“We don’t live in a hurry, send away the mistletoe. Christmas in the Caribbean. We’ve got everything but snow”. (Christmas in the Caribbean, Jimmy Buffet)
From Tulum we caught a bus to Chetumal, a port town on the Mexican border, then a boat to Ambergris Caye in Belize where we met up with Julie’s brother, sister-in-law and their children for two weeks. With three young kids in tow, it was a bit different from our usual travels, and quite a contrast to last Christmas when we were hiking in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. And for them, quite a contrast to the snow and cold in North America.
The main town on the Caye is San Pedro. It looks quiet and laid back from the water.
Cars are banned, with the exception of taxi vans and some work vehicles, so everyone gets around in hired golf carts. This is the busiest time of the year and the whole town was packed. Traffic jams of golf carts. It’s probably a lot less congested other times of the year, but from what we saw, the days of San Pedro as an undiscovered island getaway are long gone.
Fortunately we’d booked a place on the beach right at the southern end of Ambergris Caye. No traffic, no distractions and except for one windy day, we had perfect weather.
We went swimming and snorkelling every day. There were plenty of fish hanging around under the dock at our back door, with a few nurse sharks and some rays coming in the late afternoons, including this beautiful spotted ray.
For snorkel trips to the reef, operators will pick you up from your own dock. We did a trip to Mexico Rocks, a shallow patch reef at the northern end of Ambergris Caye, which was excellent for the kids – no current, good visibility and lots of coral and fish. We were particularly impressed by several huge green moray eels swimming in full sight, as well as numerous sting rays and spotted rays.
We also went to Belize’s most famous snorkel site, Shark Ray Alley. The Hol Chan cut is a natural break in the barrier reef between Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Fishermen used to anchor here to clean their catch before returning to shore. Sharks came to recognise the likelihood of getting an easy feed and would come to eat what the fisherman threw away, hence the name.
Fishing has been banned here for many years, but the sharks still come in response to a boat arriving, so it’s become a popular place to snorkel with the sharks. They are nurse sharks and generally harmless, but it still feels a bit unnatural being in the water with swarms of them so close. They dart around underneath you, and when one shoots into your field of vision from behind, you can’t help but hear the Jaws theme in your head. A fabulous experience.
And on the one windy day, we headed over to Sunset Beach. Being on the opposite side of the caye, it was sheltered and there was zero wind. Several of the bars have tables set up in the water at exactly the right height to sit waist-deep and drink a cocktail at the same time, whiling away the afternoon and watching the sun go down over the water.
It was a tough week, but we also wanted to see some of the mainland, so after seven nights we headed back to Belize City. The city is a fairly uninspiring place with no real ‘attractions’ of its own, but it’s a useful base to see some things out of town.
We don’t usually visit zoos. We made an exception here because, despite its name, this is an animal sanctuary not a zoo.
It was established in 1983 to provide a home for a number of native animals which had been used in the making of a documentary about tropical forests and were too habituated to humans to be safely returned to the wild. The film makers had no money to continue their care, but the animal caretaker retained for the film, Sharon Matola, refused to accept the animals should be killed. Instead, she stayed in Belize caring for the 17 animals herself. These included an ocelot, a puma and a jaguar. What a remarkable woman.
She set up arrangements as a zoo, to generate funds to care for the animals.
Over time, the facility began to take in other animals. It accepts native animals which have been orphaned, injured or rescued from captivity. The facility also accepts animals brought there because they are considered in need of ‘rehabilitation’, aka predatory animals which would otherwise be killed because they present a risk to humans. They have never taken any animal from the wild, and they don’t breed animals to supply to other facilities.
About 175 animals from 45 different species have a home here. The zoo has only animals native to Belize. You won’t find any polar bears in refrigerated enclosures or giraffes pining for the African plains.
Of course, the cats were Julie’s top priority. Just like when the zoo began, there are jaguars, ocelots and a puma.
There are lots of birds including parrots, scarlet macaws, toucans and vultures. Especially impressive is the harpy eagle – the largest species of eagle in the world and the largest bird species in Central America. They are huge, weighing up to nine kilograms, a wing span of around two metres, and talons the same length as a grizzly bear’s claws.
And if you’ve read our other posts on Central America, you will know Julie’s rather enamoured of coatis. Belize Zoo has something rare indeed – an albino coati.
