In the Forest
After leaving Bermudian Landing, it was only a short drive to the Belize Zoo, located in the tropical savanna countryside. It is different from most zoos in that it does not import animals from different parts of the world but simply takes in creatures that are native to Central America. The various animals and birds that call the Zoo 'home' have not been captured for the sake of display - they have either been previously injured, are pets given up by owners when things got out of hand or have been seized by the government for illegal ownership. We had found out by chance that it is possible to stay within a mile or so of the Zoo, at the Tropical Education Center (see 'Accommodations'), so we had a great opportunity to really enjoy this collection of creatures as well as link up again with two Canadians we had met on Caye Caulker.
In talking to the staff, we found out that we could take a personally-guided Night Tour of the Zoo, with a side-benefit of allowing a free Day tour the next morning. Our night tour was given by one of the curators at the Zoo and starts with their caged snake and insect collection at the entrance building. Then, various flashlights (torches) were distributed and we headed off into the maze of wooded trails leading throughout the zoo (2nd photo). This photo shows one of their American crocs by day (when we came upon the creature at night, we could see its eyes glowing in our lights as it was submerged at the far end of its pond. It was amazing to watch as the curator called out to it with grunting noises and the eyes slowly slid forward. Eventually it reached land and continued out of the water, stopping only when it reached the fence at our feet!).
They have a great collection of big cats (Jaguars, Pumas, Ocelots, Margay and others) and many other mammals, birds and insects. The Harpy Eagle (3rd photo) is one of the world's largest and can pluck unsuspecting monkeys, like the Spider Monkeys (4th photo) off the tree tops. We really enjoyed this Zoo experience by both night and day!Related to:
- Jungle and Rain Forest
- Road Trip
Guanacaste National Park
After finishing our morning Zoo excursion, we and our Canadian friends drove off in our rental for the Hopkins area. However, a half-hour later, we made a stop at the small Guanacaste National Park, located beside the highway where we had to swing off toward Belmopan and the southeast.
This 50-acre remnant of the tropical forests of Belize is managed by the Belize Audubon Society and has a small visitor's centre with information on the Park's trails, flora and fauna (US$2.50 pp entry fee) as well as toilet facilities. We headed off on one of their shorter jungle trails that leads to the park's namesake - a huge Guanacaste tree. Also known as a Tubroos, these trees have a trunk diameter of of more than 6 feet and are usually festooned with vines and epiphytes hanging from the branches high above. These trees were prime targets for loggers but, because this particular 100-year old specimen had a partially broken trunk, it is guessed that it was bypassed for choicer victims. It was quite a sight to behold (check out the 2nd & 3rd photos), as were the many tropical birds that inhabit this little bit of forest where Roaring Creek flows into the larger Belize River.
Continuing our jungle trail walk from the Guanacaste tree, we came to the small Roaring Creek tributary of the Belize River. The forest trail followed high above the very deep ravine through which the creek flowed and along which were located various bird watching platforms. Where the Creek meets the river, a large series of wooden platforms and steps built there provide a great viewing area of where these two bodies of water meet. Just a few weeks before we arrived, torrential rains from the record 2005/06 season had caused flooding - in the 4th photo take a look at the brown high water mark on that tree trunk across the creek!! Even the platform we were standing on had various bits of mud deposited on it! Now I could understand why the other tree trunk had been torn loose!Related to:
- Road Trip
- National/State Park
- Jungle and Rain Forest
World Famous Birdwatching Spot
We were really starting to get into this Belize thing by the time we arrived at the Bird's Eye View Lodge in Crooked Tree village! This was Day 10 of our trip and we had said goodbye to our friends as they continued backpacking toward Panama, while we returned our rental to the International Airport before catching a shuttle to Crooked Tree.
Located on a small island connected to the mainland by a rough 3.5-mile long causeway, the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is noted for its fastastic bird-watching. The reports are well-founded, as we can attest from an amazing tour of Crooked Tree Lagoon and up Spanish Creek on one of the boats anchored in this photo. More than just that experience made this 2-day stopover a special part of our trip - it was also very relaxing sitting in our little thatched roof shelter on the lakeshore in the 30 C weather, yet feeling totally refreshed by the cool breeze blowing in off the water, as the myriad of birds and animals put on a show for us!
