A Travellerspoint blog

January 2016

Belize - getting there and getting organized

Airfare, cell service and data plans, oh my!

sunny 83 °F

This fall I was able to organize a trip to Belize with my son and his girlfriend. I have never visited Central America before, so Belize sounded like a good first foray; it's pretty politically stable, reasonably safe, and the official language is English (although Spanish and Creole are commonly used). I planned the trip in two parts; 5 days on the Caribbean coast and 5 days in the interior highlands. I would be traveling alone in the second part of the trip.

My first pleasant surprise when getting this started was that I was able to grab a really good fare on American. I currently use Google Flights site as my starting point for scouting airfares, although I have found that it can give wildly inaccurate results for travel between overseas destinations (quoting airfares like $130,000!), so use with care For domestic (US) and European travel it works very well and allows you to quickly explore options. I got a round trip from Detroit for $550, which is less than half what Delta, for example, was charging at the same time. I also needed to book a short hop from Belize City to San Pedro (a barrier island off the northern coast). My son and I used the two different airlines servicing this route and both were fine - pretty casual travel in twin prop planes for a 20 minute flight. My son even got to sit in the copilot's seat; does that count as fun or is that scary? I'll let you choose.

As I often travel alone, having connectivity is important to me. I scoured the intertubes to try and understand how phone and data service were handled in Belize. Honestly, I ran across a whole lot of contradictory information. If there was a consensus, it appeared to be that connectivity was hard to come by and quite expensive. Well, my experience was very different. I went to the BTL (Belize Telemedia)office about 5 blocks north of the airport in San Pedro. The provided me with a SIM card, $10 phone credit and 1 gig of data for $26 US (Belize dollars are pegged at $2 Belize = $1 US). I had good connectivity along almost all the main roads and in the cities I visited, with perhaps a few dropout zones in the south of the mainland and off the beaten track (more on that later). That is a pretty good deal to my mind. I don't know if other services are comparable, but this should give you a current baseline for comparison if you are planning to visit.

We booked an apartment in San Pedro located about a half mile south of the airport through Airbnb . We took a taxi there ($5 US - no meters, so ask the fare before you get in!) and settled in. The apartment was clean and comfortable and in a pretty good location. We like to walk, so hoofing it up the main road or along the beach into downtown San Pedro was easy and convenient. Downtown itself is small enough to completely cover on foot; no vehicle needed.

Speaking of vehicles, the predominant modes of travel for tourists are taxis and golf carts. The carts are small, noisy, open gas-powered vehicles that reminded us of Disneyand Autopia cars. We were in San Pedro over the New Year's holiday which is absolute peak visitor time, and the streets reflected that. They were full of golf carts, delivery vehicles, taxis, etc. The relatively low speeds and narrow streets helped mitigate the rather casual attention to stop signs and other traffic 'laws' downtown. Golf carts are expensive - rates seemed to run in the $60 US range per day so you may want to add that as a budget item if you plan on renting one; taxis would probably be a cheaper alternative.

san_pedro_street_by_robin.jpg

When we left the island after New Years, it was considerably quieter.

new_years_..16_by_robin.jpg

(photo credits to Robin Deits)

We hit the grocery store for provisions (prices are quite reasonable) and settled in for our visit.

Posted by tdeits 12:11 Archived in Belize Tagged shopping golf san pedro lodging downtown tips carts service airfare cell data Comments (0)

San Pedro Island, Belize

sleep eat repeat

sunny 82 °F

If you are looking for a laid back Caribbean experience, San Pedro delivers.

The eastern shore of the island is pretty Caribbean coast with a variety of restaurants, bars and hotels lining the beach.

large_San_Pedro_shore.jpg

The hotels range from luxury to budget, as might be expected. If you were looking for the closest approximation to a Hawaiian beach resort with all amenities in downtown San Pedro, you might want to look in to Ramon's Village Resort. We didn't stay there, but wandered the very attractive grounds, peeked into room windows and had a good lunch on the beach by the pool. Not a huge resort, but very pleasant looking.

We ate at several good restaurants - made our own breakfasts. Our favorite turned out to be Sunrise Island Cuisine. It's a little place; it's not on the beach but is tucked into the courtyard of a small hotel about 1/3 mile south of the airport along the main road. We had lunch there twice and dinner once. Ceviche is a restaurant staple in Belize and we had really tasty shrimp and conch ceviche. Seafood is excellent on the island - here's a snapper dinner at the same place. By the way, the owner was most friendly and positively effusive when we came back again! It's a very restful and quiet place that makes a nice brief respite from sun and sand.
ceviche_an..ine_Cuisine.jpgSnapper_di..ne_edited-1.jpg

By the way, Izzy's smoothie shop is another not-to-be missed treat a few blocks north of the airport.

