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Belize

Belize Trip Report: New Romantic Adventures (Part II)

Caye Caulker, sunburns and cheap lobster dinners... Nice.

sunny 27 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

Bus, Taxi and Boat, San Ignacio to Caye Caulker, November 1, 2010

The next morning I caught the bus back to Belize City. This time I was on a BBDC bus. Similar to the journey up to San Ignacio, though without the radio (IFE is broken! I wonder if I can get 500 points?). Unlike the National bus, there was no overhead luggage rack, so my luggage rode up front with the driver.

From the bus station, I got a taxi to the water taxi dock. $BZ 6 for the short trip. I threw my bag in the taxi’s trunk and climbed in.

Upon arrival at the bus station, however, the driver encountered a small issue. The taxi driver tried to open his trunk to retrieve my backpack and said, "Oh mon, where is the string? I can't open the trunk without the string!"

It transpired that the latch on his trunk was broken, and he had rigged a string to pull open the latch from the inside. By hanging the string out, he could tug on it, which would unlatch the trunk and pop it open. Without the string, no way into the trunk.

For the next twenty minutes, the taxi driver, myself and one of the workers at the water taxi company casually discussed options to get my backpack out of the car. Finally, the taxi driver pulled apart the back seat of his Toyota to get into the trunk and retrieve my backpack.

By this point, I’d had my share of foibles on the trip, and was becoming quite relaxed about everything, so I wasn’t too fused about the lost 20 minutes. The great thing about travelling in a place like Belize, you learn to relax and take it all in stride. I wrote about this on my blog, where I learn to accept whatever comes.

There are two ways to get to Caye Caulker - by air or by boat. A couple air carriers do the short trip from Belize City to Caye Caulker, and you can also arrange flights from other cities in neighbouring countries.

I decided to take the boat, though. Something romantic about skimming across the top of the waves towards an island paradise.

The water taxi costs $BZ 20 one way, or $BZ 35 return. The trip takes a little over one hour.

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The ride is mostly smooth, as the water is calm - protected from big waves by the Belize Barrier Reef off the coast. There were a few big jolts, but that’s to be expected when on a boat.

The boats aren’t really set up great to allow you to see what passes, with seats low in the boat. There are some seats at the back in the open air, but they fill up quickly and you do run the chance of facing a sudden rain shower, as we did. The folks in the exterior seats all tried to cram back inside the boat as soon as the rain starting pouring down.

Tropical Paradise Hotel, Caye Caulker, November 1 - November 4, 2010

Unlike San Ignacio, I knew where I was going in Caye Caulker. Of course, its pretty easy in that the island is long and thin, and there is only a few roads that run the length of the island. I headed from the water taxi dock south towards the Tropical Paradise Hotel, a well recommended location based on trip advisor and other sites.

My cabana was $BZ 80 for a room with air conditioning, satellite TV, ensuite, and bar fridge. The hotel has a private beach and pier. There is a restaurant and bar attached, though I never tried it out.

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Room interior

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Cabana
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Private beach

No complaints about the hotel. A good location, though the island is so small any place is a decent location. Everything in the room worked as expected, and hot water was plentiful.

Caye Caulker Sights, Sounds, Food and Drink

Caye Caulker is five-mile long island about 20 miles off-shore from Belize City. The place is quite laid back and easy-going, with little to do except snorkel, dive, drink beer and laze around in the sun. The waters are calm, with the Belize Barrier Reef to the east keeping big waves from hitting the shore. There is a small nature park near the airport, but mostly it is a place to either get up early and go diving or to just sit back and relax.

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There are numerous tour guides available if you want to arrange a day or half-day snorkelling or diving. They also do sunset cruises for the romantically minded. I was just looking to chill out. I never tried out any of the tour companies, so have no recommendations.

Seafood is the speciality of Caye Caulker. During the day, I grabbed a BBQ’d conch with rice and salad from the guy with the BBQ on the beach just north of the Sports Bar and Bamboo Bar. $BZ 14 for a full meal.

Bamboo bar has good food with an ocean view and sand between your toes as you eat. $BZ 35 for a lobster dinner.

Marin’s (close to the Tropical Paradise Hotel and beside the I&I Reggae bar) has excellent food, priced less than the beachfront restaurants. I had garlic shrimp for $BZ 20, which included chips and salsa appetiser on the house.

For lunch, check out the sandwich place beside the sports bar. For $BZ 8, I had the most amazing cheese burger. Jimmy Buffet was jumping through my head!

For drinks, the Lazy Lizard is a nice place by the split, and includes picnic tables in shallow water if you want to relax in the water. The Reef Sports Bar has TVs with American and European sports, in the event you want to catch up on your NFL, NHL or English Premier League while away.

