Trip Report: Belize 2017

Overlooking the court of a group of Mayan ruinsIn August of 2017 the 80 Diapers crew set off for our third Central American adventure, this time to Belize. We were looking forward to eight days of beaches, snorkeling, Mayan ruins and jungle exploration, and Belize did not disappoint. In fact, the trip was so easy we’d recommend Belize (along with Costa Rica) for any family looking to venture into Central America for the first time. The national language is English, making communication easy even for those with no foreign language skills, and travel is safe, easy, and uncomplicated. You probably shouldn’t drink the water, but bottled water is cheap and plentiful, and even if you do take a sip, you’re unlikely to get sick. And unlike Guatemala or some other Central American countries, you can eat all the local fruits and vegetables you want without worrying about illness.

Our trip was planned for the first week of August, an off-season visit that would give us cheaper hotels and deserted tourist sites but the looming threat of hurricanes and bad weather. We were lucky to avoid any weather-related problems but it is something to be aware of when you travel to Central America during the summer.

We arrived at tiny Belize City airport in the late afternoon and were able to pick up our rental car without any delays. Unexpectedly, we realized that our SUV did not have 4 Wheel Drive, which we hoped wouldn’t be a problem, but since we made it through the bonkers roads of Guatemala in a tiny compact car, we weren’t too worried. We made the ninety-minute drive from Belize City to Pine Mountain Ridge, where our first three nights would be spent in a jungle lodge nestled in the gorgeous national park area near Georgetown.

A beautiful view of palm and flowering trees, with the mountains in the distance.

The view from our cabin. Not too shabby.

We stayed in the Gumbo Limbo Lodge, a small hotel consisting of four cabins and a restaurant and run by a British family who have been in Belize for decades. We couldn’t have been more pleased with this choice, and highly recommend this lodge for others traveling with children. The large room had two queen beds and a twin bed, a nice bathroom with shower and was extremely clean (if quirkily furnished–1980’s pink roses and ruffles reign supreme here, which seems an odd choice for a cabin in the middle of the “jungle.”) The owner of the lodge, who seems a particular favorite with online reviewers, was back in England dropping his granddaughter off at college, but his son was managing the lodge along with a few regular employees and a friendly neighbor or two. Service was attentive, welcoming, and extremely helpful, the food was excellent and moderately priced, and the outdoor restaurant area is a great place to spend the evening after a day full of adventures. There’s a small but clean and picturesque swimming pool which our kids loved and used daily, and the view wasn’t terrible either. The lodge is also extremely eco-friendly, using all reclaimed rainwater, solar power and growing most of the breakfast fruit on the hotel grounds.

The drive up to the lodge, however, was an excellent test of our non-four-wheel-drive-SUV’s capabilities, and one which it almost didn’t pass. The curve is steep, sharp, and unpaved, so make sure your car is up to the challenge.

After dinner and an evening playing our new favorite game, Bears vs. Babies, in our cabin, we woke up in the morning intending to spend the day hiking and exploring the many caves and waterfalls near the lodge before trekking out to the Caracol ruins the following day. The weather, however, had other plans for us, and the severe overnight rainstorm had made the waterfalls dangerous and the caves impassible. We quickly altered our plans and set out for the ninety minute drive to Caracol, hoping to make the ranger station in time to catch the caravan which drives to and from the ruins every day with the Belize Defense Force, protection against the occasional bandits who stray over the border from Guatemala to rob tourists on the deserted road to the ruins.

The drive was an adventure, bumpy, rutted and meandering, but still nothing even close to the drive from Fortuna to Monteverde in Costa Rica, and we felt completely safe the whole time. I’m sure the escort is a good way to make sure tourists feel confident so they keep coming to Caracol, but if you miss the caravan, I’d have no hesitation about making the drive on our own if needed.

The drive is also fascinating, taking you through a very unusual landscape. Rising from the humid, tropical jungle surrounding Georgetown, you suddenly find yourself in a pine forest that feels more like the Southeast US than the rainforests of Belize. The high altitude creates a completely unique environment which covers most of the national park of Mountain Pine Ridge, and reminds you just what an unusual place Belize is.

Arriving finally at Caracol, we walked to the ticket booth and realized suddenly that we may need to make a new rule just for our family’s travels– Rule #15: Don’t Get Cocky! We had arrived at this remote, seldom-visited site with too little cash, too little water, and too little insect repellent. Perhaps we’ve gotten a little too confident in our fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style of international travel? We were faced with the sad reminder that most tourist sites in Belize do not take credit cards, and we were twenty Belize dollars (ten dollars US) short of the ticket price. What to do? No amount of charming (entitled) American begging would sway the ticket vendor–the price is the price, and that is that. Our only choice seemed to be to make the long journey back to Georgetown to find an ATM and try the ruins again tomorrow.

