Belize Mainland

I didn’t expect much from the Belize mainland but we liked it so much we decided to spend an extra day. First I wandered around a bit near the ferry dock in Belize City and took some pics of the cool old colonial mansions. Then I went to the Belize Museum – which is small but had a really well-done heart-wrenching exhibit on the slave trade.

Quarters on the slave ships – unimaginably horrible conditions. 1/3 of the captives died on the voyage

This exhibit prompted me to read more about the slave trade in the Caribbean. Which led me eventually to read up more on Columbus and the history of the region. The first quote below is from Columbus’ first voyage. Second quote is from the second voyage.

Reading further – seems one way the Spanish justified these brutal acts is they considered any attack by Indians along the Caribbean islands, South American, Central American, and Gulf Coasts as coming from all Indians. So if some other explorer got shot up with poison darts in the Yucatan, than meant all natives were hostile and they could enslave whoever they want. Apparently the final call to enslave the natives came down from Queen Isabel, who initially resisted – but then acquiesced when there were some attacks and Spaniards killed in the New World.

The point I take away is there’s always some flimsy justification to retaliate against the “other” group. It’s rarely explicitly sold as “hey let’s be evil”. Also f*** Columbus. It’s long past time to end that sham holiday.

San Ignacio


We decided to base ourselves in San Ignacio – in the west of the country and near the Guatemala border. This meant a long haul to the Lamanai ruins in the north of the country. But we figured it was better than moving around – and Orange Walk in the north seemed kind of gritty. And boy were we glad we made that decision when we saw our AirBnb – aka The Best AirBnb Ever. The pics below are only part of the story. A lovely local caretaker named Ernesto greeted us, and for the rest of the stay bent over backwards to help us and arrange tours. We pretty much decided on the spot to stay an extra night and steal a night from Flores in Guatemala.

The AirBnb came with a private river dock

The next day we checked out the local ruins – Xunantunich – which were smallish but still pretty good sized. And the really cool part was we felt like we had the place almost all to ourselves. I really enjoy ruins when it gets quiet. I like to just find a shady spot and soak it all in.


The small river ferry to get to Xunantunich ruins – Shauna makes a cameo.

I saw this couple later. I should have gotten contact information and sent them this picture. They’d probably love it. Argh – missed connections


This gives you an idea of some of the “roads” that google maps is more than happy to send me down.

That night we at dinner in San Ignacio town at one my favorite places to eat on the whole trip so far Ko-Ox Han nah. They had some kind of Korean – Mexican – Belizean fusion thing going on. But not in the fancy LA sense – in the real “Hey we’re Korean in Belize but Mexican is the dominant cuisine in the region so how do we make this work?” sense. Amazing. The pork tacos were one of the best meals I’ve had on the whole trip. We at there again the next night.

Church in San Ignacio


The next day we took a long ride to the Lamanai ruins tour – which includes a river ride to and from the ruins. The river ride was wonderful, with a naturalist guide who showed us all kinds of plants, reptiles and birds along the way.

(I have some pics from my real camera I need to add – but unfortunately I left my memory card on the Honduras mainland and I’m on Utila Island right now. So check back in a week or so for more Lamanai and river wildlife pics.)

The Lamanai ruins themselves were cool but nothing stood out too much from the other Mayan ruins I’ve seen. The river tour was definitely the highlight.


The boat was a blast

On the way back we had our driver stop at a place where we saw some amazing wood carvings the day before.

And the next day we had to sadly say goodbye to our best AirBnB ever and Ernesto – whom we somehow managed to not get one picture with. AAARGH!

Belize Cayes

Crossing into Belize from the North


I was a little nervous for my first real border crossing – Mexico to Belize. But it couldn’t have been sleepier – and Belizians speaking English made the whole thing even easier. We got through leaving Mexico and entering Belize in about an hour and a half – which I think is about the fastest you can make it across a border crossing. So the reference has now been set.

Upon entering Belize – you immediately know you’re in another country. The architecture changes to a more colorful Caribbean palate. Also we quickly picked up a local station playing Creole reggae – which just sounds cool no matter what they’re saying. I used to live in St. Thomas – way back in my early 20s right out of college. The sights and sounds of Belize made me really nostalgic for that crazy fun time in my life.


