Day Four: To Tikal, Guatemala
On our last morning at Chaa Creek we were up early for the 2 ½ ride to ruins of Tikal. After 30 minutes we crossed the border into Guatemala and switched to another driver and guide. Tikal is known for one thing and that is the amazing Maya ruins. There are 4000 structures in this area dating back from 800BC to 900 AD. Of the 4000 structures 20% are excavated of which you can only really see 20% of those if you spent a full day here. As our visit here was only a half day our guide Hugo asked if we wanted him to talk more and see less or talk less and see more. With that in mind we went with the see more and had him tell us about Tikal on the ride to the park.
We covered a lot of ground from 10AM to 1:30 seeing the main temples, plazas, ball fields and large structures. Even though the temperatures hovered at 100 degrees with 100% humidity I was pleased to hear our daughter tell us that Tikal, like Egypt, Petra in Jordon and Angkor Watt in Cambodia we visited earlier were worth all this sweating. In fact this place reminded us of Angkor Watt in some ways but here temples are solid so there is nothing to walk into. It is also less ornate due to the natural decay of the place. Most structures have some collapsed ceilings and walls. We were able to visit a few semi enclosed and simple rooms.
We did have two favorite spots. That was the acropolis with the Grand Plaza having Temple 1 and 2 near each other. The other place was when we climbed nearly 200 feet up the easy and modern steps to Temple 4 for the view. If you saw the original Star War series one of the scenes was filmed here and only lasted less than a minute. At Temple 4 we just stared into the miles of jungle in the back ground a few taller temples in the foreground. We wish we had another hour here to go back to the Grand Plaza and just sit under a tree and marvel at the pyramids.
We did miss two temples due to our short stay but after seeing the scale model city at the visitor’s center we were OK with that due to their longer walking distances. From the visitor center it was a little over an hour to the Flores Airport. Tropic Air runs two flights a day to Belize City in their comfortable single propeller seven passenger planes. Our connection was 25 minutes but with 7 people there is never a delay in luggage or clearing Customs again. In fact when I emailed Tropic Air I was told not to worry about it as they would hold a plane until ours arrived if necessary. The flight from Belize City was a scenic 17 minutes. (no movie or meals but you do get to sit behind the pilot to make sure he was doing a good job!)
Day 5: Checking Out Ambergris Caye
Ambergris Caye is two made up of the North and South Island. San Pedro is a town about a two thirds of a mile long and only 2 streets wide. It is filled with tourist shops and places to eat as well as everyday stores for the locals to shop at. Our first day here was a down day. In the morning we rented a golf cart with aggressive tires and explored part of the island for a few hours. First we went to a hotel south to Banyan Bay on reports that you can actually swim off the beach. While they have nice sand the water past 20 feet is sea grass and two shallow to swim. From there we took the cart to the North Island where Dan decided it was his turn to drive. A mile past the bridge the road gets pretty rutted so the drive is a little slower than the 20 mph top speed our cart did. Here we pulled into different hotels to see what they looked like and hoping to find a place to swim. After 4 miles we stopped at a bar, had a few mango smoothies and turned back to our condo where we settled in at the pool and then swam off the dock in the Caribbean Sea. All hotels have docks in front to swim off of. If you go late in the afternoons you may be swimming with the locals as we did. We found it strange they would simply go in with their clothes on. Boys and girls would go in with their after school clothes and their mom’s in dresses would simply follow sometimes holding a baby.
Our second day in Ambergris Caye had Maureen & I take a 3 hour trip to Ho Chen and Shark Alley Preserve some 4 to 5 miles from San Pedro. We did a one tank dive at Ho Chen where we saw the reef in excellent condition but nearly got sucked out of the cut there by the outgoing tide. It is supposedly an easy 28 foot dive but fighting the fast current was not fun. Our guide says that once in a while the park rangers have to pick up divers outside the reef. We only dove for 30 minutes as we exhausted fighting the current. The second stop on our 3 hour tour was Shark Alley. Snorkeling here gets you up front and personal with nurse sharks and stingrays.
We saw one guide from another boat bring up stingrays on his head. A large one swam up to his face as if wanted a hug. The nurse sharks also circle any new boats to the area because they know there will be food in the water. One guide got a hold of a 5 foot shark, turned it upside down which immobilize it and handed it to a 12 year girl to hold. She was in awe while the others touched its soft body gently. (Nurse sharks do not have sharp teeth and are usually bottom feeders so they do not pose any risk to people) While I may not agree with training sea life in the wild, it was an impressive site to see them interact with people. If this interaction makes people aware of these wonderful creatures to protect the environment it may do more good in the long run.
Last Full Day: Boat Trip
On our last day in Belize we opted to make it a long one. This meant taking a 2 1/2 hour boat ride to the famous Blue Hole along with 2 other stops. For divers this was a 3 tank dive while my kids and wife with an ear issue did 3 snorkel stops nearby. The Blue Hole is the only known feature of its type in the world. While it looks like a volcanic atoll one would see in the South Pacific, it is actually a cavern whose ceiling collapsed filling it in with sea water. The Blue Hole cavern was formed millions of years ago when the sea level was much lower. It was formed by rainwater filtering through the limestone eating out the insides. When the sea level was had risen the ceiling collapsed filling in this dark 430 foot hole. From the air it sticks out as perfectly dark blue circle about 1000 yards across.
