Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Belize - April, 2005

Belize is one of those places that people tell you to visit now, "before the tourists ruin it." It's a bit ironic, but when you go, you understand. It's a curious combination of commercial and unspoiled - exotic and familiar. It was a British colony (known as British Honduras) until the early 80s, and as a result, English is the official language. The local Garifuna food is hearty and tasty - conch stew, fried conch and curries are staples - but it has a slight British/American flair. For example, full breakfast is served almost everywhere, and often includes both the local tropical fruit and waffles or french toast with Lyles Golden Syrup.
For now at least, Belize is certainly not overly commercial. There are no chain stores or restaurants (we saw one Subway), and most of the roads are unpaved. There are Mayan ruins everywhere you look, and in some places artifacts literally litter the ground. Mosquitos are rampant, and full vaccinations (including Typhoid and Tetanus) and and malaria pills are recommended. Nevertheless, it is increasing in popularity as a retirement and vacation destination - homesites can be seen for sale all along the coast. The two zones we visited, the jungle and the coast, each offer entirely different experiences. We split our two week trip in half, the first half on land and the second week on the water. We knew our second week would be spent on a chartered sailboat, hopping among the cayes (pronounced "keys") off the coast between Placencia and Belize City - but we needed accommodations for the jungle portion of the trip and for the two nights we intended to spend in Placencia before boarding the boat.

Central Belize has several eco-lodges and exotic accommodations in the jungle, most in the area surrounding San Ignacio, known as the Cayo. Some of them are very luxurious (and expensive) while others are spare. All offer trips and tours for an additional fee. After some exhaustive research, we settled on Ian Anderson's Caves Branch in Belmopan. They offered what we consider a happy medium in terms of accommodations and adventurous tours for an all inclusive price. Other highly recommended options we considered include Chaa Creek, duPlooy's, Hidden Valley Inn, Blancaneaux Lodge, Pook's Hill, and Five Sisters Lodge.

Our bungalow at Caves Branch had a terracotta tiled floor, king size four poster wooden bed and private bath with shower. Through the wraparound screened windows we could hear the sounds of nature at night - including the eerie Howler monkeys. The warm tropical air felt wonderful. There is limited electricity for a ceiling fan and bathroom lights, but in the rooms after dark we used oil lamps and the paths were lit by torches. This was also helpful for privacy, as the screens do not have any shades or covers (though the spacing and vegetation provide some.)

Meals are served family style on the open veranda of the main lodge. The setting is lovely, and the food is plentiful, fresh and tasty. They also serve cocktails and Belikin beer. Breakfast was really the best meal - tons of fresh fruit, oranges and a press for making your own juice, coffee, and plenty of eggs, potatoes, waffles, pancakes or french toast. It was needed too, for energy during the day ahead.

Caves Branch is not the place to go if you are looking to lay around in a hammock all day. We arrived right at dinner time, and the next thing we knew the tour guide was sitting next to us talking about which adventure we were going on the next day. Everyone goes on a tour each day - and they are not for the faint of heart. There is one called the "Black Hole Drop" - which is exactly what it sounds like, and another particularly strenous hike called the "Waterfall." Unfortunately, while we were there, the river was not running in front of the main lodge - so the cave tubing was limited and swimming in the river was out, but we did go on a hybrid tour of the caves that involved some tubing and hiking, and an opportunity for swimming. We also took a long hike up a very steep hill (holding onto vines, etc.) into a cave that was only discovered about ten years ago (pictured above). It was a sink hole that contained a lot of Mayan pottery and artifacts -literally laying on the ground all around us. It was like something out of Jurassic Park crossed with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Truly incredible.

After doing those two adventure tours on the first two days, we spent our third day going to Tikal, in Guatemala. A lot of people might wonder if this is worth it, since it costs quite a bit (about $150 per person in addition to the regular tariff) and involves traveling between 5 AM and 8 PM on mostly dirt roads. My answer is a resounding yes. It's not only a fascinating site, but the journey through Guatemala was interesting as well. We had no trouble with the border crossing because we were escorted by a tour guide. (We also saw several other tourist vans from Belizean resorts at the crossing.) There are occasional reports of muggings or other problems for tourists in Guatemala, so it's generally recommended that you go with a guide. Most rental car companies also will not allow you to drive their cars into Guatemala.

Our driver, Carlos, had no fear of the dirt roads, he barrelled over each bump with abandon. We stopped at one point to pick up our guide for Tikal and to eat breakfast. With breakfast, we enjoyed some Gallo beer (hint, don't eat the fruit!) We then bump bumped our way on down the road to the site of Tikal.

The Tikal ruin is the largest Mayan city thus far discovered (Caracol, which is currently being excavated in southern Belize, may yet turn out to be larger). It's a fascinating place and one of the strangest tourist destinations I have ever visited. The vegetation is extremely dense, making it difficult to see the monuments from the ground unless you are standing in one of the open plazas. All around, they are excavating new temples that appear to simply be hills covered with vegetation. The highlight was the view from the top of Temple IV, which appears almost exactly as pictured here at the end of the 1st Star Wars movie (it was used as the rebel base.) The staircase leading up Temple IV is actually stairs, while several other temples simply have ladders for climbing.

The next day, we drove from Belmopan to Placencia. The road from the main highway to Placencia was one of the roughest drives I have ever encountered. Our driver stopped to pick people up along the way and drop them off, so it also took a bit longer than it should have. If you are traveling to Placencia from Belize City - I say fly. I saw the Placencia airport, and yes it is the size of a gas station, but that drive was really something.

