A week in Belize, a week in Toronto and flights to and fro. Just live a day, as they say.
30.10.2010 - 12.11.2010 27 °C
The following blog entry is, in fact, a copy. It was written by me, but originally posted on Flyertalk.com, a website for frequent fliers. I wrote it for the Trip Reports forum, where fellow frequent fliers write about their trips. That is why there is a few bits and bobs about what the flight and food and In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) is like. If you want to read the original (with a little more on Canada), check it out here. Otherwise, enjoy.
Mayan temples in the jungles of Central America always remind me of the video for Duran Duran’s 1983 song “Save a Prayer,” even though that video was filmed in Sri Lanka. Wandering around previous Mayan sites I have visited always made me feel like a New Romantic merged with Indiana Jones. Thus the draw to the former Mayan territories the span Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras.
Due to situations with work and family, I hadn’t had a proper holiday since last November. Thus, feeling burnt out and in need of a rest, when the opportunity arose to grab two weeks away between jobs, I, much like J. Peterman on Seinfeld ran away to Burma (you may know it as Myanmar, Elaine), I ran away to British Honduras (you may know it as Belize).
The timing, as I said, was related to me switching jobs. I knew that as low man on the totem pole at my new job, I wouldn’t be able to get away for Christmas. Therefore, part of the two weeks I would spend back in Toronto, where I am from originally and where my family lives. So, with two weeks to plan, and hoping to use some of my cache of either Air Canada or Continental points, I started planning.
Belize wasn’t originally my destination, or rather not my only destination. I was open to any place in the Caribbean or Central America. Sun and sand and warm water was the only goal. I tried a number of combinations of destinations and dates, switching around whether I was in Toronto first, or second.
I did my planning on both the Aeroplan and Continental One Pass sites, eventually deciding on using Aeroplan points for a LHR-IAH-BZE, BZE-IAH-YYZ, YYZ-LHR routing. So close to the travel dates, I wasn’t able to get business class - at least not on the transatlantic LHR-IAH daytime flight or overnight YYZ-LHR routing where long flights, nice meals and lie flat beds would make the most difference. Therefore, I decided to book it in economy.
The IT failed me here. I was able to get to the point of booking, but the booking engine kept coming back with an error. I had to ring up the Aeroplan Centre to get the flights booked. 75K and $CDN 345 lighter, everything was booked.
West London to LHR Terminal 4, 30 October 2010
The morning started very early. I have used Addison Lee to get to the airport before, but then work was paying. For leisure travel on my own dime, I decided to try the cheaper Airport Direct. £30 from West London to LHR. Unfortunately, it didn’t start well. The driver didn’t show up at the appointed time. Ten minutes passed, and I started worrying about getting to the airport and coming up with alternative plans, when finally he came round the corner at the top of my street. I walked out to greet him, and he zipped right by me, stopping 100 feet down the street in front of a man who was warming up his car. I stood out in the middle of the street, starting to fume.
The driver and man conversed for a moment, and I saw the man point back towards me. The driver put his van in reverse, and squealed backward towards me. As he approached, I realised he wasn’t going to slow down.
“Jesus, watch out!” the man down the street called out.
I quickly moved aside, and swatted the van as he passed me. Hearing the bang, and applied the breaks with a jolt. I climbed into the van, and made sure to do up my seat belt, somewhat concerned about what the trip to Terminal 4 might bring.
The driver made up any lost time, driving like Nigel Mansell on the mostly empty roads of an early Saturday morning. I arrived with time to spare at Heathrow.
Unfortunately, I haven’t travelled much recently, and my Aeroplan Elite status had long ago lapsed, so I bought a couple bottles of Diet Cherry Coke (two for £1.70 at WH Smith), and waited at the gate.
CO 35 LHR - IAH 30 October 2010
Aircraft: 777. I had a window seat on the right of plane, around half way down. I realise I have already thrown away my boarding passes, so I can’t say exactly what seat. It was, however, comfortable and the leg room was fine for me (5 foot 9).
Inflight Entertainment (IFE): Personal entertainment units, with movies, TV, music and games. The units seemed quite good. I have often found the Air Canada ones having poor sound, and I have to put the volume at full. The Continental ones I had no problem hearing. Additionally, I didn’t have to sit through any adverts at the start of the movies. Pay attention Air Canada! I watched three movies - The A-Team (“Overkill is underrated”), Robin Hood and Prince of Persia. I think the low oxygen environment aids in the enjoyment of movies that I would have found unbearable at ground level. They weren’t bad.
