May 31, 2009

Travel Log: Belize Jungle - Cayo District/San Ignazio (May 2009)

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After spending 5 days in the the paradise of the Belize coastline, we took a 15 min flight back to the mainland and trekked into the rural Cayo District (via a rickety red mini van) just outside San Ignacio on the edge of the little village Cristo Rey [map]. On the way, our guide Eric Tut gave us a tour of the Belize Zoo - a small zoo packed with Belizean wildlife - some of which we would see more of. The highlights included a tapir and getting up close to a jaguar.

To reach Crystal Paradise (which would be home for the next 3 nights) we took the East/West "Highway" - one of 2 major roads in Belize. This "highway" is equivalent of an secondary state highway in need of attention. Given the potholes in the road, I found the speed bumps ironic. Little did we know this was, relatively speaking, a high quality road compared to the roads ahead of us.

Ambergris Caye was on the verge of third world living, a mix of local shacks and upscale beachfront homes (Jimmy Buffett owes a hideaway here). San Ignacio/Cristo Rey was definitely third world. No fine dining, no Burger King, no sports bars w/ HDTV, no TV at all, or AC - for the locals or us. Despite the lack of traditional comforts, we enjoyed the beautiful grounds of Crystal Paradise - full of huge coconut trees, cacti, cockspur trees, hibiscus, Heliconia Bihai (aka lobster claw), pineapple plants (doesn't resemble a pine or apple tree), posionwood (avoid the sap!) and others I've never seen before. Aside from some pines, the foliage doesn't resemble anything like those found in my mid-Atlantic states. This "resort" is run entirely by Victor and Teresa Tut, a local Belize couple, and their 10 children!

After a hearty dinner of chicken with rice and beans prepared by Carolita Tut (Eric's sister) and a round of Belikins, we all retired early (a common trend for the trip). Our rooms were equipped with authentic thatched roofs and screened windows that worked most of the time. Despite numerous warnings, mosquitoes were not a problem - my backyard is worse, as is the Belize rain forest area (which was confirmed by the legs of some other travelers that just left that area).

On Friday we took to the trees - zip-lining! In another first for us, we donned harnesses, were clipped to heavy cables and zipped through the canopy of the forest. It was a blast and went by fast. Even Tee's 4 yro nephew Blake enjoyed it (as any Batman fan would).

Following a picnic lunch and with Eric Tut leading the way and pointing out details we would have missed, including a tarantula and giant toad (I'd guess 2 lbs - and T spotted this creature 1st!), we hiked through the jungle with inner tubes for 45 minutes,
taking in the nature along the way. Our destination: the Caves Branch River. For the next couple hours we floated back down river - part of the time through a large cave.
"Cave Tubing" was a lot of fun.

Massive Cave

We saved a trip to Mayan ruins for our final full day in Belize. Everald Tut (Eric's oldest brother) ferried us in the questionable red mini-van over 2 hours worth of bumpy dirt roads through the scraggly Pine Mountain Ridge to the Caracol Archaeological Park

Dirt road leading to Caracol
To quote Everald, it is "the longest 37 mile ride you'll ever take", but it was worth it. The Caracol Mayan ruins sit just 3 miles from the Guatemalan border. For safety precautions, the last stretch of the trek was completed via a military lead convoy. Apparently Guatemalan bandits roam the area and rob tourists (the last incident was Feb 12th, and it was Everald's tour that was hit, lovely). This area is so remote, the ruins weren't [re]discovered until 1936 (it was abandoned by the Mayans in 1050 AD). 10 years ago the roads to the site weren't penetrable. A lot of excavation work has been complete, but a lot remains. Experts believe this could be one of the largest Mayan sites ever discovered and is home to the tallest man-made structure in Belize; the Caana temple stands 43.5 meters tall - higher than any modern building. Everald actually worked at the site for several years and was a terrific guide with lots of insights (and a few jokes). It was an amazing site.
Caracol Caana Temple
Caracol Caana Temple

Seeing and climbing over structures built 1 to 2 thousand years ago without modern technology and the back breaking labor that went into it boggles the mind.
cute baby howler monkey
The afternoon concluded with a late picnic packed by the Tut's and a visit with a cute baby howler monkey which fell from a tree and is now cared for by the rangers guarding Caracol.

We dipped into the natural Rio On pools to cool off on the route back to Crystal Paradise. We all slept well our final night in Belize.

May 21, 2009

Travel Log: Belize, Ambergris Caye Belize (May 2009)

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There are a lot of things I want to do and places to visit. I must admit, Belize was not on the first page. I didn't know a lot about Belize and traveling to areas that are more or less third world never captured my imagination. But here I am - sitting on the eastern edge of Central America, on a quiet romantic coastal town under picture perfect palm trees drinking Belikin beer with Tee ... and her whole family. Her parents are scuba junkies and Belize has the 2nd largest coral reef system within eyesight of the shoreline (2nd only to The Great Barrier Reef). Who knew?

We've been staying at the Xanadu Resort in Ambergris Caye. Over the past 4 days we've explored San Pedro (the only town on the caye) via foot, bike and boat; devoured a lot of seafood (snapper seems to be the local fav); found the locals to be very friendly and helpful (even the ones that aren't trying to sell us a tour); and jumped into snorkeling.
I've never snorkeled before, but was interested in trying it. After taking in more than my fair share of the sea, I got the hang of it and loved it. We 1st went out to Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The coral was neat, but the fish stole the show. The diversity was amazing. From what I can remember we saw angelfish, a couple types of grouper, snapper, several types of parrotfish (really neat), tarpin (~4 ft), southern rays, barracuda (those catch your attention!), a green turtle (very cool!) and dozens of friendly horse-eyed jack swam around us (1-2 ft). It was a blas.

To top that, the whole clan took a day trip on Tuesday in a small boat further south for more adventure. Our fist stop consisted of visit with manatees amongst the mangroves. Goff's CayeThen we skirted southeast to Goff's Caye, a 1 acre island we had all to ourselves.This was amazing.

While one guide took us snorkeling around the island, another prepared lunch on the fire pit (fish stew, coconut rice, potatoes, homemade tortillas and brownies). Words don't do it justice. On the way back we stopped at another snorkeling hot spot and jumped in with a dozen friendly southern rays - one goosed Tee pretty good!

We loved the snorkeling so much (and we can't do this back in Raleigh, NC), so we ventured out again one more morning. This time highlights included a moray eel and nurse sharks.

To top off the evening and stay in Ambergris, we enjoyed a sunset catamaran sail this evening.

We'll be up early Thursday to switch gears - time to head into the jungle!