Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

A-O River!

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Belize – After a month-long hiatus from traveling, we started again where we left off in Cancun, Mexico. We had debated about going to Belize, and finally decided that we heard enough about it to dedicate a few days there – plus we would get to add another country to our list. We flew in to Cancun because it was a lot cheaper than flying to Belize City, and we had some Pesos that we needed to get rid of. After spending a few hours in the Cancun bus station (and eating one last Mexican meal) we boarded the night bus to Belize City.

The ruins of Lamanai.

The ruins of Lamanai.

It was a decent bus, although the air conditioning was super cold, and we had an uneventful, quiet ride. We reached the border at about 4am and everyone got off the bus to walk through immigration. It went smooth for most people, but a few people who were doing the same thing we were – flying to Mexico and leaving the same day for Belize – were trying not to pay the $25 exit fee since they were technically in transit. I tried that as well stating in my broken Spanish, “En Mexico para una dia, pero no pagar?”

We were all made to go inside a room and wait around for an answer. They told us that the law had recently changed and even people in transit now had to pay the fee, but since it was a new law, they would let us pass if we wrote on our immigration cards, “This is the first time I entered Mexico since the new law. I will not pay.” and sign our names. We did it, a little nervously (since I technically had entered Mexico after the new law went into effect when I few to Minneapolis and back for my Grandmother’s funeral). I hope we don’t get put on some Mexico “no fly” list now!

Waves breaking over the Belize Barrier Reef.

Waves breaking over the Belize Barrier Reef.

Belize is known for its islands, but we punctuated our trip with rivers. We didn’t decide where our first destination in Belize would be until we got off the bus in Belize City, but finally decided on Orange Walk Town, northwest of the city (locals refere to Belize City as “the city”). We waffled between starting there or gong straight out to the islands, but our minds were pretty much made up when a guy, Orlando, from Orange Walk Town came up to us in the bus station and asked us if we were going there.

Typically we are wary of someone approaching us like that, but our instincts told us to trust him and he turned out to be a pretty friendly and helpful guy – he even offered to pay our bus fair until we could get some local currency. Since we weren’t used to such helpfulness,  Stuart found a shop at the bus station which would exchange money for us so we could pay for the bus ride.

Fruit stand; Looking back from our hotel's pier.

Fruit stand; Looking back from our hotel’s pier.

Once in Orange Walk Town, Orlando walked us to our hotel of choice (not the one he suggested). He did want something from us, a small commission for setting us up on the boat tour to the nearby Lamanai ruins that we planned on taking, but he was up front about it and it didn’t cost us any extra. Why not help a guy out?

Orlando met us in the morning and walked us to the boat launch where we took a two hour boat ride down the New River to the Lamani ruins, which are only accessible by boat. The ride down was great. We saw a lot of nice scenery, birds, iguanas, monkeys, a couple crocodiles and even one of John MacAfee’s homes (it’s for sale now). Our tour of the ruins felt a little rushed, as guided tours tend to, but we got to climb a nice steep pyramid and take in some nice views from the top. The boat ride there and back was by far the highlight and worth the trip.

Caye Caulker

Caye Caulker

For dinner we ate with a couple that we met on the boat. One of them bravely ordered the Belize specialty, cow’s foot soup. She let us try a bit of it. It was horrible. Stuart summed it up when he declared that it tasted like licking a cow. It was one of the worst things I have ever tasted. I’ll stick to beans and rice, thank you.

Orange walk town had very few tourists and it was nice to see a “real” town in Belize and not just the tourist spots, but we were still anxious to get out the Caye Caluker and hit the beach. We had to take a bus back to Belize city and then a ferry out to Caye Caulker.

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It took us a while to find a place to stay, we must have checked 15 places that were either full or too expensive. We ended up at a place called Mara’s that was a bit expensive for us, $45 US a night, but the room had a porch with a hammock and the hotel had a private dock over the water with chairs and hammocks – we had no problem paying a little more for the place. Caye Caulker doesn’t have much in the way of sandy beaches, so the dock was a nice place to spend the day reading and looking out at the ocean. We spent our days swimming, snorkeling and late afternoons hanging out at the Lazy Lizard, a restaurant/bar with a Caribbean vibe where the locals, young tourists, seasoned travelers and ex-pats converged to watch the sunset.

Sunset at the Lazy Lizard.

Sunset at the Lazy Lizard.

