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Belize and Guatemala: Ruins, Rain Forests and Reefs

Author: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: November 2008

colorful buildings caye caulker belizeI wanted to go hiking in a rain forest. SO wanted to go snorkeling. Both of us were interested in cultural and historic sites. Neither of us wanted to pay too much for our vacation. Where to go?

After much discussion and argument, we finally decided on Belize, which offered Mayan ruins, rain forest trails and Central America's best snorkeling. Sign us up!

We flew American Airlines out of Washington D.C.'s Reagan airport, connecting in Miami. I was bummed that AA wouldn't let us check in online for an international flight, but luckily the lines were very short (at about 6 a.m. on a Friday morning) and we breezed through check-in and security.

It was sunny and about 80 degrees when we arrived at the Belize City airport. After a quick customs check, we took a rather terrifying taxi ride into town, which cost $25 US (both Belize dollars and U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere in Belize, and the exchange rate is fixed at $2 BZD to $1 USD). The driver wove in and out of traffic, tailgated both vehicles and bicycles, and narrowly missed hitting at least five pedestrians, but we survived.

The scene at the Belize City bus terminal was a bit chaotic -- the waiting area was packed with schoolkids as well as adults of all ages. Belize's public buses are actually retired U.S. school buses, gussied up with paint in an array of vibrant colors. We were waiting for a bus to take us to San Ignacio, a town near the western border of Belize. We were under the mistaken impression that the bus we wanted would be marked "San Ignacio"; we realized we were supposed to get on a bus marked "Benque" only as the Benque bus was pulling away. Argh! So we had to wait another 30 minutes for the next one.

The bus was very crowded -- standing room only. You pay for your ticket on the bus; it was about $7 BZ ($3.50 US) each way for the three-hour ride from Belize City to San Ignacio. While many hotels provide transportation from the airport, we decided to take the public bus because it was significantly cheaper and because we wanted to get a glimpse of how the locals travel. The atmosphere onboard was noisy and cheerful; the music kept switching between reggae/Caribbean-sounding stuff, which I liked, and some dreadful American exports like Celine Dion and bad 80's bands.

The bus stopped a LOT. There were few fixed stops; basically anyone could flag a bus down anywhere along the Western Highway, and anyone onboard could get off wherever they felt like it. Apparently there are express buses that stop in fewer places, but we never saw any of those.

We arrived in San Ignacio after dark and set off to find Martha's Guesthouse, where we had a reservation. We saw another hotel, the Balmoral, right near the bus terminal and thought maybe the man standing outside might be able to help us find our way. He wanted us to take a room at his hotel instead, but we refused and asked if he knew where Martha's was. He said he'd never heard of it. (We found this hard to believe, as San Ignacio is not a big town.) Well, then, did he know where West Street was?

"I'm not sure."

Clearly he was a lost cause, so we asked at a nearby taxi stand. Turns out West Street was right in front of the Balmoral, and Martha's was so close we could actually see its sign from where we were. Clearly the Balmoral guy was just trying to be unhelpful so that we would stay at his place instead. Jerk. (It should be noted that the taxi guys were very friendly -- they directed us to Martha's with no problem, even though we weren't going to ride with them. The Balmoral guy was probably the only unhelpful person we encountered in all of Belize.)

marthas guesthouse san ignacio belizeMartha's was an oasis at the end of a very long day of traveling. We were supposed to have a standard room with fan (about $50 US a night), but they were doing work on our room and upgraded us to the junior suite (fancy, fancy!) for no charge. It was a large room with two beds, a little breakfast nook area and air conditioning.

We booked a full-day Tikal tour through the front desk for $120 US each (unfortunately it couldn't be added to our room bill and paid with a credit card; instead we had to give the full amount in U.S. dollars, which wiped out nearly all of our U.S. dollar stash). Then we headed to Hanna's, just down the street, for dinner. The waitress was a sweetheart, and the food -- rice and beans with stew chicken, a plantain and coleslaw -- was yummy and very affordable. The whole bill came to just $13.50 US with tax, tip and two drinks!

Tikal, Guatemala
Our long trip to Tikal started at 7:30, when a staffer at Martha's drove us to the Guatemala border (about 30 minutes away). There we paid an exit fee ($30 BZ each), got our passports stamped, and were passed into the hands of a Guatemalan driver, who took us the 2+ hours to Tikal. It was a rough ride at first; the roads out of the Guatemalan border town weren't paved, so we bounced and jostled along for a good half hour. I was glad I'd taken a Dramamine! The trees and grass along the side of the road were white with dust kicked up by passing vehicles; between that, the fog, and the obvious poverty of the border town, Guatemala gave a bit of a dispiriting first impression.

lake peten el remate guatemalaBut we soon passed onto a paved road, the sun came out, and the scenery improved immensely. For miles there was nothing but green fields and lush tropical forest, gilded in the morning sun. Eventually we found our way back to civilization, passing through the town of El Remate, located on Lake Peten, Guatemala's second largest lake. There we stopped at a major tourist trap of a store filled with overpriced souvenirs. It did have a bathroom though, which is nothing to be sneezed at when you're in a foreign country!

Then it was on to Tikal, which is a huge national park area. Our driver bought our entrance tickets, ordered lunch ahead of time at a comedor within the park, and then handed us over to our park guide: a wiry, energetic little man who was apparently part Mayan. He spent a lot of time talking to us about energy and nature and the universe, and how the Mayans had the sort of intuitive knowledge that we modern folks supposedly lack today (due to a combination of religion and rationality). He kept thumbing through a Mayan spiritual handbook, looking up our personalities and life paths based on our birthdates. It was interesting, though I had trouble overcoming my rational mind in order to fully believe in what he was saying.

tikal temple I guatemala mayan templeMore interesting was Tikal itself, which is absolutely massive. What we saw was only the "downtown" area of a very large Mayan city, and much of it still hasn't been excavated from the jungle that's overgrown it since it was abandoned in 900 A.D. You have to walk along various jungle trails to reach the different sections of town, including the highlights: the city's five temples. The first time we turned a corner and caught sight of Temple I, our little tour group let out a collective "holy crap." You really can't appreciate the amazing scale of these things until you see them in person (and you can't appreciate how high they are until you climb them!).

tikal temples jungle viewWe climbed three -- first Temple II, which gave us a nice view of Temple I (which you can't climb); then Temple IV, which is the highest one and offers a truly amazing view of jungle as far as the eye can see; and finally Temple V, which was scary. Instead of nice wooden steps this one has a rickety ladder, and there was no railing at the top, where a crowd of people gathered on a ledge that was far too narrow for my liking. But again, the view was worth it -- you could see the tops of the other temples amid a sea of green jungle.

We also saw pyramids and palaces, as well as some cool wildlife: spider monkey, black howler monkey, coatimundi (several), various birds, and a (huge) golden orb spider.

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