I tried some of the games, but was underwhelmed. Then again, I am not a gamer.
The IFE did freeze with about 2 hours left in the flight, but was rebooted and I ended the flight listening to some music.
Meal: The first meal was beef brisket with salad, cream cheese and crackers, carrots and broccoli (steamed) and potatoes. The beef was quite good - very tender and with a good flavour. Desert was an apple crumble that looked so dire I didn’t even try it.
The snack before landing was a hot ham and cheese sandwich with a packet of crisps and a small chocolate. It was edible, but hardly impressive.
The flight took off and landed on time.
Houston Airport (IAH)
As an international transfer with no checked luggage, I used the “One Stop” line. It was at this point, worth it, as there was only two people ahead of me and I was through USA CBP in just a few minutes. (It didn’t work out so well on my return, as the line was longer and moved much slower than the regular line, but I’ll cover that later). One Stop allows you to skip through the luggage pick-up area, and get back to airside via a short path to security.
Security line was short, and security seemed same as ever. I had been concerned, as the toner cartridge bomb had just been the day before, and they had spoken on the news of increased security measures.
I had a short transfer window at IAH. I wanted to accomplish just one thing - to get out some US dollars to use in Belize. Belize uses the Belize dollar - pegged at an exchange rate of $BZ 2 to $US 1 - but the US dollar is well accepted. I knew I would need a bit of cash, as I was planning at staying at budget hotels which didn’t take credit cards. So I punched in a $500 withdrawal from a Chase Bank machine.
“The transaction is invalid,” said the machine back to. “Please contact your bank.”
“Ah well,” I thought. “I can get some Belize dollars upon arrival at the airport in Belize City.”
What I didn’t know, at that moment, was that a computer in the United Kingdom had decided that my attempted withdrawal was “suspicious.” That decision by an automated brain an ocean away would come to vex me in a few hours, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.
CO 1628 IAH - BZE 30 October 2010
Aircraft: 737-800. Another window seat, this time on the left side of the plane. Power plugs at every seat.
IFE: DirecTV, for $US 6. I didn’t buy it - that’s why I had a book and an iPod. They said DirecTV was available, but on the flight back said it wasn’t because we were outside the continental USA. I am not sure what would have happened when we crossed the border into Mexico - would the TV have still worked?
Food: A diet Coke and pretzels. Everything else cost money.
A generally uneventful flight, though the guy beside me did have the same jacket as me, bought at NEXT in the UK. He was English, and turns out he was just starting a job in Belize. Keeping the British in British Honduras, I suppose.
Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, Belize City, BZE
I arrived at BZE, were we disembarked via steps and across the tarmac into the air conditioned customs area. Customs wasn’t too bad. It took about 20 minutes to clear. From there, straight out the door as I was travelling without a checked bag. Others on my flight were still waiting for their bags.
Just outside the secure area was a cash machine. I tried to take out some Belize dollars, but was rebuffed twice - transactions denied. I swallowed my distaste for it, and decided to try a cash advance on my credit card. Again denied.
I examined my situation. I had only brought my debit and credit cards from the UK, leaving my Canadian based cards at home, as I have little money in the chequing account and no easy way to pay off balances on my Canadian based Visa card. I had £30 and $US 30 in cash.
I tried making a call to my bank back in the UK using my credit card, but obviously it was rejected. I was starting to panic. The money I had might be enough to get me to Belize City, but without a working credit card and little cash on hand, I couldn’t afford anywhere to stay.
I wandered up to the second story of the airport, and out onto the viewing platform. I watched as a few local flights took off, and tried to calm myself. Things looked bad, but I would be able to figure something out. I wasn’t actually broke, just temporarily unable to access my money. After 10 minutes to psyching myself up, I went down to try and tackle the problem again.
I exchanged my £30 for Belize dollars, receiving $BZ 80.10 back. Just about to walk away and plan my next step, I had a brainstorm.
“Excuse me, is there somewhere to get an international calling card?” I asked.
The woman thought about it for a moment, and discussed it with a co-worker. They finally remembered a BTL (Belize Telemedia Limited) store across the parking lot. I wandered over and bought myself a $BZ 30 phone card, which the man said should be enough for a 30 minute call to the UK.
I got through to the bank, and then was on hold for 15 minutes. I was starting to sweat, wondering if I should have bought a longer calling card, when someone finally came on. Another 10 minutes and a transfer to the fraud department, and the situation was resolved.
“Can I ask something,” I said before hanging up. “I travel often, and haven’t had trouble before. I know you are supposed to tell your bank when you travel, but I never do. Would that have helped in this situation?”