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Lazy Lizard bar

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Sports Bar

More on Caye Caulker on my blog, including my realisation that while the islands are a nice place to visit, I am probably not cut out for living the island life just yet.

Water Taxi Return, Taxi to Airport

I caught the 8:30 AM water taxi back to Belize City. Checked in at the dock, provided my return ticket for inspection, and handed over my bag to be loaded at 8:00 AM. The Water Taxi showed up on time at 8:30, and we were away.

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Baggage Handling, Water Taxi, Caye Caulker

Back to Belize City in just over an hour. I grabbed a taxi to the airport, this time putting my backpack in the back seat, rather than in the trunk. $BZ 50 to the airport.

Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, Belize City, BZE

Checked in with Continental was quick, as there was only one person in line ahead of me. I did get four boarding passes handed to me, which was weird because I only had two flights.

“I think Mr. Andrews-slash-Arthur would probably want these,” I said, handing back two of the boarding passes. The check-in agent sheepishly took them back.

Security was quick - only two people in front of me.

Past security there was a couple of shops - I bought two t-shirts as gifts ($BZ 20 each).

For drinks or food, there is Jet’s Bar. While I had never been to Belize before, by the way I count having “been” to a country, I had spent some time at the Belize Airport when a flight to Honduras was diverted to Belize back in 2005 when the airport at La Ceiba was closed.

All the passengers were let off the plane and into the airport in Belize City. We stayed 3 1/2 hours in Belize (beautiful day there, sunny and warm), but were not allowed to leave the international departures area. Therefore, most of the plane hit Jet's Bar in the airport. Jet's quite a character, a small man with a big presence. Most people ordered bottles of Belikin, a local brew. About 3 hours later, though, we had drunk Jet out of Belikin.

Jet’s is still there, and still wandering around the airport trying to drum up business. I had a couple of Belikins before my flight.

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Jet’s Bar

Jet is a small man - probably only five foot tall, if that. He has worked at the airport for years, and when the bar became available to buy, he bought it and renamed it after himself. He serves (according to him) the best rum punch in Belize, along with the best of everything else as well.

I noticed, looking up at the pictures on the wall, that Jet has taken a lot of pictures with his patrons, and they often look very similar. Jet, hand outstretched in a thumbs up, his head resting against the chest of the prettiest woman in the group.

I pointed this out to a couple beside me, a young set of honeymooners. To test the theory, they got a picture with Jet. The man tried to stand next to Jet, but Jet rearranged the picture, putting himself in the middle. He stretched out his hand, put his thumb up and tilted his head to the side until it rested firmed against her breast.

Conclusion

Belize was an interesting place. I had my share of frustrations and troubles there - my frozen accounts, my backpack getting locked out, David’s Adventures issues with his truck, along with getting severely burnt after buying counterfeit sunscreen and cutting my toe open on broken glass.

However, already these foibles are fading away, and I am left with a couple mental snapshots of my time in Belize.

The smell of burning fields as the bus drove through the night towards San Ignacio.

The water on my feet as I quaffed a Belikin beer at the Lazy Lizard on Caye Caulker.

Dining on garlic shrimp during a thunderstorm at Marin’s restaurant.

And most vividly, standing atop a Mayan temple, with no one else in sight, the jungles of Belize and Guatemala stretching out before me, with Duran Duran running through my head.

Take a chance
Like all dreamers can't find another way
You don't have to dream it all, just live a day

Posted by GregW 14:07 Archived in Belize Tagged backpacking air_travel Comments (0)

Belize Trip Report: New Romantic Adventures (Part I)

A week in Belize, a week in Toronto and flights to and fro. Just live a day, as they say.

overcast 27 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

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.

Introduction

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).

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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.

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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.
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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
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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.

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Balcony outside my room
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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.

Xunantunich

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Posted by GregW 13:46 Archived in Belize Tagged backpacking air_travel Comments (0)

Island Life

Asking the inevitable question of any quasi-nomadic soul - where am I going to end my days?

sunny 30 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

I often get asked about what my "plan" is, regarding my time in England. As I was interviewing for jobs recently, one interviewer asked the nicely worded question, "Is living in London a time-limited experiment, or are you here for the long haul?"

"Well, I don't have much of a plan," I say when asked this question. "I'm in London as long as opportunities suit me. I doubt, though, I'd retire here. Come that day, I'll probably look some something less grey, cold and rainy. Something less crowded and busy. A slower pace of life."

