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Days 11 & 12: Tulum, Mexico – Caye Caulker, Belize

storm

A feast of pancakes, banana & coffee set us up for a long day of travel across the Mexican border to Belize. We started with a 3 and a half hour bus journey from Tulum to the Mexican border town of Chetumal. There is a not a lot in Chetumal itself but it is fairly busy as a popular spot for travel by bus or boat into Belize. We were choosing the boat option and travelling by ferry to Caye Caulker, a small island off the coast of Belize. Before leaving we were asked to pay a departure tax for leaving Mexico which we had been warned about and there is some debate about the legality of it. We were previously told that this departure tax was included in our flight price and so we had a polite but firm argument with the border chap. He argued that the rules changed from January 2012 and flights did not include the tax anymore. Bingo... we booked our flights in December 2011. After he called for backup in the form of a lady who spoke more English, we eventually managed to pass through without payment despite holding up a long queue behind us. It turns out that everyone else on the ferry begrudgingly had to pay so we felt pretty happy with our achievement!

Caye Caulker is part of the Northern Cays – a group of islands off the coast of mainland Belize. They are a popular holiday destination due to their close proximity to the second largest barrier reef in the world. We arrived at the Belizean passport control in monsoon conditions amidst a very dramatic thunderstorm. We then took a second ferry to the tiny island of Caye Caulker, popular with backpapers due to it’s cheaper prices.
Mexico - Caye Caulker Ferries (1)

Mexico - Caye Caulker Ferries (1)


We are staying in a cabana near the beach – the cabana has an upstairs which is very exciting for us!
Sarah in Hammock, Caye Caulker

Sarah in Hammock, Caye Caulker


For dinner we had some lovely barbecued chicken with coconut rice and coleslaw washed down with a rum cocktail. We are not sure but we belief that is a Belizean dish...! Caye Caulker itself seems an odd mix of holidaymakers, backpackers and locals all clustered together in such a tiny place. It seems quite a poor place but has a nice feel to it. There are large crabs sharing the streets with us.

Caye Caulker Monsoons

Caye Caulker Monsoons


We awoke to another monsoon so took the opportunity to take our laundry to Maries laundrymart... not normally worth mentioning washing our smalls in the blog but we have just picked them up and they smell incredible. Marie is a star. Washing aside, the weather cleared and we have spent the day on a snorkelling trip to the barrier reef. It was amazing! We had three separate stops with plenty of time to snorkel in each location. The coral is very impressive, surrounded by a lot of tropical fish as you would expect. It was great to get so close to it all as the water is incredibly warm, clear and shallow.

The highlight was the second stop where we anchored as our guide explained we were about to go swimming with stingrays and sharks!! After a moments hesitation we jumped in and it was so special. The stingrays were enormous and were swimming right in amongst us. Some had no barb on their tails and the guides grabbed these so we could have a ‘stroke’ of them – they have a very hard backbone but are like jelly everywhere else in case you are interested... The nurse sharks are big but completely harmless which is nice. It was incredible to swim face to face and side by side with them – for your information they feel more like a cheese grater to the touch. Incredible trip... all for the rough equivalent of £17!!! We are heading to a bar this evening which is advertising a trivia night and snapper burgers. Tomorrow morning we head back to the mainland and inland to the Belizean highlands near the Guatemalan border. We are therefore going to say goodbye to the Caribbean for now with a bottle of Belikin – the local beer which we have been told is delightful.
Golf buggies, Caye Caulker

Golf buggies, Caye Caulker


Caye Caulker in sunshine

Caye Caulker in sunshine


Belikin

Belikin

Posted by Joe and Sarah 19:16 Comments (0)

Days 13 & 14: Caye Caulker – San Ignacio

Belize

all seasons in one day


\We were woken in the night by a huge storm with winds blowing at roughly 543 miles per hour, torrential rain and another massive thunderstorm. It was all quite exciting as it felt as though our little Cabana was going to blow away! Caye Caulker is so small and sandy that is does feel it could get washed away in a storm! In fact in the 1970s Hurricane Hattie stormed through Caye Caulker splitting it in two. The gap in the island is called “The Split” and now has a beachy area on it good for swimming! This is where we headed first thing on Thursday morning, borrowing a couple of the hostels bikes we cycled about 3 minutes or so to the northern part of the Island to go for an early morning swim. It was lovely and empty and the water was a lovely temperature. We only saw one truck on Caye Caulker the whole time we were there, the main mode of transport being foot, closely followed by Golf Buggies and bikes! It’s so small you could walk around it in just over half an hour – a lovely spot.

