What’s Belize Like?

What's Belize like?
What’s Belize like? Well, you have some great caves and water sports, but mediocre beaches and food.

If you’ve ever wondered "What’s Belize Like?", the latest entry in my "What’s it Like" series has the answer.

Belize in a Word: Narrow

What's Belize like?
A misty day at the Gaia Riverlodge.

OK, what do I mean by "narrow?" Well, it means that Belize has a narrow range of appeal. If you’re going there for food or beaches, prepare to be disappointed. I found neither to be memorable. Let me correct that – the beaches were memorable for being strewn with flotsam. Resorts hire people to keep them looking nice.

What's Belize like?
Belize looks great from the air.

On the other hand, if you are a caver (please don’t say "spelunker"), snorkeler or SCUBA diver … Belize is heaven. I absolutely loved the Aktun Tunichil Muknal cave tour more than I can tell you. If I had more time, I would’ve interrogated locals for non-tour, do-it-myself cave experiences. Belize is practically all limestone, and has more miles of caves than anyone can properly track. And for the water people, Ambergris Caye, Belize is a perfect base to get you out for snorkel or SCUBA adventures where you’ll see baracuda, octopi, rays and much more.

What's Belize Like?
The ATM cave is full of all sorts of great surprises.

You’ll note that I went in December. The weather was nice but warm. Though the town of Hopkins was just downright hot, even in December. This is coming from a guy who has lived in Arizona for decades, so pay attention. I mean it.

Don’t bother with Belize City. It’s horrible. Oh, and everybody there wants to sell you souvenirs. They can’t compare to the Red Dzao or Black Hmong in Vietnam when it comes to high-pressure sales … but they make up for it in volume.

Things People Said to Me
"Hey, big guy! Let me braid your hair!"

What's Belize Like?
A view from Caracol.

Other Cool Stuff Worth Noting
I absolutely love the Gaia Riverlodge outside of San Ignacio. It’s a hydroelectric lodge powered by a nearby river. There were no TVs or even hairdryers in the thatched-roof huts. Since my visit, it’s gone all-inclusive and changed names. But the location remains the same, and it’s a serene, quiet place that’s an excellent base for hikes and cycling. I also had a great time visiting the Caracol ruins. Don’t be surprised if you wind up with an army escort to visit the ruins – or if you here gunfire from Guatemalan bandits clashing with the army.

When I Went: December 2007
Duration: 10 Days
Areas Visited: Caye Ambergris, San Ignacio, Hopkins, Belize City

Disclaimer
Sure, I was only there 10 days. I’m not expert on Belize. But I think you’ll get enough out of this to make some better-informed choices if you’re going to Belize.

In Honor of April Fool’s Day – SCUBA Mythbusting

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Don’t let myths about SCUBA deprive you of the chance to swim with a whale shark. (Image courtesy of PADI)

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I don’t go much for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m a Halloween sort of guy -- and I dig April Fool’s Day. I have a friend whose mother can barely speak to me without snarling nearly 10 years after a prank I helped pull on her (let’s say it involves my best police sergeant phone voice and a story about him misbehaving in some very bad ways).

You can imagine that I spend most of my April Fool’s time trying to -- well, fool people. But this time, I’m on the side of good: I’m going to help my friends at the Professional Association of Diving Instructors set the record straight about some misconceptions about SCUBA diving. Get ready for some surprises! My commentary on PADI’s info is in italics.

You know what's not a myth about SCUBA diving? That it's really pretty darn cool. (Photo courtesy of PADI)
You know what’s not a myth about SCUBA diving? That it’s really pretty darn cool. (Photo courtesy of PADI)

MYTH #1: I don’t live near the ocean, so I can’t dive.

Nope! With more than 6,100 PADI dive centers around the world, you can literally begin your diver’s certification anywhere. Diving courses can be found at your local sports and recreational center, or in less traditional locations like exotic hot springs and lakes. Visit PADI.com to locate the nearest dive center.