This might not be the best example but it gives you an idea – the genre should be called dancehall.

Sugar cane trucks dominated Northern Belize

Unfortunately the speedbumps in Belize are marked differently and not as well as the speedbumps in Mexico. So I hit one pretty hard. The a few seconds later we heard a clink sound on the roof. Which turned out to be the end of one of my cross beams hitting the roof. Luckily I have 4 cross beans and really only need 2. Unluckily my rack is different widths up and down the long side beams, and I don’t have the star tool necessary to adjust the crossbeam widths. So I had to improvise and move them around – but eventually I got everything sorted out – removed a bunch of weight from my top car carrier – and we were back on the road after about 45 minutes.

Busted crossbeam – no bueno (or no good since I’m in Belize)
First new sticker in 2 months!

Luckily due to the border quickness we were still way ahead of schedule to meet our ex-coworker and good friend Hali at the Radisson (where I also parked my car for 5 days). 

New beer Belkin! Which feels like a normal beer until you realize the bottle is really thick and the bottle only holds 9oz. Boo! I kept picking up the bottle thinking there was more beer left, but no it’s just the heavy bottle. Belkin Premium is a real 12oz beer – but tougher to find.

Ambergris Caye


We took the ferry to Ambergris Caye (pronounced like key) and checked into our Air BnB:

Can’t beat the view!

The main town on Ambergris Caye is San Pedro (one of about 10 San Pedros I’ve been in so far on this trip). Turns out to be something of a party town. They have a thing called the chicken drop – which is wildly popular Basically they drop a chicken (which is supposedly sent to an animal sanctuary afterwards – RIGHT!) and people bet one which square the chicken poops in. 

This is right before they told this woman she had to blow into the chicken’s butt to stimulate it to poop. The chicken turned around and gave her a look that was priceless.

We didn’t really get too sucked into this entertainment and decided to move on to a delicious fish dinner. 

It was here, joking with the waiters in English, that I had an epiphany about how much fun and a richer experience it is if you can speak the language well enough to communicate more than just super-basic information. But 

Belize has tons of old colonial-looking buildings that captivate me

The rest of our time on Ambergris Caye was eating, drinking, and snorkeling – which was all amazing.


Snorkeling with the nurse sharks was one of the coolest things we did. You can’t see but I was a almost right in the middle of those. Of course reading up later – ecologically speaking – the guides aren’t really supposed to feed the nurse sharks because it messes up their behavior – which I kind of suspected at the time.

Hali doing his unintentional Erkel impression
One of the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten – stone crab claws – perfectly prepared. This place had to be the best restaurant on Ambergris Caye.


We rented a golf cart and took a ride to the other side of the island – which was a blast. Unfortunately all the food was closed down so we had to subsist on banana bread and alcohol.

Caye Caulker


After Ambergris Caye – sadly we said goodbye to Hali – who had to go back to something called w-o-r-k. Sounds dodgy. Shauna and I went to Caye Caulker – the other popular Caye with tourists. To be honest I kind of wish we’d stayed on Caye Caulker 4 nights and Ambergris Caye one night, instead of the other way around. Caye Caulker was a lot more laid back – golf carts are the biggest vehicles – and the scenery was much more picturesque. We liked it so much we decided to spend the night – and wander the island – where I took a bunch of pics. 

Go Slow – the motto of Caye Caulker

Lobster traps

Clever!

The next day we took the ferry back to the Belize mainland.

Tulum

We have now reached the traveling with people phase of our adventure. My good friend and former coworker Shauna accepted my invitation to join me along my journey. Also joining us were her friend Adam (for Tulum) and our good friend and former coworker Hali (for Belize). Then Shauna and I continued on to Guatemala. 

I’m going to try breaking these blogs into smaller chunks, as the pictures take a long time to load and the blogs take a long time to write (and read). 