Diving the blue hole is interesting but not something I would call one of my better dive sites. The profile here is deep. Amigo Divers guide masters were clear in their instructions during our dive briefing. We were to go down to 110 feet where there is a ledge. From there we go another 20 feet below this ledge and swim around the large stalactites. He said that anyone experiencing nitrogen narcosis or feeling “narced” as is called should go up 10 or 15 feet until their head clears. Also because this was a deep dive our time at 130 feet was only 8 minutes as to not allow too much nitrogen to build up in our bodies or run low on air. (Air is consumed much faster as you go deeper). At the Blue Hole they had us do our safety stop at 20 feet for 8 minutes rather than the 3 minutes at 15 feet. While I was not thrilled at the 130 foot depth it was impressive looking down to what seemed the abyss as well as looking up to the surface that seemed so far away.
The next stop after the Blue Hole was Moon Caye where the Red Footed Booby breeds and can be viewed from a platform. Moon Caye is a tropical island where only the Belize law enforcement live and protect this island and area. The snorkeling group was let off here to do some off beach swimming along with a couple employees from Amigos who prepped lunch. Our boat continued five minutes off the island where we dove on some on pristine coral walls and formations. One unique thing that happened was our dive master stabbing a 4 inch lion fish with a 3 pronged spear. Lion Fish are the only species allowed to be killed in these protected waters because they are evasive and will harm the ecological balance of fish here. After our dive we had a local lunch of stewed chicken, rice and beans, potato salad finished off with some delicious coconut pie. On the Moon Caye our kids found a baseball size hermit crab they kept on the table to show me. My daughter also had a coconut drop near her so she took a conch shell and small piece of dried up coral to open it up and get the freshest meat and juice from. Her incident reminded me that people are nearly 100 times more likely to get killed by coconuts than diving with sharks.
From Moon Caye it was a short ride to Long Caye for another dive and snorkel stop at a place called the Aquarium. This stop as expected had lots of fish of different sizes. After the snorkel and diving it was a little more than 2 hours back to the dock where pretty much our family retired to the showers followed by dinner. Having our last day on the tropical outer island and beautiful coral reef was an excellent way to finish this family trip.
If You Go
Chaa Creek Lodge:
What I can say about the jungle lodges in Belize is that you need to give up some comforts of home. None of the top lodges in Belize have air conditioning, telephones or TV in the rooms. They have screened windows with curtains in front and ceiling fans. At Chaa Creek Lodge you can ask for extra fans which we found helpful. The nights in June dropped to the mid 70’s. In the winter I was told people ask for extra blankets because the jungle air can go into the 60’s. We stayed in a thatch roof cottage that had local art, a nice bed and linens with a large bathroom. They do have tree house type accommodations and 2 bedroom houses for those that want the family together. For more budget conscience their is lodging in what they call their campsite cabins described earlier. Chaa Creek is on a nice landscaped piece of property with an inviting infinity pool. You can get drinks, lunch or snacks during the day there and the service was very good.
Ambergris Caye is a simple island where the main activities are diving, snorkeling or hanging out at the pool. You can do land activities from here but it means flying into Belize City early and transferring to a van. If you plan on doing more than one mainland activity you should consider staying a few days at a jungle lodge. In Ambergris Caye we opted to stay in San Pedro in a modern condo unit where we can walk to dinner as well as have the comforts of home. In our exploring around the island we saw a few nice resorts a few miles north of the island. Staying there would mean taking a cart or water taxi to dinner in San Pedro if you needed a change from resort food.
Food On Ambergris Caye
Red Ginger: in The Phoenix Hotel. We found the 5 course tasting menu very good along with the pasta dish ordered. Service was also good as we were happy on our first night not to have “island time” when it came to bringing out the food.
Caliente: This is simple Mexican and Central American food that was not expensive and good. I ordered the whole fried snapper which is something I do when in this area and it was exactly as expected.
Blue Moon: Blue Moon is the third restaurant in the list from the Phoenix. It has a diverse menu which is what we needed after so much Mexican, Maya and Belize food. Blue Moon is on the south part of town and only a 10 minute walk from the Phoenix. Our group ordered individual pizzas, lasagna and I ordered a habenero/pineapple glazed shrimp dish. Again we had no complaints. (We liked the key lime pie here)
Wild Mangos (next to the Blue Moon). On this restaurant we were split on liking it. The fish empanada starter did not taste fresh. When asked how fresh the fish was the waitress told us 3 or 4 days. I was skeptical to order the mahi dish but did so anyway. While the taste of the glaze was good, the fish itself was not great. On the other hand my wife’s chile relano was made exactly the way she liked it.
Amigos Del Mar Divers. We used them for our trip to the Blue Hole. They usually leave on Thursdays. Amigos was recommended by Mark because of the size of the boat. It was 50 feet with a wide beam and plenty of shade if you wanted to stay out of the sun. Ecological Divers a few docks down was going to take us in an open boat which would have been uncomfortable let alone would have you burn in the sun. Amigos Del Mar does the nearby dives and snorkel trips as well.
My Secret Deli: This is a local lunch spot around the corner from The Phoenix. Everything is made from scratch from the ladies in the back. We found the quesadillas good but the fish sandwich cooked in a little too much oil. Give them a try and take the food to the hotel pool. The prices are also half what we paid when ordering from the pool menu.
Honcho’s Cart Rentals: The best way to get around on your own in town is to walk. If you are staying a couple of miles out of town or want a fun way to explore the islands we found Honcho’s Cart Rental the best price and low on hassle. For $58 with tax, insurance waiver and gas it was delivered and picked up at the hotel on time. If you shop around ask if gas, tax and the waiver is included.