Belize/Guatemala Trip Overview

In the end, our Summer 2013 trip to Belize and Guatemala was a success. As we anticipated, Belize was a relatively easy country to travel in: they speak English, prices are low and there is a good tourist infrastructure. We also enjoyed the ability to experience the Mayan ruins and the ocean adventures within such a short distance.

Budget

The Belizean dollar is pegged to the US dollar at an exact rate of 2 to 1, so it was pretty easy to calculate how much we spent. Guatemala was a little bit tougher – for purposes of estimation we are using the rate of 7 quetzales to 1 US dollar. The numbers below are rounded up to reflect the uncertainty.

  • Lodging: $240
  • Transportation: $390
  • Food and Drink: $585
  • Activities: $395
  • Border Fees: $45

Our total for the 15 days was $1655, so our per-day average was $110. A little higher than we would have liked, but we learned some lessons about how to cut costs that could help in the future.

Some other observations from the budget:

    • The transportation costs include plane flights. You may not think that’s possible, but it is! We used American Airlines miles for our flights. We got these miles by signing up for the American Airlines credit card and getting the nice sign up bonus. We will talk more about these strategies in later posts.
    • Buying a bottle of rum in the store was definitely cheaper than getting drinks out at a bar. We will try to do this more often in the future. We also could have saved money by eating out at restaurants less and cooking for ourselves more.
    • The most expensive activity was definitely the ATM cave tour. This was definitely worth it though!

Our cheapest days were the days in Caye Caulker where we did nothing but hang out by the beach. Goes to show you that sometimes it’s good to just do nothing for a day to recharge your spirits and your wallet.

Caye Caulker Overview

When we finally headed to the Cayes of Belize we chose Caye Caulker from the many options.

Where We Slept

Daisy’s Guest House.Our traveling companions from Caracol had been to Caye Caulker before us and had recommended Daisy’s. The rooms were spacious with two beds, a ceiling fan, and bathrooms down the hall. It reminded us of a dorm room at college as all the rooms were attached to one long hall. We were quite lucky because we ended up having the entire guest house to ourselves for one of the nights, which we enjoyed quite a bit. We spend time lounging in the hallway because it was a bit cooler and the WiFi worked better.

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Relaxing in the hall on a rainy evening

Daisy’s Guest House

Favorite Place to Eat

Barrier Reef Sports Bar. We realize this is a strange choice in an island known for seafood (during LobsterFest for that matter!) But, we did enjoy their trivia night. Unfortunately, the food is only OK. However, what we really enjoyed was finding all sorts of Texas and Rice University (!!) paraphernalia adorning most of the walls. There was even a picture of the 2012 Rice Women’s Soccer team in the bathroom. We also enjoyed chatting with the owner who was an expat from Houston.

Things To Do

Swimming at the Split

Caye Caulker did not really have a lot of options for truly public beach. The best place to go to lay in the sun, drink cocktails, and swim in the ocean was at the northern end of town. We heard it was called the split because several years back a hurricane came through and tore through the island splitting it in two. The channel that runs through is clean, clear, and offers some mediocre snorkeling. It’s not really a beach, and tourists and local alike did more relaxing along the crumbling sea wall which was not very comfortable. However, the water was warm and welcoming. Our time in Caye Caulker was plagued by mosquitoes (they were out in mass EVERYWHERE! At one point, Della got 7 mosquito bites in about 4 minutes on an early morning walk down the hall to the bathroom of the guesthouse!) so we did not enjoy laying out too much. There was a neat bar right on the edge of the split that had tables IN the water. We did spend some time drinking beers and completely submerging ourselves in the shallow water of the bar.

Go  Snorkeling

We took a snorkeling trip out of Caye Caulker and were in agreement that it was the best snorkeling we had ever done!

Relax

Caye Caulker was an easy town to be in with lots of shops, restaurants, places to stay, and street food/vendors. We enjoyed seaside bars, karaoke bars, and lots walking around town.

Lobster Fest

Obviously, Lobster Fest doesn’t occur year round. But if you have a chance to experience it, you definitely should!

Summary

We chose Caye Caulker above some of the other Cayes because it was supposed to be quiet, relaxing, and a little less touristy. Because we arrived during Lobster Fest and came from the small quiet town of Hopkins, we didn’t find Caye Caulker as quiet as we expected. It was definitely a relaxing place to spend a couple of days, though as we already mentioned, the mosquitos were almost unbearable which severely restricted how much time we spent outside. In addition, it rained a fair amount of the time that we there, so we were sometimes happy just to spend time in our guesthouse and read or check email. Overall, we got a little bored in the three days that we spent there. We were lucky that we had met and traveled with our travel friends from Hopkins. Getting the chance to hangout with and get to know them better was definitely a plus during our time in Caye Caulker. The highlight of the time was definitely the snorkel trip, which we loved! (although, it would have been better if we had been more careful with sunscreen!)

