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BELIZE W/ TEENS: DARING FAMILY SURVIVES EXTREME CAVES AND BRUTAL HEAT

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BELIZE W/ TEENS: DARING FAMILY SURVIVES EXTREME CAVES AND BRUTAL HEAT

Old Apr 20th, 2009, 06:12 PM
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BELIZE W/ TEENS: DARING FAMILY SURVIVES EXTREME CAVES AND BRUTAL HEAT

Here's my tardy trip report (with apologies to momliz and hopefulist). I greatly appreciate everyone's input and hope I can help other Fodorites who are agonizing about how to put together an "unbelizable" surf/turf combo.

In spite of a few minor issues (gastrointestinal disturbances and the unforgiving weather) this was one of our favorite family trips ever and we would go back in a heartbeat.

WHO WE ARE: Two adults; two male offspring, 15 & 18. The eighteen-year-old is headed to college in the fall and we're trying to get in as many vacations as possible (using AA mileage) before he refuses to travel with us. I have lived in two Latin American countries, and we often find ourselves in Mexico or Costa Rica, as well as in more faraway destinations. Because we have good mileage karma, we have the terrible habit of planning major journeys at the last minute, as was the case with this trip.

PREVIOUS VISIT TO BELIZE:
Many decades ago, as a backpacker, my friend and I endured a dusty, windowless eight-hour bus ride from Tikal to Belize City, where we spent six days at a guest house populated by members of the local cartel, with a view of an open sewer. We finally caught the once-a-week "ferry" to Caye Caulker, where numerous other backpackers had said you could get a fifty-cent lobster dinner on an idyllic beach. But the beach had washed away in a hurricane. And the lobster season had ended the day before we arrived. That meant the only available menu item on the whole of Caye Caulker was chicken necks & backs, which we were served three times a day as we waited for the return ferry. On Day 3, the trade winds stopped and we were attacked by swarms of vicious DEET-resistant sand fleas. Covered in welts, we chartered a rickety dingy back to the mainland - a voyage of seven hours because we nearly capsized and had to be rescued by fishermen in the dark, stormy waters.

After all that, I swore I would never go back to Belize, but my kids had heard about the awesome tubing from a friend who had stayed at Chaa Creek. So when we found an AA award a month before the trip, I "caved" and said I would give it a second chance.

ITINERARY (MARCH 29-APRIL 7)
5 nights Caves Branch Jungle Lodge (near Belmopan)
4 nights Roberts Grove, Placencia

INTL. AIR: AA LAX-BZE, 30,000 points per ticket. I thought this was a fabulous coup at the time of booking because the fares were then $800+; now they are much lower.

WEATHER:
Ridiculously hot everywhere - 95+ at the beach; 105+ inland. Locals, who complained about the heat even more than the tourists, said it had been balmy and gorgeous until three days before our arrival, when the (global warming-esque) dry season officially started.

PACKING LIST:
We managed to carry on, even though we each packed every kind of footwear that REI carries: waterproof hiking boats; lightweight trail runners; Keens; Tivas; river booties, plus nice sandals. (Truly - I am not exaggerating...And the boys, mortified to be seen in any of the above, also insisted on taking their "regular" sneakers.)

If you go to Caves Branch, the outfit of choice there is lightweight convertible Ex-Officio Buzz-off pants with a soaking wet T-shirt. At Robert's Grove all the guys had Solumbra-style fishing shirts and the women wore sarongs or cargo capris with tank tops. Lightweight rash guards are a must for snorkeling. We remembered to bring flashlights, an array of natural and toxic repellants, Mexican itch cream and Pepto Bismol. But we forgot binoculars, waterproof cameras and aloe.

INSECTS:
Not a huge concern. I was panicked that I would have a second encounter with the dreaded sand fleas, but we only met up with a few pesky mosquitoes.

SNAKES/ARMED ROBBERS:
Though warned of both, we saw neither.

FOOD:
Fine...although I wouldn't head to Belize for its cuisine.

FAMILY GETS SICK OF MY BACKPACKER STORY:
About halfway through the vacation, my family forbade me from mentioning my first trip to Belize because I had been telling the tale several times a day to anyone who would listen. So if anyone asked whether I had been to Belize before, I could only say “Years ago,” and “Wow, has it changed!”