Then I had a sudden brain wave. Is this the Age of Technological Miracles or is it not, I asked myself (and Matthew). We set off to find some Americans in the small grassy parking lot. A couple had previously asked Matthew to take their photo at the security gate near the ranger station, so I put on my best smile and approached them to ask a favor. Would they possibly be willing to give us some cash and I could paypal them the money when we got back to our hotel? After a few seconds of startled “what are you, some kind of weirdo?” expressions, they laughed and handed us a $20 bill. Technology and foreigner-solidarity to the rescue again! We thanked them, got a paypal address and strode back to buy our tickets, figuring that this was the last time we would ever see them again. (Spoilers! It wasn’t.)

Having been to Tikal just a few years earlier, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this site, believed to be Tikal’s nearest rival sixteen hundred years ago. It is much smaller and less “grand” feeling than the enormous, fully excavated Tikal but still an incredible experience and one that we wouldn’t have missed. Rediscovered in the 1930’s by mahogany hunters, the site is divided into several sections, the plazas with pyramids surrounding a courtyard and several smaller residential areas.

The author and her children raise their arms in victory halfway up a temple ruin

Climbing stairs this steep (much much worse than they look) calls for celebration.

Most of the site is still unexcavated, and wandering though makes you realize how huge this area, which was once home to more people than currently live in the entire country, must have been.

That’s Guatemala over there somewhere.

We spent about four hours exploring Caracol, climbing the dizzyingly steep pyramids to get amazing views of the surrounding forest (you can see all the way to Guatemala!) and trying to guess which of the nearby “hills” are actually pyramids in disguise. We could have spent much longer but because our cockiness had sent us to the site without enough water, we decided we’d better make the drive out to the town of San Ignacio, the main jumping-off point for most tourists visiting the Cayo district of Belize.

Playing ball in the ancient ball court.

Another ninety minutes on the bumpy dirt road brought us to this fun town, where we had a delicious dinner at Erva’s. This small restaurant serves basic, tasty Belizian food and Leafy Isaac got a jumpstart on his stated goal to eat All the Shrimp in Belize, with the excellent shrimp fried rice. All the varieties of coconut fried rice and the roasted beef shoulder were especially good. Highly recommended for kids, and if you sit outside you can watch the backpackers trailing in and out of the hostel across the street and perhaps inspire your kids to plan future gap-year trips of their own.

Next morning we again made a last-minute change of plan, as the continued rain made it necessary to move our cave-tubing plans up by 24 hours to avoid the rising water that would make the caves impassable. The helpful hotel staff booked us a last-minute private tour guide who picked us up and drove us to the jumping-off point at Caves Branch, near Belmopan.

Our guide was wonderful, finding us a local roadside restaurant for some chicken and rice and beans before we headed into the caves. (Guides will usually bring a picnic lunch to be eaten riverside, but our trip was so last minute he didn’t have time to pick up food.) Then we geared up (helmets, lights, tubes, life jackets) and made the short hike upriver to our jumping-in point. This hike is easy and flat, but you do have to make the trek carrying your own inner tubes, so parents might need to carry one for smaller children.

Water shoes or sturdy sandals are also important to bring on this adventure, or you can rent water shoes (crocs, actually) for a few dollars from vendors onsite. You can’t ride the tubes with bare feet.

Depending on how long you want to be in the water and the weather report, tourists can float through anywhere from one to seven caves. We did two, which made our float about two hours long. I spent a good portion of the day cursing myself for not bringing a camera—I had been worried about it getting wet but a phone in a waterproof bag would have been an easy solution. (These bags are also for sale at the site.) These pictures are from online, but don’t give anything like a clear idea of how cool this experience is—floating down a river surrounded by dense tropical foliage and suddenly entering a long, dark cave filled with stalactites, eerie echoes and the occasional waterfall pouring in from the ceiling (not over you—this is a very laid-back adventure) make for a surreal and unique experience. Highly, highly recommended, and safe for all but very young children (though not all companies will take kids under 12, so check first.)

Our guide was excellent and made the day nearly perfect, but you can save a significant amount of money driving yourself to Caves Branch and just hiring a guide onsite instead of making a whole day of it. If you have your own car (which you almost surely will with kids), I’d probably recommend that instead—but make sure you get there early before all the guides are booked up!

After our tubing adventure it was back to Gumbo Limbo for dinner, more swimming and more card games. Staying in such a cool location made “doing nothing” feel like something, which was great for tired parents who just wanted to sit on the patio and read a book.

The following morning we started packing up our gear for the drive over to Placencia and the beach, which should have been an uneventful half-hour’s work. However, when Lemmy reached into his bag to grab his toothbrush, he got an unpleasant surprise when a big black tarantula jumped out of his bag and onto his hand.

