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Belize and Guatemala: Ruins, Rain Forests and Reefs

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

We ate a decent lunch back at the comedor; I had chicken with mushrooms, while SO had chicken fajitas. (Our driver had posed our choice thus: "Pollo or pollo?") Then it was back into the car to go back to San Ignacio. There we ate dinner at Eva's, which seems to be a major hot spot for tourists and expats -- you can eat, drink, get online, and book a tour all in one place. Again I had rice and beans with stew chicken -- it's yummy and it's cheap!

Barton Creek Outpost
The next morning, we hopped aboard a half-day bus tour to Barton Creek Cave, but we weren't planning on doing the whole tour; instead, we wanted to be dropped off at the Barton Creek Outpost, where we planned to camp for three nights. It took about an hour to reach the Outpost from San Ignacio on hilly, rocky roads. We passed through a number of citrus groves (apparently oranges, grapefruits and other citrus fruits are major exports for Belize) and then entered a farming community of Mennonites; there are about 500 Mennonite families living here, having come to Belize because the government places few restrictions on how they live. It was Sunday morning, so there were a ton of buggies parked outside their meeting house.

barton creek outpost belizeWe arrived at the Outpost to find a rustic wooden building housing a bar, a couple of bathrooms (marked "Tarzan" and "Jane"), and a generous wrap-around porch complete with a porch swing and a hammock. The grounds had tons of colorful tropical flowers, and the Outpost is perched right next to the clear waters of Barton Creek. (Barton Creek Cave is upstream just a bit, within easy canoeing distance.)

tent barton creek outpost belize campingThere were two young American guys staying at the Outpost when we arrived, but otherwise it was pretty quiet. One of the guys took us for a walk to check out the surroundings (Mennonite farms, tropical forest, and not much else!). After our walk, we came back to a lunch of ... you guessed it ... rice and beans with stew chicken. Accompanying it was fresh-squeezed orange juice from nearby fruit trees. The meals at Barton Creek Outpost are pretty much fixed; the owner or caretaker will ask if you have any food allergies, but otherwise they make one dish for each meal and that's what you get. I don't remember the exact prices, but I believe it was something like $7 for breakfast, $10 for lunch and $15 for dinner (all BZD). In terms of accommodations, you can rent a tent for $20 BZ per night; bring your own and you can camp for free.

parrotOur days at Barton Creek Outpost were lazy and laid back. We hiked around a bit, saw a lot of birds, met a few of the local Mennonite kids, played card games, and took a dip in the local swimming hole. The highlight of our time there was probably our trip into Barton Creek Cave. You're not allowed in without a local guide, so someone affiliated with the Outpost paddled us up the creek and took us into the watery cave one morning before any tours arrived.

It was a peaceful, almost otherworldly experience; once we got past the entrance, nearly all noise and light fell away, and all we could hear was the soft sounds of the paddle and the drip-drip-drip of water seeping down the limestone. The guide gave SO a lamp that he could shine around the walls of the cave, illuminating some impressive stalactites as well as a few small Mayan artifacts: a skull and some pottery.

canoes barton creek belizeWe probably paddled in about a mile or so before we had to turn back. Our guide gave us a little bit of information about the cave, which was apparently used by the Mayans for burial rites, but for the most part he was quiet and let us soak up the experience. We encountered a couple of other canoes on our way out, but otherwise we had the cave to ourselves. Pretty amazing.

Less amazing was my ungainly disembarkation from the canoe when we got back the Outpost. I tried to jump out and catch the canoe as it approached the dock, but I lost my footing and ended up in knee-deep water, soaking my boots and jeans. Smooth!

While we enjoyed our time at the Outpost, we quickly realized how isolated it was. Because the owner's vehicle was in the shop, there was no real way to get back to town unless a tour group showed up and gave us a ride out. Since we had to go all the way back across Belize to get to Caye Caulker, our next stop, we decided we'd better cut our Outpost stay a day short to give ourselves more time to get back to San Ignacio.

And it's a good thing we did. With no tour groups showing up on the day we wanted to leave, we ended up having to hike for three hours along isolated roads with all of our bags. (We had backpacks on our backs and duffel bags on our fronts -- if I'd had any idea we'd be doing this sort of thing, we'd have packed differently!) Luckily the sun went behind a cloud shortly after we set off, or we would have had problems with heat exhaustion. We probably had another hour yet to walk before we reached the Western Highway, but finally -- thank GOD -- a logging truck picked us up and gave us a lift the rest of the way. (As a note: I am not usually one to hitchhike, and probably would not have done so if I had been alone. However, SO and I were traveling with two other guys, and hitchhiking seemed to be a pretty commonly accepted practice in Belize. In fact, the logger who picked us up already had another hitchhiker with him, a female schoolteacher.)

