Making my way south from Playa Del Carmen I caught the overnight bus heading towards Belize, an ex-British trading post, home to no more than 375,000 people, and a country I didn’t know too much about, so when I finally made it to Belize City it took me by surprise when the people spoke English as their first language, I must have forgotten this small detail somewhere along the way but it was relieving to hear people speak my own language after weeks of struggling with a very basic level of Spanish.
Just days before my arrival in Caye Caulker the area had been hit hard by Hurricane Earl, a storm which had reached category 4 on a scale of 1-5 and by all accounts had caused severe damage to buildings and homes across the country, with the islands being the most severely impacted I wasn’t even sure that I would be welcomed as the locals were still very much in the process of cleaning up, surely more tourists would just be an inconvenience to them, but this is Belize home to some of the friendliest and most relaxed people you are ever likely to meet and despite the mess and devastation caused by the hurricane it was business as usual.
I had booked into a hotel on the island called Popeye’s and the storm had hit them particularly hard, they had recently built a restaurant and a new jetty and whilst the jetty was still just about intact, the restaurant had been completely destroyed and washed away in the storm, it was heartbreaking to see. However the owner was still incredibly warm and welcoming and during my stay I never once heard a worker complain about his or her luck and it didn’t seem as though we were getting in the way of the clean up process, in fact they continued to laugh and make jokes and it was as if nothing had happened, you would struggle to find people with such a refreshingly positive attitude anywhere.
Even though the hurricane had destroyed so much of the island, the majority of Caye Caulker was still beautiful and picturesque and after I had settled in at the hotel I decided to rent a kayak to explore it a bit more. Venturing out to sea is when you really begin to understand why so many people visit the area, the water is crystal clear and you don’t even need a snorkel before you start to see the marine life that the islands of Belize are so famous for – schoals of fish swam underneath the kayak and the occasional Mantaray or Stingray would cruise by, I ended up taking the Kayak out on my own for around 4 hours and then made it back in time for sunset, where I enjoyed a few bottles of Belekin beer at a bar called The Lazy Lizard – a great spot to relax after all that hard work.
Whilst in Mexico a friend recommended I take a snorkelling trip with a company called “Reef Friendly Tours”, these guys not only offered a great snorkelling experience but also had a good reputation for teaching locals and tourists about marine conservation and the importance of looking after the reef – which is the second largest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – and I didn’t think twice about about booking the tour after feeling reassured by the knowledgable the owners. However, on the day I was due to set sail the boat decided it wasn’t going to start and we were informed that the nearest engineer qualified to fix it was in Belize City and wouldn’t arrive until the following day. This wasn’t an ideal situation but the company were great, 3 of us were due to leave the next day so the owner’s son made a few calls to friends and family around the island and within no time he had arranged to take a small group of us out on a boat which he had borrowed.
Our group had now shrunk from 14 people down to 3, but this only meant that the tour became much more of an intimate experience and our guide was fantastic; his knowledge of the local area, reef, and marine life, was incredible and with less people on board it meant we could ask him anything and would always receive an insightful response from an experienced local. We stopped off at a location called “Shark Ray Alley” where you get to swim with curious-but-friendly Nurse Sharks and Stingrays who don’t shy away when you swim close to them. Cruising around the Caribbean in our little speed boat whilst our guide fed us interesting fact after fact was a great way to spend a day. At the last location on our tour we were lucky enough to see 4 Manatees, these mammals are very rare so it’s not something you get to see everyday, but once our guide saw we were getting too close and disturbing them he quickly made us jump back on board – it was mating season so swimming too close can cause them a great deal of stress – this was just another sign of how conscious this particular company were about looking after the marine life.
My experience on the island was very positive, the people were generally very warm and friendly and they were also very curious and willing to strike up a conversation at every opportunity. An island like Caye Caulker wouldn’t be for everyone as it is so small with only basic amenities, but the relaxed pace of life, the snorkelling, the amazing locals, and not to mention the incredible seafood made me want to stay for more than just 3 days.
San Ignacio is a small town close to the Guatemalan border and my initial impression was that it looked ok, but there didn’t appear to be too much going on and the small amount of research I had done before I arrived only confirmed this. I had however heard about a network of caves which the Mayans believed was an entrance into the Underworld, this sounded fascinating and was the main reason why I wanted to stay.
I picked at random a hostel called “The Old House” and felt at home the second I walked in, the staff took “relaxed” to a whole new level, but were so welcoming and it was the type of place where you could easily make friends and everyone who stayed there would hang out together, it had a real family vibe.
I booked the trip to the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muktal) Caves on my second day in San Ignacio. The caves are an amazing wonder in themselves, but what makes this trip an absolute must is the fact the Mayans used to believe this site was of particular religious significance and made all kinds of sacrifices and offerings to the gods there. As you make your way through the caves, which is by no means easy – it’s a proper caving experience and involves a fair amount of physical work, swimming, squeezing through tight gaps, and scrambling up slippery rock faces – you begin to see some of the offerings which were left there centuries ago, it’s a creepy experience but brings you that bit closer to an ancient civilisation. At the end of the cave there is even a fully preserved skeleton of a boy who was sacrificed to the gods – I had heard many stories about sacrificial ceremonies before, but to see the remains of one was quite extraordinary.
Back at the hostel I made some great friends and the little group we formed would result in me extending my stay for an extra 2 nights and even after that I found it very difficult to leave. Further highlights of my stay in San Ignacio were; a visit to a local Iguana sanctuary at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, Cahal Pech – another set of Mayan ruins which I didn’t even know were there until a few days after I arrived in town, Kayaking up the Mopan river – kayaking upstream was as hard as it sounds, attending a Mormon baptism, and drinking home made wine in the bar below the hostel as we watched local acts perform at the open mic night, here I witnessed a stand up performance which was so bad it was great.
Crossing the border from Belize to Guatemala
After enjoying my time in San Ignacio, I made my way to the Guatemalan border with my friend Judy who I had met at the hostel, it is only a few miles away and easy to reach by taxi, but at the border we were on our own, the taxi driver dropped us off, waved goodbye and pointed towards the immigration office. As soon as we left the taxi we were immediately approached by a number of different people offering services such as currency exchange and help with crossing the border – which really isn’t necessary – it can be a bit intimidating but my advice is just to smile and say “no thank you” or “no gracias” depending on who you are speaking to. My experience with currency exchange at border crossings has mainly been positive and in some cases I’ve managed to negotiate an excellent rate, but it’s best to shop around first and approach people rather than letting them approach you, I always use this tactic and so far it’s never served me wrong.
Leaving Belize was not a problem, we managed to get our exit stamps and walked the few hundred meters into Guatemala, but one thing we realised as we made it to the other side was that we hadn’t received an entrance stamp for Guatemala, this seemed a bit strange but perhaps you don’t need one for entry into Guatemala I thought, as usually they usher you straight into the immigration office on the opposite side of the border – later on in my trip this would cause me a major headache – but for now we boarded the bus towards Flores excited to be in yet another new country.
Until next time,
I hope you enjoyed reading about my trip to Belize, it would be great to hear about your experiences here as well, so please leave a comment or drop me an email.
To see more pictures of Belize and many other countries, check out my instagram @intrepidjournals