This area of Belize is made up of a mixture of long lagoons, connected by creeks, marshes and logwood tree thickets. As a result, it is a natural for birds and, in fact, we saw many of the same species that we get in eastern Canada - I was wondering where they spent the winter! Crooked Tree island is a different place, in that it is the result of being surrounded by various creeks, which expand into large lagoons during during the wet season and sometimes dry up completely in the summer months. Because of the record breaking hurricane and tropical storm season in 2005/06, the waters were still unusually high when we were there in February, 2006. Even though this area is quite some distance inland from the Caribbean Sea, it is only 10-16 feet (3-5 metres) above sea level, so large amounts of rain water tend to spread out over the flat landscape.Related to:
Small but Impressive
Hitching a ride with another guest at Crooked Tree, our next stop was outside San Ignacio, on the Guatemala border. A major attraction that was within easy walking distance of our accommodations were the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich. We spent our first morning exploring what was left of this site - first settled between 200-500 AD with the peak years of this small settlement being between 700-900 AD. This is a relatively small site as Mayan ones go, so it makes for a good half-day trip! We were out and about early (8:30 AM), so it was quite a peaceful stroll up the 2-km entrance road to the Xunantunich Archaeological Reserve (US$5 pp entry).
After looking at several interesting relics of stone stella and a historical overview of Xunantunich located in buildings to protect them from the elements, we continued into the main part of the ruins where we first saw the main temple of El Castillo. Situated on a limestone ridge, it has a great view from the top as you can see here. The 2nd photo shows this 135-ft (40-m) high structure, with intricate 10-ft (3-m) high carvings on two of it's faces - with the larger (Eastern) of these friezes protected by a replica artifical covering, with me standing below the frieze for scale. Steps lead to the top of the pyramid from two sides and although steep, are not difficult to climb.
It was great being atop El Castillo in the almost total silence, except for the refreshing breeze that helped to cool us down after our climbing exertions, and to be able to look down on the Xunantunich site itself to get a different perspective of the other buildings. However, it was not long before we noticed the first tour crowd arriving. Although they busied themselves at the far end of the site for a while, some very small people could soon be seen drifting toward the main attraction of the Reserve (3rd photo). Although the side of the pyramid looks to angle down very sharply here, it was not actually too bad to navigate.Related to:
- National/State Park
Mayan Sacrificial Offerings
Gliss led us up a narrow channel that wound past large fallen boulders and some razor sharp edges. The inside air temperature tends to stay at about 15 C and the water temperature was not bad either. As we went deeper, we were up to our waists or even our necks in water a few times as we snaked through narrow passages and held on to avoid slipping into deeper water. We passed through several large chambers (2nd photo) where there were amazing mineral displays formed by the constant dripping.
We first came upon broken ceramic jars (main photo) that were used to hold water. Throughout the cave, we came across hundreds of these artifacts, offered as sacrifices to the Mayan rain god 'Chac'. The Mayans believed that even inanimate objects had a spirit, so they purposely broke the jars to allow the sacrificial release of this spirit. These relics closer to the mouth of the cave date from the period of around 250 AD, with the more recent relics found deeper in the cave, as the Mayans tried to get 'closer' to Chac so the sacrifices would have more impact.
Finally, we came to an area that had a large natural platform high above the stream. Using the protruding rock formations, we followed Gliss as he climbed out of the stream onto this portion of the cave. In this sacred area of human remains, we had to take our sneakers off and carefully walk in our sock feet among the many artifacts of pottery and human bones.
The first human skull (3rd photo) was that of a 35-year old male and a short distance onward we came to a jumble of sacrificial remnants that had been washed loose, ending up as a pile of broken pottery, two human skulls and a leg bone.
A ladder to an even higher small ledge brought us to the remains of the victim for which the cave is named. This lady is believed to have been about 20 years old when she was sacrificed, leaving her spread-eagled on the ground just the way she fell, in about the year 900 AD.
Our return trip to the mouth of the cave did not seem to take long and we were 'home' by 5 PM.Related to:
- Road Trip
- Adventure Travel
Black Howler Monkeys
After leaving Ambergris Cay, we picked up our rental vehicle from the International airport near Belize City, and drove to the Community Baboon Sanctuary located only 13 miles (21 km) away at Bermudian Landing. This area of Belize was set aside by the local population to help preserve the endangered Black Howler Monkey population (locally referred to as 'baboons') while at the same time, providing the villagers with additional income. Shortly after crossing the Belize River and it's protected 60-foot (18-m) wide swath of trees on each bank, as shown here, we arrived in the small village.
As part of the effort to preserve their Howler Monkey population, the over 200 members of the local villages agreed not to cut the types of trees which provide the main food source for the monkeys and also to leave narrow forested strips between their cultivated fields, so the monkeys could continue to use the aerial pathways that they were used to.
We soon found their small museum and office, and the US$5 pp cost of admission provided for a local guide who took us on a tour of the many trails along the banks of the Belize River where the monkeys nest. He took off down the road on his bicycle for a short distance, as we followed in our rental, before we all headed off into the forest on foot (2nd photo).
