Belize is a teenie tiny Central American nation sandwiched between the mighty bastions of Mexico and Guatemala. Generally speaking, it gains tourist acclaim from the island of Caye Caulker, an even tinier Caribbean island spec off the tiny Belizian mainland coast. Perhaps succumbing to a healthy dose of small island syndrome, Caye Caulker markets itself as a giant in the industry of chillaxing, with its oft-repeated motto “go slow” seemingly endlessly echoing around the tiny confines of this sandy island and attempting to beat your brain into mindless submission. In the nicest possible way, of course.
The water taxi from Chetumal, Mexico to San Pedro, Belize
Leaving our strange, astroturfed hotel in Chetumal, we trundled along the harbour waterfront with our bags in tow, walking through an eerily abandoned fairground and, as we neared the “ferry” terminal, wrinkling our noses at one of the worst stenches our noses had ever been exposed to. It smelled like a horse that had been rotting in a swamp for 3 weeks, then it’s bloated remains somehow burst apart and for some reason revealed a pile of old soiled diapers. Who knows why said horse had been eating used diapers. Probably why it was no longer living.
Anyways, excessive (and perhaps unnecessary) imagery aside, we eventually rolled up to the water taxi terminal and went through the process of buying our tickets. The process was a lengthy and somewhat stressful one, involving the following tasks:
We spilled out into this bold new country in a daze, ignoring the usual heckling from the locals beyond the pier and walking into the thick of it. Turns out San Pedro was a very long way from our idealized version of “go slow”, with a hustle and bustle well beyond the realms of busy and smack bang in the realm of pure chaos. The tiny streets were chock full of golf carts whizzing by, along with motorbikes, cyclists, and all manner of other small, noisy, motorized vehicles. We cowered in an ATM nook, took out some cash, and used the brief respite to let google maps tell us where our hostel was.
Traversing the streets of San Pedro with bags was one of the more stressful experiences south of the US border so far, as the roads are tiny and don’t have footpaths – so it’s every man for himself, and he who sits behind the wheel rules over the lowly peasants who travel by foot. We were offered a ride in a golf cart to our hostel for a whopping 10 USD, but opted to continue walking in light of the fact that our hostel was only 800 metres or so away.
Upon arrival, we checked into our lodgings for the next 6 nights and were immediately impressed by Sandbar Hostel. The place was run by an American couple, possibly accounting for a previously unseen level of order and cleanliness. Which isn’t to say that it was a sparkling palace of opulence, but it was a far cry from our half-finished lodgings in Tulum.
While our accommodation was reasonable, on the whole we were immensely disappointed with San Pedro. Restaurants were laughably expensive, with the unwary traveller receiving a pitiful, tasteless meal for more than what you would pay at a restaurant in Canada or the US. We spent some time scoping out adequate eating establishments, but were yet to find anything reasonable by the end of our sixth day.
What to do in San Pedro, Belize
Unsurprisingly, people don’t go to San Pedro for the culture or food, they go due to the island’s proximity to the Barrier Reef and Hol Chan Marine Reserve, two particularly fine examples of marine life at its best.
We had booked 6 nights in San Pedro with the intention that we might consider completing a 4 day PADI open water scuba diving course on the island, but after talking to friends we ascertained that doing the same course in Honduras was half the price and generally includes accommodation. Which just left snorkeling. Prime snorkeling locations off San Pedro include Hol Chan, Shark-Ray Alley, and the Blue Hole. We did the research, and it seemed that the Blue Hole, while awesome to look at from high above in a plane, is pretty darn unexciting to snorkel over, being simply a patch of much deeper water with little marine life at the surface.
So, we asked Sandbar to book us a half day tour of Hol Chan and Shark Ray, and the next day we had our gear and were speeding along to Hol Chan Marine Reserve with our tour guides from Chuck and Robbie’s. Once there, the operator had a quick chat to the ranger “in charge” of the reserve (I suspect really just sitting there taking bribes from tourism operators to snorkel there and doing little to actually protect the reserve), and we suited up in our snorkel attire and jumped in. After an in-water briefing, we swam slowly through the reserve waters, which are located directly over top of a particularly active section of the Barrier Reef. The reserve exceeded expectations, and we saw plenty of turtles, nurse sharks, huge stingrays, sea cucumbers, fish, and of course plenty of reef formations. Our guide was excellent at grabbing our attention and pointing out interesting finds on the reef or sea floor, and we emerged back onto the boat 45 minutes later feeling quite satisfied.
