Crazy Day in Placencia

We find ourselves in the bed of a pickup truck, speeding up the highway from Placencia to Hopkins after having just watched our driver conduct a drug deal. The truck weaves back and forth over the middle line. We’re not particularly surprised given that the driver has stopped at least twice for a beer for the road. We look at each other and know we’re both thinking the same thing: “This is it… This is how we die.”


How did we get here?  Well, a series of pretty logical-at-the-time choices that we would probably make again. Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

Setting the Scene:

We arrived in Hopkins expecting a relaxing few days. We also knew that some of the bigger coastal towns were celebrating a yearly event called LobsterFest. We were slightly disappointed knowing that we were going to miss it, but had made the decision that going to Hopkins was the best use of our limited time despite knowing that there would be no partying or lobster-eating there.

Act 1: Successfully Being Backpackers

Upon arriving in Hopkins the prior night, we successfully found our way to the hostel The Funky Dodo. Despite the humidity and bugs, Eric decided to do the social thing and read his book in the shared courtyard. He meets another young couple and begins to chat. They are on their honeymoon here in Belize and seem like fun! After a nice conversation, they explain that they met an American expat in town at dinner. They had struck up conversation and he had invited them to drive down to Placencia with him for the LobsterFest! They admitted that the expat (who I will now call Bill for simplicity’s sake) was potentially a little crazy in the not-unusual American expat in Latin America way, but he seemed friendly enough. He had offered them the drive for company, gas money, and a few beers. They seemed to have done sufficient reconnaissance, even asking around the restaurant to several locals, who assured them that Bill often enjoyed the company of tourists, and that he was a good guy. It sounded like a great opportunity to us, and we were thrilled when our new friends asked us to join them and Bill on their day to Placencia. We went to bed congratulating ourselves on successfully meeting like-minded backpackers and finding our way to LobsterFest after all.

Act 2: The Trip Down

It rained all night, and when the sun rose sullenly the next morning, we weren’t sure whether the trip was on. Our new friends still planned on it and we all headed out to the appointed intersection to meet Bill. After waiting for about 45 minutes with nothing to show for it, our friends went back to the restaurant where they had met him and had the owner call.  He showed up a few minutes later in a 4 door pickup truck. He hadn’t been expecting to drive 4 tourists down so he had brought his own guest and the rest of us crowded into the back. Here we had our first hint that perhaps we were in for an adventurous day. It was about 9:30 am and Bill’s companion (and we will continue to refer to her as such because we were never formally introduced) was starting the morning with a beer and a joint. Oh well, we thought, we’re all on vacation today!

Bill explained a lot about the areas we drove past as we headed south toward Placencia. We learned a lot and enjoyed his stories and various opinions about the changes he had seen in Belize in the past years. Though, we were slightly concerned again as we stopped about 45 minutes into the trip at a road side bar where he purchased a beer, which he chugged quickly while we checked out the bathroom, and then on we went!

Some of the huge mansions outside Placencia

Some of the huge mansions outside Placencia


Act 3: Placencia

We arrived safely in Placencia before noon. Placencia was a nice, but touristy town. We were shocked as we passed some of the outskirts with enormous mansions. It seemed a stark contrast to most of what we had seen in Belize so far as well as the smaller hovels closer in. It turned touristy again near town center with a lot of shops and little restaurants. Bill took us straight to the beach where our LobsterFest plans began in earnest. We immediately saw a small shack where a Belizean woman was cooking up lobsters. She took our orders and told us to return in 25 min for a delicious lobster lunch. We were confident that we were getting completely fresh lobster cooked in a local way – score! While eating, we met yet another couple on their honeymoon as well. The 6 of us hit it off, and they invited us to walk the beach with them. Bill told us to have fun, enjoy the day, and find him when we were ready to go home. We was a little concerned about leaving him with no super apparent way to get back in touch, but the laid back Belizean attitude eventually overwhelmed our worries. We left him and his companion and a waterfront bar and off we went to enjoy a lovely walk along the beautiful sand beaches of Placencia and a short dip in the warm water. We relaxed, ate icecream, drank beer and rum, and overall had a lovely time… until Della looked at her watch and realized it was past 3!

