I just returned from a week long trip to Central America – Belize and Guatemala. Initially I wanted to go to Key West, but a friend went to Belize last year and loved it, so we decided to use Christmas time for a trip. Things were booked up and flight prices were high, so we booked everything quickly. I was able to get flight through Dallas, business (same price as economy) while going and economy while returning on Expedia with American Airlines. Dallas transit was my first choice since people had indicated that Miami would be a nightmare with the number of people.
Here is my itinerary:
- Dec 24: Leave NY, land in Ambergris Caye, night in Ramon’s
- Dec 25, 26: Stay in Ambergris Caye, snorkel, laze around on the beach, stay in Ramon’s
- Dec 27: Leave for San Ignacio, possibly visit Belize Zoo on the way, stay in Midas
- Dec 28: ATM caves, stay in Midas
- Dec 29: Leave for Tikal, stay at Tikal Inn
- Dec 30: Tikal morning tour, leave for Guatemala city, stay in Barcelo
- Dec 31: Visit Antigua, stay in Barcelo
- Jan 1: Fly back to NY
We left NY for Belize city in a 6am flight on Dec 24. Business class was very comfortable with more legroom and food. Transfer from Dallas was easy. We landed in Belize city around noon; Dallas and Central America are 1 hour ahead of NY. At the 11th hour I remembered to download books on my iPhone Kindle app, and downloaded the Secret series by Pseudonymous Bosch – wonderfully entertaining and hilarious. I was looking for books similar to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, some mindless fun and fantasy.
I had booked a Maya Island Air flight to Ambergris Caye. The flight was 30 mins late, and we finally landed in Ambergris Caye at 5pm. Tropic Air also runs flights to Ambergris Caye from the Belize City airport. The bank was closed so we could not withdraw Belize currency, but pretty much everyone accepted USD. Overall prices in Belize were high to match American and European prices, so there was no benefit from the exchange rate (2:1 for USD). It was so good being in warm weather, away from cold rainy NY. When I landed in Belize, I felt like I was in my own country, India, the weather and people felt exactly like India.
I booked a beachfront room in Ramon’s Village, it was amazing. The view was really good, and of all the places along that stretch of the beach, Ramon’s had the best beach to just lay around. The food was quite good too. Ramon’s had a very “village-like” feel with traditional-looking huts. It was wonderful waking up to the sounds of birds every morning, I even heard an owl one night, and saw an Iguana among the trees. The sun rose at 6am and set at 6pm – I was surprised at the early sunset. By 10am it felt like noon.
We were hungry and explored the area for restaurants. We picked Blue Water Hill, it was full of people. We ordered pizza, AM had chicken on his pizza (very bad choice), he spent the entire night suffering and throwing up, and the entire day on Dec 25 recovering from that chicken – or was it Barbecue sauce on the pizza? I rated Blue Water Grill poorly on Trip Advisor. The next day since AM was unwell, I spent the day lazing around. Later at noon when he was a bit better, we rented a golf cart from Moncho’s, walking distance from Ramon’s, and drove to the northernmost and southernmost parts of the Caye. In the north, we crossed the bridge to a more well developed and posh part of the town, but the road was very bumpy. There was nothing much to see or do other than lay on the beach, swim, or snorkel and dive. It was very difficult to get a golf cart rental – they were completely booked for days, finally we found one for 3 hours. It wasn’t necessary anyway since there was nothing to see or do. We decided to eat at Ramon’s and avoid outside places for health reasons. The next morning we went snorkeling with Ramon’s at 9am. It was awesome, snorkeling feels like such a blur now. We went to Hol Chan and watched fish and coral, it all felt so fast but really amazing. Then we went to Shark Ray Alley and saw nurse sharks of all sizes and Sting Rays. The guide caught one large nurse shark for photos. We stayed close to the guide, they pointed out fish names, I wish it was more informative but it would have been uncomfortable coming in and out of water to learn. We were back by 12.
After lunch I got a nice massage on the beach. As soon as I returned to the room, I fell sick, as did AM again. We spent the rest of the day and night and the next day sick. Not sure if it was the food or snorkeling water which was quite dirty. We have travelled to several places and are originally from India, I always have street food when I go back, but never have we fallen as ill as we did here. It was a terrible way to spend 3 days, totally sick of being sick. On a positive note, I finished the Secret series and downloaded more books.
