20 Jan BELIZE New Year’s 2014 [Part 1]
I’ve been talking about it forever, and it’s finally here – my recap of my trip to Belize! For the sake of my mental organization, I am going narrate my trip chronologically, highlighting my favorite moments as they happened. I am in the habit of getting pretty detailed in my travel posts (yes, this is only post 1 of 2), so feel free to skip over the chatter and just gawk at the photos.
Our trip started off at the butt crack of dawn. Seriously, 3:45 in the morning is FAR to early for anybody to be crammed into an airport shuttle and forced to make small talk. Which is precisely why Steve and I sat behind the dreary-eyed strangers in the front row, averting our eyes as we boarded as to signal we were not up for butt-crack-of-dawn conversing. I am a master at eye contact avoidance, especially in travel situations.
A quick stop in Dallas (complete with a Dunkin Donuts run) followed by a pit stop in Miami (let’s not forget the free Cognac tasting) and before we knew it we were arriving in Belize City, not-so-fresh but in full vacation mode. But, we still were’t there yet.
Let me insert a little side note here. Not only was this me & Steve’s first vacation as a couple, but it was also my first time to meet all of his best friends from undergrad. No pressure right?
We chose to spend our time in Belize on Ambergris Caye (pronounced like key), an island off the coast from Belize city, that can reached either by water taxi or puddle-jumper. Since the water taxi was considerably cheaper, we opted for the by sea option. Luckily, they sell beer at the port as to keep the touristas content on the hour-and-a-half boat ride to San Pedro Town. As soon as we stepped off the water taxi we a) saw a sting ray! and b) were ushered to a beachfront bar where we were welcomed with free shots and a round of beers while we waited for our luggage. I took both of these as positive signs that we were in for a good time.
Half way through our first beer (okay second) we were approached by a local woman offering hair braiding to the girls in our group. We told her we weren’t interested at the moment but would consider coming back on another day. She seemed to accept this as a reasonable answer, but continued to stand around, lurking on the edge of our 8-person group. After about 5 minutes of awkwardly watching her out of the corner of my eye, she tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear. If any of your boys want boobies, send them my way. I’m here all night. Followed by a wink and a chummy elbow nudge, as if we were old friends in on some sort of mutual secret.
Fifteen minutes on the island and I’d already been offered prostitution. Needless to say, this was a couples trip and none of our boys were going to be soliciting any boobies.
At this point, it was getting dark and our host, Roger, needed to go pick another group up so it was time to head to our condos. Our mode of transportation for the weekend – golf carts! I probably saw 4-5 actual cars the entire time we were there and they were all taxis. The primary modes of transportation on the island are golf carts (for tourists and those well off enough to afford them) and bicycles. The town is only a mile or so long and maybe half that wide, so there is no need for cars.
We stayed at The Landing at Tres Cocos, a condo complex right on the water. From what I gathered, all of the units are individually owned as vacation properties, and are rented out most of the year. The rented units are managed by Roger & Suzanne, who were the absolute best hosts we could have asked for. (They were a married couple who had previously been employed in the oil industry in Houston. They vacationed in Belize 12 years ago and at the end of their stay decided to buy a house and never leave. Talk about the stuff of dreams – I envy their spontaneity!)
On our first morning we did some exploring and stumbled across a local bakery, The Baker, where we ordered freshly baked cinnamon rolls and breakfast sandwiches. The owners, a European couple who, after finding paradise in Belize, retired to San Pedro and opened a bakery. Seeing a trend here? We also made it home with a freshly baked loaf of cinnamon bread which we used to make some pretty amazing french toast a few mornings later.
That afternoon we jumped right into things with a half day snorkel trip with stops at Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. Let me tell ya, I’ve snorkeled in several tropical locations and Hol Chan had the most dense fauna population I have ever seen. Within 30 minutes of being in the water we saw a sea turtle, a lion fish, a moray eel, one creepy looking barracuda, multiple nurse sharks, several sting rays and of course, a plethora of colorful tropical fish. It was a total Little Mermaid moment for me. I regret not purchasing some sort of underwater camera before the trip as I would have loved to document our sightings.
Shark Ray Alley was more of a petting zoo experience than a snorkeling one. We drove out to a sandbar and once anchored our guides started chumming the water. Yep, you read me right. They threw dead fish into the water to attract sharks so that we could jump in the water and swim with them. Call me crazy, but it was awesome.Plus they’re just nurse sharks, think of them as the “kittens” of the shark world.
