Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rain, Planes and a Paradise

As we pulled away from Chaa Creek, and the jungle, the rains began.  It was rainy season after all!  But we had a flight in a tiny plane and rain and tiny planes were not somthing that I was really too thrilled about.  As a matter of fact, I just wasn't going to think about it at all.  Once again, we had a wonderful driver who talked enough to keep the hour and a half ride to the airport, in the rain, interesting.  But who also gave us enough quiet time to enjoy the ride and reflect on the vacation we'd just had.

As we got closer to Belize City, the sun came out!  Rain doesn't last long in Belize for the most part, just showers here and there...but it was raining hard when it did rain!  We were lucky though.  During our whole time in the Cayo, inland, that was the only real rain we had.

We got to the airport and waited for out flight. We were flying on Tropic Air, a flight that was arranged by our destination hotel and the flight would be a mere fifteen minutes to San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye.

The airport is just a small building and the runway is just a dirt strip.  I did find it a bit funny that we got a paper about lost luggage and a baggage claim ticket! 

After taking off we had a very smooth flight with beautiful views of the crystal blue Caribbean Sea. 

We had a flawless landing, had no problem getting our bags!  Although the airport in San Pedro was surprisingly larger than the one in Belize City!  And we were promptly met by Mo.  He would be taking us to Portofino, which is only accessible by water taxi! 

We chose Ambergris Caye over some of the other Cayes because it seemed to have a bit more as far as restaurants and shops as compared to some of the others.  I also found the selection of hotels easier to browse through and found more choices that fit our needs.   We chose Portofino because it is more secluded, but yet the town is accessible when we want to go there.  They offered a nice package and their communication via email was excellent when I had questions or inquired as to availibity.  Their reviews were also mainly outstanding.  At Portofino we did not get a package that included all of our meals as we did at Chaa Creek.  Since Ambergris Caye has many restaurants and we are definitely "foodies" we wanted to experience the variety offered! But our package did include a snorkel excursion as well as a sunset cruise and breakfast.

So, after our fifteen minute boat ride, which I became very accustomed to and loved every time, we docked at Portofino and were greeted right at the end of the dock.  Immediately we felt at home.  The staff there was incredibly friendly and welcoming.  We had our welcome drink and went over all of the information about the property.

We then were taken to our beach front cottage, which is their standard room and shown how everything worked and then off to lunch we went....

I felt like we were in a bit of paradise....

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ready for a change in scenery!

It was time to leave Chaa Creek.  We had five amazing days there and would return in a heartbeat!  We didn't have to leave until noon, so we wanted enjoy our remaining time there and not just wait around until our transfer.  We had one last wonderful breakfast and then headed up to the pool.  The pool at Chaa Creek was one of our favorite spots.  So peaceful and a great spot for sharing the days experiences with other guests.  There was an area to the side where you could get a massage right out there, which was on my list of things to do that I didn't get a chance to do but heard it was fabulous!  Oh time!  I was feeling a bit sad to leave this bit of paradise in the jungle...however - our vacation wasn't over!  We still had five more nights to go!  Some final thoughts on our visit to Chaa Creek  - it was an amazing and beautiful ecolodge, however it's expensive.  I did feel that it was a value worth paying for though.  The staff were amazing.  I would highly recommend getting one of their packages that includes some excursions because they are expensive due to the travel costs.  One thing that surprised me was the lack of wildlife, being right in the jungle.  Having travelled to other jungle areas, such as Costa Rica, we expected more and saw virtually no mammals or even birds on the property.  Chaa Creek is a great place for families and there were several there with younger kids during our stay.  I'd bring our kids back in a second.  However, the excursions may be long and a bit difficult for many kids, so think about that.

Before moving on....some final pictures from our time at Chaa Creek in the Cayo district!