In the Orange Walk district north of Belize City, Lamanai was once a major Mayan city. Unlike most Mayan sites, this one was probably continuously occupied for about 300 years, ending only in the 17th century.
Getting there from Belize City involves an hour in a minivan, then an hour up-river in an open boat. Along the way the boat driver will point out some of the flora and fauna, like this alligator sunning himself.
There are three main temples. The Mask Temple, the smallest of the three, is named for carved limestone masks on the front of the temple. These have been severely weathered over the centuries and what’s here now is a restoration.
The tallest of the three is the High Temple which, at 33 metres is accurately named!
The guide was emphatic that Belize is the only country in which it is permitted to climb on the Mayan temples. We believed it at the time as climbing is not permitted on any of the ones we’ve visited in Mexico, but we have since visited Tikal in Guatemala and many of them can be climbed. It was nonetheless a good experience, especially for the kids.
From Belize City we headed west to Cayo District, where we stayed in a jungle lodge outside San Ignacio for five nights. San Ignacio has a small but lively market on Saturdays, and a few interesting things to do in town. The kids learned how the Mayans made chocolate and saw a few things in the markets that you don’t get in a suburban American grocery store.
And there was lots to do in the district to keep everyone entertained.
Green Iguana Conservation Project
In San Ignacio, behind the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, the project collects iguana eggs from at-risk locations, hatches them and cares for the iguanas until they can be released into the wild. A guided tour explains the life cycle and habits of the iguanas, and there’s an iguana house where you can get very close to them.
Some are tame enough that it’s possible to touch, feed and stroke them. If you gently caress them with a leaf, they will close their eyes and lap it up, just like a cat being stroked.
Green Valley Butterfly Ranch
Up in the hills, the Green Valley Butterfly Ranch breeds butterflies for research and educational purposes, as well as for export to butterfly houses in North America. In the breeding facility there are caterpillars at all stages and chrysalises. The butterfly house contains more than 50 native species.
Butterflies like white shirts it seems.
The owners are establishing also a botanical garden to attract native butterflies to the grounds, and the ranch also attracts some 13 species of hummingbirds.
Big Rock Falls
Hidden away along a 4WD only road more than an hour out of San Ignacio is Big Rock Falls. A waterfall drops into a small pool, then overflows into a large sinkhole causing the water to rush over the rocks.
It’s a pretty spot, but the access points to the water were a bit too tricky for the kids so we contented ourselves with relaxing on the rocks, then headed back to the lodge where the kids could swim in the river that runs along the back of the property.
On a ridge overlooking the Mopan River, just one kilometre from the Guatemalan border are the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich. The site was a Mayan civic and ceremonial centre established in the early 600s. It was abandoned in about 750CE for reasons which are still unknown.
Getting to the site requires crossing the Mopan River on a hand cranked car ferry.
It is a lovely site, with forest around some of the ruins.
The core of the ancient city occupies approximately 2.6 square kilometres, with a series of six plazas surrounded by about 26 temples and palaces. The most impressive is El Castillo, the second tallest Mayan structure in Belize.
It once had friezes on all sides. They have weathered over the century, but the one on the eastern wall has been restored. The frieze depicts the birth of a god associated with the royal family, creation gods and a tree of life.
You are allowed to climb to the top. The view is stunning.
Rio Frio Cave and Rio On Pools
In the Pine Mountain Ridge Forest Reserve, a couple of hours drive from San Ignacio down a bumpy dirt road, is Rio Frio cave, once used as a sacred burial ground by the Maya.
The entrance to the cave is an impressive 70 metre diameter cavern. The Rio Frio (Spanish for ‘cold river’) flows through the cave system and there’s enough natural light to see many stalactites and other rock formations.
At the other end, the cave opens again to a bend in the river and a small sandy ‘beach’.
Some people take a dip here, but it’s more popular to drive about half an hour back to another section of the Rio Frio known as the Rio On pools. Here, a series of rock pools have been created by giant granite boulders connected by small waterfalls.
It’s a great spot for swimming. Access into the pools is easy, the water is crystal clear and clean, and despite the river’s name, the water is not cold. Well, not freezing cold, anyway. Let’s say … refreshing.
After our five days at the lodge, Julie’s brother and family headed back to the States, and we took a taxi from San Ignacio to the Guatemala border to continue our travels.