And be sure to check my Yahoo! story about beginner dive sites. It has some non-ocean locations like quarries and rivers.

MYTH #2: If I dive, I’ll likely run into a shark or other dangerous underwater creature!

Scuba Diving in depths of the ocean
Scuba Diving in depths of the ocean (Photo credit: Grand Velas Riviera Maya

Maybe you’ve been watching too much Shark Week. In reality, the odds of having a deadly shark encounter is just 1 in 251,800,000, you’re actually 12 times more likely to be killed by a vending machine than shark! Many underwater animals that seem intimidating, such as the school bus-sized whale shark, are virtually harmless and enjoy human interaction.

Those are some low odds. People tend to worry too much – think of all those “afraid to fly” people you know, and how willing they are to drive at 85 mph in a school zone while texting and making themselves a cappuccino with their portable espresso machine. Makes fretting about SCUBA diving seem a bit silly, no? And watch out next time you go for a bottle of soda in the break room!

MYTH #3: Women with breast implants can’t scuba dive.

Never fear! If you’re worried that increased underwater pressure will cause damage to silicone- or saline-filled implants, you have nothing to worry about. A recent study found that diving caused an insignificant increase in bubbles ― nothing that will damage the implant or surround tissue.

Well, I guess that means most of the female population of the north half of my home city of Scottsdale is good to go. Um, what about collagen? (NOTE: PADI supplied the images for this story – none of which included breast implants.)

MYTH #4: Snorkeling is just as good as scuba diving.

Why stay on the surface when you can experience a whole new underwater world? Fully immersing yourself in scuba diving allows you to experience the wonder of breathing underwater, and explore amazing destinations such as reefs, underwater caves, shipwrecks, airplanes and more!

And let me say more about SCUBA versus snorkeling: Last time I snorkeled, I got bounced around in Belize by all the surface waves. Meanwhile, I watched as – 20 feet below me – SCUBA divers glided around unaffected. Soon, I was bobbing and barfing and getting laughed at while trying to escape a floating mound of my own chunder. So, I ask you: Would you rather be like the SCUBA divers or like me?

 

 

 

 

 

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Transportation Gone Bad: What’s Your Worst Story?

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This crew of Belizean boys is a bit more competent than the guys in charge of my boat from Caye Ambergris to Belize City.

My transportation karma finally ran out. And that’s why I’m adrift a few miles east of Belize City.

We got to Caye Ambergris in a Cessna – probably a 170. Three passengers and a pilot. Just to mix it up, we decided to return via boat.

It turns out the boat’s crew isn’t so clear on that whole "refueling" thing. The engine sputtered out a few moments ago. Cue much confusion in the crew, and a smattering of worry in the passengers.

The delay only costs us an hour or so. We wait for another boat to come get us; we hop into the new boat, and off we go.

Ambergris Caye - Near Basil Jones Cut
Ambergris Caye – Near Basil Jones Cut (Photo credit: cloud2013)

And that’s honestly my worst transportation story. Pretty harmless stuff. It definitely beats other situations I’ve been in for weirdness and novelty: my two-hour delay aboard an Asiana flight to change a pair of flat tires; a five-hour Amtrak journey that stretched into eight; even watching an Icelandic bus driver fix a muddy road with his trusty shovel.

I’m lucky.

I want you to one-up me: Tell me your funniest or worst "getting from Point A to Point B" story. Sorry, I have no prize to offer. But I will give my favorite story all the props it deserves!

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Serenity Now! – Four Places to Find Quiet

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Morning outside the Gaia Riverlodge.

Sometimes, the din has to stop. You need to get away from TVs, traffic and the white noise of people-people-everywhere. But where? A slice of quiet seems harder than ever to find, but I have some ideas.

The Cayo District, Belize
Far from the legless beggars, heat and general unpleasantness of Belize City, you’ll find the Cayo District. People go there for Mayan ruins, limestone caverns – and quiet. There are probably dozens of cool places to stay. Our stay at Five Sisters Lodge – now known as Gaia Riverlodge – was my wife’s work, not mine. Finding the Gaia Riverlodge involves dirt roads – and it’s at least 30 minutes by car away from the small city of San Ignacio.