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Act 4: Where it got pretty weird… and potentially dangerous

By this point, the original couple we had traveled with were a little tipsy and having a really good time. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry to find Bill again. We felt that we needed to, as we weren’t quite sure how far his laid back attitude would go. In fact, we somewhat suspected that if we weren’t back when he felt like leaving, we just might end up with no ride back to Hopkins at all, especially that had likely been drinking all day. So, with several bouts of gentle nudging we got ourselves back on our way toward where we had left Bill. It turned out that we were right, and we actually ran into Bill a few minutes later… He was in his truck, heading out of town!  Luckily he did stop and we breathed a sigh of relief that we wouldn’t have to figure out alternative transportation. We had been so cramped on the drive down, and it was now much hotter, so we decided to ride in the bed of the truck and give the other couple the seats. And I think we were really glad that we did. The first hint of problem occurred when the truck took an unexpected turn off the main road and began its way into a clearly more impoverished part of Placencia. Here is what occurred as we saw it from the bed of the truck without hearing any conversations:

We stop and Bill’s companion gets out of the car.  She stumbles over to where there are several kids sitting in lawn chairs by the road. Words are exchanged along with what looks like a wad of cash. We start to feel uncomfortable as several of the local adults and kids around glare at us. The kid who took Bill’s companion’s money ran off down the street as we waited. At this time, the same thought went through both our heads: This seems a lot like the Wire!  Uh oh…  We continue to wait, but the boy does not come back. After awhile, Bill’s companion gets noticeably perturbed and begins to yell at the girls still with her. They yell back. After watching for awhile, the only thing we can guess is that they took her money but did not transfer any product. We still don’t know exactly what happened, but after a lot of yelling and Bill getting out of the car to grab his companion, we were back on our way. Phew.

Oh yeah, and Bill stopped another time on the way back to get a beer to go from one of the highway side pubs. He was almost stumbling by this time.

Act 5: Reflection

It turns out we were lucky to be in the back of the truck- though if there had been a drunken crash, we surely would have died. But the couple who rode in the car said that they had it even worse than fear of the death- because Bill and his companion argued forcefully the entire way back. The day makes for an interesting story and there were definitely some enjoyable moments, but we came back feeling exhausted and just relieved that we were alive. The trip soured the time so much for our companions that they debated on leaving Hopkins several days earlier than they planned.

Lessons Learned: It is always wonderful to work the normal backpacker adventures into a trip, though it is probably advisable to have backup plans in case something goes wrong.

Pros: We bonded enough out of the experience that we traveled with the other couple for the rest of our trip and quite enjoyed them. (We ultimately convinced them not to leave Hopkins early, and I think they appreciated that in the end.)

From Guatemala to Hopkins via the Hummingbird Highway

After our 24 hours in Guatemala, our next stop was to go all the way to the coastal town of Hopkins in Belize. This would involve traversing a decent portion of the country, but luckily it’s not a big place!

Still, it would have been a long travel day to try and do it in one day, so we decided to break the trip up by stopping along the way on the Hummingbird Highway.

From Guatemala to the Hummingbird Highway

As stated in the previous post, to get out of Guatemala we re-traced our steps from the day before. We walked back from El Remate to the main highway, then almost immediately caught a colectivo back to the border. At that point we actually had leftover Quetzales, so we bought some drinks and snacks before crossing over.

Once we were in Belize, we took a series of transportation options that actually flowed together smoothly:

  • A shared taxi from the border to the town of Benque (just 2 km away)
  • A bus leaving from Benque headed east
  • Got off the bus at the transit center in Belmopan. We had time here to take a bathroom break.
  • Got on a bus headed south along the Hummingbird Highway

Hummingbird Lodge

The Hummingbird Highway goes through the most mountainous part of Belize, so it is quite pretty. We decided to spend a night in this part of the country but Lonely Planet didn’t really list any good budget options. Then we randomly found a a cheap place listed on Trip Advisor called the Hummingbird Lodge (website, Trip Advisor). However, since our schedule was flexible, we had never actually contacted the place to make sure they really existed / were open, so we weren’t sure it was going to work, but we decided to give it a go anyway!

The website is pretty vague about directions to the place – all we knew to tell the bus conductor was a mile marker and some random business signs. Luckily he knew what we were talking about! Still, we were apprehensive about being at the right place… but it turned out we were!

The Hummingbird Lodge turned out to be a pretty neat place to stay. There were only a few other travelers there, but they all had interesting and varied stories to tell. We took advantage of the swimming hole on the property (although the temperatures in the mountains were noticeably cooler  than those in San Ignacio and Guatemala).

We did make one big mistake though: we didn’t have any food with us. We were assuming there would be some sort of market nearby, but we weren’t counting on this place being as isolated as it was. Luckily, the fellow guests let us share with the meal they were cooking.

We only spent one night at the Hummingbird Lodge, but it definitely helped recharge our travel batteries after the Guatemala whirlwind.