The answer was unexpected, but honest. “No,” the fraud advisor said. “It would stop us from manually putting a freeze on your account, but this was a freeze that was computer generated. It stops suspicious activity whether abroad or at home.”
I bought an ice cold Coke and headed back up to the viewing platform, to wait the 10 minutes the fraud advisor said it would take for my card to reactivate. I thought about what the advisor had said. I realised that in the UK I hardly ever use cash, preferring to pay by debit card with my chip and pin. Any large withdrawal, whether in Houston, Belize City or Bermondsey was going to be out of character, I suppose.
Fifteen minutes later (just to be safe), I went back down to the cash machine. I held my breath as the machine thought, and breathed a sigh of relief when it told me to collect my Belize dollars. Newly minted, I headed out of the airport and got a taxi to the bus station in Belize City.
My key lesson, always bring enough cash to get you through the first couple days of travel. You never know when you might get stranded.
Belize Dollars - not as easy to get as I would have hoped.
National Bus Company, Belize City to San Ignacio, 30 October 2010
It cost a flat rate $BZ 50 ($US 25 - remember a fixed 2:1 exchange rate) to get from the airport to the Novello bus terminal in Belize City.
From there, I grabbed the first bus to San Ignacio. Because of the money issues, I was running almost an hour and a half behind my schedule, but buses run frequently from Belize City, so it wasn’t an issue.
Regular bus service in Belize (which means non-express) is provided in old Blue Bird school buses. On my trip to San Ignacio, there were overhead racks (metal brackets and wooden shelves) on the bus for luggage storage, though that isn’t the case on all buses, and you may have to leave luggage up front by the driver or at the back of the bus. A few buses have undercarriage storage.
The bus costs $BZ 7, which isn’t bad for a 120 kilometre journey. It takes between 2 and 2 1/2 hours, depending on the number of stops that the bus makes. The buses act as both local and intercity buses.
A sample of a Belize bus
I wouldn’t say the buses are chicken buses - they are nicer than that. Though, the woman sitting beside me did have a fried chicken dinner that she had brought aboard. The seats aren’t very comfortable, and while I am not a tall man, I did find my knees squished pretty firmly against the seat in front of me.
IFE consisted of the radio, tuned to a radio station that played 80s tunes, hip-hop and dancehall. A strange mix, to be sure. They did play Thriller by Michael Jackson twice on the journey. It was only on the second playing that I clued in that the song was in celebration of Hallowe’en the next evening.
Night fell as we drove. The windows were all open, which kept the bus cool and drowned out the radio when on the open road. Obviously the end of the harvest season, farmers were burning off their fields, and for most of the journey the bus had the slight aroma of burning fields.
Hotel Hi-Et, San Ignacio, October 30 - November 1, 2010
The bus dropped me at the main intersection in central San Ignacio. I had a list of a couple places to check out based on internet recommendations. What I didn’t have was a map of San Ignacio that listed where the hotels were. I ended up being able to see the Hotel Hi-Et from my vantage point, and as it was on my list, I decided to check it out.
The Hi-Et (no affiliation with Hyatt - it is named after Ethel, one of the founders of the hotel) is a budget hotel spread over a couple houses on West Street, connected by walkways. Rooms were $BZ 40 with an ensuite or $BZ 25 for a shared bath. I took an ensuite. Rooms are clean. No air conditioning, but their are ceiling fans.
The rooms were clean, and the bed was comfortable. The shower had ample hot water. At the corner of West Street and Bullet Tree Road, it can be a bit noisy, but even on Saturday night the noise died down by about 11:30, and I had a peaceful and quiet sleep. For $US 20, I can’t complain at all about the accommodations.
Balcony outside my room
The Hi-Et, San Ignacio, Belize
San Ignacio Sites, Sounds, Eats and Drinks
San Ignacio is twinned with Santa Elena across the Macal River from it. As a tourist, the main purpose of visiting San Ignacio is to use it as a base for touring nearby attractions. There is little for the tourist in town that I found. However, there are a choice of decent restaurants and bars.
Eva’s, on Bullet Tree Road, has a decent selection of Belize and international dishes. I had Fried Chicken for $BZ 10, and a few Belikin Beers ($BZ 5 each). Guillermo, my waiter, also had a number of excellent suggestions of ways to spend my time in San Ignacio.
Mr. Greedy’s on Burns Ave is a good place for drinks. They have excellent happy hour deals. In addition, I had chicken wings there which were quite good, in the event you have a hankering for a taste of Buffalo in San Ignacio.
