Belize by the Books

Okay, it was less than a week in this lovely little country, but the currency still changes and the budget still needs to be done. Here’s a quick breakdown of how we went in Belize:

Days: 6
Belizean Dollars Spent: $536
US Dollars Spent: $283
US Daily Expenditure: $47

Again, these budget numbers reflect my expenditures only, so are only the costs for one person, not a couple.

Belize tends to run a bit high on most traveller’s budgets in Central America, which was one of the reasons we cut our time there quite short. Still, six days $7 over budget won’t exactly break the bank, and it’s on to cheaper countries soon!

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Border Crossings: Belize to Guatemala

A few short days on Caye Caulker, a couple more exploring Cayo, and that was it. We opted to leave Belize and continue our Central American adventure. Make no mistake, Belize does have a lot more to offer, but still conscious of the great distances and (yes, very slowly, but still) dwindling time we were working with, we decided to carry on.

San Ignacio is 16 kilometres from the Guatemalan border. The cheapest way to get there is to take a bus to Benque Viejo del Carmen, and then take a taxi the remaining distance to the border. We ended up finding a taxi who was willing to do the trip for 10 USD from San Ignacio, which was marginally more expensive than doing it the other way. We opted for the ease and timeliness of the taxi option, and piled into an old-school van. About halfway along, the driver had problems getting the van into gear, and we ended up stopping at the side of the road while we waited for an alternate ride. A young man came long in an unmarked car, and we continued on our way to the border. We were dropped off amid a crowd of men exchanging currency. Here you will find official and unofficial currency agents; the unofficial ones are likely to give you a better rate (look for the absence of a tag hanging round their necks), just be sure to count carefully and check for ripped or damaged bills. We exchanged our last remaining Belizean dollars for Quetzal, Guatemala’s official currency. We had been told (rightfully so) that US dollars were not widely accepted in Guatemala. 1 USD = 7.74 GTQ (finally blowing a hole in my simple math of tenths and halves for pesos and Belizean dollars). The rate at the border is going to be worse than elsewhere, but it’s often the only way to get rid of any outstanding currency from the previous country.

TaxiDead Taxi

We passed through the Belizean half of border security without a problem. Here, we were asked to pay 18.75 USD departure tax, including a conservation fee. We received exit stamps from Belize, and walked to the other side of the border. Once we emerged from Belizean immigration, we were immediately asked by numerous people if we would like taxis, buses, or shuttles to a number of different destinations. Heeding to the advice in our guidebook about being diligent at borders, as officials are often not, we wandered around a little bit until we found the Guatemalan entrance control area. You could easily walk right past it, but don’t. We received our official entrance stamps (along with having to pay an entrance fee – I’m unsure of whether this was an official one or not). We’d read, been told, and been reassured by a number of people that Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are part of an agreement called the Central America 4, which means that one entrance fee and one stamp are required to travel freely within the four countries. Apparently sometimes, in practice, this is not always the case. Time will tell on this front!

Finally, we were ready to continue on. There is a helpful, English-speaking information officer posted in a booth close to the immigration desks. She was able to direct us to our next destination: Tikal.

Across Belize

We’d been told, by numerous well-travelled friends, to essentially bypass most of the main/capital cities in Central America, due to a combination of low interest levels and high sketch factors. Belize City was no exception to that advice, but as I have a friend I’d met on exchange in university who lives there, we needed to pay the city a visit.

We took the San Pedro Express water taxi from Caye Caulker to Belize City, where Renee picked us up. We got a brief tour of the sort-of-nice tourist village and some of the poorly paved, convoluted streets of the city before turning up at her lovely home. Renee and her partner live in his family home, with their recent addition – Benny, a wide-eyed 10-month-old. We were treated to an amazing lunch of freshly caught fish (spear-fished that weekend), beans cooked with pork, fried plantains, rice, and salad. It was one of the most varied, delicious, and healthy meals we’d had for quite some time. After enjoying catching up with Renee and meeting her family, we accepted a lift to the bus station, said our goodbyes, and were introduced to our first experience on Central American public transport.

