was quite an experience - salty snapper, banana dumplings in a fishy sauce, and thin, crisp, kasava bread, made the traditional way in a 2 day process. Therese and her granddaughter kept us company as we ate, outside under a mango tree, the table spread with a Christmas cloth. My husband and I found the food quite palatable but it looked strangely like the Mongolian dish dubbed “beige sauced fat lumps” I’d read aloud about from my hilarious book, The Ridiculous Race, just that morning. The food continued to grow in our stomachs after we got up from the table.

While we were on Glover’s, the BIF headed out on adventures of their own starting with 4 nights at the [Pelican’s Pouch|http://www.southwatercaye.com/home.html] on South Water Caye where they reported really excellent food and service, good snorkeling, decent flyfishing from the dock, and comfortable accommodations, although it was too hot for them to sleep well and lightning struck the island while they were there. They also spent 3 nights at [Caves Branch Lodge|www.cavesbranch.com] where they stayed in a Treehouse, enjoyed the guides and food, liked the Black Hole Drop and loved the Waterfall Cave Adventure. Black howlers seranaded outside their window screens in the mornings. Not sure on the cost; they enjoyed both places but felt a bit too catered to and were a bit shell-shocked by the prices.

On Sunday, August 16th, we were picked up by a shuttle and made a stop at Caves Branch to pick up the BIF. The new walkways and pool area are beautiful but give the place a very resort feel; we preferred the wild paths and jungle feel of 6 years ago. We continued as a group of 9 to Belmopan where Mike and I and the BIF were dropped off at the bus station and the shuttle continued to San Ignacio with Mariah and Greg. They enjoyed 3 days of Maya ruins exploration (Caracol, Lamanai, Xunantunich, and Cahal Pech) as part of a week-long trip Greg won from an avid traveler and Maya ruins junky who we called “Other Greg”. They had a wonderful time, enjoying the ruins and the company of Other Greg and his friend, Steve. A highlight was meeting a baby howler monkey at Caracol who was injured in a fall a few months back, rehabilitated at the Belize Zoo, but was rejected by the troop when he was returned to Caracol. The guides he hangs out with named him Jack and he leapt into Mariah’s arms when she was shooing away a dog who was teasing him - a once in a lifetime experience.

Mike and I and the BIF grabbed some snacks at the bus station, hopped on an express bus to Belize City, taxied to the dock, and missed the 1:30 ferry by 30 seconds. We explored Belize City and the area ice cream options, then headed to Caye Caulker on the 3 pm boat, meeting some interesting other travelers and locals on the way [San Pedro Express|http://sanpedrowatertaxi.com/] (US$7.50 one way, US$12.50 both ways). On Caye Caulker we stayed at [Auxillou Beach Suites|http://www.auxilloubeachsuites.com/] ($89/night double or triple), now a side shoot of Tina’s Hostel, and the BIF stayed next door at [Sailwinds|http://www.staycayecaulker.com/sailwinds.html] ($80/night/double, $15 each add’l person, kids under 13 stay free); our rooms had side-by-side balconies so we just had to hop a railing to visit one another and they’re both conveniently located on the beach just steps from the ferry docks. In each case the rooms were big (nice-sized living rooms with a sofa bed or futon, television and kitchen, king bed in the bedroom, bath with good hot water, and air conditioning; the rooms were cleaned daily by friendly staff. I think our place is heading down the slippery slope to hostel mode and I would pick Sailwinds if I wanted a similar room again, though it would be bigger than we’d need if there were just 2 of us.

Having kitchens was, again, handy. We shopped at the local Chinese groceries and prepared most of our own meals, including lots of fruit and rice and beans and wonderful fresh barracuda steaks we bought from 2 brothers, fishermen who Mike and Eric hired for some drop off/pick up flyfishing near Caye Chapel. There are several nice bakeries and the cake man walks around selling incredible treats in the evenings including coconut macaroon cake, mango upside down cake, and key lime pie cake that were heavenly.