The food in Caye Caulker is great. We feasted in jerk chicken, grilled lobster, loads of beans and coconut rice, and surprisingly good pizza (which was even better topped with some Belizean-made Marie Sharp’s Habanero Pepper Hot Sauce – love that stuff!). Just stay away from the cow’s foot soup and you’ll eat well in Belize.

We took a day-long snorkel tour with Raggamuffin tours that turned out to be fantastic.  I finally invested in a prescription snorkel mask and snorkel – what a difference having quality gear makes – well worth the $80 and lugging the gear around to be able to see well and to not constantly suck down water through a crappy snorkel. The first stop on the cruise was Shark Ray Alley. The guide threw a bunch of chum in the water and our boat was immediately surrounded by nurse sharks and stingrays. Then he told us to jump in and “try not to get in near a shark.” What!? I admit, I was pretty scared, but I eventually made my way in, and by then most of the sharks had gone. I was still shaking, but Stuart held my hand and I was able to relax and enjoy the amazing underwater views of the sharks and rays and giant jack fish. Stingrays must not be as deadly as I thought – the guide even picked one up so we could pet it. It was soft. He tried to get a shark too, but he couldn’t get one to cooperate.

Launching platform for our tubing trip.

Launching platform for our tubing trip.

We stopped at two more spots and snorkeled around some beautiful coral and saw tons of fish, lobsters, sea turtles, a couple moray eels and more stingrays and eagle rays. It was the best snorkeling I have ever done.

We spent the rest of our time in Caye Caulker swimming, lounging on the dock, and taking walks around town, and hanging out at the Lazy Lizard with everyone else during sunset.

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Our final stop in Belize was San Ignacio, which we reached by taking the water ferry back to Belize City and then a “chicken bus” to San Ignacio. Chicken busses are old US school busses that are sold in Central America and then repurposed for the use of public transportation. I have yet to see anyone carry chickens on the bus, but supposedly that is how they got their name.

Looking out from one of the caves we swam in.

Looking out from one of the caves we swam in.

Belize is slightly more expensive than other Central American countries but where they really get you is organized tours, and unfortunately you can’t do a lot of things on your own in Belize – so if you want to see some things you have to fork over the cash.

We did two tours from San Ignacio, the first was a tubing trip in the nearby caves. I’m pretty sure I had already sworn off caves since night blindness and poor balance does not make me the best spelunker. We passed on the famous ATM tour that would have us hiking through the cave for a couple hours, but how hard could sitting in a tube in a river that flowed in and out of a cave really be? Plus, it sounded pretty fun. And it was, until we had to get out and stumble around the cave in the dark and crawl on our bellies through a tiny opening. I definitely had my G.I. Jane moment.

The runis of Caracol.

The runis of Caracol.

The cave and the tubing we really fun, but about halfway though the tubing we ran into the cruise ship crowds. Hundreds of cruisers poured into the river in giant tubes all linked together, so we spent the second half of the ride trying to avoid getting stuck behind one of these groups. Overall the tubing was really fun, especially when we had to go over rapids and our guide would yell, “butts up!”.

The next day we took a trip out with the same guide to the Caracol ruins. Yes, we were “ruined out”, but these are the biggest in Belize, so we thought they were worth the trip. The ruins were cool, but nothing too unique. We also reaffirmed our preference not to go on guided tours at these sites. Our guide had some interesting things to say, but we weren’t always confident they were correct – and he didn’t like to be questioned about something we thought was wrong. At one point he mentioned that slavery was abolished in Belize in 1981 (it was abolished in 1838)!

Tina Tumb Raider; Big Rock Falls.

Tina Tomb Raider; Big Rock Falls.

We loved Belize. We loved the Caribbean culture, the food, and we admit traveling is a lot easier when you speak the language (English is the national language). It’s also really multicultural. There are Mayans, Spanish, Mestizos (people of mixed Spanish and indigenous decent), Creoles (people of African and British decent), (look it up – their history is too long to explain here), Mennonites and even a fair amount Chinese. Makes for interesting culture and good eats!

PS, if you’re interested in the inspiration of the title of our blog post watch this skit from Portlandia.

2 Comments

  1. Great blog, great picture. Makes me want to travel!

  2. Cant wait to go tubing and snorkeling here one day. The A-O River video can’t be viewed in Kenya for whatever reason – bummer!