Depending who you speak to, this is the place that old, American school buses go to (a) be reincarnated, or (b) die. A plethora of huge American school buses are auctioned off every year after 8 or 10 years in service in the States, driven down through Mexico to end up in Belize, Guatemala, or the rest of Central America, given paint jobs, and introduced to a long life in the public service. Tim and I clambered upon one such bus headed west to the town of San Ignacio, known locally as Cayo. We bumped and bounced for a couple of hours along Belize’s particularly unruly roads before arriving in quaint Cayo.

Belize School BusThe town itself is nice, but small, and is primarily used (from a tourist’s point of view) as a jumping off point for tours to the area. A mix of terrible roads, safety concerns, and governmental regulations basically make visits to all of the major attractions around San Ignacio only possible with a guided tour. With enough digging, I’m sure you could find a guide and a pickup truck for local prices to visit wherever you so choose, but this requires admin and planning that we were not nearly motivated or organised enough to complete. Two of the most popular destinations are Caracol, dramatic Mayan ruins that are said to rival the famous Tikal in Guatemala. Tours to Caracol cost around 110 USD per person. In theory, it is possible to visit solo, but that roads down to the site are atrocious and there have been reports of armed muggings.

The other major attraction, and the one we chose to splurge on, is a visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM Cave. Every tour operator in San Ignacio operates trips to ATM, and they all charge 95 USD per person for the day trip. ATM cannot be visited without a local, licensed guide (of which there are 22 operating in the area). These guides can be hired independently, though how and for how much I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

ATM draws such a consistent crowd due to the unique archeology of the site. It is a magnificent cave, with towering stalagmites, amazing flowstone formations, and incredible caverns. On top of that (which really wouldn’t be enough to justify a $95 tour), there are still an astounding amount of Mayan artefacts remaining in the cave, including pottery, skulls, and an entire skeleton. These artefacts are, for the most part, left exactly as they have been found, and minimal barriers (tape guiding you along the pathway) allow you to view, up close, spectacularly preserved pieces of Mayan life. Needless to say, this is a rare experience, probably entirely unique for the average tourist, and would be impossible to find elsewhere in the world. With that in mind, we bit the bullet and shelled out for the ATM tour.

The tour starts early in San Ignacio. Most people met at the shop of our tour company; a couple of the outliers got picked up along the way. We also made stops in town for the guide’s breakfast, gas, what appeared to be entrance tickets, and a couple other things. Now we saw why we needed to have a 7 a.m. start. We made our way along the highway, back towards the centre of Belize. At the turnoff from the main road, we stopped again, where I refreshed the snack pile. After approximately 30 minutes, we finally all got back in the van. We learned that we’d been waiting to pick up more people who were, in fact, waiting at the entrance to park. Let’s just say efficiency isn’t the tour’s strong point.

We arrived at the entrance to ATM and separated into groups for the trip. Guides must be licensed in order to conduct tours, and there is a maximum of 8 guests per trip. The only gear that is provided for the trip is a helmet and a head torch (along with lunch). It’s about an hour walk from the car park to the entrance of the cave, and it includes three river crossings (really more like streams,) so you’re going to be wet from the onset. Wear running shoes or good walking sandals. You also need to wear or bring a pair of socks. At the entrance to the cave, we stopped for a bite to eat, and then went for it: it’s a short swim to get inside, and the water is cold. You’re going to spend the vast majority of the trip wet, so clothes can be a tricky one. You’re also asked to not wear only a swimsuit in the caves, to show respect. I wore shorts and a tank top, and Tim brought along his dry bag with a few layers of merino wool. I tend to get very cold (particularly in dark, damp caves) so layered up with the wool as we went. It will keep you warmer, even if it’s soaking wet. A wetsuit would be ideal, in my opinion, but don’t expect any extra gear.