After a quick breakfast we headed to the Boat Terminal to catch our Water Taxi to Belize City.
Joe on Belizean Time 2

Joe on Belizean Time 2


After a long wait for the boat (we forgot we were on Belizean time – everything happens very slowly!) we enjoyed an hour boat trip to the city. From afar Belize City looked pretty grim, and close up our suspicions were confirmed! The lovely Caribbean Sea was brown and murky and there were lots of big ugly concrete buildings along the seafront. Fortunately we were only passing through to get a bus on to our next destination, San Ignacio. After a lot of hassle from Taxi drivers telling us it was not safe for us to walk across town we succumbed and took a taxi to the Bus Terminal – the part we drove through appeared very run down with a dirty looking river flowing through the middle of it. Arriving at the Bus Terminal we were harassed once again by Taxi Drivers wanting to drive us all the way to San Ignacio as “the buses aren’t safe”, our “bags will get stolen”, etc etc. We did not succumb this time and headed into the terminal itself, a dilapidated building with no ticket booths or anything of any help. Fortunately the Belize speak English (although with a very exciting accent!!) and we sussed out where we needed to be for our local Chicken Bus to San Ignacio. A world away from our air conditioned Mexican coaches we stood out like a sore thumb on the bus and immediately got pounced on by a local lad wanting money to buy food and nappies for his three children. We put him off for long enough until his friend got on the bus and also asked for money because he was “going to jail if he didn’t pay his bus fare”. Hmmm, really. Anything for a quiet life we handed over a couple of dollars which kept them very happy. It was exciting to travel as a local but less exciting to have the hassle from the locals. The bus was very full, exceedingly hot and very fast – needless to say we were happy to arrive in San Ignacio three hours later! Obviously we only had a very short experience of Belize City so can’t pass judgement but it would be fair to say that we were very glad we didn’t stay there.

San Ignacio is a smallish town in Western Belize highlands only about 5 miles from the Guatemalan Border. Although not a typically pretty Central American town it still has a lovely feel to it and everyone is very friendly.
Yellow House, San Ignacio

Yellow House, San Ignacio


We headed to a Guest House picked for it’s complimentary breakfast and were very happy to find they only had one room left – a private room with a bathroom, and a telly! What absolute luxury – all for a bargain price! After settling in to our new abode we headed for a small explore to see if we could book onto any tours to explore the Highlands. As everything appeared to be very pricey we decided once again to make our own tour by securing bike hire for the next couple of days. For dinner, we went to a local restaurant recommended by our Host for a wonderful Belizean feast of Chicken in sauce, rice and beans, plantain and coleslaw. It was absolutely delicious and a good hearty meal for only a couple of pounds.

Despite another torrential rain storm we had a comfortable night sleep in the cooler climes of the highlands. After our complimentary breakfast of fresh rolls, jam and butter (not entirely sure this is a local delicacy but very good nevertheless) we popped down to town to run a few errands, collects bikes and pop to the market prior to rushing back to the Guesthouse to make use of our very own telly to watch the football – Joe likes to think of this as an educational activity as the commentary is in Spanish. After the excitement of the game we headed out on our bikes to a recommended swimming spot about 5 miles from town. We didn’t really have a map to speak of and road signs appear rare, however as previously mentioned the locals are very friendly and assisted in us getting to Cristo Rey where there is a pool and small waterfall on the river. The bike ride was hard work as the roads were very hilly and not tarmacked however it was a good bit of exercise and excitingly our bikes had gears and normal brakes! Arriving at the pool area Joe assessed the situation and after roughly 20 minutes of perching on the edge of the pool he decided it was free from Crocodiles and Snakes and we were safe to enter.
Having a dip in Cristo Rey Pool

Having a dip in Cristo Rey Pool


Although the water was clear it was quite shady and so we couldn’t see to the bottom and had no idea how deep it was or what animals there may be lurking. After a refreshing, rather speedy dip, we enjoyed a little sit under the very small cascade to ensure we washed of any leeches or other fishy things that may have attached themselves to us.

We cycled back to town and then up a very big hill to take in views of San Ignacio and the surrounding area.
Water stop, Cristo Rey Road

Water stop, Cristo Rey Road


Belize highlands view from Cristo Rey Road

Belize highlands view from Cristo Rey Road


It is all very green and quite jungley looking, with big hills in the distance and the area appears to be quite prosperous. On our bike ride we passed a number of large houses with nice cars, most of which had guard dogs leaping around the place as we cycled past. We only got chased a couple of times but were so fast the rabid dogs didn’t stand a chance. We were surprised at the number of Westerners in San Ignacio, mostly Americans, but it seems to be a popular spot for people to come and live. After our mammoth cycle ride we needed a big meal and so did something a little crazy and went back to the same place as last night – that’s how good it was! Not disappointed we left with full tummies ready for another day of cycling tomorrow!