I should note that the tour we took was through Lil’ Alfonse (the best!). I read about Alfonse on Trip Advisor before our vacation where most of the reviewers refer to him as “the shark whisperer”. And for good reason. I’m pretty sure the chum in the water had more to do with attracting the sharks and sting rays than Alfonse, but once we were surrounded Jaws style, he started catching them and holding them for us to touch. The man was literally hugging sharks. You can see him below holding a nurse shark for us to touch.
After working up our appetites wrestling sharks and what not, we freshened up and headed into town for dinner at Elvi’s Kitchen. Steve had a fantastic Seafood Creole that was loaded with fresh fish, squid, conch and a huge stone crab claw (my fave) to top it off. I had one of their most popular dishes, the shrimp curry, made with a heavy dose of coconut milk and, if I’m not mistaken, what tasted like a hint of peanut butter. I highly recommend the food, but the cocktails were weak on alcohol and strong on sweet & sour so stick with wine or beer.
We also had an off-putting experience with our waitress. At the end of our meal she came to the table and explained that for large parties a 15% service fee is included on the bill. She then went on to say that a large portion of the service fee goes to the kitchen staff (meaning she has to share her tip) but if we were to complain to the manager, we could have it removed (and thus give her the full 15% fee). She then took the liberty to tell the manager we had a complaint (which we did not) so he came to our table to check in. It was all a bit shady and obviously a ploy on her part to avoid sharing her tip. Needless to say, we told the manager we had no complaints and paid the fee, which she of course had to share with the kitchen staff.
On our second full day in Belize it was back to the mainland for zip lining and cave tubing, but this time our transportation was a small, uncovered boat. Because of the overcast “Christmas weather” (75 degrees) and wind it was FREEZING. But we made the best of it, huddled up in our raincoats and passing the time by doing out best manatee impressions and speaking unmentionables into the wind, much to the dismay of the family vacationers at the back of the boat. Did you say VENICE?
Once we hit the mainland we took the Old Belize River into the rainforest where our guide pointed out male iguanas sitting in the surrounding trees on our way to the manatee-less manatee lookout. The males are a brownish/red color so they’re easy to spot. We were pretty far away but these guys were easily 4 feet long from nose to tail. We disembarked at the manatee lookout center and snacked on a traditional Belizean breakfast of Johnny Cake sandwiches filled with either chicken or ham/cheese while we waited for out bus to arrive.
We then journeyed deep into the Belizean rain forest to Jaguar Paw, for some good old fashion “adventure”. First on the schedule was a zip lining excursion. The experience ended up being a mixture of omg we’re in the rain forest this is so cool and ew, these helmets smell like mildew and death, how soon can we can out of them. The scenery was absolutely beautiful, but much to my dismay the wildlife was sparse. In fact, the only thing we saw while ziplining was a coati. Definitely a highlight, but I was hoping for more.
The zip line course was good, not great. All of the lines were pretty close together (we had hoped for a little more hiking) and only one was big enough to induce an adrenaline rush. It would be a great choice for families with kids. The only real downside was the equipment. It stunk like sweat and mildew. Kind of like you would expect anything that has spent its entire life being passed from person to person while living in the middle of a 100% humidity environment to smell. My advice: bring some hand sanitizer.
I wish I had pictures of from zipping but it was a rainy day so I didn’t bring my camera. Our friend Josh had his GoPro so if I can snag some pictures from him (where I got the ones below) I’ll make sure to update this post.
Next we enjoyed a buffet lunch, complete with the local specialty, rice and beans doused by yours truly with plenty of the local brand of habanero hot sauce, Marie Sharp’s.
The highlight of the day was the cave tubing. After lunch we were all given headlamps and inner tubes and followed our guide on a 1-ish mile jungle hike along the river, that ended at an opening of a large cave. On the side where we stood was a small rocky beach, on the other was a cliff wall with vines and tropical vegetation clinging to its sides. We were given free time to swim and dive off rocks that sat at the entrance to the cave. Or for the less adventurous, to hang out in the shallow water trying to catch minnows with coconut pieces, picked fresh from the surrounding trees. I suffer from a constant case of FOMO, so I did both.
When it was time to enter the cave, we were given the choice to drift freely in our own tubes, or to tie together and float as a group – we chose the group option. What better place to bond than in a million year old, pitch black cave said to be and ancient worshiping place of the Mayans? Our guide took us through, pointing out rock formations that resembled common shapes, and helping us to identify the different minerals that stained the walls. We saw both stalactites ad stalagmites and some pretty cool crystals to boot. Our cave tour was followed by a leisurely float back to the river’s entrance.