On Dec 27 we had to leave for San Ignacio, I had recovered by 2pm and we booked a last-minute Tropic Air flight to San Ignacio. While waiting at the airport we saw a family of 5 from Texas; they had big mosquito bites on their legs, clearly the mosquitoes were used to feasts and didn’t leave a single family member.
We booked a room at Midas. They sent a car to pick us up from the airport, 1 hour away. The driver was a woman and very friendly, she gave us the lay of the land. Everyone in Belize spoke good English. We had a very nice room at the Midas, it was a 15 mins walk from the town center. Due to Christmas most of the restaurants were closed, but we found a very cheap place and had rice and beans, the food was very tasty and cheap. Overall San Ignacio was cheaper than Belize. We had reserved ATM tour the next day with Pacz Tours. They are located in the town center. We decided to go at 11am, a good choice since it rained the next morning.
Actun Tunichil Muknal was amazing and thrilling. The Mayans used to visit the underground to offer their prayers to the Gods. We drove for 1 hour, hiked for another hour in the jungle and waded through water thrice before we started our journey into the caves. The tour had us carry our lunch while hiking in the jungle; a bad idea since we had to wade through water, my lunch fell in the water obviously, they were kind enough to offer an extra. In hindsight we should have taken a plastic bag to preserve the lunch. The restrooms were absolutely disgusting, but beggars cannot be choosers. After the hike we had lunch and left for the caves. We swam to the other side among tiny fish that dispersed as we hit the water. From then onwards it was very dark, we had lights on our helmets to guide the way. Our guide knew every rock and way and guided us along. We were a group of 8, a family of 6 and the two of us. The family was from Nebraska, a father, grandfather, two daughters, and one boyfriend. They were really nice and we felt like a team. AM had a hard time swimming since he could just do freestyle, so the guides helped him. The entire time we went through rocks submerged at different levels in water for a third of the mile. We also climbed up rocks in between, it looked difficult but with the guide’s help we conquered everything. We climbed up a thin aluminium ladder to a higher point of the cave. Finally we reached a place where we took off our shoes and walked in a spare pair of dry socks. We saw pots of offerings and some skulls and bones from the Mayan times. Along the way we also saw limestone, sparkling quartz, and stalactites. It was amazing to be within the depths of the Mayan underworld, I can only imagine how the Mayans brought offerings along such a tough way when I could not carry a simple lunch across the water! We went through some tough rocks and had to squeeze our way. Finally it was time to go back, returning was much faster and easier, although climbing down the aluminium ladder was scarier than up! When I saw a ray of light seeping in through the entrance, it had the most beautiful view with trees lining both sides of the water, as if I was in elf land or something. We were exhausted after spending 3 hours in the cave and could not wait to hike back. The jungle hike was slippery and muggy since it had rained that morning. Many people had worn Keens with openings for water to pass, but I was grateful for my hardcore Timberland Safety Toe hiking shoes – while they were sloshy and uncomfortable when soaked, my feet were protected from the hard rocks and they had a good grip while hiking. At the end of the trip, my shoes were scraped off in several places around the toe area.
The ATM is very thrilling and a long ride, not for the faint at heart. We saw people in their 60′s climbing down rocks quite easily with some help from the guide and teams. The journey is much better than the destination; all we saw were some pots and bones, but the journey was worth it just to get a thrilling experience. I will never ever forget that experience my whole life!
We reached the hotel at 7pm, a long 8 hour adventurous day! We were exhausted and went to Ko-Ox Han Nah for dinner. It was full of people, I didn’t like the food at all – more expensive than the rice and beans place, but worse food and slow service. I slept very well that night.
On Dec 29 we relaxed and left for Tikal after visiting Xunantunich on the way. Midas booked us a taxi to take us to Xunantunich and drop us off at the Belize border. Xunantunich was worth a visit and we were done in 2 hours. We climbed the highest ruin and had sweeping views of Guatemala highlands on one side and greenery of Belize on the other. It was beautiful, quiet, cool and pleasant at the top. We got a glimpse into how the Mayans lived in the old days and their temples. We had to take a ferry across along with the taxi, it was quite fascinating since we saw tiny tiny fish moving along side the ferry. Imagine the entire day, all the tiny fish in that lake, all moving along side the ferry the whole day, without getting bored. It was funny, fascinating, and curious, why would fish move parallel to the ferry all day long? All of them? There were some shops with pretty jewelry and beautiful carvings on slate, including Belize map.