And what a find – you won’t hear so much as a hair dryer. Gaia Riverlodge gets its power from a hydroelectric dam nearby. The power flickers according to the flow, and there’s nowhere near enough for power-sucking stuff like televisions. Mornings are misty and serene – perfect for a hike or a mountain bike ride. Nights are great for a stroll -- just know that those little sparkles you see reflected in your flashlight are the eyes of thousands of spiders.

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Find serenity in Monteverde – along with herds of curious coatis.

Monteverde, Costa Rica
Getting to Monteverde by road involves pummeling – the road seems like it was paved by having a B-52 carpet-bomb the jungle with a line of bowling balls. Monteverde is your reward. the first thing I noticed was light rain floating down despite the sunshine – locals call the fluffy, vapor-like rain pelo de gato, or cat’s hair.

Yoga retreats are big in Monteverde thanks to the solitude. But you can still find good food everywhere, from Italian staples to the best damn veggie burger I’ve ever had -- served from an unnamed outdoor kitchen by the roadside. Take a hike and see coatis and purple hummingbirds the size of sparrows. And let’s not forget the zip line thrills of the Original Canopy Tour.

Our "room" at Woodlyn Park. We even had the cockpit!
Greenery, blue skies, quiet, cool

Waitomo, New Zealand

The search for cool caving expeditions put Waitomo on our radar. And when I found out about Woodlyn Park, I was sold. No normal hotel, this one: The rooms include suites made from a Bristol freighter plane, railroad cars, a yacht and even Hobbit holes. We booked a room in the airplane, which has a mini-kitchen.

Our caving adventure was amazing, and so was the pastoral quiet. Between the comfy room and the silence, we slept deep. When we wanted a bit of pre-sleep fun, Curly’s Bar (which burned down in November 2012 – thought the website is still up) isn’t far away. Or we could drive up the road to the Thirsty Weta on some quiet streets. Convenience, yes – but you’ll feel far away from it all.

wandering justin myvatn iceland
On the shore of Myvatn at Vogar campground.

Myvatn, Iceland
Solitude is hardly in short supply when you visit Iceland. But certain places are more peaceful than others – just try getting any sleep when a bunch of college kids are singing Joan Osborne songs at the Skaftafell campgrounds! The campsites in Reykjahlid are a different story.

Not only is the area quiet, but the shoreside campground are nice and grassy. Put up your tent, crawl into the sleeping bag, relax -- and you’d swear you’re on a mattress. After a busy day of hiking the Krafla Fissure, Dimmuborgir, Hverir Crater and other crazy places nearby, you’ll be ready for a rest. And if you really want to apply the knockout to a restful night, visit the Myvatn Nature Baths. It’s like the famous Blue Lagoon, minus the price and crowds.

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Cave Adventures are the Highlight of Belize

One of the gruesome relics of the ATM cave's past.

Skeletons, Underground River, Make Belize Caving Trip a Wild Time
The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave in Belize is just about the greatest underground experience an average Joe caver can enjoy. The sights are awesome – and so are the insights in the Mayan culture.
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Belize – The Right Destination for You?

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Exiting the plane old school-style in Belize.

The cool thing about Central America is that just because you’ve seen one of its countries, you haven’t seen them all. It might be natural to assume that Belize would be like Costa Rica, but with more Mayan ruins. It would also be completely wrong.

So is Belize worth visiting? That depends on you, traveling friends, and what you want out of your journey. No matter what, Phillip SW Goldson Airport will be Belize’s first chance to make an impression. This is a Mos Eisley Cantina of an airport – hot, stuffy and far more chaotic than an airport of its Lilliputian proportions should be. Plus points – no jetways! You get to kick it Old School by descending a moving staircase (unfortunately, it’s not attached to a truck like Michael Bluth’s ride in Arrested Development). You’ll also see large commercial aircraft lined up with three-person Cessnas from local airlines. That ups the Indiana Jones factor.