To Hopkins

The next morning we headed back out to the Hummingbird Highway and waited for the next southbound bus to continue our journey to Hopkins. We were unclear of the schedule so it felt like we waited a while, but a bus eventually came.

We got off the bus in the town of Dangriga because we knew we needed to transfer to a separate bus to the smaller town of Hopkins, since it is not on the main highway. However, we quickly realized that we had missed the morning bus from Dangriga to Hopkins, and the next one would not be coming until much later. A taxi driver offered to drive us there, but we declined while we thought about our options.

After heading into town briefly to restock on cash, we decided to catch the next southbound bus out of Dangriga. It wouldn’t go to Hopkins, but it would drop us off at the turnoff to to the town. And we had read that plenty of people hitchhiked from there, so again we would take a leap of faith.

As it turned out, there were a few locals who were also doing the same thing, so we didn’t feel like we were doing something too outlandish. It was interesting to try and figure out the etiquette in who took the limited spots in cars that stopped to offer a ride!

Unfortunately, the number of cars that did stop was pretty low. Even the locals said that it was taking abnormally long to find a ride. Eventually we did get a ride in a van that was passing by. It turned out that the occupants of vehicles were on a mission trip from the Dallas area of all places!

We got the van to drop us off at our hostel in Hopkins, and then the next phase of the trip began…

24 Hours in Guatemala

When we’re writing these blogs, we hope to pass along our stories in part that they may help others in the future with their travels. Most of the time we hope our decisions provide examples of what one should do… but this will be more of an example of what not to do. Seeing Tikal was great… but seeing it in 2 hours is not really recommended.

Decision Time

As we were planning our time in San Ignacio, one of the selling points was the fact that Tikal, one of the most impressive Mayan ruins, was located just across the border in Guatemala. Della had been there previously and really wanted to share it with Eric. Tour companies offered day trips there, but we decided it would be cheaper and more flexible to use public transportation to get there.

Our original plan had been to get to the Tikal area in one day, do Tikal, and then head back the next. However, as our time in San Ignacio wound down, we began to question if we should do it differently. We spent one less day in San Ignacio than we originally planned, so we could spend two nights in Guatemala. On the other hand, we were starting to feel a little bit jaded by Mayan ruins, since we had seen so many in San Ignacio already. So maybe we should just not go at all?

We dawdled a bit in the morning as we tried to decide between the two options. In the end, Eric decided that he didn’t want to miss seeing Tikal so we decided to do the two-night option. We bid farewell to San Ignacio and headed west.

Into Guatemala

There are a few different options for getting to Guatemala from San Ignacio. The main public bus only runs as far as Benque, a town which is still 2 miles from the border (so you would have to take a cab once you got there). The other option is to take a cab from San Ignacio directly to the border. We were able to negotiate a reasonable fare, so we chose the latter option.

At the border, we made a decision which was the main contributor to our later travel mistakes. At the border there are many money changers who would convert Belizean dollars to Guatemalan quetzales. We hadn’t really thought about how much to convert, so we tried to quickly calculate how much we thought we would need for two nights in Guatemala plus Tikal entrance. The money changer was helpful in telling us how much things would cost, plus Della felt that Guatemala was very cheap based on her previous visit, so we felt pretty comfortable with the amount we exchanged…

Quetzales Left: 700

We then crossed out of Belize and into Guatemala on foot. On the Guatemala side we found the building for people coming in (not immediately obvious), paid a fee, and got our passports stamped.

Quetzales Left: 660

As soon as we were done, we were asked by a cab driver where we were headed. We told him El Remate, a small town that is on the way to Tikal. He wanted to drive us all the way there, but we declined since our plan was to take a cheap colectivo (shared minibus). Eventually we agreed that we would pay him to drive us to the place where the colectivo picked up. There was still some confusion at the end because he thought we agreed to 10 Qs per person, but we thought 10 total. As we pulled up, it appeared a colectivo was about to leave, so we rushed out of the taxi and only gave him 10. This left a sour taste in our mouth though.

Quetzales Left: 650

The colectivo conductor threw our bags on top and we piled in. Riding a colectivo is quite the experience! The vehicle is about the size of a normal passenger van, and they cram as many people as possible in them for each trip. We were some of the last ones on, so we had to ride on a tiny bench facing backwards, knee to knee with another row of seats. We got to dust off our Spanish skills to communicate with the conductor about the cost (English is not very widely spoken in Guatemala – quite a shift from Belize). The cost was 30 Qs per person, which was more than we had budgeted. We wondered if we were getting a tourist upcharge but there was no easy way to tell.