I found Shauna at the airport – after some confusion. It is impressive how the tiny Cancun airport still manages to create big time confusion in where to meet someone getting off a plane. We had some dinner that was a lot more expensive than I was used to in Mexico (but prepared for), then headed back to our AirBnb.

We had more confusion finding it and getting in – which is normal for an AirBnB. So after all that confusion we were glad to see such a nice place. Shauna had researched and picked well. 

But the coolest part was the trampoline ceiling! It took a bit of a leap of faith to step out onto it with my 250 lbs – even when told it was safe by our host. But no jumping! Once I did and got used to it, I had a nice comfy rest while Shauna unpacked, I believe about 1/3 of her total possessions in life, into her room.

Ceiling net! It was definitely a leap of faith the first time on it.

The next day we headed to Cozumel Island, which I had always heard of but knew nothing about. We had some lunch and checked out the main town, then decided to rent a Jeep to explore the rest.

These sunglasses are of course lost, because I actually liked them
Looks fun! I think we got this later on in the river in Belize w/o even having to pay for it!
Hmmm – nahhh


Off to adventure

This is the most detailed map we could find – but it worked!

We headed over to the Mayan ruins on the island, where we also saw dozens of iguanas of several different varieties.

Cozumel ruins – pretty cool to have Mayan ruins on a small island

These gray iguanas blend in perfectly with the building stone or tree roots. We got startled by several that blended in with a tree and didn’t move until we were a few feet away.

This guy ran into the green tree tops when we walked towards him – where he has camoflouge

This guy is apparently big enough that he can just be orange and lay out in the open like a boss.

After the ruins we headed down the Carribbean-facing side of the island and closed out the bar there. Seems like everything was done by 4pm or so on that side.

Chilling on the sleepy side of Cozumel

Then we took the ferry back to Playa del Carmen – where Shauna’s friend Adam was waiting to meet us – having taking the bus down from Cancun Airport.

We got to Tulum kind of late but managed to find a really cool Italian Restaurant that looked like it was decked out by a Restoration Hardware catalog.

Very tasty

The next day we rented some bikes and headed out to the local beach – which was bustling. I guess some of the other beaches were having a massive seaweed (the brown stuff) problem, but Tulum wasn’t too bad.

I guess Tulum is having some big controversies about developing the land between the beach and the developed city. This explains why it’s such a pain to get the to beach – unless you stay at one of the super pricey resorts on the beach.

The green stuff is apparently being encroached on

Here’s an article about the whole problem. Amazingly. I’m pretty sure the roof and pool of our AirBnb is actually featured in the second picture:

 

That night we went shopping for food and alcohol. Then I made margaritas while Shauna prepped food and Adam worked on the grill. I used the agave nectar given to me by Stretch Gillum at Overlander Oasis – as well as his recipe. Somehow, through a series of mishaps, we managed to not get our food cooked until midnight. So for the rest of the trip we referred to this night as our “midnight barbecue”.

Best margaritas I ever made – 2 parts tequilla, 3/4 parts agave nectar, juice of one big or two small limes, shake with ice.
Shauna’s sketchy looking spice collection – not sure I’d want to risk travelling with that

Interestingly, that day my distant cousins from Positano, Italy – Erika and Rosida – reached out to me on Facebook that they saw one of my posts and were in Playa del Carmen. Here is my original proto-blog post about my first trip to Positano – one of the craziest things that every happened to me. FRUSTRATINGLY the pictures somehow got lost in transferring the website, and I don’t have them with me to restore. So You can read the text – but w/o pictures it’s kind of lame. Also the link to my second trip, where I brought my Dad and he had an amazing reconnection with his Brother (from Positano back to New Jersey – yes it’s crazy) is also broken. I will fix it when I get back to the US – ARGH!

Anyway, so my cugini and I communicated on Facebook many times, and I had tried on the last two of my trips to Positano to meet up with them, but we failed to connect. I told them I could come up to Tulum, or they could come down if they want. They took the bus down and showed up bright and early in the morning! So amazingly my distant cousins from Italy and I finally meet face on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Erika struggling with the leap of faith, Rosida flat refused
Breakfast chilling with sketchy lighting

We decided to all go to a local cenote called the Gran Cenote (cenotes are fresh water sinkhole caves very common in the Yucatan) and go snorkeling, which was amazing. Unfortunately I don’t have any pics because we were all in bathing suits w/o our phones. The pics below are from the restaurant after our snorkeling.