Next on the tour was Shark Ray Alley, so named due to the man-made abundance of nurse sharks and stingrays in an area of the sea between sections of the Barrier Reef. I say man-made because the alley originally began life as a place were native fishermen would clean their catch of the day and dump out the offal into the water, thus attracting masses of nurse sharks and rays. While the establishment of the Hol Chan Reserve has banished fisherman to the other side of the island, tourism operators have jumped at the opportunity and continue to visit the area with offerings of fish heads and the like, in order to continue tempting nurse sharks and rays to visit the area. Not exactly eco-tourism.
Despite the damage to our morals, we was still keen to get up close and personal with these curious beasticles, and when we arrived on-site and saw that one of the boats was in the process of dangling a large fish-head over the side of the boat, we didn’t hesitate to jump in. We spent the next 10 minutes or so in awe, swimming among some good-sized sharks and rays, who were mostly oblivious to us in their frenzy to get to the fish head. As soon as the head was gone, however, they vanished in the blink of an eye, whereby I broke away from the group and found them at another boat eating yet another offering. Emboldened, I swam up and gave a companionable pat to one of the sharks, and was satisfied.
The event was somewhat overshadowed by a man swimming up to me afterwards and telling me in no uncertain terms was I to touch the sharks, even though my tour guides had given the go-ahead and many other people do it. He asked me “would you want a stranger to come up and touch you?”, to which I replied “depends who the stranger is”. This was the same man who was dangling a fish over the side of his boat in order to unnaturally attract sharks and rays to visit en masse to a place they would otherwise avoid. Such a level of hypo-criticism had me spluttering, and only partially from the water which had snuck down into my snorkel during my dealings with the shark.
After 6 days on Ambergris, we were more than ready to move on to our lodgings in Caye Caulker. We paid a small fee to take the Belize Ocean Ferry across to Caulker, and were there within 45 minutes. Upon arrival, we trudged along the beachfront in the blistering heat to our lodgings at the other end of town, which sounds like a long way but when town is all of 900 metres in length, it really wasn’t so bad. Upon arrival at Sea n Sun Guest House, we looked around and liked what we saw. But after a confused conversation with one of the managers, it seemed that we wouldn’t get to enjoy it – they had ignored our booking and given it away to someone else. Feeling (understandably) quite bad about the situation, they phoned around and managed to find another place for us to say, but warned us that it wasn’t as nice and actually cost more somehow. They called a cab (golf cart), gave us cash to pay for the new hotel, and that was the end of Sea n Sun.
Our new lodgings were called Tropical Paradise Hotel and Restaurant, however as warned they were far from paradise. The restaurant was permanently closed, the lobby had seen better days, and our room was in a little fenced off compound alongside a dirty road. What was worse, we didn’t get any wifi reception in our room, a mighty inconvenience when two people are reliant on an internet connection to make a living while travelling.
Putting the injustice of Tropical Paradise Hotel behind us, we set about exploring the island. It didn’t take long, with the main street of town being around 600 metres long. The general vibe of the place was one of rambunctious chaos, with the overabundance of golf carts on Ambergris being replaced by an overabundance of noisy, stoned, slightly violent Creoles. Creoles are a curious mix of former African slaves, native Central Americans, and Spanish, and the result is a bunch of crazy rastas who are completely unpredictable. Some were hilarious, biking down the road with tea cosies on their heads, bob marley blaring from little boom boxes on their bike, selling marijuana and hash cookies at the top of their lungs. Others seemed to be strutting around trying to pick fights with anyone who met their eye, either from being utterly bored on this tiny island or just downright malevolence.