The Black Howler Monkeys found here are one of six species found in the tropical rain forests of southern South America, Boliva and Central America. Their head and body length of about 2-3 feet (combined with equal tail length dimensions) makes them one of the largest monkey types found in the Americas. The male monkeys have a jaw structure that allows them to make very load echoing calls to stake out their territory. These 'howls' can be heard for about 2 miles (3 km) in a jungle environment . Although I did not get many good camera shots of the moving monkeys in the dense foliage (3rd photo), we were more successful with action shots on the video camera that Sue was using.Related to:
- Jungle and Rain Forest
- Hiking and Walking
Scenic Hummingbird Highway
Finishing up with Guanacaste National Park, we swung off the Western Highway leading to Guatemala, and headed southeast on the scenic Hummingbird Highway for the 55 mile drive to Hopkins. Now this is a scenic route, the lush green tropical growth immediately being much more appealing than the dryer savannah-type forest along the Western Highway. Obviously, the peaks of the Maya Mountains, through which this road passes, catch more rainfall and the vegetation shows it.
We were thinking of stopping for a look at or dip in the cenote at the Blue Hole National Park along the way, but it clouded over and spit with rain just then, so we decided to keep on rolling. I really enjoyed the rugged peaks along here covered in green forests and with plantations of orange and grapefruit trees on the lower slopes. However, it was frustrating because the vista was so wide-spread that it could not easily be properly captured in a photo (2nd and 3rd photos). It turned out to be a great highway with a few quaint single-lane bridges 4th photo) and it was also interesting to see how an actual orange harvest is carried out as we passed many plantations along the way. We had much better weather on our way back to Belmopan, so I was able to better appreciate the views.
Take this highway if you get the chance - it is paved all the way and smooth (except for speed bumps which are located everywhere in Belize).Related to:
- Jungle and Rain Forest
- Road Trip
Our main reason for coming to the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary was to take a guided boat-tour of the various waterways for a good look at some of the many species of wildlife to be found here. The tour left at about 6:30 AM and costs US$80 (shared between 1-4 passengers) or $20 per person ( for 5-8 passengers), so we ended up paying $40 for this 3 hour session - and it was well worth it!
Our driver Leny (second photo) did a great job as he took us along the shore toward the causeway, pointing out all sorts of birds and creatures sitting or hiding in the trees or along the edge of the lagoon. One of the most interesting things along here were the Green Iguanas, trying to warm up in the morning sunshine. Known locally as "bamboo chicken", at nearly 7 feet it is the largest lizard in Belize and one of the largest in the world. After a lagoon-side look at some of the houses and Logwood trees in Crooked Tree village, we swung around and headed back along the shore toward the far end of the lagoon.
We had seen quite a few birds on the first part of our voyage, but we really enjoyed the trip down to the far end of the lagoon and then onward into Spanish Creek. Leny continued to impress us with his knowledge and keen eyes in picking out things that we would never have seen as we puttered along. However, we passengers helped him out by spotting a few ourselves as he steered the boat (it was tricky trying to watch for flying birds, ones sitting in tree tops, others hiding among the branches, some swimming and others on nests). So many things were popping up that I had to keep a list of our sightings of various kinds of Hawks, Herons and many other types of birds. The best bird watching trip I ever took!! We also surprised the odd crocodile too as we made our way slowly up the winding creek.
Finally, we turned back for the lodge and it was fantastic sitting up front as we roared around the bends in the warm sunshine! Sue and I just looked at each other and laughed - life was good!Related to:
- Sailing and Boating
Tubing the Mopan River
After our morning walk to Xunantunich, we chilled out on the internet for a while and then had lunch. However, by 1 PM the heat had built up quite nicely to the 30 C (86 F) range, so we decided to take advantage of the Trek Stop accommodation's river tubing adventure package. For US$10 each, we hopped in the rear of one of their pick-up trucks and they drove us to the Mopan River just upstream of the hand-cranked ferry to Xunantunich (note the local guy in the photo standing by a small island out in the shallow rapids). There, we were both outfitted with life jackets, which were attached by a small rope to the large rubber inner tubes that we were both given.