Quetzales Left: 590

The colectivo did not go all the way to El Remate, so we had to ask to be let off at a highway junction called Ixlu (also called El Cruce). We then hiked a mile or so along the side of the road into town. We then had an unpleasant surprise when we discovered that the cheap hostel listed in Lonely Planet was closed. So we continued on to the next listing we liked in the book, Hostel Hermano Pedro. We decided to get a room there, because the one we were shown was nice and spacious. We probably should have tried to negotiate a lower deal, since we seemed to be the only ones there, but the desk clerk didn’t speak English so we didn’t try.

Quetzales Left: 490

At this point, it was only about noon. We talked it over and decided that it didn’t seem like much was going on in El Remate, so we decided to try and go to Tikal after all. This would mean switching back to our original one night plan, but it seemed like it would be a waste of an afternoon not to go.

Plus, we were starting to worry about money. We knew that the entrance fee to Tikal was 150 Qs per person, so that would leave us with 190. Then, we needed to reserve 30 Qs per person for the colectivo back to Belize – so 90 Qs left for transportation to and from Tikal plus dinner that night. Also, the only ATM in town was broken. Everything in Guatemala so far had been more expensive than Della remembered, so we didn’t have much optimism about being able to survive on such a low amount. And we knew we didn’t have enough for another night’s worth of lodging, so our best thought at the time was to go ahead and go to Tikal.

An Afternoon in Tikal

We headed out to the main road in El Remate to catch a colectivo to Tikal. We thought they ran fairly regularly, but a local expat did come by and warn us that they ran less frequently in the afternoon. We waited… and waited… and waited,… and just when we were about to give up we see the colectivo coming up the road. We decide to take it. It is also 30 Qs per person, but only crowded instead of ridiculously crowded.

Quetzales Left: 430

Unfortunately, the colectivo took a long time to travel the distance to Tikal. Since these are shared buses, they stop whenever anyone wants to get on or off. This one made a lot of stops, including two where we had to spend about 5 minutes waiting for bags and bags of dry goods to be unloaded for the passenger getting off. We didn’t get to the park until almost 2:15. We knew the park stayed open until 6, so while not ideal, we still had some time to explore. But… the conductor told us to be back by “cuatro y media”. Once the translation hit us, we realized we only had two hours to explore Tikal! But, at this point we didn’t have any choice. We paid the entrance fee and started race walking into the park.

Quetzales Left: 130

We made it to the Gran Plaza, took a few seconds to catch our breath and admire the tall ruins surrounding the courtyards, and then dashed off on a loop of what seemed to allow us to see the highlights. We walked at a brisk pace past the many impressive ruins, pausing only briefly to read something about them. Certainly not enough time for any sort of reflection, although at the same time we had just seen a bunch of other Mayan ruins so we could somewhat justify a quick glance.

One big difference between Tikal and the ruins we saw in Guatemala is that you are not allowed to climb to the top of most of the ruins in Tikal. The one exception is Templo IV, which has a steep wooden staircase going up the side. We took this up and finally paused for a moment. The shade and breeze from the top of the 210-foot tall structure were a welcome relief, especially since we were getting pretty worn out from walking so fast in the summer afternoon heat. The view from the top is pretty neat because you can see the tops of the other tall temples just barely sticking out of the thick jungle. When we were there, we could see and hear a thunderstorm in the distance as well. That plus the grunts of the howler monkeys made for a fun aural experience.

We eventually regained some stamina and headed back down. We completed the loop back to the Gran Plaza and did a little exploring there.

We made it back to the colectivo pickup point with 15 minutes to spare. The ride back to El Remate also cost 30 Qs per person.

Quetzales Left: 70

Food, Food Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Eat

Back in El Remate with only 70 Qs left, and knowing we needed 60 to get back to Belize, we were at a loss for what exactly to do about dinner. We decided to walk around and see if we could find a place that would accept a credit card. We walked up and down a few times trying to find the places listed in Lonely Planet, and we struck out at multiple – no credit card machine or closed due to the low season. We thought we had found one place but their machine was broken!

We almost lost hope, but then Eric remembered on the walk into town there was a fancy resort, so we decided to take a long walk down there as one last hope. As it turned out, this was our saving grace. They would take a credit card for dinner, but we decided it was an even better deal to use their money changing service to change some US dollars into quetzales. Even though their restaurant didn’t look to be the cheapest option in town, we were so worn out/relieved that we just decided to eat there anyway. We had a Gallo beer and some decent food and watched the sun set over the lake.