We had 2 meals out that are worth noting. Early in the week Mike and I had a really amazing dinner at Wish Willy, located on a side street near the cut. Most of the seafood dinners are US$7.50 which includes side dishes and limitless mixed drinks. Mike and I each chose the seafood combo for US$12.50 which had big, full servings of lobster, shrimp, and barracuda steak with a delicious sweet chinese noodle/vegie side dish. The setting is not fancy (the backyard of a house); we had to move from our 1st table because of red ants (just warned, no bites) and there was a gecko chirping on the rafter above us - all part of the charm. Mike says it’s the best meal he’s had in his life which is really saying something since his mom is a really great cook - highly recommended.

Our last night in Belize Greg and Mariah (and Other Greg and Steve) rejoined us and we ate out together at Jolly Rogers, located between the docks and the cut. He serves fresh grilled seafood (only lobster the night we went) with 3 side dishes, mixed drinks, and cake for dessert for US$12.50. Roger is indeed jolly; the meal was good but not fabulous and the rum drinks were weak (I have this on good authority, my juice straight up was fine). By comparison it was a disappointment.

Eric and Mike found some fish from the docks and a few bonefish near Caye Chapel, but were generally not thrilled with the fishing (though they only tried for a few days and did not try local guides). Kathy, Tyler, and Eli did a Discover Scuba course at [Frenchie’s Diving|http://www.frenchiesdivingbelize.com/] (US$99/pp) and were really pleased and will pursue certification in the future - they even saw manatees one dive. I did a 2 tank dive with Frenchie’s in the Hol Chan Marine Park (US$98/pp) and I enjoyed my dives there very much. Since it’s a reserve (and I suspect they feed them) the large fish are unafraid and follow you around - groupers, horse eyed jacks, schools of snapper and blue tangs, occasional nurse sharks and rays. Highlights were the gigantic remora (4’) that kept bumping me, hoping I was a shark or whale to attach to and the beautiful turtles munching on turtle grass in shallow water while I snorkled above them during my whole surface interval. In my opinion the reef and variety of flora and fauna doesn’t hold a candle to Glover’s but I enjoyed the dives and would choose Frenchie’s again.

Our last full day Mike, Eric, Adam, and I spent the day with [Raggamuffin Tours|http://raggamuffintours.com/hol-chan-snorkel/] doing a 3 stop sailing/snorkeling trip that included the Coral Gardens, Shark Ray Alley, and Hol Chan. Highlights of the snorkeling were the sharks and rays and a school of big tarpon. The day was really splendid altogether - loved the boat, the staff, the lunch, the ceviche and rum punch, and listening to Bob Marley for hours - highly recommended.

We really loved Caulker. We found the people to be very friendly and talkative and helpful; Mariah is really beautiful and received constant comments when I walked with her down the street, but not wolfish, just flattering and poetic; I felt a bit invisible but didn’t mind. We were surprised by the expense compared to (for example) Roatán or Utila for similar lodgings, but we didn’t really seek out budget places since we wanted more amenities at the end of our trip after a week on Glover’s without electricity and running water. There were plenty of lodging, food, and activity options, and the pace was perfect for us - a great ending to a great Belize visit.

Thursday, August 20th the BIF ferried to Belize City, taxied to the airport and flew Continental home, missing their quick connection in Houston but successfully flying standby a few hours later; their taxes and Mariah and Greg’s were included in their tickets. We flew Tropic Air to the airport and flew American home through Dallas, overnighting in San Francisco before heading to Portland and home on Friday (taxes not included, payable in US$ only, credit cards accepted), and Mariah and Greg had a few more days on Caulker and returned home that Sunday.

Once again, we loved every place we stayed and everything we did; Central America is the gift that just keeps on giving. HAPPY TRAILS!

Link to my photo collections and travelogues/blogs: http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/collections

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