Hazy San Ignacio and Santa Elena

Hazy San Ignacio and Santa Elena

Posted by Joe and Sarah 20:00 Archived in Belize Comments (0)

Days 15 & 16: San Ignacio, Belize – El Remate, Guatemala

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Our last full day in Belize began with a morning trip to the San Ignacio weekly market.
San Ignacio Market

San Ignacio Market


The market was very busy and it was fun to immerse ourselves in Belizean life. We then got back on our bikes for a full day of cycling. We cycled towards the Guatemalan border, (we were so close that we cycled straight through a police pre-border checkpoint) to an area called Chaa Creek. After leaving a nice and relaxing paved road, we hurtled over a terrain no bike should ever be faced with – hills, potholes, ravines, boulders, streams, rabid dogs... and eventually a luxury exclusive jungle retreat with amazing lodgings and a beautiful swimming pool. We didn’t ask the price but did clock the expensive drinks menu in the restaurant as we strolled down to the creek for a much needed swim.
Swimming at Chaa Creek

Swimming at Chaa Creek


The creek was very picturesque despite the downpour that had just started and we had a nice little dip – although Joe raised the silly subject of crocodiles and poisonous river snakes which meant the dip was not quite as relaxing as it could have been.

We waited for the downpour to subside before cycling on to Clarissa Falls, another popular swimming spot for the locals and paying hotel guests alike. A shorter but equally as tricky road took us to the river where there are some gentle waterfalls.
Sarah, Clarissa Falls 2

Sarah, Clarissa Falls 2


The swim was much more relaxing as the hotel owner nearby informed us that to her knowledge there were no dangerous animals in the water! Suitably refreshed from our swim we cycled all the way back to San Ignacio and had an amazing barbecued chicken with beer upon the recommendation of John, our hostel owner. So tasty!

Next day we got going early to travel to the border and cross into Guatemala. The border crossing was much easier than expected with the help of a young lad who guided us the whole way. He even flagged down a minivan for us which we rode to El Remate, a really quiet place on the shore of Lago de Peten Itza. El Remate is a tiny place with not much going on but we have another lovely hostel and have been for a lovely swim in the lake before dinner and an early night as we wake at 5am to get to Tikal (a famous Mayan site) before the crowds tomorrow.
Lunch in Lago de Peten Itza

Lunch in Lago de Peten Itza


Lunch in Lago de Peten Itza 2

Lunch in Lago de Peten Itza 2

Posted by Joe and Sarah 20:52 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Days 17 & 18: El Remate – Tikal – Flores

Guatemala

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So an early start as we got the bus to Tikal, arriving at the gates as they opened (6am). It was a very misty morning which added to the atmosphere of the place as we started down the jungle path towards the ruins. Tikal is a huge site of Mayan ruins set in amongst the Guatemalan jungle. After our experience of Chichen Itza we were concerned of huge same crowds appearing, but as we found our way to the Gran Plaza containing two temples we were the only people there and it was pretty special! The whole day we spent wandering around the ruins and there were very few people the whole time. Our favourite was Templo IV which you can climb to the top (over 60 metres), giving incredible views over the treetops with Templos I, II & III poking out the top. In the morning, these were clouded in mist giving the whole area an eerie atmospheric view, but we climbed again in the afternoon when the sun was out and could see everything very clearly. It was a long day and hard work but a thoroughly enjoyable trip! Back to El Remate for a nice relaxing evening, dinner and a beer!
Sarah, Tikal from Templo IV

Sarah, Tikal from Templo IV


Joe, Templo I, Tikal

Joe, Templo I, Tikal


Clear View from Templo IV, Tikal

Clear View from Templo IV, Tikal


Templo III, Blue Sky, Tikal

Templo III, Blue Sky, Tikal

From El Remate we took a minibus the short distance to Flores, a larger town on the southern shore of Lago de Peten Itza. Flores is on a tiny island and is a lovely little place – very picturesque and everyone is extremely friendly.
Flores 3

Flores 3


After watching England win we spent the afternoon relaxing on the shore, swimming in the lake and watching some local scoundrels throwing their mates into the water which was very entertaining. We then took a wander into nearby Santa Elena to find a supermarket for a cheap dinner... but were shocked at the prices. We have got some simple fruit and veg, plus yoghurt and bread and all were more expensive than in the UK! We have been told Flores is as expensive as it gets in Guatemala and we certainly hope so!