It took us 30 mins to get through Belize and Guatemala border. We came across several men with Guatemala currency for currency exchange. We decided to use an ATM instead. Tikal Inn sent a taxi to pick us up, it cost 90 USD, too expensive. We kept thinking that we should have asked around since there were many taxis at the border; however, I did read Tripadvisor reports about hijacking of tourist buses, so maybe we took a safer route. On the way we stopped at an ATM and withdrew 1.2K Guatemala currency. It was too low though, Guatemala currency is 7.8:1 USD, and we ran out of cash pretty quickly. We should have withdrawn at least 2K.
The park entrance fee was 150 QTQ per person. Tikal Inn has electricity only during certain hours of the night, at 10pm the lights went off. Mosquitos ate us till we could take it no more, on our hands and ankles, some even got into my back and gave me big itchy bites.
The next morning we had booked a sunrise tour with Roxy at 4:30am. I highly recommend her, she is ver knowledgeable and an archeologist herself, hence she shared a lot of the Mayan history and knew all the excavations of Tikal. Our visit would have been futile had we not had her. We went to temple IV to catch the sunrise, it was very dark and we saw a few frogs and a silver fox using flashlights. We were not able to catch the sunrise though due to the mist, very disappointing. Roxy took us through the most efficient ways and we got a good view of the ruins. It was very interesting to see how the Mayans lived back in the day. It also made me appreciate the ruins, palaces, and temples in India much more. Most ancient places are very barren and made of just rocks, in India the beautiful colorful carvings make you want to spend more time admiring the artistry. IMO, bare barren ruins are not worth visiting since they all look the same, and had we not had Roxy the trip would not have been as fruitful since the history behind the bare stones mattered much more. While beautiful carvings you could spend all day seeing them, admiring them. So yes it made me appreciate my country much more.
We heard howler monkeys howling in anger due to spider monkeys encroaching their territory. Roxy took us through the forest to get a good view of the howler monkey, she also showed us an ant-eater. We retuned by 10:30am in time for breakfast. We had an evening flight to Guatemala city, and the hotel had a cheaper shuttle to drop everyone off at the airport. Overall, half a day is enough for Tikal. It is helpful to take a guide to explain the ruins, there is a lot of Mayan history to learn about.
Now for the Tikal Inn – it was amazing how modern the inn was despite being in the jungle. They had Internet access, very slow, but it was there. The rooms were quite nice, and you could hear jungle noises as well. Is it really worth it staying in the jungle? It depends. The biggest benefit is that you can wake up early and visit the jungle before crowds come in; we were done by the time people started coming in. They do charge an additional fee though of 100 QTQ per person for early entry, which is completely ridiculous since you end up double-paying for entry. The biggest con is lack of electricity. The inn has electricity only in mornings and evenings for 2-3 hours each. We didn’t get a chance to shower in hot water since our tour was scheduled at such a time and had to shower in cold water. But the worst was mosquitoes. They bit us a lot at night, and there was nothing we could do about it, no fans to ward them off. I overheard our neighbor throwing up all night, poor guy, in the dark. You also get to hear animals early in the morning or late evening; however, there aren’t that many animals that you get to see, so the benefit is not really that much. Flores is far away so its an hour long drive, but personally I would have preferred to have stayed there and avoided the mosquitoes.
Dec 30 we landed in Guatemala city with Tag Airlines. I had booked two tickets several weeks in advance; the day of the flight I received an email saying they could not accommodate us. I didn’t check my email so went to the airport and they had to accommodate me. The plane was late by an hour. They were over-booked and some people had to be booked on a later flight. They seemed a little disorganized but very friendly and nice. I was happy to see Guatemala city and was amazed at how modern it was, it was refreshing to return to civilization after all the adventures in Belize and Tikal. Our hotel, Barcelo, was the best compared with all others on this trip. They had excellent food, and the breakfast buffet was delicious and sumptuous – we didn’t need to have lunch. We got upgraded and had an amazing room.