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Five of the Cayo District’s Best Spots – Belize

A rainbow over the forest
A rainbow over the forest

If I had just one place to go in Belize, I’d head straight for the Cayo District. I’d skip the beaches. I’d turn my nose up at the cayes. I’d blow off the cities.

I’d head inland to the limestone maze of the Cayo District … caves, rivers, ruins, pine dscf3369forests and a laid-back vibe are what you’ll get. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss.

1. I already waxed poetic in an earlier post about the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour. This is seriously not to be missed. If you won’t take by word for it, go back and read the earlier post. Now, doesn’t that sound mind-blowing?

A small pyramid overgrown with flora.
A small pyramid overgrown with flora.

2. The town of San Ignacio is a perfect launch pad for the ATM cave trip. There are plenty of restaurants and services, and hotels from bare-bones budget to luxurious. San Ignacio is big enough that you can walk all over the place and get everything from Indonesian food to a pint of the ubiquitous Bilikin stout. It’s also more friendly and genuine – not everyone here is a huckster wanted you to buy souvenirs (I’m looking at you, Caye Ambergris!).

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Descending into the Abode of the Gods – Belize

From my January 2007 trip

And a quick note from Wandering Justin – even after touring the mighty Australian Outback, this day still holds its own as one of my greatest ever days traveling. Do NOT miss this if you go to Belize!

This is one of the best vacation days I’ve ever had. I knew it would be cool, because I enjoy caves in general. It’s hard for me to pass a hole in the ground without strapping a light to my noggin and diving in.

But the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, known as the ATM Cave, would surpass all my other underground adventures. I’ve been in bigger, more scenic caves before. But I’ve never been in one that contained an underground river and the most incredibly graphic, gruesome vestiges of the Mayan culture. Nor one that made just getting there such an adventure.

The day started at the Maya Walk Tours headquarters in San Ignacio. The place was jammed with people milling around, getting their gear, meeting their guides, etc. It was a scene of total chaos. Finally, they tossed us all in an Isuzu Trooper and some weird Toyota I’d never seen in the states before (though the model is ubiquitous in Belize). We bounced along for close to an hour, first on decent paved roads and then into jungle roads that got more rutted, slimy and muddy as we drove. Meanwhile, there was a steady drizzle falling.

Our driver/guide, another guy named Emile, was telling scatological stories about people freaking out/needing to pee/getting the runs in the cave. One guy, who he claimed was a famous American football player, even filled his shorts up!

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The dirt on Hopkins, Belize

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Hopkins, Belize
A stretch of beach near the main part of Hopkins.

Hopkins, Belize, is the place to get away from Starbucks. Traffic. Commercialism. Even ATMs.

Hopkins, Belize, is a town of about 1,000 people. And I’m serious about the ATM thing. Be sure you get some cash before you show up to Hopkins.

Hopkins, Belize
A cabin at Jungle Jeanie’s

For reasonably priced accommodations, check out Jungle Jeanie’s by the Sea. Jungle Jeanie is the wife half of the husband-and-wife ownership team. They are friendly and helpful, and have a pair of big dogs that roam on patrol. Xena, the German shepherd, is especially active and entertaining, especially when Jeanie tries to get her to surf. They serve  meals there, and you can also hoof it into town to try some local places. There’s also a pricier place or two as you walk south along the road. Many of the resorts even have semi-private bits of beach that they meticulously comb of former flotsam.

Hopkins, Belize
Charlie might not surf, but Xena does!

There’s not much to do in Hopkins, Belize. It can be hot as hell, even in January. There’s no nightlife. The beach isn’t even all that nice. But if you want to get away from the noise, the pollution and the nonsense, this is the place to do it. Local residents are friendly, and you’ll hear them speaking the really cool-sounding Garifuna language. It’s super-quiet.