Posted by Joe and Sarah 20:56 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Days 20-23: Flores – Lanquin – Semuc Champey – Antigua

Guatemala

storm

Pier jumping, Flores 3

Pier jumping, Flores 3


After a morning dip in the lake we took a minibus from Flores to Lanquin, a journey we had imagined would be a few hours; 8 and a half hours and some crazy roads later we arrived in Lanquin in the Guatemalan Jungle. Here we had been recommended a hostel which was just amazing – 360 degree views of the hills and surrounding jungle. It has to be said it was the most Gringo-fied hostel we had stayed at run by Americans, Canadians & English and was very full of a lot of backpackers! However we met some lovely people and had a great time, particularly enjoying the open fronted showers which looked out onto the hills. The first night we had the most amazing electric storm which lit up the surroundings – it was seriously impressive and also exciting as the power went out!
Zephyr Lodge, Lanquin 3

Zephyr Lodge, Lanquin 3

Our main reason for being in Lanquin was to visit Grutas K’Amba and Semuc Champey. Grutas K’Amba is a network of caves nearby to Semuc Champey, a beautiful National Park with a river and lots of excellent pools for swimming. The 45 minute journey to the caves itself got the adrenaline pumping as we were all stood up in the back of an open truck driving along the most ridiculous “roads” perched on the edge of cliffs – although this made for very white knuckles it was well worth it as the scenery was stunning. Arriving at the caves we went through the safety briefing which consisted of “Can you swim?” and were kitted out with essential equipment – a candle. For the next hour and a half we were guided through the caves by candlelight, swimming when the water was too deep to walk (one handed holding your candle in the air!), climbing up and down waterfalls, jumping off rocks into the pitch black pools below (Sarah omitted this jump as was worried she would land on a rock by mistake), and sliding down slippery rocks into the pools below. It was all great fun – we were lucky to have a great guide, Carlos, who was absolutely crazy and leapt off everything disappearing under the water for minutes and then appearing in a different pool.
After the caves we enjoyed a huge rope swing jump into the river (Joe performed some outstanding dives from the swing) and then onto a 12 metre bridge jump.
Rope Swing, Semuc Champey 12

Rope Swing, Semuc Champey 12


Rope Swing, Semuc Champey 5

Rope Swing, Semuc Champey 5

At this point Sarah had just applied suncreme and not wanting it get washed off in the river suggested Joe do two jumps instead. Joe willingly obliged and was the only one of the group to jump from the highest point on the bridge as demonstrated by the guide. Brave Joe!
Bridge Jump, Semuc Champey 3

Bridge Jump, Semuc Champey 3

We then did a 30 minute, exceedingly hot hike up to a look out where we were able to look down to the river and pools below. It was amazing – we even saw some very noisy Howler Monkeys which made our day!
Semuc Champey Pools 6

Semuc Champey Pools 6


Semuc Champey Pools 4

Semuc Champey Pools 4


After the hike back down we were rewarded with a swim in the pools, including some more jumping, sliding and swimming through some ridiculously tiny overhanging cave things where you only had space to tilt your head back to keep your face out of the water. All in all it was an excellent day; our guide was brilliant and the area was stunningly beautiful – all for about £15! Amazing!

River swim, Lanquin 7

River swim, Lanquin 7


River swim, Lanquin 3

River swim, Lanquin 3


The next day we had planned to go tubing down the river from the hostel, however the weather did not allow for this, so we spent the day relaxing at the hostel before going for dinner at a local Guatemalan Restaurant with some guys we met at the hostel. Sarah enjoyed the typical Guatemalan dish which consists of fried eggs, refried beans in sauce, rice and plantains. We then stumbled across a local bar and enjoyed an evening of dancing Merengue with the locals (to rephrase – we enjoyed watching the locals amazing dancing; the locals enjoyed laughing at us whilst videoing our dancing. How embarrassing.) Out with an Irish couple, the drinks kept flowing and it was almost 1 am before we were in bed – not sensible before a 5 am start for another 9 hour bus journey!!

So an early rise and slightly sore heads we left Lanquin to head to Antigua in Western Guatemala. The start of the journey was rather exciting as it was very uphill, and very rubbly, and our minibus kept sliding back down the hills! We had to reverse to the bottom and take a second run up at some speed on a number of occasions, slipping and sliding over the roads with a large drop into the valley below seemingly just inches from our non-grip tyres! We were pleased to arrive alive.

Antigua is a colonial city and was capital until the1700’s when it was devastated by an earthquake. Since arriving it has been raining non-stop so we have done little exploring but were very excited by two things. 1. We have a kitchen in our hostel meaning we can cook our own food. 2. We found broccoli in the shops – we haven’t eaten any greens for a long time!

Posted by Joe and Sarah 12:00 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

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