A tarantula climbs out of a duffel bag

Lemmy’s stowaway

There was lots of screaming and jumping around, lots of parental confusion and demands to know what happened, and the tarantula finally took shelter under the sofa where we hoped it would stay. But an hour later, when Lemmy went to zip up his bag, THERE IT WAS AGAIN. This spider seemed determined to go with us to Placencia, but before we tried to coax it out, I went up to the restaurant to inquire whether there was any possibility that this spider was poisonous before we started irritating it. The staff agreed that it was just a tarantula and that “it’ll take a chunk outta ya, and it’ll hurt, but it won’t kill ya.” Reassuring. I warned them there might be some screaming in the near future and headed back into the breach.

Putting on my Brave Person face, I decided to use a snorkel flipper to extract the spider from the bag. There was, in fact, a higher-than-strictly-necessary amount of shrieking, but I was eventually successful, and then I threw the flipper at passed the flipper to Matthew who flicked the tarantula off the porch into the bushes WHERE TARANTULAS BELONG. The spectacle was too much for the employees, who strolled down the hill to be entertained by the ridiculous white people who were putting on an excellent show. Thanks! You’re been great! Tip your waitresses! We’ll be here all night.

The morning was spent driving the Hummingbird Highway, the most scenic drive in Belize (which is really saying something—the entire country is gorgeous!) around the mountains and to the coast where we had booked our first ever resort hotel. The kids were very excited to stay in a Posh Hotel, and it did not disappoint—a pool on the beach, a clean and fancy two-bedroom apartment, beachside restaurant and staff everywhere to help with anything from drink orders to (spoilers) recurring jellyfish stings. Matthew and I are not really resort people and if it were only us we would have preferred a more rustic cottage, but we figured the kids would be thrilled and we were right.

A palm tree in front of an ocean view

The Beach at Belize Ocean Club

And the location of the Belize Ocean Club Resort was ideal—on Maya Beach about 20 minutes from Placencia city, close enough to the tourist hub for easy daytrips and grocery store runs but, at least in the hurricane-prone off season, not crowded or overwhelmed with tourists. If you’re coming to Belize for the scuba diving the Cayes (pronounced keys) off the coast might be a better choice for accommodation. But since snorkeling and beach time were our biggest goals, the peninsula of Placencia (say that five times fast) was perfect for our needs.

The author's family launches kayaks from the beach

Setting out to kayak to that island in the distance

The rest of the week was spent mostly playing on the beach and the pool, kayaking out to explore nearby islands and sandbars (the resort supplies free kayaks and paddleboards for guests) and exploring Placencia city. Maya Beach is definitely not the prettiest beach we’ve been to, the sand is large-grained and somewhat sharp, the water is full of sea grass and usually muddy brown or gray, and the beach itself is no more than ten feet wide. But the ocean is shallow along the hotel’s shore and the kids loved playing in the ocean, even though jellyfish lurking in the water ended up stinging at least one of them each day. The stings were minor, more itchy than painful, and the bar staff were quick to bring a cup of vinegar to soothe the sting. If you’re looking for wide white sand beaches and crystal clear water, Belize is definitely not the equal of Costa Rica or Hawaii, but many other attractions make up for it. As for the Belize Ocean Club, the resort is beautiful, the staff is friendly and very helpful, the food in the restaurant at night is excellent but pricey, and lunch at the poolside restaurant is equally good but more reasonably priced. (We recommend the fish tacos!)

The biggest highlight of our time in Placencia was snorkeling with Daytrippers. The resort offers many different snorkeling, diving and adventure trips but we decided to book our own snorkel trip with this small company in Placencia. It was less than half the cost of a trip through the resort, and we had the boat all to ourselves. A heavy rainstorm in the morning made us worry that we wouldn’t be able to sail out that day, but though there was rain on and off for most of the morning, there was no thunder and we were able to leave right on schedule. Our crew were both wonderful, letting the kids climb all over the boat and sit on the prow, pointing out interesting sights along and way and taking us past the usual tourist snorkel locations to their own, secret spot (the location of which I cannot reveal!)

A boy lays on top of the roof of a catamaran

Leafy Isaac enjoys the sunshine

We jumped out into what looked like boring, grey ocean and peeked underwater to find an incredible mini reef. Having lived a block from the beach in Hawaii, I’m somewhat hard to impress when it comes to snorkeling but this spot was amazing. Thousands of fish of all descriptions, barracuda, coral, urchins and anemones, eels and crabs swarmed around the reef formations, and we were thrilled.