The logger dropped us off at the Western Highway, where we were planning to try to flag down the next bus headed to San Ignacio. But a group of locals hanging out in front of a house across the street noticed us, and one of them volunteered himself as an impromptu "taxi" service. I think we paid about $40 BZ for him to drive all four of us to San Ignacio. No idea whether that was a good price or not, but after the hike we'd just done, we would have paid much more!

SO and I checked back in to Martha's Guesthouse, this time in a standard room with air conditioning ($55 US a night). It wasn't as nice as the junior suite, of course, but it was clean and offered a hot shower, which was all we wanted after three days of camping.

Caye Caulker
We got up early and caught a public bus to Belize City on November 19, Garifuna Settlement Day, a national holiday in Belize. The center of the celebrations is Dangriga, in the south of Belize, where the Garifuna people -- an Afro-Caribbean group known for their music and unique culture -- are based. We were afraid that buses might not be running on the holiday, but luckily they were (just less frequently). This bus ride was more fun than the previous one we'd taken; it stopped less, and I got into a really fun conversation with a young Belizean man heading to Belmopan. Turns out that he followed the recent American election nearly as closely as I did, so we spent some time discussing the ins and outs of the Obama and McCain campaigns and airing our opinions of President Bush. (I won't go into details, but I'll just say that the Belizean and I were in complete agreement. *g*) I was amazed at how closely a non-American had followed the election, but then as he said, what happens in America affects the whole world. If our economy crashes, other markets go with it, and nations dependent on tourism -- such as Belize -- take a major hit.

As soon as we arrived in Belize City, SO and I raced across town on foot to catch a ferry to Caye Caulker. We just made it! The boat ride took 45 minutes and was rather bone-rattling at times as we bounced our way over the choppy waves. (Note to self: For a smoother ride, sit in the back of the boat.)

maxhapan cabanas belize caye caulkerOnce on Caye Caulker, we checked into Maxhapan Cabanas. The owner, Louise, showed us to our second-floor cabana, which had two beds, a microwave and fridge, and a private balcony with a hammock. (We spent a lot of time in that hammock!) One thing we really liked was that the top drawer of our bedside table could be locked, which was useful for the days when we went swimming/snorkeling and didn't want to take all of our valuables with us. Louise also had a bunch of free bikes available for guest use. All of this was just $50 US a night -- a steal! It's so cheap because it's a couple of blocks away from the beach; there are a number of waterfront hotels where we could have stayed. But honestly, we didn't really miss the ocean views; the island is so small that you can reach the beach in under five minutes.

We ate lunch at a place called Rose's, which was okay -- SO had a shrimp burrito and I had the catch of the day, grilled grouper, which was delicious but pricey ($25 BZ). Then we set off to explore the island. It's very small -- only a few miles long -- and there are no cars here, just bikes and golf carts. Most of the action for tourists is along Front Street, which runs along the eastern shore where most of the hotels, restaurants, shops and swimming piers are.

the split caye caulker belizeThe beachfront area is colorful and fun, though there's very little "beach" to speak of -- just a narrow strip of sand with piers stretching out into the water. Because there's so much sea grass right off the beach, most people either swim off the end of one of the piers or go up to the Split, where Hurricane Hattie cut the island in two, and swim in the crystal-clear waters there.

Dinner that night was divine. Following a tip from another traveler we met in San Ignacio, we went to Habaneros and shared the chef's special: lobster-stuffed snapper with shrimp. Mmmmmmm. It was a huge plate and absolutely delicious. (It came with rice, bread, veggies, a fruit garnish, and a habanero pepper. SO poked his fork into the pepper and licked a tiny bit of juice off it -- and that alone was enough to make him sweat!) We also shared a "veggie crock" appetizer, which I thought might be semi-healthy but was instead a few random veggie pieces floating in a vat of cheese. We topped it all off with a Spanish variant of creme brulee -- utterly unnecessary but oh so good! The atmosphere at this place was really nice too -- open-air porch, candles on the tables, white lights along the railing, a little mood music... All of that plus the food were well worth the $105 BZ price tag.

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