The next morning, with fresh quetzales in our pocket, we left El Remate and walked back down to Ixlu. A colectivo came by almost immediately. We hopped on and rode back to the border. At this point we actually had a few extra quetzales left, so we bought some snacks and then changed the rest with a moneychanger on the Guatemala side. We got our passports stamped and headed back over the border, just about 24 hours after we had done the reverse.


We really regret that in the end, we only were able to spend two hours in Tikal. Such a rich site deserves to have much more time devoted to it. Reflecting back on the experience, we can say

  • We should have given more thought to how much money we got in the first money exchange. It was bad to assume that Guatemala was going to be so cheap. Plus, it was bad to try and cut it so close with what we did get. A buffer is always better.
  • We should have thought more about the decision to go to El Remate in the low season. The cheap hostel being closed affected our budget. Plus maybe in the high season the ATM would have been functional, or there would have been fellow travelers to provide some advice. We still enjoyed El Remate as a base to visit Tikal, but we should have budgeted more money to cover these incidentals.
  • Sometimes it might make sense to pay attention to when everyone else is going someplace. We had heard that more people visited Tikal in the morning, but we figured it would be better to go when it was less crowded. But, if we had stuck with the plan to go in the morning, there would have been more transportation options,and it would have been more pleasant.
  • It’s not good to let panic drive your decisions. When we started to get worried about money, we charged ahead with plans to go to Tikal instead of sitting back and really working through our options. Perhaps if we had not tried to immediately go to Tikal, we would have remembered sooner about the fancy resort where we eventually changed money.
  • Fast travel is not necessarily the best travel. We got to “see” what we wanted to see, but it wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as the rest of the stops on our trip.

San Ignacio Overview

We will try to give an overview of the cities that we stay in on our travels. Our first stay in Belize was in San Ignacio. It is probably the best place to stay in the Cayo District of Belize (where the majority of the Mayan ruins of Belize are).

Where we slept: Hi-Et Guesthouse. We choose to spent all 6 nights of our stay in San Ignacio here. We enjoyed a very small double room with a shared bathroom for BZ$ 25/night. Our room had a small balcony overlooking the town which we loved and ate breakfast on every morning. Hi-Et is not a hostel, so we did not have use of any common area, though there was a shared refrigerator. We were there in low season so we did not have many people staying with us. It was quiet and comfortable.

Favorite Place to Eat: Our favorite place was a small Belizean place right across the street from the Hi-Et Guesthouse: Cenaida’s. We returned here twice because of the good, affordable Belizean food and the friendly service. It was never too crowded and did not feel as touristy as some of the restaurants/bars on the main drag.

Things to Do: (Note that these are in the order that we did them, not ranked in any way!)

  • Cahal Pech (Our Mayan Ruin #1): This ruin is within easy walking distance from the center of San Ignacio. We walked south of town up some rather large hills. We did need to ask for directions a couple of times. Cahal Pech is the oldest ruin in Belize and looked a bit different than several of the others we visited. It was generally smaller and more covered by jungle.
  • Branch Mouth Swimming Hole: We heard about this from our Lonely Planet guidebook. It touted it as a beautiful swimming hole at the confluence of the Mopan and Macal Rivers, just outside of town. The walk was definitely longer and we expected, and the swimming hole a little less nice. But, the great benefit was that we felt like we were completely outside the tourist zone of San Ignacio. We walked for a long way down a less used dirt road beside large plots of farm land. When we reached the confluence, it was definitely nice to take a quick dip in the river. We were the only ones there! There was also a hanging rope bridge across the Mopan. We enjoyed walking over and briefly exploring the other side. There would be a lot of cool stuff to see on that side, though we did not feel like we had the time to explore too much more.
  • Saturday Market: We enjoyed wandering through the market on Saturday morning.  There were many stalls selling local foods and crafts. We enjoyed some freshly made empanadas and burritos. There is nothing quite like watching them make the tortillas right in front of you. Yum! We also really enjoyed buying some fresh cheese from a Mennonite. There are many Mennonites in Belize, but it is always a surprise to see them. They definitely stand out, often being tall, blond, blue-eyed, and speaking low German. They also drive horse-drawn buggies. It definitely reminded us of being in Amish country a little bit.
  • Xunatunich. See Post.
  • Music in Town Square: There were several nights were we experienced free music in the town square. There was multiple performances by local groups which we quite enjoyed.
  • ATM Tour. See Post.
  • Caracol Tours. See Post.
  • Tikal Tours. See Post.

Overall, we really enjoyed San Ignacio. It is a great place to stay to really get a feel of the Belizean Mayan ruins. We definitely recommend it!