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Snorkeling in Caye Caulker

One of the things that Belize is known for is being a premiere destination for diving. We don’t dive, but we do like to snorkel, so we figured we had to try it out while we were in Caye Caulker. Spoiler alert: it was awesome!

Our traveling partners from the Caracol journey had been to Caye Caulker a week earlier and had recommended a variety of places to us. For snorkeling, they gave a big recommendation for Blackhawk sailing tours. We decided it looked good to us as well, mainly because it seemed like a smaller, more personal experience than going with one of the big companies.

We set up the snorkel trip a couple of days in advance with captain Steve. We were also able to get our friends from Hopkins to come along, and they also invited along four people from their hostel. No one else had signed up for the day so we would have the boat to ourselves.

The day of the tour it had rained early, so we worried that the tour might be cancelled, but Steve said we could still go out.Steve fitted us with snorkels and fins and we went out to the boat, named the Seahawk.

Our crew for the day was Captain Steve and his helper / snorkel guide Charlie. The boat had a sail, but the conditions dictated that to get out to our snorkel destinations we had to use the motor instead.

Stop 1: Manatee Viewing

The Caye Caulker area is known for having a small number of manatees in some areas of the reef. It is hit-or-miss on whether they will be there on any given day, but Steve had heard that they were there on this day so our first stop was to where one was supposedly hanging out. When we got there, Charlie hurried us into the water because he could see the big tour on its way. We rushed out to the spot and saw the manatee! This was especially exciting for Della because she had written a big report on manatees in grade school. We weren’t supposed to get too close, so we kept our distance. But then the manatee swam towards us! We had to back up quickly. We then left the area and got back on the boat.

Stop 2: Shark Ray Alley

We then travelled along the reef to our next stop, called Shark Ray Alley. This was a place that local fisherman had used to clean their daily catch, and as a result nurse sharks and rays had known to congregate there. They get so excited when they hear a boat coming that they swim right up to it. Charlie just had us jump right in with them, which was a little scary! Luckily, they are not aggressive towards humans. We spent some time swimming among the sharks, some big rays, and a lot of fish.

Stop 3: Conch Shell Graveyard

The next stop was only a short distance away. Here there were a ton of empty conch shells that fisherman had discarded. The highlight of this stop was getting to swim with a giant sea turtle! After this stop, we had a provided lunch on our way to the next stop.

Stop 4: Hol Chan Marine Reserve

The final stop was in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a part of the reef where the wildlife is protected. Our snorkeling stop was near the “Cut,” a channel that goes through the reef. The wildlife is especially vibrant here. You do have to be a little careful because there is a strong current coming through the cut, so we stuck together with Charlie. We saw a lot of different fish and even some more turtles. Some of the fish would even get close enough to touch!

After we were done snorkeling, Captain Steve and Charlie put up the sail and we sailed all the way back to Caye Caulker. They also put on some reggae music and passed around some rum punch. It was a very relaxing end to the day.

The only negative of the trip for us was that the cloudier conditions early in the day resulted in us not putting on much sunscreen. Bad idea! Eric wore a shirt so his main issue was the backs of his legs, but Della had a bad back burn herself.

Looking back on the trip,  we thought was perhaps the best snorkeling trip we had done. It certainly was the widest variety of marine life that we have ever seen snorkeling. Plus, the water was a pleasant temperature, the currents weren’t too bad, and the boat ride itself was not too long or bumpy. Highly recommended!

LobsterFest!

From Hopkins to Caye Caulker via Belize City

We decided to leave Hopkins by taxi. At this point, we had begun to travel with the couple that went with us on our crazy day in Placencia. We figured that with four people, the taxi expense would not be too bad. Plus, it might be hard to catch a hitch all the way out to the main road. We were leaving on a Sunday, which unfortunately meant that the bus to Dangriga straight out of Hopkins was not running at all. We could have waited until Monday, but we knew that LobsterFest was big in Caye Caulker and it would still be going on through the weekend. We really wanted to make it! We had some sketchy information that the bus on the main road would pass by the Hopkins turn off at about 7 am. So, we woke up early and grabbed our taxi. The driver wanted to take us all the way to Dangriga, but we decided to risk it and see if the bus came. We were shocked when the bus showed up… exactly on time!! It was an easy bus ride that stopped in both Dangriga and Belmopan all the way to Belize City. We arrived at 10:30 am and got a cab to the water taxi terminal headed for Caye Caulker (~45 min boat ride).