In the morning, there are a few places along Burn’s Avenue. One place, which didn’t have a name, served excellent breakfast burritos for $BZ 3. It is on Burns Avenue, on the left as you walk from the market square up towards the petrol station. You’ll see the line up of locals getting breakfast.
The Mayan civilisation flourished in Central America, most especially in the Yucatán Peninsula, until 900 A.D. During the period from 250 A.D. until 900 A.D., some of the most impressive Mayan cities and temple sites were built, including the Mayan sites I have seen previously at Chechen Itza and Tulum in Mexico.
Xunantunich, in the interior of Belize, sits just a few miles from the Guatemala border. The site covers approximately a square mile, with the centre of the site consisting of a plaza with three structures in a row.
The main building on the site is called El Castillo, a 140 foot tall structure with a number of steep stairways and impressive stucco friezes.
Xunantunich is on the highway between San Ignacio and Benque. From San Ignacio, I took a “Benque Taxi.” All cars registration province is written on the cars license plate. Directed by a local, he said I could grab a taxi in San Ignacio with a B (for Benque), and that he would charge a low rate to get to Xunantunich, as he would have to go back to Benque anyway. I paid $BZ 4 for the ride, whereas the bus cost $BZ 1.75 or a Cayo taxi (one registered in San Ignacio, Cayo province) would charge $BZ 25. On the way back, I took the bus, which you can catch right outside the ferry.
The ferry crossing to Xunantunich is about 20 minutes from San Ignacio. You have to cross the Mopan river, which is accomplished by a hand cranked ferry.
It is then a 20 minute walk up to main site. Entrance fee was $BZ 10. A guide can be hired there, but I chose to go without.
Being low season in Belize, I arrive to find I am almost alone at Xunantunich. As I walk up into the main plaza, a tour group of four (plus a guide) are just leaving. I wander towards the main pyramid - El Castillo - and meet just one other traveller, a solo woman wandering the site without a guide, like I am.
I climb to the top of El Castillo, and look out over the countryside. Off in the distance, the Belize countryside and the borders of Guatamela. Nearer to us, aerial views of the other temples. The air is thick and sticky, not a hint of wind. The only disturbance is a swarm of dragonflies flittering around in the air. I hummed “Save a Prayer” to myself, and imagined myself a member of a New Romantic band in 1985, even if I don’t quite look the part.
And you wanted to dance, so I asked you to dance, but fear was in your soul. Some people call it a one night stand, but we can call it paradise.
More photos and text at my blog entry on Xunantunich.
Barton Creek Cave Tour, David’s Adventure Tours
I arranged an afternoon tour with David’s Adventure Tours. David’s is across from the market. David’s is owned and operated by Dave Simpson, an Afro-Mayan local. Dave’s speciality is tours to Barton Creek Cave, a water filled cave that is the source of Barton Creek. Dave was the one who started giving tours of the cave.
I had tried a couple different tour companies that morning, seeing if I could arrange a trip to Caracol, a large Mayan site not far from San Ignacio. Unfortunately, they all had minimum tour sizes (from 2 to 4 people), so everyone tried to put me on another tour. Most tried to sell the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour - the primary selling point seems to be the chance to see “human remains!”). I really wanted to see a Mayan ruin, and Dave was the only one who came up with a suggestion - self tour Xunantunich in the morning, and do a tour with him in the afternoon. Dave even turned me on to the “Benque taxi,” so before the tour I was very pleased with Dave in that he listened to what I wanted.
The Barton Creek Cave tour is usually $BZ 90, but as I was the only one going, I paid $BZ 120.
Dave is an interesting character - a dreadlocked rasta type with a very laid back attitude. It makes for a somewhat scattered tour, with Dave stopping to do a little shopping along the way, and often repeating himself. However, Dave is also very familiar with the area, and spices up his stories with personal anecdotes that make it very interesting. We had a few troubles along the way - Dave’s old pickup twice stalled, and I spent an hour sitting around staring at the green jungle as Dave tried to get his light working for the cave tour.
Once we were in the cave, though, it was quite amazingly beautiful. The cave varies from a few feet wide to over 20 feet wide, and the ceiling soars up to 100 feet high in some places, while in others you need to duck down to get your canoe under the rocky outcrops. Dave does all the paddling, as guest you just hold the light and explore with your eyes.
Dave’s promises adventure tours, and while it wasn’t exactly Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, I left feeling like I had received a very “authentic” experience. Dave’s is not slick, but it was enjoyable.