As we were wrapping up our snorkeling session, the captain yelled from the boat and started pointing toward the area where the reef met the open ocean. The snorkel guide was also waving for us to swim over, so we swam as quickly as we could away from the shallow reef area…and toward a manatee! This amazingly friendly animal (quickly christened Barbara) swam with us, ignoring our delighted squeals and splashing and letting us swim alongside her for several minutes before she headed back out to sea. Unfortunately, that was before Matthew, who had been trying to tow slow-swimming Leafy Isaac along with him, got to see the manatee. This was seriously disappointing to the two of them so we decided that rather than continue on to another dive location, we’d have lunch on the boat and hope she would come back. Lunch was tasty, chicken and pasta salad made by our snorkel guide himself, and fruit juices. (We don’t drink but there are also rum punches available.)

Just as we finished lunch, the captain’s sharp eyes caught Barbara returning for another snack of sea grass, so we jumped in the water and swam out to meet her again. Matthew and Leafy were able to swim along with her this time, and we all had another amazing encounter with this rare and wonderful mammal.

We spent another hour or so snorkeling the other side of the “island” before we set out back Placencia, tired, sunburned and blissfully happy.

For dinners we sometimes ate at the resort (delicious but pricey) and sometimes went into Placencia City to try out local restaurants. Our favorite was Wendy’s (not that Wendy’s) which served tasty shrimp dishes, grilled fish, chicken and excellent fried plantains. Recommended. Sit outside, so you can catch any breezes that are available.

Grilled fish, coconut rice and salad at Wendy’s

Many of the restaurants that had been recommended to us were closed because we were there during the off season, so our choices were somewhat limited. Other nights we just bought fruit, vegetables, chips and cheese from the local markets and made our own simple dinners in the apartment while watching American TV (School of Rock and Legally Blonde, to be precise.)

We had planned to visit the factory where the famous Marie Sharp’s hot sauce is made on our way to Placencia a few days earlier, but missed the turn while staring at the scenery. We hoped to stop there on the way out of the peninsula on Sunday, but realized that the factory is open every day but Sunday. (See again Rule #15—Don’t Get Cocky.) This was very disappointing. Be better than us—plan ahead. (And buy plenty of Marie Sharp’s to take home. That stuff is goooooooood.)

We did stop for a short walk to St Herman’s Cave halfway up the Hummingbird Highway. The cave is part of a site run by the Belize Audubon Society and includes Blue Hole lake (not to be confused with the Blue Hole dive spot off the coast) and Crystal Cave. You have to book in advance for the hours-long hike through Crystal Cave, which sounds amazing, but you can wander into the first section of St Herman’s Cave by yourself in less than an hour. It was an impressive and quick side jaunt after so many days on the beach.

Our last night was spent in one of the three cabins at the Cheers roadside restaurant near the Belize Zoo, which was going to be our final adventure of the trip. A cheery, clean, efficient cabin held a double bed and a bunk bed that slept three, studio apartment style. It was perfectly adequate for our last day, with air conditioning, comfortable beds and the popular restaurant a few steps away. It would have been pretty close quarters for an extended stay, however. One little FYI, the shower is an alcove off the main room and doesn’t have a door (though isn’t visible from the main part of the room) so if you have any particularly shy family members it might not be ideal.

And speaking of the restaurant—guess who was seated there when we walked in? The same couple who loaned us money on our first day back at Caracol! We could have avoided paypal and just paid them back at dinner that night. We had a good laugh and became Facebook friends.

Our final day in Belize we visited the Belize Zoo, a wonderful and unique zoo that contains only animals native to the country and which have been rescued or are unable to live wild. Tapirs, howler monkeys, jaguarundis, toucans, coatamundis, harpy eagles, alligators, they’re all here.

It’s a great way to make sure you see all the wildlife you might have missed while you’re out there adventuring, and a wonderful way to get kids up close and personal with the animals. Definitely not just your average zoo.

The author's sons pet a tapir

Petting a tapir

We had several hours to kill after leaving the zoo before our flight left, so we considered a trip to Altun Ha, another Mayan site close to Belize City. But everyone was pretty traveled-out and the site is popular with tourists so might have been a crowded mess anyway. We decided to call it good and took the scenic route (ok, kind of by accident) back to the airport where we had a quick lunch of hamburgers and stared at our phones for a few hours before heading home.

All in all, this was a highly successful, extremely relaxing vacation. The joys of having kids old enough to self-regulate on the beach are not to be underestimated, but the trip would have been incredibly fun even with young children. (Just don’t let them eat a scorpion or fall off the top of Caracol.) The country is fascinating and beautiful, and we can highly recommend it as a great choice for family travel. Add Belize to your list and explore this little country before it becomes too popular and everyone is doing it.

 

Need to Know Before You Go

Visas needed? (US Passport holders) no
Best time to visit December-April
Want more? Read our other trip reports here.

 

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