The best meal we had was at another well known island restaurant El Fogon. It's a white-tablecloth restaurant where they prepare stews in an open pit in the dining room. It's very popular and everything we ate was delicious. The only downside was that I didn't do enough research on my meal. One of the items offered was gibnut stew. Gibnut is a rodent of unusual size that is considered a delicacy in Belize. Here's a picture of my meal and its source. Up top are my son's and his girlfriends shrimp and fish meals.

gibnut_stew_el_fogon.jpggibnut.jpg

Credit to Trent's blog for the gibnut photo.

The gibnut is a rodent (I don't think I have eaten a rodent before, so that was part of my interest in the dish) also called the Paca and other names. The origin of the name gibnut is a bit obscure; it may have to do with their diet of fruit and nuts. It tasted quite good; a rich and not gamy dark meat in a really tasty mild chile/tomato sauce.

The downside is that I later learned that the gibnut is overhunted and that the current level of hunting is not sustainable. So, while it was an interesting diversion for me, I would not eat it again and you might want to think twice about choosing it as well.

By the way, prices overall were moderate and I don't think I had a bad meal the whole trip. In the next entry, we will actually do something!

Posted by tdeits 06:18 Archived in Belize Tagged hotels restaurants san pedro downtown ceviche Comments (0)

San Pedro outdoors

sunny 86 °F

In between all of the eating and drinking (many beach bars!) we did manage to get outside on San Pedro. We did a lot of walking along the beach and through town, just taking in the sights and drinking Izzy's smoothies. We also signed up for a couple of snorkel trips. The first one was to a place called Mexican Rocks. Wish I could provide some pics, but (for the second time!) my GoPro waterproof case failed - despite extreme care in testing it before use and in inserting the camera on site. That's if for them as far as I am concerned.

Soooo.... well the water is a beautiful blue and the clarity was decent considering that very high winds had stirred up the sands. There is a barrier reef about a half mile offshore from the San Pedro beach which protects the island from swells and waves (but not hurricanes...) and the usual snorkeling/diving trips are on the island side of the reef. A good selection of local sealife was to be had.

On our second trip, we went to Shark Alley and Hol Chan. Hol Chan is a large marine preserve to the south of San Pedro of which Belizeans are understandably proud. Despite its large size as far as I can tell snorkel trips are restricted to one mooring area. It was extremely crowded when we were there, with at least a dozen tour boats moored to the seabed or to each other. The seeing and sealife were very good, but this is a trip that would be much better at a less crowded time of year. Trying to find a trip that went elsewhere in the Reserve (don't know if that is even legal) might be worth the effort as well. We booked this trip through Ecologic Divers

Ecologic_D..ize_cropped.jpg

but due to missing staff (the day after New Years - I wonder why??) we were sent to a different group. The good news is that the folks at Ecologic Divers were very diligent in helping make sure we got our trip, even to the point of bicycling down the beach to find us and direct us to the right destination.

Shark and Ray Alley is another very crowded diving site outside the Marine Reserve. The highlight here is to encounter sharks (nurse sharks) and rays. Unfortunately, some operators (not ours) chum the water to bring in the sharks and rays and clearly they are very well trained; a dozen or so sharks were writhing together to get at the bait. If you wish you can get quite close, even within touching distance. Moments after the bait was exhausted they disappeared again. There is not much else to see at this site so if the chumming frenzy is not your cup of tea, you might look elsewhere.

I have done quite a bit of snorkeling/free diving around the world, so maybe I am getting a bit jaded, but I found both trips to be too rushed and also quite crowded compared to other snorkeling spots (It was the holidays, of course). If I were going back I would seriously consider one of the multi-day snorkeling trips that are on offer. This requires a bit more planning - for example, should you break your hotel reservation into two pieces? We also were told that they couldn't confirm a trip until about 2 weeks before arrival which further complicated our plans.

Another alternative that we were eager to try was on the island of Caye Caulker (more about Caye Caulker in the next post). We ran across signs in San Pedro for a tour that included more exploration of the mangrove swamps near Caye Caulker but were never able to make contact with the proprietor, Captain Richard. He has a Facebook page but we couldn't get to him by phone. Probably the best was to reach him would be to go to Caye Caulker - his office is about 50 feet south of the ferry dock on the beach.

Our other 'outdoor' activity was to rent a golf cart for the afternoon and head out to the northern half of the island. As you head north through San Pedro you come to a small bridge with a pretty large toll ($2.50 US each way) that leads to the north. The road is partly paved and occasionally very rough, but there's no reason to hurry. Most of the way you have mangrove to the west and low bushes/palms to the east. The entire length that is relatively easily accessible by cart is lined with restaurants and resorts, some of which are very large. If you were planning to stay out in this area, you would be well advised to check on what options you might have to get into town.

