Snorkeling Barrier Reef

Private Tour of Belize

Yesterday morning I was surfing TripAdvisor and I came across a great trip report so I wrote OhioHick and asked his permission to share it with you and he promptly wrote back with a yes and agreed to send pics. It is 9:16 pm and I have had enough work for today.

Since this was a pre-arranged tour, I did not need a lot of TA support for this trip, but I did lurk on Trip Advisor  forum a bit, posted a question or two and checked a few reviews (and all of this was very helpful, of course). However, I figured I would post a trip report on our (DW and me) excursion to Belize.

First of all, this was supposed to be a group tour that was sponsored by the Cleveland Zoological Society; the group could be up to 16 people. The tour was setup through Terra Incognita Ecotours. We signed-up for the trip well over a year in advance, and were told at the time that it was good we got in early as this trip always fills-up. As time went on we stayed in contact with Terra Incognita just to make sure we were keeping up with planning for the trip. About 2 weeks before the trip, I sent an email to Terra Incognita to make sure we had everything in order. Ged Caddick (President of Terra Incognita) responded in such a way that made my wife think we were the only ones that signed-up for the trip. No way, I thought, but we checked with Ged anyway, and sure enough, no one else was going (perhaps the economy was just too bad). But Ged said he was going to honor the commitment, since we had signed-up so far in advance. This was a private tour!

The trip was 9 days, including travel to and from Belize. We were there from April 17th through the 25th. Here’s the itinerary:

Day 1: Fly into Belize City then head to Lamanai Outpost (about an hour drive to the New River near Orange Walk, then about an hour boat ride upriver to the New River Lagoon and the Outpost).

Day 2: Exploring around Lamanai Outpost.

Day 3: Depart Lamanai Outpost. Back down the river, and a drive back to Belize City, where we met our guide for the rest of the trip. We are headed to Chaa Creek with a stop at the Belize Zoo. BTW, our guide is Lascelle Tillet of S&L Travel, and he is the perfect guy for the job.

Day 4: Day trip to Guatemala to visit the Maya ruins at Tikal.

Day 5: Exploring around Chaa Creek

Day 6: Depart Chaa Creek, via canoe on the Macal River to San Ignacio, where Lascelle is waiting to take us to our next destination, Jaguar Reef Resort on the coast south of Dangriga. Along the way we stop for lunch in Belmopan then make a short tour of the Blue Hole National Park.

Day 7: Lascelle picks us up early for our trip to Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve for a day of hiking and birding.

Day 8: Morning snorkel trip to the barrier reef, then an open afternoon.

Day 9: Relaxed morning before heading to the airport at Dangriga for a short hop back to Belize City and our flight back to the U.S.

Short story: it was a GREAT trip. We got to do everything that was on the original group tour itinerary, but since it was just the two of us, we were able to adjust the times of some of the activities to suit us. Plus most of the tours became much more detailed and had more of a personal touch to them, which made for an even more enjoyable time.

Here are some details on the trip:

First of all, each of the places we stayed were excellent. The staff at each were friendly, very professional and very well trained. We were well cared for at each location. If I had to rank them, Chaa Creek and Lamanai Outpost would be neck-and-neck for first with Jaguar Reef trailing a bit. This really is not a knock on Jaguar Reef (and is probably due in part that neither DW or me are really “beach people”). We just liked the settings and things to see and do around LO and CC more than JR.

The food was excellent everywhere we ate. We ate most of our meals at the lodging sites, as the meals were part of the package. We were not expecting the food to be a big part of the trip, but each meal turned out to be great. I was particularly impressed with Lamanai Outpost, as this is a fairly remote location and has to be difficult to keep stocked. LO did not offer any choices at meal time (the “menu” was one selection, but the selection was a full meal: soup/salad, entr©e with potato/rice and veggie and dessert for dinner, as an example).

A note on the weather: it was HOT… and humid. We knew it would be, but coming off a northern Ohio winter, this was quite a change! The day time temperatures were upper 80s F early in the trip and were in the mid-90s by the end of the excursion. It was also overcast most mornings, but usually burned off by the afternoon.

Private Tour of BelizeAt Lamanai Outpost, we had four tours included in the package (we opted to do only three, as we also wanted some “hammock time”. But the three tours we did were excellent). First was a guided tour through the Maya ruins of Lamanai which were quite impressive. Our guide for this trip was Raul, and he was extremely knowledgeable of the ruins and also the critters in the area. We saw the four large temples: Mask, High, Stela and Jaguar; I made the climb to the top of the High and Jaguar Temples; both are very steep. The High Temple is about 40 meters (140-ish feet) tall and I was huffing and puffing by the time I got to the top. But it was a nice view of the jungle and lagoon from the top. The Jaguar Temple and the adjacent plaza was probably the prettiest of the settings in the ruins. We also saw a fair amount of wildlife: Toucans, several varieties of Trogons and Howler Monkeys. This was a very enjoyable 3-hour tour.

Chestnut-colored WoodpeckerAfter lunch and a little time in a hammock near the lagoon, we went on the Nature Walk, which is an opportunity to try and view some of the wildlife and also get a little more background on the history of the area. Maurice was the guide this afternoon and took us up the road toward the village of Indian Church, then down the trail to the old Spanish Churches and finally the Sugar Mill. We saw a fair number of birds on the walk. We also saw a lot of birds on our final tour, the Spotlight Safari. This is an after-dinner tour on the lagoon and up the river a bit to look for birds, crocodiles, iguanas and anything else that we could see. In additional to the wildlife, we also got a great view of the night skies and the stars. Totally different collection of stars than what we see in Ohio, like the Southern Cross.

Next day we left Lamanai and headed back to Belize City to meet Lascelle, who was going to transfer us to Chaa Creek, via the Belize Zoo. The zoo is very nice. All of the animals (over 100 species) are native to Belize. The enclosures are good size and the animals are obviously well cared for. Other than the Jaguars, all of the animals were readily seen and it was fairly easy to get good photos (the Jaguars were too interested in the work being done by the keepers to come out for us tourists).

Chaa Creek is more of a resort, with a very nice and new pool complex and a spa to go along with the natural beauty of the area. We arrived late afternoon, so we got checked-in, confirmed our plans with Lascelle, and headed off for a brief tour of the lodge area. This is upscale jungle living (the Chaa Creek tag-line of “wildly civilized” is very appropriate!). Like Lamanai, we were serenaded by Howler Monkeys and greeted by many exotic birds and lizards, but the accommodations, restaurant, and other amenities were just along the lines of a resort (not a knock on Lamanai, as the remoteness limited what they can do there). I believe this was the first place I have stayed where they actually made “towel animals”, a pair of swans, to greet us in the cabana.

We had two full days (three nights) at Chaa Creek. One day we did a day trip into Guatemala to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal. This was part of overall tour, so again it was just DW and me, along with Lascelle, and Luis, the expert guide for Tikal (Chaa Creek also offers a day-trip to Tikal, along with several other activities, like cave tubing or canoeing, the zoo , etc.). Tikal was unbelievable and Luis provided excellent insights, both historical and spiritual, regarding the ruins and Mayan civilization. It was an excellent excursion. Plus we saw more wildlife (Howler and Spider Monkeys and several species of birds). I highly recommend this day-trip.

Speaking of birds, on the drive back down the access road to Chaa Creek that afternoon, we spotted a flock of cattle egrets foraging in a freshly plowed field adjacent to the road. DW, who was in the back seat, stated that there was a Spoonbill in among the egrets. Lascelle was skeptical to say the least, being the avid birder that he is; it was just not possible that a Spoonbill would be in a place like this. But to his amazement, DW was right as usual; if was a Spoonbill. The only problem was that we were all exhausted from the excursion to Tikal and no one thought to take a picture.

Horse PastureFor our second day at Chaa Creek , we decided to take it easy (again, this is vacation). We did the morning bird watching at 0630. The naturalist just kept us within the main complex but we still saw several species of birds (woodpeckers, tanagers, doves, parrots, hummingbirds). After breakfast, we took the guided tour along the Medicine Trail to learn about the healing potential of the native plants. Each of these tours was about an hour. We also walked up to the cultural museum and butterfly house. After lunch and a nap in the hammock on our back porch, we decided to do a little hiking, so we grabbed the Chaa Creek trail guide. We walked around for a couple of hours. In some areas, the trees and foliage looked very similar to Ohio, but other places were very definitely jungle. We hiked past the horse pasture and some Mayan ruins. Only issue was that the map was out of date and a couple of markers were missing, so we got off the hiking trail and onto the horse trail (we own horses, so no big deal to us) had to back-track a bit to get back on course, but we saw a lot of great scenery. We returned via the Medicine Trail and were just in time for a margarita before dinner.

Green HeronNext morning we departed Chaa Creek by canoe (another guided activity). The plan was to float down the Macal River to San Ignacio, where Lascelle would be waiting with our luggage. The canoe trip was fine, but it was hot and exposed, even in the morning, so I was glad when we “made port”. Still, we saw some interesting sights and several more birds. From San Ignacio, we drove to the capitol city of Belmopan where we had lunch at a local establishment called Caladium (I think). Lascelle recommended that we try the daily special, as it was usually a local favorite; the special for today: spaghetti and meatballs. Not very Belizean. We opted for the rice and beans with chicken. Very tasty!

Our next stop was the Blue Hole National Park. We stopped at two sites within the park. First was St. Hermans Cave. Just a short walk on a level path with lots of birding opportunities (you should be seeing a pattern with the birding). We walked into the cave just a short distance. It was rather refreshing in the cave and near the entrance, given that the day was hot, humid and sunny. The second stop was the Blue Hole itself. I pretty little pool of blue water, again with many birds in the area (blue-crowned Motmot and some very colorful tanagers). Then it was on to Hopkins on the coast and Jaguar Reef Resort. We checked-in and Lascelle made arrangements for our day-tip tomorrow. We chilled on the beach for a bit before dinner (margarita in a lounge chair under a thatch umbrella on the beach…life is good).

A common theme, and a nice touch, with all the places we stayed was the introduction to the facility and amenities by the staff. Lamanai, Chaa Creek and Jaguar Reef all did it to various degrees and formality, but they covered the hours of operation, how to charge services, how and where to access tours and activities. Much nicer than the usual “you are in room 115, here’s your key. Next!”

Chestnut-colored WoodpeckerThe next day, Lascelle picked us up at 8:00 AM for our day-trip to the Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve. It was about an hour or so drive time to get to Cockscomb. We hiked the Wari Trail in the morning, had a little lunch at the picnic grounds, then walked the River Nature Trail in the afternoon. No jaguars, but we did see a lot of sign that they are around. And of course, we saw a lot of birds, including a Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, a Bare-throated Tiger Heron, several Boat-billed Herons and a Passerini’s Tanager; these were the ones that got Lascelle excited, so they must have been good ones to see. This was our last tour with Lascelle. Let me just say that he made the trip so enjoyable. He covered all the details and was an excellent guide and host. And boy does he know about the birds of Belize!

We were back at Jaguar Reef late afternoon, but had time for a beer on the beach lounge chairs before dinner. Then we hit the sack early as we had one more adventure planned for tomorrow.

Snorkeling Barrier ReefFor our last full day in Belize, we did something that was completely out of character for folks who usually vacation in the desert or mountains of the western United States. These land lovers went snorkeling! And while I’m not a big water sports guy, it was a lot of fun! We snorkeled along the barrier reef. On the ride out, we went past a small island that was the nesting grounds for the Magnificent Frigate Bird (even without Lascelle, we got birds). We also got lucky and saw some bottle nosed dolphins. Snorkeling was awesome! We saw a lot of multi-colored fish and amazing corrals. We snorkeled at two locations on the reef with a short rest break on a nearby island. Probably about 2 hours total in the water. I’m not going to trade my trekking poles for fins and a mask, but snorkeling was quite a blast. We left the beach at 9:00 AM and were back at Jaguar Reef about 12:30, just in time for lunch. After lunch we spent the rest of the day walking the beach then more lounge chair time.

Overall, it was a great trip and an excellent experience. While I would not move to Belize (the beer is not very good and there are only three golf courses in the country….I have my priorities, after-all), I would certainly return someday. We saw many amazing sites and sights and a lot of great wildlife.

Shout out to S&L Travel and Tours operated by Lascelle Tillet who was a perfect guide and Ged at Terra Incognita Ecotours for honoring their commitment even though there were only 2 of us.

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