Saturday, September 26, 2009


The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave...this was a day I was so very much looking forward to!  How often do you get the chance to explore a cave?  Let alone a cave that was once used for Mayan rituals thousands of years ago?  And one that still has fully preserved artifacts, incuding human skeletal remains in it?  I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I was expecting a great day!

Francisco from Pacz Tours picked us up and this tour was part of our package at Chaa Creek.  Again, I can't say enough about what a great package we had.  It allowed us to do so many great things!  We headed back out to the Western Highway and Francisco just talked about everything  from the country, Belizean history, his family, past tours he'd been on.  We were the only two people on the tour with him, so it was an ideal day.  Our own private excursion!  After about thirty minutes on the main road, we made a quick stop for Francisco to pick up a sandwich - we had boxed lunches packed for us, and we turned off onto one of the all too familiar bumpy roads of Belize.

We drove for about forty more minutes on the bumpy roads, crossing two river beds.  Francisco said they were very shallow compared to past trips he'd taken.  We finally got to our parking area and packed up our gear.  We had about a forty minute hike into the jungle.  It was maily flat walking.  There wasn't much wildlife to see, but it was very pretty.  We had to cross three river beds on foot.  It wasn't deep, no higher than above the knee in the deepest areas, but it could get slippery because of the rocks on the bottom.  But the water was nice and cool.  I felt great!  The walk was very fast.  Francisco wanted to get to the cave before any other groups showed up.  He said the experience would be best if we were the first group in.  He talked the entire way there....he had a lot to say! 

We finally got to our base camp, and left all of our dry gear there.  That would be our backpacks and boxed lunches.  I gave Francisco my camera for his dry bag and kept my underwater camera out for some shots going through the cave.  We put our hard hats and head lamps on and off we went! 

The opening of the cave is beautiful.  It's shaped like an hourglass.  You have to swim into the cave to start.  It's a short swim to the rocks that we climbed over and under and all around.  Some of the rocks were very large, some not so big.  Some of the spaces were a bit hard to navigate through, but Fransicso always made sure we had the best footing and showed us how to place our hands and feet to get through the maze to the next area. 

The rock formations that we climbed around were fascinating and we also saw several bats!  We has some areas that we had to swim in water that was maybe chest height and other areas where we just walked in water that was ankle deep.  We walked into the cave for about 45 minutes or so.    Some of the rock formations that we climbed through looked like these...

In this one section of the cave, there was an opening out to the area outside.  The archaelogists theory is that this opening may have been used to lower supplies into the cave because to take everything in from the cave opening and past all of the rock formations would have been very difficult.

After about 45 minutes we got to a very high ledge which we were to climb up....I was thinking NO WAY!!!  But, we did it.  It was steep, but with the right footing, we made it.  And it was so worth the climb!  We got to the top and there we had to take our shoes off and put socks on to not damage the surface of the floor of the cave.  Here we were in the Great Cathederal.  This area is 350 meters long and 50 meters wide and it is amazing!  This is where the Mayans held their rituals and there are many, many pieces of pottery laid out in just the places where they were last used.  You can just imagine how the cave looked in 900 AD under the lighting of only torches, we only had the glow of flashlights, and you could see how mystical the cave formations looked.  As a mater of fact, many looked just like the shapes of some of the Mayan gods themselves.  Here the Mayans did rituals to the gods of sun, rain and fertility. 

This formation looks like one of the Mayan gods!

As we walk farther into the cathederal area we start to see some of the human remains.  We're told there are many human remains and many more that are likely undescoverd at this time.  They are still studying the bones to determine the ages and trying to figure out how these people may have died.  They do know some things about some of the people.

We go futher to the far back of the cave and climb a ladder to get to the only full skeleton which is fully preserved.  It's that of a 15 year old female.  They call her the Crystal Maiden.  It is absolutely stunning - both eerie and peaceful at the same time. 

After spending about an hour in the cathederal area, we made our way back out of the cave and had our boxed lunch before trekking back out of the jungle, crossing the three river crossings and back to our vehicle. 