Shauna’s Mayan admirer – funny dude

That night I crashed early while Shauna and Adam went out for late dinner. The next day I had the beginning of a head cold. And Shauna looked like this, or worse, all day:

Only pic I have left from Shuana’s sick day. She made me delete all the others 🙂

She was really bummed at missing a whole day, and tried to rally several times, but just couldn’t. I thought it could be the ceviche Shauna ate late at night (#1 rule with ceviche is don’t eat it later than afternoon), or maybe the cenote. Adam also caught something weird and thought it might be the cenote, particularly the bat cave with guano falling down all day. Who knows but 2 months later my sinuses are still gooky. 🙁 

Breakfast the next day at a tasty local place

The next day Shauna was back in business. We got breakfast and headed to Chichen Itza, possibly the most popular (and crowded) Mayan ruin – partly due to it’s proximity to a bunch of tourist meccas and cruise ship docks, but also because of the ruins themselves and in my opinion the most beautiful buildings ever constructed – El Castillo also known as the Temple of Kukulcan:

I could sit and look at this pyramid all day, reminds me of the Pantheon in that regard

Our guide demonstrating his theory that Mayans have Chinese influence, the left is a Mayan figurine – the right is one of the Terracotta Warriors

I always like to get guides on these things because you always learn a few things you wouldn’t find out any other way, and it supports the local economy. I asked our guide what happened to the Mayan empire. Pop quiz: what do you remember learning about the Mayans in school? I swear we learned they just disappeared one day and no one knows why (or something to that effect). Then the Aztecs arose – and then Cortez came and conquered them. Well not exactly. All our guides on these trips are full blooded Mayan. There are radio stations that broadcast Mayan. So it’s not like they disappeared by any stretch.

As far as what happened to their empire? According to our guide – it was a peasant revolt. I guess the common people got tired of being conscripted to build big structures and I have a hunch they might not have been too nuts about the constant sacrifices either. But since only the elites knew how to read and write, and how to build giant buildings, written history and construction kind of stopped at that point. But the people, language and culture still lived on. Maybe in Communist-terrified America they didn’t want to teach us about a more or less successful peasant revolt.

And this is one of the #1 reasons I love travel. Unless you become some kind of scholar, you generally don’t get these kinds of insights sitting at home. And even then, scholars probably expand their knowledge exponentially by traveling to the places they study and talking to locals who carry on the culture.

The hall of 800 pillars (or something like that)
Not sure what was going on here
I have about 80 more picutres of this pyramid

Delicious Mayan pork taco we had in the Chichen Itza restaurant. Usually restaurants at attractions like that aren’t very good, but everything we ordered here was very tasty.

 

World’s largest porcelain store (assuming) that we stopped at on the way home

The next day Adam had to leave to meet his parents on Cozumel. Shauna and I checked out the Tulum ruins, then headed south.


Playful coatimundis at the ruins entrance – but no tocar (touching)!

Supposedly this is where the first Spanish ship laid eyes on a Mayan city, and first time they saw a Spanish ship. I can’t begin to imagine what was going through each of the groups’ minds.
The Tulum ruins are not the biggest. But being right on the beach gives them an amazing presence

After Tulum we checked out the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. We thought about getting on a boat tour, but decided to save our time for more exploring.

The reserve is a fresh-water estuary with interesting-colored green water that isn’t really coming across well in this picture

 

We decided we had enough time before our planned night stop of Chetumal to check out one more beach town – Mahahual – which seemed to be having a lot of fun with the seaweed invasion.

Finally cheap food and drink on the Yucatan!
And check out the view!
Your seaweed needs will be met at Mahahual

 

Apparently KC Chiefs Lucha Libre masks are popular down here for some reason

And with that we headed to the border city of Chetumal – to begin the next leg of our journey and first new country after 2 months in Mexico (for me) – Belize.