It was then into the water as we began our 'jungle cruise' adventure! This was a really fun trip as just the two of us floated down the winding Mopan for more than two hours, traversing a series of eight Class II and III rapids, interspersed with quiet stretches of water. These sections were very peaceful as the thickly forested banks drifted by and colourful Amazon Kingfishers flew past. Of course this was after the first set of rapids tipped us both out of our tubes, but that was the only time that happened. Each set of rapids was fun as you could hear the roar of the water as you floated closer. Usually there was a small island in the middle of the river at each of these, and it was difficult to guess which way was the safest to avoid the deepest drop into a back-swirling pool (Sue got caught in a couple of those but my 'inertia' carried me through!). Also had to remember to bring your butt up out of the water and lay straight as a board on the tubes to avoid scraping on the rocks as we went over these ledges! We had a fantastic time, at last reaching the hotel beside the final Clarissa Falls rapids. There, we paddled to shore and called the Trek Stop from the bar area - the truck soon arrived to pick us up. I don't have any good photos of this because we did not take any glasses, watches, cameras or anything for this one!Related to:
A Remote Mayan Cave
One of our two prime objectives of staying in the San Ignacio area was to explore a Mayan cave. The particular one that we wanted to see was Actun Tunichil Muknal (known as ATM or 'Cave of the Crystal Maiden') and theTrek Stop owner was able to arrange this for US$60 each, set for the morning after our river tubing .
Our Mayan guides, Eduard and Gliss turned up in their van and away we went at about 8:30 AM. A few miles short of the Hummingbird Highway near Belmopan, we turned right onto a dirt road and headed south toward the Maya Mountains. We were soon driving through vast fields of vegetables that had been carved out of the jungle along Roaring Creek. It took us about 45 minutes to make the drive to the end of the road (2nd photo), where Sue and I left our set of dry clothes in the van and then set out on foot with Gliss. Because this 40-minute walk involved three fords of Raging Creek, Gliss put our cameras in his waterproof backpack. The first ford was up to our thighs and you had to be careful about your footing on the smooth boulders littering the bottom. It was a pleasant walk through the jungle with Gliss pointing out various things as we zig-zagged twice more across the Creek before reaching the Base camp used by all tour groups (3rd photo). We had a short rest there for a snack from the lunch provided as part of the tour, as well as a toilet stop.
Once Gliss showed us how to adjust our miner's helmet headlamps, I wandered the short distance over to the mouth of the cave itself. It is shaped like an hour glass, and there was not a large amount of water coming out from the underground stream. However, once standing on the bottom lip at the cave mouth, you have to plunge into a 16 ft (5 m) deep pool and swim for about 35 ft (10 m) in your clothes and sneakers before reaching solid ground that you can climb onto inside the cave. Because of the climbing required on the 600-m trip into the depths of the cave, sometimes over rough rock surfaces, it is recommended to wear sneakers and long trousers.Related to:
- Road Trip
- Adventure Travel
Snorkel the Reef
The highlight of our stay on Caye Caulker was a 3-hour snorkeling trip we made just a short distance off-shore one morning. After making arrangements the previous evening, we left in the morning with another 11 passengers and 2 crew. All were outfitted with life-jackets, flippers, masks and snorkels (all for our price of US$45 for two). A 115-HP Yamaha engine was soon powering our open boat out to the reef!
Our tour driver took us for a practise run in an area with various corals, and I thought that the colours of the corals and small fish were great! The actual snorkeling was easy, it was just pure fun to float along and take in the sights along this second longest of the world's barrier reefs!
Having mastered our equipment at the first dive site, the boat then took us to Caye Caulker's own 'Shark-Ray Alley' where we were encouraged to interact with the placid Nurse Sharks and Southern Sting-rays to be found there. The place was full of the creatures and they readily approached us, having been conditioned to this by numerous other tourist visits. This photo shows our guide in the water with one of the Sting-rays, showing us how it is done!
The final stop in our snorkeling excursion was at the inside of the reef wall itself. This enabled us to swim right up to the various channels and inlets along the backside of the reef (2nd photo), paying attention not to actually touch anything, where we could examine it up close. We had some really great views of colourful fish here, but I guess I was overly excited from the sharks and rays, managing to forget to bring the underwater camera with me for this session! We lingered here for quite some time before climbing out and getting ourselves organized before the boat headed ashore. The tour price also included a small snack of fruit and bottles of water. The third photo is an underwater shot I took as I approached one of the rays on our earlier stop!
These half day trips are great, with tours at 10:30 am to 1:30 pm & 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm, weather permitting.Related to:
- Diving and Snorkeling
Beautiful Southeast Coast
After our drive down the Hummingbird Highway, we lucked out in Hopkins by managing to find accommodations! Although the beach at our Whistling Seas Vacation Inn had not been swept clear of debris washed from the Caribbean Sea and the seating arrangements were a trifle rudimentary, we all immediately liked the overall ambiance of the seaside in Hopkins. With beautiful coconut palms lining the shore, Frigate birds majestically patrolling overhead and strong winds and waves coming ashore in the tropical temperatures - it seemed that we had found another little piece of paradise!
We spent a lot of our time here, chatting away as we sipped our cold Belikin beers under the palm trees. In fact, we were doing just that when someone spotted creatures swimming just off-shore, parallel to the beach. At first I thought they must be Dolphins, but one of the regular visitors mentioned that Manatees swim along here! Sure enough, a closer look at the large brown backs surfacing every now and again confirmed it. As it turns out, the Sittee River empties into the Caribbean Sea just south of Hopkins, and it is common for these endangered animals to swim out and along the beach here. It was not long before Sue and I were in the water, wading out quite some distance for a closer look with our bird-watching binoculars. Manatees are warm-blooded vegetation-eating mammals, weighing between 300-500 kg (600-1200 lb.) and can reach lengths of 4-m (13-ft.). These particular ones are part of the West Indian species (with the only two others being Amazonian and West African). Just seeing Manatees was a 'first' for us, even if it was impossible to get photos due to the sporadic nature of the brief surfacings of their backs!!Related to:
- Whale Watching
- Road Trip
Tikal National Park
In addition to exploring a Mayan cave, the other objective of our stay on the western border of Belize was to work in a trip to Tikal National Park, in Guatemala. We talked over the options of how this could be done with the Trek Stop owners and decided to just take off on our own without any prior arrangements. The Trek Stop was very helpful even with that, saying we could leave our backpacks in our cabin at no charge for the night we were away!
The next morning we headed out early to get across the border and it all worked out fantastically well (my 'Tikal National Park' page has the full story)! We had a great time taking in as many of the sights as we could during our two half-days there. Temple I (the Great Jaguar) and the surrounding complexes are the most impressive structures, but there was so much to see it was hard to believe. We certainly got our exercise in as we trudged up and down hills and temples in the boiling heat. The Park is set in the middle of the jungle all by itself - power goes off at night, with lights out from 10 PM to 6 AM!
We also succeeded in having a 'sunset' experience while at Tikal. After first scouting out where in the park the best viewing spot would be, we made the half-hour trek there from our hotel to one of the smaller temples - Mundo Perdido. It is located at the western edge of the complex of structures, a perfect spot for looking eastward toward the other large temples as the west-setting sun bathed them with soft light.
We joined a small crowd atop Mundo Perdido and it was great to be perched above the jungle canopy, with only the huge main temples and very large Ceiba trees managing to poke themselves through the canopy. We sat there in the fresh breeze and listened to the sounds of the jungle while different kinds of tropical birds flitted from tree to tree in the soft light. Once the sun finally does go down in the tropics, the light does not last long, so everyone quickly descended and hit the trails leading back to the hotel area before it was totally dark!Related to:
- Road Trip
- National/State Park
Enjoy Those Tropical Beaches!
Our first stop in Belize was just north of Belize City, on the very small island of Caye Caulker. I say it is worth paying a bit more for accommodations (and US$40 is not bad) if you can get a good beach access like the Trends Beachfront Hotel provided. We spent some time here every day in the hotel lawnchairs, drawn up near the rustling palm trees. It was a perfect spot to catch the breezes, watch the activities on the beach, read our books and take a short stroll up to our refrigerator every now and then to replenish the drinks!
While there, we watched the antics of some of the local school boys in the back of the village's dump truck (one of the few 'official' vehicles on the island) as it was parked beside one of the palm trees not far from us. They each plucked one of the leaf strands off a branch of the tree and then, by pulling some other part of the leaf, were shooting the fronds at each other like arrows! It was just like in Africa, the kids know how to make a toy out of anything!
However, since you have come all the way to little Caye Caulker, you should also make the time to walk it's amazing beach - along the the eastern 'reef-side' of the island. With the numerous small boats bobbing on the water, the waves breaking off-shore on the reef and the many interesting buildings, there is no shortage of things to observe. It also really helps to settle you into the slow pace of life on Caulker, as both locals and tourists go about their business with no great hurry - it will only take a few days before you too can no longer remember what day of the week it is!Related to:
The majority of Mayan activity in Belize was between 2000 BC to 1000 AD. But Mayans still live in Belize, especially in the southern part. Belize has one of the oldest known Mayan sites at Cuello; one of the longest occupied Mayan sites at Lamanai; and one of the largest jade carvings ever found at Altun Ha.
Cahal Peche is a few minutes walk from San Ignacio and very accessible. It was a major ceremonial center. There are 34 structures on about 2 acres.Related to:
- Historical Travel
- Family Travel
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