So, after gauging the vibe of the place, we concluded that the island’s motto of “go slow” (pasted liberally on signs and walls and shouted at you by angry Rastafarians if you happen to walk faster than a sluggish shuffle) was free for interpretation, and most people interpreted it as actually meaning “race around, get into fights, and swindle as many tourists as you can!”. That being said, Caye Caulker was a whole lot more chilled out than San Pedro, and the food, while still atrocious and horribly overpriced, wasn’t nearly as bad.
Highlights of Caye Caulker included:
- Checking out the impressive views across the water by day and at sunset
- Hanging out at The Split, an area of crystal clear water and lively bars at a part of the island where the land got split in two by a series of hurricanes
- Kayaking from our second lodgings at Pause Hostel up to near the uninhabited end of the island, where mangroves and pelicans abound (photos taken from my GoPro, which appears to have had water on the lens at the time)
- Talking shit (and essentially eating it) with some of the wacky food vendors, or fine-dining at Habaneros restaurant
- Standing on the end of the dock at Pause Hostel and checking out all the interesting wildlife passing by, including tiny seahorses, sand rays, giant eagle rays (one eagle ray would, without fail, glide past the end of the dock every day at sunset, almost as if he was doing the rounds of his kingdom), crazy fish, and crabs.
- Kayaking to an area alongside the island known for large schools of oversized Tarpon fish (once again another Belizean concept of ecotourism, whereby they feed them in order to keep them coming back)
After 4 days in Caye Caulker, we felt that we’d seen it all and were ready to move on.
San Ignacio, Belize
Once again hitching a ride with Ocean Ferry Belize for a very reasonable $10 US pp, we made haste for the Belizean mainland. We had teamed up with Matt and Andrew, our two new American pals who we had met at Pause Hostel and who happened to also be travelling to San Ignacio. 45 scenic minutes later and we stepped ashore in Belize City, grabbed some overpriced fish and chips by the harbour, then made haste for the bus station. Matt and Andrew convinced us to walk to the bus station, and by the time we arrived we were thoroughly drenched in sweat and the solidified fumes of Belize City. While Belize is an English speaking country, it is by no means a developed one, and the city here was in far worse shape than anything we’d seen in Mexico.
We arrived at the bus station and had a good laugh at the buses lined up outside. Having left Mexico, we had now moved into the realm of “chicken buses”, essentially just yellow American schoolbuses which, at the end of their student-bearing life, are then pressed into service carrying paying members of the public. As we were to see later on in Antigua, Guatemala, people in Central America take a certain amount of pride in making their bus as outrageously flamboyant as possible, with crazy paintjobs and all sorts of flashing lights, however these ones were just plain old schoolbuses.
After searching around for a ticket office at the bus station, we eventually worked out that you just pay some random guy on the bus once you’re halfway to your destination. We waited around for a bit then managed to jump onto an express bus heading for San Ignacio, luckily having most of the back to ourselves. Aside from a pleasant sunset over the curious-looking limestone hills in the distance, we had a noisy yet uneventful few hours until we reached our location. Jumping off with thanks to our trusty school bus driver, we headed to Bella’s Backpackers Hostel and checked in with Matt and Andrew.
San Ignacio wasn’t much to look at, but we finally managed to find restaurants serving half-decent food. We rejoiced as food with actual taste reached our mouths, and we sat back in satisfaction after each meal, actually full for once. Life was good.
Faith in Belizean hospitality once more restored, we set about exploring the areas around San Ignacio. On the first day we wandered around town, scoped out some places and collected a number of ridiculously cheap (around 4 dollars for a 1 litre bottle) bottles of rum with slightly suspect flakes floating around in them. A hilarious night ensued, filled with cheap rum, boisterous stories of food poisoning and outrageous traveling exploits, and games of Yahtzee.
Waking up the next morning hungover but not as hungover as we should have been (the rum was probably/hopefully not as strong as it said it was, considering we drank 2.5 bottles between the three of us), the 4 of us shuffled up to a rental car agency and hired their cheapest 4WD for some country explorations. The truck we received was quite possibly far worse than what we had imagined for the price (around 100 USD for 24 hours), but it worked and was big enough to fit in two extra members of the team – a girl Matt had become “friendly” with the night before, and her sister.