That, my friends, is the truth. There is in my mind no question of what my future holds as I work - it'll be living wherever and for however long a place suits me. Maybe I'll be in London for the next 20 years, or maybe I'll be in Shanghai or Sao Paulo or Toronto in five years time. Who knows? I'll see what happens.

The harder question is what to do once I have enough money saved up in the bank and am finally sick of working? Where to go then, and what to do with my life?

I have, over the past few years, imagined an island paradise as my ideal retirement spot. Something with beers on the beach, the NHL on satellite TV and fresh crab to eat every day.

Belize is my first island getaway since moving to the UK, and thus this potential retirement dream was in my mind as I took the water taxi to Caye Caulker.

Caye Caulker is five-mile long island about 20 miles off-shore from Belize City. The place is quite laid back and easy-going, with little to do except snorkel, dive, drink beer and laze around in the sun. The waters are calm, with the Belize Barrier Reef to the east keeping big waves from hitting the shore. There is a small nature park near the airport, but mostly it is a place to either get up early and go diving or to just sit back and relax.

Beachfront Road, Caye Caulker

Beachfront Road, Caye Caulker


Caye Caulker boat, trees and deep blue water

Caye Caulker boat, trees and deep blue water


Go Slow, two graveyards and no hospital

Go Slow, two graveyards and no hospital


Pier with Boots

Pier with Boots


Crab at Cayo Hicaco Park

Crab at Cayo Hicaco Park


Crane

Crane

I was just interested in the relaxing, so skipped the dive and snorkelling and just chilled out.

Lazy Lizard bar patio

Lazy Lizard bar patio


Tropical Paradise Resort beachfront

Tropical Paradise Resort beachfront


Belikin Beer

Belikin Beer

During all this chilling out, I had decent amount of time to ponder, so I pondered life as an islander. Could I see myself retired, living on an island like Caye Caulker?

Walking around the island, as I had walked around many other islands and beach towns around the Caribbean and Central America before, I spied many an ex-pat American, Canadian or Brit. They walk around, tanned and casual looking, on their way to the bar or dive shop they own.

Looking closer, though, I noticed that they all have a somewhat haunted visage, like the 1000 yard stare of the World War II soldiers pictured in Life Magazine. They move slowly and casually like native islanders, but somehow it is a cloak that seems ill fitting. I overheard a few conversations between expats. The newer ones complained - often veiled in a jovial, joking manner - about the slowness of the life. The expats who had been there for a long time just sounded lost.

One evening, sitting in one of the beachfront restaurants eating a $20 lobster and enjoying a cold Belikin beer, two owners of restaurants were discussing a turf argument they had with a third restaurateur. At another point, a woman who runs an internet cafe was discussing how she had finally got her internet connection updated to a faster speed after a struggle. I realized that far from the "dream" of a casual life of running a bar on a beach, these expats were trying to run a small business in a location where the infrastructure for running a business was less evolved than they would have expected from back at home.

After two and a half days on the island, suffering from a sliced toe (thanks to wearing sandals and encountering broken glass) and a massive sunburn (thanks to counterfeit sunscreen), I hobbled myself to a restaurant near my hotel.

L'oreal fake sunscreen which caused my sunburn

L'oreal fake sunscreen which caused my sunburn


My blood all over the Bathroom Floor after slicing open my toe

My blood all over the Bathroom Floor after slicing open my toe

Sitting alone, and with only one other table in the restaurant, the waiter had a good amount of time to speak with me.

"Where are you from?" he asked.

"I live in London, England, but am from Canada originally," I replied.

"Oh, London. I'd love to visit there," he said. "Things are so slow here. Nothing ever happens." I nodded, thinking about the afternoon crush on the tube, constant announcements of delays due to a "person under a train" and the three days when my flat was enclosed behind yellow police tape after a man was stabbed to death on my front stairs.

"What do you do for work?" the waiter continued.

"I work for an IT company," I said.

"Really? I am studying computers," the waiter said. "Yeah, I want to write video games. Get off this island and move to California and be a software engineer," he said, starry eyed imaging his life in Silicon Valley. I knew the look on his face. It was the same one that came across mine when I sometimes thought about living life on a slow, tropical island.

I think for now I'll file away my dream of living on a tropical island. Maybe I'll feel differently in 25 years when it comes time to retire, but for now, I'll take the hustle and bustle of London town.

Posted by GregW 12:00 Archived in Belize Tagged beaches travel_philosophy migration_philosophy Comments (0)

Accepting Whatever Comes

From "Are you frickin' kiddin' me?" to "no worries, mon" in 2 foible filled but easy-going days

sunny 26 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

"Where you headed?" the taxi driver asked.

"Water taxi for Caye Caulker," I said, handing him my backpack. "How much?"

"6 Belize," he said, putting my backpack in the trunk of his dented and dusty Toyota.

Six Belize dollars equalled three US dollars. Not bad. I had no idea how far the water taxi dock was, but even if it was only a few blocks, three dollars didn’t seem that much of a rip off. Heck, it would cost me that much to go one stop on the tube in London. Besides, less was likely to go wrong if I took a taxi than if I try and walk when I had no idea the route.

"What could go wrong taking a taxi?" I thought to myself as the taxi driver slammed his trunk shut and pointed me to the passenger side door. Neither of us noticed as a small black cord slipped into the trunk.

= = =

The three months prior to my trip to Belize was pretty hectic. Even though I had only recently started a new job, it wasn't turning out to be what I had hoped, so I had started to look for a new job. Juggling my present job, a job search and various issues around my flat with a broken boiler and leaking showers, I was wound up pretty well. Upon getting a new job and putting in my notice at my old work, I decided to take some time off to unwind. October 30th until November 14th was set aside on my personal calendar for some vacation time.

With a new job, I knew getting back to visit family over Christmas would be hard, so I decided that part of my time off should include a trip back to Toronto. Wanting to use some of my Air Canada Aeroplan points for the trip, I then played around with various combinations of trips involving a "London-Toronto-Someplace Warm" triangle. I eventually wound up booking a week in Belize, a place I knew nothing about before heading there except:

1. It used to be called British Honduras
2. It was a small country bordering Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala
3. There is a bar in the airport run by a little man who looks like an Oompa-Loompa called Jet

(I knew that last point as I had spent 3 hours waiting in the secure area of the Belize airport back when flying down to Honduras as the pilots waited for the fog-closed La Ceiba airport to reopen. Myself and the rest of the holiday charter plane drank Jet's bar dry of booze that day.)

I did some research and formulated a rough plan for my trip. A few days inland in San Ignacio to try and see some Mayan Ruins, and then a couple days on one of the Islands in the Atlantic chilling out. I figured out that Belize uses the Belize dollar - not readily available in the UK - but also would accept the US dollar at a fixed exchange rate of two Belize dollars to one US dollar. As I was flying through Houston, I decided to pull out a few hundred at an ATM in the Houston airport so I would have money upon arrival in Belize.

I plugged my card into the Chase bank ATM in Terminal E of Houston's airport, but instead of getting my US dollars, I got a message saying "Invalid transaction." I thought nothing of it at the time, figuring I would just pick up money upon arrival in Belize City. What I didn't know what was happening behind the scenes.

In London, I don't take out much money at all. Everyone here uses their bank cards to pay for stuff. Only the smallest transactions - like buying a pack of gum - is handled via cash. Belize, on the other hand, is a mostly cash society. I knew I would need cash for transport, food, lodging and tours. So in Houston, I punched in a substantial withdrawl.

Computers in the fraud department of my bank track all my transactions, and build a pattern of my usual transactions. If it notices something weird or out of pattern, it decides to lock out my cards. Going from an almost cash-free life in London to a cash heavy life in Belize was not expected by my bank's computers, so they automatically shut down my debit and credit cards. I didn't know it, but my attempt to withdraw money in Houston left me with no options upon arrival in Belize. For money, I had what was on me. That amounted to £30 and a twenty dollar US bill that I had.

I arrived in Belize, and was unable to withdraw any money. I tried my debit card and my credit card in multiple machines, and was unable to take any money out. I tried calling my bank, but with my credit card frozen, I was unable to put a long distance call through. I spent half-an-hour wandering aimlessly through the Belize City airport, trying to think of a plan. Finally, I exchanged my £30 for eighty Belize dollars, and bought myself an international long-distance card. I made a call to England, was able to unlock my accounts and finally was able to take out some Belize money. However, already I was two hours behind my original plan.

A03_Belize_Bucks.jpg

From Belize City airport, I took a taxi to the bus station, and then a bus to San Ignacio in the interior of the country. I settled into a hotel near where the bus dropped me off, and spent a couple of days sight-seeing.

The foibles continued over these days. I tried to book a trip to Caracol, a Mayan site about 2 hours from San Ignacio, but no trips were running due to low tourist numbers. I ended up booking a trip to Barton Caves, but during my tour the tour guide's pickup truck stalled twice and needed a jump. One of the rivers that we needed to ford was too high, so we ended up having to cross a rickety rope bridge and walk the last half hour. Upon arrival at Barton Caves the lighting wasn't working, so I had to wait an hour while the tour guide tried to get the lighting to work. The tours, buses and restaurants all had slow service, and the beer was often warmish.

The thing about all these issues was that I couldn't do a single thing about any of them. More than that, they weren't really my responsibility to fix. In my life back in London, where I have a job to do, deadlines to meet, bills to pay and things around the house to fix, every issue is something more to add onto my pile of things to worry about. In Belize, on holiday, none of it is my responsibility. I can sit back and let someone else worry about it.

In a weird way, it's nice to see the problems and know they aren't mine to solve.

And, in the the balance the food was good and the cave tour was impressive.

Barton Creek Cave Entrance

Barton Creek Cave Entrance


Barton Creek Cave stalagmite

Barton Creek Cave stalagmite


Fried Chicken and Motorscooters

Fried Chicken and Motorscooters


Hi-Et Hotel Balcony

Hi-Et Hotel Balcony

By the time I had returned two days later to Belize City, and was catching a taxi from the bus station to my frantic brain had been tuned down to the slowly-slowly life of Central America. So upon arrival at the water taxi dock, when the taxi driver tried to open his trunk to retrieve my backpack and said, "Oh mon, where is the string? I can't open the trunk without the string!", I wasn't phased.

It transpired that the latch on his trunk was broken, and he had rigged a string to pull open the latch from the inside. By hanging the string out, he could tug on it, which would unlatch the trunk and pop it open. Without the string, no way into the trunk.

"Whatever," I said. "We'll figure out a way to get it out."

For the next twenty minutes, the taxi driver, myself and one of the workers at the water taxi company casually discussed options to get my backpack out of the car. Finally, the taxi driver pulled apart the back seat of his Toyota to get into the trunk and retrieve my back.

"Thanks," I said, handing over my fare.

"Sorry about the trunk," he said.

I shrugged. "No worries," I said. I had come to Belize to relax and get away from my stressful life, and as long as I get there in the end, that is all that matters.

Posted by GregW 03:06 Archived in Belize Tagged travel_philosophy Comments (8)

The Mayan Calendar Conundrum

Sitting atop a Mayan temple, discussing the end of the world with a swarm of dragonflies

sunny 26 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

I stand, legs wide in a sturdy stance, watching the far bank approach. The creak of the hand-cranked wheel and the intermittent buzz of insects in the air are the only sounds I can hear until finally the ferry pilot speaks.

“Once we reach the shore, just follow the road. It is about one mile up, and then you will reach the entrance,” he says.

The entrance to the stone lady - Xunantunich.

The hand-cranked ferry reaches the far shore of the Mopan River, just off the Benque Road. I step off, wipe my brow and reposition my hat against the late morning sun. I set off up the road, one mile away from the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich.

C01_Xunant..k_Ferry.jpg

- - -

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.

El Castillo

El Castillo


Xunantunich side building

Xunantunich side building


main plaza

main plaza


El Castillo

El Castillo


Frieze on El Castillo

Frieze on El Castillo


Frieze on El Castillo

Frieze on El Castillo


one of the smaller plazas

one of the smaller plazas


Xunantunich from middle temple building

Xunantunich from middle temple building

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 sit down atop the temple, lean against the hot stone and think about the end of days.

C32_Xunantunich_GJW.jpg
C33_Xunantunich.jpg

For those who like to think about the end of days, the Mayan has most recently come to prominence due to their calendar. The Mayan Long Count calendar, one of many different calendar systems they had, consists of a number of repeating, cyclical counts, each represented as a separate symbol. The long count consists of the five ascending cycles of kins (days), winals (20-day months), tuns (360 days), k'atuns (20 tuns), and bak'tuns (20 k'atuns).

My birthday is represented as 12.17.17.3.16, and the day I visited Xunantunich (October 31st, 2010) represented as 12.19.17.14.18. (For the really pedantic, this is using the "Goodman, Martinez, Thompson" or GMT correlation).

C07_Xunant..alendar.jpg

It is often been quoted that the Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012. This is when the all the four lower digits reach zero and the highest order digit (the bak’tun) should tick over to 13. According to Mayan tradition, we are currently living in the fourth world (the previous three having not worked out), and like the three world’s previous, ours will end at the start of the 14th bak’tun (13.0.0.0.0).

Therefore, say the doomsayers, the world ends on that day.

The historical evidence for this, though, isn’t clear. The ending dates of the previous three worlds aren’t definitively known, and some Mayan inscriptions do have dates beyond the 14th bak’tun, though not rendered in exactly the same way. Some scholars even think that the new world should begin on the 15th bak’tun, not the 14th.

So rest easy, the world won’t end in a little over two years.

Just in case, though, I’m glad I got to see Xunantunich before then. Just in case the end of days is coming.

Posted by GregW 23:04 Archived in Belize Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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