We saw a few iguanas along the road

Iguana_Ambergris_Caye.jpg

and some shorebirds (egrets and cranes primarily) in the mangroves. It was an enjoyable outing and pretty much satisfied our need to cruise around in golf carts.

As we were jostling down the road we were very surprised to see what looked exactly like a hipster food truck facility, obviously brand new, along the west side of the road. The Truck Stop had some quite tasty food, a nice bar and ice cream place as well as a boardwalk that takes you out over the mangrove swamp where there are picnic tables. It also includes the requisite cornhole game spot. Makes for a very pleasant break in the trip. Here's a picture apparently taken during construction (credit to Ambergriscaye.com for the photo).

the_truck_stop_Belize.jpg

By the way, we ate there non-ironically.

Posted by tdeits 07:46 Archived in Belize Tagged mexico rocks golf san belize snorkeling chan pedro shark carts caye ambergris alley hol Comments (0)

Caye Caulker

Seriously laid back

sunny 84 °F

We took a day trip to Caye Caulker on the water taxi. Several are available and the run pretty frequently until around sunset - takes less than an hour.

If the cosmopolitan environment of San Pedro is just too much hustle and bustle for you (hah!), then Caye Caulker is a great place to decompress (by decompress I mean going from maybe a tenth of an atmosphere of pressure down to near vacuum). It's smaller, with maybe two unpaved streets with very little traffic running along each side of the Caye, one facing the Caribbean and the other facing the water to the west. I've been to a few Caribbean destinations, including BVI, St John's, Nevis and others and for a completely relaxing vibe, Caye Caulker has them beat. Remember that we are visiting over the New Year's holiday, the high season. There were a fair number of tourists roaming around so I imagine it must be amazingly peaceful as well as beautiful at quieter times.

To give you an idea of the urban life of Caye Caulker, here is the main street and the business district around early afternoon rush hour.

Caye_Caulk..ss_district.jpgcaye_caulk..t_rush_hour.jpg

The colors on the island are typically beautiful Caribbean:

large_Caye_Caulk..rs_edited-1.jpgCaye_Caulker_home.jpg
6628EF48AC3FB67CD9DAFEA52CFFDF85.jpg

And the shoreline is serene and scenic

caye_caulker_dock.jpgCaye_Caulker_water_scene.jpg

(both of those pictures were taken from the same spot while sitting on the sand)

Here's a picture of the west coast of the island

Caye_Caulker_west_side.jpg

There is no shortage of tasty restaurants and snack places. The largest hotels look like 'botique' hotels - we saw nothing that resembled a resort. There are plenty of tour operators if you are so inclined. It's clearly a place where doing as close to nothing as possible is the ultimate goal. And that is not a bad thing.

Posted by tdeits 11:56 Archived in Belize Tagged caye caulker Comments (0)

Inland to Chicibul

iquanas, cattle, roads, tranquility and good deeds

overcast 76 °F

My son and his girlfriend had to go back to work (heh) but I stayed on to look around the mainland of Belize. I rented a car at the airport (cars in Belize are quite expensive to rent and equally expensive to buy). I had rented through Avis but when I arrived they didn't have a vehicle for me so they sent me down the line of storefronts to another agency who provided me with a AWD SUV. I knew that I was going to be traversing some rough roads so I wanted to have an adequate vehicle.

Loaded up my luggage and headed to town (Belize City). There is a good supermarket right around where the airport road meets the Western Highway (my destination) so I got lots of stuff to make breakfast.

I think the best way to describe Belize roads is 'intermittent.' The main roads, like the Western Highway, are paved 2 lane roads with occasional midline striping. Traffic moves pretty fast, 60 mph +. Once in a while, though, the road can turn pretty rough so you have to be ready to slow down appropriately. Another interruption that was new to me were the frequent speed humps. These typically interrupt the main highway at the entrance to and exit from small villages along the road. Sometimes it is not clear that you are entering a village, so you need to stay alert. The humps range from full-on raised pedestrian crossings to IRCM's (improvised road calming measures) often consisting of a large nylon hawser (gynormous rope to you landlubbers) laid across the road. In some cases you will find a sign that alerts you to a hump 100 yards ahead (hey- it's former British Guiana so they still use Imperial units). In some cases there is only a sign place adjacent to the hump itself, and in some cases there is no notification at all. So stay alert, particularly at night (roads are very dark).