NEXT: ADVENTURES AT IAN ANDERSON’S CAVES BRANCH
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Old Apr 20th, 2009, 06:22 PM
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Great start - THANKS!!!
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Old Apr 21st, 2009, 01:30 AM
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ooh, ooh - more please!
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Old Apr 21st, 2009, 05:57 AM
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Can't wait to hear the rest!!!
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Old Apr 21st, 2009, 01:30 PM
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and I would love some details about your shoes - I'm stressing over what to take.
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Old Apr 21st, 2009, 05:51 PM
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For what it's worth - we take a pair of Keen sandals or a pair of amphibious shoes (like Merrell Aquasports or Saloman Tech Amphibians) each (different family members prefer different styles) plus flipflops for beach and shower. Be sure whatever you take is very comfortable. Check with Caves Branch - they may require tennies or hiking boots. My brother-in-law's family decided to take old tennies to hike in and toss since they'll be comfortable but pretty filthy/wet/muddy after the Black Hole Drop.
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Old Apr 21st, 2009, 07:17 PM
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Sorry, your brother-in-law's family will have to play Yatzee at the lodge while everyone else is rapelling - hiking boots are required for cave activities.

They do have some for rent, but sizes are limited, so I wouldn't take the chance.

Stayed tuned for Installment II with shoe therapy for Momliz.
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Old Apr 21st, 2009, 08:06 PM
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Hmmm...it was a Caves Branch recommendation! I'll have them double check.
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Old Apr 21st, 2009, 08:08 PM
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What a funny point of view! Sounds like a neat trip, and I cringed at your account of visit #1. Got a huge kick out of the family reining in your enthusiasm for the story. It IS a great story. Sounds just like my family; not sure how gentle yours is with the "enough of that now" news, but mine tends to be rather brutal.

Anxious to read the rest!
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Old Apr 22nd, 2009, 10:34 AM
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LA to CAVES BRANCH

Rendezvoused with Mr. Crosscheck and the boys in Miami, after attending a wedding in Atlanta (with three additional pairs of shoes, which I shipped home). Although we were traveling on a spring break weekend, MIA-BZE flight (only 1.5 hours) was suspiciously empty - all passengers had three seats to themselves.

Our excellent, personable and informative Caves Branch driver, one of the guides, was at the airport to meet us. We had agonized about whether to rent a car, and in the end, after staying up for the wedding and a red-eye, we were grateful to have someone drive us around.

BELIZE ZOO -
A must-see on the way to the Cayo district. (45 minutes is enough.) The animals, a representation of all fauna in Belize, are in natural habitats and closer to you than they would be anywhere else in the world, liability-wise. Even if you don't like wildlife, you must go just to read the signs, hand-written in Creolish English, mon. You will fall in love with the tapirs, but don't get too close: "I am Scotty the Tapir, I'm handsome, no, true? But better step back 'cause I might pee on you."

AMIGOS RESTAURANT -
Stopped here for lunch. Don't know exactly where it is - somewhere between the zoo and Caves Branch, but there are only three roads in Belize, so it shouldn't be too hard to find. Excellent hot sauce on my chicken - sorry I didn't pick up a bottle in the gift shop.

CAVES BRANCH JUNGLE LODGE -
I was concerned this place would not be as fabulous as Chaa Creek or Blancaneux, but the offbeat extreme adventures sounded perfect for my daredevil family. Turned out to be spectacular in an unmanicured way.

Just in front of the lodge (which is more picturesque than on the website) was one of the most enticing swimming pools on the planet - with a waterfall, bridge, swim-up bar and two jacuzzis. One slight problem - it was empty.

OUR ROOM:

Can't recommend our treehouse highly enough. The other accommodations were fine, but the treehouse is a true travel highlight. It's 20 feet above the ground with a gigantic screened wall which almost-invisibly separates you from pure jungle. No zip-lines necessary if you stay here; you can see (and hear) it all from your bed. Our 2-bedroom treehouse had about 1200 square feet - a master bedroom w/ comfortable king bed facing the canopy, large bathroom and a living room with a bunk bed, chairs and a futon. There was a fun outdoor bucket shower stall on the porch and spiral steps leading up to another king bedroom, bathroom and chic jungle balcony.