In Placencia, we splurged and stayed at the Turtle Inn, a small luxury resort on the beach. It is owned by Francis Ford Coppola, as is the Blancaneaux Lodge in the jungle. He purchased the Inn several years ago and had planned to remodel it, but then had to rebuild when Hurricane Iris swept the whole thing into the sea in 2001. The property consists of several Indonesian-tropical style bungalows dotting the beach, arranged around a central area that includes the restaurant and lobby, pool and beach bar.

The rate varies depending on the season, the location and size of the accommodations, and the number staying. The rates start at $195.00 for the garden view cottage in the summer season (which I would discourage as they have no air conditioning), and go up to $1800.00 per night for the villa used by the Coppola family when they are in residence. Generally a cottage in the mid to high season will run between $300-500 per night. They also have several two bedroom two bath villas that rent for $500-$750.00 per night.

The grounds include a restaurant with its own organic garden, a spa and dive shop, gelato bar, beach front bar and grill, and swimming pool with lounging area. The gift shop is stocked with nifty items chosen by Coppola, including Buck knives (which were manufactured in San Diego until they recently moved to Idaho), French Rhodia notepads, Milk Fed t shirts designed by Sofia Coppola, books and magazines, jewelry and sarongs, and Turtle Inn memorabilia.

Our bungalow was gorgeous, with hardwood floors, a small sitting area, a screened front porch, wet bar and gorgeous large indoor/outdoor bathroom with rock garden, outdoor shower and large japanese soaking tub.

We had a great time lounging around the pool and beach, and ate in the beach-front restaurant and bar as well as the regular restaurant. The food was good - we had pizza, pasta and native specialities like fried conch. Not surprisingly, they serve Coppola wines. They also deliver a nice continental breakfast to your room with pastries, fruit and good coffee. On our second night, we held a "kick off" party in the restaurant for the entire group that would be leaving the following day on the sailing trip. The after-party included a midnight dip in the pool for some.

The biggest drawback to the Turtle Inn (and even this depends on your point of view) was that there were a lot of kids. At 8 AM the next morning, we were awakened by some kids splashing around in the pool and yelling over and over again: "I am David Hasselhoff!." It took us a few minutes to figure out how the heck any little kid would even know who David Hasselhoff is - then we remembered that he was in the Spongebob movie. Nevertheless - I didn't exactly expect this to disrupt my sleep at such a fancy "honeymoon-worthy" resort. Perhaps this could be remedied by requesting a bungalow a bit further away from the pool.

The beach is fairly narrow, and not really good for swimming because the water is clogged with seagrass and jellyfish. In order to get to the good diving and beautiful scenery you have to go out to the cayes. There is not a whole lot to see or do in the town of Placencia itself, in part because it was devastated by Hurricane Iris in 2001. The hurricane also took a lot of the palm trees with it - both on the mainland and on the cayes, so it looks a little bare. We rented bikes at the hotel and rode down there on our first day in town - it was a nice trip, and took about an hour. All in all, I would recommend the Turtle Inn for a maybe a three or four night stay at the most. It's a pretty place, but very expensive, and the beaches and diving really are better out in the cayes.

The following day, we boarded the Legacy for our one week private cruise among the cayes. This was orchestrated primarily by James, who is a certified bareboat sailor, but did not want the responsibility of sailing the boat this time around. (He captained a boat with some of the same passengers around the Greek Isles a few months before we met.) The Legacy holds a maximum of 12 passengers and we had 9 - which seemed a perfect number. We were joined on the trip by some friends from as far away as Northern California and Scotland, as well as fellow San Diegan Tracy.

All of our meals were prepared on board the boat by the wonderful cook, Brenda, and we had a fantastic crew including Charlene, who assisted Brenda and prepared our afternoon cocktails, Captain Lisa, Tony the 1st Mate, and Dive Master Peter. The week-long cruise was absolutely wonderful.

We enjoyed unlimited scuba diving (after we learned from Peter on board the boat), great food and excursions to the shore. The water was unbelievably blue as far as the eye could see.

We drank our fill of Belikin, and we were treated to happy hour with a different cocktail and appetizer each day.
Most of our time was spent lounging on the trampolines of the Catamaran, or in the water.

Belize is a fairly easy flight from the U.S., and the English language and tourist friendly atmosphere also give it a slight edge on convenience over other Caribbean destinations. Ambergris Caye is probably the most popular (and most commercial) part of Belize. We did not make it that far north, but when we return we are hoping to make it out there and to some of the famous dive spots - like the Turneffe Islands and Lighthouse Atoll.

Belize City has a fairly serious crime problem, and is not a place you really want to stay for very long - but the Radisson did not look too bad if you have to spend the night on your way in or out of the country.
Things to know:
1. Mosquitos are a problem - in the jungle you will need 100% deet solution as well as a milder formula for spraying directly on the skin (you put the 100% deet on the clothing and bandanas, not on your skin). Pack at least two bandanas, long sleeve lightweight shirts, lightweight long pants, hiking boots, a hat and a good sweatproof/waterproof sunscreen.
2. The diving and snorkling on the coral reef are spectacular and not to be missed. You can get certified there, but it would be easier (and probably less expensive) to arrive already certified.
3. Violent crimes against tourists are occasionally reported. Women should not hike unescorted, and it would be preferable for anyone to travel on the highways in a group or with an escort.
4. Expect to get the runs at least once while you are there. It happens to everyone, but it won't ruin your trip. A wide array of vaccinations are recommended to prevent more serious diseases, as well as malaria pills.

Photo Credits: "Scottish Gregg" McLean Adam

TripAdvisor - search for "Cayo" (jungle), "Stann Creek" (coast) and "Belize Cayes".
Fodors - online Belize Guide
Frommers - online Belize Guide
Lan Sluder's Belize First - Best of Belize

1 comment:

  1. wow, that looks like fun. I wish I could go over new years!