As it was getting late, I stopped at a widely recommended place, the The Orange Gallery for dinner. I had a really good giant grass fed Porterhouse steak for around $10 US. As the menu cautions, grass fed beef is a very chewy experience but it has excellent flavor. Took about half of the meat along when I left. Here's a pair of pictures of my dinner - before (across the highway) and after...
2A437C62F5F4D8DC8E32693AA7D180B7.jpg2A637463D589AC8AB6BA27F6AC9949DC.jpg

They also have a large art/gift gallery which I briefly browsed. Probably worth more time than I gave it as I was anxious to get to my place. The reason for my haste was that the road to my accommodation was going to be a pretty rough one and I preferred to tackle it in the fading daylight. My goal was a property I had selected on AirBnB called 'Chicibul Ranch.' It was about 2 hours by road from the airport and the last 7 miles after turning off the Western Highway were the rough part. The road was indeed a rough limestone road of very variable quality. There were lots of rocks sticking up (the ones big enough to punch in your oil pan appear to have been beaten down by generations of vehicles), some pretty good potholes and some moderately steep grades. Here's a snapshot of the road - a level bit.

2A7014CBE6F7A85549E92DEE59604A9D.jpg

The good news is that the trip was well worth the destination. I stayed in this large thatched home - chicibul_ranch_exterior.jpgchicibul_r..or_edited-1.jpg

which was nicely furnished and extremely comfortable. It is also off the grid and in a very quiet area. It was so quiet that when I arrived I simply plopped down on a hammock on the porch and gazed at nothing until evening then simply went to bed. It was a moonless and cloudy night and it was 'can't see hand in front of face' dark and absolutely silent. I found that very pleasant, but your mileage may vary....

The property includes an orange orchard and teak plantation and it makes a very nice walk of a mile or so around the property.

The nearest large town is San Ignacio, a hilly town with a fairly significant tourist presence.san_ignacio.jpg

I wandered around a bit on a couple of days. One of my excursions was to the San Ignacio Resort Hotel where I had heard about their iguana restoration project. Before the tour began, I took the opportunity to have a ceviche lunch at the hotel. Yummy as usual. san_ignacio_hotel_lunch.jpg

The iguana project is fairly modest in scope but it offers visitors a guided tour where you can see, learn about and play with the iguanas, some of significant size. The guide was pretty entertaining especially describing the personalities of the various denizens and the challenges of iguana breeding and restoration. Iguanas are widespread in Belize but they are hunted for food (tastes like chicken?) and so their population is in decline. The reserve takes in 'stray' iguanas and breeds them, returning the offspring to different locations in the country to keep the gene pool stirred up. It's a labor of love of a prior owner of the hotel, and one that now appears to have a life of its own. I think it's worth a visit to learn a bit and support the effort. Here are a couple of iguana encounter pics.

iguana_encounter_1.jpgiguana_encounter_2.jpg

I haven't talked a lot about the people of Belize as yet, partly because I had relatively fewer interactions with folks on this trip than when I went around the world and had significant interactions with several of my hosts. Overall, folks are quite friendly and polite. When you interact with people routinely it is appropriate to say 'good afternoon' and maybe add a polite 'how are you.' They will respond in kind and then you can get down to business. Our normal approach (HI ! Gimme a triple soy latte no foam extra rainbow sprinkles) is too abrupt by Belezian standards. I think that you can reasonably expect that anyone you interact with in a tourist encounter will have a reasonable command of English.

I did have one interaction that is worth a mention. When I pulled out of Chicibul Ranch on my first morning's excursion, I made a error of timidity. It had rained the night before and there is a very slight uphill where the driveway meets the main road. I took it slowly which was my fatal mistake - in true Top Gear fashion I should have gunned it, but I was worried because the driveway opens directly on the main road which does carry the occasional large vehicle. I got near the top of the rise and then, despite having an AWD vehicle, lost all traction in the slippery mud and slid back down the hill out of control into the adjacent embankment. Ta da.

oopsie_1.jpgoopsie_2.jpg

Well, now I was stuck. The only person who ever came by the property was Hugo the friendly caretaker who had opened the place for me the night before but I didn't expect to see him for a day or so. I also had no cell service so I was in a bit of a pickle. I decided to solve the problem in true lazy vacation fashion: I went back to the house, climbed in the hammock and read a book.

Oddly enough, it worked! After a few hours an older gentleman came down the road and in basic English told me that he was Hugo's father. Evidently passers by on the road had seen the car in the ditch, knew that Hugo was the caretaker, couldn't get hold of Hugo, but could contact Hugo's dad. Hugo's dad then contacted the pastor of his church who had a AWD pickup and the two of them just came over to fix my problem. 15 minutes of machete work and 5 minutes of pulling got me out of the ditch with, amazingly no damage at all to the vehicle!

Now wasn't that right neighborly? I thanked them as effusively as I could and offered to pay for their efforts. The pastor said he would only accept gas money but I was able to offer him a bit more in the form of a donation to his church.

To be honest, I think experiences like this are the main reason I enjoy traveling.

Posted by tdeits 10:01 Archived in Belize Tagged rental roads car chicibul Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 6) Page [1] 2 » Next