There are so many ways to do Belize. The following is just one way, along with my cultural insights.
7 days. Early April. Adventure + Relaxation. San Ignacio + Ambergris Caye.
After extensive research, we decided on the following lodging options and we were thrilled with both.
Mystic River Hotel:
The highlights for us were the personal patio with personal pools, waterfall and outdoor shower overlooking the rainforest. The river on the property, and a bunch of hiking trails, were very appealing also. Also appealing, this place has its own boutique homemade CHEESE shop. CHEESE! You can borrow canoes or tubes to take down to the river, at your own risk. Note: most things in Belize are at your own risk. The country as a whole doesn’t seem to beliZe in signing waivers or liability. You are very much removed from San Ignacio at this resort. It’s a good 25 minute drive to the center of San Ignacio, and many shuttle and tour companies will charge you extra for a pick-up here. But it was completely worth it. Taking excursions daily, and dining at the same resort restaurant each night, we never felt like we were missing out on any Belizean culinary experiences. The food was one of the highlights of this hotel. All delicious, homemade tasting, and an array of options. I still have dreams about some of our meals here. Thanks, Mystic River Resort!
Ramon’s Village Resort:
This kind of has an all-inclusive feeling, even if you don’t choose the all-inclusive option, but without feeling restricted to the resort. San Pedro is such a great town to explore, and this hotel so close to all the action, yet removed enough to get that remote island-vibe. This is one of the few, if not the only, hotels with a true “beach”…meaning you can walk right out into the water. Most others have a boardwalk-type path and a significant drop down into the water. Check it out- Ramon’s Village Resort
As a first-timer, it was hard to know what was the best option. The bus is the cheapest, but other blogs I read rose some safety concerns. Taxi’s seemed iffy, as they don’t have regulated fairs. We went with an array of private drivers, from fancy tour companies, our hotel, and shuttle companies.
Bos, from Mystic River Resort picked us up at the airport. He drove us through the unique terrain, narrating the landscape with a lovely soundtrack of a refreshing mix of Chayenne and ABBA. It somehow fit the journey. Along the way we passed a prison, a cemetery, various fruit stands, shack-type houses, a 7th Day Adventist School, Blackberry trees- which Boss explained are used to make blackberry wine. We also saw a lot of smoke from people grilling and from other random things on fire. At one point, Bos honked at a giant hawk grazing on his lunch in the middle of the road. He explained the history of a hurricane that hit Belize city and made it move the capital to farther offshore. In the distance, we could see the terrain begin to change as the Mayan mountains began to protrude from the horizon. Overall, Bos gave a very comprehensive introduction to Belize.
Our favorite (and the best) was William’s Shuttle Service. Looking back, we should have used William for all of our transportation. He was professional, timely, had wifi and water, and the price was right!
To get to the Caye’s, some sort of water transportation is needed (or small plane….or helicopter). The most economic of these options is a water taxi. We opted for Ocean Ferry Belize instead of the Belize Water Taxi. A minutia of difference in name, but apparently world of difference in service. And we made the wrong choice. In the end it was fine, but after talking with locals, it seems the $2 more to take the Water taxi is really worth it. The Ocean Ferry terminal was slightly sketchy (as is much of Belize City), and the boat was small, cramped, and no method to the madness of seating choice.
Caracol Ruins + Rio On Pools + Rio Frio Cave
This is a tour we took with our hotel, Mystic River Resort. It was super informative, and our driver was very careful on the very bouncy 2 hour drive there and back. They provided a delicious chicken quesadilla, picnic lunch with drinks, chips and fruit. Fresh, cold water was always available, as were headlamps for the cave. The guide was also very knowledgable about the ruins and Mayan history.
This is something we did at our hotel, Mystic River Resort. I did notice there are a lot of tour companies with similar options. I highly recommend seeking out a floating adventure of your own if you aren’t staying at this property.
Tikal *note: this was a day trip to Guatemala… and it was the best day of our trip…see future blog post*
We did this tour with MayaWalk Tours. I can’t say enough about this company. It was the most comfortable ride. The transition at the border on busy Easter Sunday, went so smoothly. And although we arrived back later than expected, the nice driver was willing to drive us back in the dark to our hotel down dark, questionable roads.
Ho Cha Marine Reserve + Shark Ray Alley Snorkeling
There are so many different companies that offer this experience from San Pedro (Ambergris Caye) and from Caye Calker as well. We scoped out a few on the island before asking at our own resort’s Dive Shop. The Dive Shop ended up being the most affordable (and convenient!) option. No signing up, no paying upfront. We just showed up at the time we wanted, ready to go, hopped in, and we were billed to our room. They are a dive shop, but they have both diving and snorkeling options, and all the equipment. The snorkeling mask I used was noticeably better quality than my last snorkeling experience in Costa Rica. No leaking, just smooth floating.