As we made our way through the cave, at times neck deep in water, we admired the formations and learnt about Mayan history. The cave was used as an important area for ceremonies and sacrifices, including human sacrifice, and the remains of some of these humans can still be seen. Photos are not allowed in the cave, due to several instances of careless tourists dropping cameras or lenses on the ancient artefacts, and breaking them. (Including directly onto a skull – in the teeth and the forehead – creating irreparable damage.) After clambering out of the water, over almost natural ladders formed in the rock, you get the opportunity to come up close and personal with these artefacts. The cave remains outstanding as you tuck in and under the stone, following a bright tape line along the ground. At one stage, you are asked to remove your shoes, so as to literally tread more lightly on the important site. Eventually, the cave opens up into a spectacular chamber, the ground a lovely and uneven flow stone. Water, dripping slowly from the ceiling, enhanced the feeling of the isolated cave while illustrating how the beauty inside was formed. Seeing the skulls, the bones, and then finally the full skeleton trapped inside the cave, while listening to chilling stories of animal and human sacrifice was certainly an experience. It finally came time to leave the cave, so we scaled down the sketchy ladders, trotted across the stone floors, jumped back into the icy waters, and emerged into the light on the outside. We finished off the rest of our lunch and headed home, the 45-minute walk followed by about an hour-long drive before we were back in San Ignacio. Though the price tag is high, Actun Munichil Muknal is definitely a unique experience, and something that is worth doing if you find yourself in that corner of Belize.

Pacz Tours Photo

Pacz Tours Photo

Wagwan Belize

“You have to try a Lizard at The Split.” Renee, my Belizean friend who lives in the city told me this, when she learnt I was heading to the caye. So we did.

Lizard

Caye Caulker is an interesting place. Arguably more Caribbean than Central American, the caye is a place where reggae beats are a constant soundtrack to rastas trying to sell illicit drugs, to fresher-than-fresh seafood being consumed alongside tall rum-and-juice mixtures, to tourists being roped into snorkelling trips to the world-renowned reef.

We visited Caye Caulker with one main thing in mind: diving the Blue Hole, a world-famous dive site. Oddly enough, we spent four days on the island and diving is the one thing we did not do.

We stayed at Pause, an aminal sanctuary/hostel/campground located down a quiet street on the tiny island. We were able to pitch our tent for the very reasonable 10 USD / night. The sanctuary is run by a lovely and very chatty woman named Madi, and the constant presence of cats and dogs is actually quite nice after travelling for quite some time.

If you must, it’s possible to rent a bike or hire a golf-cart taxi to get around Caye Caulker, but there is really no need. Front Street contains the highest concentration of bars, restaurants, and accommodation options, and can be walked end-to-end in maybe 30 minutes (at a leisurely Caribbean pace, of course). At the top end, you’ll find The Split. A hurricane tore through Caye Caulker some years ago, and left, in its wake, a break, a channel, a split through the centre of the island. The other half of the island remains largely undeveloped, with a large section of it a devoted nature reserve.

On this end, up popped The Split – a bar/restaurant/dock where most of the caye comes to see and be seen in the midday sun. The lizards are frighteningly strong, the buckets of beer a bargain, and the people-watching endlessly entertaining. It was the sort of place you could imagine going completely off the handle on a public holiday or if you had a large enough group for someone’s birthday. You could jump off the dock at any point, beer in hand, to cool off from the sun, emerge again to Vybz Kartel and Gyptian playing over the bar speakers, and be hot and dry again in a matter of minutes. If this isn’t a slice of the Caribbean, I don’t know what is.

The Split

And what, you may ask, did we do for the other three days? We ate, we kayak-ed, we recuppearted (road weary tends to come on a little quicker in these parts, as health is a bit of a battle at times). I was getting over a bad cold, so I spent most of my time in a hammock, Skyping friends and becoming increasingly excited for the prospect of reunions in the not-too-distant future. Tim managed to explore a bit more, including several kayak missions. One, an epic entire island circumnavigation (not through the split, either. Around the whole thing.) Another involved coming across a team of spear-fishing kids and accompanying them on their adventures.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

And then there was The Blue Hold Dilemma. You’ve seen a photo of it, even if you wouldn’t initially think of it. It’s the one that’s in all of those earth-from-above photography books, of a deep, dark blue hole (yes, it is aptly named) in the ocean, surrounded by much lighter and brighter waters, and encompassed in a horeshoe-shaped reef. It’s a world renowned dive location and I’m sure many divers would jump at the chance to dive it, regardless of the price. But. It was going to cost us around 380 Belizean dollars (190 USD) each to do the dive trip. The spot is a decent boat ride away from the caye and the trip includes three dives; one at the Blue Hole, and two reef dives. This was steep for diving in the area, as we had just paid 95 USD for two cenote dives in Mexico. The more I researched, the more friends that I spoke to, the less keen on the idea I became. Here is the basic conclusion that I reached:

The Blue Hole is a world-renowned dive site because it is so unique. It’s essentially an ocean cenote – on a dive you descend to depths of around 40 metres inside cavernous rock walls with stalagtite and stalagmite formations. There is a chance of seeing sharks on your dive – reef, hammerhead, or tiger sharks have all been spotted in the Blue Hole, but in general marine life is limited. It seems rather common practice on the dive and snorkel trips from Caye Caulker to bait and feed (and in some cases, even play with) the marine life in order to enhance the experience for the tourists. Any environmentalist, animal rights activist, or well-educated person could tell you that this is far from ideal. As a diver, you want to minimize your impact as much as possible, and not-infrequent tales of impact do discourage one from wanting to dive, even though Belize is often marketed as an eco-tourism destination. Apart from any ethical concerns, it seemed quite likely the Blue Hole would be crowded, which kills the joy a bit as well as tampers with visibility. We were not enthralled by any of the dive shops that we spoke to and, for me, being comfortable with the company is key. Friends of mine who had done it ranged in opinions from a complete miss to something well worth doing. In the end it didn’t seem as though the dive would be outstanding, in a large part because we just came off of cenote dives in Mexico and they blew me away. It would be hard to compete with that, so soon. I think it would be well worth doing if you had the spare cash and/or if you wanted something different to dive and hadn’t experienced anything like it before. I’d love to dive it at some stage, but perhaps after a bit of a hiatus from diving, when it will appear more magnificent. There is an option to do live aboard dive trips out of Belize as well, which could be a very good option as this puts you at the Blue Hole before the drive trips from the Cayes.

With that decision made, we were free to while away our sunny days on the island and prepare for our departure to Belize proper.

Border Crossing by Boat: Mexico to Belize

Our next destination was Belize. We got ourselves as far as Chetumal in Mexico where we had two options: continue our overland bus journey into Northern Belize or leave Chetumal on a water taxi and enter Belize directly onto one of the Northern Cayes, a handful of small islands found off of the coast. The second option appealed to us much more, so we organized ourselves in the morning in Bacalar and headed out to catch the 3 p.m. water taxi. Bacalar is about a forty minute drive from Chetumal, and inexpensive buses run several times a day between the two towns for 30 pesos per person. Taxis also make the trip, and if you catch a cab with a Chetumal label in Bacalar (or vice versa) they can end up costing about the same as the bus, as they have to make the return trip anyways.

We read in our sometimes-not-so-trusty Lonely Planet that immigration formalities have to be completed at the office in Mexico before departing, simply just ask your taxi to drop you off at the oficina de migracion. Bad advice. Doing this leaves you at an office on the outskirts of Chetumal, where there is nothing at all for you to do. The immigration formalities that need to be completed can be done directly before boarding the water taxi, and require no special effort.

Mexican Border

The water taxi leaves Chetumal and heads first to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, and then continues to Caye Caulker, which was our destination. The ticket costs 50 USD, and then there is an additional 10 USD “docking fee,” payable in cash and not featured on your receipt. We’ve heard since this is a bit of a scam, but I’m not sure how much of a fuss you could really put up about it. There is also a departure tax payable for leaving Mexico. If you have booked a return international flight to and from Mexico, the price will be included on your airline ticket, and you must present a copy of the receipt stating this in order to avoid paying it again.

We were loaded onto the water taxi, late, with a group of other tourists and all of the luggage. It took just over an hour to get to San Pedro, where everyone disembarked and passed through immigration. I’ve never been to an immigration office that has a sand floor before. No problems arose at immigration, and we were boarding a new water taxi bound for Caye Caulker shortly. Arriving by boat, with the sun long sunk below the horizon, to a foreign island was definitely a unique experience. We spent the next few days savouring the reggae beats, fresh cuisine, and permanently chilled out vibe of the caye.

Belize Immigration

Belize Immigration