The next morning we booked a shuttle at our hotel for Antigua for 30 USD per person round trip. We debated visiting a coffee plantation from 9am for a 2 hours tour, but decided to rest and just visit Antigua. Antigua is a beautiful city, very ancient, and like most ancient cities has cobbled streets and traditional houses. The houses were beautiful and depicted Spanish and Moorish influence. The people in our shuttle asked us to get a guide since we didn’t know Spanish. Few people in Guatemala spoke English. We got a guide and he took us to cathedrals destroyed by earthquakes and being restored, he took us into some hotels to give an idea of houses of ancient times, and a jade museum. Mayans were into jade and it is a big industry in Guatemala; you can find Jade only in Guatemala. It was a beautiful stone but very expensive. I liked the jewelry but it was too pricey. We were done in 3 hours and in hindsight we didn’t need a guide. Every book I read and person I spoke to mentioned crime in Guatemala, so for that reason alone we were glad to have a guide (although completely useless since there wasn’t much history to see), the guide took us through safe lanes. Since it was Dec 31, by evening there was a lot of music and dancing on the streets. The town was very charming. I would have loved to have stayed in one of the traditional hotels, but we had to stay close to the airport in Guatemala city. The markets in Antigua were very colorful and I would have loved to have purchased the handbags, tapestries, paintings, and other artifacts, but I can buy them much cheaper and better in India so I refrained from shopping. By 7pm we left for our hotel and next morning flew back to NY.
I had requested an upgrade and the people at Guatemala were very nice and upgraded us till Dallas since the flight was sold out. US airport is much more strict about upgrades. I really liked Guatemala city and will definitely return to visit Atitlan and Chichi market. It is so similar to India, and I felt so much at home there. The people are also amazingly laid-back and friendly, so different from the hustle and bustle of NY…
There is a lot of poverty in Central America and they depend a lot on tourism, it was heart breaking to see the poverty and reminded me of India where kids don’t even have clothes on, it was a painful reminder of what I have left behind, and imbibed a deep sense of wanting to do something for my own country to eradicate poverty and hunger.
All in all, we were happy to be back home, there is truly no place like home no matter where we go!
Some travelling tips:
- Pack shorts, light T’s, and flip flops for Belize, it is very hot.
- Lots of sunscreen – it is hot!!
- Some medicine for the stomach, you may need it!
- Insect repellent – you will definitely need this every single night, and during the day in Tikal
- A pair of hiking shoes or Keens or sneakers for ATM and Tikal. AM wore running shoes and he was fine. The shoes are a big pain to dry, so you may want to pack an extra pair if you plan to wear them again. AM packed 2 pairs, I stayed with one and wore the wet shoes to Tikal.
- In ATM, while most women wore short shorts, I wore capris and was glad since I didn’t have any scrapes from the rocks, although they were soaked. Take a plastic bag to preserve lunch, and an extra pair of dry socks to put on when going inside the cave, wet socks can be slippery. Sports socks are better than trouser socks. Also, a 2-piece swimsuit is more practical than 1 under the outfit. Bring a towel.
- In Tikal, its best to wear a pair of pants if you do the early morning or late evening tours to keep away mosquitoes.
- Book all trips and golf carts in advance since they get full very soon.
- Ideally, I would have liked to end my trip in Ambergris Caye had the flight price differential not been as huge, since it was very relaxing at the beach minus stomach issues – flying out of Belize on Jan 1 was ridiculously more expensive!
- Guatemala has a lot of crime, so its best to take hotel recommendations on what to visit, where and how to go, and keep the wallet in the front pocket, remove all expensive jewelry. I didn’t even wear my watch.
- Central America has American plug system, so no need for an adapter.
- Be prepared for plane delays; the planes are very local and run at their own time.
- Few hotel rooms had a TV – Ramon’s and Tikal Inn don’t have one.
- I always buy a travel guide, but Lonely Planet’s Central America was very disappointing. I loved LP’s Iceland because it included a lot of history; the Central America is bare without much insight into history, top recommendations, and why one should visit a place, and no proper itinerary recommendations. Their website is much better. I recommend skipping this book and buying another guide.
- Guatemala is colder than Belize in the evenings, so do pack a light jacket and possibly jeans/pants.
- If your hair is as frizzy as mine, don’t bother taking a flat iron – it will get even frizzier in Belize, and its completely useless to flat iron since it will get frizzy again from the weather and activities. Here is how mine looked throughout: