February 1, 2013
Just southeast of Mexico and due east of Guatemala, is the small, but beautiful country of Belize, formally known as British Honduras.
From the air, scattered cayes (pronounced keys), some just a few feet above sea level, intermingle with the world's second largest reef, a reef that stretches some 900 miles from Cancun to Honduras. The largest of these islands, Ambergris Caye, is home to the raucous and friendly city of San Pedro.
Belize and San Pedro have been highlighted in recent news due to John McAfee, the founder of McAfee, Inc. Although, this is the story that has brought Belize to attention of late, this is not what I focused on while I traveled there this past December.
The seats on the plane were large, albeit relatively old, and the leg room spacious. There was plenty of overhead room for carryon baggage. Champagne was poured; a cheese plate was given. First class was the way to travel. A dreadlocked black man wearing charcoal trousers and a suede jacket sat down next to me. His name was Lennox Lamb, and he was soft-spoken and we talked an hour in Spanish and an hour in English. English is the primary language in Belize, but most all Belizeans speak at least a bit of Spanish as well. Over Cognac and after our delicious dinner of halibut, he wrote down all his contact information and said to call him for anything while in Belize. A nice welcoming.
My parents take a dive
An Interview with Paul and Phyllis Tompkins regarding their experience with Ambergris Divers:
Q. Why did you choose to dive in Belize and use Ambergris Divers?
A. “I had heard about Belize being an interesting place to visit and chose to go to Belize because of the wedding. The travel agent recommended them and the locals had good things to say about them,” Phyllis said. “We chose to dive in Belize because…we knew the diving was pretty good. Diving adds another dimension to a vacation,” Paul added.
Q. What was your experience like diving in Ambergris Caye?
A. “Well, the water was warm. I enjoyed this because the last two places in the Caribbean were a bit too cool for me—Utila, Honduras, and Cozumel, Mexico. Ambergris divers were very safety oriented. Excellent dive brief, sorted divers out by their ability, not just who wanted to do a particular job, they dove their plan. The visibility was pretty good—around 50 to 60 feet visibility, not a lot of murkiness. The diving was a lot better in Belize than it was in Honduras. But Cozumel had much more colorful coral than Belize. The wave action from Mexico and Hondurus brings a lot of debris in.”
Q. How does Ambergris Caye compare to other places you have dived?
A. “I have enjoyed every place I’ve gone,” Phyllis said. “But every place has a different aspect. I enjoyed the nurse sharks, and they are training the nurse sharks to feed on the lion fish, which aren’t native there and they damage the coral. Very interesting…nurse sharks followed divers waiting for the divers to find the lion fish for them. It was Christmas so a little bit more expensive than other places, but they didn’t have a diver package. The crew was fun. Since the reef wasn’t far out, they didn’t have to boat out a long ways to find the reef.”
Q. What is unique about diving in Ambergris Caye?
A. “The availability of the reef being so close and the nurse sharks following the divers…we didn’t dive the Blue Hole because that would have been a 10 hour day and $300 for three dives, instead of four like we did.”
Q. How many years have you been diving?
A. 13 years
Q. Anything else you want to say about diving in Belize?
A. “I want to go back,” Phyllis said. “As far as Belize, I’d want to go back and dive more,” Paul said.
Always ask questions when traveling, especially when in a foreign country. Flying into Belize City from Miami takes about two hours, and once landed, I took a short flight via Maya Air to Ambergris Caye, but without knowing beforehand, the flight was scheduled to make a short stop in Caye Caulker, and we were to switch planes before flying to San Pedro. I got off, left the small airport, only to turn around again once realizing that this was not San Pedro. If you're not sure what the situation is, ask questions. Luckily, the twin-prop planes took off every half-hour and so the wait time for another flight was short.
December 18th, 2012 – 3 days before what some claim the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world
From the shaking, loud, twin-prop plane, on a beautiful, blue-sky day, one can see long stretches of the reef below. A distinct line forms at the reef's edge with a small wall of white water, almost as if waves were crashing on a beach. The reef is sparkling green and turquoise, speckled with splotches of dark blue and an occasional sunken ship. It's a stunning part of the Caribbean.
It's a fifteen minute flight from Caye Caulker to San Pedro. Upon landing, it was apparent that San Pedro was a bustling place. The small landing strip is in the middle of downtown San Pedro so people are milling about, cars and more frequently, golf carts, are transporting people here and there. The golf cart is the best mode of transportation on Ambergris Caye because it is much cheaper than a car and quite mobile as the streets are rather narrow at times.
When traveling and especially alone (my family took a separate flight from Caye Caulker), one must be cautious, but sometimes a little risk can pay off. On the flight from Caye Caulker, I met a man named Dennis Wayne Alfaro, who is in construction and says he built John McAfee's pool. He offered to taxi me to my resort and I took him up on this. But before he did, he took me by his house, showed me what resort my family was staying at, and then he dropped me off, gave me his card, and said if I needed anything, please call.
I had been in Belize for less than an hour, and I had two friends to call if I needed anything. Not a bad start to ten days vacation.
Banana Beach Resort
A wonderful little resort situated right on the beach (as the name suggests). The staff are friendly and helpful (if you need to borrow a bottle opener for your entire stay, no problem). The double-bed room was on the third floor overlooking palm trees and the larger of two swimming pools. The room was clean, although there was a faint hint of sulfur at times. The bathroom was spacious, and the hot water lasted at least 70 minutes. At $358 for five nights, this was a moderately-priced resort that in all aspects outperformed its costs.
After checking in, I headed out to meet my parents, sister, and her fiancÃ© at their resort, which was just a 10 minute walk from Banana Beach. Caribbean Villas is a bit more expensive, has private villas, a bar and restaurant next to the pool and beach, and offers a beautiful panoramic view of the Caribbean. After a few rum punches, a dangerous concoction of rum and fruit juice, we decided to meander into downtown San Pedro.
At just over 11,500 inhabitants, San Pedro is not large by any means, but that doesn't stop San Pedranos from livening up the place. Music blaring from simple storefronts at night, the famous chicken drop extravaganza (a betting game where people can place bets on where a chicken will poop on a large checker board with numbers), from end-of-the-world festivals, and youngsters and oldies alike cruising the streets to see what is happening in their small town keeps this place alive. And there's no shortage of tourists drinking Belikin beer on the streets, which is not legal, but hardly enforced. A taxi in San Pedro will run $10 Belizean, which is essentially $5 US, but unless you're going far, it's fairly easy to walk around this beach town.
After eating in town, I took a taxi back to my resort, and that's where the reunion took place. Just as I arrived, my friend, Miss Katie Rowbottom who I met while teaching English in South Korea three years ago, arrived. Three years later, it was like we had never left each other's side. Who could ask for a better reunion with an old friend? On a beach town in a small Central American country at the end of the world.
Dec. 19th, 2012 – 2 days before the end of the world
After shopping all day, Katie and I drank beer at our beach resort with a multitude of stars shining brightly overhead, including all of Orion. Something to watch out for: although beach security guards do patrol every night, sometimes people get robbed. My sister and her fiancÃ© were walking along the beach after eating at Blue Water Grill and were attacked from behind. The man demanded their money in a whisper, as if he wasn't too sure what he was doing, but my sister refused and started shouting. This was enough to scare him off. We also ran into two women previously that day who said that their camera was stolen by a child and given to a twenty-something. They demanded their camera back when they saw the man and child together, and he said he would for $5 US. They acquiesced and did, in fact, get it back.
December 20th, 2012 – One day before the end of the world
Ug, what a feeling—hangovers in Belize are the same as hangovers in the United States—terrible. Belizean coffee, though, will cure the worst hangover. After a few cups of coffee, Katie and I were ready to tackle the day; and tackle the day we did.
Seaduced offered a great price on snorkeling two fantastic locations: Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley provide for an amazing snorkeling experience. Crystal clear waters with differing shades of blue, turquoise, and green with a plethora of sea life—Hol Chan means “split reef” or “little channel” in Mayan. The guide picked us up at our resort via speedboat. He was cheerful and helped both of us onboard. The five (my sister and her fiancÃ© joined Katie and me) of us joined two dead barracuda. We sped off and picked up four more snorkeling tourists and sped off to Shark Ray Alley.
Before arriving, though, we encountered some fishermen doing traditional fishing, and they waved the guide down, spoke something in rapid Spanish, and then he stopped the boat. There was a group of sea turtles close by, and he asked us if we wanted to jump in. Um…yes! Donning our gear, we got into water. It was warm like bath water. Within seconds, just a few feet away was a large group of sea turtles. They had no fear as they swam parallel with us, just as curious as we were. Within a few minutes, flowing rays and an elusive nurse shark had joined and it became an awesome underwater exhibit.
After this short little unscheduled stop, we headed out to Shark Ray Alley wherein an entire group of nurse sharks, being attracted to our site by the guide cutting up the barracuda and throwing chunks of it overboard, had congregated next to the boat along with rays, turtles, and Belizean piranha fish. Hol Chan had different fare: black groupers, an eel, some turtles, myriad tropical fish, and all sorts of coral.
The entire snorkeling trip was around $60 Belize. Well worth it.
December 21st, 2012 – The End of the World
A wonderful, sunny day with blue skies—no imminent meteor streaking toward earth, no volcanoes exploding the world over, no rampant spread of Bubonic Plague, not even a little cloud over Ambergris Caye—no apocalypse. Everything was as it should be in tropical little Belize—the sun was out, the weather warm, the service at El Divino slow—sunbathing all day with Belikin beer, sunglasses on, a book in hand—how at least part a vacation should be.
December 22nd, 2012 – A Wedding
The world did not end; my sister would be married. The benefits of a destination wedding are many: small gathering of people who love you, saving money as the wedding is usually combined with the honeymoon, picking a place that is romantic or adventurous, relaxing or exciting. But, why get married in Belize? The people are friendly, Belize is close to the United States, English is the principle language spoken, the mainland is much cheaper than the US (Ambergris Caye is equivalent to US prices), it's warm, beautiful, has plenty of adventure and plenty of areas to relax, and it's rich in Mayan culture. Save for an occasional twenty-minute torrential squall, December is filled with sunny days and warm weather. But, there are still insects—and my blood is especially appetizing to them.
The wedding was beautiful. The hotel staff had a makeshift walkway on the beach made of conch shells and palm leaves. An archway made of palm leaves and flowers (hibiscus and orchids) was erected and the minister stood just under it. An elongated table with banquet settings had been set up on the beach, and next to the table were chairs for guests. A photographer met with LeeAnn and Steve and took several pictures of them on the beach, on the dock, and at various locations at the resort. There is a local wine store that carries Washington, Oregon, California, Italian, French, any sort of wine you might be looking for—I bought two bottles of Italian Prosecco for the occasion. For music, Paul, my step-father put together a simple play-list made on his i-Pod. When it was time, I walked my sister down the sandy aisle and presented her to Steve. Then, within a short time, they were married. The one drawback was that the minister had a soft voice and the crashing waves in the background drowned out most of what he said.
December 23rd, 2012 – Departure from Ambergris Caye
Katie and I had a flight out of San Pedro at 1 pm, but we wanted to leave earlier as we were heading to San Ignacio, a city on the western border of Belize, that day. It was incredibly easy to switch flights—no change fees, no hassles—only a few keystrokes on the computer.
So, we flew around 9 am across the beautifully translucent waters to Belize City, a haven for the criminal underworld of Belize or so I've heard. When the United States captures drug runners from Belize, instead of jail time, they simply deport them home—good for the United States, bad for Belize. Anyway, we decided to quickly abscond from Belize City and head straight to San Ignacio.
A woman outside the bus terminal approached us and said that she would take us to San Ignacio for $16 US each. Considering the nature of taxis ready and willing to serve outside a bus terminal, I figured $16 US was a steep price. So, we declined and headed into the terminal for a grand adventure it turned out. Getting on the bus was like getting on the last spaceship to earth with no line and no rules. We missed the first bus because there were no signs that said where each bus line was going. And, the busses were labeled with the name of the major city that they were running through, but not the entire route. So, the bus we needed (after asking a few people—remember, always ask questions) was the red line that was going to Belmopen (the nation's capital).
When that bus arrived, it was a free-for-all explosion of people cramming into each other, running to the back to enter from that end, shoving their bags of clothes and whatnot into the windows to preserve a seat, etc. An elderly woman graciously turned to me and said, “The express bus will be here in just a minute and that's the one you want.” Then, she shoved a small child aside and made her way onto the bus.
Sure enough, another bus just showed up and we scrambled to get on. We both made it, but barely. Once the bus departed, a man came by to get money from the passengers—there was no ticket stand or booth to purchase tickets—once on the bus, that's when you pay. The man looked at me and the man next to me and passed us by—I exchanged a shrug and thought ‘ha, I just saved $16 bucks'! Now, one might think foreigners ride for free, but that's not the case: apparently, a group of 18 Australians had boarded the bus and their tour guide had paid their tickets—and Katie and I must have looked Australian and the ticket collector simply passed us by. The bus trip was about three hours.
San Ignacio is a small town of about 17,000 people on the western border of Belize. It's quaint, has a centralized downtown where most of the locals come to sell their goods or meet and talk. There is a football (soccer) field and a greeting center that was recently built to host town events. It's a sign that the people of San Ignacio want to make their town interesting and appealing to tourists as well as Belizeans.
Midas Resort was a sort of stucco-walled fortress on the outskirts of San Ignacio. The pool, upon entering the resort, looked a little unkempt, but it did have a volleyball net, which could be enticing. Midas Resort utilizes bungalows. They are quite nice: ours had air conditioning, two beds, a television, but a restroom that was a bit small—one could not comfortably move around upon getting out of the shower. The cost was considerably less than Banana Beach, but this was the mainland and away from the touristy beach resorts. The staff were friendly enough, but not exactly helpful. When I asked if I could call my parents, who were traveling to Caves Branch that day, the front desk workers said they normally don't let guests use the phone to make calls. I pressed that it was important since it was my only form of communication with them (since Midas Resort doesn't have guest computers to use). Finally, they relented.
December 24th, 2012 – Christmas Eve
Booking a short day trip to Tikal, Guatemala is relatively easy to do through any of the resorts or small travel agencies spread around town, but the cost was perhaps a bit more than expected at $270 Belize, but the experience was phenomenal. A large bus picked us up from our hotel and drove us to the border of Belize and Guatemala. There, our driver obtained the entrance stamps (including an exit fee from Belize, which was part of the package) into Guatemala. Then, we walked through and met our Guatemalan guide named Benedictine, an extremely short, rotund man, who was friendly, welcoming, and knowledgeable about all things Mayan. We took another van up the winding, jungle road to Tikal while Benedictine told us tidbits about the history of the Maya.
Hidden deep in the Guatemalan jungle lies the ruins of a key city of the ancient Mayan civilization. Magnificent, massive stone buildings, built without tools, emerge out of the jungle landscape—some of the towers weren't discovered even until 1995 because the jungle had re-taken the land. The Maya were an amazing and mysterious people, and their ruins shed some light on that.
Touring through the various edifices and hiking up to the top of the largest tower on a clear day, the views were majestic—we could see for miles and miles across jungle landscape and into the low lands. From that lofty perch, the Maya could know exactly what was coming their way and prepare for it. The tour lasted about five hours as you will hike through five different temples and some five miles of jungle.
A note about Guatemala: the Guatemalan army routinely visits villages and shows their presence to ward off the flow of crime and human trafficking that has plagued Guatemala for so many years now so it is not strange to see uniformed men carrying large guns at various checkpoints.
We asked a server at a bar about the bus schedule on Christmas Day because Katie was leaving the next day and going back to Boston. The woman didn't know about the bus schedule, but she offered a ride through a friend of hers who she knew was driving to Belize City to visit his girlfriend. Katie was a little weary of driving three hours with a stranger, but decided to do it. And sure enough, the next morning, Luiz as he was known, picked her up and took her to Belize City. I was heading to Caves Branch to meet my family.
December 25th – 27th, 2012 – Caves Branch – A Holiday
With Katie heading back to Boston, I took a bus (not a chaotic experience this time as not too many people traveled from San Ignacio and especially not on Christmas Day) to Belmopan. The price for the ticket is $3 Belize to Belmopen. So, foreigners do have to pay after all.
Once in Belmopen, on Christmas Day, there are no buses heading to Caves Branch so you would have to take a taxi that can be negotiated down to $50 Belize (perhaps less if you push hard enough). The trip was about fifteen minutes from Belmopan.
Fairy tale lodges nestled in the jungle trees provide for a vacation away from a vacation, for a cost though. Caves Branch is located about 15 miles south of downtown Belmopan. Everything one would need away from the metropolis can be found here—from buffet style breakfast, lunch, and dinner to chauffeured tours to nearby sites to pools, saunas, nature walks, a full bar, and jungle lodging—Caves Branch is a must see.
Held right at 6:30 in the morning, a staff guide provides binoculars to guests and takes them along a trail around the resort. Notable birds that can be seen include: turkey vulture, yellow crown night heron, limpkin, snowy egret, summer tanager, keel billed toucan, black crown night heron, great egret, black phoebe, clay colored thrush, yellow bellied flycatcher, bat falcon, Wilson's warbler, melodious black bird, magnolia warbler, hooded warbler, white collared seedeater, white wing Becard, yellow warbler, great kiskadee, ruddy ground dove, and the bright rump atila. Abel Garcia (the guide assistant) graciously writes down all the birds seen on any given tour and gives a list to each tour guest.
A tractor ride through an orange orchard dodging and ducking under tree branches brings one to an opening on the Caves Branch River. Once disembarked, the guide leads the way via inner tube through five different caves of various lengths for a total of seven miles. But, this is no pleasure cruise. Be ready to work those arms and sometimes the legs too as the river gets rather shallow at points, and one must crabwalk over the rocks or get stuck. Headlamps are provided, though, so this experience is fun and different, and there are some beautiful cave windows to see into the dense jungle.
After the cave tour, zip lining is the next course of action. The tour from Caves Branch allows for three different zip lines, the first being the tallest and longest. The second zip line is short, but very fast. And the third is a blend of the three. Unfortunately, if it's great zip lining you're looking for, do it in Costa Rica.
The service at Caves Branch is topnotch. I was staying at Midas Resort in San Ignacio when I took the bus to Belmopan and then a taxi to Caves Branch. Upon arriving, I met with Kareem who greeted me with a rum punch and said that my parents were out, but I was to be staying with them (free of charge—Caves Branch didn't charge any extra to put a bed in my parent's bungalow and sleep there and eat at all the meals). He helped take my bags, showed me their room, gave me a key, and then said when I was ready, I could come down and have a snack and wait for them in the main area. So, instead of going back to Midas Resort on the 26th of December, I stayed at Caves Branch essentially for two nights free-of-charge. Not only that, when I needed to return my key to Midas Resort, they simply said they would mail it, and I checked out of Midas Resort over the phone. My sister and her fiancÃ© arrived, too, on Christmas Day, and when the staff found out that it was their honeymoon, they upgraded them to the honeymoon suite, a beautiful three-story bungalow located high up in the trees. The staff were friendly and open, and extremely helpful in an emergency. My step-father's eye lens became detached on the morning we were to fly out. Our flight was at 1 pm, but my step-father was worried because if his lens became completely detached, he could go blind in that eye. So, he wanted to see if he could get another flight. Quickly, one staff member got on the phone with American Airlines to book a sooner flight, and despite American Airlines giving him grief, he was able to do it. So, we checked out sooner than expected, took a Caves Branch taxi to Belize City, and was able to fly to Miami rather than our later flight as planned to Dallas. That way, if there was a problem with his eye, at least he was in the United States where he could see a specialist.
Sometimes, one needs a vacation after going on vacation. Belize, in December, was a perfect blend of adventure and relaxation. I felt refreshed when I arrived back in Seattle, but I was a bit sad to have had to leave. It was a wonderful trip—a reunion with Katie, my sister's wedding, and a Christmas holiday. And, although the world did not end on December 21st, 2012, there was a buzz of excitement to be with the Maya people, sharing their legend with them. And at the end of our voyage, the consensus was that we all want to go back.
Timothy Ross McDonald is the author of "The Life of Failure McFadden," http://www.failuremcfadden.com