So how do you get here? Chances are, you’re flying into Belize City. The best way to get there is to grab a Maya Air or Tropic Air flight

Hopkins, Belize
The afternoon gets stormy

from Belize City to Dangriga (the view is spectacular). From Dangriga, you can grab a bus to Hopkins, Belize. It’ll take about 30 minutes, though you might have to share some space with a mattress or a load of melons – the bus usually carries cargo, too. There were also some dudes offering boat rides to Hopkins, but they seemed sketchy. Dangriga is also a great place to grab some fresh fruit and a bite to eat.

Hopkins, Belize
The road to Hopkins, Belize.
Flying to Belize City from Dangriga
Flying to Belize City from Dangriga

The Final Australia 2007 Post

Friday, Aug. 31

Seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an F-111 fly a few hundred feet over your head with its afterburners lit. This was part of a crazy celebration called Riverfire. If you ever visit Australia, do yourself a favor: Be in Brisbane for Riverfire. The video is lengthy, but it gives you a great idea of the fireworks display, and the jets that open and close it. Awesome!

We woke up early and took a stroll around the downtown area. This is a very outdoorsy city, lots of people running and cycling. After some breakfast, we picked a direction and walked. We also noticed that everybody was getting all aflutter about Riverfire. People were already lining the riverbanks to grab primo spots for the evening’s festivities. Sarah and I aren’t much for parades and shindigs, so we largely ignored it. We were pretty happy to be proven wrong later, but more on that toward the end.

Our first stop was the excellent Queensland Museum, which is really strong on science and nature. There was just too much cool stuff to see. We spent a few hours easily cruising around in there before heading out for general walking about. There’s a very neighborly feel to Brisbane, with a lot of non-chain store types of places. This particular section of Brizzy is like a big college town, even though Queensland University is down the river. Speaking of QU, we thought it would be fun to check out the campus.

We hopped on the CityCat, a huge, fast-moving catamaran, to scope out the river banks and get us a lift to the university. QU is actually a bit dumpy and not surrounded by as much funky cool stuff as, say the University of Washington in Seattle (talk about the epitome of a perfectly awesome university). We were pretty amazed by the sports facilities and the very athletic-oriented vibe, though. We returned to our area via the CityCat and headed to the area near our hotel. We strolled around the Queen Street Mall, which is a termite mound of activity at any hour.

We also stopped at The Brewhouse, which certainly doesn’t swing in the same weight class as Sydney’s Redoak. At that point, it was about time for us to look up Sarah’s former roommate, who happened to be living in Brizzy with her new dude Michael, who is in the Ozzy army. We were soon on their 23rd floor flat, which was right across from out hotel. This provided a great viewing point for Riverfire, plus it gave us a great chance to hang out with a bunch of Ozzies in their natural habitat. They were a very fun bunch, very lively and welcoming. The occasion, aside from Riverfire,was Michael’s birthday. Those cats sure enjoyed their karaoke! Well, we had a full last day. Time to pack! Boo, as Sarah would say.

Saturday, Sept. 1

Man, I can’t make any of this travel sound cool anymore. It’s depressing packing and heading for the airport. Especially when the lines are long and slow.

But still, what a great vacation. You don’t really need to know more than that, do you?

Sunday, Sept. 2

Back home, in Arizona. Tired, time sense jacked up. But this feeling is worth it, and more. Quit saying you want to go to Australia someday. Just go do it.

Well, that wraps it up! Thanks for reading … I hope you enjoyed reading as much I as I did writing. So what’s next here at Wandering Justin’s blog? Well, plans for New Zealand 2009 are well in the works – Sarah and I are filling up notebooks and plotting our course on a dry-erase board. We’ll share what we learn as we book hotels and activities, and pick up the necessary gear.

In the meantime, I’ll do a little time travel with some far shorter accounts of our adventures in Vancouver, Belize and Costa Rica. I might even go REALLY far back in time to my famous aerobatic journey in a WWII-era AT-6 Texan. So stick around – there’s more fun to come!