We spent the afternoon exploring the ruins of Xunantunich, around 30 minutes drive from town. Here we crossed the mighty Mopan River with the aid of a hand-cranked ferry, run by 2 trusty locals who required only an “optional” tip for their services. Not expecting much, we were pleasantly surprised by the scale of the ruins and the fact that you could climb in and over them, and also the fact that a nearby tour guide had somehow coaxed a large tarantula out of a hole in the ground and was (in my opinion rather foolishly) letting it crawl around on his hand. I asked him if it was poisonous and he replied “yes”, to which I responded “why are you touching it then?”, and he replied “well, I haven’t been bitten by a tarantula yet, soo….”. Sound reasoning.
Afterwards, we headed back to the river and took a dip in the coolness of the Mopan River, with the questionable assistance of a local stoner/gangster and his lackeys, who was clearly expecting a tip for showing us where to swim (it was fairly obvious, but you can’t blame a man for trying). The swimming hole had a serviceable rope swing, and was quite enjoyable until the head gangster made a reference to me being lucky to be alive, after which point we tired of their morbid tales and left off. We found out later that day that the day before a murdered Chicago tourist had been found floating very close to where we swam. We probably wouldn’t have swam there had we known…
The next morning, we awoke bright and early to embark upon our second mission to visit Mountain Pine Ridge, and the many delights this fabled reserve had to offer. The mission turned out to be a hilarious yet epic fail, involving a solid 6 hours of driving around on incredibly rough gravel roads trying to find attractions which seemed not to exist. The 6 of us began to get slightly crazy, me most of all at having driven so long over the Worlds Most Pitted Road, and the road stretched on without a single feature in sight. Eventually, after talking to a lone excavator driver, I ascertained the general direction of the Thousand Foot Falls, and we finally got to see something. They weren’t much to look at, but they were something. Slightly mollified, we drove back to the city, went for a swim in the river (at a different, less morbid location) to soothe our frayed nerves, and returned the rental.
Exploring the ATM Caves
On our final day in San Ignacio, we visited the fabled ATM Caves (no, they’re not filled with cash, but that would certainly have been nice). Short for Actun Tunichil Muknal, this cave system is one of the most unique Mayan remnants in all of Central America, with an underground network of caves several kilometres long and riddled with perfectly preserved Mayan artifacts, sacrificial victims, and impressive sparkling stalactite and stalagmite formations. Our guide Aaron from Mayawalk Tours made the day an awesome one, telling hilarious jokes and outrageous stories from his many years in the caves, and absolutely bursting with knowledge about the cave system, the Mayan use of them, and the forest plants and wildlife surrounding the caves. We walked around 1 kilometre into the main cave, having to swim across dark pools and underground rivers a number of times, being regularly bedazzled with the glittering rock formations and huge underground caverns.
Eventually we climbed up the cave wall and arrived at the main sacrificial chamber, which is festooned with Mayan ceremonial artifacts, many of which are partially or completely calcified by the slow dripping of mineral-rich water from the cave ceiling. We tiptoed around a large number of sacrificial victims (now almost seeming part of the cave floor), and eventually ended up at the most famous relic in ATM – the “Crystal Maiden” – so called because her bones have been calcified to a point where they sparkle in the light. A positive take on a morbid past time.
According to archaeologists, this maiden is actually now thought to be a boy, but who really cares – it’s a sparkling Mayan skeleton deep in a hidden cave! Sadly, no photos are forthcoming, as some stupid Frenchman dropped their heavy SLR camera on an ancient Mayan skull in the cave a few years back, breaking it and subsequently leading to a ban on all cameras in the cave. Mayawalk did, however, send through these photos as compensation – while we didn’t take them, we did everything you see in them!
Making the long trek/swim back out of the cave, we trudged back through the forest and enjoyed a restorative lunch at the gathering area before heading back to San Ignacio. Our time in Belize was coming to a close, and Guatemala was calling.