Sadly, it was too hot to use the upper level. The boys ended up sleeping in the bunk bed in the living room. So if you're a family going during the dry season, I would recommend the ONE-bedroom treehouse. (Or if you're a group of six, you will have plenty of room to spread out.)

OTHER GUESTS:
Americans (many from the mid-west), Canadians, Europeans. We also met vacationing Ambergris residents. Several multi-age family groups. Kids of all ages - 5 and up. Three of four teens besides ours. A few backpackers, doctors and medical students who were taking jungle survival courses. Because of the family-style dining and the excursions, this is like family camp - you will meet everyone…and spend hours discussing/debriefing about your adventures.

FOOD -
Not gourmet, but good homestyle cooking - somewhat Caribbean. There is always soup, salad, veggies, three or four entrees and sinful desserts. Plenty of options for vegetarians and adventurous eaters, like my family, who all tried gibnut, a large nocturnal rodent. You will look forward to meals, especially because there are ZERO snacks - when you return from the excursions there is not even a peanut at the bar. Everyone shows up for chips and guacamole at happy hour.

ACTIVITIES -
Other than the adventures, none, except board games and chess, which my boys played compulsively, often with the guides. (Ian Anderson's wife runs an impressive chess camp for locals.) The pool will be a MAJOR draw for downtime.

OUR TIMING -
Terrible. We arrived three days after the start of the most brutal dry season ever. Everyone commented about how wonderful the weather had been just days before. River on the premises was dry. Ian Anderson warned guests about snakes (worst year ever in Central America for the deadly feur-de-lance). There had also been robberies in the nearby Blue Hole National Park, so we could not hike there on our own (but eventually went to the exquisite swimming hole in a guided group). We had envisioned hiking around the impressive jungly premises, but it was just too hot - all we wanted to do was jump in the pool...but sadly it was not filled until the day we left.

NEXT: OUR ADVENTURES
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Old Apr 22nd, 2009, 10:48 AM
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Oops - misspelled "fer-de-lance". And I apologize for the CAPS in my trip report title.
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Old Apr 22nd, 2009, 03:19 PM
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Thanks for posting in such detail. I'm sorry you weren't related to my mother - whenever we vacationed with her the weather was strangely perfect. She passed away about 7 years ago but the good weather vacation charm continues.
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Old Apr 22nd, 2009, 04:38 PM
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what fun! I love your sense of humor! sorry about the weather - I can imagine that was tough.

I like the CAPS in your title - makes the report easier to find.

Next winter you should do a mobile safari in Botswana - or supported camping, don't know which is the correct term. We had bucket showers on ours. Go in winter, it's half the price, and super fun. Click on my name for my trip report.
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Old Apr 24th, 2009, 07:36 PM
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Thanks, everyone, for your kind words.

Momliz, Just skimmed your trip report - Dying to go to Botswana, but probably not this winter. We're off to the Galapagos in June...and then there's college move-in in August - maybe next year.

ACTIVITES AT CAVES BRANCH

DAY ONE - RIVER CAVE EXPEDITION
Highly recommended for all ages. You paddle upstream in tubes into a spectacular private cave, then park your tubes and climb around amidst incredible formations and Mayan artifacts. Went with a small group - our family plus two young women from Chicago. This was so satisfying that we decided not to do the ATM, which we heard was similar (albeit with skeletons), instead of tubing you wade, walk and swim through cold water.

FOOTWEAR - waterproof Merrill trailrunners for me; Keens for everyone else

NOTE: This was not the more famous 7-mile "River of Caves tour", which wasn't available in the dry season.

DAY TWO - WATERFALL HIKE for the boys/KAYAKING for me
Mr. Crosscheck and the boys did the signature waterfall adventure featuring climbing, rappelling and jumping off a series of waterfalls inside a cave. All said it was the best nature experience they've ever had, but stressed that it was "for athletes".