It is absolutely no exaggeration when I say that this cave experience was likely the most unique thing we have ever done and truly an opportunity of a lifetime.  There is some talk of controlling or no longer allowing visitors to enter the cave in the future so I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to experience the magical ATM cave while I could.

The Crystal Maiden - teenage girl, fully preserved by the cave's natural processes.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Our first cave experience and the butterfly farm!

On our third full day in Belize, we decided to do a half day excursion.  This would be between our two full day trips.  Tikal was a long day and we had another full day excursion coming up.  So, we spent the morning at Chaa Creek.  There really is an awful lot to do right there and we actually had every intention of going horseback riding when we originally planned our day, but when it came to Saturday morning, we just didn't feel like it.  We could have taken the canoes and gone out on the river as well...but again, not in the cards!  So, after breakfast we decided to take a walk up to the Natural History Center and Butterfly Farm that is right there on the property. 

At Chaa Creek they have a small museum about the history of Belize and the Mayan culture.  They also have a small exhibit about the native animals in the region as well as their efforts at helping to increase the Howler Monkey population in the country. 

There is also a Blue Morpho Butterfly farm.  This is quite interesting!  We had a short but very interesting lesson on more than you could imagine about the life cycle of the Blue Morpho.  They are actively harvesting the eggs, hundreds a week from the egg stage right through the larvae until they emerge into butterflies.  It was quite a sight!

After having lunch poolside and relaxing for a bit, we were ready for out next adventure:

Barton Creek Cave!  This cave was used as a Mayan ritual site until around 900 AD.  We went into the 7 mile long cave on a canoe, which our guide paddled and he told us all of the history and legend that went along with it.  We had a bright lamp, powered by a car battery which we took with us into the canoe!   The cave was beautiful.  We went about 3/4 of a mile into the cave.  The ceilings were about 150 feet high at some points.  We could see some of the pottery that was left and there were many bats flying past our heads!  We were told there have been approximately 28 human remains found in the cave.

This cave experience was very cool!  To be in the canoe, and when we turned our lamp off it was complete darkness.  For the most part we were the only group in the cave so it was totally silent as well.  One can only imagine what it was like thousands of years ago, with the only light being from the torches of the Mayans.....

This would just be a taste of our cave experiences.  We had plans for a full day cave experience the next day and I could not wait! 

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Tikal...when I think about Mayan ruins and history, Tikal is one of the first things that comes to my mind.  K and I have been to Mexico many times.  We've been fascinated by the ruins there.  We've been to Chichen Itza, and were some of the lucky ones who were there when you could still climb the Great Pyramid.  Although I chickened out and only K made the climb.  I regret missing out on it now though!  We've seen the beauty of Tulum sitting on the edge of the sea.  We've climbed the tallest pyramid in Coba, the relatively unexcavated site in the jungles outside of Cancun.  But Tikal...that to me is the ruin of ruins!  Tikal isn't in Belize, it's in Guatemala.  But from where we were staying, it's a day trip away.  There are many great ruins in Belize, Guatemala too for that matter.  Those countries were thriving in the Mayan period.  Millions of residents.  Many more than live there today. 

Our journey began early, after breakfast.  We left with just one other couple and two of the employees from Chaa Creek got to go with us since it was the slow season.  Off we went with our guide and we had about a fifteen minute drive to the Guatemala border.  We'd cross on foot, going through customs and immigration.  After paying the necessary fees and getting our passports stamped, we picked up a different vehicle and off we went.  The country was incredibly beautiful.  We drove mainly through dairy farmlands and past several lakes.  We were told that most of the villages had no running water, so you would see the women at the lakes set up in little huts doing their laundry.  It wasn't unusual to see pigs on the road as well!

The countryside for most of the drive looked like this.  Note the rocky road....most roads in Guatemala that we were on, and many roads except the Western Highway in Belize were just rock.  Made for some bumpy driving!