LobsterFest!

We are so glad that we made it to Caye Caulker for LobsterFest. It was such a fun day. One whole end of the island was set up with stalls of trinkets or food… soooo much lobster! We wandered through the activities enjoying music, beer, and ice cream.

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There was also an entertainment tent set up with music and some dancing. We enjoyed several silly songs by a man who called himself the “Donkey Man.” But, then it really got good! They did several silly games.

Limbo!  Della played but didn't win.

Limbo! Della played but didn’t win.

A weird game involving swinging a banana between your legs to hit a ball into a hula hoop.

A weird game involving swinging a banana between your legs to hit a mango to roll it into a hula hoop.

Tug of War!

Tug of War!

Largest Lobster!  Wow! That's a lobster!

Largest Lobster! Wow! That’s a lobster!

Climbing a greased pole. There was a bag of money on the top. Four teams tried over and over again, falling increasingly far and scaring the crap out of us. No one made it in the end. =(

Climbing a greased pole. There was a bag of money on the top. Four teams tried over and over again, falling increasingly far and scaring the crap out of us. No one made it in the end. =(

It was a great day! IMG_8390

Hopkins Overview

The second major town we stayed in on our Belize trip was the town of Hopkins. We had read in the Lonely Planet that this small fishing village was a good place to chill out at the beach and to experience the unique Garifuna culture.

Where We Slept

The Funky Dodo.This is the main hostel in town and seemed like a good place for the cost. We paid BZ $38/night for a private room (shared bathroom). The setup felt appropriate for the beach location: instead of a rooms in one big building, the different rooms were in their own small buildings that are connected with a wooden boardwalk over sand. The common areas are basically just tables scattered around the sandy courtyard. There are some nice hammocks as well, although we got seriously eaten by mosquitoes when we tried to use them. (This was common throughout Hopkins – we seem to have hit the high mosquito season). There is also a bar in the hostel with reasonably-priced drinks that we went to a couple of times. The hostel isn’t on the beach like some other properties, but it is a quick walk there. The shared bathrooms are accessed via the boardwalks as well, so they felt a bit rustic. Same with the communal kitchen, which is located outdoors.

Favorite Place to Eat

Driftwood Beach Bar & Pizza Shack. After our stressful 24 Hours in Guatemala and our adventures hitchhiking into Hopkins, we were ready to relax for a while. On our first evening in Hopkins, we made our way through town and eventually found our way to the Driftwood. The pizza is a little on the pricey side, but it is very good. Since it was the low season, we were the only patrons for dinner that night, so we got to take the best beach chairs and sit by the ocean, enjoying the nice cool sea breeze (good for keeping the mosquitoes away!) and some rum cocktails while the sun set. It was a perfect introduction to Hopkins. We enjoyed the vibe so much that we came back two more times.

Things to Do

Go to the Beach

Hopkins is a beach town, and has a reputation for being one of the better white sandy beaches in Belize. Unfortunately, we can’t really confirm this reputation. There had been a storm the previous week, and most of the beach was covered in driftwood and some trash. A few places that had been cleaned up were nice, but this wasn’t the case for most of the beach. We spent one day exploring the beach – first walking quite a ways south to some resort areas. We felt out of place there, so we headed all the way back and then up in the opposite direction to the Driftwood, which had cleaned up its stretch of beach. We spent the rest of the day lounging in beach chairs, reading, and exploring the water.

Garifuna Culture

Only spending two and a half days here didn’t really give us enough time to learn too much about this culture that is quite different that we had experienced in San Ignacio. If we had more time, we would have enjoyed sampling a few more local delicacies or learning more about the Garifuna drumming. Still, we enjoyed the friendly nature of the people, who gave us plenty of greetings on the street. It was also fun to buy some homemade snacks from a group of kids who rode around selling them from their bikes.

Placencia

A nice beach town not too far away. Just think carefully about your transportation options

Summary

Hopkins provided a nice opportunity to relax on the beach and get away from the hustle and bustle of the first week of our trip. In the end, there wasn’t as much to do there as we had hoped, but sometimes it is nice to just relax!

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.”

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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

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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…