Miriam’s Magical first trip to Belize
Miriam’s Magical first trip to Belize by Miriam Neuman
Okay, here it is:
In late November, I decided that it was high time I visited my good friend Henry in San Pedro, Belize. He had been there for 6 years and I still hadn’t managed to find the money or time to fly down from the freezer that they affectionately call Winterpeg (Winnipeg, Canada). I picked a great time to go because this would prove to be one of the coldest, snowiest winters that anyone could remember in a long time.
I had no idea exactly where Belize was even located but a quick Google search revealed Belize just South of Mexico. Shouldn’t be too difficult. I researched two ways to get to San Pedro. The first and quickest one is to fly into Belize City on the mainland and then take a plane or ferry to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. All the flights I checked into online involved 2 stop overs in the USA and were marathons of 17 to 22 hours or more of travel time. The other option is to fly into Cancun, Mexico. Direct flights and flights with one stop over are plentiful from Winnipeg. A direct flight is about 5 hours but by the time I booked in the last week in November for a mid-January holiday, there were no direct flights left so I settled on one stop over in Toronto and an eight hour flight for about $730 Canadian. Not bad. Not bad at all.
The trade off is that you still have to get from Cancun to Belize which requires staying overnight in Mexico. But I’d rather travel in the tropics and begin my holiday early than wait around for hours in various US airports. Henry promised he’d meet me in Cancun and we’d make a holiday of it, winding our way slowly South to Belize. And even more fun, we were meeting a third Winnipeg friend in Tulum, Mexico where we thought we’d stay for a few nights before heading South. Tulum It is a lovely laid back resort town with great beaches and a 2h jaunt fromthe Cancun airport. We managed to get a basic oceanfront cabana with a private bathroom for $45 usd/night for double occupancy at the EcoTulum resort Zahra. The website at describes it as “rustic cabanas at traditional Mayan style, just aside the Caribbean Sea at Tulum”. We liked it so much we ended up extending our stay a few days longer just to laze on the beach, do some yoga and eat fruit we’d bought at the roadside fruit truck.
The ADO buses run frequently between Tulum and Chetumal, Mexico at the Belizian border. The trip was about 4 hours and the bus was surprisingly comfortable and air conditioned! What was difficult was that at each bus stop, there were not markers indicating the town we were stopping in and not many people spoke good English to even ask so when we did eventually get off the bus, we weren’t sure we had gotten off at the correct and closest stop in Chetumal. From Chetumal, we had to get through customs and take a taxi to the closest Belizian town of Corozal to catch the Thunderbolt water taxi to Ambergris Caye.
What was magical was the minute we crossed the border to Belize, it all became very easy as everyone’s first language is English!!! What a difference for non Spanish speakers like us. Fortunately, at the border, for a small fee of your choice, there are helpful self appointed Belizian “guides” that act as “go-fers” and get all your papers in order for the customs officers. We had to do nothing! Love it.
But by this time, it was getting late and we had just missed the last water taxi to San Pedro. We were very anxious to finally get there. Our Belizian Go-fer helpfully suggested that we could take a plane to San Pedro and get on the last flight if we hurried. He quickly got us hooked up with another cab driver and reserved a Tropic Air flight for us. (Not a bad option considering we would have had to lose a day in Corozol AND pay hotel for a night.) It’s a small plane….holds only 10 passengers, so not for those who are nervous being on small air crafts. Once we squeeeezed into our seats, we found the flight to be fast (30 minutes) and very enjoyable. And it took us right into the San Pedro airport near Henry’s home.
As an aside, there is a new option (as of March 2013) out of Cancun and I think this is the one I’d take in future. Tropic Air has daily flights from Cancun to Belize. Leaves at 2:15 Lands at by 4:00 pm. Their introductory offer round trip of was $394.95 USD. Price is now $484.95 USD but it is still worth it to make it quick and simple if you can score a cheap flight to Mexico.
My stay in San Pedro was not the usual tourist resort stay, since I had the pleasure of staying with Henry in his home in town. My experience was less touristy and more laid back, buying fruit and vegetables at the local fruit stands and cooking at home. Most notable, I managed to land in San Pedro during the famous Jerry Jeff Walker Camp Belize that happens every year. And this guy has quite a following of fans that follow him to this lovely island paradise. Now I happen to be an improvisational fiddle player and I brought my fiddle along. And amongst Jerry Jeff’s followers are a gaggle of musicians/jammers who coincided exactly with my stay there. So I was happy as a clam as I ran into all these tourists who can actually play!! In addition, Henry, a well known African drummer/percussionist took me to all his gigs. One of his main gigs in San Pedro takes place every Wednesday at Wet Willies Cantina, a rockin’ bar that is located on the beach off a long pier over the water. Henry and his fellow musicians, Tull, Keith and Steve like to call this their Tuesday Jam because they invite tourists who are also musicians to join them in an endless array of well known cover tunes. You never know what will happen at these jams. The boys were gracious enough to allow me, the fiddle player, to do 3 sets with them every Tuesday that I was there. Thanks guys!!
Henry, a hugely talented massage therapist on the island,(just ask tacogirl how to get a hold of Henry if you need the best massage of your life while you are on Ambergris Caye. Believe me, this guy can fix what ever pains ail you!), left me to my own devices some afternoons to wander the island when he had massage clients. I bumped into a slew of Jerry Jeff Walker musicians one afternoon taking over the stage at Wet Willies and managed to find a fiddle lying around and join in. The bar was fun and rocking so it was great to be a a part of that. Another evening…actually one in the morning, after a Tuesday night jam, we passed the San Pedro square where “street meat treats” were still being sold as the bars let out. And here, I found three young Jerry Jeff tourists from St. Ignacio jamming in the square with guitars and ukeleles. I was happy to join in for an hour of musical fun to the amusement of the hungry bar crowd.
Crazy Canucks Beach Bar at Exotic Caye Beach Resort pays homage to all the Canadians on the island. They have a great ” Sunday jam” that is led by locals and joined by snow bird musicians and other tourists. Lots of fun, music and dancing there and well attended. There bar is located right on the beach with a great and has horseshoes for those who like to play.
tacogirl managed to hook me up with a tour of the Marco Gonzalez Archeological Reserve one day. It is a dig of a Mayan Village. The dig is still in process and we had a wonderful tour led by Jan Brown. We were able to see hundreds of Mayan pottery shards spread all over the site and got an idea of the construction and placement of the homes of the Mayan as well as get a feel for the type of vegetation in the area. It was unseasonably rainy that day so the mosquitoes were out in full force. Bring mosquito repellant!! Canadian skin seems to react more to these mosquitoes than the annoying Winnipeg ones back home. There was a cool hermit crab crossing on the site as well.
Ambergris Caye is a charming town where people get around mainly in golf carts. The back roads were dirt and as I mentioned, it was unseasonably rainy in the apparent dry season. In fact, the 2 weeks I was there, it rained quite hard most days with some periods where it let up. I didn’t care because I knew back home they were in 3 feet of snow and it was -35 Celsius. But the dirt roads were lots of fun to navigate with the puddles and rain. One tip: Do not bring nice shoes. My hiking sandals were just the ticket. On the main drag, downtown, where there are touristy stores and restaurants, the streets are paved and the 2 story businesses are very picturesque.
Henry and I left the island 3 times while I was there. Twice to go into Belize City where he conducts Tai Chi classes. We stayed at the very wonky Bachelor Inn in Belize City. I think I remember it being $30 a night but I could be wrong there. It is a 3 or 4 story hotel of the wonkiest time and is typical of the interesting take on ergonomics and design of the Belizian construction industry. (Translation: there are no ergonomics or esthetics in Belizian vernacular architecture!!) That was a lot of fun. The hotel was fine enough for our stay there as we only needed a place to lay our heads. The room was clean and the owner, Nancy was talkative and very pleasant.
Prices were cheaper on the mainland, so Henry and I made sure we stocked up on chocolate and fresh vegetables and fruit while we were there. One day on the way back from Belize City while waiting for the ferry, a local and enterprising Belizian woman convinced me I needed a pedicure while I was waiting for the water taxi. She just sat right on the pavement and filed my toe nails and did a lovely job painting them pink, and embellishing them with flowers on each big toe. Amazingly, her pedicure lasted as long as my pedicures do back home! Sweet!
One day, when the rain decided to back off, Henry and I took a water taxi to Caye Caulker, a near by resort island. Here we lay around the Lazy Lizard Bar and swam in the channel where the gentle current actually pushes you along and out around the pier (if you let it). It is certainly a great place to lounge with the locals and the tourists for a day. Then we hired a golf cart taxi and had the ten minute tour of the small town. It seemed to be even more tourist based than Ambergris Caye with brightly painted bars and restaurants along the ocean.
Unfortunately, all good things come to and end and I had to go back to winter in Winterpeg, where it was still in a deep freeze. We took the same flight, taxi and bus ride back except this time we stayed in Playa del Carmen for a night at the Playa del Karma hotel. I highly recommend this hotel. It is cheap….trying to remember how much…it might have been 40 or 50 a night. The rooms surround a courtyard full of live green trees and plants and was very relaxing. We also had a chance to walk down the broad streets of the main drag at night where the bars and discos were just hoping.
As for packing for this trip, I think the only thing I really didn’t account for was the rain. I ended up getting a rain poncho in a local store. If you go by golf cart, you get a lot of rain sliding off the golf cart roof as well as splash up from the road and just plain rain getting in the cart….so an umbrella won’t do. But as this was apparently an anomaly int the usual DRY season, I am sure, that a rain poncho won’t be necessary next time. (I might bring it just in case though.) Really, good sturdy walking sandals are a must. And the dress on Ambergris Caye is definitely casual. You don’t really need much in the way of clothing. If it does rain, however, the island is very humid and things take a longer time to dry so quick dry clothing is an asset for sure. One thing I would not travel without would be my sarong. I used it as a blanket, a robe, a skirt, a dress and a cover up and it dries really fast.
All in all, it was an amazing vacation. I am already planning a return visit. And this time, I will be exploring the mainland, so watch out, Belize!!
The second is not the best option unless you have a fair bit of time.