The guides had me concerned with my own swimming ability. They ask if you are secure in swimming for 45 minutes in open ocean without a life jacket. You of course, have the option of using a life jacket, however, you have to make a decision before jumping in. I wasn’t so sure, but I went sans-life jacket. I was elated with my own swimming abilities! Or, more likely, with how the salt and the current just kind of carried me. It was not strenuous at all. And at times when we weren’t above coral, they permitted you to touch down and stand. It was a very serene and enjoyable 45 minute “swim” finding Dory and Nemo, touching a sting ray. We apparently just missed a sea turtle, which broke my heart.
The shark experience was more intimidating than I expected. In pictures, I was under the impression that nursery sharks were smaller, and therefore swimming with them felt almost okay. But these guys were easily 6-8 feet long, if not bigger. They were harmless, as they were so preoccupied with the bloody fish carcass that the guides were dangling in the water. They appear to be so accustomed to this that they swarm of appetizing tourists floundering behind them doesn’t phase them at all.
Also provided by the Dive Shop, though not free as our tubes were at the other resort, were kayaks and paddle boards. We opted for 1 hour of kayaking. I get very bored and antsy sitting on a hot beach “relaxing” after a certain point. I need some more stimulation in my day. The kayaking was the perfect activity. We were still able to get plenty of sun, a little work out, and see the island from some different angles, at our own pace. The waterproof phone case was key to this experience. Though, I’m sure a Go-pro would have produced much clearer pictures than the following….
The San Pedro Scene
Golf Carts, street food, overpriced tourist traps, scuba shops, and chocolate. San Pedro, despite its tiny size, can be a bit overwhelming. Navigating the geography of the streets is easy, but navigating the right decision for dinner and drinks can be confusing.
San Pedro’s restaurants fill up quickly. The reviews vary from one extreme to another night-to-night, person-to-person. We tried our sampling of supposed “best” culinary experiences, but none of those blew us away. The two best meals we had, are places we stumbled upon and took a gamble at.
1. El Salvadorian restaurant, Pupuseria Salvadoreno.
This place was serving up pupusas all night long outside in the street. If you’ve never had a pupusa, you need to change that immediately. We had an amazing lunch here full of El Salvadorian beer, pupusas, and fresh fajitas. It was not only the most delicious meal, but also the most affordable. I seriously wanted to have every meal here.
2. Wild Mangos
This place is waterfront and doesn’t look like much. To get there, you have to walk to the end of the alley and then turn and walk towards the beach. We were seated on the back deck with a beautiful view of the water. The seafood was the freshest here, and without all the fuss. This was our last dinner on the island, and one of the most enjoyable and satisfying!
Another notable San Pedro experience: The Belize Chocolate Company
This place is pure, chocolate, heaven. The smell, and the shakes. And everything, everything, chocolate, cacao, cocoa. Lip balms, body scrubs, cookies, coffee, truffles, cacao nibs for cooking.
Unless you are staying at a resort that’s really a hike from town, I’m not sure a golf cart is entirely necessary. We were right on the edge of town so we didn’t feel the need for one. We walked everywhere, the entire town, without tiring. It’s very easy to navigate on foot, as it’s only 3-4 main streets. We did get a ride in a golf cart via our (included) hotel pick-up from the ferry terminal. With luggage, you probably don’t want to do any walking, as much of the streets are bumpy and covered in sand. It would be a rough walk even to the closest hotel. Save your golf carting for your luggage transport only and take in the rest of the city on foot, if you’re able.
English? Spanish? Mayan? Creole? What is the native language here anyway?
For most Belizeans, the answer is at least three of those. While Spanish and Mayan are the typical language for locals to speak amongst one another, in their homes, with their friends and families, the countries reliance and emphasis on tourism has really made most Belizeans completely bilingual (or trilingual in the case of those who still speak Mayan or Creole of both!). In fact, tourism drives more than just the linguistic demands of this tiny nation. It leads their economy, and definitely has honed Belizean’s sense of hospitality.
Hospitable as the Belizeans were, polite and accommodating, they still seemed somewhat reserved, and there was a definite warmth missing from their persona that you get from other Central American countries (or at least that we felt in both Costa Rica and Guatemala). Perhaps Belize has become so used to American tourists. Or perhaps the constant coming and going of tourists has made them caution being more open with their guests. Or perhaps because I travel with a Spaniard, whose country was solely responsible for the death and destruction of their Mayan culture, they were simply less apt to be overly friendly with us.