After a year of teaching math by zoom and often staring at a bunch of unresponsive black boxes, I was ready for a change. Summer holidays were here. It was time to recharge the batteries and see the world again. One of the perks of being a college professor is the ability to tune out for a few months. And if there was a time for self care, this would be it. One year plus into the pandemic, I needed to keep my travel flame lit.
I arrived in Belize on a Cessna 10 seater. Wow. What a way to start a holiday! From Roatan, Honduras nonetheless. Roatan is a story in itself and stay tuned for a trip report from this amazingly beautiful island. As I walked up the steps into the single engine Cessna, I realized I had to crouch to get in – sitting room only! Tropic Air kept things casual on this bus in the sky! One hour later I landed safely in Belize City. The size of the small airport surprised me. I then caught a 10 minute flight on yet another Tropic Air 10 seater from Belize City to the island of Caye Caulker. Yes you heard it right – it was a 10 minute flight. But over some of the most beautiful coral reefs with crystal blue and turquoise water I had ever seen. After a smooth landing at the airstrip I was picked up in a golf cart by Juan from Colinda Cabanas. And a 3 minute drive took me to this ocean front property looking straight out to the Caribbean. Time moved a little slower in this tiny island paradise. The sound of the ocean waves was omnipresent. The sun was strong. And the people were friendly. I was given a bicycle right away – along with golf carts this was the most convenient mode of transport.
I took the bicycle for a test run – it worked! It even had a little basket, so I stopped in a supermarket for some breakfast food and some Belikin Beer. Nothing like a cold one on these hot summer days.
My room was a stand alone cabin, with a balcony and a hammock. It’s all about the hammock here – lounging around is a popular pastime. This was the perfect place to unwind. Priorities first though – I changed into my swim trunks and dove into the ocean – it was fairly shallow (up to 7 or 8 feet deep) until you get closer to the reef – the world’s second largest coral reef – the Meso American Barrier Reef. Right there in from of my cabana. I didn’t see any fish today, but I almost had a heart attack when I saw a giant sting ray swim by without a care in the world. Just me and the sting ray in the great big expanse! What a welcome!
Caye Caulker stood out for two very specific reasons and I will talk about both at length. The food and the marine life, particularly the marine life at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
First I’ll address the food. I was given recommendations for places to eat by every other person and I was surprised at the quality of food on the island, at fairly reasonable prices as well. Chef Chu’s and Hibisca were two local eateries with great food that won’t break the bank. The barracuda special I had at Hibisca was one of the best meals I had on this trip. And the fish curry at Chef Juan’s was delectable. Also Chef Kareem’s barbecue was street food at it’s best (and it’s actually on the street). I had the jerk chicken perpared by Chef Kareem himself. There were some chairs right on the beach by his stand, so I just chilled and enjoyed my chicken by the beach. I can go on and on about the other places … but you’ll see for yourself when you visit. This is a gourmet food lover’s paradise.
The Hol Chan Reserve is an amazing protected area in the ocean teeming with marine life. Not your ordinary marine life. I had one of my best snorkel days ever – I got to swim with green sea turtles and a loggerhead turtle. A dream come true! I saw the most beautiful coral reefs all around with so many countless types of colorful fish. Another highlight was spotting and swimming with a manatee. I felt particularly lucky because manatee are very hard to spot, let alone swim with.
Manatee, Loggerhead Turtle and Nurse Sharks
Did I mention the sting ray? Did I mention the nurse sharks? They are all over the reef – the thought of swimming with sharks terrified me. But these sharks are pretty friendly and keep to themselves. So there I was in the water surrounded by sharks. I can’t say I wasn’t nervous. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.
So I hope you get the idea. EAT, SWIM, REPEAT. Interspersed with sips of Belikin! And when it gets too tiring, find a hammock to lounge in.
I also made some new friends on the island. The slow pace here allows you to find your tribe and make those lifelong connections. One of the best reasons to travel is making those human connections.
New Friends Joel and Jessica
Sadly I had to leave Caye Caulker after 4 magnificent days. This time I opted for the water taxi back to Belize City. A 45 minute boat ride was a good way to say goodbye to this island paradise. My next stop was San Ignacio. A two hour drive from Belize City brought me to this sleepy hillside town in the forests of Belize, close to the Guatemalan border. The main attractions here are some of the world’s oldest and grandest Mayan Ruins – most about 3000 years old.
Another attraction is an underground system of limestone caves. Belize was under water millions of years ago and when the water receded, it left a system of underground limestone caves formed by water erosion. I saw the most amazing stalactites and stalagmites.
River crossing near ATM Caves; Rio Frio Caves
The Actun Tunichil Muknal Caves (ATM Caves) I visited were quite amazing. It was an Indiana Jones type experience – we crossed the river 3 times with water up to my neck and navigated countless waterways inside the caves. Thank goodness for the headlamps – without them it’s pitch black inside the caves. One of the highlights is the discovery of remains of Maya, thousands of years old – we saw 5 skeletal remains, some almost completely intact, left alone the way they were found. For good reason cameras are not allowed here – out of respect for the Maya and also to avoid typical tourist shenanigans (apparently someone dropped their camera on a skull and took a piece of it out!).
There are numerous Mayan ruins to explore in Belize, the grandest of them being Caracol – a citadel about a 2 hour drive away from San Ignacio. It was another Indiana Jones type experience. There were hardly any people there on this day and as we approached the citadel through dense jungle, we were greeted by the deafening sound of Cicada and Howler Monkeys. It doesn’t get any more dramatic than that!
The pyramids there were immense – the highest was about 14 stories high. I had the best guide every in Rudy Neil. He went over the history of the region and the differences in architecture representing different Maya from different time periods. He was also very well versed in the flora and fauna. We went through the most amazing Pine Forest to get to Caracol and saw deer, fox and alligator! The lushness off the place is incredible. Rudy plucked cashew fruit for us straight from a tree. Apparently cashews are endemic to Belize.
Guide extraordinaire Rudy; Cashew fruit
To top off the day we checked out Rio Frio Caves – a smaller version of ATM Caves, but more accessible and less restricted (we could take a few pictures of the giant stalagmites and stalactites as there are no skeletal remains here). Rudy’s last surprise was a stop at Big Rock Falls.
A beautiful little waterfall with natural pools. I jumped 10 feet into the water – always thrilling! It was an unforgettable day with Rudy Neil of Tukan Travel Belize!
San Ignacio also allowed me to connect with some amazing people. I met two new friends visiting from Reno, Nevada on the ATM Caves Tour. Besides drinking lots of Belikin together, we visited Xunantuntich another elaborate Mayan Citadel.
With Harris & Matthew, Xunantunich
I tagged along in their rental car. It was an unforgettable day with like-minded people. We did not have a tour guide today, but it was beautiful in it’s own way. We just took in the elaborate architecture and beauty of the place along with the 360 degree views all around (and towards Guatemala to the west).
Belize was full of surprises. I was expecting an overly tourist place, but it wasn’t. It still had right amount of infrastructure with just the right amount of novelty. I will undoubtedly visit again! Thanks Belize for the good times!