Once in Guatemala we had about two hours to go until we picked up our guide Walter, about thirty minutes from Tikal National Park.  Our Chaa Creek guide told us that they don't allow Belizean guides, so we had to have a Guatemalean guide for the tour.  Walter was amazing.  He was so filled with knowledge, from everything from the Mayans, to the structures in Tikal, to the country to the plant life and animals we'd see.  Made for wonderful experience.  As soon as we crossed into the park, we were immediately taunted by some Spider Monkeys.  They were throwing leaves and branches down on our vehicle. 

We parked and got out of the van and headed toward the park.  Walter stopped at a little hole in the ground and asked us if we'd ever seen a tarantula, no!  So, he sticks a piece of grass in the hole and out pops a huge fuzzy tarantula!  Great start to the day!  We hadn't even seen the ruins yet and we'd already seen spider monkeys and a tarantula!

Walter told us all about the history of Tikal and the Mayans in Guatemala as we made our way to pyramid IV, which is the tallest pyramid, standing over 230 feet high, way above the canopy.  As we approached it was just breathtaking to see as the top peaked out of the jungle. 

We were able to climb this pyramid.  High above the canopy, the view is spectacular.  We could have sat there all day...but to see more, we did have to go back down!

We then went to the Great Plaza and learned more about what life may have been like around 600 AD.  We had time to explore and climbed pyramid II as well.  Pyramid I can not be climbed anymore.  We saw quite a bit of wildlife, including many coati, toucans, foxes, many more monkeys, and an anthill that was perhaps 4 or 5 feet long! 

Our last stop in the park was pyramid V, this pyramid appears to be the tallest, but IV is actually taller.  This one seems taller because it's fully excavated.  The steps up are straight up.  The view is amazing, as can be seen above.

I loved Tikal.  To me it is truly a mystical place.  I'm sure I could spend days there exploring - we just touched on the highlights.  The national park is over 200 square miles, with the structures in 10 square miles and only a small fraction have been uncovered. 

After our drive back to Chaa creek, we cooled off and relaxed in the pool and had a wonderful dinner with the highlighed being Shrimp with a Coconut Sauce....possibly a perfect day!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some hiking and nature

Sleeping in the jungle, waking up in the jungle.  It's a beautiful thing!  But ya know what?  It was darn hot!  Over and over the staff at Chaa Creek kept telling us "this is the rainy season, it's not hot - you haven't felt hot yet!"  Well, it was about 95 degrees with 93 percent humidity and no air conditioning.  I can handle it during the day.  I don't mind it when I'm outside, especially if I have water to drink and there's shade nearby.  But sleeping in the heat - that's another story.  We survived though and by the second or third night I must have adapted, or we must have figured some method to keep our cottage cooler because sleeping came much easier.  Or maybe we were just exhausted!

Our first full day...after a long day of travelling, we decided that this day would be mainly a day of relaxing and getting to know where we were.  No planned activities.  We'd hang out, maybe do some hiking and relax at the pool.  Perfect.

After breakfast, we hiked along the River Trail. This is a short walk from the cottages to the Macal River. The pathway was lined with some of the biggest bamboo trees I've ever seen!

Once at the river, you can take one of the canoes and paddle downstream to San Ignacio if you'd like too....we chose to just sit on the bank for awhile and enjoy the scenery.  Quite peaceful.  But it's so evident how the river has turned brown from the Chalillo Dam....very sad.  We were told that just weeks before the river was clear.
Later in the afternoon we also hiked along the Medicinal Trail.  This is a self guided hike that shows you how so many of the plants and trees have been used to treat so many different ailments ranging from skin irritations to stomach issues to actual research for cancer drugs.  It was fascinating.
We had a really great day, but had a early morning coming up.  Our first big adventure....Tikal.  This was one of my main reasons for coming to Belize and for choosing this location.....I couldn't wait!