Note that if you’re planning to take this excursion while in Belize, I highly recommend that your bring your own water shoes. The tour company was “sold out” so we had to rent ours from a local who had a tent set up with a table of old, damp water shoes, yours for the afternoon for $3BZE ($1.50 US). Hooray adventure! On a positive note, at the end we were rewarded (i.e. we bought them) with freshly cracked coconuts filled with local rum to temper the sting of our newly contracted foot fungi.
By day 3 it was time for some R&R. We slept in to the sound of morning showers then spent the remainder of our morning catching up over hot coffee and french toast made with The Baker‘s fresh cinnamon bread. Once the sun came out we decided to take our golf carts into town for a little exploring and shopping. We found a great local chocolate shop right on the beach where we sampled and purchased some pretty amazing truffles. While small, Belize has a booming little chocolate industry and you can buy their locally sourced chocolate in most of the tourist shops.
After our chocolate stop, I spent most of my afternoon wandering through town, taking photos and shopping the local hand-embroidered textiles.
My walk eventually led me back to the beach, where I ran into these hungry guys, trying to catch some scraps off of the local fisherman.
And also these good lookin’ guys.
We had lunch at Wild Mango’s where I had my first (definitely not last) Pina Colada of the trip.
Since it was 3pm and I’d already dived head first into caribbean rum drinks, we decided it was appropriate to go Travelerr’s for a (free) tasting of locally produced adult beverages. We tried cashew wine and ginger wine. Cashew actually made from the flower of the cashew plant and was EXTREMELY sweet and slightly floral, not at all reminiscent of the nut. The ginger wine was syrupy sweet as well but with a nice punch of spice – tolerable over slightly melted ice cubes. My favorite was the local spiced rum which has a healthy dose of vanilla, making it an ideal baking rum. I brought home a liter bottle of it and have been spending my spare time dreaming about what to bake up with it so look out for that recipe in the next few weeks!
That night, we went on a night snorkeling adventure. It was definitely my favorite excursion from the trip. I must admit, I was freaked out at the thought of it. Pitch black open water is enough to give anybody the creeps. As we waited for Alfonse on the dock outside of our condo complex, the sun disappearing behind the horizon, we all began to have second thoughts. All 8 of us expressed some sort of doubt about our upcoming adventure, be it that we thought we might not see anything good in the dark, or that we were going to be miserable without the sun to warm our backs, it was said. Deep down I think we were all just a bit spooked.
By the time the boat arrived it was completely dark. We boarded and headed back out to Hol Chan, the reef we had explored in daylight 2 days earlier. Alfonse and his sidekick Rex set us up with our snorkel gear as well as some high powered underwater flashlights. As soon as I hit the water, I realized it wasn’t going to be nearly as scary as I had anticipated. The light from our 10 underwater flashlights illuminated a 20-foot (ish) radius around us, allowing us to see any creepies that may have been lurking in the darkness.
I can’t even put into words how freaking cool the night snorkel was. We saw a completely different variety of wildlife that we saw during the day. Within seconds of being it the water, Alfonse pointed out a camouflaged octopus. Seconds later he was exclaiming LOOK and pointing to our right where there was a giant spotted eagle ray majestically gliding through the water, only feet away from us. It felt like we were smack dab in the middle of a Discovery Channel show. We went on to see spiny lobsters, squid (one even inked!), sleeping sting rays and fish, a puffer fish, a jelly fish that even Alfonse couldn’t identify, green moray eels, live conch, and even some pretty sizeable grabs. At one point we were being followed around by a big snapper who was using our lights to hunt for sleeping fish. As the boys cheered him on in his hunt, there was a sudden flash of movement and before we knew what happened the snapper was swimming off with a bright blue angel fish in his jaws.
As we climbed out of the water back into the boat, we were greeted with the clearest sky I have ever seen. Seemingly every single star in galaxy was visible, bright and glowing against the pitch black tropical night. To add to it, as the boat sped off we were surrounded by bioluminescence in our wake. We all agreed that being huddled together on that boat, watching the stars and enjoying our night snorkel high was one of the best moments of the trip.
And that “sums up” the first half of our trip to Belize. If you made it this far, thank you! If you can handle more, I’ll be posting about the next half of our trip sometime next week. And after I get a dessert post or two up!