I was concerned about my bad knees and opted to kayak instead. Spent the day on a picturesque river with a wonderful guide and two guests in their twenties. Excellent, semi-relaxing adventure, but not enough water in the river. (Another dry season issue).

FOOTWEAR - Hiking boots for the men (mandatory), Tevas for me

SUNSCREEN FAILURE – Applied very expensive sunscreen, purchased from my dermatologist. It must have wiped off; ended up with what looked and felt like second degree burns on my inner calves.

DAY THREE - XUNANTUNICH Mayan ruins - Opted not to go to Tikal, a 3+ hour journey from Caves Branch (plus I'd been there before...and we were concerned about the heat...etc. etc.) This was a good decision - Another group of guests said their AC hardly worked and they encountered terrible traffic on the Guatemalan side coming back.

We have been to many ruins and Xunantunich is definitely not "significant" compared to others, but it’s a fun and easy excursion with a somewhat spiritual vibe...and a good way to round out your Belizean visit after all that time underground. We had a guide to ourselves; stopped for a mediocre meal near San Ignacio. (BTW – the lunches provided by CB in general were not on par with the dinners. Picnics on excursions features yummy tortillas, but w/ a buffet of mystery meat and cheese slices.)

FOOTWEAR - Keens, sneakers.

BLUE HOLE (not to be confused with Belize’s other blue hole for divers off the coast) - Caves Branch organized an afternoon excursion with guides to the "safe" part of the national park across the road, an idyllic turquoise swimming hole formed by underground river. This is a must-do.

DAY FOUR - Our package had included only three adventures, but Caves Branch very generously offered to take us snorkeling in Hopkins because we were missing the opening of the pool by one day and there was little else to do in the heat. Then sadly, Mr. Crosscheck came down with a brief gastrointestinal illness and we ended up spending the day in our treehouse sweating and playing chess and Bananagrams (an addictive portable Scrabblish game that we had brought with us). By the time we went to the Blue Hole in the afternoon, Mr. C was feeling better. At dinner we met a mechanic for Tropic Air, the regional airline that would take us to Placencia the next day. He assured us that our tiny plane was probably in great shape, and if not, the pilots were all pros at water landings.

NEXT: PLACENCIA
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Old Apr 25th, 2009, 02:36 AM
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Thanks again for publishing in such detail! Some people avoid the rainy season but, though it was hot and muggy when we were in Belize with our kids, it wasn't THAT hot, and the river at Caves Branch was beautiful and cooling. Sounds like you and your kids were able to be good sports and enjoy the activities in spite of the weather. Looking forward to reading about Placencia - haven't been there yet and won't be going there when we're in Belize this summer - guess we'll have to visit again!
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Old Apr 25th, 2009, 04:38 AM
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what fun! I can't wait to go! too bad about the gastrointestinal thing, that is not fun. But it looks like he got over it pretty quickly.
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Old Apr 25th, 2009, 05:59 AM
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My husband just reminded me that some of us had some stomach problems there, too. My husband thought it was the water but they seemed really vigilant about their water purification process and it seemed to me that those of us who ate the hard boiled eggs on the Black Hole Drop picnic were the ones who felt sickish.
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Old Apr 27th, 2009, 06:25 PM
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Hmm...interesting theory. I ate the hard-boiled(rooster)eggs two days in a row and remained unafflicted. However, now that you mention it, I think Mr. C did put some mayo on his mystery meat, which at the time I thought was not such a great idea.

How long ago were you there? It sounds as if they haven't changed the lunch menu in all these years.

Before I describe our visit to Placencia, I must share with you this soundtrack video I found on youtube. This is exactly how it sounded in our treehouse at Caves Branch, all night long.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNhgf...eature=related
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Old Apr 27th, 2009, 08:44 PM
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We were there in 2003 - loved the sounds!
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Old Apr 30th, 2009, 12:11 PM
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I've enjoyed your report and am looking forward to the rest of it. Too bad that the pool at Caves Branch wasn't open until you left! The treehouse sounds amazing. I think my family ate at Amigo's on our way to the zoo. Is that the place with all the funny signs and bumper stickers?
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